Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the author of Skin of a Fish, Bones of a Bird (Ampersand Press, 1994)
and the editor of Season of Dead Water, an anthology about the Valdez oil spill (Breitenbush, 1990).
Her poems have appeared in the anthology The Sacred Place (University of Utah Press, 1996) and in
numerous magazines including The Antioch Review, Calyx, Calliope, and Ascent.

She teaches at Indiana University/Purdue University in Fort Wayne Indiana,
and is often invited to schools to teach poetry to children.

Mother of a Saint

"And that was the way Francis took leave of his family.
One would like to think that he saw his mother again, and from time to
time showed some mark of tenderness toward this woman who admired him
and had had an intuition of his sublime destiny.
But the biographers make no further mention of her."

Omer Englebert
St. Francis of Assisi, a Biography

I. Pica Bernadone to her Daughter-in-Law

Your Piccardo reminds me of Francis, that age.
He was so tender-hearted, that child, yet strong.
I remember once, I was weeding my garden,
a small bed of lavender, just enjoying
the flowers' fragrance, my two young sons.

It was greed, I suppose, that made me want more.
I thought of the daughter I didn't have,
wondered what I was missing. I looked
at what I held in my hand, the weed
I'd just pulled, and I thought, it's like this--

that space where this isn't -- the lavender needs it,
room for its roots, air, the bright kiss of sun
on its blossoms. That's why we don't have
more children. I should be glad, and I am,
that I can give these two so much love.

Silent musing, there in the garden. I didn't
put it in words like this, until
I saw Francis stare at the weed in my hand,
some small yellow flower. Nine years old,
you should have heard him:

"Where did that come from?" I was kneeling,
he seemed to tower above me. "Why
are you killing a living thing?" I told him
what I'd just been thinking. Our garden was only
so big--I was making room for the lavender.

For about half a second,
that satisfied him. Then I saw him
rake the air around him for words,
and he said, "That's like saying I'm killing
my sister to make room for my brother."

Had he read my mind?
Was he adept, even then, at popping
those little blisters we form for protection?
I thought of that daughter again
and I missed her.

II. She Remembers when He Left Them

When people talk about that day, I know
his father seems to be the one who lost
a son. And yes, he did pick up the clothes
and money Francis, sure and angry, tossed
away. It was Pietro Bernadone
whose name our son, to honor God, denounced.
My husband worked a lifetime just to give
his son those clothes, a richer way to live.

But I was also in the church that day,
and what I'd given could not be returned.
Not just the food I'd fed him when he lay
in fever, fretting over what he'd heard
in war and jail. No, though the very clay
his fragile flesh was made of once had turned
within me, even that's not what I mean.
I saw, and held for Francis, what he'd seen.

The month he dug his hole and hid from us--
a madman, people said, or they'd just look
at me, with pity, as if a curse
had come upon us-- that long month took
all the strength I had. Worse--
I didn't always have it. Some nights I shook
until I thought my bones and mind would crack.
I wondered what I'd say when he came back.

And when he did, so thin, and caked with dirt,
his father raging at him as he pulled
him in, I was surprised to feel my heart
go out -- not only love and pity -- also full
of faith so strong it shocked me. The shirt
he wore was torn to shreds, all scratchy wool.
I took it from him, gave him one I'd sewn
while he was missing. During those weeks, he'd grown

so thin it didn't fit him, but I hope
that when he put it on he somehow knew
that every stitch I took, I'd fought to hold
him, living, in my mind. Yes, it's true,
his father bought the cloth, and no,
my son should not have sold it. But, this too:
The shirt he traded for his shirt of hair
was sewn with all the faith that brought him there.

IV. Pica to Pietro

All these long years, I have swallowed
       words I could not speak to you
		          of our son, the child we both loved.
In his wild youth, you gave him
	      more money than we could afford
		          as I gave perhaps too much trust.
Nine years now, since we have spoken
	      his name-- the one thing I couldn't forgive,
		          this distance around him between us.

Last night, I dreamed a green wood.
       Francis, a man now, came into the light.
		          He turned-- did he speak?-- I heard,
"Live in peace with my father."
	      My dear, in the dream, you were one
		          with his other father, his God.
Peace came to me, fully, roundly.
	      I woke and we-- you and I--	
		          were deep in a sleep-filled embrace.

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