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Volha and the Hermitess of the Desert

· Saint Mary of Egypt, the Saint of the Month, as told by Dario Fertilio ·

"Saint Mary of Egypt was born in the fifth century," recounted the old woman to the child, "and was soon drawn to the great city of Alexandria. For seventeen years, she lived as a public prostitute. Not for hunger, but for insatiable lust, she is said to have never refused a man." The elderly woman's caregiver from Belarus, Volha, was suddenly annoyed and was tempted to interrupt her. She did not want her to put these sorts of ideas in the head of her daughter Natalya, who was listening with rapt attention. She was only eight years old and would have plenty of time to learn the meaning of the word "prostitute."

She opened her mouth to intervene, but did not do it. She felt a bit of remorse and supposed that deep down the woman to whom she was listening was not much different from her Natalya. She was even more simple than the child and had a soft spot for stories. But Volha found this latest story truly irritating and could not really understand why.

“One day," continued the old woman with Natalya curled up at her feet, "Mary of Egypt saw a crowd moving toward the great port of Alexandria. They were setting sail for Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Impulsively she tried to follow them and spoke with the sailors. The trip was expensive; she could not afford it. But she struck a deal with the crew and agreed to pay with her body. She boarded the ship. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, she immediately went to the Basilica of the Resurrection with the other pilgrims, but a mysterious force held her back. The others entered without problems, but her, no. She tried for days, always with the same result. It was not enough for Jesus that she kiss a relic. He wanted to meet her, speak with her, to her soul. It hit her hard. 'Who am I? Why do I live?' she began to ask herself, and she wept. Her tears ran down her face, then her hair, without ceasing, and finally they freed her. She saw the heavens full of colors and she was a child once again, in her village, walking barefoot in the sand, throwing stones in the well. Through her tears she smiled. She set off for the basilica and now nothing held her back. She drew near to the Holy Cross and venerated it. Upon exiting, she heard an interior voice saying 'Mary, cross the Jordan, and you will find peace.'"

In that moment, the caretaker entered the room where the lady was reading and turned on the television. But it was no use. The elderly woman continued. (Volha had listened to her for months, day and night; it was no surprise that she had become irritated.) “She left the church and with alms from a faithful Christian, she bought three loaves of bread. She asked for directions to the Jordan and she washed herself in its waters; then, she entered into the great abyss of silence. How did she live? What did she do? We do not know. She lived for forty-seven years in the desert, living off of the three loaves she had brought with her. She never went in search of a man, even if sometimes she was strongly tempted. But she found peace and, with time, everything seemed to vanish. She was in peace with herself and with God."

Sighing, Volha went into the bedroom and began tidying up. She removed bread and cookie crumbs from the covers, leftovers from dinner. She listened and, no longer hearing the voice in the living room, she returned and now found the lady dozing on the couch. Natalya was in front of the television, enjoying cartoons. Volha carefully took the book from the woman’s hand. On the worn cover, she read The Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine. She went to the bedroom to put it on the shelf.

Volha looked over the quiet courtyard and mourned her grand days as an escort. They were golden years of gifts and travels across Europe. She was very beautiful then, or so many had assured her. Then, as when the evening comes, her splendor quickly faded. She clung to her child Natalya, and it was she who kept her from drowning in despair.

But she could not sleep anymore. She usually fell asleep around five in the morning and only for a short time. A perfect condition for a full-time caretaker, she had smiled bitterly to herself, when she had had to adapt to that work to survive. She began to clean the bathroom. From the living room only the slight snore of the elderly woman and the voices of the television could be heard. Suddenly, she seemed to remember - like a blurred photograph from a childhood album - a Belarusian calendar that marked the feast of the saint. It was Mary of Egypt, even for the Orthodox. Volha was not religious and she had never gone to church, because, of course, she had always had something else to worry about, and yet she could have sworn that the feast was celebrated April 1st. And strangely, with that certainty, a smile crept onto her lips.

She felt an urge to pick up the book again. Cautiously, not knowing why, she returned to the bedroom and walked over to the shelf. She found the page that the elderly woman had read to Natalya. "In peace with herself and with God. One day a monk, Zosima, went to the desert. He saw a very thin, old woman covered with long gray hair, naked and roasted by the sun. He was frightened. Mary called him by name and asked him for his cloak to cover her nakedness. She explained that the sun had worn out her clothes decades before. The two confessed to one another. The silence around them was immense. Before he left, Mary pleaded with Zosima to bring communion to her in a year. But when he returned, he found only her body. He wanted to bury her, but he was old and too weak. It was a lion that dug the grave with its claws."

Volha smiled at the incongruous end, but then felt every trace of condescension disappear from her lips. She noticed that instead she was trembling slightly. That night, she slept as she had not in years and had a strange dream. She was home again, a young girl, barefoot among the rocks. But the great Belarusian plain seemed in every way a Palestinian desert.

Italian journalist and writer of Dalmatian origin, Dario Fertilio (1949) works as a culture editor for the “Corriere della Sera.” With the Russian writer Vladimir Bukovskij, he founded the Comitati per le Libertà and was the creator of the Memento Gulag initiative, which promotes the celebration of an annual memorial day on November 7th for victims of terrorism. Among his publications are La morte rossa. Storie di italiani vittime del comunismo (2004), La via del Che (2007), Musica per lupi (2010), L’ultima notte dei fratelli Cervi (2012). He has also written for usabout Saint Agnes (January 2014).

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