When he was only four, his mother spoke
to him in Latin and a sacrament
of Greek, the music of the dead tongues
raised up to speak for the root of all.
How proud they were, mother and son, bound
by rule and the game it made, the bread
they broke, word by word, on their way to chapel.
Amo, amare, amati. Then the page
of the giant door opened into silence.
And as he bowed his head in prayer, he asked,
where are you anyway, are you there
in paradise, or in me, listening to me?
Or are you the speaker, however lost
in thought, this thought that is not mine alone?
His mother smiled, not long for this world,
though what did they know. Laudamus te.
And the dead rose up through the throats
in the loft. Adoramus te.
And the lamb on the window looked down,
knowing no god, no language, dead or alive.
Just a beast after all. For whom the music’s
howl of praise might as well be mourning.
Amen, amo, amare. Say the day comes
death opens a door in silence, for which
Latin is one translation. Sheep, another.
Flocks of clouds rumble seaward and moan.
Spirit goes somewhere, thought the boy, it must.
A mother dies and the empty room looks
larger. Candles ache in the cathedral.
She becomes a story that listens to the words
she makes, that reads them to a boy
as if a story might be an explanation.
And in his sleep, as the sheep fall one
by one beneath the blade, they take no name
with them. Only a plea at best. A cry
in a tongue he has yet to understand.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.