Monday, February 13, 2012

The Craziest Thing St. Valentine Did for Love: A Modern, Anachronism-Ridden Retelling of the Legends Surrounding Valentine’s Day -- Part 1

by Jacqueline Fauni

Valentine awoke to the dawn of a new and glorious day, only to realize that the kaleidoscopic array of colors he was accustomed to admiring every morning as light shone through his church’s stained glass windows was replaced by a dim, slatted glow. He hissed as he made a slight movement, his body aching all over. Why was his back so stiff, as if he’d spent the night on a cold, stone floor?

Oh, right. He was in prison.

It was entirely Lucius’s fault. Valentine looked away from the tiny, barred window and over at the young man sleeping on the other side of the cell. He wondered, as he often did, why in the world he had decided to take the troublemaker under his wing when he’d showed up on his doorstep ten years ago. Of course, the boy was an orphan who had no one else to turn to, so Valentine felt it was his duty to take him in. But over time, he came to love the boy as a son. Yes, Lucius was a good boy, and Valentine had the blessing of watching him grow into a genuinely good man. However, though his intentions were always good, mischief seemed to follow Lucius wherever he went, whether it manifested in the urge to pluck flowers from a disgruntled neighbor’s garden or to play his lyre outside a maiden’s balcony and sing loud enough to wake the entire village.

This time, Lucius simply wished to marry the beautiful, golden-haired Aurelia (who, coincidentally, was often the unwitting motive for Lucius’s youthful indiscretions, but once she was aware of his affections, she made him the happiest man in all of Rome by consenting to marry him). The only problem with that was the absurd law that had just been passed by Emperor Claudius II, which prohibited young men from getting married so they could focus on being good little soldiers. So Lucius pleaded with Valentine to perform a secret wedding ceremony for himself and Aurelia. Valentine, who had watched his young, lovesick protégé pining away for the girl since he first laid eyes on her, had no choice but to concede.

Once they were married, however, the happy couple was much too happy to keep their wedded state of bliss to themselves, so they confided in two of their most trusted friends, who also happened to be a young couple in love who fervently wished to be married. And when a sheepish-looking Lucius showed up on Valentine’s doorstep with the young couple and begged him for his help just once more, he very well couldn’t refuse them either. But then this couple was much too happy to keep their wedded state of bliss to themselves as well, so the next day, Valentine found Lucius with two more couples at his door, who, after Valentine married them, went on to tell another two couples each. Before he knew it, Valentine had an extremely overcrowded doorstep, along with a covert reputation as the go-to guy for clandestine weddings.

It was on the occasion of such a wedding (“the last one, I swear on my honor,” Lucius had promised) that Valentine was arrested. The bride and groom had just exchanged rings, but before he could pronounce them man and wife, Valentine was suddenly seized by the Emperor’s guards. Luckily, the couple managed to escape, but Lucius just had to step in and declare that the scheme was his idea, and that he should be arrested instead. Naturally, the guards arrested them both.

“You fool,” Valentine muttered as he glanced at Lucius, still lying on the other side of the cell.

“I heard that,” Lucius called out before turning to face him with a smirk.

“You were meant to.” Valentine raised an eyebrow in a brief moment of levity before his face took on a more grim expression. “For once, I wish you’d stop to think before doing something reckless. I appreciate your valiant effort to spare me, but if you’d bothered to consult your senses, you would’ve realized you could only succeed in helping those guards meet their arrest quotas.”

“Well, someone’s got to look out for our boys in blue togas.” Lucius shrugged before adopting a more sober mien. “Valentine, you know I had to at least try. If it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t have even been in this mess.”

“And what of your bride? Just a week ago, you and Aurelia risked your lives for a chance at happiness. Now you’ve gone and thrown it away!” Valentine threw his hands up in exasperation.

“We never would have had that chance if you hadn’t risked your life to marry us, and neither would all those other newlyweds.” Lucius looked at him solemnly for a moment, but then a playful glint (which was all too familiar to Valentine) came to his eyes. “You do realize this makes you a hero, right? You should be sainted! I can see it now -- ‘Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers.’”

Valentine scowled. “Yes, I can see it, too... engraved on my tombstone. Well, it all turned out to be for nothing. I’m sure it won’t be long before the guards find all the newlyweds and cordially invite them to join us here for a giant reception.”

“Surely you don’t mean that,” a decidedly feminine voice whispered from the cell door.

Valentine and Lucius stood up in an instant, and discovered a young woman in a black cloak, standing in the shadows outside the cell and clutching a small bundle to her chest.

“Well, I’m sure he was joking about the reception,” Lucius said after a moment of awkward silence.

Valentine threw him a sharp, disbelieving look before turning back to the girl, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“I... well, that is...” The girl stammered a bit before lifting her startlingly pale blue eyes to a level just below his, not quite meeting his gaze but still striking him with quiet dignity. “My name is Caecilia. I’ve come to bring you letters from well-wishers -- some of whom had the blessing to be married by you.” She stepped a little closer, cocking her head from side to side as if she was listening for guards, and slowly reached the bundle out to him through the barred door.

Valentine cautiously walked up to her and took the bundle, which he now saw were rolls of parchment bound together by a piece of twine. He looked up to murmur his gratitude when he was struck again by her eyes -- only this time, as he noticed she seemed to be looking straight through his chin, he belatedly realized their paleness was a mark of blindness. He tried to find the words to thank her and apologize for his ungracious greeting, but all he could do was stand there and stare at her like an idiot. Before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “How did you know what the letters say?”

“What my unforgivably rude cellmate meant to say was, ‘thank you,’” Lucius said as he approached them, which induced a small, hesitant smile from Caecilia.

She turned in Valentine’s general direction and paused for a moment before she spoke. “To answer your question, I don’t know exactly what they say, but when the senders themselves handed their messages to me, they shared their stories and expressed how deeply indebted to you they’ll be for the rest of their lives... which is why I was disappointed to hear you say it was all for nothing, and that they’ll probably be discovered. You don’t really believe that, do you?”

Valentine was taken aback by her candor, and found himself at a loss for words yet again. But before he could even attempt to find his voice, he saw a burly man marching towards them, who Valentine assumed was the jailer from the ring of keys he held in one of his hands.  

“Caecilia? What are you doing here? Have these prisoners been bothering you?” The jailer stood beside her, his eyes flicking suspiciously from Valentine to Lucius.

“No, Father. I was just visiting them,” she mumbled.

Just as Valentine’s head stopped reeling from the epiphany that Caecilia was the jailer’s daughter, the jailer sighed and uttered a string of words that clenched Valentine’s heart with fear: “How many times have I told you to stop getting yourself attached to the prisoners? These ones, especially... They’ll be dead by dawn tomorrow.”
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2! Also, don't forget to enter our Valentine's Story Challenge on Facebook for a chance to win an extra special Valentine's Day prize -- the deadline is TOMORROW at 4:00pm!

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