The Cult of Mary by Laura van den Berg

BOMB 146 Winter 2019
146 Cover Nobarcode

As we entered Arezzo, the guide pointed out the prostitutes lining the road. The women looked like awkward, flashy birds, teetering in bright spandex and spiked heels, cheap gold jewelry flashing in the summer sun. A man in our group made a joke about wanting to stop and check their prices—to see how they stacked up against the pleasure of a fine gelato—and the guide, still speaking into her little microphone, said that these women were impoverished and in some cases stateless; their trade was born of a hunger for survival and they deserved our respect.

The man sank back into his seat, let out a little huff.

The trip had been organized by the local chapter of my mother’s university club and this man wasted no time making enemies. In Rome, there were the lewd comments about the statues of naked women. At lunch, he drank too much and broke into song, off-key American power ballads. He claimed to be fluent in Italian, but we had yet to hear him speak a word. At every available opportunity he reminded us that he’d planned to take this trip with his wife, who was now three months dead, ensuring we all felt held hostage by obligatory sympathy.

In Arezzo, we parked and followed the guide up a steep stone street, curving in the direction of Piazza Grande, and that was when we realized this man, our common enemy, had peeled away from the group. Perhaps he had gone to check the prices after all.

“Maybe he’ll like Arezzo so much he won’t want to leave,” my mother said, clutching my arm with her wizened, claw-like hands.

“We’ll never get that lucky,” I said back.

The guide was a young woman with a lip ring and a curly-haired mohawk. She had the unflappable calm of a seasoned camp counselor and did not seem overly concerned that one of her charges had wandered away.

“Half the time the prostitutes just take the men into the woods and rob them,” our guide remarked, after the man’s absence was brought to her attention. “Or sometimes they perform witchcraft and cast spells. If that’s where he went, he’ll come back with a strange and memorable story.”

This guide was full of strange and memorable stories herself. On the drive over from Florence, she had revealed to us the Tuscan secret to flower gardens: wrap a strand of your own hair around the root tendrils and plant on the night of a waxing—never a waning—moon, prompting my mother to comment that she kept a flourishing rose garden for many years and never once had to get her own hair involved.

My mother had been looking forward to Italy ever since her club announced the trip, a year in advance of the departure date. She had been saving for it, clipping every coupon and declining invitations to go out to eat. For Christmas, I bought her a new suitcase, a sleek hard-shell roller, though when the time came she had insisted on using her ancient cloth suitcase with a broken wheel because it held more. It doesn’t hold more, I’d tried to tell her, it only seems like it holds more, and my mother had looked up from folding shirts and regarded me as though I had been seized by madness. On New Year’s Eve, I went to a party with a tarot reader, a man who examined my cards and told me, with a deep and mournful intonation, that my mother would be dead within the year—and then in the damp chill of early spring she had a stroke, and though she would recover in time for the trip, we both agreed she should not travel on her own, so here I was in the Duomo di Arezzo, waiting for my mother to lean over and whisper that she couldn’t understand the guide, the girl’s accent was too thick and she was speaking too quickly, and why did she have to wear her hair like that anyway; my mother had never understood women who chose against conventional prettiness. Every day I had woken with a leaden sadness because I knew in my heart that this was the last trip my mother would ever take and Italy was all she had wanted (for months a Tuscan field had been the background on her phone) and now that she was here, nothing pleased her. If it wasn’t the guide, it was the heat or the uneven streets or no washcloths in the hotel or no ice in the restaurants or the boorish man who had recently lost his wife and had possibly abandoned our group for the company of stateless and impoverished roadside prostitutes. And of course we had set ourselves up for this failure, the two of us, for how could any trip, no matter how splendid, bear up under the brutal weight of last?

As we moved down an aisle in a hush, the guide pointed out a statue of Christ that had been carved from a single block of wood. By a Piero della Francesca fresco of Mary Magdalene, the guide explained that long ago the church became anxious about the Cult of Mary and their secretive powers, so they had allowed the legacies of all the different Marys to be conflated, which meant now most people didn’t know the difference between Mary of Clopas and Mary of Bethany and Mary of Jacob, and this confusion had been the church’s intention all along. As she spoke, I wondered if the vaulted position Mary Magdalene held in the Duomo explained why so many prostitutes flocked to Arezzo.

“Remember that history is not only about what happened,” she added, “but also about what those in power want you to believe happened.”

Back in Piazza Grande, I heard a couple mutter that they wished the guide would lay off the feminist politics.

In the van, we had been given itineraries and I thought that maybe the missing man would turn up outside the Duomo di Arezzo, sweaty and smug, but I did not see him anywhere as we made our way down the twisting streets, past a park with five bronze sheep grazing on grass banks.

The guide waved her small red flag, alerting us to our next stop.

“These are fascist sheep,” she told us.

“How can sheep be fascist?” someone objected. “Sheep don’t believe in anything.”

The guide explained that Mussolini had initiated a tax credit for anyone in Tuscany who owned sheep, not because they were practically useful but rather because sheep-dotted fields and hillsides fit Mussolini’s pastoral ideal of the Italian countryside. The bronze sheep had been erected in Arezzo to commemorate this policy.

“That is how evil first creeps in,” she went on. “Through the falsification of beauty.”

She told us that evil rarely looked like evil when it first arrived. It could look like innovation and progress and prosperity, courage even, but more than anything it looked, to some, like a solution—a solution to the secret problem they felt had gone too long unaddressed. They felt as though they had been speaking a hidden language among themselves, and then a man or a woman in a suit stood on a stage and addressed cheering masses in that very same language, hidden no longer.

The guide paused, breathless, and jabbed her red flag at the sheep.

We pressed on. Behind me I heard the couple who had objected to the guide’s feminist politics now plotting word-for-word the terrible review they planned to leave her on TripAdvisor. Why is some person, everywhere you go, always demanding that you pick a side? At the bottom of a hill, we found the missing man sitting at a bus stop, a good distance away from where the prostitutes congregated. His clothes were rumpled and smeared with dirt; leaves stuck out of his hair like ornaments on a tree. He was missing his shoes. As a group, we approached him, demanded to know where he had been and what had happened. The man told us that he had followed two women into the woods, to a mattress under a tree, but before they did anything they wanted half their money, which he handed right over, and then they wanted to know how many Marys he could name.

“I said the Mary who gave birth to Jesus and then that other Mary who was a prostitute, but give me a break, I was raised by atheists and I couldn’t think of any more damn Marys. They started pelting me with handfuls of dirt and sticks. They knocked me down and stole my shoes and drove me out of the woods.”

The guide began to laugh and applaud, her face slashed by a wild grin. “Of all the tours for you to miss!” she exclaimed.

“My wife’s not really dead,” the man said next, in flawless Italian, which shocked everyone. “She just left me and sometimes I feel like I’ve forgotten how to breathe.”

He sank his face into his palms and began to sob, his shoulders heaving. The guide helped him up and led him over to a water fountain, the Italian kind that looks like a beautiful little iron hydrant with a spout, so he could wash his feet, his soles caked with mud and leaves. The guide rejoined the group on the opposite side of the street and together we watched this man struggle to wash his own feet. First he tried standing on one leg and holding a foot into the stream, but then he started to wobble, so next he squatted and bent his leg into the water, like he was attempting a half-chair pose. “Where’s Mary Magdalene when you need her?” someone said, but they were shushed by the rest of the group. We all knew we were witnessing a holy scene. Finally the man just stood in front of the fountain and let the water coat his feet, his back to us, his shoulders still trembling.

On the ride to San Marino, the van was warm and quiet and soon my mother slumped over into sleep. We both knew that she was too frail to be trekking all over Italy and our shared knowledge of her weakness made her enraged by her own body, which in turn made her enraged by all the places that had no interest in accommodating bodies such as hers. I wished the club had announced this trip years and years in the past. Near Sansepolcro, I watched my mother’s hand twitch in her lap and I hoped that she was not yet dreaming of death, but of gardeners wrapping strands of their own hair around dirt-clotted roots and of fascist sheep and a life carved from a single block of wood and a man struggling to wash the shame from his feet.

Laura van den Berg is the author of two short story collections and two novels, most recently The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). Born and raised in Florida, Laura currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard University.

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Originally published in

BOMB 146, Winter 2019

Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.


Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.

Read the issue
146 Cover Nobarcode