Authors: Kij Johnson
For Chris and for my parents: a tale told under your eaves
These times have passed, and there was one who drifted uncertainly through them, scarcely knowing where she was…. Yet, as the days went by in monotonous succession, she had occasion to look at the old romances, and found them masses of the rankest fabrication. Perhaps, she said to herself, even the story of her own dreary life, set down in a journal, might be of interest; and it might also answer a question: had that life been one befitting a well-born lady? But they must all be recounted, events of long ago, events of but yesterday. She was by no means certain that she could bring them to order.
nikki (The Gossamer Years)
translated by Edward Seidensticker
Harueme’s primary attendant
now dead: formerly the prince Sadahito; Harueme’s half-brother
now dead: formerly the prince Taruhito; Shirakawa’s son; Harueme’s nephew
formerly the prince Atsuhito; Shirakawa’s great-grandson; Harueme’s great-grandnephew
Fujiwara sammi no
Shirakawa’s consort; mother of Horikawa
Fujiwara no Yorimichi: Harueme’s maternal grandfather; her
Fujiwara no Morozane: Harueme’s
a guardsman from Mutsu province
: Harueme’s first cat
: Harueme’s current cat
Osa Hitachi no
a road-met companion to Kagaya-hime
Osa Hitachi no
Nakara’s adopted brother
: Nakara’s primary attendant
Seiwa Minamoto no
commander of the war band
priestess with the war band
: head of the Norit
: Kagaya-hime’s female and male human attendants
I am the princess
Harueme, daughter of Fujiwara no Enyu and the emperor we now call Go-Sanj
. More to the point, I am old and I am dying.
My life (what remains of it) does not look so different from the outside than it has anytime in the past fifty years, since I first came to court. I kneel on a straw mat laid on my oh, so familiar boxwood floors, though the padding is thicker than it was when I was young, and despite it my knees hurt rather more. I wear silk as I have since I was a child today; my robes are the
grass color combination, a private favorite of mine. My screens and curtains of state and eye-blinds are elegant but worn—but so they have been through all these years. I cannot recall ever having completely new hangings.
And there is a cat watching me as I write, a tabby female with green eyes whom we call My
for her grand-lady manners. Before her there were others, but she fills the same place in my life that they did. The individuals may change, but there are always cats, there are always robes, there are always mats. These do not change.
I am old, but it is not age that kills me. There is a pressure deep in my chest, as if my liver and lungs are pushed aside by new and unknown organs. To breathe, my lungs steal back territory from these encroaching organs, and then they must do it again for the next breath. Each time they reclaim less and retreat sooner, so that I see a day when they find the price of this war too high, and we will die, my lungs and I. I can only hope that these usurping organs will be required in the Pure Land, and my body is simply premature in generating them. Even in hoping this, I grasp for a reason, like a falling monkey catching at vines. My half-brother who was the emperor died some months ago; I follow him rather sooner than either of us expected.
I know I am dying, though my great-grandnephew the emperor and a thousand medical men—herbalists, diviners, eccentrics of every stamp—do not seem to believe me when I tell them. Or perhaps they do not choose to believe. Believing in a thing can make it so; how could they risk such a thing? If it is possible, what else might be, as well?
I cannot die here in the palace, of course—to do so would stain the purity of the sacred enclosure, and therefore it would be bad for my great-grandnephew the emperor—so I have already made my plans. Soon a priest will administer certain vows, give to me a new name and cut my long hair, and I will be a nun. It is as simple as that.
Not quite so simple: in my lifetime I have acquired and filled what seem to be a thousand trunks, and these must be emptied and removed. Their contents comprise an odd sort of midden heap: close-writ diaries; broken antiques from China or beyond, their value only in their provenance; a half-finished translation of
The Thousand-Character Classic;
torn robes in no-longer-fashionable color combinations; love letters twisted into the clever little knots that girls think can conceal secrets. And there are notebooks I have never gotten around to filling, their pages full of promise, or emptiness.
Pick up a
-lute, and you can’t help but strike a note or two. Watch a cat sleep and you long to touch it (often to the cat’s annoyance). A new brush begs you to grind ink. A cup makes you thirsty; dice in your hand demand to be thrown. The mind follows what the hand touches.
A blank notebook demands words. Which words? I wonder.
At a time now past, a cat was born. The emperor Ichij
brought the first cats from Korea—my great-grandfather, though this was long before I was born. This was not so long after that, when cats were still rare, and all in the inner provinces near the capital.
This cat was a female, the smallest of her litter of four, and her fur was at first a blurred darkness. As she grew it changed to black flecked with gold and cinnamon and ivory, like the tortoiseshell of a hair ornament. Her eyes when they opened were gold, like a fox’s. She was small but fierce: in no way but size a runt, for she lacked the gentle resignation of the weak.
She lived on the grounds of a
residence on Nij
avenue, in the capital’s west side. It filled a city block, and it had once been very fine, though that had been before even the emperor Ichij
’s time. The owners abandoned it to build a house closer to the heart of things (and that heart had moved east, to where the retired emperors lived); there were fires and droughts and earthquakes; there was the slow erosion of apathy. The main house with its three wings still stood, but the roofs leaked and had fallen in places; the walls were furred with mosses. Some outbuildings were no more than piles of wood and cedar shakes. The grounds were overrun with ivy and weeds, and the three little lakes and the stream that joined them were green with neglect.
Three people lived here. They called themselves servants to justify their presence, but they were no more than cuckoos squatting in a nest that did not belong to them. They lived in the north wing, what had once been the primary wife’s rooms, and cooked on the pavement of what had once been the bamboo courtyard. Their trash they tossed into a heap beside the covered walkway to the west wing. A goat also lived here, too wily to catch and be eaten.
Cats have their estates, as well: their gathering places and private wings. A handful of females, fellow-wives and sisters, shared the residence’s grounds, which had not inconsiderable resources viewed from the perspective of a cat’s tastes. The ruined garden and the kitchen yard seethed with mice and small edible things, and the brook and the lakes contained slow, fat frogs that attracted what seemed consistently stupid birds.
Each adult claimed her slice of the grounds, where she hunted and mated and bore kittens in solitude. These private spaces met at the center, like the petals of a dogwood bloom, and on pleasant days when the sun was warm the cats gathered at the midden heap and the space around it, matrons dozing as the kittens chased one another.
Most kittens were sired by one of two toms, each of whom claimed half the grounds (and sometimes more) and visited when their responsibilities permitted. Sometimes a strange male infiltrated, like a guardsman secretly visiting a nobleman’s wife, and there would be a kitten with unusual markings or strangely colored eyes. Apart from these occasional visits, toms had no part of the cats’ lives: were irrelevant, in fact.
The cats (the female cats) of the residence’s grounds shared another thing, their
which is self and soul and home and shrine, all in one to a cat. The
is the chronicle of the females who have claimed a place, a river of cats that starts with the first to come to that place, and ends with oneself—when one grows experienced enough to have a tale to tell. It is also the place itself, and the cat whose story it is, and the immaterial shrine in which the household is honored. A cat may lose her tale by leaving her family and place, but then she is not the same cat. Mothers taught their daughters the
if the mother died too soon, the cousins and aunts and fellow-wives did so. Some (though not all) of the kittens would live; the tale would go on, an unbroken stream.
Though she was fairly young, the tortoiseshell cat had survived kittenhood and not run away. She had not yet earned a place in her tale, though her aunts and cousins had taken to calling her The Small Cat. This would change when she had earned a true name and a longer story. The tortoiseshell’s
was many cats long, and she knew them all—The Cat with a Litter of Ten, The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell, The Fire-Tailed Cat.