Cheong stood apart from the other mourners
on the cropped grass inside the ring of graves.
A waste of his time,
waiting for the two kings,
and Cheong too old to have much time
left to waste.
Seventy-seven sandstone slabs,
each garlanded with paper flowers,
each with a chiseled name.
The seventy-eighth slab
void of flowers,
his son’s name standing alone.
Cheong had incised the name himself,
back in the spring,
the fields ready for planting,
but Cheong practicing
on fragments of sandstone,
working with hammer and chisel
until he was certain
his hand would not slip,
that each character would be properly formed.
April when he’d chipped out the name.
the war over,
a demon slain,
though it hadn’t been a demon
that killed his son,
the Red King’s men, raiding,
the raid that started the war.
A waste of Cheong’s time, waiting.
No king, no gold, no paper flowers
of any use to his son.
Cheong was contemplating leaving
when the two kings arrived,
walking ahead of a company of soldiers.
King Xau, Cheong’s king,
stopped at the far edge
of the ring of graves,
bowed three times to the mourners,
said, “We are sorry we failed you.”
Not much of a speech,
but the young king’s voice
hefted with loss.
The other king, the Red King,
the one whose soldiers
slaughtered Cheong’s son,
said nothing at all.
King Xau went to the nearest grave,
read aloud the chiseled name,
bowed three times, very deeply,
said the name once more,
looked to the Red King,
who echoed the name.
King Xau moved to the next grave,
read aloud the chiseled name.
Men said that Xau slew the demon,
that when the Red King saw him do so,
then the Red King knelt to Xau
and pledged peace.
Cheong old enough to remember eight wars.
Words as worthless as paper flowers.
Xau came to Cheong’s son’s grave,
said the name aloud,
put his hand to the bare stone,
touched each chiseled character.
The king a white-robed blur.
Cheong’s son dead.
Painting by Yen Li-Pen, from the Thirteen Emperors scroll in the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston
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