the morning when she finds the tomb empty leaps from her the way the first spry geyser sprang from the Titanic. She bangs her knee and ducks to look again. Her adviser, John, warned her it was dangerous to come. Holed up behind locked doors, the gang of guys who claimed to love him. She runs her thumb across the ledge where his dead body lies.
Or rather doesn’t. Her heart’s a cypress forming a final growth ring, final grief: his body gone, his lithe hand, the small scar from the sharp chisel. To what can she say yes? Who is she now? Where to put belief? Her cry gashes the fragile morning air.
On the gallery wall in Paris you see a splendid life-size thigh, how it’s tapering to a calf and pointed toe. It’s a Degas ballerina who pulls light on like a stocking.
The ornate gold frame says, Look at this. You’re here alone, so why not stay, go down to the very root of light, practice patience? Sinking in, you linger all afternoon.
On the subway home, you see and praise legs. Bare. In jeans. Thin or superbly plump. Recall your lion-footed table. Praise this leg of your trip, learning to see. Joy trumps itself: Allegro, legume. The wonder: your own tibia! The miracle: your own leg to stand on!
The organ swings into the invitation hymn, slinging us around the known world toward the apogee of surrender, Oh Muse of Scripture, Muse of Choice, Muse of the Sawdust Trail. I look at my hand resting on this oak pew, shaped like Asia, a million cells teeming, blood pumping, going on with its normal irreligious, hungry life. Things are being decided. We are singing Just As I Am, the fourth verse, over. My right hand listens to the soprano next to me, balancing on her catwalk of steep chords. It longs to fly up to that soaring obbligato. Just raise your hand, the Evangelist calls, if you want God to use you on the mission field. What he means: when God wants to find you, He will know where to look. My right hand twitches, tugging skyward on its kite string. What I have been taught: marks on paper, numbers, letters, postulates, break down. The whole repertoire of my life has been practice for this moment. I try to make myself restful and empty, nothing but an interval before the generous right hand, and the sinister left, decide.
Then my mother became my child. I'd felt so light on the teeter-totter that I was surprised by such power, holding someone so important in the sky with nothing but my weight on the other side. It was kind of thrilling, kind of strange. And I noticed the earth is jagged with faults and fractures. Grass staggers in uneven dirt and the shoreline zigs and zags. You can never glue the two uneven pieces of a broken teacup perfectly together.
When she died, I worried about her as if I'd driven her to her first day of school and left her there alone. For weeks I wondered, did she find her classroom? Is she making friends in heaven? I'm trying to glue pieces of the cup together. Heaven is roughly what I mean. If God ever used that word, he spoke in Hebrew. Nothing, it turns out, has a simple surface. Maybe it's the missing and the faults we have to love.
I can hear thunder grind against the earth, vibrate with imprecations. Nature's tossing down her gauntlet, promising extended sieges, threatening to lock us in tragedy the way she locks a fly in amber, so I flee to the store, wanting to lay in plenty. Entering the bright delirium, I harvest cans of gumbo and chowder, embrace beets and turnips who've repented living as fanged roots. I gather wheat in tiny wheels of pasta, while a stock boy wipes his hands on his blue apron and reaches crackers for a child, and the scarf lady summons me to read a label. Mark this, the inauspicious aisle where we have met. I say, build an altar. Let the sideshow of breads praise our communion. Let chèvre and camembert commemorate the place where we say to one another, Three inches! We're in for it now! and other liturgies of festive panic. Because soon enough the thunder will take back its fulminations, black clouds break from their huddle, wheel and gallop off, leaving us shy and silent, wondering what that holy moment meant, what this altar signifies, the brief joy strangers gave to one another.
The tiny whitecaps bare their rotten teeth all morning as wind berates rainwater, as razors of rain gash its surface and then the thunder takes back its threats and the water in the birdbath lies smooth enough to skate on, lies like a mirror holding up a silver airplane while it crosses the sky safely, all its people drinking from their plastic cups.
She’s on life support. Racing to get there, his Jaguar fishtails on the frozen highway. She was a beauty and elusive as the future, his mother, usually traveling on his birthday.
He felt he couldn’t fly, had to touch dirt every inch of the way. To fly would be to unpeel too fast the onion of his hurt.
She’d call. He wouldn’t answer. He was busy.
Now it’s ice he notices, gray molars locking to dark bluffs, the way ice locks his heart in steely winter logic. Then sun shimmers on ice, the lock breaks, and love flows. Relief, oh melting! as he steers toward his mother.
The bag I drag is solid as earth, clods I couldn’t shake off roots reeking of rocks and blackness, the kind of dirt they’ll use to bury us. As in Iraq, where the body count climbed so fast mortuaries posted Help Wanted beside the highway.
And let me mention my own complicity with darkness, buying a jade jacket sewn by a hungry child in Singapore. And the way I say darkness, a skin tone not my own. Even the calibrations of a poem, tricky, the justice of lines, evil wrestling with good in the miniature Madison Square Garden of a page.
As I weed, I listen to the sweet cacophony of neighbor kids on scooters, the argument of work, its ache in my arms.
When the lawn bag rips, dandelions tumble out, eager to spread their seed. You know how gullible evil is, sure of itself, always believing the worst. Are dandelions weeds or flowers? Maybe I’ll tear the bag, send seeds flying, encourage a suspicious universe to bloom.
Wasn’t it Augustine who said, evil is matter out of place? He kisses his love as he pivots from the brothel gate, his ardent heart already gritty with guilt. I imagine the big A trying to shake sin from himself as I haul our red rug out and shake it. Dear God, what we track in, how sin sifts like fine silt into our deepest grooves! And once inside, the dirt forgets that it’s our backyard. We keep tracking the outside in, sweeping it out again.
Or that’s what I get from The Confessions. How love, like soil, is out of place for, maybe, half its orbit. How sinning and repentance follow one another like all the circles on this fickle earth, rain taken up by clouds, then falling on us again. Maples spinning whiffs that grow to seedlings. Children begetting children. And every insult you bestow whirring like graying underwear in some dryer of regret.
Way back in Christianity’s kindergarten, Augustine had it figured out. He guessed our remorse and longing as he closed the brothel door, seeing a woman gaze at the sooty outline on her white sheet of a tall blacksmith the morning after.
Suppose I scooped the whole sky in my hand, I couldn’t hold it. Yet hearing a goldfinch, I feel, well, yes, that tiny song might clench the whole primordial rumpus of the wind.
I wonder if she felt the fearful flame fly into her womb? What did she hear? Or maybe when God enters time, he’s quiet. Is the child in the manger meek so He, who fills all place, won’t scare us? After my mother’s death, I stood in darkness, bereft and tiny on an ocean pier, a spent coin. Night opened its purse and flung me up, expanding toward the stars.
This is the last outrage, what women do in secret, slipping their fingers under bras or nightgowns on wild, moon-driven nights, needing to true the circle of their breasts, wanting to lunge below desire, beneath arousal and beyond the sweet milk-happiness of feeding children to find the nuclear godawful contraband their bodies might be hiding—the refrain danger, danger, singing in their minds.
At dusk I slip into a pew, enthralled, alert, combing through the week to find what might destroy me, to send it away. Lawyer, accused, bent to root out scandal, my hands judging. And also, maybe guilty.
I felt it, riding through the afternoon— the nights are getting shorter and it’s cold and then the baby shifted in my womb and the innkeeper sent us to his sandy field. I did what I was made to do. And now who knows what else is possible? God’s breath moves against the soft nose of the cow. The moon shines on this shed and on the path where you lean, watching us. Who are you? I am the round yon virgin of your song. You are the sky the light is passing through, and you are the iron moonlight. You’re sweet fresh- smelling hay. You’re Bethlehem, the tall kings. Reach out, release us from this wooden crèche.
The scarlet petals were floppy as old hats by March, and falling into piles on the rug, so I cut its plastic pot to free its roots and laid it by the compost in the mud. Busy that spring, I never noticed how it waited out the months, night after night in wind, in grueling rain and a late snow, inclining from the compost into light, its new leaves firming, shining, thick, like a novitiate of a strange order, as days warm, growing fierce and quick, blessing the lost plants I’ve lodged there. It rang like church bells, red, on the hour. Now let me learn to love what cannot flower.