Death is Not a Cormorant

Black iron basket on the bow of the fisherman’s boat.
Black cormorants, feathers shining like oil, all tethered
with metal collars around their necks. Such dutiful,
hungry birds. They fan out beneath the water,
through the schools drawn to the lamplight, snap
the sweetfish in their pointed beaks, return to the boat.
The catch stays stuck in their throat just above the golden ring
and the fisherman—face hidden by a wide, white hat—squeezes
each neck against the boat side with a practiced hand,
the stunned fish tumbling out. The birds
are still hungry. They dive again.

Wait. Hold, please.
Let me explain.

What actually happened was this: I was three days
into my vigil in intensive care. My father, mottled
with cancer, had begun to sink into the dark pools
of his eyes, watching the television reports
of the Newtown shooting with the sound turned down.
He’d stopped speaking the day before. “I’ll be back
in a week,” I said. I kissed his dry cheek.

At the airport bar, everyone held hands.
A fond old friend had come to wait with me
for my flight. Her father had died
four years before. I’d known him: painter
of the sultry woman with a bright red flower
in her hair that’s hung for years like a window
on her living room wall. Over double bourbons,
she told me the book she wrote about him
took years to find a publisher. No dead fathers,
they’d sniffed at her manuscript. No cancer,
with an airy wave of the hand.

I ran a finger over my glass’s rim, warm
liquid long gone to ice. “Yes, not very lovely,
is it?” I said. She smiled, something pained
on her wise face, said: “Too earnest, I guess.”

We laughed. We’d long been accused of it.
We ordered another round.

Never mind. Let’s go on.

Ayu, the sweetfish, rising toward the light.
The fisherman beating the side of the boat with oars
to stir the fish. The fisherman’s role passed
from father to son in the Japanese Imperial House.
Unomi: to swallow whole or to accept
without question.

Like the bird, like my father.
Like the way he looked when I left him
for the last time, everything he felt
caught in his throat. I told him I love you.
I told him I am proud of the man you’ve become.

He swallowed and swallowed. His eyes shone like oil.
I wondered what he would have said if my mother
hadn’t clamped her fist so tightly around his throat.

There, I’ve done it again,
but, dear reader, I’m afraid in this case
I must say it plain. You see, I was born
to a bitter, lying people and it feels complicit
to bury my father in . . . what did Heaney call it?
A confusion of evasion and artistic tact.

The truth is that my father was dying,
that he would leave behind nothing except days
of work he despised and a trapped life
as my mother spent every penny he made.
The truth is that when I said goodbye to him
he said nothing, that everything he would never be
and never say was sinking into the great, fluid-filled belly
of him. He just sat, gulping around the cancer
there in a bed that smelled of sweat and urine
and old sheets, the one he’d never rise from again.

I did start by trying to make it lovely for you,
I swear. I turned my father into a great black bird
and his life into a river lit by a basket lamp burning
fragrant splits of pine. Look, I even turned
my mother into a noble fisherman, face
shielded by a snow-white hat’s brim.
But my father was really nothing like a cormorant,
his death nothing like noble work, and not even
1,300 years of history could explain away his silence
or my mother’s cruel collar and heavy ropes.  end