The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 23

The First Warbler

New Year’s Day was cloudless. There is joy inside the humblest of hedges as the grass begins to come green among patches of snow and there is a mist of green on the trees while the mists in the air tell of the advent of spring. There was great joy in the jeweled precincts of Genji’s Rokujō mansion, where every detail of the gardens was a pleasure and the ladies’ apartments were perfection.

The garden of Murasaki’s southeast quarter was now the most beautiful. The scent of plum blossoms, wafting in on the breeze and blending with the perfumes inside, made one think that paradise had come down to earth. Murasaki may have had her small worries, but she lived in peace and security. She had assigned the prettier of her young women to the service of Genji’s little daughter, and kept in her own service older women whose beauty was in fact of a statelier sort and who were extremely particular about their dress and grooming. They were gathered in little groups, helping the New Year with its “teething,” taking New Year’s cakes, and otherwise welcoming another year of the thousand which they laughingly appropriated for themselves. Genji came in. They had been caught with their ribbons undone, so to speak, and they quickly brought themselves to order.

“And are all these congratulations for me?” He smiled. “But you must have little wishes of your own. Tell me what they are, and I will then think of some that you forgot.” He seemed the very incarnation of New Year gladness.

Chūjō thought herself privileged to speak. “Assured by the mirror cake that ten centuries are in store for your august lordship, how should I think of anything for myself?”

All morning, callers streamed in and out of the Rokujō mansion. Genji dressed with great care for a round of calls upon his ladies. One would not have easily wearied of looking at him when his preparations were finished. “Your women were having such a good time that they made me envious?” he said to Murasaki. “Let us now have a congratulatory note for ourselves.

“The mirror of this lake, now freed from ice,

Offers an image of utter peace and calm.”

And indeed it did reflect an image of very great beauty and felicity.

“Upon the cloudless mirror of this lake,

Clear is the image, for ten thousand years.”

Everything about the scene seemed to make manifest a bond that was meant to last a thousand years — and New Year’s Day this year fell on the Day of the Rat.

He went to his daughter’s rooms. Her page girls and young serving women were out on the hill busying themselves with seedling pines, too intoxicated with the occasion, it would seem, to stay inside. The Akashi lady — it was clear that she had gone to enormous trouble — had sent over New Year delicacies in “bearded baskets” and with them a warbler on a very cleverly fabricated pine branch:

“The old one’s gaze rests long on the seedling pine,

Waiting to hear the song of the first warbler, in a village where it does not sing.”

Yes, thought Genji, it was a lonely time for her. One should not weep on New Year’s Day, but he was very close to tears.

“You must answer her yourself,” he said to his daughter. “You are surely not the sort to begrudge her that first song.” He brought ink and brush.

She was so pretty that even those who were with her day and night had to smile. Genji was feeling guilty for the years he had kept mother and daughter apart.

Cheerfully, she jotted down the first poem that came to her:

“The warbler left its nest long years ago,

But cannot forget the roots of the waiting pine.”

He went to the summer quarter of the lady of the orange blossoms. There was nothing in her summer gardens to catch the eye, nothing that was having its moment, and yet everything was quietly elegant. They were as close as ever, she and Genji, despite the passage of the years. It was an easy sort of intimacy which he would not have wished to change. They had their talks, pleasant and easy as talks between husband and wife seldom are. He pushed the curtain between them slightly aside. She made no effort to hide herself. Her azure robe was as quietly becoming as he had hoped it would be. Her hair had thinned sadly. He rather wished she might be persuaded to use a switch, though not so considerable a one as to attract notice. He knew that no other man was likely to have been as good to her, and in the knowledge was one of his private pleasures. What misfortunes might she not have brought upon herself had she been a less constant sort! Always when he was with her he thought first of his own dependability and her undemanding ways. They were a remarkable pair. They talked quietly of the year that had passed, and he went on to see Tamakazura.

She was not yet really at home, but her rooms were in very good taste. She had a large retinue of women and pretty little girls. Though much still needed to be done by way of furnishing and decorating, the rooms already wore an air of clean dignity. Even more striking was the elegance of their occupant. She seemed to enhance the glow of her yellow dress and send it into the deepest corners of the room, taking away the last gloomy shadow. It was a scene, he thought, which could never seem merely ordinary Perhaps because of her trials, her hair was just a little sparse at the edges. The casual flow drew wonderfully clean lines down over her skirts. And what might have happened to her if he had not brought her here? (The question may have suggested that he was already thinking of certain changes.) There was no barrier between them, though she was very much on her guard. It was a strange situation with a certain dreamlike quality about it that both interested and amused him.

“I feel as if you had been with us for years. Everything seems so cozy. I could not wish for more. I hope that by now you are feeling quite at home. Today you might just possibly want to go over to the southeast quarter, where you will find a young lady at her New Year’s music lesson. You need not have the slightest fear that anyone will say anything unpleasant about you.”

“I shall do exactly as you wish me to.”

In the circumstances, a most acceptable answer.

He went in the evening to the northwest quarter and called on the Akashi lady. He was greeted by the perfume from within her blinds, a delicate mixture that told of the most refined tastes. And where was the lady herself? He saw notebooks and the like disposed around an inkstone. He took one up, and another. A beautifully made koto lay against the elaborate fringe of a cushion of white Loyang damask, and in a brazier of equally fine make she had been burning courtly incenses, which mingled with the perfume burnt into all the furnishings to most wonderful effect. Little practice notes lay scattered about. The hand was a superior and most individual one, in an easy cursive style that allowed no suggestion of pretense or imposture. Pleased at having heard from her daughter, it would seem, she had been amusing herself with jottings from the anthologies.

And there was a poem of her own:

“Such happiness! The warbler among the blossoms

Calls across the glen to its old nest.”

“I had waited so long,” she had added; and, to comfort herself:”‘I dwell upon a hill of blossoming plums.’”

He smiled one of his most radiant smiles.

He had just taken up a brush when the lady came in. Luxury had not made her any less modest or retiring. Yes, she was different. Her dark tresses gleamed against the white of her robe, not so thick that they might have seemed assertive. He decided to spend the night with her, though sorry indeed if in other quarters the New Year must begin with spasms of jealousy. She was dear to him in a very special way, he thought somewhat uneasily. In Murasaki’s quarter he may have been the object of sterner reproaches than he had for himself.

It was not yet full daylight when he left. He might, thought the Akashi lady, have awaited a more seemly hour. In the southeast quarter he sensed that the welcome was mixed.

“I dozed off, and there I was sleeping like a baby, and no one woke me.” He was charmingly ingenuous, but Murasaki pretended to be asleep.

He lay down beside her. The sun was high when he arose.

New Year’s callers kept him busy that day and were his excuse for avoiding a confrontation. The whole court came. There was music and there were lavish gifts. Each of the guests was determined to cut the finest figure, though in fact (I say it regretfully) no one could challenge the host. By themselves they were strong enough lights, but Genji dimmed them all. The lowliest among them made sure that he was looking his best when he came to Rokujō, and the highest seemed to have something new and original on his mind. A quiet breeze coaxed perfume from the flowers and especially from the plums just coming into bloom at the veranda. “How grand this house:” the festivities were at a climax, and came to an end with “the three-branched sakigusa.” Genji himself helped with the concluding passages. Restrained though his part might be, it always seemed to make a very great difference.

In all the other quarters, there were only distant echoes of horse and carriage, to make the ladies feel that they were living in an outer circle of paradise where the lotuses were slow to open. The east lodge at Nijō was of course even farther away. Life may have been a little uneventful for the ladies there, but they were spared the more bitter trials of the world, and would have thought it out of place to complain. Neglected they unquestionably were, and they might have wished for something different; but their lives were calm and comfortable and secure. The nun could pursue her prayers and the connoisseur her poetry texts and neither need fear distraction.

When the busy days were over he went calling, with careful ceremony, for the safflower princess was after all a princess. Her hair had been her principal and indeed her only charm when she was young, but now the flow was a White trickle, and her profile was better not seen. He looked tactfully away. The white robe which he had sent had, he feared, been rather better by itself. She seemed quite congealed in a frosting of white over something of a dark, dull gray so stiff that it rustled dryly. And was there nothing else, no underclothing to keep her warm? The safflower nose was aglow all the same, bright through the densest mists. He sighed and rearranged her curtains, and she seemed not to guess why. He could not help being touched at the pleasure which the visit, evidence that he still thought of her, so obviously gave. Poor, lonely thing, he must do something for her from time to rime. She too was rather special — leastways one did not often see her like. Her voice too seemed congealed.

He was concerned. “Who is in charge of your wardrobe? You live a rather informal life here, and I should think that informal dress might be called for. Quilted garments, for instance, have much to recommend them. You worry too much about appearances.”

She managed a short laugh. “I have my brother to look after, the priest at Daigo, and I have no time to think about my own clothes. I do get a little chilly. I let him have my sable.”

Yes, she had a sable. And a brother, also the possessor of a safflower nose. She was an honest lady but not a very practical one. He felt very honest himself when he was with her, away from the niceties and deceptions of the elegant life.

“I think you did well to let him have your sable. It rains a great deal off in the mountains, and I am sure he needs a raincoat. But what of yourself? You need some underclothing, really you do. Pile it on, seven and eight layers of it. I am sometimes forgetful in these matters, and you must keep reminding me. You must not put up with my obtuseness.”

He sent to the Nijō warehouses for plain and figured silks. The Nijō mansion could not have been called neglected or run-down, but a silence had settled over it with his removal to Rokujō. Yet the plantings were fine. It seemed a pity that there was no one to appreciate the rose plum, just coming into bloom.

“I stop to look at the groves of my old village,

And the blossom I see reminds me of a safflower.”

He spoke very softly. It is unlikely that the princess caught the full implications.

He next looked in upon the lady of the locust shell. She was living very modestly, the larger part of her rooms given over to sacred images. He found the evidences of the religious life very moving. The scrolls and the decorations and utensils down to the least of the fonts showed very good taste indeed. She was a refined and cultivated lady. Only her sleeves showed modest and ladylike through the ingenious arrangement of gray curtains behind which she had hidden herself.

“I should perhaps have been satisfied,” he said, almost in tears, “with seeing Urashima from a distance. Things have never been easy between us, and I should hope that we might go on having as much as we have now.”

She too seemed deeply moved. “It can have been no weak bond that has made me put my trust in you.”

“Considerable wrongs, I should think, call for considerable acts of contrition. Am I not right? Perhaps you see now that not everyone would have been as honest with you as I have been.”

She could not look at him. He was obviously referring to her stepson’s lamentable behavior. “My contrition is in showing myself to you as I am, and in having you see me thus to the end.”

She seemed ever calmer and more serene, and the fact that she had become a nun made him feel more strongly that he must keep her with him. But it was not the time to say so. The talk might be of the present or of the past, but it must be in generalities. How good, he thought, glancing in the direction of the safflower princess’s rooms, to be with someone who could talk at all.

He was seeing to the needs of others in this same matter-of-fact way. He looked in on all of them.

“I may seem negligent at times, but I have not forgotten. Nor will I forget, though life is uncertain, and final goodbyes must presently come.”

He addressed each of them most gently and courteously, and indeed he was fond of them all, after their several stations. They could not have complained whatever he chose to do with them, but he was moderation itself, allowing no suggestion of the haughty or arbitrary. His attentions were for them the chief comfort in life.

The carolers were out this year. They went from the main palace to the Suzaku Palace of the retired emperor and thence to Rokujō. The way being a long one, it was dawn when they arrived. A moon hung in a cloudless sky and a light fall of snow set the garden off to weirdly delicate effect. Everyone wanted to be his best when he came to Rokujō. It was an age well provided with fine musicians, and the sound of flute rang high through the grounds. Genji had invited all his ladies to watch, and there they all were along the east and west wings and galleries. Tamakazura had been invited to the south front of the main hall, where she was introduced to Genji’s daughter. Murasaki watched from behind a curtain.

Dawn was already coming on as the carolers did honor to Kokiden, the mother of the Suzaku emperor. There should have been only light refreshments at Rokujō, but Genji had in fact had an elaborate banquet set out. The moon was almost too bright in the dawn sky and there were snow flurries. A wind came down through the tall pines. The soft yellow-greens and whites of the carolers did nothing to break the cold, white calm, and the cloth posies in their caps, far from seeming to intrude with too much color, moved over the scene with a light grace such as to make the onlookers feel that years were being added to their lives. Yūgiri and Tō no Chūjō‘s sons were the handsomest and proudest of the carolers. Day broke amid new flurries of snow, “Bamboo River” fell on freezing air, and the dancing and the singing — I longed to paint the scene, though certain that my efforts must fall short of the actuality.

The sleeves emerging from the blinds as each of the ladies sought to outdo all the others made one think of a tapestry spread out in a spring haze. It was all quite magical, if in a very slightly unsettling way, the high caps so far from the ordinary and the noisy congratulations and all the trappings and appurtenances. The carolers went off in full daylight, bearing as always the evidences of Genji’s munificence. The ladies dispersed. Genji lay down to rest, and arose when the sun was high.

“Yūgiri may have sung a little less well than Kōbai,” he said to Murasaki, “but only a very little. Ours is a good day for music. The ancients may have been better at scholarship and learning, but I think we more than hold our own in the gentler pursuits. I wanted to make a sober public servant of him and to keep him from wasting his time on the frivolities that took up so much of my own. But it is right that he should find time for them too. Unrelieved sobriety is itself an excess.”

In obvious pleasure at his son’s performance, he interrupted himself to hum “The Delight of Ten Thousand Springs.”

“We must arrange a day of music for ourselves. Our own private recessional.”

He carefully undid the fine cloths in which the instruments had been stored away, and dusted and tuned them; and it would seem that the ladies were already hard at practice.

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