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Japanese Tales of Faerie

Himeji Castle, Japan; Japan Ntl Tourist Org

The Story of Aoyagi

The Story of Aoyagi

IN THE ERA OF BUMMEI there was a young samurai called Tomotada in the service of Hatakeyama Yoshimune, the Lord of Noto. Tomotada was a native of Echizen, and at an early age he had been taken as a page into the palace of the daimyo of Noto where he was educated under the supervision of that prince for the profession of arms. As he grew into manhood he proved himself both a good scholar and a good soldier, and he continued to enjoy the favor of his prince. Being gifted with an amiable character, a winning manner, and a handsome appearance, he was admired and liked by his samurai comrades.

 When Tomotada was about twenty years old, he was sent upon a private mission to Hosokawa Masamoto, the great daimyo of Kyoto, a kinsman of Hatakeyama Yoshimune. Since he had been ordered to journey through Echizen, the youth requested permission to pay a visit on the way to his widowed mother. It was the coldest period of the year when he started. The country was covered with snow, and though mounted on a powerful horse, he had to proceed slowly. The road which he followed passed through a mountain district where the settlements were few and far between, and on the second day of his journey, after a weary ride of many hours, he was dismayed to find that he could not reach his intended stopping place until late in the night. He had reason to be anxious, for a heavy snowstorm came on with an intensely cold wind, and the horse showed signs of exhaustion. Suddenly he perceived the thatched roof of a cottage on the summit of a nearby hill where willow trees were growing. He urged his tired animal on until they reached the dwelling, and he knocked loudly on the storm doors which had been closed against the wind.

 An old woman opened them and cried out compassionately at the sight of the handsome stranger. "Ah, a young gentleman traveling alone in such terrible weather! Come in, young master, please enter."

 Tomotada dismounted, and after leading his horse to a shed in the rear, entered the cottage, where he saw an old man and a girl warming themselves by a fire of bamboo splints. They respectfully invited him to approach the fire, and the old couple then proceeded to make some tea and prepare food for the traveler, whom they then ventured to question in regard to his journey. Meanwhile, the young girl disappeared behind a screen. Tomotada had observed with astonishment that she was extremely beautiful, though her attire was of the most wretched kind and her long, loose hair in disorder. He wondered that so lovely a girl should be living in such a miserable and lonely place.

 The old man said to him, "Honored sir, the next village is far and the snow is falling thickly. The wind is piercing and the road is very bad. To proceed further this night would probably be dangerous. Although this hovel is unworthy of your presence and although we have few comforts to offer, perhaps it would be safer to remain tonight under this miserable roof. We will take good care of your horse."

 Tomotada accepted this humble proposal, secretly glad of the chance thus afforded him to see more of the young girl. Presently a coarse but ample meal was set before him, and the girl came from behind the screen to serve the tea. She was now clad in a rough but clean robe of homespun, and her long, loose hair was neatly combed and smoothed. As she bent forward to fill his cup, Tomotada perceived that she was incomparably more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen, and there was a grace about her every motion that astonished him.

 The elders began to apologize for her, saying, "Sir, our daughter Aoyagi has been brought up here in the mountains almost alone, and she knows nothing of gentle service. We pray that you will pardon her stupidity and her ignorance."

 Tomotada protested that he deemed himself lucky to be waited upon by so comely a maiden. He could not turn his eyes away from her, though he saw that his admiring gaze made her blush. He left the tea and food untasted before him.

 "Kind sir," the mother said, "we very much hope that you will try to eat and to drink a little, although our peasant fare is of the worst, as you must have been chilled by that piercing wind."

 To please the old couple, Tomotada ate and drank, but he was aware only of the charm of the blushing girl. He talked with her and found that her speech was as sweet as her face. Brought up in the mountains she might have been, but her parents must at some time have been persons of high degree, for she spoke and moved like a lady of rank. Suddenly he addressed her in poetic terms, which also veiled a question, inspired by the delight in his heart:

 "While on my way to pay a visit, I found something I took to be a flower. Therefore here I spend the day. But why, in the darkness long before dawn, the dawn blush tint should glow, that indeed I do not know."

 Without a moment's hesitation she answered him in words: "If with my sleeve I hide the faint fair color of the dawning sun, then perhaps in thc morning my lord will remain."

 Now Tomotada knew that she accepted his admiration, and he was scarcely less surprised by the art with which she had uttered her feelings than delighted by the assurance which the words conveyed. He was certain that in all this world he could not hope to meet, much less to win, a girl more beautiful and witty than this rustic maid before him. A voice in his heart seemed to cry out urgently "Take the luck that the gods have put in your way." In short, he was bewitched and to such a degree that without further preliminary he asked the old people to give him their daughter in marriage, telling them at the same time his name and lineage and his rank in the train of the Lord of Noto.

 They bowed down before him with many exclamations of grateful astonishment, but after some moments of apparent hesitation, the father replied, "Honored master, you are a person of high position and likely to rise to still higher things. Too great is the favor that you deign to offer us. Indeed the depth of our gratitude therefor is not to be spoken or measured. Yet it would be improper for this girl of ours, a stupid country girl of vulgar birth and with no training or teaching of any sort, to become the wife of a noble samurai. Even to speak of such a matter is not right. Nevertheless, since you find the girl to your liking and have condescended to pardon her peasant manners and to overlook her great rudeness, we do gladly present her to you for your humble handmaiden. Deign, therefore, to treat her according to your august pleasure."

 By morning the storm had passed and day broke through a cloudless east. Even if the sleeve of Aoyagi hid from her lover's eyes the rose blush of that dawn, he could no longer tarry; yet neither could he resign himself to parting with the girl. When everything had been prepared for his journey, he addressed her parents. " Though it may seem thankless to ask for more than I have already received, I must once again beg you to give me your daughter to be my wife. As she is willing to accompany me, if you permit, I can take her with me as she is. If you will give her to me, I shall ever cherish you as parents. In the meantime, please accept this poor acknowledgment of your kindest hospitality." So saying, he placed before his humble host a purse filled with gold.

 The old man, after many protestations, gently pushed back the gift. "Kind master," he said, "the gold would be of no use to us, and you will probably have need of it during your long, cold journey. Here we buy nothing, and we could not spend so much money on ourselves even if we wished. As for the girl, we have already bestowed her as a free gift. she belongs to you. Therefore it is not necessary to ask our leave to take her away. Already she has told us that she hopes to accompany you and to remain your servant as long as you may be willing to endure her presence. We are only too happy to know that you deign to accept her, and we pray that you will not trouble yourself on our account. In this place we could not provide her with proper clothing, much less with a dowry. Moreover, being old, we should in any event have had to separate from her before long. It is very fortunate that you should be willing to take her with you now."

 It was in vain that Tomotada tried to persuade the old people to accept a present. He found that they cared nothing for money and he saw that they were really anxious to entrust their daughter's fate to his hands. He decided to take her with him and, lifting her up on his horse, he bade the old people farewell for the time being, with many expressions of gratitude.

 "Honored sir," the father made answer, "It is we, and not you, who have reason for gratitude. We are sure that you will be kind to our girl, and we have no fears for her sake."

 Now a samurai was not allowed to marry without the consent of his lord, and Tomotada could not expect to obtain this sanction before his mission had been accomplished. He had reason, under such circumstances, to fear that the beauty of Aoyagi might attract dangerous attention, and that means might be devised of taking her away from him. In Kyoto, therefore, he tried to keep her hidden from curious eyes. But a retainer of the Lord Hosokawa one day caught sight of Aoyagi, discovered her relation to Tomotada and reported the matter to the daimyo. Thereupon the daimyo, a young prince fond of pretty faces, gave orders that the girl should be brought to the palace, and she was taken there at once without ceremony.

 Tomotada sorrowed deeply, but he knew he was powerless. He was only a humble messenger in the service of a far-off daimyo, and for the time being he was at the mercy of a much more powerful baron, whose wishes were not to be questioned. Moreover, Tomotada knew that he had acted foolishly, that he had brought about his own misfortune by entering into a relationship which the code of the military class condemned. There was now but one hope for him, a desperate hope, that Aoyagi might be able to escape and flee with him. After long reflection, he resolved to try to send her a letter. The attempt would be dangerous, of course. Any writing sent to her might find its way to the hands of the daimyo, and to send a love letter to any resident of the palace was an unpardonable offense. He resolved to dare the risk, however, and he composed his letter in the form of a Chinese poem. The poem was written with only twenty-eight characters, but with those twenty-eight characters he was able to express all the depth of his feelings and to suggest all the pain of his loss.

 On the evening of the day after his poem had been sent, Tomotada was summoned to appear before the Lord Hosokawa. The youth at once suspected that his confidence had been betrayed, and he could not hope, if his letter had been seen by the daimyo, to escape the severest penalty. "Now he will order my death," thought Tomotada, "but I do not care to live unless Aoyagi is restored to me."

 On entering the presence room, he saw the Lord Hosokawa seated upon a throne, surrounded by samurai of high rank in ceremonial caps and robes. All were silent as statues, and while Tomotada advanced to make obeisance, the hush seemed to him sinister and heavy, like the stillness before a storm

 But Hosokawa suddenly descended from the throne, and taking the youth by the arm, said, "Because you love each other so much, I have taken it upon myself to authorize your marriage in lieu of my kinsman, the Lord of Noto, and your wedding shall now be celebrated before me. The guests are assembled, the gifts are ready."

 At a signal from the lord, the sliding screens concealing a further apartment were pushed open, and Tomotada saw there many dignitaries of the court assembled for the ceremony, and Aoyagi awaiting him in her bridal apparel. Thus was she given back to him, and the wedding was joyous and splendid, and precious gifts were made to the young couple by the daimyo and the members of his household.

 For five happy years after the wedding Tomotada and Aoyagi dwelt together. But one morning Aoyagi, while talking with her husband about some household matter, suddenly uttered a great cry of pain and then became very white and still. After a few moments she said in a feeble voice, "Pardon me for thus rudely crying out, but the pain was so sudden. My dear husband, our union must have been brought about through some Karma relation in a former state of existence, and that happy relation, I think, will bring us together again in more than one life to come. But for our present existence the relation is now ended. We are about to be separated. Repeat for me, I beseech you, the Nembutsu-prayer, because I am dying."

 "Oh, what strange wild fancies!" cried the startled husband. "You are only a little unwell, my dear one. Lie down for a while and rest, and the sickness will pass."

 "No, no," she insisted. "I am dying. I do not imagine itI know. And it is needless now, my dear husband, to hide the truth from you any longer. I am not a human being. The soul of a tree is my soul. The heart of a tree is my heart. The sap of the willow is my life. And someone at this cruel moment is cutting down my tree. That is why I must die. Even to weep is beyond my strength. Quickly, quickly, repeat the Nembutsu for me. Quickly! Ah!"

 With another cry of pain she turned aside her beautiful head and tried to hide her face behind her sleeve. But almost in the same moment her whole form appeared to collapse in the strangest way and to sink down, down, down, level with the floor. Tomotada had sprung to support her, but there was nothing to support.

There lay on the matting only the empty robes of the fair creature and the ornaments she had worn in her hair. The body had ceased to exist.

 Tomotada shaved his head, took the Buddhist vows, and became a priest. He traveled through all the provinces of the empire, and at all the holy places which he visited he offered up prayers for the soul of Aoyagi. Reaching Echizen in the course of his pilgrimage, he sought the home of the parents of his beloved. But when he arrived at the lonely place among the hills where their dwelling had been, he found that the cottage had disappeared. There was nothing to mark even the spot where it had stood, except the stumps of three willows, two old trees and one young tree, that had been cut down long before his arrival.

 Beside the stumps of these willow trees he erected a memorial tomb and performed holy services on behalf of the spirits of Aoyagi and her parents.

An Excerpt from:
Fairy Tales of the Orient by Pearl S. Buck


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