The Missionary

Poem by Arthur Mortensen

Beside the lake beneath the snow-capped mountains,
a line of elk were hurtling by the camp,
as light as butterflies but absent wings.
They chased the valley’s wind, or so it looked
to Père Jean-Jacques, who paced among the men
as daily cutting started—wood to make
the beams that framed the rising trading post
whose fireplace of stone was active now;
it spewed a long, white trail to signal God
of what the Father thought a failure here
amid a wilderness of hope and granite.


A scout rode by and crossed himself—too late
for rows of dead, swelling on the platforms,
inviting sparrow hawks and vultures in
to cluster shrieking round the gaping eyes.
Death by small pox had seemed to come to them
with messages the Father brought of love:
showing the familiar open sores and rashes,
the raging fever and delirium,
first the chieftan’s wife, and then his son,
and forty-seven others in a week.
Was it a failure to listen to the Word
that brought such wrath? The Father didn’t want
to answer this. And seated by his tent
the aging chieftan smiled a bitter smile
that cracked across his sunburned cheeks. Above,
his fine brown eyes gazed unremittingly.
He had a leather Bible in his pocket
and tapped its cover with suggestiveness
as if there were an untapped secret there,
a cipher Jesuits had failed to read
transmitting sacred text from Greek to French.
And yet this seemed no sacrilege, instead
a native dare the Father could not answer.


Why hadn’t the colonists died or even sickened?
Not one was ill; this wasn’t how it went;
he knew the bitter progress of disease:
it swallowed villages and emptied cities.
Jean-Jacques had seen small pox before in Paris,
in 1697. It killed his mother,
then took his iron father by the throat
and then his brother and his sister, slashing
as with invisible teeth, gutting them all
and leaving them outside the doorway for
a wagon ride to fill a common grave.
Some had never sickened; he was one.
Exceptions were as strange as miracles
and were interpreted as such, but how
to read an epidemic that so neatly
divided races from each other?


He sighed

and wondered if the aging chief were right,
proclaiming in his startling, perfect French
that what was brought as testament to faith
was instrument for death, as stinging words
could force a proud and happy child to stoop
beneath a teacher’s lash—but not to rise,
humility regained, instead to die?


Seated behind a desk in old Lyons,
a book of Latin essays in his hands,
he knew he wouldn’t feel the dread that mountains
imposed out here. Their empty weight was crushing:
stirred by a musket shot, their snow would crumble
in heavy waves to kill a dozen mules;
a careless hand could stir a boulder’s fall
and make a ruin a half a mile away,
as if there were no plan, that accident
could sweep all human enterprise, as though….


He couldn’t answer back to thoughts as these
but had to think, in meditation talk
to wisdom’s font—in sorrow for the dead,
with hopes to find an answer. The aging chief
looked on and smiled, tapping the Bible again.
The Father felt his invitation, knelt
and clutched the cross that hung about his neck,
clutched it until his palm began to bleed.
But on his cassock’s black, no drop showed red.