(A Poem Tale)
read by stephen collington
He had never seen a green bee before.
How absurd, to live so many years, never knowing there's such a thing as a green bee. Yet there it was, sitting in its little cup of luminous wedgewood blue, emerald head and thorax shimmering in the morning sun. He wanted to laugh out loud.
No movement in the windows of the house. She'd soon finish her shower, though, so he had to hurry. The mailbox lid creaked as he lowered it over the paper and the pinched length of vine with its delicate blue flowers.
upturned to heaven
silvered trumpet bells of sky
the morning glories
in your quiet garden bloom
poised for a celestial note
He was hardly halfway home when his phone gave a wriggle on the seat beside him. At the next light, text: "Op. 9 No. 1." It took him a moment . . . the Chopin, of course. She'd played it just the night before.
But B flat minor? Well, he'd been called worse. The nocturne's lilting melody carried him the rest of the way home.
* * *
"Don't cling," she told him that first night. "I hate things that cling." So he sent her a silk blouse, and a box of Bounce. It was as much as he could do to keep inside himself when two days, then three, went by without reply.
But he'd underestimated her.
blues bruised to purple
morning's flower fades and leaves
on the naked vine
desire's black current for you
to trace in all its twinings
He bought tea and a bag of scones at the little bakery on the corner.
* * *
Among the students who came to the house, the young Russian stood out like a giraffe. He might as soon have danced in the Bolshoi. He bore his fine, tousled head with the superb arrogance of one born to greatness and sorrow; he played with a passion that would leave him silently weeping, slender fingers pressed to sensual lips. "You should take an interest him," she told him one afternoon, when the boy had left. "He needs someone to take an interest in him."
It was the least he could do. The young man, gifted but poor and proud, had hardly so much as glimpsed life as yet, peering from behind the pillars of his students' "rush" seating. But no more: there were concerts to hear, people to meet, connections to be made. They would walk together in the lazy late-afternoon sun, then sit down to dinner—a proper dinner, in a proper jacket and tie, with proper wine—before losing themselves at last in symphony or sonata in his comfortable, first-balcony nook. All through her August tour, he kept her informed: emails to Berlin, Vienna, Prague.
* * *
It wasn't until a good week after her return, however, that he called.
"Glorious morning, hmm?" he teased.
But she was cold. "I ripped them up. They were out of control; you couldn't even find the railing. And they were full of bees. One of the students was going to get stung."
Which should have been enough. But he felt honour-bound. When he dropped in later that day, however, she wasn't home. Just a note, taped to the door:
creeper and climber
the vine snakes undecided
it turns back once more
to twist on its own tangles
lying choked on choked railing
He was stunned. How could she be so unjust?
He ran his hand along the bare iron, hot in the September sun, then took a last turn around the little garden. And there, at the back, he found them, piled on the compost heap, by the fence behind the mock orange: morning glories. A Medusa's nest of snaky tendrils, still green, still alive, with great heart-shaped leaves, crushed and bent, but breathing. And most astonishing of all, still blooming: a galaxy of faint blue stars winking in the deep green shade.
cut it despise it
you can't keep it from clinging
this will to beauty
uprooted and discarded
and blooming still each still dawn
When he stooped to lift one of the nodding blossoms and peer inside, there was the green bee, staring back out at him. Still. Unmoved.
Elegant tales of poets and lovers, lightly sketched in elliptical, enigmatic prose and featuring, always, an exchange of witty and allusive tanka verses which carry the lyrical burden of the story . . . when Stephen Collington first encountered the Japanese poem tale (uta monogatari) as a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1980s, he was immediately taken by the charm of the form—so much so that he would go on to specialize in classical Japanese, and eventually earn a degree in comparative literature from the University of Tokyo. In the years since, he has written and translated in a good many other styles and genres, but his fondness for the poem tale has never left him. "Green Bee" is a little act of homage to this thousand-year-old form.
(With thanks to Philip Collington for his creative input and technical expertise in making the recording.)