Portrait of the Virgin
Who Said No to Gabriel
—for Henry William Griffin
This is the one Giotto never painted.
She looked up from baking that morning, hearing
his feathers settle and his voice scatter like gold coins
on the floor. He told her, his forehead sweaty
from the long trip. Me? she breathed, Oh sure!
But after he walked away, she couldn’t forget his look,
the strange way his feet rang like horseshoes on the stones.
What she’d been wanting before he interrupted
was not the Bach Magnificat, I can tell you, not stained
glass. Nothing risky. Just to keep her good name.
Small as she was, how could she keep in her heart
those centuries of praise? But I praise her,
anyway, for wanting a decent wedding
with napkins folded like hats and a good Italian wine.
I praise her name, Lenora. I praise the way
she would practice carefully, making the L
like a little porch, where she could imagine standing
to throw a red ball to some children she loved.
I praise the way, year by year, she let herself see
who that visitor was. Think of her collecting
belief slowly, the way a bird builds her nest
in an olive tree. Then finally how one year,
after the leaves fell, she was an old woman
looking at the truth, outlined against
the salmon sky, knowing it was true.
For not despising her own caution then, I praise her.
For never feeling envy. And for the way, once,
she stepped past her fear to hand a cup of water
to a thirsty carpenter fainting by her door.
In every room of this gallery I think I see her picture.
Jeanne Murray Walker
Published in Wheaton and A Deed To the Light, University of Illinois Press.