Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 14, 27, 33.
Last spring we planted a small
Japanese maple. So meager and spindly,
its few leaves curving over its pencil-thin
stem like a derelict, half-open umbrella.
We could only imagine this year’s
perfection, the dappled shade it would cast,
there, by the standing stone, its leaves
like little hands unfolding their rich, red
translucency, blessing the Chinese
water bowl half full of rounded beach stones,
its surface dimpled as water pours,
like music, from the bamboo spout.
Not the syndrome of the child
manifesting later than usual
that bothered parents
rich enough for
on their own
faces and brains
too poor to cope with
an arduous learning process.
For fifteen years a near angel
taught them how hard one
has to work for wings;
then in a flap of
heart she was
Nine years she flaunted
her lover on the streets of Montepulciano,
then rode high on his costly stallions,
their illegitimate son cradled against her hips
on that jewel-studded saddle.
On her ripe lips, the town was a sweet fruit,
the woods the dark rind she sucked nightly.
What did she know then of the oak’s alluring and sad embrace,
that ominous fall of autumn in which her cavalier rode off?
Only his dog returned, sniffing out his bloodied master,
murdered and mangled beneath a tree’s dead arms.
She saw assassins everywhere
in God’s bright eyes.
The moon was the howl of vengeance,
and she listened.
With a noose about her neck
and her child in her arms,
she stepped barefooted and weeping
toward the Cortona convent.
Where is the clock of forgiveness
in our sadly mortal bodies,
the thorn that ticks our last minutes
toward an hour of understanding?
For twenty-nine years,
she scrubbed the defiled wounds of the poor,
hugged a hair-shirt of penance to her aging breasts,
punctured her body for the world’s harlotries.
Only then, prostrate and bleeding before a crucifix,
did she begin to see: Christ moving toward her,
his gashed palm raised mercifully in peace.