The Manger Scene by Patricia Karamesines


Winter’s eve.
She smelled the season on him. Summer,
he came in redolent of horses
and wild mint; winter, copper and ice.
Metallic and snow-clean, he cooled the house.
Behind him, now, feathers of snow
bounced against black window glass.
The household breath smelled of pies and bread.
Shadows browned the cabin walls
and firelight varnished lintel beams
with grainy lights. She moved inside
her winter wools, wandering the scene
that was to be Christmas €”her part of it.
Satisfied, she drifted to
his side to watch him carve. His knife
shaved down and across the sensuous back
of a wooden plow horse, freeing it
to air. “It looks like Buck,” she said.
“It is. Best horse I ever knew,
maybe ever will. Good-hearted.
He belongs with them.” He nodded toward
the corner, where the tree, fresh-felled,
damp still from the forest,
shook out its musk.   Beneath its lowest
limbs, a white wood stable sat,
shorn from pine, a foot high and two
Wide.   Inside, animals born
of the old cherry tree and a vigorous
child of wild cedar with whittled eyes
that looked like two small fishes on
its face. The holy pair was hemlock
or some other wood, pale beside
the cedar, lighter than the yellow
tinted cherry that flared the burro’s
nostrils, curled the wool on the sheep’s
flanks, bent the cattle’s necks
and swayed their backs.   He handed her
the horse and said, €œCherry’s stubborn
wood to carve, though some have cut
stallions from stone. € She put it down.
Its four hooves settled perfectly.
€œWhat else will you make? € She asked, picking
up the child. €œAn angel of
that tamarack, a star, € he said,
taking the woody infant from
her hand and twirling it between
a work-scored thumb and finger.
€œBut not tonight. € She rose and kissed
his hair. €œWell, to bed with me.
Will you see to the fire? €   “I will.”
She walked into bronzing shadows.

He stood to view the stable from
above.   The pine gleamed rough and white,
like roasted fowl; the figures’ polished
grains swirled like river sand.
The child was round and red, as healthy
newborns come.   He fell into heavy
thought. €œSince I made these will I
prophesy. € The tree behind,
dark and spangled, spread its woodland
presence.   Beside the tree the amber
of the grate fire splintered, spilling heat
into the room. €œThough you come
like manna on the grass with a voice
to raise the dead among us, we
will not ask, €˜What is it?’ as before.
No. We’ll cleave to the known. And though
you say €˜I am all that’s made
alive; if a man believe in me,
though he is dead, my body
shall unbind him, he shall live,’
we will not think to ask, €˜Will you raise
my dead?   Will you unwind my shroud?’
Instead, we’ll lament, €˜Had you been here,
you could have changed it all.’ We
will not notice that you are and that
You have €”not cry, €˜Speak!   And earth
will yield, those hyacinths of spring, the dead.’ €

He half-woke and set aromas chanting.
€œLoaves, love, and mercy. €   He stirred the coals.
€œ’Twill be the loaves distracting us.
We’ve got no eyes to see beyond
our flesh or its moment, forgotten how
to ask, €˜What is it?’ and so be drawn
into the question of God. € He tossed
the cedar shavings, cherry, hemlock
all, onto the fire. The embers
hissed against the cobbles, coals popped.

Next year, mahogany for the magi;
he’d carve them like those chessmen he’d seen
last year in a city museum–gaunt
stag-like, hesitant, stalking kings,
seeking a manger. He spread the fire’s
warm remnants in the ingle; turned
and stepped, with a sigh, through the door,
the only part of night not yet
turned black and solid.


Originally published on WIZ in 2010. This is a new draft.

Twinkling Christmas tree by Jorge Barrios. Public domain.


2 thoughts on “The Manger Scene by Patricia Karamesines”

  1. I love the images (and smells) in this poem. THe feel winter is perfectly described (for me) in your first two stanzas. I love the exploration of the different figurines in the nativity, too.


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