Departments

The Year of Temptation

Somewhere I read how a Teutonic Knight, to prove his chastity, chose a beautiful woman and lay beside her every night for a year without touching her.

I

The night she lay beside him first was dark;
But now the moon slips through the arrow loop.
The blade of moonlight finds no fatal mark
Only her hair that has shed its raveling loop.
A child will watch the clouds before the storm
And thrill to thunder's rattle in his bones
While strength and wisdom huddle safe from harm.
Her hair uncoils. He watches back to stone.
Her hair is silvered wire where each strand is loose,
The sheets as white and hot as steel in coals:
All winter's breath and summer's clouds reduce
To floating, knotted waves and shallow shoals.
       The knight has never touched the lady's hair;
       But he is wound and bound and sheltered there.


II

He left to fight for Christ with sword and lance.
In her door he saw her shadow stand demure,
As still as soldiers await the hostile advance
As hoodless hawks await the order to soar.
Behind him sun, before her blinded gaze.
He watched her stare and hope all down the file
A scrim that furled before the morning haze.
The heat of her eyes on his back did not fade with the miles.
He felt no fear before the howling rush,
No fury when he swung his sword to kill,
No pain to bear a pagan's lucky touch.
Half-through the door of death his heart was still.
       If he put out his hand in the dark and pulled her close beside
       Her flesh could not heal the wound of the love in her eyes.


III

Her breath is like the fall of steady rain;
Now hard, now soft, while clouds conceal the sky.
Rain is the prayer of farmers' life and gain;
But rain brings mud where knights must walk and die
In the wooded valley twilight. The path is lost,
The pagan voices speak the tongue of rain
The pagan wailing echoes over frost
The wordless speech of rage and rain and pain.
The ancient sacred words of monks and priests,
The patters counted over knots and beads,
The ranging howling passed from beast to beast,
The wind a breath that moans among the reeds:
       Her breath is like some strange and secret speech
       Which none shall learn when none remains to teach.


IV

She swore, before the priest would give his leave,
Never to touch and never a touch to allow.
Sometimes she pulls her arms in through her sleeves
And sleeping winds herself inside a shroud.
The narrow cell is narrower every night.
He sleeps in belt and boots and wrapped in wool.
He flees the bed once the sky is gray with light,
To storm the field like the heavy, heedless bull.
How could the knight who always won before
By heart and strength, the first to leave the castle,
Have known that he already lost the war
Only by choosing to give a needless battle?
       They were no friends who led him to this oath:
       "A year to prove you bravest and purest both."


V

Her skin is still as smooth as banner silk
Shimmering over the tents of Tartar kings,
Still pale as ice when rivers turn to milk,
Still somehow like all rare and precious things.
The knight has learned with steel that skin is lie,
The lie of life that covers death within.
The strongest knights, the oaks so broad and high
May rot and fall from the smallest gap of skin.
He knows how soon her skin will fail the lady.
The priests have taught him all that age can do.
He knows the painting already is fading
And only memory is always new.
       His blood had yearned for the touch of painted saints:
       But he turns from the taint of blood beneath the paint.