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Saint Pelagia

Alice Major
From:   Some Bones and a Story. Wolsak & Wynn, 2001


"Pelagia the Penitent," a notoriously licentious dancing girl, was converted after hearing a sermon by Bishop Nonnus of Edessa. Scholars have suggested her legend is a Christianizing of Aphrodite or Venus.

She lived in Antioch — city of the crossroads,
city of olives and the flat scent of dung
two days' journey from the sea. They told stories
of her dancing, of how her limbs made love
to empty air until men could imagine
the roundness of arms, the sympathy of skin,
until they could taste the ocean salt beneath
her tongue. Pelagia, Aphrodite's daughter,
named for the sea. Although the bishops
called her other names.

The people called her 'Margarito'
for the fineness of her pearls, round and pale
as Aphrodite's ankle, pierced and strung with thread.
In the speech of the market place,
such perforated pearls are called a different name
than unpierced, virgin stones.

In the church, the bishop told his stories
how the twelve gates of the holy city
were all pearls and how the saints went in and out,
corporeal bodies turned as light as air.
He turned his words towards Pelagia,
penetrated her with rapture words, breath,
aspiration.

She embraced his tales — incorporated
their parchment pledges with the wafer
that sucked moisture from her tongue. She turned
inland, renounced her liquid element.
The stories say she clothed herself as a man,
lived solitary on the mount of olives, died
a long way from the sea.

She left the church her wealth, her perforated
pearls. Perhaps the bishop set them in a sacramental cup
made to hold that salt liquid, blood,
the taste of word made flesh.



Alice Major's works copyright © to the author.


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