Charles Reznikoff

      Outside the night was cold, the snow was deep

Outside the night was cold, the snow was deep
on sill and sidewalk; but in our kitchen
it was bright and warm.
I smelt the damp clothes
as my mother lifted them from the basket,
the pungent smell of melting wax
as she rubbed it on the iron,
and the good lasting smell of meat and potatoes
in the black pot that simmered on the stove.
The stove was so hot it was turning red.
My mother lifted the lid of the pot
to stir the roast with a long wooden spoon:
Father would not be home for another hour.
I tugged at her skirts. Tell me a story!
Once upon a time (the best beginning!)
There was a rich woman, a baroness, and a poor woman, a beggar.
The poor womancame every day to beg and every day
the rich woman gave her a loaf of bread
until the rich woman was tired of it.
I will put poison in the next loaf, she thought,
to be rid of her.
The beggar woman thanked the baroness for that loaf
and went to her hut,
but, as she was going through the fields,
she met the rich woman's son coming out of the forest.
"Hello, hello, beggar woman!" said the young baron,
"I have been away for three days hunting
and I am very hungry.
I know you are coming from my mother's
and that she has given you a loaf of bread;
let me have it–she will give you another."
"Gladly, gladly," said the beggar woman,
and, without knowing it was poisoned, gave him the loaf.
But, as he went on, he thought, I am nearly home–
I will wait.
You may be sure that his mother was glad to see him,
and she told the maids to bring a cup of wine
and make his supper–quickly, quickly!
"I met the beggar woman," he said,
"and I was so hungry I asked for the loaf you gave her."
"Did you eat it my son?" the baroness whispered.
"No, I knew you had something better for me
than this dry bread."
She threw it right into the fire,
and every day, after that, gave the beggar woman a loaf
and never again tried to poison her.
So, my son, if you try to harm others,
you may only harm yourself.

And, Mother, if you are a beggar, sooner or later,
there is poison in your bread.

                                                        --from Testimony

Charles Reznikoff, The Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918-1975, ed. Seamus
Cooney, Black Sparrow Press, 2005.