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Lady Sarashina

Japanese Memoirist


A selection from

Narrated by Julia Emlen

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In the Tenth month we changed our abode to the Capital. Mother had become a nun, and although she lived in the same house, shut herself up in a separate chamber. Father rather treated me as an independent woman than as his child. I felt helpless to see him shunning all society and living hidden in the shade.

A person, the Princess Yuko, daughter of the Emperor Toshiyaku, who had heard about me through a distant relative called me to her saying it would be better to be with her than passing idle lonely days.

My old-fashioned parents thought the court life would be very unpleasant, and wanted me to pass my time at home, but others said: "People nowadays go out as ladies-in-waiting at the Court, and then fortunate opportunities for marriage are naturally numerous; why not try it?" So at the age of twenty-six I was sent to the Court against my will.

I went for one night the first time. I was dressed in an eight-fold uchigi of deep and pale chrysanthemum colours, and over it I wore the outer flowing robe of deep-red silk.

As I have said before, my mind was absorbed in romances, and I had no important relatives from whom I could learn distinguished manners or court customs, so except from the romances I could not know them. I had always been in the shadow of the antiquated parents, and had been accustomed not to go out but to see moon and flowers. So when I left home I felt as if I were not I nor was it the real world [to which I was going]. I started in the early morning. I had often fancied in my countrified mind that I should hear more interesting things for my heart's consolation than were to be found living fixed in my parents' house.

I felt awkward in Court in everything I did, and I thought it sad, but there was no use in complaining. I remembered with grief my nieces who had lost their mother and had been cared for by me alone, even sleeping at night one on either side of me.

Days were spent in musing with a vacant mind. I felt as if some one were always spying upon me, and I was embarrassed. After ten days or so I got leave to go out. Father and mother were waiting for me with a comfortable fire in a brazier.

When I went again to the Court, a room was assigned for my use.

I went to the Princess's apartment every night and lay down among unknown persons, so I could not sleep at all. I was bashful and timid and wept in secret. In the morning I retired while it was still dark and passed the days in longing for home where my old and weak parents, making much of me, relied upon me as if I were worth it. I yearned for them and felt very lonely. Unfortunate, deplorable, and helpless mind! - That was graven into my thought and although I had to perform my duty faithfully I could not always wait upon the Princess. She seemed not to guess what was in my heart, and attributing it only to shyness favored me by summoning me often from among the other ladies. She used to say, "Call the younger ladies!" and I was dragged out in spite of myself.

Those who were familiar with the court life seemed to be at home there, but I, who was not very young, yet did not wish to be counted among the elderly, was rather neglected, and made to usher guests. However, I did not expect too much of court life, and had no envy for those who were more graceful than I. This, on the contrary, set me at ease, and I from time to time presented myself before the Princess; and talked only with congenial friends about lovely things. Even on smile-presenting, interesting occasions I shrank from intruding and becoming too popular, and did not go far into most things.

One very bright night, after the full moon, I attended the Princess to the Imperial Palace. I remembered that the Heaven Illuminating Goddess was enthroned within, and wanted to take an opportunity to kneel before the altar. So one moon-bright night I went in to the shrine privately, for I know Lady Hakase who was taking care of this shrine. The perpetual lights before the altar burned dimly. Lady Hakase grew wondrously old and holy; she seems not like a mortal, but like a divine incarnation, yet she spoke very gracefully.

The moon was very bright on the following night and the Princess's ladies passed the time in talking and moon-gazing, opening the doors outer shutters of the Fujitsubo. The footsteps of the Royal consort of Umetsubo going up to the King's apartment were so exquisitely graceful as to excite envy. "Had the late Queen been living, she could not walk so grandly," some one said. I composed a poem:

She is like the Moon, who, opening the gate of Heaven, goes up over the clouds. We, being in the same heavenly Palace, pass the night in remembering the footfalls of the past.

The ladies who are charged with the duty of introducing the court nobles seem to have been fixed upon, and nobody notices whether simple-hearted countrywomen like me exist or not. On a very dark night in the beginning of the Gods-absent month, when sweet-voiced reciters were to read sutras throughout the night, another lady and I went out towards the entrance door of the Audience Room to listen to it, and after talking fell asleep, listening, leaning, . . . when I noticed a gentleman had come to be received in audience by the Princess.

"It is awkward to run away to our apartment to escape him. We will remain here. Let it be as it will." So said my companion and I sat beside her listening.

He spoke gently and quietly. There was nothing about him to be regretted. "Who is the other lady?" he asked of my friend. He said nothing rude or amorous like other men, but talked delicately of the sad, sweet things of the world, and many a phrase of his with a strange power enticed me into conversation. He wondered that there should have been in the Court one who was a stranger to him, and did not seem inclined to go away soon.

There was no starlight, and a gentle shower fell in the darkness; how lovely was its sound on the leaves! "The more deeply beautiful is the night," he said; "the full moonlight would be too dazzling." Discoursing about the beauties of Spring and Autumn he continued: "Although every hour has its charm, pretty is the spring haze; then the sky being tranquil and overcast, the face of the moon is not too bright; it seems to be floating on a distant river. At such a time the calm spring melody of the lute is exquisite.

"In Autumn, on the other hand, the moon is very bright; though there are mists trailing over the horizon we can see things as clearly as if they were at hand. The sound of wind, the voices of insects, all sweet things seem to melt together. When at such a time we listen to the autumnal music of the koto we forget the Spring - we think that is best -

"But the winter sky frozen all over magnificently cold! The snow covering the earth and its light mingling with the moonshine! Then the notes of the hitchiriki vibrate on the air and we forget Spring and Autumn." And he asked us, "Which captivates your fancy? On which stays your mind?"

My companion answered in favour of Autumn and I, not being willing to imitate her, said:

Pale green night and flowers all melting into one in the soft haze - Everywhere the moon, glimmering in the Spring night.

So I replied. And he, after repeating my poem to himself over and over, said: "Then you give up Autumn? After this, as long as I live, such a spring night shall be for me a memento of your personality." The person who favoured Autumn said, "Others seem to give their hearts to Spring, and I shall be alone gazing at the autumn moon."

He was deeply interested, and being uncertain in thought said: "Even the poets of the Tang Empire could not decide which to praise most, Spring or Autumn. Your decisions make me think that there must be some personal reasons when our inclination is touched or charmed. Our souls are imbued with the colours of the sky, moon, or flowers of that moment. I desire much to know how you came to know the charms of Spring and Autumn. The moon of a winter night is given as an instance of dreariness, and as it is very cold I had never seen it intentionally. When I went down to Ise to be present as the messenger of the King at the ceremony of installing the virgin in charge of the shrine, I wanted to come back in the early dawn, so went to take leave of the Princess [whose installation had just taken place] in a moon-bright night after many days' snow, half shrinking to think of my journey.

"Her residence was an other-worldly place awful even to the imagination, but she called me into an adequate apartment. There were persons in that room who had come down in the reign of the Emperor Enyu.Their aspect was very holy, ancient, and mystical. They told of the things of long ago with tears. They brought out a well-tuned four-stringed lute. The music did not seem to be anything happening in this world; I regretted that day should even dawn, and was touched so deeply that I had almost forgotten about returning to the Capital. Ever since then the snowy nights of winter recall that scene, and I without fail gaze at the moon even though hugging the fire. You will surely understand me, and hereafter every dark night with gentle rain will touch my heart; I feel this has not been inferior to the snowy night at the palace of the Ise virgin."

With these words he departed and I thought he could not have known who I was.

In the Eighth month of the next year we went again to the Imperial Palace, and there was in the Court an entertainment throughout the night. I did not know that he was present at it, and I passed that night in my own room. When I looked out [in early morning] opening the sliding doors on the corridor I saw the morning moon very faint and beautiful. I heard footsteps and people approached - some reciting sutras.

One of them came to the entrance, and addressed me. I replied, and he, suddenly remembering, exclaimed, "That night of softly falling rain I do not forget, even for a moment! I yearn for it." As chance did not permit me many words I said:

What intensity of memory clings to your heart? That gentle shower fell on the leaves - Only for a moment [our hearts touched].

I had scarcely said so when people came up and I stole back without his answer.

That evening, after I had gone to my room, my companion came in to tell me that he had replied to my poem: "If there be such a tranquil night as that of the rain, I should like in some way to make you listen to my lute, playing all the songs I can remember."

I wanted to hear it, and waited for the fit occasion, but there was none, ever.

More information about Lady Sarashina from Wikipedia

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