The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 38

The Bell Cricket

In the summer, when the lotuses were at their best, the Third Princess dedicated holy images for her chapel. All the chapel fittings to which Genji had given such careful attention were put to use. There were soft, rich banners of an unusual Chinese brocade which were Murasaki’s work, and the covers for the votive stands were of a similarly rich material, tie-dyed in subtle and striking colors. The curtains were raised on all four sides of the princess’s bedchamber, at the rear of which hung a Lotus Mandala. Proud blossoms of harmonious colors had been set out in silver vases, while a “hundred pace” Chinese incense spread through the chapel and beyond. The main image, an Amitābha, and the two attendants were graceful and delicately wrought, and all of sandalwood. The fonts, also small and delicate, held lotuses of white, blue, and purple. Lotus-leaf pellets compounded with a small amount of honey had been crushed to bits, to give off a fragrance that blended with the other to most wondrous effect.

The princess had had scrolls of the holy writ copied for each of the Six Worlds. Genji himself had copied a sutra for her own personal use, and asked in the dedication that, having thus plighted their troth, they be permitted to go hand in hand down the way to the Pure Land. He had also made a copy of the Amitābha Sutra. Fearing that Chinese paper might begin to crumble after frequent use, he had ordered a fine, unmarked paper from the royal provisioner. He had been hard at work since spring and the results quite justified his labors. A glimpse of an unrolled corner was enough to tell the most casual observer that it was a masterpiece. The gilt lines were very good, but the sheen of the black ink and the contrast with the paper were quite marvelous. I shall not attempt to describe the spindle, the cover, and the box, save to say that they were all of superb workmanship. On a new aloeswood stand with flared legs, it occupied a central place beside the holy trinity.

The chapel thus appointed, the officiants took their places and the procession assembled. Genji looked in upon the west antechamber, where the princess was in temporary residence. It seemed rather small, now crowded with some fifty or sixty elaborately dressed women, and rather warm as well. Indeed some of the little girls had been pushed out to the north veranda.

The censers were being tended so assiduously that the room was dark with their smoke. “An incense is sometimes more effective,” said Genji, thinking that these giddy novices needed advice, “when one can scarcely tell where it is coming from. This is like a smoldering Fuji. And when we gather for these ceremonies we like to get quietly to the heart of the matter, and would prefer to be without distractions. Too emphatic a rustling of silk, for instance, gives an unsettling awareness of being in a crowd.”

Tiny and pretty and overwhelmed by the crowd, the princess was leaning against an armrest.

“The boy is likely to be troublesome,” he added. “Suppose you have someone put him out of sight.”

Blinds hung along the north side of the room in place of the sliding doors, and it was there that the women were gathered. Asking for quiet, he gave the princess necessary instructions, politely and very gently. The sight of her bedchamber now made over into a chapel moved him to tears.

“And so here we are, rushing into monkish ceremonies side by side. Who would have expected it? Let us pray that we will share blossom-strewn lodgings in the next world.”

Borrowing her inkstone, he wrote a poem on her cloves-dyed fan:

“Separate drops of dew on the leaf of the lotus,

We vow that we will be one, on the lotus to come.”

She answered:

“Together, you say, in the lotus dwelling to come.

But may you not have certain reservations?”

“And so my proposal is rejected, and I am castigated for it?” He was smiling, but it was a sad, meditative smile.

There were as usual large numbers of princes in the congregation. The other Rokujō ladies had sought to outdo one another in the novelty and richness of their offerings, which quite overflowed the princess’s rooms. Murasaki had seen to the most essential provisions, robes for the seven officiants and the like. They were all of brocade, and people with an eye for such things could see that every detail, the most inconspicuous seam of a surplice, for instance, was of unusually fine workmanship. I feel compelled to touch upon very small details myself.

The sermon, by a most estimable cleric, described the significance of the occasion. It was entirely laudable, and food for profound thought, he said, that so young and lovely a lady should renounce the world and seek to find in the Lotus Sutra her future for all the lives to come. A gifted and eloquent man, he quite outdid himself today and had the whole congregation in tears.

Genji had wanted the dedication of the chapel and its images to be quiet and unpretentious, but the princess’s brother and father had word of the preparations and sent representatives, and the proceedings suddenly became rather elaborate. Ceremonies which Genji sought to keep simple had a way of becoming elaborate from the outset, and the brilliance of these added offerings made one wonder what monastery would be large enough to accommodate them.

Genji’s feelings for the princess had deepened since she had taken her vows. He was endlessly solicitous. Her father had indicated a hope that she might one day move to the Sanjō mansion, which he was giving her, and suggested that appearances might best be served if she were to go now.

“I would prefer otherwise,” said Genji. “I would much prefer to have her here with me, so that I can look after her and ask her this and tell her that — I would feel sadly deprived if she were to leave me. No one lives forever and I do not expect to live much longer. Please do not deny me the pleasure while I am here.”

He spared no expense in remodeling the Sanjō mansion, where he made arrangemements for storing the finest produce of her fields and pastures. He had new storehouses built and saw that all her treasures, gifts from her father and the rest, were put under heavy guard. He himself would be responsible for the general support of her large and complex household.

In the autumn he had the garden to the west of the main hall at Rokujō done over to look like a moor. The altar and all the votive dishes were in gentle, ladylike taste. The princess readily agreed that the older of her women, her nurse among them, follow her in taking vows. Among the younger ones she chose only those whose resolve seemed firm enough to last out their lives. All of the others, caught up in a certain contagion, were demanding that they be admitted to the company.

Genji did not at all approve of this flight to religion. “If any of you, I don’t care how few, are not ready for it, you are certain to cause mischief, and the world will say that you have been rash and hasty.”

Only ten or so of them finally took vows.

Genji had autumn insects released in the garden moor, and on evenings when the breeze was cooler he would come visiting. The insect songs his pretext, he would make the princess unhappy by telling her once again of his regrets. He seemed to have forgotten her vows, and in general his behavior was not easily condoned. It was proper enough when there were others present, but he managed to make it very clear to her that he knew of her misdeeds. It was chiefly because she found his attentions so distasteful that she had become a nun. She had hoped that she might now find peace — and here he was with endless regrets. She longed to withdraw to a retreat of her very own, but she was not one to say so.

On the evening of the full moon, not yet risen, she sat near the veranda of her chapel meditatively invoking the holy name. Two or three young nuns were arranging flowers before the holy images. The sounds of the nunnery, so far from the ordinary world, the clinking of the sacred vessels and the murmur of holy water, were enough to induce tears.

Genji paid one of his frequent visits. “What a clamor of insects you do have!” He joined her, very softly and solemnly, in the invocation to Amitābha.

None was brighter and clearer among the insects than the bell cricket, swinging into its song.

“They all have their good points, but Her Majesty seems to prefer the pine cricket. She sent some of her men a great distance to bring them in from the moors, but when she had them in her garden only a very few of them sang as sweetly for her as they had sung in the wilds. One would expect them to be as durable as pines, but in fact they seem to have short lives. They sing very happily off in forests and mountains where no one hears them, and that seems unsociable of them. These bell crickets of yours are so bright and cheerful.”

“The autumn is a time of deprivation,

I have thought — and yet have loved this cricket.”

She spoke very softly and with a quiet, gentle elegance.

“What can you mean,‘deprivation’?

“Although it has chosen to leave its grassy dwelling,

It cannot, this lovely insect, complain of neglect.”

He called for a koto and treated her to a rare concert. She quite forgot her beads. The moon having come forth in all its radiance, he sat gazing up at it, lost in thoughts of his own. What a changeable, uncertain world it is, he was thinking. His koto seemed to plead in sadder tones than usual.

Prince Hotaru, his brother, came calling, having guessed that on such an evening there would be music. Yūgiri was with him, and they were well and nobly attended. The sound of the koto led them immediately to the princess’s rooms.

“Please do not call it a concert; but in my boredom I thought I might have a try at the koto I have so long neglected. Here I am playing for myself. It was good of you to hear and to come.”

He invited the prince inside.

One after another the high courtiers came calling. There was to have been a moon-viewing fete at the palace, but it had been canceled, to their very great disappointment. Then had come word that people were gathering at Rokujō.

There were judgments upon the relative merits of the insect songs.

“One is always moved by the full moon,” said Genji, as instrument after instrument joined the concert,” but somehow the moon this evening takes me to other worlds. Now that Kashiwagi is no longer with us I find that everything reminds me of him. Something of the joy, the luster, has gone out of these occasions. When we were talking of the moods of nature, the flowers and the birds, he was the one who had interesting and sensitive things to say.”

The sound of his own koto had brought him to tears. He knew that the princess, inside her blinds, would have heard his remarks about Kashiwagi.

The emperor too missed Kashiwagi on nights when there was music.

Genji suggested that the whole night be given over to admiring the bell cricket. He had just finished his second cup of wine, however, when a message came from the Reizei emperor. Disappointed at the sudden cancellation of the palace fete, Kōbai and Shikibu no Tayū had appeared at the Reizei Palace, bringing with them some of the more talented poets of the day. They had heard that Yūgiri and the others were at Rokujō.

“It does not forget, the moon of the autumn night,

A corner remote from that realm above the clouds.

“Do please come, if you have no other commitments.”

Even though he in fact had few commitments these days and the Reizei emperor was living in quiet retirement, Genji seldom went visiting. It was sad that the emperor should have found it necessary to send for him. Despite the suddenness of the invitation he immediately began making ready.

“In your cloud realm the moonlight is as always,

And here we see that autumn means neglect.”

It was not a remarkable poem, but it was honest, speaking of past intimacy and recent neglect. The messenger was offered wine and richly rewarded.

The procession, led by numerous outrunners and including Yūgiri and his friends Saemon no Kami and Tōsaishō, formed in order of rank, and so Genji gave up his quiet evening at home. Long trains gave a touch of formality to casual court dress. It was late and the moon was high, and the young men played this and that air on their flutes as the spirit moved them. It was an unobtrusively elegant progress. Bothersome ceremony always went with a formal meeting, and Genji wished this one to take them back to days when he had been less encumbered. The Reizei emperor was delighted. His resemblance to Genji was more striking as the years went by. The emperor had chosen to abdicate when he still had his best years ahead of him, and had found much in the life of retirement that pleased him.

The poetry, in Chinese and Japanese, was uniformly interesting and evocative, but I have fallen into an unfortunate habit of passing on but a random sampling of what I have heard, and shall say no more. The Chinese poems were read as dawn came over the sky, and soon afterwards the visitors departed.

Genji called on Akikonomu before returning to Rokujō.

“Now that you are not so busy,” he said, “I often think how good it would be to pass the time of day with you and talk of the things one does not forget. But I am neither in nor out of the world, a very tiresome position. My meditations on the uselessness of it all are unsettled by an awareness of how many people younger than I are moving ahead down the true path; and so I want more and more to find myself a retreat away from everything. I have asked you to look after the one I would be leaving behind. I am sure that I can count on you.”

“I almost think that you are more inaccessible than when all those public affairs stood between us.” She managed, as always, to seem both youthful and wise. “The thought that I would no longer have your kind advice and attention has been my chief reason for not following the example of so many others in renouncing the world. I have been very dependent on you and it is a painful thought.”

“I awaited with the greatest pleasure the visits which protocol allowed you to make, and know that I should not expect to see much of you now. It is an uncertain and unreliable world, and yet one is attached to it, and unless there are very compelling reasons cannot easily give it up. Even when the right time seems to have come and everything seems in order, the ties still remain. It must be with you as with everyone else, and if you join the competition for salvation which we see all around us you may be sure that your detractors will put the wrong light upon your conduct. I do hope that you can be persuaded to give up all thought of it.”

She feared that he did not, after all, understand. And in what smokes of hell would her poor mother be wandering? Genji had told no one that the vengeful spirit of the Rokujō lady had paid yet another visit. People will talk, however, and reports had presently reached Akikonomu, to make the whole world seem harsh and inhospitable. She wanted to hear her mother’s exact words, or at least a part of them, but she could not bring herself to ask.

“I have been told, though I have no very precise information, that my mother died carrying a heavy burden of sin. Everything I know convinces me that it is true, but I fear I have been feeling too sorry for myself to do very much for her. I have been feeling very guilty and apologetic. I have become more and more convinced that I must find a holy man and ask him to be my guide in doing what should be done toward dispelling the smokes and fires.”

Genji was deeply moved. He quite understood her feelings. “Most of us face those same fires, and yet a life as brief as the time of the morning dew continues to make its demands on us. We are told that among the disciples of the Blessed One there was a man who found immediate help in this world for a mother suffering in another, but it is an achievement which few of us can hope to imitate. Regrets would remain for the jeweled tresses which you propose to cut. No, what you must do is strengthen yourself in the faith and pray that the flames are extinguished. I have had the same wishes, and still the days have gone purposelessly by, and the quiet for which I long seems very far away. In the quiet I could add prayers for her to prayers for myself, and these delays seem very foolish.” So they talked of a world which, for all its trials and uncertainties, is not easy to leave.

What had begun as a casual visit had attracted the notice of the whole court, and courtiers of the highest ranks were with Genji when he left in the morning. He had no worries for the Akashi princess, so responsive to all his hopes and efforts, or for Yūgiri, who had attained to remarkable eminence for his age. He thought rather more about the Reizei emperor than about either of them. It was because he had wanted to be master of his own time and to see more of Genji that the Reizei emperor had been so eager to abdicate.

Akikonomu found it harder than ever to visit Rokujō. She was now beside her husband like any ordinary housewife. There were concerts and other pleasures, and life was in many ways more interesting than before, the serenity disturbed only by fears for her mother. She turned more and more to her prayers, but had little hope that the Reizei emperor would let her become a nun. Prayers for her mother made her more aware than ever of the evanescence of things.

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