The characters belong to Toei and I'm making no profit from this piece.
Here is the piece set in the Heian Era that I have been threatening for quite some time, inspired by both The Tale of Genji and the autobiography of Shikibu Murasaki that Lisa Dalby wrote. Both are well worth reading, and, if you enjoy this piece, may I recommend them as superior versions of this?
I don't want this story to get bogged down in footnotes about Heian Era culture. I find it a fascinating period of history, but I don't want this narrative to become a lecture. However, for those who want to know more, I will include my summaries of some of the various reference sources I used to research this story as the last chapter. It will be updated as my research needs dictate too. If you still have questions, feel free to put them in your reviews and I'll be certain to address them in my notes at the beginning.
Thanks to Keri for betaing. She doesn't even watch Digimon Adventure and said she'd beta for me, because she knows a lot about the Heian Era, especially its fashions. So, if it's accurate, it has a lot to do with her.
Otherwise, it only remains to say . . . Enjoy the story!
THE TALE OF HIKARI
ASAGAO: MORNING GLORY
Uncertain whether it happened or not - dimly-perceived, morning glory flowers.
~ Murasaki Shikibu
Both the leaves and the sky were turning red on the morning when Hikari met the man to whom the bonds of karma would draw her, although she did not know it at the time and would not have believed it even if she had. Of all the household, she was the only one who was outdoors that early. Her father was cloistered in his study, writing reports for the government. Her brother had returned late the previous night and was sleeping off his evening's debauchery in his quarters. Her father's first wife, Hikari's mother, was reading in her Northern pavillion, while his second was with child and had taken to lying in late in the morning until the worst of the sickness had left her.
Her solitude did not worry Hikari in the slightest. In a house that was full of people, most of whom disliked each other, it was not unpleasant to have some time by herself. She enjoyed walking alone in the autumn garden, listening to the cricket's morning song, seeing the flowers unfurl on their stems, enjoying the crispness of the cooling air on her skin, watching the sky fade from gold to blue. It allowed her pretend that they were not in what amounted to exile.
As perfectly composed and planned as if it had been a painting, the garden was one of the few touches of refinement her father allowed himself, despite his posting to an obscure province for incurring some imperial disfavour or other. She still did not know the exact circumstances that had led her father to be sent to a place that was little more than a fishing village and a few rice-fields. She wondered if it had anything to do with him rejecting the notoriously tasteless daughter of a wealthy noble as a third wife. Regardless, he said that the soul had to learn to find contentment in adversity, but she longed for the elegance of Miyako more than she had words to say. (1)
As she roamed through the elegant garden, she let her mind wander across the ri to Miyako, like a goose flying through the grey sky. If she were there, she would be sitting with her friends in the autumn coolness of a garden. They would be combing each other's long hair, and coming up with the sort of light, pleasant poetry with which they had used to pass hours. Or she would be exchanging elegant, oblique words with a male admirer from behind a screen, the carefully-chosen colours of her robes showing to best effect, the smile on her face hidden.
Hikari sighed despairingly. How would she get a husband worthy of her in this place? The only men apart from her father and brother were no men at all: peasants with their rough voices and hands. Her father would have to write to Miyako to arrange an engagement, but how would he persuade a rich and handsome noble that it would be worth his while to marry the obscure daughter of an obscure provincial official? She had a little beauty and a little charm, she thought despondently, but not enough to make up for such a defect. She would spend the rest of her life in the provinces, without even an opportunity for an intrigue with a man who might slip into her bed one night and be gone by morning. She knew she should resign herself to dying a virgin, as untouched as the Vestals of Ise.
With those bleak thoughts on her mind, she stepped through a cluster of maples and froze in her steps. As if her imaginings had come strangely to life, there was a man standing in the middle of their garden and bending to inspect a vine of morning glory. His back was to her and he held the stem of one of the white flowers between his thumb and forefinger, as if he were trying to memorise its every detail. His single-layered robe and bakama of undyed cloth marked him as a peasant, while his head and feet were bare. His hair was the gold of fallen autumn leaves. What was a peasant doing in their garden? How had he gotten past the wall?
Hikari suddenly realised that she did not even have a fan behind which to hide her face. Everyone knew that peasants were only slightly above animals. Like beasts, they ate and drank, they worked the fields, they rutted. It took the least matter to inflame them. The fall of her many-layered robes would be enough, let alone her bare face. Hastily, she turned to go back to her house, but her feet got caught up in her trailing robes and she fell heavily onto the ground.
Loud as the crack of a whip, a branch snapped beneath her. Wincing, she rubbed her ankle, which had twisted beneath her and was now aching. There was no way even a dull-brained peasant could have failed to notice the sound and to recognise it for what it was. Her worst suspicions were confirmed, as she heard footsteps coming quickly towards her through the grass. Panic rose hot and sharp in her chest. She had to get back to the house, or else she would fall prey to whatever lust he might conceive when he saw her.
Gathering up the many layers of her robe, she clambered to her feet. When she put weight on her injured foot, her ankle throbbed as if a hot coal were being pressed against her skin. Painfully, as quickly as she could manage, she started hobbling back towards the house. She could see it rising at the end of the garden, promising safety from her pursuer. If she could only . . . .
"Lady Yagami?" a man's voice exclaimed from behind her, and she knew it was too late. He had caught her, and would doubtless proceed to do whatever he wanted to her. Realising flight was futile, she slowly turned to face the peasant. He was younger than she had first imagined, barely more than a boy. His eyes were the steady blue of a lake at dawn. If she had not been so afraid, she would have thought them beautiful.
"Stay away from me," she said in as steady a voice as she could manage, "My brother will kill you if you touch me or offer any violence to me."
"Do you think I am an animal?" he sounded irritated. His accent was uncultured but not unpleasant to the ear, even though it was nothing like the smooth, modulated tones of her father or brother, "Do you think I would take advantage of you in that way?"
Hikari felt her cheeks grow warm, and wished she had bothered to paint on the concealing layer of rice-flour that morning. She had been thinking that only a few moments ago. Everyone knows that the peasants are animals, though. They can't help it. They're born to serve, and they have few of the civilising influences of art, poetry or music to improve them. She wondered whom she was trying to convince.
"Why are you here if not to take advantage of me?" she demanded, feeling obscurely angry. Nobles did not have to justify themselves to peasants, "Or have you come to rob my father's house?"
The young man ran a slightly grimy hand through his hair, "Actually, I came to see your gardens."
"Our gardens?" she repeated incredulously.
"Yes, I came to draw flowers. Your father, Lord Yagami, has an exceptional garden. Some of his flowers are new to me."
"You came to draw flowers?" Hikari echoed, realising what a fool she sounded but not caring. This was getting more ridiculous by the moment. The only plants peasants appreciated were those with which they filled their bellies. The stately wisteria, the ephemeral beauty of the cherry-blossom, the golden glory of the kerria-rose were all the same to them - they were not rice or barley. And they certainly did not draw them, "You are lying."
"I am not," he sounded offended, "Come and see for yourself. My drawing stuff is just through those trees. I left it when I came to check if you needed help. "
She stared at the peasant in open disbelief. Did he think her a foolish girl who did not know how the world worked beyond the latticed window or the screens-of-state? Did he think she knew nothing about the things which went on between men and women, the things which women whispered to each other, the things about which men laughed and boasted over their cups of o-sake? Through the thin walls of their home, she had often heard her brother joking about his conquests with his friends. She knew what would happen to her, if she went with him. She was only surprised he had not had his way with her already.
"Leave our garden now, or I will call my father," her voice shook, despite her best efforts, "I know he will find your tales even less convincing than I do."
"Can you make it to the house by yourself, Lady Yagami?" he sounded concerned.
"I'm sorry if I startled you. I didn't . . . ."
"Now! Or I'm calling my father!"
With an appropriately deep bow, the peasant turned from her and disappeared through the trees. He moved with a loose, long-limbed grace, like a cat walking along a wall. She waited for him to go, before she let herself sink against the trunk of the nearest maple. She was breathing heavily, and her entire body trembled like a dry leaf in an autumn breeze. Inexplicably, she felt a strange shame for how she had treated the boy. She had not only screamed at him like the unfortunate wife in The Tongue-Cut Sparrow, but she had treated him as if he had been an attacker when he had only shown her care and compassion. He had not even tried to touch her against her will, let alone to force her to the ground. And that shame only served to make her angrier.
At least her ankle had stopped aching, she thought grimly, as she set back up to the house.
That evening, when Hikari opened the shutters of her room to admit the night air, she found a sheet of paper lying crumpled on the grass outside her room. She picked it up with an impatient sigh, recognising it as one of Taichi's discards from the writing on it. Her brother had no care for the cost or the scarcity of paper, and their father indulged him in a vain attempt at making a poet out of him. He left sheets scattered about the landscape, as if they were autumn leaves or goose feathers. She took it upon herself to gather them up and to reuse them. She would practise the lotus sutra on the back of this one, she thought, as she carefully smoothed it out with the palm of her hand.
Her eyes widened slightly, when she saw that someone had already used the back of the sheet. On it was the most perfect sketch of morning glory that she had ever seen. One of the trumpets was just beginning to open, wrinkled edges still curling inwards slightly, while the other bud was folded as tightly as a baby's crying face. She lifted the sheet to her face, and the faint, acrid smell of ash came off of it. It was not a drawing in ink, but charcoal. It had to have been done by the peasant boy she had met in the garden that morning.
She had not thought about their brief encounter, except in the vague, distant way that she thought about dreams. She had decided that it could never have happened. No peasant would have spoken to her so disrespectfully, or would have made the outrageous claim to be sketching flowers. Yet this drawing was proof that it had - this drawing, which was better than anything her or her brother could have produced for all their upbringing and education. Hikari was intrigued in spite of herself. He could not have done it himself, no peasant was capable of creating something so beautiful, but from where could he have gotten it?
"Hikari, what is that you are holding?" the girlish voice of her father's second wife asked from behind her. Stiffening, Hikari slipped the sketch into the broad sleeve of her robes. It wasn't like she were doing anything wrong by looking at the sketch the peasant had made her or like anything improper had happened between them that morning, but it would give rise to the sort of awkward questions she preferred to avoid. She put an innocent smile on her face as she turned to face the older woman.
Orimoto Izumi was a small, pretty woman, who always struck Hikari as being more child than woman in her eagerness and impulsiveness. It was hard to think that she would be a mother soon, when she seemed like she should be playing with dolls. Her waist had not yet begun to thicken, and her robes still fell on her in elegant lines. They were a fashionable combination of reds, browns and yellows that imitated the colours of the season. Her make-up was equally elegant - her entire face was white, apart from the safflower-pinkness of her lips and the painted, black brows high on her forehead. Her teeth had been blackened too, and shone like fine lacquer.
Beside her, with her face bare and her teeth artlessly white, Hikari felt as much an uncultured peasant as the boy who had drawn the flowers for her.
"Another sheet that my brother cast off in pursuit of perfection," she replied lightly, "I was going to practise my lotus sutra on the back of it."
"It looked like a painting from where I was standing and a remarkably fine one too, but I must have been mistaken."
"It was one of Taichi's drawings," she lied easily, "His skills with the brush are improving daily, since our father insisted he practise."
Izumi smiled, "Your father is a talented painter in his own right. I am glad to see his son is following in his footsteps."
Hikari returned the woman's smile with one of her own, wondering what she was doing in her quarters. Izumi had never seemed to want to befriend her in the past, keeping her own counsel to the point of standoffishness. She did not hold it against her - she knew her father's new wife was unhappy, and solitude was the only way she could handle her misery. Sometimes, she woke to hear her crying at night through the thin screens, or saw wet streaks in the carefully applied rice-flour on her face. It was not hard to guess the reason for it. Someone as beautiful and stylish as Izumi could not have dreamt of being married to an obscure provincial official, of having to live many days' journey away from the society life of Miyako.
Still, she thought with some resentment, at least Izumi had a husband. At least her beauty was not going to waste like a flower growing on the peak of a high and rocky mountain, where only the sun saw it and only the crickets remarked upon it. (2) The only gift she had been given by a man for months was this sketch of morning-glory, and that had been the gift of a peasant with whom she could clearly have no future. The thought of a coarse peasant courting her with delicate poems and carefully-chosen tokens of favour was almost ridiculous enough to make her smile in spite of her hopeless situation.
Casting politeness aside for the moment, she asked, "Did you come to see me just to talk, or is there a purpose to your visit?"
"We received a message from Miyako this morning, while you were in the gardens. I meant to tell you earlier, but could not find you."
Excitement fluttered in her stomach. Maybe it was a message from a man with whom her father had arranged a match. Maybe her situation was not as irreperable as she had thought, "About?"
"Tachikawa Mimi sent word that she is coming to see you in a few days," Izumi explained, "She was a friend of yours from when you lived in Miyako, right?"
Pushing down the slight disappointment that it was not an offer of marriage, Hikari smiled at her, "Yes! One of my best! It will be good to see her . . . but why is she making such a long trip?"
"Doubtless, you will learn the reason when she arrives," she said with a philosophical shrug, "In the meantime, get yourself ready for dinner. We are eating in the garden beneath the cedars."
TO BE CONTINUED IN 'A VISITOR FROM A THOUSAND RI AWAY'
(1) Not Inoue Miyako, obviously! Miyako was the old name for Kyoto, and the capital during the Heian era.
(2) I usually hate to point out subtle allusions, but you really won't get this one unless you know the kanji reading for Takeru's name is "high mountain" or "peak" and very few people are aware of that fact. Mainly because Toei usually uses the katakana for most of their names. . . .