As he sat eating by the fire one night
a spark was lifted on a wisp of air
and set on the folds of cloth that wrapped his groin.
But when he felt the heat so near his flesh
he wouldn’t raise his hands against the fire
or let his worried friends extinguish it.
You mustn’t harm the flames or spoil their play,
he said to them. Don’t these bright creatures have
as much a right as I to be happy?
For seconds his disciples stared as the flames
climbed up the cloth and nearer to his skin.
And he, without a qualm, turned to his bowl.
At last their knowledge of the world prevailed.
As one, they leaped on him and held him down,
smothering the fire with dirt and what was left
of the soup that had been their evening meal.
When he returned, embarrassed, to his prayers,
his genitals swung through the holes scorched in the cloth.
Laid on the fire, the iron throbbed red with heat,
and then turned orange beneath the doctor’s breath.
The saint’s face twisted in a burst of pain,
and the doctor marked it with a dab of soot
so he would know where to apply the iron.
To calm himself, the saint spoke to the flame:
Brother Fire, be gentle on my quenching skin
that I might have the love to suffer you.
Composed, he signed the cross above the fire,
which bowed its many heads in seeming grace
beneath the blessing motion of his hand.
He held the ember in his hand, and braced.
But soon the burning grew too great to bear,
and Francis set it gently back into the fire
and wept. His hand was oozing from the burn.
A new disciple asked him why he wept
since when you hold an ember in your hand
you know what to expect. Francis wrapped the hand
in a grimy strip of cloth torn from his robe
and said, When I was young I had a dog
that snapped my hand whenever I touched him,
and every time he did I held it out again.
About the hundredth time, he licked my wrist.
Perhaps he just grew tired of biting me,
or maybe with my pain I’d earned his trust.
About this fire, however, I don’t know.
I dream some day the flames will flit
around my fingers like a yellow bird,
a tulip leaping on my fingertips.
But so far it won’t take me for a friend.