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The Tale of Murasakiby Liza Dalby
I was pregnant with you when my mother died, but my condition was far from normal. I was often overwhelmed by waves of nausea. The only thing that held them at bay was a fresh citron. Scratching the bumpy yellow yuzu skin released a tiny vapor of citrus essence to inhale and quell my rising gorge. But most of the time I simply surrendered to queasy lassitude. I had to tuck emergency drafts of yuzu and tangerine peel in my sleeves to get through my mother's funeral. She had been living in seclusion for some time. Some people, on hearing of her death, were surprised that she had still been alive.
Your grandmother was well known as the lady who wrote the Tale of Genji. That novel of romance and poignant observation appeared like a bright full moon floating out of a dark sky. No one had read anything like it before. It brought my mother fame and notoriety in her day. Still, I was surprised at the crowd that gathered for her final rites. At least a dozen ladies endured the inconvenient all-day trip to Ishiyama Temple. They must have been Genji readers who preferred the life they found in my mother's stories to their own dull husbands or difficult situations.
I'm sure my mother became a recluse in order to disentangle herself from Genji. The work had come to envelop her life. Yet Genji was also her child. She had created and nurtured it, but then, as children do, it grew up and eventually slipped from her control. I was a much more compliant child than the book. I never gave her as much cause for concern as did Genji.
Perhaps because people were infatuated with the heroine of her novel, they confused my mother with that character. She was nicknamed Murasaki when she entered Her Majesty's service. Readers of the tale seemed to think they knew her because they knew Genji's Murasaki. I think my mother grew tired of the letters and visits from people of all ranks, including imperial personages, whom, of course, she could not ignore. It had gotten to the point where readers became so involved with her characters that they importuned my mother to create particular scenes to satisfy their imaginations. They came to expect things of Genji, and my mother grew equally tired, I'm convinced, of meeting their expectations and thwarting them.
She had even been invited to join the empress's entourage because of Genji. It must have seemed a miracle to her, a bookish widow, to have been lifted out of obscurity into the conspicuous brilliance of that imperial salon. Genji writing brought her to the attention of the regent Michinaga, the man who controlled emperors and ruled the country in fact if not in name. Whatever my mother's relationship to Michinaga may have been, Genji was largely responsible.
One bears children and eventually launches them into society, praying they will make a favorable impression, attain a suitable status, or at least not be an embarrassment. Perhaps one has taught them something that will give them the strength to suffer the karma they were born with. Yet eventually children will do as they will. The influence of previous existence will play out in ways we cannot possibly know. As a parent, one accepts this. But a work of fiction is a perverse child. Once created, it makes its own way without apology, brooking no influence, making friends and enemies on its own.
Perhaps it's not so different from a flesh-and-blood child, after all.
The Genji tale was like an elder brother to me from the time I was born. It was always taking up my mother's time, demanding her attention like any selfish boy. It never went away or lessened its demand. As jealous as I was when I was young, eventually I, too, fell under Genji's spell.
We did not meet often during the years my mother lived as a nun. My own career at court was developing moderately well, and I was then under the protection of Counselor Kanetaka, a nephew of Regent Michinaga. It was his child--you--I carried at the time of Murasaki's death.
I thought I should probably never marry. How was I to know the fated connections and promotions that were to come my way? I was not worried about my future, because my mother was not. She would not have abandoned me at sixteen unless she felt my prospects were secure.
The faint scent of cherry blossoms will always remind me of my mother's departing this world. As we left the sand-strewn funerary plain at dawn, we passed stands of blooming cherries in the morning fog. Then, as the sun warmed the earth and the fog melted away, a soft smell filled the air. No one thinks of sakura for its scent--it hasn't the strong honey odor of plum--but out in the countryside, in such masses, sakura seemed to have a subtle fragrance.
I was carrying the urn with Murasaki's ashes to take back to our family temple. My grandfather Tametoki should have been in charge, but, mortified at seventy-four to have outlived his children, he shrank from taking an official part in the ceremony. Shaking his gray head like one of the querulous macaque monkeys we saw on the mountain roads, my grandfather lamented the fortune of his continued good health as much as his daughter's death.
The following month I journeyed for the last time to my mother's retreat near Kiyomizu Temple to gather her things. I knew there would not be very much because she had already given away her musical instruments, her books, and--of course, long since--all of the fine silk clothing she had worn at court. There were some good padded winter robes, which I donated to the temple, as well as the sutras she had been copying in her graceful calligraphy. I managed to find the only things I wanted--her dark purple inkstone, a set of writing brushes, and a Chinese celadon brush rest in the form of five mountains. As I knelt at her low writing table, I noticed another bundle of papers, rolled tightly and wrapped in a scrap of chartreuse silk. Thinking these to be old letters she had kept for the paper on which to copy more sutras, I decided to take them with me for my own writing practice. Paper is not cheap, and I thought I might as well put it to the use my mother intended. The priest was disappointed. These people are always on the lookout for extra paper.
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