July 31, 2017 Issue
Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224)
By Kirstin Valdez Quade
Audio: Kirstin Valdez Quade reads.
Nevertheless her sisters and friends never stopped their persecution, for after she had returned to a place where they could seize her, they bound her fast with a heavy wooden yoke and fed her like a dog with only a little bread and water. . . . No one there had compassion for her wretchedness.
—Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72)
How She Was Led Forth from the Body and How She Lived Again
The priest holds the host aloft, the linen sleeves of his alb falling around him like wings. He intones the Agnus Dei, and we sing with him. I can scarcely form the words, my throat is so clotted with grief. Beside me, my sister Gertrude tightens her grasp on my hand.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi—
Christina lies in her coffin, her cheeks sunken, her slender hands crossed over her heart. Now, with her troubled soul gone, Christina is easier to look at; alive, even in sleep, she kicked and growled and twitched. For the first time in the twenty-one years I’ve known her, my sister seems at peace. A grave awaits her in the churchyard, a hole sliced into the earth. Water pools in the cold mud at the bottom, flashing in the sunlight and reflecting the sky. We were five in our family, then three, and now we are just two, and even as I weep for our little sister I thank God that it is Christina in the coffin and not Gertrude, the sister I can’t live without.
Miserere nobis. Have mercy on us.
I think of our house on the edge of the village, hushed, veiled in honeysuckle. A thread of smoke rises faintly from the chimney, and the coals collapse into ash. I think of our lives as they will be from now on, tranquil and measured.
As the music rises around me, I’m enveloped in an unfamiliar sweetness, as if some acid had been drained from my blood. Even this morning, on the way to the church, I couldn’t help noticing that the world was suddenly clean and raw, filled with new color and new light, everything unbearably radiant. I loved Christina, I did! I see this now. She was difficult, yes, unknowable, but I loved her. Generosity floods me, as clear and calm as well water—and gratitude, too, to God, who has let me weep for her.
I remember Christina as an infant, that fretful tense-limbed creature. While our mother sat at the spinning wheel, I rocked Christina, begging her to settle. “Hush, hush, just rest now,” I said, and put my finger in her little palm. She gripped it but kept wailing. Now my whole body cries out to hold that memory of my sister’s hand around my finger.
We begin the third invocation: Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world. . . . We sing, edging closer and closer to that final entreaty: Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.
Perhaps if we’d hastened, outrun the melody, God might have listened. If we’d only got those last words out, He might have spared us our miracle.
Instead: flight. The congregation gasps. I open my wet eyes, the prayer dead on my lips.
How to make sense of this? The young woman up there in the rafters is no apparition. Christina was dead, and now she’s alive, eyes shocked and glittering. She perches above us in her gray shift, straddling the beam, dangling two thin legs. Her face is contorted, her color rising, as she wails down at us. She grips the beam, her long fingers pressed so hard against the wood—splintered and rough with adze marks—that afterward they will be bloody.
We gaze up in amazement. Gertrude and I clutch each other, because we saw her dead on the floor of our house, cleaned her and dressed her and prayed over her, saw her loaded onto a cart and brought here. But now our sister is back, vibrant and fully herself. Her cries seem to be in another language, but for one refrain: “Why, why, why?”
In the hours and days and years that follow, people will report that after my sister rose from the dead and flew high into the rafters of the church she shouted about Purgatory. They will tell of her journey there and back, and to Hell and Heaven, too, and of her interview with God. They will tell how, valuing her soul above others’, He gave her the choice between eternal Paradise and a return to a life of suffering for Him on Earth. But, as I watch my sister swaying and jabbering above me in the church, all I can think is that she has returned to punish me for my hypocrisy, for crying over her body, for thinking I ever loved her.
Here Begins the Life of the Holy Christina
May of 1150 is unseasonably cold, and, on the morning that my youngest sister is born, ice glazes the budding trees. Since dawn, Gertrude and I have been waiting outside the house, leaning against the windowsill, the sleeves and fronts of our dresses smudged with whitewash. Our father is away with the flock, due back in a few days, so only Gertrude and I keep watch.
Gertrude clutches a softening parsnip in her arms, murmurs to it. She is five, thirteen months younger than me. Already a red-lipped beauty, already a little mother.
We try to peer through cracks in the shutters, listening to the cries within, but can’t make out our mother in the murk. Outside, everything is bright and still. No wind blows over the frozen ground. There is no birdsong at all this year. The birds have abandoned the Meuse Valley entirely for somewhere warmer: Spain, maybe.
“She won’t live,” the midwife tells us on her way out. She tightens her shawl, then says over her shoulder, “The baby, I mean. I’m sorry. Your mother just needs to rest.”
We watch her move down the road to the village. Our mother has lost babies before, so this news is sad, but expected. It’s our mother we’re worried about. With pounding hearts, Gertrude and I hold hands and step into the house.
Inside, the air is hot from the stoked fire, thick with the smell of blood and smoke. Our mother turns her face from the light—or maybe she turns her face from us—and presses her cheek to the bedclothes. Christina, our new sister, flails naked on a cloth before the fire, blue-white and thin, full of mucus and outrage.
“Give her here, Mara,” our mother says in a watery voice. Tears leak from the corners of her slit eyes. We kneel beside our squalling sister—Gertrude sets down her parsnip gently—and wrap her in the warmed cloth with our four clumsy hands.
“Can she be my doll when she’s dead?” Gertrude asks.
“Idiot,” I tell her kindly. “She’ll rot and stink, like any dead thing.”
But Christina doesn’t die. As a scowling infant, she rejects the breast; later, she picks at her suppers. Yet she grows in spite of herself. At night, as Gertrude and I bend over our carding, Christina watches us, sharp-eyed and peevish, breathing wetly.
The Saint’s Childhood
We sell our sheep in the markets of Brustem and Ordingen and Saint-Trond. The three of us accompany our father. Gertrude and I hurry the sheep when they lag with a whack on their spongy bottoms. Christina will not keep up, and she won’t keep to the road, either, but darts along from tree to tree, the underbrush snapping at her feet. Our father no longer raises his voice or drags Christina by the wrist or whips her for lollygagging; he could yell himself hoarse and whip his arm crippled, and still Christina wouldn’t obey. Only eight years old, and already she’s stymied him.
One day, as we pass the great walled convent of St. Catherine’s, on the road to Saint-Trond, the gate is opened to allow a cart to pass through.
“Gertrude,” I say, and grab her sleeve, because we’ve never seen the gate open. We peer into the cobbled yard while the porter argues with the driver and the sheep nudge our thighs with the bony points of their heads. The morning light seems warmer beyond the gatehouse; there, pink in the rising sun, is the chapel, with its crown of slender finials, there the abbey, all carved arches and gray stone. At the far end of the yard, an archway opens onto another courtyard, beyond which I glimpse a garden. I ache to be there, enclosed in that spot of green, to live day after measured day of prayer and work, each as full and serene as a rosary bead. It is six in the morning; the sisters are in the chapel reciting Prime. Somewhere behind these walls, the cloisters are quiet and waiting. Somewhere else, lay sisters tend to bees in straw apiaries or bend with rakes over rows of waxy cabbages.
Then reins are shaken, the cart rattles through, and the gate is shut.
“They found a baby in the walls,” Gertrude says. She takes my arm and gives a ram a kick in the side. “A tiny little skeleton. A nun had it in secret and closed it into the wall.”
“Liar,” I say.
“It’s like I’m actually walking.”
“It’s true.” Gertrude presses her red lips, tosses her braid over her shoulder. “Isn’t it awful? A defenseless little baby.” She widens her eyes, as if she’d just had a delicious thought. “Maybe it wasn’t dead. Maybe it was still gurgling when she bricked it in.”
“That doesn’t even make sense. Where would a nun get masonry tools?”
“Poor Mara.” Gertrude touches my cheek in mock sympathy. “They wouldn’t take you anyway. Not with a sister possessed by the Devil.” We laugh and turn to watch Christina charging through the leaves, head forward, shoulders hunched and purposeful. She glances furtively over her shoulder, then hides behind an oak. Soon she peers around the trunk, eyes narrowed and suspicious, and, when she catches us looking, her expression is one of such loathing that the laugh withers in my throat.
Gertrude shudders and squeezes my wrist. “Don’t go. Swear you won’t go and leave me with her.”
“Hurry up, Christina!” I shout in a rage.
Her hand is motionless on the gnarled bark. When she speaks, her voice is so shrill that you could cut your finger on it. “Leave me alone!”
There is, of course, no money to pay my dowry to the convent, and, though I pray and cry and beg God and my parents, this fact does not change. I apply to the abbess through our parish priest, but the sisters won’t take me as an oblate or a charity case.
“Just as well,” my father says.
“We couldn’t spare you,” my mother says.
They mean, but they don’t say, that Christina is becoming yet stranger. Neighbors find her curled tight in their pigpens, crouched like an animal in ditches along the roads, hidden in the marsh grass, knee deep in stinking mud. Left alone, the sheep wander; some are recovered in the woods among the trees, some are never found at all.
The winter that Christina turns seventeen, our parents die of fever—first Father, then Mother. We’re alone now, three sisters.
With our parents dead, it’s even harder to picture our futures. I still pray every day to join the convent of St. Catherine’s, but God has made it clear that He has other concerns. Gertrude is in love with Thomas, the turner’s son, but it’s uncertain whether her beauty and her share of our flock are enough inducement for any suitor to take on a lunatic for a sister-in-law. Anyway, neither of us will leave the other with Christina.
Christina leans against the doorframe and watches us cry. She looks as she always does: lips colorless and peeling, neck cabled, sallow skin stretched over knobby joints. She is taller than us, big-boned, still entirely without breasts. She has blue smudges under her eyes, as if thumbs have pressed hard against the rims of her sockets. “You might be happy for our parents, Mara,” she tells me.
And, though I despise her for her piety, I am abashed, because what would the sisters at St. Catherine’s say? “Of course. You’re right.” I swipe my fingers down my cheeks. “They’re with God.”
“No,” Christina says. She folds her bony arms. The bridge of her nose is taut and white. When she speaks, she sounds as if she were reciting catechism. “They were disgusting. I dreamed of a wheel set high on a hill, under a golden sun. Mother was stretched naked across, and the Devil spun her, cudgelling her until her bones shattered and the marrow spilled to the dirt. Father wove her limbs in and out of the spokes.”
Gertrude looks as though she might be sick. Her fist is pressed to her teeth.
“They aren’t with God,” Christina says with finality. “Purgatory at best. But better there, where they can atone, than on this corrupt ground.” She looks around our home—hearth, table, loom, bed—and her mouth twists in distaste.
That spring, twelve of our ewes have stillbirths. We pile the dead lambs, gleaming with amniotic fluid, their wool fine and tight-curled. I begin the work of skinning them.
Her First Holy Death
Christina begins to have fits, then recovers, then has fits again. Gertrude and I learn to hold her kicking legs, to brace her head and fish for her tongue. It’s the only time that we touch her now, the only time she’ll let us.
We do our best to nurse her, but she turns away from the filling stews, the thick bread slathered in butter. She seems to live on air.
The fit that kills her is just like all the others, except that, when our sister finally goes still, her chest doesn’t rise and her eyes don’t shiver beneath her blue lids. Gertrude touches her hand and begins to cry.
Above us, beyond the roof of our little house and the swaying treetops, far beyond the clouds and the raucous currents, Christina is already taking God’s hand, already working out the details of her journey back to life. Here on earth, curds of blood spill from her open mouth and glisten on the flagstones.
How Harshly She Suffered for Those Souls Detained in Purgatory, but Remained Unharmed in Body
After Christina’s resurrection, she spends her days perched in the branches of a yew on the road to town. She shrieks at people as they pass, accusing them of their sins, which, she says, she can smell on them, can see spread across their faces like fungus. No one is spared: “You, Curate! You with your lewd nocturnal pollutions!”
She screams at Gertrude and me when we bleed, screams that we are filthy, that we make her sick. “Pigs, pigs, stinking pigs,” she chants. She takes our rags from where they soak in the washtub and flings them at the walls, where they stick, dripping brown water. She herself has never menstruated.
“Whore!” she hisses at Gertrude when Thomas walks her to our door. Thomas reddens and slinks away, and Gertrude watches him go with dry eyes. She never cries anymore.
Christina upturns the clothes box and shreds our shifts and kirtles. “Go naked like the harlots you are!” she screams. She takes the shears to our bed linen. Straw, feathers, matted tufts of yellowed wool, are strewn across the room like some barnyard massacre. When she smashes our mother’s crockery, the fragments scatter and rock on their curves.
Christina is impossible. Not possible. And yet there she is, our sister, our flesh, howling and yanking her hair out in bleeding clumps. After Gertrude and I awake to her scratching at our faces, we bind her to her bed at night. Still, she twists loose, pummels us in our bed with the rolling pin, the kettle, the peel. Above us, her face passes in and out of a shaft of moonlight, and her expression is, oddly, one of terror.
Please, God, I pray, help me understand this miracle, help me understand for what purpose You have returned her to us. He has a purpose—of course He must—but in her shrill judgments I hear nothing of His Son’s love. Perhaps she’s been sent back from the afterlife to test our capacity for love, and so I try to love her, but I can’t hide my heart from God or from myself.
The more I pray, the worse things become. Christina grows sick with the smell of humanity: the sweat and garlic, the stagnant mouths and fusty wool. “Please don’t come near!” she begs us, her eyes filling.
Her own body revolts her, too, and she does her best to remove the offending parts. She refuses all food. She slices into the skin of her belly with a shearing blade, thrusts her hands elbow-deep into the fire until the skin blackens and blisters. She pitches herself into the wide gray Meuse, where she floats face down among chips of ice. Her arms and legs are splayed stiff, as if in rapture, and she gasps into the water. The crowds are small or they are large, but always Gertrude and I are there, calling to our sister, begging the men to drag her back to shore. All the while, I pray for her to slip from their grasp and to give herself to that sucking dark current.
But she is always returned to us. Her hair dries, her wounds heal. The crowds disperse and leave the three of us alone.
In a moment of calm, as Christina lies curled on the bed, eyes wide, I touch a tendril of hair at her temple, as soft as a baby’s, and she winces. I want to embrace her, crush my love into her, but I’m afraid there isn’t enough to do the trick.
“Why do you hurt yourself, Christina?” I ask. “Why does God need you to hurt so much?” I have other questions, too. How will we get through this? What if this never ends? What if God doesn’t let any of us die?
Later, they will say that my sister suffered for the souls in Purgatory. They will say she mortified her flesh and starved her body so that, one by one, the waiting souls might be released like bubbles into Heaven. But for now the alderman visits us, warns us to keep her in check.
“Of course,” Gertrude and I say, but after he leaves we look at each other, helpless.
How She Expounded with the Spirit of Prophecy
“I filed for divorce on the grounds of mental exhaustion.”
Father Luc is young, with full purple lips. We knew him as a boy, when he and the other small children followed Gertrude around, begging for stories, crying to her over their scratched knees. He was in love with her then, his little red face flushing still redder when she knelt to him. Now he’s stern when Gertrude and I appear at his door, brightening only when we mention demonic possession.
On the appointed day, Father Luc and the deacons and the aldermen arrive to bear Christina to the church. When they seize her, she whips her head around to us, eyes pleading, and it’s clear that she reads our betrayal in our faces.
“It’s for your own good!” I call to her, my voice shaking, as Gertrude and I trail after her. “I swear, Christina, they’ll cure you!” She screams in terror, kicks in their arms, retches.
In the sanctuary, Father Luc indicates the bench where we are to sit during the exorcism, but once he starts we can’t be still. Gertrude and I press against each other and the stone wall as if we might slip through it and away from what is taking place before us.
Father Luc begins his chants. Now Christina is nude before these men, every part of her thrumming with fury. The fine hairs on her body catch the candlelight, outlining her in gold. We watch in hope and horror as Father Luc starts flogging the Devil out of her.
Amid her ravings, Christina shrieks that the city of Jerusalem has been taken by the wicked Saracens. She says other things as well—that the Pope is a whoreson and Father Luc is a buggering goat and that I eat dung and suckle at Gertrude’s breast. But, later, Father Luc will remember only the Saracens.
Her eyes roll, her fists clench, her tongue flicks in and out like a flame. Little boys crack the church door to peer in, then slam it shut in terror.
And then, as the priest lifts his arm to bring down another lash, Christina meets my eye. Her face is as calm as a moon in a daytime sky. She holds my gaze, and for a moment all I can hear is the steady, tenacious ticking of her heart.
Weeks later, Father Luc visits our house, falls to his knees, thick lips trembling, and begs Christina’s forgiveness.
Reports have come from across the sea. On the day of Christina’s exorcism, the Saracens stormed the Holy Land.
How She Was Driven by the Spirit to Live by Begging
Events happen more quickly now. Word travels that God whispers into Christina’s ear. Priests and holy men arrive at our door, shoo Gertrude and me from the house, spend hours seeking her counsel.
Christina won’t eat the food we put out for her, won’t sleep in her bed. Instead, she begs along the road. Sometimes she will eat what people offer; more often she will refuse it, waving the bread in the air, pointing at her benefactor, shouting that it is rancid with his sin. “He gives me the bowels of toads!” she cries, thrusting the loaf back at him. “Lord, why does this man torture me with his poison?”
Corruption, infidelity, blasphemy. Ordinary people no longer come near us, because they fear what Christina knows and what she might accuse them of. They fear her terrible, lonely holiness.
The stories will claim that when Christina was starving, chained in a dungeon by Gertrude and me, denied food and water, sunlight and air, her virginal breasts began to flow with a liquid of clearest sweet oil, which nourished her wasted body and healed her festering wounds.
I can say only that our house is not equipped with a dungeon. We own no chains. And Christina’s breasts were never more than a child’s.
But, oh, the wonders Christina works.
Gertrude becomes pregnant. This is a secret between the two of us and Thomas. Christina, of course, can’t know. Thomas is sweetly, shyly thrilled, eager to marry her, and so we gather in the cold church. Gertrude wears a new linen veil, a gown of fine lilac wool. Thomas stands straight beside her, in scarlet hose and marigold tunic. I am there, and Christina, and Thomas’s enormous family: smiling aunts and grandparents and cousins. They are jolly people, prosperous, well liked in the district and beyond. They now approve of the match, because, with news of Christina’s holiness spreading, what was once a liability has become an honor.
Gertrude is vivid with joy, and I am, too, because after so long I am about to belong to a family again.
When the bride and groom kneel before Father Luc, Christina stands. We raise our heads from our prayers to see her point at Gertrude. “Slut,” she says in a clear voice. She turns to Thomas’s family, then to Father Luc in entreaty. “She and her bastard have no place in this holy house.”
Father Luc falters, wets his lips with nervousness, and looks around. Thomas takes Gertrude’s hand in both of his.
“Well, can any of you say who the father is?” Christina presses.
If in this moment Gertrude were to smile and shake her head, then turn back to Father Luc with an expectant expression, perhaps the ceremony might go forward, the marriage be sealed. After all, everyone in this place has heard this and worse from Christina.
But instead Gertrude pulls her hand from Thomas’s and pushes herself up. He reaches for Gertrude’s hem, then withdraws. His expression is pained and uncertain.
Defend yourself!, I want to call to my sister. Tears stream down her set face as if they had nothing to do with her.
Thomas looks out at the rustling, murmuring congregation, at his parents’ angry expressions, and at Christina, who stands with her hands folded serenely before her.
Now he rises as well, squares his shoulders. He meets Gertrude’s gaze as she watches him, waiting for his decision. His own eyes fill. “I’m sorry,” he says with a sob and leaves the church.
The rest of his family files out behind him, until only the priest and we three sisters are left. Gertrude is rigid in my arms, no longer crying. Christina stands alone before the altar, tall and unsmiling, triumphant. Even Father Luc turns away from her.
“Please, Gertrude,” I say, begging for something I can’t express. I press my lips against her hair.
Over the next weeks and months, Gertrude becomes lush and pink with the baby, and, despite her shame, despite her grief over the loss of Thomas, she has bursts of happiness that last longer and longer as her belly grows. “I’ve always wanted a baby,” she tells me when I come in sweaty from the pasture. She pauses over her kneading to press a floury palm against the child’s kicking foot. And, because Gertrude is happy, I am happy, too. What does it matter that we’ll raise this child alone? We’re already outcasts.
Then the strange thing happens. At first we don’t notice—how could we imagine it was possible? Christina begins to starve the baby out of our sister.
Though Christina refuses food even more strenuously than ever, she doesn’t weaken or sicken. Instead, it is Gertrude who wastes away, despite eating the bread and honey and soft sheep’s cheese I place before her. Now she resembles Christina, all clavicle and shoulders under her dress. Her head looks big, her blond hair sparse around her face, her eyes wide and dark. Her round belly is all that’s left of her.
And, as if to compensate for my sisters, I fatten until I am made up of circles: buttocks, thighs, massive barren abdomen. My skin strains to contain me.
“Please!” Gertrude begs Christina.
But Christina seems to have abandoned her shrieking mood. She blinks, unreadable.
Gertrude holds her belly in skeletal arms. She sinks to her knees before Christina, pulls at Christina’s limp hands. “Please let me keep it,” she begs. “Please, Christina. I know you can intercede with God. Please do this for me.”
Christina just gazes out over the top of Gertrude’s head.
Then one day, in the eighth month, the belly drops away, too.
“You’re welcome,” Christina tells Gertrude, but as she says it she looks at me and sighs deeply, happily, as if after a rich dinner.
“Isn’t this what you wanted, Mara?” Gertrude says bitterly. “A life without men or children? A life apart?”
How Greatly She Was Venerated
Christina is called away, first for weeks at a time, then months and years. Holy houses, noble estates: everywhere, great gates swing open to her.
She stays with hermits and holy women, basking in her celebrity, prophesying famine and slaughter. Always with a taste for catastrophe, my sister. She hears the confessions of counts and noblemen and bishops. Occasionally news of Christina trickles back to us: she waters with her tears the places where men are accustomed to sin; she goes to the gallows and suspends herself among thieves; she enters the graves of dead men and there makes lamentation for the sins of men. She moves around the country with astounding freedom, travelling far beyond the Meuse Valley. Then she disappears to the mountains, to live with the recluse Iutta.
With Christina gone, Gertrude and I are not enough to fill our home. That calm life I once imagined—the whir of the spinning wheel, new cloth blowing on the line, fat sheep dotting the field, our easy laughter—is impossible. We avoid each other’s eyes as we work; we speak only the barest, most essential words. Gertrude still mourns the baby, but silently, holding her grief away from me as if it were itself an infant and I a wolf.
“Hi, my name is Brad and I have a beard.”
My prayers won’t cohere; the words slip from my mind, and God, who once was everything, has vanished. With Christina gone, I see only my own ugliness, and my vision shrinks and aches until I can barely stand to open my eyes.
This can’t last, and it doesn’t. When Gertrude tells me she is leaving to marry, I nod and say, “Of course, I understand.” But I don’t wish her well, out loud or in my heart. I don’t wish her cheerful friends, a bustling hearth, a sweet-tempered housemaid. I don’t wish her babies. When the time comes for her to pack, I wrap myself in my shawl and head out to the pasture. “Someone has to watch the sheep,” I say. But, instead of watching the sheep, I stand on the hillside overlooking the house, imagining Gertrude folding her clothes into a box, choosing from among our mother’s things. She will leave the best things for me, and even this gesture will feel like reproach. A piece of lace, a dimpled copper pot.
Gertrude is to travel to Bruges in the company of the old man who will be her husband and his six grown sons. In a grand cathedral, she will say her vows before strangers. After their cart is loaded, I stand with her on the doorstep and offer her a stony kiss goodbye; although I know I will never see her again, I’m determined that she understand that in leaving she has betrayed me. The cart sets off, bearing my beloved sister away. I long to run after her, but I anchor myself against the doorjamb.
Her Wondrous Song
For nine years, Christina lives with the recluse Iutta, and, when she finally returns from her holy wilderness, the nuns of St. Catherine’s make ready to welcome her. When I hear the news, I imagine them lined up in the cloisters to greet her, and, though I think that by now I am beyond envy, still my stomach clenches.
Just once, when I am nearly sixty, I visit St. Catherine’s. It’s morning after a night of rain, the sky an even, bright gray, and puddles fill the yard. The place is much as I remember it—imposing and grand—but drabber, as if some gilt had been rubbed off.
“What’s through there?” I ask the pale young nun who leads me from the gatehouse, pointing at an archway. I remember the green, the sunlight beyond.
“There? That’s just the kitchen yard,” she says.
For a moment I allow myself to imagine that I am here to present myself to the abbess. I could, I realize. Our house, our flock: they’d make a small dowry, and now they’re mine to dispose of. I’m even still a virgin. But the prospect is laughable. I can no more deliver myself to the place where my sister is venerated than I can to an unfathomable God.
The nun leads me to a chill shaded room with bare floors and a few chairs. Outside, the sky must have cleared, because light leaks through the leaded windows, forming shapes on the flagstones.
“Will Christina see me?” A pulse under my right eye kicks. “My sister.”
Something like hostility flickers in the nun’s bland, lashless eyes, then is gone. She nods, retreats on silent feet. When she reaches the door, she turns back, and her expression twists. “The nasty lapdog.”
I jerk back, stung; I don’t know what I have done, what she can possibly mean, until I realize with a leap of gladness that she’s referring to Christina. Yes!, I want to call to her. I understand! “Sister,” I say. “Sister.” I rise to follow her, my heart knocking, but she has disappeared down the corridor.
A second, older nun leads Christina in by the wrist. My sister towers above the woman but is docile in her grip. She doesn’t seem to want to run, even when she sees me, and, though her habit is crooked and untidy, she appears calm. The nun delivers her to me, then drops her wrist.
“Christina,” I say. I bow and move to kiss her, because she’s a holy woman and because she is my sister.
Christina turns wildly to the nun. “Please don’t leave me with her!” She’s afraid of me, I realize with a pang. The old woman comes back, drops onto a chair, and watches us warily.
My sister is as thin as she ever was. A blue vein is visible on her forehead. She smiles at me—suddenly, mirthlessly—and the skin pleats around her wide mouth.
In a burst of motion, she flings off her wimple and veil, casts them away from her, and looks back at the attending nun in triumph. She regards me and pulls a gray strand of hair, sucks the end.
“We’re both gray now,” I say. Why am I here? I’d imagined a reunion, an understanding, a making of amends. I’d imagined a calm review of the wrongs we’d done each other. I’d imagined I might forgive her. But my sister is as alien to me as she ever was.
“Gertrude died,” I tell her. “I came to tell you that. She died a widow, alone. She never did have a child.”
Christina holds that dreadful wordless smile, but it wavers at the corners of her lips.
“Oh, Christina,” I say. “Why could we never know each other? Why has your life been so hard?”
My sister doesn’t answer me, and I have to break away from her gaze. The old nun has retrieved Christina’s veil from the floor and is smoothing it in her lap. I imagine that later, after I’ve gone, she will rearrange it on Christina’s head, and my sister will be still before her, as obedient as a child.
Only when I stand to leave does Christina reach out to touch me. She holds my hand in her large knob-knuckled one, draws me close gently. “When I pray,” she breathes into my ear, “I am ravished by the spirit. I whirl like a hoop.” She releases me, and then spins, habit flaring in the light at her feet, and dashes from the room.
Of the Second Death of Blessed Christina and of the Translation of Her Body
Two in the morning, June 24, 1224. The hour of Matins. Christina is on her knees in her quiet cell. Three miles away, I, too, am awake.
The year has the same shape it has always had, though each season comes sooner and passes more swiftly: breeding, birthing, shearing. Selling and butchering. I keep just a small flock these days, and I can manage it alone. Only now, during shearing, does the work overwhelm me, but I manage this, too, by rising early, working in the dewy dark by lamplight.
Even at rest, I can’t escape the aching labor. Behind my closed eyes, the blades swish through dense wool and the tufts fall away. My forearms throb, my hand remains curled from clenching the shears. Blisters sting in the curve of my thumb. My hair is thick with lanolin, my fingers waxy. All night I pluck endless burrs from the tangles as though I were plucking souls from Purgatory.
Agnus Dei. Christ is a sheep, gazing up at me with His hooded eyes and pale lashes, His long face and solemn little mouth.
I drag him close to my stool, pin him between my thighs. He bleats in protest, then bows his head and submits. Everything aches: back, arms, neck, heart. I am hunched now.
I turn him roughly and draw the curved blade close to his flesh, lifting a thick swath of yellow wool. Underneath, the coat is clean and white, and his skin ripples in the lamplight. He squeals when I nick him, bucks. But I yank him by the thick wool at his neck. The bright spot of red spreads like wine on linen.
I grip him tighter, dig my knees into his sides, and when he shifts again the flood of light moves through me. I have a vision of my own now: in her dark cell, Christina stands from her prayers and staggers to her bed, where she is, in the words of the chroniclers, held fast in the sickness of death: she lies stretched out after the manner of corpses, and passes to the immortal age of ages. In her expression, relief. One more cut, and I free the matted wool from the sheep’s back. Quiet whorls of joy spin in my heart.
I am the oldest sister of three, the last alive. Occasionally I still catch myself in prayer, worrying those same rhythms, summoning God with those old empty words.
Holy Christina, patron saint of lunacy and bad behavior, of revulsion and nausea and flight, of women’s disorders and accusation. Patron saint of perchers in treetops. Of the burned and the drowned and the despised. Of public torment and wailing and queerness and stench. Patron saint of dogs’ fangs and scorn, of false death. Christina Mirabilis, the Impossible, the Alone and Apart. Christina the Astonishing, my sister, I entreat you. ♦