SHORT STORY – Annie Dobson

Photo by Jaeyoung Geoffrey Kang on Unsplash

Content warning: This piece contains references to sexual assault


Saint Agatha


Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I remember learning that saints were only people whose pain was notable, noted. 

In the renaming ceremony, I imagined us becoming eunuchs, chastity vow answers. Standing naked in the mirror together, we practice visualisation. Visualisation is the representation of an object, situation, or set of information as a chart or other image. In my pre-Frances life, the other image was imageless. The other image was no genitals, no secondary sex characteristics, no sex, nowhere to be touched. Angels are sexless & I never wanted hands on me. 

Frances becomes Agatha. I become Agnes. We name ourselves not from the violence, but the overcoming. 

In her bathroom, I hold her hair over the bath, pour Our Lady of Lourdes holy water over her forehead. The plastic bottle feels so flimsy & took three weeks to arrive in the post. She has made her own holy water by following a Wikihow – kosher salt, river water, blessing of the salt, exorcism of the water. We do not need or want a priest. We are mystical enough. This ritual is a ritual of care & we can care for each other. 

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We meet on a Facebook group for survivors of sexual assault. Frances posts about conversations with Saint Agatha. The other survivors are kind to her & say they are glad she has found a coping mechanism that works for her, but this is no place for preaching. I have been in the Facebook group for six months & haven’t heard anything like this. I message her, asking what Saint Agatha says. Saint Agatha understands, she says, I can tell her anything. 

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Saint Agatha of Sicily is one of seven women commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass. Saint Agatha is the patron saint of rape survivors, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, bellfounders. Saint Agnes of Rome is another of the seven, a virgin martyr. She is the patron saint of girls & chastity. 

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Frances’s room is full of kitschy Catholic tat – a glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary statue on her desk, pink plastic rosary hanging from a hook, several framed prints of progressively femme-looking Jesus’ lined up above her bed. On her keys opening the door there is a flash of a gaudy St Christopher keyring. This first time, watching her jam her keys into the door, listening to her, half drunk, finishing a funny story about an argument, I have the thought: I wanna lie in bed with you & fall asleep. But I have come here to contact St Agatha. 

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Saint Agnes, devoted to religious purity, was ordered to be dragged naked to a brothel as punishment for rejecting her many suitors. It is said that every man who attempted to rape her was immediately struck blind. She is painted with a lamb. Before I meet Frances, in the dark, in the sad glow of my phone, black incognito mode, I would look up £3,000 hymenoplasty procedures at private clinics. I remember reading the words surgical virgin & thinking cyborg medievalism: a hologram of a white sheet brought out stained red, glitchy cheering. Compulsory hetrosexuality rots the brain, has rotted my brain. I just wanted to undo, unlive it. When I was a teenager, I wanted surgical elf ears. I have always resorted to the fantasy of body modification. Who’s body is this? It is mine & I can do what I want with it. 

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Saint Agatha is painted with her severed breasts on a platter, sometimes she is holding the platter. Sometimes I look at binders online. Sometimes I fantasise about chopping them off neatly, a miracle of no bloodshed. I would wrap them up in a plastic bag, put them in the bin, lie in bed listening to the bin men in the morning, think about them travelling so far away from me. 

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After talking on Facebook, we meet in the pub. Being back at hers now, accidentally woozy-drunk & laughing too loudly, sitting on her bed, feels so date. We have barely spoken about Saint Agatha or the Facebook group for survivors of sexual assault or why we have met in the first place. If people were to see us tonight, they would see two girls, exactly the same height, both wearing their big coats under the heat lamps, both wearing gold hoop earrings, scream-shouting gossip about people the other one did not know. But from looking at them, you would never know that. 

We are sitting on her bed, taking it in turns to play noughties pop music from her laptop, each shushing each other because of her (now-villain) housemates. Frances gives out a theatrical gasp. I’ve just remembered I’ve got a bottle of lambrini. 

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On Saturday nights, my mother’s mother & my mother’s three sisters would come over. Saturday nights were lambrini nights. The hoards of cousins sat underneath the table, then shooed to the living room. We watched Southpark on the floppy sofa, played online dress-up dolls on the big white PC. The four sisters & the mother would sit around the kitchen table & talk about demons, possession, the times they left their bodies, floated downstairs. 

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Watching the Blarite makeover TV shows of my childhood, my aunts would recount their sexual experiences with demons. Demons, like angels, are generally considered sexless as they have no physical bodies. There was no physical body. It was a physical feeling, physical weight. I couldn’t see him, but I felt him. 

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As a child, I wanted nothing more than to be Sabrina in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, fantasised about the ease of clicking my magic fingers, my aunts still-spooky but happy aunts. 

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When I show her Kim Petras’ halloween album, Frances asks me how I feel about séances. Some people are funny about them. I think about a song called Séance. The lyrics, we’ll hold a set of séance each one more desperate than the last.

I suggest we pray to her, together, first. I suggest we ask to be healed in the safer way. When I think of séances, I don’t think of botched sleepovers, I think of a table of women, slurry, damp with sadness. 

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The therapist asks me about the women. So, this was understood in a spiritual context? 

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An incubus is a demon in male form. What do we talk about when we talk about sexual assault? Where do I go when I leave this body? I had gotten so good at leaving. Looming over myself, I never felt thin enough to be a ghost but ghostliness is all I knew. 

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An OBE is an Out of Body Experience. An OBE means to experience the world from a location outside of the body. OBE’s can be induced by traumatic brain injuries, sensory deprivation, near-death experiences, dissociative & psychedelic drugs, dehydration, sleep disorders, dreaming, electrical stimulation to the brain, among others. OBE’s can also be deliberately induced. 

During the Victorian period, OBE’s were known in spiritualist literature as travelling clairvoyance. A member on a Catholic forum replies to a question on the topic of OBE’s, we are not to seek out these experiences. 

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We are holding hands with both hands, sitting crossed-legged on the bedroom floor. We have put our phones in front of both of us to recite a prayer to Saint Agatha. 

Jesus Christ, Lord of all things 

You see my heart, you know my desires. 

Possess all that I am – you alone.

I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil. 

Amen. 

I want to feel Saint Agatha. I want her to speak to us. 

Patience, Frances says, practice. 

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Saint Teresa of Avila was known to experience bodily levitation, which should not be confused with an out of body experience. Everytime it happened, I left my body. The body stayed. When confronted with her abuser, St Agatha asked God, make me worthy to overcome the devil. 

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Frances puts on the Destiny’s Child song I’m A Survivor to talk about the Facebook group for survivors of sexual assault. Frances! We are sitting in her bed, I am tracing my fingers over the floral bedsheet, wine glass balanced on the radiator. 

Sometimes I don’t like the word survivor. It makes me think of post-apocalypse movies. What other word would you use? 

There probably isn’t a better one. But I don’t feel very Tom Cruise about it. 

Her head is on my shoulder & it is so natural & normal I have just noticed it. How long has it been there? How long did it take me to stop flinching? 

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Touch is the only love language we are born with. I became sex-repulsed, touch-repulsed, wanted an invisible, protective dome around my body. 

Touch means to come into or be in contact with. 

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The Catholic mystic Therese Neumann became partially paralysed, blind & bedridden after surviving multiple falls. She claimed her eyesight was restored on April 29th 1923, the day Thérèse of Lisieux was beatified. Therese, from her bed in Konnersreuth, Bavaria, prayed novenas in advance of this day. Two years later, when Thérèse of Lisieux was fully canonized as a saint, she visited Therese. Therese claimed the saint cured her of her paralysis & bedsores. 

While earthly, Thérèse of Lisieux suffered nervous tremors. On 13th May 1883, she recovered after witnessing a statue of the Virgin Mary smile at her. She wrote, Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am. 

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Frances is glassy eyed is watery everywhere. We have panic-bought overpriced wine from the corner shop & she spills it in theatrical hand gestures. Her words come out sloshy. We are laughing about it, her being so clumsy & then she begins to tell me. The stories are similar to my stories. The stories are multiple. How long do you tell a story for? Where do you start? 

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Saint Anthony of Padua was said to have bilocated. He was said to have appeared in two different churches, several miles apart, simultaneously. Saint Isadore the Farmer claimed he was attending Mass while at the same time plowing his fields. Bilocation, or multilocation, is a psychic or miraculous ability wherein a person or object is located, or appears to be located, in two or more distinct places at the same time. 

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Sometimes I tell scandalous sex stories about him. Sometimes I am very funny. It was funny that time he came over with rope, a ball gag, a cheese sandwich in a Tesco carrier bag. I am telling the funny story to the table, four pints down, badly rolled cig in my hand. 

If I end the story there, the story ends there. 

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Later, alone. Slumped over in the chicken shop thinking about Saint Agatha. I open Facebook messenger, stare at Frances’s picture in the circle.

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I imagine Frances in her real life. I put this Frances in the kitchen of a house party, tinny in her hand, telling a story about the person. Would this Frances tell a funny story about the person? Would they talk about the time the two of them went to the church of Scientology together? What the person said in the church of Scientology? The person was funny. The person was very clever. There is still a picture of the person on Frances’s phone, a year ago, holding a cat in the street. There are a lot of stories Frances could tell about the person. 

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We talk about it. We talk about it so much neither of us want to talk about it anymore. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I tell her about some advice I read, from someone else’s therapist, always tell five other things about yourself. I say, 

I make earrings with oven-bake clay for all my friend’s birthdays. It’s something I said I would do & I did. The whole process makes me feel like a real person, with a real & precious life. When I was a kid, I played football & wore a full Manchester United kit on non-uniform day, two plaits at the sides of my big head. I have a cat called Shirley who keeps me sane. I don’t know what I’d do without her. But I don’t visualise her dying, like I did with my cat as a child, to prepare myself for the death. I just love that she’s here. I grew up in a council house & I think a lot about the woman who spent forty years painting the walls & ceilings of her council flat like the Sistine chapel; my mum painted our living room bright orange. When I put a slice of lemon in a glass of water, I can’t wait to eat the lemon after. My biggest wish is vegan turkey twizzlers. 

Frances says, 

My first crush was Princess Jasmine. I still have sex dreams about a magic flying carpet. The best sex of my life happened on someone’s parents huge expensive rug. The thing that calms me down the most is washing someone else’s hair, or dying it. Slow, underrated intimacy. I’m the only person in the universe who likes the sound of their recorded voice, I communicate almost exclusively in voice notes. I think I could make thousands recording audiobooks. Sometimes I can’t believe how much I love Whitney Houston. I went to see her hologram performance alone. I know people think holograms are tacky, exploitative. It felt real enough. I felt like I was listening to her ghost.

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It is three in the morning, the witching hour, the hour black magic is at its most powerful. We talk about the séance. We want to feel Saint Agatha less holy. If she comes through a different channel, maybe we will know the real her. 

We use a wooden ouija board. Frances stands on a stool to pull it down from the top of her wardrobe. From the bed, wine-stained, I watch her reaching upwards & I wonder how many times she has used it & with who. I imagine Frances alone in this bedroom, sitting on the cream carpet, trying to speak to someone. I think about all our messages, her speedy replies, sprawling grey paragraphs. 

We sit facing each other on the carpet again, like hours ago, now, when we held hands & prayed to Saint Agatha. Our hands are held on the glass on the board. I imagine us normal, not grasping hands but easy-holding, walking around a market, looking into the eyes of the frozen fish, untwining for a second, to pick up an old book, interlocking again like it happens & happens & happens. 

The glass does not move. We ask spirits, are you there? We ask for names. We ask for signs. In the end, we beg for Saint Agatha. We beg for Saint Agnes, her mystical shield. I think of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Charmed, Bewitched, Hocus Pocus, visualise the snapping of fingers, sparks, a voice. The glass does not move. 

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In the bright & sticky morning, Frances comes in with two cups of coffee, puts them on the bedside table. I am too hungover to open my eyes, so I listen to her, like a bad rainy sounds, filling up a bottle of water from the bathroom tap. 

Morning 

Eyes still closed, Morning 

I drink from the water bottle like revival. 

Lottie, the other method 

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There is a green bathtub. Last night, I don’t think I noticed this nan bathroom, these nan net curtains, the fluffy toilet seat cover, my bare feet on the terracotta tiles. 

This took three weeks to arrive, it arrived yesterday. She is holding a plastic Our Lady of Lourdes holy water bottle. I made my own holy water, put the holy water in the bottle. 

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We take off our clothes. 

She says, I’m so happy you’re here 

During an out of body experience, some people claim to see a silver cord tethering them to their body. 

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We face the small mirror. When Frances first told me about visualisation, I stood in my own bathroom, this bathroom only, miraculously, six miles away. I visualised myself a eunuch, protective dome over, no one’s hands near, never. 

Frances said visualisation was more powerful when practiced together. I had thought a lot about our double visualisation – becoming new virgins, miraculous unliving. 

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Silver cord, white light. 

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I visualise the silver cord between the two of us. The silver cord is unbreakable, anchored. 

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She kneels at the bath, head slumped over the side. In one wobbly hand I hold the holy water over her head. In another, hold my phone & read the prayer to Saint Agatha aloud, 

O Heavenly Father, 

who raised Agatha to the dignity of sainthood, 

we implore Your Divine Majesty by her intercession 

to give us health of mind, body and soul. 

Free us from all those things which hold us bound to this earth, 

and let our spirit, like hers, rise to your heavenly courts. 

Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, 

who lives and reigns with you, forever. Amen. 

Her voice, Amen 

I pour the holy water over her hair, feel her body jump at the cold. 

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It is her turn to bless me. She pours the other half of holy water over my head, recites the same prayer, each word sounded out so slowly & exact. I am newly hatched. 

We have sex in the blessed bathtub. If I told you how it happened, I would tell you the truth, that it happened like that & snap my fingers, sparks, a voice. 

Sex with her feels saintly, feels clean. I am here.

Annie Dobson is a graduate of MA Creative and Critical Writing. Her work has appeared in Ambit, Cipher Shorts, Open Letters, Spam Press, The Bi-ble, New Testimonials anthology, and is upcoming in The Grapevine.

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