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The following is a selection from Fernando Pessoa’s “Keeper of Sheep.”


One midday in late spring
I had a dream that was like a photograph.
I saw Jesus Christ come down to earth.

He came down a hillside
As a child again,
Running and tumbling through the grass,
Pulling up flowers to throw them back down,
And laughing loud enough to be heard far away.

He had run away from heaven.
He was too much like us to fake
Being the second person of the Trinity.
In heaven everything was false and in disagreement
With flowers and trees and stones.
In heaven he always had to be serious
And now and then had to become man again
And get up on the cross, and be forever dying
With a crown full of thorns on his head,
A huge nail piercing his feet,
And even a rag around his waist
Like on black Africans in illustrated books.

He wasn’t even allowed a mother and father
Like other children.
His father was two different people—
An old man named
Joseph who was a carpenter
And who wasn’t his father,
And an idiotic dove:
The only ugly dove in the world,
Because it wasn’t of the world and wasn’t a dove.
And his mother gave birth to him without ever having loved.
She wasn’t a woman: she was a suitcase
In which he was sent from heaven.
And they wanted him, born only of a mother
And with no father he could love and honor,
To preach goodness and justice!

One day when God was sleeping
And the Holy Spirit was flying about,
He went to the chest of miracles and stole three.
He used the first to make everyone blind to his escape.
He used the second to make himself eternally human and a child.
He used the third to make an eternally crucified Christ
Whom he left nailed to the cross that’s in heaven
And serves as the model for all the others.
Then he fled to the sun
And descended on the first ray he could catch.

Today he lives with me in my village.
He’s a simple child with a pretty laugh.
He wipes his nose with his right arm,
Splashes about in puddles,
Plucks flowers and loves them and forgets them.
He throws stones at the donkeys,
Steals fruit from the orchards,
And runs away crying and screaming from the dogs.
And because he knows that they don’t like it
And that everyone thinks it’s funny,
He runs after the girls
Who walk in groups along the roads
Carrying jugs on their heads,
And he lifts up their skirts.

He taught me all I know.
He taught me to look at things.
He shows me all the things there are in flowers.
He shows me how curious stones are
When we hold them in our hand
And look at them slowly.

He speaks very badly of God.
He says God is a sick and stupid old man
Who’s always swearing
And spitting on the floor.
The Virgin Mary spends the afternoons of eternity knitting.
And the Holy Spirit scratches himself with his beak
And perches on the chairs, getting them dirty.
Everything in heaven is stupid, just like the Catholic Church.
He says God understands nothing
About the things he created.
“If he created them, which I doubt,” he says.
“God claims, for instance, that all beings sing his glory,
But beings don’t sing anything.
If they sang, they’d be singers.
Beings exist, that’s all,
Which is why they’re called beings.”

And then, tired of speaking badly about God,
The little boy Jesus falls asleep in my lap
And I carry him home in my arms.

He lives with me in my house, halfway up the hill.
He’s the Eternal Child, the god who was missing.
He’s completely natural in his humanity.
He smiles and plays in his divinity.
And that’s how I know beyond all doubt
That he’s truly the little boy Jesus.

And this child who’s so human he’s divine
Is my daily life as a poet.
It’s because he’s always with me that I’m always a poet
And that my briefest glance
Fills me with feeling,
And the faintest sound, whatever it is,
Seems to be speaking to me.

The New Child who lives where I live
Gives one hand to me
And the other to everything that exists,
And so the three of us go along whatever road we find,
Leaping and singing and laughing
And enjoying our shared secret
Of knowing that in all the world
There is no mystery
And that everything is worthwhile.

The Eternal Child is always at my side.
The direction of my gaze is his pointing finger.
My happy listening to each and every sound
Is him playfully tickling my ears.

We get along so well with each other
In the company of everything
That we never even think of each other,
But the two of us live together,
Intimately connected
Like the right hand and the left.

At day’s end we play jacks
On the doorstep of the house,
With the solemnity befitting a god and a poet
And as if each jack
Were an entire universe,
Such that it would be a great peril
To let one fall to the ground.

Then I tell him stories about purely human matters
And he smiles, because it’s all so incredible.
He laughs at kings and those who aren’t kings,
And feels sorry when he hears about wars,
And about commerce, and about ships
That are finally just smoke hovering over the high seas.
For he knows that all of this lacks the truth
Which is in a flower when it flowers
And with the sunlight when it dapples
The hills and valleys
Or makes our eyes smart before whitewashed walls.

Then he falls asleep and I put him to bed.
I carry him in my arms into the house
And lay him down, removing his clothes
Slowly and as if following a very pure
And maternal ritual until he’s naked.

He sleeps inside my soul
And sometimes wakes up in the night
And plays with my dreams.
He flips some of them over in the air,
Piles some on top of others,
And claps his hands all by himself,
Smiling at my slumber.

When I die, my son,
Let me be the child, the little one.
Pick me up in your arms
And carry me into your house.
Undress my tired and human self
And tuck me into your bed.
If I wake up, tell me stories
So that I’ll fall back asleep.
And give me your dreams to play with
Until the dawning of that day
You know will dawn.

This is the story of my little boy Jesus,
And is there any good reason
Why it shouldn’t be truer
Than everything philosophers think
And all that religions teach

(written by Fernando Pessoa and translated by Richard Zenith)


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