Short Story Written By Gretchen Rickel Wolf – circa 1994
This is a tale of old, of long long ago, in the 7th century. It is the tale of the legendary beauty, Lady Kogo and her music, and the man who was Emperor of Japan at the time. This Emperor was a good and kindly man, much revered by all his subjects. But nevertheless, he was a sad and lonely man. In all his vast and beautiful palace, he had but one friend, the good and faithful Nakakuni, who had been his tutor when he was a boy.
There was a wicked and evil influence abroad in the palace so that even his Empress and their children loved him not. The powerful Taira No Kiyomori, the father of the Empress, hated and despised him because he was so jealous, wanting himself to be Emperor. And so, it the Emperor lived in lonely isolation, spending most of his time alone in his chambers. Often, he would sit by the window looking out on his gardens, the vast expanse of flowers and trees, and think to himself that all of this mattered not without others to share it with warmth and love. Often, he wished he were a simple man, a peasant, and wondered what life would be like with work every day, and a family to come home to at night.
He took to sitting at the window long into the dusk after he had watched the sun go down on another sad and empty day. And one evening, at this time, he thought he heard in the distance music very faint, but nevertheless beautiful music. He listened for a while, and then it ended. The next evening, at dusk, it was the same, sweet music coming to him from a distance, bringing him comfort, and a feeling of contentment.
Finally, after many days of hearing this music every evening, he decided he must know where it came from an who made it. So, he sent the good and faithful Nakakuni to seek it. Nakakuni followed the sound of the music, which led him to the river. He walked along its edge until he saw, in the distance, a lady sitting at the banks of the river with her Koto—Japanese harp—and then he knew from whence came the music.
This was Lady Kogo, she of great beauty. Her hair was like black satin, and her skin like the petals of a magnolia blossom. She was playing a sweet, sad melody. As Nakakuni approached her, she had sad thoughts in her mind and was thinking now of going into the river where, for a while, her robes would bear her up, and she would drift on the waters and look into the skies and into the blossom and the trees for the last time. Her robes, having become heavy with water, would take her underneath where her life would end, she would be tormented no more by her sad thoughts, and her terrible loneliness which had become unbearable since her brave and noble husband had lost his life in battle. Though mortally wounded and in great pain, he had led his men to victory, vanquishing a formidable and dangerous enemy.
Nakakuni, the Emperor’s emissary, approached her slowly and gently, for he could see she was indeed very sad, and he could hear that the music she was playing was ‘inori’ (a prayer). He spoke to her softly of the beauty of her music and how it drifted on the winds to the Emperor in the palace, and how he, sitting by his open window every evening, was brought great peace and comfort. And so, the Emperor wished her to come to the palace and play for him there. And Lady Kogo knew that if the Emperor so wished she must accede to his command.
And thus, it was that the Lady Kogo went from her home in Kyoto to the palace every evening at the hour of sunset and played her music for the Emperor through the dusk until nightfall. The Emperor had at last found peace and happiness in the music of Lady Kogo, and she was relieved of her terrible loneliness and unhappiness which she had endured ever since the death of her husband.
One day, after many, many moons of playing for the Emperor as she finished her last melody, she slowly raised her head and looked into his face. She had not done so before because of the awe and reverence in which she kept him. Her head was always bowed, but this time she felt compelled to raise her eyes and look into his, and their eyes spoke to each other of love. And this love for each other was expressed by her through her music as it became sweeter and more intense, and the Emperor received it with great joy.
As time passed, this was perceived by the evil and wicked Taira No Kiyomori, and he became more consumed with hatred and jealousy of the Emperor than ever before—not only because he craved to be Emperor, but because he was jealous of the Emperor and Lady Kogo. And so, in revenge, he plotted to take her away from the Emperor. He would capture her and lock her in the darkest of dungeons where she could never be found. Now, word of this terrible plot came to Nakakuni, as he had spies among the followers of Taira No Kiyomori, and he warned the Lady Kogo. She fled from Kyoto to go into hiding, no man knew where.
Now, the Emperor was distraught and overcome with grief at the loss of Lady Kogo and her music. So horrified and angered he was at the wicked Taira No Kiyomori for his dreadful plot that he banished him to the Isle of the Great King Cobr, far out on the old and windswept sea, inhabited only by snakes and scorpions. It was said that the combined venom of a snake with that of a scorpion caused a long and agonizing death.
Seventeen long years passed as the good Nakakuni searched the land for Lady Kogo, and never found a sign or trace of her. The Emperor grew more and more distraught, and his health was failing and worsened daily by the loss of his loved one, and the good Nakakuni vowed to himself that though very old and weak and frail now, he would never give up his search. He was determined to find the Lady Kogo and restore her to his Emperor. So, he traveled around and around the countryside, always hoping, always believing that one day he would find her.
And, indeed, one day he heard the strings of a Koto—and no one played the Koto like the Lady Kogo herself. And once again, as he had done many years ago, he followed the sound of the music, and once again he found her at the edge of a river playing a favorite song of the Emperor called ‘Tsuioku’ (Remembrance). She was older now, of course, but still very beautiful. Yet, once again, very sad as she had given up hope of being reunited with the Emperor and was going to go into the river, where her robes would become heavy with water and take her below.
Once again, the good Nakakuni approached her slowly and gently and saw that though older and sad, she was more beautiful than ever. She was like a slightly faded rose, being more delicate and subtler than in the full bloom of youth. As she saw him, her face showed such joy that the good Nakakuni’s mind wandered and thought of her as the young woman he had encountered many years ago at the edge of a river. But then, recovering, he assured her that Taira No Kiyomori was gone forever that she could return to the palace in great safety.
They returned to the palace where the evil was no more. Taira No Kiyomori and his daughter, the Empress, whose mind he had poisoned against the Emperor had also died. The Emperor was soon restored to health, and his happiness was greater than ever. The Emperor’s children were restored to him, and all those who now inhabited the palace became his faithful followers. The good Nakakuni, so very old and frail, and wearied to the point of death from his long and grueling travels, was nursed back to health by Lady Kogo. He was given a high and honored place in the palace, many precious gifts, and the rest of his days were filled with joy and happiness surrounded as he was by the love and devotion of all who knew him and his great good deed.
The enchanting music of the Lady Kogo, forever more, was a blessing to the place.