Attributed to Zeami Motokiyo | Japanese Noh
Retold by Kenneth E. Lawrence
Translated by Edward Kai Lawrence
Art by Kumiko Lawrence
A fisherman, a celestial maiden: a fateful decision
Hagoromo is a Noh play—almost a folktale—about an incidental meeting between two journeying souls. One, a fisherman, comes to the coast at Mio and is struck by the incredible beauties of spring. The other, a celestial maiden, is making a rare visit to our sad little planet. The fisherman, amazed, finds a robe of incomparable beauty. This will bring him riches and fame, but leave the celestial maiden stranded, unable to fly home. But in Buddhism, nothing lasts forever: even angels die. The fisherman watches as she wilts and fades. His soul is already in peril (there is a place in Buddhist Hell for sinners who take any life, including the lives of fish or birds), and he is given a clear choice: fame and fortune, or compassion and sympathy? Will his reward be the agonies of Hell or a dance of beauty beyond imagining?
Along the curving coast at Mio, wind-billowed clouds drift aloft: or are they waves on the sea? A time of peace and calm.
A fisherman comes, remembers spying from the far shore Mio, a sight so pure. Now he has arrived.
Why hurry home? Spring has come; the early morning breeze is kind, a gentle voice through evergreen pines.
As he gazes out over the shore, blossoms fall from the sky! Music resounds, a wondrous fragrance pervades the air! Hanging on a pine is an exquisite mantle, its color and scent astonishing. “I’ll take it home with me,” he says. “I’ll show it to the elders, make it an heirloom of my house.”
A voice, soft, hesitating: “Forgive me, but that mantle is mine. The heavenly robe of an angel is not something lightly given to a human. Please return it.”
The fisherman is taken aback. The mantle of an angel? A wonder for the ages! “I’ll make it a treasure of the realm,” he says. “No, I can’t return it.”
That voice, closer now: “Without my heavenly robe, I will never again be able to return to Heaven! Please give it back! Please!”
Helpless, hopeless, her pleas are desperate, but the fisherman is unmoved. He grasps the mantle and turns to go.
The earth to her is a netherworld. Clouds roam free. Wild geese return home, their cries fading. A wingless bird, she looks on in envy and sorrow, recalling all she has lost.
Mists rise, the clouds blur; dewdrop tears fall. The flowers in her hair wilt and droop. Even angels die; the signs of her approaching death are plain to see.
Her suffering is clear, unbearable to watch. “I’ll return your mantle to you,” says the fisherman.
“Then I can return home,” she says. “You’ve made me so happy! For those who inhabit this sad, lower world, a dance to commemorate my visit among them. But I can’t dance without my mantle. You must give it back to me first.”
“Oh no!” says the fisherman. “If I give you back your mantle, you won’t dance at all. Away you’ll soar, straight up to Heaven.”
“No,” she says, “suspicion is only for humans. In Heaven, falsehood is quite unknown.”
Ashamed, he returns the heavenly robe.
The blossom sleeves sway and flutter as she dances. The sky boundless, everlasting.
Twin bands of angels dance, night by night. Of these she is one, a celestial maiden, now divided in two, split, present here but briefly.
A crown of blossoms declares spring has come. Although not heaven, the earth is lovely too. Let the angel maiden linger a while here in the pine wood, to show us spring’s touch, the moon so clear, the snow-capped peaks. Heaven and earth are one.
The sun sinks, red; blue the waves. Music resounds as the dancing sleeves whirl, like snow, like clouds, so white, so pure. The blue mantle sweeps and sways, a wonder in scent and hue.
Flowers nod. The feather sleeves billow, coil and turn. Hers is the loveliness of the moon on this, the fifteenth night.
Time passes, and the celestial robe, borne on the wind, floats down the shore, above the pine woods, the moors, the soaring peaks until, mingling with the mists, it fades into the heavens, forever lost from view. ♦
Kenneth E. Lawrence is a writer and musician living in Seattle. He and his wife, artist Kumiko Lawrence, are Soju Project (http://www.sojukai.com/), a performance group focusing on tales from legends and epics of the world
From Parabola Volume 43, No. 1, “Wealth,” Spring 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.