Dancing Dust

Poems by Mollie Caird (1922-2000)

Martha
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Now I am old I sit under the vine
And stare at my bent hands, knotted and veined,
Their speckled grave-marks splashed like dregs of wine,
Hard-calloused from the pestle, scored, and stained
By juice of grape and fig. I am constrained
To think of Mary’s hands, white, gentle, fair,
Cool as well-water, yet no use, being trained
Only to turn the scroll or flutter where
Caress meets with caress, or comb that lustrous hair.

I loved my sister. Only yesterday
We little girls, our bare legs glossy and brown
Beneath our kilted skirts, scampered to play
At make-believe with shroud or wedding-gown,
Aping we scarce knew what; but Mother’s frown
And sharp command recalled us, since we must
Grind meal, tend over, gather herbs. Then down
Slunk Mary to the cross-legged school and thrust
Among the boys to scratch wise letters in the dust.

Mother would scold and sigh, but Father said
Book-learning did no harm to man or beast
Or woman, even; enough time when she wed
For Mary to turn housewife. So she ceased
To sweep and spin and dress lambs for the feast.
I brought the pitcher from the well, I set
Deep in the measured meal the busy yeast,
Born to be dutiful, paying a daughter’s debt –
But Mary was her father’s, brother’s rabbi’s pet.

How short that childhood! Lazarus alone
Remained to us so soon. Not strange that we,
Undowered and parentless, in him should own
A very god, a secret Baal, whose free
Service was all his sisters' joy, for he
Kindled heart’s incense in us both. I gave
The bones and body of his comfort, she
Clothed it with such soft silks as all men crave.
Alas! I could not give the sweets I did not have.

And so we lived until the Master brought
His golden alchemy. Under this very shade,
Hemmed in with listeners (mouths to feed) he taught
With Mary at his feet. I, flustered, made
The cakes and sauces, raked the charcoal, laid
Table and turned the spitted fowls about.
Then with what love he “Martha, Martha” said,
Knowing the deep springs of my angry shout,
Seeing the Mary in me crying to get out.

That was our christened year. The Master’s word
Rang in our heads and hearts all summer long.
I shelled rich walnuts, cut the glowing gourd,
Shook down ripe olives. Mary, gay and strong,
Sang David’s psalms and taught me Solomon’s song.
We laughed, red-fingered under the mulberry tree.
Reverse and obverse of God’s coin, no wrong
Or rivalry between us now, since we
Were minted, Christ-stamped, in his kingdom of the free.

We thought, poor fools, our bliss would last forever,
Our lives one shining harvest-holiday,
Till Lazarus fell ill; aflame with fever,
Delirious, pain-racked, wasted, dying lay.
Our Master’s healing hands were far away
From Bethany. We had no hope. Not all
My toil or Mary’s tenderness could say
The occult charm of health. Death dropped his pall,
Lazarus lay cold, our brother gone beyond recall.

Mary sat still with folded hands and wept.
I washed his body, smoothed the linen bands,
Unlocked the closet where the spice was kept,
But Mary sat and wept with folded hands.
What woman in the world but understands
My desperate misery, who needs must keep
Busy with agonizing tasks. The sands
Slipped through the glass, but Mary did not sleep,
Mary, with folded hands, would only weep and weep.

When Lazarus was four days in the tomb
We heard news of the Master. Though it was hot,
High noon, sun blazing, I stumbled from the room,
Snatched up my skirts and ran and ran, though what
Wild expectations drove me I knew not.
Sandals grit-clogged, a stitch piercing my side,
My sobbing hard-drawn breaths caught like a knot
In my parched throat, I flung at him and cried:
“Master, had you been here my brother had not died.”

I never thought to see the Master weep,
But his tears came when he saw Mary’s eyes
Swollen with grief and fierce despair too deep
For easy remedy. His shuddering sighs
Matched oddly with his firm command: “Arise,
Your brother will arise; roll back the stone.”
No dreaded stench, only the piquant spice,
Sharp scent of myrrh, and, intimate, unknown,
A cold, faint, fragrant air from some far country blown.

The crowd was silent, motionless, the whir
Of myriad cicadas all the sound
We heard for minutes, aeons. Then a stir,
A scratch, a rustle from the shadowed ground
Deep in the cave. These same hands round and round
Tightened the bands against which now our dead
Flexed his hard muscles. These, Martha’s hands, firm bound
The sagging jaw. Lazarus came forth, his head
Back-yearning to the place he had but newly fled.

I can no more. Thereafter too much grief
Mingled with joy past bearing. Sometimes despair
Engulfs my solitude. Sometimes belief
Springs with the miracle wheat, and blossoms where
I hoe my garden herbs or quietly share
Bewildered thoughts along the stony track
With my poor ass who clatters homeward there.
As he plods patient, head down, bridle slack,
My work-worn fingers trace the black cross on his back.

Then I remember that small ass who trod
Palm branches under hoof along a road
Of tragedy and triumph, carrying God.
Remember, too, an ass whose wretched load
Was a belaboured half-dead man who strode
Towards Jericho, and met with robber-bands.
That was my Master’s parable, which rode
High in my heart and still exultant stands –
I think the good Samaritan had Martha’s hands.

Now to my flowering vine the butterfly,
Magical spirit, messenger of bliss,
Comes earth-released, compacted all of sky
And sunshine. Still I hold my faith in this,
Who from the grave-clothes of his chrysalis
Bursts, a new creature, free to flit and glance
Among the anemones. Great hope is his,
Embodiment of truth, no slave of chance,
My bright-winged little Lazarus, leading the Dance.


Undated but composed 1971