Ode on Satan’s Power

by Barbara Hamby

At a local bistro’s Christmas sing-along, the new
        age pianist leads us in a pan-cultural brew
of seasonal songs, the Ramadan chant being my
        personal favorite, though the Kwanza lullaby
and Hanukkah round are very interesting. Let’s
        face it, most of us are there for the carols we set
to memory in childhood though some lyrics have been
        changed, so when we sing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,”
we’re transformed into a roomful of slightly tipsy
        middle-class gentlepeople who are longing to be
saved from hopelessness instead of Satan’s power when
        we were gone astray,
but I, for one, sing out Satan’s
as do most of the gentlepeople, women

and men, something I find myself pondering a few
        days later, while my profoundly worried nephew,
Henry, and I embark on our annual blitzkrieg
        of baking, punctuated by Henry’s high speed
philosophical questioning, such as, Where do we
        go when we die? Pressing my collection of cookie
cutters—trees, snowflakes, Santas—into fragrant ginger
        dough, I want to say, Who cares? Carpe diem, buster,
though, of course, I’m way too scarred by pop psychology
        to utter half the nutty things that pop up like weeds
in the 18th-century garden of my brain. Eight-
        year-olds need their questions answered, I suppose, but not
by me. “Let’s watch some TV,” I say, an instrument

of Satan if ever there was one. Bullitt’s on—Steve
        McQueen in his prime. I love this movie—equal waves
of sorrow and carnage washed up on a hokey late-
        sixties beach of masculine cool. McQueen is Bullitt,
and Jacqueline Bisset’s his girl. Henry and I start
        watching during the scene where she is driving Bullitt
around because, if I remember correctly, he’s
        totaled not just one but several cars, in at least
as many now-famous chases. Jackie drops Bullitt
        at a hotel, where he finds a girl, newly dead, throat
circled with purple fingerprints like grape jam stains. “What
        happened to her?” Henry asks, frowning. I think, Oh, shit,
this is not an officially approved nephew-aunt

Christmas activity. If I don’t make a big deal
        of it, maybe he won’t tell his mother. “Someone strangled
her,” I say. “What’s strangled?” he asks, and I see my sister
        has chosen not to threaten her child as our own dear
mother routinely threatened us. Driven crazy, she
        browbeat us with strangulation, being slapped silly,
public humiliation, murder, and eternal
        damnation. Perhaps because Henry’s her only child,
my sister can afford to be gentler with her son,
        or maybe it’s because two months before he was born
she almost lost him, ending up in the hospital,
        hooked to machines, ordered to bed for the final
wrenching weeks. Maybe that’s why the story of the Christ child

speaks to us. All parents wonder how the world will treat
        their tender babes. Like Lorca, will he become a great
poet, then end up in a mass grave? Only German
        philosophers think more about death than Henry Gwynn.
“Why did he strangle her?” he asks, face formidable
        as Hegel’s. Satan’s power, I want to scream, but mumble
“It’s just a movie; it’s not real.” Steve McQueen’s dodging
        a plane, and I remember reading he did his own
stunts, which I tell Henry, but he’s still in that hotel
        room. “If she was alive, how’d she get her eyes to roll
back into her head?” I’m thinking of pornography,
        snuff movies, all the things I never want him to see
or even know about in this tawdry world. “Honey,

it’s a major motion picture. Even in a small part
        an actress has to be great.” He nods and takes a bite
off Santa’s head. “She was a pretty good actress.” You
        bet your booty, and I realize out of the blue
Santa is an anagram for Satan. No way am
        I going to explain anagrams or Herr Satan,
though how wonderful to have such a nemesis —
        a fallen archangel, one of high heaven’s brightest stars—
in a battle with Jehovah for our souls, rather
        than the calendar’s increasing speed like a roller
coaster run amok through a fun park of lost dreams, lost
        landscapes, and children, growing up faster than we thought
possible in the last terrible days before their birth.