Pergamena

The trees all had their backs turned and the rain fell solidly, like a blind being drawn. Roger had the place to himself. No one would be coming in today. He walked through the long store front to the stairs leading to the basement, careful not to drip rainwater on the display cases as he passed. The faces of the books and parchment fragments inside looked pale in the gloom and watchful.

The basement was partially converted into a workspace. He had a long wooden table around which he could move freely and all the supplies he needed were piled on a shelf beneath it. The table was clear except for a single vellum fragment suspended in an acid-free card stock frame by almost invisible silk threads. He had built the frame yesterday and sewn the fragment into place, his first step in stabilizing it. Before he left last night, he had sprinkled it with granules of silica gel which would absorb the excess humidity contained in the piece. The gel turns red when it becomes damp and Roger was not surprised when he came in to find it looking something like his own freckled arm. He carefully scraped off the silica and put it in a clear plastic bag, for re-use later on.

He enjoyed working with vellum. Working so closely with a fragment like this made him think of the long-ago craftsmen who produced it. Except the stretchers they used for suspending the calfskin while they scraped off the hair and fatty deposits and smoothed the surface until it was fit for writing on were much larger and their task much smellier. Still, he felt the kinship calling down through the centuries. And, now that he thought of it, they may well have had frames as small as his too for the vitela uterine – the finest vellum of all, made from the skin of a newly born or perhaps even unborn animal. He couldn’t understand the customers who came in to the store asking for papyrus, their idea of something old and precious. Most of the papyri that dealers like him came across were made for the tourist trade anyway, barely a few months old and decorated with fictitious tomb paintings and fake hieroglyphs. Besides, papyrus was brittle, lined, predictable. Since his undergraduate days, Roger had sided with the citizens of Pergamum who, in the second century, when Egyptian papyrus-makers raised their prices, making papyrus ruinously expensive to import, created their own writing surface from the resources they had at hand. The skins of their herds. Give him a piece of parchment any day, something made from living flesh, something impossible to reproduce.

He was completely unlike Poppy this way, his thin and reedy ex-wife, who preferred the way things were to change and innovation. He imagined she would probably have preferred laundry stiff from the line, a hardship right out of the nineteenth century, to soft and warm from the dryer. His own attempts at innovation were generally met with coldness. Especially his last one, innovation in the form a new girlfriend.

Roger stared at the vellum, lost in contemplation over it. No leaf from a broken up Book of Hours this, no third-rate copy of Herodotus or even Jerome. This was something special, unique. He wondered if he had even flipped the sign on the door from Closed to Open when he came in. Not that it mattered, with the rain pouring down and the skies so dark the streetlights were compelled to turn back on. No one was about to draw him away.

Helen would deplore the way he hunched over the table. It would ruin his posture. It would make him look old. She never said it, but he suspected that’s what she thought. Once, when he was sitting at the breakfast bar, trying not to let the orange he was peeling drip on his shirt, she ran her knuckle down his spine, forcing him to straighten. He couldn’t even get angry about it, since she removed the orange juice stain from his shirt completely too. Perhaps it was what he deserved for leaving his wife for a woman so much younger than himself. She was beautiful, the sex was incomparable, but he frequently felt sullied by her disappointment, by his failure to be other than what he was. He was not conscious of having tricked her but still she made him feel guilty as if he had.

He tried to straighten his back, but the parchment soon pulled his attention away from his posture. The Italian for parchment was pergamena, an even more obvious recognition of the debt to Pergamum. What a lovely word, too, he thought. It sounds like it could be a girl’s name.

It was her insistence that they have a child, that was what started it. When Poppy told him before they were married that she was unable to conceive, Roger felt nothing but relief. Possibly he loved her more. But Helen had no such reproductive irregularities. And he hadn’t counted on her having such strong feelings on the subject. It was like she was possessed. He tried to warn her he was too old. It was ridiculous for him to have a child at his age; by the time their child started preschool, he’d start drawing his pension. Besides what about the danger; at his age, there could be complications, malformations. Helen frowned then laughed at him. “Oh my God, Roger, I’m having the baby, not you. And the doctor says I’m in great shape. Don’t worry so much.”

Of course he had worried. When she was safely into her second trimester, he made an appointment with his GP so there wouldn’t be any more reasons to worry. And when the baby was stillborn, he had taken some grim satisfaction in being proved right. Helen didn’t notice. She just wanted him to take it out of her sight. He shut his ears against her moaning sobs as he clicked shut the bedroom door and proceeded down the hall to the front door. Her crying was only lost once he opened the door to the rain—it was raining then too—and took the tiny bundle into the car.

It had been hideous, misshapen. It could never have lived, could never have been brought to term. But it wouldn’t be wasted. Helen was right. The two of them together could still make something beautiful. The skin, smooth once he had removed the waxy layer of vernix and the pitifully small fat deposits, was pearlescent.

Pergamena, he thought.

Jennifer Falkner’s previous stories can be in found in places like American Athenaeum, Vintage Script, The Nassau Review, and THEMA. She is the Founding Editor ofCirca, an online journal dedicated to historical fiction and blogs occasionally at http://jkfalkner.wordpress.com.

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