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Revelation  by Sarah Starr Murphy

Her mother named her Margaret, but the name slid off the infant’s greasy, vernix-coated skin. Everyone who loved the child called her Sweet One.

Sweet One’s childhood was the rippling hush of barley in a field, the bubbling of a heavy pot of soup swaying over a fire.  It was the flight of a swift almost too high to see, the whiplash of a sapling in a storm.  It was fluffy acorn flour, the tickle of a whisper in an ear, the reassuring rhythm of knees bent, straightened, and bent again in prayer.

Sweet One’s childhood was the routine, agonized screams of neighbor women in their late hours of labor. It was burials for infants on shimmering summer days. It was funeral masses for mothers held in cold so bitter that Sweet One’s fingers blued. It was the choking worry when her own mother’s stomach started to swell.

“Sweet One,” her mother said, “Have faith. Life finds its way through love.”

Sweet One twisted a lock of hair, bit her lip. Alone in the forest, she climbed into the embrace of a sprawling beech, stayed until she could again hold air in her aching lungs.

A stranger arrived asking for Margaret. Sweet One’s parents, reluctant but poor, made a deal. There was a wedding feast, and Sweet One lost feeling everywhere except her racing heart. She thought of all the sorrows that follow weddings, and she hid in a shed with a lonely cricket calling. In darkness she snuck away, under the cover of trees whose exposed roots knew the soles of her feet and pressed back, steering her away from slumbering boars.

Sweet One cut her long hair with a knife. She slipped from her dress and stepped into her older brother’s loose clothes. Not a change, but a revelation.

Several days of walking, a monastery on a hill. A knock on a door.

“Yes?” said the abbot.

“My name is Pelagian. I’ve come to devote my life to God. I have an offering,” he said, opening his hands to show a small brass crucifix.

“Brother Pelagian. Please, come in.”

His new life was spare, precise, but surrounded and insulated by wealth. It was the hushed moment the abbot drew breath to begin Mass, the resonant snores and stale jokes in the dormitories. The burn of sun on his tonsure as he worked to dig a new garden plot for lavender and thyme. The give of vellum, soft but sturdy under his fingers, gold-leafed illustrations crackling to life under flickering candlelight.

Brother Pelagian’s life was the feeling of something finally slotting into place, the miracle of a true calling. It was the melody of the brothers’ chanted prayer as an elder struggled through his last breaths, it was the silent drowning of a young boy in the monastery’s algae-strewn pond. The ache of the boy’s weight in Pelagian’s arms long after the mother took the small body.

A stranger arrived to speak to the abbot.  The damp winter had carried off the monk who governed a nearby nunnery. The nuns needed a new leader and the abbot, reluctant but greedy, made a deal.

Pelagian prayed as others had, that this bitter cup would pass from him. Like others, he was denied. Pelagian moved into the nunnery where every voice reminded him of his mother and sisters.

His life was giving quiet counsel in thick-stone rooms that chilled, soft blessings touched to foreheads both young and creased. It was poverty and porridge, the begging of resources from the wealthy monastery and the denial of the same. It was laboring in scant fields alongside citizens of the village who pitied the nuns and their monk, outcast from the Church’s power.

Early one morning Pelagian came around a hedge and saw a young nun picking blueberries. He did not miss the way she braced one hand on her lower back, the slight nudge of her stomach against the front of her habit. Pelagian feared what would come for this girl, knew all searching eyes would turn to him.

He left the garden and walked alone in the forest for three hours. In the darkness of the ancient oaks, fireflies flickered and vines climbed to heaven. Pelagian returned to the nunnery, dark humus on the soles of his shoes. The bitter cup again before him.

Several days of walking, a monastery on a hill. A knock on a door.

“Yes?” said the abbot.

“A nun is with child,” said Pelagian.

No questions were asked. Pelagian’s brothers took him a cave, left a paltry supply of barley bread and water. The men rolled a rock into place, the scrape of boulder on sand sealing the tomb.

Pelagian had vellum, ink, and a pen hidden in his robes, and his hands did not shake. He began to write about his deep faith and his tremendous love. Of hurrying bees in lavender, of the fox vixen nestled with her kits beyond the creamery. Of fallow deer in rut, of leaping, sparkling salmon battling the current. Of his lost family, his struggling nuns, and his beloved brothers.

Pelagian wrote knowing that when they found this letter beside this body, he’d be sainted for all the wrong reasons. His long-forgotten name recalled, his life rewritten as one of pious sacrifice, of a dark secret kept rather than a flaring, joyous light immolating a bushel basket.

Brother Pelagian wrote his own record to stand next to theirs, and then he slept in the dark heat of the cave, dreaming of wild boar and the baby yet to be born, of all the inheritors of his passion for an imperfect world.




Source Material: Tracy, Larissa, ed. Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints Lives. Rochester: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

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