The Shadow Thieves

5: Death is a cruel mistress

a prose poem by Li Yueying translated from the original Shou

Death is not something to fear,
Mama said as we ground the wheat.
But what she meant, I am sure, was corpses.

She had never been to that graveyard
where at night the corpses might so easily become puppets,
She had never seen death reanimated,

When our master told us that to be reborn one had to die,
it sounded like the mountain teachings,
and so I did offer to bring him swiftly to an end.
Instead we were to create the image of his death
A likeness so well crafted it would confuse clerics.

To engineer death is to become its mistress,
And so went we, like the predators we seek,
(cold figures that hold mastery over living and dead alike,)
to the blackened graveyard to fish for bodies.

Under stern eye of a silent gravedigger (who provided no comic relief)
We buried two corpses. Both unsuitable for our grizzly needs.
Our colleague hired handsome cab but without the body
we were unable to begin.

As we wandered past slimy neer-do-wells
I did offer to hone my skills (not poetry but those of a sharper nature)
But instead we chose to steal a body already emptied of its light.

Eventually we came to poorer fields and here we struck gold,
A corpse of approximate size and shape was found here
bundled into handsome cab. it became now our lord and master,
now our lamb to be slaughtered.

Soon we will burn the body, and free our true master from his ties
to us, to our clan and to our livelihood.
As a dark mistress of death perhaps I too will have nothing to fear from corpses.

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