We think she’s some kind of nun,
but she calls herself
a Eucharistic Minister
and carries in her long, painted fingers
a golden chalice
with a paten for a lid.
Black her dress,
edged white at the decolletage,
short sleeves and hem.
Lipstick. Spiked heels.
A wimple of long, auburn hair,
and a plain, gold cross
heaving on that bib of flesh.
A scholarly Mary Magdalene
with a purse of hosts
for the trauma patients.
She asks my father if he wants communion.
From his wheelchair he looks up.
He cannot quite place her habit.
“No,” he whispers shyly.
“Then will you say the Our Father with me?” she asks.
Though he would prefer to refuse,
he is too much a gentleman.
By the time they reach trespasses,
my father has stopped speaking
and stares at the woman
whose eyes are closed as she finishes
the prayer alone. After she leaves,
he says to me:
“These priests have it made.”
With apostolic zeal
the nuns made plain that at random
one might be called upon to die for the faith.
Sainthood, they called it, craving
with every breath, they professed,
the opportunity for glory the headsman occasioned.
I desired sainthood as much as anyone,
but made myself sick obsessing
over what would come for me
at the appointed time, the door
suddenly kicked in by an infidel
demanding I renounce Jesus.
Methods of martyring ranged from simple dispatch –
Venantius was beheaded, Mathias stoned –
to the peevishly imaginative:
Saint James was hurled down
from the terrace of the temple
and clubbed to death, the Forty Holy
Martyrs exposed on a frozen pond,
Bartholemew flayed alive.
There were the North American martyrs,
Isaac Jogues and the rest of the mad Jesuits
who suffered fingers and toes chewed off by the Huron.
Still conscious, they watched their organs eaten.
At tiny desks we crayoned
coloring-book sketches of them
in our Catechism Primers,
imagining what kinds of martyrdom
North America would require of us.
Crayola red for blood.
“Stay within the lines,” the sisters commanded.
At night, catacombed in bedclothes,
I argued with myself.
Of course I would die for Jesus,
ten days of agony, broken glass, snakes,
molten ore, vivisection.
But why not hoodwink my inquisitors?
Simply feed them white lies:
that I was through with Jesus,
I’d worship Baal or Apollo.
To placate them,
to get them to call off the big cats
and put up those rusty, blunt instruments.
God would know
that in my heart I hadn’t betrayed Him.
Why be tortured and die?
I was only seven.
But, in that same heart, I knew:
Only blood and agony could dye
the royal robes of sainthood;
only death could wear its crown.
There was no no when they came for you,
no yes. Only death,
and you had to be happy about it.
The martyrs sang praises as they expired.
Further I’d hunker under the covers,
fingering into the bedsheet
the shape of a fish,
then pray to disappear.
In your sleep lions sound like a bed
being dragged across a wooden floor.
The vibrato, ineffable power
gathering breath; and pretty soon
it’s inside you. Roaring,
but so much bigger, distant
and large as the ocean,
yet in the house and padding
down the linoleumed hall.
I suppose I got scared and screamed
because my parents would be there,
telling me it was just a dream;
and the three of us would listen
to the lions’ caged rumbling.
We lived just two blocks from the Pittsburgh Zoo.
“You’ve heard them since you were born,”
they’d reason. The way they smiled
at me as if they knew something.
I’d think, maybe finally it’s all over.
Maybe I’m in heaven.
Sleepwalking in Purgatory
The house had nothing to mark it
for having whelped seven children,
but their fictions –
love foreswearing love.
When finally freed by death of that
one cursed shackle of blood,
what ghosts were conscripted to tarry
(home) in its abandonment
until it was knocked down could not depart.
There remained in the cellar
beneath the rafter and its noose
a trunk. Stirped in night’s black wool,
they jar and pry
without unspelling the lock.
The earth turns and suspires.
At first light, the elliptic
shog of the wrecking ball
remands them back to fire.
In the hospital waiting room,
you catch a TV highlight
of a Grapefruit League game.
Randy Johnson, like a tetched kestrel-faced prophet,
lurches off the mound with a fastball.
Across the strike zone swoops a dove,
maybe an angel. You’re in Pittsburgh,
March, and it’s snowing. All week
you’ve seen angels; everyone’s tired
and calling even awful things angels,
intimating miracles. Johnson’s pitch
obliterates the bird, a hail of feathers and dander,
as if inside it a tiny bomb exploded.
Like a cartoon. It’s quite unbelievable.
All around you, people are dying. But you ignore it.
You laugh at the massacred dove.
It’s not funny, but you laugh.
You could cry, rip your hair out, your clothes off,
crash through the seventh floor window
into the slushy black streets of the city.
It’s funny because it’s not.
The clip plays over and over,
eight, nine times in slower and slower motion:
the wind-up, the pitch, then the bird
blows off the screen like smoke. Each time you laugh.
Hard. The way as a kid in school,
when a nun was beating the living
angels out of you with her fists,
and you wanted to kill her, you’d laugh
and laugh and laugh and laugh.