“Can you spare seven cents?”

I drop two quarters into

his paper cup,


& he runs after me, saying,

“Man, I can’t take this.

I don’t want to get rich.”


I notice the 1st Cav. patch

on his fatigue jacket. He smells like

he slept in a field of mint.


He says that he’s Benedict

the Moor. Of course, I’ve

never heard of the fellow.


Two days later, I spot him

outside Cody’s Bookstore

& reach into my pocket,


fingering the pennies. He says,

“I’m not begging today, brother.

I’m just paying penance.”


He goes back to scrubbing

the sidewalk with a wirebrush.

His black & white mutt


stands there; she guards him

at night while he sleeps

under a crown of stars.


I find what I’m looking for

at the Berkeley Library.

He was born in Sicily


on the estate of Chevalier de Lanza

at San Fratello, the son

of African slaves.


He sold the lumbering oxen

he’d labored years to buy,

gave the money to the poor,


& followed Father Lanza, pledging

a Lenten vow. After the caves

in the mountains near Palermo,


he went to live in a rocky cell

on Mount Pellegrino where

the Duke of Medina-Coeli


visited & built him a chapel.

All the titles at his feet,

Benedict the Moor


rejected. He couldn’t

read or write, but recited biblical

passages for days.


Wearing just a few leaves,

he predicted the death

of Princess Bianca,


made the sign of the cross

to give the blind sight. Here

was a man who hid in a thicket


from a crowd’s joy.

The Duchess of Montalvo

bowed often before him,


but she never saw his eyes.

“Into thy hands, O Lord,

I commend my spirit,”


were his last words. Three months

later, I sit in The Blue Nile

eating with my hands,


folding pieces of spicy chicken

into spongy white bread

thin as forgiveness,


knowing that one hand

is sacred & the other is used

to clean oneself with leaves


or to clutch a dagger. No one

ever touched Benedict the Moor’s

hands. Not even the Duchess.


They kissed the hem of his habit.

In Palermo, the senate burned

fourteen torches of white wax


in his honor. When I step out

under Berkeley’s cool stars,

I see the face I thought


lost in the Oakland Hills

when eucalyptus created

an inferno. I walk up


to him, fingering a nickel

& two pennies. He says,

“Can you spare three cents?”

Originally published in the December 1993/January 1994 issue of Boston Review