The Penitent Pigeon
A SHORT STORY
Ss. Pelagia & Nonnus. Antioch, Late 400s
“Bishop Nonnus! Look what I found!”
Nonnus, thrown off his stride, broke off speaking in mid-sentence, and looked around. He was sitting on the portico of the basilica of St. Julian the Martyr along with several other bishops whom he had been addressing. The street was bustling — Antioch was always bustling — and at first he didn’t sight the source of the voice.
Then he spotted a young boy of seven or eight break away from the crowd and run toward him, holding aloft a crudely made wicker basket. A flustered woman, unable to move as quickly as the boy, tried vainly to restrain the lad. “Damae! Come back! Don’t bother the father….”
But the boy was too far ahead of her, and heedless of his mother’s entreaties. He skidded to a halt in front of Nonnus. “Look, Bishop Nonnus!”
Nonnus was conscious of the disapproving looks the other bishops cast in the boy’s direction.
“I’m sorry, Bishop,” the boy’s mother said, panting and disheveled, as she drew up to the portico. She gripped her son by the collar of his tunic. “Don’t bother the bishop, Damae!” she scolded. “Can’t you see that he’s busy?”
Nonnus smiled tolerantly. “It’s all right. The boy’s excited. What do you have in the basket, lad?”
“A bird!” Damae exclaimed. “I think it’s hurt. Would you pray for him?”
“What nonsense!” the boy’s mother scoffed.
“Let me see,” Nonnus said to the boy.
Damae opened the basket and extracted a bedraggled mass of gray and white feathers. He held it up for Nonnus’s inspection. The bird was encrusted with dirt. One wing was lacking several feathers. It seemed to be breathing heavily.
“A pigeon,” Nonnus said. “Possibly a hawk attacked it. If so, it had a lucky escape. And it hasn’t eaten for a while — feel how sharp its breastbone is.”
“Will it live?” the boy asked, duplicating Nonnus’s action and feeling the bird’s breast.
“It might,” Nonnus replied, “if it gets good care and plenty of food.”
“I’ll take special care of it!”
“I’m sure you will. Now let’s say a prayer.” Nonnus made the sign of the cross over the bird, and said, “Lord, you who see the sparrow when it falls, have compassion on this small member of your creation. Bless, too, the hands that care for him. Amen.”
He rummaged for his purse. “Here,” he said, pulling out a few small coins. “Buy the bird some grain.”
“Thank you, Bishop!” the boy grinned and clasped the coins in a grubby hand. He stuffed the bird back into the basket.
“Remember to keep him warm, and make sure he has plenty of fresh water to drink.”
“I will, Bishop.”
“You’ve bothered the bishop long enough!” his mother said, still pink-cheeked. “Let’s be off! Such a fuss over a dirty bird!” Continuing to apologize to Nonnus with her eyes, she escorted Damae away.
Nonnus returned his attention to his fellow bishops. Several, he noticed, were scowling.
“Is this how church affairs are conducted in Antioch?” one bishop demanded, tugging on his beard. “Our meeting disturbed with impunity by a street urchin?”
For all his learning, Nonnus was very bad with names. He tended to think of people in terms of some characteristic. This bishop was Long-beard.
“What did our Lord say?” Nonnus inquired mildly. “‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ If He encouraged children to approach Him, should we turn them away?”
“We’re bishops,” Long-beard said pompously, “not nursemaids. We’re discussing serious matters.”
“More serious than the concerns of a little one?” Nonnus replied. “If we don’t encourage the little ones in devotion to our Lord, then what of the future? It is with such as him that the future lies.”
“You may be right,” grunted another, “but can we now continue with our business?”
Nonnus sighed. “Very well.” He recollected his train of thought and resumed speaking where he had left off. He hadn’t spoken for long, however, when his discourse was again interrupted, this time by a commotion in the street — excited voices and the sound of singing and musical instruments.
“What is it now?” the most dyspeptic of the bishops wondered.
A number of gaudily dressed young men and women emerged dancing and gyrating from around a corner. A gaggle of musicians accompanied them, playing flutes, sistrums, cytheras, and small drums. The dancers waved silk streamers; many beckoned seductively to the shoppers and passersby they encountered. A troop of soldiers stopped to watch and leer.
“Come with us,” the dancers sang. “Come and join our dance.”
“What is this atrocious spectacle?” the sour-faced bishop exclaimed. “There’s no public festival today!”
An elaborately decked-out litter followed the dancers, carried by muscle-bound bearers clad only in loincloths. Reclining on pillows inside was a woman — and despite the exuberance of her procession, it was she to whom all eyes, willingly or not, were attracted.
She wore her hair loose; it flowed over shoulders, which were disconcertingly bare. Her gown, made of some scarlet, diaphanous material, clung to her athletic figure and tempted the imagination to travel down forbidden paths. She glittered with gold and gemstones that sparkled like dew on the grass. The glances she spared for her admirers were at once appreciative and condescending.
She caught sight of the assembled bishops, and her expression became one of mixed mockery and amusement. She made the slightest beckoning movement with a slender hand, and smiled at the sudden turning away of ecclesiastical heads and eyes.
For a moment her gaze met that of Nonnus, who, unlike his companions, hadn’t averted his eyes. He read something in them — an emptiness, perhaps? — but then the moment passed, and he wondered if he might have been mistaken. She glanced away, and the procession passed by, rounding another corner. The music faded into the distance and was gone, and normal street-life resumed.
“Who — or what — was that dreadful creature?” Long-beard said at last.
“Pelagia,” Nonnus replied, actually remembering a name for once. “She’s an actress, a pantomime.”
“Shocking. Appalling. No better than a harlot!” Sour-face added.
“She’s reportedly quite accomplished,” Nonnus said, “as well as being very wealthy. Her portrayals of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy are unrivaled, so I hear.”
“Don’t tell us you approve of such a…fallen woman! Or of such an unedifying business,” a curly-haired bishop interjected.
“Just because an actress is revealingly attired and immoral — and she is reputed to open her bed to any man who is prominent or rich enough — doesn’t mean that the pantomime itself is immoral.”
“Of course it does!”
“Of course not,” Nonnus protested. “There are much worse forms of entertainment. Would you prefer the blasphemies or sexual orgies of the mime? The violence of wrestling or chariot racing or other sports that incite the audience to frenzies of savagery?”
“Pantomime is no better!”
“It has its positive aspects.”
“Name one!” Curly-hair challenged.
Nonnus steepled his hands. “It educates the listener about the history of bygone days, for example. And there can be a positive moral influence when, for instance, an evil-doer in the story comes to justice, while a victim elicits sympathy. Dancing — if not done for erotic reasons — is otherwise harmless. And there’s the music itself: Good music isn’t to be scoffed at, no matter who’s playing it. I therefore conclude that pantomime is a mixture of both good and ill — like Pelagia herself.”
“Like Pelagia?” Sour-face exclaimed. “I think, brother, that perhaps you’ve been in Antioch too long. What can possibly be good about such a debauched woman?”
“Didn’t you find her beauty pleasing?” Nonnus asked.
The man gawked. Several of the bishops reddened, but none replied.
Nonnus shook his head. “How blind you are, my brothers. I was happy to see her, for it seems to me that God sent her as a lesson to us.”
“Outrageous!” Curly-hair burst out.
“Absurd!” Long-hair shouted.
“Consider, my brothers,” Nonnus said, gesturing for calm, “what infinite pains Pelagia takes to maintain her beauty and to perfect her dancing — which is, all say, a very difficult art to master. She does this to please men. Are we as zealous in the care of our dioceses and our own souls?” He looked around the circle of bishops. “I fear not, brothers. I fear not.”
He straightened his robe. “If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that all too often we’re lazy and careless. And we’ll have to give an account of ourselves on the Day of Judgment. This woman aims only to entertain sinful men, whereas we are obliged to please the most holy God.” He rose. “Think on this, my brothers.”
“Where are you going?” Long-beard asked, as Nonnus left the portico and headed for the door of the church.
“To pray for the soul of that young woman,” Nonnus replied. “And for my own.”
Nonnus’s mind was still disturbed when he went to bed that night. He’d spent hours in prayer in the church, much of it prostrate on the ground with his arms extended.
He tossed and turned for what seemed like half the night before he finally fell into a restless sleep. Nonnus didn’t dream often, and when he did it was usually of mundane things, and the dreams were immediately forgotten upon arising. But this one was different.
He was celebrating the liturgy while facing an altar that seemed to be both very familiar and yet different. He tried to focus on the words, but a bird — a dove or a pigeon — kept distracting him; an unclean and offensive bird, as black as pitch, that fluttered around the altar. The flapping of its wings disturbed his hair, blew his garments and the altar cloth. And it was a very dirty bird, disgustingly malodorous.
The time came for him to dismiss his catechumens. As they departed, so, to his relief, did the bird. He finished the liturgy. Then, to his dismay, the bird returned, and continued its obnoxious behavior. He wondered if perhaps it were a devil.
Heedless of his dignity, Nonnus chased it, leaping into the air after it. After one stupendous jump — the type that only happens in dreams — he caught hold of the vile creature, and flung it squawking and struggling into a fountain in the atrium of the church.
It shook itself as it emerged from the water, sending a shower of glistening droplets in all directions. To his surprise, it was no longer black but as white as snow. It circled the church, then flew up into the heavens and disappeared, leaving Nonnus gazing up after it.
Nonnus woke up. It was still dark, not a flicker of light coming through the shutters. He groaned and rolled over. But the dream stayed with him; it was still there through hours of fitful sleep and when daylight finally woke him for good.
It was his custom to go for a walk each morning. He rose, dressed, and stepped outside. The clouds drifting on the horizon were still rose-pink; a few people were abroad, but most of Antioch still slumbered. The tranquility wouldn’t last for long, though.
He meandered past shuttered houses and shops, and the church and the gardens. The portico was deserted but for a few birds scavenging for scraps. He heard running footsteps, and halted just in time to avoid a collision with a small figure carrying a bucket of water.
“Watch where you’re going, lad!” he exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, Bishop!” the boy replied, halting in confusion. “I…I wasn’t looking where I was going. I got you all wet!”
Nonnus studied the wet splotches on his robe. “It will dry. There’s no harm done. Tell me, how is that bird of yours?”
Damae’s face lit up. “Just fine! Last night he sat on my hand and ate.”
“That’s very good. What did you name him?”
Damae shook his head. “He doesn’t have one.”
“Of course he must have a name.”
“I’ll think about it, Bishop.”
Nonnus smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find a good one.”
“I know!” Damae said suddenly. “What about Peli? It means happy, doesn’t it?”
“It does indeed,” Nonnus confirmed. “And with a friend like you, he should be happy. Peli it is.” He made as if to walk on, then stopped as an idea crossed his mind. “Damae!” he called, and the boy turned around again.
“I need you to run an important errand for me.”
Nonnus never went anywhere without writing materials — an idea for a homily could come at the strangest times. He wrote a note and handed it to Damae. “When you’ve taken your bucket home, deliver this to the house of Pelagia the actress. You know who she is, don’t you?”
“Yes, Bishop,” Damae nodded.
“Don’t go in, mind. Just knock on the door and give it to the doorkeeper.” He handed Damae a coin. “Buy some fresh bread for your mother while you’re at it.”
“Thank you, Bishop!” Clutching the note and coin in one hand and the bucket of water in the other, Damae trotted away.
Nonnus, pensive, watched him go. Damae’s father, a stone mason, had been killed when a roof he had been repairing gave way beneath him. It had been a loss not only to the widow and five children he left behind but to the church as well: Although Damae’s father had not been able to support the church financially, he had been more than generous with his time and his skills.
Nonnus puffed out his cheeks. Sometimes, God’s ways seemed inscrutable. For such a good man to be taken while others were left behind — it made no sense.
Damae’s mother, he knew, didn’t like to ask for help. She scraped out a living of sorts scrubbing clothes for a fuller, while the older children ran errands or begged. Nonnus tried to help them when he could. But there were many such unfortunates in Antioch, so many that at times he despaired. There was so much need, and so little that he could do.
He thrust his hands into the sleeves of his robe and began walking slowly back toward the church.
Pelagia leaned her back against the side of her house and closed her eyes. The wall still retained the cool of night, not yet warmed by the rising sun. Oh, how her head throbbed this morning! Even the gentle light of early morning sent stabs of pain from her forehead to her neck. Her stomach burned, and her muscles ached.
Too much wine. Too little sleep. A long night of revelry. Well, what was she supposed to do? As hostess, she had to participate in her own party, to appear as if she were enjoying herself, to laugh at everyone’s drunken jokes and applaud their off-key singing and stupid antics.
Normally, she shrugged it off. Such was the cost of celebrity, the price she paid for the wealth that others flung her way. But today…today was different. Today, she wondered if the price was worth it.
She’d thought that a walk in the cool of the morning would help to clear her head. It hadn’t. She’d made it only a few feet from her doorway before a wave of nausea had overcome her and forced her to rest and choke it down.
Feet pounded along the street like a herd of elephants. And then a banging on a door like barbarians trying to break it down. She forced her eyes to open and focus. There were neither elephants nor barbarians — only a young boy knocking on the door of her house.
“Stop it!” she snapped. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The boy paused in mid-knock. “I have a message for Pelagia the actress.”
She held out her hand. “That’s me. Give it here.”
He hesitated, and she motioned for him to comply. He approached her slowly and handed her the note. “Be off with you,” she said. “And walk quietly!”
He scurried away.
She forced her watering eyes to focus. It was hard to read the few lines of writing, although they were written in a large, clear hand. When she finished, she furrowed her brow. Bishop Nonnus inviting her to attend the divine liturgy? How strange! She hadn’t set foot in a church in…it had been so long she couldn’t even remember. Maybe not since she’d been a child. Perhaps not even then, since her parents hadn’t been Christians.
She let the note fall to the ground. What would be the point?
She pictured the bishop in her mind: a slight, ascetical man, with rather craggy features and a beard that seemed to resist trimming. Age, however — she guessed him to be about fifty — seemed to be dealing kindly with him. He certainly hadn’t gone to fat as had so many middle-aged men of her acquaintance who indulged in an excess of wine and rich food. She suspected that he might have been quite athletic in his youth. He might even have made a good dancer. The image of a dancing bishop brought the hint of a smile to her lips.
His eyes were dark and deep set. Yet she thought she had seen a touch of kindness — or a spark of concern — in them. But what if she had? Despite her overactive imagination, in reality she had very little in common with the bishop.
The note was lying on the street by her feet. She almost left it there. But then, despite the pounding in her head, she stooped over and picked it up. It might be interesting. It would at least be something different, a change from the boredom that her life had become.
She tucked the note inside her tunic and, feeling strangely comforted and challenged at the same time, directed her steps down the street.
Perhaps her head hurt slightly less. Perhaps.
Nonnus would have lied had he said he’d expected something to come of his note. He’d sent it more from a sense that it was simply the right thing to do rather than from a conviction that it would actually accomplish anything. And so he was as startled as anyone when, the next Sunday, Pelagia appeared at the basilica of St. Julian the Martyr.
Even more surprising was that she looked like any respectable woman of the city. Gone were the jewels, the revealing attire, the rowdy sycophants. In their place was simply a modestly attired woman, who took a place toward the rear without drawing attention to herself. She was veiled, but Nonnus had no doubt that it was the actress. If he’d doubted, a noticeable whispering among the assembly would have provided enough evidence.
Nonnus studied her covertly as the liturgy proceeded. She sat still and listened, neither singing nor participating in any other way.
When the time came for his homily, he rose and faced the assembly. Always, he had preached to many people; today, to just one. He took for his topic the Last Judgment; he spoke of the division of the sheep and the goats, of the parable of the wheat and the weeds, and the story of the rich man who built new barns for his riches and who enjoyed life, but who was suddenly struck from the roll-call of the living.
“This man,” Nonnus said, “was living a lie — the Devil’s lie. He deluded himself with the baubles of earth, forgetting that a greater treasure lies in Heaven for those who love our Lord.
“His fall didn’t happen overnight. He wasn’t always covetous, greedy, and self-indulgent. He was a normal young man, a mixture of noble impulses and base ones. But he sinned, perhaps only in a small way. And instead of seeking our Lord’s forgiveness, he was indifferent to it. Then he sinned again, and again, and gradually, over time, his soul became darkened. Its snow-white cleanliness gone, it became stained, deeper and deeper, until it was no longer white at all, but black.
“He became totally self-absorbed, enmeshed by the Devil’s cunning, blinded by the lure of the world, completely unable to choose — or even envision — the joys of Heaven. And all the while, as he wallowed in his pleasures, death was drawing closer and closer. And with death walked judgment. Because of his failure to minister to our Lord by helping the poor and needy, he numbered himself among the goats condemned to eternal damnation. He wasn’t wheat but chaff, human detritus, suitable only to be cast into the fire. That is the consequence of living only for oneself, of seeking earthly pleasures instead of the holiness of God, of following one’s passions instead of God’s will.
“Such is the fate of us all, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only He can make us white again. Only the waters of baptism can wash away the dirt of sin that clings to our souls and restore us to eternal life….”
The veil obscured her expression, and he could discern nothing from her movements or posture — her control of her body was too masterful. She remained in her place during the Eucharist and departed the church as she had entered, without fuss or fanfare. Nonnus wondered what impact, if any, his words had made on her.
Well, he had spoken forthrightly. What happened next was up to God — and to Pelagia.
One of her slaves met Pelagia outside the church to escort her home. She’d come on foot, not wishing the ostentation of her litter.
The bishop’s words had touched her in a way she hadn’t expected. In the story of the rich man called to judgment, she saw herself. She felt worthless — her whole life a sham — nothing but an unending flight from one fleeting pleasure to another. There was nothing of substance, nothing worthwhile, nothing that mattered anymore.
She hardly noticed when she reached her house, but there was her steward thrusting a scroll at her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“The guest list for tonight’s banquet, mistress,” he replied.
She shoved the list back at him. “Cancel it.”
“Mistress?” he goggled.
“Cancel it, I said. I wish to be alone tonight.”
“Are you unwell, mistress?” the steward asked. “Should I send for the physician?”
“Yes, I am unwell,” she replied. “But no earthly physician can help me.” She handed her veil and mantle to a waiting maidservant. “Bring a glass of wine to the garden,” she instructed, then made her way to a shaded bench, where she sat and regarded the fragrant blooms.
A physician of the spirit. That was what she needed.
By the flickering light of an oil lamp, Nonnus studied the letter that had been delivered to his residence that evening. His secretary had brought it to him, after a messenger had deposited it at his door.
He pursed his lips and thought, drumming his fingers on his tabletop.
“Reply to the actress Pelagia,” he said to his secretary, standing ready for his response. “Tell her that I will see her, but not alone. I will receive her with other bishops present and such other penitents as may come. If she has truly resolved to repent, she must confess her sins before the clergy and people. She has sinned in public, and must confess in public.”
The secretary wrote out the letter and departed. Nonnus remained seated in the puddle of lamp-light.
There, he thought, might be an end of it. Would a woman like Pelagia truly repent in public? Would she put aside her pride and status, all that she had lived for, to humble herself before the citizens of Antioch? Was she sincere or was she playing a role, having some kind of sport with him?
Well, he would never have expected as much as this from a woman of her reputation. If she was truly sincere, it was undoubtedly a miracle wrought by the Holy Spirit.
Sudden conversions could occur, he knew, yet he always found himself skeptical of them. But who — besides God and Pelagia — knew what had been occurring in her spirit? Perhaps it was like a pot of water sitting on a fire; for a long time, nothing seemed to happen, and then suddenly the water was bubbling and steaming. What apparently happened suddenly had actually been the result of a slow, invisible process. Perhaps Pelagia’s seemingly abrupt change of heart was like that.
He nodded in satisfaction, then turned down the lamp, and knelt in prayer.
Pelagia wasn’t the only one to have been touched by his homily, Nonnus discovered. Several citizens of Antioch presented themselves at the church seeking baptism and entrance into the faith.
Pelagia, as when she had attended the liturgy, came wearing ordinary clothes, divest of jewels and ornamentation. As the other bishops watched, and under the gaze of many of the citizens of Antioch, Pelagia threw herself on the ground at Nonnus’s feet.
“I am Pelagia the actress,” she cried. “Many of you know of me, and you know of my reputation. And it is true. The worst that you know — or imagine — of me is true, and many other things besides. My life for long has been nothing but a sea of corruption, and now I am drowning beneath the waves of sin. I have plunged deep into the abyss of iniquity, and drunk from the bottomless cup of perdition. What is worse — what I confess to my unending shame — is that I have dragged many into the maelstrom of destruction; some, no doubt, have already been lost forever.”
“What do you desire of me?” Nonnus asked. “What do you desire of the Church?”
“I am afraid of judgment,” Pelagia wept. “I am afraid that my whole life has been utterly useless. I am afraid that I have offended God with sins that can never be forgiven. I ask you to come between me and my sins. I ask you to impart to me the grace of Christ that I may cast off my old life and have hope for eternal life. I ask you to implant in my heart a love for God, that henceforth I may seek only what is good and true.”
“Christ’s mercy is boundless,” Nonnus replied, “and no one is beyond the pale of His forgiveness if he truly repents. Yet your path won’t be easy. The Devil doesn’t yield without a fight. You must be prepared for a life of repentance and spiritual struggle.”
“I am resolved,” Pelagia said. “Only instruct and guide me, and I will follow.”
Nonnus looked around the assembled bishops and citizens. Even Sour-face appeared to be impressed, and Long-beard was nodding his approval.
Nonnus stooped over, took Pelagia by the hand, and raised her to her feet. “It shall be as you desire, my child,” he said. He beckoned to an older woman standing nearby. “This is Romana, a sister who shall be your sponsor and instruct you in the faith. She will lead you in prayer, and assist you to resist the temptations of the Evil One. And then I shall baptize you, confirm you, and give you Holy Communion.”
“How can I thank you?” Pelagia asked, her cheeks tear-stained, her eyes imploring him.
Here, Nonnus thought to himself, was indeed a true penitent. Over the years he had looked into many eyes. In some he had seen contrition that was only superficial or feigned. In others it was sincere, though struggling and hopeful. Pelagia’s, he discerned, was deep, yearning, and true. The long-simmering pot, he thought, had reached its boiling point.
“Don’t thank me,” Nonnus replied. “Thank our Lord, who has touched you with His grace.”
“Come,” Romana said, taking Pelagia’s arm. “Let’s begin at once.”
Nonnus watched the women leave. Then he turned to another penitent who knelt before him, seeking to hear the word of the Lord, to receive forgiveness and consolation.
Nonnus was sitting on the portico, some weeks later, reading the Scriptures, when a shadow darkened his page. He raised his eyes.
“Look, Bishop Nonnus!” a boy’s voice said.
Nonnus laid down the Scriptures. “What is it, Damae?”
“See Peli now.” Damae held up the wicker cage.
The bird inside hardly looked like the bedraggled, emaciated creature that Nonnus had seen before. The pigeon was plump, glowing with health, its feathers clean and groomed, iridescent bands of purple and green shimmering around its neck.
“Why, you’ve done an excellent job, lad!” Nonnus exclaimed. “It’s a beautiful bird. Are you ready to let him go?”
Damae frowned. “Let Peli go?” he said doubtfully.
“You aren’t going to keep him in a cage forever, are you?” Nonnus inquired. “Peli’s a bird. Birds love to fly, to be free.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s their nature,” Nonnus said. “Imagine what it must be like to soar through the sky, then imagine never being able to do it again. Think how you enjoy running, then think what it would be like if you were locked in a tiny room, and could never run again.”
Damae rubbed his nose. “It never crossed my mind, Bishop.”
Another person joined them. “Am I interrupting?” Pelagia asked.
“Not at all,” Nonnus replied, rising to his feet. “Damae and I were just talking about releasing his pigeon.”
“I don’t want Peli to get lost,” Damae said, “I might never see him again.”
“I know what to do,” Pelagia said. She was wearing rough clothing, such as a working man might wear. She’d cut her long tresses, and her only adornment was a strip of scarlet cloth around one wrist. She removed it, and handed it to Damae. “Tie this on the bird’s leg,” she said. “Then you’ll always be able to identify him, no matter how many other birds are around.”
Damae grinned and took the cloth.
Nonnus studied the young woman. She’d changed greatly in the days since she had wept on the ground at his feet. She’d devoured the teachings of the faith avidly, had prayed fervently, had performed every penance he had laid upon her. The day of her baptism had been a glorious one; the church was packed with residents of Antioch come to see the onetime actress reborn. She had arisen from the waters of baptism with her face glowing and a new radiance of spirit. Truly, she had been washed clean, as clean as the white baptismal garments with which she had been clothed.
His heart bursting with joy, Nonnus had confirmed her and given her Holy Communion for the first time.
“Where are you going?” he asked, gazing dubiously at the rough clothes she wore.
“To Jerusalem,” she replied. “I’m going to become a solitary.”
She indicated the city with her hand. “I can’t remain in Antioch. There are too many reminders of my past life, too many ways for the Devil to tempt me. I need to go somewhere where I can master the passions that for too long mastered me.”
Nonnus nodded. “I understand. But are you traveling alone?”
“Yes. My years of dance did one good thing for me, Bishop: They made my body strong. Besides, if need be, I’ll join a caravan of merchants. Don’t fear for my safety.”
“Very well.” He made the sign of the cross over her. “Go with my blessing, daughter, and the blessing of God Almighty.”
“If ever you hear of a beardless monk,” she said, “know that it is I.”
“I shall,” Nonnus smiled. “But what of your wealth, your villa, your slaves…?”
“I’ve already freed my slaves,” Pelagia said. “As for the rest, I’m giving it all to you — that is, to the church — to distribute to the needy as you see fit. Perhaps there’s some poor family who could benefit —”
“Like this?” Damae interrupted, holding up the pigeon which now had a scarlet band tied neatly around one leg.
“Just like that,” Pelagia approved.
Damae opened his hands, and the pigeon balanced on his palms. It flapped its wings. Then, with a flurry, it rose into the air.
To Pelagia, Nonnus said, “I know just the family who will benefit from your generosity.”
“God be with you, Bishop,” Pelagia said, taking her leave and turning away.
“And also with you,” Nonnus replied, as she walked briskly off. Then he put his arm across Damae’s shoulders and watched as Peli — healthy, strong, and free — soared into the sky.
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