The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 41

The Wizard

Bright spring was dark this year. There was no relief from the sadness of the old year. Genji had callers as always, but he said that he was not well and remained in seclusion. He made an exception for his brother, Prince Hotaru, whom he invited behind his curtains.

“And why has spring so graciously come to visit

A lodging where there is none to admire the blossoms?”

The prince was in tears as he replied:

“You take me for the usual viewer of blossoms?

If that is so, I seek their fragrance in vain.”

He went out to admire the rose plum, and Genji was reminded of other springs. And who indeed was there to admire these first blossoms? He had arranged no concerts this year. In very many ways it was unlike the springs of other years.

The women who had been longest in attendance on Murasaki still wore dark mourning, and acceptance and resignation still eluded them. Their one real comfort was that Genji had not gone back to Rokujō. He was still here at Nijō, for them to serve. Although he had had no serious affairs with any of them, he had favored one and another from time to time. He might have been expected, in his loneliness, to favor them more warmly now, but the old desires seemed to have left him. Even the women on night duty slept outside his curtains. Sometimes, to break the tedium, he would talk of the old years. He would remember, now that romantic affairs meant so little to him, how hurt Murasaki had been by involvements of no importance at all. Why had he permitted himself even the trivial sort of dalliance for which he had felt no need to apologize? Murasaki had been too astute not to guess his real intentions; and yet, though she had been quick to recover from fits of jealousy which were never violent in any event, the fact was that she had suffered. Each little incident came back, until he felt that he had no room in his heart for them all. Sometimes a woman would comment briefly on an incident to which she had been witness, for there were women still with him who had seen everything.

Murasaki had given not the smallest hint of resentment when the Third Princess had come into the house. He had known all the same that she was upset, and he had been deeply upset in his turn. He remembered the snowy morning, a morning of dark, roiling clouds, when he had been kept waiting outside her rooms until he was almost frozen. She had received him quietly and affectionately and tried to hide her damp sleeves. All through the wakeful nights he thought of her courage and strength and longed to have them with him again, even in a dream.

“Just see what a snow we have had!” One of the women seemed to be returning to her own room. It was snowy dawn, just as then, and he was alone. That was the tragic difference.

“The snow will soon have left this gloomy world.

My days must yet go on, an aimless drifting.”

Having finished his ablutions, he turned as usual to his prayers. A woman gathered embers from the ashes of the night before and another brought in a brazier. Chūnagon and Chūjō were with him.

“Every night is difficult when you are alone, but last night was worse than most of them. I was a fool not to leave it all behind long ago.”

How sad life would be for these women if he were to renounce the world! His voice rising and falling in the silence of the chapel as he read from a sutra had always had a strange power to move, unlike any other, and for the women who served him it now brought tears that were not to be held back.

“I have always had everything,” he said to them. “That was the station in life I was born to. Yet it has always seemed that I was meant for sad things too. I have often wondered whether the Blessed One was not determined to make me see more than others what a useless, insubstantial world it is. I pretended that I did not see the point, and now as my life comes to a close I know the ultimate in sorrow. I see and accept my own inadequacies and the disabilities I brought with me from other lives. There is nothing, not the slenderest bond, that still ties me to the world. No, that is not true: there are you who seem so much nearer than when she was alive. It will be very hard to say goodbye.”

He dried his tears and still they flowed on. The women were weeping so piteously that they could not tell him what sorrow it would be to leave him.

In sad twilight in the morning and evening he would summon the women who had meant most to him. He had known Chūjō since she was a little girl, and would seem to have favored her with discreet attentions. She had been too fond of Murasaki to let the affair go on for very long, and he thought of her now, with none of the old desire, as one of Murasaki’s favorites, a sort of memento the dead lady had left behind. A pretty, good-natured woman, she was, so to speak, a yew tree nearer the dead lady’s grave than most.

He saw only the closest intimates. His brothers, good friends among the high courtiers — they all came calling, but for the most part he declined to see them. Try though he might to control himself, he feared that his senility and his crankish ways would shock callers and be what future generations would remember him by. People might assume, of course, that his retirement was itself evidence of senility, and that would be a pity; but it could be far worse to have people actually see him. Even Yūgiri he addressed through curtains and blinds. He had decided that he would bide his time until talk of the change in him had stopped and then take holy orders. He paid very brief calls at Rokujō, but because the flow of tears was only more torrential he was presently neglecting the Rokujō ladies.

The empress, his daughter, returned to court, leaving little Niou to keep him company. Niou remembered the instructions his “granny” had left and was most solicitous of the rose plum at the west wing. Genji thought it very kind of him, and completely charming. The Second Month had come, and plum trees in bloom and in bud receded into a delicate mist. Catching the bright song of a warbler in the rose plum that had been Murasaki’s especial favorite, Genji went out to the veranda.

“The warbler has come again. It does not know

That the mistress of its tree is here no more.”

It was high spring and the garden was as it had always been. He tried not to remember, but everything his eye fell on brought such trains of memory that he longed to be off in the mountains, where no birds sing. Tears darkened the yellow cascade of yamabuki. In most gardens the cherry blossoms had fallen. Here at Nijō the birch cherry followed the double cherries and presently it was time for the wisteria. Murasaki had brought all the spring trees, early and late, into her garden, and each came into bloom in its turn.

My cherry,” said Niou. “Can’t we do something to keep it going? Maybe if we put up curtains all around and fasten them down tight. Then the wind can’t get at it.”

He was so pretty and so pleased with his proposal that Genji had to smile. “You are cleverer by a great deal than the man who wanted to cover the whole sky with his sleeve.” Niou was his one companion.

“It may be that we can’t go on being friends much longer,” he continued, feeling as always that tears were not far away. “We may not be able to see each other, even if it turns out that I still have some life left in me.”

The boy tugged uncomfortably at his sleeve and looked down. “Do you have to say what Granny said?”

At a corner balustrade, or at Murasaki’s curtains, Genji would sit gazing down into the garden. Some of the women were still in dark weeds, and those who had changed back to ordinary dress limited themselves to somber, unfigured cloths. Genji was in subdued informal dress. The rooms were austerely furnished and the house was hushed and lonely.

“Taking the final step, I must abandon

The springtime hedge that meant so much to her.”

No one was hurrying him off into a cell. It would be his own doing, and yet he was sad.

With time heavy on his hands, he visited the Third Princess. Niou and his nurse came along. As usual, Niou was everywhere, and the company of Kaoru, the princess’s little boy, seemed to make him forget his fickle cherry blossoms. The princess was in her chapel, a sutra in her hands. Genji had never found her very interesting or exciting, but he had to admire this quiet devotion, untouched, apparently, by regrets for the world and its pleasures. How bitterly ironical that this shallow little creature should have left him so far behind!

The flowers on the altar were lovely in the evening light.

“She is no longer here to enjoy her spring flowers, and I am afraid that they do very little for me these days. But if they are beautiful anywhere it is on an altar.” He paused. “And her yamabuki— it is in bloom as I cannot remember having seen it before. The sprays are gigantic. It is not a flower that insists on being admired for its elegance, and that may be why it seems so bright and cheerful. But why do you suppose it chose this year to come into such an explosion of bloom? — almost as if it wanted us to see how indifferent it is to our sorrows.”

“Spring declines to come to my dark valley,” she replied, somewhat nonchalantly.

Hardly an appropriate allusion. Even in the smallest matters Murasaki had seemed to know exactly what was wanted of her. So it had been to the end. And in earlier years? All the images in his memory spoke of sensitivity and understanding in mood and manner and words. And so once again he was letting one of his ladies see him in maudlin tears.

Evening mists came drifting in over the garden, which was very beautiful indeed.

He went to look in on the Akashi lady. She was startled to see him after such a long absence, but she received him with calm dignity. Yes, she was a superior lady. And Murasaki’s superiority had been of a different sort. He talked quietly of the old years.

“I was very soon taught what a mistake it is to be fond of anyone. I tried to make sure that I had no strong ties with the world. There was that time when the whole world seemed to turn against me. If it did not want me, I had nothing to ask of it. I could see no reason why I should not end my days off in the mountains. And now the end is coming and I still have not freed myself of the old ties. I go on as you see me. What a weakling I do seem to be.”

He spoke only indirectly of the matter most on his mind, but she understood and sympathized. “Even people whom the world could perfectly well do without have lingering regrets, and for you the regrets must be enormous. But I think that if you were to act too hastily the results might be rather unhappy. People will think you shallow and flighty and you will not be happy with yourself. I should imagine that the difficult decisions are the firmest once they are made. I have heard of so many people who have thrown away everything because of a little surprise or setback that really has not mattered in the least. That is not what you want. Be patient for a time, and if your resolve has not weakened when your grandchildren are grown up and their lives seem in order — I shall have no objections and indeed I shall be happy for you.”

It was good advice. “But the caution at the heart of the patience you recommend is perhaps even worse than shallowness.”

He spoke of the old days as memories came back. “When Fujitsubo died I thought the cherry trees should be in black. I had had so much time when I was a boy to admire her grace and beauty, and it may have been for that reason that I seemed to be the saddest of all when she died. Grief does not correspond exactly with love. When an old and continuous relationship comes to an end, the sorrow is not just for the relationship itself. The memory of the girl who was presently a woman and of all the years until suddenly at the end of your own life you are alone — this is too much to be borne. It is the proliferation of memories, some of them serious and some of them amusing, that makes for the deepest sorrow.”

He talked on into the night of things old and new, and was half inclined to spend the night with her; but presently he made his departure. She looked sadly after him, and he was puzzled at his own behavior.

Alone once more, he continued his devotions on through the night, resting only briefly in his drawing room. Early in the morning he got off a letter to the Akashi lady, including this poem:

“I wept and wept as I made my slow way homewards.

It is a world in which nothing lasts forever.

Though his abrupt departure had seemed almost insulting, she was in tears as she thought of the dazed, grieving figure, somehow absent, so utterly unlike the old Genji.

“The wild goose has flown, the seedling rice is dry.

Gone is the blossom the water once reflected.”

The hand was as always beautiful. He remembered Murasaki’s resentment towards the Akashi lady. They had in the end become good friends, and yet a certain stiffness had remained. Murasaki had kept her distance. Had anyone except Genji himself been aware of it? He would sometimes look in on the Akashi lady when the loneliness was too much for him, but he never stayed the night.

It was time to change into summer robes. New robes came from the lady of the orange blossoms, and with them a poem:

“It is the day of the donning of summer robes,

And must there be a renewal of memories?”

He sent back:

“Thin as the locust’s wing, these summer robes,

Reminders of the fragility of life.”

The Kamo festival seemed very remote indeed from the dullness of his daily round.

“Suppose you all have a quiet holiday,” he said to the women, fearing that the tedium must be even more oppressive today than on most days. “Go and see what the people at home are up to.”

Chūjō was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

“It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,” he said, picking it up, “that I have even forgotten the name.”

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

“With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!

All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.”

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

“The things of this world mean little to me now,

And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.”

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yūgiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was for only a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, “unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.” The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

“The voice of rain at the window,” whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yūgiri wished it might have been heard “at the lady’s hedge.”

“I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,” said Genji, “but I do find myself restless and despondent. I should imagine that after this sort of thing a mountain hermitage might come as a relief. Bring something for our guest,” he called to the women. “I suppose it is too late to send for the men.”

Yūgiri wished that his father were not forever gazing up into the sky as if looking for someone there. This inability to forget must surely stand in the way of salvation. But if he himself was unable to forget the one brief glimpse he had had of her, how could he reprove his father?

“It seems like only yesterday, and here we are at the first anniversary. What plans do you have for it?”

“Only the most ordinary sort. This is the time, I think, to dedicate the Paradise Mandala she had done, and of course she had a great many sutras copied. The bishop, I can’t think of his name, knows exactly what she wanted. He should be able to give all the instructions.”

“Yes, she seems to have thought about these things a great deal, and I am sure that they are a help to her wherever she is now. We know, of course, what a fragile bond she had with this world, and the saddest thing is that she had no children.”

“There are ladies with stronger bonds who still have not done very well in the matter of children. It is you who must see that our house grows and prospers.”

Not wanting it to seem that he did nothing these days but weep, Genji said little of the past.

Just then, faintly — how can it have known? — there came the call of the cuckoo for which they had been waiting.

“Have you come, O cuckoo, drenched in nighttime showers,

In memory of her who is no more?”

And still he was gazing up into the sky.

Yūgiri replied:

“Go tell her this, O cuckoo: the orange blossoms

Where once she lived are now their loveliest.”

The women had poems too, but I shall not set them down.

Yūgiri, who often kept his father company through the lonely nights, spent this night too with him. The sorrow and longing were intense at the thought that the once-forbidden rooms were so near and accessible.

One very hot summer day Genji went out to cool himself beside a lotus pond, now in full bloom. “That there should be so very many tears”: it was the phrase that first came into his mind. He sat as if in a trance until twilight. What a useless pursuit it was, listening all by himself to these clamorous evening cicadas and gazing at the wild carnations in the evening light.

“I can but pass a summer’s day in weeping.

Is that your pretext, O insects, for weeping too?”

Presently it was dark, and great swarms of fireflies were wheeling about. “Fireflies before the pavilion of evening” — this time it was a Chinese verse that came to him.

“The firefly knows that night has come, and I—

My thoughts do not distinguish night from day.”

The Seventh Month came, and no one seemed in a mood to honor the meeting of the stars. There was no music and there were no guests. Deep in the night Genji got up and pushed a door open. The garden below the gallery was heavy with dew. He went out.

“They meet, these stars, in a world beyond the clouds.

My tears but join the dews of the garden of parting.”

Already at the beginning of the Eighth Month the autumn winds were lonely. Genji was busy with preparations for the memorial services. How swiftly the months had gone by! Everyone went through fasting and penance and the Paradise Mandala was dedicated. Chūjō as usual brought holy water for Genji’s vesper devotions. He took up her fan, on which she had written a poem:

“This day, we are told, announces an end to mourning.

How can it be, when there is no end to tears?”

He wrote beside it:

“The days are numbered for him who yet must mourn.

And are they numbered, the tears that yet remain?”

Early in the Ninth Month came the chrysanthemum festival. As always, the festive bouquets were wrapped in cotton to catch the magic dew.

“On other mornings we took the elixir together.

This morning lonely sleeves are wet with dew.”

The Tenth Month was as always a time of gloomy winter showers. Looking up into the evening sky, he whispered to himself: “The rains are as the rains of other years.” He envied the wild geese overhead, for they were going home.

“O wizard flying off through boundless heavens,

Find her whom I see not even in my dreams.”

The days and months went by, and he remained inconsolable.

Presently the world was buzzing with preparations for the harvest festival and the Gosechi dances. Yūgiri brought two of his little boys, already in court service, to see their grandfather. They were very nearly the same age, and very pretty indeed. With them were several of their uncles, spruce and elegant in blue Gosechi prints, a very grand escort indeed for two little boys. At the sight of them all, so caught up in the festive gaiety, Genji thought of memorable occurrences on ancient festival days.

“Our lads go off to have their Day of Light.

For me it is as if there were no sun.”

And so he had made his way through the year, and the time had come to leave the world behind. He gave his attendants, after their several ranks, gifts to remember him by. He tried to avoid grand farewells, but they knew what was happening, and the end of the year was a time of infinite sadness. Among his papers were letters which he had put aside over the years but which he would not wish others to see. Now, as he got his affairs in order, he would come upon them and burn them. There was a bundle of letters from Murasaki among those he had received at Suma from his various ladies. Though a great many years had passed, the ink was as fresh as if it had been set down yesterday. They seemed meant to last a thousand years. But they had been for him, and he was finished with them. He asked two or three women who were among his closest confidantes to see to destroying them. The handwriting of the dead always has the power to move us, and these were not ordinary letters. He was blinded by the tears that fell to mingle with the ink until presently he was unable to make out what was written.

“I seek to follow the tracks of a lady now gone

To another world. Alas, I lose my way.”

Not wanting to display his weakness, he pushed them aside.

The women were permitted glimpses of this and that letter, and the little they saw was enough to bring the old grief back anew. Murasaki’s sorrow at being those few miles from him now seemed to remove all bounds to their own sorrow. Seeking to control a flow of tears that must seem hopelessly exaggerated, Genji glanced at one of the more affectionate notes and wrote in the margin:

“I gather sea grasses no more, nor look upon them.

Now they are smoke, to join her in distant heavens.”

And so he consigned them to flames.

In the Twelfth Month the clanging of croziers as the holy name was invoked was more moving than in other years, for Genji knew that he would not again be present at the ceremony. These prayers for longevity — he did not think that they would please the Blessed One. There had been a heavy fall of snow, which was now blowing into drifts. The repast in honor of the officiant was elaborate and Genji’s gifts were even more lavish than usual. The holy man had often presided over services at court and at Rokujō. Genji was sorry to see that his hair was touched with gray. As always, there were numerous princes and high courtiers in the congregation. The plum trees, just coming into bloom, were lovely in the snow. There should have been music, but Genji feared that this year music would make him weep. Poems were read, in keeping with the time and place.

There was this poem as Genji offered a cup of wine to his guest of honor:

“Put blossoms in your caps today. Who knows

That there will still be life when spring comes round?”

This was the reply:

“I pray that these blossoms may last a thousand springs.

For me the years are as the deepening snowdrifts.”

There were many others, but I neglected to set them down.

It was Genji’s first appearance in public. He was handsomer than ever, indeed almost unbelievably handsome. For no very good reason, the holy man was in tears.

Genji was more and more despondent as the New Year approached.

Niou scampered about exorcising devils, that the New Year might begin auspiciously.

“It takes a lot of noise to get rid of them. Do you have any ideas?”

Everything about the scene, and especially the thought that he must say goodbye to the child, made Genji fear that he would soon be weeping again.

“I have not taken account of the days and months.

The end of the year — the end of a life as well?”

The festivities must be more joyous than ever, he said, and his gifts to all the princes and officials, high and low — or so one is told — quite shattered precedent.

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