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post Patron Saint of Parchment

May 7th, 2011

Filed under: Literature Corner — Natty Mark Samuels @ 13:39

The Patron Saint of Parchment
To the Old Scribes of Ethiopia

Although I never met my grandfather, I still have an enduring image of him. He sits on a piece of wood, under a tree. Grey beard on his face, white turban on his head. Head bowed in concentration, writing on the parchment in his lap.

They say he used them all. Goat, cow, horse, antelope, sheep, leopard, as well as lion. In life, the lion has the top ranking - Sovereign of all Savannas. But in death, my grandfather favoured goat. With the words of the Saints and Apostles, he crowned the goatskin King. Gazelle was a favourite also, but gazelle was Crown Prince to the goat.

Goat hide though strong has a softness too. A good absorber of ink. Perfect ingredients for parchment.

Apparently, in the hides initial water treatment, the smell wasn’t easy on the nostrils. The odour of things being removed, went gatecrashing through the village.

Then the stretching. Hide taut on a wooden frame. Larger frames were constructed for horseskin. Horsehide being the number one choice for larger volumes; tomes of ecclesiastical topics. He used pumice, ejecting the remnants of skin and hair. Using knife and water to remove the residue.

After the cleaning, the frame is placed high against a wall; so the sun can shine upon it. A time to dry. Dry season time.

When the cleaning of the flesh side comes to an end, the shaving of the other side begins. The return of pumice use. Through the diligence of the cleaning, the sun waits patiently, to conclude the whole process.

After the final drying, it was cut to required lengths; ready to be written on.

I was told of his skill in ink-making, renowned throughout the area. Black ink, from this concotion and that one, all mixed with water. Charcoal of leaves from a certain tree, mingling with juice from another: fused with a brew of burnt barley. Or soot from the pot-bottom, mixed with gum, kneaded with a portion of wheat. An uncle once told me grandfather used red pepper and egg yolk, red earth and gum, mixed in a bowl and beaten in a mortar; the making of red ink. Red ink – the names of Jesus and Mary, the Angels and Disciples. Whether black ink or red, the process culminated in a cake. When needed, he would cut a piece of cake, dissolving it in water. Then exposed to the sun, stirred by a fragment of wood.

Down to the river he’d go. To cut the reed to carve the pen. Cut in bunches, left to dry, until their time of use.

Sitting to write, his ink horn beside him. Horn of goat, antelope or cow. Horn submerged in mud for seven days. To soften it for the cutting and shaving. The lower part shaped to a point, so grandfather could place it in the ground alongside him.

My mother said he often spoke of Emperor Kaleb, who gave up the honour and became a hermit. Of the Nine Saints, who he believed to be the Original Scribes. But most of all he spoke of St.Yared, great musician and first genius of Ethiopia. She said he liked to copy the words of Yared, more than anyone else.

I wish I could have seen his hands. To have watched them, to have held them, to have photographed them. At least I have that eternal image of him. Sitting in quiet concentration, under the Tree of the Scribe. The tree where he spent half of his adult life.

Because he had a reputation for kindness, his generosity something of legend, he comes to me like the Patron Saint of Parchment.

©Natty Mark Samuels, 2011

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