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On the Moonlit Road of Dreams

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Things That Require a Swift Response

I was sitting and watching the fireflies on the garden pond with a group of court ladies when the news came that the Empress had been poisoned and was in grave danger of losing her life.  The Second Chamberlain's daughter burst at once into tears, sniveling and wiping her eyes.  There is something so hateful about a lady with reddened eyes, I think.  Rather than show my emotions so crassly, I picked up my pen and quickly wrote a poem:

In the dusk
The cuckoo's cry falls.
So too my heart.

It was not perhaps the most elegant poem, but when reacting to sudden news, whether good or bad, speed is more essential than splendor.

I was pleased to note that the Lady Shikibu looked nettled at my quick response.  Lifting her pen and raising an eyebrow at me, she wrote in her usual over-precise, cool hand:

Tonight the fireflies' glimmer
Cannot lighten the darkness.

"Please send these to the Empress," she said in her haughty way.  But I knew that my Empress would feel the sincerity of my poem and see the falseness in Lady Shikibu's. For that lady would be well-served if Empress Sadako were to die and leave the way open for her mistress, the Emperor's concubine Akiko.

The other ladies wanted to play a riddle game to take their minds off the Empress's danger, but although I usually excel at such games I found myself unable to join in.  My spirits were low, and I could not help watching the hapless fireflies wink out one by one on the water.

Lady Shikibu watched me keenly all evening.  How one despises being watched by an enemy when one feels uncomfortable!

Qualities That Render a Man Unattractive

When I learned that the poison used on my Empress had been hidden in her plum wine, I found myself unable to rest until I went myself to the wine storage room.  Imagine my vexation when I found Lady Shikibu there with Lord Kosami!  It was all the more regrettable as Kosami and I were once intimate, and he still fancies himself in my favor.  Men can be very difficult to discourage when they feel they have some particular talent as a lover.

The lady eyed my face, but I was certain that no marks of weeping marred my powder, and my hair showed no sign of unseemly disarray.  "What are you doing here?" I asked calmly.

"The same as you, I suspect," she retorted.  "If we leave it up to the men to discover who has poisoned the Empress, we may never catch the culprit."

Kosami looked uncomfortable at this assessment, but he held his tongue.  Perhaps he was afraid Lady Shikibu would write him into her vaunted novel as a cuckolded husband.  

"Very well," I said, unwilling to show my distrust openly.  "Let us look together."

Kosami opened the wine cabinet and we both leaned in together.  "Ah!" exclaimed Shikibu, taking a breath.  "Of course!"

When Kosami looked confused, I explained, "The poisoner who tampered with the wine failed to remember that the scent of his clothing would linger behind." I inhaled deeply, smelling cloves and sandalwood.  "This is under-Chamberlain Yorimichi's personal scent."

Lady Shikibu studied my face.  "My dear Shonagon," she said, "It is not like you at all to make such a mistake!  The proportion of cloves to sandalwood is entirely wrong for Yorimichi. No, this is the scent of Captain of the Guard Tadanobu."

I took another thoughtful breath.  "I confess you are right, my lady!" I exclaimed.  In truth, I knew full well the scent was Tadanobu's from the start, but I was curious to see if Lady Shikibu would identify it correctly as well, or let the mistake stand and the guilty go free.  

Of course, she knew I would never have confused two such different scents, so it was clear to her that I did not trust her.  We looked at each other for a moment, taking our measure of each other.

"Are you certain?" Kosami asked.  Surely it is despicable when a man has no sensitivity to the subtle nuances of scent!  Better to sleep alone than share a bed with such a man, I thought at that moment.

"Of course," Lady Shikibu said.  "It is unmistakably his."

I shuddered.  "How abhorrent!"

She nodded.  "Truly hateful!"

Kosami said, "Of course if he is guilty he shall be brought to justice--"

We both stared at him.  "Not his crime," Shikibu explained.  "His incense!"

"So poorly blended.  Lacking in any kind of subtlety," I agreed.  

Things That Are Difficult to Reply To With Ease

Kosami did not accept the incense as conclusive evidence--how dull and pompous men can be when they talk about the law!  Therefore, Lady Shikibu and I agreed that we would have to find some other way to capture the culprit.  Fortunately for us, Tadanobu is of a nervous temperament, and a plan followed naturally from this observation.

Of course, we both became quite busy with the preparations.  In truth, preparing for a large event on exceedingly short notice is the kind of challenge on which I thrive.  I had high hopes that this monoawase would serve to put my poor Empress in good stead with the Emperor.  It was a celebration of her recovery--and at this delicate time when she might also be carrying an heir to the throne, surely it was more than appropriate to celebrate!

So my thoughts were entirely distracted the morning I met Lady Shikibu in the gardens.

There is little more charming than golden beech leaves in an autumn fog, the way the mist blurs the sharp lines into a mass of gold is indescribably charming.  I was admiring the effect when I rounded the corner and saw Shikibu standing on the path in front of me under a great beech tree.

At first I thought it was a happenstance meeting, but the look of resolution in her eyes made it clear she had come there specifically intending to meet me.  I greeted her cordially and asked her about the preparations for the monoawase on the Right, hoping to cover the awkwardness in trifling talk.  Her mien was as ever cold and composed, but it seemed to me that she was concealing some agitation.

"I wished you to know--" she said suddenly, "--that I am aware of your distrust of me."

"Whatever do you mean?" I asked laughingly, but she shook her head.  

"Mock and make light as you always do, Shonagon, but there are things I cannot bear to have you think of me!" Her voice was suddenly vehement.  "Yes, if your mistress were to die, I would benefit by it.  But I would never--" She broke off and turned abruptly away.  The uncharacteristically hasty movement caused her curtain of glossy dark hair to part, and I caught a glimpse of the nape of her neck, powdered and pale.  

It is an exceedingly disagreeable feeling when words desert one in an awkward moment, and yet I could think of nothing to say:  nothing witty, nothing cutting, nothing light.  I merely stood and watched as a shower of golden beech leaves fell around us both.

"You do not believe me," she said in a low voice, still looking away.

"I believe you," I finally said.  

She looked at me then, among the falling leaves.  

After a time she smiled, and it was the same cold and haughty smile as always.  

"When my mistress replaces yours in the Emperor's affections, it will be because of her beauty and charm, and not through any such crude methods."  

I bowed to her, mockingly, and she laughed, brittle as the first autumn ice on a still pond.  "Shall we catch this would-be assassin together, then, Shonagon?  Shall we be allies?"

"Allies," I agreed, then added:  "For now."

Things That Give One Mixed Feelings

The monoawase was a great success.  The theme was a cricket contest, and the Left and Right sides outdid themselves in splendor.  The cricket presented by the Right was the larger, and its song the more resonant.  However, the Left had prepared a cage of purest white willow lathes, and covered it with a cloth of willow-patterned brocade.  The effect was utterly charming, and the verdict went naturally to the Left.

After the judging, there were various koto songs, and then it was time for the poetry contest.  Lady Shikibu went first.  She was wearing beaten silk robes of plum and green, which I found rather too predictable a choice, but which I had to admit suited her.

The cricket sings out
A brief life, here then gone
Winter waits.

Her poem had a certain charm, but lacked subtlety, I thought.  However, it served the purpose.  My offering was of course much superior, and played brilliantly on the themes of regret and mortality.  Everyone agreed it was in the highest of taste, and my Empress, still pale and thin from her ordeal, smiled approvingly at me.  There is little that can compare, I think, to the feeling of receiving accolades in front of one's superiors.

Shikibu took her turn, and her second offering was better than her first, although it was too late by then to counter the impression I had made.  The court was transfixed, as the two of us rarely engaged in such contests directly.  We both continued to embroider on the theme, building a subtle pattern of allusions and wordplay, and Tadanobu began to look increasingly discomfited.  There was little he could do, as we never said anything explicitly, but it was clear to all with sensibility what we were implying.

When I managed to cleverly weave the elements of his name into a reflection on disloyalty and betrayal, he finally broke.  Nettled past all endurance, Tadanobu stood and denounced us in such frenzied words that in the end his guilt was revealed to all the court.

As he was led away by the guards, my gaze met Lady Shikibu's for an instant of shared satisfaction.  Men so often say they are the stronger sex, but when it comes to such intrigues, surely a woman's pen can be as deadly as any sword!

Yet even in that moment of triumph, my eyes fell on the regent, Fujiwara Michinaga, father of the concubine Akiko.  He was frowning, and my blood ran cold, for I felt such a look could bode nothing but ill for my beloved lady.

Intriguing Things To Contemplate While Falling Asleep

As I prepare myself for bed, I recall the events of the day.  I find that above all, more than the flush of triumph or the chill of foreboding, I remember the moment my eyes locked with the Lady Shikibu's across the room.  I wonder what it foretells for us.

I am no timid maid, and I am no stranger to the passions women sometimes share behind their screens, away from the eyes of men.  In my experience, however, such things are inevitably distasteful.  A woman should be artful at all times, and the sight of another woman in abandon, her limbs in disarray and her hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, can only be disagreeable to the refined lady.

But Murasaki Shikibu is not a woman of passion, I am certain of this.  Surely her composed and contemptuous face would never soften with tenderness.  She would never allow her perfectly arranged robes to become crumpled and stained.  Her shining hair, so carefully coiffed, would never become repulsively disheveled.  She is far too distant, too controlled, to allow herself such an embrace.

As I slip into bed, the silk warm against my skin, I am already composing the poem I will send her in the morning.

All the ways to your house are ill-omened.
Only on the moonlit road of dreams
Do I see your face.

I will write it on heavy white paper in russet ink, and attach a single golden beech leaf.

She will understand what it means.