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Some Heretics

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

The nurse was big and black
and really pissed at me,
the only kid on the burn ward.
“Your daddy’s out there cryin
and here you lie in the dark,
won’t eat or drink, for shame, shame
on you, young lady!” She screeched
the blinds up and glared.
I didn’t care much, just wanted my way,
which was out, but she got my attention.

By “out” I meant dead.
I had reached the age
of reasoning jesuitically
and assumed that my refusing to live
didn’t count, or anyway wasn’t as bad
as poison or a knife or gun.
But she had my number
and she shocked me into living.
I think so; since I was zonked on morphine
most of that time, Mother believed
I dreamed up the big black nurse.
Still, she was a messenger, my angel.

And then I read The Romance of the Troubadours
and all the other books
my family brought me! Shopping bags
full of them, “Not all of them
suitable for a Catholic girl,”
said my visiting priest. To focus on
Jo and her sisters or castles in France,
Nancy Drew and Scarlett, or even the bodice-bursting
titian-haired heroine whose name I’ve forgotten
lifted me from my bed; I could see from a height
the people in white who had to deal
with my face, my arm in its putrid bandage.

My favorites were the troubadours,
those gentle heretics who traveled in pairs,
wore black, who abstained from the world
and sang the bodiless love of their Lady.
They believed the body was a prison
for the soul, only a veil,
a shift of motes that colored the air
for a time. They sang from one rocky

Provence castle to the next and finally caught
their spotless feet in the Church’s webs.
Then they went on singing, embracing
Inquisition fire, avid for the other life.
Maybe the fire taught them, maybe not,
what I had learned: flesh is real enough.
A little like them, I promised myself
to what I believed lay beyond, past

my burned body. When you learn to step out
of your body, it is best to believe in accidents,
to praise them really—I got caught by fire,
no way was I like that son in the news
whose father set him ablaze—they loved me,
the uncles gave their blood which matched my own,
my parents would have died to stop my pain,
but after, when I healed, they would have
set me down to the family treadmill—except
that I kept my faith in the accidental.


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