Read an excerpt from 'Because I Prayed This Word' by Alex Dally MacFarlane:
She keeps seeing it.
Alongside her Sisters she bends over vellum, copying. Barbe, whose freckles are like the stars above the monastery, is at her left. Ragonde, who snores while Perrette and Barbe work, is at her right. They have each been chosen for their skills: Perrette for her precise letters, Barbe for her paintings that face Perrette’s copied words, and Ragonde, who sparingly applies the gold, trusted because of her seniority with that most precious adornment. They copy Lives of the Desert Fathers. Perrette admires the strength required to hold faith in the desert. Barbe paints the female saints.
When the city appears at the window, Perrette almost spills ink on her work.
“Are you well?” Barbe asks.
“Yes.” Perrette carefully moves the ink further from the vellum and glances up. The city is no longer there. “Did you see anything at the window?”
“No. But I was looking at her,” Barbe says, indicating the saint under her hands, with long dark hair flowing like a hymn. Though an ascetic, old and poor in the text, Barbe has painted her young, colourfully garbed, beautiful.
I saw a city, Perrette longs to say. The most incredible city. I want to step under its gleaming gold roofs and I want you to step alongside me--
Perrette silences her thoughts and returns to her work, glancing only occasionally at the window, at Barbe’s freckles, at the saints she paints. That night, she tries to imagine the city, but cannot put people in its streets. That dawn, hurrying late to prayer, she sees it again: a door opening in the courtyard beside the pear trees. Words curl around its hinges like vines.
Barely breathing, she steps closer. Latin, but no Latin words she has ever copied:
spectat et audit dulce ridentem, misero quod omnes ripit sensus mihi
She touches them. The door is real.
She steps through.
I first heard Sappho. A soft name. A sigh. I’d have forgotten it, except it wasn’t a name I’d ever heard, said by one of my da’s customers: come to check the quality of our vellum. Sappho, Sappho. I turned it over like a dandelion seed head. Would’ve discarded it, if he hadn’t then said she was the finest woman poet ever lived.
I never knew much of what went on our vellum. I knew it was words. I knew it was beautiful and mostly God and men.
I imagined Sappho slipping into a book, leaving gilt verses between the church songs. I worked—my hands reeked of vellum, I couldn’t ever scrub it off, dead cows stretched flat and clean and waiting for words I didn’t think I’d ever learn to read—I imagined the vellum going from my hands to hers, all perfumed and soft.
I imagined a lot of stupid things while I was working.
I didn’t ever do a good job of imagining what Sappho actually wrote.