Confessions of a Woman from Thagaste

By Kathryn Locey

Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy upon me, for I have had more than enough of contempt.  A woman I am—poor in spirit and weak of frame—but if you, who made the Pleiades and Orion, can care for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, I trust that you will not turn from any of your creatures.

He writes of me as if I were a mistake, the unnamed error of his sinful youth, which you have graciously corrected. But we shared a life for fifteen years, knew the taste of each other’s skin, the rhythms of each other’s breathing, the tune of each other’s bones. And you created all that we are, O Lord. Why should he think it was his love for me that kept him from you?

He wounds me when he writes that his restless passions alighted on me for no special reason. No special reason? In his first book, he thought differently: What is it that attracts us and wins us over to the things we love? Unless there were beauty and grace in them, they would be powerless to win our hearts.  How many mornings did he compare my voice to the lark’s?  How many days did he praise the brightness of my eyes and compare my teeth to pearls, my neck to a gazelle’s?  As I grow older, I have learned another truth—that the reasons for love are veiled, like your throne, in clouds of perpetual incense. And yet, when sweetness rises before us, surely you are there.

Before he ever noticed me, I watched him in the Carthage forum, debating with the other students, their voices rising and falling like the calls of cranes at first light. Clean-shaven, in his byssus-white toga, he outshone them all. Or so I remember. From forty paces I could see that he was stocky and well made and brash as a wrestler. O Lord, you knit him together with bone and sinew to show the power of your hands. Why should he not find favor in my eyes?

Did I not find favor in his?  He was the one who approached me at the merchant’s stalls, smiled his tender smile, tilted his head as if listening to my thudding heart, and spoke.  I was holding up a length of lilac silk for Naso’s customers, and he called me “lilac girl” until I answered him. Yes, I was newly freed and poor, but who would not have answered him? He sprinkled words like blossoms, and I breathed their odor gladly.  That I had been born a slave, that I could never marry a young patrician hardly mattered when he took me back to his lodgings—two rooms above the glassblower’s shop, a table, a lamp, a couch. Ten moons later Adeodatus was born.  And how could our gift from God be a mistake?

The three of us lived simply—small apartments in Carthage, his mother’s house in Thagaste. But a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and loving favor more than silver and gold. I was his most devoted pupil, devouring every word he taught me to read and understand—Aristotle, Virgil, Varro, Cicero. In the afternoons while he was at the baths and Adeodatus napped, I savored papyrus scrolls and parchment pages, and we would speak of them in the evenings.

When he finally finished writing that first book, I read only his words—over and over—for an entire year. Beauty and Proportion. He said that I had inspired him. There is a difference between the beauty of an object considered by itself as one whole and the beauty to be found in a proper proportion between separate things. “Your writing has this beauty of proportion,” I said. “No single word is lovely, but the words taken together give delight.”  He folded my hands between his own, then kissed each one of my fingertips.

How can he have forgotten the beauty of father, mother, son?

And does he not remember that I found you first, Lord, while he searched for truth with the Manichees? All the time his mother wept over him and sighed about his being lost, I knew he would seek the perfection of your Beauty when he was ready to find you. And to you, one day is like a thousand years; a thousand years as one day.  No matter what his mother prattled, my reluctance about persuading him to profess himself  a Christian was not so that I could keep him for myself.  I never imagined he would forsake me when he embraced you.

* * * * *

Reading these pages from his pen—from his heart?—reopens every wound.  A score of years are as a day to me. Please pour your mercy over me, Lord, that I may bless the soul of his departed mother and be free from my sin of bitterness. I do wish Monica peace, though peace is a favor she never granted us.  All that muttering about her son not fulfilling his promise; all her complaints about my background, my cooking, my sinful influence on her grandson. And then that autumn when Adeodatus turned twelve, I thought we had finally escaped her. Like a child who sees what she wills in the clouds, I imagined that Augustine, my beloved, had chosen me. When we slipped out of port by night to sail for Rome, I confess that I rejoiced in picturing Monica’s long face at the Carthage dock the next morning.

What dreams I had of a new, free life, away from her constant nagging, her barbed prayers. Augustine finding the kind of students and recognition he deserved. His friend Alypius had gone to Rome before us and reported grand success as a court assessor. But we would not taste such joy. Soon after we arrived, Augustine fell sick.  Head throbbing and limbs weak, he decided the fever was your reproach for abandoning his mother.  I could not convince him otherwise. When Prefect Symmachus sent us on to Milan, I was glad to make the difficult journey, imagining every hill and bog and stream would separate us more surely from Monica. But it was not to be. She joined us in less than a year, praising you—loudly—for her safe passage.

Did she truly believe she was jealous on your behalf, Lord?  That she was wresting her son from me for your glory?

He writes now that sending me away crushed his heart to bleeding.  But what words can tell of my torment as I boarded that creaking ship for Africa?  His mother persuaded him that his duty as a Roman and a godly son was to marry. So I left him. I left the home we had made together.  I left our son. She—of all people—must have known how a sword would pierce my heart at that parting.  But in a moment, at her urging, we were all changed.

* * * * *

So I confess what you already know—that I did not weep when I learned of Monica’s death. By then, I had died as well, had taken up the palla of widows and come here, back to Thagaste, to serve you among these holy women.

Yet holy women talk as others do, and I heard the whispers that Augustine had been baptized, not married. In time rumor reached me that a community of Servi Dei had settled across the lake, on the grounds belonging to the sons of Patricius. I knew in my bones that it was true, that my son and his father had come home. With what sad longing I pictured the two of them walking in the cool of the cypress groves, speaking heart to heart. I was not dead after all, I yearned to see their faces. But we were separated as surely as the waters above and below the firmament.

Not until Adeodatus lay dying was I sent for. And I arrived too late. My son’s eyes, that used to sparkle at the sight of a raisin cake or with answers to his father’s silly riddles, were closed forever. What words can add or subtract from that grief? He was a flower of the field, and we buried him.

Then Augustine left for Hippo Regius, by the sea, while I remain here–slowly turning to dust–among these shadowed hills of Thagaste.

________________________________________________________________

Kathryn Locey teaches English at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia. Her poetry has appeared in Able Muse, The Christian Science Monitor, Paper Nautilus, and elsewhere; her short stories have appeared in Staccato and in the Copperfield Review.

 

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Since 2000, The Copperfield Review has been a leading market for short historical fiction. Copperfield was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer's Digest and it is the winner of the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence. We publish short historical fiction as well as history-based nonfiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews.
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