Every year, there are people—not many,
but some—who send me charcoal rubbings,
etchings, transcriptions from old tombs
and ask me what they mean.
Some, I can translate; we reached
the language in time, or the phrase survives
idiomatically on other tongues,
or guesswork is enough to patch
the ragged edges of what we know.
But every year, there are some I cannot find,
some I cannot save.
Why do I hate it so much, writing
these letters, these terse apologies for failing
to satisfy a stranger's curiosity? That's all
it is; these tombs do not belong to
parents, old lovers, or even more distant relations.
Most have stood silent for centuries.
Yet there are people who care enough
to ask what they said, and I must admit
When I was a very small girl,
I found a broken chickadee beneath
the oak that held its nest. I took it in,
washed it and fed it rice and built it
a nest of soft rags, but it lived only
one night. I cried hard at its death,
as long and hard as I would cry for my mother's
decades later. I think of that sometimes
while writing these letters: the awful risk
of caring for strangers.
We cannot save all of them.
Even the ones that survive have been
broken, lamed, their limbs amputated,
their features mangled past recognition.
Inevitably, some pieces are lost. Words
slip through the cracks, nuances are buried
in pauper's graves.
On the red moon of Tzevet'an,
a thief told me of the fourteen words
men cannot say to women,
but there were no other men
in the ice-bound prison where he died.
The words are lost, unguessable.
The last speaker of the Kao-Kling tongue
was a little girl, four years old, who knew
little more than the names of fruits
and the disease that killed her family.
Her mother had been a flower arranger
to the Lord of Fenkanpao; again and again
the child told me of a flower
as wide as her mother's hand, the blue of fresh milk
that had the most beautiful name.
She could not remember what it was, and
fever carried her off before
she could show me where it grew.
These are the mysteries
we know about. There are times
my frustration is so great,
my anger at time's merciless entropy
is so strong, that I give voice
to the most punishing thoughts.
How much is buried in the conquered lands,
not only of answers
but of the questions themselves?
How much more plentiful
are the dead without ghosts?
And yet I am trying.
Without funds, without time, sometimes
without love—but I am trying.
If not to save all of them, at least
to leave a marker above the graves.