The Wriggling Koi

First published in Modern Haiku XXII:3, Fall 1991, pages 50–53. Originally written in March of 1991. Minor revisions made in August of 2009 and December of 2012. See also “The neon buddha attends his first haikucon.”

At the sound of the splash, a dozen heads turned to face the old pond. Ah! Only Makoto leaping in for his morning ablutions. Around the hotel koi pond, the poets returned to their morning tea. Dan Rosenberg’s cup released wisps of steam as he inhaled deeply through his nostrils.

“Has it really been a year since we last met?” Dan said, not lifting his eyes from his cup.

“Yes,” John Macomber replied, leaning forward in his wicker chair. “An eternity.”

“Well, I’ve collected a fine quiver of cards, John. Can’t wait to start trading.”

“Got the original Bashō yet?”

“Ah, you don’t want me to give away my secrets too soon, now, do you?” Dan smiled slyly, then shivered for a moment in the brisk morning air. He sipped again.

The two remained silent as they finished their tea. Makoto almost caught an old koi with his hands, but it slipped between his legs. The quiet yet wry old man climbed out on a rock at the edge of the pool, and began to towel himself dry.

“Good tea, eh?” John began again. “Haiku tea.” Dan nodded and lowered his empty cup.

Just then a great bong sounded, and the poets attending the card-trading convention rose from their chairs like a flock of birds taking flight from a tree.

At the main meeting hall the displays of cards were arranged neatly on tables, some under glass. Many of the poets filed in behind their respective displays. John bounded in, rubbing his hands together vigourously. Makoto inched in last and stepped quietly to a corner.

After a short announcement by an official from the sponsoring airline, trading opened. At first a crowd of buyers huddled around Roy Goebel’s table, and when he asked for bids, they started yelling furiously.

“Two Blyths for a Buson!”

“A Santōka for a new Henderson!”

As the small cards traded hands, the proud and curious owners stepped away, quietly reading the short biographies and haiku publishing statistics.

“Three contemporary Canadians for a Bashō reprint!”

“A Roseliep and a Hackett for a Blyth!”

“The Boston Five for two Edo minors!”

Again, the colourful cards traded hands. Some went for cash, some for trade. In his corner, Makoto waited, watching with a bemused grin. Dan Rosenberg flew from Montana Freedom’s table over to Arlene Solomon’s, made a quick trade, then shot back to Roy’s. After a few minutes, Makoto slipped out quietly. The trading continued.

“A Leanfrog set for three Australians!”

“A Snyder and a Watts for a Shiki!”

“Two Kerouacs for an Issa!”

At that moment, Dan cleared his throat. Then, stepping onto a small stool, he held up his hand. Slowly the room grew quiet. All eyes turned toward Dan’s raised hand. At the end of his fingers, he carefully displayed a small plastic case, and inside one could see a small, slightly yellowed card.

“Year of the Snake . . .” someone whispered.

“Gold leafing . . .” said someone else.

“A Bashō ORIGINAL!” another voice yelled.

A gasp went up. Suddenly the room swelled with clamour. Voices shouted numbers upon numbers. Dan turned his head slowly around the room, fighting to stay on his stool. The bodies around him pushed and pressed. He listened intently as the price rose higher. “By good fortune I have acquired two of these rare gems, each with the most complete posthumous publishing credits and prize lists ever assembled,” Dan explained over the noise. “Both are in fine condition, and today . . .” he paused for dramatic effect. “Today, this one will belong to the highest bidder!”

Again the voices shouted as the price rose yet higher. Soon the less serious collectors fell silent as other bids exceeded their means. One by one, the bidders quieted, yet continued to watch with awe. First four, then three, then two bidders remained, and the rest of the crowd backed away to leave them the floor. One of the bidders asked to examine the prize haiku-master trading card, and Dan held it out in its plastic case then turned it around to show its fine letterpress printing. “A hundred thousand,” said one of the two bidders at last. Another gasp ricocheted across the room.



A pause. “One-twenty-five.”

“One hundred and fifty thousand!” The other bidder did not respond.

“One-fifty?” Dan asked, then turned his eyes across the crowded room. “Anyone over one-fifty?” Anyone . . . ? SOLD for one-fifty to John Macomber!” At once the crowd gasped again, then pressed in trying to catch a glimpse of the prize card. John and Dan exchanged a quick glance.

Just then, Makoto slipped back into the trading room. He carried a paper bag about the size of a shoebox flat across one forearm, then opened the end of the bag with his free hand. Out came a small wooden box, old and weathered, and, on top of it, a dulcimer door chime. He folded the bag into his pocket and began to fuss with the chime.

In the center of the room, John glowed with pride, and the voices chattered about the Bashō original. Now holding the Bashō card himself, John Macomber by turns looked closely at his new possession and held it out for curious onlookers. Dan Rosenberg slipped to the end of the room to fill out some paperwork.

Then a faint sound rang out. Then again. Makoto tapped at his door chime with a small wooden mallet. The dulcimer sound grew and fell as the portly gentleman tapped out a brief rhythm, then repeated it after a pause. For a second time the crowd grew still. The faces turned to him, then back to John. At last John heard the chime and looked up from his Bashō original.

“Friends, friends,” said Makoto at last, his voice rising above the last notes of the resonating chime. Many were surprised at the deep richness of his seldom-heard voice. “Friends, I bring you greetings. Today we are blessed with the warmth of each other’s company. Again this year we gather for our annual ritual, bartering our haiku trading cards with one another. We all know that in the midst of this confusion we sometimes make bad trades. Then we come away feeling cheated. But sometimes we come away fulfilled, with a cherished, long-sought-for card pressed against our bosom. And we go away for another year with our idols. We read their biographies and compare our publishing credits against theirs in vain. We tally up the contests and awards we’ve won and dream of someday having our own cards printed by the great haiku publishing houses. But today I offer something precious, a free gift . . . a free gift for all, a gift as free as water.”

Makoto cleared his throat. Dan Rosenberg, his paperwork completed, stepped closer into the throng.

“Yes, for each of you! Let me explain. Years ago a discovery was made in a Zen monastery near Tokyo, a discovery that I am pleased to share with you today . . .” The gentle old man shifted to his other foot and his bulbous middle bounced three times. He handed his chime to a woman next to him, then gestured slightly with the tarnished wooden box.

“What is it?” cried a voice.

“This,” he said, gently opening the lid, “is a box of ancient haiku trading cards. A dying roshi bequeathed them to me with the wish that they be shared among us all. He said he found them years ago by accident, buried in the soil, while raking sand for a new garden. Friends, I bring you his haiku blessing.”

Without another word, Makoto handed each poet a card, each deftly wrapped in silk or cotton. One by one, he went around the room until the poets each received a card, unwrapped it, and read silently.

“But this card has no biography!”

“Mine has no publishing credits, no book list!”

“No four-colour photograph or signature!”

“No awards list!”

“And what’s this? Mine just has some poem.”

“Mine too . . .”

Makoto gave cards to Roy and Dan and John, to each poet in the room, to each trader and bidder. He finished handing out the cards from his ample supply, closed the box, and quietly stepped out the open door. From the courtyard came the delicate sound of the dulcimer door chime as Makoto took up his merry rhythm.

One by one, the puzzled poets followed him to the courtyard. Makoto had always been a silent man who came to the trading convention every year yet never traded cards. Every year he swam in the hotel pond and once caught a koi. He had shrieked in surprise as it wriggled out of his hands and splashed back to the water. The management scolded him every year, but always he swam in the pond. Today he had spoken out for the first time, and each poet felt drawn to him as if by a magnet. Out by the pond, as each man and woman came near, Makoto reached for his or her card and read it aloud. One by one, they came and listened. One by one, they breathed sunshine, they inhaled joy, they exhaled understanding. Aha! said some. Of course! said others. At one point, Makoto paused, then added mysteriously, “In water, a fish does not know about the water itself.” And Makoto read a hundred poems till the light of the afternoon warmed and waned, then tinged with pink and shrank into pristine darkness.

The poets slept well that night. The next morning, before their final departure, those who still remained gathered around the hotel koi pond for morning tea, and again all heads turned when, smiling broadly, Makoto belly-flopped into the pond. His splash drenched everyone, and the oldest, slowest koi washed up onto the deck and wriggled about helplessly. Makoto stood up at the edge of the water, dripping wet. He pressed his palms together, bowed slightly, then scooped the fish into his hands and released it into the pond.