The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 48

Early Ferns

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

The spring sunlight did not discriminate against these “thickets deep.” But Nakanokimi, still benumbed with grief, could only wonder that so much time had gone by and she had not joined her sister. The two of them had responded as one to the passing seasons, the color of the blossoms and the songs of the birds. Some triviality would bring from one of them a verse, and the other would promptly have a capping verse. There had been sorrows, there had been times of gloom; but there had always been the comfort of having her sister beside her. Something might interest her or amuse her even now, but she had no one to share it with. Her days were bleak, unbroken solitude. The sorrow was if anything more intense than when her father had died. Yearning and loneliness left day scarcely distinguishable from night. Well, she had to live out her time, and it did little good to complain that the end did not come at her summons.

There was a letter from the abbot for one of her women: “And how will matters be with our lady now that the New Year has come? I have allowed no lapse in my prayers for her. She is, in fact, my chief worry. These are the earliest fern shoots, offerings from certain of our acolytes.” The note came with shoots of bracken and fern, arranged rather elegantly in a very pretty basket. There was also a poem, in a bad hand, set apart purposely, it seemed, from the text of the letter.

“Through many a spring we plucked these shoots for him.

Today remembrance bids us do as well.

Please show this to your lady.”

Nakanokimi was much moved. The old man was not one to compose poems for every occasion, and these few syllables said more to her than all the splendid words, overlooking no device for pleasing her, of a certain gentleman who, though ardent enough to appearances, did not really seem to care very much. Tears came to her eyes. She sent a reply through one of her women:

“And to whom shall I show these early ferns from the mountain,

Plucked. in remembrance of one who is no more?”

She rewarded the messenger liberally.

Still in the full bloom of her youth, she had lost weight, and the effect was to deepen her beauty, and to remind one of her sister. Side by side, the two sisters had not seemed particularly alike; but now one could almost forget for a moment that Oigimi was dead, so striking was the resemblance. Kaoru had lamented that he could not keep their older lady with him, the women remembered, even as he might have kept a locust shell. Since either of the princesses would have been right for him, it was cruel of fate not to have let him have the younger.

Certain of his men continued to visit Uji, having made the acquaintance of women there. Through them the princess and Kaoru had occasional word of each other. Time had done nothing to dispel his grief, she learned, nor had the coming of the New Year stanched the flow of his tears. It had been no passing infatuation, she could see now. He had been honest in his avowals of love.

Niou was chafing at the restrictions his rank placed upon him, and the evidence was that they would only be more burdensome as time went by. He thought constantly about bringing Nakanokimi to the city.

When the busiest days were over, the time of the grand levee and the like, Kaoru found himself with heavy heart and no one who understood. He paid Niou a visit. It was an evening for melancholy thoughts. Niou was seated at the veranda, gazing out at the garden and plucking a few notes now and then on the koto beside him. He had always loved the scent of plum blossoms. Kaoru broke off an underbranch still in bud and brought it to him, and he found the fragrance so in harmony with his mood that he was stirred to poetry:

“This branch seems much in accord with him who breaks it.

I catch a secret scent beneath the surface.”

“I should have been more careful with my blossoms.

I offer fragrance, get imputations back.

You do not make things easy for me.”

They seemed the most lighthearted of companions as they exchanged sallies.

When they settled down to serious matters, they were soon talking of Uji. And how would Nakanokimi and her women be? asked Niou. Kaoru told of his own unquenchable sorrow, of the memories that had tormented him since Oigimi’s death, of the amusing and moving things that had been part of their times together — of all the laughter and tears, so to speak. And his philandering friend, quicker to weep than anyone even when the matter did not immediately concern him, was now weeping most generously. He was exactly the sort of companion Kaoru needed. The sky misted over, as if it too understood. In the night a high wind came up, and the bite in the air was like a return of winter. They decided, after the lamp had blown out several times, that darkness would do as well. Though of course it destroyed the color of the blossoms, it did not put an end to the conversation. The hours passed, and still they had not talked themselves out.

“Ah, yes,” said Niou. “Yes indeed — purity such as the world is seldom privileged to behold. But come, now, surely it cannot have been just that?”

He had a way of assuming that something had been left out, no doubt because he suspected in others a volatility like his own. Yet he was a man of sympathy and understanding. So skillfully did he manage the conversation as he moved from subject to subject, now seeking to console his friend,

now seeking to make him forget, trying this way and that to offer an outlet, for the pent-up anguish — so skillfully that Kaoru, led on step by step, poured forth the whole store of thoughts that had been too much for him. The relief was enormous.

Niou told of his plans for bringing Nakanokimi into the city.

“I thoroughly approve. As a matter of fact, I had been blaming myself for her difficulties and telling myself that I ought to be looking after her as a sort of legacy of the one — I am repeating myself — I shall go on mourning forever. But it is so easy to be misunderstood.”

He went on to describe briefly how Oigimi had begged him to make no distinction between the two of them, and had asked him to marry her sister. He did not go so far as to speak of the night that called to mind the cuckoo of the grove of Iwase.

In his heart, all the while, the chagrin and regret were mounting. He should himself have done as Niou was doing with the memento she had left behind. But it was too late. He was skirting dangerous ground, in the direction of which lay unpleasantness for everyone. He tried to think of other matters. Yet there was this consideration: who if not he was to take her father’s place in arranging the move to the city? He turned his mind to the preparations.

At Uji, attractive women and girls were being added to Nakanokimi’s retinue, and the air was alive with anticipation. Nakanokimi alone stood apart from it. Now that the time had come, the thought of abandoning this “Fushimi” of hers, letting it go to ruin, seemed intensely sad. Her sorrow would not end, but her prospects would be very poor indeed if she were to stand her ground and insist on staying in remote Uji. How could she even think, protested Niou, and there was much to be said for the view, of living in a place where the promises they had made must certainly be broken? It was a dilemma.

Finally the move was set for early in the Second Month. As the day approached, Nakanokimi looked out at the buds on the cherry trees, and thought how very difficult it would be to leave them, and the mountain mists too. And she would be homeless, a lodger at an inn, facing she could not know what humiliation and ridicule. Each new thought, as she brooded the days away, brought new misgivings and reservations. She presently emerged from mourning, and the lustration seemed altogether too cursory and casual. She had not known her mother, and had not mourned for her. She thought how much she would have preferred to put on the deeper weeds with which one mourned a parent, but she kept the thought to herself, for it went against custom. Kaoru sent a carriage and outrunners for the lustration ceremony, and learned soothsayers as well.

He also sent a poem:

“How quickly time does pass. You made and donned

Your mourning robes, and now the blossoms open.”

And he sent numerous flowery robes, for the ceremony and for the move to the city, none of them gaudy or ostentatious, each appropriate to the rank of the recipient.

“You see how it is,” said the women to their mistress. “He never misses a chance to show us he has not forgotten. How very kind of him. Even if you had a brother, we can assure you, he could not possibly do more for you.”

The older ones, no longer as interested in bright colors as they once had been, were moved by the kindness itself. And the younger ones said: “He’s been coming all these years, and now we’re running off. She will miss him, make no mistake about that.”

On the day before the move, early in the morning, Kaoru appeared at Uji. Shown to the usual sitting room, he thought how Oigimi, had she lived, would by now have relented, and he would even now be setting an example for his friend Niou to follow. The image of the dead lady came back, and memories of things she had said. She had not really given herself to him, it was true, but neither had she put him off in a way that could be called cruel or insulting. He must continue to regret that his own eccentricities had helped keep the distance between them.

He went to the door and looked for the hole through which he had once peeped in upon the two sisters, but there were blinds and curtains beyond.

In the other room women were weeping softly and exchanging sad memories of their dead lady. The tears flowed on, and especially Nakanokimi’s, as if to wash away murky forebodings.

As she lay gazing vacantly out at the garden, a message was brought from Kaoru: “Memories of these months have no order and form, but they are more than I can keep to myself. It would be a very great comfort to let you have a tiny fragment of them. Do not, please, treat me with the coldness that has been yours in the past. You make me feel as if I had been banished to some remote island.”

“I certainly would not wish you to think me unkind,” she replied, though the effort was almost too much for her;” but I am really not myself. Indeed, I am so unsettled that I fear I might say things both stupid and rude.”

But her women argued his case, and at length she received him at the door to her room. His good looks had always been somewhat intimidating, and she thought that he had improved and matured in the time since she had last seen him. Along with remarkable grace and elegance, he had an air of composure, of deliberation, such as few men could have imitated. Altogether a remarkable young man, and the knowledge that her sister had meant so much to him made the effect quite overpowering.

“It would be unlucky on such an occasion, I suppose, to speak of the lady I shall go on speaking of forever.” He broke off and began again. “I shall soon be moving to a house not far from the one where you will be. ‘Any time of the day or night,’ the devotees and experts would say — but please do let me see you. I shall want to hear from you whenever I can be of service, and I shall be at your command for as long as I live. No two people are alike, of course, and it is possible that you find the prospect offensive. What might your own thoughts be?”

“I have not wanted to leave home, and I still do not want to. Now that you tell me you are moving too — my thoughts are too much for me. I am afraid I am not making sense.”

Her voice faltered, and her very evident distress so reminded him of her sister that he was left berating himself for having generously handed her over to Niou. But all that was past. He made no mention of their night together, and his frankness in other matters was almost enough to make her think he had forgotten. The scent and color of the rose plum below the veranda brought poignant memories. The warblers seemed unable to pass without a song; and this mark of “the spring of old” was the more moving for the memories they shared. The fragrance of the blossoms came in on the breeze to mingle with Kaoru’s own fragrance. Orange blossoms could not have been more effective in summoning back the past. Her sister, she remembered, had been especially fond of the plum blossom, and had made use of it for this or that little pleasantry, and sought consolation from it in difficult times as well. The memories too much for her, she recited a poem in a tiny voice that wavered at the point of disappearing:

“Here where no visitor comes save only the tempest,

The scent of blossoms brings thoughts of days now gone.”

Kaoru whispered a reply:

“The fragrance lasts of the plum my sleeve has brushed.

Uprooted now, must it dwell in a distant land?”

He brushed his tears away and left after a few words more. “There will be chances, I am sure, for a good, quiet talk.”

He went out to give orders for the next day. Wigbeard and others would stay behind as caretakers; and (for nothing escaped his attention) he left orders with the people at his manor to see to their general needs.

Bennokimi had made it known that she would not go along. Through no desire of her own, she had lived this shamefully long life, and the others would think it bad luck to have an old crone with them; and so she had resolved that she was no longer to be considered a part of the world. Kaoru asked to see her. The nun’s habit and tonsure again brought him to the point of tears.

They talked of old times. “I shall of course be stopping by occasionally,” he concluded, his voice faltering, “and I had feared that no one would be here to receive me. I am sorry that you have decided to stay behind, but I know that you will be a great comfort.”

“I have lived too long. Life has a way of becoming more stubborn the more you hate it. I find it hard to forgive my older lady for leaving me behind, and though I know it is wrong of me I am resentful of the whole wide world.”

She was becoming querulous, pouring forth the complaints as they came to her; but his efforts to comfort her were on the whole successful. Her hair still had traces of its youthful beauty, and her forehead, now shorn, seemed younger than before, and even somewhat distinguished. Overcome with longing for Oigimi, he asked why she could not have stayed with him even thus, as a nun. He might at least have had the comfort of quiet, leisurely conversation. Though the old woman was an improbable object for envy, he was somehow envious of her. He pulled her curtain slightly aside, that she might seem a little nearer. She really was very old, and yet her speech and manner aroused little of the revulsion one expects from advanced age. She must once have been a woman of considerable beauty.

Her face was contorted with sorrow.

“Tears came first. I should have flung myself into

A stream of tears that would not have left me behind.”

“But that, of course, would have made the sin graver,” said Kaoru. “People do sometimes reach the far shore, I suppose, but everything considered I doubt that you would have succeeded. We would not want to have lost you in midstream. No, you must remind yourself how empty and useless it all is.

“Deep though one plunges into the river of tears,

One comes upon occasional snags of remembrance.

“When, I wonder, and where will there be relief?” But he knew the answer: never and nowhere.

He did not want to leave, though it was evening. But an unscheduled night’s lodging might arouse suspicions. Presently he set out for the city.

She told the other women of his remarks, and her own grief was beyond consoling. She found them engrossed in preparations for their departure, oblivious to the incongruity their twisted old figures emphasized; and her nun’s robes seemed drabber for all the happy confusion.

“And there they are, so busy getting ready,

And wet are the sleeves of the solitary fishwife.”

Nakanokimi answered:

“Is it drier, my sleeve, than the brine-wet sleeve of the fishwife?

Sodden it is, from the waves upon which it floats.

“I do not expect to take to this new life. I may well be back after I have given it a try, and so I do not really feel that I am going away. We will meet again. But I do not like the thought of leaving you here by yourself for even a little while. Nuns do not have to cut themselves off completely, you know. Do as all of them do — come and see me occasionally.”

Affection welled up as she spoke. She had arranged to leave behind such of her sister’s combs and brushes as she thought a nun could use.

“You seem so much more deeply affected than the others,” she went on. “It makes me feel sure that there was a bond between us in another life. And you seem even nearer now.”

The old woman was weeping quite helplessly, like a child that has lost its mother.

The rooms were swept, things put away, carriages drawn up. Among the outrunners were numbers of medium-ranking courtiers. Niou had wanted desperately to come for her himself. Since unnecessary display was to be avoided, however, he ordered that the procession be a quiet one, and, intensely impatient, awaited her at Nijō. Kaoru too had sent retainers in large numbers. Niou had taken care of the broader plans and Kaoru of all the small and intimate details. Nakanokimi’s women joined the men from the city in warning her that it would soon be dark. Utterly confused, scarcely knowing in which direction the city lay, she finally got into a carriage. She was all alone, and defenseless.

Beside her, a woman called Tayū was smiling happily.

“You have lived to come upon these joyous days,

And are you not glad Old Gloomy did not get you?”

Nakanokimi was not pleased. What a vast difference, she thought, between this person and the nun Bennokimi.

Another woman had a poem ready:

“We do not forget to look back at one now gone;

But this day, of all, our hearts must look ahead.”

Both of them had long been in service at Uji, and both had seemed fond of Oigimi. And now they had left her behind. The very fact that they refrained from mentioning her name added to Nakanokimi’s bitterness and sorrow. She did not answer.

The road was long and it led through precipitous mountains. She had been deeply resentful of Niou’s neglect, but now she began to see why his visits had been infrequent. The bright half-moon was softened and made more mysteriously beautiful by a mist. Unaccustomed to travel, alone with her thoughts, she was soon exhausted.

“The moon comes forth from the mountain upon a world

That offers no home. It goes again to the mountain.”

The future was too uncertain. What would become of her if anything in this precarious balance should change? She longed to return to days when, she knew now, she had been very silly to feel sorry for herself.

It was late in the night when they arrived at the Nijō mansion. The splendor quite blinded her. The carriage was pulled up at one of the “threefold, fourfold” halls, and an impatient Niou came out. Her apartments, she saw, and those of her attendants as well, were beautifully appointed. They had obviously benefited from Niou’s personal attention. No detail had been overlooked.

It was matter for much astonishment that he who had been the cause of so many rumors and worries should now, quite suddenly, have found himself a wife. There was nothing ambiguous about what had happened this time, people said, hoping for a glimpse of the hidden princess.

Kaoru was to move into his Sanjō mansion, now near completion, towards the end of the month. He went every day to see how it was progressing. Since Nijō was not far away, he mounted a lookout to see how things would be with Nakanokimi. Presently the men he had sent to Uji came back to report that Niou seemed much taken with the lady, and had been very attentive. Kaoru was pleased, of course; and at the same time he felt a wave of something like resentment. It was senseless, he knew, for his circumstances had, after all, been of his own devising.

“Might I have it back again?” he whispered to himself.

“The boat setting forth on the undulant Lake of Loons,

Though badly rigged, did somehow make a landfall.”

Yūgiri had fixed upon this month for marrying his daughter Rokunokimi to Niou. And now, quite as if to announce that he had priorities of his own, Niou had brought a stranger into his house. Worse, he had stopped calling at Rokujō. Niou felt a little guilty at news of his uncle’s displeasure, and sent a note to Rokunokimi from time to time. The whole world knew that plans were being rushed ahead for her initiation, and to postpone it would be to invite derision; and so it took place toward the end of the month. Yūgiri thought of marrying her to Kaoru instead, unexciting though a wedding within the family would be. It seemed a pity to let someone else have him. He was evidently grieving for a lady he had loved in secret over the years. Through a suitable agent, Yūgiri sought to determine how he might respond to a proposal.

The answer was not encouraging. “I know how useless and insubstantial things are. I have had evidence before my very eyes, such strong evidence that my own existence seems stupid and even revolting.”

Yūgiri was deeply offended. Could the young man not see that the proposal had been a difficult one to make? But Kaoru was not a man with whom even an older brother took liberties, and Yūgiri made no further advances.

Gazing in the direction of the Nijō mansion, where the cherries were in full bloom, Kaoru thought of the cherries, now masterless, at the Uji villa. He might have gone on to ask how they would be responding to the winds, but the old poem did not offer much comfort.

He went to visit Niou, who was spending most of his time at Nijō and seemed to have settled down happily with his princess. Kaoru had no further cause, it would seem, for worry. That other strange question persisted all the same: why had he brought them together? But his deeper feelings were wholly admirable. He rejoiced that Nakanokimi’s affairs had turned out well. The two friends talked of various small matters, and presently, in the evening, servants came to prepare the carriage that was to take Niou to court. A large retinue assembled. Kaoru withdrew to Nakanokimi’s wing of the house.

The rude life of the mountain village had been changed for richly curtained luxury. Catching a glimpse of a pretty little girl, Kaoru asked her to convey word of his presence. He was offered a cushion, and a woman apparently familiar with the events at Uji came to bring Nakanokimi’s reply.

“I am so near,” he said, admitted to her presence, “that I was sure it would be like having you beside me all hours of the day and night; but I have had to keep my distance. I have not wanted to intrude, and I have had no real business. Somehow things seem utterly changed. From my garden I look through the mists at the trees in yours, and they bring the fondest memories.”

He fell silent, lost in the memories. It was true, thought Nakanokimi: if Oigimi had lived, they would be visiting each other, she and her sister, and finding their happiness, as the seasons went by, in the same blossoms, the same songs of birds. The sadness, the longing, the regrets were even sharper than they had been at Uji, far away from the world.

My lady, my lady,” urged her women. “He is not an ordinary guest. He has done everything for you, and now is the time to let him see that you are grateful.”

But Nakanokimi could not bring herself to address him directly.

Presently Niou, a splendid figure in full court regalia, came to say goodbye. “Well, now. There he is sitting outside all by himself. It seems very odd, really, after all you owe him. I am the one who should be afraid of him, and here I am telling you how rude and even sinful it is not to invite him inside. Be a little friendlier, have a good talk about the old days.” And abruptly he reversed himself: “Of course I wouldn’t want you to let him have too free a rein. You can never be quite sure what he is up to.”

And so she was left not knowing what to do. She was in Kaoru’s debt, that much was clear, for he had been very kind; and she could not dismiss him. He had ventured a hope that she might in some measure fill the emptiness left by her sister. She would ask the same of him. She did want him to know that she understood. But the situation was certainly awkward, with Niou casting these insinuations about.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/murasaki-shikibu/tale-of-genji/chapter48.html

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