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Songs by Ono no Komachi

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The word from the daylight side of the court is that the sovereign has begun declaring that he would like to commission an anthology of poetry, collecting the best of the songs that have been composed in our realm, past and present. Of course the fact of the matter is that the nighttime side of the court has been growing too unruly, and an anthology of songs will be just the thing to balance out night and day, the sovereign and the clans.

Whether the imperial intention ever comes to pass is one thing, but every poet in the capital has been raiding their personal collections all the same, trying to put their best hand forward. To have one's songs included in an imperial collection…one's fame would last at least ten thousand years.

My source for all of this gossip was unusually reliable, since I heard it from young Ki no Tsurayuki himself.

The story of how Tsurayuki came to be (unsurprisingly, with the depth of the snow in my hair before I took my vows and cut it off) my principal caller for the past few years is charmingly direct: he has a great talent for waka, and those around him told him so from the time he was a child, being something of a prodigy. Most of the men who were truly skilled at song in my generation have now passed on or retired from the world, and so one day in spring a few years ago I was delivered a poem on a strip of mulberry paper wrapped around a branch of just-opening plum flowers, asking to be received politely.

Tsurayuki was a very young man then, just having donned trousers, and I will not do him the disservice of repeating his effort at the time here, but the contrast between the paper and the plum was charming, and the handwriting was appropriately coordinated with the song itself, energetic but not undignified. There is not much to do in my days, even for an elderly lady like me on whom propriety has little claim, and in any case I have the reputation of my children to consider. I invited Tsurayuki in, and no sooner had we traded pleasantries than he started off by insulting my poetry. Needless to say, I liked him immediately.

Over the years our intimacy has deepened to the point where I set only one very thin screen between us. Years and years ago, when I had just entered service beyond the clouds, we were not so careful about seeing and being seen, but these days it is all women think about. I even participated in public poetry contests when I was a very young woman, but no longer.

I have tried to explain to Tsurayuki how things used to be, and that he should bear these things in mind when criticizing my poems in particular, but he will have none of it, or rather, he insists that such things do not matter now.

It is not in my nature, however, to accept such declarations, and so today when he suggested that I collect some of my poems for posterity to remember, I promptly gave him my copy of one of my oldest:


hito ni awamu
tsuki no naki ni wa
mune hashiribi ni
kokoro yakeori    

When we cannot meet
because there is no moonlight,
    I wake up -- blaze up
with longing -- my breast pounding --
sparks fly -- my troubled heart chars.

Tsurayuki read it outloud, as is only proper, and the screen was thin enough--and the daylight bright enough--that I could read his expression clearly. I laughed. My laugh is another thing about me that is old-fashioned, forthright and uncompromising. "Not to your taste, my friend?" I teased, and I could practically hear him searching for something tactful to say.

"It's not that," he protested after a moment. "It's marvelous, truly, but it's so--unrestrained."

I laughed again. "Surely you've heard that I had many admirers in my youth, Tsurayuki!"

He was silent for a long time. "I could never have written this," he said at last, in a low voice. "The man for whom you felt these things--he must have been exceptional, to inspire such feelings."

I could have said many things; I could have asked Tsurayuki whether he had ever felt such passion for anything but poetry, but I had no wish to embarrass him further. Instead, I picked up another poem and recited it.


oki no ite
mi wo yaku yori mo
kanashiki wa
miyako shimabe no
wakare narikeri    

Even more painful
than burning one's own body
    with flaring coals is
the separation between
the capital and those islands.

"And what do you make of this one?" I asked when I had finished.

"Was it the same man who went out to Miyakojima?" he asked, smiling. "Or another?"

"You're missing the point," I told him lightly, and pulled out another sheet of paper from the stack.


ito semete
koishiki toki wa
mubatama no
yoru no koromo wo
kaeshite zo kiru    

Those times when I long
for you so very keenly,
    I wear through the night
dark as leopard-lily seeds
my sleeping robes inside-out.

"That one at least is not unbalanced," he said when I had finished.

"It's a game, Tsurayuki," I explained patiently. "A form, something that's expected. Do you think everyone constantly feels every emotion they put into song, as strongly as it sounds?"

Sometimes, my friend the young poetaster seems very young to me. "So when you propositioned Henjô, at Isonokami Temple--" he said, tentatively, and I recited from memory:


iwa no ue
tabine no sureba
ito samushi
koke no koromo wo
ware ni kasanamu    

When I spend the night
on top of a high crag,
    it is very cold:
won't you do me the favor
of lending me a moss robe?

Tsurayuki himself recited Henjô's reply:


yo no somuku
koke no koromo wa
tada hitoe
kasaneba utoshi
iza futari nemu    

The moss robe of one
forsaken by the world has
    only one layer --
yet not loaning it would be harsh:
so come, let's sleep together!

"He is the only man to have ever gotten the better of me," I said ruefully when he had finished. "Of course I knew he would decline, Tsurayuki! The surprise was how overt his reply was." I wasn't surprised at all that the story was all over the capital, even many years later; that a monk should come out with so open an innuendo--and in reply to me, no less--practically guaranteed the exchange's notoriety.

"I am sure it was only his vows that kept him from sending a reply in the affirmative," Tsurayuki told me, an odd note in his voice. "Everyone says that your beauty was matched only by your skill with songs, in your day."

"Perhaps," I allowed, although it was true enough. "But my day was long ago." My skill at least remained to me, though I have had little enough call to use it these past few years, except with Tsurayuki.

"I wish I could have seen for myself," he murmured, and in the sudden silence I could hear, in the garden of the house, a cuckoo calling.

"That is a moonlight sentiment, Tsurayuki," I murmured, covering my surprise, and remembered one of my older efforts:


mirume naki
waga mi wo ura to
shiraneba ya
karenade ama no
ashi tayuku kuru    

But doesn't he know
that there is no seeing me through the seaweed
    amidst the shallows of my sorrows --
this fisherman who comes here
ceaselessly on weary legs?

The cuckoo called again. "Komachi," Tsurayuki said anxiously, "forgive me, I only meant--"

"You meant that had fate been otherwise, we would have brought this affair to a natural conclusion long ago," I told him. "Tsurayuki, I would have willingly assented. Though," I remarked archly, "not before teasing you mercilessly about so blatant a proposition."

"Well," he said, regaining some of his self-possession, "had I truly meant to make it, I would have put it in verse. Komachi--you know that what I say about your poetry is not meant to be a criticism of you. And your poetry is marvelous. It is only that--"

"Of course I know," I told him, surprised that he had felt the need to put it into words. "Do you think I have been blind to the ways the world has changed? It is true that in my day we had only just invented the syllabary, but we were not children."

"No, that is not what I meant. Your poetry--it is necessary too, and glorious just as it is. But finding the fitting weight to counterbalance it, now that would be a challenge."

"I am confident that you will be up to it," I told him, and saw his twitch of surprise. "Oh, come now, Tsurayuki, we both know that you have a very good chance of being asked to work on this anthology, should it ever come to pass. False modesty does not become you."

I felt no need to tell him that I have felt increasingly frail these past few months. One more illness of any gravity will probably be enough to finish me off. It is the way of things; I have made a complete fair copy of my poems, to be presented to Tsurayuki, and I have lived long enough missing my husband to welcome the idea of peace, or at least of a temporary respite from the cares of this world. My life has not been the same without his presence in my house.

"Nor you, Komachi," he retorted, and we moved on to other topics. I thought that by the time he left a few hours later, just as the sun was setting, we had both put that uncomfortable interlude behind us, but Tsurayuki again surprised me. After he had made his goodbyes, he chanted a poem I knew well:


kagiri naki
omohi no mama ni
yoru mo komu
yumeji wo sae ni
hito wa togameji    

Guided by the flames
of a love without limits,
    I shall come at night,
for at least no one censures
traveling the path of dreams.

It was one of my own, of course--I had something of a reputation for being fixated on dreams, when I served at court, and it is true that I had a great many of them, not all pleasurable. There is nothing quite like the torment of dreaming something that you desire, that is not true but could be, and then awakening to see that your vision was false.

I was struck to the core; there was no reply to be made to such a declaration, which could only be taken as sincere outside the confines of parchment and ink. And yet I owed him a reply, and nothing less than the truth. Luckily, I had long ago composed a suitable answer, in a different context:


yumeji ni wa
ashi mo yasumezu
utsutsu ni hitome
mishi goto wa arazu    

Though I constantly
travel on the path of dreams,
    feet never resting,
all these visions are nothing
to a glimpse in the waking world.

"I would never regret our friendship, Tsurayuki," I told him, and after a moment I slipped my hand outside the screen. He took it immediately, old and wrinkled as it was, and clasped it tightly.

"Nor I, Komachi," he told me quietly. squeezing my fingers again before he let go. "No matter what else might have been, in another life."

I am irrepressible after all; in the morning I sent him a poem by messenger, heedless of convention. I should have composed a new one, but I thought he would appreciate one of my previous works:


aki no yo mo
na nomi narikeri
au to ieba
koto zo to mo naku
akenuru mono wo    

Autumn nights are such
only by repute, I see:
    we say that we'll meet,
but there is no time at all
before dawn has come, alas.

His reply came wrapped around a spray of chrysanthemums, with a jar of chrysanthemum wine:


aki no kiku
niou kagiri wa
hana yori saki to
shiranu wa ga mi wo

Chrysanthemums in autumn:
As long as they're fragrant
I shall wear them in my cap,
For my body may decay
Before the flowers.

Leave it to Tsurayuki to make a flirtation and a flattery out of unpleasant truths. I laughed, and toasted his health over the wine that evening.