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The young woman and the Stranger

· The saint of the month told by Dario Fertilio ·

As soon as it was dark, young Agnes rose from her bed and sat down at the table, disturbed in front of the switched on screen, waiting for the Stranger to appear on it. Indeed, there he was. His red bull icon stood out in the azure rectangle: he had attracted her with it from the outset. “So you’re there”, he addressed her directly, as if he had guessed her presence. The flashing message stirred a shiver of pleasure in the girl. In fact she found herself on the eve of the congress planned several times with the Stranger; she had been cherishing it for some time as the beginning of a happy destiny.

Gold glass set into the plaster of a wall portraying St Agnes praying (Rome, Catacombs of Pamphylus, fourth century)

And yet something, a fear of the semblance of a candid index finger pointed against her breast, for an instant halted her hands on the point of pressing the keys; but the Stranger’s warning had arrived unexpectedly: tomorrow evening!”.

In contemplating him she was filled with joy since her previous fears had melted away. “Where?”. “Monte Sacro, Casale Giuliani 66, third floor, remember to ring from below”. “How do I get there?”. The girl wanted to know. “Take a taxi, give the driver the address and then ring. I will pay the whole fare”, the one who was speaking from behind the image of a bull reassured her. “At what time?”, Agnes inquired. “I shall be there at half-past six. Don’t be too late”.

However, just as she was giving him her definitive “yes”, that invisible finger returned to fix itself in her heart. She waited one, two and then three minutes, breathing heavily, unable to overcome the trembling that had suddenly taken hold of her. And, in the manner of the little girl she had been before her encounter with the Stranger, in the end she wrote: “Not tomorrow, I have to study”.

The “what?” she had in response was a slap in the face, It seemed to her as if the icon of the bull, enlarged, had become blood red. “Don’t start playing at being St Agnes now” the Stranger rapidly ordered her.

Then for the first time she was struck by the fact that she did not know his real name. And a curious mood took hold of her, she wanted at least to know who the St Agnes was who might resemble her. She reduced the image of the bull to the lowest frame on the screen and searched quickly among the thousands of contacts swarming in cyberspace. An icon appeared preceded by the words: “The miracle of St Agnes”. Here she read: “When she was in her thirteenth year she lost death and found life, which delighted her Maker”…. While Agnes was coming home from school, the son of the prefect of the city of Rome fell in love with her”.

Pointlessly – she continued wondering at the correspondence of the name and age with her own – the prefect’s son had lavished upon her ever more precious gifts of every kind to induce her to agree to marry him; she had always and endlessly answered him that she loved and was loved by someone else, meaning the Lord, her betrothed on this earth, but without mentioning his name. However the prefect’s son, hurt and furious at her rejection of him, went to his father who had a search made to discover “who the betrothed was whom Agnes loved so much, and one of the prefect’s parasites said that Agnes had been Christian since her childhood and was so skilled in the magic arts that she said Christ was her bridegroom”.

Therefore, Agnes read further, she was summoned to the court by the prefect and he made her promises, then terrible threats, in order to detach her from her faith: and yet she “laughed at it all”.… until the point when he warned her: “choose the one of the two parties that you desire: either make a sacrifice with the Vestal Virgins, or you will truly go with those who deserve it to the public square”. And so it was that since the virgin did not give in, declaring that “divinity does not consist in stones but in heaven”, “she was taken to the public square and stripped naked, but her hair suddenly grew and in such abundance that it seemed to ripple over her to the ground, and her hair covered her more effectively than any form of apparel”. (Here Agnes could not refrain from touching her own hair that was bound in Afro braids) and she learned later that the cell of the blessed shone throughout with a light “made and arranged by the hands of angels”, so brilliant that it terrified those who hankered after her body; but not the prefect’s son who recklessly approached intending to snatch her away. However he suddenly “fell to the ground, his hands covering his face, and so he died”. As the news spread, Agnes read on, the prefect was seized by a doubt that was despair, and ordered her – or rather implored her – to bring his son back to life since she showed that it was not magic arts she possessed but a sure and true faith. Then at her prayers the prefect’s son was restored to life and went away praising God who works miracles. Nevertheless the vicar of that prefect, called in his turn by the crowd, wished to accept the invocations and ordered that the witch, as he resolved to call her, be burnt. “And the flames then divided into two parts, on one side and on the other, and blessed Agnes stood in the middle and felt no burning or the heat of the flames, nor did the fire do her any harm. The vicar, therefore, seeing that “the people neither stopped nor restrained themselves, commanded that blessed Agnes be knifed in the throat. Her blood instantly spurted like vermillion roses”.

“This is how”, the story ends, “Christ consecrated his Agnes, virgin and martyr, as his bride”. At this point, feeling she had changed, Agnes was possessed of a doubt: that the white finger which had previously been pointed at her might turn out precisely to be that of the saint. At the mere thought her eyes brimmed with tears. She then decided to go back to the first site, and opened the azure rectangle from which the bull had spoken to her.

But the Stranger was no longer there.

An Italian journalist and writer of Dalmatian origin, Dario Fertilio (1949) works in the cultural section of Corriere della Sera. Together with the Russian writer, Vladimir Bukovskij, he founded the Committees for Freedom and it was he who conceived of the Memento Gulag initiative, that is, the celebration every 7 November of the Day in Memory of the Victims of Communism. His publications include: Teste a pera e teste a mela (2001), 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).

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