Sister Isabella

Sister Isabella is my husband’s father’s youngest sister. Whenever I visit India, I try to visit her in her convent in Puducherry, the former French territory a few hundred kilometres south of Chennai.

Sister Isabella welcomes me from deep within dark eyes, just as she has each time since we first met, nearly thirty years ago.  A tiny woman, she looks up at me and holds my hand. On this hot South Indian day, she wears a brown woollen scarf around her neck.  She is eager to hear family news:  as usual, she knows far more than my husband and I. She smiles and asks us if we are happy, checks our religious observance, worries about a grandnephew who has not married, about my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband’s health.  I watch her, a woman over ninety, take control of a conversation that jumps across three languages.

friends once gave me
fine champagne glasses
as a farewell gift –
the crystal sings
when I rub the rim

Sister Isabella’s home is a hospice for elderly destitute: the concrete cloisters gleam amid a series of courtyard gardens. Between hibiscus, roses, crotons, mango trees and coconuts, dirt paths are swept smooth.

aged laughter
from three stooped women
fills the cloisters
in the Hospice garden
trees bow down with ripened fruit

Sister Isabella fusses around, serving us cabbage, fish and rice. Then, when we are finished, she covers the food, turns off the fan, switches off the light and closes the door.

at dawn
a brown speckled sparrow chirps
always busy
her body pulses
with her beating heart

My family and I arrive, unannounced from Sydney.  Aunty is ninety-six and hospitalised.  Our three children tower over the tiny bundle lying on her iron cot. She has not seen them since they were small. Her eyes light up and she calls me by name; then, each of the children, one by one. She laughs and recalls how our son as a twelve year old pedalled the Mother Superior in a rickshaw round the hospice garden. As we leave her in her hospital ward that day, I am unbearably sad.

Now, a few months later, I learn that Sister Isabella has died.  I mourn even as I smile with her joy.

for a while
we kept two finches –
in the morning
surprised by sadness
before an empty cage

Published Haibun Today, Sept 2014


A year ago, I was beginning my walk along part of the Camino Frances across Spain towards Santiago de Compostela. Some of my reflections on that walk were recently published in Haibun Today. 

Camino: A Tanka Diary                                                                                         thumb_IMG_0649_1024

still three days
before I leave
on pilgrimage—
outside my door
white pear blossom

Getting to Sarria

In Pamplona, we wake around 4.30 and take the first bus to Obanos. The driver sets us down at a cross road. We clip on our backpacks, adjust our trekking poles and begin our walk towards the village. An elderly woman gestures towards the yellow arrow that marks the Camino. We walk past fields of blackened sunflowers, vegetable patches filled with towering stands of beans, kale, cabbage, tomato and lettuce to the next village. At the end of the early-morning streets we find the picturesque bridge after which Puente La Reina is named. We meet other pilgrims, eat bocadillos of ham and cheese, wait for the bus to Burgos.

past dry stone walls
the click of trekking sticks—
I step
into footprints
a thousand years old

The cathedral in Burgos testifies to the faith of other times. It is monumental. Away from the massive gilt reredos, I find a sculpture of my namesake, a familial group of infant, mother and grandmother. Cold winds blow across the plaza where a travel-worn pilgrim in bronze rests permanently on a bench.

secure for centuries
behind ancient walls
the city
opens its gates
to a world of seekers

At 8.00 next morning, we pass through the old city walls under the Arco de San Martin. A woman leans from an upper window to point out the way. On through parkland near the Monasterio de las Hueglas Realas, a Cistercian monastery of women founded in the 12th Century, past the university and into the countryside.

looking for direction
from those who know the way—
bow eastwards

About half way to the village of Tardajos, I stop worrying about being in time to catch the bus back to Burgos. I start to enter into the solitude I have been seeking. We miss the bus, so retrace our steps over the 12 kilometres back to the city. We pass a thin grey-haired woman walking alone towards Tardajos. Her steps are slow and awkward as if recovering from stroke. We pause on a bridge over a stream, black with reeds, for conversation with a Canadian family.

In Burgos, the buses to Leon, where we have accommodation for the night, are booked out. However, there is one train at 6.15. We are just in time to buy tickets.

our path
wanders back and forth—
wind-song in poplars,
blackberries by the roadside,
gentle greetings from pilgrims

It is cold and still dark when we rise next morning and seek out the cathedral. Bright flowerboxes hang from the official buildings in the old city. Streets are being washed, chilling our feet. We meet a downcast pilgrim whose walking shoes, complete with orthotics, have gone missing overnight. We spend time with him as he sets off slowly in worn sneakers and then warm ourselves with churros and hot chocolate.

From Leon, we journey on to the old Celtic town of Sarria…

Read more…at http://haibuntoday.com/ht102/TP_Benjamin_Camino.html

Published in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor, Volume 10, Number 2, June 2016.