When she is young, the name “Mary” is very common. If Social Security records for the ranked popularity of baby names in any given year went back to the first century, “Mary” would be number one on the list for hundreds of years. Sometimes, when she is meeting a person for the first time, they ask her if she likes her name. Sure, she replies. It turns out they usually have an aunt or a great-aunt, a teacher or a boss, named Mary of whom they are not very fond. What does it mean, they continue politely, as if they were taken aside (they were) before she arrived by someone they answer to in life and instructed to be very boring (the someone had called it neutral) when talking to her. As if she were a wolf and they were not, under any circumstances, to make any sudden movements. Mary lists off the meanings of her name by heart: bitter, beloved, rebelliousness, wished-for-child, marine, drop of the sea. Bitter, they parrot back to her, that’s my aunt alright. The nametag of the woman who’s been chatting with her now says Whitney. Okay, says Whitney as a nurse with a clipboard appears at her side, it looks like the doctor will see you now.
Mary has changed into the gown that was left for her on the chair in the exam room. She is sitting on the table now. She is slightly shifting from side to side, the paper on the exam table sticking to her, moving with her. She thinks the paper is much too flimsy to do the job being asked of it. The slit of the gown is funneling cool air from the ceiling vent onto her back. A shiver runs through her.
It is a routine check-up. Eyes, throat, ears, heart, lungs. Dr. Goldstein moves the stethoscope to different locations on her chest, her back. Deep breath in, he says, and out. You are the picture of health, Mary. Unless. The doctor is beyond her peripheral vision, still she closes her eyes to block him out. She knows what’s coming. Unless you are having any trouble with the seven demons again?
When Mary is frustrated, as cheesy as this will sound, she has learned to go to her happy place. She tried therapy in the early 1980s and this was the one thing she walked away with, not that it was a small thing. She’d participated in the sessions as a favor to a friend of hers whose own therapist was itching to get inside the head of the Mary Magdalene for a book she was writing. The therapist didn’t succeed in getting very far inside Mary’s head, but Mary did. Memories that had dimmed out lit and caught fire once again.
Mary’s happy place is the Sea of Galilee. The blueblueblue of lakesobig pressing toward the sky. She had grown up near the Sea in a small fishing village called Magdalena and, when she closed her eyes, she found herself once again standing near the water’s edge, the sun broadening its reach across the sky, warming the earth beneath her feet, releasing upward a scent of something like humus and hubris, damp miracles, and the tender shoots of survival debris poking through as new green. She had been a child when she began to hear whispers from the water. Indecipherable murmurings that ended in tiny waves lapping at her feet. If growing up was a stripping away of wonder, then each time a bit of hers was peeled away she was able to understand the murmurings a little more.
She opens her eyes and Dr. Goldstein is standing in front of her, hopeful. He would love a reason to run some extra tests. He is always praying for a medical mystery to solve. That was centuries ago, Doctor, she says, just the one time. If he is disappointed, he hides it well, nodding his head pointedly. Doctors and therapists, scientists and scholars, they look at her and see a hypothetical marvel. No scar from having the seven demons cast out of her? Touched the very flesh of god and her hands aren’t burnt? Looked upon him and her eyes aren’t seared blind?
Once, the therapist had asked her if J had really walked on water. We all walked on water back then, she replied. The therapist’s eyes grew wide. Really? she asked. Mary shook her head. But he did? He really walked on water?
Mary has long been a fan of the poet Rumi. Now there was a person who would have understood her. His friendship, nay, union, with Shams was similar to hers with J. Koinonos. Partners. Linked.
Things that J said to me:
Fullness of fullness
I love you most of all
Things others have said about me:
Sinful, but repentant
That I was the one who brought ointment to his feet, hair loose and falling all around my face, weeping, crying, until he forgave me.
This is the trouble with having a common name. This is the trouble with being dangerous. In other words, this is the trouble with being a woman.
One moon after I began to bleed, I stood at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Fish had been processed in the village the day before and it still smelled of it. Loamy and brackish. It was sunrise, but it was hard to tell. The light was prophetic, somehow, of something yet to happen long ago. The whispers began as they always did, but then I felt them—threadlike—winding up my legs under my chiton. A month before, a man my father worked with raped me when he found me home alone. Lorna, who kept house and cooked for my family since I was born, walked in on him, arriving back from the market eager to tell me something funny that had happened along the way. My father’s friend had finished, anyway, he said, and would be going now. I didn’t know what to do. I kept my eyes on Lorna’s face as she came toward me and held me, and after, when she cleaned me up ever so gently. Such an odd expression. Later I would know the expression and wish there were a word for it. Would I, though? Would we want a word for this? Surprise that the time for an anticipated cruelty has come.
My wonder entirely gone, the whispers were clear during sunrise at the Sea of Galilee. Beneath the lowest freshwater lake on earth, even still near its edges, ancient remains lay deified in silt. Mud huts. Millet and barley. Memories.
Every woman I know prays nightly for all of the daughters in her life. Every woman pours honey and mead over, strings vines of jasmine around, crushes dried out lipstick matter found in the bottom of a forgotten purse and smears it like clay on top of an altar. We say prayers and make promises to keep the anticipated cruelties at bay. Sometimes, I am the figurine on some of the altars. I am even a figurine on my own altar, next to and smaller than Kali and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I began to bleed for the first time two weeks after my father’s friend had raped me. Isn’t that lucky, my father said, at least she can’t be with child.
If she is being honest, Mary never cared what they said about her. Not while J was alive. Not after he died when everyone and their mother were writing accounts of all that had happened. The tell-alls. She had never been a prostitute, but she doesn’t care if you think otherwise. She never had minded being the patroness of wayward women. If the Magdalene Laundries had been run with compassion instead of judgement, Mary would have been proud of them. There was a time she had tried to intervene, to offer financial support in exchange for providing first-rate medical care to the women and offering them training and educational opportunities, but the churches did what they always do to her. Something about “What can multiple whores learn from the biggest whore of all?” It felt like the setup to a very tired joke.
Other times when Mary was meeting people for the first time, she embraced being the wolf they thought she was. When being introduced to a person at a party who said you’re that Mary Magdalene? she would say something in return like “The one who helped bankroll humanity’s savior? That’s me. I guess you could say I come from old money.” Or “The long-haired Venus who’s naked and holding a skull in all the paintings? Morbid fetishes are catching on now, I think. I’ve always been ahead of my time.”
Just as she never sets people straight about herself, she never tells them which stories are true and which stories are not. She was a disciple, not the teacher. Let them figure it out for themselves.
J’s dying took days. As he came closer to the moment of death, Peter and the others took off. She always wondered if J could sense that. By this time, his eyes were swollen shut. He was delirious. Shadowy. She decided it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because he knew she was there. They were linked. When he performed a miracle where she wasn’t in attendance, she felt it as though she were. It wasn’t only what he stood for that drew her to him, it was that their friendship both felt like home and redefined what home could be. He always said she understood him the best. This was why. This was why she knew that J knew she was there, her and two other Marys, including his mother. They bore witness to his death.
Sometimes, like after her check-up with Dr. Goldstein, Mary draws herself a bath as hot as she can make it. Standing next to the tub, she covers her body in myrrh oil. She plans to die a little while she is in there—this is why she embalms herself. She pours oil onto the crown of her head and it splits outward in all directions: down her face, shoulders, back, beyond. Then she rubs it in. No part of her is left untended. Finally, she steps one foot into the tub, then the other.
The day of J’s resurrection, she is standing in a garden outside his tomb. It’s funny because she can remember it so clearly. This was never a memory that had dimmed. It is a bright day and she is standing beneath a tree laden with purple blossoms. There are flowers in every color, a pomegranate tree, a date palm. Scholars say that this memory is impossible, that J would never have been granted burial in a tomb by his captors. She can’t help but agree. They would have denigrated themselves in doing so. But the garden, the purple blossoms and the ever-so-delicate ambrosia they sent to her nose. And what of him? If there was no garden was there no J, pale and wan, but very much alive?
Even when they were calling her a prostitute, they always gave her this: she was the first to see J when he came back to life. She never tells people which stories are true, and which are not, but Mary Magdalene always advises people not to take anything too seriously. Sometimes this means to not take something literally. Sometimes this might mean people aren’t being literal enough. Words have heartbeats. Words have feelings and neuroses and sturdy spines like other mammals. Did you know, she will say to them, every time you bring up a memory you are exposing it to the current conditions? Temperature, humidity, westerlies or doldrums, the way a woman who swore she’d never be like her mother is standing regretful in the hallway outside her child’s room, repeating mistakes. This is to say that Mary has been in gardens that were real and gardens that were not real. Whichever they were, they were always a metaphor.
After her bath, Mary puts on a kimono style robe and slips out the back door into the garden. Beyond her back fence is open land and a creek. From this direction a blackberry bush is attempting an invasion into her life. The berries are perfect right now. Each blue-black roe full, the berry plump in its totality. She places one on her tongue and sucks slightly as she pulls her finger out of her mouth. She can taste the sun in the berry. Even though she uses clippers to cut a couple lengths of vine, her finger snags on a thorn and it starts to bleed. She moves unhurriedly back inside, crossing the depth of the house to reach the living room wall into which she had a series of shelves, rectangles, carved out. Her altar. Kali. Ruth. Herself. She presses her wound to the chest of each figurine. It’s as if—now that they are red—she can see their hearts pulsing as she winds the vines around them and kneels to pray.