On Looking into The Sunday Press Photo
Of Convent Children Looking into a Stable
Bethlehem, Ireland, Christmas, 1970
I see Katie, palms joined, thumbs crossed,
cherub mouth frozen forever in the eternal O
of Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Helen, in faux-fur
collared mini-coat, bespectacled head cocked sideways
like a dog, hands clasped like an old man,
agog at the wax infant in the winter straw.
Joseph, ears sticking out, spic and span
in short-pants communion suit. Nutcracker straight.
Innocent, head-banded Maureen, a world away
from the beatings, self-mutilation, murder.
A nun rests her hands on Mary and Brendan.
Tony, never one to follow rules, looks away.
And I, in patent leather shoes and white knee socks,
thumbs hooked in woollen coat pockets—no stranger to
straw and barns—stand nonchalant.
Did our neighbours know we sneaked
into their barn at night?
That mother covered us in coats,
as we slept on their bales of straw?
Did they think the farm dog
barked at a midnight stranger
going to the community pump
for water? Did they know
we, furtive as field mice, looked
across the hedges for the light
that said he was home? That our eyes
penetrated the God-forsaken fields
and saw his murderous rage?
That in the stillness, we could still
hear the borrowed dishes crashing
to the flagstone floor?
Did they know mother roused us
before they awoke, shepherding us
home to our bloody pen?
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