Content warning: violence/violent imagery, abuse, death or dying
The Saints say only the wicked go looking for trouble—but Saints would say that, wouldn’t they? Looking at it, Abigail realises what they say doesn’t matter because now she can see it, all of it, all of everything.
The world is an unbroken horizon. It rises up to greet her, an endless plain of wild grasses, flowers, and petulant brambles, all twisted together like a commune. Together they rustle with the wind, their soft bodies speaking to Abigail, whispering: Who are you? Above, there are giant white birds who squall out threats. Angry feathered gods. She shields her eyes from the glare of the sun and scowls at them in return. They can’t hurt her. Nothing can, not when she’s come so far.
At her back, there is the forest. Its thick arrangement of trees is bleak and shadowy, the kind of place good apostles are told to stay away from. The Saints call it Judas Forest. Wander too far in and you’ll end up like the sinner himself, strung up by the neck, dangling from the boughs. There is some truth in this; Abigail has seen it. She had walked a mile through the forbidden and found noose after noose hanging limp against the bodies of trees. Hangman vacancies just waiting for the damned, tempting them to slip death on for a try.
With thieving hands, Abigail steals a bunch of purple lavender, the same kind the Sisters grow in sweet little boxes outside their windows. They like to dry it out and stuff it in drawers with their robes. A stale floral scent clings to them like dissolution.
Abigail has no intention of using it so practically. She will keep it in her pocket and let it rot. Its decay will be a reminder that she has gone to the edge of the world—soon she will come back.
Most of them had never seen a naked man before. Julianne thought it would make her blush but she feels perfectly calm watching this person come undone. The clothes fall to the ground and it feels right, the body exposed—God’s magic.
They reach out to him. He lets them. “Go ahead,” he speaks softly and lays himself bare to their wolfish hands. She touches the scar on his knee, the broken toenail. A pubic hair falls into her palm and becomes a souvenir. The man catches her eye and asks: “Will you come?”
Curled inside of itself, the hair seems afraid of her. “Yes.”
Some of the women see what she has and reach for it. When she tries to shield her treasure, she hears the man’s cool water voice. “God’s bounty belongs to us all.”
Her hand opens.
Love is a strange thing. Because their education system is so focused on what is righteous, what is wrong, and the ending of the world, Abigail has devised her own school of thought. Often she turns to love, how insidiously it demands to be felt. Like a weed, when love takes root, it is nearly impossible to root out. There it lingers in the breast, through the seasons, wrapped tightly around her heart. It can lay dormant for years, then surprise her by erupting into a painful bloom. She wakes up and swears she can feel her mother’s body at her back, shielding her from the world.
Abigail has tried to kill love a number of times. She has grown twisted and feral through the effort. She stalks through the compound and people whisper bad things loud enough for her to hear. They say she is a demon, a counterbalance to her mother’s good light. Correctly, they identify her as the one who carved curses into the chapel pews, the hands which pushed the Lord’s statue down into the mud. They say she is the reason the flowers wilt so quickly and blame her for stomach bugs that run wild during the winter. Abigail believes this too. She has spent so many nights balled up with anger that it seems only right it manifested into blight. All that energy must go somewhere, like lightning releasing into the bones of the Earth.
“You’re still here.”
Her mother’s eyes have grown pale, yet they shimmer with tears. Abigail wipes them away with her sleeve. She does this softly and despises herself for it. As a countermeasure, when she is done, she bends down and spits into the cup the Sisters have left for her mother. Like everything else in the room, the cup is made of gold. Soon they will add it to the pile which entombs this maternal figure. A thousand glitter items, one on top of the other, all built around Abigail’s mother to make a living/dying statue.
“I’m leaving,” Abigail tells her. She holds the lavender in her pocket as she makes this announcement. “You can’t keep me here.”
“I can’t do anything,” her mother points out, and it is true. Her arms have been crushed by the weight of devotion. Only her face remains free. Abigail once removed a heavy gold brick and found the bright surface besmirched with blood. She would have removed more, broken down the whole mountain if her mother hadn’t been crying so much.
“Don’t, don’t, don’t, put it back. Let me be saved.”
Now Abigail comes only to glare and spit insults at the dying woman. When her anger runs dry, she stops, rubs beeswax on her mother’s dried lips, lifts the cup, and makes her take a sip, then another. She will stand there for hours until there is nothing left.
“I’ve always known you were good,” her mother says. “My good girl. My angel.”
Death must be close because her mother no longer sounds like iconography; humanity has returned to her throat. The others still call her Saint Julianne. They visit in groups of three and squeeze in close so they can kneel on the creaking floorboards in prayer. A draught makes the flames of the candles dance and her mother’s weeping face shimmer. They each bring an offering. They drape more necklaces around her neck, hundreds and hundreds of chains, supported not by her mother’s breaking spine, but by gold chests stacked up against her breast, the gold gauntlets wrapped around her arms, the sparkling cross which rests at her back. Rings are thrown about the ground like sand grains because her fingers are no more.
They only stay for a moment and can only stand to bear witness to the Saint’s glory, her demise, for minutes at a time. If they stayed longer, they would see the rats which run in and out of their offerings, laying their filth across those scattered jewels. Her mother’s immobile corpse is too tempting a dish, and it is up to Abigail to grab them by the tail, slap their weak skulls against the walls.
Her mother watches and says nothing. She is accustomed to the brutality of her child.
When the Lord comes, they try to make her leave. Abigail uses a knife to swipe away their hands. She curls up in the corner and growls. If they call her a beast, then so be it. She will not leave her alone with him. Abigail has always seen him for what he is: a misery maker, a deceiver—bait resting on a sharp angry hook.
“With Lillian’s demon hoards at our gates, another must offer up the body in payment of our sins. We pay bounty to that body, we honour that flesh. Saint Julianne, your goodness brings each of us to our knees.”
During these visits, he looks magnanimous, dressed in white robes, the sleeves falling to the ground like angel wings. It is easy to be godly for a moment, but the act cannot hold; that’s why he locks himself away in the chapel. His rooms are twice the size of the apostles’ own quarters, which they are made to share. Sometimes he takes a few of them in and they live like a family for a month or two. Then, when their bellies swell, when he feels his own humanity threatening to break loose, he sends them back to the flock. Abigail has never been chosen (he isn’t so stupid) but she has watched him as a cat watches a hawk. She has picked locks, slipped in through open windows, and violated his domain. Stuck her fingers in his food and licked them clean, wiped her filthy hands on his white fabrics, stolen pens and paper from his desk, books from his shelves. Abigail is the worst-behaved apostle and, because of it, the most educated. When the other girls circle her and pinch her exposed skin, she hisses these stolen words at them:
“Internet! Commerce! Subjugation!”
The Lord knows all this but still, there she is. People say it’s because her mother is one of the original Saints—a first believer. Others say that he’s already tried to send her back to God, but every time she survives. Poison. Abandonment. Some even believe he’s strung her up and that she was able to swing there all night, a grin on her face. She wishes he was so audacious. In her dreams, he comes at her with a knife and she finally has an excuse to sully his perfect white lies. Every time, she wakes up with clean hands and feels disappointed.
“He says they’ll start the ceremony tomorrow.” Her mother’s voice is so small now, buried under the weight. “Will you be there?”
“I won’t watch you die.” Abigail plans to leave in the night, once and for all. She has left a bag buried by the nearest oak; inside there is jam pilfered from his larder and a fish knife. Something sharp and light, long enough to reach the heart.
“Don’t call it that,” her mother begs. “Death is such an ugly word. I am going to be saved. I will save everyone, including you.”
Abigail feels herself tearing up listening to the stupid believer. Come with me, she wants to say, we can save each other out there. But it’s too late for all that. Her mother’s feet have turned to dust. Tomorrow, when the gold is removed, they will carry her broken body to the pyre and sing songs about the brave Saint Julianne—a martyr for their sins. No one will miss her as a mother, as a person; only Abigail.
She kisses her mother’s cheek, then bites the flesh.
“Vicious thing,” her mother laughs. “Always so sharp.”
The babysitter can’t believe the tip Julianne gives her.
“No, no, this is too much. Are you crazy?”
Julianne pushes the money back towards her. “Take it, I won’t need it.”
The girl is confused but then she notes the suitcases by the door. “Oh right, your big trip. I guess you got a good exchange rate, huh?”
“Something like that.”
Her daughter is asleep on the bed they share. The butterscotch skin flush with sleep, blossoms of rose under her closed eyes. Julianne curls herself around the body. Imagines being able to reabsorb this body into her own, bringing back inside the delicate luminescence of the newly hatched. All Julianne wants is to protect this child.
Inside the bedside table, there is a gun, bought online for a silly amount of money. There is also a cricket bat resting next to the entrance. When people knock at the door, she tells them to leave their business right there in the hall. The world is cruel and she won’t be tricked twice. Her social worker tells her it is safe, that he is behind bars, miles and miles away, yet she can still feel him. The ancient break in her ribs refuses to mend and aches with any deep intake of breath. Every day Julianne sucks in the air, feels that dull pain, and takes it as a reminder: We are not safe yet. She dreams of him appearing outside their flat with fists like stone, banging on the door until it crumbles. The sounds have haunted her dreams so much that, in the half-sleep of the moment, she doesn’t believe the sound is real.
“Mum, the door.”
“Mummy the door is yelling.”
“Right, stay here. Don’t move, understand?”
The man made of water and flesh is there smiling as if this is the most expected thing in the world. She forgets there is a bat in her left hand. “How did you find me?”
The clothes have reappeared on his body but the serenity of his face is the same as it was on the altar. “I have my ways.”
He lets himself into her home, notes the suitcases, nods. “Yes, I knew I was right about you.” Her daughter is watching him from the bedroom. Shrewd animal eyes in the dark, wary and distrustful.
“The prodigal offspring.” He offers out a gift. She thinks it is a sweet, something for the child to crack her teeth on, but no, it is a plum. A small fistful of fruit, the colour of a fresh bruise and the skin impossibly shiny. Her daughter only retreats further into the dark.
“No!” The little girl declares before the door slams shut.
Julianne starts an apology but the holy man waves her concern away. “No, it’s good to avoid temptation. Most children can’t.”
These words make her heart expand. He sees that she has created something special, a thing too pure for this world. In her bones, it is confirmed that this man understands her and wants to help.
She plies him with tea, a plate full of biscuits, and some crisps. This is all she has in the house. He takes one bite and then another. Everything he does seems to have gravity, each movement seemingly preordained by a higher power. It seems wrong for her to speak first, so she watches in silence. The moment stretches on and on but never feels tense. Time is a soft, accommodating thing with him. In all the meetings she’s attended, never once has she found herself looking at the clock.
“You’re special, Julianne,” he says at last. “All of God’s children are but some more than others. For these, God has a special plan. Do you remember what I said about the Saints?”
She remembers everything he says, every gesture, every pointed look. Her journals are constellations of this man, transcribing him like he is precious starlight. When he tells them Saints are reborn, that prophets walk among them, she scribbles it furiously over pages and pages. Saints, Saints, Saints.
“I believe you might be the first, my very first Saint. See people think Saints are created, that a person chooses martyrdom, but I know that Saints are preordained. They are born with greatness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know these holy relics while they’re still alive, rather than just before they’re thrown into the fire? To nurture them together, as a collective? See, I believe God put me here to find these people, to gather souls around them. You …”
She feels like she is drowning in his words. He speaks so fast, so passionately, that it is impossible to come up for air. All this time she has struggled to pinpoint what this man is. Is he a teacher? A priest? A holy man? Now Julianne can see it all so plain; he is an artist. Someone capable of creating visions. He painted her a world of safety, where everyone would live together in harmony, children could play without fear. Together, they would sanctify their community against all else—the world, its shit, the misery—and remain pure.
“Lillian’s demons are already here, people just can’t see. But you and I can. We hear them knocking at our doors.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
She speaks only in the affirmative, empties herself out and allows him to fill her back up. As he leaves, his hands cup her face.“You are the Saint of Justice, our lady warrior. Joan of Arc reborn.”
Then he is gone and all she has left are words. She stands amidst the boxes and empty space, takes out a pocket mirror. The streetlights are behind her and one casts a halo around her face. It is a sign, she knows, of something better soon to come.
Julianne calls for her daughter but the door remains firmly shut.
Abigail does not feel the knife because she is too focused on her mother’s body, how it hangs limp in their arms, barely a body at all, just rags of skin with a triumphant face. People bow to her as the procession moves through the little wooden buildings, towards the pyramid of kindling by the chapel.
The pain comes all at once. It is spiteful and takes her breath away. Because she loves her mother, because she is the only thing Abigail loves, she thinks the pain is sympathetic, but there is hot blood dripping on her feet and Abigail is not alone at her vantage point. One young Sister is by her side holding a knife between the slits of her ribs. Her pious face is wide-eyed and amazed; did she do that? No.
Abigail knows who sent the punishment. She can see him from the hill, a little speck of white with wide-open arms. No doubt her mother is smiling at him, while her daughter folds in two on the floor.
When she grabs the knife, the other girl panics. When it comes free, she screams. Off she runs, back to the flock. What is it the Sisters always say? A dead wolf can still bite. Abigail examines the blade and is not surprised to find it is the same one she stole. The very knife she had left buried in the woods. Serves her right for trusting a forest named after Judas.
The pyre is being lit. It’ll take some time before the flames truly start to catch. She can see the body being gently rested atop the first tendrils of smoke. A small broken person, alone and admired. A hundred eyes watching but no hand to hold, no one to kiss goodbye. Abigail thinks if she were better, if she were good, she would close her eyes and join her mother there, in that other place, but that simply isn’t in her nature.
Abigail has one memory of the time before and it is of a journey. The sun was barely awake when her mother strapped her in. Birds were singing in a chorus and there were sandwiches filled with sweet jam and thick layers of butter. Her mother was singing songs Abigail had never heard before and the roads were so bumpy it made her little body bounce against the restraints. There was no one thing that told her what was coming, no sign announcing that place. It was simply a feeling inside her tummy, something primal. Calm as anything, the young girl undid her seat belt and didn’t make a peep as she opened the door to fling her body out. Her mother screamed as loud as the tires screeched. That was how the two of them arrived, Abigail bundled up in her mother’s arms, her bones broken. She plans to leave the same way.
The horizon calls to her. She walks towards it and anoints the path with blood. Behind, she can smell a woman burning, but it is too late to look back. The forest slowly gives way to grass and it is there, it is endless. Ripe fruit on branches, dripping to the floor, the world invites Abigail to take it. Her heart begs her to step farther, just a little more. Everything is shimmering before her and she swears there is someone out there, past the flowers, below the screaming birds. They open their hands towards her.
Come, a voice says. Step into the light.
But Abigail is already falling, down into the purple lavender, into that old familiar smell that reminds her of a place that never felt like home.