In a Certain Year
Her name is Margaret, and she is getting married. She is (fourteen) (seventeen) (twenty-four and previously widowed). She is an heiress and a ward of the king, and she will wed (the king's friend) (the king's enemy, whom he will bribe with a rich wife) (an influential baron whose support the king needs). She is a merchant's daughter who wears fine Flemish cloth. Her husband will have a (cobbler's shop in London) (small estate in Yorkshire). She is no one at all, really. She is all the Christian women of England. But when she wonders what she will say to her husband, this is what she does:
If she has a book (in Latin, with gilt illuminations) (in French, in a clear Gothic hand) (in English, with narrow margins and small letters) she turns to the page for 20th July. She reads it, or sounds out the letters, or has her clerk read to her, or follows the pictures. If she has no book, she reads the painted church walls. She reads the carvings on her misericord. She listens to the priest, or the friar, or the nun who tells her the story. And this is what she reads.
Listen, all you who have ears and can hear, widows, wives and pure virgins. Listen, all you in deadly sin, if you hope for mercy.
The maiden we call Margaret was daughter to a man feeble of heart and unstable of faith, who worshiped gods of silent stone. But Margaret was fostered by a Christian nurse, and given books to read and truth to study. When she grew to be a woman, of fifteen years of age, she chose Christ as her beloved, and placed her virginity in his hands. She vowed her deeds to him, to serve him as his lover and as a warrior in his service.
At that time, Olibrius governed Antioch, under the Emperors Maximian and Diocletian. He was the child of the devil! He hated all Christians, and commanded that those who followed God be put to death. But he saw Margaret driving her sheep across the field, and he said, "Who is that girl? If she is of good family, I will marry her and make her the wealthiest of women. If she is a slave, I will take her as my mistress. I will give her gold to buy her freedom, and clothe her in good silk, and with all that I have I will buy her beauty."
Then the knights of Olibrius came to ask Margaret to go with them, but Margaret raised her head and spoke, not to the mortal lords but to the true Lord: "Have mercy on your maiden, Lord. Hold my heart that I have given you; guard my body that I have placed in your care. Let my soul never be stained by lecherous lusts that lead to short-lived pleasure. Do not abandon me."
So the knights of Olibrius told the governor that Margaret was a Christian, and not fit for Olibrius. But Olibrius called her before him and asked her, "Are you free, or are you a slave?"
The blessed Margaret answered, "I am a free woman, and God's slave."
"But what God do you worship?" Olibrius asked.
"I worship," said she, "the high Father, God in Heaven, and his beloved Son, called Christ; and to him I have given my virginity. I love him as my lover and submit to him as my Lord."
And Olibrius, that demon's child, argued with Margaret, but he could not wound her faith, nor could he weaken her will. And she said, "I will never love you, for you rule only a small land, and my lover is King of Kings. I will never love you, for you are only a man, and my lover is more beautiful than any man has ever been. I have surrendered my body and my soul to him. There is no gift you can give me that will buy me from him. There is no pain I can suffer that will tear me from him. You cannot wrench me from the way I am going now."
And Olibrius commanded that she be tortured, and the skin flayed from her fair body, but Margaret, true to her lover, only smiled.
In the Fifteenth Century
Her name is Margery, and she is pressing her round body as close as she can to the anchoress's window. "When they tell me I am too loud, I think of the blessed Margaret. She was our Lord's lover, wasn't she, and no one could stop her saying so."
"No prince of the world could stop her," agrees the anchoress. Margery tries to see the anchoress's face, in the shadow behind her barred window. But she hears the woman's voice, and that is almost enough. "And she preached to all the people who came near, about Christ's love and his justice."
"Yes, Margaret preached! So did the blessed Katherine." Margery remembers. "No one said that because they were women, they could not preach. Should we not preach too, in Saint Margaret's name?"
"But Margaret was tortured," answers the anchoress. "She was beaten, and flayed, and blood streamed from her body, because she would not be silenced. Do you have the courage to accept suffering?"
"Courage! When I think of the wounds Our Lord faced..." Margery bends her head and cries. "Oh, I have no courage, but I could, for our Lord, as Margaret did. Think of how Margaret was chaste and true to her lover, our Lord, when men only wanted her beauty and her body. Men set fire to her skin, and Margaret said only, 'Let the fire of my love for God burn in my loins.' Oh, to have Margaret's freedom!"
"What would you do with your freedom?" the anchoress asks. "To whom would you preach? Where would you go? I have more freedom here, enclosed in my cell, than any woman of the world might."
"I would go through the world, speaking of Christ's truth and my love for him, and of his love for us. I would speak of the pains he suffered for us and the pains his holy saints suffered for him and for us."
"Then go and be blessed," replies the anchoress, raising her hand behind her barred window, "and speak of the truth of love. Remember Margaret, and do not fear."
A Year After That Other Year
Her name is Margaret, and she is pregnant. Her sister and her mother gather around her. She feels her womb grow heavy, her ankles swell. She knows she might die, if not this time, then in another year, carrying another infant. She imagines the child as Saint Margaret in the dragon's belly, breaking her holy way out. She tells her younger sister the story, for luck, for hope, for health. Because I am telling your story, she prays, intercede for me, Saint Margaret. I am carrying your story as I carry my child, forward into a new generation. Let me live and let my child live, and then my child will tell the same tale in her turn.
At the Other Side of the River
Beyond the garden, there is a river: the water by the shining shore, whose banks bloom as with beryls bright. Across the water, too wide to cross, live the pearls, pure and precious as the treasure of princes—
Oh, forget all that. Silly poets, too distracted by alliteration to remember the important details. But the poet was right about one thing: the maidens, peerless beyond price, live across the river. A hundred thousand holy virgins, brides of Christ all garbed in white, they share a castle of alabaster and crystal. But even among the brides of Christ, there is such a thing as relative status. The saintly martyrs have a suite near the top of the west tower, below the Mother of God and above most of the rest of the queens of heaven. There they sit, Katherine and Agnes, Margaret and Lucy and Agatha. Sometimes Cecilia visits, and once in a while the Magdalene stops by from the next castle over.
What do the saints say there? Do they compare tortures? No, really, I'd rather have been wrapped in burning coals than tied to a great wheel. Do they complain about their stories? I was first, Margaret might say. George stole the dragon from me.
But always, the saints look out through their crystal window, watching the living women who tell their stories. In one town, a blind woman describes Lucy's wounds. In another, a house of nuns speak of Katherine. And there is the woman in labor, calling on Saint Margaret. As long as their stories are told, the saints listen and the saints answer.
In all times, or, now
So let me tell her story over again: here is the blessed Margaret, bright as a blossom on a tree, after she has been beaten bloody, before the executioner cuts off her head. Here she is, wounded but unbowed, closed in a dungeon like an anchoress in her cell. In through the window comes a demon in the shape of a dragon. Look at him, black and gold and stinking, breathing out the very fires of hell, sticking out his forked tongue to taste the blood on Margaret's face. Even Margaret is afraid now. Even she flinches.
But the dragon came in answer to Margaret's own prayer, when she said, "O Christ, o my lover, let me see my enemy." The dragon is the Enemy made visible, and his sour breath sears Margaret's hair.
Margaret traces the sign of the cross on herself: one line across her breasts, one line from her lips down to her feet. "I have given myself to you, O Lord. I am arming myself with your own shield. I am your lover and I am your knight."
At that moment, the dragon opens his mouth, showing his great iron teeth. He lifts Margaret up with his enormous tongue. He swallows her down. He contains her in his filthy stomach.
Margaret takes the cross she wrote on her body and raises it as a sword. She cuts the demon open. Pure and perfect, in the wreckage of the dragon's corpse, Margaret stands.