, , ,

Talking about palaeography (the study of ancient handwriting) at parties is unwise. It renders most people somnolent before you reach the fifth syllable of the word. Its jargon is so technical (half-uncials! ligatures! majuscules!) that you can’t really broach it to non-enthusiasts without lecturing. Better to enthuse in silence. But looking at ancient handwriting is a very different experience from talking about it. It’s so beautiful that it speaks for itself.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 10.05.27 AM

Insular majuscule in the Book of Kells, ca. 800 CE.

2. The Man of Light

Tabitha awoke from the dream slowly, by stages. So pleasurable, so vivid were its images and sensations that she resisted the shift to a waking state. In the first moments after she opened her eyes, she thought that the room about her was strange and foreign, and that the body she occupied was not her own. She was no stranger to vivid dreams, but usually she saw the dream world through her own eyes. In this dream, she had inhabited the body of someone very small, though not a child. Her legs had been short and bowed, and it had been difficult to walk, difficult to handle the heavy jug she carried. Her neck ached from looking up at the tall people around her.

She contemplated the Man of Light, a ravishing vision, his skin radiant and golden, his chest powerfully muscled, his hair brilliant and flowing about his shoulders. What masculine archetype had roused itself from the depths of her unconscious mind? Was he Apollo? Surya? Or Thor, perhaps? No, he carried a spear, not a hammer. The lineaments of his face were still imprinted on her mind’s eye, though they were beginning to fade. She lay in bed, savoring the residue of the dream, and a little frightened by its power. Her chest still tingled from the feel of the spearhead as it entered her body. Abruptly, she remembered that her job interview was today. This morning, in fact. What time is it?

“Shit!” She always woke early, and she hadn’t expected to sleep late on this of all days. She jumped out of bed and turned on the shower, shivering beneath the spray while it was still cold. In a half hour’s time she was dressed, though her hair was damp. There was no time for breakfast, so she drank some orange juice, then dashed out the door, intent on catching the train. She lived in Queens, at the end of the line, and she had a long walk in her heels to the Jamaica Metro stop.

Her destination was a renovated warehouse in Brooklyn, the home of a substantial collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed books belonging to one Galen Porteous, a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune with an internet security company. She did not expect Mr. Porteous himself to interview her; he was too important for that. Online, Tabitha had inspected the images of Galen and his gorgeous blonde wife Cissy, attending charity events and Broadway opening nights. He was a solidly-built, attractive man with receding hair and fine blue eyes. Perhaps, if she got the job, there would be an introduction, though she wouldn’t know quite what to say to someone like him, a person whose great wealth, at least in the minds of other people, was the most salient fact of his existence. Her mother’s family, the Hills, had money, but she wasn’t sure how much. Her grandparents had always insisted that they were not wealthy. Instead, they were “well off.”

“Never discuss money in company, my dear,” Gran told her. “If someone brings it up, change the subject. It’s terribly vulgar.” Religion, sex and politics, on the other hand, were all perfectly acceptable topics for conversation— as long as one didn’t become a bore.

Tabitha located the address, but was in some doubt as to whether she’d come to the right place, as there was no sign announcing the presence of the Porteous collection in the building. She entered a small foyer, which was empty of furnishings except for a locked mailbox. It had a formidable-looking metal door. The tiny lens of a security camera surveyed the room. She pressed the button on the wall beside the door, and when someone answered, she identified herself.

There was a buzzing noise, and a light. She entered and was greeted by Laura Livingston, the Director of Collections for Mr. Porteous. Tabitha hadn’t quite known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Dr. Livingston wore brown slacks and a black T-shirt with a golden yellow cardigan. The clasp on her string of citrine beads sat on her right collar bone, instead of the back of her neck. Her reading glasses were perched on top of her head, apparently forgotten, and she had a friendly but vague expression, as though she was thinking of something else. Her reddish-brown hair was arranged in a bun, which was starting to come loose.

“Dr. Hill, so glad to meet you. We’re very informal here, so I hope you don’t mind if I call you Tabitha? And I’m Laura.” She found herself in a tastefully appointed office space, with lots of dark wood, and a few old pictures. There were no stacks in sight; the books must be behind a further security door. Laura ushered her into a conference room, and introduced her to two of the other staff members, Nigel Pendleton and Ruth Loeb.

From his Merton College tie and his name, Tabitha gathered that Nigel was English, a supposition confirmed as soon as he opened his mouth. His accent was Thames estuary, with a slightly posh overlay, probably the result of his time at Oxford.

“Your education is a good match for our needs,” he was saying. “Berkeley and Toronto for Medieval Studies —I assume you focused on Latin paleography and codicology?— dissertation on Latin bookhands of the Early Middle Ages, published by Cambridge, a Mellon postdoc at the Pontifical Institute… a fair number of publications, but no teaching positions?”

“I’ve found the market for instruction in Latin paleography to be a little thin,” she said. That was an understatement. During the many years she’d been actively on the market, only one tenure-track job suited to her skills had come up, and she hadn’t even rated an interview. As Nigel nodded his understanding, she added, “I’ve spent my career to date doing postdocs when I could get them, and working in special collections when they had any use for me. My longest stint was actually with a dealer, Wortham’s in London. I’ve given a couple of summer seminars on paleography, but that’s my only teaching experience.” She didn’t add that she was nearly at the end of her rope. At thirty-eight, she refused to take any more money from Gran to support her aspirations. If this job didn’t pan out, she’d be working at the Strand, or Barnes and Noble, and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese on a regular basis, with ramen to break the monotony.

“My father ran a bookshop,” said Nigel, obviously not holding her experience in commerce against her. “That’s where I cut my teeth. I see you’ve got a paper listed in your CV on the Caroline minuscule in computistical works. Tell us more about that.” Clearly the new person would be supervised by Nigel, the Porteous collection’s expert on manuscripts. Ruth and Laura were there to ask a few auxiliary questions and sign off on the hire—or not. They needed someone to conserve and research Mr. Porteous’ early medieval holdings, to produce published editions where appropriate, and to supervise the scholars who periodically requested access to the collections. It was her dream job.

“You’ve published on the Laurentian and Vatican versions of Celsus’ De Medica,” commented Ruth, a tiny, birdlike woman with a halo of wiry black hair. She handled the collection’s scientific books. “Are you interested in medieval medicine?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” answered Tabitha. “I have a decent competency in Greek paleography too, and I’ve been attracted to herbals since I was a child. I’ve worked on the Morgan Dioscorides and a couple of others.”

They chatted for a few minutes longer, and she asked some questions about the collection, just to show she’d done her homework— though there was little enough to be learned online. Information about the unpublished materials circulated through an informal grapevine of scholars, and the collection was too newly assembled to show up in many footnotes as of yet. To his credit, Porteous aimed to make sure that most of what he owned was published, and to give reputable scholars access to his catalogues.

“Okay, I think that’s all our questions,” said Laura. “Unless anyone has something else?”

“Umm, I’m a total yenta for asking this, but are you the Tabitha Hill?” said Ruth.

“Ruth!” exclaimed Laura, embarrassed. Though he cast a stern glare at Ruth, Nigel looked puzzled, which didn’t surprise Tabitha at all. He’d grown up in England, of course, and had never heard of the Hill case.

“It’s okay. Yes, Melinda Hill is my mother,” said Tabitha patiently, though inwardly she felt alarm. She was used to hearing this question, but she’d hoped that, somehow, the people here might not have heard of her or her mother.

One sunny day in 1974, the fifteen-year-old Melinda Hill had gone for a walk in the woods near her home in Palmyra, PA. There she had met a man named Corbin Crowe, who lured her into his house to show her his dachshund puppies. She was not heard from again for more than four years, during which time she gave birth to Tabitha. The disappearance of Melinda Hill, a girl from a privileged family, had been important local news at the time, but the story gained national prominence and grew into a tabloid staple once Melinda finally escaped her long captivity. Unbeknownst to her family, Melinda had been living in a house not five miles from her home, yet well off the road and quite isolated.

Workmen from the power company had come to the house to see to some electric lines which were entangled in tree branches after a storm. Their arrival fortuitously occurred while Corbin Crowe was out, two days earlier than scheduled. He had failed to chain Melinda in the basement, as he normally did whenever visitors of any kind were expected. She and Tabitha were locked in an upstairs room, and one of the men saw her pounding on the window and screaming.

Crowe’s trial had been sensational, especially when he was also charged with the murder of Roger Norton, a local man whose body had been buried beneath the compost pile behind a shed on his property. There was speculation about a love triangle. All the salacious details of Crowe’s relationship with Melinda were aired: how he raped and beat her; how he starved her into submission at first, then rewarded her with favorite foods, potato chips or Snickers bars, in exchange for complying with the sex acts he enjoyed. How she had given birth to Tabitha in the bathtub on the second floor. The defense had argued that Melinda was a willing partner in these arrangements. Melinda herself had testified that she both loved and hated Mr. Crowe.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Melinda’s release had come in 2004, just two years after the notorious case of Elizabeth Smart, a 14-year old abducted in Utah, had been splashed over the headlines. Melinda had horrified both her daughter and the rest of the Hill family by agreeing to appear on a string of talk shows to discuss the case. After that, strangers regularly approached Tabitha to begin conversations about the ordeal, demanding to know why Melinda hadn’t tried harder to escape, and whether she, Tabitha, remembered the events. Whether she ever visited her father, who was serving a life sentence in prison.

“Thanks for coming today,” said Laura, taking her hand a little awkwardly. “It’s been a pleasure talking with you. I’ll be in contact by the end of next week.” With a sinking feeling, Tabitha stood up, smiled robotically, and left the building.

Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Tabitha worked on “the Morgan Dioscorides,” which is a Byzantine medical work owned by the Morgan Library in New York. Pretty impressive, right? But that and $2.95 will get you a tall Caffe Latte at Starbucks.


The Mandragora root (supposed to have a human shape) illustrated in the Morgan Dioscorides. The text is in Greek. (Photo: Morgan Library)

Tabitha’s sad early history is (very) loosely based on a real criminal case in Cleveland, Ohio. A man named Ariel Castro abducted three young women between 2000 and 2002, holding them captive for as long as ten years. In 2013, one of the women, Amanda Berry, escaped with her six year old daughter (who had been fathered by Castro) and contacted the police. Castro was sent to prison for life, and there he hanged himself. Normally I don’t follow sensational stories like this, but I found myself wondering about the plight of Amanda Berry’s daughter… what kind of life lay ahead for someone born into those circumstances. That was the genesis of Tabitha’s story. As we will see, themes of rape and captivity also figure in the Irish saga.

Professor Laura Livingston, book collector Galen Porteous, Nigel Pendleton and Ruth Loeb are all characters from my “Tastes” trilogy (London Broil, New York Groove and Buckwheat Honeymoon). Ruth sprinkles her speech with plenty of Yiddishisms, like “yenta” (= a busybody, a nosy, gossiping woman).