Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 27

The Prayerful Madame Prune

More cheerful are the sounds of morning: the cocks crowing, the wooden panels all around the neighborhood sliding back upon their rollers; or the strange cry of some fruit-seller, patrolling our lofty suburb in the early dawn. And the grasshoppers actually seem to chirp more loudly, to celebrate the return of the sunlight.

Above all, rises to our ears from below the sound of Madame Prune’s long prayers, ascending through the floor, monotonous as the song of a somnambulist, regular and soothing as the plash of a fountain. It lasts three quarters of an hour at least, it drones along, a rapid flow of words in a high nasal key; from time to time, when the inattentive spirits are not listening, it is accompanied by a clapping of dry palms, or by harsh sounds from a kind of wooden clapper made of two discs of mandragora root. It is an uninterrupted stream of prayer; its flow never ceases, and the quavering continues without stopping, like the bleating of a delirious old goat.

“After washing the hands and feet,” say the sacred books, “the great God Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami, who is the royal power of Japan, must be invoked; the manes of all the defunct emperors descended from him must also be invoked; next, the manes of all his personal ancestors, to the farthest generation; the spirits of the air and the sea; the spirits of all secret and impure places; the spirits of the tombs of the district whence you spring, etc., etc.”

“I worship and implore you,” sings Madame Prune, “O Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami, royal power! Cease not to protect your faithful people, who are ready to sacrifice themselves for their country. Grant that I may become as holy as yourself, and drive from my mind all dark thoughts. I am a coward and a sinner: purge me from my cowardice and sinfulness, even as the north wind drives the dust into the sea. Wash me clean from all my iniquities, as one washes away uncleanness in the river of Kamo. Make me the richest woman in the world. I believe in your glory, which shall be spread over the whole earth, and illuminate it for ever for my happiness. Grant me the continued good health of my family, and above all, my own, who, O Ama-Terace-Omi-Kami! do worship and adore you, and only you, etc., etc.”

Here follow all the emperors, all the spirits, and the interminable list of ancestors.

In her trembling old woman’s falsetto, Madame Prune sings all this, without omitting anything, at a pace which almost takes away her breath.

And very strange it is to hear: at length it seems hardly a human voice; it sounds like a series of magic formulas, unwinding themselves from an inexhaustible roller, and escaping to take flight through the air. By its very weirdness, and by the persistency of its incantation, it ends by producing in my half-awakened brain an almost religious impression.

Every day I wake to the sound of this Shintoist litany chanted beneath me, vibrating through the exquisite clearness of the summer mornings — while our night-lamps burn low before the smiling Buddha, while the eternal sun, hardly risen, already sends through the cracks of our wooden panels its bright rays, which dart like golden arrows through our darkened dwelling and our blue gauze tent.

This is the moment at which I must rise, descend hurriedly to the sea by grassy footpaths all wet with dew, and so regain my ship.

Alas! in the days gone by, it was the cry of the muezzin which used to awaken me in the dark winter mornings in faraway, night-shrouded Stamboul.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36