“The Kimono” Chapter 17

Kimono Cover 2


Mari stood at the window, a copy of the Man’yōshū in her hand. It was a book of love poems, the “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”. She couldn’t read the language but a scribe had taken the time to carefully illustrate this book with erotic drawings. They were exquisite, though rather pornographic in her opinion. Compiled during the 8th century, this book was considered the pinnacle of Japanese verse, even in this more “modern” 17th century. To the Japanese, eroticism didn’t seem to have many boundaries. Sex, and even nudity, was very natural to them. They did not have a concept of sin, at least none she understood.
Lord Tetsu had ordered Lady Nyo to teach her to read and write. He was of the opinion, according to Lady Nyo, that Mari should be entertained while learning a difficult language. Therefore, he gave her this book, the Man’yōshū. Entertained? How different their cultures, stretching across the centuries like two oceans separated by mountains and sand.
It was now two months since her miscarriage but Lady Mari’s mood had not greatly improved. Her heart was a mass of confusion. She would wake in the night, sweating. She dreamed constantly but could not remember much, just disjointed scenes in clashing and violent colors. Dreams before were fathomable, but now? They were strips of some unrolling and unending painting, without words or knowable meaning to her. Just confused sensations with a hidden terror.
With patient instruction by Lady Nyo, Mari was beginning to recognize some Japanese words. She still couldn’t construct a decent sentence. There were all sorts of issues with the Japanese language and her attempts in forming a sentence sent Lady Nyo into peals of laughter. Well, at least she was entertaining to someone if not exactly “entertained” herself.
The house was a flurry of activity. Lord Tetsu was to visit sometime in the afternoon and Mari felt anxious. He had not visited her since her miscarriage. Lady Nyo said he had come to see her but apparently she was asleep due to the medicine prescribed by the doctor. The only evidence of his visit was a short poem inked on his fan. Something about laughter and fireflies.


Mari turned from the window. There were two small women kneeling outside the entrance to the room. They bowed their heads to the wooden floor as soon as she saw them. Lady Nyo came up behind them and bowed to Mari.
“So sorry to disturb you, Lady Mari. These women are here to attend to the house. Would you please come out to the rokka and view the niwa?”
Mari nodded and put her book down on a small chest. She recognized the word “rokka” as the porch overlooking the garden and “niwa” as garden. She was beginning to learn the names of things in her environment.
“Oh, Lady Mari! If you would like, I will come with you and we can read those wonderful poems together.”
What she really meant, thought Mari, is I can read these poems because you are still stupid about our language. Of course, Lady Nyo was the picture of decorum and would never say such but Mari was foul in mood and took offense secretly at many things.
The house was like a cottage with small, bare rooms constructed from a central passageway, closed off by shoji screens. They walked through the house towards the back where Lady Nyo kneeled and pushed a screen open. They faced a narrow platform looking out upon a small garden.
Enclosed by a low stone wall, the garden was very old and had a misshapen tree in the middle. There were raked pebbled paths and small green bushes with buds and a few open flowers beneath. Upon the wall were small plants growing out of the rocks. The cherry trees were almost ready to blossom. This event was as important to the Japanese of this century as much as it was in Mari’s. She heard how beautiful they were in the castle grounds when in full bloom.
The kasumi, the morning mist, had lifted but there was a possibility of rain. Mari liked the rain, it suited her moods. She could withdraw from the company of Lady Nyo and look out her window, wrapped in a silk quilt against the cool air. As she recovered, she spent less time sleeping late and would get up earlier. She liked the kasumi, it comforted her. It put a barrier between her and the world. Any rain or mist was welcomed by the people around her. There had been a drought for a couple of years. Lord Tetsu had mentioned that rice production had dropped. Famine was always around the corner.
Mari sat on a wooden bench on the rokka overlooking the garden and above the pebbled paths. The mists had all evaporated from the morning, replaced by a gentle wind. White cranes lifted off the water down by the shore, their black legs trailing like stiff ribbons behind white bodies.
It was peaceful. She felt her nerves untangle, fall away. Breathing in quietly, she could smell the scent of plum trees within the garden wall. The wind made cascades of plum snow litter the raked pebbles.
“Lady Mari, I have brought your book. If it pleases you, may I read a few poems aloud?”
Mari could not refuse this simple request. Lady Nyo’s role was to educate her in the finer arts. It was not as if it were her idea to do this. Clearly, it came from Lord Tetsu. Lady Nyo was devotedly following orders.
“Oh, Lady Mari! Here is a poem by the Princess Nukata. She was very famous many centuries ago for her lovers. She was wife to Prince Oama and then the Emperor himself!”


As I stay here yearning
while I wait for you, my lord,
the autumn wind blows,
swaying the bamboo blinds
of my lodging.


“Oh, isn’t that the most romantic of poems?” Lady Nyo clasped the book to her flattened bosom.
“Well, I would think it would be a matter of taste, my Lady.” Mari didn’t want to sound sour but the poem did not move her as it obviously did the reader.
“Oh, Lady Mari,” said Lady Nyo plaintively. “Perhaps the part of the poem that is more obscure is the key here. The autumn wind in this poem represents the visitor…or builds yearning for him. And this morning we have such a lovely, gentle wind blowing.” Lady Nyo looked at Mari with hopeful expectation. Mari laughed and asked her to read more.


Tonight, too,
does my woman’s pitch-black hair
trail upon the floor
where she sleeps without me?


Mari sat up straighter, her interest piqued. Now, that poem had interest and was modern in sentiment but why were the man and woman separated? There were more secrets than answers in this sort of poetry. “Read more.”
Lady Nyo smiled and looked for another poem to please her.


Though I sleep with
a single thin rush mat
for my bedding,
I am not cold at all,
when I sleep with you, my lord.


Lady Nyo smiled over the top of the book, again clasped to her bosom. “She must have been a poor woman to be only able to afford such bedding. But here’s another poem that speaks to men.”


Though I sleep beneath
soft, warm bedding,
how cold my skin is,
for I do not share my bed
with you, my woman.


“Now, that is nice,” said Mari wishfully. And how modern, she thought. A man who shows his main concern in bed: warm feet.
Lady Nyo read another:


Brave man like the catalpa bow
that, once drawn,
does not slacken–
can it be that he is unable to bear
the vicissitudes of love?


As soon as Lady Nyo read this particular poem, she blushed deeply.
Mari saw her reaction. “Lady Nyo, I am a stranger here. I have no history among your people. That is obvious. But please tell me: does Lord Tetsu have a wife or children?”
Lady Nyo’s face showed a sadness. She moved closer to Mari and spoke softly. “This was a long time ago but I believe Lord Tetsu still mourns. It is hard to tell with men but Lord Tetsu, though a powerful daimyo, is still a man. Years ago, before my Lord Nyo and I were vassals to Lord Tetsu, he lost his young wife and children to the sea. They were sailing to a city on the southern coast when a terrible storm took hold of the boat and all were lost. Lord Tetsu was not with them, he was on land. I understand he travelled to a sacred mountain and for years lived in the forests. He talked to the ghosts of his wife and children and shunned all men.”
Mari’s breath caught in her chest. Perhaps this was the key to his personality. He was certainly a strange man, even for a 17th century daimyo. “But surely he has remarried? Does he have a wife in the castle I have not seen?”
Lady Nyo’s eyes widened. “Oh, no! To my knowledge, Lord Tetsu has never remarried. If he had, his wife would be amongst the women with Lady Idu. Oh, it would be hard to ignore a daimyo’s wife!”
Yes, she would be first among all the women in the castle, thought Mari. “But perhaps he has a wife that lives apart from him?”
Lady Nyo shook her head. “No, not that I have ever heard, Lady Mari. Of course, many husbands and wives do not live together, which would explain why we know nothing about a wife. If that were the case, surely my husband would tell me, but in all these years, he has said nothing.”
The expression on Mari’s face took Lady Nyo by surprise.

“A man and wife don’t live together? How strange.” As soon as Mari spoke, she realized her mistake.
“Oh, Lady Mari! Surely the married people where you come from don’t live together after marriage?”
“Well, actually, they do, except if the husband has to travel…for business.”
“Oh! People are so different it seems. Here, only the farmers live together but that is because their women are needed in the fields.”
That morning, Mari learned that among the upper classes, and especially within the aristocracy, men and women lived apart. Visits were planned and each was notified by a messenger. That poem about autumn winds and swaying bamboo blinds now made sense. These marriages were conjugal visits.
“No,” continued Lady Nyo. “Lord Tetsu has no wife, as far as I know, but the finest courtesans do visit him…or he them, from time to time. It is only right and proper. He is not a hermit.”
“Who? Tell me, Hana, do you know the women? What do they look like? Have you seen them?”
Lady Nyo, heartened that Mari would use her name, blushed and shyly touched Mari’s hand. “Well, there was the beautiful courtesan, Midori, last year. Oh, Lady Mari! You should have seen her kimonos! Such silks and colors! She looked like a beautiful butterfly!” Lady Nyo giggled like a girl and rushed to explain. “I was passing from one hall to another on some endless errand and I saw her with attendants. She was so beautiful! Her skin was as white as a lily and her hair as glossy as a blackbird’s wing. Long, too. She wore it unencumbered and it swept her hems.”
Mari chuckled to herself. So, Lord Tetsu wasn’t the hermit he appeared at first to her. He was man enough.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018


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