I speed, late as usual, to the ceremony thirteen days after your death. You hated my driving. Slow is smooth, you said, again and again, smooth is fast, but I never slowed down.
In your brother’s living room, your white friends sit solemnly, trained by church, while your Indian friends relax and chat quietly, trusting the ritual will go on just fine without them.
Marigolds draping your photo, spot of vermilion on your forehead, the drone of the pandit’s chant: the atheist in you would have hated all of it, but you left. You don’t get to pick.
The pandit says your journey to the afterlife takes a day for you, but a year for us, that finally you were leaving, having lingered these thirteen days. Though I hadn’t felt you there, or at your house, or your memorial. Even my dreams, when I dream of you, are only dreams. Perhaps, as usual, you left early. Lord knows you hate to be late.
Couldn’t you linger just a little longer, just this once? Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Surely you can make up the time.
So Death comes to call; I offer him tea and take his sickle and hide it in the closet. Its handle feels rough on my palm. The foyer smell of cedar chases away the moths from his empty sockets. His robes flutter with butterfly wings. He wears a necklace of hummingbird skulls.
In the kitchen the refrigerator’s hum drowns out his whispered words. I pretend he isn’t talking while I sweeten the tea with lavender honey but birdsong from outside rolls in bitter on my tongue
“In England, Shakespeare had no trouble dying.” Death’s voice rings out razor sharp. I shiver as my bare feet on the tile floor catch February’s chill.
Rummaging in the cupboards, I think Now that’s just swell. Death comes to call and I’m all out of cookies. That’s what happens when you forget to go shopping. I make a note to write a poem later on the back of a grocery list.
“God, that’s just like an American.” Death’s disgust at my lack of hospitality rankles. The overfilled pitcher of nicety grows too heavy for my weakened hands and falls, crashing to bits on the floor.
Like my own Lilliputian minutemen the shards scatter into a circle around him barring the way against his heavy feet while I, light with emptiness levitate over the painted table. Arms crossed, I address my guest:
“And now Mama-san will tell you you presumptuous usurper what’s up: you will take your rough-handled sickle, fluttering robe and ominous whispering, and depart. And you will stay long away.”
Death hangs his bony head, smooth as an egg (his has no cracks, as ours do, for through which birth canal did it ever pass?), already missing the taste of my tea. I tell him I must find out first what can’t be discovered. He laughs. The birds outside sing Hoc opus, hic labor est.
The teacups dance to the sound of his leaving. Pen in my left hand and rolling pin in my right I hear his voice as he strides, resigned, away: “Get to work, girl, and the next time I visit you’ll be glad for the rest.” My refrigerator hums. His parting words: “By the way, I prefer scones.”
So we see more partings than returns. So we are old. So the wrinkles do not make a workman, but a crippling, a reed or weed on lawn. So cattails bend, unbend, at this lean hour. It means nothing but the wind is strong today. I shuffle by marsh- mires: here no reed stand strong to take hold of and lift me, dirty but just- dry against the wind, that which beats me. Clouds cross like ships, fire ammo the sound of thunder and shape of lightning. My clothes swell in the wind and in the rain that shape it into breathings, shapes without shape. I haven’t told of the dream in which a Greek boy hunched beneath the shelter of trees, but he dripped and shivered like me. In the wind, by daybreak, each leaf a grape pulled up by the stem, as from somewhere a force had come, they rustled and bowed like that as the cattails bend, unbend, at this lean hour.