Title: Lotus, Part 3
Author: Elliott Silver
"I want to show you something," Donna said.
Sam had barely been awake for ten minutes that morning when he realized she was gone. In his chest, Sam's heart stuttered and never seemed like it regained its rhythm.
The Monday morning was pure and sharp in Kyoto, and he heard the wisps of a string instrument next to a shivery flurry of a street vendor peddling lychees and chubby oranges.
It was not quite noon when she burst in, and he had been waiting three nerve-ragged hours. It was their seventh day there and she was wearing khaki pants that bagged around her slim figure in odd folds of fabric and a blue tee shirt the color of the sky. Her face was flushed and her eyes crackling with light as she held a cluster of white flowers to her chest like a wreath of fallen stars, a coronation over her heart, her pale dying bones.
"I want to show you something," Donna breathed and she was breathlessly radiant and when he looked at her, Sam couldn’t remember the last time she had been this alive, and he wasn't angry at all.
They skirted the edge of Gion, the entertainment district and its thrumming pulse of red and black, of swirling kimonos still and flashing neon. They passed tea vendors and candy sellers, beckoning in high nasal Japanese and sweet fumes against the bitter acridity of car exhaust and the burn of incense, the slice of raw sushi and crunch of seaweed. Slick stone temples with mossy cut-out lanterns and old bells rung paper-thin tucked in between suit and briefcase businesses, against the chatter of televisions tuned to cooking shows and dubbed American soap operas.
Donna had loved Kyoto from the first second.
She loved that it was a sacred space opened only by the graces of the wind and that spring had just begun. She loved water dripping off the clay-tiled eaves like chimes and in sibilant whispers. She loved that underneath her, the city shimmered wetly as if varnished in wet glass. She loved that it was still cool enough that migratory birds flew through in whooshing shivers, wearing nothing but water and slowness on their ruffled winter feathers.
Kyoto, the spiritual heart of Japan, was well over a thousand years old, but to Sam, it felt as fresh and new and lively as if it had been born yesterday and without memory. Neon signs and ancient stone-hewn temples and shrines intertwined together, weathered at an alarming rate by hot, damp summers, and cold damp winters. There was a sense of permanence here, unlike in the incoherence and flurry of DC, that Sam had never known before, quiet and unassuming in its secrets.
As Sam went with her, the time was like never, and like always in Kyoto. They had gone to Kyoto because nothing was waiting for them, and when she showed him the gate, he knew that they had found everything waiting for them there.
The gate itself was beautiful only in its decay. It was a high caged thing, shrouded in stone arches and black iron at least ten feet high with a creaking latch thicker than Donna's arm. It had been a work of masonry and metal and now its arrogant elegance hung crooked and rusted, and the petalled flowers curled and curved in metal lines drooped sideways, bleeding time in red corrosion. Each metal stem branched inward like rays of the sun to a huge flower in the center and when Donna lifted the lock, the flower's petals slid back into a bare bud as if nothing had ever bloomed, or would ever.
The gate scraped against the sandy ground like the crack of a stem being picked.
"Donna," Sam said and he pulled back against her, against trespassing, against knowing that whatever lay beyond these walls, this gate that bloomed in great rusted glory, would change everything.
Donna's blue eyes were the color of wish, the color of a bloom at full pitch.
"Come," Donna said and she didn't beg. "Come with me."
And when he went, Sam felt like he was walking into a dream.
Feathery maples no higher than her waist and rounder than Buddha shrouded the arched entrance of two intertwined dragons, lushly electric green or cabernet red. Stands of bamboo rustled against the sky, tickled the heavens with paintbrush strokes the way his fingers traced her skin at night into his memory. Azaleas and cherry trees lined winding pathways through the greenery, tips of pink buds against dark clustered leaves.
Everything was a summer's worth of overgrown in this place of sand and water and the color green, of new life. It was a place of shade without shadow, of sanctuary and solace, of worlds and realities. And when Sam followed Donna until she stopped and he saw what she had brought him for, he understood as she told him how she found the white flowers, she showed him how she found peace.
She had been out early again, drawing the pale yellow sheets over him softly so that he never missed her warmth. She slept unevenly now as the pain in her skeleton came and passed, and already in their second week in Japan, she had explored the markets and temples in Chi-San, the suburb outside Kyoto proper that bordered on the flight and fantasy and rhythms of Gion. Before today, she had always returned with her clothes saturated with grating incense and a half-eaten lychee or Asian pear in her hand.
She had been in the market again when she had felt a rifling in the back pocket of her jeans, underneath the long tails of Sam's pinstriped shirt, and she had whirled half a second too late.
She saw the child peeking around the bin of fiery red dragonfruit, her fingers curling over the ripe fruit skins so that when she turned and ran as Donna caught her eye, there were imprints of her fingers left in the curves of the fruit, tiny bruises of sugar.
Vendors sang over her head and at each other as she ran after the child as she darted away. She hurried through the edges of Gion and past a leaning stone temple with chants and smoke and hovered at a massive gate with flowers wrought in unbreathing metal.
The child pushed twice at the gate, kicked it once with her tiny foot, and shimmied in, letting it clang after her and staring at Donna through the black leaves cast and carved by some nameless metal master ages ago. Then she disappeared and Donna had gone after her. A half-open bud lay broken on the ground and the gate latch was wet with sap from her small hands.
Deliberately, Donna breathed and went after her into the garden greenery.
The world had suddenly gone cool and shadowed, narrowed down to shades of green and whispers no louder than the slide of leaves against one another.
Donna wound her way after the child, past two wizened men bent over their fine-toothed rakes, etching clean lines into the mica sand walkways, clearings, and temple entrances, and singing a gritty lullaby in Japanese. They didn't even look up at her presence and continued their intricate patterns that footfalls would later obliterate.
Donna had no sooner heard the voice than the child barreled straight into her. The woman tottered unsteadily as the child crashed to her feet, skidding through the neatly-lined sand on stubby knees and splayed palms.
The girl looked up at her with wide dark eyes.
All around them the ground was strewn with white flowers on long green stems. Without taking her eyes off Donna, the girl grabbed three of the closest flowers and pulled them to her chest. Like most of the others, the white blooms drooped, broken and mangled and bleeding.
Her wallet lay between them.
Bending down, Donna gathered the fallen flowers instead and held them out to the child.
After a minute the child reached out and snatched them.
A garden keeper wrangled the girl by the collar, dangling her nearly off her feet as the flowers danced side to side against her chest, and berating her in strict Japanese.
The child only clutched the lotuses closer. Two of the white flowers broke from their stems and fell to the sand. Donna bent and picked them up, cradling the blooms in each hand.
"Don't," Donna had said.
"This is Saiku," the man said at last in broken English. "She steals lotuses from our ponds."
The girl bit down on her lower lip.
"I have chased her three times already," the keeper said, clearly annoyed. "This time I will call the police."
And dangling the child like a marionette, he proceeded down the path.
"Wait," Donna said, following him.
He turned and looked at her suspiciously.
"Here," and she dug some bills out of the wallet sandwiched in her hands between the crushed lotuses. "For the flowers."
The keeper glanced at her, and after a moment, took the money. And Donna never wondered that it had all started over the stolen wallet and a small child.
"I will call the police next time," he said and let the girl drop to the sand. She landed lithely, but another flower broke from its stem and fell to the ground. After the keeper's footsteps faded, Saiku bent slowly and picked it up again.
For a long second, her eyes looked as if she were going to cry.
It was always the small injuries that hurt more.
With small eyes, she stood up and held the flower out, placing it in Donna's hands with the others, almost as if she believed Donna could heal it, as if Donna with clogging cancer could breathe life into anything.
"You're bleeding," Donna said, pointing with lotuses at the child's sand-scrubbed knees. One of her palms was bleeding too; there were red prints up and down the long lotus stems.
The child didn't look down, but biting down on her lip again, thrust out all the flowers at Donna and took off down the evergreen path.
"Hey, wait!" Donna called after her, as all the lotuses crushed every which way against her chest and sand and sap trickled down her chest. She stumbled after the girl, and as she rounded the corner, Donna, the normally unflappable secretary to the Deputy Chief of Staff, came to an open-mouthed halt.
As she showed him, Sam, Deputy Communications Director and thorn-crowned king of words, knew how she had felt.
Before them in delicate shards and strobes of sunshine stretched three miles of reed and fern-banked ponds, with three neat islands and delicate pagoda temples on each, and two wooden-keeled boats with carved oars docked by spun ropes. The ponds themselves were so covered in clusters of massive waxy green heart-shaped leaves that it was only when the leaves rustled against one another that the water beneath was visible. Clustered between all the leaves on long elegant stems were thousands - tens of thousands or maybe even hundreds of thousands - of white flowers.
They were lotuses, the flowers Donna had held pressed to her chest and bleeding down her heart when he had answered the door and seen her standing before him so brilliantly alive he almost didn't believe it. Staring out over the water and the sky and the white flowers that seemed part of heaven fallen, Sam understood everything, understood life, understood love.
Lotuses opened their full white petals during the night and for three successive days only, so when Donna visited the ponds and rowed out into them, she would be able to see the same flowers twice before dying, once at birth and bud, and once at full bloom and glory.
The lotus ponds were part of a private garden, they discovered, owned for centuries by the Murakami family. The present Murakamis were the last of their line, she eighty-four and he eighty-seven, and childless. They had both grown up on lotuses, he in a spacious garden owned by his rich aunt and uncle and she in a floating river market. They both knew about living on lotuses, as they did - like Donna - on dying with them.
Donna would leave early, when Kyoto was shades of topaz and gold, and the Murakamis' garden was alive with green whispers and music. Sand on the path crunched under her feet and the world of macadam and modems seemed two dreams back.
The lotus ponds were steaming with mist in the early morning chill the sun had yet to whisk away. The water's surface was covered with lilypond leaves the deep green color of emperor's jade. The world there in the garden seemed nothing but light and breath of the lotuses and she unmoored the tiny sampan boat and stepped into it, balancing gingerly as the craft rocked side to side and made ripples in the pond no one could see. She sat slowly, carefully, and took the weathered oars in her hands, rowing out through shadows and water to the white flowers.
The air drifted with pollen and petal-scent.
Out in the little boat, the world was a dream of sky, water, and flowers, pure and unbroken. Out there, in lotuses, there was peace.
Sam went with her often, almost always at least once a week. He liked watching from shore and thinking about the expressions of her face and the way shadows of white flowers caressed her face and he liked the surprise on her face every time she took his hand as he helped her from water to land once again. But he couldn’t bear the way she stepped to land in his grasp, the way only then she seemed unsteady, as if her bones would not hold. Instead he tried to keep up with the world on the other side of the ocean, couldn’t bear to sit still and not have words and strings of grand ideas running through his mind so the rest of the time was her own and she went alone to her sanctuary, to the great iron gate and the ponds, rowing out in the tiny bobbing boat into the lotuses.
Sam hadn't been up for more than twenty minutes that morning, a grey Thursday, hadn't even begun to heat water for tea or turn on the television to catch the first ten minutes of news-anchor throat-clearing of the international news.
The apartment was still full of shadows and the sweet scent of Donna's shampoo, the warm scent of cotton sheets and skin.
He went to the door at the rattled thumping expecting Donna. But when he slid open the portal, a child rushed into the grey room at him, colliding when him solidly, chattering a stream of panicked Japanese he couldn't even begin to decipher.
"Slow down," Sam said to the child, a girl, as she looked up at him with shadow-lashed eyes deep as forever, deep as dream. "Slow down."
Her small hands, not even the size of his palm, shook on his thighs and she was blinking fast, out of breath, her tiny chest heaving, her chapped mouth open in an o. Sweat marked a wet line down her shirt and her forehead and upper lip were beaded with perspiration.
She spoke again, rattled off a long unpunctuated string of Japanese. Her hands shook harder on his legs; her head barely topped above his knee.
"What's the - " Sam tried to say as the child grabbed wildly at his hands and began dragging his towards the door, shirtless, stubbled, and in grey flannel pajama bottoms.
When he pulled against her and held her by her delicate wrists, she looked back up at him and said flower in Japanese, repeated it twice, and then in broken syllables, "lotus."
"Saiku," he breathed and knew it was the child Donna had spoken of. He didn't remember grabbing for a tee shirt or running out the door, but he remembered that it was hard to keep with the child as she ran through the early morning streets of Kyoto, threading her way through the sleepy vendors and passer-bys until she reached the green curtain of the Japanese garden and ran into it like a dream.
Sand spun under his feet as he followed her down the well-cut path past the sloping porches of the temples and through the waving bamboo and stunted spruce. A maple branch caught him unaware, slapped against his cheek, and Sam felt like the wet burn of a bleed, ignored it, and ran on.
The lotus pond were steaming like a wet burn and when he stopped at the curve, the fog was so thick he could barely tell flowers from white wind, couldn't see at all where one world ended and the other began.
"Donna," he said and the child looked back at him.
She reached for his hand. "Lotus."
And he ran with her to the flowers, to the edge of the water, where the boat was docked in a clumsy knot, where the Murakamis were bent over her body.
White lotuses were scattered in a half-moon around her blonde head - the wilting flowers bled sap in a radiant halo around her. The way she had collapsed, fallen, made it seem as if she had no bones, and it was heartbreaking, Sam thought to know she really didn't.
Lin, the wife, was crying as the medics strapped Donna into a stretcher. She was so distraught she could barely speak English.
"She came back," the old woman managed. "The boat - Saiku - "
Sam fell to his knees in the silty shore mud; his bones crushed a white flower as he fell to her. The sound was awful, rang in his ears like tinitus. Saiku sank down beside him, barely a bump of bone and flesh next to him, her comic tee shirt wet with splotches of water and dark stains of lotus blood-sap. And he had remembered the Murakami's first telling him Saiku was one of the Kyoto flower children, abandoned and left to the whim of the streets to make their livelihood by selling yesterday's flowers, and how it was only their gardener that minded the way she took lotuses.
"We too slow," Lin continued as Sam took Donna's hand, cold and limp in his. "Saiku go for you, for her."
The medics reached up, pulled her away from him, traipsing away in long, heavy footfalls. Sam stumbled after them, hearing only Lin's threnody voice, "She came back, from the lotuses."
In his mind, medical salvation and the hospital in Kyoto was little different than the one in Washington, DC, where the spire of a monument sprouted indignantly from a ground suddenly indifferent to salvation.
The magazines and the television and the nurses were the same, in the same gaudy colors, but in different languages. Sam was glad he didn’t know the Japanese word for 'save'. He didn't think he could ever bear to hear that word again.
The nurse, when she came, was only somewhat fluent in English, and that in itself was some consolation; she didn't have the verb to 'save' and didn't know the words to lie.
Donna's name sounded like broken glass on her tongue.
He didn't even ask what was wrong.
"She's dying," he said, and at last he realized, he had answered without reluctance. He didn't even have that left. All he had left was his love, and the idea that she loved him.
"Cancer," Sam answered her, to make it easier on one of them at least, as he sat before her in muddy flannel pajama pants and a tee shirt that had the silhouette of the White House emblazoned on it.
"Yes," she answered him, without meeting his eyes.
"I know, he said again when the nurse looked at him so disbelievingly, and then even more heartbreakingly, "She knows."
After a long moment, Sam rose and went down the hallway, found the door that he knew was hers, and went in. Without a word, Donna reached for his hand and when her fingers wrapped around his, he felt the way even bone bent.
The nights got dark in Kyoto, despite the cluster of neon and strobes, and for the first time in forever, Sam could count the stars. As he held her in his arms that night, the smell of the hospital washed from her skin leaving only needle marks and punctures behind, their skin was lighted only by the accordion-like paper lanterns that hung suspended outside Kyoto doors. The lanterns swung in the idle wind and shadows capered across the cobblestone streets and the smooth skin of her back where Sam could count the ridges of her spine with his fingertips and know she was dying right under his fingers.
"It's ok," Donna said quietly, spooned against his body.
"I love you," was all Sam could say because he couldn't tell her she was lying and didn't know how to accept, couldn't, that she was leaving him with every breath.
The days become almost clockwork; every morning they both rose and just as the sun awoke, Donna rowed out into the lotus pond. Some days he went with her and they laid on the rice mats in the pagodas. Some days the koi bumped up against the bottom of the wood sampan like drums, like thunder, and there was the pucker like falling rain as the sparkling fish bobbed against the surface with their open mouths.
Some days the boat spun dizzily into the reef of lotus leaves, and Sam forgot there was another world away from the greenery, away from Donna's head on his shoulder and the careful, measured way she breathed, the soft way she kissed him like she wasn't dying. Some days the lotuses blew petals on their closed eyes and some days the air was so sweet with their white scent it seemed everything was a dream and nothing was impossible.
Some days Donna went out alone and Saiku sat by him silently as they waited for her to come back to shore. Sam didn't think either of them breathed until she did.
They returned only when Kyoto was a gold and aquamarine dream below them; the smell of evergreen and seaweed floated up to them like bell-chimes, bittersweet.
Saiku, full of shyness and lotuses, had given Donna had an armful of flowers. The blooms bent on their slender stems in the glass vase. Donna always took the half-wilted lotuses from the child, the pale flowers with their full buds bent and petals withered and wrinkled, the ones that seemed already dead. And Sam watched her slice the end of the green stems and stand them in the tall Raku vase before he went back to his reading. Always, the sweet scent would reach him and he would look up and the stems would be straight and the lotuses full-bloomed. And of all things, Donna had learned to bring even flowers back to life, as if she could become everything that lived.
It was the way she touched him, Sam thought, with the idle pratter of the American news on the television behind them. It was the way she always had, because she had never been dying - she had always been showing him how to live, whether in Kyoto or Washington.
And then Sam turned to the box of pictures, to a few shots of CJ doing her briefings in her strictly unadorned suits and Balenciaga-cut face. Donna twined her hand within in and rested her head against his shoulder because Bartlet had won a second term.
Sam swept ends of her chrysanthemum hair away from her face and counted the precious minutes in his head. With Donna by his side, he clicked the television off and listened to the rhythms of her breathing, knowing for sure she was all he needed, and fearing that when she was gone, all he would have left would be the soot-and-bone city they had left behind.
The snow had just melted in Kyoto when President Bartlet ascended to the podium for his second inauguration speech in January. Sam watched the television as Donna curled against him, their hands wound together as the President began his speech.
Toby and CJ stood with the tense, nervous energy he had seen time and time again, Josh fidgeting with the vibration of a half-unwound spring. Leo's eyes were dark with appreciation and admiration, Bruno languishing with success. Everywhere there was the crackle and spark of victory, of triumph.
Even halfway around the world, Sam could feel it and for a second, it felt like he was there with them, like it was old times when Donna didn't love him, when he was needed by more than one person.
But they had all changed, a little. Some ways were more visible than others. CJ's hair was shorter and curlier and a little redder than Sam remembered, and the cut made her look young and buoyant again as she stood behind the President in a red coat and gloves. Leo looked calm and rested even, though that was probably just the generous camera angle, as he stood with his hands folded benevolently, but there seemed to be an air of age and sad wisdom about him that Sam had never seen before, a wistfully drawn breath held deep in his lungs, the spare edges of hairs more white than grey around his temples, the foreboding knowledge that it was no longer the end of the beginning, but the beginning of the end. Even Toby who never seemed to change and wore his faces with ease seemed a little different; he stood a little cockeyed now, as if he weren't sure where to place his weight or his words, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with the young whippersnapper standing beside him who had taken Sam's job, Todd Sanders Whitehall, who was about twenty times more brilliant than Sam, and fairly stupid enough for Toby to ridicule, the new blonde that was sure to keep even Ainsley on her toes. But of them all, only one person seemed to have barely changed and that was Josh and Sam knew it hurt both of them to see that, because he had never forgiven them and they both feared he never would, although it was his own fault.
And then Josiah Bartlet of New Hampshire, whose forebears had signed the Declaration of Independence, was speaking and he was talking about things like hope and change, about things that lasted, and without ever saying the word, about love.
And in his voice, because he was the only one who could speak such things the way they were supposed to be spoken, it was beautiful. It was what he had always wanted to say and when Donna turned to him, Sam knew she knew the words had been his, the ones he had handed the man who had just won his second term to office when she and he had walked out of the White House, because Sam could always do that with words, give them to people.
"Marry me," he said and it wasn't suddenly or because he had just seen Joshua Lyman on the television, hours and lifetimes behind them. Sam said it because he had those words stuck in him since they had left Washington, because it was all he had ever wanted to say after blood, and loss, and leaving.
"Sam," Donna said and her voice was so full of cool warning.
"Sam, 'til death do us part' may be tomorrow," and he heard the echoes of moss-green bells and cryptkeepers and dying lotuses in her voice.
"If it is, I still wouldn't regret a second." His voice clogged in his throated and he willed himself to stand. "I want that ring on my finger so I remember everything good in my life."
She relented to bend.
"Sam," she said, "One day you'll be President."
And finally he touched her because he couldn't not touch her, because in one tiny second, he saw her, sick and dying, fighting all his dragons for him and he knew then she was the White Knight he could never be.
They were married February 6 in a Buddhist temple in the gardens she loved so much. There were scatters of snowflakes in the air and the swirl of Japanese and broken English as they exchanged rings and stood together.
"Yet the timeless in you is aware of life's timelessness, And knows that yesterday is today's memory and tomorrow is today's dream, And that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds, Of that first moment which scattered the stars into space."
The words of "The Prophet" flowed easily from him as he looked at her, her blue eyes, her shaped mouth, her high cheekbones, and he knew exactly how Kahlil Gibran must have felt when he first penned them.
"And so our love will last forever," he finished quietly as her fingers tightened within his and he took her home and held her, skin to skin against his chest, as the snow drifted down over Kyoto and the metal band warmed around his finger, and he cried as she slept, because he knew it wouldn't be long for spring.
It was a blurry grey afternoon when she asked him to go with her to the gardens, he would remember, and he would remember knowing then it was the last time she would go because she finally asked him to invade and share her sanctuary, where she had found solace and peace against metastasizing darkness.
They walked through the flashbang of Gion to the Murakami's gardens without saying a word. They wandered the carefully tended paths, leaving only their footprints - one next to the other - in the snakeskin bands of raked trails. Neither of them had said a word. Gingkoes with their exotic, long-stalked, butterfly shaped leaves that cast fluttering reflections on the Kyoto sidewalks and someone somewhere was playing a string instrument very softly as if they were trying to learn on what chords the wind whispered.
Donna's hand was curled within his like a flower bud.
She took him through the black iron gates and through the maze of paths until they came to the lotus ponds. Sam watched as she went to the water's edge and knelt down; he sat on a worn wooden bench under an ancient camphor tree behind her. Wizened into shortness, the camphor curled around itself and when he looked at it - because sometimes, rarely, he couldn't bear to look at her, Sam immediately felt sad. The tree's decay, in its old age, was extraordinarily beautiful. To Sam, sitting under its grey shadow, he understood why residents of Kyoto offered silent prayers to the spirit of trees.
Donna had been quieter than normal for weeks. She had been sleeping more than usual and the dark craters under her eyes seemed more like bruises than ever. Even though she tried hard, Sam heard her sucked intakes of breath as her body moved in pain, as her bones disintegrated, as she broke little piece by little piece and knew she could never be put together again.
She had started packing up all their small things.
Her eyes were shipwrecked when she didn't look at him.
When Donna came back, Sam knew it was because the last lotus had gone from the pond, that the last petal had fallen into the waters and that no more would bloom until spring. Sam could imagine what that had looked like, the white petals bobbing on black waters like beacons of lantern-light, like earth-stars in constellations. He wondered if he followed them, their path, if he could have found a way to stop time, stop war, stop pain, stop death - the way the ancient mariners had mapped out the sky to find new worlds. He wished it could ever be that easy.
They sat there quietly together, because they didn't need to speak.
When Donna did speak, she reminded him, quietly, on that last time he went with her to the garden, that new life always came. As she sat with him under the great tree, she said that when the radioactive smoke had cleared in Hiroshima, blasted by the atom bomb in 1945, that a gingko tree was found 800 yards from the epicenter of the explosion. The trunk had been destroyed by the powerful blast, but roots threw up new sprouts and the tree became one of the wonders of Hiroshima.
She rose slowly, but not unwillingly and when she smiled at him like pale winter sunshine, and they walked slowly back towards home, towards the setting sun. Sam held her hand as they went that way, through Gion, cutting through the Kyoto inhabitants just beginning to live the night. Again, as always, Sam pushed back the shadows and she slept in the circle of his arms.
Donna slept lightly and when she woke with a caught breath, he asked her, "What were you dreaming about?"
"A lotus field," she said quietly, aligning her body with his and threading their fingers together like a braid. Her voice was sleepy, peaceful, unshattered. "You were there, I kissed you."
"Let's go home," Donna asked him and Sam nodded, because it was almost over.
They flew back into Dulles on a Friday in April, when not even the cherry trees had begun to blossom and everything looked weary. His apartment was cold and briskly clean, impersonal until she fell asleep in his bed, tangled like a fledgling bird in her clothes.
They spent a few days like that, cloistered together between his walls and sheets, leaving the bed only to answer the door for Thai or Chinese or David's hand-rolled pizzas with pineapple and pepperoni. He still gave her all the red salami-like discs, fed them to her like spaceships so she laughed.
They went walking - it was on Thursday, Sam would remember, and right after a rainstorm so everything looked kiln-fried glossy - and she took him to the Washington Monument and the Mall, where he could see the Capitol and the White House. They saw several people they knew and for certain moments, it seemed like Kyoto had only been a beautiful dream, that they had never been there except in sleep.
They passed the bench where it - them - had all started, but the slats were wet still and Donna was suddenly full of restless energy that burned like fever in her eyes.
In the darkness, they stopped before the White House where everything was lit-up and illuminated and they stood among the throngs of mulling tourists snapping pictures with expensive lenses and disposable cameras. He and she stared up the pert lawn into the rooms they had been in so often.
"Is it how you remembered it?" Donna asked him.
"No," Sam answered.
She shook her head and her blonde hair, shorter and like corn tassels, shivered as they moved on. As they left, Sam thought he saw a flash through one of the windows, but then all he could think was that the White House, seat of all the power and ambition and pride, looked like an overturned lotus.
"You're going to be president one day, Sam," Donna said as she turned to him, when wilted flowers and white domes were a memory behind them. Her rebuke was sharp and seemed to take up all the breath left within her. "Stop being afraid of it."
And Sam knew, he was afraid of the future without her, afraid of not being the person he was when he was with her, who she made him strive to be.
"I don't know if I'm brave enough, if I can be as brave as you."
And finally Sam thought, as the warm metal band turned around his finger, that he had said it all.
"Loving you makes me brave," Donna said quietly, and her voice was black as the night, and white as Kyoto, and the only answer he had ever needed, the last thing he needed to know.
"Sam," she whispered into the night and he woke the second time she called him, saw her face and jumped from the bed, yanking at his pants.
"Sam," and her voice was so calm.
Trembling, Sam picked up the cell phone from the floor. Josh was still speed dial three; Sam had never changed that.
"Josh Lyman," he answered crossly after the third ring.
There was a pause and it seemed like Donna never breathed through it. "Who is this?"
"Josh - " It was all Sam could say looking at her and his voice broke. Donna waved him towards her and he slid into the bed next to her, slipping the cell phone to her ear. Her fingers touched him as she held the phone.
"Hi Josh," she said and she sounded not tired, but sleepy. Sam could hear Josh sputtering on the other end of the line.
"Don't wear the red tie with the brown suit and remember your paperclips are in the second drawer."
"Donna, don't talk like this - " Sam could barely hear him.
"You once told me I would never find a good man," she told him lightly but her eyes were on Sam.
"I was wrong, Donnatella," Josh said earnestly though the phone, "You found the best of men, the best of them."
"I know," she said with a smile as her hand slipped from the phone and Sam held the phone steady. "He took me to Kyoto."
Sam could hear Josh's breathing, his own, and it was so wrong he couldn't hear hers.
"It's so beautiful …" she whispered as her eyes slipped shut. "The sky is blue and there are white flowers, the most beautiful white flowers …"
Donna's voice trailed off and Sam shook her shoulder, harder than he meant to.
"It's all light," she said softly without opening her eyes. "It's all light …"
"Donna, wait - wait - "
The phone fell into the hollow between them and at that, her eyelids fluttered. When she looked up at him, Sam knew she saw him because she smiled that smile and he knew she was peaceful and felt no pain. He knew she was dreaming of lotuses and that she was no longer dreaming.
"I love you, " she whispered as she kissed him.
"I love you," Sam said, but when he pulled back, her eyes had closed again. She was still smiling though, and he tasted lotuses through the tears on his lips as Josh cried on the other end of the phone between them.
The funeral was held on a Wednesday white as Kyoto, white as Washington bone. It was a silent affair because for everyone else, Donna had died when she left in November. She hadn't stopped breathing in their arms.
Only Josh seemed to understand, a little, because he had once loved her maybe.
"She said, 'I love you,'" Josh said, and through it all, he still sounded dazed. "I told her I loved her too, but I don't know if she could hear me. Could she hear me?"
"She knew," Sam said but his voice was the same tone as when he had hung up the phone with the Murakami's and they had told him Saiku was gone, and he wasn't surprised, because she had always been Donna's sprite, and maybe that was the way things were supposed to be. She had been the child they had lost, and by some miracle, regained, if only for a short time, because the skies in Kyoto were never the color of massacres and blood and loss, but white liked lotuses, like hope.
The ring glowed on his finger as he twisted the engraved lotus right side up, and the light came into Josh's eyes as he watched the motion, the way light had never come into his eyes before.
"You were the right man," Josh said after a short silence and Sam knew he meant it. "The best one."
It couldn’t ever be the same between them, but Sam hoped at best, it would simply be different, because that was all that was left of dreams. And then they leaned on one other, the way brothers did when ends came and hopes died, and they dreamt together of the woman who had loved white flowers, and then because there were two of them, they dreamed her dreams, of elections and presidents and good changes.
But all the while there was the heavy scent of lotuses, the white flowers that grew where the sky was the color of her eyes and the dreams only they had shared, a scent Sam would smell at late hours in the corners of the White House when the country called him, a scent he would always remember when he closed his eyes, saw skies like topaz, and heard her voice, knew peace, once again, and then - at last.
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