tale of Genji 源氏物語

Chapter 15

The Wormwood Patch

In those days of sea grass steeped in brine, many ladies had lamented Genji's absence and hoped he would soon be back in the city. For ladies like Murasaki, whose place in his life was secure, there were at least letters (though of course they did not completely deaden the pain) to inform them that he was well. Though he wore the plainer clothes of exile, Murasaki found comfort, in a gloomy world, in making sure that they followed the seasons. There were less fortunate ones whom he had not openly recognized and who, not having seen his departure into exile, could only imagine how it must have been.

The safflower princess had lived a very straitened life after the death of her father, Prince Hitachi. Then had come that windfall. For Genji it had been the merest trifle, but for her, whose sleeves were so pitifully narrow, it was as if all the stars had suddenly fallen into her bowl. And then had come the days when the whole world had seemed to turn against him. Genji did not have time for everyone, and after his removal to distant Suma he did not or could not take the trouble to write. The Princess wept for a time, and lived a loveless and threadbare existence after the tears had dried.

“Some people seem to have done all the wrong things in their other lives,” grumbled one of her old women. “As if he had not been unkind enough already, the Blessed One all of a sudden brings a bit of pleasure - rather more than a bit, actually - and then takes it away again. How nice it was! The way of the world, you might say, that it should all disappear - and a body is expected to go on living.”

Yes, it had been very perverse of the Blessed One. A lady grows used to hunger and deprivation, but when they have been absent for a time they no longer seem like proper and usual conditions. Women who could be useful to her had somehow of their own accord come into her ken, and one by one they went away again; and so, as the months passed, her house was lonelier and lonelier.

Her gardens, never well tended, now offered ample cover for foxes and other sinister creatures, and owls hooted in unpruned groves morning and night. Tree spirits are shy of crowds, but when people go away they come forward as if claiming sovereignty. Frightening apparitions were numberless.

“Really, my lady, we cannot go on this way,” said one of the few women who still remained with her. “There are governors of this and that province who have a taste for old parks and who have set their eyes on these woods and grounds and asked through neighbors if you might not be persuaded to let them go. Please, my lady, do consider selling. Do let us move to a place where we need not be constantly looking over our shoulders. We have stayed with you, but we cannot be sure how much longer we will be able to.”

“You must not say such things. What will people think? Can you really believe that I would sell Father's house? I agree with you that we have not kept it up very well, and sometimes I find myself looking over my shoulder too. But it is home for me and it was home for Father and I somehow feel that he is still here.” She wept and refused to listen.

The furnishings were old but of the finest workmanship, exactly the sort that collectors like best. Word got out that this and that piece was by this and that master, and the collectors were sure that the impoverished Hitachi house would be an easy target.

“But, my lady, everyone does it. Why should we pretend to be different?” When their lady was not looking, they sought to make their own accommodations.

She was very angry when she detected what was happening. “Father had them made for us and no one else. How can you dream of having those awful people paw at them? It would kill me to think he might be watching.”

There was no one now to whom she might turn for help. It is true that her older brother, a monk, would stop by when he chanced to be in the city; but he had no part in practical or elegant affairs. Even among his colleagues he had a name for saintly unworldliness. He did not seem to notice that the wormwood was asking to be cut back. The rushes were so thick that one could not be sure whether they grew from land or water. Wormwood touched the eaves, bindweed had firmly barred the gates. This last fact would perhaps have given comfortable feelings of security had it not been for the fact that horses and cattle had knocked over the fences and worn paths inside. Still more impolite were the boys who in spring and summer deliberately drove their herds through. In the Eighth Month one year a particularly savage typhoon blew down all the galleries and stripped the servants' quarters to bare frames, and so the servants left. No smoke rose from the kitchen. Things had, in a word, come to a sorry pass. A glance at the brambles convinced robbers that the place was not worth looking into. But the furnishings and decorations in the main hall were as they had always been. There was no one to clean and polish them, of course; but if the lady lived among mountains of dust it was elegant and orderly dust.

She might have beguiled the loneliness of her days with old songs and poems, but she really did not have much feeling for such things. It is usual for young ladies who, though not remarkably subtle, have time on their hands to find amusement through the passing seasons in exchanging little notes and poems with kindred spirits; but, faithful to the principles by which her father had reared her, she did not welcome familiarity, and remained aloof even from people who might have enjoyed an occasional note. Sometimes she would open a scarred bookcase and take out an illustrated copy of The Bat, The Lady Recluse, or The Bamboo Cutter.

Old poems bring pleasure when they are selected with taste and discrimination, with fine attention to author and occasion and import; but there can be little to interest anyone in random, hackneyed poems set down on yellowing business paper or portentously furrowed Michinoku. Yet it was just such collections that she would browse through when the loneliness and the gloom were too much for her. The sacred texts and rites to which most recluses turn intimidated her, and as for rosaries, she would not have wished, had there been anyone to see, to be seen with one. It was a very undecorated life she lived.

Only Jijū, her old nurse's daughter, was unable to leave. The high priestess of Kamo, whose house she had frequented, was no longer living, and life was very difficult and uncertain.

There was a lady, the princess's maternal aunt, who had fallen in the world and married a provincial governor. She was devoted to her daughters, into whose service she had brought numbers of not at all contemptible women. Jijū occasionally went to visit, for after all a house so close to her family was more inviting than a house of strangers.

The princess, of an extremely shy and retiring nature, had never warmed to her aunt, and there had been some petulance on the part of the latter.

“I know that my sister thought me a disgrace to the family,” she would say; “and that is why, though I feel very sorry indeed for your lady, I am able to offer neither help nor sympathy.”

She did, however, write from time to rime.

The sons and daughters of provincial governors are sometimes nobler than the high nobility, as they imitate their betters; and a child of the high nobility can sometimes sink to a lamentable commonness. So it was with the aunt, a drab, vulgar sort of person. She herself had come to be looked down upon, and now that her sister's house was in ruins she would have loved to hire her niece as governess. The princess was rather old-fashioned, it was true, but she could be depended upon.

“Do come and see us occasionally,” wrote the aunt. “There are several people here who long to hear your koto.”

Jijū kept at her lady to accept the invitarion; but, less from any wish to resist than from extreme and incurable shyness, the princess remained aloof, and the aunt's resentment unalloyed.

Her husband was presently appointed assistant viceroy of Kyushu. Making suitable arrangements for her daughters, she set off with him for his new post.

She was eager to take her niece along. “I will be very far away,” she would say, always plausibly. “I have not inquired after you as frequently as I would have wished, but I have had the comfort of knowing you are near, and I do hate to leave you behind.”

She was noisily angry when the princess refused again. “A most unpleasant person. She has made up her mind that she is better than the rest of us. Well, I doubt that the Genji general will come courring the princess of the wormwood patch.”

And then the court was astir with the news that Genji would return to the city. The competition was intense, in high places and low, to demonstrate complete and unswerving loyalty. Genji learned a great deal about human nature. In these busy, unsettled times he apparently did not think of the safflower princess. It was the end of all hope, she thought. She had grieved for him in his misfortune and prayed that happy spring would come. Now all the clods in the land were rejoicing, and she heard of all the joy from afar, as if he were a stranger. She had asked herself, in the worst days, whether some change had perhaps been wrought by herself upon the world. It had all been to no purpose. Sometimes, when she was alone, she wept aloud.

The aunt thought her a proper fool. It was just as she had said it would be. Could anyone possibly pay court to a person who lived such a beggarly existence, indeed such a ridiculous existence? It is said that the Blessed One bestows his benign grace upon those who are without sin - and here the princess was, quite unapologetic, pretending that matters were as they had been while her royal father and her good mother lived. It was rather sad, really.

The aunt sent another plausible note. “Please do make up your mind and come with us. The poet said that in bad times a person wants a trip to the mountains. Nothing very dreadful is going to happen to you if you come with us.”

The princess was the despair of her women. “Why will she not listen? She doesn't know which way to turn, and yet she manages to go on being stubborn. How can you account for it?”

Jijū had been successfully wooed by a nephew, perhaps it was, of the new assistant viceroy. Her bridegroom would not dream of leaving her, and so, reluctantly, she determined to go. She pleaded with her lady to go too. It would be a terrible worry, she said, if her lady were to stay behind all alone. But the princess still put her faith in Genji, who had neglected her for so long. The years might pass, she told herself, but the day would come when he would remember her. He had made such affectionate, earnest promises, and though it now seemed her fate to have been forgotten, it would not always be so. He would one day have, upon some wind, tidings of her, and when he did he would come to her. So she had made her way through the weeks and months. Though her mansion fell into deeper ruin, she resolutely clung to her treasures, and insisted on living as she always had. The world seemed darker and darker, and she wept and wept, and her nose was as if someone had affixed a bright berry to it. As for her profile, only someone with more than ordinary affection for her could have borne to look at it. But I shall not go into the details. I am a charitable person, and would not wish for the world to seem malicious.

Winter came and the days passed in forlorn procession. The lady had literally nothing to cling to. Genji commissioned a reading of the Lotus Sutra which was the talk of the court. Making it known that he would have no ordinary clerics among the officiants, he summoned venerable and erudite sages who could be counted on to know what to do. Among them was the brother of the safflower princess.

On his return to the monastery he came by to see his sister. “It was all very grand, so lavish and in such impeccable taste that it made one think that the Pure Land had come down to this world. Genji must be an incarnation of a Blessed One or perhaps a messiah even. How can such a man have been born into this world of sin and corruption?” And he was on his way.

They were an unusually taciturn brother and sister, unable to exchange the most idle remarks. Yet his words had made an impression. A Blessed One, a messiah, indeed! A fine messiah, taking no notice at all of her misery and peril. She understood at last. She would never see him again.

The aunt came busily in upon the worst of the gloom. Although she had not been close to the princess, she came laden with gifts, hoping that even now she might lure the princess off to the provinces. Her carriage a grand one, she came quite without forewarning, obviously satisfied with the course her career was taking. She was shocked at the desolation that lay before her. The gates were coming unhinged and leaning precariously, and resisted all the grunting efforts to open them. Even the “three paths” had disappeared in the undergrowth. The carriage forced its way to a raised shutter at the south front. The princess, though offended, had Jijū receive the visitor from behind yellowing curtains. The years were catching up with Jijū. She was thin and dispirited. She still retained enough of her old elegance, however, that the aunt, inappropriate though it would of course have been to say so, would have preferred having her for a niece.

“So I am off, and I must leave you to this. I have come for Jijū. I know that you dislike me and would not consider making a trip around the corner with me, but perhaps you might at least permit me to have Jijū. You poor thing, how can you stand it?” She was trying very hard to weep, but the triumphant smile of the assistant viceroy's wife was not very well hidden. “To the end of his days your royal father looked upon me as a disgrace to the family. But I do not hold grudges, and so here I am. Thanks to Genji there was a time when you might have hoped to go on living like a princess. I would not have dreamed of trying to insinuate my way into your royal presence. But these things pass. Sometimes the underdog wins. The mighty sometimes fall, and a person does after all have to feel sorry for them. I have not been very diligent about keeping in touch, I know, but I have had the comforting knowledge that you are near. Now I am going off to the provinces. I can hardly bear to think of leaving you all alone.”

The princess offered a few stiff words in reply. “It is kind of you to have invited me. I fear that I would not be good company. I shall stay where I am, thank you very much, and that will be that.”

“No doubt. I do have to admire you. Not everyone would have the courage. I am sure Genji could make this place over into a gleaming palace in a minute if he chose to. But they tell me he finds time these days for Prince Hyōbu's daughter and no one else. He has always had an eye for the ladies, I'm told, but they come and they go, and the ones that used to please him don't any more. Do you think he will be grateful to you for watching over the wormwood?”

The princess was in tears. Though the aunt was right, of course, she spent a whole day in futile argument. “Well, let me have Jijū then.” It was evening, and she was in a hurry to be off.

Forced at last to take a stand, Jijū was weeping copiously. “I will just see your aunt on her way, then, my lady, as she has urged me to. I think that what she says is quite true,” she added in a whisper, “and at the same time I think it quite understandable that you cannot find it in yourself to agree. I am put in a very difficult position.”

So Jijū too was leaving. The princess could only weep. The everyday robes she might have offered as farewell presents were yellow and stained. And what else was there, what token of her gratitude for long years of service? She remembered that she had collected her own hair as it had fallen, rather wonderful, ten feet or so long. She now put it into a beautifully fabricated box, and with it a jar of old incense.

“I had counted upon them not to slacken or give,
These jeweled strands - and far off now they are borne.

“I am a useless person, I know, but there were your mama's last instructions, and I had thought you would stay with me.” She was weeping bitterly. “You must go, of course. And what am I to do without you?”

Jijū could scarcely reply. “Yes, of course, there was Mama. Don't, please, remind me of her, my lady. We have been through a great deal together, and I am not asking them to take me away from you.

“The jeweled strands may snap, but I swear by the gods,
The gods of the road, that I will not cast them off.

Though I cannot of course be sure how long I shall live.”

Meanwhile the aunt was grumbling. “Can't you hurry just a little? It's getting dark.”

In a daze, Jijū was urged into the carriage. She looked back and looked back again as it pulled away.

The princess was lonelier than ever. She had said goodbye to the last of them. Jijū had not left her side through all the difficult years.

“She was quite right to go. How could she have stayed? It is getting to be more than we ourselves can stand.” Even old women whose remaining task was to die were looking for better positions.

The princess only hoped that no one heard their complaining.

There was a great deal of snow and sleet as winter came. In other gardens it melted, but in hers there were weeds to protect it, until presently one was reminded of White Mountain in Etchū. The princess gazed out at a garden without gardeners. The last friend with whom she could exchange an occasional pleasantry had left her. She passed lonely days and nights in a dusty boudoir.

Genji, having been away for so long, was completely occupied at Nijō. He had no time to visit ladies of lesser importance. He did from time to time think of the safflower princess and wonder whether she would still be among the living. He had no great wish to seek her out, however; and so the year came to an end.

In the Fourth Month he thought of the lady of the orange blossoms. Telling Murasaki that he had an errand to do, he slipped out of the Nijō house. A light rain was falling, the end of several days' rain. The moon came out just as the clouds were breaking. He was sunk in thoughts of other secret expeditions as he made his way through the soft evening moonlight. He passed a house so utterly ruinous, a garden so rank, that he almost wondered whether human beings had ever broken the wild forest. Wisteria blossoms, trailing from a giant pine, waved gently in the moonlight. The breeze brought in a vague, nostalgic perfume, similar to but somehow different from orange blossoms. He leaned from his carriage. Without support from the crumbling earthen wall, the branches of a willow dropped to the ground in great disorder. He had been here before. Yes - Prince Hitachi's mansion. He had his carriage stopped, and inquired of Koremitsu, who was always with him on these expeditions, whether it was indeed Prince Hitachi's.

“It is, my lord.”

“What an awful time the poor princess was having. I wonder if she still lives here. I had been thinking about her, but you know what people would say if I tried to see her. An opportunity it would be wrong to let pass. Go inside, please, and ask. But be very sure of yourself before you do. We would look very silly if we found ourselves with the wrong person.”

Though he did not know it, he had chosen a moment of heightened feeling. She had been napping and she had dreamed of her father. Afterwards, as if on his order, she set someone to mopping the rainwater that had leaked into a penthouse, and someone else to rearranging cushions, and in general it seemed as if she had resumed housekeeping.

“My sleeves still wet from tears for him who died
Are wetter yet from rain through ruined eaves.”

It was just at this moment. Koremitsu was wandering about seeking traces of human occupancy. He found none. He had passed the house on earlier occasions and looked in. It had seemed quite deserted. The moon burst forth brightly as he turned to leave. He saw that a pair of shutters was raised and a blind was moving slightly. Though this first sign of life was a little frightening, he approached and cleared his throat to announce his presence.

After a cough, a fearfully aged voice replied: “Who is that out there? Who are you?”

Koremitsu identified himself. “I would like to speak to Jijū, please, if I may.”

“Jijū's gone away and left us. But there's someone here you might call just the same as Jijū.” The voice was a very, very ancient one. He thought he had heard it before.

Suddenly, without warning, from nowhere, a gentleman in travel dress, to all appearances courteous and civil. No longer accustomed to receiving visitors, the old woman wondered if it might be a fox or some equally perverse and mischievous creature.

He came nearer. “I must beg to be told exactly how things are with you. If your lady has not changed, then my lord's wishes to call upon her have not changed either. He found that he could not pass you by, and had his carriage stopped outside. What shall I tell him? You have nothing to be afraid of.”

There was uncertain laughter, and a woman answered haltingly: “Do you think that if she had changed she would not have moved away from this jungle? Please imagine for yourself, sir, the situation of which you inquire, and report it to your lord. We who should be used to it by now think it most extraordinary. We ask ourselves how many other examples there can possibly be in the whole world.”

“I see. I will tell him.” Fearing he might have a longer answer than he wished, Koremitsu returned to Genji's carriage.

“You took your time,” said Genji. “And what did you find? You must have had to cut away a great deal of underbrush to find anything.”

Koremitsu described the search that had taken him so long. “I spoke to Jijū's aunt, the old lady called Shōshō. I would have recognized her voice anywhere.”

“What a way to live.” Genji was sorry he had so neglected his safflower. “What shall I do? It has been a very long time. These secret travels are not easy for me, and if I let this opportunity pass there is not likely to be another. If she hasn't changed-?”

It seemed rather inelegant just to walk in. He would have liked to send in a clever note. But he remembered how slow she was with her answers. Unless she had gained momentum Koremitsu might expect to be kept waiting all night.

“It is very wet, sir. Suppose you wait until I have shaken a little of it away.”

“Myself will I break a path through towering weeds
And ask: does a constant spirit dwell within?”

Genji spoke as if to himself, and despite Koremitsu's warnings got from his carriage.

Koremitsu beat at the grass with a horsewhip. The drops from the trees were like a chilly autumn shower.

“I have an umbrella,” said Koremitsu. “These groves shed the most fearful torrents.”

Genji's feet and ankles were soaking. Even in the old days the passage through the south gallery had been more obstacle than passage. Now the gallery had caved in, and Genji's entry was a most ungraceful one. He was glad there were no witnesses.

Having waited so long, clinging to the hope that he would come someday, the princess was of course delighted. Yet she regretted that he must see her in these circumstances. The various robes that were gifts from the assistant viceroy's wife had been put aside, for she did not like the giver. The old women had put them in a scented Chinese chest. Now they came out again, pleasantly scented. The princess let herself be dressed and received Genji from behind the yellow curtains of the last interview with her aunt.

“Although we have seen so little of each other,” said Genji, “I have not ceased to think of you all this time. I have waited impatiently for some sign that you too still care. Although I did not detect any welcoming cedars this evening, I did somehow feel these groves pulling at me. And so you have won the game.”

He pushed the curtain slightly aside. She was as shy and withdrawn as ever, he could see, and she was not immediately able to answer. Finally, impressed that he should have made his way through the undergrowth, she gathered courage for a few tentative syllables.

“I can imagine that it has been uncommonly difficult for you these last few years,” said Genji. “I myself seem incapable of changing and forgetting, and it would interest me to know how it strikes you that I should have come swimming through these grasses, with no idea at all whether you yourself might have changed. Perhaps I may ask you to forgive the neglect. I have neglected everyone, not only you. I shall consider myself guilty of breach of promise if I ever again do anything to displease you.”

The warmly affectionate utterances came forth in far larger numbers than he had any real feeling for. Everything urged against spending the night here. Having made excuses, he was about to leave. The pine tree was not one which he himself had planted, but someone had planted it, many years ago - years that seemed like a dream.

“I obey the waving summons of wisteria
Because it flows, at your gate, from the waiting tree.

“Yes, it has been many years. Things have changed, not always for the better. Someday I must tell you of my struggles with the fisherman's net and the angler's line. Another thing that seems strange, now that I think of it, is my complete confidence that you would refuse to tell anyone else the story of your unhappy springs and autumns.”

“I have waited and waited, to no avail, it seems.
Wisteria, not the waiting pine, has brought you.”

The faint stirring behind the curtains, the faint perfume that came to him from her sleeves, made him feel that she had perhaps improved a little with age. The setting moon streamed unobstructed through the open doors, both the gallery and the eaves having collapsed. He could see to the farthest corners of the room. The furnishings which she kept as they had always been made it seem a much finer house than the roof sagging under the weight of ferns would have led him to imagine. She was very unlike - and the contrast was touching - the princess in the old romance who destroyed the tower. Her stoicism in the face of poverty gave her a certain dignity. It had made her worth remembering. He hated to think of his own selfishness through the years.

Nor could the lady of the orange blossoms have been described as a bright, lively, modern sort. The difference between the two ladies, indeed, as he saw them in quick succession, did not seem very great; and the safflower princess's defects were minimized.

Gifts always poured in as the Kamo festival approached. He distributed them among his several ladies as seemed appropriate, taking care this time that Prince Hitachi's mansion was not slighted. He set stewards and artisans who had his confidence to replacing the decayed earthen walls with a sturdy wooden fence. Genji himself stayed away, fearing derisive rumors about his diligence in having searched her out. He sent many an earnest and affectionate note, however. He was remodeling a house very near his own Nijō mansion, he said, and he thought she might wish to move into it. Perhaps she could be thinking about presentable maids and footmen and the like. The wormwood patch now seemed to choke with gratitude. Looking off in Genji's direction, the Hitachi household offered thanks.

People had always said that Genji chose superior women to spend even a single night with. It was very odd: everything suggested that the Hitachi princess in no respect even rose to mediocrity. What could explain it? A bond tied in a former life, no doubt.

Most of the princess's women, whatever their stations in life, had dismissed her as beyond redemption and scrambled over one another in search of better places. Now the direction of the scramble was reversed. The princess, gentle and retiring to a fault, had spoiled them. Life in the service of provincial governors was unpleasantly different from what she had accustomed them to. A certain crassness was apparent in the haste with which they returned.

Ever more prosperous and powerful, Genji was more thoughtful as well. His instructions had been very detailed, and the princess's mansion came back to life. People were seen at the gates and in the garden, the brook was cleared, the wormwood was cut away so that breezes passed once more. Among Genji's lesser stewards were men who had not yet succeeded in catching his eye. He seemed to care about the Hitachi place. It offered the opportunity they had been looking for.

The princess stayed there for two years, after which he moved her to the east lodge at Nijō. Now he could visit her in the course of ordinary business. It could no longer be said that he treated her badly.

Though no one has asked me to do so, I should like to describe the surprise of the assistant viceroy's wife at this turn of events, and Jijū's pleasure and guilt. But it would be a bother and my head is aching; and perhaps - these things do happen, they say - something will someday remind me to continue the story.


The Gatehouse