Vexing things--When something petty that one has said finds its way back to the ears of the person in question. Going on a retreat to a temple and finding someone already there whom you would rather not meet, but of course having made the preparations, you cannot simply leave.
Thinking it would be cooler in the Ishiyama temple by the lake, I had set out with a group of court ladies from the capital the day before, and traveling leisurely, we reached the temple, set low on a mountain just above Lake Biwa, just before the midday heat set in. We were received with all due ceremony by a novice who did not seem to feel the heat, which while less oppressive than in the capital, was still considerable.
We were shown to adjoining rooms within the temple; mine had a lovely view out over the lake. I asked the novice if anyone else was on pilgrimage here, and he mentioned several names, none very familiar to me, before saying finally, "The daughter of the Kiyohara member of the Pear Chamber has been on retreat here for a few days. I do not know when she plans to depart."
Sei Shônagon, on retreat at the same temple at the same time! I was already tired from the journey, but when I heard that I resolved not to leave my room for the rest of the day. Perhaps by some good fortune she would leave within the next day or so.
I knew that last was probably highly unlikely; she had not been in service to anyone for nearly five years, and though she was frequently a fixture at the Inner Minister's mansion, it was not as though she had any other pressing obligations: she was, like I had been before I had been summoned to the Empress' service, at her comfortable leisure.
Like every lady and gentlemen in Miyako, however, I had read the gatherings of her Pillow Book, which had circulated through society ever since the then-Governor of Bicchu had made off with them from Sei's bedside--I had read the first of them even in Echizen. I would have been mortified had one of my Genji stories been sent into the world without my consent, but though Sei claimed to have been deeply embarrassed, that had not stopped her from producing further gatherings, all of which were as popular as the first.
When I had been so starved for conversation and entertainment in Echizen, I had drunk up Sei's pillow book like a draught of cool water, but since my return to Miyako and my marriage the pleasure of her writing had turned for me, like a rice cake that has become old and hard. Now, rereading sections of it aloud with the Empress and the other ladies, I could barely understand how I had found her snobbery and complaints, however elegantly phrased, diverting.
Unfortunately, I had said as much on more than one occasion, and I was sure that, well-connected as Sei remained, she had heard of my remarks; certainly I had heard from many people that she thought I had true literary talent, but found my Genji stories too mannered and idealized. Apparently Sei still had a shortening but influential list of gentlemen admirers, who were only too happy to circulate her opinions on various matters after calling on her. Perhaps in her next gathering she would include a list of their names and court ranks.
It was only natural that people should contrast us, though I found it depressingly obvious; she after all had been the leading light of the late Empress's salon, and people were already trying to shove me into that position in Her Majesty's. Really it was rather ironic that her service to Teishi had been subsidized by the late Regent, when she made no secret of her admiration for Michinaga both then and now in her writing; perhaps she was angling for another position at court.
If so, she was bound to be disappointed; Her Majesty had pronounced Sei and her book far too ostentatious for propriety when we had finished reading aloud the last gathering in our possession.
The temple bell tolling the hour of the boar brought me back to my senses; I had gone on retreat to improve my karma, not ruin it by thinking harshly of a woman I had never actually met. I resolved to put Sei out of my mind and went to sleep immediately, and in the morning, eating my simple temple breakfast of rice and pickled vegetables, I repeated that vow to myself.
Of course, no sooner had we entered the main hall to present our petitions and make our devotions before the statue of Kannon then did one of the other ladies, Chûnagon, elbow me sharply in the side. "Look!" she whispered, far too loudly for my comfort. "Those deep willow sleeves in the right side aisle--do you see? That is Motosuke's daughter!"
I slid the briefest glance in the direction she had indicated, barely enough to catch a glimpse of the sleeves she had mentioned, and nodded to Chûnagon before turning back to my prayers. At this point I would certainly need the bodhisattva's intervention to attain the Pure Land.
I managed to think no more of Sei Shônagon until the next afternoon, when I had gone out into the temple gardens to view the Chinese bellflowers that were in bloom. They were truly beautiful, and in the sunlight they seemed to glow a delicate periwinkle; I was glad of my fan and my robe shading my hair, which was still almost entirely black. In the temple setting I was only too conscious of my vanity concerning it, and so many other petty things.
Thinking such gloomy thoughts, I was surprised to realize that I was not the only one who had thought to take the afternoon air; further up the path, another lady was loitering, her back now turned to me. Her clothes were fine, but slightly out of fashion, and I realized who she must be just before Sei Shônagon turned and greeted me with an exclamation, whether of surprise or of delight I could not say.
"Oh, hello!" she greeted me, lowering her fan. Her voice was rather loud and her expression direct; I could not imagine how such an unsubtle person had managed to survive and even thrive in service beyond the clouds for nearly a decade. Her eyes fell on my fan, on which one of Her Majesty's ladies had painted a stylized murasaki plant, and she looked back at me, her expression changing. "You must be Tametoki's daughter," she said, and though I was impressed, I was not surprised; no one without a ready wit could have half her reputation for poetry. "They had told me that a party of Her Majesty's ladies had come on pilgrimage here."
"Yes," I said, bracing myself, and lowering my fan as well out of bare courtesy. "And you must be Motosuke's daughter. They told me that you were on retreat here too."
She laughed. "Yes, indeed I am; it's not as if I have anywhere else in particular to be." I hoped that my expression had not changed, even though she had uncannily echoed my own thoughts of the night before last. "I admit I find the atmosphere here very calming. It's not like the Kiyomizu temple or Hase, which are always so thronged with busybodies and would-be courtiers."
"Have you been here long?" I asked, seizing a topic of conversation that did not involve insulting anyone. I was selfishly hoping that she could somehow forget what I had said about her.
"Nearly a fortnight," she answered, and gestured uphill with her own fan. "Would you like to walk with me? I have been told that the terrace gardens are charming."
I could not very well decline, and so I gestured for her to lead the way, falling into step alongside her. We went slowly, the sound of cicadas loud in the air around us; the trees soon closed in around the garden path, and I felt much less exposed than I had down in the gardens near the temple buildings. I could never have gone about so careless of being seen anywhere in the capital, or even at Hase; Sei was right that there were simply too many people there. I had not felt so at liberty since I had been in Echizen with my father.
We walked in silence for a while, until at length Sei ventured, "I have enjoyed your Genji stories, you know. Would it be too impertinent of me to ask whether you plan to write any more?"
"There will be more, I think," I said, too startled by her question to offer my thanks. "Her Majesty is always asking me the same question. I am sure she wants Genji recalled from Akashi and restored to glory."
"Well, anyone who has had someone dear to them exiled would feel the same," Sei remarked. "Her Late Majesty certainly did, when the former Inner Minister was barred from the capital."
Even ten years later that bizarre incident was still a popular, if clandestine, topic in society; I agreed with my father, who had said at the time that he found the whole thing disgraceful and that if Korechika was so hot-headed then he didn't deserve to be Regent, but of course Sei would see it very differently. "I have been copying the Lotus Sutra onto the back of one of the stories I have with me," I admitted, more from a desire to change the conversation again than anything else. "I am sure it will not make up for the folly of writing them in the first place, however."
To my surprise, Sei turned around sharply, her robes twisting, so that I nearly collided with her. "How can you say that?" she demanded, gesturing wildly with her fan. She was slightly shorter than I, but a little higher up the path, so that we stood at nearly the same height, and close enough that I could see that her teeth-black was in need of retouching. "I am surprised at you! I would have thought that you would have understood the importance of writing! How else are we to express ourselves?"
"I don't believe writing is unworthy," I protested, wondering how exactly it was that I, who served in the court of the Empress at the behest of the Minister of the Left, who had been put on the defensive by a washed-up failure of a diarist. "But surely you must agree that even writing is not as important as our karma, and doing what we can to ensure that we are reborn in the Pure Land, rather than this wretched world."
Sei stared at me for a long time, long enough that I felt a drop of sweat trickling down my spine beneath my light robes. It really was unpleasantly hot. "No," she said at last, "no, I don't. Excuse me, Murasaki."
I had not granted her leave to call me that, but it seemed entirely characteristic that she had taken the liberty without asking. I stood, at a loss, while she snapped her fan open and, holding it in front of her face at the highest level, practically flew up the path and out of sight around the next bend in it.
I had not really wanted to see the gardens anyway. Raising my own fan, I turned and made my way back down to my room in the temple.
I dined alone in my room that night, and I was beyond astonished when, after the simple evening meal had been cleared away, I heard a very polite, muted knocking at my door. The novices did not disturb anyone for anything but a fire after sunset, and I knew for a fact that the other ladies of my party were playing a riddle game in one of the other's rooms, but I slid the panel open with a feeling that I had better face the inevitable quickly, and get it over with.
I was not surprised to recognize Sei in the corridor outside my room, but I was surprised when she offered me nearly a full bow from her knees. "May I come in?" she asked humbly, and I could not very well decline; instead, I beckoned her inside.
I only had sweet water, which I offered her in one of the humble cups the temple had provided, along with the simple earthenware jug, and she sipped it a little, turning the cup in her hands. "I came to apologize for my rudeness earlier today," she said at last, looking at the reflection of the moon, just past the first quarter, on the clear liquid. "I must have offended you, and I--regret that."
Sei Shônagon, apologizing to me, when I was the one who had all but called her a hack before the Empress, and she was the one who had complimented my writing both in society and in my presence, earlier. "Please don't--" I hesitated, searching for the right words. "Please don't obsess over it," I told her at last. "I was taken aback, I admit, but there is no shame in having a--passionate disposition. I admit, I envy you for that, Shônagon."
She chuckled. "No one calls me that any more, except courtiers." I could tell that she was not yet fully at her ease, but for a moment, I was captivated by the sight of her bent over her cup, the reflected moonlight underlighting her white face and absorbed utterly by her black hair, though it was not without threads of silver. She had spoken in her pillow book of wearing a hairpiece, but I could not see that she needed it.
At that moment Sei glanced up at me, and to cover having been caught staring, I asked, "Have you been writing anything recently?" I was surprised at my own boldness, but pleased that for once I had taken the lead in the conversation.
"Yes, actually," she answered, and I thought she might have been a bit surprised at my question, but pleased, too. "I have been working on another gathering of scenes for my pillow book, including a section describing a sutra reading given by the late Regent."
That would have been at the height of Michitaka's glory, more than ten years ago; I remembered hearing about such things from my father. "I should like to read it," I told her, which was more or less a total falsehood; reading her pillow book now, I was amazed at her total determination to ignore almost all of life's sorrows. You would never know that her years in Teishi's service had mostly been those in which the Empress had been eclipsed by Her Majesty and the Minister of the Left.
"If I finish it while you are still here, I would be honored to hear what you have to say about it," she told me, and her eyes fell on my writing box; I had been mixing ink when she had knocked. "Copying your Sutra?" she asked, and I had to demure, feeling somewhat caught out. I had been inspired by the afternoon's contretemps not to copy the Sutra, but to work again on Genji.
"I have an extra brush, and paper," I offered, which she accepted. We worked together in silence for so long that I was surprised to hear the temple bell ringing the hour of the boar; the burgeoning moon hung low on the horizon, just visible through the treetops. I was about to remark on the lateness of the hour when Sei slid a scrap of paper toward me. On it she had written
The moon at twilight
Gleams softly on the brushes
I recognized the allusion, and I could feel my face burning. Evidently I was not the only one who had felt a completely unreasoning attraction. Dipping my own brush into the ink, I took a breath and wrote,
for the one
With whom my brush speaks.
It was no brilliant jewel, but evidently it conveyed my understanding, and desires, well enough. Our brushes spoke no more that night, but we had a pleasurable exchange nonetheless.