for Ron Carlson
A ceramic dish lined with the teeth of the first emperor
Bears an inscription—seven unrecognizable
Characters describing, perhaps, his abrupt
Descent into madness, his bold
Experiment designed to exorcise the demons
Fattening themselves on the produce of the peasants—their cattle,
Grain, and spirits distilled from walnuts and figs.
Hear me out! he liked to say.
I sentence you to fifty lashes and then a minute of laughter.
Joke writers held an honored place in his court.
Kleptomaniacs, too, especially those with a taste for silk
Lingerie. He demanded half of their loot—
Maroon brassieres and panties were his favorites—
Nor would he make them wear what he would never wear.
Ordinary criminals, though, received harsh
Punishment—amputation, impalement, drawing and
Quartering. And he had no mercy for illiterates.
Readings were thus required at every funeral,
State dinner, and carnival, not to mention wrestling matches.
There was no escaping his lettered gaze, which was painted on every building.
Under his rule, books were the safest currency
Valued according to omens read by the fortune-telling
Women assigned to the basement of the library.
X-rays of his tomb reveal his commitment to his father’s vision—
Yellow walls covered with texts no one has deciphered,
Zeroes arranged around his grave, like candles.
A high official from the court was assigned to lead our tour of the
underworld, which provoked more speculation about the sovereign’s
health. Basta! muttered the guides idled by an edict they did not
pretend to understand. Ciao bella, whispered the palace guard to all
the women in our entourage. Dusk came on before we could decide whether
to stay or go, and so we stood at loose ends in the gathering darkness,
shivering in the wind. Enter at your own risk, said the official,
twisting the waxed tips of his mustache like candlewicks, pointing at
the island in the middle of the lake from which rose the castle ruins.
Fanning out across the beach, like a militia recruited from the
mountains, we climbed uncertainly into the boats and rowed across the
water. Gone was our vaunted sense of moderation, the map that we had
followed in our pursuit of happiness; for no sooner had we made
landfall than we sprinted to a cave near the ruins, in which we found a
marble staircase descending into the earth. Halfway down, we stopped on
the slick steps to get our bearings, and from inside the wall we heard
a steady tapping, which led us to question, again, the nature of our
mission—its secret provenance, its murky goals, the way it was
portrayed to the town criers. Inevitably someone claimed to see a
ghost, which on closer inspection turned out to be a stalactite. Jesus
Christ, the official said under his breath—a diplomatic lapse that
caught us by surprise, though we said nothing. Khans might order
caravans across the desert before we let on that anything was amiss.
Long ago, on a mission to the ungovernable border region, we had
learned a lesson about the virtue of silence, having misinterpreted a
chieftain’s slip of the tongue as the final word on the peace
process—which led to even more fighting. Make no mistake: we were not
tempted to go to war, despite our opponents’ scurrilous allegations on
the eve of our departure. Nor would we betray our ideals to appease the
enemy. Our orders were clear: to avoid compromising situations—which
underscored the ambivalence we felt on our dark descent. Pity the
note-takers assigned to our strategy session the night before, the
inconclusiveness of which had prompted the decision to spare no expense
in our last attempt to salvage the mission. Queer as it may sound, we
still believed the empire would never end. Resurrection was the theme,
after all, and regardless of what befell us we intended to act as if
nothing had changed upon our return. Summary justice would continue;
also athletic contests and dance performances. Take heart, we told our
security detail when we reached the waterfall at the bottom of the
cave. Useless to cover our ears—the noise was deafening—or plot an
escape. Victory was not an option, at least not in the short run. Where
to go? Xenophobia had been our ministering angel for so long that we
could not imagine another way to spell our fate. You cannot breathe a
word of this to anyone. Zones of indifference were what we hoped to
create—and we might yet succeed.