In lieu of a sermon this week I wrote a poem — or, rather, a story in the form of a poem. The story of the loaves and fishes is, after Christmas and Easter, perhaps the most-told story from the Gospels. But it admits too readily of easy answers I’m not comfortable offering, and the various Gospel accounts give us only sketches. What story, I wondered, might one of the five thousand have told?
We walked for miles to see him, this brand-new prophet,
packed a picnic in the dark before dawn:
bread, a little stale; some cheese, a skin of wine,
more than we needed. My wife overpacks.
On my back I bore this feast, beyond
the town, the stubbly fields, into the desert—
the wilderness, she driving me before her
like a damned goat to die. We lived, of course,
but that was later. Meantime the sun shone hot
and hotter as it climbed, as we climbed
one hill after another, to see another valley
void of life and full of rocks, the few
bare bushes brown, and worse than none.
The sky became a vast and cloudless fire
that washed the world to white. We kept our eyes
down on the ground. A lonesome vulture fed
on carrion—though what could have lived here
long enough to die, I could not guess. Perhaps
another prophet, less successful. This one—
This one they all talk about, the one
the fishmonger says is Lord. I’ve heard it before.
My wife, my neighbor, the fishmonger say to me:
You have to hear him preach! But all I could think,
trudging over hill and sun-baked vale:
If this guy is Lord, someone forgot
to prepare his way.
We found him by the crowds
that followed, dogged, in his wake. By twos
and threes we overtook them—passed into
the herd’s penumbra. Patient women bearing
infants on their backs or in their bellies.
An old man hobbling barefoot on the stones,
head bent to the road, a staff clenched hard
in knobbed and yellowed hands. A sightless woman
led by a girl. Two men, young and strong
and lean like colts, carrying between them
a pallet with a small, still form. Then knots
and curds. Traveling parties. Accidental
families. Men and women too soon old
whose faces mapped their journeys. Bent and broken
sandals. Shirt-tails hemmed with filth. Muddy
rivulets into a sea, and we
were swept along, until we met the throbbing
multitude. There must have been five thousand.
Their misery and hope washed over us.
Laughter from the innocent. The banter
of unwashed laborers. The sour smells
of bodies. Pungent flesh. I marveled to think
how long they’d walked or waited. Some stood patient.
Some napped. Some shouted. Some danced. Some chewed their beards.
Others, pensive, sat and hugged their knees.
Wide-eyed children streaked with dirt and tears
ran feral at the margins. A woman raised
her arms and eyes to heaven and spewed a rant
of high-pitched babble. “Someone found the wine,”
my wife smirked to her friend, and I admit
I joined the laughter. I fear we found no place
to have our picnic.
Yet in this waste an opportune
copse of flowering shrubs had grown, watered
by some invisible spring. Crimson petals
decked the ground. A thousand found their shade,
but we preferred the desert to the crowd
and stayed aloof. We found a few like us
uncomfortably waiting. We sat with them.
The man himself had climbed a hill, and stood
supported by a dozen men who argued
among themselves. Only he was silent,
watching the crowd without expression, without
motion. He might have grown there from a seed.
I would have thought him nothing special—thin
and worn, as dirty as his followers,
distinguished only by his altitude.
I wondered whether that were all there was,
one quiet man and a dozen loud buffoons.
Then a wind arose, the first since dawn,
and swept their words downhill. “There are too many,”
I heard one say, but the prophet raised a hand
to still him. The men fell back. He straightened, then,
and spoke to us in low and gentle tones
as if to calm a birthing ewe. The breeze
brought his words as whispers to our ears.
The multitude fell silent. Even the children
hushed and listened, rapt. —How I wish
I could remember what he said! His words
pierced me at the time, but left no scar.
Perhaps they, too, were nothing special. Perhaps
it was only my imagination, that when he finished
the burden of the day had lifted, and the sky
had dimmed with hope of evening. —No, not mine
alone. The others felt it too. I saw
the old man standing straighter at his stick,
heard crying babies salved. The dark-draped pallet
lay strangely empty on the ground. Perhaps
they’d tired of carrying it. Perhaps.
my brother-in-law proclaimed, and so my wife
took out the bread, the wine, the cheese, the fish,
some olives I’d forgotten, laid it all
on a linen cloth. We made to wash our hands
but I felt the weight of all the averted gazes
of the ones with no meals of their own, who were
too proud to beg, and too polite to stare.
“There are too many.” Unconsciously I echoed
the disciple’s words. Then I saw a boy
no more than ten—his clothes too big, and draped
on a jagged frame, refusing his grandfather’s
meager portion. They argued, gently. —My wife
overpacks, as I may have mentioned. We had
plenty. I filled a basket—not a large one—
and gave it to the boy. “For both of you.”
I could not bear to watch their sacrifice.
But the grateful pair accepted with my gift
the burden of its plenty. “Eat,” the old man
urged, and the boy ate half a little loaf,
though with an eye on those who now avoided
his. He swallowed, hard. Then suddenly
he bolted with his basket for the hill. The prophet
knelt to greet him. The wind had died: I don’t know
what he said. He kissed the boy, and gave
the food to his befuddled friends. He pointed.
They protested. He pointed once again.
Obedient, they walked among the crowd,
doling out a meal to a multitude.
Their faces showed how little they had hoped.
“There are too many,” my wife agreed, but now
some others found what they had not meant to share,
half a loaf, or a puny fish, and gave
it to the cause, instead of taking. My sister,
always impulsive, gave away the water
for our washing to a thirsty girl, and I
ate with unclean hands—though others preferred
to fast. I watched that basket make the rounds
of half a myriad pilgrims. Every hand
reached for its portion. None withdrew empty
except the few that gave. None went hungry
who wished to eat.
“A miracle!” some cried.
My brother-in-law demurred. “There was always plenty,”
he said, his mouth still stuffed with bread. I kept
my counsel. I watched that basket make the rounds
of half a myriad pilgrims, and if a dozen
dozen could be generous, the rest were
grateful. Far more went out than came back in.
Far more hands went empty to that basket
than had a loaf to spare. Some who had
took what they did not need. Yet when that basket
passed us at the last, it overflowed
with food. There were too many to be fed,
and yet they ate. If there was always plenty,
it was not carried there. A miracle?
I suppose it must have been. Charity
alone could not account for what I saw,
though to believe in charity alone
would be far simpler. I find these miracles
hard to swallow. Unsatisfying. They raise
a thirst for answers that they cannot quench.
Why feed five thousand, and then simply leave—
when the innocent still suffer, when children starve,
when five thousand thousand hunger still?
Why them, why then, why there? If there was always
plenty, where has it gone? Why do the lame
splash futile in their pool, the blind beg crumbs
by the temple gate? Why does my sister’s child
lie near death with fever, while an empty pallet
lies abandoned on the sand? Why not
now? Where has all the plenty gone?
Was this meant to keep us guessing? Hoping
for repeat performances, hanging
on his every word? —My wife, my neighbor,
the fishmonger say to me: You ask too many
questions. But all I have are questions, and all
I can do is ask.
I said we lived
and so we did, though far too often wandering
in that desert still—seeking shade,
seeking comfort, seeking miracles.
My story cannot cool the sand, nor dim
the sky. They burn the righteous and the rotten
all alike. Yet even deserts bloom,
for reasons of their own, and having once
found flowers in this waste, in this waste
we may find flowers yet. Our consolation,
meagerly apportioned as it is:
We will not have to plant them all ourselves.