The Old Broken-Armed Man from Prosper-Anew


A frail and ancient man from Prosper-Anew, eighty-eight years
old, hair and eyebrows white as fresh snow: he makes his way

toward the inn's front gate, leaning on a great-great-grandson,
his left arm over the boy's shoulder, his right broken at his side.

If you ask this old man how many years his arm's been broken,
if you ask how it happened, an arm broken like that, he'll say:

When I was born at our village in the district of Prosper-Anew,
it was an age of sage rule, never a hint of wartime campaigns,

so I grew up listening to the flutes and songs of the Pear Garden,
knowing nothing at all about spears and flags, bows and arrows.

Suddenly, in the Heaven-Jewel reign, they began building armies,
and for every three men in every household, one was taken away,

taken and hurried away. And can you guess where they all went?
To Cloud-South, a march five months and ten thousand miles long,

a march everyone kept talking about: how you face the Black River
and malarial mists that rise and drift when pepper blossoms fall,

how great armies struggle to cross the river's seething floodwaters,
and before they make it across, two or three in ten are drowned.

North of home, south of home, wailing filled villages everywhere,
sons torn from fathers and mothers, husbands torn from wives,

for people knew what it meant to make war on southern tribes:
ten million soldiers are sent away, and not one comes back alive.

It was all so long ago. I was hardly even twenty-four back then,
but my name was listed on those rolls at the Department of War,

so in the depths of night, careful to keep my plan well-hidden,
I stole away, found a big rock, and hacked my arm till it broke.

Too lame to draw a bow or lift banners and flags into the wind,
I escaped: they didn't send me off to their war in Cloud-South.

It was far from painless, the bone shattered and muscles torn,
but I'd found a way to go back and settle quietly in my village.

Now sixty years have come and gone since I broke this arm:
I gave up a limb, it's true, but I'm still alive, still in one piece,

though even now, on cold dark nights full of wind and rain,
I'm sleepless all night long with pain and still awake at dawn.

Sleepless with pain
but free of regrets,
for I'm the only man in my district who lived to enjoy old age.

If I hadn't done it, I'd have ended where the Black River begins,
a dead body, my spirit adrift and my bones abandoned there,

just one of ten thousand ghosts drifting above southern graves,
gazing toward their home, all grief-torn and bleating, bleating.

When such elders speak
how can we ignore them?

Haven't you heard
about Sung K'ai-fu, prime minister during the Open-Origin reign,
how he nurtured peace by refusing to reward frontier victories?

Haven't you heard
about Yang Kuo-chung, prime minister during the Heaven-Jewel,
how he launched frontier campaigns to flatter that emperor,

how the people were wild with anger before he won anything?
Just ask that old man from Prosper-Anew with a broken arm.
Just ask him, ask the old broken-armed man from Prosper-Anew.