Female Martyrs and Their Favorite Songs by Steven D. Hamilton
Female Martyrs and Their Favorite Songs
Steven D. Hamilton
When I think of Wendy, I try not to think of her ‘firme & stedfast’ (as one onlooker wrote) when faced with the fire, although I do not mind the thought of her in some ecstasy at her approaching closeness to the divinity her soul so pined for, as she stood (‘standing’ only nominally, her feet hardly touched the soil, held as she was by ropes around her ankles, thighs, chest and neck) choking as the flames did their work, and what was once her skin fell like unspooling fabric around and between her toes and the fat coming off slow in its attempt at curdling; no, I like to remember her blonde and shoulders as broad as mine and how we danced and sang to ‘Crocodile Rock’ in the kitchen of the guesthouse where she lived, her laughing as I changed ‘Suzie’ to ‘Wendy’ and told of all the fun we had skimming stones. Of course I left out the part about her leaving with a foreign guy because I was the foreign guy: she left behind that Germanic dark and chill when I held her … the day I first saw her like a moving daguerreotype through the city, chalk-outlining the sidewalks with each step, like leaving remnants of an ascension instead of a death.
In 1532 the monk Werner K. wrote one of the last entries in his journal (before his death from the coughing sickness of the time), deciding for some reason known only to him to reflect upon five years earlier in Holland when he held a cross “to the lips of the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, her gaze Biblical. I fear my hands shook as I held the cross and tried to apologize with my whole being, knowing she was holier than I. And when she refused with a pout I knew she would die so wonderfully and that perhaps when I reached Heaven, God willing, I’d see her there as she was then, with her hair dirty and lips redder than blood, before her earthly self was turned black and brittle.” He composed a poem in Latin that he dedicated to her but in the only modern English translation of his journal it remains in its original language. As near as I can tell it’s about sadness or something like it—the word ‘moestifer’ appears nine times in as many lines.
Catherine of Alexandria—305 A.D.
Catherine had more visitors in prison than she’d ever had when we lived together, back when I was falling so often into fits of jealousy that followed their course and led to rage and self disgust. She had people over at all hours then, when we stayed in Philadelphia together, with windows that looked out over Pine from 100 feet up, the stairs making any guest redfaced before they even knocked at our door, and how I hated them, those that came simply because of the lectures they’d heard her give at Penn or Drexel or in some of the warehouses of Fishtown or Northern Liberties, with titles like The Modern Woman: A Scourge or a Sacrifice; Sluts, Libertines and Libertarians; Menstrual Revivalism; etc. And how they thought they knew her better than I did because they had been abused or felt oppressed once. We also fought over the record player. Bikini Kill vs. Springsteen, Chalk Circle vs. Big Star, The Au Pairs vs. Burial. I loved that she smoked, because it meant that I could too; something I could never get away with around Wendy, her failing to understand the joy of some non-metaphorical death being taken willingly inward in a cosmic “fuck you”. Although maybe she simply understood it too well, as she took on her death much more willingly than I ever will, content as I am to simply increase my risk and not actually face any flames beyond that of a Zippo or a match.
Catherine soon left and the apartment felt empty. Somehow I knew she’d never be back to pick up her records or clothes. In prison she was tortured and still would not accept a marriage proposal from that bastard Max even though it would have saved her life. I like to think she did this as a favor to me, but I knew, even when we shared a bed, that she had suitors of far greater heights than I could attain. After she was scourged she was kept in prison for a few months where friends and faithful visited her, many just to marvel at her frayed backflesh and her face so warm and soft. I didn’t go to see her until the day they brought her into the square. If you read about it now, they’ll tell you that the breaking wheel crumbled at her touch, but that isn’t true at all. They brought her nude toward the scaffolding, her looking as great as she did the first time I saw her daintily step into the shower, and she met eyes with each of her tormenters and soon-to-be executioners, and because her eyes were green and gave view to a terrible intelligence and capacity for love, none among them could bring themselves to strap her to the wheel. Eventually an older gentleman shook his head in acquiescence and grabbed a sword with which he sawed—not chopped, mind you—through her neck, and even as her head fell free those eyes remained open and retained the grace of God until they were closed by a man wearing brown gloves … before he picked up her head and placed it in a wooden box that smelled of damp and their holy incense.
Agnes of Rome—304 A.D.
For all the claims of her pure and powerful high-handedness with regard to men, I can’t help believing that Aggy got off a little on all the denials. They’d come to her with gifts and roses, and as she saw their approach a smile would take to her lips, only raising the left side of her mouth, which drew wrinkles on her face around the eyes not at all unlike Catherine when she was dominating a debate; and that smile was so crushing, so wrenching, because it spoke so plainly: I’ve seen it all before. How they’d stumble away to paste her name on all the walls of the internet—trading stories of Agnes the Cunt, Agnes the Ice Queen, Agnes the Spinster for some sympathy on 4chan or off-topic forums the web over.
So of course I can make no claim to having won the battle for her body. No, she died a virgin, surviving the brothel and the nakedness the weak men forced upon her, confused and hurt and refusing to acknowledge that they were confused and hurt, and in this morass they crafted crimes she was guilty of, treasons she’d committed in thought, wrongs she’d surely been committing while she wasn’t fucking them. I certainly fell into this for a time but was saved from the need for ablution because, after wasting months on Aggy and her smiles and eyes and her kindness toward suitors like Wendy’s toward the children she cared for, I met Agatha.
Before that lovely spring day when I literally bumped into her, I’d spent my time walking through the city looking for graveyards which had not yet been torn down, and I was often amazed at how many remained, and strangely my thoughts would turn to damning sexual fantasies dealing with Aggy: me going down on her and her saying “Oh my god,” and then apologizing, thinking she’d offended my Atheism, or me dying her hair black and then her being my slut every weekend; all very sad, if only she knew. Maybe she did. Anyway, I was often in the thrall of these thoughts, and it was all getting fairly stale to where I’d spend time in the Philadelphia Free Library where one day I knocked Agatha over coming down the stone stairs leading to the massive entranceway, both of us apologizing, her picking up my copy of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, looking up at me with raised eyebrows, and me handing her a copy of The Savage Detectives, and with my other hand a pack of Kools that had fallen from her left breast pocket. Her hair was short like Joan’s (if you’ve seen Joanie’s pictures—pixie cut and heroic—you haven’t seen anything; imagine her in a summer dress and flats and a beret pushing bangs off of her forehead, oh Lord). We spent the rest of the day together. We ended up talking about The Seer, and I quoted the ‘ladder to God’ lyric, which got her going on about how John and Gregory and Origen were so wrong about Jacob’s ladder and how it had nothing at all to do with asceticism and everything to do with the ability to pull oneself onward and upward, that its prime metaphor is in the “ladder”: onward, straight up with legs and hands, no misdirection being possible, no right or left on a ladder, a purposeful upward trajectory: God above, everything else below. She told me she was stopping for a cigarette on every rung.
I’m sure anyone knowing the Aggys’ similar lives and histories knows how sad I was to find myself attracted to yet another girl having dedicated herself and her virginity to God. But the sadness was only in my initial impressions. Looking back now I see how steadfast and firm these women were, how much better they were than I, how at a loss I was in the face of dedication to something ineffable that wasn’t at all ineffable to them.
A month later they were both gone. Agnes was dragged naked through the streets and stabbed in the throat. She died choking on her blood, but I like to think that she was hearing her favorite song one last time.
Agatha had her breasts cut off. She was a 32B, and when they were placed on a plate in front of her there was as much muscle as fat on the disembodied flesh because they’d had to dig down with the knife all the way to the sternum so as to actually have something substantial to cut. She died in an oven-like prison. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I doubt that matters at all.
Felicity & Perpetua—203 A.D.
I didn’t know Felicity or Perpetua as well as the others, but of course I loved them the same: as much as Wendy and Cat and Aggy and Agatha and as much as they loved one another. Pereptua in stockings and cocktail dresses, hair wild on purpose, and Felicity heroin-chic with dusky eyes and a razorblade necklace. They were friends in the way best friends often are—constantly dealing in the many possible permutations of master and slave. Perpetua ordering for Felicity while she was in the bathroom, getting her drink wrong. Felicity washing Perpetua’s clothes for her only to shrink things expensive and not meant for dryers. I adored them, never getting to be more than friends with either but finding my heart full and fast when in their presence. We talked of children (Perpetua had a four-month-old, Felicity had one on the way, fathers other than God nowhere to be seen). I turned them on to Swans and they leant me clothes for Halloween parties. They let me sleep on their floor, and I still remember one night when Perpetua woke crying, for joy she said, at dreaming she was climbing a ladder where she could see at its top the Garden of Eden. I lent her a cigarette and we sat on the fire escape watching the sun rise.
In their prison it was so hot that they couldn’t even sweat, endocrine systems shocked by those red dying days. A crack in the roof dripped condensation once an hour—a single drop, liquid wrested from the stone by the heat. None among the gathering crowds sweated. Felicity played Swans’ discography on her iPod, mainly because her combination of albums and songs under their name lasted exactly 24 hours. She started with Children of God and because the sun never sets over God’s children they knew that every time they heard ‘New Mind’, another day had passed and they were so much closer to their deaths and their Lord. They smoked Kools and the tobacco smoke stuck to the languishing pockets of moisture in their mouths, leaving that duskmint flavor trapped until evaporation exposed it. As they were humming ‘Save your soul’ on the fifteenth day, they were taken out to face the cow. It ravaged their bodies, and both stood so firm and didn’t run to the corners of the pen as their captors had hoped. As they were being carried toward the scaffolding, they managed to briefly shrug off their holders and embrace and kiss, tongues finding one another’s, saliva so far gone to the heat, passion for one last bit of earthly delight betraying their coming martyrdom.
I think of them now and remember a time at a diner not far from campus that was open 25 hours a day (so said the sign). There was noise all around; nearly everyone was drunk. Ecstasy and weed and coke (this was before heroin invaded the East Coast suburbs) were dealt in the bathrooms; weed being the only thing the girls had anything to do with, smoking stuff they didn’t know was practically dirt out of a one-hitter in their dormroom. We were drunk, and I’m sure I was far gone. I’m unable to remember their conversation, but I do remember yelling at them, calling them fake-friends (for they’d each so often complain to me in private about the other). They denied it, and I shouted and got angry and threw their basket of cheese fries across the room before walking out to pass out in some bushes near their dorm where they eventually found me and brought me up to sleep on their floor.
Last week, in a town outside of Johannesburg, Hannaleigh was burned to death. A tire was doused in gasoline and placed around her and lit on fire, as is popular in certain regions as a means of oft-filmed death dealing. She was a missionary sent from a parish near where I grew up. She dated one of my childhood friends, who, when he found out she was pregnant, threatened to kill himself if she had the child (an act of stupidity he regrets now and forever). With her absurd pragmatism she nodded and said okay, and went on to state that if he wanted to will her to choose then of course she’d choose him, and she made the appointment herself and took the pills they gave her and lay in bed at her apartment alone, feeling the cramps contracting parts of her she hadn’t known could hurt until she passed a few small bits of red and grey along with urine into the toilet water with hardly a splash of notice. He left her a month later, and she, without telling anyone, like a marathon runner who doesn’t ever mention that she’s run marathons, existing wholly as a person divorced from the need for acceptance or acknowledgment from others, dedicated herself to her God and went to Africa, where she helped directly 228 people, positively saving the lives of seven, and (if anyone were to inquire into her possible canonization) committed five miracles before dying in a fire as tire tar became her new skin, her former flesh falling about her feet in its attempt at curdling.
And who will search Hannaleigh out, who will call upon her, deem her suffering Holy, holy enough at least, to be ranked among the others I’ve loved, that all of us have loved? How Chelsea was just telling me, in our last conversation before she went back to NYU for the Fall semester, that she had loved Saint Francis de Sales despite his drinking and smoking and general lack of moderation, and that she couldn’t leave him for the suitors like Andy who loved her dearly yet were certainly never to be canonized, just like Hannaleigh. Who will tell us that our faith in one another, all of us, is not in vain, is not to be forsworn: that calling our lovers’ names in the dark or during orgasm has some significance … to actually save us, undeserving as we are?
While waiting for a train home just a week ago, I walked through 30th Street Station, and upon hearing my train was arriving, I looked upon the stairs with their escalators next to them and thought again of Jacob’s ladder and wondered if perhaps he may not have noticed amongst those ascending a bearded man who looked just like him, that perhaps he did not realize that he was simply viewing our world in a zoomed-out vision, that we are on a ladder to heaven. I felt my breath halt in my chest and knew earthly dying for a brief moment, that sharp intake of breath before one knows one is going to cry. I felt faint and sad and grasped at that possible glorification as I took the escalator, rising to the heat and humidity of platforms 5 and 6, sure that the grace in ascension felt like floating, forever above and weightless. Our saviors are among us, I was certain. I thought as I stepped into the train of all the women I’ve loved and will love. I called on the Saints to save them. Abd-al-Musih, Wilgefartis, Catherine of Vadstone, Erasmus of Formiae, Elmo, Silvia, John of Bridlington, Maria Goretti, Anthony of Padua, and Joseph.
© Steven D. Hamilton
Steven D. Hamilton is a 24-year-old writer and manual laborer. He has lived in and around Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Harrisburg. He is working on a novel set in modern Japan.
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