Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The moth

Homage to Koizumi Yakumo

Many years ago, and very many miles from here, there lived a young woman, the daughter of a powerful daimyo. When she was old enough to marry, her father formed an alliance with another powerful lord; as part of their agreement the daimyo promised his daughter's hand to the youngest son of his newfound ally. Upon learning of the betrothal, however, the young woman burst into tears and declared that she was in love with a young man in her father's retinue, the son of one of his least distinguished swordsmen, and that she would marry no one but him.

The lad in question was immediately sent for and brought into the daimyo's hall There, in the presence of the young woman and the entire court, the daimyo asked him if it was true that he was in love with his daughter. Without trembling or hesitating for an instant the young man declared that it was so. The daimyo then turned to his daughter and ordered her to renounce the young man at once and agree to marry as he had arranged. He asked her if she would obey, and when she firmly responded that she would not he drew his sword and instantly struck off the young man's head with one quick stroke. His daughter screamed and fell to the floor, sobbing wildly and cursing her father and beating at him with her fists. At the daimyo's orders she was carried from the hall and shut inside her room. The body of the young man was taken away and thrown unceremoniously into a ditch.

All that night the young woman wept and raged in her room. Finally she took out a dagger that she always kept hidden in her room and secreted it within her robe, vowing to kill her father at the first opportunity, though she knew full well that it would mean her own death as well. Having thus resolved, she fell at last into a bitter and desolate sleep. Very soon thereafter, however, she was awakened by a strange fluttering at her window. She looked up and saw an enormous moth, bigger than her hand and decorated with the most dazzling and intricate patterns she had ever seen. As if entranced she stepped to the window and stretched out her hand. As the creature alighted on her fingers she felt herself being drawn in, strangely and irresistibly, by its gaze. Within an instant the moth had vanished and she found herself holding the hand of the beheaded man's ghost. His handsome head was restored to its proper place and all was as it had been before her father had so cruelly taken his life.

That night the couple consummated their love and lay nestled together until the first rays of dawn. Then the young man rose, kissed his love goodbye, and promised to return at nightfall. In a quick flutter he vanished through the window.

No sooner had he left than the young woman began to dress. She carefully made up her face and arranged her hair, and when she was ready she tugged at the handle of her door to her room. It was bolted on the outside, but an elderly woman servant who was keeping watch outside slid open the bolt and allowed her to pass. The young woman made her way into her father's presence, knelt before him, calmly begged his pardon, and said that she would henceforth obey him in all regards, including the matter of the marriage to the man her father had chosen for her. The daimyo was secretly greatly relieved at his daughter's change of heart, though he maintained a dignified bearing and accepted her submission with little more than a grunt.

The date set for the marriage was still some weeks off. In the intervening time the young man returned every night, and the couple gave full rein to their feverish passion for each other with little thought for the future. At last, however, the elderly servant awoke one night and heard noises from within which she could not explain. Alarmed, she awakened the daimyo, who tied on his sword and rushed to his daughter's room. Forcing the door open, he saw a horrifying sight: on the bed lay his daughter, in the arms of the gruesomely decomposed body of the young man whose life he had taken. When he perceived the intruder the young man sat up and turned his headless torso toward the daimyo, who lost all composure and screamed in terror; then he turned back to his lover, gave her a final embrace, and vanished through the flowing curtains.

The daimyo pulled his daughter from the bed, struck her several times across the face, and flung her violently down the hall. The girl winced in pain but said nothing, nor did she attempt to protect herself as her father drove her out of the house, kicking her and flailing at her with her fists as he advanced. Only when the door had been barred behind her and she stood naked to the elements did she begin desperately to sob.

She spent that night under a great spruce tree a little ways down the road from the daimyo's house. During the night the elderly servant stole from the house and without a word laid a coarse grey cloak over her as she slept. When the young woman rose she drew on the cloak and set out along the road, knowing that she would never again be safe within her father's domains.

For many years the woman travelled throughout the country, always keeping to the back roads, always dressed in the same gray cloak. She became a mendicant, beloved by children and the infirm to whom she administered what aid she could, never wanting anything for herself except a bowl of rice. She was never known to sleep indoors, or in fact, anyplace where she could be observed. It was believed that her ghostly lover continued to visit her each night, and that even when she passed away, at a very advanced age, and was buried near that little shrine you see just there across the road, she was herself transformed into a moth, of purest white, and flew off to live with her mate in the distant mountains.

As for the daimyo, as a result of the breaking of the agreement with his erstwhile ally the two barons came into conflict. On the field of battle the daimyo's armies suffered a crushing defeat. As they retreated a sudden downpour in the hills provoked a flash flood, which swept most of his remaining retinue away. When at last he straggled home, ruined and alone, he was slaughtered without mercy by the brothers of the young man he had beheaded.

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