Things that enliven a winter's day--The guileless chatter of a small child. The sound of some low-born person passing by out in the cold, while you are inside in the warmth. Reading out loud. A witty acquaintance coming to visit, and not staying so long as to wear out their welcome.
An old acquaintance of mine, one of Her Late Majesty's ladies in waiting, by chance stopped by my house today. I had heard that her husband had been promoted at the New Year to Governor of some eastern province or another, and it seems that he wishes her and their children to accompany him on the appointment, but she is reluctant to leave her parents and their house, particularly since it is so far from the capital.
We fell to talking of Her Late Majesty, as was only natural, and before she left she passed me a manuscript. "I thought you might enjoy this," she told me; "it's that Murasaki's diary, recording the birth of the imperial prince last autumn. Reading it gave me a thrill, I'll tell you--it seems like it was a truly splendid occasion. Naturally, I thought…"
Doubtless she thought, as I did, of the day of the birth of Her Late Majesty's son, the same day that the Empress had entered court. It had been a whole day before His Majesty had come to see Her Late Majesty and the baby boy, and all of us had been quite put upon to put the best face on things, even though Her Late Majesty and the prince were both perfectly healthy.
I picked up the manuscript from where it lay on the floor after she had slid it towards me to forestall picking up her allusion. "Have you read this Murasaki's stories?" I asked instead.
"About Shining Prince Genji?" she asked, laughing. "Yes, most of them. He is truly a romantic character! Have you read them?"
"Some," I replied carelessly, glancing over the manuscript in my hands.
"And what did you think?" she pressed me.
Of course whatever I said would be all over the capital before sunset tomorrow. "I think Genji is too perfect to be truly interesting," I replied, careful to give the impression of candor. "Murasaki's literary talent is truly remarkable, but that is the problem with making up stories out of one's own head; things are always idealized. Real life has that subtle aroma of imperfection that makes it intriguing."
"Not like your writing, Shônagon," she said, smiling. No one called me by my father's rank anymore; I found it as charming as I did needling.
"Of course not," I replied loftily. "I only write about things that have happened."
"The way you remember them, that is," she countered, and I laughed.
"The way I care to remember them, you mean," I corrected her, and, laughing, she agreed.
After she had gone I read some of the diary, thinking I ought not to waste the short afternoon light. It is transparently obvious that this Murasaki--everyone calls her that after the heroine of her story; I am glad that I am the heroine of mine--was compelled to write her account by the Minister of the Left as a record of his splendid magnificence, but to her credit, she says as much in the diary itself. I always felt that Michinaga had a certain genius, and he has certainly displayed it masterfully since he took the government in hand.
She seems to be quite bookish, this Murasaki. Everyone has heard by now of how she was raised by her father and given a man's education, and they say that she is even tutoring the Empress in the same. When I think of the contortions I had to go through never to show definitively how much I know of the Chinese classics (more than many men, to be perfectly frank) when I was at court, I admit it seems rather unfair.
Of course, it seems that the Empress is quite serious too, not at all like Her Late Majesty, and I am quite glad to have served the latter rather than the former. I would not have lasted long under the Empress, in any case!
Reading the diary, I could not help but compare the events it described with the birth of Her Majesty's last child, in circumstances as different as spring from autumn. When the little girl, Princess Bishi, died suddenly last summer everyone was surprised and dismayed, for she had survived a much longer illness only the previous spring. Hardly anyone at court attended the funeral, for fear of bearing ill fortune back to Their Majesties; we made a sad little company at the rites, mostly those of us who had the fortune to serve in Her Late Majesty's court, or who had been closely associated with the late Regent and his sons. The sight of the Associate Minister wiping his tears on his sleeve was deeply moving; had she shown her face, I think that Murasaki would have found it quite affecting. Her Genji is as much Korechika as Michinaga, after all.
Although I had not intended to work on my pillow book that day, when I retired to my bed that night I found that I could not banish the memories and images the day's reading and conversation had summoned. But I knew what I had to do as well as any priest or yin-yang master, and, rising, I lit a lamp and pulled my writing box toward me.
The sound of the inkstick rubbing against the stone highlighted the silence of the house; it has been quite empty since my mother's death and my son's marriage. Somehow, without intending it, I have become like one of those ladies in the tales who live alone in mysterious obscurity until the hero happens upon them, but I am neither mysterious nor obscure, and I am quite sure that there is no young, handsome hero who will find his way to my house by destiny, not that I would want him anyway.
I finished preparing the ink and selected another sheet from the bundle of paper that the Associate Minister gave to Her Late Majesty so long ago. I did not have many blank sheets left; soon I would decide on a final order and have my originals bound together, though I suspected there was not much I could do about the sections that people were already sharing amongst themselves; undoubtedly they were quite a jumble by now, and new readers thought the worst of me. After all, the appearance of spontaneity is quite different from disorder.
I dipped my brush in the ink and, after a moment's thought, began to write.
One day in early spring, when Her Majesty was resident in the Office of the Empress's Household, a messenger came late in the morning from her brother the Associate Minister, bearing a pine branch around which an elegant strip of paper had been wound. I was sitting nearest the blinds, so I accepted the message.
"'People are saying…"
When I read it aloud to Her Majesty she sat up eagerly, apparently quite recovered from feeling slightly unwell, as she had begun to do most mornings. "I suppose word has gotten out," she said when she heard it; "I had hoped to keep it secret until I was absolutely sure."
"It is most auspicious news," I said, for of course there could be no keeping something like this a secret. It had been the late Regent's dearest wish that Her Majesty give His Majesty a son, and now at last it might happen. One could hardly blame the Associate Minister for his impatience.
Her Majesty laughed. "Well, how should we answer? We had better reply quickly."
I had been racking my brains to come up with a suitable reply. Her Majesty called for ink and a brush and presented them to me, and I wrote on a piece of Michinoku paper,
"People are saying
That springtime has arrived,
But I with the pine
Beneath the snows shall wait
For the bush warbler's song."
Her Majesty scanned it and handed it back to me. "But how shall you send it?" she asked me, and I at least had a ready answer to that.
"On the same pine branch," I told her, and she smiled.
"Well, at the least he won't pester me any more about it, for a while," she told me, and laughed again. Really it was a bit pedestrian, but I was relying on the fact that the Associate Minister was Her Majesty's brother, and that he had only recently returned to the capital after more than a year.
I quickly tied the paper around the pine branch and handed it back to the messenger along with Her Majesty's gift of thanks, and we passed the rest of the day playing riddles. It appeared that the Associate Minister had well understood the import of the poem.
That evening the Governor of Yamato and Bizen paid a call; although it had been months since I had seen him, I recognized his voice, as well as the calligraphy on the scrap of paper he slid through the blinds to me.
It was not a poem, but in Yukinari's wonderful brushstrokes it almost looked like one. "I had expected the pine…" he had written; I was wearing robes in the grape layering that day.
"A grape waiting to turn into a pine would wait longer than we will for the bush warbler," I commented, and he chuckled.
"Since both the grape and pine are now beneath the snows," he retorted, "how can we tell one from the other?"
"Spring and the hototogisu shall reveal all," I told him, and there we let the matter rest, turning to other things.
I set my brush down on the stand and carefully picked up the page, scrutinizing what I had written: the characters were clear enough, and the episode was not without a certain charm. Perhaps I would be able to circulate this one without any rewriting.
Thinking of the Acting Councillor even now brought back many pleasant memories, though I hadn't seen him in years--and considering how the snow had settled into my hair, perhaps that is no bad thing! He sent me New Year greetings every spring; I always replied promptly, and I know that he had read my pillow book.
The dimness was already abating when I put my writing box away; I was satisfied with the night's work, and rightfully so. It is not poetry, or a diary, or a grand story, but my writing has gained a certain reputation among people of quality, and though my family's reputation for poetry will be said to have died with my father, if my little book can bring back even some of the glory of those days, then I will go to the Pure Land or whithersoever content.
Pleased with myself, I put out the lamp and settled down to sleep under the first light of dawn.