As fate would have it, the Imperial Poet Macuilxochitzin was summering in Kyoto the month of the festival, staying at the palatial estate of Ahuizotl, her second cousin and younger brother of the emperor. As tlatoani of Kyoto and more broadly shogun of the Nipponese isles, Ahuizotl saw it as his duty to blend his homeland’s cultural sensibilities, toltecayotl, with the more Buddhist notion of wabi-sabi. Therefore he declared that, to conclude the festivities, the aging Mexica princess would engage in a public conversation on poetry with Sogi, beloved itinerant monk and master of the renga form of linked verse. Now in his seventy-fourth year, Sogi had taken up residence at the Shokoku-ji temple, and he expressed cheerful willingness to participate. The whispered apocrypha of official history intimated that the two had clashed decades before, during the Unification, and the people were anxious to witness their reencounter.
Preparations began a week before the festival, on the very first day of Huey Tecuilhuitl, the eighth solar month. Dew was harvested from taro leaves each morning to create a special ink. Paper merchants prepared the tanzaku strips upon which the people would write their prayer poems. Children made origami stars and cranes. Bamboo trees were trimmed.
All across the Empire of Anahuac, the subjects of Axayacatl considered their prayers carefully, composing onegaikoto in the secret recesses of their hearts, revising those syllables to meet the strictures of the waka form. In Nahuatl, Nihongo, or—in the case of many intellectuals—Guanhua, the language of the Middle Kingdom, poems lay waiting for brush and ink and paper.
The morning of Tanabata arrived. Men, women and children donned colorful garments—kosode, huipil, tilma—and committed their prayers to tanzaku, which they then hung on bamboo or ceiba trees along with the origami figures they had prepared. A million patriotic pleas, spiraling slowly into heaven, pleasing to the gods. The air was redolent with happy piety.
The streets were a riot of color—regional dances, parades, processions of the lovely impersonators of goddesses Xilonen and Cihuacoatl, whose ceremonial month it was. There was music and sport and an abundance of food; none lacked for entertainment with so many jugglers, actors, clowns.
As shadows began to lengthen across Kyoto that afternoon, hundreds were permitted to stream through the gates of the imperial compound to lounge amidst the shogun’s gardens and await the unprecedented encounter.
A raised wooden platform had been erected at the foot of a bridge that spanned a koi-laden brook. Attendants busied themselves upon it, laying out mats and writing material. Then, with stately fanfare and pomp, the shogun crossed the bridge with an entourage of retainers and attendants, calling out to his people.
“Imperial subjects, welcome. During this Star Festival we celebrate unlikely connections. Tonight the gods Orihime and Hikoboshi, separated the rest of the year by the glowing river of heaven, are reunited at last. So, too, did our two great peoples reach across the vast sea to join together as a single, mighty empire. And now, we bear witness to the very first encounter of our two greatest living poets.”
From gaudy pavilions emerged the two elderly figures, making their stately way to the platform and kneeling upon the mats. Macuilxochitzin spread her jade-green cueitl skirt carefully, her bronze skin contrasting starkly with the white of her blouse and braided hair. She drew a low writing table close and glanced at Sogi, who wore the saffron yellow robe common to Buddhist priests. He winked at her. Narrowing her eyes a bit, she spoke.
“When the Emperor arrived on these isles, he found this city a smoking ruin. Both the shogun and his deputy were dead, but the civil war had spread like wildfire. Lord Axayacatl and his generals had soon pushed the Yamana clan onto the island of Shikoku, where definitive victory was won. I celebrated this feat in a poem twenty years ago. To honor today’s festivities, I have translated part of it for you.”
Drawing a deep breath, she looked down at the characters before her and began to declaim.
Axayacatl, you tore down
The castle of Jizogatake.
Your flowers and your butterflies
Went spiraling through Iyo,
Sanuki, Tosa, and Awa--
Your might gladdened our hearts
Like the songs of our homeland.
Gravely you offered
Flowers and plumes
To the Lord of the Near
And the Nigh.
You laid eagle shields
In God’s hands
In that perilous place,
That burning plain:
Like our songs,
Like our flowers,
You gladden the Giver of Life,
O Master of the Sea-Ringed World.
And He who stands
Forever at our side
With ocean flowers, fire buds--
Those blossoms of war--
The Mexica princess folded her hands upon her lap. “Everyone knows that my father was Tlacaelel, advisor to three emperors before his death. When the Ming reached our ancestral shores, he understood the moment was divinely ordained, that we must learn from the Middle Kingdom navigation, metallurgy and above all the characters that embody sound. But Tlacaelel saw writing as primarily a tool of statecraft, religion, culture. It was my cousin Nezahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, who became the true architect of Anahuac poetry, discovering, as had your own forefathers, that written verse has power.”
There was a collective gasp as she lifted her brush and dipped it into the bowl of ink. With quick, supple moves of her wrist that belied her years, Macuilxochitzin flowed lovely characters down the page. An understudy stepped to the platform as she finished, and with a flourish he removed the paperweight and held the poem up for all to see.
The ink quivered upon the paper, glistening and vibrant. Alive. Many whispered the words to each other, partaking in the spread of creative energy.
“Bright Feathered God, / with blossoms you paint us to life— / divine calligraphy.”
Bowing her head slightly, the poet acknowledged the heightened awareness her work had caused. “Inspired by one of my cousin’s most famous poems. The lesson is simple. The Creator has drafted us into existence, his ink that holy substance that underlies the universe: teotl or ki. We manipulate that same teotl with our brushes. It trembles along our limbs, arising from the act of creation, and if we use the right ink, it imbues the characters with divine energy. The gods feed on it as they would a sacrifice, sated by the outpouring of our souls. They are pleased.
“The implications are clear. We believe in the ascendency of Anahuac. We trust that our destiny is manifest in the success of our endeavors. Patriotic verse written in calligraphy cements our nation’s hegemony, and so the proper subject of serious poets is eulogy, the immortalizing of the great, the praise of warriors slain in battle, the eternal renewing of the Empire’s strength. Our example should be Hitomaro, whose devotion to the Empress Jito centuries ago is still unparalleled. Of her, he famously wrote ‘Even mountains and rivers / therefore together serve / our Sovereign as a goddess.’ Let us strive for that same fealty today.”
With a subtle gesture, Macuilxochitzin ceded the floor to Sogi, who gave a single vigorous clap and smiled.
“Well said, my Lady. Your own poetry and the works you cite thrill my heart, stir my love for our magnificent hybrid nation. As you point out, poets of our islands have for centuries known of this power. We uncovered the secret of dew from taro leaves, took the magic beyond what the Middle Kingdom had begun. And, indeed, it has long been our tradition to ensure that our culture endures and spreads.
“Yet, for those who practice Rinzai Zen, our reasons stem from the three marks of existence: its emptiness, its suffering, its impermanence. Life is made rich and poignant precisely because of how fleeting it is. When we accept that we are nothing, that we will suffer, that we will fade away, we discover beauty and meaning in our broken loneliness.”
Sogi closed his eyes, calling up words. “Lord Nezahualcoyotl himself spoke of this hollow, painful intransience:
In vain was I born.
In vain I emerged
From the House of the Sun
To walk this bitter earth
And live a wretched life.
“Yet for all that, the philosopher king told us to rejoice, to sing and drink life to the deepest dregs:
Though the labor be in vain, my friends,
Take pleasure in our song, our song.
Pick up your precious drums and beat!
Shake loose the flowers, spread them well--
Even if they finally wilt!
Quiet laughter greeted this sentiment, and the priest rubbed a spotted hand across his shaven head. “In that respect he reminds me of Ikkyu, the irreverent monk and poet who delighted in shocking us into enlightenment. Once, a man near death who wanted Ikkyu to leave his bedside told him, ‘I came alone and must go alone as well.’ Laughing, the monk replied, ‘Coming and going are delusions, friend. Look—I’ll show you the path upon which nobody comes or goes.’ Everyone talks of heaven, but perhaps we’re already there, yes? Nezahualcoyotl told us ‘It’s not true / that we come to live on earth— / we only come to dream / then we rise from our slumber.’ Ikkyu summed it up thus: ‘You’re the only koan that matters.’ I love that. Look, my brothers and sisters."
Sogi twirled his brush mischievously, then spat into his bowl of ink before dipping it. Fluid motions like a dance, broken abruptly by a jester’s flailing jerk, and his poem was complete. Gently he lifted it, turned it to his audience, recited the lines.
We may realize
that people are merely dreams--
the house abandoned,
its wild garden becomes home
to a swarm of butterflies.
As he said the last word, the characters rearranged themselves on the mulberry paper into inky moths that fluttered from edge to edge, delighting everyone gathered. Even Macuilxochitzin had to smile as the monk pantomimed shooing his animated words back into position.
“As you can see from my colleague’s antics,” she said, suppressing a laugh, “adding a bit of one’s self markedly increases the power of the creation. But what the Nahua bards discovered under my cousin’s tutelage was startling—magic like nothing we had imagined. Give a master poet amatl paper from the Nahua homeland, let her write upon it with Nipponese ink using characters from the Middle Kingdom, and behold!”
She laid a thick sheet of mottled brown paper on her writing table, turned away from the crowd to dribble spit into her ink, and then drew her brush quickly down the page.
“The Kyoto gardens / before the fireworks— / every heart feels peace.”
An amazed, contented sigh rose collectively from those gathered. Sogi himself closed his eyes and grinned, tears dampening his cheeks.
The Mexica princess surged unexpectedly to her feet. “In the right hands, with the right tools, poetry can quite literally move the soul. But that is just the beginning, dear imperial subjects. My ancestors, too, had their secret sorceries. At the dawn of this age, when the newly formed sun struggled to leave the horizon, the Feathered God led all the other deities to bleed themselves in sacrifice, giving movement to that diurnal light. Blood, you see, is concentrated teotl.”
From her skirt, she drew forth a long maguey thorn and pierced the index finger of her right hand. As blood welled, a darker red than anyone could credit, Macuilxochitzin smeared calligraphy down the inside of her left arm, raising it for all to see.
“A thousand orange blossoms / fall upon their heads.”
Materializing from nowhere, mandarin flowers showered down on the crowd. The people, though they had heard of such deeds before, were struck dumb with astonishment, simply stretching out their hands to catch the white petals.
Sogi gathered blooms to his chest with a blissful expression, bent his head to take in their sweet perfume. Wordlessly, the monk stood and stepped down from the platform. Turning to face the shogun, who had been watching from the bridge, he gave a deep bow. Then he began to wander through the garden, searching. He came upon a cherry tree, its green leaves naked of blossoms this late in the summer. On the ground below it was a fallen branch, dried to a brittle brown.
“Look, my friends,” he called, walking back toward the brook. “The fleeting world. Spring comes, flowers, drops to the soil. Summer begins the browning. Autumn brings the gold. Then comes winter, quiet death for all. Yet the greatest magic is imbedded in the world. Ikkyu knew this, and he cautioned those who seek knowledge elsewhere:
Day after day priests pore over Dharma
And endlessly chant their intricate sutras.
Yet before all that nonsense, they should first
Learn to read the love letters sketched
By wind and rain, by snow and moon.
The monk gestured at the water. “Oh, beloved, look on the wonders of this humble, broken world.”
His hand moved so quickly that the characters he sketched upon the surface with that stick could be read before the slow current dragged them away.
“For a moment / the river of heaven / flows among them.”
Sogi drew away with a strange little hop, and the brook leapt from its course, twisting serpentine through the air, rushing toward the crowd and weaving itself among them. Children shouted with delight and splashed each other, but the adults were overcome with awe as they looked upon gilded koi swimming through the air within that miraculous stream.
A minute later, the water had poured itself back within its banks, and the crowd burst into thunderous applause.
Macuilxochitzin descended, approached Sogi, bowed. With a weary shrug of his shoulders, he reached out and drew her to him. She did not resist his embrace.
The shogun returned to the platform, lifting his arms in a call for attention. “Beautiful and enlightening! Yes, we are short-lived. That is why our prayers, our poetry, have such worth, such power. Brother Sogi and Princess Machuilxochitzin have shared different facets of a single truth with you. Life is fleeting. Enjoy what you can. But contribute whatever magic you receive from the gods to the things that last longer, the things you love, the things that you would leave to others. Family. Culture. Empire. Now, go, residents of Kyoto. Night will soon be upon us, and there are still many more festivities to be cherished before Tanabata concludes!”
At his command, the crowd dispersed, taking with them stories that would live for generations. The poets tarried by the brook for a time and then retired in silence to their pavilions.
Gradually the skies darkened over the city, revealing the glittering stars and the true River of Heaven, milky and bright, low on the horizon.
People gradually made their way into the hills. Special teams of pyrotechnicians—trained by experts from the Middle Kingdom, where the art had been perfected—launched a spectacular show over the roofs of the city. Fireworks danced fleetingly in the sky, leaving smoky traceries that were wisped away by gentle breezes.
Those gathered near Shokoku-ji temple noticed the two elderly poets standing together, looking up at the display, leaning heads together, whispering. Any apparent tension between them had dissolved as the evening wore on.
After the fireworks, most throngs disbanded as folk went home for more intimate companionship and sleep after the draining, joyful day. But the most pious, penitent and poetic drifted to the temple steps, their amatl tanzaku strips in hand.
The full moon silvered the swaying bamboo as the head of the temple lit a bonfire in the courtyard. In small groups, people approached and tossed their poems on the flames, watching ash and charred bits of paper spiraling toward the heavens.
Finally Sogi and Macuilxochitzin approached with their own onegaikoto. Rather than drop them on those lambent tongues of flame, they dipped the amatl sheets into the fire and turned away, the poems alight in their hands.
Together, in an elegant, elaborate dance, they wrote upon the empty air with burning paper. Characters hung suspended like red-orange afterimages, retaining their shape for the space of several heartbeats.
Flickers of flame
we twist briefly on the wind
yearning to be stars.
Take us in your hands, O gods--
create a galaxy.
Then, as the poets stood hand-in-hand at the heart of the temple, their poem dissolved into sparks that drifted up into the night, losing themselves in the River of Heaven that flows from Kyoto to Tenochtitlan and on into eternity.
©October 2016 David Bowles
David Bowles is a Mexican-American author from south Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He has received awards from the American Library Association, Texas Institute of Letters and Texas Associated Press. He is the author of the Pura Belpré Honor Book The Smoking Mirror. Additionally, his work has been published in venues including Rattle, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Metamorphoses, Translation Review, the Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, Huizache, Concho River Review, Eye to the Telescope, Asymptote and BorderSenses.