The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Chapter 54

The Floating Bridge of Dreams

Kaoru made the usual offerings of images and scriptures at the main Hiei monastery and the next day went to Yokawa. The bishop received his unexpected visitor with much ceremony. Although Kaoru had occasionally consulted him on liturgical matters, they had not been close. Kaoru had been much impressed at the effectiveness of the bishop’s recent ministrations to the First Princess, however. The new bond between them, thought the bishop, fluttering with excitement over the visit, had brought this eminent gentleman so far out of his way. They talked on and on, like the oldest and most intimate of friends. A light repast was brought.

“I believe you have a house in Ono?” remarked Kaoru when the excitement had subsided.

“Yes, a shabby little place. As a matter of fact, my mother is living there — she is a nun, and a very old woman. I had no place in the city that seemed right, and I decided that if I was to live up here away from the world I wanted her to be where I could look in on her at any odd hour.”

“I have heard that Ono used to be lively enough, but that years it has been neglected. Indeed, they say it is rather lonely.” He lowered his voice. “But tell me. I have hesitated to mention it because I have not been sure of the facts and I have been afraid you might think me forward and a little eccentric. I have heard that a person I once knew well is hiding there. I thought that when I had learned a few of the facts I might ask you exactly what had happened, and now I hear that you have taken her under your protection and made a nun of her. Might I ask whether it is true? She is very young and her parents are living, and I feel somewhat responsible for her disappearance.”

The bishop was at a loss for an answer. He had guessed from her appearance that she was a girl of some standing, and Kaoru’s manner suggested very strongly that she was important to him. The bishop must conclude that, although he had been faithful to his pious duties, he had acted recklessly. It seemed likely that Kaoru knew the essential facts. Attempts at evasion, now that so much had been found out, could only complicate matters.

“Ah, yes,” he said after a time. “The young lady who has so puzzled us all these months. The nuns at Ono went to Hatsuse with some request or other, and on the way back my mother was suddenly taken ill. It was at the Uji villa. Her condition seemed critical and someone came for me. I arrived to find a very strange situation indeed.” He lowered his voice as he told how they had come upon Ukifune. “My sister seemed completely devoted to the girl. She as good as left our mother to take care of herself. The girl was still breathing, but that was the only sign of life. It was all very strange indeed. I was reminded of stories I had heard of people who had come back to life at their own funerals. I called my disciples, the ones who had made names for themselves, and had them take turns at prayers and spells. I was with our mother myself. She is so old that I shouldn’t have had any regrets for her, I know, but there she was away from home, and I wanted her at least to give herself up unconditionally to the holy name. So I was not able to observe the girl in any detail. I would imagine from what the others told me that some goblin or wood spirit had led her astray. We brought her back to Ono with us, but for three months or so she might as well have been dead. My sister is a nun too. You may possibly have heard of her, the widow of a guards captain. She lost her only daughter and she went on grieving, and now she had found a pretty girl, a most elegant girl, indeed, of about the same age. She saw it all as an answer to her prayers at Hatsuse. I could not help being moved by her pleas, poor woman. She seemed desperate to save the girl. And so I came down from the mountain and conducted services. The girl began to emerge from her trance and after a few days seemed to make a complete recovery; but she was afraid that the evil spirit, whatever it might have been, was still after her, and she wept and begged me to let her take vows. She had to escape, she said, and look to the next world for happiness. I have taken vows myself and it was natural for me to encourage her, and I did as she asked. How could I have dreamed, sir, that she was somehow of importance to you? It was all so strange, I suppose, that we should have made inquiries, but my mother and sister feared complications if word got out, and we kept our own counsel over the months.”

Kaoru had come a great distance to confirm his suspicions, and now the knowledge that the dead girl was alive made him feel like a sleep-walker. Since it would not do to have the sage see him in disarray, he struggled to control the tears that surged forward.

The bishop was feeling guilty. He should not have taken it upon himself to help so important a lady leave the secular world. “It must have been something she brought from an earlier life,” he said, “that she should have been so vulnerable to the assaults of evil spirits. I should imagine that she is from a good house. What could possibly have reduced her to such unhappy circumstances?”

“We shall say that she is an obscure cousin of the emperor himself. I happen to know her, though not at all intimately. I would not have dreamed that anything so terrible could happen to her. But her disappearance was very strange indeed, and all sorts of theories were propounded. Some even hinted that she had thrown herself into the river. Now I know the truth. I am content with it, and must thank you. It is all for the good, I am sure, that she has taken vows and should be trying to lighten the burden of sin. But it would seem that her mother still grieves for her. I ought to inform her of what I know, I suppose; but the shock might be too much for her, and then your good sister has seen fit to keep the secret all this time. It is not easy for a mother to give up a child. I am sure the unfortunate woman would be quite unable to deny herself the comfort of a visit.

“You will think me excessively demanding, I am sure,” he continued after a moment, “but might I ask you to go down to Ono with me? I cannot ignore the girl, now that I know the truth. It all seems very unreal, but I would still like to have a talk with her.”

The bishop was in a difficult position. He understood Kaoru’s wishes, and the girl could be said to have taken a step that was irreversible. But the most ascetic of clean-shaven monks had strange urges occasionally, and nuns were still more susceptible. He would be putting the girl to a cruel and unnecessary test, as much as inviting transgression.

“I fear that circumstances compel me to be here on the mountain for a few days more. I will get off a note early next month.”

Kaoru was unhappy, but it would have been unseemly to press further. He had no choice but to wait, he concluded, making ready to start back for the city. He called the girl’s brother, the handsomest of the governor’s sons.

“This lad is a very close relative of the young lady’s. Perhaps I might ask you to give him a message for her, please, if you don’t mind. Even a short note will do. You might not want to mention me by name, but perhaps you could warn her that someone may shortly be inquiring after her.”

“It would, I fear, be wrong of me to do as you suggest. I have told you the facts, and in some detail. I doubt that anyone would reproach you for going in person and doing what seems necessary.”

Kaoru smiled. “Wrong, good sir? You quite fill me with shame. Here I am looking as if I still belonged in the world, and even to me it all seems very strange. I have longed to take vows since I was a mere boy. But there is my mother, and the bond, as you say, is not an easy one to break. She is lonely, and I am really all that she has, little though it may be. I have been caught up in affairs at court and I have moved ahead bit by bit, without doing much to deserve it. I have worried a great deal, you may be sure, about leaving undone the one thing I have really wanted to do, and so the years have gone by. Duties pile up, there is no avoiding them; but I have tried not to let my affairs, which I keep to a minimum, bring me in conflict with the holy injunctions, or such small fragments of them as I am not in complete ignorance of. I try to think of my life as little different from that of a recluse like yourself. Can you imagine that I would even dream of risking so grievous a sin for so small a cause? It is quite out of the question. On that score you need have not the smallest doubt. I am sad for her mother, that is all, and now that I have learned the truth I want her to know it too. Then and only then will I be at peace with myself.”

The bishop nodded approvingly. “Most praiseworthy,” he said.

It was growing dark. Ono would be a convenient place to spend the night. But Kaoru might be embarrassed to learn that he had after all been mistaken. After some hesitation he set out directly for the city.

The bishop’s eye had meanwhile fallen on the boy, in whom he was finding much to praise.

“Suppose you let him take a letter, then,” suggested Kaoru once more, “and give her a hint of what to expect.”

The bishop dashed off a note.” Let us have an occasional visit from you too,” he said to the boy. “Don’t for a moment think it would be to no purpose.”

Though puzzled by this attention, the boy took the note and started off with Kaoru.

Kaoru deployed his guard as they reached the foot of the mountain. “So as not to attract too much attention,” he said.

With little to relieve the monotony, Ukifune sat gazing into the heavily wooded hills. Only the fireflies along the garden brook served to remind her of the Uji days. From far beyond the eaves that looked out over the valley came voices of outrunners cautiously clearing the way, and soon torches, large numbers of them, were tossing among the trees. What might this commotion mean? the other nuns were asking as they came to the veranda.

“Whoever it is, he certainly does have himself a big escort. When we sent that seaweed to the bishop this morning, he said in his note that we couldn’t have picked a better time. He all of a sudden had a general to entertain, he said. Which general do you suppose it could have been?” It was the sort of talk one hears in remote, unfrequented places. “The general that is married to the Second Princess?”

The girl knew who it would be; and there among the voices of the outrunners, unmistakably, were some she had heard clearing the mountain path to Uji. What could be the profit, after all that had happened, in remembering? She tried to lose herself in meditation upon the holy name, and had even less to say than usual.

Travelers to Yokawa gave secluded Ono what precarious ties it had with the larger world.

Kaoru would have liked to send the bishop’s letter in immediately, but he had attracted too large an audience. He dispatched the boy the next day, escorted by two or three trusted courtiers of low rank and a guardsman who had often taken messages to Uji.

He was careful to let no one overhear his instructions to the boy. “You remember your dead sister well enough to recognize her, I suppose? Well, I had resigned myself to the fact that she was no longer among us, but now it seems quite clear that I was wrong. But it would not do to have people know, and especially the people closest to her. See what you can find out. You are not to tell your mother, not for the moment, at least. The news might unsettle her, and we must prepare her gradually; and there is always the possibility that people who shouldn’t be in on the secret might hear. My main reason for wanting to find your sister is that I feel so sorry for your mother.”

Very young and impressionable, the boy had continued to grieve for his sister, much superior to his many other siblings. Delight at this news brought him close to tears.

“Yes, my lord,” he answered gruffly, trying not to weep.

A letter from the bishop had been delivered at the nunnery earl y in the morning. “Did a young page come yesterday with a message from the general? Please tell the lady that, having been given a description of the actual circumstances surrounding her case, I am overcome by a rather surprising sense of remorse and guilt for what should have been an act of piety. There are numbers of things we must talk about. I shall visit you in the next few days.”

The bishop’s sister, astounded, took the letter in to Ukifune. The girl flushed crimson. The rumor was abroad, finally, it seemed. The nun would be furious at her secretiveness. She could find no answer.

The nun was indeed reproachful. “You must tell me the truth. Your silence is cruel, that is the only word for it.” Still apprised of only a part of the truth, she was in great agitation.

“A message from the mountain,” came a voice at the gate. “A message from the bishop.”

Confused, the nun ordered that the new messenger be shown in. He would shed light on the mystery. A very handsome and well-groomed boy came forward. Offered a cushion, he knelt deferentially beside the blind.

“I was ordered to deliver it personally.”

The bishop’s sister took the note. “To the young lady who has recently become a nun,” and, with the bishop’s signature, “From the mountain.” This time the girl was not permitted the excuse that the message was for someone else. She slipped deeper into the room and sat with her face averted.

“You are a quiet girl, and always have been,” said the nun; “but there is a limit.”

She looked at the bishop’s letter. “The general came this morning and asked about you, and I told him everything. You have turned your back upon human affections and have chosen to live among mountain people. This I know. Yet I was disturbed to learn the facts, and have come to fear that, contrary to our intentions, what we have done might call down the wrath of the holy powers. We must be resigned to it; and now you must go back, surely and without hesitation, to the general, and dispel the clouds of sin brought on by tenacious affections. Draw comfort from the thought that a single day’s retreat brings untold blessings. I shall myself go over the problem carefully with you. The lad who brings this can no doubt give you a general description of what has occurred.”

There was no trace of ambiguity in the letter, and yet it was worded so discreetly that an outsider would not immediately have guessed the meaning.

“Who is the boy?” asked the nun. “Must you go on keeping secrets from me even now?”

The girl looked out through the blind. It was the brother who had been especially on her mind that last terrible night at Uji. She had always thought him an impudent, arrogant, and generally unpleasant little urchin, but he had been a favorite of their mother’s whom she had occasionally brought with her to Uji. Yes, they had been fond of each other in their childish way; but the memory was like a dream. She longed for news of her mother. She had in the course of events had word of others, but none at all of her mother. At the sight of the boy all the old sadness came back. Tears were streaming from her eyes.

He was a very attractive boy indeed. The nun thought she detected a family resemblance. “Your brother, I am sure of it. Suppose we ask him in. He will want to talk to you.”

But he would long ago have sent her off in his thoughts to another world, and she was ashamed to have him catch even a glimpse of her nun’s habit.” I am sorry that you think me furtive,” she answered after some hesitation. “I am very sorry indeed. But I have nothing to say. You must have had any number of questions when you found me. I was out of my mind then, of course, and even now I cannot remember a thing. Possibly I have given away my own soul, if that is what you wish to call it, and borrowed someone else’s. The other day when I heard what your nephew the governor had to say, I had a vague feeling that it was about a place I once knew. I have thought and thought, but nothing really comes back. There was a lady who worried about me and wanted to make me happy, and that is all I know. I keep wondering how she is, but somehow it makes me very sad to think of her. I may have known this boy when we were small — but please, I can’t make myself try to remember. If you don’t mind, I would rather let him go on thinking I am dead. I do not know whether my mother is still alive. If she is I might want to see her — but no one else. The gentleman the bishop speaks of: I would rather he too went on thinking I am dead. Please tell the boy that there has been a mistake.”

“That will not be easy. Even as people of saintly honesty go, my brother is not a man to hold things back. He will have revealed every last detail. The truth will not consent, I fear, to go back into hiding again, and the fact that the general is a man who must be reckoned with does not make matters less complicated.”

She was not prepared to accept evasions this time, and she had the support of the other nuns. “The most obstinate little creature,” they said, “the world ever saw.”

A curtain was hung near the veranda of the main hall and the boy invited inside the blinds. Though he knew that he was in his sister’s presence, he was still a child, and shy about speaking without adequate preliminaries.

Eyes on the floor, he presently essayed: “There is another letter I’d like to give her. What the bishop said is true, I’m sure. But she seems so unfriendly.”

“She is indeed. What a handsome lad you are. Yes, here she is, the person the letter is for. We outsiders are somewhat puzzled by it all. Have a talk with her yourself. You do seem terribly young, but he must have had good reasons for choosing you.”

“What can I say when she won’t answer? She is treating me like a stranger. No, I have nothing more to say. But he told me I had to put the letter in her hands and no one else’s, and so I have to.”

“You do indeed.” The nun pushed the girl towards the curtain. “Be civil to him, please do. You really are very stubborn.”

The boy was certain, from the dumbness as of one in a trance, that the object of these remarks would be his sister. He edged closer and pushed the letter towards her.

“As soon as you can let me have your answer I will be off.” Hurt by her aloofness, he had no wish to dawdle.

The nun opened the letter and handed it to the girl.

It was in the familiar hand. Sending forth the extraordinary fragrance, it quite dizzied the more forward of the nuns, who made sure that they had a glimpse of it.

“Out of deference to the bishop, I shall excuse the rash step you have taken. Of that I shall speak no further. For my own part, I am seized with so intense a longing to speak to you of those nightmarish events that I can scarcely myself accept it as real. I cannot imagine how it might seem to others.”

As if unable to find adequate words, he continued with a poem:

“I lost my way in the hills, having taken a road

That would lead, I hope, to a teacher of the Law.

“Have you forgotten this boy? I keep him here beside me in memory of one who disappeared.”

It was friendly, even ardent. She could not pretend, such was the clarity of the detail, that it was meant for someone else. She dreaded a visit, perhaps unannounced. She did not want him to see her drab robes and her cropped hair. The uncertainty too much for her, she collapsed in tears. The nun gazed at her helplessly. What a silly child she was!

“And may I have your answer?”

“Let me collect myself just a little, please, if you don’t mind. I try to remember but I cannot. It is all like a strange, frightening dream. I think possibly I may be able to understand when I have calmed myself a little. Send it back, please, today at least. There may have been a mistake.” Not even refolding the letter, she pushed it towards the nun.

“You are being rude, my dear, nothing else, and if you persist in your rudeness we too will be held responsible.”

The girl was trembling violently and wished to hear no more. She lay with her face buried in her sleeves.

The nun came forward to converse briefly with the boy. “Some evil powers may be at her again. She is seldom herself and she goes on feeling unwell, and so she has taken vows. I have feared all along that if someone were to come looking for her we would be in trouble, and here we are. It is all very sad and very disturbing. I must apologize for what has happened and admit that it is a great waste. She has never been strong. Today she is less in control of herself than usual, and I fear we cannot expect even the sort of inadequate response we usually get.”

A most elegant lunch of mountain delicacies was brought in; but the boy’s young thoughts were elsewhere. “My lord sent me all this way,” he said, “and what am I to take back? Let me have a word from her, please, just a word.”

“What you say is entirely reasonable.” The nun relayed the appeal, but Ukifune was silent.

“All I can suggest,” said the nun, coming forward again, “is that you remind him of our vulnerability. The mountain winds may blow, but we are not separated from the city by so fearfully many banks of clouds, and I am sure that you will find occasion to visit again.”

Nothing more was to be done, clearly, and the boy feared that he was beginning to look ridiculous. Saddened and chagrined at his failure to exchange even a word with his so grievously lamented sister, he started for the city.

Kaoru waited with much anticipation, which the boy’s report was quick to dispel. He might better have done nothing at all.

It would seem that, as he examined the several possibilities, a suspicion crossed his mind: the memory of how he himself had behaved in earlier days made him ask whether someone might be hiding her from the world.

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