"All that I wanted then"


Minamoto no Hiromasa ambled through the dark streets of Heian-kyou, beguiled by the beauty of the spring night: the tender air, the smells of new green things, the occasional sweet scent of a flowering bush or tree growing behind the walls of the estates he passed. He was quite alone; he even held his own torch to light the way. People might have raised their eyebrows at this behaviour, more suitable to a night thief than a court noble- going on foot without a single retainer or servant- but Hiromasa's eccentricities were known to everyone, and because he was Hiromasa, passed over with a smile.

'Oh, Minamoto no Hiromasa! You know where he goes at night? *Past the Osaka barrier*- yes, right out into the countryside! Oh, I know what you're thinking- a beautiful woman hidden away in some desolate house. Now wouldn't that be romantic? But no. It's some blind old man who was servant to that Prince- ah, I've forgotten his name. A famous lute player in his time.'

But they lowered their voices when they mentioned another frequent destination of his. 'Abe no Seimei- the onmyouji, yes- who speaks to the dead. It's not everyone, my dear fellow, who gets into *that* house.'

That was true. Visitors who approached the gate might find it open to their carriages, but equally they might find it shut tight and no answer to their servants' imperious calls. And it was rumoured that this lord or that who came uninvited to the estate in Tsuchimikado Lane had spent an hour following the walls of it, making the whole circuit several times, without ever coming upon an entrance at all.

Hiromasa had no such trouble. This night the gates of Seimei's home opened to him as they always did, without his having to call and without any sign of human agency. He sighed a little as the doors swung wide by themselves, still undecided if it was better not to see Seimei's servants, as now, or to have them visible when he knew they were really pieces of paper or flowers or- well, things like that.

'He must have *some* human servants,' Hiromasa told himself. 'How could he do without?,'- and with this customary reassurance he made his way into the front garden. The house ahead was dark. Only a single lamp burned on the narrow veranda by the open doors.

"Seimei!" he called, and waited. No light flickered within, no Seimei- or shikigami either- came out to meet him. Was the master away for the night? 'Well, but why did he have the gate open for me then?' Hiromasa reasoned. If Seimei was out, he must expect to be back shortly and the gate was his signal to Hiromasa to wait for him. Hiromasa stuck his torch into the iron basket provided, mounted the shallow steps to the porch and followed it round the corner of the house to the place where he and Seimei were accustomed to sit drinking together.

It was a little odd that no servant came to see to his needs, but of course Seimei knew perfectly well how Hiromasa felt about shikigami. Perhaps he'd decided for once not to tease his friend with their presence. Though come to that, such delicacy wasn't very Seimei-like either. Maybe Seimei's spirit-servants couldn't work when he was absent? Hiromasa frowned, trying to remember if he'd ever met one without Seimei being near by. Not that he could recall...

He gave the matter up and turned instead to look out at the moonlit garden. 'Garden' was something of an exaggeration. The place was a random assortment of trees and plants and unmown grasses, like a section of wild countryside brought within walls. Flowering weeds grew here that no ordinary person would permit within their walls. Yet there was a pleasing sense to the whole that suggested a mind at work in its layout. The eye went naturally from one green bush to another, past one tree shedding yellow catkins to the next one covered in pale blossoms, and so was drawn deeper and deeper into the depths of the garden, where eventually it lost its way in the darkness and the uncertain moonlight of the Third Month.

Hiromasa shifted. He was used to looking at the garden with a wine cup in his hand, and the reminder gave him a sudden thirst. He wanted some sake to drink and more, he wanted Seimei to drink it with. What was the point of sitting here on the porch of Seimei's house without those two requisites? Why, there was no point! After all, hadn't he come here to drink sake and talk with Seimei? And here he was, doing neither. He snorted in vexation. For no reason he recalled a poem currently going the rounds of the gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting.


The night hours pass,

the grasses are wetted through

with the rains of spring--

the Weaver Maid sits weeping

that the Herdboy is away.


Hiromasa shook himself, vexed again. The night was mild but full of dew, and he was growing chilly without wine and conversation to warm him. His eyes went back to the tangled garden. Out in the dim moonlight the scent of some flowering tree came to him at odd moments, carried on the stray breeze. Too strong for a double cherry- a little strange and foreign- Hiromasa took another deep breath, trying to catch the fitful smell- maybe one of those Chinese bushes Seimei had about the place...?

On a whim he jumped down off the verandah. Might as well explore a bit until Seimei returned- perhaps he'd trace that scent to its source. There was something like a path here at least, and he followed it through knee-high grasses on either side and round a large rhododendron bush. Beyond that there was one- two- no, three small maples sporting trembling new leaves, and a cherry tree with its blossoms scattered on the ground. He passed a small pond covered in lilies and came into the shade of some evergreens tall enough to block the moon; then back out into the open again, where the rank grass was so long it lay flat in places.

He stopped suddenly, wondering why hadn't come up against the outside wall of the garden yet. Maybe because the path had twisted more than he'd thought? He turned to look the way he'd come but could no longer see the evergreens from before, only bushes and plumy reeds. Confused, he squinted at the half-darkness and the uncertain landscape about him. The path he'd thought he was following had in fact disappeared unnoticed. He'd been walking blindly on overgrown turf. He shivered: the air had grown sharper without his noticing, and in the depths of Seimei's garden no longer even smelled like the city any more. The scent of growing things was so strong he could almost think he was out in the hills. A small disquiet walked up his spine on soft paddypaws. Suppose-- just suppose-- that Seimei's garden, like Seimei's servants, wasn't entirely what it appeared to be?

He took a deep breath to calm his nerves; and there it was again, that sweet flowering smell. Also, and happily, the sharp resiny tang of a pine torch. He sniffed again. Off to the left, somewhere behind that large clump of pampas grass. He hastened that way and saw at last a torch in an iron basket and several people sitting on a cloth spread on the ground. One of them turned and beckoned him over. Seimei.

Ridiculously relieved, Hiromasa walked over to the group and sank down in the empty place on Seimei's left hand. Across from him a waiting woman sat a little back, heating wine; on his own left was Seimei's guest, a young noble dressed casually in a white half-robe and trousers. He had gentle melancholy features and elegant long-fingered hands that any koto player would envy.

"Ah, and who might this be?" he asked, turning to Hiromasa with a smile.

"Minamoto no Hiromasa, a master of the air and strings," Seimei replied.

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Hiromasa-dono," the man said with a small bow. Hiromasa bowed back, waiting for Seimei's introduction. But all Seimei said was, "Have some wine." He nodded to the serving woman who leaned across gracefully and laid a cup before Hiromasa. What he could see of her down-turned face was pure white, and her narrow hand was the same colour as the porcelain cup. He picked it up. She held back the right sleeve of her robe and poured out the clear sake. The heady smell came gratefully into his nostrils. He drank and felt warmth begin to tingle through his chilled fingers.

"Ahh," he said, "that's better. The night's gone cool of a sudden."

"Indeed? I hadn't noticed," Seimei said, "but then-" he lifted his own cup- "I wouldn't."

"I need to make up for lost time," Hiromasa said. "I hope you gentlemen will indulge me." He gave a questioning glance at Seimei's guest. Seimei still ignored the prompting for an introduction. Hiromasa shifted, uncomfortable. "I apologize for intruding on your meeting--" he began, prelude to beating an embarrassed retreat, but the young nobleman cut in.

"Not at all, Hiromasa-dono. Spring nights are the time for company and fellowship. Some seasons are right for solitude- the autumn, when the brilliant leaves fall in the mountain-- but the spring with all its beauty and promise should be shared among friends," and he gave Hiromasa a smile of extreme sweetness.

"Ahh, that's true. I've spent too many spring nights alone, waiting and hoping outside someone's house."

"Spring and summer, fall and winter for three years," Seimei observed, "while your friends in the city wondered if they'd ever have your company of an evening again."

"Well, but, Seimei, I couldn't afford to miss a night. And anyway," he muttered, "it was only two years and some months."

"How was this?" The man looked intrigued. "Did some woman set you to waiting outside her house for two years before she would give you an interview? Ono no Komachi only asked for one."

"Oh- no- not a woman," Hiromasa said. "A master musician who lived in the countryside. He'd learned a piece that no one else knew. He would sit on the porch of his cottage at night playing the biwa, and I used to wait in the garden outside, hoping to hear that one tune."

"That is true devotion to the Way of music," the man said in deep approval. Hiromasa raised an embarrassed hand in denial.

"Oh no. It was just, the man was old and life is uncertain. If he died and that tune became lost to future generations- really, I couldn't bear the thought. And you know- it was a pleasure to ride out into the hills through the changing seasons, always knowing I'd hear his music at the end of my trip, and thinking every time that this night maybe would be the night..."

"Not really different from courting a woman," Seimei said. The other man smiled, so Hiromasa checked his indignation. It was quite different from courting a woman. He drank off his sake, and the servant leaned forward to refill his cup without prompting.

"I can imagine how it was," the man was saying. "A place that promises to fulfill one's dreams has a special air to it, the sense of hope and longing mixed:


Tall pampas grasses,

Brush clover heavy with dew

Wet my trailing sleeves-

The moon hides itself in cloud:

When will I hear that one voice?"


"Yes," Hiromasa said eagerly. "That's it exactly! The garden there is overgrown and untended, and the house itself not much more than a hut where wind and rain and moonlight may all enter at will. But to me it's one of the dearest places I can think of."

"Ahh," the man said, smiling sadly. "I too once knew a place like that. One spring night when I was not yet fifteen I was passing through an empty part of the eastern city on my way to my grandfather's house. The moon was in its first quarter in a clear sky, the night was humid and mild, and the air was full of the smell of growing things. Suddenly came a whiff of the sweetest odour I've ever known. I stopped the carriage and got out. To my right was a wilderness of trees and plants, all dark, and that lovely fragrance came from the depths of it. My page brought the torch and we started in. The smell grew stronger and stronger- it filled my nostrils and, it seemed, my head as well- but never a flower did we see anywhere. And then there was a clearing and a little house behind a brushwood fence. It was small but neat, and not at all as desolate as one would have expected.

I lifted the latch and went in. Beside the gate was a small tree with bunches of pale lavender flowers hanging from all its branches-- a little like wisteria but sweeter than any wisteria I know of. That was where the smell came from, and up close I became quite dizzy with it. Across the lawn a single lamp burned within the screens of the house. I started towards it but stopped after three paces. A man would have gone up to the porch looking for a glimpse of whoever was inside, perhaps to exchange poems with them: the beginning of a friendship or an affair. But I was still a boy and knew I lacked the skills of a gentleman. The moment was already perfect. The cool green foliage beyond the fence, the white sliver of moon in the blue sky, and the swooning fragrance all about. This was the world that waited for me when I was grown up, as someone was waiting in the little house before me. I broke a flower from the tree and put it in the breast of my robe, and went back with that sweet promise in my heart."

Hiromasa sighed in happiness at the tale. It was Seimei who asked, "And did you find that house again, or one like it?"

 "No," the man said, after the smallest of pauses. "It was just a boy's fancy after all."

"Oh," Hiromasa said, stricken. "That- that's so sad." He couldn't help but think how different was the ending to his own story: the deep thoughtful voice from the dark porch saying, "If only I had a visitor to talk with, one who understood my art," and his own voice, trembling with joy and rapturous disbelief, answering, "Someone named Hiromasa who lives in the capital is in fact standing here"-- the moment when the song he wished to hear came at last within his reach.

"Sad?" the man said, looking down at his cup. "I don't know. What did I think I would find in that little cottage in its half-ruined garden? Surely only the same sort of woman as the one I married, or the same kind of friends as I had at court. Nothing as special as what I dimly imagined then. You at least knew what it was you wanted and perhaps that's why you found it."

"True," Seimei said. "Desire is a kind of spell that makes what you desire come into existence. But desire that has no object- longing alone- can never have that effect."

"You think everything is a spell," Hiromasa said, obscurely angry. "How can someone have a longing for nothing? It doesn't make sense."

"Of course you wouldn't agree. You wished to hear the song Flowing Spring, as Semimaru-dono wished to have someone to teach it to and the song itself wished to live on in men's ears. Those three points of desire led to that moment near the Osaka barrier. But Semimaru-dono wouldn't come to the capital to find his pupil; Flowing Spring couldn't take on form by itself to sound in your ears. It was the strength of your own wish that brought the moment about, and your wish was unusually strong. Three years of longing- oh alright: two years and some months. Another man would have shrugged and thought 'I am on duty tonight at the Palace' or 'It's snowing- the way will be impassable.' You just don't realize what a good magician you are."

Hiromasa sighed in vexation. "Seimei, you know I don't like talk of that kind. Please don't do it."

"But maybe it's true," the man said. "Your achievement was indeed remarkable, Hiromasa-dono. I wish I might hear this song you spent so long in pursuit of."

"I could sing it, perhaps," Hiromasa said. "I had no biwa with me then and memorized it that way- oh." A small page-boy was standing at his elbow, holding out a lute. Hiromasa glared at Seimei, who merely looked smug. Hiromasa took the biwa from the seeming page. It was a real biwa in any case, and as he began to tune it he felt himself relaxing. It had a good sound and responded happily to the touch of his fingers.

When it was in key he looked up at the night around him, and found himself smiling. The wilds of Seimei's garden weren't so very different from those of Semimaru-dono's; this night was like so many of those other nights; and the memory of *that* night was still clear in his mind- Semimaru-dono's fingers moving on the strings, himself listening in eager, even painful, attention, the first notes of the tune he'd waited so long to hear--

Hiromasa began to play. The melody of Flowing Spring wrapped about him and took him within. Faintly and distantly he was aware of that sweet scent again, this time stronger than before, but his mind was all on the music until the song was over. He let the silence receive the last of the notes, in the air and in his soul, and then looked up at the other two. Seimei was watching the young nobleman, and the nobleman was... sitting up straight, eyes wide in amazement and rapturous disbelief, staring off in the distance. Hiromasa followed his glance. A woman was coming towards them over the grass, two little waiting girls in pale green preceding her and holding up the trailing sleeves of her layered green and lavender robes, two small page-boys in dark green Chinese robes bearing the long flowing train behind. Her black hair fell longer than herself and seemed to float on a wind Hiromasa couldn't feel. Her face was pale and of a strange foreign beauty he'd never seen before; her tilted dark eyes were fixed on the young man; and the sweet heady perfume was everywhere.

The man rose to his feet, smiling, tremulous, and held out his arms. The woman came up and reached out her hand. As their fingers touched there was a little breeze against Hiromasa's face, and then nothing. Man, woman, page boys and serving girls were gone.


"Mh?" Seimei was getting to his feet. Disoriented, Hiromasa stood up as well.

"What happened to them?"

"Oh, they're gone. And about time too. We should be getting back ourselves." He moved his fingers. The serving woman, the page boy, the torch all vanished. In the fitful moonlight Seimei bent to pick up a few scraps of paper from the ground and put them in his breast pocket. Hiromasa looked at the biwa he was still holding and unconsciously tightened his grip. "I'm sorry, Hiromasa. Gashu must be off home as well. Say good-bye to it for now."

"It's really a biwa?"

"Yes, but not mine." Seimei held out his hands for it. "Farewell," Hiromasa said reluctantly, "and thank you." He passed the instrument over. Seimei murmured to it and the shining curved wood grew paler and transparent, and then vanished as well.

Hiromasa sighed. "Seimei, who was that young man?"

"I have no idea."


"He never told me his name. I don't think he remembered it himself. Only his longing was real to him. It was that longing I heard tonight and that's why I came here. And now he's finally gone." Seimei nodded to where the young man had been sitting. Hiromasa turned and gasped in horror. A tangle of white bones was scattered in the grass, a few threads of cloth mixed with them. The skull lay by itself. Still attached to it were long thin locks of greying hair.

"Seimei!! What's this doing in your garden?!"

"My garden? You're joking. We're somewhere in the country past Sagano."

Hiromasa gulped. "What?" He looked about him blankly. "How'd we get here?"

"Walking. Don't you remember? You came this way less than an hour ago."

"Yes but--"

"Come." Seimei set out briskly and Hiromasa, in something like panic, ran after him. And indeed- the stand of pampas grass, the evergreens, the pond- a casual stroll of a quarter of a watch and they were back within sight of Seimei's house.


Hiromasa sat on the porch, drinking sake with great determination. Seimei sat beside him, sipping more delicately. Lights burned through the house where Seimei's servants were preparing fresh wine and plates of dried fish to snack on. Hiromasa had finally regained some of his equilibrium and was able to reflect on the night's experience.

"I wonder who he was," he said at last. "And who was that woman whose image kept his soul tied to the earth?"

"Some man," Seimei said, "with more imagination than was good for him. That wasn't a woman. It was an image of happiness he created for himself when he was fourteen, that attached itself to the flower he smelled when first he created it. He never found it in life, probably because he never looked for it. The idea alone was enough for him: but because it remained only an image it left him with regret that bound him here. Men who fall in love with dreams, Hiromasa, have no life; and as you see, often they have no death either."

"I don't fall in love with dreams," Hiromasa protested, miffed.

Seimei smiled at him. "No indeed. Your longing was for something real and you worked to make it yours. Only a man who'd known such fulfillment of his desire could use it to grant another man the fulfillment of his."




A Spring Night in Shokoku-ji


From Four Poems for Robin by Gary Snyder

Eight years ago this May

We walked under cherry blossoms

At night in an orchard in Oregon.

All that I wanted then

Is forgotten now, but you.

Here in the night

In a garden of the old capital

I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao

I remember your cool body

Naked under a summer cotton dress



May '06