It was a summer’s afternoon about the hour of four.
I was sitting quietly musing, when a knock came at my door;
And when I opened up I saw an old man standing there.
His clothes were torn and shabby; grey and matted was his hair.
He gave me an uncertain smile, and when at last he spoke,
though rough of voice he sounded like an educated bloke.
“I’m looking for some work,” he said; “And please don’t think me rude,
but a man must swallow pride, sir, when his belly’s had no food.
I can turn my hand to most things like gardening and such.
I know I’m getting old now, but I wouldn’t ask for much.
I’m not inclined to beg and so, if you’ve no work today,
I’ll thank you for your time, sir; then I’ll be on my way.”
He stood before me patiently as if to be appraised,
and all the time his eyes met mine with honesty unfazed.
A moment–then, decision made, the door I opened wide.
“There’s work enough about the place, please won’t you step inside?”
The old man, smiling, shook his head, refusing my request;
“Some tasks about the garden, sir,” he said “Would suit me best”
And so I gave him work to do to weed among the flowers
but I could not relax while he was working there for hours.
I took refreshment out to where he worked on bended knee,
And said; “Enough, you’ve earned your pay, please eat and drink with me.”
I moved to where a table stood within an oak tree’s shade,
Then we sat down and choice of food I there before him laid.
Together there we ate and drank, a quite unlikely pair,
he, with his worn and shabby suit, grey beard, and matted hair.
Me in my smart but casual clothes, still young and in my prime,
he in the autumn of his days, his garments caked with grime.
He’d washed his hands beneath the tap, but that could not erase
the ingrained dirt. He looked ashamed; I met his steady gaze.
“It seems a long, long, time ago, but once I had it all.
You’ve heard the wise old adage that pride comes before a fall?
And I was proud of riches gained, far greater than my brothers,
but all my wealth came not from work, but by exploiting others.
And then my son, my only son, he died. I was bereft;
my wife confessed she hated me, and then she up and left”.
He paused a while and I could see the tears glint in his eyes.
“I can’t say that I blame her, and it came as no surprise.
for I had been a heartless man, but riches give you power
and there were always women you could pay for by the hour.”
The memories that haunted him, I saw they caused him pain
and several minutes passed before the stranger spoke again.
“My wife, she knew, of course she did; I saw it in her eyes,
and yet she asked no questions when I told her all those lies.
She would have stood beside me, would have swallowed all her pride,
but it was more than she could take when our son Johnnie died.
He was a strong and handsome lad, straight as a man should be,
my wife, she vowed she’d never let our son become like me.
But then he died, our only son, my wife was broken hearted.
I was to blame, she cursed my name, in anger we then parted.
They’d warned me that the horse I’d bought, was wild and demon bred,
but I insisted Johnnie ride, and then away they sped.
They took the fence, not breaking stride; the horse had got the bit,
but still I said all would be well, my boy was strong and fit.
Another fence and then a hedge, still at a reckless pace,
and while he rode that demon horse, no fear showed on his face.
But then there stretched before them, the swiftly flowing beck,
the horse took off but landing, tripped, then, fell and broke his neck.
My boy lay crushed beneath its weight; we tried, my God we tried-
we pulled him free, but all in vain, and in my arms he died.
It was my shame, and cursed my name has been near forty years.
You see me now a broken man.” His eyes welled up with tears.
My wealth and power then seemed to me an empty, vain charade,
and nothing mattered any more. I hit the bottle hard.
I lost it all, my wife, my son, then, wealth and power followed,
without a friend to comfort me, in self pity I then wallowed.”
The stranger gave a rueful smile, as now with food replete,
He thanked me for my kindness, rising stiffly to his feet.
I said; “Why don’t you stay a while, I’ve room and food to spare?”
But in his eyes I saw a look of sadness and despair.
“I must move on” the stranger said; “For it’s my goal in life,
And I must search both near and far till I have found my wife.
I know my time is running out, forgiveness all I crave-
and if I have her pardon I’ll go happy to my grave”.
I tried hard to persuade him to a bath and cosy room,
he shook his head, then walked away, and vanished in the gloom.
It was a few years later, in the paper that I read
about an ancient hobo man found all alone and dead.
They said he clutched against his breast, this man who had no name,
a worn and faded photograph locked in a silver frame.
It showed a smiling woman, her face alight with joy,
and cradled in her arms she held a golden haired young boy.
It was the only thing he owned, no money could he save,
they said the silver photo frame would buy a pauper’s grave.
The only thing he’d treasured, blessed with his dying breath,
In life he’d not been parted from, they’d part him from in death.
I hurried to the town where he’d been found and made it plain,
the funeral costs I’d cover, begged them not to sell the frame.
So when they laid him in his grave, to take his final rest,
the photograph in silver frame lay safe upon his breast.
The news reporters searched me out to learn his history,
I told the self same story that the stranger told to me.
I told them how I’d met him, how we’d chatted in my garden.
about his life-long quest, to find his wife, and seek her pardon
for all the wrongs he’d done her, for the way that Johnnie died,
and how, when he had told me, he had broken down and cried.
They ran the story but they said no one came forth to claim,
some knowledge of; or kinship with; the man without a name.
And it was some time later that I chanced to pass that way,
I went to see his grave and saw a faded small bouquet.
The message on the card I read, though blurred with tears my vision.
In feeble hand three simple words that said; “You are forgiven.”
© Patricia Curtis, 2008
This was my first long narrative poem and although I know there are inversions I was kind of writing it as if in the past, well that’s my excuse anyway. 🙂
I’m raising thumbs in tandem
to salute the flow and feel
of artful storytelling
with emotional appeal.
You don’t need an excuse for using inversions, Pat, or any other device that rises to your creative command. Each of us has a distinctive voice, and yours is strong. When I offer thoughts on construction, it is never with the intention of trumping anyone’s muse. Whatever she calls you to write, you must write.
True, ‘reverse wordage’ is uncommon in the 21st century, both in speaking and writing, but as you say, this poem is not rooted in current speech patterns, so you are perfectly justified in claiming anachronistic license. I’ve seen inversion used to excellent effect, even in contemporary verse, in contributing to a mood of hushed reverence.
This is a powerful tale of loss and redemption in the guaranteed crowd-pleasing tearjerker tradition. Thank you for it.