A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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December 2005, vol 1 no 3

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Colette Jonopulos


Walking Toward Death Mountain

The old man and I walk south toward the Butte, then north toward his house. A familiar cat follows us up the steps, brushes against the old man's legs. He hears the bell fastened to her collar, but cannot see the brown highlights in Contessa de la Isabella's black coat, or her impetuous rolling on his living room carpet. He leans heavily onto his cane, asks again if it's his birthday. I explain that his birthday was six days ago, that he's now ninety-four. "Ninety-four," he repeats, seemingly surprised. After two years of being his caregiver, I know him well enough to expect the same question a few minutes from now.

spider hides in cracks
comes down the wall carefully
as no one watches

While we eat a snack of yogurt and Bosc pears, the woman across the street November-gardens. Her shears cut back rose canes; her husband's chainsaw works its teeth into a tree's irregular trunk. A neighbor, the one whose husband died last year, drives up in a new car without license plates. I remember her name is Elsie, the name of the old man's nanny so many years ago in Ohio. I try to imagine him at three, at five. Even fifteen. The image does not fill-in easily.

surfaces touched with
nervous skittering fingers
the eyes of the blind

I open the sliding glass door overlooking the remains of the old man's backyard garden: fennel and kale left to decompose into next spring's soil. The cold air comes inside, winds itself around us; I hesitate before closing the door. Bright purple amaranth defies autumn's outbreath, its seeds tightly fastened, its rebellious holding-on, a kind of salvation. Chipping Sparrows land on discarded tree limbs. I lose count as they blend into the branches, disappear and reappear. Their twittering lifts the Contessa's head, and the old man's.

one breath, another--
no straw sandals worn today
hiking Spencer Butte


"... belief, still strong among the Japanese today, that at least the first part of the death journey leads through mountains. Until recently the dead were even dressed in straw sandals in anticipation of the walk over 'Death Mountain' (shide no yama)." Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems.

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