Eleven thousand and one is an awful lot of virgins, even if we are all dead. Worse, we all look almost exactly the same, with long blonde ringlets and high foreheads and almond-shaped eyes which never seem quite focused, as if we’d be deep in thought but for the fact that we’re, obviously, none of us terribly bright. And, except for the painters, hardly anyone ever calls on us, except for Ursula, of course. Too, it’s embarrassing to be 1/11000th of an attribute. When Ursula goes to a party we’re likely to be left with the coats and the glories and the other attributes. Not much conversation to be had from St. Lucy’s eyes on that silly dish of hers, or Appolonia’s pliers. And, after so many years, the lot of us have nothing much left to say to each other.
I’ve never run into Undecimilla’s parents. I expect they’re in Hell, for giving their daughter a silly name like that, so when she died with Ursula (killed by Huns; Ursula would never consent to just ordinary robbers; nothing but the Scourge of God for her! And for her poor maid Undecimilla, who I’m sure would rather have not become a martyr, but who can argue with a Saxon princess?) their joint gravestone said “HERE LIE URSULA AND UNDECIMILLA VIRGINS.” I don’t know who was putting up such things with the Huns in the neighborhood, but if they’d only thought to put in a comma Undecimilla would’ve been a saint too, and none of the rest of us would exist. That is, assuming we do exist, about which no one seems sure any more.
If you want to stand out as a saint, it helps to have a hook. Saint Jerome may have written the Bible, or translated it, or whatever he did, but it’s that lion of his which makes him so popular with the icon-makers and the painters and the tapestry weavers and the strange little men who make the stained glass windows. St. Catherine is a dear thing, but who’d pray to her if she’d died from a bad cough, instead of being tied to a burning wheel and rolled down a hill? Eleven thousand virgins is an arresting thought. Stand us in a row and we’d go on for miles. What’s more, it was early decided that we all looked the same, as if we’d been stamped out by a cookie-cutter. It sounds desperately boring to me, but there are those who, apparently, are entranced by the notion of identical virgins as far as the eye can see.
At first, I dimly remember, we were rather unformed. Someone would pray to Ursula, and she’d appear, in a dream or a vision, alone or with a crowd of saints, and some blurry virgins with her. They never spoke in those days; just stood around her looking demure and small-mouthed. A dozen or two virgins; 50 or so at the utmost. Really, when you’re having a vision, who’s going to spend it counting virgins? Over time, though, we all got imagined by a very lonely shepherd called Cynewulf. He was young and pious and fought terribly against his attraction to sheep. He spent an entire winter – a very long winter – thinking about each one of us. Unluckily, he was a man of very limited ideas. He’d seen a picture of Mary painted on a church wall, and that was good enough for him. That was what a holy virgin looked like, right enough. She had brown, straight hair in the picture, but he confused it with the rather uncertainly drawn golden glory behind her, and – as he thought of each one of us, repeating the same thought eleven thousand times, we came out blonde as anything, with curls, and looking like Mary’s dim younger sisters.
Well, after that, there we were, trailing through the streets of Heaven, singing praises like anything. I think we sometimes embarrassed Ursula, but she was stuck with us. Everyone knows you can’t change your attribute; it’s terribly bad luck. When St. Lucy tried using her little plate to carry a cup of tea around you would have thought the stars would leap from the firmament in horror.
Each one of us had a number but no name back then. It became obvious that we couldn’t all go on every vision; there’d be no room for anyone else. We tried at least once, but St. Barbara complained that we’d blocked her right out of the picture, and – even in Heaven – they listen to the patron saint of artillery. After that, just enough of us went along to be a crowd. Someone would be doing a window in Prague (they love us in Prague) or a mosaic to Drbejniwcz and Ursula would call out numbers: “17! 907! 42! 46! 5003!” and so on, until she thought she had enough, and the rest of us would just hang around the edges of Heaven, watching the folk in Hell, and waving to those who looked up at us (It doesn’t hurt to be polite).
It was 9031, I think, who first decided to name herself. 9031, somehow, isn’t the sort of number which gets called much, and she amused herself by trying out names. It took some time for her to find one that fit “How does Grah the Destroyer sound to you?” she’d ask me (we had bunks next to each other) or “Don’t you think Drima Batsliver has a perfectly sweet sound?” and I’d say no, and she’d look disappointed. We had a real fight over Apteryx, which I told her might be suitable for a wingless bird with hairy feathers, but not for a holy beautiful virgin, even if she was dead. I finally agreed, out of exhaustion, that Candy Louise was okay. It was about the same time I began calling myself Sukey, for which I asked no one’s permission.
That was also when I tried, whenever I was posing with Ursula, to stand out, even if just a bit. If you go to Bruges of the Dead, there’s an altar to Ursula in what used to be a girls’ school the nuns ran. I’m in the third row, seventh from the left, and my eyes are slightly crossed. I used to visit there sometimes and listen to the classes, and haunt the dreams of the younger girls. There’s a window in St. Mary Aldegate; I’m the last in line, and poking a finger into the ribs of the virgin next to me.
For some time, Candy Louise and I were the only named virgins; I think we made the others feel uneasy. After a while, though, it became a fad, and everyone had to have a name. As I said, though, there are an awful lot of us, and not everyone asked me what I thought, which explains Gusnilda, Hanketta, and Crowbar. My friends.
According to the rules, every saint has unlimited access to the illimitable power of God. In theory, then, any saint can do anything but, being saints, they mostly don’t. St. Boniface spent three weeks once trying to explain to Gusnilda why you can keep dividing infinity as long as you like and every piece is still going to be infinite. For a while afterwards we amused ourselves by making smaller and smaller infinities until the seraphs got to complaining about stepping on them.