I was a sad young shepherd,
and really would have preferred
my rocks and clouds, my sheep-turd
solitude. But times had grown so hard
there in the late seventh century,
after my father died,
that it became my duty to carry
my paralyzed mother
(my birth had played strange hell with her),
or drag her, rather,
in a backward wheelbarrow
I’d roped around my shoulders,
begging from door to door.
From Mercia over the moors
into Sussex, we poor dears
begged our way. That is, I did.
She never said a word,
and finally, near Steyning, our frayed
rope snapped. We stopped. I cut green withes
and twisted a flimsy, ersatz rope,
and cursed it with two oaths:
when this one broke, by God, I’d stop
forever. And on that spot,
goddammit, I’d build a church
where I could beg forever in place.
That rope soon broke as a matter of course,
and, fighting down my strong urge
to kill my mother and die,
I lifted her, very tenderly,
and laid her out on the ground.
I flipped the barrow over
to keep the hot sun off her,
and propped it with a pretty stick I found.
Thus I built
the pitiful church I called
whose roof her silence,
her life, suddenly ended.
I heard a choking, gurgling last breath.
---And stood there, her only friend,
staring into the distance,
counting the tilted, jumbled horizons
known today as the South Downs,
and beyond them, one huge ocean.
In all my life, no one
I’d ever known had ever seen
an ocean before. I felt afraid.
I knelt and prayed.
For about fourteen centuries
that was all I did.
But after the first four the Normans came,
wading up out of the blue, great swarms of them,
They built a real stone church
they called St. Andrew’s,
with a squat tower and small
but deafening bell
whose waves engulfed me, harmlessly, to reproach
my oafish fears
and drown out my selfish prayers.
But somehow, even nowadays,
and all her sad birthdays,
here I am,
still praying them.
Not kneeling, though. I sit. A bad
public statue in limestone,
watching over a seldom-visited
South Downs village, unserved by train.
(New Ohio Review No.27 (2020))
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