The Lives of the Saints
I stand at the kitchen sink, washing wineglasses.
In the fifth century BCE, Heraclitus wrote that the way up
is the way down. Like my five empty bottles of merlot in recycle
and the depression I’d fallen into before quitting my job—
clinical director of the county emergency shelter—
which meant talking to children after their father lit them on fire,
the foster parents forcing them to eat from a dog bowl on the floor
while the biological kids ate at the dinner table.
The saints were all about suffering: scourges, crucifixion, drownings.
Nothing but death led a saint to give up on intercession.
As for me, I’d seen my last four-point restraint of a preteen with HIV,
last feral kid armed with a blade extracted from the pencil sharpener.
Now I look out the kitchen window, remembering this one kid,
her hair a dark forest of perfectly matched firs, her black eyes.
In Catholicism, only an exercise of infallible magisterium makes a saint.
Or to paraphrase Heraclitus, the pope decides if a saint’s way down
is the way up. For ten years, that girl was returned to us after every failed
placement, with a new tattoo or piercing for every john she’d tricked,
only to hang herself on her eighteenth birthday.
It was March, vernal equinox, first day of spring. Emancipated Minor,
they called her at Social Services, meaning no money, nowhere to go.
Did I already say she was extraordinarily beautiful?
Before her, I thought beauty was easy to see. Something the spirit feasted on,
while the saints starved themselves on behalf of the afflicted.
Now I set the wineglasses on a clean towel to dry.
Stare at the plum tree that secretly erupted into blossom overnight.
I still can’t tell you the girl’s name, but I’m whispering it to myself.
She taught me something true about beauty.
It is not just those impossibly perfect stars of petals detonated all at once.
It’s how you see the rain-dark branches when the white lace is gone.
Copyright © 2022 by Julia B. Levine. From Ordinary Psalms (LSU Press, 2021). Used with permission of the author.