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Agnes, the Abbess

Sarah Starr Murphy

I was a child. You must remember I was only thirteen. Don’t say anything about thirteen being different back then to make yourself feel better. Thirteen is thirteen, full of awkwardly long limbs, hurt feelings, and hope like the climbing vine of a morning glory, strong but easily snapped. At thirteen, I liked crafting toys for my young siblings and the rush of floating in the river. I liked church because of the violent stories, the light splintering through the windows, and the chorus of voices drifting skyward. 

My parents were good, nobly born Christians and God was power, thick and magisterial. By taking Jesus as my husband, I could become a novitiate, a nun, and then one day an abbess. I wanted to run accounts, organize and problem solve. I wanted to be in charge. I’d seen an abbess once, on a visit to a nearby abbey with my mother. She was tall and slim, with a face that was all planes and angles meant for a higher power. The other nuns looked at her with something close to fear. I wanted that for myself. Jesus was how I was going to get it. I would be Agnes, the Abbess. The leader of the finest abbey around. How pure was my belief, the belief of a child in an Almighty God. 

The judge’s son, Peter, had been hanging around town. I was a child, but even I had an inkling, a shudder, a sense of shame and confusion. 

When Peter approached, I told him I was already wed to Jesus. I thought this would solve the problem. I was skipping through a forest of wolves, and I clung to the One I thought would save me.

Peter laughed. I couldn’t be serious. Not like, literally wedded. 

I said, I’m serious. We are wed, and I will have no other.

The judge came complaining to my parents. His son Peter was wasting away from grief. The lustful nature of girls required marriage for the good of society. Our sinful natures must be curbed. My parents held firm. We were Christians, and they wanted me to enter the abbey. My family were the type who like a good plan and won’t tolerate its disruption. No, they told the judge.

The judge’s voice rose. But Peter, he wants, he needs, he will die without. He deserves!

The judge saw me on the street, called me a witch. I pretended I didn’t hear, hurried on my way home. But I noticed the way that epithet deadened the air. The way people held their breath just for a moment, to listen.

The judge appeared at our house again. Look, he said to my parents, what if Agnes was dedicated to the goddess Vesta instead? I mean, that I could understand. Dedicate her to Vesta, and then the children can marry. What’s the problem?

I was in the room this time and I said, your gods are nothing but stone and brass. Throw them into the fire and they will burn, just like you will burn in hell for leading people astray. 

I was only a child. I thought this would help. I believed in telling the truth and standing up for my faith, like I’d been taught. He was screeching about witches as he stormed out of our house. My mother sat with me in the dim room, braided my long hair to soothe me. The baby cried and my mother left to tend him. She was still gone when the mob arrived. The men surrounded me with their rough hands, their stench and beards. They stripped off my clothes and shoved me out the door, told me to walk naked to the brothel. 

I should mention that I have a guardian angel. When I was very little, I thought everyone had their own angel. When I realized I was the only one, I thought it meant that my path to becoming an abbess would be smooth. My angel normally watched without interference but now woosh, my hair was free of its elaborate braiding and increased in thickness and length so that it covered my whole body. What a relief it was to be covered, even if I was still being marched to a brothel by an angry mob. You remember what it’s like to be thirteen.

There were many brothels at the outskirts of my town, and the mob pushed me into the biggest. The moment I crossed the threshold, the angel caused a bright light to emanate from my body. I glowed. The women who worked in the brothel made eye contact and smiled. I smiled back. 

For days, men came and went but they were stunned by my light, converting on the spot. Lust was driven from them by my brilliance. As grateful as I was for the bright light and the long hair, I was still cold, so I prayed for a white stole and lo, my angel brought one, dropping it softly around my shoulders. It fit so perfectly that the women gathered around, exclaiming at the angel’s workmanship. None of them needed to convert because they were already Christians. Don’t you know about Jesus and the prostitutes? No one loved them more than Him, it’s all there in the Bible. The women tucked their striped hoods back behind their ears and told me Bible stories, told me that I was a wonder, that I would be a great abbess one day. We turned the brothel into a place of conversion, the holiest place in town, holier even than the church. The church had communion and priests, but we had a real, sparkling angel. Jesus was with us, as He always was. With the poor, the sinners, and the women. The women who fed me, cared for me, lent me books to read. They mothered me, as I was only thirteen. 


Peter arrived, braying like a donkey because now that I was in the brothel he’d get what he wanted without the inconvenience of having to marry me. Unlike all the others, he was not converted on sight by my blinding, glorious heavenly light. No. He pawed at me, his hands sweaty and fumbling. With a sharp crack of thunder my angel appeared, piercing Peter with glittering spikes of frozen rage. He fell to the floor, dead. The angel stood blazing, I stood blazing, together we blazed until Peter’s friends ran in. 

While the men saw Peter dead, they did not see my angel. They shouted and the judge came running.

The other women appeared and argued with the men. They said, so many men have come to this place and gone away better, for Agnes’s intervention! The only reason this one is dead is because his dick was in charge, not his heart.

I hated the judge, but even through my hatred, I could see his devastation at losing Peter. The anguish. The way his lip quivered and his face paled. 

Witchcraft, he muttered. 

No, sir, I said. I felt my guardian angel at the ready behind me. 

The judge turned to me. If it isn’t, he said, then bring him back. If your god is so mighty, then save my son.

I closed my eyes and I prayed, because I was a child used to doing what I was told, because I could see the sharpness of his pain in the shake of his hands over Peter’s body, because it is not for me to judge, because when someone asks me to pray, I do. I prayed and prayed, the angel behind me, my voice spiraling up to heaven.

Peter opened his eyes. He jumped to his feet then fell prostate before me, praising and apologizing. His father was amazed, but then he grabbed Peter’s arm and they ran. Men were still hollering about murder, and I thought the judge would quiet them, but no. He took his son and he ran.


The details of my martyrdom are something I don’t like to consider. Everything’s awkward at thirteen and death is no exception. The men stuck a sword through my neck, and that was an embarrassing way to go. I looked at the angel, who shrugged its twelve spiked shoulders. You never really know, with angels. 

Sarah Starr Murphy’s writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Epiphany, Baltimore Review, and elsewhere.  She’s managing editor for The Forge Literary Magazine and eternally at work on a novel.  She’s a marathoner with dogs, kids, and epilepsy. 

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