A place at the table
It was late, maybe midnight
When we opened the door for Elijah
Fully expecting Aunt Ida, in sable.
But it was Pharaoh that walked in to the wine and the whining and asked for a seat at the little kids table saying he had a few questions for us.
He said his son would have asked them
Had he been able to attend, that is, had we not killed him.
But that was then, and they, not we, we hastened to mention, and even they, one supposes, were decent of intention.
Our mother later insisted he'd been a perfect gentleman.
But for his beard, and the bandages he could have been one of us.
Oh, and except for the dust in the shake of his hand It isn't on all other nights, he began that you toast the anniversary of a slaughter of lambs, the painting of blood on the side of a door.
My son died Erev Pesach. What for? To teach me my place?
You didn't see the look on his face when the embalmers came to powder and pump and wrap him into immortality.
They drained him like a crankcase. You didn't see the look on his face.
But what of the faces whose traces you bear,
As a mirror bears ancestors
As if you were there sandcrazy, sunblind, crowdcrazy, chainblind, scared of the dark and the blood in the street tired of freedom and nothing to eat but half-baked masonry that tasted like sweat aching to remember and afraid to forget what slavery was like. Admit it.
By the waters that parted you sat down and wept when you remembered Goshen.
Once you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and once, for a while, you were free. But now you are masters with burdens more pressing than dressing a desert in perfect triangles of mud.
You failed your God when he sent a second flood to make of a people, a Noah and more. What for? Some thanks he got. A pawnshop in the wilderness.
"Let's see something in a god we can pen up and milk."
You needed that calf in its 14 carat clothes.
But just who were you fooling with the ring in its nose?
Tonight the celebration of the killing of lambs, their blood dried to doorposts, horseradish jam on the table it took you a week to set. At least a week more, 'fore you get your digestion back right. You couldn't leave Egypt if you wanted to tonight.
When they came to tell me about my son in that dialect that doctors affect the big words snaking past you like bad handwriting,
"In cases such as yours," they began, "let's speak frankly, in cases of ... amputation, it is not uncommon to encounter the selfsame itches, burns, ticklishness shooting as before from the direction of the ... amputee."
As if nothing had occurred. As if I hadn't heard correctly.
As if he were still a part of me.
In cases such as mine, the good news is the area to which the damage has been confined:
To my son, and another in every family in the land.
An extra placesetting at every household tonight, except for the ones with the blood on the door.
What for? A lesson to mothers, drowning slowly in loss?
To fathers, who went quicker, strapped to chariots?
To horses, perhaps, their eyes bulging back against life, against sea.
And all so that you could be free.
Mine is the son unable to ask questions.
His is the blood in the libel of generations.
His, the wineglass untouched at the table.
His, the line that descends from Abel.
He will quietly crash your celebrations.
He will spike your festival punch with a vague taste of cracked glass.
Why on this night do you so carefully spill his blood onto your best china?
Next year in Jerusalem, or Hebron, or Shchem, don't say I didn't warn you when playing the master has shaken and torn your dreams to small sandy pieces.
Your God never did sell his property. He only lets leases.
So shackle that promised land of yours.
Take, as your deed, your birth.
But know how much a promise is worth.
For once you were promised to me.
Gezer, Erev Pesach, 1979
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