Technically speaking, I am not Saint Barbara. I am her clone – her identical twin, if you like. A large number of people prefer to sidestep this particular bit of mental gymnastics. To them, I am Saint Barbara in the flesh, dragged into the twenty-first century with my head re-attached to my body.
I was born from a chunk of Saint Barbara’s bone. It was not nearly as mystical as you would imagine. It did not happen on a desolate beach, with the sea and sky growling at each other and the hand of God reaching down to crack the bone like an egg, revealing a yolk-smeared, fully-formed woman. It happened in a laboratory in Illinois, with petri dishes and test tubes and sleep-deprived scientists swearing at their equipment.
My childhood was inevitably strange. My first memory of the convent was trying to escape by climbing the crumbling wall that surrounded it. I am fairly sure this is a false memory, though. I am fairly sure I never tried to leave.
Being raised by the nuns meant that I had a constant (and constantly changing) supply of mothers. Each one had her own ideas about how I should be brought up – her own routines and rules, her own rewards and punishments. There were only two things that they all agreed on: 1. I must never forget that I was special. 2: I was not allowed to act as if I were special.
I was about twelve years old when the work began. I was told of Saint Barbara – one of the virgin martyrs, who became a saint by living a good life and dying a messy death (this is the easiest way to become a saint). She was the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and mathematicians. These were my people now.
They would come to me for blessings. Most often, they wanted protection. In theory, they wanted protection from gunpowder and other explosives – from the possibility of a sudden and violent death while they worked. In practise, they wanted protection from having to face this reality every weekday morning, as they packed lunches and kissed wives and children goodbye.
They trusted me unquestioningly, and at some point, this began scaring the shit out of me. I was not a saint, and there was no way of being sure it was even a saint’s DNA I was cloned from. I could not work miracles like Saint Barbara. I could not teleport or turn people to stone or turn flocks of sheep into swarms of locusts. I was a fraud. A mistake. The scientists must have got something wrong.
The nuns did not listen to my protests. They took me all over the world, to bless and be thanked, bless and be thanked, in cyclical fashion. Money was never in short supply.
I was eighteen years old when I met Geteye, an Ethiopian miner who had arrived in Illinois with nothing but a young, frightened wife and an optimistic grin. His wife, awestruck and anxious, asked me to protect him – mining was such dangerous work. Geteye gave me an easy smile and patted his wife’s hand. He told her that she must not worry – his faith in Saint Barbara was absolute, and therefore he would be safe.
A year later, a messenger arrived at the convent, telling us that we were being sued. Sister Alana crossed herself briskly, then ushered the messenger inside to tell us the particulars. Geteye had lost both his legs in an explosion, despite the blessing I had given him. Sister Alana argued that the mining company Geteye worked for should be sued instead. I suspected that Geteye had already tried, and failed.
We met with Geteye and his lawyer, hoping to settle the unpleasant business out of court. It was a shock to see nothing where his legs were supposed to be, but after a while, I found that I could not take my eyes off his face. He looked so angry, and I supposed he had a great deal to be angry about: Loss of legs, loss of livelihood, loss of mobility, loss of opportunities, loss of faith. He could see me for what I was now. I was a fraud. A lie. The genetic copy of a fairytale.
There would be more like him, I was sure of it. In that moment, I would have given anything for his blind, beautiful trust again. If I were Saint Barbara, I could have turned Geteye and his lawyer into maggots, and that would have been the end of it. Since I couldn’t do that, there seemed to be only one alternative.
“There’s no way I could have protected you, Geteye. I’m not a saint – I’ve never done an extraordinary thing in my life. I’m a fake and I’m sorry. We’ll give you all the money you’re asking for.”
I glanced awkwardly at each of the three faces staring back at me. Sister Alana looked appalled, Geteye looked bewildered and his lawyer looked absolutely delighted. Evidently, the truth was a complicated thing, since it affected people so differently.
I left the convent as nothing; an unimportant, powerless girl, with heavy debts. My bones felt as light as an angel’s.
Lizzy Huitson lives and works in Oxford, England, and has been writing as a hobby since she was a child.
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