Read Across the Nightingale Floor Online
Authors: Lian Hearn
Across The Nightingale
Tales of the Otori Book 1
The three books that make up the
Tales of the Otori are set in an imaginary country in a feudal period. Neither
the setting nor the period is intended to correspond to any true historical
era, though echoes of many Japanese customs and traditions will be found, and
the landscape and seasons are those of Japan. Nightingale floors (uguisubari)
are real inventions and were constructed around many residences and temples; the
most famous examples can be seen in Kyoto at Nijo Castle and Chion'In. I have
used Japanese names for places, but these have little connection with real
places, apart from Hagi and Matsue, which are more or less in their true
geographical positions. As for characters, they are all invented, apart from
the artist Sesshu, who seemed impossible to replicate. I hope I will be
forgiven by purists for the liberties I have taken. My only excuse is that this
is a work of the imagination.
The deer that weds
The autumn bush clover
Sires a single fawn
And this fawn of mine
This lone boy
Sets off on a journey
Grass for his pillow
MANYOSHU VOL. 9,
My mother used to threaten to tear
me into eight pieces if I knocked over the water bucket, or pretended not to
hear her calling me to come home as the dusk thickened and the cicadas'
shrilling increased. I would hear her voice, rough and fierce, echoing through
the lonely valley. “Where's that wretched boy? I'll tear him apart when he gets
But when I did get back, muddy from
sliding down the hillside, bruised from fighting, once bleeding great spouts of
blood from a stone wound to the head (I still have the scar, like a silvered
thumbnail), there would be the fire, and the smell of soup, and my mother's
arms not tearing me apart but trying to hold me, clean my face, or straighten
my hair, while I twisted like a lizard to get away from her. She was strong
from endless hard work, and not old: She'd given birth to me before she was
seventeen, and when she held me I could see we had the same skin, although in
other ways we were not much alike, she having broad, placid features, while
mine, I'd been told (for we had no mirrors in the remote mountain village of
Mino), were finer, like a hawk's. The wrestling usually ended with her winning,
her prize being the hug I could not escape from. And her voice would whisper in
my ears the words of blessing of the Hidden, while my stepfather grumbled
mildly that she spoiled me, and the little girls, my half-sisters, jumped
around us for their share of the hug and the blessing.
So I thought it was a manner of
speaking. Mino was a peaceful place, too isolated to be touched by the savage
battles of the clans. I had never imagined men and women could actually be torn
into eight pieces, their strong, honey-colored limbs wrenched from their
sockets and thrown down to the waiting dogs. Raised among the Hidden, with all
their gentleness, I did not know men did such things to each other.
I turned fifteen and my mother
began to lose our wrestling matches. I grew six inches in a year, and by the
time I was sixteen I was taller than my stepfather. He grumbled more often,
that I should settle down, stop roaming the mountain like a wild monkey, marry
into one of the village families. I did not mind the idea of marriage to one of
the girls I'd grown up with, and that summer I worked harder alongside him,
ready to take my place among the men of the village. But every now and then I
could not resist the lure of the mountain, and at the end of the day I slipped
away, through the bamboo grove with its tall, smooth trunks and green slanting
light, up the rocky path past the shrine of the mountain god, where the
villagers left offerings of millet and oranges, into the forest of birch and
cedar, where the cuckoo and the nightingale called enticingly, where I watched
foxes and deer and heard the melancholy cry of kites overhead.
That evening I'd been right over
the mountain to a place where the best mushrooms grew. I had a cloth full of
them, the little white ones like threads, and the dark orange ones like fans. I
was thinking how pleased my mother would be, and how the mushrooms would still
my stepfather's scolding. I could already taste them on my tongue. As I ran through
the bamboo and out into the rice fields where the red autumn lilies were
already in flower, I thought I could smell cooking on the wind.
The village dogs were barking, as
they often did at the end of the day. The smell grew stronger and turned acrid.
I was not frightened, not then, but some premonition made my heart start to
beat more quickly. There was a fire ahead of me.
Fires often broke out in the
village: Almost everything we owned was made of wood or straw. But I could hear
no shouting, no sounds of the buckets being passed from hand to hand, none of
the usual cries and curses. The cicadas shrilled as loudly as ever; frogs were
calling from the paddies. In the distance thunder echoed round the mountains.
The air was heavy and humid.
I was sweating, but the sweat was
turning cold on my forehead. I jumped across the ditch of the last terraced
field and looked down to where my home had always been. The house was gone.
I went closer. Flames still crept
and licked at the blackened beams. There was no sign of my mother or my
sisters. I tried to call out, but my tongue had suddenly become too big for my
mouth, and the smoke was choking me and making my eyes stream. The whole
village was on fire, but where was everyone?
Then the screaming began.
It came from the direction of the
shrine, around which most of the houses clustered. It was like the sound of a
dog howling in pain, except the dog could speak human words, scream them in
agony. I thought I recognized the prayers of the Hidden, and all the hair stood
up on my neck and arms. Slipping like a ghost between the burning houses, I
went towards the sound.
The village was deserted. I could
not imagine where everyone had gone. I told myself they had run away: My mother
had taken my sisters to the safety of the forest. I would go and find them just
as soon as I had found out who was screaming. But as I stepped out of the alley
into the main street I saw two men lying on the ground. A soft evening rain was
beginning to fall and they looked surprised, as though they had no idea why
they were lying there in the rain. They would never get up again, and it did
not matter that their clothes were getting wet.
One of them was my stepfather.
At that moment the world changed
for me. A kind of fog rose before my eyes, and when it cleared nothing seemed
real. I felt I had crossed over to the other world, the one that lies alongside
our own, that we visit in dreams. My stepfather was wearing his best clothes.
The indigo cloth was dark with rain and blood. I was sorry they were spoiled:
He had been so proud of them.
I stepped past the bodies, through
the gates and into the shrine. The rain was cool on my face. The screaming
Inside the grounds were men I did
not know. They looked as if they were carrying out some ritual for a festival.
They had cloths tied round their heads; they had taken off their jackets and
their arms gleamed with sweat and rain. They were panting and grunting,
grinning with white teeth, as though killing were as hard work as bringing in the
Water trickled from the cistern
where you washed your hands and mouth to purify yourself on entering the
shrine. Earlier, when the world was normal, someone must have lit incense in
the great cauldron. The last of it drifted across the courtyard, masking the
bitter smell of blood and death.
The man who had been torn apart lay
on the wet stones. I could just make out the features on the severed head. It
was Isao, the leader of the Hidden. His mouth was still open, frozen in a last
contortion of pain.
The murderers had left their
jackets in a neat pile against a pillar. I could see clearly the crest of the
triple oak leaf. These were Tohan men, from the clan capital of Inuyama. I
remembered a traveler who had passed through the village at the end of the
seventh month. He'd stayed the night at our house, and when my mother had
prayed before the meal, he had tried to silence her. “Don't you know that the
Tohan hate the Hidden and plan to move against us? Lord Iida has vowed to wipe
us out,” he whispered. My parents had gone to Isao the next day to tell him,
but no one had believed them. We were far from the capital, and the power
struggles of the clans had never concerned us. In our village the Hidden lived
alongside everyone else, looking the same, acting the same, except for our
prayers. Why would anyone want to harm us? It seemed unthinkable.
And so it still seemed to me as I
stood frozen by the cistern. The water trickled and trickled, and I wanted to
take some and wipe the blood from Isao's face and gently close his mouth, but I
could not move. I knew at any moment the men from the Tohan clan would turn,
and their gaze would fall on me, and they would tear me apart. They would have
neither pity nor mercy. They were already polluted by death, having killed a
man within the shrine itself.
In the distance I could hear with
acute clarity the drumming sound of a galloping horse. As the hoofbeats drew
nearer I had the sense of forward memory that comes to you in dreams. I knew
who I was going to see, framed between the shrine gates. I had never seen him
before in my life, but my mother had held him up to us as a sort of ogre with
which to frighten us into obedience: Don't stray on the mountain, don't play by
the river, or Iida will get you! I recognized him at once. Iida Sadamu, lord of
The horse reared and whinnied at
the smell of blood. Iida sat as still as if he were cast in iron. He was clad
from head to foot in black armor, his helmet crowned with antlers. He wore a
short black beard beneath his cruel mouth. His eyes were bright, like a man
Those bright eyes met mine. I knew
at once two things about him: first, that he was afraid of nothing in heaven or
on earth; second, that he loved to kill for the sake of killing. Now that he
had seen me, there was no hope.
His sword was in his hand. The only
thing that saved me was the horse's reluctance to pass beneath the gate. It
reared again, prancing backwards. Iida shouted. The men already inside the
shrine turned and saw me, crying out in their rough Tohan accents. I grabbed
the last of the incense, hardly noticing as it seared my hand, and ran out
through the gates. As the horse shied towards me I thrust the incense against
its flank. It reared over me, its huge feet flailing past my cheeks. I heard
the hiss of the sword descending through the air. I was aware of the Tohan all
around me. It did not seem possible that they could miss me, but I felt as if I
had split in two. I saw Iida's sword fall on me, yet I was untouched by it. I lunged
at the horse again. It gave a snort of pain and a savage series of bucks. Iida,
unbalanced by the sword thrust that had somehow missed its target, fell forward
over its neck and slid heavily to the ground.
Horror gripped me, and in its wake
panic. I had unhorsed the lord of the Tohan. There would be no limit to the
torture and pain to atone for such an act. I should have thrown myself to the
ground and demanded death. But I knew I did not want to die. Something stirred
in my blood, telling me I would not die before Iida. I would see him dead
I knew nothing of the wars of the
clans, nothing of their rigid codes and their feuds. I had spent my whole life
among the Hidden, who are forbidden to kill and taught to forgive each other.
But at that moment Revenge took me as a pupil. I recognized her at once and
learned her lessons instantly. She was what I desired; she would save me from
the feeling that I was a living ghost. In that split second I took her into my
heart. I kicked out at the man closest to me, getting him between the legs,
sank my teeth into a hand that grabbed my wrist, broke away from them, and ran
towards the forest.
Three of them came after me. They
were bigger than I was and could run faster, but I knew the ground, and
darkness was falling. So was the rain, heavier now, making the steep tracks of
the mountain slippery and treacherous. Two of the men kept calling out to me,
telling me what they would take great pleasure in doing to me, swearing at me
in words whose meaning I could only guess, but the third ran silently, and he
was the one I was afraid of. The other two might turn back after a while, get
back to their maize liquor or whatever foul brew the Tohan got drunk on, and
claim to have lost me on the mountain, but this other one would never give up.
He would pursue me forever until he had killed me.