The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 40

The Rites

Murasaki had been in uncertain health since her great illness. Although there were no striking symptoms and there had been no recurrence of the crisis that had had her near death, she was progressively weaker. Genji could not face the thought of surviving her by even a day Murasaki’s one regret was that she must cause him pain and so be unfaithful to their vows. For the rest, she had no demands to make upon this world and few ties with it. She was ready to go, and wanted only to prepare herself for the next world. Her deepest wish, of which she sometimes spoke, had long been to give herself over entirely to prayers and meditations. But even now Genji refused to hear of it.

Yet he had for some time had similar wishes. Perhaps the time had come and they should take their vows together. He would permit himself no backward glances, however, once the decision was made. They had promised, and neither of them doubted, that they would one day have their places side by side upon the same lotus, but they must live apart, he was determined, a peak between them even if they were on the same mountain, once they had taken their vows. They would not see each other again. The sight of her now, ravaged with illness, made him fear that the final separation would be too much for him. The clear waters of their mountain retreat would be muddied. Years went by, and he had been left far behind by people who, their conversion far from thorough, had taken holy orders heedlessly and impulsively.

It would have been ill mannered of Murasaki to insist on having her way, and she would be running against her own deeper wishes if she opposed his; and so resentment at his unyielding ways was tempered by a feeling that she might be at fault herself.

For some years now she had had scriveners at work on the thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra that were to be her final offering to the Blessed One. They had their studios at Nijō, which she still thought of as home. Now the work was finished, and she made haste to get ready for the dedication. The robes of the seven priests were magnificent, as were all the other details. Not wanting to seem insistent, she had not asked Genji’s help, and he had stayed discreetly in the background. No other lady, people said, could have arranged anything so fine. Genji marveled that she should be so conversant with holy ritual, and saw once again that nothing which she set her mind to was beyond her. His own part in the arrangements had been of the most general and perfunctory sort. Yūgiri gave a great deal of time and thought to the music and dancing. The emperor, the empresses, the crown prince, and the ladies at Rokujō limited themselves to formal oblations, and even these threatened to overflow the Nijō mansion. There were others as well, all through the court, who wanted some small part in the ceremonies, which in the end were so grand that people wondered when she might have commenced laying her plans. They suggested a holy resolve going back through all the ages of the god of Furu. The lady of the orange blossoms and the lady of Akashi were among those who assembled at Nijō. Murasaki’s place was in a walled room to the west of the main hall, sequestered but for doors at the south and east opening upon the ceremonies. The other ladies were in the northern rooms, separated from the altar by screens.

It was the tenth day of the Third Month. The cherries were in bloom and the skies were pleasantly clear. One felt that Amitābha’s paradise could not be far away, and for even the less than devout it was as if a burden of sin were being lifted. At the grand climax the voices of the brushwood bearers and of all the priests rose to describe in solemn tones the labors of the Blessed One, and then there was silence, more eloquent than the words. It spoke to the least sensitive of those present, and it spoke worlds to her for whom everything these days was vaguely, delicately sad.

She sent a poem to the Akashi lady through little Niou, the Third Prince:

“I have no regrets as I bid farewell to this life.

Yet the dying away of the fire is always sad.”

If the lady’s answer seemed somewhat cool and noncommittal, it may have been because she wished above all to avoid theatrics.

“Our prayers, the first of them borne in on brushwood,

Shall last the thousand years of the Blessed One’s toils.”

The chanting went on all through the night, and the drums beat intricate rhythms. As the first touches of dawn came over the sky the scene was is if made especially for her who so loved the spring. All across the garden cherries were a delicate veil through spring mists, and bird songs rose numberless, as if to outdo the flutes. One would have thought that the possibilities of beauty were here exhausted, and then the dancer on the stage became the handsome General Ling, and as the dance gathered momentum and the delighted onlookers stripped off multicolored robes and showered them upon him, the season and the occasion brought a yet higher access of beauty. All the finest performers among the princes and grandees had quite outdone themselves. Looking out upon all this joy and beauty, Murasaki thought how little time she had left.

She was almost never up for a whole day, and today she was back in bed again. These were the familiar faces, the people who had gathered over the years. They had delighted her one last time with flute and koto. Some had meant more to her than others. She gazed intently at the most distant of them and thought that she could never have enough of those who had been her companions at music and the other pleasures of the seasons. There had been rivalries, of course, but they had been fond of one another. All of them would soon be gone, making their way down the unknown road, and she must make her lonely way ahead of them.

The services were over and the other Rokujō ladies departed. She was sure that she would not see them again. She sent a poem to the lady of the orange blossoms:

“Although these holy rites must be my last,

The bond will endure for all the lives to come.”

This was the reply:

“For all of us the time of rites is brief.

More durable by far the bond between us.”

They were over, and now they were followed by solemn and continuous readings from the holy writ, including the Lotus Sutra. The Nijō mansion had become a house of prayers. When they seemed to do no good for its ailing lady, readings were commissioned at favored temples and holy places.

Murasaki had always found the heat very trying. This summer she was near prostration. Though there were no marked symptoms and though there was none of the unsightliness that usually goes with emaciation, she was progressively weaker. Her women saw the world grow dark before their eyes as they contemplated the future.

Distressed at reports that there was no improvement, the empress visited Nijō. She was given rooms in the east wing and Murasaki waited to receive her in the main hall. Though there was nothing unusual about the greetings, they reminded Murasaki, as indeed did everything, that the empress’s little children would grow up without her. The attendants announced themselves one by one, some of them very high courtiers. A familiar voice, thought Murasaki, and another. She had not seen the em press in a very long while and hung on the conversation with fond and eager attention.

Genji looked in upon them briefly. “You find me disconsolate this evening,” he said to the empress, “a bird turned away from its nest. But I shall not bore you with my complaints.” He withdrew. He was delighted to see Murasaki out of bed, but feared that the pleasure must be a fleeting one.

“We are so far apart that I would not dream of troubling you to visit me, and I fear that it will not be easy for me to visit you.”

After a time the Akashi lady came in. The two ladies addressed each other affectionately, though Murasaki left a great deal unsaid. She did not want to be one of those who eloquently prepare the world to struggle along without them. She did remark briefly and quietly upon the evanescence of things, and her wistful manner said more than her words.

Genji’s royal grandchildren were brought in.

“I spend so much time imagining futures for you, my dears. Do you suppose that I do after all hate to go?”

Still very beautiful, she was in tears. The empress would have liked to change the subject, but could not think how.

“May I ask a favor?” said Murasaki, very casually, as if she hesitated to bring the matter up at all. “There are numbers of people who have been with me for a very long while, and some of them have no home but this. Might I ask you to see that they are taken care of?” And she gave the names.

Having commissioned a reading from the holy writ, the empress returned to her rooms.

Little Niou, the prettiest of them all, seemed to be everywhere at once. Choosing a moment when she was feeling better and there was no one else with her, she seated him before her.

“I may have to go away. Will you remember me.”

“But I don’t want you to go away.” He gazed up at her, and presently he was rubbing at his eyes, so charming that she was smiling through her tears. “I like my granny, better than Father and Mother. I don’t want you to go away.”

“This must be your own house when you grow up. I want the rose plum and the cherries over there to be yours. You must take care of them and say nice things about them, and sometimes when you think of it you might put flowers on the altar.”

He nodded and gazed up at her, and then abruptly, about to burst into tears, he got up and ran out. It was Niou and the First Princess whom Murasaki most hated to leave. They had been her special charges, and she would not live to see them grow up.

The cool of autumn, so slow to come, was at last here. Though far from well, she felt somewhat better. The winds were still gentle, but it was a time of heavy dews all the same. She would have liked the empress to stay with her just a little while longer but did not want to say so. Messengers had come from the emperor, all of them summoning the empress back to court, and she did not want to put the empress in a difficult position. She was no longer able to leave her room, however much she might want to respect the amenities, and so the empress called on her. Apologetic and at the same time very grateful, for she knew that this might be their last meeting, she had made careful preparations for the visit.

Though very thin, she was more beautiful than ever — one would not have thought it possible. The fresh, vivacious beauty of other years had asked to be likened to the flowers of this earth, but now there was a delicate serenity that seemed to go beyond such present similes. For the empress the slight figure before her, the very serenity bespeaking evanescence, was utter sadness.

Wishing to look at her flowers in the evening light, Murasaki pulled herself from bed with the aid of an armrest.

Genji came in. “Isn’t this splendid? I imagine Her Majesty’s visit has done wonders for you.”

How pleased he was at what was in fact no improvement at all — and how desolate he must soon be!

“So briefly rests the dew upon the hagi.

Even now it scatters in the wind.”

It would have been a sad evening in any event, and the plight of the dew even now being shaken from the tossing branches, thought Genji, must seem to the sick lady very much like her own.

“In the haste we make to leave this world of dew,

May there be no time between the first and last.”

He did not try to hide his tears.

And this was the empress’s poem:

“A world of dew before the autumn winds.

Not only theirs, these fragile leaves of grass.”

Gazing at the two of them, each somehow more beautiful than the other, Genji wished that he might have them a thousand years just as they were; but of course time runs against these wishes. That is the great, sad truth.

“Would you please leave me?” said Murasaki. “I am feeling rather worse. I do not like to know that I am being rude and find myself unable to apologize.” She spoke with very great difficulty.

The empress took her hand and gazed into her face. Yes, it was indeed like the dew about to vanish away. Scores of messengers were sent to commission new services. Once before it had seemed that she was dying, and Genji hoped that whatever evil spirit it was might be persuaded to loosen its grip once more. All through the night he did everything that could possibly be done, but in vain. Just as light was coming she faded away. Some kind power above, he thought, had kept the empress with her through the night. He might tell himself, as might all the others who had been with her, that these things have always happened and will continue to happen, but there are times when the natural order of things is unacceptable. The numbing grief made the world itself seem like a twilight dream. The women tried in vain to bring their wandering thoughts together. Fearing for his father, more distraught even than they, Yūgiri had come to him.

“It seems to be the end,” said Genji, summoning him to Murasaki’s curtains. “To be denied one’s last wish is a cruel thing. I suppose that their reverences will have finished their prayers and left us, but someone qualified to administer vows must still be here. We did not do a great deal for her in this life, but perhaps the Blessed One can be persuaded to turn a little light on the way she must take into the next. Tell them, please, that I want someone to give the tonsure. There is still someone with us who can do it, surely?”

He spoke with studied calm, but his face was drawn and he was weeping.

“But these evil spirits play very cruel tricks,” replied Yūgiri, only slightly less benumbed than his father. “Don’t you suppose the same thing has happened all over again? Your suggestion is of course quite proper. We are told that even a day and a night of the holy life brings untold blessings. But suppose this really is the end — can we hope that anything we do will throw so very much light on the way she must go? No, let us come to terms with the sorrow we have before us and try not to make it worse.”

But he summoned several of the priests who had stayed on, wishing to be of service through the period of mourning, and asked them to do whatever could still be done.

He could congratulate himself on his filial conduct over the years, upon the fact that he had permitted himself no improper thoughts; but he had had one fleeting glimpse of her, and he had gone on hoping that he might one day be permitted another, even as brief, or that he might hear her voice, even faintly. The second hope had come to nothing, and the other — if he did not see her now he never would see her. He was in tears himself, and the room echoed with the laments of the women.

“Do please try to be a little quieter, just for a little while.” He lifted the curtains as he spoke, making it seem that Genji had summoned him. In the dim morning twilight Genji had brought a lamp near Murasaki’s dead face. He knew that Yūgiri was beside him, but somehow felt that to screen this beauty from his son’s gaze would only add to the anguish.

“Exactly as she was,” he whispered. “But as you see, it is all over.”

He covered his face. Yūgiri too was weeping. He brushed the tears away and struggled to see through them as the sight of the dead face brought them flooding back again. Though her hair had been left untended through her illness, it was smooth and lustrous and not a strand was out of place. In the bright lamplight the skin was a purer, more radiant white than the living lady, seated at her mirror, could have made it. Her beauty, as if in untroubled sleep, emptied words like “peerless” of all content. He almost wished that the spirit which seemed about to desert him might be given custody of the unique loveliness before him.

Since Murasaki’s women were none of them up to such practical matters, Genji forced himself to think about the funeral arrangements. He had known many sorrows, but none quite so near at hand, demanding that he and no one else do what must be done. He had known nothing like it, and he was sure that there would be nothing like it in what remained of his life.

Everything was finished in the course of the day. We are not permitted to gaze upon the empty shell of the locust. The wide moor was crowded with people and carriages. The services were solemn and dignified, and she ascended to the heavens as the frailest wreath of smoke. It is the way of things, but it seemed more than anyone should be asked to endure. Helped to the scene by one or two of his men, he felt as if the earth had given way beneath him. That such a man could be so utterly defeated, thought the onlookers; and there was no one among the most insensitive of menials who was not reduced to tears. For Murasaki’s women, it was as if they were wandering lost in a nightmare. Threatening to fall from their carriages, they put the watchfulness of the grooms to severe test. Genji remembered the death of his first wife, Yūgiri’s mother. Perhaps he had been in better control of himself then — he could remember that there had been a clear moon that night. Tonight he was blinded with tears. Murasaki had died on the fourteenth and it was now the morning of the fifteenth. The sun rose clear and the dew had no hiding place. Genji thought of the world he must return to, bleak and comfortless. How long must he go on alone? Perhaps he could make grief his excuse for gratifying the old, old wish and leaving the world behind. But he did not want to be remembered as a weakling. He would wait until the immediate occasion had passed, he decided, his heart threatening to burst within him.

Yūgiri stayed at his father’s side all through the period of mourning. Genuinely concerned, he did what he could for the desperately grieving Genji. A high wind came up one evening, and he remembered with a new onset of sorrow an evening of high winds long before. He had seen her so briefly, and at her death that brief glimpse had been like a dream. Invoking the name of Lord Amitābha, he sought to drive away these almost unbearable memories — and to let his tears lose themselves among the beads of his rosary.

“I remember an autumn evening long ago

As a dream in the dawn when we were left behind.”

He set the reverend gentlemen to repeating the holy name and to reading the Lotus Sutra, very sad and very moving. Still Genji’s tears flowed on. He thought back over his life. Even the face he saw in the mirror had seemed to single him out for unusual honors, but there had very earl y been signs that the Blessed One meant him more than others to know the sadness and evanescence of things. He had made his way ahead in the world as if he had not learned the lesson. And now had come grief which surely did single him out from all men, past and future. He would have nothing more to do with the world. Nothing need stand in the way of his devotions. Nothing save his uncontrollable grief, which he feared would not permit him to enter the path he so longed to take. He prayed to Amitābha for even a small measure of forgetfulness.

Many had come in person to pay condolences, and there had been messages from the emperor and countless others, all of them going well beyond conventional expressions of sympathy. Though he had no heart for them, he did not want the world to think him a ruined old man. He had had a good and eventful life, and he did not want to be numbered among those who were too weak to go on. And so to grief was added dissatisfaction at his inability to follow his deepest wishes.

There were frequent messages from Tō no Chūjō, who always did the right thing on sad occasions and who was honestly saddened that such loveliness should have passed so swiftly. His sister, Yūgiri’s mother, had died at just this time of the year, and so many of the people who had sent condolences then had themselves died since. There was so very little time between the first and 1ast. He gazed out into the gathering darkness and presently set down his thoughts in a long and moving letter which he had delivered to Genji by one of his sons and which contained this poem:

“It is as if that autumn had come again

And tears for the one were falling on tears for the other.”

This was Genji’s answer:

“The dews of now are the dews of long ago,

And autumn is always the saddest time of all.”

“It is very kind of you to write so often,” he added, not wanting his perceptive friend to guess how thoroughly the loss had undone him. He wore darker mourning than the gray weeds of that other autumn.

The successful and happy sometimes arouse envy, and sometimes they let pride and vanity have their way and bring unhappiness to others. It was not so with Murasaki, whom the meanest of her servants had loved and the smallest of whose acts had seemed admirable. There was something uniquely appealing about her, having to do, perhaps, with the fact that she always seemed to be thinking of others. The wind in the trees and the insect songs in the grasses brought tears this autumn to the eyes of many who had not known her, and her intimates wondered when they might find consolation. The women who had long been with her saw the life they must live without her as utter bleakness. Some of them, wishing to be as far as possible from the world, went off into remote mountain nunneries.

There were frequent messages from Akikonomu, seeking to describe an infinite sorrow.

“I think that now, finally, I understand.

“She did not like the autumn, that I knew —

Because of the wasted moors that now surround us?”

Hers were the condolences that meant most, the letters that spoke to Genji through the numbness of his heart. He wept quietly on, lost in a sad reverie, and took a very long time with his answer.

“Look down upon me from your cloudy summit,

Upon the dying autumn which is my world.”

He folded it into an envelope and still held it in his hand. He had taken residence in the women’s quarters, not wanting people to see what a useless dotard he had become. A very few women with him, he lost himself in prayer. He and Murasaki had exchanged their vows for a thousand years, and already she had left him. His thoughts must now be on that other world. The dew upon the lotus: it was what he must strive to become, and nothing must be allowed to weaken the resolve. Alas, he did still worry about the name he had made for himself in this world.

Yūgiri took charge of the memorial services. If they had been left to Genji they would have been managed far less efficiently. He would take his vows today, Genji told himself; he would take his vows today. Dream-like, the days went by.

The empress too remained inconsolable.

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