Lullaby for Two Voices
Marjorie Stelmach

Lullaby for Two Voices

I was born at a time when most young people had lost their belief in God for much the same reason that their elders had kept theirs—without knowing why.

                         Fernando Pessoa
                         The Book of Disquiet

My earliest recurrent fear—hooves,
riding down on me hard in the dark—
turned out to be my heart.

God loved me, back then;
framed above my bed, Jesus the shepherd
pastured his flock beside still waters—
but my room was as dark as wet black ink,
and all winter the hoof beats drew nearer.

Years later, in a sermon I’ve otherwise forgotten,
a preacher explained the psalm’s still waters:
sheep, he claimed, have an innate fear
of swiftly moving streams.

As if, by this fact, he might nail truth to faith.
Or faith to the fearful workings of the earth.

My mother, deep in dementia now,
repeats the 23rd Psalm without a misstep.
I’m the one who winces as she nears
the valley of the shadow.

I want to think hers is a pure and fearless faith,
but there are days she grips my hand so hard
she shakes,

and I’ve nothing to offer her—nothing of truth,
nothing of death.

Sometimes we sing old hymns together.
Neither of us knows the words.

By their second spring, lambs are all but grown,
grazing meadow grass beside a race of snow-melt,

or ranging the slopes where repeatedly, stupidly,
they strand themselves out on some
perilous rock outcropping.

And there they stay,
hunkered at the brink, bleating:
error unto death, error unto death.

If I were their shepherd, they’d be taken
by the wolves. I’m terrible at rescue. Worse,
all I’d offer them is cynical advice:

Wiser by far than the paths of righteousness
are the promptings of fear.

These days, it’s my own uneven history of vigilance
that wakes me to the dark, reaching for words
to talk my heart down from the edge
of abandonment.

Heart, I say, don’t fret;
there’s nothing here to fear
But the hoof beats. And the plummet.
And the wolves.

Lately, though, I’m weary of the lies I tell myself.
Is this what it means to lose your faith?

Often now, my mother misplaces her words,
replacing them with smiles of apology
to break my heart.
To restore some kind of balance,
I bring too many words of my own
to the Center.

On my worst nights, I picture her lying in the dark,
listening to the pounding of her heart.

In my good dreams, we’re singing—a slender song,
a lullaby. There, there, I sing. Meaning: here, I’m here.
Where we need fear no evil.

Hush, now, I sing. Hush, meaning this:
when our words have disappeared, the workings
of the earth will grow kinder.

Marjorie Stelmach

is the author of Walking the Mist (Ashland Poetry Press, 2021), as well as five other collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, Image, Iowa Review, New Letters, and other journals.