by Marian Pierce
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally decided to walk through the door. She said good morning in Japanese to the man waiting beside the stretcher, and his smile and deep bow eased her fear. She lay on the stretcher and he pushed it down the hallway. Earlier she had begged the nurse not to let anyone wheel it into her room. “I want to go out to it,” she had said. “I don’t want it to come to me.”
The man had thick black hair touched with gray at the temples. Romance gray, the Japanese called it. Her own hair, once near enough to black that the Japanese sometimes mistook her for one of their own, had turned solidly gray except for a dark patch on the crown. “That’s where the tumor is, right?” she had joked with Mori-sensei, her English-speaking oncologist. “X marks the spot.” Mori-sensei went on talking about surgery and skull drilling. He’d fired radiation at her head several weeks before and wanted to do it again but she refused.
If she had brought her book she would hold it up above her, squinting at the haiku she’d been reading when the stretcher arrived. Better yet the book would float above her, at a distance further than her arms could reach so that, without her reading glasses, she could make out the words. Picking up speed, the man pushed her around a corner with a squeak of the wheels and, to her surprise, something—the sound?—dislodged the haiku from her tumor-addled memory. She recited it aloud and only when the man abruptly stopped pushing did she realize she’d recited in Japanese.
“He came to a dead stop,” she tried to joke with Mori-sensei after the stretcher later delivered her to his pristine operating room. He asked me, “How do you know that haiku?”
She recited the haiku for the man once more with as much feeling as she could while he mouthed the words:
Yuki utskushi ya
Nishi no kumo
They were blocking the hall. And yet, nurses and doctors and patients and relatives of patients streamed easily around them, and she thought that the ghosts of the dead might be streaming around them, too. Women with hair like seaweed and phosphorescent skin. On the news last night, she watched helicopters dumping water on burning power plants and cars floating out to sea. “No more radiation,” she had told Mori-sensei. “I just want to sit in a quiet room and read poetry. I used to read long books, but now I can only read a sprinkling of words.” He sent the stretcher for her anyway. He said surgery might buy her a year.
“Of all Issho’s haiku, my mother loved that one best,” the man said. “She wrote it in calligraphy on a scroll I hung over her altar.” His eyes shone with memories. “How do you know it?”
“I was reading it before you came. Maybe I don’t have cancer after all. Maybe the doctor is wrong because I can even remember the English translation.”
From deep in my heart
How beautiful the snow
Clouds in the west.*
“Thank you!” the man exclaimed. “My English is very poor, but how tender that sounds!” Starry tears lit up his eyes but he resumed pushing her down the hallway because he had to. They soon arrived at the operating room.
*English translation of Issho’s haiku is from Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman, Tuttle Publishing.