The feel of awl and augur in his hardened hands, the rough hull rimed with salt, a whittled plug he made himself, so tight he set his teeth! His handiwork behind him, Norway a miniature carved in the distance, he watched the gray Atlantic like a ravenous whale devour everything between.
The story ends, and yet begins again. Here in a foreign port, his touch begins to read each sign, the curves and swellings, splintered keel and patchwork. How his heart quickens when he finds his father’s fishing boat, familiar as his name, the family build, their house nailed fast above the rocky harbor.
And yet begins again. How the found word both fits and startles, an oracle recovered just in time, just when it’s needed, just before faith slips away like my great-grandfather’s wedding coat, ruined in a flooded basement with old books and portraits, speckled sepia like a gull’s egg, water-marked and too far gone to keep.
And the flames leap higher in the darkening sky; a vivid wall of fire sheds its light on faces hushed as if a child were being born, a manger ready in the rudest inn. Everywhere straw and the droppings of chickens, broken plaster, dust of collapse. In the camps, children die of cholera, hungry dogs drag garbage through back alleys running like a sore.
Here, the stench of bodies trapped in bricks and mortar will remain a little while. In the plaza they wrap their noses, silent as the captives find a quick release—a sudden rush of wind, a rain of embers when each soul flies up.
A mantra stills their scoured tongues. Expectant, calm, and speechless underneath white winter stars, they eye the pyre simple as a crèche, this crowning what a birth might be, no midwife but their prayers that mount, gray gulls above the stretching limbs of trees.
Each twist of bird and clover winds so cunningly into a sheen of wing and figured leaf. Indigo, ground lapis lazuli, dark ochre, cochineal bleed across each page; so worlds are wrung, with a deft touch of wolf's hair, into this tiny Eden. It's enough to make us forget the late spring snow outside, the slippery pavement and faintly flowering bush. Here is a secret refuge. For Adam and Eve everything, everything waits on their pleasure—light, darkness, and dazzling color, the curve of hand on hip or breast. At night the fields whisper with hidden life; they take the cool of the evening in sweet-smelling bowers, neither looking forward nor back to the time before creation. The tree-line shivers with their every indrawn breath.
Listen, you cannot hear the small bells rung for mass, or smell the pungent incense. No one is selling tickets at this hour; nothing is open here at the earth’s edge where sheep block the road, and torrents pour from the stony mountain. Above the shrouded dead, tar-soaked timbers with their pitched roofs sky-dive bravely toward the stratosphere. Jet-lagged, we wake to a world spilled open into white and cloudless sky.
Flowers, yellow, purple, white, the one called “stepmother,” crouch like pansies underneath the gallery floor. All day we have been driving near the sound of water, the cry of unfamiliar birds. Now we are tired. Your foot, then mine, tests the sagging steps for rot; your eye, then mine, pries through the worn keyhole. Both of us think we will never be back. Your hand, then mine, refrains from touching the carved lintel with its snakes and dragons out of fear it might dissolve, and like so many things, our faces flushed, our bodies warm from walking, just disappear into thin air.
In June the World’s Fair with bright red strawberries and cream over seared Belgian waffles. It grows hot. Trapped in the crowd, a tangled skein of nerves, lost and hungry for quiet, for tenderness, I ride with my aunt on a long conveyor belt to see the Pietà. So gentle the grieving, tranquil mother with her downcast eyes, the stone folds still around her, the cold flesh of her perfect son. She does not attempt to cry. My aunt, primed by The Agony and the Ecstasy, leans to recognize “Buonarroti” on the chiseled band, tasting the contours of each round unaccustomed syllable. She whispers the name. She will not last two years. Silent, thrilled and careful as dancers, when we step off on solid ground we are joined by our secret, sworn never to tell what we have no words to say. This is how it will be in the winter we take our leave: bitter flakes in a sharp ribbon of wind beyond tears or anger, the long frozen loop home from the hospital waiting for me, as we both know. Suddenly shy and tongue-tied as a girl, she will reach out from her bed to touch me, recalling too the marble brow, faintly wrinkled, the white hand, open, as if it were asking a question.
One took the colony by the heels, slapping its flank until it issued a broad cry of rage. Tall and forbidding, she waxed both sharp and sweet, flying in the angry face of magistrates, chafing the tender hearts of the unregenerate gently with her tireless voice. She coaxed as women labored in their cramped beds of pain.
The other fashioned quills and parsed her poems in clean white sheets. Still, her clumsy child shamed her, walking on stumbling feet, as real a “monstrous birth” as the first Anne’s tissue of stubborn clots. What was it she tried to say, poet in a wife’s starched linen, submitting to her tasks and thanking God without conviction for each bitter loss? Sarah, Hagar in exile, she too never went back; the stormy Atlantic roiled, keeping her margins, her heart rising within her and rising, rising again.
Support the Christian Century
The Century's work relies primarily on subscriptions and donations. Thank you for supporting nonprofit journalism.