15 Sep La Madeleine
A SHORT STORY
(Author’s Note: For 2000 years legends have persisted about the presence of St Mary Magdalene on France’s Mediterranean coast, specifically in the region of present-day Marseilles, ancient Marsallis. She and her brother and sister – Lazarus and Martha – were supposed to have arrived there after fleeing the persecutions in Judea. There is also a legend about La Madeleine in Ephesus, in present-day Turkey. In the traditions of the Church which date from the Dark Ages, she is said to have had red hair.)
By Beverly Stevens
It was a bit of a shock. It’s been a long time since I saw myself in a mirror.
Though I am still tall and slender, my once flame-red hair is now a bit dulled. But my eyes are still the deep brown of the Jewess I was born 37 years ago, in a Galilean village.
I stood looking into the depths of the glassy Mediterranean, on the deck of a ship bound from Ephesus in Asia Minor to Marsalis, the port in southern Gaul. I was no sailor after the horrors of the wreck twelve years before that eventually brought my brother, my sister and me to be shackled and sold as slave tutors on the quays there.
As Jews, we could read and write. And the local winemakers were rich enough to afford tutors for their children. This is how we came to find ourselves valuable commodities as we stood squinting in the Mediterranean sun.
We were just grateful to be alive.
We’d barely escaped with our lives. The persecutions after Cephas’s speech in many tongues was heard by more than 3000 people in Jerusalem that day were fierce.
Disastrously, our fame as the Master’s friends had already spread from Bethany to Jerusalem. Just a few denarii and a judiciously-placed threat to their families had easily persuaded our neighbors to disclose our whereabouts.
We’d fled Jerusalem under the protection of brave Joseph, the Arimethean. Because everyone knew he’d grown wealthy in the tin trade, Joseph had to pay dearly for people’s silence. But he paid gladly, and we managed to sail under cover of darkness, from Sidon.
But we three were alone. Joseph was so closely watched he could not risk having us accompany him on his chartered ship. The few disciples he could save were not notorious friends of the Galilean, like we were.
Joseph’s destination was a safe haven provided by his business connections in far-off Britannia. He did find us another, smaller ship, however. We were to rendezvous with him at a quiet cove near Tarsus in Asia Minor.
Thankfully, the Spirit was with us that day, and we all shared an onboard supper with deep joy. Joseph broke the bread and blessed the wine. He told us how the west of Britannia was foggy and cold, an uncivilized place with rough natives — but blessedly out of reach of both the Romans and the Jews. The next morning both ships set out across the sea, our smaller ship following his.
We could not know we would never reach there – or indeed ever see Joseph again.
The midnight storm that separated us was so ferocious that all these years later, I still shudder at the memory. Terrified, our sailors threw everything overboard to lighten the ship, to no avail.
At last we discerned that they were set to throw us, their passengers, overboard too – this time as propitiation to their savage gods. We three were shackled to the mast and we held fast to each other, praying fervently and crying aloud for deliverance in the name of the Master.
Just then, a massive wave came howling out of the wild darkness and smote the ship. The freezing waters swept all around us, carrying off the sailors and indeed the huge mast itself, snapped like a toothpick.
When the sun rose the next morning, the sea was grey and restive. We were the only people alive, adrift and rudderless. Joseph’s ship were nowhere in sight, and to our horror there was fresh danger on the rocky coastline we could make out through the morning haze.
Now, I should mention that my brother Lazarus has never been the same since the incident in Bethany which brought us such unwanted notoriety. Nor have I, really, since the morning I first saw my Master alive outside Joseph’s tomb.
This is why we were not too shocked when our shackles simply unlocked. And when Martha spotted the other ship, we all signaled frantically, overjoyed at our good fortune.
So that is how we came to be sold as slaves by the sailors of the ship that ‘rescued’ us. As they counted their money in the slave market, Martha and I were especially relieved to see the last of those sailors. They had not restrained themselves while we were in their captivity.
The Girl from Magdala
I suppose this is where I should talk about our past – my past, to be honest.
The tiny village of Magdala had seemed so hopeless when our parents both died of a fever that swept through Galilee. All we’d ever known was rural poverty, but we nevertheless sold the farm and journeyed to our aunt and her son in Bethany near Jerusalem. Lazarus felt he could find work there. Martha was happy to be a household servant for our imperious aunt.
But at eleven years old, tall and coltishly comely with freakishly red hair, I became the subject of the unwanted attentions of our cousin. He was 26 years old, married with three children. When he caught me in lonely places, I dared not say anything. My siblings and I literally had no place else to go.
There is a peculiar thing that happens to young girls sexualized before their time. A deep cynicism took hold of me. Though my family was outwardly pious, I accompanied them to worship with a deeply wounded soul in my breast, laughing to myself at their pious pretensions. This God they spoke of was obviously a cruel master – or non-existent, a myth for children.
And I was no longer a child. In the ensuing years, as my shining red hair and full-breasted figure developed, I discovered that sinning could be lucrative. It was not long before word got around that I was available for short assignations – under a wooden walkway, behind some stone steps. There were boys at first, and then the men started to come. I secretly amassed a small trove of denarii, which I guarded zealously.
But not carefully enough, for when he discovered my trove, my cousin went wild with jealousy. It was easy to exact revenge; he put a stop to my secret trade simply by showing my aunt.
Lazarus, who’d returned wearily from his work in a nearby tavern, was caught unawares by a screaming tirade. My aunt hurled epithets at me, using street language that I had no idea she knew. I cowered behind my brother, thinking fast. Martha sobbed in a corner, terrified that we would be turned out into the street, or worse.
Afterwards, Lazarus was shaken. He left the house again without another word. Martha glanced at me reproachfully, but went about her work. I was fourteen years old, but I knew the law. Girls like me could be taken outside of the village walls and stoned to death.
Later that night I slipped out of the family home into the dark streets of Bethany. One of my admirers was waiting for me, overjoyed at the prospect of free favors. It wasn’t long before he discovered that I could be a very lucrative investment, too, sinning under his protection in cosmopolitan Jerusalem.
Now, before you laugh at that description – for of course Jerusalem is a holy city – you should know what all public sinners know: that men with a religious profession are still men. So I lived from their sinning for six more years, amassing a far bigger hoard than my family could ever imagine. It was from that hoard that I purchased the costly ointment with which I anointed the Master’s feet some years later, when He pulled me out of that life and gave me a new one.
In the Slave Market
But I am getting lost in the past, as I sometimes do these days. My point was merely to say my hoard sufficed to pay off the sailors for some time aboard that ‘rescue’ ship – but it didn’t last forever. Eventually they had their way with us.
It wasn’t so bad for me. I was adept at taking my mind off somewhere else while my body was being violated. Martha was not, however, and days later she continued to sob in the slave marketplace, the tears disfiguring her face and driving away potential buyers. No one wanted an emotional slave.
Lazarus prayed silently the entire time. I watched and prayed with him. Soon Martha ceased weeping, lapsing into a grim silence. A Roman woman approached her and asked in Greek what her skills were; Lazarus answered in the tavern Greek he knew. When she learned that they were brother and sister, she bargained shrewdly for them both, knowing that the slavers would have trouble selling a sullen woman without any Greek.
She was correct. Triumphant, she walked away with her purchases, despite Lazarus’s impassioned plea in halting Greek to buy me too. Her silent appraisal told me all I needed to know; she didn’t need a woman who looked like me in her house. Most Roman women preferred that their husbands kept their playthings elsewhere.
Then, to my immense grief, my brother and sister were led away, still shackled.
The man who purchased me, ostensibly to tutor his children, was a type I had come to recognize from my days in Jerusalem. He was a Roman, a wine-grower with a cowed wife and a small horde of unruly offspring.
My new master clearly had other duties in mind for me, however. He unshackled me, smiling. I prayed silently.
So that is how I came to be sold into slavery in the busy seaport of the Romans. My master and his family were actually Romanized Gauls, to be precise. They’d embraced the opportunities to market their wine throughout the thirsty Roman world, and had profited immensely from the trade.
A Red-Haired Sex Slave
They were Epicureans, of a sort, too and the Master didn’t hesitate to partake of the grape. This made him both amorous and careless, and late one night a few weeks later I snapped.
He’d fallen asleep in my bed, heavily drunk. I crept out of my tiny room and wrapped myself in a hooded cloak stolen from my mistress. Then I ran, silently and swiftly, out into the dark, deserted streets of Marsallis — but this time there was no admirer to take me in. Wondering at my own energy and daring, I made for the quayside, the last place I had seen Lazarus and Martha.
Panting heavily, I hid in the early morning shadows as drunken revelers passed me by, praying silently all the while for deliverance from the Master. Where was He? Why had He permitted these calamities to overtake us? We had passed from being wanted criminals in Jerusalem to thoroughly anonymous slaves on the other side of the Empire. We were lost, and we were invisible.
Except my red hair made it almost impossible to be invisible. Roman women prized red and blonde hair, it seemed.
My master had my hair washed and brushed by another slave for his enjoyment. When my mistress learned this, she was furious. She informed me in hissing tones that she would get a great deal of money for my hair. Later that day, however, her plan was foiled when her husband objected. Now, of course, she hated me even more.
A Desperate Escape
But this was all behind me I skulked outside the small wig-maker’s shop by the Marsallis docks until the proprietor, a woman, appeared. When I approached her, she looked at me uneasily until I pushed back my hood, and the long, well-tended cascade of shining red hair fell over my shoulders. Her eyes lit up, and she invited me into the shop.
I emerged an hour later, my tresses shorn. But I had a pocketful of denarii and the wigmaker – Deborah, a Jew like me, as it turned out, with quite good Hebrew– had obligingly dyed my now-short hair and unruly eyebrows a deep brown color. She’d accepted my offer to trade the cloak, too, in exchange for the simple clothes and head covering of a married Jewish woman.
“Where will you go now?” Deborah asked, eyeing me apprehensively as I emerged from her back room in my new guise.
I honestly had no idea – just a vague plan to find my siblings and somehow book passage for Brittania. I described the woman who had bought Lazarus and Martha, in the slave market, but Deborah did not know her.
“Some of these women like to send their Jewish slaves to the synagogue to worship,” she shrugged. “They think it makes them more tractable. Perhaps your brother and sister will be sent there?”
It was a long shot, but I had nothing else. Deborah kindly sent me to the home of Rebecca, a poor Jewish widow who would take in boarders at low rates. There in my tiny but clean room on a forgotten back street, I awaited the Sabbath.
Rebecca could speak a little Hebrew, so we managed to communicate the basics. I was from Jerusalem, I told her and her eyes grew wide. But she mustn’t tell anyone, I cautioned, with low urgency in my voice. She nodded, and I had the feeling I could trust her. The rent I was paying would feed her children, after all.
Deborah was right, as it turned out. Lazarus and Martha appeared at the synagogue at the next Sabbath services. I stayed in the shadows in the back of the room, as inconspicuous as I dared. But they walked right past me, not recognizing me at all.
Delighted that my disguise was so effective, I held back during the services, praying fervently that the Master would find us a way out of our difficulties. And that is when a sort of trance came over me.
I could hear my own breathing and the beating of my heart, but everything around me receded as if to a very great distance. As if in a dream, all I could see before me were the dust-colored streets of Jerusalem in the glowering gray clouds and semi-darkness of those last days.
I turned and to my utter joy, saw the Master. He was gazing at me intently, and I was once again overcome with the giddy love I had felt for Him in those days. I grasped His hands and together we started down a flight of stone steps, when He halted suddenly.
“It does seem as if it is the end of the world,” He said to me intently.
I nodded, waiting.
“But you know that it is not,” He went on.
I nodded, again.
Yes, I thought. It is not the end of the world.
Suddenly the vision cleared. I was back in the shadows of a provincial synagogue in the south of Gaul, and I was utterly bereft, again. The Master was gone.
On The Run
A few minutes later, Lazarus and Martha passed me as they made their way out. This time, our eyes met and they both recognized me. My sister opened her lips as if to speak, but Lazarus quickly shot her a warning glance. She dropped her eyes and followed him outside.
But as I carefully made my way through the chattering crowd outside the synagogue, I felt a hand on me – it was Martha’s hand, surreptitiously passing me a note. In an instant, she was gone.
The note said that Lazarus was employed as a jack-of-all-trades around his master’s house, and that he had the freedom of the town. Martha was the governess and tutor to the family’s small children. They were well-treated, it seemed. Furthermore, they had found a friend.
Maximin was a fellow slave, but an educated Greek held in high esteem by his owners. He was on the verge of being given his freedom, in fact, after twenty years of faithful service. Lazarus would send Maximin to me, he said. He would know what to do.
I was doubtful about this, schooled as I was in the deep mistrust of men. But I plainly had no other choice. I turned towards Rebecca’s house, intending to wait there for further word.
But it was not to be. For some reason, I found it impossible to retrace my steps. Every corner I turned led me to an unfamiliar street. I crossed and re-crossed the same intersection of narrow streets several times, mystified. As the Sabbath sun was sinking low, I started to worry. Where was that house? People were starting to notice me, too.
Fighting a mounting sense of panic, I stepped into a small shop to collect my thoughts. While I was examining the pomegranates on display there, I overheard gruff voices questioning the shopkeeper.
My Greek was not very good, admittedly, but I could pick out the words sklávos and kokkinomálli̱ — ‘slave’ and ‘red-headed.’ Two rough-looking men glanced at me briefly as I left the shop, my heart beating wildly. But the hair that showed under my head-covering was dark brown, and I prayed fervently that they were not looking for a dowdy, married Jewess.
A few steps from the shop, I tried desperately to keep from breaking into a run, watching my feet carefully to keep from tripping on the uneven pavement. I didn’t see the burly man as he rounded the corner until I had run into him with full force.
The impact was such that I would have gone sprawling into the gutter if he hadn’t caught me in the nick of time. I gasped loudly, and looked back to see the slave hunters step into the street and look our way. I was nearly sick with terror.
“Marina!” the man shouted at me in Greek, grasping both of my shoulders. He gave me a good shake as I stared at him, wild-eyed. “We’ve all been waiting for you!”
Something in his eyes made me suddenly understand that he was not crazy. I gulped and managed a weak grin.
“Such a wife to have, late even for her own Sabbath dinner!” he said half-jokingly, and putting a warm, strong arm around my shoulders, propelled me around the corner, down the side street, and safely out of harm’s way.
It was Maximin. He had just come from Rebecca’s house, where the slave hunters had already been. The elegant hooded cape had led them to Deborah the wig-maker, who’d pointed them in turn to a terrified Rebecca. Since neither woman knew anything about me, they could disclose nothing. Both had stoutly defended their right to do business as they saw fit; neither had mentioned my altered appearance.
“So they’re looking for a fugitive red-head?” I whispered faintly. My panic had ebbed away, replaced by a throbbing headache. I felt weak.
“Yes,” Maximin said grimly, ‘but I know those two. They are clever, thorough and brutal. They are also expensive – your master must want you back very much.”
A Fugitive in the Countryside
So it was that very night that I was spirited out of Marsallis. After a brief repast, Maximin himself led me through a little-used entrance out of the city, behind the back gardens of the poor. We traveled all night and slept by day, keeping to the cart-roads used by the peasants driving their herds. Doubting the trustworthiness of innkeepers, we slept in the fields and bought our food from the farmers, who asked no questions in return for hard Roman currency.
Maximin remained vigilant, however. Although I slept, exhausted, every day, it seemed whenever I awoke he was there, silently on the alert.
After three days walk, we were in the mountains. As we picked our way through the bare gray rocks interspersed with shrubs and stubby trees, I could see that Maximin was beginning to relax. We were traveling by daylight now.
“This is my country,” he explained, as he led me expertly through the lonely ravines. We hadn’t seen a human being all day.
“Are you not a Greek?” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes, I was born in Greece and educated there,” he said briefly. “But when the Romans invaded, my whole village was sold into slavery. My master has a farm here, and I spent my young years as a shepherd in these hills. That was before he married and had children to be educated – and had need for my services as a tutor.”
“Where are we going?” I asked for about the hundredth time. Though he’d brushed off the question up until now, this time he smiled.
“We are very near your safe place,” he said. “No one will find you here, and Lazarus and Martha will be able to visit you there.”
Maximin’s ‘safe place’ turned out to be a huge cave hidden in the massif of southern Gaul. Inside, the cave was warm and dry, and surprisingly well furnished, as well. There were rope beds, with rough woolen coverlets, oil lamps and even a few pieces of provincial furniture.
Outside, honey-colored cliffs shielded a small verdant valley, through which an azure blue stream ran. We sat at the cave’s entrance and watched the sun set as we dined on fresh-caught fish wrapped in wild thyme.
“Why is this cave so, well, not like a cave?” I asked.
“The Gauls have centuries of experience living in caves,” he explained. “The old shepherd to whom I was apprenticed had lived here for years. I was terribly homesick for my old life as a student, and I didn’t really want to have much to do with the master’s other servants – a rough lot. At least the old shepherd was kind.”
“And your master?” I asked, wondering what sort of man would allow his slave so much freedom.
“My master is a good man,” Maximin replied. “He inherited this estate, and though he himself has only a basic Roman education, he has great respect for learning. Martha is now tutoring the youngest children, and I have the care of the oldest.”
“I saw his wife in the slave market,” I ventured slowly. He nodded sadly.
“She is not as good as he. Fortunately she loathes the country, and so years usually go by without her visiting this estate. She is occupied by parties and salons in Marsallis.”
“Your brother is an exceedingly good man,” Maximin sighed. “In fact, I have never met anyone like him. He has this extraordinary certainty – a tranquility — about him.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
“You have this quality also,” he said, regarding me closely. “Most women would have broken under what you have had to endure, but here you are…”
“Maximin, you are a good man,” I said in my simple, broken Greek. “You have risked everything to help an escaped slave, a foreigner. I wish my Greek was better so I could tell you what happened to me.”
Living in a Cave
So that is how I began my new life, learning Greek in a remote cave called ‘la Baume.’ Eventually, as my command of both the Greek of the educated classes and the Gallicized Latin of the locals grew stronger, I began to tell the story of the Master.
As the months and years wore on, I became known to the shepherds in the area, and I taught them and their wives and children this story as well. Martha and Lazarus eventually converted not only his master and his household, but indeed most of the Jews in the Marsalis synagogue, including Deborah the wigmaker and Rebecca the widow. (Once a year I sent a length of my flaming tresses along to Deborah, who could always fetch a good price for it – more than enough to provide for my scant needs, with enough left over to feed the poor.)
Martha and Lazarus were given their freedom, of course, and along with Marsalis began to teach throughout the countryside, in the houses of converts and in the streets when they dared. Lazarus even began converting the poor lepers who lived — like me — in caves in the countryside.
My cave became a sort of home for us all, however. And I would have never left it if it hadn’t been for the message, a summons from John at Ephesus in far-off Asia Minor. The Master’s mother, she whom I had considered my own mother in the three years I followed her Son, was asking for me.
Mary in Ephesus
Despite my terror of the sea, I resolved to answer her call. And so I took my leave of Lazarus, Martha, Maximin and all of our other brothers and sisters in the Way and turned my face eastward again.
This time my journey was blessedly uneventful and I stayed some months in the house of Miriam at Ephesus. There, she is faithfully tended by John, whom she calls her ‘son’ – though of course we all know she misses her real Son, the One who told us He had gone to prepare a place for all of us in His Father’s house.
“We are all scattered to the four winds,” I told Miriam one day. “I could have never foreseen this that day when the men returned from the Mount of Olives.”
She turned her dignified face towards me and gave me a radiant smile.
“He did tell them. We must be scattered in order to tell His story to all men. And we must do as He wishes,” she said quietly, touching my arm with deep sympathy. “Renounce your will and give it over to Him. He will provide.”
Finally, strengthened by her love and that of the disciples who are gathered around her, I took my leave for the last time.
So that is why I am bound for the remote cave that I have come to call my earthly home. And this is how I have come to be on this ship again, watching my red hair stream in the breeze against the deep blue sea.
I must stop by Deborah’s shop in Marsallis for a new coiffure.
Photos by Author and wiki