The Ballad of Magnolia

Translated, from the Chinese, by C.F. Helsinki, or:

Englished from the Chinese by that eminent Divine, Dr —–, using the admirable Gloss of Mr Rosenfelder

Ji-ji, ji-ji, Magnolia weaves the thread,
And sighs, so that the loom seems quieted.
“What’s on your mind?”––“I’m fine, Mom. Nothing’s wrong.”
“But you don’t usually weave this long…
Or weave that much at all. Or face the door,
Looking distraught, and sighing…”––“It’s the war.”
“Well, trust in Heaven, and trust the King’s command;
Our men will triumph.”––“No, you don’t understand.
When I went to the market yesternight,
I saw the young men gathered in the light,
Squinting intently at the notice pole,
And turning pale, or joking, ‘He’s in the scroll!’
I had to check…And Father’s name was in them all.”
“That can’t be true! He’s sixty, ill, grown slow,
The draft would be his death!”––“Yeah, Mom, I know.”
The two are quiet. At length Magnolia says,
“I heard an old song in my girlhood days…”

        Hold two rabbits in the air:
       The male will kick, the female just stare.
       But when they run on the grassy plain,
       He and she are just the same.

Mom furrows her brow, then gasps. “You don’t intend…
Oh, no, no, no, how awful! Heaven forfend!”
“Mom,” says Magnolia, “don’t think I’m unfilial,
Or un-Confucian. That would just be silly. I’ll
Marry someday, bring a fine dowry home,
And spend my life thenceforth hunched over a loom.
But in the meanwhile, it is no disgrace
If I buy saddle and horse, and take my father’s place.”

Magnolia rises early, with the dawn,
Scrubs off her makeup, cuts her hair, is gone,
Searches the market for a horse to buy;
A dealer claps his hands, catches her eye:
“My soldier-lad! I’ve just the mount you need,
A fair, a swift, a strong, a loyal steed!”
She takes the horse and saddles him. “Gee up, gee!
We’re off to join the imperial soldiery!”
She’d left at dawn; by twilight, she can hear
The camp––the dice, the cups; each curse, each cheer––
And over all, the Yellow River’s dyen-dyen.
She doesn’t think she’ll hear her parents again….
The soldiers’ sleep is fitful; and at dawn
They’re in the saddle, full tilt toward Mount Yan.

Now flying, flying swiftly as a hawk,
Over a thousand miles of sky-seared ice and rock.
The icy wind that carries the watchman’s word,
The icy moon that burns on the trembling sword,
The wait for the command––“Advance!”––“Retreat!”––
The rattling tattoo that the horse-hooves beat,
The shaking foot that holds the stirrup close…
The characters of war, that no outsider knows.
Drums roar and pound, and rattle mountain and sky,
And trumpets mock the yells of agony:
Soldiers and generals alike stand, fight, and die.

“Your Majesty is too munificent.
Far less would make Magnolia content.”
“For seven years,” the King says, “you went forth
To guard the bloody borders of the North,
With valor such as nine of ten men lack,
Nine generals of ten, in point of fact….”
“A horse to take her home to her old father––
That’s what reward she asks. She needs no other.”

“They’re coming home,” the elder sister hears;
She rouges her face, perfumes under her ears,
While Mother and Father stagger through the street,
Swaying arthritically in summer heat,
Holding each other up––but moving apace––
They reach the wall, they scan round for her face––
Magnolia runs to smother them in an embrace.

“It’s good to sleep at home, not in a yurt,”
She thinks, “to doff my armor for a skirt,
To rouge my face with disproportionate care,
To put a yellow blossom in my hair.”
Her buddies from the unit have come back;
They’re milling by the wall. “Check out the rack,”
One says, “on that broad over there…hey, wait.”
Magnolia grins, and runs toward the gate.
“Hey there,” she says. “I’m sorry I’m so late.”
“Well, fuckin’ heaven!” they shout. “For seven year
You fought, swore, diced, drank crappy nomad beer,
Like you were any ordinary Zhou––
But you’re a chick!”––“Well, there’s a song I know…”

       Hold two rabbits in the air:
       The male will kick, the female just stare.
       But when they run on the grassy plain,
       He and she are just the same.