July 19, 2018 >

July 19, 2018 >

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Sanctuary: An Excerpt

by Shannon Harwood

You are writing about women and violence and you have an uncertain prescription for sleep: You find a small fan that rattles as it runs on low through the night.  Fully clothed and wearing two pairs of socks, you roll yourself in a flannel blanket that belonged to your parents, taking care to tuck the edge under your feet. You lay the linen flat sheet on top and the duvet follows, then the Pendleton wool blanket topped with a shitty cotton throw from West Elm. Around your head you drape the tie-dyed blanket made of sweatshirt fabric from your undergrad college, folding a low visor to cover your eyes, making sure it is compacted enough around your ears to mute the fan rattle slightly. Some nights you wake up in a fever sweat, other nights you don’t. Some nights you sleep.


You are writing about women and violence and you heard everything before the fan. Creaks, snaps. The distant barking of dogs, deer bedding down in the tall grass by the creek. Muffled sounds of all kinds. You waited for the strange sounds–– blood-coursing close sounds in the dark under all your layered blankets. Ever-vigilant, you imagine what each could mean for your safety. You imagine a person who is robbing you. A person who will kill you. You imagine a person who just broke your locks, just now.

You do not imagine a woman.

Sanctuary: refuge. Sanct: holy.

An ex-lover in bed on a Sunday saying you are my church. Head dipping under the covers.


A phantom in the shape of a woman stands on a ship heading east.


Sanctuary. You believe– viscerally, unwaveringly– that flying through the double doors of St. John the Evangelist church will render your small body untouchable, like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is your all-encompassing back-up plan. Weapons of mass destruction? Sanctuary. Men with guns? Sanctuary. You think the church can swaddle you in safety like Jesus in a stable manger.

You are eight years old.


At night you dream about the Temple Guards from the Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. You dream that they wrap huge arms around your torso to pull you through an opening in the wall that didn’t exist before. Sometimes they emerge from the trunks of trees in the Dark Forest. Your dream ends when they disappear with your body, one big hand covering your mouth.


You’ve been in the church when it’s dark.

You’ve run your hands along each carved pew where it meets the center aisle, walking slowly forward toward the altar. You have thought about the Sanctuary shadows, about the candles that the altar servers know to extinguish after mass and the candles they know to keep burning.


Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Martin, the angel Gabriel, Saint Augustine, Saint Joseph, Saint Michael, Saint Paul, Saint Peter. St. John the Evangelist church is flanked by men in stained glass. There are two women in the windows: Saint Elizabeth and Saint Catherine.

They are beautiful to you, all of them. One of your favorites is Saint Michael, his sword driving through a dragon at his feet. But you’ll never forget the face of Saint Catherine, crowned, looking down.


You are writing about women and violence when you find a picture of St. Catherine’s window on the church website. She looks upward, hand on her breast, as if she is pledging herself to heaven. St. Elizabeth’s is the face you remember, robe held open and looking down at the roses spilling from it.

You’ve been catching your mind doing this more and more. Not forgetting, but revising memories that you can picture with certainty and clarity until they are provoked, and proved wrong.

It does take provocation.

St. Catherine was the one who had a vision that she was married to Jesus. She converted to Christianity, then tried to convert the pagan emperor of Rome.

He had her imprisoned.

While locked away, she converted several pagan priests, the emperor’s wife and her soldiers. The emperor offered Catherine a royal marriage if she would convert back to paganism, but she refused, claiming she was already married to Jesus. Catherine was to be tied to a wheel, tortured and killed. She broke the wheel with one touch, so they beheaded her instead.

An ex-lover in bed on a Sunday saying you are my church. Head rolling under the covers.


The Parish Center next to St. John’s church used to be a convent. You walk out of the dining room where the church holds coffee hour after mass and down the hall to the small side chapel, imagining several women having a life here.

A whole life, here.

The chapel is white with beveled glass windows that toss light everywhere. Your mother works for the church, but she is not a nun. When your mother first explained nuns to you, she said they’re married to God. You’ve seen Sister Act and The Sound of Music, but you still think that sounds kind of gross, and kind of sad.


You are writing about women and violence, and you’re stuck on words.
Changeable/Vowing to remain.

A consonant’s distance between before and after.


You are writing about women and violence, and you remember that St. Elizabeth was the daughter of a king. She would sneak out of her royal home to give food to the poor. Her husband (who was not God) once found her and ripped her cloak open to expose the provisions she was delivering. Are you carrying food like a servant?

The miracle: not food, but roses. Red and white. Representing the blood and body of Christ.


You probably first learn about Helen in school, your fourth grade teacher perhaps explaining Greek mythology. You know Helen of Troy was impossibly beautiful and definitely blonde. You know that Helen married Menelaus and then ran away with Paris, her must-have-been-true love.

Why else would she run away with him?

To get Helen back, the Trojan War happened, something with a horse, and then it’s time for gym class.


Helen was born from Leda and Zeus. Helen was married to Menelaus. Helen was seduced by Paris. Helen was taken to Troy. Troy was invaded by Greece. Troy lost.

Helen was impossibly beautiful because Helen was the most beautiful. Helen was impossibly beautiful because, thousands of years later, you still can’t leave her alone. The blonde part cannot be confirmed.

Beauty worship. Head dipping down in prayer.

When Helen was the age of a fourth grader, she was raped by Theseus.

You haven’t always needed the fan, and you haven’t always lay awake listening.


Kairos: the right moment.


Shannon Harwood is a recovering people-pleaser who writes about bodies, shame, and Helen of Troy. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with one hound and several waterproof jackets.