Renga: A Short Short Story

            It started in an art class. Drawing with ink, really. They called it Sumi-e, brought to the States in the ‘60’s by Gary Snyder and the Beat Generation. Somewhere Moni had read that Snyder spent that summer in a forest lookout making these paintings. The solitude appealed to her. Practice of a single stroke until you perfected it. Some Buddhist method. Breathe into it. Only after she read Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk did she decide she wanted to try some lessons. She couldn’t learn from a book any more. The teacher painted gold fish. There was plenty of time to talk while they worked.

            Kobe came to the first class, her right eye covered by a black patch and her right jaw slack, the muscles in her cheek hollow. She was deaf in her right ear, she said, so they had to speak up. As it happened, there were three deaf people in the group. John used a cane and, at seventy, was the oldest.

            On the second day, Kobe dispensed with the eye patch. She wanted to be accepted for who she was now, she said. Kobe, not Beth. She had shoved her short, dark hair under a yellow beret because the pool doors were locked that morning and she couldn’t swim laps. She sat down next to John.

            Jean, recently deaf in her left ear, began to talk about her patients. She worked as a physical therapist at Abbott Northwestern. She had helped a man whose Trans Am climbed a tree. He’d been out too long. Slowed his thinking, she said. Patients like him had helped her understand her own deafness.

            What happened?

            An inner ear infection, she said. She had learned to lip read only recently.

            Moni asked if she could lip read for Kobe, too.

            Misunderstanding, Jean said she wouldn’t be able to read Kobe’s lips. She turned to face the younger woman and asked how she had gotten that beautiful face.

            Plastic surgery, Kobe answered, assuming Jean wondered about the repair of the damage and not the damage itself.

            A miracle, no question, John said quietly.

            A road grader backed into the Austin Healey she was riding in, Kobe said.


            No, Pierre, she said. She had waited two hours for the ambulance. First they sent a helicopter, but it couldn’t get in close enough. They had to go back and send an ambulance up.

            All that time she waited, John said.

            How could she do it? Moni asked.

            Do what?

            Lay there and wait.

            Practice. Years in the ashram. The discipline saved her life, she said. Focus. One focus. She could hear a meadowlark, singing on the mountainside and she held onto that voice. She still does, she said.

            Where did it happen?

            Chama River Valley near Abiquiu, New Mexico. A spiritual place. Monasteries. Mosques. Penitente adobes. Ashrams. The only place she could sleep at night then, she said. Pierre charged up behind a road grader perched on an impassable curve. He tried to pass.

            Moni said she had driven the Colorado Gorge between Taos and the National Forest at night. One lane. No room to pass. A pick-up driver parked on the ledge at the curve, so she could inch past on the inside. Chilling, every inch of the way.

            That’s just like Pierre, Kobe said. He loved to hang out on the edge. This time the grader backed into the passenger side. She said it all matter-of-factly. Without bitterness. She couldn’t jump, she said. The back was piled too high with luggage. She was right next to the drop off. Pierre couldn’t see the guy backing up just as he tried to streak past. Kobe was silent for a while.

            So, where’s the guy now, Moni asked.

            Switzerland, Kobe said. He wasn’t injured. Things were over between them anyway. That’s probably why he was driving so fast. They wanted to get away from each other.

            So, he just took off?

            Moved on, she said. It was over between them anyway and this really freaked him. She had stayed in the Albuquerque hospital for six weeks. It was really harder in the hospital than on the mountainside. No birdsong.

            Only six weeks, Jean repeated, incredulous. Kobe recovered fast. Some patients take months….

            Kobe said that when she met her mother in the Madison airport, her mother couldn’t stop crying. She hadn’t seen Kobe’s face since the bandages were taken off. Her sister saved the situation, though. She said, “You’re beautiful, Beth, like one of Picasso’s women.”

©Kate Hallett Dayton


Volume 4.2-4.3


Kate Hallett Dayton

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