My grave is in the Via Sacra by the entrance to an underground car park, but my bones have been dragged across the eternal city by stray dogs and my skull is in the costume trunk of an amateur dramatics company. I never had a headstone but the council recently installed an illuminated traffic bollard on the spot where I was chucked into a shallow ditch. Per aspera ad astra, and indeed, I am on my way to the stars on an endless, troubled, winding road. But I am thinner than stardust as I walk the streets of Rome without touching the ground. I pace the fast lanes where no one wants to remember my name. Only the cats shriek as I pass, or they meander around my legs as if they can still smell the afterbirth on me.
Now many women dress like men and some women dress like men to be better women. I come from an era when some men dressed as women to be better women and some men dressed as women to be the pinnacle of mankind. I, however, was a woman who pretended to be a man who dressed like a women and became the most holy of men only to end up the lowest of creatures – shamed out of existence. Nil desperandum – one thing at the time:
My father was a farmer in the Britain until he was driven from his home by a band of bearded yahoos from the North. He fled across the great channel beyond the white cliffs, and met and married a Goth, my mother. She fell pregnant every year and even though many of her babies weren’t strong enough to see one full cycle of the seasons, when I was about nine there were so many of us, we simply no longer fit under the thatched roof and the porridge was so watered down it wouldn’t even do as wood glue. Heavy hearted, my father cut my long golden hair so that I looked like my brothers and sent me to the nearby monastery in Mainz to make a living as a kitchen porter.
The stout cook was kind to me and let me sleep by the stove. He soon noticed that not only did I have quick hands but I also possessed a quick mind. After my first Lent there he put me in charge of the vegetable patch and eventually I was promoted to the task of rounding up and butchering rabbits and pigs for special feasts. Lothair was already over forty but still had quite a bit of smack-slap left in him. However, just before the feast day of our patron, Saint Boniface, he was taken ill with a bout of fever and oozing boils. I had to manage the seven-course meal on my own with only a freshly converted novice from the Baltic Coast to help me. Lothair miraculously recovered after he had received the last rites and was so impressed with my performance that his eyes filled with tears. He patted me on the back with his plate-size hand and murmured ‘That’s my boy.’ By then I was so used to my disguise I didn’t even flinch. Yet beneath my coarse tunic, mayhem was breaking loose in those places we do not name or touch.
Lothair always had nothing but praise for me, but when I saved the barn from burning down I became a heroic figure throughout the monastery and was asked to report to the august abbot himself. When I entered his chamber the abbot was being dressed for a function in honour of the King of the Franks, who was staying in the monastery until after the feast day of Saint Barbara. I marvelled at the abbot’s flowing robe of bleached wool embroidered with gold thread and encrusted with the most striking jewels I had ever seen. I watched as he put on crimson gloves and pushed his feet into turquoise slippers. Credete posteri.
‘What is your name, my child’ the abbot asked as he tugged on his cape.
‘John Anglicus, Father.’
‘Pardon?’ The abbot was obviously hard of hearing.
‘My name is John Anglicus,’ I repeated.
‘Very well, John Anglicus, you shall enter the library as an assistant scribe and we shall see that you learn the art of letters. Some Latin and Greek will do you no harm.’
I stood as still as the spindly bay tree in the vegetable garden.
‘You may go now boy,’ said the abbot while carefully scrutinising his appearance in a silver mirror.
I was coached to read and write by a young monk a few years my senior. His name was Furmentius and he had a very fine face, kind eyes and a pleasing physique. Mens sana in corpore sano you may say. We spent many hours together in the library, which looked out onto the grave yard, going over and over grammatical moods and fooling around with cryptic word puzzles until one of us, usually me, felt woozy and cross-eyed.
Just after Christmas, when most of the other monks were ill with indigestion, Furmentius and I were alone in the dim library among the smells of sepia, vellum and parchment. Without a word he placed a heavy volume on the desk before us. It was a book of hours he had copied when he was still a novice and new to the art of scripture. The book was exquisitely bound and illustrated, but on closer inspection I noticed that the margins depicted men and beasts in intriguing positions. Furmentius obviously knew how to touch those parts we are not supposed to name and was only too pleased to show me how to imitate his illustrations. As he was when he taught me my letters, he was a patient mentor. Naturally, he was surprised at first to find out that I was a girl but he didn’t seem to mind and if he did, he didn’t say anything. He simply smiled and said ‘Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur’: ‘Even a god finds it hard to love and be wise at the same time.’
I think often about those long winter nights in Mainz, especially when I see young couples tucked away in doorways. They seem as helpless in the face of their passion as we were. Some things never change.
But it was not just a fling and eventually even the senile abbot became aware of our romance. We decided to leave, and through begging and persuasion we hitched a lift down the Rhine and then the Danube towards Byzantium: the safest route to the sunlit Holy Land. After many months of travel by barge and by donkey we arrived in Athens where we signed up with the Daphni Monastery at the foot of the Acropolis. Nikos, the abbot, was a true adventurer with a strong breeze of fresh ideas blowing through his mind and a heart as stormy as the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed up late with him drinking Muscat and talking in religious riddles: Nikos claimed to have seen Christ’s tomb in India while I told him that Our Saviour had been to Albion as a teenager. Afterwards we both insisted we had been talking nonsense. In vino veritas, but only if you can remember the facts properly.
The titles in Nikos’ library were most enlightening. He had everything one could possibly wish to read spread along the massive wooden shelves. Volumes from Aristotle to Zeno via Plato and Pythagoras were lying about like lazy cats, waiting for attention. It was an irresistible feast of knowledge with some Gospels by Matthew, Thomas and Phillip thrown in. While I stayed indoors teaching myself Hebrew and reading my way through divine scripture, Furmentius was out converting the young Apollos of the neighbourhood. He claimed that Islamic heretics were gaining momentum and we should prevent them from imposing their ill taste on the ancient world. But of course that was just an excuse.
We stayed in the monastery long enough for the sun to soothe our aches and pains and for me to copy many of the books. I began to exchange letters with bishops across Europe in which we discussed my research, and soon I was invited to join a conference at the Vatican regarding ‘Gnostic Issues’. I was already twenty-five and still no one wondered why I didn’t have a beard or a baritone voice.
The few possessions I owned fitted into the knapsack I had made from the leather of a lamb I slaughtered in the year I met Furmentius. I had looked the animal into its glistening eye before setting the knife to its pulsating neck and wondered at how much it struggled, how it sank to its knees like we do in prayer. Si post fata venit Gloria no propero: If glory comes after death, I am not in a hurry.
On Saint John’s Day Anno Domini DCCCLIII, our boat dropped anchor at the Lido del Faro. The sun stood at its peak and nothing compared to the freedom I felt when I set foot on that land. A Franciscan monk escorted me to the Vatican and, despite the suffocating heat, his despairing face, almost hidden by his roughly woven habit, gave me goose-bumps.
Over the following days and weeks I was introduced to scholars, exorcists, cantors, deacons, presbyters, and bishops. I became acquainted with every Tom, Dick and Harry of the Roman nobility and even met an Anglo-Saxon slave who mopped the marble floors in the Pantheon. My northern accent amused Roman ears and they looked as if they were pricked by needles whenever I spoke. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, I gained some celebrity status; my years on the dusty roads made me ‘a man of the world’ and I was respected for knowing my Bible (the bits still in it and those which had been buried in the sand). I was ordained Bishop and then Cardinal, as if the church officials were throwing apple cores from the tree of knowledge at me. But instead of having time to study scripture, I found myself falling asleep in one ceremony or another, bloated and hung over. Not even the high-pitched voices of the choir boys could prevent me nodding off.
Some time after my ordination, Pope Leo IV choked to death on a trout bone. The Fisherman’s Ring was taken from his finger and the election of his successor began. All of us Cardinals entered the papal conclave in our fancy dress and began a debate that went on for weeks. Each cardinal wanted to get a foot in heaven’s door and a crowbar into the Vatican’s treasure trunk, but I kept out of it, anxious by now to get back to my library. However, after twenty-eight days of bickering, unholy remarks and implied death threats the College of Cardinals came to a decision: I had the best CV to match the job-spec, was immune to corruption and had no conflicting interests. The only flaw in the deal was my gender and that was something only Furmentius knew. White smoke drifted skywards from Saint Peter’s Square and the dean proclaimed: ‘Havemus Papam!’ Oh, what a fool I looked in those new clothes.
I had never been so lonely in my life; I had only accepted the Fisherman’s Ring to prevent a global disaster. My first muto proprio was to elect Furmentius as my Cardinal Chamberlain; he was the only person I could trust with the task and he could keep a secret. However, it was bizarre to see him kneel before me and it was only then that I fully realised that I had become the Church Father.
Furmentius and I were an excellent team. Together we had all the practical talents, necessary intellect and rhetorical finesse to soothe the church’s turmoil. We made new allies among the city-states and eased pagan tribes into the Christian flock.
After the official commitments of the afternoon, we would work till long after vespers in my private apartment with the velvet curtains drawn and a proper wood fire to keep us warm. It was Furmentius who helped me take off my heavy tiara at the end of each day and sometimes he didn’t stop at that. After a few of such nostalgic interludes I started feeling nauseous for no apparent reason and began to put on weight. When my situation could no longer be concealed, or at least not from Furmentius, he expressed a serene reassurance: ‘Is this not the religion that worships life?’
‘Yeah, the life of a crucified Christ.’
‘No one will say anything’ he shook his head and stared at the black and white checked floor as if there was an answer to be found there. ‘Besides,’ he insisted, ‘they need you around here.’
‘But what is to become of the little one? This is no place to grow up.’
‘We will find a nanny outside these walls. You will see – all will be well.’
His last sentence echoed among the high columns for a moment but he was lying, it was like a stone in his voice. The Pope may be infallible but I didn’t think this characteristic extended to my condition.
As the weeks went on I grew bigger and bigger, but Furmentius was right, the cardinals kept stum even though my belly could hardly be ignored. After the end of the carnival masquerade I was almost as copious as old Lothair.
Somehow we made it through Holy Week and on Easter Sunday morning we were preparing for the long procession through the streets of Rome followed by the Urbi et Orbi blessings. I was taking deep breaths as each hour the baby kicked with greater attitude and I was convinced I was about to give birth. I thought of how my mother would go through this agony like clockwork; giving birth was not much different to her from harvesting pumpkins. My father, however, was in such a state after each delivery that he would drink herbal tea for days. When Furmentius dressed me that morning, I noticed streaks of white pushing through his padouk brown hair. It was an omen, but of what? The crowds were already inside the Vatican holding olive branches, singing hymns, cheering and waving their arms. I turned away from the window and walked down to the entrance hall where the cardinals were waiting. I took my seat on the sedia gestatoria and twelve footmen lifted the sedan chair into the air. The cheers were deafening and pierced me to the core as I was carried in procession like a doll. Fabas indulcet fames, I thought – hunger sweetens the beans.
By the time we reached the Colosseum I felt as if some lioness were clawing at my neck. It was then that my waters broke. I called out to the footmen to stop and they put the chair down in the Via Sacra, a dead-end street, a true cul-de-sac. Furmentius rushed towards me and helped me out of the ceremonial robes so I could breathe more easily. He held my hand as I pushed with all my might. With unparalleled clarity I could see the horror and confusion on the footmen’s faces. But when the masses realised what was going on, when they saw what was about to slip out between my thighs, the air turned toxic. Someone shouted that I was ‘The Whore of Babylon’ and ‘The Devil’s Concubine’ and soon everyone joined the chorus. A bloke in a blacksmith’s apron broke away from the crowd that lined the street and approached me with his olive branches in his hand. He stood before me and started whipping me with the green twigs as if I was an obstinate animal. Thugs came out of nowhere, got Furmentius into an arm-lock and dragged him away. Then, a toothless crone with a wart on her chin appeared. She pulled a kitchen knife out of her sleeve and with a steady hand she cut into me and yanked on the little creature until it slithered out of my womb. She held the baby skyward so the mob could take a better look. ‘It’s the Antichrist’ she shouted and the crowd became ecstatic.
The little bundle started crying and my heart thumped in recognition. Time stood still. Then I saw the old hag take the knife to the baby’s throat and slowly, very slowly cut it open.
In that moment I was all things at once: I understood how death takes us into its arms for a dance long before we die. I could see how we are made to stumble if ever we dare to venture too far. I could see how one day in the near future the hag herself was going to end up on a witch’s pyre and how the apple was created to be eaten and the wheel of fortune was made to turn. Rota fortunae – tu volubilis, I could see it all. Then the mob moved in, hurling stones until my heart stopped mocking me.
This all happened just a few metres from where they have now opened a new burger bar. And although the Via Sacra is still called ‘holy’ the locals call it the shunned street. When the pope passes through here he makes sure to look the other way. My name is erased from the records of the Annuario Pontificio and Furmentius, who was left for dead and managed to flee to Athens, never mentioned my name again.
I hope my poor baby has gone to limbo, but who knows, now that limbo has been abolished? Wherever my child is, I know it is waiting to spit into my face, even though my biggest sin was to have no dress sense. For the rest I was only human. And now I walk the streets of Rome without touching the ground.