First published in Dappled Things Magazine.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
ANGEL, wears an angel mask and sword
EMERENTIANA, younger sister to Agnes, about ten years old
CHORUS, of at least two
YOUNG MAN IN BROTHEL
EXECUTIONER, wears a black mask and sword
MOTHER to Agnes
[The ANGEL appears alone on a dark stage, in a circle of light. His face is covered by an iconic ‘angel’ mask. His appearance should be simple. masculine, somewhat military, like that of the angels in Byzantine paintings. He wears a sword at his side.]
ANGEL: Night, and the ancient city slumbers
Troubled sleep, evil dreams.
Things unholy stink in the sewers,
swarm in the shadows,
huddle in dark corners and under beds.
A city white and gold, slashed with crimson
A city steeped in the blood of children,
sated with cruelty, Rome sleeps.
Soon to wake, ravenous
O, soon to wake, roaring for human blood
in the hot bazaars where everything is for sale
even the soul of a child.
Agnes too is sleeping
A hard-headed, thin-skinned, ignorant
child of thirteen.
The spangled web of childhood has been torn
The shadows of life lie all ahead -
The world stands still at noonday,
Bakes in the sun of bright hope.
thirsting after the sweet waters of life -
She has not yet learned to be afraid of anything!
She wears the white dress of virgin girlhood
and chastity sits, a seal upon her brow.
As whispering water seems almost to shout,
shamed by the silence lurking under the leaf,
so around her bed a stillness reigns
cool as a midsummer shadow.
A warrior maiden whose only armour
is her blue-veined skin,
whose only weapons
are ten white fingers joined in prayer.
How soft she is!
Have you ever held
a new lamb in your arms?
The thing is alive under its pink-white fleece,
poking its small head in the palm of your hand -
You feel the breath and the blood,
the magical, exact thing that is
life itself. Thus Agnes.
Consider this curious new lamb,
this clever, lucid, wise young virgin -
How does she live?
Honey from a silver spoon,
milk from a golden cup.
But what of her dreams?
Alone at night in her little bed,
warm and wise,
when slumber seals her pretty eyes -
What does she dream?
She is dreaming of a lover.
[ANGEL takes up position downstage left.]
[At Agnes’ house. It is morning. The light rises gently to reveal AGNES, in a white dress, centre stage. She sits reading in a book. CHORUS takes up position downstage right.]
CHORUS: Agnes is dreaming of a lover -
Now, with eyes wide open
in the stillness of her room
in the stillness of her heart
she sees him, standing before her
in all his glory.
Who is this lover,
fairer than all the children of men?
Who is this, dripping with myrrh
and more beautiful than the morning?
Who is this, comes riding into her dreams
clad in meekness and truth
and armed with sharp arrows of desire -
Who is this?
ANGEL: Agnes is dreaming of her lover. But her father has promised her to the Prefect as a bride for his son. Agnes has refused the match, defying her father, and giving no explanation. Now the Prefect himself has come to plead with her. A man accustomed to power, and to his own way.
[Enter PREFECT. AGNES rises to greet him.]
AGNES: [Makes a gentle curtsey.]
Good morning, sir, and welcome.
PREFECT: Good morning, child.
You’re looking very well...
[He looks her over appraisingly.]
Quite a grown girl, aren’t you?
[Agnes casts her eyes down.]
Quite old enough to marry?
Certainly pretty enough.
[He takes her chin in his hand.]
Come, come, look at me, Agnes -
You know me well enough -
You know why I’m here.
Answer my question -
Are you old enough to marry?
AGNES: Quite old enough, sir.
PREFECT: Exactly. Then where is the problem?
AGNES: What problem, sir?
PREFECT: Is it true you have refused my son?
AGNES: Yes, it’s true.
PREFECT: The betrothal was agreed upon
by your noble father and myself before his death...
AGNES: But not my me.
PREFECT Not by you,
by all the gods - !
What are you mewling about,
like a sick kitten?
AGNES: I’m very sorry, sir -
I cannot marry your son. And the reason for this sage decision?
[Agnes does not answer.]
PREFECT Agnes, I will know the reason
why you refuse this match
sought by both our noble families.
You have beauty and good character,
my son is one of the finest young men in Rome -
What more can a young girl’s heart desire?
I demand an explanation.
AGNES: What more - ah! What more?
A very great deal more, sir.
But I fear I can give you no explanation.
PREFECT: Come, don’t be a silly little girl -
Tell me what you’re thinking.
Is it a bigger house you want?
Is it a gift of gold or jewels?
Come, you’re as shy as a little white bird -
Don’t be afraid,
Speak your mind child.
You must know how I’m longing
to call you my daughter.
AGNES: It is not a house
It is not a gift
It is himself that my soul longs for day and night.
He has built me a palace of ivory
He has made me a house of gold
a garden enclosed
a well of pure water
and none shall drink there but himself.
He has placed his ring upon my finger
his seal upon my brow
his seal upon my heart
and my cheeks are wet with his blood.
All night long I lie down in his arms
all night, all night...
PREFECT: So you have another lover!
Wicked girl! You’ve been deceiving us.
AGNES: I deceive no one, sir.
I tell you I have a nobler lover
than your son.
PREFECT: Who is he? What is his name?
Tell me that much at least.
AGNES: His name -
His name is written in fiery stars across the heavens,
His name is worshipped by the holy angels,
His name is honey on my tongue
and sweeter than my own mother’s kiss.
His name is Love,
for he is love itself.
PREFECT: [Picks up the book she has been reading.]
Agnes, what is this book?
AGNES: It is his love letter to me.
PREFECT: To you?
AGNES And to you. To every man.
PREFECT: This is a Christian Bible, isn’t it?
Agnes, is your lover this Christ?
AGNES: [Makes the sign of the cross.]
Christ Jesus, my Lord and my Love!
He whom the angels serve.
I did not choose him,
but he chose me to be his bride -
I shall be his alone.
PREFECT: You wicked slut!
How dare you play games with me?
Give up this nonsense at once.
Give me your word, you will marry my son.
AGNES: I will never marry your son.
I have already given my word to my Bridegroom.
PREFECT: Stop all this childish nonsense!
Do as I say, or I’ll have you punished.
Christians are dying every day -
Don’t you hear the crowds
shouting for blood in the marketplace?
AGNES: I hear them.
PREFECT: [Takes hold of her throat.]
How easy, how simple
to slice it through, that pretty white neck -
Why it’s no more than a flower stalk!
[He thrusts her roughly to the ground. AGNES kneels in submission, her head bowed, her hands crossed on her breast.]
AGNES: Do whatever you like, sir -
I shall never forsake my Beloved.
[The PREFECT raises his fist, lowers it, then exits.]
INTERLUDE ANGEL AND CHORUS
Agnes has been charged with being a Christian, and brought before the Judge. At first he speaks mildly to her - such a young girl will easily be persuaded to give up her folly. He need only explain the terrible danger that lies ahead.
CHORUS: But Agnes speaks only of her lover -
It is Christ to whom she is promised
Christ alone to whom she belongs!
ANGEL: The Judge orders that the instruments of torture be brought out and displayed before her.
CHORUS: Iron hooks to tear the tender flesh,
racks to crack the small bones,
and a raging fire for the holocaust -
Surely now the maiden will begin to tremble,
surely now she will forsake that Bridegroom
who demands so much.
Laughing, she lays her soft hand on the rack
Looks with clear eyes from one face to another.
The court falls silent
Last of all she turns her eyes on the Judge
and smiles, such a smile!
Gentle as the moon floating in the dawn sky.
‘Please may I suffer for his sake.’
These are her words.
Who ever heard such a thing?
Girls of this age are wont to shrink
at a harsh word from father or mother,
to cry at the prick of a needle -
and does this child seek tortures
unbearable even to grown men?
ANGEL : Now the angry Judge speaks:
If you scorn suffering and fear not death,
still you must fear the loss of your virgin purity.
Let that which you prize so highly
be taken from you.
You are to be brought at once to a public brothel.
Liberty is hereby granted to one and all
to have their fill of you.
CHORUS: Lo, how the golden bowl is broken
The pitcher is smashed at the well.
Let my eyes rain down tears night and day
for the virgin daughter of my people is broken
with a great breach and a mighty blow.
Surely now she will forsake that man
of never-ending sorrow!
‘You may stain your sword with my blood,
but never my body, consecrate to Christ.’
These are her words.
The guard steps forward to bind her
but the rough shackles, made for criminals,
slip from those tiny wrists.
At last a piece of cord is found
and she is tied, like a snared bird,
and led to the infamous place.
A crowd of men and boys runs after her
young and old
hearts crammed with evil desire -
Shall they never be set free?
Ah, my heart is smitten within me
for this sorrowful world of men.
Sin creeps like a stain
over the clear mirror of the soul
until the image of God vanishes like a dream
and the evil demon stares back at us
out of the darkness, and laughs.
[In the brothel. AGNES is led in by a GUARD, her hands tied in front of her. ANGEL is downstage left. CHORUS, and PREFECT among them, are downstage right.]
ANGEL: Agnes is led into the brothel by a guard. A jeering mob follows them.
CHORUS : This is the power of darkness.
What chance beauty and goodness
in the face of so much evil?
What use innocence and meekness
at the hands of violent men?
I fear for Agnes,
Oh! I fear for that poor child
brought to this den of spiritual beasts.
Let a rose be spattered with mud -
does it not remain a rose?
So a pure heart and a virgin soul
are not defiled by human hands.
She is a virgin who gives her soul to God,
She is a harlot who forsakes him.
Chastity walks free upon the mountain-tops
with snowy feet she treads the way to heaven,
earthy men cannot follow her there
and the unconquered mind is not led captive.
Behold Agnes, the perfect, the irreproachable bride,
dressed in the beauty of holiness
and the dew of the morning.
[CHORUS and PREFECT move in to surround AGNES.]
PREFECT : Now that haughty girl shall have a lesson
she won’t forget soon!
Too fine for my son,
but not too fine for this lot!
AGNES: [She looks around calmly at the jeering mob of men.]
My husband, Christ, will protect my chastity.
He is well able to guard what is his.
CHORUS: I wouldn’t touch her,
I wouldn’t go near her,
She how she stands there
with untroubled looks!
I wouldn’t touch her,
not for a fortune -
What if this Christ be
really a God?
[A YOUNG MAN steps forward from the crowd; his friends push him towards AGNES, encouraging him.]
CHORUS: [various voices]
Don’t be a coward!
PREFECT : Yes, go on,
Don’t be afraid
to lay hands on a defenceless girl
like a real Roman hero!
CHORUS: [all together]
Go on! Go on! Go on!
[THE YOUNG MAN seizes AGNES in his arms. The ANGEL raises his sword. There is a sudden flash of unbearably bright light. All fall to the ground but AGNES, who remains standing in the midst of them, and the ANGEL, who slowly lowers his sword. Gradually, all get to their feet save the YOUNG MAN, who lies motionless upon the ground.]
CHORUS : What?
What was that?
What was that light?
What has she done?
Oh, my eyes dazzle
My eyes are dim -
Look! See where he lies -
The witch has killed him!
He’s turning his head
He’s rubbing his eyes -
He’s getting up -
See how he staggers
See how he stares -
The witch has blinded him!
[The YOUNG MAN staggers helplessly among the crowd.]
CHORUS: Death to the witch!
Death to the witch who blinds men’s eyes
and bewitches their souls!
AGNES: I have done nothing.
I have no power to hurt or heal -
It is the darkness in his own heart
that has blinded him.
PREFECT: The darkness in his own heart...
CHORUS: [They drag the stricken YOUNG MAN to AGNES and
force him to kneel before her.]
Witch, take off the spell!
Use your power now to make him well.
AGNES: I have no spell, no magic,
CHORUS: Pray, then -
Pray that the darkness be lifted
Pray that his blind eyes may see,
If you be not a witch
AGNES: [Holds out her bound hands.]
Please, these cords...
[The PREFECT steps forward and unbinds her wrists. AGNES kneels down, facing the YOUNG MAN, joins her hands in prayer.]
AGNES: Dear Father, hear the voice
of thy littlest daughter,
If it be thy holy will -
Dear Father, I ask
in the name of my Lord Jesus,
That this, my little brother,
[She leans over and kisses the YOUNG MAN’S eyes.]
ANGEL: The boy receives his sight,
We no longer dwell in darkness,
nor is there any more room
for evil desire.
CHORUS: The blind man sees,
We no longer dwell in darkness,
My soul is filled with wonder at the sight!
What great God is this
whose light shines in the darkness,
who has chosen Agnes for his bride?
AGNES: It is Christ,
who teaches us to love.
[Once again her hands are bound by the GUARD.]
ANGEL: Now the blind mouth of the prison
opens again to swallow her.
CHORUS: Is there no respite for this child?
She is led away, an innocent bird
caught in the snare.
[EXIT: ANGEL goes before, with sword raised, then AGNES and GUARD, followed by CHORUS. PREFECT remains alone on stage.]
PREFECT: I have destroyed an innocent girl!
Is there no light
can drive this darkness from my heart?
If this Christ be not holy?
If this Christ be not God?
[A place of public execution. ANGEL stands alone centre stage.]
ANGEL: Agnes was returned to the prison where she again was questioned by the Judge, but stated only that she could not forsake her promise. Baffled and enraged by the defiance of this mere girl, he has ordered that she be put to death by the sword. But the Prefect has been to intervene on her behalf. He has obtained the Judge’s permission to plead with her one last time.
[ANGEL moves to downstage left. AGNES is led in by the GUARD and EXECUTIONER, followed in solemn procession by the CHORUS and last of all the PREFECT. AGNES stands centre stage, GUARD and EXECUTIONER on either side of her. CHORUS forms a semi-circle behind them. PREFECT is downstage right.]
ANGEL: Morning, and Rome sleeps -
Troubled sleep, sorrowful dreams.
An icy fog creeps through the streets,
Men huddle in their beds, cold and afraid.
The iron sky is shut tight as a vault -
On the horizon, a single streak of lurid light.
CHORUS: Ah, my heart is heavy and cold
as the stones of these streets,
My eyes are dim with weeping.
We give our sons and daughters unto devils
and shed innocent blood.
Behold Agnes, our little sister,
stepping with dainty feet
over the hard stones of men’s hearts,
Hastening from the lap of her nurse
to the hands of the Executioner.
Behold her, a tender bud,
hastening like a bride to the altar,
but the Bridegroom who awaits her is Death.
Ah, it creates a heart in the heartless!
Even the cruel and violent man
is moved to tears at the sight.
AGNES: Friends, why do you weep?
I am going to be married -
You really ought to rejoice with me!
My Bridegroom is waiting,
Even now he’s waiting
with a golden crown in his hands
to make me his bride.
CHORUS: A bridal crown, Agnes?
AGNES: Yes, I saw it last night - ah!
What I saw! while I lay sleeping -
A band of virgins in robes of gold
and leading a lamb.
The lamb spoke to me -
Agnes fear not!
for love is strong as death.
Stronger than evil
Stronger than fear
Stronger than all pain and sorrow
Love never fails
CHORUS: In the end it is
love itself that remains!
AGNES: Sorrow will pass away,
Pain and pity will pass away,
Only love remains.
Hearts pure and simple
burning with fiery love
are jewels stored up in the heart of Christ
jewels to adorn the walls of the heavenly city
jewels in the crown that will soon be mine
if only I abide in him!
That is what he said to me.
[The PREFECT approaches her.]
PREFECT: Agnes, can there be room enough in that small body
for the wounds of death?
Listen to me, child -
When you were a baby I held you on my knee,
smiled at your first lisping words,
loved you, as if you were my own precious jewel.
When my poor wife died
leaving an only child,
that son whom you now scorn,
your sweet ways and girlish laughter
brought comfort to my aching heart.
With the years I grew bitter and harsh
alone with my son in my great dark mansion.
But from afar I watched
how you grew in beauty and virtue,
I watched and waited
and prayed for the day
you would make of our silent house
Now my son, broken-hearted,
angry with his father,
has gone with Rome’s legions to the ends of the earth -
Who knows if he will ever return?
Your father and mother have gone into hiding,
and taken your little sister with them -
Their fear stronger than their love for you.
Agnes, we still have this moment -
Turn to me, cling to me,
now, as a father!
I was angry with you, poor child -
Savage anger and cruel pride
like wild beasts mastered me
and I denounced you -
Agnes, forgive me!
I never thought it would come to this!
I only wanted to teach you a lesson.
Forgive - Oh Agnes, forgive me!
AGNES: There is nothing to forgive!
I would have told my love
to anyone who asked it.
PREFECT: I beg your forgiveness, Agnes!
AGNES: You have it, sir.
PREFECT: Can you not say ‘Father’ to me, Agnes?
The sound of it from your lips
would be sweet consolation....
PREFECT : Sweet child! And now, listen to my words
as an obedient daughter.
Agnes, be not so prodigal of death.
Life lies before you like a bright golden dream,
Death is a dark mystery -
Do not go through that terrible door.
See before you these men with blood-stained hands,
men without hearts,
they stand ready to shed your blood
and take your life.
I have seen the Judge,
he is willing to grant a pardon -
Only come with me to the Temple of Vesta
and there make your vows.
You shall remain a virgin inviolate
and you shall live.
AGNES: I am sorry, Father.
I can not.
PREFECT: Agnes, you’re too young
to know what it is you do -
You’re only a child...
AGNES: Even a child
is known by what he does,
whether it be pure
whether it be right.
PREFECT: What is it that makes you so stubborn,
so eager to give up your life?
AGNES: It is love! Ah, it is love!
I love him with all my heart!
I love him with all my soul!
I have nothing to give him
but this little life.
CHORUS: This little life!
So lovely in its littleness,
This life so fragile and so sweet!
A tender bud, never to be a flower.
PREFECT: Agnes, daughter -
Is there nothing I can say?
Nothing I can do?
AGNES: There is something...
He will give you -
beauty for ashes,
sweet joy for sorrow,
and the golden robe of praise for heaviness.
PREFECT: Child, I am a sinful man...
AGNES: He loves sinners!
He loves us so much, all of us!
He let himself be nailed to the Cross
for our sake.
That we should know, we are not alone
That we should know, he loves us,
God loves us!
with a love strong as death.
ANGEL: Alone in the garden at night
He prayed to the father -
If it be possible,
let this cup pass from me -
Yet not as I will, Father,
but as Thou wilt!
CHORUS: Willing himself in the face of so much sorrow,
Willing himself onto the Cross,
for the sake of little Agnes
for your sake, for mine,
for all of us trapped like innocent birds
in nets of fear and pain.
We flutter and falter,
but cannot escape -
Then Christ comes and sets us free
and the bright singing soul soars upwards
to nestle on his bosom.
We are not alone -
He loves us, God loves us,
Christ loves us,
and his light shines in the darkness
even into the darkest night of the soul.
PREFECT: Even into the darkest corner
of the human heart,
His light shines.
[PREFECT kneels, makes the sign of the Cross. AGNES bends over him and they embrace.]
AGNES: My father in Christ!
PREFECT: My daughter in Christ Jesus!
[The EXECUTIONER pulls them apart. He stations AGNES at the block. The GUARD binds her hands behind her back, while the EXECUTIONER takes up position and draws his sword.]
CHORUS: The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness comprehends it not.
Heaven is here, heaven is now -
in a still, small voice
or a hand placed lightly on your shoulder.
Each of us is born in virgin beauty
the image of the beautiful God who made us.
With sin we cloud the pure mirror,
with dust and dirt we mar it,
until the beautiful image vanishes like a dream.
AGNES: And yet!
CHORUS: And yet, there is never really any dust
on the mirror at all.
The image of God cannot be dimmed
cannot be hid
but shines on unhindered
even into the darkest night.
Look in the mirror and see
It is you, yourself
You, the little child
who does not even know how to ask
sitting on the lap of Jesus.
[EXECUTIONER gestures with his sword. AGNES kneels before the block and bows her head, exposing her neck.]
AGNES: Lord Jesus Christ, receive the soul of thy servant.
[She places her head on the block.]
CHORUS: In the midst of our tears
she has no tears for herself.
She kneels, she prays,
she offers her neck.
ANGEL: Now he raises his sword –
[EXECUTIONER raises sword.]
CHORUS: See how his right hand trembles!
Can there be room enough in that small body
for a wound?
ANGEL: Can there be room enough for death?
[EXECUTIONER steadies his sword and raises it once more over his head. Black out.]
[At the tomb of Agnes in the family cemetery at via Nomentana. ANGEL is downstage left. Agnes’ tomb is centre stage; around it are loosely grouped the CHORUS, among them Agnes’ MOTHER and her little sister EMERENTIANA. The PREFECT is downstage right. The light is dim, it is the hour just before dawn.]
ANGEL: Eight days have passed since the death of Agnes. Here at her tomb in the dead of night and in fear of their lives a small of band of Christians has gathered to offer prayers. Her friends and family are here, her mother and father, and her little sister, Emerentiana, who is only ten.
CHORUS: All night long I have prayed
and my soul refused to be comforted
for a child that will never return.
She went on the wings of the wind
rising beyond the clouds
beyond the air
beyond the angels
on the whispering wings of the wind
beyond the stars
like a bird escaped out of the net
She flew off into the dawn sky
to her home in heaven.
And still I seem to hear
the rustling of her feathers
in my dreams,
Agnes, the pure virgin soul -
Agnes the beautiful!
[Gradually the golden light of dawn begins to rise. The mourners are overcome by sleep.]
ANGEL: Now as the first light of dawn
breaks over the sleeping city
the mourners too have fallen asleep,
exhausted by their sorrowful vigil.
Only two still wake -
little Emerentiana sits beside her sleeping mother
and gazes up at the dawn sky,
And a man who sits alone
apart from the others
his head still bowed in fervent prayer.
[PREFECT looks up from his prayer, gazes thoughtfully at the sky.]
PREFECT: A golden dawn...
it might almost be that world
where she has gone
opening in the sky.
Do I wake, or do I sleep?
I seem to hear the rustling of her feathers
here in my breast.
Look! What’s that in the sky?
Mother, Mother! Look!
[She tries to wake her MOTHER.]
Mother, wake up!
I’ve something to show you -
Mother, Mother, wake up -
PREFECT: Hush, child!
Let your mother sleep.
She’s worn out with weeping
and must have rest.
Come here, and tell me
what it is you see.
[EMERENTIANA goes to him and stands close beside him, pointing up at the sky.]
Look, there - don’t you see them?
PREFECT: Where? I don’t see anything...
There, in the sky!
PREFECT: No, I don’t see anything -
Only the sky
Only the golden clouds...
But don’t you see them?
A band of girls
all in robes of bright gold.
Agnes is with them -
There she is, there -
right in the middle of them all
and she’s got a golden crown on her head!
There’s a lamb with her too,
white as snow
He’s looking at me with golden, fiery eyes!
They’re coming right towards me,
walking on the clouds -
Don’t you see them?
There, right there in the sky!
Now the lamb is calling,
He’s calling my name -
Agnes, take me with you!
Please take me with you!
I want a golden crown too!
PREFECT: [He grasps her in a tight embrace.]