They’re the riddle in my garden What has eyes but cannot see? Like a stone, they fit my hand as I turn their other cheek. With love but no regrets, I mash them into mounds or whip them, scallop them, dice them for rivel soup. Cancer could not lessen Dad’s affection for them fried. He tells how they clustered like sleigh bells in the sand where nothing else but winter squash and zucchini thrived. His mother, Fannie Mishler, fixed them for every meal like some cultures live on rice. My son-in-law from St. Louis splashes hot sauce on their skin, but I fancy even their pockmarked faces that shrivel as they age.
Christ lives in my unchosen life, resident In the upright ashes of these brittle bones, Mapping blood routes and checking airways, Catching the breaking news in my nerves,
Ever exploring under wrinkling tissue skin For portal throughout my temporal universe, Arriving at last behind these old searching eyes And, through haunting blur, giving vision to wings
Of candle flames fluttering about the altar’s cross As pipes, chimes and steeple bells ring, resonate And indwell, bidding me, familiar beggar at table, To take bread and wine like a taster for the king.
He’d seen it all. Swathes of nothingness spun into stars, the slapping of the first fin onto land, and now these creatures, by far the cleverest and the saddest—though listing it that way felt faulty, as if all happenings unfurled inch by inch instead of blooming in one cacophony, the apple crumpling just outside the city walls.
And it wasn’t even an apple, or fig, or pomegranate glinting with infernal seeds, though he’d accommodate their legends, accept provisional truths, the same way they worked with the earth un-sphered and stilled in leaf-thin sketch. To overlook imprecision in the premises, concede to the limits of both flesh and paper, was what it meant to translate, as to love. Which struck him as strange pottery: roll everything that’s been into a coil and score it with each day; cram self into cage of clay and bone; daub their closed eyes in slip and wait for it to flake off to new sight. It seemed to take what they called a lifetime.
But they didn’t have that, not right here, beside the village known as House-of-Misery whose people rent their clothes. Before he even spoke Mary’s tears were falling warm onto his feet, carving clear trails through the coat of dust.
If you had been here. He stood enveloped in the sound of all their moans, entangled in her locks of dampening hair. If you had been here. All grief’s audacity pitched in her splintering voice, she raised her head to look at him, and in her water-darkened eyes he who’d seen all things felt this: pain’s veil dividing now from everything that is not-now. And he began to weep.
We stood on a green hill on a brisk day, two small sisters in coats, singing two-part harmony into a tiny grave. Our preacher dad had asked us to sing the one about children and their heavenly father at the burial of a baby, stillborn to a couple named Story.
But this was a story I couldn’t crack. How could a baby be born with no breath or life, how could a baby be dead, but still, born?
I looked at the mother’s eyes as the two of us sparrowed on about how life and death would never sever—I knew it meant separate—children from God’s strong arms.
It was nice to get paid for singing, but I didn’t want to ever be dead and flourishing in some faraway holy courts. Each night I prayed uneasily that If I died before I woke the Lord would take my soul— God suddenly materializing in the dark room, like a frightful thief in the night, to spirit some unseen part of me up and away.
I liked my real home on the prairie. And I wanted my story: all babies born unstill into their fathers’ arms, everyone mounting green hills unwounded by grave dirt, all of us singing an old, old story and breathing, breathing, grace all around us like fresh air.
That’s what it’s called the men tell me after our discussion of Matthew Five and what it means to turn the other cheek, or not, the latter being the path that brought them here. But what, I wonder is a “natural life”? Isn’t it, really, the life led by everyone, those behind walls and those without, each of us living the one life given which is to say there’s no parole for anyone. Yet listening to the men describe how they found Jesus, or rather He found them despite everything, or maybe because, I think of Paul on the road to Damascus, the sudden light, blinding, transforming, reforming, or then again this, a slow inner revealing, the shy gift of sweet snowdrops