“St. Andrew’s Head” by Kevin Pilkington

Kevin Pilkington


In the tenth century A.D.
St. Andrew preached
his way down the Southern
coast of Italy. Somewhere
between Sorrento and
Positano, he decided he must
leave something he valued
most to the Church when he
died. You might have thought:
a pouch of pepper, a few
drachmas, a favorite pair
of sandals repaired new
in Priano or even the goat
he converted by mistake,
when it was tied to a nearby
tree listening as he preached
to a group of Salerno pagans.
Instead St. Andrew decided
to leave the one true
and holy apostolic Church
his most prized possession—
his head. The same head
that now rests in a glass
box in the Dumo Cathedral
in the town of Amalfi.

The summer I visited
Amalfi, July was the hottest
on record before melting it.
Even the Tyrrhenian Sea
looked more damp then wet.
Cafes surrounding the piazza
sold espresso dark
as midnight if you don’t
pour in milk, stars or moon.
But I kept drinking water
from a woman’s breast
who had been squirting it
from a fountain, and into
the mouths of locals and tourists
for centuries. Most
of the town goes back
to the Middle Ages, the sun
all the way back to Caesar.
I don’t recall if the heat
caused the sun to slide down
the sky that looked more Spanish
than Italian or if a mountain
grew and covered it,
but by 4 pm half of the piazza
was cut in shade darker
than wine, and cool enough
for me to head up
the Cathedral steps.

A few locals were sitting
on them. A large man,
who could sink Capri,
smoked a cigarette on
the first step. A few above
him an old woman, with a face
lined like a river after
it lost its water to drought,
ate a sandwich. A step
above her a young boy
pointed to my chest and
said, American. The sweat
stain on my shirt had formed
a map of the U.S. I took
it off and kept my t shirt on,
making it easier to climb
the rest of the steps with all
fifty states flung over
my shoulder. I headed
inside; just another tourist
there to look in the face
of a man who’s had nothing
to hold onto for centuries,
the head of a saint in a glass box,
his eyes closed to the world.

from Rattle #20, Winter 2003

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