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The Sixth Month

 

Sei Shonagon

One does not write poems praising the high summer. Nothing of interest blooms or dies after the rainy season: no leaves to turn or petals to fall. The hototogisu has ceased its cries. One's only relief is in the serene clearness of the moon, and on clouded nights, not even that.  

In the heat of the day, when everything is dreary and the release of night seems very far off, you are so desperate for something to relieve the monotony that even quite ordinary things catch your eye. I was hurrying along the outer corridor of the Chugushiki when I saw what I thought was a charming picture. A lady was sitting at a desk by the reed blinds, wearing a delightfully cool robe of white brocade over scarlet unlined gowns. Her sleeves were displayed by her writing table for all the world as if they had just fallen fortuitously, without conscious arrangement, and her pale skin glowed like the moon under her dark fall of hair. Her concentration seemed wonderfully deep. How delightful to imagine what she was writing; how one envied the lover who would receive that poem!

I would have left her to her writing, but when you have an urgent errand, there's nothing else to be done. I entered the room, she turned, and I saw it was not, in fact, a lady of taste and refinement, but Lady Shikibu.

Lady Shikibu is one of those tiresomely moralistic people who has quite the most horrible opinion of me. She pulled her sleeves as she turned and I saw that they had not been arranged; they had just fallen by chance. She looked at me most unpleasantly - not that she can really help it, poor thing.

 "Oh! Did I disturb you?" I said innocently.

 She let out a long-suffering sigh, the very picture of someone imposed upon. "Not at all," she said.

 "We're looking for Her Majesty's dog," I said.

 "So that's what the fuss is about," she said. "I've been watching the groundswomen hurrying here and there all morning." She dipped her brush onto the inkstone. "You would think they'd have given up by now. He's probably courting his own lover elsewhere."

"Well, I don't see why you're sitting here while the rest of us ladies wear ourselves out looking," I said. "Do you think Her Majesty will forgive you because you're writing more of your shining prince?"

"This isn't a story," she said, with that irritating tilt of her nose in the air. "I'm copying the Lotus sutra."

I could not help but sigh. "I thought you might be writing something interesting."

"Of course you wouldn't find this interesting," she said. And she quoted, "'They made obeisance to the Buddha and they left. Who can say why?'"

Everything is disagreeable in the heat, and shows of exaggerated piety more than most. "Then, following his example, you could at least 'remain silent and not restrain me'," I said. And I would have left then, except at that moment there was a bark from beneath the table.

"Teru!" I exclaimed, as the Empress' dog came squirming out from beneath the table where Lady Shikibu's robes had hidden him from view.

Lady Shikibu did not even have the grace to be thrown into confusion at being discovered. "Well, I suppose that's that," she said.

"Infamous!" I said. "Wait until Her Majesty hears about this." I held my hand out to him. "Here, boy!" He bounded up to me and then straight back to Lady Shikibu, licked her face, and ran past me into the corridor.

"Her Majesty won't mind," Lady Shikibu said, with calm that was quite maddening. "He's always been a very pious dog."

"If your notion of piety is hiding yourself away from all company and scribbling sutras like a long-haired nun, I can see why you and he do very well together!" I said, with some asperity, and went out to comb the building for him.

Really, it's bad enough that you have to deal with these sorts of people in the cooler months. In summer I wish they'd just take themselves off to the provinces and all be disagreeable at each other, and leave us alone.

 

Murasaki Shikibu

In summer, I am afraid I am prey to religious melancholy.

Copying out the Lotus sutra earns merit; this is why I do it. But amid all the splendid Boddhisatvas and Sacred Attendants, one cannot help but feel very small. I sit at the table and think of Eternity, and its vastness unsettles my mind. Can my poor scribblings really gain enough merit to let me avoid the destruction the world is full of? There are so many people calling on the Bodhisattvas, so many monks doing virtuous deeds, and yet the world is still full of wretchedness and sorrow: we are in the decline of days, and I fear that my pen will not do enough and that there is no point in trying.

At times like these, I am ashamed to admit that the company of any other living being is a comfort to me. It was very wrong of me to selfishly keep Teru by me as I did, especially when I started to suspect he might be the cause of all the groundswomen hurrying around. It was also wrong of me, as well quite pathetic, to be glad my copying was interrupted by Lady Shonagon, who is so very mature and assured, who thinks so very well of herself (and so little of everyone else!). I am quite wrong to be pleased with the spark of irritation that reminds me my mind is still attached to my body.

I should have pity for her, anyway, since we all know she is soon to leave court for Settsu Province. But it is difficult to pity someone with that much assurance of manner. One is surprised she even knew the Sutra well enough to answer my quote.

But what an uncharitable thing to say! I meant to use this paper for something admirable. That must be all: if I am to gain the Empress' forgiveness, I must at least finish Genji's next chapter.

 

 

Sei Shonagon

Things in poor taste -- A child who talks during a solemn ceremony.

Someone who will not stop telling you about the dreams they had last night, even if you are clearly not interested. Oddly enough, these are often also people who are still wearing seasonal colors even ten days after the period for it has ended.

A one-eyed cat in the palace. Even an animal should have the decency to realise it isn't appropriate.

On that note, dogs who have no notion what is due to their betters.

Selfish people. Deceitful people.

People who shut themselves away from company and pretend they are superior for it.

 

Murasaki Shikibu

Everywhere I see Lady Shonagon I find her eyes on me, searching for things to criticise. All her jokes seem to be aimed at me: at my clothes, at my sitting posture, at the way I handle the fire-tongs. She jumps on every word out of my mouth and effortlessly caps it, all the time with this amused, condescending air, as if I and I alone am the reason that her Majesty's court has a reputation for dullness. Only my poems seem safe from her condemnation. This has been going on for weeks. How I wish nobody had shown her that passage in my old diary!

Yesterday she sent me a fan - a beautiful three-layer one with lacquered ribs, decorated in her own hand. Accompanying it was a note sympathising with my struggle in having to choose between all my dowdy ones.

I returned one of my own fans to her, the newest and most charming, although weeks of Shonagon's attention are making me begin to doubt my own taste. On it I wrote on it a poem returning a thousand blessings for every good thought that she kindly sent.

Today I saw her carrying the fan. I do not understand her. Part of me wishes she would go away, but part of me agrees with the people who say that court will be duller without her. I do not understand myself.

This cannot be good for my soul.

 

 

The Seventh Month

 

Sei Shonagon

Sometimes it happens that you have a fleeting acquaintance with, say, an Assistant Chamberlain. You have seen him in the distance a few times and he is a splendid sight, slim and magnificent in his Chinese brocade cloak. He has noticed you and writes you a poem. One thing leads to another, and sooner or later you are preparing for bed in the heat of a sweltering summer evening, although not too fast, and taking care that your roommate has heard you talk about him. And then there is the faintest of taps on the frame of the door....

And all this is very well, but then at the first hint of dawn, you are woken by unrestful movements of the quilt. He gets up, ignoring your faint protests, and says, "What an enchanting evening! I'm quite heartbroken to be going." - this in so robust a voice that you do not for one moment believe him.

You murmur some soft plea to stay - not that you are feeling so very enamoured of him, after that precipitous awakening, but the night was agreeable and it's a pity to end it like this. And then he feels the need to lay out his reasons. He has an important engagement. His wife is expecting him. He has a ceremony to prepare for. None of which you care about in the slightest.

Like those women who hide an unsightly face - a low forehead, an ugly nose - behind the blind, such is a man of this type. It is hard to believe someone who writes such beautiful poems could be so lacking in sensibility.

The worst of these I had was a man who claimed his stomach was upset and he couldn't stay a moment longer, although he did not seem to have been troubled with it until then. What a way to finish a night! He bustled this way and he bustled that way, getting his things together, and then he had the nerve to say, "I'm very busy tomorrow, so I might not be able to write you a poem when I get back." And with that, he sat down at my inkstone and dashed off a poem with a flourish, which he left on the desk. I daresay he thought it was charming.

Of course, after that there is no way you can go back to sleep. I was sitting on the veranda feeling most disconsolate and out of sorts, when the door opened and in came Lady Shikibu.

"May I take refuge?" she said apologetically. "My roommate is being so loud, and I saw you were awake anyway."

"Well, at least someone's lover is attentive," I said.

"Yours has gone?" Lady Shikibu sighed as she settled her sleeves. "I feel as if there must be someone in everyone's bed but mine, tonight."

She must have some sort of knack with her robes, because they fell charmingly again, and I'm sure she couldn't have been doing it on purpose. "And your sleeve is soaked with tears," I said, idly teasing. "But for whom?"

"Genji," she said, with suspicious haste. "I envy him his ladies - no, I mean, I envy them."

"I think Genji would be an insufferable lover as well," I said. "He would probably think it charming and spontaneous to write a poem before even leaving." I waved a hand in the direction of it. "Though I doubt he'd be quite so boorish as to make it quite clear, like mine did, that he's only dashing it down early so he can get to his appointments."

Lady Shikibu raised her sleeve to her mouth to hide her amusement. "How very efficient."

"I suppose," I continued, "with me an old woman, and never having been a beauty, it doesn't matter any more." I felt very low.

"This isn't a bad poem," she said, on reading it. "But he made a mistake in the writing."

I glanced over at it. "It seems fine to me," I said.

"It would do very well for a pleasant occasion," she said. "But being forced away from the side of his lover? He would have done better to write it as if he were fading away on the spot. And not on this paper..." She selected a sheet of fine Michinoku paper from my desk, took my inkbrush, and wrote a new poem. "It would quite spoil the mood to be tramping around the gardens, so you could not send it with anything, but it should be wrapped."

"With my own silk? What kind of a present is that?"

"And he certainly shouldn't have let you see him do it," she continued, paying me no attention. "He should have woken silently, and risen - so quietly - thus, so as not to risk disturbing you." She held her robes with one hand and demonstrated, getting noiselessly to her feet rather than shuffling across the floor on her knees as you normally would. "Then he should have put it just here." She slipped it half under the quilt, the white paper and lavender silk making a delicious contrast with the maroon  of the robe.

"Why there, in particular?" I enquired. "In case it catches a chill?"

"Just where your hand would touch it when you woke," she said. She took my hand and guided it down to the paper.

 

Things which should not be pleasant, but are -- The heat on your hand of a touch, even though it is almost unbearably hot.

White paper slipped half underneath a maroon robe.

Someone you really ought to dislike sitting too close to you.

Busybodies. Shining hair.

 

"I feel I should be on the other side of a blind," said Lady Shikibu, not moving her hand.

 I put my hand over hers. "I would much prefer you weren't," I said.

 

Things remaining -- A cherry-silk belt.

 

 

The Eighth Month

 

Murasaki Shikibu

Tenth day, and the first cool evening, when my maid came with a pile of paper, sent from the provinces. I could not think for the life of me who might have sent me such a thing, until I saw the accompanying note.

A letter from the provinces can contain nothing of interest, so it must be accompanied with a gift. I hope you find this to your taste.

It is her pillow book. I lay my hand on the paper. Such a lot, to waste on something so frivolous. We are certainly in the days of decline and this summer more than most.

It does not seem so terrible as it ought. I find myself wishing I could have stayed there a little longer.

What shall I do? My maids are accustomed to my jealous keeping of unfinished chapters. I could lock it up in a box and keep it safe. I pause, my hand outlined in moonlight on my desk. Outside, the autumn cicadas have started their mournful cries. Soon the mornings will be cold.

I pull the papers towards me and leaf through them again. This page cannot be seen without ruining both of us. This one is too scathing for propriety. This one will embarrass the Chamberlain, although it makes me laugh. This one is unflattering about me - and her handwriting has wavered into an unsightly thickness at the end of it, besides. How unlike her.

For a moment I consider curating them as carefully as Shonagon herself did. I could let only the very best be found: here, a page dropped on a Chinese bridge, here at the corner of a deserted corridor, here on the veranda mats by morning light. But I find I cannot do it. To do so would be to lessen her. Some of this is very funny indeed. Some of it is cruel. All of it is true.

I take out only a couple of papers. I tidy the rest onto the desk, to pass on secretly to a gentleman of my acquaintance, who can never resist spreading clever writing around court. The feeling around my heart is so strange, so heavy and yet light, that I turn to my writing box out of long habit.

My brush hovers over the poem and will not proceed. The cicada rasps outside the window, and it brings nothing. I am blank.

It is not the done thing to write in praise of the high summer. When it passes - alas, in good taste, there is nothing to pine for. I should turn my pen towards the poignant beauties of autumn. Cool mists come to relieve us of the oppressive days. The Court is rejoicing. How, then, can I say that I miss the heat, I miss it, and that the dew on my sleeve only grows cold and chills, and that I find no beauty there?