HAPPY BISHOP OF TERNI DAY
Who's he, you might ask. Well, read on, and all will be revealed at the end of this poem which was inspired by events surrounding the life and imprisonment of Valentine, Bishop of Terni, executed on the 14th of February 273. When I was a member of Johnstone Writer's Group we used to have themed months and February was obviously "love" month, so I wrote this to read at the group and it was later published in "Here and Now".
THE ONLY ONES THAT MATTER BY IAN HUNTER
I am one of the discarded,
the broken children.
My parents rejected me at an early age, my
blindness making me more of a burden, than a worker,
my hand in marriage worthless.
Still they must have had some feeling for me.
I was not entirely abandoned to fend for myself,
but taken to the big house beyond the city.
I have been told that the house is more like a castle,
belonging to a nobleman who fell out of the King’s favour.
He was left to rot on the end of a wooden spike
while his house was given over to the church.
It is large and cold this place.
Sometimes I can hear singing. Beautiful voices,
but at night the air belongs to my brothers and sisters.
There are wails and screams. Moans and groans.
The sounds of slaps and beatings.
I work in the kitchen. Simple tasks.
Though blind, I have become good at peeling.
The result of many a nick with a knife.
I throw out the slops and fetch water.
Once, I nearly fell down the well, but He rescued me.
I was clinging to a rope.
Clinging and swaying from side to side.
My body hitting stone while my screams echoed below me.
Then the rope was still and a hand seized my arm, pulling me up.
I could sense his strongness, feel the heat from his body.
His other arm reached below me and I was carried back to the kitchen.
Never had I been touched that way. Strong, but so gentle.
It was all I could do to keep myself from leaning against him.
The women were talking in the kitchen.
There are to be no more marriages.
The King has passed a law because he needs a new army and cannot get recruits.
Some say it is because the wars are long and bloody,
but the King believes that married men want to stay at home rather than fight.
At least the priest will not have to go into the city so often,
one of them says, and they laugh and sigh and I hate them.
I sleep in the kitchen. It is warm and there are places to lie.
That was when I heard them behind the house.
The Priest and the strangers.
Love is natural, they say, owned by no king, but there are soldiers everywhere.
Single men and women are not allowed to meet, or walk together.
Love letters have been intercepted and burned,
and their bearers sorely beaten.
The priest promises to do something,
But does not answer when they ask him what ?
The birds come to me. I like their song.
I like to feel them flutter close to me.
So alive, like little beating hearts
I do not know what they look like but everyone is different.
I know their song. I whistle and they whistle back.
I speak and they speak.
Once they flew away and I knew someone was behind me,
but they did not answer me.
The women are talking again.
A couple had been caught trying to flee the country.
The man was thrown in jail,
Screaming his lover’s name between the bars
as she was led to the axeman’s block
His anguished cry turning to sobs
when the axe fell and her head was displayed in the square.
The man was beaten and set free,
free to join the king’s army on another day.
The strangers are back.
Young voices, keen, eager, pleading
The priest promises he will do something,
soon, he says, and they depart, muttering.
His footsteps come closer then stop.
A hand pulls me from my hiding place,
and he tell me he wants my birds.
He has cages. I have bread
We teach them to fly where we want.
We teach them words of love
Together we ride through the city
The cart behind us full of caged birds
Then we give them away to the lovers,
to carry messages from one heart to another.
After a while the lovers start to come to the house,
for a marriage ceremony beneath the stars.
Leaving behind their winged messenger they sneak across the border
and the caged bird is taken to the city once more.
On and on this happens, month after month,
while all around are echoes of distant thunder,
neighbouring armies getting ready to march.
This place had changed.
The beatings stopped.
Laughter instead of screams.
The Priest will take nothing for the marriages,
but thanks, and perhaps a little love is left behind.
Love that gathers, touches everything.
Too much love in my head.
I wanted to share that love.
Training other birds.
Telling them to seek out the lonely,
There is a queue every night to wed.
and the Priest sleeps most of the day.
I don’t know how it happened.
Perhaps the happiness had spread too far through the city.
Or someone heard my birds trailing love across the sky.
The soldiers came in the night.
And the screams began again.
We pleaded for his life, even me,
but the King’s laws had been broken
although it was more than that.
The Priest had power he did not have.
They dragged a table outside
and the women cried
and the broken ones wailed
because they knew it was wrong
We were ordered to be silent
then I heard his voice, blessing us all
and I was confused because I heard the
table creak and groan then a swoosh of air.
I screamed when the blood hit my face.
A great gouting jet, burning, stinging.
I rubbed my eyes and rubbed the darkness away.
My stumbling feet kicked something,
And I looked to the side, to his body on the table
knowing it was his head below, his face,
knowing I did not want to see its imperfections,
because he was perfect in my mind.
I staggered away, pretending to be blind
while the house was put to the torch
And the slaughter began
On, I walked, past gathering armies
Into other lands, other places, here
I have no-one, only memories,
and the birds
I whistle. They sing.
And say the few words I have taught them.
Only a few, but still the ones that matter most.
Postscript – Valentine, the Bishop of Terni was executed in 273 AD for ignoring a decree by the Emperor Claudius which made marriage forbidden. Languishing in prison, Valentine befriended a guard’s blind daughter whose sight he tried to restore. Denied books he would make things out of paper and write notes, signing them “Your Valentine.” Beheaded on the 14th of February, some of his bones rest in a glass-fronted box in the ancient church of St. Praxedes in Rome.