Poem: A Silent Night

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poem silent night

The Prelude

The night is silent; but is it holy?

The night’s freezing, the hour ungodly!

‘Tis the hour when evil shapes

slink out of their filthy lair

and flit amongst the shadows

to lie in wait for hapless souls.

For that’s when the inky air

writhes and sizzles like the Gorgon’s hair.

It’s wintry, desolate, full of dread

under the old stone bridge,

brooding o’er a rocky, dried-up riverbed.

A papier-mâché sky, moonless, sprinkled

with stars hanging on the edge

of ragged storm clouds, sullen, red.

Down in the valley, people are celebrating

the Festival of Lights; but up here

it’s mostly dark.

 

What little light is seeping out

of the windows of

cottages dotting the steep mountainside

discovers a vague shape, huddled in a hollow under a pillar –

a dirty ragamuffin, a wastrel barely twelve,

pulling her threadbare old coat around her

with all her might against a chilly wind that,

like a knife, creeps around her, just waiting to slice into her flesh.

Eyelids so heavy she can barely

keep them apart; and yet blissful sleep eludes her.

The stinging pain, crawling around like scorpions

in her empty stomach,

keeps her awake. Shuffling uneasily

amongst the trash in the shrubs and

brambles, her bare foot strikes something:

a square paperboard it seems.

She feels around with her hands

and sure enough, it’s a matchbook!

Partly soggy, discarded; a lot like herself.

“A little warmth,” she smiles, her heart glad, “and light!”

Rubbing her numb hands together,

she breaks off one stick from the book

and strikes it.

With a slight hiss the match flares up; instantly,

The space under the bridge is bright as day.

Father

Staring into the heart of the flame, she sees, wonder of

Wonders! Oh! What a magical sight! A stage

Set in a beautiful home, festive lights,

a lovely mother, a handsome father

And a pretty daughter, her own age!

The daughter is dancing, twirling, and turning,

round and round, on nimble toes to unearthly music

Silent to the urchin’s ears.

The happy family gathers around a

table laden with sumptuous fare: –

All the meat, fish, and fowl, all the fruits and sweets

the heart could desire.

Now they are seated: father at the head, smiling lovingly at

wife and daughter on either side.

Now they are passing the plates around.

Their lips move, eating, laughing, talking.

Without warning, the scene changes.

The lights are robbed of their sheen,

Mommy is nowhere to be seen, and

Daddy is alone with his little girl.

His arm is around her waist. He pinions

her to his side in a vice-like grip, so she cannot stir.

His eyes have shrunk small in his head.

They blink over an abyss of

reptilian cunning.

Long neck and head twisted downward,

he is looking askance at his little darling.

Like a rabbit caught in the glare

of headlights in the night, the girl is petrified.

“Watch out!!” but no one hears the waif shriek

as she drops the burnt-out matchstick.

The scene dissolves faster than

ink in a pail of murky water.

Mother

Shivering and fumbling in the dark,

with frantic fingers, she gropes

For the matchbook. Her fingers close around it,

And she breaks off and lights another stick.

In the leaping flames appears the mother,

Her face twisted in grievous pain, horror, and pity

Wild. In terror, the urchin watches

as the deflowered daughter,

her face and limbs bruised blue and black,

her lovely dress stained with blood and ripped to shreds,

crawls up behind her mother

whose face is turned away. Weeping piteously,

she reaches out to touch her mother’s arm.

Quick as a flash the woman wheels around.

Her narrowed eyes are vicious.

Of motherly love there’s not a trace

in her white stony face. It is filled instead, 

with boundless disgust, and cold hatred.

She raises her arm, and strikes

her daughter hard on the side of her head.

And once again, the scene vanishes.

A yelp of pain escapes the urchin’s lips

as the flame singes her finger before going out.

Child

Somewhere a clock chimes three.

Beating perfect time, the hooting of a barred owl,

(“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”)

Calls out to the townsfolk, buried beneath a pall

of sleep. Sick at heart, the urchin awaits the dawn,

her eyelids drooping. A rustle of leaves and twigs snapping

close by jolts her awake.

Suspended in the darkness

two glowing yellow eyes are sidling near, closing in on her.

Bolt upright, she breaks off the last stick from the matchbook

And strikes it. Turning up its bushy tail, a fox

Scampers off into the night.

All the while the urchin is staring into the flame

That opens new vistas in her sight.

A vast rocky desert, arid, brown, and ochre,

without a trace of

Green to slake the parched eye.

The sharp jagged mountain peaks,

like a shark’s jaw, are taking a bite out of the

Pitiless blue sky. A row of boys (they can’t be thirteen, not yet!),

dressed in long tunics, white prayer caps on their heads, are

kneeling on the ground, bowing low.

Two tall, swarthy men, with fierce hawk-like faces,

in turbans and flowing beards,

armed to the teeth with deadly weapons,

stand in front. One man is speaking to the boys.

His lips move, he gesticulates, but she cannot hear a word of

the harangue. Shortly, at a command from him,

the boys get to their feet.

The other man hands each child an assault rifle

From a box on the ground beside him.

Soon the boys start walking towards the mountains,

Their commanders watching from behind.

One small boy, straggling, with a gun longer than his

arm, is walking slightly apart; he looks up at

the sky. His dazed eyes search

For questions that don’t exist.

He takes another step and stops.

The next instant, a landmine beneath his feet explodes 

in a blaze of blinding light, ripping him

apart, limb from limb,

in a shower of blood and body parts.

 

In a flash the scene changes.

A field full of folk, sitting on the ground, their pious faces

raised skyward in deep devotion to a god unknown.

A tall, burly man appears, striding towards them,

his face flushed in anger, his bearing sinister, eyes

Menacing. The spitting image of Death incarnate, 

he reaches into his duffel bag as he comes within

shooting range.

There is a flurry of alarm in the group; some

Spring up and run for cover. All at once, a woman rises.

Calm and serene, her face filled with a strange light.

With stately grace, she walks up to the stranger,

without fear or malice and speaks to him.

Miraculously, all the violence

ebbs from his face and body; he sags to his knees,

weeping like a child in infinite sorrow.

He draws the murderous weapon from his bag

and hands it over to her,

in mute surrender. Right then,

The last match goes out and universal darkness

Covers all.

Postscript

A young sun spreads his fingers

on the earth below and touches gently,

the still eyelids and lips tinged with blue, 

the cheeks streaked with dirt and tears,

Of the little waif under the bridge.

She won’t need her tattered coat ever again,

for a faint smile is curving her lips upwards.

 

Image courtesy: Pexels

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