The Gadarene (original 1993)
When Alexander learned his trade
In Gadara, the people paid
So much for every heaping pail
Of pure ground corn, that from the sale
Of summer crops alone his tough
And toiling father earned enough
To last all year, and build a home
As fine as any man in Rome
That made his living grinding grain.
He used to say, “There’s lots more gain
In work than play,” and he would tell
Young Alexander, “You can sell
The rotten husks to swineherds by
The hills of Sennabris and try
To beat the miller’s son today
In Abila.” But on the way
The boy would wander off the road
And find a place to hide his load
Of husks, then sit beside the Sea
And watch the boats from Galilee
And Hippus sail, and wish his dad
Would play instead of getting mad
So much. It seemed that all he cared
About was how the market fared
So he could make more money, buy
More things, look more rich, and try
To have the nicest house in town.
It seemed that he would always frown
When Alexander’s work was done,
Or when he tried to have some fun.
He often said, “I’d make a deal
With Lucifer if I could feel
That it would put a thousand pressed
Denarii at my behest,
And get gold pieces by the ton
And give a legion to my son.”
And he would add, “Now there’s a guy
Whose work would really qualify.”
And so when Alexander turned
Sixteen he shocked his dad and spurned
The miller’s trade. He walked away
From grain and gold and joyless pay.
He traveled west to Nain and found
A Jewish orphan girl and drowned
His guilt in waves of feelings he
Had never known, and finally
Eloped across the Jordan back
To Gadara, and built a shack
Where he could live just north beside
The River Yarmuk with his bride.
He took up fishing, and a son
Was born; and Alexander’s one
Great dream came true: that he could play
With his own little son the way
He’d always wanted to. His dad
Heard he was back and sent his mad
Reply by note: “My kin refuse
To live in shacks and marry Jews
And fish for hire and waste their time
With childish games. It is a crime
To throw away your life when you
Could earn a thousand times the few
Small fish you catch; why you could feed
Five thousand men with grain indeed,
If you would trust yourself, and stop
This acting like a childish flop.”
Each word sank like a fiery dart
Deep down in Alexander’s heart.
That night Elizabeth, his wife,
Found him secluded with a knife
Across his lap and sitting on
A tomb where he had often gone
When he was young beside the lake.
“You know I love you. Can I take
The knife?” she whispered. “Alex, may
I take the knife?” But as she lay
Her fingers on the handle wood
He took the blade so that she could
Not move it from his grasp. “Alex,
Don’t let your demon father hex
Your life. Please come with me tonight.
We need you home. It isn’t right
To leave our son alone this late.
But if you need to think, I’ll wait.”
The moon rose in the sky and made
An eerie light. She hadn’t prayed
For years. But now she felt as though
Tonight she faced a kind of foe
That she had never dreamed could be.
But as she tried to turn the key
Of prayer, she saw the blood betwixt
The fingers of his fist. And mixed
With this strange light it was as black
As night. She winced and stumbled back.
“O Alex, what is going on?”
She cried, “Or is my Alex gone?
Well, I will wait for him! I will
Not leave my covenant until
My husband lies dead at my feet.
Know this, you vicious powers, I’ll beat
You, though you be a legion, nay,
Ten thousand strong, for from this day,
In spite of all my failure to obey,
Elizabeth will learn to pray.
And, Alexander, you will learn
to play without remorse and earn
As little as a happy man
Of love and faithful father can.”
For seven years the man was wild,
And lived among the dead, defiled,
Unwashed, unshorn, with gnashing teeth,
And screams, and constant foam beneath
His twitching lips, and caked with mud
And blots of ever-present blood
From gashing on the rocks and stones.
Sometimes his wrist and ankle bones
Lay bare where soldiers tried to chain
Him to a carob tree — in vain.
His legs were like a legion strong
And no one dared to walk along
The road to Sennabris.
And years went by, and men found ways
To Gadara and Sennabris
By different routes. And soon by this
And other ways the people ceased
To think about the man turned beast —
Except his wife and son. They knew
The time he slept and what he’d do
When he awoke. They knew that he
Would fall exhausted near the sea
At dawn and sleep an hour by
The Cyprus tree. And so they’d try
Each day to come and leave some meat
And fruit and bread for him to eat
When he awoke. Sometimes they’d stay
And risk a longer time to pray.
Once Alexander seemed so dead
His son looked up and said,
“Is daddy going to be okay?”
“I think he is,” she said, “You pray.”
“What should I pray?” “King David said
The voice of God is full of dread,
And stronger than the biggest scare
We’ve known, and strips the forest bare.
I think that you should ask the Lord
To lift his voice and wield his sword
Against the legion powers that bind
And blind your daddy’s broken mind.”
And so they prayed. Year in, year out
In spite of how the kids would shout
Their cruel scorn, “Hey, what’d you play
With dad today? Or did he say
He was too busy digging graves?
I’ll bet his little boy behaves!”
They prayed and prayed, in spite of all
The counsel that she got: “Just call
It quits. Think of yourself. He’s not
The man you married once. You’ve got
Your whole life now to live. The boy
Will need a normal dad. Your joy
Is more important than a mad
Man’s breakfast. You can’t think it’s bad
To break a vow that’s broken way
Beyond repair. Divorce, and lay
This crazy covenant aside,
Your husband has already died.”
But still unwavering they prayed.
Until one day a man dismayed
His friends beside the sea and walked
Toward the demoniac and talked
To him as to a fellow man:
“What is your name?” “My name? I can
Surround you with four thousand eyes.
Legion. And I see your disguise,
Son of the Most High God! Why are
You come before the time so far
From home? This is Decapolis
No Jews live here, just swine, and this.”
As Alexander pointed to
Himself. “Go on, go on! Look through
Decapolis and see if there
Is one who prays or anywhere
Seeks after God. This is my prize.”
“Long centuries of exercise
Has not increased your skill with lies
My little legion, nor your size
Made you imposing to the Son
Of God. You have forgotten one:
The wife of Alexander and
Her son. Now you will see the hand
Of God. The cup of prayers before
My Father’s throne is full, I pour
It now therefore on you. Where would
You fly?” The Legion shrieked, “What good
Are pagan Gadarenes? They’re swine!”
But Jesus said, “Not so. They’re mine.
Now go! And if for seven years
You’ve lived in swine, then shed no tears
For your appointment now.” And they
Were gone. And Alexander lay
Unconscious on the ground while herds
Of swine from Sennabris, and birds
Of prey, descended to the sea
With seven years of tyranny.
As messengers ran to the town
To tell the news, the Lord stooped down
And carried Alexander to
the shore. And there they made him new.
They washed his skin, they cut his hair,
They gave him decent clothes to wear.
But when the city fathers came,
Their only thought was whom to blame
For all the money that was lost —
Except for one. “A minor cost,”
The miller cried. “Go home, I’ll pay
You for your bloated swine. Some day
You’ll know the cost of joyless toil,
And find out that the precious oil
of gladness can’t be bought for grain
Or swine; and that it is insane
To put your profit line above
Your sons and sell away your love.”
He knelt beside his only son.
“Forgive me, Alex. All I’ve done
Is wasted. Maybe we could start
Again.” “How many years apart
Have I lived from my wife and son?”
“Near seven years. But Alex none,
Not even one, did she forsake
Her covenant. Nor did she make
The slightest overture to men.
I think she’d like to see you when
You have the strength to go.” “And you?
Will you come too?” “The prettiest Jew
In all Decapolis? How could
I not? Perhaps tonight she would
Make us a simple meal of fish
And fruit. And I could bring a dish
Of bread, and we could make a feast,
And celebrate the change from beast
To man, and that this man’s lost son
Is home. And then when we are done,
Perhaps she might teach us to pray.
And then we will make time to play.”
Now let the light of candle four
Destroy dark needs for more and more.
Come near the flame and let it be
The fire that melts the tyranny
Of craving toil and barren greed,
And mark the way that God decreed:
The love of money will destroy
An old man or a little boy.
The devil deals in avarice
And lures with gold to the abyss.
We are not made for seeking wealth,
And love is all our mental health.