The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 11

The Orange Blossoms

Genji’s troubles, which he had brought upon himself, were nothing new. There was already gloom enough in his public and private life, and more seemed to be added each day. Yet there were affairs from which he could not withdraw. Among the old emperor’s ladies had been one Reikeiden. She had no children, and after his death her life was sadly straitened. It would seem that only Genji remembered her. A chance encounter at court, for such was his nature, had left him with persistent thoughts of her younger sister. He paid no great attention to her, however, and it would seem that life was as difficult for her as for her sister. Now, in his own despondency, his thoughts turned more fondly to the girl, a victim if ever there was one of evanescence and hostile change. Taking advantage of a rare break in the early-summer rains, he went to call on her.

He had no outrunners and his carriage and livery were unobtrusive. As he crossed the Inner River and left the city he passed a small house with tasteful plantings. Inside someone was playing a lively strain on a Japanese koto accompanied by a thirteen-stringed Chinese koto of good quality. The house being just inside the gate he leaned from his carriage to survey the scene. The fragrance that came on the breeze from a great laurel tree made him think of the Kamo festival. It was a pleasant scene. And yes — he had seen it once before, a very long time ago. Would he be remembered? Just then a cuckoo called from a nearby tree, as if to urge him on. He had the carriage turned so that he might alight. Koremitsu, as always, was his messenger.

“Back at the fence where once it sang so briefly,

The cuckoo is impelled to sing again.”

The women seemed to be near the west veranda of the main building. Having heard the same voices on that earlier occasion, Koremitsu coughed to attract attention and handed in his message. There seemed to be numbers of young women inside and they at first seemed puzzled to know who the sender might be.

This was the answer:

“It seems to be a cuckoo we knew long ago.

But alas, under rainy skies we cannot be sure.”

Koremitsu saw that the bewilderment was only pretended.” Very well. The wrong trees, the wrong fence.” And he went out.

And so the women were left to nurse their regrets. It would not have been proper to pursue the matter, and that was the end of it. Among women of their station in life, he thought first of the Gosechi dancer, a charming girl, daughter of the assistant viceroy of Kyushu. He went on thinking about whatever woman he encountered. A perverse concomitant was that the women he went on thinking about went on thinking about him.

The house of the lady he had set out to visit was, as he had expected, lonely and quiet. He first went to Reikeiden’s apartments and they talked far into the night. The tall trees in the garden were a dark wall in the light of the quarter moon. The scent of orange blossoms drifted in, to call back the past. Though no longer young, Reikeiden was a sensitive, accomplished lady. The old emperor had not, it is true, included her among his particular favorites, but he had found her gentle and sympathetic. Memory following memory, Genji was in tears. There came the call of a cuckoo — might it have been the same one? A pleasant thought, that it had come following him. “How did it know?” he whispered to himself.

“It catches the scent of memory, and favors

The village where the orange blossoms fall.

“I should come to you often, when I am unable to forget those years. You are a very great comfort, and at the same time I feel a new sadness coming over me. People change with the times. There are not many with whom I can exchange memories, and I should imagine that for you there are even fewer.”

He knew how useless it was to complain about the times, but perhaps he found something in her, an awareness and a sensitivity, that set off a chain of responses in himself.

“The orange blossoms at the eaves have brought you

To a dwelling quite forgotten by the world.”

She may not have been one of his father’s great loves, but there was no doubt that she was different from the others.

Quietly he went to the west front and looked in on the younger sister. He was a rare visitor and one of unsurpassed good looks, and it would seem that such resentment as had been hers quite faded away. His manner as always gentle and persuasive, it is doubtful that he said anything he did not mean. There were no ordinary, common women among those with whom he had had even fleeting affairs, nor were there any among them in whom he could find no merit; and so it was, perhaps, that an easy, casual relationship often proved durable. There were some who changed their minds and went on to other things, but he saw no point in lamenting what was after all the way of the world. The lady behind that earlier fence would seem to have been among the changeable ones.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09