after reading an account of 8th century China by Huang Shengzheng
After thirty years of cresting mountain-high surges,
the envoys brought back eagle-wood, ambergris,
and an essence distilled from rose petals.
They needed water to rock them to sleep,
so at dusk they rowed downstream.
The blind envoy smoked his pipe
as his friend described how deer came
to the water to drink. Their memories unfurled like sails.
A Greek scholar had told them it was forbidden
to capture a crane, instead they brought back
unicorns, lions, and peacocks.
Cranes flew together in rippling rows.
At dusk cranes already on the sandbar
called to those high above. Once heard,
their trumpeting stayed in the mind forever.
Only cranes flew high enough to carry souls to heaven.
In the palace where everyone whispered, and the walls
muffled the vendors’ cries,
the blind envoy itched for one last journey.
His friend described the cranes’ mating dance,
how the males spread their wings and leapt
above the indifferent, grazing females. No one had seen
the cranes’ nesting grounds. They flew further north
than the boundaries of the known world.