Twenty miles out from the city of Alexandria, you begin to see the cells. Tiny stone cottages of one or two rooms, often built into rock faces, within walking distance to water, they're just too far out of the way in an arid climate for anyone to bother with them, and too scattered to form even the most tenuously connected village. Once people lived there. Today some still do.

Beginning in the Fourth Century of our era, there was a breed of men (and some women) called away from the beguilements of the world and its temptations to the simple life of a desert hermit. These were the Desert Fathers.

Stories of their lives are often compared to classic Zen literature. Unlike the intricacies of Medieval Scholasticism, they are mostly concerned with the most direct and practical aspects of a life spent in the Spirit. Among the most intriging are the so-called "harlot" tales, where it is revealed (some centuries before the myth of the Magdeleine) that even the lowliest of all creatures can, in fact, come to live a holy and exemplary life. This is one of them.

Paring down a life (often spent in luxury and political intrigue as a Roman beaurocrat) to suit the desert was no easy task. The ideal was a subsistence diet of greens, with bread, wine and oil a feast-day treat, a life spent in silence but for prayer, reflection, and labor in the form of weaving reed and palm mats and baskets (even a Bible was to be considered a luxury, since the Gospels and Psalms could just as easily be memorized as carried) under the direction of a senior monk, with whom one met on Sunday at church. Some retained a rich diet, funded by their previous lives, "though wine, meat, and spices tended to make celibacy difficult". Some readily entertained visitors, and some ran schools, doctors' offices and even legal council from their cells. Some kept ready a toga, or a few silk robes, some had small libraries and some went so far as to employ slaves and servants, under the pretext of wanting maximum time for study and prayer.

So it was with the hermit Moses, whose niece Mary served as his liason with the outside world. Seven times a day, sequestered in the inner room, Moses would rise to chant the praises of God, and three times a day from the outer room, her voice rose with his. In between, she gathered greens, carried water, tended the fire, and emptied the chamber pot, sometimes trading with passing travellers for necessities. And one day Antony arrived.

He was tall, sunburnt, and had golden curly hair. He'd heard of Moses, and wanted him for a teacher. Moses was more than happy to see another man join the discipline, and readily accepted. However, he proved the Devil in the Flesh for poor Mary. While old Moses droned on about the Light of Salvation through his grate, Anthony was watching her grinding grain. When the old man napped, he would suddenly appear at the spring where she drew water, making as if to bathe. You couldn't stay with him, you couldn't drive him away, and one long night, he came in, lay by her side, and raped her, threatening to kill her if she screamed and to tell if she didn't let him go.

She spent the whole night in terror, wondering what to do, and, summoning up her courage, gathered her clothes and a few valuables, and left for Alexandria.

The next morning, Moses rapped, then called for Mary. For the first time in years, he walked out into the tiny yard, his eyes dazzled by the bright Sun. Her bedroll, stained with fluids, lay disordered on the ground. "Mary, Mary...why have you left me?" he cried in agony.

For some weeks, he pondered, as he taught himself how to keep his own house. Then, he questioned passers-by as to her whereabouts. No, they had not heard of Mary, the nun. They knew, however, of Mary the Harlot, recently sold to the innkeeper Ptolemy, billed as the Second Cleopatra. Further questioning revealed that Cleo and Mary were quite alike in appearence and habit, and could be the same person. After church, when the hermits were allowed to speak, he formulated a plan.

A few days later, a strange fellow rode into Alexandria on a fine horse: old and very thin, he wore a somewhat worn-looking officer's uniform, and presented himself as Brutus, recently come back from duty leading a border patrol, ready and able to go on a spree. Asking for the best inn in town, he proceeded to laugh, sing, dance, drink, eat and slap the waitress's rump with a merry gleam in his eye. And do you know any willing women? he asked. Ah, we have the Second Cleopatra...just come upstairs...

Moses, glad to be at last rid of his disguise, slid into bed. Mary came walking in, looking professionally bored. Without a word, their eyes met.

History does not record who was more repentant: the harlot or the hermit. Each confessed their shame: hers that she had been too cowardly to shout or explain, his that he hadn't been able to protect her from Anthony. Under cover of darkness, they stole out of the house of slavery, as another Moses had led another Miriam, many years before, pausing only to return the horse and the uniform to their respective owners.

Mary and Moses went back to their cell and in time, Mary became known as a wise and holy woman of good counsel. And for as long as Moses lived, it was he who did the chores and Mary who slept safe, every night, in the inside room of the cottage.

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