The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 16

The Gatehouse

Genji_emaki_sekiya
A scene from the Genji Monogatari Emaki, ca.1130, in the Tokugawa Museum, Nagoya, Japan.

The vice-governor of Iyo had the year after the death of Genji’s father become vice-governor of Hitachi. His wife, the lady of the locust she11, had gone with him to his post. In that distant part of the realm she heard of Genji’s exile. One is not to imagine that she was unconcerned, but she had no way of writing to him. The winds blowing down over Tsukuba were not to be trusted, it seemed, and reports from the city were few; and so the months and years went by. Although the period of his exile had not been fixed, he did finally return to the city. A year later the vice-governor of Hitachi also returned to the city.

It happened that on the day the Hitachi party came to Osaka barrier, Genji had set off on a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Ishiyama. The former governor of Kii and others had come from the city to meet the Hitachi party. They brought news of Genji’s excursion. Thinking how enormous the confusion was likely to be if the two parties met, the vice-governor set out at dawn. The women’s carriages moved slowly, however, and soon the sun was high. As they reached Uchidenohama, on the coast of Lake Biwa, Genji’s outrunners were already clearing the road. He himself was just entering the hills east of the city, they said. The vice-governor pulled his carriages in under the cedars at the top of the barrier rise. Unhitching the oxen, the coachmen knelt respectfully for Genji to pass. Though spaced at intervals along the road, the Hitachi procession was impressive. The ladies, sleeves and skirts protruding gaily from the blinds of perhaps ten of the carriages seemed not at all frowsy or countrified. Genji thought of the carriages awaiting the high priestess’s departure for Ise. In wave upon wave, his attendants turned to admire the sleeves and skirts.

It being the end of the Ninth Month, the autumn leaves, some crimson and some but gently tinted, and the grasses and flowers touched lightly by the frost were very beautiful indeed; and Genji’s men, pouring past the gatehouse in travel livery, damasks and dappled prints, added yet more color His blinds lowered, Genji sent for Kogimi, the lady’s brother, now a guards officer.

“See, I have come all the way to the barrier. Should this not tell her something?”

Affectionate memories came flooding back, but he had to make do with this most ordinary of greetings.

The lady too was assailed by memories, of events which she had kept to herself all these years.

“It flowed as I went, it flows as I return,

The steady crystal spring at the barrier rise.”

There was no point in trying to explain what she meant.

Kogimi went out to meet Genji on the return from Ishiyama and to apologize for not having stayed with him that earlier day. He had been a favorite with Genji, whose patronage had seen him as far as the Fifth Rank. Fearing at the time of Genji’s exile that the association would be damaging, he had gone off to Hitachi with his sister and brother-in-law. If, in the years since, Genji had been somewhat less fond of him, there was no sign of that fact in his behavior now. Though things could not be quite the same again, of course, Genji still thought the youth rather promising. The governor of Kii had since become governor of Kawachi. His younger brother, a guards officer, had been stripped of his commission and had gone into exile with Genji, and now he was being richly rewarded. Regret was usual among those who in those difficult days had given way to the pressures of the times.

Genji gave Kogimi a message for his sister. How very attentive he was to these details, thought Kogimi, when no one need have been surprised if he had forgotten everything.

“I wonder if it occurred to you the other day,” said Genji’s note, “how strong a bond there must be between us.

“By chance we met, beside the gate of meeting.

A pity its fresh waters should be so sterile.

“How I envy the occupant of the gatehouse. It all comes back, after years of silence. I have a way of looking back upon things of long ago as if they were of this very moment. Will you once again accuse me of promiscuity?”

The youth respectfully undertook to deliver it. “I do think you should let him have an answer,” he said to his sister. “I would not have been surprised if he had shown a certain hostility, but he was as civil and polite as ever. I could not have been more grateful. It does a man no good to be an intermediary in these matters, but I could not say no to him. You are a woman, and no one will reprove you, I think, if you concede a point and answer him.”

The lady had become more reticent with the years, but she was unable to ignore so remarkable a message.

“The gate of meeting, atop the barrier rise,

Is shaded by impassable wailing groves.

“It is all like a dream.”

Touching things, annoying things, Genji could forget none of them. From time to time he got off notes to the lady which he hoped would interest and excite her.

Now an old man, her husband was ill much of the time. He talked of her to his sons.

“Please, I beseech you, do not refuse her anything. Treat her exactly as if I were still alive.” No hour of the day passed without his renewing the plea.

She had not been lucky, thought the lady, and if now she were left a widow, what sort of ruin might lie ahead? He knew what she was thinking; but life is not ours to cling to as we will, however strong the determination. If only he could send an angel down to watch over her! They were his sons, but his confidence in them was far from complete. He continued to hand down injunctions and to worry; and then, for all his will to live, he was dead.

For a time the sons seemed to honor his last wishes. The appearance of affection and concern was superficial, however, a fact which circumstances were quick enough to establish. It was the way of the world, and though she lamented her misfortune she did not complain. The governor of Kawachi, always an amorous sort, showed an extra measure of solicitude.

“Father spoke of you so constantly,” he would say. “You must not feel shy about asking me for things. Ask me for anything, useless though you may find me.”

His intentions were apparent, and shocking to so proper a lady. She could not think, were she to go on as she was, what tangles she might find herself enmeshed in. Her mind was made up. Consulting no one, she became a nun.

Her women were of course upset, and the governor was somewhat disappointed, and discommoded that she should have found him so little to her liking. He wondered how she meant to make her way through the long years ahead.

Not that the problem was his to worry about.

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