The Bread of Angels

Bread of Angels

by Edit Wharton

The Bread of Angels


AT that lost hour disowned of day and night,
The after-birth of midnight, when life’s face
Turns to the wall and the last lamp goes out
Before the incipient irony of dawn —
In that obliterate interval of time
Between the oil’s last flicker and the first
Reluctant shudder of averted day,
Threading the city’s streets (like mine own ghost
Wakening the echoes of dispeopled dreams),
I smiled to see how the last light that fought
Extinction was the old familiar glare
Of supper tables under gas-lit ceilings,
The same old stale monotonous carouse
Of greed and surfeit nodding face to face
O’er the picked bones of pleasure . . .
So that the city seemed, at that waste hour,
Like some expiring planet from whose face
All nobler life had perished — love and hate,
And labor and the ecstasy of thought —
Leaving the eyeless creatures of the ooze,
Dull offspring of its first inchoate birth,
The last to cling to its exhausted breast.


And threading thus the aimless streets that strayed
Conjectural through a labyrinth of death,
Strangely I came upon two hooded nuns,
Hands in their sleeves, heads bent as if beneath
Some weight of benediction, gliding by
Punctual as shadows that perform their round
Upon the inveterate bidding of the sun
Again and yet again their ordered course
At the same hour crossed mine: obedient shades
Cast by some high-orbed pity on the waste
Of midnight evil! and my wondering thoughts
Tracked them from the hushed convent where there kin
Lay hived in sweetness of their prayer built cells.
What wind of fate had loosed them from the lee
Of that dear anchorage where their sisters slept?
On what emprise of heavenly piracy
Did such frail craft put forth upon this world;
In what incalculable currents caught
And swept beyond the signal-lights of home
Did their white coifs set sail against the night?

At last, upon my wonder drawn, I followed
The secret wanderers till I saw them pause
Before the dying glare of those tall panes
Where greed and surfeit nodded face to face
O’er the picked bones of pleasure . . .
And the door opened and the nuns went in.


Again I met them, followed them again.
Straight as a thought of mercy to its goal
To the same door they sped. I stood alone.
And suddenly the silent city shook
With inarticulate clamor of gagged lips,
As in Jerusalem when the veil was rent
And the dead drove the living from the streets.
And all about me stalked the shrouded dead,
Dead hopes, dead efforts, loves and sorrows dead,
With empty orbits groping for their dead
In that blind mustering of murdered faiths . . .
And the door opened and the nuns came out.


I turned and followed. Once again we came
To such a threshold, such a door received them,
They vanished, and I waited. The grim round
Ceased only when the festal panes grew dark
And the last door had shot its tardy bolt.
“Too late!” I heard one murmur; and “Too late!”
The other, in unholy antiphon.
And with dejected steps they turned away.


They turned, and still I tracked them, till they bent
Under the lee of a calm convent wall
Bounding a quiet street. I knew the street,
One of those village byways strangely trapped
In the city’s meshes, where at loudest noon
The silence spreads like moss beneath the foot,
And all the tumult of the town becomes
Idle as Ocean’s fury in a shell.


Silent at noon — but now, at this void hour,
When the blank sky hung over the blank streets
Clear as a mirror held above dead lips,
Came footfalls, and a thronging of dim shapes
About the convent door: a suppliant line
Of pallid figures, ghosts of happier folk,
Moving in some gray underworld of want
On which the sun of plenty never dawns.
And as the nuns approached I saw the throng
Pale emanation of that outcast hour,
Divide like vapor when the sun breaks through
And take the glory on its tattered edge.
For so a brightness ran from face to face,
Faint as a diver’s light beneath the sea
And as a wave draws up the beach, the crowd
Drew to the nuns.
I waited. Then those two
Strange pilgrims of the sanctuaries of sin
Brought from beneath their large conniving cloaks
Two hidden baskets brimming with rich store
Of broken viands — pasties, jellies, meats,
Crumbs of Belshazzar’s table, evil waste
Of that interminable nightly feast
Of greed and surfeit, nodding face to face
O’er the picked bones of pleasure . . .
And piteous hands were stretched to take the bread
Of this strange sacrament — this manna brought
Out of the antique wilderness of sin.


Each seized a portion, turning comforted
From this new breaking of the elements;
And while I watched the mystery of renewal
Whereby the dead bones of old sins become
The living body of the love of God,
It seemed to me that a like change transformed
The city’s self . . . a little wandering air
Ruffled the ivy on the convent wall;
A bird piped doubtfully; the dawn replied;
And in that ancient gray necropolis
Somewhere a child awoke and took the breast.


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