The Ronin and the Demon of Winter - A Mugen Noh Play

The Ronin and the Demon of Winter - A Mugen Noh Play

A Chapter by Kuandio

* This is a scene from within a much larger story: Sakura no Yugen.  But it serves as a story within a story. Several names have been changed to avoid potential spoilers

 





 The Ronin and Demon of Winter - A Mugen Noh Play




            The crowds had thinned considerably and the air was cooler. The wending lanes of indigo shadow were solely illuminated by those who strolled with lanterns. Deeper into the gardens, the well-groomed trees grew tall, and the young women walked beside a burbling stream glimmering of lamplight amid the dark.

            Emanating from the gardens came a song. Passed silhouettes of interlacing boughs they came nigh an open space from whence plentiful light glowed.

            Kaede felt she had chanced upon a window to another world. She stepped partway through the overhanging willows. Several hundred, perhaps a thousand spectators were seated on wooden benches; these tiers were set in orderly rows on a level sward of cropped grass extending from the front of a stage. The song originated from this amphitheatre. At either side, lanterns hidden by the edges of curtains illumed a stage. The polished maple platform was empty save for three women dressed in a style harkening back to the ancient imperial geishas. While looking to the sky, they sang a sad, but beautiful song, like a beseeching prayer. From the rafters above the stage, red-gold autumn leaves fell, seesawing. Other spectators, further back from the benches, sat on the grass itself, and here and there among the stone terraces fading into the nocturnal canopies. A captivated stillness reigned as the audience beheld what unfolded.

            “What is this?” asked Kaede. Mesmerized, she gazed at the stage.

            Midori, perhaps the tipsiest of the three, put a hand on Kaede's shoulder. "It is the tale of the Ronin and the Demon of Winter."

            Kaede muttered the title to herself. "I've never heard of this tale."

            "It's a really old one, neh?" said Cheiko, looking for Midori to fill in the rest.

            "Yes," Midori explained. "A mugen noh play. That is what they used to call the dream plays, back during the Celestial Empire."

            "Who are they?" Kaede couldn't turn away from the scene of the three women. Their accents were of an ancient savor that she could not fully comprehend. "What are they singing about?"

            "They're the Daughters of the Seasons, and they sing a lament for the sorrows people must endure. The summer has surrendered to fall too soon, the leaves are falling, the land is suffering, and a cruel winter wind blows before its time."

            They watched a little longer before Midori tugged gently on Kaede's arm. "Come cousin. There is a wide selection of plays and musical ensembles here every night. I am willing to bet they will have this one on again towards the end of the week."

            Transfixed, Kaede had hardly heard the words. The Daughters of the Seasons withdrew, and new characters emerged on stage. Two nomin men and a women talked; much easier to understand in their colloquial speech. Their faces had been whitened with rice powder, and they moved very slow, using their arms to lend emphasis to their words, which were more recited than spoken, like a patient song.

            What is this secret magic? The song had called to Kaede, and the longer she watched the mugen noh play, the stronger the rare sense of familiarity grew, an echo of a memory, like she'd been here and beheld this before.

            "But I've never seen such a thing," said Kaede, more to herself. "I mean, I've been to some plays, years ago, but nothing like this." Then she looked at the other girls, like they'd been absent from her side a long while. "What, you don't want to watch?"

            Cheiko and Midori exchanged a glance.

            “Well," said Cheiko, "normally we would, …but…”
            “Ahh.” Kaede smiled. “Don’t worry. Go on ahead. As soon as it’s over I’ll join you.”
            The two girls looked doubtfully at one another, then back at Kaede.

            "Promise you will?” Midori coaxed.

            “Of course. I know how to get to the teahouse. As soon as the play is over I'll take Ayumi back to the inn and head straight there."

            Though reluctant, the girls agreed to the change of plans. Midori said, "The play is more than halfway over. We'll see you soon, neh?" She reminded Kaede. "Don't be late. Tazeki will be heartbroken if you're not there."

            Cheiko tittered. "I saw the way he was looking at you. Like he'd found the Lotus of Enlightenment."
            After her friends had left, Kaede extended her hand to Ayumi. “Come. Let's go closer, neh.”

            The little nomin girl beamed, much more at ease out here than at the tavern.

            "If I buy you a dessert, will you tell me about the play, my dear?”

            Ayumi nodded enthusiastically. “Yes Kaede-chan.”
            She purchased wagashi mochi from a vendor roaming the periphery of the audience. The pastry was a small bun formed of peach and plum flavored sweet bean paste. Ayumi was absolutely delighted to be seeing a play with dessert to along. Kaede patted the little girl on the head. She realized how much she liked to indulge Ayumi, how easy it would be to see her as the younger sister she never had.

            "We can sit up there Kaede-chan," said Ayumi, with a bite of mochi in her mouth; she was pointing to a large, roofed gallery seating area to one side and several echelons above the rest of the audience. "You can, I mean... It's for the daiymos."

            "That's alright. I'd rather sit down here, with everyone else."

            Near the center of the rows, a couple spectators cordially scooted over to make room for them on one of the benches. Kaede whispered her thanks. With everyone focused on what unfolded on stage, the pervading quiet was such that during the short lulls in singing or dialogue, Kaede could hear the faint murmuring of the stream in the gardens. People of all ages had gathered here; older folk who'd probably seen the same play on numerous occasions, perhaps returning every year, and children for whom it was an entirely novel experience.

            The curtains closed. During the interval the audience conversed in hushed tones. When the curtains slid open anew, the silence resumed. The stage's background had transformed. The plays Kaede had seen usually consisted merely of a stage, this, however, was far more elaborate. Painted cutouts depicted a wintry scene of white hills, forests, and a flock of red-crowned cranes gliding over the distant mountains. Flakes of white paper littered the maple floor, while more trickled down from the concealed rafters. The rice wine Kaede had drunk imbued the ensuing scene with a dreamy quality.

            One of the actors, portraying a nomin, held out his hands. "Our kingdom, once glorious, and full of joy, has fallen into ruin! The Fuyu no Akuma has stolen the Daughter of Spring, and winter robs us of everything!"

            “I know, I know,” moaned another nomin, on his knees. When he spoke - as when everyone else spoke - the words were drawn out like verses of a chant. "We won't survive if this cold continues much longer. There are no crops and no buds on the trees." His brow and shoulders stooped in defeat. "Maybe there is no hope..."

            Next to them, the nomin woman said, "We can't give up. Let us pray for a miracle."

            “Pray? To whom?" The man on his knees shook his head. "I fear the gods want nothing to do with us."

            "Why is winter so long?" Kaede whispered to Ayumi. "Who stole the spring?"

            "The demon," Ayumi answered in a timid voice Kaede could scarcely hear. "That's why winter can't go away anymore."

            Two new nomin gathered on stage. Stricken by grief, they wept.

            "They Fuyu no Akuma took my children!" cried one of the characters.

            "My entire family is gone because of that evil kami," mourned another.

            "And it continues to terrorize the countryside and prey upon the innocent. We have no choice. We must destroy the akuma." This man raised a fist. "As long as its around, winter will never leave.”
            One of the peasants despaired, throwing his hands up. “But that demon cannot be defeated. It's invincible!”
            A long silence followed, touched only by the susurrating of the stream, and the occasional, solitary notes from a koto softly plucked and strummed somewhere behind the stage props.
            “Let us join together," the woman suggested, "and pray for the gods to give us another chance.”

            Their expressions, their deliberate movements, and the measured notes in their words, had begun to induce Kaede into a trancelike state. She whispered to Ayumi, "How did this happen? Where did the akuma come from?"

            In her delicate voice, the little servant girl explained, “Bad things were happening, and, there was one, um warrior, that he wanted to be stronger, um, so he could help the people. He tried to climb the top of the mountain named Eternal Wisdom because, um, he wanted to learn some secret things the gods hide there. But no one's supposed to go there, and so then the gods punished him and turned him into a monster."

            Even after praying, the nomin folk continued to argue about what could be done to save themselves and their country.

            "The gods do not answer. We have to act, or we shall perish."

            "Many have tried to slay the Fuyu no Akuma, great hunters and swordsmen from near and far. But the demon killed and devoured them all."

            A voice, louder and deeper than the rest, called out, “Ho! Hello there!"

            And a new character emerged. He was a tall man, wearing a blue bandana, a dark grey kimono, and with long katana at his waist. "Is this the land of Wasure-rareta?" he asked.

            "It is," answered one of the nomin.

            "Good," said the swordsman. "I have traveled far to find this country."

            "You must be confused," offered another nomin. "No one wants to come to this accursed land anymore."

            "That must be why it is so hard to find." The swordsman laughed heartily.

            Incredulous, one of the nomin asked, "Who are you?"

            "A wandering ronin," the man replied, confident as ever. "I have come to slay the demon and lift the curse of ice."

            The peasant folk did not believe him. This ronin must be stupid, or mad, they mumbled to each other. But the man's confidence never wavered. "I may not be as renowned a swordsman as those that came before me, but I assure you, out of all who can offer help, it is I who stand the best chance against the akuma."

            "And how is that?" asked one of the nomin.

            "Because I know its secret. And in this knowledge lies its one weakness. No, I can't tell you. You wouldn't believe me, at least not yet."

            Despite his peculiar comportment, by and by the villagers came to hope in the wandering ronin. As he promised to rid the land of the beast, the folk of Wasure-rareta crowded around him, clapping and cheering. Here was a soul undaunted by what they feared most.

            Kaede’s eyes glazed over the audience. Countenances had brightened with expectancy at the turn of events. Her vision drifted to the tiered daiymo seating area, near the middle of the most opulently arrayed nobles, and to one of the men seated there. She only saw his shoulders and profile. Something about him though, the strength in his bearing, she deemed, made him stand out from everyone there, from everyone she had seen that night, and perhaps ever. This man was not like other daiymo. He was roughened by the elements, skin bronzen, his features sculpted. The moustache he kept was trim, yet his long raven-dark hair fell over the plated shoulders of his red lacquered armor like a sleek mane. Was he one of the returning samurai then? He must be a true admirer of the mugen noh play if he had not changed to come and see it first. And he was handsome, albeit of a nature to which Kaede was unaccustomed, reminding her of the tall warrior statues that guarded temple entrances and palatial halls. She gazed at the man awhile longer, temporarily lost. Who was he? A great warrior, a general perhaps?

            The prince...

            Her vision lingered a moment longer. Just as she shifted to turn her attention back to the stage, the man looked in her direction. Their eyes met for a second or more, before she pulled her gaze away. She'd stared too long. Of all the people here, how had he known? He had sensed her looking. Kaede took a deep breath, donning an impassive demeanor. The fleeting moment their gazes brushed together was enough for him to know. Enough too, for her to be allured and intimidated, as one who looks into the eyes of a resting tiger.

            Thereafter, perhaps in the same way he had first sensed her, Kaede was certain she felt the man's gaze upon her. She couldn't confirm this however, for she dared not turn back again. In someway, she felt too small to do so.

            Ayumi was oblivious to any of this. Sitting next to the little nomin girl, after awhile Kaede managed to immerse herself in the play again. The villagers were wishing the ronin good luck and offering prayers before he set out to face the Fuyu-no akuma.

            "I am not eager to go to this meeting,” said the man. “There is no pleasure or pride in it. But go to it I must, with heart and will set, as one who attends a funeral.”
            The other characters left the stage, and a voice Kaede recognized as belonging to one of the singers from earlier on, narrated events while the lone ronin walked. The manner he strode gave the impression he was crossing great distances. The strings of the hidden koto started tentatively, accompanied by a softly drummed taiko.

            “The ronin walked for miles and miles, days and nights,” intoned the narrator. “He entered into the snowy mountains of Wasure rareta, where the demon dwelled. On his way he passed the slain bodies of those who had tried to face the Fuyu-no akuma.”
            Another swordsman staggered on stage, gripping his torso. “Turn back, don’t waste your life!" he cried. "That monster cannot be defeated.” The man fell, crawling to one side of the stage before lying dead.
            The ronin strode onward, and the koto and taiko drum played ominously.

            A frightening roar broke the silence. The ronin gripped the katana's hilt. From behind one of the props for a tree and white hillock, a hulking, pale furred beast emerged. In its powerful arms, the Fuyu-no akuma carried the limp body of a beautiful woman dressed in robes the hues of pale flowers. He set the body down and hunkered over it. The demon wore a wolfish-human mask, painted red and gray, and contorted in the delirious insanity of an emotion woefully grieved yet diabolically fierce.

            It sniffed, stood up, and turned to face the man on the other side of the stage. Its voice was rough as grinding rocks, “Who are you? How dare you come here!”
            The ronin stood his ground, and spoke with empathy, “Do you not remember me? Do you not remember who you are?”
            “Get away from here! I don’t know you!” the demon bellowed. “I am servant of death and Jigoku. If you don’t leave this place, I will eat your heart and mind!”
            “You must try to remember,” the ronin pleaded. He spoke with sorrow, “For if you cannot, … then I shall have to destroy you.”
            “You are brave, stranger." The Fuyu-no akuma's laughter was a deranged cacophony. "But the flesh of the valiant is all the tastier to feast upon!”

            As the demon moved against him, the ronin drew the katana. The drums pounded and the koto shouted stridently while the two figures circled each other in a perilous dance. They fought, the Fuyu-no akuma snarling and swinging its vicious claws. The ronin carefully gauged the distance before seizing a chance and driving the katana through the akuma’s torso to its hilt.
            Gripping the wound with both hands, the monster lurched a few steps. “How is this possible? You wounded me!" It faltered and sank to its knees. "Am I dying?"

            The demon of winter collapsed over the snow petals. Both koto and drums had faded to silence. The ronin knelt beside the monster, and with his hand on the back of its head, he raised it halfway up.             

            "I had no choice," said the man. "I am sorry, ... my brother."

            Carefully, the ronin removed the Fuyu-no akuma's mask, revealing the face of a frightened young man. This man spoke with profound astonishment, reaching a hand before him, straining to see through a darkness, to a distant light.

            "Brother?" uttered the young man. "... yes, I remember, ... " He clutched at the front of the ronin's kimono with one hand. "I was gone so long in my quest for a power, a power that did not exist, not as I imagined it, ... and, ... I became lost, in an amnesia, a dark dream in which I wandered like a sleepwalker. No fate could be worse!" The young man wept. When this subsided, he said, "Thank you brother, for freeing me from the shadow that blinded me."

            The young man who had suffered, imprisoned as a thoughtless, tormented akuma, breathed his final breaths at ease, looking skyward, like he were beholding a wondrous vision for the first time, and thus died in peace.

            The ronin stood solemnly beside the body of his fallen brethren, while a flute played a sad, windy melody.

            After the music ended, the woman lying on the snow wakened. The ronin helped her up.
            “I thought you were dead,” he said.
            “I cannot die.” She looked into the ronin's eyes, holding his hands. “I am the Daughter of Spring. The demon's power kept the land and her people captive, but could never destroy the truth, only delay its remembrance."

            The curtains closed for a brief interlude. While waiting, Kaede could not stop thinking about the play. When the curtains were drawn back anew, the background depicting snowed lands had been replaced with their green counterparts, including assortments of flowers. The surviving nomin characters were reunited and hailed the return of the Daughter of the Spring and the ronin.

            The three female singers came back on stage and embraced the Daughter of Spring.

            One of them addressed the ronin, “We thank you for bringing back our lost sister." Then she spoke to all the nomin on stage, "There is a divine balance in the world that you must always seek. Often in mortality it is overlooked, but the deep mystery is all around us. Sometimes you can glimpse this Yugen in the spirit of the clouds, in the reflection of water, the voice of the wind, or the petal of a flower."

            “And remember that every season of sorrow is a passing thing," the goddess of spring told. "No matter how cold, how frozen the world becomes, endure the tempests, for it is a circle, and spring will return. There will be a day your spirit will be free to grow and live abundantly, and you will be at one with the Seishin-yodo.”
            “Look!” One of the nomin pointed afar. “The sakura blooms!”

            The characters celebrated, patting each other on the back, wiping away tears, a couple of them dancing. The Daughters of the Seasons sang in unison, and from the rafters, pink-white petals fluttered over the stage. This time the song was not of grief, but of a new, heartbreaking beauty found after passing through suffering. There was a bliss in this poetry that made Kaede's heart stir. They sang for a long while, even as the characters bowed and the audience clapped. The song permeated Kaede, beckoning something in her to rise. What had come over her? She had to make an effort to maintain her composure. But by the way Ayumi looked empathetically at her, she must have noticed the lamplight reflecting in the sheen filling Kaede's eyes. Still, she did not shed the tears. They did not belong just to her, but to everyone, and she had a sense they would return, like rain in another season.

            The spectators had begun to file from the aisled benches, to go home, or to other late night revelries, yet the Daughters of the Seasons sang on. Kaede and Ayumi walked amidst the gardens. The song's melodic wisps faded into the cool evening air. Ayumi was so happy she half-skipped along the stone path. Kaede however, felt a sadness, coupled with a longing, for what though, she could not say. She felt there was so much more beneath the rippling surface of this world.

 







© 2016 Kuandio



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Added on August 17, 2016
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