for R. S. Thomas
Still patches of snow on the high hills
above this frost valley where new lambs
run from watching ewes in air so cold
with chill your breath like glassy mirrors
breaks off in front of you and you walk
through your own reflection—think back
through time to more than forty years ago.
The small chapel, built from stone quarried
from the nearby river, has stood for centuries.
The western wall, thick with vine-veined
stone, is a map of the rooted land itself.
In the tiny room at the back of the nave
two small windows—barred since recent
break-ins—hold fifteenth century angels
in pale green and yellow glass. The warden,
from her lambing fields, aproned in mud,
has come to let us in. She watches nonchalantly
as we roam around. There isn’t much to see.
“We sometimes have a dozen for services.” She
identifies herself as she would be remembered,
“The little girl in the blue dress,” and gives
her maiden name to those, like us, who ask
about the past. The great man, when he was here,
we wondered, did she remember him? “Oh,
yes, of course. How could I ever forget? It’s all,
now, that brings folks like you. Nothing else.
Yes, he was here for twelve years. He sometimes
came out to the fields when we were bringing
in the hay.” “To help?” “Yes,” she laughed,
“to help. But he was such a big, strong man.
He threw the hay all the way over the wagon.
Mostly, though, he came at night, to sit and talk
before our kitchen fires. He had a gentle voice,
always spoke softly. But the eyes. That’s what
you’d remember, the eyes, like fire reflected;
burning, always burning.” We take a quick last
look, sign the book, thank her for opening, then
wander out into the walled grounds, the small
cemetery surrounding the church, through patches
of snowdrops, down the short curve of road, past
the ash tree that unleaved suddenly like a fountain,
to the rectory (now in private hands) beside the river.
All is still. Everything is damp. The trees drip.
The hills surround this spot, this hushed hollow.
We have no time to climb above the village,
see from where he saw the rolling hills of Wales
stretch westward toward the sea. It is as if the
silence itself has spoken. Below, the people he
came here to serve; above, his distanced God.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 8, on page 34
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