The priests and merchants in the hills,
And girls and women at the mills,
Had smiled at old man Zach as long
As many could recall. “The song!”
They’d shout, when he returned to them
From duty in Jerusalem,
“The song!” For twenty years they’d sung
The song, and put it on the tongue
Of children when they told the tale
Of how the “Desert John” was born.
That’s what they called his son.
Would crush between the wheels
As women worked to make the meals
For half a dozen priests from old
Abijah’s clan. Then they’d be told,
“The clan is back! And old man Zach
Is coming up the hill!” With pack
And staff and ninety years of life,
-Or more, some said-he’d climb.
Had met him on the ridge until
She died. Most say she’d taken ill
Because the desert took her boy.
She groaned for days and cried, “Destroy
Your snakes and vipers, wilderness,
But not my son!” The boy was less
Than twelve the first time he had not
Returned. And then before he’d got
A beard upon his face he ceased
To come at all. And facing east
Upon her simple mat she died.
But not the old man Zach. He’d cried
For her and John, but then he took
His staff and pack and sacred book.
And kept his yearly vigil for
Another fifteen years. “Adore
The God who gives and God who takes,”
He used to say. “The Sovereign makes
No large or small mistakes.”
And other hill-born priests would be
A furlong from the village mill,
The shout would rise, “He’s on the hill!”
And girls would leave their grinding stones.
“The song! The song!” they’d shout. The tones
Were struck and all would sing-just four
Short lines for old man Zach, no more:
“A barren womb has given birth,
A desert boy from desert sprung.
Who can foresee the baby’s worth,
The boy who made his father young?”
And it was true: the boy had made
His father young. Old Zach had prayed
That God would let him see the day
When John would lift his voice and say,
“Prepare! Prepare the way of God!”
Now thirty years gone by, he trod
This one last time the village hill,
And at the setting of the sun lay still
With fever in his face.
Kept vigil through the night, and when
His breath was almost gone, he said,
“John, John.” An old friend stroked his head.
For all they knew the boy’d been dead
For fifteen years. The sky turned red
Along the eastern ridge. His breath
Would pause, and then, evading death,
Return, each time more soft. And then,
Against the blood-red sky, the men
Saw silhouetted like a black
And brawny desert priest, with pack
And staff and sacred book, the frame
Of John. They knew it, for he came
Straight to the simple shelter where
He’d lived for half his life. And there,
Without a word to those who sat
Spellbound, he knelt beside the mat.
And as he bent, his long black hair
Fell ’round their face like answered prayer,
And made a holy tent. He kissed
His father’s eyes with glazen mist,
The first flesh he had touched for ten
Long, lonely years plus five. And then
He put his lips beside the old
Man’s waiting ear and said, “Behold,
A voice that in the desert cries,
‘Prepare the way of God!'” The eyes
Of Zechariah twitched. His hand
Rose as if drawn from heaven, the grand
Gesture of a grateful priest.
And as the glory of the east
Began to shine, his arm fell ’round
John’s neck, then softly to the ground.
O God, our arms and hope are weak:
He has been gone so long!
But He alone is all we seek!
O that your bright and shining face
Would shine in candle one,
And grant by your almighty grace
That we embrace the Son.
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