In the temple of the Orchid Fragrance Goddess

by Li He
(791-817)

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Year after year, the ageless spring returns: an indolent green swaying amid warm mist. The scent of pine mingles with the fragrance of evening flowers as the sun drops low among the willows on the riverbank, turning sand and cobbles a vivid red. Watercress crowds a spring among the rocks; in the bamboo grove, a dusting of fresh sprouts. Blue ridges arch like eyebrows above the gates – eyelids the color of dawn. Orchid bent like a bow under the weight of dew, like the loveliest of mountains, weeping in the vast spring sky.

The dancer’s girdle pendants were stolen from a phoenix wing. Her trailing sashes shimmer with veins of silver. Orchid and cassia exhale a fragrant incense; lotus and water caltrop serve for the piled offerings. Out viewing the rain, she meets the Jade Princess; returning in her skiff, she encounters the River Goddess. High on beer she plays her flute, tying a rakish scarf around her golden-threaded skirt.

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She streaks across the sky – the bell-like call of a white stag; weaves through the water – a slap of shining scales. Her coiled hair seems poised for flight. Cheeks glow with a blend of every blossom’s hue. Spiraling locks frame her dimples, and dark brows mirror perfect lips. Light and airy as a butterfly on the wing, her insubstantial body makes even wind and sun feel shy.

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Neglected in her chamber, the incense burner grows cold, and the phoenix frozen in her mirror gathers dust. On feet of fog, riding the wind she returns: a shake of jade pennants heard faintly on the highest peaks.

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This translation is of course dedicated to frequent Via Negativa commenter the Sylph. The photos are of pink lady’s-slipper, an orchid that grows in profusion here on Brush Mountain. As for fragrance, our wild azalea is second to none.

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