The Virgin Martyr Speaks
Syracuse, Sicily, 304 CE
I was born at dawn and Mother named me for the light. That’s where my hagiographers begin, but I will tell you something else, I’ll tell you of the three times men angered me with their comments on my eyes.
The first was while I was still a pagan, when I tried to journey to my beloved Agatha:
As a child, I had played in the garden with other girls, among the quinces and bitter oranges. Now, at fifteen, I was the only maiden left, for the others had married. I had evaded betrothal because Father was dead and Mother too ill to arrange my marriage, but I knew this reprieve wouldn’t hold; I was an only child, my patrimony so large that the suitors would soon overcome Mother’s inaction. Their impending arrival felt like rising waters.
In my loneliness, I lurked in the kitchens among the servants, listening to their gossip about the mystery cults. So did I learn of Saint Agatha, a high-born maiden who made a secret vow of chastity, how the governor persecuted her, how the earth shook at the moment of her martyrdom, how Etna erupted and Agatha’s veil shielded the faithful from the lava’s flow. I resolved to travel by sea to her tomb in Catania, where she worked miracles. With my nurse, I slipped out of the villa. I went down to the landing and saw that many boats were there, I offered coins but the ferryman refused to convey me. What beautiful eyes you have, he said. It was an impudent comment, a warning my request was unseemly. For the first time, I wished to blot out my eyes, a wish that felt as hot and red as lava.
The second time was like this:
Unseemly longings continued to roil within me, and I met the Christians. One night I snuck to the shore, immersed myself in the sea and was born from the water as a bride of Christ. But when I visited Mother’s sickbed to reveal my conversion, she said she had betrothed me to the prefect’s nephew. Mother required me to stroll in the garden with the boy. He pressed a betrothal medallion into my hand and the cold metal revulsed me. The boy chattered vainly of expensive horses, then said Venus had blessed me with comely eyes. The same wish came back to me, this time cool and hard as metal. I thought how if I stabbed my eyes out, the benefit would be twofold: I would no longer see him and he would recoil to see me.
The third time was when I became immovable:
Mother was pragmatic – she didn’t respect my Christianity as an objection to marriage, but she suffered greatly from the bloody flux and was open to any prospect of healing. I convinced her to take me to Agatha’s tomb to ask for a cure. In Catania we prayed and wept together on Agatha’s sepulcher, many hours, until the other pilgrims had departed and only we two remained, beseeching, veiled in night. I fell asleep upon the tomb and Agatha came to me. I quaked at the sight of her, I felt engulfed in her light. I closed my eyes but still I saw her. She called me sister. Devout virgin Lucy, she said, why are you asking me for what you yourself can obtain?
When I woke, Mother was healed, and I felt terrified. The bright blaze of Agatha’s holiness had shown me what I must do to become immovable: destroy my family’s riches, for inheritance and wealth are the greatest blots upon the soul. In her joy at her restored health, Mother did not object. I sold my jewels, my embroidered garments and my lands, acting with haste, for I sensed my life would be short. All of it I made alms for the poor, all but my hateful betrothal medallion, which I pitched into the sea. For three years my riches dwindled and my soul grew immovable. But the servants’ gossip carried word of my actions to my betrothed, who saw his future horses galloping away, transformed into morsels of bread in the mouths of the poor. This so enraged him that he denounced me before the court.
The judge was mild at first, he had known my father and respected my family. But this initial indulgence made his fury all the greater when I proved immovable. When I refused to worship the emperor, the judge commanded the town ribalds to haul me to the bordel and defile me. But I was a tree planted by the waters and they couldn’t move me. They yoked oxen to drag me there, but I became so heavy that no oxen could budge me. So the soldiers built a fire to burn me, they cast pitch and resin on me but the flames would not catch.
The judge was so tormented by my acts that he began to rant, and he sneered about my pretty eyes. This was the third time a man had infuriated me with such remarks.
Then my eyes were gone but the light was not.
A soldier ran a sword through me. The water of death was deep and wide, and I could stand on one shore and see myself from the other side.
My body will become bones, conduits of miracles. Men will carry my relics on boats: to Constantinople alongside Agatha. To Venice where the gondoliers sing of me. Home to Syracuse.
We will hover, my eyes and I, on both shores at once, in the waters between.
When the artists paint me, they will restore my eyes and double them. My statues will serve my eyes up on a platter, bloodless and lolling like grapes. Bloodless, too, is the word chroniclers will choose for my eyes’ fate: plucked.
I took my own eyes, I seized a soldier’s knife and gouged them away.
Agatha, they were only made of water, not light.
Jane Yager is a Berlin-based writer and translator who grew up in small-town California and holds a master’s degree in religious studies and cultural anthropology. Her writing has appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), the Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and The New Inquiry.
The Ekphrastic Review
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