Illuminated Manuscripts

by dschapman

I turned on a light in my grandmother’s attic. She was dead; she had died, and I cried for her. And then I had gone to the attic. There were treasures there; there were boxes and bookshelves of treasure. I admired the treasures. There were wardrobes, imported from the Continent in the seventeenth century, eighteenth, twentieth centuries, and filled to the brim with furs and shoes and beautiful gowns. There were rings, beset by diamonds, cushion cut, as gifted to her mother some Romanian king, as worn were they once by some titan, some industrial baron, a magnate in council and influence. Portraits of colonial governors hang from their hooks in the rafters, mouths downturned, children soulless in their eyes. I was deep in the midst of a romance, a history, a classic recurrence. The sunlight came in from the lone sunward window, resting its cast on the back of a divan; I reclined in the divan, smelling the air as it wafted faintly through the centuries, a soft and gentle dreary wash, a memory unyielding. The musk of a very ancient race, a hundred years old, a hundred and more years before that, nurtured and matured by darkness and time, aware and afraid of darkness and time, shaken awake from the lumbering slumber of antiquity and cast into vacant, knowless, pointless admiration; what is this shape, this rendition of man, what is this truth that succeeds us? Remains, unvanquished; creations made whole and made timeless, time as conceded by man; and smitten indeed is man to behold. I opened a chest, like a boy on my knees who has long been praying, waiting for the visions to subside, though they showed no signs of subsiding. Pure treasure, as yet one and timeless, time as believed in by man. How strange they are, these objects, that so outlived their masters, that so declined to die, so occult, so ambitious; here in my privacy, the entire history of the world, one hundred years, two thousand years, and ten thousand years before that; spirits drifting swiftly about me, singing to me their songs of mankind prior; there were giants in those days. Vengeance reigned.

But me, I am a paper man; I treasure most paper, its ilk. Printed things, artful things, pages of cotton and skin, some written. So I turned my attention to the bookshelf, a single collection left from a great library, the library of a drunk and learned man, a legend in his time, long forgotten; king of an eager age, a symbol of age and virility, caught in the compounded and heartless vitality of grace and dignity, the young man, the rich man, bowing, accepting your bow; words upon words, beiges and whites turning yellow, a castle forever at seige. These were the shelves that shelved history; a real source, a divine inclination; books beside books, scrolls within bottles; a bible, published by some great grandsir of mine, two hundred years ago in a city across the sea; photographs, taken by my grandfather during the war, the dead and the dying of Auschwitz; the essays, leather-bound and gilt-edged, of Emerson, of Whitman, some hundred, fifty and hundred years old, some with some heiress’s bookplates, some without bookplates at all. Nestled between two books, a bundle of scrolls; I took them in my hands, I exhaled, I unrolled them; illuminated manuscripts, large, beautiful, and elaborate, painted reds and purples, yellows and blues all by hand; Gregorian chants, staying in place and singing in staid complacent silence on heavy sheets of yellow vellum, Latin, with notations. They were aspects of the divine, divine compositions; blessed songs from prior times, times which knew them tomorrows. I believed I could read the music; I believed I could read the Latin. I begun, despite my own behest, to chant, believing me just, whether giving them justice or not. No one was singing beside me. A song in an attic, sung all alone, lonely chanting, a chant some thousand years old. Cold was the snow then, as cold is it now; and warm, too warm, were the summers. Bright was the gold then, as glows it so now; and firm were the victors. Rampant majesty, manic beliefs; worlds within worlds, some transcendent. So was the world, and so I within it. I went on, ascendant, descending.