“River of Death”, from “Song of the Nightingale”


Song Book coverSong of the Nightingale” is a tale in 12 episodes about a marriage in 17th century Japan. Lord Nyo and Lady Nyo, he a samurai and she from the powerful clan Fujiwara, have been married since she was fifteen. Now she is thirty and Lord Nyo sixty. Magic, a tricky Tengu and a baby plucked from the surface of the moon figure in the story.

The poetry of Saigyo is noted: where it isn’t his,  it’s mine.
Episode 11 is a scene from a battlefield, as Lord Nyo is a general in the provincial army of Lord Mori, an aging and despot daimyo in north west Japan, near Moon (Gassan) Mountain.

Lady Nyo…but not the one in the story.

THE RIVER OF DEATH, episode 11

There’s no gap or break in the ranks of those marching under the hill:
an endless line of dying men, coming on and on and on….

When the news of Lady Nyo
Birthing a son
Reached Lord Nyo
He was far from home,
To the east,
Over mountains
In dangerous, alien territory.

A general in the service
Of his lord,
The gore of battle,
The issue of ‘dying with honor’
Began at first light,
The air soon filled with sounds of battle-
Dying horses, dying men
Drawing their last gasps of life,
Churned into the mud of immeasurable violence.

The river of death is swollen with bodies fallen into it;
in the end the bridge of horses cannot help.

Death, not new life
Was before his eyes at dawn,
And death, not life
Pillowed his head at night.

A battle rages around me,
But inside this old warrior
A battle rages inside my heart.
It is heavy with sorrow,
So tired beyond my old bones.


What good have we done
In watering the soil
With blood and offal
of sons?
–Lady Nyo

He stunk with the blood of battle
As his bow and swords cut a swath
Through men in service to another
And when the battle horns went silent,
With tattered banners like defeated clouds
Hanging limp over the field,
Acrid smoke stained everything
And the piteous cries of the dying
Echoed in his ears.
He wondered if his life would end here.

But the gods that he didn’t believe in
Were merciful.
His thoughts turned from fierce, ugly warriors
Towards home and a baby.

Still, he could not leave.
He was caught by status,
The prestige of his clan.
He could not desert the
Fate set out from birth.

Ah! This was fate of a man in servitude
To his Lord Daimyo.
This was the fate
Of a man chained to Honor.

Still, in the darkest hours of the night
The soft and perfumed shape of his wife
Floated down to him from the fleeting clouds,
Came to him through the smoke of battlefield fires,
And he turned on his pallet
To embrace this haunting comfort.

Off in the distance
There I see my loved one’s home
On the horizon.
How I long to be there soon
Get along black steed of mine!

from the Man’yoshu

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2015-18

“Song of the Nightingale” was published on Amazon.com in 2015


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2 Responses to ““River of Death”, from “Song of the Nightingale””

  1. Frank Hubeny Says:

    Very nice presentation of Lord Nyo surrounded by death and his own killing getting news about a birth. I like the phrase “haunting comfort” because I don’t normally think of comfort as haunting but she did float down to him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Frank! Thank you so much for reading and commenting on this episode. There is an even more dramatic episode of him leading his men after the battle home…across a mountain, through gorges, barely stopping to wash the dirt and smoke of battle from their faces. I will post that very soon. I like the concept of ‘haunting comfort’, too. And for the same reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

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