The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 24

Butterflies

It was late in the Third Month. Murasaki’s spring garden was coming ever more to life with blossoms and singing birds. Elsewhere spring had departed, said the other ladies, and why did it remain here? Genji thought it a pity that the young women should have only distant glimpses of the moss on the island, a deeper green each day. He had carpenters at work on Chinese pleasure boats, and on the day they were launched he summoned palace musicians for water music. Princes and high courtiers came crowding to hear.

Akikonomu was in residence at Rokujō. Now was the time, thought Murasaki, for a proper answer to the poem about the garden that “awaits the spring.” Genji agreed. It would have been good to show these spring blossoms to the empress herself, but casual visits were out of the question for one in her position. Numbers of her young women who were thought likely to enjoy such an outing were therefore rowed out over the south lake, which ran from her southwest quarter to Murasaki’s southeast, with a hillock separating the two. The boats left from the hillock. Murasaki’s women were stationed in the angling pavilion at the boundary between the two quarters.

The dragon and phoenix boats were brilliantly decorated in the Chinese fashion. The little pages and helmsmen, their hair still bound up in the page-boy manner, wore lively Chinese dress, and everything about the arrangements was deliciously exotic, to add to the novelty, for the empress’s women, of this southeast quarter. The boats pulled up below a cliff at an island cove, where the smallest of the hanging rocks was like a detail of a painting. The branches caught in mists from either side were like a tapestry, and far away in Murasaki’s private gardens a willow trailed its branches in a deepening green and the cherry blossoms were rich and sensuous. In other places they had fallen, but here they were still at their smiling best, and along the galleries wisteria was beginning to send forth its lavender. Yellow yamabuki reflected on the lake as if about to join its own image. Waterfowl swam past in amiable pairs, and flew in and out with twigs in their bills, and one longed to paint the mandarin ducks as they coursed about on the water. Had that Chinese woodcutter been present, he might well have gazed on until his ax handle rotted away. Presently it was evening.

“The breezes blow, the wave flowers brightly blossom.

Will it be the Cape of Yamabuki?”

“Is this the lake where flows the River of Ide,

That yamabuki should plunge into its depths?”

“There is no need to visit Turtle Mountain.

‘Ageless’ shall be the name of our pleasure boats.”

“Our boats row out into the bright spring sun,

And water drops from the oars like scattering petals.”

Poem followed poem. The young women seemed to forget that the day must end and they must go home.

In the gathering twilight, to the sonorous strains of “The Royal Deer,” the boats were pulled up once more at the angling pavilion and the women reluctantly disembarked. It was a building of simple but very great elegance. The lengths to which the competitive young women had gone with their dress and grooming made one think of a tapestry upon which blossoms had fallen. The music, all very novel, went on and on, for Genji had chosen musicians whose repertory did not permit of monotony.

It was night, and they seemed indefatigable. Flares having been put out in the garden, they were invited to the moss carpet below the verandas, and the princes and high courtiers had places above with the kotos and flutes in which they took such pride. The most accomplished of the professional flutists struck up a melody in the sōjō mode, in which the courtiers joined most brilliantly with their kotos, and as they moved on to “How Grand the Day” even the most ignorant of the footmen off among the horses and carriages seemed to respond. The sky and the music, the spring modes and echoes, all seemed better here — no one could fail to see the difference. The night was passed in music. With “Joy of Spring” the mode shifted to an intimate minor. Prince Hotaru twice sang “Green Willow,” in very good voice. Genji occasionally

Morning came. From behind her fences Akikonomu listened to the morning birds and feared that her autumn garden had lost the contest.

Though a perpetual spring radiance seemed to hang over this Rokujō mansion, there were those who had complained of a want of interesting young ladies. Now the rumors were of a new lady in the northeast quarter, and how pretty she was and how attentive Genji seemed to be. The anticipated stream of letters had commenced. Several of those whose sta- tion in life made them confident that their candidacy was acceptable already had their intermediaries at work. Others seemed to be keeping their ardor rather more to themselves. It is to be imagined that several of the suitors, Tō no Chūjō‘s son, for instance, would have dropped their suits if they had known who she really was.

Prince Hotaru, Genji’s brother, had lost his wife of some years and for three years had been living a lonely bachelor’s life. He was now quite open with his suit. Pretending to be hopelessly drunk, he was very amusing indeed as he gamboled about all willow-like with a spray of wisteria in his cap. Quite as expected, thought Genji, though he gave no sign that he noticed.

The wine flagon came around once more and the prince pretended to be in great discomfort. “If there were not something rather special to keep me here, I think I would be trying to escape. It is too much, oh, really too much.” He refused to drink any more.

“Lavender holds me and puts me in mind of things.

I mean, let them say what they will, to throw myself in.”

He generously divided his wisteria and put a sprig in Genji’s cap.

Genji smiled broadly.

“Please hold yourself in abeyance beneath these flowers,

To judge if the plunge would have the proper effect.”

The prince accepted this suggestion, it seemed, and stayed on. The morning concert was if anything livelier than the evening concert had been.

Today there was to be a reading of the Prajnapāramitā Sutra commissioned by Empress Akikonomu. Many of the guests had been given rooms in which to change to formal dress. Though some had previous engagements and excused themselves, Genji’s prestige had removed any doubt that it would be a grand and solemn occasion. He led the assembly to Akikonomu’s quarter at noon.

Murasaki had prepared the floral offerings. She chose eight of her prettiest little girls to deliver them, dressing four as birds and four as butterflies. The birds brought cherry blossoms in silver vases, the butterflies yamabuki in gold vases. In wonderfully rich and full bloom, they completed a perfect picture. As the party rowed out from the hillock to Akikonomu’s end of the lake, a breeze came up to scatter a few cherry petals. The skies were clear and happy, and the little girls were charming in the delicate spring haze. Akikonomu had declined Murasaki’s offer of awnings and had instead put out seats for the orchestra in one of the galleries adjoining her main hall. The little girls came to the stairs with their flowers. Incense bearers received them and set them out before the holy images.

Yūgiri delivered this poem from Murasaki:

“Low in your grasses the cricket awaits the autumn

And views with scorn these silly butterflies.”

Akikonomu smiled, recognizing an answer to her poem about the autumn leaves.

“No, Your Majesty, nothing surpasses that garden,” said one of the women, still drunk with the joys of the day before.

The music for the dance of the Kalavinka bird rang forth to the singing of warblers, to which the waterfowl on the lake added their clucks and chirps, and it was with very great regret that the audience saw the dance come to an end. The butterflies seemed to fly higher than the birds as they disappeared behind a low fence over which poured a cascade of yamabuki. Akikonomu’s assistant chamberlain asked that courtiers of appropriate rank distribute gifts: to the birds, white robes lined with red, and to the butterflies robes of pale russet lined with yellow. It would seem that Akikonomu had made careful preparations. Then came gifts for the musicians, white singlets and bolts of cloth. Yūgiri received a lady’s ensemble, most conspicuously a lavender robe lined with blue.

This was Akikonomu’s reply:

“I weep in my longing to follow your butterflies.

You put up fences of yamabuki between us.”

Are the grand ones of the realm consistently good at poetry? One is sometimes disappointed.

I had forgotten: Murasaki had had lavish gifts for her guests too. But I fear that the details would be tiresome. In any event, there were tasteful diversions morning and night to keep the least of the serving women happy, and there were these poetic exchanges.

Murasaki and Tamakazura sometimes wrote to each other, now that they had been introduced. It was too early perhaps to know whether Tamakazura was a comrade to turn to for help, but she did seem to be quietly good-natured and not the sort to cause trouble. People were on the whole favorably disposed towards her. She had many suitors by now, but it did not seem that Genji was ready for a decision. Perhaps not quite sure, indeed, that he wished to be consistent in the role of the good parent, he considered telling her father everything.

Yūgiri was permitted to approach her curtains and she favored him with direct replies. She was uncomfortable at the need to do so, but her Women quite approved. He was always very solemn and proper. Tō no Chūjō’s sons, who were his constant companions, were seen sighing and mooning about the house, and now and again they dropped hints of their interest. She was much disturbed, not because she disliked them but because they were victims of false appearances. It was not a matter she could discuss openly with Genji, however. He was charmed at the evidences, shy and girlish, that she considered him her guardian. He could not have said that she looked very much like her mother, but there was an indefinable resemblance in tone and manner. She was clearly the more intelligent of the two

The Fourth Month came, and the change to bright summer clothes. Even the skies seemed to favor the occasion. Genji passed his spare time, of which he had a great deal, in music and the like. It was as he had expected: the flood of love letters was rising. Looking them over as he visited her apartments, he encouraged her to answer the more likely ones. These promptings had the effect of putting her on guard.

Prince Hotaru was already describing the torments of unrequited love.

Genji smiled. “He was my favorite brother when we were boys. We kept nothing from each other. Or rather he kept one thing from me, his romantic life. He was very secretive about that. It is interesting and at the same time a little sad that he should still burn with such a youthful flame. You must answer. When a lady really matters to him, there is no one quite like him, I often think, for letting her know it. And he is most amusing company.”

He made his brother seem very attractive, but she looked away in embarrassment.

General Higekuro was on the whole a very earnest and serious man, but he seemed bent on illustrating the truth that even the most superior of men, even Confucius himself, can stumble as he makes his way through the wilderness of love. Yet his letters were interesting.

Genji’s attention was caught by a bit of azure Chinese paper gently but richly perfumed and folded into a tiny knot.

“You haven’t even opened it,” he said, undoing the knot himself. The hand was a strong one in the modern style. This was the poem:

“You cannot know how deep my feelings are.

Their colors are hidden, like waters among the rocks.”

“And whose feelings might they be?” he asked. Her answer was evasive.

He summoned Ukon. “You must rate them carefully and have her answer the ones that seem deserving. The dissolute gallants of our day are capable of anything, but sometimes they are not wholly to blame. My own experience has been that a lady can at the outset seem cold and unfeeling and unaware of the gentler things, and if she is of no importance I can call her impertinent and forget about her. Yet in idle exchanges about birds and flowers the lady who teases with silence can seem very interesting. If the man does forget, then of course part of the responsibility is hers; but a lady is not well advised to answer by return messenger a note that has not meant a great deal to the man who sent it, and profuse answers all saturated with sensibility can come to seem very tiresome. But Prince Hotaru and General Higekuro are grown men who know what they are doing.

Your lady should not risk giving them the impression that she is unfeeling and unsympathetic. When it comes to lesser people, you must judge each on his own merits. Some may be serious and some may not. The genuine should be recognized.”

Tamakazura was very beautiful as she listened with averted gaze to this long discourse. Her dress was dignified and fashionable, a robe of pink lined with blue and a singlet that caught the colors of the season. She had had a certain air of rustic stolidity, but, though traces remained, it was rapidly giving way to a subtler, more delicate sort of calm. No one could have found fault with her dress, and her beauty seemed to glow ever more brightly. Genji was beginning to think that she was too good to let go.

Ukon looked smilingly from the one to the other. He was much too youthful for the role of father. They were far more like husband and wife.

“I have not delivered letters from anyone else,” said Ukon. “I did accept the few which you have seen. It seemed altogether too rude to turn them back. My lady has answered only the ones which you have specifically told her to answer, and those very reluctantly.”

“And whose is the one in the boyish little knot?” He was smiling. “The hand is very good.”

“He was very insistent indeed. Captain Kashiwagi, the minister’s son. He has known our Miruko for a rather long time and is making use of her services. I gather that there is no one else he can ask.”

“Charming. He may not be very important yet, but he is not to be dismissed. In some ways he is as highly thought of as the best of them, and he is a good deal more dependable than his brothers. He will eventually learn the truth, but for the moment it seems best to keep him in ignorance. Yes, he does write a very good hand.” He examined it admiringly. “You may think it strange of me,” he said to Tamakazura, “but I think you would have a difficult time if you were dropped down in that enormous family of your father’s, all of them as good as strangers. The time will come, when you have found a place for yourself. Prince Hotaru is a bachelor at the moment, but he is, I fear, a promiscuous sort, and the gossips associate him with innumerable women, some of whom are called ladies-in-waiting and others of whom go by less dignified names. A lady of tolerance and very great skill might possibly steer her way through, but the first sign of jealousy would be fatal. It is all in all a situation calling for tact and caution.

“There is General Higekuro. He has been married for some years but it appears that he is not at all happy with his wife, and so he has turned to you. There are people who do not look favorably upon his suit. I can quite see the arguments, and am reluctant to hand down an opinion. You might not find it easy to tell your own father how you feel, but you are no longer a child and I see no reason why you should not presently come to your own conclusions. Perhaps you can think of me as a sort of substitute for your mother and we can tell ourselves that we have gone back to the old days. The last thing I would wish is to make you unhappy.” He looked at her solemnly.

She was extremely uncomfortable and would have preferred not to answer; but she was, as he said, no longer a child. “I have been an orphan ever since I can remember,” she said quietly, “ and I fear that I have no thoughts in the matter.”

He could see her point. “Well, as they say, a foster parent sometimes does better than a real parent. You will find me an unusually devoted foster parent.” He preferred not to say what he was really thinking. Though he had dropped a hint or two, she had pretended not to notice. He sighed and went out.

He paused to admire a luxuriant new growth of Chinese bamboo swaying in the breeze.

“The bamboo so firmly rooted within our hedges

Will send out distant shoots to please its convenience?”

He raised the blind. She slipped away, but not before she had given him an answer:

“Why should the young bamboo at this late date

Go forth in search of roots it has left behind, and make trouble for itself?”

He had to feel sorry for her.

She was by no means as much at home as her poem suggested. She longed to announce herself to her father. Yet she knew, from what she had read and seen, and she was seeing more, that the father from whom she had been separated from infancy was not likely to be as thoughtful as Genji had been. She held her tongue, increasingly aware of how difficult it would be to do otherwise.

She pleased him more and more “There is something singularly appealing about her,” he said to Murasaki. “Her mother was a little too solemn and humorless. She is very quick and bright, and somehow a Person immediately wants to be friends with her. I am very sure now that she will not be an embarrassment.”

Familiar with his inability to let well enough alone, she had guessed what was happening. “It must be rather difficult for her not to have any secrets and to be so completely dependent on you.”

“And why should she not be dependent on me?”

She smiled. “Can you think that I have forgotten all the sighs and pains your way of doing things produced in my own younger years?”

How quick she was! “You find very odd and foolish things to worry about. Do you think she would permit anything of the sort?” He changed the subject; but she had surveyed the scene and come to her conclusions, and he had to admit that there were matters on his conscience.

He thought a great deal about Tamakazura. He often visited her and he was of service to her in many ways. One quiet evening after a rainfall, when the green of the maples and oaks was clean and rich, he looked up into a singularly affecting twilight sky and intoned a phrase from Po Chü-i: “It is gentle, it is fresh.” At such times it was more than anything the fresh glow of the new lady that he was thinking of. He slipped quietly away to her apartments. At her writing desk, she bowed courteously and turned shyly away, very beautiful indeed. Suddenly, gently, she was exactly like her mother. He wanted to weep.

“You must forgive me, but I cannot help it. When I first saw you I did not think you looked so very much like her, and yet there have been times when I could have mistaken you for her. Yūgiri is not in the least like me and so I had come to think that children do not on the whole resemble parents. And then I come on an instance like this.”

There was an orange in the fruit basket before her.

“Scented by orange blossoms long ago,

The sleeve she wore is surely the sleeve you wear.

“So many years have gone by, and through them all I have been unable to forget. Sometimes I feel as if I might be dreaming — and as if the dream were too much for me. You must not dismiss me for my rudeness.”

And he took her hand.

Nothing like this had happened to her before. But she must not lose her composure.

“The sleeve bears the scent of that blossom long ago.

Then might not the fruit as quickly vanish away?”

He found this quiet confusion delightful. She sat with bowed head, unable to think what to make of his behavior and what to do next. The hand in his was soft, her skin smooth and delicate. He had made his confession because beauty and pain had suddenly come to seem very much alike. She was trembling.

“Am I so objectionable, then? I have worked hard to keep our secret, and you must help me. You have always been important to me. Now you are important in a new way. I wonder if there has ever been anything quite like it. I can think of no reason that you should prefer those others to me. I cannot imagine feelings deeper than my own, and I cannot bear the thought of passing you on to them and their frivolity.”

It all seemed rather beyond the call of paternal duty.

The night was a lovely one. The breeze was rustling the bamboo, the wind had stopped, and a bright moon had come out. Her women had tactfully withdrawn. Though he saw a great deal of her, a better opportunity did not seem likely to present itself. From the momentum, perhaps, which his avowal had given him, he threw off his robe with practiced skill — it was a soft one that made no sound — and pulled her down beside him.

She was stunned. What would her women think? She was sobbing helplessly. Her father might treat her coldly, but at least he would protect her from such outrages.

Yes, of course: she had a right to weep. He turned to the work of calming her. “So you reject me. I am shattered. Ladies must often depend on men who are nothing to them — it is the way of the world — and I should have thought that I was rather a lot to you, at least in terms of what I have done for you. This unfriendliness is not at all easy to accept. But enough. It will not happen again. My comfort will be in heaping restraint upon virtuous restraint.”

She was so like her mother that the resemblance was scarcely to be borne. He knew that this impetuous behavior did not become his age and eminence. Collecting himself, he withdrew before the lateness of the hour brought her women to mistaken conclusions.

“It will not be easy to forget that I have caused such revulsion. You may be very sure that you will not succeed in driving anyone else quite so thoroughly mad, and that my limitless, bottomless feelings for you will keep me from doing anything unseemly in the future. A quiet talk for old times’ sake is all I ask. Can you not be persuaded to grant me that much?”

She was unable to reply.

“Such coldness, I would not have thought you capable of it. You do seem to hate me most extravagantly.” He sighed. “We must let no one guess what has happened.” And he left.

She was no child, but among ladies her age she was remarkable in not having had the company of anyone of even modest experience. She could not imagine a worse outrage, or a stranger fate than hers had been. Her women thought she must be ill and could not think what to suggest.

“His Lordship has done so much for us,” whispered Hyōbu. “Really more than we deserve. I doubt that even your honorable father could be kinder and more considerate.”

She wanted to reply that his kindness had taken a curious turn. Her lot was a very strange one!

A letter came from him early in the morning. She was still in bed and said that she was not feeling well; but with her women pressing ink and brush on her she reluctantly looked at it. Though it seemed very prim on white paper, the contents were rather different.

“You have cut so deeply that I shall never be whole again. And what, I wonder, will they all be thinking?

“Although I scarcely saw the tender grasses,

They look as if I had tied them all in knots.

“Which seems silly of them.”

Even here he somehow managed a suggestion of the avuncular. He was impossible! But her women would think it odd if she did not answer. She finally wrote this and no more on a sheet of thick, businesslike Michinoku paper:

“I have noted the contents of your letter, and must apologize for being too unwell to reply.”

He smiled. She had a certain flair.

One might have hoped that he would pursue the matter no further; but he had made his confession and was not “the pine of Ota” he once had been. He quite overwhelmed her with letters. She felt as if the trap were closing and closing, and finally she took to her bed, physically ill. There were very few who knew the truth, and outsiders as well as people who might have been called part of the family seemed to think him a model father. How they would all laugh when they learned the truth! And her real father, to whom she was nothing, would doubtless laugh more derisively than the rest. She had nowhere to turn.

Hotaru and Higekuro had sensed that Genji considered them acceptable candidates and were energetically pleading their cases; and one hears that the water among the rocks, similarly if obliquely encouraged, and still ignorant of the true state of affairs, was complaining at great length and very nervously.

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