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The Little Jesus of the Barren


ISSUE:  Spring 1986
“Stay here with us, you can have our name, be our son.”
Then what’s left for Mother? And what good’s a rotten egg
to you? The archpriest just told me I’m headed for reform
school, to the gallows, where the buzzards will get me.
Because just as the churchbell rang at noon I went under
in the pond, because that’s how bad I am, fit only for
burning. “You’re the best, the most beautiful in the whole
world.” Still, I can’t be yours. “You’ll lie on the shepherd’s
sheepskin cape, on the black side in the daytime, on the
flower-stitched one at night.” It’s full of fleas. “Aunt will
give you sugared milk in a gold-rimmed glass with flowers
on it.” Why do they call you seedless? “We have no acorn
tree, and no acorns; that’s why we’re seedless,” Aunt sadly
murmurs. “The seedless are barren, like Rosie in the stall:
she has no issue, no heifer, no bullock,” Uncle explains.
Silence. Only the green acacia foams in the fire, weeping.
And I’m standing stark-naked on the stool. Even my little
cock wakes, warmed by the fire’s halo. A little while ago I
stood on the ice in the middle of the pond as though on a
little lace doily. Now bits and pieces of me on the
clothesline, my shirt-sleeve dripping tears. I’m bad, fit only
for burning. Hell is fire too. If I were to be cast on it,
green, oh, I’m nearly drowned in flames now. But Uncle
takes the golden chain of song between his teeth, shakes it
till it rings, and bids me follow. My chain, small as it is,
rings sharply between my teeth. We sing as if we’re
shoving our way through snowdrifts. . . . I wait naked for
my aunt to find something that fits me, but no. She lays me
in the chimney corner, on the black side of the sheepskin
cloak, and sinks me under an eider bolster. They presume
I’m asleep, but beneath my eyelids I watch the fire
caressing the Christmas tree and two happy faces.
Daytime’s twilight here, because the window’s as tiny as a
storm lantern’s. And the house is small, too. And Uncle’s
big; when his hat’s on his head he can’t stand up. The legs
of his boots are long too, not to mention his arms! He
slings a stone over the top of the church spire. He rips the
air apart when he sows, the seeds shrill from his fist with
the sweep of his swing. He’d sow the whole world, if it
were his. But his trouble’s even bigger than he is. Because,
when the fit’s on him he’s like the tortured man in the
Bible. No matter how quietly he may be sitting, he’s
greased lightning when the spasms come: he pulls the
flower boxes down on him, carnations, rosemary, passion
flowers, and gillyflowers. And foams at the lips. But only
he can tell a story out of the big picture book. Yesterday
we finished the Battle of Branyiszko in a blizzard. Pointing
at the Christmas tree, I begin to speak: that pastry-pipe’s
like the bangle on Pajko’s brow. “Gee!” says Uncle. That
tinsel’s the snail spit on the wall of the cellar when the sun
hits it. “Bejeez!” Uncle slaps his knees. I can’t find a
simile for the sword (there is none). Angry, I shove aside
the bolster and stand naked on the sheepskin. “What do
you think you’re doing?” I’m standing on top of the
mountain! “It’s all buried in snow now!” Never mind!
“What do you want?” And I shout, Give me soldiers!
“What kind?” Cavalry! “How many?” A zillion! “Where is
the enemy?” We’ll find him! Uncle groans in silence like
the camel in the picture. But my aunt croons like the
dove’s soft wings: “My little blossom, you’re fighting even
at Christmas time, when there’s supposed to be peace?”
Yes, I fight then, too. Even then!

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