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The Christ upon the Hill

Part I.

A couple old sat o'er the fire,
And they were bent and gray;
They burned the charcoal for their Lord,
Who lived long leagues away.

Deep in the wood the old pair dwelt,
Far from the paths of men,
And saw no face but their poor son's,
And a wanderer's now and then.

The son, alas! Had grown apace,
And left his wits behind;
He was as helpless as the air,
As empty as the wind.

With puffing lips and shambling feet,
And eyes a-staring wide,
He whistled ever as he went,
And little did beside.

He whistled high, he whistled low,
He whistled sharp and sweet;
He brought the redbreast to his hand,
And the brown hare to his feet.

Without a fear of beast or bird,
He wandered all the day;
But when the light began to fail
His courage passed away.

He feared the werewolf in the wood,
The dragon in the dell,
And home he fled as if pursued
By all the hosts of hell.

"Ah! we are old," the woman said,
"And soon shall we be gone,
And what will our poor Michael do
When he is left alone?

"We are forgotten of all men;
And he is dead, I fear,
That good old priest, who used to come
And shrive us thrice a year.

"We have no kin," the mother said,
"We have no friend," said she;
The father gazed upon the fire,
And not a word said he.

Again she spoke, "No friend or kin,
'Death, only Death,' is near;
And he will take us both away,
And leave our Michael here.

"And who shall give him bite or sup?
And who shall keep him neat?
Ah! what were Heaven if we must weep
Before God's mercy-seat!"

And when the woman ceased, the man
A little waited still,
And then he said, "We have one friend --
The Christ upon the Hill."

Part II.

The Christ upon the Hill --so gaunt
And lean and stark and drear;
It made the heart with pity start,
It smote the soul with fear.

High reared against a cliff it stood,
Just where the great roads met;
And many a knee had worn the stone
Wherein the Rood was set.

For deadly was the pass beyond,
And all men paused to pray
For courage, or to pour their thanks
For dangers passed away.

But not for fear of beast or fiend,
But boding deeper ill,
The charcoal-burner and his wife
Slow climbed the weary hill.

Before the Rood their simple son
Lay stretched upon the ground,
And crumbled black bread for the birds
That hopped and pecked around.

(For he had gone before with feet
As wild and light as air,
And borne the basket on his back
That held their frugal fare.)

And they were faint, and, ere they prayed,
They sat them down to eat;
And much they marvelled at their son,
Who never touched his meat,

But, now the birds were flown away,
Sat up, and only gazed
Upon the Christ upon the cross,
As one with wonder dazed.

Full long he sat and never moved;
But then he gave a cry,
And caught his mother by the wrist
And said, "I heard a sigh."

"It is an image made of wood,
It has no voice," she said;
"'Twas but the wind you heard, my son,"
But Michael shook his head,

And gazed again, so earnestly
His face grew almost wise;
And now he cried again, and said,
"Look, how he closed his eyes!"

"'Tis but the shadow of a bird
That passed across his face,"
The mother said; "see, even now
It hovers near the place."

And then the father said, "My son,
The image is of wood;
And do you think a man could live
Without a taste of food?"

"No food?" the silly youth replied,
And pointed to a wren,
Who with a crumb upon Christ's lip
Had just alighted then.

And now the old man held his peace,
And the woman ceased to strive,
For still he shook his silly head,
And said, "The man's alive."

"It is God's will," they said, and knelt,
And knew not what to say;
But when they rose they felt as though
All fear had passed away.

And they could smile when Michael left
His dinner on the stone;
He said, "The birds will feed the Christ
When they are quite alone."

Part III.

The couple sat before the fire,
More old, and sad, and poor,
For there was winter at the heart,
And winter at the door.

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Submitted on May 13, 2011

3:52 min read

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