The bishop of Yokawa, on Mount Hiei, a holy and learned man, had a mother some eighty years old and a sister in her fifties. In fulfillment of a vow made long ago, they had been on a pilgrimage to Hatsuse. The bishop’s favorite disciple had been with them. Having finished their prayers and offered up images and scriptures, they were climbing the Nara Slope on the return journey when the old woman was taken ill. She was in such discomfort that they could not ask her to go on. What were they to do? An acquaintance had a house at Uji, and it was decided to stop there for a day or two. When the old woman failed to improve, word was sent to the bishop. He had determined to remain in his mountain retreat until the end of the year, not even venturing down to the city, but there seemed a danger that his mother, of such an age that she could go at any time, might die on the journey. He hurried to her side. He himself and certain of his disciples whose ministrations had on other occasions been successful set about prayers and incantations — though one might have told them, and they would not have denied it, that she had lived a long enough life already.
The Uji acquaintance was troubled. “I have plans for a pilgrimage to Mitake, and for a week now I have been fasting and otherwise getting ready. Can I risk having a very old and ailing lady in the house?”
The bishop understood, and the house was in any case small and shabby. They would proceed back towards Hiei by easy stages. Then it was discovered that the stars were against them, and that plan too had to be abandoned. The bishop remembered the Uji villa of the late Suzaku emperor. It would be in the vicinity, and he knew the steward. He sent to ask whether they might use it for a day or two.
The messenger came back to report that the steward and his family had left for Hatsuse the day before.
The caretaker, a most unkempt old man, came with him. “Yes, if it suits your convenience, do please come immediately. The main hall is vacant. Pilgrims are always using it.”
“Splendid.” The bishop sent someone to make an inspection.” It is a public building, you might say, but it should be quiet enough.”
The caretaker, used to guests, had simple accommodations ready.
The bishop went first. The house was badly run-down and even a little frightening. He ordered sutras read. The disciple who had been to Hatsuse and another of comparable rank had lesser clerics, to whom such tasks came naturally, prepare torches. For no very good reason, they wandered around to the unfrequented rear of the main hall. Under a grove of some description, a bleak, forbidding place, they saw an expanse of white. What could it possibly be? They brought their torches nearer and made out a seated human figure.
“A fox? They do sometimes take human shapes, filthy creatures. If we don’t make it come out I don’t know who else will.” One of the lesser monks stepped forward.
“Careful, careful,” said another. “We can be sure it’s up to no good.” Not letting his eyes wander for an instant from the thing, he made motions with his hands towards exorcising it.
The bishop’s favored disciple was sure that his hair would have been standing on end if he had had any. The bold torchbearer, however, advanced resolutely upon the figure. It was a girl with long, lustrous hair. beaning against the thick and very gnarled root of a tree, she was weeping bitterly.
“Why, this is strange. Maybe we should tell the bishop.”
“Very strange indeed,” said another, running off to report the discovery.
“People are always talking about foxes in human form,” said the bishop,” but do you know I have never seen one?” He came out for a look.
All the available domestics were at work in the kitchen and elsewhere, seeing to the needs of the unexpected guests. These postern regions were deserted save for the half-dozen men watching the thing. No change was to be detected in it. The hours passed, the night seemed endless. Daylight would tell them whether or not it was human, thought the bishop, silently going over appropriate spells, and seeking to quell whatever force it might be with mystic hand motions.
Presently he reached a conclusion. “It is human. It is no monstrous apparition. Go ask her who she is and why she is here. Don’t be afraid. She is no ghost — though possibly a corpse thrown away hereabouts has come back to life.”
“A corpse thrown away at the Suzaku emperor’s own villa? No, Your Reverence. At the very least it is someone a fox spirit or a wood spirit or something of the sort has coaxed away from home and then abandoned. The place will be contaminated, and for our purposes the timing could hardly be worse.”
Someone called for the caretaker, and the summons echoed menacingly across the empty grounds. He came running out, a somewhat ludicrous figure with his cap perched high on his head.
“Do you have any young women living here? Look at this, if you will.”
“Ah, yes. The foxes are at it again. Strange things are always turning up under this tree. Two years or so ago, in the fall it would have been, a little boy, maybe two years old, he lived up the road. They dragged him off and left him right here at the foot of this tree. It happens all the time.” He did not seem in the least upset.
“Had the child been killed?”
“Oh, no. He’s still alive, I’d imagine. Foxes are always after people, but they never do anything really bad.” His manner suggested that such occurrences were indeed commonplace. The emergency domestic arrangements seemed to weigh more heavily on his mind.
“Suppose we watch for a while,” said the bishop, “and see whether or not we observe foxes at work.”
He ordered the brave torchbearer to approach and challenge the strange figure.
“Who are you? Tell us who you are. Devil, fox, god, wood spirit? Don’t think you can hold out against His Reverence. He won’t be cheated. Who are you? Come on, now, tell us who you are.”
He tugged at a sleeve. The girl pressed it to her face and wept all the more bitterly.
“Come on, now. The sensible thing would be to tell us.” He tugged more assertively, though he rather hoped he would not be permitted a view of the face. It might prove to be the hideous mask of the eyeless, noseless she-devil he had heard about. But he must give no one reason to doubt his mettle. The figure lay face in arms, sobbing audibly now.
“Whatever it is, it’s not the sort of thing you see just every day.” He peered down at the figure. “But we’re in for a storm. She’ll die if we leave her out in it, that’s for sure. Let’s move her in under the fence.”
“She has all the proper limbs,” said the bishop,” and every detail suggests that she is human. We cannot leave her to die before our eyes. It is sad when the fish that swim in the lake or the stag that bays in the hills must die for want of help. Life is fleeting. We must cherish what we have of it, even so little as a day or two. She may have fallen into the clutches of some minor god or devil, or been driven from home, a victim of foul conspiracy. It may be her fate to die an unkind death. But such, even such, are they whom the Blessed One will save. Let us have a try at medicines and seek to revive her. If we fail, we shall still have done our best.”
He had the torchbearer carry her inside.
“Consider what you are doing, sir,” objected one of the disciples. “Your honored mother is dangerously ill and this will do her no good.”
“We do not know what it is,” replied another, “but we cannot leave it here for the rain to pound to death.”
It would be best not to let the servants know. The girl was put to bed in a remote and untenanted part of the hall.
The old nun’s carriage was brought up, amid chatter about the stubbornness of her affliction.
“And how is the other?” asked the bishop when the excitement had somewhat subsided.
“She seems to have lost her very last ounce of strength — sometimes we wonder if she is still breathing — and she has not said a word. Something has robbed her of her faculties.”
“What is this?” asked the younger nun, the bishop’s sister.
“Not in my upwards of six decades have I seen anything so odd.” And the bishop described it.
“I had a dream at Hatsuse.” The nun was in tears. “What is she like? Do let me see her.”
“Yes, by all means. You will find her over beyond the east door.”
The nun hurried off. No one was with the girl, who was young and pretty and indefinably elegant. The white damask over her scarlet trousers gave off a subtle perfume.
“My child, my child. I wept for you, and you have come back to me.”
She had some women carry the girl to an inner room. Not having witnessed the earlier events, they performed the task equably.
The girl looked up through half-closed eyes.
She did not seem to understand. The nun forced medicine upon her, but she seemed on the point of fading away.
They must not let her die after she had been through so much. The nun called for the monk who had shown himself to be the most capable in such matters. “I am afraid that she is not far from death. Let her have all your best spells and prayers.”
“I was right in the first place,” he grumbled. “He should have let well enough alone.” But he commenced reading the sutra for propitiating the local gods.
“How is she?” The bishop looked in. “Find out what it is that has been at her. Drive it away, drive it away.”
“She will not live, sir, I am sure of it. And when she dies we’ll be in for a retreat we could perfectly well have avoided. She seems to be of good rank, and we can’t just run away from the corpse. A bother, that is what I call it.”
“You do talk a great deal,” said the nun. “But you are not to tell anyone. If you do you can expect an even worse bother.” She had almost forgotten her mother in the struggle to save the girl. Yes, she was a stranger, nothing to them, if they would have it so; but she was a very pretty stranger. Everyone who saw her joined in prayers that she be spared. Occasionally she would open her eyes, and there would be tears in them.
“What am I to do? The Blessed One has brought you in place of the child I have wept for, I am sure of it, and if you go too, I shall have to weep again. Something from another life has brought us together. I know that too. Speak to me. Please. Say something, anything.”
“I have been thrown out. I have nowhere to go.” The girl barely managed a whisper. “Don’t let anyone see me. Take me out when it gets dark and throw me back in the river.”
“She has spoken to me! But what a terrible thing to say. Why must you say such things? And why were you out there all by yourself?”
The girl did not answer. The nun examined her for wounds, but found none. Such a pretty little thing — but there was a certain apprehension mingled with the pity and sorrow. Might a strange apparition have been dispatched to tempt her, to challenge her calm?
The party remained in seclusion for two days, during which prayers and incantations went on without pause. Everyone was asking who this unusual person might be.
Certain farmers in the neighborhood who had once been in the service of the bishop came to pay their respects.
“There has been a big commotion over at the prince’s place,” one of them remarked by way of apology. “The General of the Right was seeing the prince’s daughter, and then all of a sudden she died, of no sickness at all that anyone could see. We couldn’t come yesterday evening when we heard Your Reverence was here. We had to help with the funeral.”
So that was it. Some demon had abducted the Eighth Prince’s daughter. It scarcely seemed to the bishop that he had been looking at a live human being. There was something sinister about the girl, as if she might at any moment dissolve into thin air.
“The fire last night hardly seemed big enough for a funeral.”
“No, it wasn’t much to look at. They made it as small as they could.” The visitors had been asked to remain outside lest they communicate the defilement.
“But who might it be? The prince’s daughter, you say — but the princess the general was fond of has been dead for some years. He has another princess now, and he is not the sort to go out looking for new wives.”
The old nun was better and the stars no longer blocked the way. Everything that had happened made them want to leave these inhospitable precincts as soon as possible.
“But the young lady is still very weak,” someone objected. “Do you really think she can travel?”
They had two carriages. The old nun and two others were in the first and the girl was in the second, with an attendant. They moved at an easy pace with frequent stops. The nuns were from Ono, at the west foot of Mount Hiei. It was very late when they arrived, so exhausted that they regretted not having spent another night along the way. The bishop helped his mother out. With many pauses, the younger nun led the girl into the nunnery. It was a sore trial to have lived so long, the old nun, near collapse, was no doubt saying to herself. The bishop waited until she had recovered somewhat and made his way back up the mountain. Because it had not been proper company for a cleric to find himself in, he kept the story to himself. The younger nun, his sister, also enjoined silence, and was very uneasy lest someone come inquiring after the girl. Why should they have found her all alone in such an unlikely place? Had a malicious stepmother taken advantage of an illness in the course of a pilgrimage, perhaps, and left her by the wayside? “Throw me back in the river,” she had said, and there had been not a word from her since. The nun was deeply troubled. She did so want to see the girl restored to health, but the girl did not seem up to the smallest effort in her own behalf. Perhaps it was, after all, a hopeless case — but the very thought of giving up brought a new access of sorrow. Secretly requesting the presence of the disciple who had offered up the first prayers, the nun told of her dream at Hatsuse and asked that ritual fires be lighted.
And so the Fourth and Fifth months passed. Concluding sadly that her labors had been useless, the nun sent off a pleading letter to her brother: “May I ask that you come down and see what you can do for her? I tell myself that if she had been fated to die she would not have lived this long; and yet whatever has taken possession of her refuses to be dislodged. I would not dream, my sainted brother, of asking that you set foot in the city; but surely it will do you no harm to come this far.”
All very curious, thought the bishop. The girl seemed destined to live — in that matter he had to agree with his sister. And what then would have happened if they had left her at Uji? All that could be affirmed was that a legacy from former lives had dictated a certain course of events. He must do what he could, and if then she died, he could only conclude that her destiny had worked itself out.
Overjoyed to see him, the nun told of all that happened over the months. “A long illness generally shows itself on a person’s face; but she is as fresh and pretty as ever she was.” She was weeping copiously. “So very many times she has seemed on the point of death, and still she has lived on.”
“You are right.” He looked down at the girl. “She is very pretty indeed. I did think all along that there was something unusual about her. Well, let’s see what we can do. She brought a store of grace with her from other lives, we can be sure of that. I wonder what miscalculation might have reduced her to this. Has anything come to you that might offer a clue?”
“She has not said a word. Our Lady of Hatsuse brought her to me.”
“Everything has its cause. Something in another life brought her to you.”
Still deeply perplexed, he began his prayers. He had imposed upon himself so strict a regimen that he refused to emerge from the mountains even on royal command, and it would not do to be found in ministrations for which there was no very compelling reason.
He told his disciples of his doubts. “You must say nothing to anyone. I am a dissolute monk who has broken his vows over and over again, but not once have I sullied myself with woman. Ah, well. Some people reveal their predilections when they are past sixty, and if I prove to be one of them, I shall call it fate.”
“Oh, consider for a moment, Your Reverence.” His disciples were more upset than he was. “Think what harm you would be doing the Good Law if you were to let ignorant oafs spread rumors.”
Steeling himself for the trials ahead, the bishop committed himself silently to vows extreme even for him. He must not fail. All through the night he was lost in spells and incantations, and at dawn the malign spirit in possession of the girl transferred itself to a medium.
Assisted now by his favorite disciple, the bishop tried all manner of spells toward identifying the source of the trouble; and finally the spirit, hidden for so long, was forced to announce itself.
“You think it is this I have come for?” it shouted. “No, no. I was once a monk myself, and I obeyed all the rules; but I took away a grudge that kept me tied to the world, and I wandered here and wandered there, and found a house full of beautiful girl s. One of them died, and this one wanted to die too. She said so, every day and every night. I saw my chance and took hold of her one dark night when she was alone. But Our Lady of Hatsuse was on her side through it all, and now I have lost out to His Reverence. I shall leave you.”
“Who is that addresses us?”
But the medium was tiring rapidly and no more information was forthcoming.
The girl was now resting comfortably. Though not yet fully conscious, she looked up and saw ugly, twisted old people, none of whom she recognized. She was assailed by intense loneliness, like a castaway on a foreign shore. Vague, ill-formed images floated up from the past, but she could not remember where she had lived or who she was. She had reached the end of the way, and she had flung herself in — but where was she now? She thought and thought, and was aware of terrible sorrows. Everyone had been asleep, she had opened the corner doors and gone out. The wind was high and the waters were roaring savagely. She sat trembling on the veranda. What should she do? Where was she to go now? To go back inside would be to rob everything of meaning. She must destroy herself. “Come, evil spirits, devour me. Do not leave me to be discovered alive.” As she sat hunched against the veranda, her mind in a turmoil, a very handsome man came up and announced that she was to go with him, and (she seemed to remember) took her in his arms. It would be Prince Niou, she said to herself.
And what had happened then? He carried her to a very strange place and disappeared. She remembered weeping bitterly at her failure to keep her resolve, and she could remember nothing more. Judging from what these people were saying, many days had passed. What a sodden heap she must have been when they found her! Why had she been forced against her wishes to live on?
She had eaten little through the long trance, and now she would not take even a drop of medicine.
“You do seem bent on destroying all my hopes,” said the younger nun, the bishop’s sister, not for a moment leaving her side. “Just when I was beginning to think the worst might be over. Your temperature has gone down — you were running a fever all those weeks — and you seemed a little more yourself.”
Everyone in the house was delighted with her and quite unconditionally at her service. What happiness for them all that they had rescued her! The girl wanted to die; but the indications were that life had a stubborn hold on her. She began to take a little nourishment. Strangely, she continued to lose weight.
“Please let me be one of you,” she said to the nun, who was ecstatic at the prospect of a full recovery. “Then I can go on living. But not otherwise.”
“But you are so young and so pretty. How could you possibly want to become a nun?”
The bishop administered token orders, cutting a lock of hair and enjoining obedience to the five commandments. Though she was not satisfied with these half measures, she was an unassertive girl and she could not bring herself to ask more.
“We shall go no further at the moment,” said the bishop, leaving for his mountain cell. “Do take care of yourself. Get your strength back.”
For his sister, these events were like a dream. She urged the girl to her feet and dressed her hair, surprisingly untangled after months of neglect, and fresh and lustrous once it had been combed out its full length. In this companionship of ladies” but one year short of a hundred, “ she was like an angel that had wandered down from the heavens and might choose at any moment to return.
“You do seem so cool and distant,” said the nun. “Have you no idea what you mean to me? Who are you, where are you from, why were you there?”
“I don’t remember,” the girl answered softly. “Everything seems to have left me. It was all so strange. I just don’t remember. I sat out near the veranda every evening, that I do half remember. I kept looking out, and wishing I could go away. A man came from a huge tree just in front of me, and I rather think he took me off. And that is all I remember. I don’t even know my name.” There were tears in her eyes. “Don’t let anyone know I am still alive. Please. That would only make things worse.”
Since it appeared that she found these attempts at conversation tiring, the nun did not press further. The whole sequence of events was as singular as the story of the old bamboo cutter and the moon princess, and the nun was uneasy lest a moment of inattention give the girl her chance to slip away.
The bishop’s mother was a lady of good rank. The younger nun was the widow of a high-ranking courtier. Her only daughter, who had been her whole life, had married another well-placed courtier and died shortly afterwards; and so the woman had lost interest in the world, taken the nun’s habit, and withdrawn to these hills. Yet feelings of loneliness and deprivation lingered on. She yearned for a companion to remind her of the one now gone. And she had come upon a hidden treasure, a girl if anything superior to her daughter. Yes, it was all very strange — unbelievably, joyously strange. The nun was aging but still handsome and elegant. The waters here were far gentler than at that other mountain village. The house was pleasingly furnished, the trees and shrubs had been set out to agreeable effect, and great care had obviously gone into the flower beds. As autumn wore on, the skies somehow brought a deepened awareness of the passing days. The young maidservants, making as if to join the rice harvesters at the gate, raised their voices in harvest songs, and the clacking of the scarecrows brought memories of a girlhood in the remote East Country.
The house was set in against the eastern hills, some distance above the retreat of Kashiwagi’s late mother-in-law, consort of the Suzaku emperor. The pines were thick and the winds were lonely. Life in the nunnery was quiet, with only religious observances to break the monotony. On moonlit nights the bishop’s sister would sometimes take out a koto and a nun called Shōshō would join in with a lute.
“Do you play?” they would ask the girl. “You must be bored.”
As she watched these elderly people beguiling the tedium with music, she thought of her own lot. Never from the outset had she been among those privileged to seek consolation in quiet, tasteful pleasures; and so she had grown to womanhood with not a single accomplishment to boast of. Her stars had not been kind to her. She took up a brush and, by way of writing practice, set down a poem:
“Into a torrent of tears I flung myself,
And who put up the sluice that held me back?”
It had been cruel of them to save her. The future filled her with dread. On these moonlit nights the old women would recite courtly poems and talk of this and that ancient happening, and she would be left alone with her thoughts.
“Who in the city, now bathed in the light of the moon,
Will know that I yet drift on through the gloomy world?”
Many people had been in her last thoughts — or what she had meant to be her last thoughts — but they were nothing to her now. There was only her mother, who must have been shattered by the news. And Nurse, so desperate to find a decent life for her — how desolate she must be, poor thing! Where would she be now? She could not know, of course, that the girl was still alive. Then there was Ukon, who had shared all her secrets through the terrible days when no one else had understood.
It is not easy for young people to tell the world goodbye and withdraw to a mountain village, and the only women permanently in attendance were seven or eight aged nuns. Their daughters and granddaughters, married or in domestic service, would sometimes come visiting. The girl avoided these callers, for among them might be one or two who frequented the houses of the gentlemen she had known. It seemed absolutely essential that her existence remain a secret, and no doubt strange theories about her origins were going the rounds. The younger nun assigned two of her own maidservants, Jijū and Komoki, to wait upon the girl. They were a far cry from the “birds of the capital” she had known in her other life. Had she found for herself the “place apart from the world” the poet speaks of? The bishop’s sister knew that such extreme reserve must have profound causes, and told no one of the Uji events.
Her son-in-law was now a guards captain. His younger brother, a court chaplain and a disciple of the bishop, was in seclusion at Yokawa. Members of the family often went to visit him. Once on his way up the mountain the captain stopped by Ono. Outrunners cleared the road, and the elegant young gentleman who now approached brought back to the girl, so vividly that it might have been he, the image of her clandestine visitor. Ono was little nearer the center of things than Uji, but the nunnery and its grounds showed that the occupants were ladies of taste. Wild carnations coyly dotted the hedge, and maiden flowers and bellflowers were coming into bloom; and among them stood numbers of young men in bright and varied travel dress. The captain, also in travel dress, was received at the south veranda. He stood for a time admiring the garden. Perhaps twenty-seven or twenty-eight, he seemed mature for his age. The nun, his mother-in-law, addressed him through a curtained doorway.
“The years go by and those days seem far away. It is good of you to remember that the darkness of our mountains awaits your radiant presence. And yet —?” There were tears in her voice. “And yet I am surprised, I must admit, that you so favor us.”
“I have not for a moment forgotten the old days; but I fear I have rather neglected you now that you are no longer among us. I envy my brother his mountain life and would like to visit him every day. But crowds of people are always wanting to come with me. Today I managed to shake them off.”
“I am not at all sure that I believe you. You are saying what young people say. But of course you have not forgotten us, and that is evidence that you are not like the rest of them. I thank you for it, you may be sure, every day of the year.”
She had a light lunch brought for the men and offered the captain lotus seeds and other delicacies. Since this was of course not the first time she had been his hostess, he saw no cause for reticence. The talk of old times might have gone on longer had a sudden shower not come up. For the nun, regret was added to sorrow, regret that so fine a young man had been allowed to become a stranger. Why had her daughter not left behind a child, a keepsake? Quite lost in the nostalgia these occasional visits induced, she sometimes said things she might better have kept to herself.
Looking out into the garden, alone once again with her thoughts, the girl was pathetic and yet beautiful in the white singlet, a plain, coarse garment, and drab, lusterless trousers in harmony with the subdued tones of the nunnery. What an unhappy contrast she must be with what she had once been! In fact, even these stiff, shapeless garments became her.
“Here we have our dead lady back, you might almost think,” said one of the women;” and here we have the captain too. It makes you want to weep, it really does. People will marry, one way and another, and it would be so nice if we could have him back for good. Wouldn’t they make a handsome couple, though.”
No, never, the girl replied silently. She had no wish to return to the past, and the attentions of a man, any man, would inevitably pull her towards it. She had been there, and she would have no more of it.
The nun having withdrawn, the captain sat looking apprehensively up at the sky. He recognized the voice of the nun Shōshō and called her to him.
“I am sure that all the ladies I knew are here, but you can probably imagine how hard it is for me to visit you. You must have concluded that I am completely undependable.”
They talked of the past, on and on, for Shōshō had been in the dead lady’s service.
“Just as I was coming in from the gallery,” he said, “a gust of wind caught the blind, and I was treated to a glimpse of some really beautiful hair. What sort of damsel do you have hidden away in your nunnery?”
He had seen the retreating figure of the girl and found her interesting. How much more dramatic the effect would certainly be if he were to have a good look at her. He still grieved for a lady who was much the girl’s inferior.
“Our lady was quite unable to forget her daughter, your own lady, and nothing seemed to console her. Then quite by accident she came on another girl, and she seems to have recovered somewhat from her grief. But it is not at all like the girl to have let you see her.”
Now this was interesting, thought the captain. Who might she be? That single glimpse, a most tantalizing one, had assured him that she was well favored. He questioned Shōshō further, but her answers were evasive.
“Oh, everything will come out in the end. Just be patient.”
It would not have been good manners to press for more.
“The rain has stopped and we do not have much more daylight,” said one of his men.
Breaking off a maiden flower below the veranda, he was heard to murmur as he went out: “Why should our nunnery be bright with maiden flowers?”
The older women recognized the allusion and thought it gratifying. Even a dashing young gentleman could worry about appearances.
“He always was pleasant to look at,” said the bishop’s sister, “and the years have been good to him. Yes, how nice if things could be as they were. I am told that he has not actually been neglecting the Fujiwara councillor’s daughter, but that he’s not too awfully fond of her. He spends most of his time at home, I am told. But come: you are not being very kind, my dear, letting your own thoughts occupy you so. Do cheer up a bit, please do. Tell yourself that what had to be had to be. For five and six years I grieved and I yearned, and now I have you to fill my life, and I must confess that she has quite gone out of it. Someone, somewhere, may have grieved and yearned for you too, but whoever it is must by now have given you up, of that I am sure. Nothing lasts, everything changes. That is the way
“I don’t want to keep secrets from you,” said the girl, choking with tears. “But it is all so strange, that I am alive, that you found me where you did, everything. It is all like clinging to something in a dream. Like being born into a different world, I should think. If there are people who worry about me, I cannot remember who they are. I have only you.”
A smile on her face, the nun listened quietly. How beautiful the girl was, and how unaffected!
The captain reached Yokawa. The bishop too enjoyed his visits. The talk went on and on and presently monks of good voice were called in to read sutras. With this and that diversion, the night went pleasantly by.
The captain remarked in the course of it: “I stopped by Ono on my way here. It was a pleasure to see your sister again. She may have left the world, but there aren’t many who have her taste and discrimination.” He paused and continued: “The wind caught one of the blinds and I was treated to a glimpse of a long-haired beauty. I gather that she did not want to be seen. She was running off to another part of the house. But what I did see struck me as most uncommon. A nunnery is an odd place for young beauty, I must say. She sees nuns and more nuns, morning and noon and night, and one of these days she will be looking like a nun herself. We would not wish that to happen.”
“I have heard,” said his brother, “that they went to Hatsuse this spring and found her somewhere along the way.” Not himself a witness to these events, he offered no details.
“That is very interesting, and very sad. Who might she be? Someone in the most trying circumstances, I should think, that she should want to hide from the world. But how very interesting. There is something a little storybookish about it, you might almost say.”
He found Ono hard to pass by on his descent to the city.
The nun was prepared this time, and so lavish with her hospitality that he was reminded of other years. Though Shōshō no longer wore the bright robes of old, she was still a woman of taste. The bishop’s sister was in tears as she received him.
“And who,” he asked nonchalantly, “is the young lady you have hidden away?”
She was startled. But a moment’s consideration told her that he had seen the girl and that evasion would do her no good. “My sins went on accumulating because I was unable to forget my daughter, and for several months now I have had another girl to look after, and she has brought a certain comfort. I do not know the details myself, but she seems to have rather dreadful problems, and does not even want it known that she is alive. I thought surely these mountain fastnesses would be safe from prying eyes. How do you happen to know about her?”
She had not completely satisfied his curiosity. “Even if my motives were less than honorable, I might, I think, claim a certain measure of credit for having braved these mountain roads. I had expected a better reward. You are being somewhat ungenerous if you insist on hiding the facts and treating me as if they were no concern of mine. If she serves as a substitute for my lamented wife, then I think I may say that they are. Why is she so set against the world? It is just possible that I might offer comfort.” And he indited a poem on a piece of notepaper he had with him:
“O maiden flower, bend not to Adashino’s gales.
I came the long road to make for you a windbreak.”
The bishop’s sister saw the note, which he sent in through Shōshō. “You must answer, you really must. He is an honest and serious young man, and you have nothing to worry about.”
But the girl would not be moved. “I write so dreadfully,” she said.
Not wanting him to go off annoyed, the nun herself sent an answer. “I have warned you that she is eccentric, and we may not reasonably expect conventional behavior of her.
“We have brought the maiden flower to a hut of grass
Away from the world, and yet the world torments it.”
Concluding that nothing more was to be expected, he started for the city. Further attempts at correspondence would seem inappropriate and even childish. Yet he could not forget the figure of which he had had a glimpse that afternoon. He pitied the girl, though of course he still did not know what reasons there were for pity.
Toward the middle of the Eighth Month, on a falconing expedition, he again visited Ono.
He called Shōshō and gave her a note for the girl. “The sight of you has left me restless and utterly at loose ends.”
Since it seemed unlikely that the girl would answer, the nun sent back: “She awaits ‘I know not whom on Matsuchi Hill.’”
“You have told me that she has troubles,” he said when the nun came out to receive him. “I would like more details, if you don’t mind. Few things go as I would wish them. I often think of withdrawing to the mountains myself; but people hold me back, and time goes by. I am of a rather morose turn, I fear, and sunny dispositions do not particularly suit me. Perhaps if I might talk of my troubles with someone who has troubles too?”
He seemed very interested indeed, thought the nun. “If you are looking for someone who is not very talkative, I suspect that you have come to the right place. But her distrust of the world is almost frightening, and she seems determined not to do as other women do. It was not easy for me, even, to say goodbye to the world, and I have so little time ahead of me. I do not know how a girl with everything ahead of her can even think of it.” As she bustled back and forth between girl and caller, it was as if she had become a mother once more. “You are not being kind,” she said to the girl. “You must let him have an answer, even if it is only a word or two. People like us should be more understanding than most.”
But the girl was cold to her persuasions. “I know nothing at all, not the way they answer these things, nothing.”
“I beg your pardon?” said the captain. “No answer? That is too unkind. It is a lie, then, about Matsuchi Hill?
“‘I wait,’ said the voice from the pines; and I have come
And find myself wandering lost through dew-drenched reeds.”
“Do try to feel a little sorry for him,” said the nun. “You must answer at least this one time.”
But the thought of even a delicate show of interest horrifled the girl, and a response was sure to invite further challenges. She remained silent.
This evidence of apathy was not to the nun’s liking. She sent an answer herself, and her manner as she set about it suggested that she had not always been of an ascetic bent.
“Though the dew on the autumn moors may have wet your sleeves,
You do wrong, O hunter, to blame our weed-grown lodgings.
“I but forward her reply to your message. As you see, it is not encouraging.”
The nuns had warm feelings towards the captain, and of course they could not know how deeply it distressed the girl to have word get out, despite her own wishes, that she was still alive. They seemed intent upon pushing her into his arms. “Just have a try at letting him talk to you when these little chances come up. You will be surprised, I am sure you will, at how silly you have been to hold back. No, it needn’t be the usual sort of thing. Just let him know that you don’t dislike him.”
They were far from as withdrawn and unworldly as she would have wished, and the youthful zest with which they turned out bad poetry did nothing to restore her composure. What further humiliations must she expect? — for she still had life, unbearable burden which she had sought to be rid of. If only they would turn her out, rejected by the whole world.
The captain heaved a sigh, perhaps because other worries had crossed his mind. Taking out a flute, he played a muted tune upon it, and when he had finished he intoned softly, as if to himself:”‘The call of the hart disturbs the autumn night.’” He did appear to be a man of taste. “I seem to have come all this way just to be tormented by memories,” he said, getting up to leave, “and I fear that my new friend will not be much comfort. No, your retreat does not seem to lie along my ‘mountain path away from the world.’”
“Such a beautiful night, and it is just beginning.” The nun came out towards the veranda. “Must you go?”
“What possible reason have I to stay? I sense very great distances between us.”
He had no wish at this point to seem eager. The one fleeting glimpse had been interesting, and had offered possible relief from loneliness and boredom. That was all. Her haughtiness was rather out of keeping with her circumstances, and cooled his ardor.
The nun was reluctant to see even the flute go. She sought to detain him with a verse, though not a very clever one:
“A stranger to the late-night moon in its glory
That he now disdains our house at the mountain ridge?”
She had been clever in one respect: she had made it seem that the girl’s own sentiments were in the poem. His interest revived, he sent an answering poem:
“I shall watch till the moon goes behind the mountain ridge,
To see how it slips through the boards that roof your chamber.”
The old nun, the bishop’s mother, had caught a dim echo of a flute. She tottered eagerly forward, coughing and sputtering, her voice tremulous as she made her wishes known. Though she should have been overwhelmed by memories, she said nothing of the old days. Perhaps she did not recognize their guest.
“Play, play! Play on flute and koto. Oh, but a person does want a flute on a moonlit night. Come on, you over there. Bring out a koto.”
The captain had guessed who was addressing him. So she still lived on in these mountains! How was it possible? Life dealt itself out capriciously, giving some people more than their share of it. He offered the old lady a deft melody in the banjiki mode.
“Now for the koto.”
“I think you have improved,” said the younger nun, rather a connoisseur, “but then you always were good. It may be that I have listened too long to the wind in the pines. I am sure to disgrace myself in such competition.” And she played a melody on the koto.
Not much in vogue these days, the seven-stringed koto had its own charm. The wind blew a counterpoint through the pines, and the flute seemed to be urging the moon to new splendors. Delighted, the old nun was prepared to stay up until dawn.
“I used to do tolerably well on the Japanese koto myself; but my son tells me it is in bad taste. I suppose the fashions have changed. He says he can’t bear the thing, and besides I am wasting my time. I ought to be spending my time with my beads, every last minute of it, he says, and so I am out of practice. If I could just give you something on that koto of mine, such a fine, clear tone it does have.”
She would like nothing better than to perform for them, the captain could see. “Your reverend son has strange ideas of what you should and should not be doing. Does he not know, and like all the rest of us think it admirable, that the powers above play on instruments like these and the angels dance to them? What sin can there be in music, what harm can it do to your prayers? I for one cannot think of any. Come, let’s have a tune or two.”
The old lady was in ecstasy. “Tonomori,” she coughed. “Bring me that koto, the Japanese one.”
The others looked forward to the performance with a certain dread, but since even her son had aroused her ire, it hardly seemed politic to discourage her. Not bothering to ask what mode the captain had been using, she smartly plucked out a gamut that suited her fancy. The flutist had fallen silent, doubtless, she thought, lost in admiration.
“Takefu chichiri chichiri taritana”. It was a brave, sturdy effort, though not a very modish one.
“How interesting,” said the captain. “Not the sort of thing one hears very often these days.”
She did not quite catch his words, which had to be relayed to her by someone a little nearer.
“Young people seem to have given up this sort of thing,” she cackled. “Take the girl who has been with us these last few weeks. She’s very pretty, I’m sure, but she lives in a world all her own. None of our little frivolities for that one, I can tell you.”
To her daughter and the others she was beginning to seem a bit too pleased with her own world; and a beautiful night was being spoiled.
The captain set out for the city, his flute coming in rich and full on the wind from the mountain. There was no sleep at the nunnery that night.
Early in the morning a note was delivered: “It was because of all my troubles that I took my leave so early.
“Ancient things came back, I wept aloud
At koto and flute and a lady’s haughty ways.
“Do teach her a little, if you will, of the art of sympathy. If I were able to endure in silence, would I thus be serenading you?”
Sadder and sadder, thought the nun, on the edge of tears as she composed her reply:
“With the voice of your flute came thoughts of long ago,
And tears wet my sleeve, and sped you on your way.
“You will have guessed, from the remarks my mother was so generous with, that the girl is so withdrawn as to suggest insensitivity.”
It was not a letter that interested him a great deal.
As insistent as the wind through the rushes, the girl was thinking. How very insistent men were! Memories of the Uji days, and especially of Niou, were coming back. Well, she knew a way to be free of them all. She quite gave herself up to her preparations, to study and prayer and invocation of the holy name. The bishop’s sister was forced to conclude that the girl had never been young, that she had somehow been withdrawn and gloomy from the start. But pretty she certainly was, so pretty that dissatisfaction with her could not last. Indeed, the nun’s life had come to center upon her, and a rare little chuckle from her was a delight among delights.
In the Ninth Month the nun made a pilgrimage to Hatsuse. All those months had done little to ease her grief, and now she had found a girl whom she could only think of as a daughter; and the pilgrimage was by way of showing her gratitude to Our Lady of Hatsuse.
“Suppose you come along, my dear. No one need hear of it. You may say that one holy image is very much like another, but Hatsuse does seem to produce very special results. Do come with me.”
Her mother and nurse had said exactly that, she remembered, and had more than once taken her to Hatsuse; and what good had their efforts done? In those last desperate days, she had not even been allowed to dispose of her own life. And the thought of going on a long journey with a near stranger somehow frightened her.
But she made no effort to argue the matter. “I am not myself,” she said quietly, “and I am not at all sure what the trip would do to me.”
Yes, poor child, she had every right to be apprehensive, thought the nun. She said no more.
She came upon a scrap of paper on which, by way of writing practice, the girl had jotted down a verse:
“On shoals unsought, I ask no further view
Of cedars twain beside that ancient river.”
“Two cedars, is it?” said the nun banteringly. “So there actually are two persons you might want to see again?”
The girl started and flushed crimson. The nun had said more than she intended to. She thought this confusion charming, and rattled off a not very distinguished poem:
“I know not the roots of the tree by the ancient river,
But it takes the place, for me, of one now gone.”
She had hoped to steal off almost by herself, but everyone clamored to go along. Fearing that the girl would be lonely, she left three attendants behind: the sensitive and cultivated Shōshō, an elderly woman called Saemon, and a little girl. Gazing moodily after the pilgrims, Ukifune felt the loneliness close in upon her even more threateningly. Indeed, she felt quite defenseless, her one ally now off for Hatsuse. In upon the tedium and loneliness, as her thoughts wandered now to the past and now to the perilous future, came a letter from the captain. Shōshō asked her at least to glance at it, but she refused.
“Come, now. This gloom is getting to be contagious. Let’s see if I can best you at Go.”
“Of course you can. I always lose.” The girl seemed not unhappy at the suggestion, however, and the board was brought out. Expecting an easy victory, Shōshō let her have the first play. But the girl was no weakling, and in the next match Shōshō was easily persuaded to play first.
“What a charming surprise. Something to tell my lady about, if she will just hurry back. She is rather good at it herself. Her honored brother has always been fond of the game, and there was a time when he was taking on airs like the gentleman they called the High Priest of Go. It was just about then that he challenged my lady to a match. He promised that he would be a generous and forbearing conqueror, and he lost two in a row. I am sure you would have no trouble besting His Reverence the High Priest of Go. You are very, very good, I do not hesitate to tell you.,
Shōshō was warming to her subject. But the girl was beginning to fear that this unlovely, bald-pated person might be too insistent a companion. She was a little tired, she said, and went to lie down.
“A game now and then would do you a world of good. It seems such a pity that a girl as attractive as you should be forever moping. The flaw in the gem, as they say.”
The night wind moaning outside brought memories.
Just as the moon came flooding over the hills the captain appeared. (There had been that note from him earlier in the day.) The girl fled aghast to the rear of the house.
“You are being a perfect fool,” said Shōshō. “It is the sort of night when a girl should treasure these little attentions. Do, I beg of you, at least hear what he has to say — or even a part of it. Are you so clean that his very words will soil you?”
But the girl was terrified. Though someone ventured to tell him that she was away, he probably knew the truth. Probably his messenger had reported that she was alone.
His recriminations were lengthy. “I don’t care whether or not I hear her voice. I just want to have her beside me, prepared to decide for herself whether I am such an ugly threat. She is being quite heartless, and in these hills too, where it might be imagined that there would be time to cultivate the virtue of patient charity. It is more than a man should be asked to bear.
“In a mountain village, deep in the autumn night,
A lady who understands should understand.
“And I do think she should.”
“There is no one here to make your explanations for you,” said Shōshō to the girl. “You may if you are not careful seem rude and eccentric.”
“The gloom of the world has been no part of my life,
And how shall you call me one who understands?”
The girl recited the poem more as if to herself than by way of reply, but Shōshō passed it on to him.
He was deeply touched. “Do ask her again to come out, for a moment, even.”
“I seem to make no impression upon her at all,” said Shōshō, who was beginning to find his persistence, and with it a certain querulousness, a little tiresome. She went back inside — and found that the girl had fled to the old nun’s room, which she had not before so much as looked in upon.
Shōshō reported this astonishing development.
“With all this time on her hands,” said the captain, “she should be more than usually alive to the pity of things, and all the indications are that she is a gentle and sensitive enough person. And that very fact, you know, makes her unfriendliness cut more cruelly. Do you suppose there is something in her past, something that has made her afraid of men? What might it be, will you tell me, please, that has turned her against the whole world? And how long do you expect to have her with you?”
Openly curious now, he pressed for details; but how was Shōshō to give them?
“A lady whom my lady should by rights have been looking after was lost for a number of years. And then, on a pilgrimage to Hatsuse, we found her again.”
The girl lay face down, sleepless, beside the old nun, whom she had heard to be a very difficult person. The nun had dozed off from earl y evening, and now she was snoring thunderously. With her were two nuns as old as she, snoring with equal vigor. Terrified, the girl half wondered whether she would survive the night. Might not these monsters devour her? Though she had no great wish to live on, she was timid by nature, rather like the one we have all heard of who has set out across a log bridge and then changed her mind. She had brought the girl Komoki with her. Of an impressionable age, however, Komoki had soon returned to a spot whence she could observe this rare and most attractive caller. Would she not please come back, would she not please come back? Ukifune was asking; but Komoki was little help in a crisis.
The captain presently gave up the struggle and departed.
“She is so hopelessly wrapped up in herself,” said the women, “and the worst of it is that she is so pretty.”
At what the girl judged would be about midnight the old nun awoke in a fit of coughing and sat up. In the lamplight her hair was white against her shawl.
Startled to find the girl beside her, she shaded her eyes with her hand as the mink (or some such creature) is said to do and peered over.
“Now this is strange,” she said in a deep, menacing voice. “What sort of thing might you be?”
The moment had come, thought the girl. She was going to be devoured. When that malign being had led her off she had not resisted, for she had not had her senses about her. But what was she to do now? They had dragged her ignominiously back into the world, and black memories were a constant torment; and now came a new crisis, one which she seemed incapable of surmounting or even facing. Yet perhaps if she had had her way, if she had died, she would this moment be facing a crisis still more terrible. Sleepless, she thought back over her life, which seemed utterly bleak. She had not known her father and she had divided all those years between the capital and the remote provinces. And then she had come upon her sister. For a time she had been happy and secure; but that untoward incident had separated them. Some relief from her misfortunes had seemed in prospect when a gentleman declared himself ready to offer her a respectable position, and she had responded to his attentions with that hideous blunder. It had been wrong to permit even the smallest flutter of affection for Niou. The memory of her ultimate disgrace, brought on by his attentions, revolted her. What idiocy, to have been moved by his pledge and that Islet of Oranges and the pretty poem it had inspired! Her mind moved from incident to incident, and longing flowed over her for the other gentleman. He had not exactly burned with ardor, but he had seemed calm and dependable. From him above all she wanted to keep news of her whereabouts and circumstances. Would she be allowed another glimpse of him, even from a distance? But she sternly dismissed the thought. It was wrong. She must not harbor it for a moment.
After what had seemed an endless night, she heard a cock crowing. It was an immense relief — but how much greater a delight had it been her mother’s voice awakening her! Komoki was still absent from her post. The girl lay in bed, exhausted. The early snorers were also early risers, it seemed. They were noisily at work on gruel and other unappetizing dishes. Someone offered her a helping, but the donor was ugly and the food strange and unappetizing. She was not feeling well, she said, not venturing an open refusal. The old women did not sense that their hospitality was unwelcome.
Several monks of low rank came up to the nunnery. “The bishop will be calling on you today.”
“What brings him so suddenly?”
“An evil spirit of some sort has been after the First Princess. The archbishop has been doing what he can, but two messengers came yesterday to say that only His Reverence offers real hope.” They delivered these tidings in proud voices. “Then late last night the lieutenant came, the son of the Minister of the Left, you know. He had a message from Her Majesty herself. And so His Reverence will be coming down the mountain.”
She must summon up her courage, thought the girl, and have the bishop administer final vows. Today there were no meddling women to gainsay them. “I fear I am very ill,” she said, rousing herself, “and when he comes I hope I may ask him to let me take my vows. Would you tell him so, please?”
The old nun nodded vaguely.
The girl went back to her room. She did not like the thought of having anyone except the bishop’s sister touch her hair, and she could not dress it without help. She loosened the cords that had bound it up for the night. Though of course she had no one but herself to blame for what was about to happen, she was sad that her mother would not see her again in lay dress. She had feared that her hair might be thinner because of her illness, but could detect no evidence that it was. Remarkably thick, indeed, it was a good six feet long, soft and smooth and beautifully even at the edges.
“I cannot think,” she whispered to herself, “that she would have wished it thus.”
The bishop arrived in the evening. The south room had been readied for him. Suddenly full of shaven heads, it was an even less inviting room than usual. The bishop went to look in on his mother.
“And how have you been these last months? I am told that my good sister is off on a pilgrimage. And is the girl still with you?”
“Oh, yes. She didn’t go along. She says, let me see, she’s not feeling well. She’d like to take her vows, she says, and she’d like you to give them to her.”
“I see.” He went to the girl’s room and addressed her through curtains. Shyly, she came forward.
“I have felt that only a bond from a previous life could explain the curious way we met, and I have been praying my hardest for you. But I am afraid that as a correspondent I have not been very satisfactory. You will understand, I am sure, that we clerics are supposed to deny ourselves such pleasures unless we have very good reasons. And how have you been? It is not an easy life women lead when they turn their backs on the world.”
“You will remember that I had no wish to live on, and my strange survival has only brought me grief. But of course I am grateful, in my poor way, for all you have done. Do, please, let me take my vows. I do not think I am capable of the sort of life other women lead. Even if I were to stay among them, I do not think I could follow their example.”
“What can have brought you to such a conclusion, when you have your whole life ahead of you? No, it would be a grave sin. The decision may at the time seem a firm one, but women are irresolute creatures, and time goes by.”
“I have never been happy, not since I was very young, and my mother often thought of putting me in a nunnery. And when I began to understand things a little better I could see that I was different from other people, and must seek my happiness in another world.” She was weeping. “Perhaps it is because I am so near the end of it all — I feel as if everything were slipping away. Please, reverend sir, let me take my vows.”
The bishop was puzzled. Why should so gentle a surface conceal such a strange, bitter resolve? But he remembered that malign spirit and knew that she would not be talking nonsense. It was remarkable that she was still alive. A terrible thing, a truly hideous thing, to be accosted by forces so evil.
“Your wish can only have gained for you the smiling approval of the powers above. It is not for me to deter you. Nothing could be simpler than administering vows. But I have come down on most pressing business, and must tonight be at the princess’s side. The services begin tomorrow. In a week they will be over, and I shall see that your petition is granted.”
But by then the younger nun would have come back, and she would surely object. It must be made to appear that the crisis was immediate.
“Perhaps I have not explained how unwell I am. I fear that vows will do me little good if I am beyond accepting them wholeheartedly. Please. I see my chance today, the only one I shall be blessed with.”
Her weeping had touched his saintly heart. “It is very late. I used to have no trouble at all climbing up and down the mountain, but I am old, and matters are no longer so simple. I had thought to rest here awhile and then go on to the city. If you are in such a hurry, I shall see to your wishes immediately.”
Delighted, the girl pushed scissors and a comb box towards him.
“Have the others come here, please.” The two monks who had been with him that strange night at Uji were with him again tonight. “Cut the young lady’s hair, if you will.”
It was a most proper thing they were doing, they agreed. Given the perilous situation in which they had found her, they knew that she could have been meant for no ordinary life. But the bishop’s favored disciple hesitated even as he raised the scissors. The pair pushed forward between the curtains was altogether too beautiful.
The nun Shōshō was off in another wing with her brother, a prefect who had come with the bishop. Saemon too was having a chat with a friend in the party; and such modest entertainment as they were capable of providing for these rare and most welcome visitors occupied most of the household.
Only Komoki was present. She scampered off to tell Shōshō what was in progress. A dismayed Shōshō rushed in just as the bishop was going through the form of bestowing his own robe and surplice upon the girl.
“You must now make obeisance, if you will, in the direction of your father and mother.”
The girl was in tears, for she did not know in which direction that would be.
“And what, may I ask, are you doing? You are being utterly irresponsible. I cannot think what our lady will have to say when she gets back.”
But the proceedings were at a point beyond which expressions of doubt could only disturb the girl. Shōshō said no more.
“ . . . as we wander the three worlds,” intoned the bishop.
So, at length, came release. Yet the girl felt a twinge of sorrow: there had in fact been no bonds to break.
The bishop’s assistant was having trouble with her hair. “Oh, well. The others will have time to trim it for you.”
“You must admit no regrets for the step you have taken,” said the bishop, himself cutting the hair at her forehead. He added other noble admonitions.
She was happy now. They had all advised deliberation, and she had had her way. She could claim this one sign of the Buddha’s favor, her single reward for having lived on in this dark world.
The visitors left, all was quiet. “We had thought that for you at least?” said her companions, to the moaning of the night wind, “this lonely life need not go on. We had looked forward to seeing you happy again. And this has happened. Have you thought of all the years that lie ahead of you? It is not easy for even an old woman to tell herself that life as most people know it has ended.”
But the girl was serene. “Life as most people know it” — she need no longer think about that. Waves of peace flowed over her.
But the next morning she avoided their eyes, for she had acted selfishly and taken no account of their wishes. Her hair seemed to scatter wildly at the ends, and no one was prepared to dress it for her in charitable silence. She kept her curtains drawn.
She had never been an articulate girl, and she had no confidante with whom to discuss the rights and wrongs of what had happened. She seated herself at her inkstone and turned to the one pursuit in which she could lose herself when her thoughts were more than she could bear, her writing practice.
“A world I once renounced, for they and I
Had come to nothing, I now renounce again.
“Finally, this time, I have done it.”
The poem moved her to set down another:
“I thought that I should see the world no more,
And now, once more“no more’ is my resolve.”
As she sat jotting down poem after poem, all very much alike, a letter came from the captain. In the midst of the uproar, someone had sent word of what Ukifune had done. He was of course much distressed. There was a consistency in it all, her determination accounting for her coldness and her reluctance to embark upon even the beginning of a correspondence. Still it was very disheartening. He had begged the other night to be granted a closer look at the rich hair that had so interested him, and the nuns had told him that his time would come. He sent off a bitter reply by return messenger:
“What would you have me say?
“Make haste, make haste, lest I be left behind.
The fisher boat even now rows far from the shore.”
The girl surprised them by showing an interest in the letter. It was a time for sadness, and she was touched by this sign that he had finally lost hope. Whatever she may have had in mind, she took up a rough scrap of paper and wrote this poem on a corner of it:
“My soul may have left the shores of this gloomy world.
But on driftwood it floats, who knows to what far shore?”
In her usual fashion, she jotted it down as if in writing practice. Someone folded it in a cover and sent it off to the captain.
“You could at least have recopied it.”
“I did not want to risk miscopying.”
The girl’s answer came as a surprise, and added to the regrets.
The younger nun returned from her pilgrimage. She was aghast at the news that awaited her.
“I have taken vows myself, and I had thought that I should encourage you in your wishes. But what do you propose to do with the years you have ahead of you? I may tell you now why I went on that pilgrimage. I cannot be sure whether I shall be alive tomorrow, and I wanted to pray to Our Lady of Hatsuse to watch over you.”
So great was her agitation that she took to her bed. The girl was sorry for her, of course, but even sorrier for her own mother, who must have carried on even thus over a daughter who had disappeared and left no earthly remains to mourn over. Silent as always, the girl was extraordinarily young and pretty as she sat turned away from the company.
“What a useless little person I do seem to have taken in.” The bishop’s sister soon recovered sufficiently to order a nun’s habit for the girl. It was a garb they were very familiar with, and soon the girl was wearing a dull gray robe and surplice. The other nuns, helping her into them, could not rind strong enough words with which to condemn the bishop’s recklessness and irresponsibility. She had been a comfort to them over the days, an unexpected light in the mountain gloom; and now the light had gone out.
It was as his fellows had said: the bishop’s powers were extraordinary. The First Princess having recovered, his name inspired yet greater reverence. Since complications can follow an apparent recovery, however, the services were continued. The bishop remained at court for a time. One still, rainy night when he was among the clerics on duty, he was summoned for nocturnal rites. The ladies-in-waiting, exhausted from the strain of these last few days, were resting. Only a few were in the royal presence. The empress herself was among them.
“I have thought so all along,” she said, “and now I feel more than ever that we may look to you for assistance in this life and the next.”
“I have been informed by the Blessed One that I have not long to live and that this year and next are particularly dangerous ones for me; and so I had thought to stay in solemn retreat, concentrating upon the holy name. Your Majesty’s own summons has brought me here.”
The empress spoke of how stubborn the malign spirit in possession of her daughter had been, and how frightening it is when these spirits insist upon announcing themselves under a variety of names.
“Your Majesty has chosen to speak of malign spirits. I am reminded of a most unusual happening. Late this spring my mother, a very old lady, went on a pilgrimage to Hatsuse by way of fulfilling a vow. Taken ill on the return journey, she stopped over at the late Suzaku emperor’s Uji villa. Evil spirits have a way of occupying large houses that have been neglected over the years, and I feared that she had chosen an unfortunate spot for her convalescence. I was right.” And he described how they had found Ukifune.
“What an extraordinary thing!” Quite unnerved, the empress aroused the women nearby. That Kosaishō in whom Kaoru had shown a certain interest had heard the bishop’s story. The others had been asleep. The bishop, noting the royal perturbation, saw that his narrative had perhaps been too vivid, and did not go into further details.
“But let me just tell you a little about the young lady. On my way down from the mountain I looked in on the nuns at Ono. She wept as she told me how desperately she wanted to leave the world, and I administered vows. My sister, the widow of the guards captain, seems to adore the girl, and even to look upon her as a substitute for her own daughter. No doubt she is berating me for what I have done. The girl is a very pretty, I must say, a most elegant young lady, and it does seem a pity that she should be wasted in a nunnery. I have no notion who she might be.”
“But why should such a pretty girl have been left in such a place?” asked Kosaishō. “Surely you have found out who she is?”
“No, I fear I have not — though she may have told my sister. If she is what she appears to be, a girl of good family, then the secret cannot be kept forever. Not of course that I would wish to be understood as saying that there are no beauties among girls of the lower classes. Ours is a world in which even the ogre maiden finds salvation. But if she should prove to be a person of no background, then the fact that she is so lovely would mean that she came into this life with a remarkably light burden of sin from other lives.”
The empress remembered having heard of a girl who disappeared in Uji or thereabouts, in the spring it must have been. Kosaishō had had the sad story from the girl’s sister. But of course they could not be sure that this was the same girl. And the bishop had said that the girl wanted her very existence to be kept secret, and had hidden herself away like a fugitive from some terrible enemy. He found it all very strange, the bishop said again, as if he did not want to elaborate further; he had brought the matter up only because it had occurred to him that Her Majesty might be interested. Kosaishō thought it best to keep the story to herself.
“It may well be the same girl,” said the empress when the bishop had withdrawn. “Suppose we tell my brother.”
But secrecy was important to both of them, it seemed, and no one was entirely sure of the facts; and Kaoru was such a difficult man to talk to in any case.
The princess having recovered, the bishop returned to his mountain retreat. He looked in on the nuns once more. His sister assaulted him with great vehemence.
“You must be charged with a grave sin, sir, in condemning a mere child to a nunnery. How can you have done it without asking me first? I can think of no reasonable explanation for your conduct.”
But of course these recriminations came too late.
“Be diligent with your prayers,” said the bishop to Ukifune. “Life is uncertain for old and young alike. It is most proper that you should have awakened to the facts of this fleeting world.”
The girl disliked even such oblique reference to her past.
“Have a new habit made for yourself,” he said, taking out gossamers and damasks and unfigured silks. “I shall see to your needs, I promise you, while I am here to do it. You need not feel uncertain on that score. It would seem that, for me, for you, for most of us, bonds with this transient world are not easy to break so long as we remain preoccupied with its illusory triumphs and glories. Lose yourself in your devotions, here in the forest depths, and shame and regret need not be a part of your life. This wordly existence’ is but a thin blade of grass.?” And he added after a moment:
“‘Now comes dawn to the gate among the pines,
And lingers yet the moon in the sky above.’”
His knowledge ranged far beyond the scriptures, and such allusions gave his homilies a certain grandeur. To the girl it seemed (though she may not have understood everything) that he was saying exactly what she wanted to hear.
The wind moaned the whole day through. “The wandering monk off in the mountains wants to sob aloud on such a day,” said the bishop.
She had become one of the wanderers herself, thought the girl, and it was perhaps for that reason that she was so given to weeping.
Gazing out from the veranda, she saw in the distance a troop of men in variegated travel robes. Even people on their way up the mountain tended to pass the nunnery by, though occasionally the nuns would catch a glimpse of a monk, from perhaps Black Valley. Men in lay dress were a very rare sight indeed. These proved to be in attendance upon the captain whom she had so disappointed. He had come with further complaints, now useless, of course, but the autumn leaves, just at their best, more richly tinted here at Ono than elsewhere along the range, made him forget them for a time. What a start it would give a man, he thought, to come upon a bright, lively girl in such a place.
“I had a bit of spare time, and it seemed meant for your autumn colors.” He gazed admiringly about him. “Yes, your trees do invite one to spend a night among them — to borrow a night from the past, so to speak.”
The bishop’s sister, generous as ever with her tears, offered a poem:
“Harsh the winds that come down these mountain slopes.
Our trees are bare. They give not shade or shelter.”
“Mountain trees, I know, where none awaits me;
And yet I cannot easily pass them by.”
“Let me at least see her in her new robes,” he said to Shōshō, in the course of lengthy observations about the girl now beyond retrieving. “Allow me a single sign that you remember your promises.”
Shōshō went inside. Yes, she did indeed want to show the girl off, slight, delicate, graceful, in a cloak of light gray and a singlet of a quiet burnt yellow, her rich hair spread about her like a five-plaited fan. The fine skin was as if it had been freshly and tenderly powdered. More than show her off: Shōshō would have liked to paint a picture of the little figure engrossed in prayer, a rosary hung over a curtain rack nearby, a sutra unrolled before her. Shōshō wanted to weep. How much more extreme was the effect likely to be upon a man who had come as a suitor! The moment seemed propitious. She pointed to a small aperture below the latch and pushed aside curtains and the like that might obstruct his view. He had not been prepared for such beauty. A flawless creature — and she had become a nun! The regrets and the sorrow were as if some dreadful mistake of his own had brought matters to this pass. He withdrew, unable to hold back his tears and afraid that he might break into open sobbing. Was it conceivable that no one would be searching for this lost paragon? He would have heard if a daughter of one of the great families had disappeared or turned in bitterness from the world.
An enigma, certainly; but one did not look with aversion upon nuns when they were great beauties. Indeed, their condition added to the excitement. Concluding that the girl was worth a secret visit from time to time, he appealed to the bishop’s sister.
“I can see that there were reasons for shyness before she had these new defenses, but I should think that we might now have a quiet talk. Suggest as much to her, if you will. I have called on you from time to time because I have not been able to forget the past, and now I have another reason.”
“Yes,” said the nun, in tears, “I have worried about her a great deal, and I would be much happier if I could think that she had a friend, someone who would promise in all honesty to see her from time to time. I shall not be here forever, you know.”
But who might the girl be? The nun’s words suggested that she was a relative.
“I may not live long myself, and I am not of much consequence in any case; but I keep a promise when I have made one. Tell me: does no one come to see her? You must not think that I am holding back because I do not know who she is — and yet it does somehow stand between us.”
“If she had any notion that the world ought to be paying its respects, then she would have no lack of callers, I am sure. But as you see, she has quite given up such things. She seems interested in her prayers and nothing more.”
He sent a note in to the girl:
“You have chosen to turn your back upon the world.
It pains me to think that I have been the occasion.”
He could not have been warmer or more courteous, said the woman who brought the note.
“Think of me as a brother,” he persisted. “The most trivial sort of conversation would be such a comfort.”
“I fear that your remarks are above me,” she sent back, not attempting a real answer.
Those disastrous events had so turned her against men, it seemed, that she meant to end her days as little a part of the world as a decaying stump. The gloom of the last months lifted a little, now that she had had her way. She would joke with the bishop’s sister and they would play Go together. She turned to her studies of the Good Law with a new dedication, perusing the Lotus Sutra and numbers of other holy texts. It was winter, the snows were deep, and there were no visitors; and now if ever was the tedious time.
The New Year came, but spring seemed far away. The silence of the frozen waters seemed to speak with its own sad voice. Though she had turned away in disgust from the prince who had found her so “daunting,” she thought all the same of the days when she had known him.
At the writing practice that was her chief pleasure in recesses from her devotions, she set down a poem:
“I gaze at snow that swirls over mountain and moor,
And things long gone have still the power to sadden.”
Memories of the past were much with her. It was a year now since her disappearance. Would there still be those to whom memories of her were important?
Someone brought the first spring shoots in a coarse rustic basket. The nun sent them in with a poem:
“Their prize these shoots that break through the mountain snows.
My joy the abundant years you have before you.”
And the girl replied:
“On drifted moors I shall gather early shoots.
May years of your life add to years, as snow upon snow.”
How very dear of her to say so — and how much greater the joy if, over those years, she might live the life she deserved.
A rose plum was blooming near the eaves of the girl’s room, its color and its perfume as they had always been. It was her favorite among all the flowering trees. It told her that the spring was “the spring of old,” perhaps because she remembered the perfume of which she “knew no surfeit.”
Early one morning as she was setting out votive water in preparation for the matins, she had a nun rather younger and of lower rank than the others break off a sprig. Petals fell as if in protest, and seemed to send out a suddenly more compelling fragrance. A poem formed itself in the girl’s mind:
“He whose sleeve brushed mine is here no more,
And yet is here in the scent of the dawning of spring.”
A grandson of the old nun who had recently returned from his duties as governor of Kii came to pay his respects. He was a handsome man, perhaps thirty, and he seemed very sure of himself.
“And how have you been?” he asked the old lady. “I have not seen you in two whole years, you will remember.”
But she did not seem to understand.
He went to his aunt’s rooms. “She has aged terribly, poor thing. She has been on my mind a great deal, even though I have been too far away to call on her. I have known of course that she has not many more years to live. Yes, she has been like a mother to me since my own mother died. Does Hitachi ever come to see you?”
It would seem that he was referring to his sister.
“Not a great deal breaks in on our loneliness and boredom. It has been a very long time since we last heard from Hitachi. Indeed I sometimes wonder if Mother will see her again.”
Though not especially interested in the conversation, the girl caught the name Hitachi.
The governor went on: “I have been back in the city for several days now, but one quickly gets caught up in court business. I meant to come yesterday and then at the last minute I found that I had to go off to Uji with Lord Kaoru. We spent the day at the Eighth Prince’s villa. One of the prince’s daughters, with whom, I believe, His Lordship was keeping com pany, died some years ago, and then a younger daughter — I am told that he took her there in secret — died last spring. It was the anniversary of her death, and he had asked the archdeacon there to see to memorial services. I suppose I’ll have to contribute something myself, a lady’s robe or two would be the thing. I wonder — might I ask you to have them made up if I give orders to the weavers as soon as I get back to town?”
Here was a story that did interest the girl. She turned away from the doors lest her agitation be noticed.
“I have heard, I believe, that the saintly prince had two daughters. One of them is married to Prince Niou. Now which would it be? I wonder.”
“The second of Lord Kaoru’s ladies would seem to have been the daughter of a concubine of not very high rank. He was not as good to her as he might have been, and so now of course he is all the sorrier. They say he was terribly upset when the first princess died. He even thought of becoming a monk.”
The girl was in tenor. The man seemed to be among Kaoru’s intimates.
“It seems strange,” the governor continued, “that they should both have died at Uji. He was in very low spirits yesterday, very low indeed. There were tears in his eyes when he went down to the river. He came back to the house and wrote a poem on one of the pillars:
‘ “I cannot halt the tears that join the flow
Of waters that gave her image, and do so no more.,
“He said very little, but you could see that he was in very low spirits. I should imagine that the two ladies adored him. I have known him for a very long time myself and have been aware all along of his extraordinary kindness and sensitivity. Yes, if I can count on his support, then I have no wish to be on the chancellor’s own personal staff.”
It did not take a very discerning person, thought the girl, to observe Kaoru’s superiority.
“Although I should suppose,” said the nun, “that no one we have with us these days compares with the gentleman they used to call’the shining Genji’ or something of the sort. I hear that his house collects more honor for itself as the years go by. What sort of man might his older son be?”
“Very handsome, very cultivated, respected by everyone. Certainly one of the most powerful men in the country. But the really handsome one is Prince Niou. Sometimes I almost wish I were a woman, and could have my turn at waiting on him.”
It was as if he had come with a prepared speech. Ukifune listened in sorrow and fascination to a story as from another life. The talk went on for a time, and the governor left. It touched her to know that she had not been forgotten. Again the thought of her mother’s sorrow came first. But she did not want to be seen in this unbecoming dress. She watched the women at work preparing clothes — in memory of herself! She said not a word about the strangeness of it all.
A nun came to her with a singlet. “Suppose you do this for us. We’ve seen how good you are at turning a hem.”
But the thought was somehow repellent. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling well.” She lay with her back turned upon all the activity.
“What is the matter?” The bishop’s sister anxiously put aside her work.
Another nun held up a red singlet and a damask robe with a cherry-blossom pattern in the weave. “If only we could ask you to try this on for us. It seems such a waste that you should always be in grays and blacks.”
“Shall I, having taken the habit of the nun,
Now change to robes of remembrance, think of the past?”
The girl sighed as she jotted down her poem. This world kept no secrets, and if she were to die and the bishop’s sister to learn the truth, her secretive ways would no doubt seem cold and unfeeling.
“I have forgotten everything,” she said, “but when I see you at this sort of work something does seem to come back, and make me very sad.”
“I have no doubt that you remember something, indeed a great many things, and it does you no good to go on hiding them. I have forgotten a great many things myself. The bright colors they wear down in the city, for example; and so I have lost my touch for this kind of work. If my daughter had only lived! Surely there is someone who is to you as I was to her? I saw her remains right there before my eyes, and I went on believing that she had to be alive, somewhere, and wanted to run off and look for her. And you just vanished — surely there is someone out looking for you?”
“Yes, I did have a mother, back when I was a part of it all. But I rather think she died not long ago.” She sought to hide her tears. “It hurts to try to remember, and I really have nothing at all to tell you. Do please believe that I am not trying to keep things from you.” Always a girl of deep reserve, she fell silent.
The memorial services were over. What a fragile bond it had been, thought Kaoru. He found posts for such of the Hitachi sons as had come of age, one with the privy council, another in his own offices. He considered taking one of the more presentable boys into his personal retinue.
On an evening of quiet rain he went to see the empress. She had little to occupy her time.
“I have for some years been visiting an out-of-the-way mountain village,” he remarked in the course of the conversation. “People used to criticize me for calling on a certain lady there, but I told myself that there was no point in trying to fight destiny, and went on seeing her all the same. I think almost anyone would have done as I did — and what else is a man to do when his affections have become involved? There was an unfortunate incident. It made me feel that the very name of the place must carry a curse, and the road began to seem longer and more difficult than I could negotiate. So I stayed away for a very long time. The other day I had to go there on business, and it made me think all over again how uncertain things are. The house I used to visit, I thought, the house of that saintly prince, must have been put up on purpose to urge the votary along on his way.
Very sad, thought the empress, remembering what she had heard from the bishop. “Has some evil spirit taken up residence there, do you suppose? How did she die?”
She would be referring to the deaths of two sisters in such quick succession. “Evil spirits do have a way of choosing lonely, remote places. But her death was unusual even so.” He did not go into the details.
It would be bad manners, she thought, to hint that she had considerable information about the realm he was so carefully skirting, and she remembered how depressed Niou had been, how he had even fallen ill. She remained silent out of deference both to her brother and to her son.
“My brother the general still seems to mourn the girl at Uji,” she said in confidence to Kosaishō. “I was so sorry for him that I was on the point of telling him everything, but in the end I held myself back. It might not be the same girl, after all. You heard what the bishop said. Sometime when you are having one of your talks with the general, just give him the substance of it. But do be careful not to say anything that might hurt him.”
“Please, Your Majesty. If you think it improper to tell him yourself, do consider how much more improper it would be for one of us others.”
“These things depend entirely on the circumstances. I have my reasons.”
Kosaishō understood and was interested. One day she found her chance to tell him the bishop’s story.
He was astounded. The empress had probably known at least a part of it when he visited her; and why had she not told him? But then he had been somewhat furtive himself — and even now that he had learned the truth he was no more open. He feared that anything he said would make him look more eccentric. Perhaps the gossips were already at work. Even when a man and woman were alive and present and alert, their secrets had a way of getting out.
“It sounds very much like someone I had been wondering about,” he replied guardedly. “And is she still at Ono?”
“The bishop administered vows the day he came down from the mountain. She insisted on it, even though everyone wanted her to wait until she had regained a little of her strength.”
The place was right, and not one of the circumstances was at variance with what he knew. Half hoping he would be spared the knowledge that it was indeed she, he cast about for a way to learn the truth. He would present an awkward figure if he were to lead the hunt himself. And if he were to treat Niou to the sight of his restlessness, his friend would no doubt seek ways to block the path the girl had chosen. Had Niou extracted a vow of silence from his mother? That would explain her curious reluctance to talk about a matter so extraordinary. And if Niou was already part of the conspiracy, then however strong the yearning, Kaoru must once again consign Ukifune to the realm of the dead. If indeed she still lived, then some chance turn of the wind might one day bring them together, to talk, perhaps, of the shores of the Yellow Spring. He would not again think of making her his own.
Though the empress was evidently determined not to discuss these events, he found another occasion to seek her out.
“The girl I told you about, the one who I thought had died such a terrible death — I have heard that she is still alive. She has come on unhappy circumstances, I am told. It all seems very unlikely — but then the way she disappeared was unlikely too. I find it hard to believe that she hated the world enough to think of such desperate measures. And so the rumors I have picked up may not be so unlikely after all.” And he described them in more detail. He chose his words carefully when they touched upon Niou, and he did not speak at all of his own bitterness. “If he hears that I would like to find her he is sure to credit me with all the wrong motives. I do not propose to do anything even if I discover that she is still alive.”
“I was rather frightened when I had the story from the bishop, and did not listen as carefully as I should have. But how could my son possibly have learned of it? I know all about his deplorable habits, and have no doubt that news of this sort would send him into a fever. The talk I pick up about his little escapades worries me terribly.”
He knew that she would never, in what seemed to be the frankest of conversations, let slip something she had learned in confidence.
The mystery haunted him, day and night. In what mountain village would the girl be? How might he with dignity seek her out? He must have the facts directly from the bishop of Yokawa. He made solemn offerings on the eighth of every month, sometimes at the main hall on Mount Hiei, sacred to Lord Yakushi. This time he would go on to Yokawa. He took the girl’s brother with him. He did not mean to tell her family for the moment, not until he had more precise information. Perhaps he hoped that the boy’s presence would bring an immediacy to an encounter that might otherwise seem unreal. If the girl in the bishop’s story should indeed prove to be Ukifune, and if, further, she had already been the victim of improper advances, even in strange new dress, off among strange new women — the truth would not be pleasing.
Such are the thoughts that troubled him along the way.
Last updated Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 21:07