In Memory of G, a fellow pilgrim for such a short distance...
We were on a train from Padua,
racing towards the Venice lagoon,
when I spotted the child,
two years old, or thereabouts,
a halo of honey-kissed curls
and eyes of molten brown,
like molasses perpetually outpoured.
Expectant, trusting, vibrant with life,
his countenance so beautiful, he stole my breath.
His mother spoke: he gazed at her in rapture,
as if pearls of wisdom fell from her lips,
as if his joy depended on her gentling,
his mind searching the imprint
of a fable only it could measure,
the eyes grown sombre with inchoate loss
of heaven beyond a consuming gulf.
That child captured my heart
in one cataclysmic instant of knowing,
of being plunged into the essence of him,
while we sped from Europe's ancient
seat of learning towards deluged ways
and stones that told of mercantile pride
in affluence and influence
at this crossways of cultures,
where barques blew inshore,
freighted with silks and spices,
tea and sweetmeats, muslins,
dyes, attar of roses and
lapis lazuli blue as summer midnight,
a city where craning Gothic
confronts rich mosaics and the labyrinthine
excesses of dissembling Byzantium.
To this day, I know not if he was an apparition
conjured from some buried pining for lost youth.
Alighting at the station, I saw no trace.
But what had been rendered in high relief,
inspiring agonies of curdled joy, was forged in truth
and wreathed in the mystery of a closer sphere.
Suddenly, that child was everywhere!
In all the frescoes of St Anthony at Padua,
who embraced the infant and Madonna lily -
token of a fragile, stainless gift -
in the bronze statue, offering earth one hand
whilst drawing down the cherub from the skies
with the other, their fingers touching; an echo
of Michelangelo's lightning moment of Creation.
I dwelt long in the courtyard of the venerable magnolia,
ravished by eternity.
There was no sharing, no way the words would form.
Travel tickets conveyed no separate journey,
our shadowed pasts divergent and our mission matchless.
As pilgrims, it was the closest we ever got.
My unshod feet still haunt those ancient streets
in the supernal multiverse of gilt and guiltless cities.
The Vision melts the stark and leaden planes of Here.
A nun, singing like an angel, banished dissonance,
floating arpeggios that linger still in purer air.
Outside, a beggar, drunk on grappa, cringed at heel-height streetscapes,
shuffled and strained to grasp the feet of passers-by.
What is there but prayer, inspired by glimpses of Transfiguration?
The last day, we returned to Venice, bound for home.
His nagging pain, dismissed by medics, was graven in fatigue.
Metal wings clove terrestrial darkness, new dawns forgotten.
We have been blessed and fortified for this, I thought.
A week later, they handed him over to palliative care.
There was nothing to be done.
The dream of far-flung shores and bold discovery, just that.
By summer, he was gone.