Akikawa Nikki –Nikki Bungaku Project for Queen’s Prize 2005

(Originally posted on Livejournal December 29, 2004)

In bitter solitude I continued to dwell, far from the places and people that I most loved. There was no help for it. My mother was comforted by my presence, for Father was still serving his governorship in Tajima in the San’indou prefecture and we lived a good distance from the capital. In sorrow, I took up my brush and wrote:

Autumn is passing
I wander in the garden
Heedless of the chill
As my life tumbles about me
Like the scarlet maple leaves

Is there nothing more tedious than having to dwell with old women who do nothing but complain and criticize one’s every movement? It seemed I could do nothing right. The colors of my robes were not properly matched. My calligraphy was like that of a man, not a girl of my tender years. My choice of incense was not refined. My poetry disgraced the honor of the Ki family. These were the criticisms heaped upon me by my mother and her women. I was disconsolate and feared that due to my many failings I would never be able to serve at the court, or even be of interest to any man of importance.

My sister, however, had all the qualities that I seemed to lack. She was fourteen, two years younger than myself, and was endowed with the kind of gracefulness that one imagines the heroines in tales to have. Her nature seemed biddable and sweet, although I who knew her best had long ago seen past that mask. But she was not unkind to me, nor I to her. My mother often encouraged me to follow my sister’s example, but no matter how hard I tried, her elegance seemed beyond my grasp.

A pool of water
Shimmering in the moonlight.
Reaching to touch it
A sudden wave engulfs me
A kiss of the wine-dark sea.

One morning during the tenth month (Gencho), I received a letter from my dear friend Ekakibe no Sadako who was in service to Her Majesty. Her words were encouraging and she asked that I come to visit her at the Capital.

The shining leaves are
Reflected in the water
Saffron and crimson.
Oh, see the autumn river
Bedecked in borrowed splendor!

Her Majesty had also enclosed a message for me, although we had never met. She wrote, in her beautiful hand:

The moon and silence
Are my only companions
In the chill darkness.
Will you not come to me?
Ah, the first frost has fallen!

My happiness knew no bounds. I had not been forgotten! I asked my mother for permission to travel to the Imperial Household for a while, but my hopes were shattered. She firmly stated that she could not do without me and that I should show a little patience. Perhaps my sister could go? She was, after all, far better suited. The fact that Her Majesty had asked for me meant nothing to her at all. She was of the opinion that I had misunderstood and that the message was from Sadako only.

“That is the silliest thing I have ever heard!” she told me. “Why should Her Majesty want your company when you are so slow and unskilled at anything that might be interesting? Sadako is just taking pity on you, I’m sure. It would be best if you stayed here.”

It was with a heavy heart that I wrote back to my friend:

I am needed here
And cannot cross the river
To the lands beyond.
In the misty eastern hills
My thoughts will still be with you.

It was badly written, but in my sadness I could do no better. And it was not taken well, for Sadako soon wrote back, chiding me with these lines:

The icy mists rise
From the hard frozen river
At the sun’s first kiss.
Will I get such a greeting
When at last we meet again?

It seemed I had offended her, and quickly I tried to correct the situation. I picked a particularly fine piece of paper that Father had collected from Michinoku and answered with the following, sending the message with a late-blooming chrysanthemum.

The road east beckons
Alas! I cannot follow
To where spring frolics.
West though my duty binds me,
My heart, bird-like, flies to you.

To which she replied:

Mulberry paper
Entwined around a blossom
Sweetly scented words
Composed in charming sequence
Ah! My heart will break with joy!

I was forgiven, but still I was forced to remain in the situation that I found more intolerable by the day. The hours dragged on. In desperation, I sent a note to my father. Even though they were no longer on good terms, my mother would no doubt heed his command to let me go to the Court, if he cared to make one.

Over the River
Towards the evening shadows
I stray in sorrow
Where is the lark of morning
To call me back from darkness?

It did not take long for him to reply. He was not one for much poetry—which is probably why he had not achieved as high a rank as a man of his quality might expect. But he was a good and capable governor and had the trust of the Minister of the Left. He stated in no uncertain terms that it would be far better for me to serve in the Court now while I was still young, rather than be wasted in the provinces. I would go with my sister. My uncle, who was an official in the Kageyushi (Investigators of the Records of Outgoing Officials), would come to escort us and my mother would just have to endure my absence for a time.

I was fond of my uncle, who was the youngest child of my mother’s family and closer to my age than to hers. He was much about the house when I was a small child and he would play with me. Once he was of the age of service, he moved residence and rarely visited, but would on occasion send gifts to us. My favorite was a painted fan that had a poem written upon it, which I kept among my most valued belongings.

Make this gentle breath of wind
Wrapped upon a wooden frame
In still-bright colors
Words and pictures entwining
Touch another time.

It was a surprise when he arrived, for he did not come alone. Of course, the usual servants and retainers were there, but he also brought along three other men, with whom we were wholly unacquainted. My uncle explained that they were friends of him and their devotion to him was such that it was decided that he should not have to take on this task by himself.

“It’s a wonder,” my mother remarked, “that these gentlemen have the leisure to take on such a journey. Have they no duties at the capital?”

My uncle laughed. “Their work is being done, have no fear, sister! Are you afraid that one of them may fall in love with your daughters?” He made a show of trying to peer around the screen into the room where the women were seated. “Have they grown pretty? The older one was a darling little thing as I remember…”

This was precisely what my mother was concerned about, but of course she would never admit that to him. Instead, she admonished us to be careful and not take into account any compliments my uncle’s friends might offer us. It would not do for us to be sullied by gossip before we even set foot in the Imperial Palace. For myself, I had little concern—I was sure that my uncle would take the greatest care of us.

It took four days for us to prepare to leave. We could have left sooner, but there was a directional taboo on the road we wanted to take and so we had to wait for a more auspicious time. During our delay, I had an opportunity to see my uncle’s companions and to learn their names.

The most handsome was Sakanoue Yoshikaze, who was an official in the Kuraryo (Bureau of Palace Storehouses). He was very elegant-looking and had the most beautiful robes. No matter what he was doing, he seemed to move in an effortless manner that was most pleasing.

Taira Shigehira was not as good-looking, but he was a cousin of the former emperor Gosuzaku and my uncle said that he was a very able swordsman, which did not surprise me. He had the manner of a soldier. I did not see much of him, for he was often out hunting. He was a captain of the Samaryou (Bureau of Horses, Left Division).

The last was Mibu no Akihiro, a quiet man who spoke little but seemed to have the respect of the others. He served with my uncle in the Kageyushi. His appearance was not remarkable, except for his eyes which were very striking.

On the morning we were to depart, my sister Seishi and I got into the carriage with our women. The gentlemen were to ride in another carriage. My mother and my other sisters made a great show of weeping when we departed, although Seishi and I were of the opinion that this was more due to jealousy than true regret. Yet, I confess that our own sleeves did not remain dry.

To hearten both of us, I recited the latest poem that Sadako had sent to me:

The winds still blow cold
Here, as the trees stand sentry
By the great river.
The barren branches await
The kiss of fragrant springtime.

It is a most unpleasant experience to travel great distances. Within the carriage, there are almost always too many people, and often we are thrown against one another in the most distressing way. My sister broke at least two combs during the first day alone.

That evening, we stopped to rest at the unoccupied home of a minor official who had been called back to the capital some months before. There were no other people there save a few servants.

“Not the most comfortable of places,” my uncle admitted as he met us coming out of the carriage, “but see! There’s a room for both of you to sleep in, while we can rest in this other room beyond.”

I was relieved to see that the owner had left the screens in place. It would have been awkward to have to talk with the strangers face-to-face, even if they were my uncle’s close companions. For it was at this point that they began to converse with us. My sister was apprehensive, but I reasoned with her that we should get used to it. After all, when we served Her Majesty, there might be times we would need to hold conversation with unknown gentlemen and we should not want to appear provincial by not knowing how to do it.

The men had started drinking right away, and they were soon laughing in their cups, as men are wont to do. My uncle was the merriest among them.

“You know,” he told the gentlemen, “my nieces were called to the capital by poetry. As I am myself of the Ki family, it seems I can do no less, eh?” And he recited:

Come watch the river!
Atop the high-rising bluffs
In the heady spring
Under the budding maples
The feeling is sweeter than wine!

The Officer of the Kuraryo clapped his hands in delight. “A contest! A contest!” he exclaimed, and then spoke:

Down by the river
When all the trees are in bloom
I will be waiting.
Come, let us laugh together
Amid the falling flowers!

Not to be outdone, Akihiro of the Kageyushi composed his own poem.

A break in the trees
They dance among the tall grass
Saffron and violet
I shall taste the wind distilled
Through a sea of sweet blossoms.

To which the Officer of the Kuraryo replied with this refrain:

The light dulcet strains
Of the hototogisu
Echo through the frith
Hear the maidens’ sweet laughter
Replying behind their sleeves!

“And you, Shigehira? Do you have nothing to say?” my uncle goaded.

The Captain of the Samaryou seemed embarrassed. “I only know old songs, nothing of interest…”

“That’s no good,” the Officer of the Kuraryo replied. “Those old songs are fusty.”

“I should like to hear it,” commented Akihiro of the Kageyushi. “One doesn’t hear the longer poems anymore. Please sing it for us.”

My sister and I added our encouragement and the Captain of the Samaryou seemed to take courage from that. “Very well,” he said, “here is a song often sung in the province where I grew up.”

When the great warriors gather
The night before battle,
Drinking and dancing and
Laughing at death,
Sa! Sa! The bravest among them
Shout out their songs
As they stand ‘round the bonfire
Under the stars
Of a far-distant province!
Sa! Sa! These stalwart warriors
Bound fast together
Like blood-born brothers
They have no heros!
Duty and honor
And love for their homeland
Will not let them falter
When they take the field.
Sa! Sa! Oh, hear them singing!

It was strange and rough and not at all the proper sort of thing to sing before women. The Captain of the Samaryou ducked his head in shame, but the Officer of the Kuraryo saved the atmosphere by this humorous comeback:

Winter snows blanket
The newly-harvested fields.
Quiet and Stillness.
Could it drift in, silencing
The warriors endless boasting?

Everyone laughed at this, the Captain most of all.

“I do like the old songs, though,” said Akihiro of the Kageyushi thoughfully. “There is great sincerity in them.”

“Do you know one that you would share?” I asked daringly.

He turned towards where we were sitting and it seemed that he smiled. “I do. Would you like to hear it?” At our encouragement, he began:

Do not take the northern road
Over the rapids
To the vales of Echigo!
The perilous trail
Winding upward through the hills
Climbing higher
From Omi to Echizen
Is dark and narrow
As the twilight starts to fall.
The perilous trail
Spinning downward towards the vale
Descending lower
From Echizen to Kaga
Is dark and narrow
As the summer rains begin.
Why must it then be
That you, dearest among us
Have now forsaken
The fair land of your fathers?
Have now forgotten
Those whose love you once held dear?
Those lips that once spoke
Of sweet, ceaseless endearments
Have now grown silent
As a snow-covered forest.
Those eyes that once shined
With love and compassion
Have now grown shadowed
Like a valley at sunset.
You, who while you lived
In this world of sorrow
Brought precious sunshine
Into the lives of others,
You, who now and then
Would lift up your voice in song
Like the nightingale
So sweetly serenading.
Yet now we listen
For that dulcet staccato
And only silence echoes.

I cannot follow
To the place where you wander
My arms are empty
When I reach out to hold you
There is only emptiness.

Though you have gone beyond me
I will not forget
And in my precious memories
We will once more meet again.

“So do men sorrow, when their women are gone from them.” He murmured, with the air of a man who had experienced loss.

“And do not women, too, feel the weight of sadness?” I asked. “For we must always wait for word to come.”

Clouding the sunset
The smoke of distant fires
Dire harbinger
Little sparrow, bring us news!
Will our lord come home today?

“Oh, ho! Is there someone you wait for, then?” my uncle teased. Everyone laughed loudly at that, while I ducked my face behind my sleeve. It was not long afterwards that my sister and I sought our rest, although the men talked long into the night.

In the morning, we rose early so that the journey could continue. Outside, we could hear the carriages making preparation, as we gathered our belonging and arranged our robes around us. In the chaos, a note wrapped around an evergreen branch found its way to me. My sister was quite excited.

“Open it!” she said. “Who is it from? What does it say?”

There was no name attached, a poem only, but I knew who it was from.

Gladness fills my heart
Despite the autumn’s shadows
Beauty still finds me
Even the brown hedge sparrow
Has a little song to sing.


One thought on “Akikawa Nikki –Nikki Bungaku Project for Queen’s Prize 2005

  1. Pingback: Ki no Kotori info from the Calontir Wiki | Foxeholly

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