With the fishes

By | 1 February 2020

The Terracotta Warriors
are visiting Melbourne.

China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang
had them made as Guardians of Immortality,

part of his quest to cheat death
and become a god.

Queues to see the Warriors snake out
of the gallery, around the rectangular pool

so many use as a wishing well.
In towns all over the east of the country

people are lining up for water rations,
the Murray-Darling river system

is floundering.

Months after the death of millions of fish
nobody can say for sure what happened

or whose fault it was. Murray cod, silver perch
and bony bream corpses washed up on banks,

floated in the barely flowing rivers and lakes.
When I was a kid, we ate smoked cod

on Good Friday, a reminder about Jesus
and sacrifice. Slow cooked butter and salty,

the memory tastes slippery like childhood,
scrape of forks on the good china, holding the

flesh in my mouth.

Legend has it that Qin Shi Huang
imbibed mercury, hoping for an eternal life

elixir, but it killed him. To prevent panic at his
unexpected end (hide the stink) his body was

transported in a cart surrounded by rotting fish.
Today, the whiff of death lingers, a woman interviewed

says her home along the river now smells
permanently like a fish market—a vast stench hiding

something dead

that we can’t quite name or look at yet. Eight thousand
statues built over thirty six years by seventy thousand

workers. I try and picture the daily labour, underground,
toil of hands, a life spent building one man’s legacy.

The Warriors were unearthed, two centuries later,
by farmers digging a field

(stones roll, saviours rise).

Our push for permanence runs deep. Hubris to think
we can outwit the end, play god with

what we’re given, bend nature to our will,
eyes on the miraculous or apocalyptic horizon.

How about this—

by a lake or river, cup water in your hand,
could you drink it, would you want to, and if not,

what then?

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