SALT AND LIGHT ~ A COVENANT by Lisa Harris
Evil, like most things, takes time to grow—
small steps taken and subtle masks worn,
nudges and whispers, a wink and a laugh,
a slow poison can remain undetected, at first.
We feed ourselves before we feed others,
and that’s bad manners. So we share.
Evil gets bigger and juicier still, until it startles us.
We don’t want to believe it has arrived:
a knock on the door, a vehicle in the drive,
unanswered phone calls, a missed holiday,
then two, then five, more subtle than gunshots,
or fists, or knives—they come later, if needed,
so nothing can thrive.
A step-mother holds a 6 year old’s hand
over the open flame of the stove and watches and smells
the flesh burn. The father says he knew nothing
at all—denial an evil as sure as all others.
A government observes, like clinicians,
while thousands of citizens flee
on the ocean in boats not seaworthy, and
the world watches, too, as the bodies are dragged
to the shores of freedom—breathless.
That’s how evil arrives—buried in silence,
packaged in lies, it moves right in and destroys lives.
Innocuous, at first, except the weight of it’s atomic—
a slow poisoning of leeched radioactivity.
We nurse a grudge, refuse to forgive,
and deliver the truth with a bit of spin.
We twist a story that could be a win
until it is inside out and ugly as sin.
We refuse love. We prefer what’s hard—
being alone and miserable with No Trespass signs
in our yards. The longer we do it, the more we are marred.
We justify, defend, and pretend we are guiltless
while we teach others the power of absence.
We tell part of the story, and we appear hurt and sad,
when really, quite honestly, we’ve gone utterly mad.
So she casts her lot, seeking
an auspicious day to wage war
on evil, and its extended family:
there are at least six more.
She purchases a navy
and gray backpack with zippers and snaps,
two small pockets and one larger one in the back.
If she keeps the virtues separate,
she will not have enough spaces for each, so
she considers what to carry and what else she must leave.
I only need water, she thinks to herself, and so she begins
to pack nothing else, no object that is.
Restraint goes in first, God knows, she’ll need that,
and courage is next with fortitude in a pouch.
Justice goes in one of the smaller pockets.
She believes that’s all right:
it usually starts small, and then the situation grows it.
The clothing she wears is woven with prudence—
large in its spread of controlled expectations.
She makes a checklist of rules to review at each dawn:
Avoid unnecessary dangers;
Be wise and use reason, regardless of weather, regardless of season;
Conserve resources of every kind;
Apply skill and will and don’t lose your mind.
Lying beside the pouch on her bed? Faith, hope and love.
Where do they go with their wonder and wisdom?
She considers putting them in her head, already too full
of rhymes and beliefs. So instead
she stuffs them and presses them and whacks them in place,
until she can fasten the buckle at last.
The backpack is amazingly light, the sun has arisen,
and she’s eaten her omelet made from egg whites and spinach.
It starts with a scapegoat. How could it not? You have to blame someone,
they have to be caught, doing something, anything, a thing you don’t like,
and then you’ve got them and the viciousness starts.
Mordecai, from the Bible, refused to bow down to Haman, in Persia.
He believed in the commandments that said not to bow
before graven images of sheep, men or cows.
And gracious, good heavens that caused quite a stink,
one disobedient Jew, what might other people think?
So Haman concluded the best thing to do was kill all of them,
not leave one living Jew. Esther, Mordecai’s niece and his ward,
caught wind of the plot and told it all to King Xerxes, right quick.
Xeres had picked Esther from among a lot
of beautiful women and made her his queen,
and she convinced him that killing all Jews was just mean,
plus she admitted with frankness and grace, when you look at me,
Xerxes, you are looking at a Jewish face.
(Adolf Hilter was a proponent as well,
kill and recycle was part of his cure
for a country so dominated by fear,
that it followed his orders and gave up free will–
but that’s a different century, may he burn in Hell.)
She is wondering how she will save herself,
and perhaps, a small piece of the world, from evil.
Phrases come into her mind from her upbringing:
Are you worth your salt?
Your grandmother is the salt of the earth.
Why salt? She does her research:
Each cell in our bodies contains salt.
Get a basket and go to the sea, strain the water to gather
salt, garnered in the old way;
this salt is never used in cooking. Instead it is reserved
for sprinkling on food. Taste what it does,
how it activates the flavor, all the while it keeps the signals operating
in the brain—to and from, within and without.
Ethiopian salt is white gold. Bar, after bar, after bar.
India mixes its salt with harad seeds, turns it black,
then grinds it into pink powder.
The Japanese threw it on the stage
to prevent evil spirits from entering the actors.
Travel to Bolivia and go to Salar de Uyuni—
4000 square miles of a salt flat that make a mirror
for scientists. And light? Where would we be without it?
Can you carry the light? Can you find a place
where the light gets in? The crack? The groove?
The cut in the velvet sky where the already dead star
shines through? Am I worth my salt? The young woman
with her striped backpack wonders.
So she packs salt and a flashlight, three candles and some matches.
She sleeps one more time in her bed, and then she is off, out the door,
down the walk, toward the shore. She is armed with what she thinks matters:
some light and some salt and the virtues that clatter like dishes not wrapped
quite properly, in the backpack she carries.
What’s clear and clearer?
What’s near and nearer? What’s dear and dearer? What’s fear? What’s fear?
She wants to repair what is broken, mend what is torn, build back what has fallen,
and sing songs of love. Fighting evil feels heavier than bricks of salt,
and more elusive than light. But it is her mission, her responsibility, her right.
She will say less and mean more; she will guard the weak and help the poor,
she will question the foolish, including herself, and she will laugh often, of course.
Fighting evil cannot be all work and no play. She knows there’s a lot to do in a day.
She will choose wisely which battles to fight, and when it gets dark,
she will carry the light. She’ll wrap pain in love, smother fear with faith,
and send missives of hope to the whole human race. Salt and light support her.
Salt and light are her friends. She will share them; she will give them away;
and receive them as needed at the end of the day.
About the author:
Lisa Harris, poet and novelist, MFA from Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, seeks truth and light in the convoluted stories of politics and darkness. Her poems have been published by descant, The Coe Review, Puerto del Sol, The Ithaca Anthology, SLAB and Vending Machine Press, The Penmen Review, as well as others.. Her novels, ‘Geechee Girls and Allegheny Dream, part of the Quest Trilogy, have received recognition from The Author’s Zone, Pittsburgh, and Bright Hill Press, Treadwell, NY. Her short stories have been published by ginosko, phoebe, Nimrod International, The Penmen, Zone 3, and The MacGuffin. She lives and writes in the Finger Lakes of New York. Her third novel, Raven Knows, is forthcoming in 2017 from Ravenna Press.
Lisa Harris says much and offers much with her words. The bits of cadence and the ring of emotional truth carry power (the good, the unbearable), the need for personal strength, the questions humans must face and the concerns for the future.
“Salt and Light” bring realism and hope, always hope, to the reader.
I am not a brilliant wordsmith or poetry expert. I am a woman who is touched by the poem. I smile at the playfulness of the rhyming, I shed tears about the events I can not control and I feel empowered by the presence of hope. I carry this poem in my own backpack of salt, light, and virtue.
I find that the weaving of private and public makes “Salt and Light” especially meaningful. Subtle rhythm and occasional rhyme provide a cadence that moves the reader forward with the persona, or so it seems to me.