The Last Haiku

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1st-place winner of The Cuffer Prize 2008

He wrote the world into Haikus. The poems were neither brilliant nor forgettable. His first came when he was quite young, certainly no older than 10.

His father was rarely around, which affected him very little.

His mother claimed to love to be alone but on Friday nights while he was out playing spotlight she would do her hair up in an '80s hurricane, slip into one of her dresses and sit alone among the lines of candles that flickered before her like worshipping monks.

Slipping away from the game, he would sit, gargoyle-like, in one of the maples that gated his front yard and watch his mother sip wine in the candlelight, while her favourite records spun their songs and then scratched the needle's longing.

One night while she rubbed the lipstick from the rim of her finest wineglass and held her face in her hands, he took a small pocketknife he had found along the riverbank.

Hunched in the tree he chipped away at the bark between his knees.

A lipstick bruised wineglass

A boy sees unseen

A woman sits alone

That was the first, but more would follow. He would write 10 a night or go two years without lifting a pen.

Watching a torpored fly buzz to life on the windowsill one February day, he wrote:

In a beam of winter light

A fly awakens

To an early death

On a path in Butterpot Park one December when he was 17, he came across the tracks of an adult and child.

He followed them through the crowded spruce until he found a gathering of snowmen in a clearing, all facing each other, heads bowed either in greeting or with the burden of Avalon winds. In his book that night he wrote

A child's prints in winter

Lead the way to where

Only small things matter

During a period working for Hydro on the threaded highways and railways of Northern Ontario that rumbled with lumber trucks bursting with wood and trains empty of people, he sat waiting for a left-turn signal. He looked down at his fingers curled around the steering wheel and saw that his hands were just like his father's: thick, cracked and capable. He pulled over and cried, not for any sense of longing but for the passage of time that was pushing him along much too fast and into a way of life he neither wanted nor understood. He was 25 when he wrote:

I turn the car left

And look down into the wheel

At my father's hands

He was 26 before he started living. It was then that he laid to rest some of the images from his past. The people who recognized him after his time in Northern Ontario said there was something lighter about him, as though he had sweat out whatever macabre feelings he harboured while working the saw in the thick Ontario heat.

One night after a stroll along the St. John's harbour front, where the stern lines of foreign boats bent the winds into strange tunes, he walked into a dark pub. There he recognized a young Australian woman who had taught him an English course during his short attempt at university. She had finished her master's quite young and was not so much older than him when she was hired to fill in for a professor for a single term.

Their conversation came easy. They spoke mostly about their favourite writers and also the strangeness of time, how it seemed to stretch on forever and yet be lost like loose change. He wrote in his book while she was in the washroom and let her catch him on her return. He left the book open on the table while he went for drinks and smiled over his shoulder as she tried to read his words without moving closer.

She asked him to walk her home. She walked through her door silently and continued up the stairs. He watched her from behind until he heard her bedroom door open from somewhere deep inside the old house, groaning like the call of a trenched whale.

He followed and found her undressing in front of a mirrored nightstand, her hair untied and running the crucifix of freckles along her back and shoulders.

Afterwards, she lay on his chest and spoke about Australia. He liked the sound of that island. Down Under. Down under all of this. Down to the bottom of everything. He fell asleep listening to her. When he awoke, the sun was on her face.

They loved each other very much. They would walk together with their arms around the other's waist, whispering whatever secrets they hadn't already told. It was as though one tried to outdo the other for how much of themselves they could share.

He let it all out. Every fear and dream, every time he felt guilty about being happy.

It frightened her how much she loved him. She would tell him how overwhelmed and scared she felt and he would smile, not understanding the ways of a woman and thinking that could only be a good thing.

At some point, the greatness of it all faded for her. It seemed to her he was clinging onto the feelings of the first time they met. He wrote haikus about her as though he was looking at her for the first time, but instead of this making her feel as though the magic of it all would never wear off, it made her feel as though he wasn't capable of growing. He wouldn't let go the first time he truly felt happy so he could find new occasions to smile.

She left him.

For a time he didn't seem to care. His life became one of routines. Rise, walk, write, eat, sleep. Gradually he walked longer, slept less and ate nothing. One day he just kept on going. He walked to the other side of The Narrows and up the old riverbed near Fort Amherst. He huddled somewhere along the top as night fell. The storm petrels rose as darkness fell, weaving in and out of the fog that glowed dull in the smothered moonlight. Their ghoulish laughter taunted him. He listened for a time and lashed out once, swinging his arms wildly, hoping to smash them out of the sky. They weaved their way through the night-time, filling the blackness with their strange sound.

By morning he was almost gone. He clung to the small notebook he always kept with him, his other hand crushing a cheap pen. The petrels were gone.

Back out at sea and down underground. The skies shone bright with July sun. Below him pods of whales rolled in deep water. Gannets fell around them from the sky, exploding on the ocean's surface only to rise intact, as though the ocean had repaired them.

He watched them in their strange dance, the whales twisting in the shower of seabirds. Everything inviting him. All creatures pointing the way. He took out his book and wrote his last haiku.

Blue rests upon blue

Voices invite me in

To the land down under.

Josh Pennell is an author and journalist living in St. John's


Judges' citation

"Simple words, simple sentences, and the plain beauty of haiku - 'The Last Haiku' builds marvelously by moving in exactly the direction that the author will allow you to go. It's a short story that depends on the pieces left out of a story, so you are propelled through it as if staring at the page through the wrong end of binoculars. Through the images you are allowed to see, you are able to watch the simple dance of a relationship where one person cares more than the other, with almost-inevitable consequences.

It's the kind of story where you hope the writer won't lose their grasp and let the story fall apart in the last sentence - and it does not. 'The Last Haiku' is precise and near-letter-perfect."

Geographic location: Northern Ontario, St. John's, Butterpot Park Ontario Australia Fort Amherst

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