THE QUIET DISTANCE
(For Mother+ on Christmases Past and Yet to Come)
1. Her Noche Buena
Did you wake up for Noche Buena?*Lit the balled candle on the belen?*
Do you still put those candles away
for another Pascua de los muertos?*
I can almost see you cranking openthe heavy lid of that narra trunk
at the foot of your bed where his
picture stands sentry while you sleep.
How long did it take you this timeto rearrange the animals around
the manger? Reposition, you’d saybut they’re always in the same place.
The lamb snuggles closest to the boxyou stuff with dried grass for hay,
the ass farthest, the horse between.Why? I would always ask while I,
insolent tot, handed you the wrongfauna at a time. You would laugh
at how San Jose landed on your palm
when you asked for the donkey, an
angel when you yelled for a shepherd,a magus when you barked for a burro,
and on and on until you’d pitch methe hard-packed ball of saved candle
drips from father’s grave on the oneother fiesta you’d get up from sick bed
for---but Noche Buena is a rare treat:you’d eat pan de sal, a whole banana.
2. Her Belen de Pascua
“Para mi fuerza, para mi belen de pascua,”*you would sheepishly explain an appetite
we plead for each day you’d rememberfather building the manger with you long
after he had the last laugh when, like me,he would give the dingiest animal figure
instead of a king, a shepherd, or an angel,and simply did not get up from a crumple
laughing at you when you threw himback the make-believe cow dung, manure
for the grand project of a straw stablethat father said was wrong: it was a hole
in the city of Petra in that Bethlehem hill,and there were no inns to take Him in.
You buried him with that Belen de Pascua,*Mother, and could not quite remake one
you would delight describing to a devil’sdetail to polite and knowing neighbours,
who would drop by to gawk at your porchwhere the only clay image in its right place
was the baby in the manger whose nameyou kept on muttering was father’s name.
On nights like this, I scare myself, Mother,with the spectre of the quiet distance.
3. Her Pascua de Alma On The Hill
Would you and Father have enjoyed this site,atop a hill overlooking the sea, a pantheon
of verdant grass, bushes, and arboles de fuego?I can still see the Belen you last built with him.
The infant on the crib of hay looked old,mottled with the splotches of years and use
much like the darkened bronze plate markingyour final niche where you and your lover,
my father and friend, must still be arguingbetween guffaws of fun, of which magus must
bring the jug of gin, which angel the trumpetstartling the shepherds, which donkey brays
and which Joseph looks askance at a son,a king with no dominion, gurgling little noises,
that would have been silent screams of infantsquartered in pieces known henceforth as innocents
who must continue to perish until He comes againto gather all the hurting children into his House.
O, Mother, I hurt still from this quiet distance,where there are no longer any Belen de Pascua.
--ALBERT B. CASUGA
*Noche Buena, Christmas Eve; belen, Christmas manger; Pascua de los muertos, Feast of the Beloved Departed; Para me fuerza, para mi belen de Pascua, for my strength, to build my Christmas manger.