Shike – Day 64 of 306

Taniko said, “Homage to Amida Buddha.” The samurai and the peasant woman led her away.

Chapter Twenty

His estate levelled, Prince Horigawa had no choice but to return Taniko to Heian Kyo. She was desperately ill, and he told her he hoped the carriage journey back to the capital would kill her. But she survived, and by the beginning of the new year her body had recovered. Her mind did not recover as quickly. He tried for a time to keep her in his palace, but her presence in his home unnerved him, and her bewildered manner and constant muttering of the invocation to Buddha disturbed the servants.

Finally, Horigawa took her in his state carriage to the house of Taniko’s uncle Shima Ryuichi. He decided that shame would keep her from telling anyone what he had done to the baby, and that no one could blame him for casting off a wife who had become so obviously useless.

In the slow ride through the streets of the capital she crouched on the straw mat across the carriage from him, staring at him and whispering to herself, while he directed his gaze out through the blinds, so as to avoid looking at her.

“Unfortunately, her baby was born dead,” he told Ryuichi. “She is upset. Possibly she has succumbed to the influence of an evil spirit. I think it best she remain with her family for a while.” He left abruptly, while Ryuichi looked in helpless horror at the dishevelled, murmuring Taniko.

Sometimes Taniko found herself trying to imagine what her daughter would have been like. She had red hair and grey eyes. Would she have been strange looking? Would everyone have thought her ugly? Would she have been unable to get a husband? It would not have mattered. Taniko would have loved her daughter. She would have called her Shikibu, after the author of The Tale of Genji, the book she had enjoyed while she was with child.

Gradually, Taniko once again became an accepted member of the house of Shima Ryuichi. She remained something of a recluse and spent her days reading, embroidering and incessantly reciting the invocation to Buddha. It appeared a foregone conclusion that she would not return to her husband.

Word of what had actually happened at Daidoji filtered back to Heian Kyo through the gossip of servants and samurai. Shima Ryuichi heard the story and accepted it because it was hard to believe a strong girl like Taniko could be reduced to this state by a stillbirth, a misfortune that happened to many women. He considered writing to Lord Bokuden about Horigawa’s behaviour but decided not to. Against so powerful a man as Prince Horigawa there was nothing to be done, and Bokuden might take it into his head to hold Ryuichi somehow to blame for whatever had gone wrong.

One day in the Fifth Month of the Year of the Ape Taniko was reading when a maidservant burst into her room. “You must prepare yourself, my lady. A great man has come to call upon you.”

Puzzled, Taniko slowly laid down her book. “What great man has come?” A picture of Jebu rose in her mind.

“Lord Takashi no Kiyosi, Minister of the Interior and General of the Left, is waiting in the great hall.”

Kiyosi. The image of a brown, handsome face with a small moustache replaced that of Jebu. Suddenly, she was frightened.

“I cannot possibly receive him. He cannot see me like this, and I don’t have time to prepare myself.”

“Be calm, my lady,” said the maid. “No gentleman expects a lady to receive him at once, especially if she has had no advance warning that he is coming. You have time to prepare yourself. Your esteemed uncle told me to tell you that he would consider it a great favour if you would greet Lord Kiyosi courteously.”

“Of course.”

In less than an hour Taniko had changed all her robes and dresses, found her favourite hair ornament, a mother-of-pearl butterfly, and chosen a screen painted with green shoots of young rice just emerging from pools of water, an appropriate selection for the season. In her chest of personal ornaments she found the fan with the painting of the Takashi family shrine, which Lady Akimi had long since returned to her.

She was seated comfortably, the screen was placed before her, and she sent her maid for Kiyosi.

Through the top of the screen Taniko was able to see that Kiyosi was wearing what was known at the capital as a hunting costume—a long green cloak with a yellow plum blossom print, full tan trousers and a pointed black cap. Coming from the provinces as she did, Taniko always found the term “hunting costume” laughable. Any man who actually attempted to hunt in such cumbersome clothing would soon find himself eating dust. She had heard that Kiyosi was a splendid sight in his samurai armour. She hoped she might see him that way, some day.

To control her nervousness, Taniko whispered the invocation. “What was that you said?” Kiyosi asked. “Were you speaking to me?”

“Nothing, my lord.” Then, feeling she was betraying both Amida and the midwife who taught her, she explained. “I was reciting a prayer to the Buddha.”

“Ah, yes.” The light in the room was dim and it was difficult to see Kiyosi through the screen, but he seemed to be smiling kindly. “I have heard of such prayers. This is the teaching of the Pure Land school, is it not? Invoke Amida and you will be reborn in the Western Paradise?”

“I have studied under no school, my lord,” said Taniko. “I learned the prayer from a very kind woman who helped me in an hour when I needed help badly.”

“I hope you will forgive my presumption in coming to visit you, Lady Taniko. If I may say so, having met you on several occasions I have most pleasant memories of you. I heard that you were back in the capital at your family’s house. I notice that your screen depicts sprouting rice. Perhaps in this month of rice-sprouting a new friendship might begin to grow between us.”

“I am most grateful for your thought, my lord. I am overwhelmed by your kindness.” It must be pity that had brought him here, she thought. I am old. My baby was killed. I am unattractive. Many people must think me mad.

They talked through the screen for a long time. Taniko found herself again becoming interested in the affairs of Heian Kyo and Kiyosi seemed happy enough to tell her about them. He was modest, almost embarrassed, about the rise to power of the Takashi. Under Taniko’s tactful questioning he acknowledged that his father was now virtually unquestioned ruler of the Sacred Islands.

“How fortunate you are to have such a mighty father,” said Taniko.

“How fortunate is my father to have such a family,” Kiyosi answered. “I do not speak of myself, but of the many ancestors who have paved the way for his rise to greatness—of his father, my grandfather, who wiped out the pirates on the Inland Sea, of his uncles, his brothers, even his cousins, who help him by holding high offices in the land. In a mountain range one peak always stands taller than the others, but it is all the mountains together that help the tallest stand.”

“Not least among the peaks is the samurai general who defeated the Muratomo at the battle of the Imperial Palace,” said Taniko. “But sometimes a man cannot achieve greatness unless he thinks he stands alone.”

Kiyosi slapped his thigh and laughed softly. “How true! I worry about the destiny of my family, and I do not think my accomplishments will ever match those of my father.”

He stood up suddenly. “I must leave you now, Lady Taniko. You have been most kind to receive me. I will call on you again, if I may. I—I am married, of course, and I know many women. But the conversation of women does not usually interest me. I find you fascinating to talk to.”

“You are always welcome here, Lord Kiyosi.”

A few moments after he was gone, Ryuichi hurried into the room. “This is splendid! To be quite frank, my dear, I thought your usefulness to the family had ended when Prince Horigawa cast you off, but Kiyosi is a hundred times more important than the prince. I shall write your father at once. He will be proud of you.”

“The Takashi general is not going to marry me, Uncle.”

“But he will come back?”

“He said he would.”

“That is as much as we could hope for. That is far, far better for you than mooning about the house reading old books and mumbling prayers. You are a young woman. Even if he only makes you his mistress, you can do something for the family.”

“Any small contribution I could make would be an honour, of course,” said Taniko tartly. “But I think you are selling the rice when it hasn’t even been planted.”

“That’s done all the time,” said Ryuichi with mild surprise. “Here in the capital, people barter future crops on land they own to get what they need today. Your father has neglected your education in trade.”

“Well, no seeds have been sown in this field yet.”

“Only a matter of time,” said Ryuichi with an airy wave of his hand. They both laughed.

Taniko realized it was the first time she had laughed since Shikibu’s death. It was the first time since then that she had felt fully alive. She whispered her thanks to Amida, the Lord of Boundless Light.

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