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.
In the crate of ornaments not to be touched, rested in cotton my mother’s golden walnuts: glass, thinner than egg shells, easily shattered. She hung them from the boughs herself.
Real nuts, we ate on Advent evenings, sitting round the burning wreath, cracking hazelnuts and almonds, peeling tangerines. My father split the walnuts single-handed, then let us root out gnarled halves and pieces. Each nut, a mystery beneath its sealed shell.
I hate mysteries, my son proclaims one day. And yet, he sits all season snapping nuts, gathering pecans from the back lawn, separating the green and black or gnawed.
The tools—a toothed and silver hinge, a screw and lever, assorted picks—he places on the table. Some of the harvested will be rotten, some unripe. The best emerge from cocoons as rich as butter, most in shards and others whole. All of these will be put to use in pies and bread.
He works quietly, entirely focused on the task. On the oilcloth, a pile of husks easily swept away, and the delight of knowledge, gleaming brown and full of grace as a new pair of shoes.
Michael Izbicki grew up in a nondenominational church in California. A National Merit Scholarship finalist, he chose to go to the U.S. Naval Academy out of a sense of duty to his country during a time of war. At the naval academy he began to doubt whether the career to which he had committed himself could be squared with the tenets of just war doctrine. He got in trouble when he responded no to this exam question: "If given the order, would you launch a missile carrying a nuclear warhead?" After a four-year legal battle, the navy discharged him as a conscientious objector. Izbicki may have to reimburse the service for part or all of his education (New York Times, February 22).