Volume 31, Number 1

The Saint

Don Stockard

A frantic commotion of pedestrians, carriages and wagons clogged the street. Drivers whipped their horses and cursed those on foot. The pedestrians dodged the horses and returned the curses. Horses snorted and neighed. Crying children clung to adults. The wagons and carriages were full of people and belongings. Those on foot—men and women, young and old—carried awkward bundles. Screams and wails added to the cacophony as the crowd moved between the rows of wooden and half-timbered buildings. The odor of horse manure and sweat hung heavily in the air, mingling with the sweetly putrid odor of death. It was midafternoon, and although the street was dry, the thick cloud cover promised rain.

Brother Gregory stood to one side, watching the passing throng. He was a tall thin man with a short-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He wore a black robe with the cowl thrown back, revealing his tonsure. He looked at the faces of those in the press—a collage of fear, despair and anguish etched against a background of exhaustion and vacant hopelessness.

As the monk watched, a carriage bumped a man bent under a large duffel. The driver threw a glance and curse at the man as the carriage rattled on. The man staggered to one side, stumbled and fell. He tried to rise but got no further than his knees before collapsing.

Brother Gregory grabbed the man and pulled him to the side, out of the press. He was young, his flaxen hair matted with sweat and dirt. He breathed raggedly, and his blue eyes were bright with fever.

“Are you hurt?” Brother Gregory asked, kneeling beside the man. The monk’s quiet voice was a stark contrast to the raucous sounds from the street.

“Weak… weak. I’ve never been so weak.” His eyes closed, and his head lolled to one side.

“Here. Let me help you.” 

The man opened his eyes and stared dully at the monk. 

“Come.” Brother Gregory helped him to his feet. “This way.” He half-carried the man toward the closest building. With one hand he pushed the door opened and scanned the interior, searching for someplace to put the man. Other than several stools, the room was bare. The monk was about to ease the man to the floor when a woman’s voice startled him.

“What are you doing here?” 

“I—I’m sorry. I assumed the building was abandoned. The man is ill. I was looking for a place where he could rest.” He stared in the direction of the voice, but the woman stood in a doorway, obscured by shadows.

“Of course he’s ill.” Her tone was harsh. “Almost everyone in the village is ill.”

“Perhaps, but is there someplace where he could rest? He shouldn’t have to lie in the street.”

The woman did not reply for a moment. “Bring him in here.” Her voice was noticeably softer.

The monk led the stumbling man through the doorway. Little light penetrated the room. The woman lit a lantern, revealing a thick straw mattress in the far corner. The monk eased the groaning man onto the mattress and pulled off his boots. The man muttered softly. The monk frowned. The few words he could make out were nonsensical. 

“Would you have some water?” Brother Gregory asked the woman without looking at her.

Without reply she left the room and returned a few moments later with a basin of water. 

“Thank you.” He dipped the end of his cincture in the water and gently wiped the man’s forehead. 

The man blinked at the monk and, for a few moments, halted his feverish ramblings. 

The monk smiled. “Does that feel better?”

The man blinked again and then began to mutter incoherently. 

Brother Gregory opened the man’s jacket and pulled it back, exposing his upper body. Dark blotches covered his chest, and swollen glands protruded from his neck. The monk lifted the man’s right arm. There was a large swelling in the armpit. 

“It’s the Black Death, isn’t it?” the woman asked. 

“Yes, I’m afraid it is.” The monk looked at the woman for the first time. She was thin with long black hair falling over both shoulders. Large brown eyes dominated her narrow face. He judged her to be no older than twenty-four. She wore the coarsely woven tan smock that was the normal attire of the women of the village. 

She shrugged. “It isn’t surprising. Half the village has already died from it.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You’re from the monastery, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m Brother Gregory. And you?”

“They call me Sarah. What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to help.”


“Yes. News of the Black Death reached the monastery. I knew there would be people like this,” he nodded toward the man on the bed, “who would need help.” He shrugged. “I cannot do much, but at least I can make people comfortable and let them know someone cares.”

“Did other monks come?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

She spit out a dry laugh. “You are the only fool then.”

He smiled slightly. “I suppose.” He recalled the frantic scene at the monastery. The abbot had fled immediately in his carriage. The other monks had packed satchels and had hurried away. Brother Gregory had urged several to accompany him to Villeneuve, the nearby village, but they had ignored him. 

“And you? Why are you still here?”

She shrugged. “Where is there to go?”

“Many are fleeing to the country.”

“What will they find there? Unless they have relatives, no one will welcome them. I’d rather die of the Black Death here than starve to death in the country.”

“Then you have no relatives in the country?”

She shook her head. 

The man on the bed groaned, and the monk wiped the man’s forehead again.

“You needn’t use your belt. Let me get you a rag.”

She vanished once again into the back room and returned with a scrap of cloth.

“Do you know him?” the monk asked.

She shook her head. “He’s not a local. People are fleeing from the west. They say that’s where the Black Death started.” She stared at the man for a moment and then knelt beside the monk, dipped the cloth in the basin and gently wiped the perspiration from the man’s forehead. “He’s like so many these days. They die beside the road. No one knows who they are or even cares. It’s sad.”

A hard rain suddenly pelted the roof. Brother Gregory lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “Maybe the rain will cleanse the atmosphere.” 

She stood up. “What they say is true then? The disease comes from poisonous vapors?”

“So I’ve heard.” He stroked the forehead of the man, who was now breathing easily in sleep. 

She smiled sardonically. “You don’t believe it’s punishment for our sins?”

He shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is from the vapors. Perhaps earthquakes have released poisonous gasses. I’m just a simple, uneducated monk, not a learned theologian or physician. How would I know such things?”

The room brightened from a flash of lightning which was followed almost immediately by a deafening clap of thunder. The woman looked at the ceiling and wrapped her arms around herself. “At times like these I could believe almost anything.” 

“You say there are others who are ailing?”

“Yes. There are many who are dying, just like him.” She nodded at the man on the bed. “Some are residents of the village, and there are those who fall ill while passing through.”

The monk stood up. “I’ll look for those who are still alive.”

“Are you going to administer the last rites?”

Brother Gregory smiled. She noticed with surprise that he had a large mobile mouth. “I can’t. I’m not a priest. No. All I can do is make them comfortable and offer them some words of encouragement.” 

“What earthly good will that do? They’ll die within a day or two anyway.”

“That may be true, but at least I can make it a little easier for them. And who knows? A few may survive.” He started for the door. “Watch him. I’ll be back.” Another flash of lightning and clap of thunder halted him.

“Take me with you.”

He frowned.

“I—I would rather not be alone with… Besides, I know where people are.”

“Yes. That would be helpful.”

She grabbed a hooded cape from a peg by the door, and they stepped outside into the driving rain. The monk pulled his cowl over his head, and she threw her cape over her shoulders. The stream of people continued unabated. The driving rain added to the sounds of the wagons and pedestrians. Claps of thunder periodically drowned out the din. The road had turned to mud, churned into chaos by the passing throng. 

Sarah led the monk to a half-timbered house two doors down. 

“They took two dead from here yesterday. There were seven in all. Perhaps some are still alive.”

The monk nodded and they entered. The thick cloud layer rendered the interior dark. They stood by the doorway as their eyes adjusted to the gloom. 

“Over there.” The monk pointed toward the back of the room. “There’s someone by the door.”

They knelt beside the inert form. “She’s dead.”

Sarah nodded. “It’s Rachel. She’s about fifteen. Her older brother and mother died yesterday.”

“Who’s collecting the dead?”

“The gravedigger and his brother. They search the houses every morning.”

“Let’s carry the dead to the door.”

They lifted the girl and carried her across the room. 

They searched the rest of the house. Of the remaining four, only one, a boy of eight, was still alive. They bathed him and placed him in his parents’ bed. 

“There, Michel.” Sarah smiled at the boy. “You’re all proper in your parents’ bed.”

Brother Gregory also smiled. “We have to tend to others, but we’ll be back.”

The boy never uttered a word, only staring at the two with his large brown eyes. They carried the dead to the door.

By the time they left, the thunderstorm had passed, leaving a steady, monotonous rain in its wake. They worked their way through the village, caring for those still alive and placing the dead beside the door. In the entire village they found only twenty-one living. At least five times that were dead. When they had searched every house, they made another circuit, tending to those still alive and giving food to those who could eat. Many craved water. 

To assuage the fears of an elderly woman, the monk hummed a tune. Sarah had left to fetch a pail of water. When she returned, she joined the monk, singing softly. Sarah’s melodious voice had an immediate effect on the woman. She smiled and soon closed her eyes in sleep.

“You have a beautiful voice,” Brother Gregory said as they left. 

Sarah blushed. “As a child, I always liked to sing. But I haven’t sung in years.” 

“You should sing more often.”

She smiled.

They worked into the night, going from house to house with a lantern. Although the rain had abated, a wet, piercing cold hung over the village. It was a dreadful night. Fifteen died. Nevertheless, the two worked grimly on, caring for the living and giving shelter to those who fell ill on the street. 

It was close to midnight when they reentered the house where Michel lay in his parents’ bed. Sweat poured off the boy’s forehead, and he groaned in obvious pain. He had soiled the bed. The odors from the dead beside the door and the soiling were overpowering. Brother Gregory closed his eyes and swayed from side to side for a moment, mentally marshaling his depleted resources. When he opened his eyes, Sarah had already pulled the covers back and was gently cleaning the boy and softly singing a lullaby. The monk watched her for a moment. Each move was gentle. She was smiling radiantly, and her eyes glowed softly. He shook his head slowly and wondered from what font the woman drew her strength and love.

“I’ll get some water.” 

She nodded, and he left the room.

As the night wore on, Brother Gregory noticed that Sarah’s smile and the soft light glowing in her eyes never wavered. She showed no sign of tiring, while Brother Gregory could feel his own body and mind congealing with exhaustion.

It was only several hours before dawn when they reentered her house. “We must get some rest,” Brother Gregory said. “We’ve done all we can for the moment.” The monk slumped to the floor and leaned against the wall beside the bed. “If we don’t get some rest, we’ll be of no use to anyone.”

“I suppose you’re right.” She sat down on the edge of the bed. The man who had been occupying it had died several hours before. “I am tired.” She smiled.

“Where might I sleep?”

“I suppose we’ll have to share the bed.”

Brother Gregory licked his lips. “I—I don’t think it would be appropriate.”

She looked startled and then began to laugh. Her laugh grew into near hysteria as she sloughed off the tension. Brother Gregory stirred uncomfortably. “Does sharing a bed with a woman offend your religious scruples?” she asked when the fit of laughter abated. 

“I would feel a bit uncomfortable.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t compromise your principles.” She yawned. “Besides it’s the only bed in the house.” She lay down and closed her eyes.

Brother Gregory hesitated and covered her with a blanket. She smiled and turned on her side. He crawled under the blanket beside her. They were almost instantly asleep.

The next morning the sun rose into a clear sky. Brother Gregory opened his eyes and blinked at a shaft of sunlight streaking across the room. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He turned his head and looked at Sarah. She was breathing easily in sleep. He carefully stood up.

Sarah’s eyes opened. “Is it morning already?”

He smiled. “I’m afraid so. Go ahead and sleep some more.”

She shook her head and stretched. “No. I’m ready to go. Are you hungry?”

“Not particularly.”

“You can’t go forever without food.” She got out of bed. “I’ll have something soon.”

The door burst open and two burly men entered. One, the gravedigger, was bald with a large hooked nose and jagged scar across his left cheek. The other, his brother, was equally large but had finer facial features and thick red hair.

The gravedigger looked startled and then laughed heartily. “Decided to have a little fun before you die, eh, Brother?”

The monk frowned in confusion.

“How much did she charge you?” the brother asked. “It had better not be less than what she charged me.”

Sarah lowered her eyes, blushing.

“Maybe she gave him some for charity,” gravedigger said. The two laughed.

Brother Gregory looked from Sarah to the two men and back to Sarah.

“Take him.” Sarah, still blushing, nodded to the dead man by the door. “And get out.”

Still laughing the two complied.

The monk stared at Sarah.

“Now you know.” Her gaze was fixed on the floor. “I’m a whore.”

Brother Gregory continued to silently stare at her.

“Don’t just gape at me! Get out!” Anger filled her voice. “Get out of here!”

He shook his head slowly from side to side. “No. There’s no reason for me to leave.” He smiled feebly. “We have work to do, and you did mention something about breakfast.”

Sarah’s frown slowly dissipated as her face relaxed. “Yes.” Her voice was soft once again. “I’ll have something soon.”

After breakfast, they made their rounds. Much to Brother Gregory’s surprise a number of the ill were still alive. The young boy, Michel, even smiled in greeting. The fever of the elderly lady who had fell asleep to Sarah’s singing was gone. Others were markedly better as well. Sarah showed no surprise at their recovery. She continued to minister to their needs, her gentle laughter and soft singing bringing smiles to the ill.

It was late afternoon when they returned to her house. Brother Gregory shook his head. “Miracles. Each one is a miracle. They would be dead if it weren’t for you.”

Sarah looked at the monk in surprise. “Me? I know nothing of miracles. They are for others.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Would you like something to eat?”

“Yes. I would.”

She nodded, and soon they were soon dining on a thin stew and coarse rye bread. Halfway through the meal, Sarah stood up. She was pale and trembling.

Brother Gregory frowned.” What’s wrong?” 

“I—I feel… weak.” She staggered to the bed and sat down heavily, cradling her head in her hands.

Brother sat down beside her and felt her neck. There were the unmistakable bulges. He felt a cold fear spread though his mind. 

“Have I got it?”

Brother Gregory swallowed but did not reply.

Sarah smiled. “It’s all right. Really. It has come to so many. Why not me as well?”

The monk bit his lip. “Here. Lie down. I’ll get some water.” He stepped into the back room.

“I’m sorry,” Sarah said when he returned.

He smiled crookedly. “Sorry about what?” 

“That I’m a whore.”

“But you aren’t.”

She looked at him quizzically. “No. The gravedigger is right. I am.”

“He won’t have the last word. Here. Let me wipe your forehead.” He started to hum softly. She smiled and sang until she slipped into sleep.

Brother Gregory never left her side. When she was awake, he talked and sang to her. She sang with him until the fever became too strong. When she died shortly after midnight, he cried until he fell asleep beside her. He awoke at dawn and walked to the entrance of the house. The gravedigger and his brother were passing with the cart.

“Has the whore died yet?” The gravedigger leered at the monk. His brother snickered.

Brother Gregory stared at the gravedigger. The monk was a peaceful man, who abhorred violence. It was this trait which had, in fact, drawn him to the monastery, but for the first time in his life he had to repress the urge to physically assault another human being. “You mean Sarah?” His voice was cold and he frowned.

The gravedigger started in surprise, more at the monk’s tone than at his words. “Yeah, Sarah.”

“She died last night.”

The gravedigger nodded and stepped toward the house.

“No!” Brother Gregor shouted. “I’ll bury her myself.”


“I told you I’ll bury her myself!” Cold fury permeated the monk’s voice.

The gravedigger hesitated, glanced at his brother, who was staring open-mouthed at the monk, and then turned away.

Once they were gone, the monk went to the stable where he harnessed a mare to a small wagon. Returning to the house, he loaded Sarah into the wagon and headed for the edge of the village. A mile outside, he turned off the main road and drove the horse up the winding road to the deserted monastery. 

It took him the rest of the day to dig the grave. He was careful to see that the sides were even and that it was the proper depth. Finally he placed Sarah in a coffin—there were always several available at the monastery—and lowered her into the grave. 

The next day he took one of the marble headstones reserved for the monks and placed it at the head of her grave. On it he had neatly carved the words, Saint Sarah of Villeneuve. He sat that evening with his back against the headstone and watched the sunset. It was beautiful with purples, reds, and golds. 

Brother Gregory survived the plague as did those to whom Sarah had ministered. Eventually the monks returned to the monastery. Brother Gregory told all of the miracles of Villenueve and the saint who had performed them. The story spread, and her grave became a site of pilgrimage. Many healings were attributed to the aura of the saint.