“Most honourable ladies, praise be to God: the construction of our city is finally at an end. All of you who love virtue, glory and a fine reputation can now be lodged in great splendour inside its walls, not just women of the past but also those of the present and the future, for this city has been founded and built to accommodate all deserving women. . . From this moment on, my ladies, you have every reason to rejoice—in a suitably devout and respectable manner—at seeing the completion of this new city. . . . For you can see that it is made of virtuous material which shines so brightly that you can gaze at your reflections in it, especially the lofty turrets that were built in this final part of the book. . .”
—Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405 CE)
translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant.
because I prayed
—Psáppho, Fragment 22
translated by Anne Carson.
The city appears between the pillars of the cloisters like a dream of an embroidered wall-hanging: more gold thread than is ever available for the Sisters, more precisely tidy stitches than Perrette will ever manage. For a moment she sees it on the edges of her vision, and though she thinks of telling her Sisters, she does not. She assumes it is the fast. She walks on.
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
eripit 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.
The city is without streets: a sequence of courtyards and cloisters and hallways and wide balconies overlooking the lower roofs. Covered all over in words. There are inner chambers too, some for conversation, some for rest. Words: finely inked in countless scripts, in neat lines or exquisite images—a miniature city of words, a fox, a forest, two women holding hands. Twining across the bannisters, the doors, door frames, window frames, ceilings, beds, tables, chairs; embroidered on pillows and sheets and wall-hangings; worked into the blue and white tiles decorating some walls; worked into the gold roofs that shine as bright as the sun.
Perrette stops at the two women. Words make patterns on their aprons like fine embroidery and tumble in dark curls over their shoulders. Their faces are turned towards one another.
Footsteps. Perrette spins around, sees a woman of flesh, not words: an older woman, dark of skin, wearing silks in a blue brighter than any sky. The woman says something.
“I’m sorry,” Perrette says, “but I can’t understand you.”
“Forgive me!” the woman says in a language close to Perrette’s. “I was not sure what language to use. So many are spoken here. Do you understand me? I have only learnt this one recently, from another woman here.”
Questions crowd at Perrette’s mouth like birds at a granary window. She selects the first. “What is this city?”
“A place for women who. . .” The woman’s gaze slides away, to the women-shaped words on the door. Perrette wishes she could read that script. “Let me read from this poem: this woman’s apron. It was written several centuries ago, by a woman named Hamda bint Ziyad.” The woman says nothing for a while, only murmuring under her breath: reminding Perrette of her own murmurings, turning Latin to her own words. Then the woman speaks, and her words hold Perrette like a binding.
“My tears reveal my secrets
in a wadi with traces of beauty
rivers encircling gardens
gardens encircling rivers
among the gazelles, a sweet doe,
full of milk, has grasped my heart
her gaze keeps me from sleeping.”
The woman glances at Perrette. “Is that enough? There are more lines. . .”
Perrette, her thoughts full of Barbe, says, “That is enough.”
“Think of this as Hamda bint Ziyad’s city,” the woman says. “And mine. And yours. It is for any woman who shares this love. I, meanwhile, would also love to know your name.”
“Perrette,” she manages, but cannot locate the words to ask for the woman’s. She cannot locate many words: too lost in wonder.
“I am Hafsa al-Umari. I am glad to welcome you to this city.”
Perrette stares at the door, at the precise woman-shapes of the words. At their feet are more words in another script, growing like grass. A third script runs around the door’s edges like a border around one of Barbe’s illustrations. “There are so many words,” she says, more awed than when Sister Jehanette revealed the meaning in the monastery’s books.
“There are. All of these words are ours.”
“All. . .” The city cannot be contained in an eye. The city is, from where Perrette stands, unending: and all of it covered in words. Part of her asserts that surely it must end, as all cities do. From its edges, do words stretch like roads into the hills?
“All of these words are written by women like us,” Hafsa says. “This city is like a holy book, a collection of our writings, and it is like a holy house: a place where we are all welcome, at any time of the day, to meet and talk and contemplate our writings.” A holy house. Which does Hafsa use? “Regardless of what holy house we visit when we are not in this city.”
Perrette is experiencing every feeling at once: like twenty voices singing different hymns.
“I will let you wander the city with your thoughts,” Hafsa says, and leaves her by the words of women and their in-turned faces. Perrette stands there. Walks. Sees words in Latin, but is too overwhelmed to read them. Sees two young women in plain, working clothes sitting by words she thinks are Greek. Sees—
Her eyes ache. Tears run over her cheeks.
Her discomfort at Hafsa’s discussion of holy houses fades. She longs for Hafsa’s company, to hear more of the city.
She longs for Barbe.
I later heard Psáppho.
I met Sywe in the city, the second time I visited. The first time, I only met people who spoke other languages, so we smiled a lot and they pointed me to particularly pretty decorations—it was all words, as meaningful as my uncle’s ironwork—and I wandered out hours later to find it still as noon as it’d been when I left, and wondered what had happened.
I went back. Not because of the words, but because I’d seen two of the women kissing each other right on the mouth like my da and ma. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about that.
Then I met Sywe. I was glad to find a woman who spoke English, though hers was different: from just the other side of the border. Two days’ travel from me. Two days, but we stepped right into the same room in the city. Her a priest’s daughter, a weaver, recently a mother. Me—when I told her my family made vellum and told her about Sappho, her eyes went as round as the big brown spot on our best cow.
”Psáppho,” Sywe said, looking at me direct for the first time.
“The man said Sappho.”
“In her own mouth, it would’ve been Psáppho. A name to hold in your mouth. Nothing like a sigh. Psáppho is direct about what she loves.”
I couldn’t immediately speak in the intensity of her look. I managed, after making heartbeats loud enough Sywe must have heard them, to ask, “What did she love?”
“I’ll show you. I was shown how to read some of her words on the walls.”
Then I had to hear them.
“There is another city I have heard of,” Hafsa said, “built by Christine de Pizan, for pious and good Christian women. We would not be welcome there. But there is a third: a city of voice. It has no buildings. Or, perhaps it has every building. It is here, in Dimashq. It is in the city of golden roofs that only we can see. It is the air around us, heavy with sounds.” The walls of Hafsa’s house were like a stone: the sounds of Dimashq flowed over them. A single step outside would reach them. “It is us, speaking of women like us: sharing poetry, songs, stories. This city and the city of golden roofs are sister cities, but I prefer this city: we are always in it, we are all able to understand it in our own languages, with no need for reading.”
“I prefer the other city,” said Wallada, a guest in Hafsa’s house, “even though I can’t read.”
Hafsa smiled. “I understand.”
“I dream of the other city. I’m—I’m the way I want to be, there, when I’m dreaming. I can do—” Wallada fidgeted with the clothes Hafsa had given her, still uncomfortable in them. Still wanting them to fit as well as they did in her dreams. “When I last visited there, I saw a bed covered in yellow silk—bright yellow, saffron-yellow—embroidered in black writing in the shape of two women, un-clothed, pressed together.”
“Rubbing,” Hafsa said, smiling in an altogether different way. “The text is probably Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Tifashi’s. He wrote three centuries ago. He described rubbing as ‘the saffron massage’, comparing it to the way a person pounds saffron on the cloth when dying it.”
Arousal rushed through Wallada’s body. Bitterness followed.
“I’ve never pounded saffron,” she said.
“Neither have I,” Hafsa said.
“I never will. The poems don’t apply to me.”
Silence stretched between them like a dry wadi.
“I am sorry I am upsetting you,” Hafsa said.
“The city of golden roofs is the closest I can get to my dreams, but it’s only that: a dream.”
“It is more than a dream. I speak of more than its literature, inscribed and shared and remembered: so important, so precious, but not as important as the ones who learn it. Its women. Us. We are in this room—” and Hafsa swept her arm through the air, encompassing the walls of the women’s gathering room in her house “—because of the city. And we cannot be alone in all of Dimashq.”
“Some say a host of horse, or a host of soldiers,
or a host of ships is on all the dark earth
the most beautiful thing, but I say it is just
whatever a person loves,
and this is a thing that is easy for everyone
to understand, because the woman who so outshone
the human race in beauty, Helen,
left her husband,
the best in all ways, and went sailing to Troy
with never a thought for her child
or her dear parents at all, but . . .
led her astray . . .
. . . for . . .
. . . lightly . . .
reminds me now of Anaktoria
who is not here,
and I would rather have her lovely step
and the bright gleam of her face to look on
than Lydian chariots and soldiers
with all their gear.”
Sywe said it looking direct at me.
I looked at her. At the words in a writing she said was Greek. At her.
“There’s gaps,” I said, because I wanted it all. Every word Psáppho ever made. I pointed to the small places where the gold was smooth, like a stone rubbed in a stream.
“From what I’ve heard from the other women here,” Sywe said, “it’s because the city belongs to our world. It only has what’s still written in our world.” She pointed to the gold. “Somewhere this poem’s written in Greek. The magic of the city is we can read it here, though we don’t live anywhere near it. But what’s lost in our world gets lost here.”
I couldn’t imagine it.
“Is this really real?” I asked. “This city. This . . . gold. I never seen so much.” I was part wondering if I could scrape it off and take it to my ma, or if it’d turn to air the moment I stepped back in England.
“It’s real.” Sywe leaned forward, putting her hands either side of my folded legs, leaned so her mouth was right against my ear. I heard:
“The moon has sunk down
and the Pleiades, it is mid-
night, and the hours go by
and I lie alone.”
I felt her breath against my ear. I felt her words. Psáppho’s words.
No dream I had was ever that real.
“You’re not alone.”
Words curling around towers. Words dipping their ends into a fountain of kissing women. Words reaching across a ceiling like an exquisite golden crack.
Perrette painstakingly reads every Latin word she can find—but she cannot remember them all. Latin lingers poorly in her head. Longing to keep them all—to share them, perhaps with Barbe, perhaps—drives her back out of the city, back to the monastery.
Wallada stepped under the golden roofs, following familiar ways—away from the saffron silk, away from memories of her first visit, confused, dressed in men’s clothes and beard un-cut. Meeting Hafsa.
Words drifted in the air like the smell of cumin.
A woman speaking, singing—little difference between the two—in an accent so like Wallada’s own.
It had taken days of walking, passing women of so many appearances, so many voices, to hear this voice.
In a room with a wall carved to let a breeze through small holes—small spaces between words in five scripts—ten women sat on carpets, listening to the woman at their centre. She saw Wallada in the door. “Come in, come in!” she sang, then resumed her recitation. The verses told of love. Women’s love. Yet they made no mention of saffron. They told of hair: hair unbound, hair between fingers, hair on lips, hair on the bare flesh of another woman’s arm and shoulder.
“And,” the woman added after the final verse, “lots of kissing. And what the poet Dahna bint Mashal wrote of:
Give up, you won’t win me with kisses and embraces!
Only thrusts please me.
Make my toe-ring fall into my sleeve!”
If there was more, it was lost in the women’s laughter: loud and raucous. “I like many pleasures!” the woman—Amat, her name cried in shock by one of the listening women—shouted. “I like any person, if only they are to my liking!” The room was growing quieter. “There I am pickier. The right person is like the right attar.”
There Amat started a song of finding attar of foxes, their tails stoppering the jars.
Amat sat on her carpet for hours.
Only when the other women had dispersed did Wallada find the courage to approach. To ask if Amat, too, lived in Dimashq. To give her own name, chosen from her favourite among Hafsa’s recited literature: Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, a poet of five centuries ago, who embroidered her vest with verses of her greatness, striding with pride in her accomplishments.
“I do live in Dimashq!” Amat exclaimed, her eyes as wide as jars of honey. “You must visit! We must meet in our own city!”
Perrette slips into the copying room, seeking unneeded pieces of vellum: the ones with too many layers of palimpsest to scrape clean, the ones discarded. It will not matter to her that the words she copies will sit among others, among psalms and geographies, only that they are copied, are brought from the gold of the city to her cell. She rests her candle on the table a safe distance from the pages of Lives of the Desert Fathers.
Under the table is a stack of unbound vellum. She moves it onto the table and starts to sort through it.
She cannot stop glancing at Barbe’s painted saints.
Though all are garbed individually, all in different scenes of privation and piety, almost all have dark, curling hair. Almost all have green eyes. Perrette bends to look closer. A strange feeling is running through her. Hope? Fear?
Wanting, tangled up with both. A possibility she dares not think.
Though all the saints have different faces, there—There—And there—
So many noses subtly askew, so many high foreheads.
The saints Barbe has been painting—gazing at, touching with careful, tender fingers—are Perrette.
I heard, in my own voice:
“Ye Lesbian Lasses all
that border on the Lake:
And ye that of the Aeolian towne
your names are thought to take,
Ye Lesbian Lasses (that
for cause I looved you sore
Breede my defame) unto my Harpe
I charge you come—”
I stopped there.
I read from English letters, my own, but not Psáppho‘s. Sywe told me there wasn’t anything of Psáppho’s in English. Just some man translating some other man, Ovid, who didn’t like Psáppho and wrote the final words “—no more.” I refused to speak them.
Sywe told me, “There used to be much more than what’s on these walls. I’m memorising everything I find here. I’m going to tell it to my daughters.”
Not like this, I thought, leaning forward. Breath against ear. I said to Sywe other words—Psáppho‘s words—she’d taught me, “Because I prayed this word: I want.”
“Love shook my
thoughts, like wind falling on oak-trees on the mountain.”
I put it away in my memory.
“I want to show you something.” Perrette stands at the door to Barbe’s cell, whispering. Shaking. “Will you come with me to the courtyard?”
The door opens and Barbe’s face appears. “Yes,” she whispers.
They walk in silence. Perrette wants words, wants to explain, wants to stop the sudden thought that she imagined the similarities between the saints’ faces and her own, the fear that Barbe will not see the city. Nothing. Silence between them. Barbe does not even yawn.
They reach the courtyard.
“What. . .” Barbe’s mouth falls open like an unfastened manuscript and she turns to Perrette, pleading, “Why are we seeing this? What vision is this?”
Perrette’s heart is like a bell.
Barbe takes another step forward, cautious. Stops. Turns to Perrette again.
“It is no vision,” Perrette manages to say.
Barbe steps, steps, and Perrette follows, until they stand before the door.
“Touch it,” Perrette says. “Touch those words. I know two women who were so happy when I translated their meaning.”
Barbe’s fingers trace the words like the curl of one of her saints’ hair.
“I have. . .” Barbe takes a deep breath. “In the corners of my eyes I have seen buildings that do not belong. I never thought to touch one of their doors.”
“Follow me,” Perrette says, pushing open the door.
Wallada walked a different way through Dimashq, wearing Hafsa’s—no, her—clothes. At Amat’s door, she stopped. She barely breathed. She knocked.
Amat opened it—Amat, a woman of the city of golden roofs, the city of voice, the city of Dimashq—and led her in, through to the women’s gathering room, explaining that her husband was away for the day and his mother was visiting family and her sister and daughters would be in the souq for hours. They were alone. “Sit. Here is tea. Here is bread and fruit. Here is . . . you. Here.”
“Here.” Wallada barely tasted the tea. “Your stories.”
“Yes!” Amat’s face shone with happiness like the sun—like the roofs of the other city. “Which ones would you hear?”
“The—hair. The ones about hair.” And thrusts. Wallada couldn’t—yet—say that.
“Oh.” Amat looked at Wallada through lashes like a comb. “Those are best of all when shown.”
Alone, they unbound one another’s hair.
In the city, Perrette traces the constellations of Barbe’s freckles with her lips. Barbe moans into the long curls of Perrette’s loose hair. Words woven in fifteen scripts into fine wool cushion their bare bodies.
Together, Sywe and I breathed Psáppho.