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A Thing of Little Consequence

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The month of the long rains arrived. The hours dragged more heavily than usual, for Genji at least, and his thoughts were constantly turning from one thing to another. He chafed at the time of seclusion, but spent his days on examining books he thought would please his little Murasaki. He wrapped them in paper and sent them with a note, asking her to attend to such-and-such a story, or the painting on this or that subject, certain that she’d find them entertaining and instructive.

The rest of his time was spent less innocently, for there were several ladies at court who had caught his eye, and he was never one to let opportunity evade his grasp. Since the one he truly wanted was far beyond his reach, he contented himself with those who, though not as distinguished, nevertheless had their own charms.

Soon his hours were filled with writing and responding to letters. It was a wearisome occupation, particularly as the rain was so heavy and the air so warm, and altogether the effort was simply too much. One cannot be witty on demand! he thought rather crossly, setting down his brush. He regretted now having started so many liaisons, but having begun them, he was not the sort of man to abandon them without good cause.

He resumed writing, dashed off the rest of the letter, and knotted it. A boy could deliver it later. For now, Genji unlaced his cloak at the neck and settled himself on the sleeping mat. He drew a particular cushion to him and tucked it beneath his head. After a while he began to doze, the sound of the rain no longer an irritant but quite a pleasant sound.

When he woke, night had fallen. The rain had lessened enough for him to hear noises from beyond his room, the creak of footsteps and the murmur of conversation. From far off came the beating of the hour from the drum tower. It was later than he’d thought, and he sighed. He lay still a moment longer, and the light from the cressets on the veranda shone through the bamboo blinds. Through this uncertain gloom he saw a shape move. It had a stealthy purpose to it, and Genji realised it held a candle shielded by a sleeve. No woman of his acquaintance would be so sneaky, and he recognised the figure and its intent.

Just before the intruder reached him, Genji sat up suddenly. He reached out and seized the nearest sleeve, tugging at it so hard he heard the stitches rip. The intruder gave a cry and pulled back, the candle flickering brightly, and Genji laughed at the surprise and annoyance on To no Chujo’s face.

“You need to be quieter than that if you want to startle me,” Genji told him.

To no Chujo grumbled and put the candle on the writing desk. “I overheard a certain gentlewoman complaining that you’d promised to visit her this evening, yet to her chagrin you hadn’t turned up at all. You hadn’t even sent a note excusing yourself. The lady kindly imagined that you were ill rather than fickle.”

Genji was amused. “So you came to offer your best wishes for my recovery?”

“I came to see which lady occupied your attention in her place.” To no Chujo made a show of peering around the room. “But I see no one here. Instead I found you sleeping. How very tiresome!” He noticed the knotted letter. “For whom is this destined? Let me read it.”

Genji snatched it from him. “You must have your own letters to write.”

“Indeed I do, but I’m sure I could learn more elegance of manners by studying your poetry.”

“Come now,” Genji laughed, “you were ever more scholarly than I. Your wit far outshines mine.”

“It is not wit that captivates a woman, but sentiment,” To no Chujo said, “and you display such rare sentimentality.”

“I cannot tell if you are praising or censuring me.”

“Oh.” To no Chujo tossed his head. “Whichever you please.”

They both laughed at this, their ease of friendship a delight to see. Accustomed to the allowances their intimacy permitted, To no Chujo leaned closer. “But what is this?” He plucked out a fan hidden in the folds of the cushion. His curiosity made his looks even more remarkable, but Genji’s blushes were by far the most attractive, all the more so because the situation was so unexpected.

“It’s nothing. Please don’t concern yourself with it.” Genji tried to take back the fan, but To no Chujo held it out of reach, pleased to have found something with which to tease his friend.

“Nothing, is it? Then why do you hide it in a cushion—a cushion you rest your head on while you sleep?” To no Chujo drew his fingers along the outside of the closed fan, a naughty gleam in his eyes. “It can’t be nothing. It must mean something. Who sent you this fan? Which lady yielded so much to you that you treasure this keepsake and hold it always so close? Who do you hope to dream of, night after night? You can tell me.”

“No one gave it to me,” Genji said, and tried to grab the fan again.

To no Chujo rocked back on his heels. “So you deny it! How interesting! Didn’t you promise never to keep secrets from me again after that business with the Dame of Staff? And yet you refuse to answer me still! The lady must be very lofty indeed for you to keep your silence.” He was still teasing, enjoying Genji’s discomfort.

“It really is a thing of little consequence,” Genji insisted. “I wish you would give it back.”

“Not until you have suffered some more.” To no Chujo looked smug. “Now I will unmask you!” He opened the fan.

Genji covered his face, glad of the dim light. When his friend remained silent, he peeped over his sleeve.

“This is mine,” To no Chujo said. The fan lay open in his hands, pale blue paper patterned with foaming waves. On it, in faint running script, Genji had written:

Oh how my heart swells and fills
Deep with love to think of you
[1]

Genji was very embarrassed. “I told you it was a thing of little consequence.”

“I thought I’d misplaced this.” To no Chujo turned the fan in his hands, closing it then opening it again. “You took it?”

“I told you no one gave it to me.” Genji’s flustered demeanour was charming to witness. “I took it as a reminder. I thought you would not mind.”

To no Chujo waved the fan, and the candle flame flickered. “Which is the thing of little consequence—the fan, or the night you stole it from me?”

Genji sighed and replied:

The night we spent together
Was but a fleeting dream...
[2]

How could I demand more?”

“Ah,” said To no Chujo, “as it is for the Herdsman and the Weaver Maid, ‘nights of passion are few indeed’ [3]. But it need not be that way, you know. I am forever at your service.” He handed back the fan.

Genji placed it on the writing desk beside the letter. “I would not wish to presume.”

“How contrary you are!” exclaimed To no Chujo. Quite affronted, he stood and shook out his dress cloak. “I see now that my feelings are the things of little consequence. Well, then, I will be off. If you change your mind, you may write me a letter.”

With that, he swept out of the room, leaving Genji alone to brood in the dark.

 

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1. Unknown, quoted by Sei Shonagon
2. Ariwara no Narihira
3. Oshikochi no Mitsune