A Sacred Virgin
by Paulette Licitra
Prandeo - Ancient Rome
Another way. Peas from the pod, Apician Style. Flavor oil with fennel seed, mint and laser root. Half fry peas in oil with leeks. For each sextarius of peas, moisten with one cyathus of violet wine. Sprinkle with pepper. Serve hot.
Today I cannot stop admiring the peas. They are so tiny and light. Such sweet little life. I carefully break open their pods and inside a neat row of green vitality smiles up at me. As I push them gently out of their pod they land lightly on the pile of their pea-brothers and pea-sisters. A very special community.
I have cooked peas in this way once a week for four years. The virgins have given me the honor of preparing our meals. We do our chores for the love of God, and He in turn keeps and protects us.
We live in the small round house on the Aventino hill along the bank of the river, Tevere. Each of our rooms (there are six) are like spokes in a wheel. The kitchen is in the center, the heart. This is where I spend most of my time. We have a garden. Egeria tends the garden. We work hand in hand, she brings me beautiful growth from the garden, I transform wild things into nourishment. We do not eat together, but each in our own small cells. We cannot risk too much of our own society. We do not speak unless we absolutely must. In this way we can remain virgin not only in body, but in mind. The Church Fathers say a mouth open in speech is a woman open to the ways of the world.
Thus bathing is prohibited. Washing the whole body might heat the blood, plus it is immodest. Even though being thoroughly washed makes me feel fresh and alive, I must avoid this desire for such beauty in feeling. There is no reason a virgin should need to feel herself beautiful.
My sins lie elsewhere. Sometimes the food I am washing or cutting or shaving appears…provocative to me. This happens to me often while cooking. And for this reason I pray hard when I cook. I find myself slowly stroking the food, looking at it with fondness, in some peculiar way understanding it. I watch the food change as it cooks. I believe it loves this metamorphosis. Like a child becoming an adult. It can now wholly be itself. These thoughts and sensations are so distracting that I must devoutly repeat the Creed. To my shame, sometimes this isn't enough, so I meditate on Christ.
Just beyond the garden, Alexandra has sealed herself in a small stone room with just one narrow window. She is the most pious virgin of our house. Many years ago a man glimpsed her and was tempted by her. So that she will not be responsible for distracting a man and scandalizing his soul anymore, she has hidden herself away. We all honor her faith and strength. The penalty for transgression is high, even burial alive.
I bring Alexandra crusts of bread. Today, I will try to offer her a small handful of peas Apician style. She never accepts sustenance other than bread scraps, but I will offer again today. In the middle of summer, the Tevere shines like a yellow sapphire. As I step out from our house, I am always dazzled by it. Today, the assembly of doves sits quietly in the ostrya tree. I move as invisibly as possible so as not to disturb their contemplation. Down the little path through the garden I fix my sight on Alexandra's little stone room. It is unfortunate that her narrow window does not face the Tevere. She looks out onto a modest patch of road with a small rhododendron bush on its edge. I am sure this is the view she prefers. Better not to excite the mind.
As I turn the corner of the stone room to reach her window, my hand grazes the surface of the wall. It is rough and makes me think of unforgiveness. I peer into the little window. It is dark in there except for the slice of light the window opening paints on the wall.
"Alexandra?" (for Alexandra I do speak.)
"Good afternoon, Melania"
"I have brought you some bread."
"Just the crusts, please."
"Certainly, just the crusts."
I hand her the bread through the window. Her fingers take it. They are as white as my gown. She doesn’t eat right away. She looks at my face and our eyes meet. She looks away quickly. I know she is afraid to know life outside of the room. She is strong, but she must be careful, too.
"Would you care for a very tiny handful of sweet peas?"
I hold out my open hand to the window. Luckily my grasp did not crush any of them. They sit there, trying to be modest so that Alexandra will think nothing of eating them, but as soon as she glances their way her eyes close tight. Despite their efforts, it is impossible for the peas to appear unalluring.
"That's all right. They don't really taste very good." I close my fingers gently around them, taking them out of sight. "Would you like water?"
Alexandra hands me her small pitcher through the window. It is smooth and narrow. Sparrow birds and floral wreaths adorn the surface. I walk out to the fountain near the road, admiring the loveliness of the pitcher. I do not need to adjust my shawl to my face. There is no one around. The gentle wind holds my cheek. As I reach the fountain, I peruse its unusual shape. Like an elliptical urn it stands tall and brazen to the sky. I lean over its edge. My eyes delight with the sight of the splashing, sparkling water. I reach in and dip the pitcher under the water. I dip deeper than necessary, I cannot resist getting my hand wet with the cool liquid. As I stand up, I let the pitcher balance on the edge of the fountain and slip my wet hand to my brow. It is an unbelievable sensation and I nearly swoon.
I turn back toward Alexandra's room -- and see, under a tree along the bank, a man. He's leaning there, looking directly at me. I become so flustered, I nearly drop the pitcher. Some water spills, and in my efforts to regain equilibrium I clench my other fist, squashing my little garden-cooked wards. I rush over to Alexandra and hand her the pitcher, pulling my shawl closely around my face.
"What's wrong, Melania?"
"I…I thought no one was there."
"Did you see the man?"
"Who is it?"
"I don't know who it is, but he watches."
"Bless me Father, bless me Father, bless me Father, forgive me Cyprian, Athanasius, Hilary…"
"Do not worry, Melania. He has been watching for a long time. You have done nothing wrong. But poor Egeria. She is the one he watches most of all. She is in the garden every morning."
"We must tell the bishop!"
"There is no law against moving on the streets."
"But what about us? There is a law for us. The whole house must be tempting him."
"Now you understand why I stay safely withdrawn?"
"I must go inside. Be careful, Alexandra."
I adjust my shawl over my face. I dare not look across to the river bank. I watch my steps. Finally at the house door I enter, and rush blindly into Egeria.
"What is the matter, Melania?"
I catch my breath and shake my head. I do not want to add to the problem by speaking excessively. I pass Egeria into the kitchen and sit down to compose myself. As I begin to recite the Creed in my mind, I open my hand and empty the crushed peas onto a plate.
Transparent brown eyes.
"Soak the roots of tulip or narcissus and parboil in water."
Today I am using tulip roots instead of narcissus roots. Egeria brought me an abundant armful from the fields on the Aventino. I am entranced with the pot alive with bouncing water. The sun through the roof window sparkles on the water's jumping surface. The roots pop up and down in the water like children playing on a hill.
"Thereupon fry them in oil."
I spoon out the delicate roots then put a pan on the fire with a little oil of olive. I dry the little roots in my skirt and gently drop them into the oil. They will become golden. This is the time they glow the most.
"The dressing make thus: take thyme, flea-bane, pepper, honey, vinegar, reduced wine, date wine, and a little oil."
In my favorite terracotta bowl painted yellow with blue asters, I place a little thyme, a thumb of flea-bane, two pepper seeds, two spoons full of honey, one spoon full of vinegar, a small wash of date wine, and a smaller wash of reduced wine. I ladle a little broth and a drop or two of oil. I will add origany even though Aspicius does not say to do so. But the long branch of origany Egeria brought me this week is all used. I have used more than I remember. I do love origany, rather I should say I prefer to use origany. I must constantly guard my thoughts about food.
I glance at the roots frying, they are becoming transparent, happily advancing. If I am quick I can go out to the garden to find a fresh branch of origany and return just as the roots are turning gold.
I put on my shawl, ever since the day of the strange man I wear my shawl whenever I go out. It keeps me safe. I slip it around my head nearly covering my entire face.
I go out the front door. Suddenly, the wind seems to be coming from the ground. The Tevere moves rapidly in small hills of water. The sky is gray up high, but light shines through underneath. A sky in change. The rain will be here at any moment.
I run out to the garden. I do not know it as well as Egeria. I must search for the origany. I see lemon timo, basilicum, maggioriana, and salvia. Then there, next to the porro, origany. It seems to look up at me, excited to be included now. I pick several small branches, caressing them tenderly, and then turn to hurry back.
The wind whirls all around me, it pulls at my shawl, it flies under my skirt. I hold tenderly to the tiny leaves, fingering their smoothness. I round our house to the door and a strong gust grips my shawl and carries it from me toward the road. As I watch after it, a man suddenly appears near the bank of the Tevere. That same man. The one Alexandra says watches our house. He runs to my shawl and catches it just as it flies upward in another gust. He runs toward me, holding it out within his hands.
My instinct is to turn and scurry indoors. But I see his face now. It is kind and gentle. He holds such reverence in his expression. I pause instead, waiting to receive my shawl. Quickly he is upon me, kneeling at my feet, offering my vestment.
"Pure Melania. Accept my humble service."
His behavior is so startling I hardly know how to respond. I gingerly accept the shawl, careful not to touch his hand, and turn to leave. How does he know my name?
"May I ask you one question?" he says coming to his feet.
I cautiously nod.
"Do you believe that marriage is death?"
What is he saying? What could he mean? Is he challenging the word of Jerome? Do I really speak my piety to him? He watches me steadily for an answer. His eyes seem to be made of liquid. Light brown liquid.
I speak. "Marriage fills the earth. Virginity fills heaven."
A smile broadens across his face. He nods. "Thank you."
He extends his right hand. I do not know why. He gestures to my left hand. I lift it. Keeping his eyes on mine, he takes gentle hold of my hand, raises it to his mouth, and brushes his lips across it.
Why I let him do this I cannot know! My head just became empty and I couldn't find a prayer. I didn't even look for one. But I am looking for one now. Now I take back my hand.
He bows. He turns and leaves. He walks back to the road. A sudden wind whips about him. He walks steadily on toward the river.
I cannot move. I feel stuck to my place. I can't take my eyes from the figure of this man. He becomes smaller and smaller as he advances onward to the bridge, as he crosses the river and disappears into invisibility. My mind is prowling, searching for sentences of Creed. The only thing I can think is the little tulip roots have fried to nothingness. And even this thought seems very far away.
* * *
I am very awake. I cannot sleep. Not last night. Not the night before. Not tonight. I lie still looking into the black air of my room, seeing shapes that aren't there. Hearing wind speak to me through the doorway.
I rise, dress, and silently slip from my room. All my sisters are asleep, calm, blameless, they have no thoughts to worry them. I stand in the kitchen. The room is my best friend. It's where I am most at home. The kitchen comforts me, and right now the moon shines through the window making every surface alert.
I step outside into the air of the Tevere. As soon as I exit I hear the tender lapping of the river. I move through the dark garden, quietly past Alexandra's stone room. I walk to the fountain and stop there, stop at this boundary of our sacred home. I listen to the water falling. I let my eyes wander along the bank of the Tevere, letting them casually look. Letting them happen to see. But they see nothing. Only shadows sway through the trees along the river's edge. I am the only soul here. I stay to watch the river. And to remember.
Alexandra's room stands like a fortress nearby. Fine, pious Alexandra. Suddenly in her window I think I see a ghost. But I realize it is not a ghost. Only Alexandra herself, framed within her narrow window, looking out at me.
I do not speak to her, or signal, or acknowledge her in any way. It is how she would want it. It is how I should want it, too. But why does Alexandra not sleep? Does she still feel her pain after all this time? Now I know the pain she has suffered. She is right to stay hidden within. I wonder if a room, a hard stone room can protect a heart? One that breaks with every breath? One that is confused between the way of earth and the way of heaven?
I cannot live in two worlds.
* * *
The evil one.
The jurors of the tribunal are conferring. I sit in an isolated chair in the middle of the room. My shawl close to my face. Many men watch me here, my face is ceaselessly hot, and must be quite red. They look at me as if staring into the face of a ferocious animal. One that is safely restrained, yet growling at them all the while.
They take their seats in a row. All facing me. The Court Patrician stands in the center. He addresses me.
"Melania, you are here in this Tribunal to face a very grave transgression against the Church Fathers. To begin, we must establish your position. You have taken the vows of a sacred virgin. You have taken refuge in the Creed, forgoing all customary responsibilities and commitments, promising never to be a wife, never a mother, never inherit your father's estate, and never bequeath an estate to an heir. By taking this oath you have chosen to seclude yourself from society and devote the whole of your existence to prayer, solitude, and exclusion. You also have denounced sensual pleasure of any kind, suppressing the feminine power to arouse such in others, and therefore prohibiting any exchange whatsoever with men, worldly women and families. Adornment and indulgence have been barred from your life.
"Do you agree, Melania, that such is the nature of your vow to the
Church Fathers, the State, and to God?"
I nod. It is all true. And yet, my brow is moist, I must swallow hard. My heart pounds, reminding me that I have defied my own promises. That yes, I have been swept up into earthly pleasure. And, to my distress, I know my deepest desire is to revisit that glorious awareness.
"Your sister in devotion, Alexandra, has been witness to a serious offense," the Court Patrician continues. "She has seen you conversing with a man outside the house of your sisters in devotion. You were completely open as he observed you -- no shawl about your head, in great temptation. You looked at him directly, in greater temptation. You spoke to him…as the Church Fathers have said 'an open mouth is an open woman.' Whereupon you caused the man to take your hand in his and caused him to kiss it! And there you stood. Brazen, defiant to God and state -- welcoming, inviting, causing injurious calamity to this man, to yourself, and to Alexandra who witnessed this corrupting scene from her reverent place. And you, we are told, stood by and accepted this aggression without protest."
He stops speaking.
Alexandra will not appear, but the tribunal has heard her testimony. The Court Patrician visited her at her room. Spoke to her through her narrow window. She saw my lapse from Creed. She saw my elaborate indiscretion, and she has told all. She had no choice.
I stare hard at the floor, my eyes on fire with shame. Why does God never come when we are weak, only when we are strong? Holy Mother of God, come to my aid, O…my Father in Heaven, forgive me, forgive me, I am unreliable and beyond repentance!
"Melania," says the Court Patrician. "Is this true?"
I nod, without looking up. I recall the moment with a chill. Largest in my mind are the transparent brown eyes of that kind face. I have prayed and prayed. I have fasted and to my shame, cried. But in my heart, no matter what I do, I cannot dispel the sensation of happiness at this memory. Even though the consequences weigh heavy, I can still recall the moment with thankfulness. For this I must be the devil's own property…and yet, I do not feel evil.
"Have you nothing to say in your defense?"
"Your honor, it is a most unfortunate circumstance. I must confess that I was weak, and allowed myself to be yielding. I am very pious, your honor, but to my shame, I am afraid I may not be pious enough. It pains me to say this, but I must speak my heart. I must live with it inside me, and so you should know the truth as well."
The Court Patrician considers me with wide eyes: a sacred virgin who has transgressed, and has admitted her lapse from piety. The penalty can be very high, and yet the highest has never been put to practice. The tribunal will decide if the crime is grievous enough.
"The court has also heard of other indulgences in sensual pleasure."
Without a thought, I look up. What can he mean?
"We are told that you cook with spirits."
"Wine? Well, yes, a little. It gives a bright flavor to the food."
"It is in the recipes of Apicius."
"The recipes of Apicius are not intended for houses of devotion. Melania, are you not aware of the Holy Fathers' decrement regarding spirits?"
"And you serve food with wine in it to your unsuspecting sisters in piety?"
"But we do not drink the wine."
"I fail to see the difference. Eating wine is better?"
"It changes. The spirit altering qualities are cooked away."
"Oh, I see. You know how to transfigure elements as well."
"No, no, I am just a cook-"
"We are told that you emit strange compassion for food. A kind of deep love for food. Alexandra tells us that you try to tempt her with your cooking, talk about your concoctions as if they were offspring from your womb…tempting a pious virgin such as Alexandra who has vowed to eat only scraps of bread."
"She has never taken any."
"And to her credit. She has had the added turmoil of having to resist your interference with her reverence."
"I am very sorry. I only thought she might enjoy-"
"Enjoy? Is that the life of a pious virgin?"
"No. Of course not."
"Do you make it a practice to tempt others into your own corruption?"
"No, your honor, I do not…"
"It seems by your actions that it is exactly what you are doing, does it not, Melania?"
"It seems so, perhaps, but it is not what I intend at all…"
"No. Evil has its own way of appearing harmless, but only to the evil one. And you, Melania, are evil."
His voice sounds so final. So honest. So true.
"The Court Jurors will confer and give you our sentencing within this hour. Do not stir from your chair."
The Court Patrician stands, the Jurors stand, too. They are leaving. To protect himself, one juror spits on the floor before me. But not one looks at me. They consider me absent, unworthy, gone. And they are just. My fate weighs heavy except for one horrible, wonderful, and enormous thing: how can I repent myself to God? Whatever the Court decides is of the earth's domain. What decisions will be made for me in the domain of heaven?
* * *
I know when the bishop came to Alexandra's room she kept her head bowed so he couldn't see her tears. I can imagine her, telling all, each word pulled from her mouth like teeth. It was the day Egeria and I left for the Gianiculum to gather poppies. It was the day Alexandra could not stay silent anymore. She wanted to protect me.
She wanted to save me.
What does that mean? Save me from what?
My trial is over.
My death begins.
The deep columns stand about me as I am brought to the ceremony. They stand like skeletons, like old trees; they’ve witnessed death before, and birth and prayers. Just like trees, they know everything silently. But they are hard, cold and stoic. I can find no comfort here.
My tears fall shamefully.
They place me in a box of Cypress wood. Before the lid is nailed a face appears before me, a face of pale brown eyes.
"You have not fallen from grace,” he tells me. “You have given me the gift of faith."
The lid of the box covers my light. I close my eyes. The pounding of nails echoes. Tears still roll. I give my life away. It is the sacred virgin's duty.
But…is it a sin to love?
I open my eyes.
The pounding stops. The nailing is finished. I feel myself lifted up and carried.
I am lowered to my grave. No one moans for me in the deep hole of the earth, silence. Clumps of dirt dive onto my box. I listen carefully until no sound is heard, just stillness of muffled life. My throat closes tight with panic. I cannot breathe. My chest rises high and low, I cannot breathe here. O, God, O, Jesus Christ, O, Jerome, O, Matthew, O, Holy Mother, Virgin Mother keep me from harm, help me to be with you, give me your hand, be with me, please come to my aid…
A heavy rain makes puddles in the dirt around me, mud surrounds my coffin. I feel restless in this small space. I hold tight to my cloak. My fingertips are white with holding. My fingers disappear…am I of this earth? Do I belong in heaven? Is there a home for me? A place where Melania lives.
The sounds of the earth quiet. The rain flees from me too. Soon I will be led by the Holy Ones to my just fate.
I will take with me this heart…aching and full.
Paulette Licitra is the publisher of Alimentum and does an awful lot of cooking at ChefPaulette.net