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Mono no aware

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Seimei's garden obeyed no law of nature. Summer flowers bloomed in winter, plum trees blossomed all year round, and fragile plants grew as vigorous as weeds. Hiromasa had tried taking an inventory once, wandering around the garden with a handful of plain mulberry paper and an ink-laden brush to record the names of the plants. Mitsumushi had accompanied him, since Seimei claimed to have no interest in his garden and professed complete ignorance of most of the flora residing there.

"Then why do you have a garden?" Hiromasa asked.

Seimei gave him a startled look. "Because it's there."

It took Hiromasa a week to realise his inventory was useless. Each day when he arrived to continue his note-taking, the plants had changed their positions in the garden. When Hiromasa mentioned this suspicious matter to Seimei, his friend had shrugged. "They're plants."

"Yes, but Seimei—plants don't move."

And Seimei had given him another mild, polite look. "They grow."

Hiromasa gave up asking questions about the garden after that and instead did what any gentleman of good breeding and excellent taste should do—he sat on Seimei's veranda, drank sake, and admired the constant display of flowers whatever the season.

In a corner of the garden not visible from the veranda was a tree that never budded and never blossomed. Hiromasa noticed its bare black branches one day in late summer when he was helping Seimei tidy the garden shrine.

His hands full of candle-stubs, Hiromasa turned his face to the sun and smiled as he inhaled the warm, scented air. His gaze traced the simple lines of the roof of the house then stopped on the spread and jagged limbs of the tree. A still, deep shock went through him, the sensation almost painful although he couldn't explain why. "Seimei," he said, pointing with his chin, "what is that tree?"

Seimei froze for a moment before he continued cleaning the melted wax from the stone altar. He didn't even look in the direction Hiromasa indicated. "It's nothing important."

"It looks dead," Hiromasa remarked dubiously, frowning at the tree. "How can it be dead? Everything else in your garden is alive. Did the tree become sick?"

"I don't know."

"It looks so sad and alone. Vulnerable, with its branches so bare." Hiromasa sighed, sorrow for the tree wrapping around his heart. "Can't you help it?"

A flicker of irritation crossed Seimei's features. "It's a tree."

"You should still care for it!" Surprised and a little hurt by the brusqueness of Seimei's tone, Hiromasa took a few steps away from the shrine towards the tree. When he turned back, Seimei was watching him, his expression halfway between uncertainty and unease.

Hiromasa softened. "If you wish, I could make enquiries of the imperial gardeners. The tree may only be sleeping, the way some animals hibernate during the winter months. Perhaps there is a way to restore the tree to its former good health. Only tell me what variety it is, and I will do my best to help it."

"It's a cherry tree," Seimei said, "and it's dead." His movements brisk, he collected up the remaining ritual implements from the altar and strode back to the house.

Hiromasa stared after him before looking back at the tree. "I don't think it's dead," he murmured, but if Seimei heard him, he made no reply.

***

The next time Hiromasa called upon Seimei, he took a meandering path through the garden and noticed that a large azalea bush, bigger than any azalea he had ever seen before, had sprung up in front of the dead cherry tree. The azalea had a glorious profusion of flowers in a riot of different shades—a true floral marvel—and yet Hiromasa glanced beyond it at the tips of the cherry tree's stark black branches.

"It's not dead," he muttered, and the denial sounded more like a promise. "It's not dead, Seimei."

***

By spring, Hiromasa had almost forgotten the dead tree, but when the cherry trees lining the boulevards of Heian-Kyo burst into blossom and the imperial trees exploded into flower, he was reminded of the sad tree in Seimei's garden. He instructed his servants to question the imperial gardeners as to the care of cherry trees, and armed with this knowledge, he went to visit his friend.

He found Seimei on the veranda, a wine-jar and two cups beside him and a low, wide-bodied bronze brazier in front of him. On the floor, half concealed by the width of his sleeves, was a pile of correspondence.

Hiromasa greeted Seimei and seated himself in his usual position, warming his hands at the brazier. He noticed curls of ash and strips of blackened paper around the coals, and sent a quizzical glance in Seimei's direction.

"You have cherry blossom on your hat," Seimei remarked.

"Oh! Thank you." Hiromasa reached up and stroked at the flat top and raised tail of his silk-covered court cap. A couple of pale blossoms fluttered down onto his cloak, and he caught them in his hands, smiling at the delicate petals.

"Drink." Seimei picked up the next letter, which was written on pink Korean paper, tied with a green ribbon, and attached to a spray of cherry blossoms. Without looking at the contents of the message, Seimei fed it into the brazier, blossoms and all.

Hiromasa stared. "Seimei!"

"Drink," Seimei said again. "Heaven knows I need one."

With a startled glance at the flare of flames consuming the letter in the brazier, Hiromasa leaned forward and poured the wine. He held out a cup to Seimei, who drank it back and gestured for a refill.

"This time of year is so tiresome," Seimei murmured, then drank his second cup before he took the next letter from the pile beneath his sleeve. The missive was penned on pale green Chinese paper, tied with a pink ribbon, and attached to another spray of cherry blossoms.

Seimei cast the whole thing into the brazier without reading the letter.

"Shouldn't you at least glance at the message?" Hiromasa asked.

"No." Seimei picked up a pair of bronze tongs and stirred the coals. "It's always the same, year after year. Horrible poetry on the same old trite themes, protestations of undying love, and offers of assignations I do not want." He sounded glum. "Fortunately this is the only time of year I receive such poems."

Hiromasa laughed. "A woman's affection is as fleeting as the cherry blossom."

"Not just women."

The laugh turned into a cough. "I see."

Apparently amused by his reaction, Seimei flashed him a gleaming, teasing look. "Humans place such store on romantic love, and yet they seem to prefer to handle it from a distance."

"Not just humans," Hiromasa murmured into his wine cup.

Seimei tilted his head, still amused. "You have a complaint, Hiromasa?"

"Ah—no. Not at all, Seimei." With an affectionate smile, Hiromasa changed the subject. "Didn't Narihira write a poem about cherry blossom?"

"He wrote many poems," Seimei said, a sudden stiffness creeping into his tone.

"Let me see if I can remember it." Hiromasa took another sip of wine then cradled the cup in his palms. "I think I have it:

If, in this world of ours
All the cherry blossoms
Disappeared
The heart of spring
Might find peace
."

"Yes." Seimei sat absolutely motionless, his expression blank.

A moment passed before Hiromasa registered Seimei's reaction. Realisation came swiftly, and Hiromasa sat up straight, setting his cup down so fast he spilled wine onto the floor mats. "Seimei..." Horrified, he looked in the direction of the dead cherry tree even though he couldn't see it from this angle, then he looked back at Seimei, reading the truth of the matter from his silence. "Is that what you did?"

Mute, Seimei lifted his gaze and looked at Hiromasa.

"You did." The words emerged as a whisper. "Oh, Seimei. You made the cherry blossoms disappear."

A smile, small and fleeting, and then Seimei stood and went into the garden.

Hiromasa sat alone for a long moment before he rose to follow. He found Seimei near the azalea, gazing up at the very top of the dead cherry tree. Going as close as he dared, Hiromasa asked, "Did it bring you peace?"

"No." Seimei's voice was soft. "And now it won't flower."

"It will." Hiromasa went closer, lifting his hands as if to rest them on Seimei's shoulders, but he didn't touch him. Not yet. "It's not dead. I know it isn't."

Seimei gestured at the azalea, murmuring a few soft, deep words. Rustling and quivering, shedding leaves and flowers, the bush shrank to its normal size, revealing the whole of the dead cherry tree behind it. Seimei took a step towards the tree then turned to face Hiromasa, his eyes over-bright. "I have tried for years to encourage it to live again, and yet it remains dead."

Hiromasa crossed the short distance between them and turned Seimei to face the tree, his fingers pressing into Seimei's arms through the layers of silken robes. Seimei went still in his grasp, as nervous as a fox at bay, and Hiromasa released him with slow reluctance.

"Spells are not just words. They're thoughts and actions, too. You told me so," Hiromasa reminded him. "Let me help you."

Seimei caught his breath. For the space of a heartbeat he remained frozen, then he raised his arm towards the tree. Hiromasa placed his hand over Seimei's, their fingers entwined. Nothing happened, and Hiromasa felt Seimei's uncertainty.

"You have to want it to live," Hiromasa whispered. "Tell it."

"Live," said Seimei, and Hiromasa felt the kick of magic go through him. The air turned golden, energy surrounding them, and the aftershock of it sent Hiromasa sprawling onto the ground.

By the time he got to his feet, the cherry tree had transformed. Fresh green shoots appeared on the dead branches. Leaves unfurled and buds opened, and in a shimmering, drifting cloud of white, the blossom burst into joyous life.

Hiromasa gazed at the tree with delight. "You did it!"

Seimei dipped his head, the faintest trace of a smile on his lips. "No. We did it." He looked up, his eyes shining. "Thank you, Hiromasa. You have no idea... I thought it would always be dead. I thought—"

He stopped, words failing him. With a soft exclamation, he turned abruptly and hurried back into the house.

Hiromasa grinned. Pushing past the azalea, he reached up and snagged a spray of cherry blossoms from a low-lying branch, then followed Seimei indoors.