Tea With the Local Saint

(for Jane Garmey)

By J.D. McClatchy

(posted Wednesday, March 18)

To hear the poet read “Tea With the Local Saint,” click here.

I’d bought a cone of solid sugar and a box
Of tea for the saint himself, a felt-tip pen
For his son, the saint-elect, and bubblegum
For a confusion of small fry–the five-year-old
Aunt, say, and her seven-year-old nephew.
Nothing for the women, of course, the tattooed,
One-eyed, moon-faced matron, or her daughter
Whose husband had long ago run away
After killing their newborn by pouring
A bottle of cheap cologne down its throat.
This was, after all, our first meeting.

I was to be introduced by a Peace Corps pal
Whose easy, open California ways
Had brought a water system to the village
And an up-to-date word to its vocabulary.
Every other guttural spillway of Arabic
Included a carefully enunciated “awesome,”
The speaker bright-eyed with his own banter.
We sat on a pair of Kurt Cobain beach towels
And under a High-Quality Quartz Clock,
The plastic butterflies attached to whose hands
Seemed to keep time with those in my stomach.

At last, he entered the room, the saint himself,
Moulay Madani, in a white head scarf and caftan
The fading blue of a map’s Moroccan coastline,
Its hem embroidered with geometric ports of call.
A rugged sixty, with a longshoreman’s jaw,
A courtier’s guile, and a statesman’s earnest pauses,
He first explained the crescent dagger he fingered
Had been made two centuries ago by a clever Jew.
Then he squinted for my reaction. I’ve no taste
For bad blood, and gingerly cleared my throat to say
I was inclined to trust any saint who carried a knife.

From a copper urn, glasses of mint tea were poured,
Of a tongue-stiffening sweetness. I was allowed to wave
Away the tray of nougat–or rather, the flies on it.
Sipping, I waited for a word, a sign from the saint.
I’d wanted to lie, as if underground, and watch
Him dig up the sky, or stand at a riverbank
And have the water sweep off my presumptions,
Have him blow light into my changeling bones.
I wanted to feel the stalk rise and the blade fall.
I wanted my life’s arithmetic glazed and fired.
I wanted the hush, the wingstroke, the shudder.

But sainthood, I learned soon enough, is a fate
Worse than life, nights on call for the demons
In a vomiting lamb, a dry breast, a broken radio,
And days spent parroting the timeless adages,
Spent arbitrating water rights, property lines,
Or feuds between rival herdsmen over scrub brush,
Spent blessing every bride and anyone’s big-bellied
Fourth or fifth wife, praying that they deliver sons.
I thought back to the time, not ten feet from him,
I heard a homily delivered by old John XXIII,
Sounding wholly seraphic in his murmured Italian.

Ten interpreters stepped from behind the throne.
The English one at last explained the Holy Father
Had urged us all to wear seatbelts while driving.
My heart sank at its plain good sense, as hymns
Echoed and golden canopies enfolded the pope,
How like home it seemed, with my own father
A preoccupied patriarch of practicality
When what was wanted veered wildly between
The gruff headmaster and the drunken playwright.
Instead, I got the distant advertising salesman,
The suburban dad of what turned out to be my dreams …

Dreams that, decades later, back at my hotel in Fez,
A bucket of cold water was suddenly poured on.
I’d gone to the hammam, stripped, and lay on a pattern
Of sopping tiles that might have spelled God’s will.
Steam shrouded the attendant methodically soaping
The knots of disappointment he’d knuckled in my back.
He paused. I drifted [The freezing shock.] I looked up
At a bald, toothless gnome in swaddling clothes
On his way back to the fountain for more bad news.
Something in his bowlegged walk–perhaps the weary
Routine of it–made me think of the saint again,

Of how, when tea was done, and everyone had stood,
He reached for my head, put his hands over it,
And gently pulled me to his chest, which smelled
Of dung smoke and cinnamon and mutton grease.
I could hear his wheezy breathing now, like the prophet’s
Last whispered word repeated by the faithful.
Then he prayed for what no one had time to translate–
His son interrupted the old man to tell him a group
Of snake charmers sought his blessing, and a blind thief.
The saint pushed me away, took one long look,
Then straightened my collar and nodded me toward the door.