The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 37

The Flute

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

Many still mourned Kashiwagi, who had vanished before his time. Genji tended to feel very deeply the deaths even of people who had been nothing to him, and he had been fond of Kashiwagi and had made him a constant companion. It is true that he had good reason to be angry, but the fond memories were stronger than the resentment. He commissioned a sutra reading on the anniversary of the death. And he was consumed with pity for the little boy, whose agent he secretly thought himself as he made a special offering of a hundred pieces of gold. Tō no Chūjō was very grateful, though of course he did not know Genji’s real reasons.

Yūgiri too made lavish offerings and commissioned his own memorial services. He was especially attentive to the Second Princess, more so, indeed, than her brothers-in-law. How generous he was, said Kashiwagi’s parents, far more generous than they had any right to expect. But these evidences of the esteem in which the world had held their dead son only added to the bitterness of the regret.

The Suzaku emperor now worried about his second daughter, whose plight was no doubt the object of much malicious laughter. And his third daughter had become a nun, and cut herself off from the pleasures of ordinary life. The disappointment was in both cases very cruel. He had resolved, however, to concern himself no more with the affairs of this vulgar world, and he held his peace. He would think, in the course of his devotions, that the Third Princess would be at hers. Since she had taken her vows he had found numerous small occasions for writing to her. Thinking the mountain harvests rather wonderful, the bamboo shoots that thrust their way up through the undergrowth of a thicket near his retreat, the taro root from deeper in the mountains, he sent them off to the Third Princess with an affectionate letter at the end of which he said:

“My people make their way with great difficulty through the misty spring hills, and here, the merest token, is what I asked them to gather for you.

“Away from the world, you follow after me,

And may we soon arrive at the same destination.

“It is not easy to leave the world behind.”

Genji came upon her in tears. He wondered why she should have these bowls ranged before her, and then saw the letter and gifts. He was much moved. The Suzaku emperor had written most feelingly of his longing and his inability, when life was so uncertain, to see her as he would wish. “May we soon arrive at the same destination.” He would not have called it a notable statement, but the priestly succinctness was very effective all the same. Evidences of Genji’s indifference had no doubt added to the emperor’s worries.

Shyly the Third Princess set about composing her answer. She gave the messenger a figured blue-gray robe. Genji took up a scrap of paper half hidden under her curtains and found something written on it in a childlike, uncertain hand.

“Longing for a place not of this world,

May I not join you in your mountain dwelling?”

“He worries so about you,” said Genji. “It is not kind of you to say these things.”

She turned away from him. The still-rich hair at her forehead and the girlish beauty of her profile seemed very sad. Because the sadness was urging him towards something he might regret and be taken to task for, he pulled a curtain between them, trying very hard all the same not to seem distant or chilly.

The little boy, who had been with his nurse, emerged from her curtains. Very pretty indeed, he tugged purposefully at Genji’s sleeve. He was wearing a robe of white gossamer and a red chemise of a finely figured Chinese weave. All tangled up in his skirts, he seemed bent on divesting himself of these cumbersome garments and had stripped himself naked to the waist. Though of course it is the sort of thing all little children do, he was so pretty in his dishabille that Genji was reminded of a doll carved from a newly stripped willow. The shaven head had the blue-black tinge of the dewflower, and the lips were red and full. Already there was a sort of quelling repose about the eyes. Genji was strongly reminded of Kashiwagi, but not even Kashiwagi had had such remarkable good looks. How was one to explain them? There was scarcely any resemblance at all to the Third Princess. Genji thought of his own face as he saw it in the mirror, and was not sure that a comparison of the two was ridiculous. Able to walk a few steps, the boy tottered up to a bowl of bamboo shoots. He bit at one and, having rejected it, scattered them in all directions.

“What vile manners! Do something, someone. Get them away from him. These women are not kind, sir, and they will already be calling you a little glutton. Will that please you?” He took the child in his arms. “Don’t you notice something rather different about his eyes? I have not seen great numbers of children, but I would have thought that at his age they are children and no more, one very much like another. But he is such an individual that he worries me. We have a little princess in residence, and he may be her ruination and his Own. Will I live, I wonder, to watch them grow up? ‘If we wish to see them we have but to stay alive.’” He was gazing earnestly at the little boy.

“Please, my lord. That is as good as inviting bad luck,” said one of the women.

Just cutting his teeth, the boy had found a good teething object. He dribbled furiously as he bit at a bamboo shoot.

“I see that his desires take him in a different direction,” Genji said, laughing.

“We cannot forget unpleasant associations.

We do not discard the young bamboo even so.”

He parted child and bamboo, but the boy only laughed and went on about Iris business.

He was more beautiful by the day, so beautiful that people were a little afraid for him. Genji was beginning to think that it might in fact be possible to “forget unpleasant associations.” It had been predestined, no doubt, that such a child be born, and there had been no escaping them. But so often in his life thoughts about predestination had failed to make actual events more acceptable. Of all the ladies in his life the Third Princess had had the most to recommend her. The bitterness surged forward once more and the transgression seemed very hard to excuse.

Yūgiri still thought a great deal about Kashiwagi’s last words. He wanted to see how they might affect Genji. But of course he had very little to go on, and it would not be easy to think of the right questions. He could only wait and hope that he might one day have the whole truth, and a chance to tell Genji of Kashiwagi’s dying thoughts.

On a sad autumn evening he visited the Second Princess. She had apparently been having a quiet evening with her music. He was shown to a south room where instruments and music still lay scattered about. The rustling of silk and the rich perfume as a lady who had been out near the south veranda withdrew to the inner rooms had a sort of mysterious elegance that he found very exciting. It was the princess’s mother who as usual came out to receive him. For a time they exchanged reminiscences. Yūgiri’s own house was noisy and crowded and he was used to troops of unruly children. The Ichijō house was by contrast quiet and even lonely. Though the garden had been neglected, an air of courtly refinement still hung over house and garden alike. The flower beds caught the evening light in a profusion of bloom and the humming of autumn insects was as he had imagined it in an earlier season. He reached for a Japanese koto. Tuned now to a minor key, it seemed to have been much favored and still held the scent of the most recent player. This was no place, he thought, for the impetuous sort of young man. Unworthy impulses could too easily have their way, and the gossips something to amuse themselves with. Very competently, he played a strain on the koto he had so often heard Kashiwagi play.

“What a delight it was to hear him,” he said to the princess’s mother. “Dare I imagine that an echo of his playing might still be in the instrument, and that Her Highness might be persuaded to bring it out for us?”

“But the strings are broken, and she seems to have forgotten all that she ever knew. I am told that when His Majesty had his daughters at their instruments he did not think her the least talented of them. But so much time has gone by since she last had much heart for music, and I am afraid that it would only be cause to remember.”

“Yes, one quite understands. ‘Were it a world which puts an end to sorrow.’” Looking out over the garden, he pushed the koto towards the old lady.

“No, please. Let me hear more, so that I may decide whether an echo of his playing does indeed still remain in the instrument. Let it take away the unhappy sounds of more recent days.”

“But it is the sound of the middle string that is important. I cannot hope to have it from my own hand.”

He pushed the koto under the princess’s blinds, but she did not seem inclined to take it. He did not press her.

The moon had come out in a cloudless sky. And what sad, envious thoughts would the calls of the wild geese, each wing to wing with its mate, be summoning up? The breeze was chilly. In the autumn sadness she played a few notes, very faintly and tentatively, on a Chinese koto. He was deeply moved, but wished that he had heard more or nothing at all. Taking up a lute, he softly played the Chinese lotus song with all its intimate overtones.

“I would certainly not wish to seem forward, but I had hoped that you might have something to say in the matter.”

But it was a melody that brought inhibitions, and she kept her sad thoughts to herself.

“There is a shyness which is more affecting

Than any sound of word or sound of koto.”

Her response was to play the last few measures of the Chinese song. She added a poem:

“I feel the sadness, in the autumn night.

How can I speak of it if not through the koto?”

He was resentful that he had heard so little. The solemn tone of the Japanese koto, the melody which the one now gone had so earnestly taught her, were as they had always been, and yet there was something chilling, almost menacing in them.

“Well, I have plucked away on this instrument and that and kept my feelings no secret. My old friend is perhaps reproving me for having enjoyed so much of the autumn night with you. I shall come again, though you may be sure that I shall do nothing to upset you. Will you leave our koto as it is until then? People do have a way of thinking thoughts about a koto and about a lady.” And so he left hints, not too extremely broad, behind him.

“I doubt,” said the old lady, “that anyone could reprove us for enjoying ourselves this evening. You have made the evening seem short with honest talk of the old days. I am sure that if you were to let me hear more of your playing it would add years to my life.”

She gave him a flute as he left.

“It is said to have a rich past. I would hate to have it lost among these tangles of wormwood. You must play on it as you leave and drown out the calls of your runners. That would give me great pleasure.”

“Far too valuable an addition to my retinue.”

It did indeed have a rich past. It had been Kashiwagi’s favorite. Yūgiri had heard him say more than once that it had possibilities he had never done justice to, and that he wanted it to have an owner more worthy of it. Near tears once more, he blew a few notes in the banjiki mode, but did not finish the melody he had begun.

“My inept pluckings on the koto may perhaps be excused as a kind of memorial, but this flute leaves me feeling quite helpless, wholly inadequate.”

The old lady sent out a poem:

“The voices of insects are unchanged this autumn,

Rank though the grasses be round my dewy lodging.”

He sent back:

“The melody is as it always was.

The voices that mourn are inexhaustible.”

Though it was very late, he left with great reluctance.

His house was firmly barred and shuttered, and everyone seemed to be asleep. Kumoinokari’s women had suggested that his kindness to the Second Princess was more than kindness, and she was not pleased to have him coming home so late at night. It is possible that she was only pretending to be asleep.

“My mountain girl and I,” he sang, in a low but very good voice.

“This place is locked up like a fort. A dark hole of a place. Some people do not seem to appreciate moonlight.”

He had the shutters raised and himself rolled up the blinds. He went out to the veranda.

“Such a moon, and there are people sound asleep? Come on out. Be a little more friendly.”

But she was unhappy and pretended not to hear. Little children were sprawled here and there, sound asleep, and there were clusters of women, also asleep. It was a thickly populated scene, in sharp contrast to the mansion from which he had just come. He blew a soft strain on his new flute. And what would the princess be thinking in the wake of their interview? Would she indeed, as he had requested, leave the koto and the other instruments in the same tuning? Her mother was said to be very good on the Japanese koto. He lay down. In public Kashiwagi had shown his wife all the honors due a princess, but they had seemed strangely hollow. Yūgiri wanted very much to see her, and at the same time feared that he would be disappointed. One was often disappointed when the advance reports were so interesting. His thoughts turned to his own marriage. All through the years he had given not the smallest cause for jealousy. He had given his wife ample cause, perhaps, to be somewhat overbearing.

He dozed off and dreamed that Kashiwagi was beside him, dressed as on their last meeting. He had taken up the flute. How unsettling, Yūgiri said to himself, still dreaming, that his friend should still be after the flute.

“If it matters not which wind sounds the bamboo flute,

Then let its note be forever with my children.

“I did not mean it for you.”

Yūgiri was about to ask for an explanation when he was awakened by the screaming of a child. It was screaming very lustily, and vomiting. The nurse was with it, and Kumoinokari, sending for a light and pushing her hair roughly behind her ears, had taken it in her arms. A buxom lady, she was offering a well-shaped breast. She had no milk, but hoped that the breast would have a soothing effect. The child was fair-skinned and very pretty.

“What seems to be the trouble?” asked Yūgiri, coming inside.

The noise and confusion had quite driven away the sadness of the dream. One of the women was scattering rice to exorcise malign spirits.

“We have a sick child on our hands and here you are prancing and dashing about like a young boy. You open the shutters to enjoy your precious moonlight and let in a devil or two.”

He smiled. She was still very young and pretty. “They have found an unexpected guide. I suppose if it had not been for me they would have lost their way? A mother of many children acquires great wisdom.”

“Go away, if you will, please.” He was so handsome that she could think of nothing more severe to say. “You should not be watching.”

She did indeed seem to find the light too strong. Her shyness was not at all unattractive.

The child kept them awake the whole night.

Yūgiri went on thinking about the dream. The flute was threatening to raise difficulties. Kashiwagi was still attached to it, and so perhaps it should have stayed at Ichijō. It should not, in any case, have been passed on to Yūgiri by a woman. But what had Kashiwagi meant, and what would he be thinking now? Because of the regret and the longing he must wander in stubborn darkness, worrying about trifles. One did well to avoid such entanglements.

He had services read on Mount Otagi and at a temple favored by Kashiwagi. But what to do about the flute? It had a rich history, the old lady had said. Offered immediately to a temple it might do a little toward the repose of Kashiwagi’s soul. Yet he hesitated.

He visited Rokujō.

Genji, he was told, was with his daughter.

Murasaki had been given charge of the Third Prince, now three, the prettiest of Genji’s royal grandchildren. He came running up.

“If you’re going over there, General, take my royal highness with you.”

Yūgiri smiled at this immodest language. “If you wish to go. But am I to walk past a lady’s curtains without a by-your-leave? That would be very rude.” He took the little prince in his arms.

“No one will see. Look, I’ll cover your face. Let’s go, let’s go.”

He was charming as he covered Yūgiri’s face with his sleeves. The two of them went off to the Akashi princess’s apartments. The Second Prince was there, as was Genji’s little son. Genji was fondly watching them at play. Yūgiri deposited the Third Prince in a corner, where the Second Prince discovered him.

“Carry me too, General,” he commanded.

“He’s my general,” objected the Third Prince, refusing to dismiss him.

“Don’t you have any manners, the two of you?” said Genji. “He is supposed to guard your father, and you are appropriating him for yourselves. And you, young sir,” he said to the Third Prince, “are just a little too pushy. You are always trying to get the best of your brother.”

“And the other one,” said Yūgiri, “is very much the big brother, always willing to give way if it seems the right thing. Such a fine young gentleman that I’m already a little afraid of him.”

Genji smiled. They were both of them very fine lads indeed. “But come. This is no place for an important official to be wasting his time.”

He started off towards the east wing, trailing children behind him. His own little boy ought not to be so familiar with the princes — but the usual awareness of such things told him that any sort of discrimination would hurt the Third Princess. She had a bad conscience and was easily hurt. He too was a very pretty boy, and Genji had grown fond of him.

Yūgiri had seen very little of the boy. Picking up a fallen cherry branch he motioned towards the blinds. The boy came running out. He had on but a single robe, of a deep purple. The fair skin glowed, and there was in the round little figure something, an extraordinary refinement, that rather outdid the princes. Perhaps, thought Yūgiri, he had chanced to catch an unusual angle; but it did seem to him that there was remarkable strength in the eyes, and the arch of the eyebrows reminded him very much of Kashiwagi. And that sudden glow when he laughed — perhaps, thought Yūgiri, he had caught a very rare moment — but Genji must surely have noticed. He really must do a bit of probing.

The princes were princes, already proud and courtly, but they had the faces of pretty children, no more. I he other boy, he thought, looking from one child to another, had a most uncommon face and manner. How very sad. Tō no Chūjō, half lost to the world, kept asking why no one came demanding to be recognized as Kashiwagi’s son, why there were no keep-sakes. If Yūgiri’s suspicions were well founded, then to keep the secret from the bereaved grandfather would be a sin. But Yūgiri could not be sure. He still had no real solution to the puzzle, nothing to go on. He was delighted with the child, who seemed unusually gentle and affectionate.

They talked quietly on and it was evening. Genji listened smiling to Yūgiri’s account of his visit to Ichijō the evening before.

“So she played the lotus song. That is the sort of thing a lady with the old graces would do. Yet one might say that she allowed an ordinary conversation to take an unnecessarily suggestive turn. You behaved quite properly when you told her that you wished to carry out the wishes of a dead friend and be of assistance to her. The important thing is that you continue to behave properly. Both of you will find the clean, friendly sort of relationship the more rewarding.”

Yes, thought Yūgiri, his father had always been ready with good advice. And how would Genji himself have behaved in the same circumstances?

“How can you even suggest that there has been anything improper? I am being kind to her because her marriage lasted such a tragically short time, and what suspicions would it give rise to if my kindness were to be equally short-lived? Suggestive, you say. I might have been tempted to use the word if she had offered the lotus song on her own initiative. But the time was exactly right, and the gentle fragment I heard seemed exactly right too. She is not very young any more, and I think I am a rather steady sort, and so I suppose she felt comfortable with me. Everything tells me that she is a gentle, amiable sort of lady.”

The moment seemed ripe. Coming a little closer, he described his dream. Genji listened in silence and was not quick to answer. It did of course mean something to him.

“Yes, there are reasons why I should have the flute. It belonged to the Yōzei emperor and was much prized by the late Prince Shikibu. Remarking upon Kashiwagi’s skills, the prince gave it to him one day when we had gathered to admire the hagi. I should imagine that the princess’s mother did not quite know what she was doing when she gave it to you.”

He understood Kashiwagi’s reference to his own descendants. He suspected that Yūgiri was too astute not to have understood also.

The expression on Genji’s face made it difficult for Yūgiri to proceed, but having come this far, he wanted to tell everything. Hesitantly, as if he had just this moment thought of something else, he said: “I went to see him just before he died. He gave me a number of instructions, and said more than once that he had reasons for wanting very much to apologize to you. I have fretted a great deal over the remark, and even now I cannot imagine what he may have had in mind.”

He spoke very slowly and hesitantly. Genji was convinced that he did indeed know the truth. Yet there seemed no point in making a clean breast of things long past.

After seeming to turn the matter over in his mind for a time, he replied: “I must on some occasion have aroused his resentment by seeming to reveal sentiments which in fact were not mine. I cannot think when it might have been. I shall give some quiet thought to that dream of yours, and of course I shall let you know if I come upon anything that seems significant. I have heard women say that it is unlucky to talk about dreams at night.”

It had not been a very satisfying answer. One is told that Yūgiri was left feeling rather uncomfortable.

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