The Mandarin’s Robe

This is the actual Mandarin's Robe, passed down to and cared for by my father-in-law.

This is the actual Mandarin’s Robe, passed down to and cared for by my father-in-law.

I.
To find grandmother’s
brown-haired treasure,
begin by pulling
this thread.

Feel time gather
on your skin,
raw silk connect
you to
a mandarin
in the Imperial City.

Rough hands
wove the two outstretched arms
of his robe,
clacking the wooden loom
back and forth.

II.
Wading in
as he splashed
the Perfume River
onto his skin,
great uncle carried the robe on his back.

He perfumed the river with his fear,
the pants of his
white suit darkened silk
as he climbed
from the river.
Warp and weft held him as he wept.

The invaders had arrived.

III.
Great uncle carried the robe on his back
to your father,
who kneeled to be married.
Threads of perfumed smoke
spoke to the ancestors.

Listen:
Grandmother has prepared a feast
for the monks.
The mandarin wore the robe
in the king’s court.
Great uncle carried it on his back.
Your father wore it to be married.

IV.
The invaders took what grandmother had built.

Her heart plummeted
to the depths of the Perfume River,
each stone a memory,
each memory a jewel
she sewed into the robe.

Your father wore it to be married.

V.
Cut the right sleeve,
and a jade phoenix will rise
on a golden thread.
Your lifebreath will feed the stone.

Inside the hem,
find the circle,
filled drop by drop
with light.
Your finger will be embraced by it.

Cross the heart.
Cut the left sleeve
and feel the cool orbs inside
click through your fingers,
kissed by oysters,
lustrous as prayer beads
oiled by grace.
Your blood will warm the pearls.