POETRY: Bethlehem, Indiana by Susanna Childress

Bethlehem, Indiana by Susanna Childress

Which glacier faltered in silencing your hills, Bethlehem?
Which Shawnee woman foraged your wild gooseberries? Where
but a knell of spruce and flowering dogwood, the smallest of starlings
crossing the Ohio River to a province once known as Ken-tah-ten,
could we find cascading-haired Mary, whose fingers hover

the unquestionable beauty of her new son’s thighs, their tender fat
rolling, their slight spoonful of tendons kicking with the certainty
of impulse, unknown to him yet as the body’s subtlest joy. No heifer
lows against her bale, for this is the Midwest, and our cows
are happy cows. But Mother & child are not in the barn, its rafters

housing a dozen fidgeting pigeons, nor are they in the east shed
where the combine neighbors the chicken coop. Say we were
to come upon these two as they share a moment while Joseph, who,
according to St. Brigit’s account, cannot keep their only candle lit
and so has stepped away to shake his lighter, slap its plastic

shell against his jeans: you would realize, then, from the marquee
illuminating NO next to VACANCY, visible from the palm-sized window
eye-high in the custodian’s closet, that you’ve found them in the Motel 6,
or perhaps its periphery, since there’s no faded bedspread here, no bed,
no lamp, no faucet or sink, no folded white washcloth, the undulating

highway nearer to them than the front desk, whose single geranium
slouches toward discolor. Yes, it’s Mary, and though her belly
no longer bulges with the full moon, she still shimmers, should you
look closely. Should you look closely you’d see the gray heads
of four mops gathered on the cement floor as bedding for this child,

whose mother has swabbed off most of the vernix caseosa covering
his body, whose firetruck-bespeckled swaddling has come undone,
and whose tiny fist knocks the mop handles set against the plastic
yellow placard that reads ¡CUIDADO! PISO MOJADO. Certainly, you think
I’ll be careful, but what you truly want is answers. Why the girl

so placid, soft strains of a Magnificat hushing her infant, why
her finacée so stupefied by the brightest star he’s ever seen
directly above them, and why O why the peacock farm
two miles south whose caretaker awakened with a sudden urge
for green bean casserole only to find a heavenly host inside

his refrigerator, which, incidentally, set off the fire alarm
and his wife in her cotton gown and rollers so that at this very minute
he’s trying his boots, urging on her a robe for a trip up the road
to see what can be seen. Don’t think the crickets for miles around
have shushed, or crawdads in their underground warren have ceased

to battle. The deer still turn their umber necks to listen before
disappearing into a thick of Beech trees and bubbles still rise
from the creek bed where podgy catfish switch their whiskers over
pebbles, a trellis of algae, a lost, sunken shoe. At this point, so few
know the unutterable brilliance of this night, that God would suffuse

the simple, the absolutely ordinary, indeed, the profane, with the sacred
that it’s almost as if it hasn’t happened. Only, it has, and the complex beauty
of all this might mean has found its shape, for a moment, in the sharp
cry let loose from a baby’s mouth searching out the air around it
for his mother’s breast. Perhaps the wind knows as it scoops through

the hollows of this place and more thinly matches the high, distant pitch
of human need and desire. For the wind has been across the river
into bluegrass country, 40 miles southeast of here to another Bethlehem,
and to the nineteen other states with at least one town called Bethlehem,
House of Bread—to Connecticut, Georgia, South Dakota, Texas,

New York, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Arizona, Iowa—where someone
not so long ago figured the final resting place of Rachel, the birthplace
of David, might make a nice name for their town. And when we,
who are not as deft or lissome as the wind, get turned around by a similar
copse of spruce wood, another field of harvested soybean, we’ll

pull into the Quick-Mart for directions. The man at the counter
whose young wife has just brought in her infant son for a visit
won’t look up when the bell over the door jangles our arrival, not
at least, until he notices our faces, which are either somber or exultant
as we say, We’re just passin’ through or We’ve come to see—

 

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