Mother's Song

Her painting is of a young matron
in a long green gown; the room
is in deep shadow with two tall
candles on stands as if decorating
an altar, their pale halos of light
barely dispersing the gloom,

"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep......"

and at her knees worshipfully a small
child--is this me? I wonder-- in an
ambiguous white surplice, hands reaching
in prayer in her lap, he adoring her eyes,

"If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take...."

wondering why she taught him,
who never from childhood slept
well, that rest-wrecking prayer.
The melancholy grew in the painting;
she, who could laugh so easily,
whose satire could be so sharp,
who danced always with the ridiculous,
achieved mortality and a sadness
she never revealed. He meditated
on that creation that sharply
recalled the gloom of childhood.

2 But where did this song come from?
From the tunnels of her early century
childhood? One would not think she
could live in those shadows. She had
a big menagerie, sang she, and toys

"a little wooly dog that barked
and made a noise. She had a
wooden horse, a wooden cart--but this old
busted dolly was the idol of her heart!"

This was her frequent lullaby. And
the dolly used to call for mamma
at the tug of a string, and with a punch
at her stomach, she would try so hard
to sing.

"But then one day she could not
sing at all because some naughty boys, they came and broke the little thing that made the little noise......"

And she sang this song before my
bedtime prayers and I became still
in the anger of night. I became still.
The candle gutters and the young
woman in the green dress touches
lightly my hand. She gave me a lot
of toys, a wooly dog, and a busted
dolly. These are the idols of my heart.

3 Her husband, the pastor, was not
of the song or the prayer. Those
are hers. He, a painter of many
paintings, once made an altar piece,
a crucifixion scene, somewhere still
shocking a North Dakota church.
Mama is in it. She is the Virgin Mary.
She weaves footprints of lilies where
she walks. Her father, a great scholar,
a Christomatos, is Saint John of Patmos,
apocalypse in his hands, and his
seminary professors are Peter and
James and Thomas, all at the foot
of the cross, their faces turned
worshipfully upward; and on the tree
hangs a triumphant Christ, arrayed
in a white robe and a golden crown
and a sash of royal purple, the aegis
of Christus Salvatore Mundi.
His hands reach out as if to embrace
a universe, in his palms not wounds,
but bright rubies. The Jesus of this
crowned diadem radiating a gold
leaf halo, wears the face of my
father. In those desolated Dakota
Churches, piled high with fine snow
and bitter cold and the thirties dust
of depression drought, congregations
desperate with harsh need facing
the painting and hearing God's Word,
knew not who they worshipped.

4 And yet, this must be a part of her
song too. His '27 painting: a moonlit,
wooded scene, a deeply grieving
forest on all sides, pointed firs
stabbing softly up around a lake.
There are white highlights of moonshine
on the dark water and swimming
in light and liquid in a birchbark canoe
a single figure: a young woman--she
is dark and Indian, alone, in buckskin,
her arms and right shoulder bare,
a plain fillet filled with an eagle feather,
her head bowed, a faint smile on her lips,
her eyes intent on some mystery
in the water, the dark cave of the canoe,
the hidden rooms of her own soul-
gliding quietly through the night.
Did mamma know it was not she
who was loved, but this other?

Did this Emperor Jesus stare sternly
from his rood into that dark wood?
Did she in her candlelit room desire
the worship of her son, jealous of her
husband's Christ and his wandering
heart? Who was that dark lady he
drew with such evening romance?

"This old busted dolly....
.... pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake ....
"they came and broke......"

Why should I sleep? Why should I sleep?
I have been given so many
melancholy toys that I am afraid to sleep!

Steven Fortney
August, 1997

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