Door-keeper, guardian
of order in the library,
often I meet him on his rounds,
watching—for what?
Jam smears and apple peelings?
That no one's lost?

Trying to fend off a recurrent nausea
I was smuggling tea into the stacks
when we converged
screened from each other by a potted tree
with leaves like giants' hands.

I slid my cup behind a book, and asked
(diverting his attention)
the name of that unlikely, snake-trunked plant.
And I remembered
where I'd seen it last:

A blowy summer day,
a railroad cutting in Virginia, poor red soil
rampant with wildflowers, kudzu, thistles
over my head. A burst
of yellow star seeds, and this tree,
enormous, alligator-green, eight-fingered palms
outspread. I came from that ravine
stippled with tiny burrs like lentils
and clutching a bouquet of gaudy weeds.

The janitor gave me a Latin name
and a small shoot
he sliced off with his penknife.
"Keep it in water
till it puts out roots."
We looked up at the tree. Its leaves,
I saw, were stained with black.

"It has a kind of cancer" he explained.
"I've fed it, pruned it back
trying to save its strength—and look,
it keeps on growing, sending out
new leaves. It could live for years."

"How long before the seedling roots?"
"Might be a month or two.
If nothing happens—you know where willows grow?
Well, put some rotting willow twigs in water.
Wait till it turns a peat-bog brown
then pour the willow water
on your sprout."

He turned and pressed the elevator button
for "basement". I saw him there
among the roots, the hairy
feeders, long blind taproots, blurred mycelium threads,
untangling, freeing,
cutting away dead growth;
his fingers webbed with leaf mould,
hands brimming with water.

I sipped my tea,
felt in my pocket
for the thrice daily chalk-white pill
speckled with olive like a songbird's egg.
I thought "cytoxan, methetrexate,
five-fluoro-uracil and
willow water.
We could live for years." And then went home
to plant the small green scion.