It always seems to me that people who hate me must be suffering from some strange form of lunacy.
– Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book, Circa 1000 C.E.
On the third day of the third month, the good people of court traveled by ox-drawn carriage from the Imperial Palace to the Divine Spring Garden, the carriage boys running ahead to ensure the common people didn’t block our way. The colored sleeves of so many elegant ladies showing through the curtains must have been a wondrous sight as the carriages rattled past.
I had arranged my twelve layers of silk robes so the longest sleeves were innermost, displaying my choice of colors to best effect. Pale violet-gray offset with vivid green for spring leaves. I had consulted with the Minister of the Bureau of Clothing, ensuring I had something suitable to wear. At our previous excursion, Lady Nakagawa had been mocked for choosing a shade of green that clashed with yellow.
A directional taboo forced us to travel east, then south-west, rather than proceeding directly to the garden. When we finally arrived, we left the carriages and sat behind painted screens next to the stream that wound its way around the garden.
Empress Teishi wore a scarlet robe over kimonos of light plum, pale green, and yellow rose. As the Empress’ battle poet, I took my place on her right.
To feel truly close to someone you have to understand the things they don’t say. Her Majesty once asked me what I thought about the snow on Xiang Lu. At once I ordered the serving girl to lift the room’s shutters and raise the blind. Her Majesty knew I would understand the reference to the poem by Bai Juyi.
I lift the blind to gaze out at the snow on Xiang Lu.
It’s considered unseemly for women to know Chinese poems, but the Empress and I discussed them all the time. Words are how battle poets defeat the shadows. One can never know too many poems.
The sun shone down on the garden’s ornamental pond and the pine trees surrounding it. The Emperor was not in attendance, but had deigned to send his favorite cat in his place. The cat had recently been awarded the Fifth Rank, officially granting it access to the Imperial Audience Chamber and the right to wear ceremonial headdress. A chamberlain of the Sixth Rank hurried behind the cat, keeping a close watch as it stalked joyfully through the garden.
Unfortunately Lady Nakagawa sat on my right. She was notorious for refusing to pluck her eyebrows or blacken her teeth. Her thick eyebrows gave her face an unpleasing boldness and her teeth resembled peeled caterpillars, gleaming when she smiled. Her only redeeming feature was that she did not often smile.
Wood doves cooed in the branches above us.
“The wood dove is a most pure-hearted bird,” Lady Nakagawa said. “When it’s longing for its mate, it can be comforted by showing it a mirror.”
“Surely that makes it a selfish bird,” I replied, but my estimation of the quality of wood doves increased.
The Empress began a discussion of which part of the day was best in each season, to which I replied, “In spring, the dawn. In summer, the night.”
“And the other seasons?” the Empress asked.
“They are beautiful in their own way, but they do not compare,” I replied.
The Minister of the Left, Fujiwara no Michinaga, stepped from his carriage, looking resplendent in a damask cloak and grape colored trousers decorated with a wisteria pattern, the emblem of the Fujiwara clan. The Emperor was the descendant of gods, but Michinaga held the political power. Even though the Empress was his niece, he had drastically weakened Teishi’s influence at court and exiled her brother. It was hard to believe someone with such refined taste could do so much harm. For the Empress’ sake, I needed to defeat Michinaga’s champion.
The women huddled at the edge of our painted screens, granting glimpses of our sleeves. The men scurried back and forth, propelling whispered flatteries over the screens. I usually enjoyed such banter, but I was anxious for the contest to begin. A voice I recognized as belonging to an officer of the Left Gate Watch complimented me on my sleeves and then misquoted some lines from one of Kiminobu’s poems. Poetry should reflect the world around us. It’s quite depressing to hear a worthless person sullying one of your favorite poems.
I was saved the bother of responding to the officer’s clumsy attempt at flattery, when the voice of Captain Tadanobu came from the other side of the screen.
“You should rally your stones elsewhere, Akimitsu,” Tadanobu suggested. I heard the sound of the officer slinking away.
I normally enjoyed my verbal spars with Tadanobu, one of the court’s finest wits, but he was likely to be Michinaga’s champion and my only serious rival to winning the Battle of the Seasons. Tadanobu was renowned for the elegance of his next-morning letters and his fondness for discussing the court’s romantic intrigues in terms of go games. It’s strange when people get upset about gossip. Apart from talking about yourself, what is more interesting than talking about other people?
“And what are you wearing today, Captain?” I asked.
Tadanobu laughed. “Even for a lady of court you spend too much time worrying about fashion.”
Tadanobu’s response from another man would have annoyed me, but I knew he only said it to tease me. He understood the importance of fashion for a battle poet.
“I don’t have your gift for describing clothes, but I am wearing a willow green kimono and a green and cherry jacket,” he said. “Do you see the pond rocks?”
“Yes.” Black stepping stones had been arranged in a straight line across the pond.
“The gentleman who designed the garden liked to think of the rocks as ships sheltering from a storm before they resumed their quest for treasure,” Tadanobu said. “Are you a ship or a treasure, Shōnagon?”
“May one be both?”
“No, one may not.”
“Then I’m a treasure. The idea of leaving the capital and going to uncultured places does not appeal.”
Tadanobu laughed. “You are most definitely a treasure.” He paused and cleared his throat. “The Minister of the Left desires to speak with you before the contest begins.” All trace of levity was gone from his voice.
This was most improper. I glanced over at the Empress. She frowned, but gave a slight nod.
I bowed to the Empress and left the shelter of my screen. I marched over to Michinaga, trying to ignore my heart’s rapid beat. The ladies of court normally remained behind their screens, but I was a battle poet and had fought the dark terrors. When a vengeful shadow had tried to possess Lady Yoshimitsu, it was my verse that had defeated it.
I kneeled before the Minister and waited for him to acknowledge my presence.
“The seasons are changing,” Michinaga said. “Come to me after the contest is over.” Then I was dismissed from his presence.
When Teishi’s father died, it left her position at court vulnerable. It was no secret that Michinaga wanted to make his own daughter empress. If Teishi lost her influence, my own standing would be diminished. I was sworn to protect the Empress, but Michinaga had just offered to reward me if I abandoned her.
Michinaga informed one of the priests in attendance that it was time to commence the festival and the priest began a most tedious speech.
I tried not to dwell upon Michinaga’s offer. The priest was frightfully ugly. Only handsome priests should be allowed to give sermons. You’re most receptive to someone’s message if you’re looking at their face as they speak. If your gaze is on other things, you tend to forget what you’ve heard. A priest with an unattractive face can make you feel quite wicked.
The ugly priest made his way to the top of the low hill and prepared the seasonal cups. He filled the spring cup with rice wine and placed it in the stream.
When the cup reached the Minister of the Left he plucked it from the water and took a sip of wine. He recited a line from a Chinese poem and placed the cup back in the stream.
In turn, the high-ranking men of court drank from the cup and recited the poem’s next line. Those who couldn’t remember the next line were forced to withdraw from the contest. The poetry games of men are but an imitation of a real battle poet’s power.
The ugly priest placed the summer cup in the stream and the Minister chose an appropriate poem to accompany the cup’s journey. The autumn cup and winter cup made their way down the stream, followed by another cycle of seasons. Waiting for men to finish drinking is never a productive use of one’s time.
The sun was setting by the time the Minister of the Left congratulated the men for their valiant drinking. Servants hurried around lighting braziers, the flickering light causing shadows to dance across the garden.
“It’s time for the Battle of Seasons,” Michinaga announced. He named Tadanobu as his champion representing summer.
Empress Teishi named me as her champion representing spring. She was relying on my victory to help increase her status at court.
Champions were also announced for the absent Emperor and the Minister of the Right, but neither man was half as witty as Tadanobu or myself.
The court would choose the winner based on the contestants’ performance in three rounds of naming things. The contest did not invoke the ritual power of verse, but as a battle poet I understood the rhythm and power of words and had a clear advantage. Did Michinaga want me to lose the contest? Was that part of his plan for unseating the Empress? Or did he want me out of the way after the contest? As much as I admire people able to subtly convey information, it’s annoying when they are not precise.
The ugly priest unlocked a lacquer box and handed a sheaf of paper to the Minister of the Left.
“Answer in order of seasons. Summer, autumn, winter, spring,” Michinaga pronounced. Then he read the first challenge. “Things that look lovely but are horrible inside.”
“The top of a cypress-bark roof,” Tadanobu said, drawing slight applause from the gathered crowd.
Autumn and winter disappointed with the dullness of their answers.
I couldn’t resist. “The prostitutes of Kojiri.”
The crowd applauded loudly. I was awarded the first round.
I took a moment to savor the applause. Even if I won the contest for Teishi, it was likely Michinaga would eventually gain enough influence to exile her. If I remained loyal to the Empress, I would be sent to the provinces. Our companions would be dull provincial women hoping for any scrap of gossip about the imperial court. My powers of battle poetry would be wasted in the provinces. If I sided with Michinaga, he could ensure I retained my position at court.
“Dispiriting things,” the Minister said.
“When a good person is possessed by a spirit,” Tadanobu said. “And the exorcist declares that the spirit won’t depart.”
It was a good answer.
Teishi had always been so kind to me, but was I really going to give up life at court? I would like to think it was my loyalty to the Empress that made me decide to win the contest, but perhaps the repulsive nature of losing a battle of wits to a man was a larger factor.
Again autumn and winter’s responses weren’t worth mentioning.
“When a woman has failed to visit a man and the night has grown late,” I said. “The man hears a knock on his gate and joyfully sends out a servant to open the gate. The servant returns, announcing the name of some other, boring person.”
To my surprise, the crowd sided with Tadanobu this time.
I had been thinking too much about Teishi and Michinaga and not enough about the contest itself. It was going to come down to the final round. I would not be defeated.
“Things that look worse by firelight,” Michinaga announced.
“Violet figured silk,” Tadanobu immediately said.
That was what I was going to say. My lips were dry and my throat was parched. Why hadn’t I had a drink before competing?
The other two contestants gave their answers, but I still hadn’t thought of something. The longer I took to respond, the harsher my answer would be judged. What looked worse by firelight?
Then I had it. Wisteria flowers are not suitable for viewing by firelight. The wisteria is the emblem of the Fujiwara clan. It would insult Michinaga, but the Empress was a Fujiwara as well. I didn’t consider how it would affect my chances of winning, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to wound Michinaga with such a brilliant barb. “Wisteria flowers.”
Silence met my answer.
To insult the Fujiwaras was unthinkably stupid.
Tadanobu’s silk won the round. I had lost the battle.
“Summer has triumphed in the Battle of Seasons,” Michinaga announced.
I made my way over to Empress Teishi. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” I whispered, but she wouldn’t look at me.
The women of court began their preparations to leave the garden. An attendant whispered in my ear. “The Minister of the Left wishes to speak to you.”
“Your Majesty,” I began, but the Empress turned her back on me. Teishi and the other ladies set out for the Empress’ carriage on the other side of the pond.
I trudged over to Michinaga. The wisteria pattern on his trousers did look unsuitable in the firelight. We must take our victories where we can.
“This world is mine, Shōnagon,” he said. “I shine like the full moon.”
His words made me shiver. The moon shone unnaturally bright. Michinaga was looking at the Empress.
A shadow-like figure followed behind the Empress and her ladies. There was something unnatural about the way the figure moved, reminding me of a snake’s slither.
Michinaga’s eyes glittered like frozen stars. “The Emperor will be building a new palace,” he said. “Where you would like your room situated?”
I couldn’t ally myself with a man that spoke to shadows. I turned my back on Michinaga and dashed towards the pond. If I made my way around the pond, avoiding the clusters of drinking men, I wouldn’t reach the Empress before the shadow did. I put aside thoughts of what was proper and dashed across the pond’s stepping stones, a mad dash in firelight and twelve silk robes. Fire and water. Shadow and Shōnagon.
I leaped across the stones one by one, each ship bringing me closer to treasure.
If the shadow turned out to be a guard and I slipped and fell, my humiliation would be complete. Things that look worse by firelight. A drenched gentlewoman emerging from a pond.
I kept my footing and reached the other side. “Your Majesty!” I called.
A thunderclap shook the air and rain started to pour down.
Women near the Empress screamed and stepped aside as a shadow strode through their midst. It was shaped like a human, but made of darkness. I leaped forward, putting myself between the Empress and the shadow.
Ice blue eyes glared at me from the darkness. “Stand aside,” a cold voice whispered.
I had fought shadows before, but terror filled my bones. I wasn’t going to abandon the Empress. A battle poet can defeat a shadow by quoting poetry written in the time it had lived as a human. The trick to working out when a shadow lived is to identify when its clothes had been fashionable.
The spirit was made from shadow but I could see the outline of its features. It had once been a tall man and wore a lacquered cap decorated with silver swirls that were fashionable around eighty years ago. If I was wrong, the shadow would eat my soul.
“Only a man with no heart does not shed a tear when he sees the rising waters of the Yoshino River,” I said.
The thundering sound of rushing water surrounded us.
The spirit broke apart into wisps of shadow, washed away by the force of my words.
The Empress still bore an expression of terror. I turned to see four more shadows coming towards us. I couldn’t identify them all before they reached the Empress.
A small shining white object flew past me and landed on the ground in front of the shadows. An explosion of light blasted two of the shadows into nothingness.
Lady Nakagawa stood beside me, half a dozen white teeth clutched in her hand. Her mouth was a bloody mess. “You should never blacken your teeth,” she muttered.
I stared at her in surprise. I’d had no idea she was skilled in the art of fighting spirits. She strode past me and hurled another tooth at the shadows.
I grabbed the Empress’ hand and dragged her towards her carriage. I reached for the door, but it opened and a shadow slithered out.
This spirit was different to the others. The only features I could make out on it were the cold eyes. I couldn’t tell what era it was from or even if it had once been human.
I stepped back, pulling the Empress with me, but the shadow came towards us. The air grew so cold that it burned my lips.
Nakagawa flung a tooth at the darkness, but the light was immediately extinguished.
“I am an eater of the light,” the shadow whispered.
I remembered what Nakagawa had said about wood doves. I fumbled in my belongings and grabbed a hand mirror. I thrust the mirror in the spirit’s face.
The sound of the spirit’s laughter chilled my heart. “I am not a wood dove,” it said.
I wasn’t ready to give up. The creature ate light, but there is always light if you know where to look.
“In spring, it is the dawn,” I said. “When the pale mountains are lit with red fire and wisps of crimson clouds float overhead.” I spoke the words into the mirror. Poetry reflects the world around us. A red sun appeared in the mirror and rays of light burst from the glass, incinerating the shadow.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
I motioned to the driver cowering in the front of the carriage and helped Teishi into the back. Nakagawa and I climbed in and the carriage rolled away from the garden.
“Are you all right, Your Majesty?” Nakagawa asked.
“What shall we do about your uncle, Your Majesty?” I asked.
“I fear we have no proof and his influence at court is too great,” Teishi said.
“We can’t let him win!” I protested.
“Not everything should be a battle,” Teishi said.
“You are the empress, not his daughter,” I said.
“The seasons change no matter what we do. The splendor of court is not worth putting my life and that of my friends at risk.” She reached out a hand to both Nakagawa and I. “I would like to see my brother again. If I go into exile, will you follow me to the provinces?”
Nakagawa nodded without hesitation. “Yes, Your Majesty. I care not for the glamour of court. I am so unfashionable that if I ever came back as a spirit, none of the battle poets would be able to tell which era I was from.”
Teishi turned to look at me. “And you, my dearest Shōnagon?”
How could I survive life away from the splendor of court? No refined gentlemen writing me charming next-morning letters. No negotiating with the Minister of the Bureau of Clothing to ensure I had suitable clothes for every occasion. No access to the great library and its volumes of poetry.
But I wanted to stay close to Teishi, whether she was empress or not. Away from the intrigues of court, we would have more time to discuss our favorite poems, more time to admire the beauty of nature as the seasons changed. Perhaps I could convince Tadanobu to visit and bring me some volumes of poetry from the capital. Maybe I could even write something myself.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” I said. “We will become ships in search of new treasures.”