"The constellations Shen and Shang"


           Hector Horatius Grant, B.A. Trinity College, Cambridge, currently lecturer in English at Keio University, Tokyo, stepped out onto the verandah at the back of his western-style house in Uguisudani. It was a mild April morning. The cherry tree was showing little white blobs of blossoms and the daphne was still blooming fragrantly. The grass-- Grant looked at it and sighed. The grass never seemed to grow properly in this city, though the climate was as soft and moist as his native Surrey. A lovely green lawn was the one thing lacking to complete his happiness. But otherwise his English garden gave him a great deal of pleasure. It kept the feeling of his homeland fresh in his mind even as he revelled in the different kind of beauty provided by this entrancing foreign country.

Grant had stepped down onto the path and was beginning his morning inspection of the flower beds when a voice hailed him from a corner of the garden. He turned in surprise. Out from the shadow of the great cherry tree stepped an old man in a coolie's open robe and round hat. A very old man: white hair hung loose and uncombed to his shoulders; white eyebrows tufted above sharp dark eyes; and he sported a soft white beard, the kind some men cultivated now in emulation of the bearded foreigners who'd flocked to Tokyo in the last twenty years.

           "What are you doing here?" Grant demanded, more in surprise than anger. It was impossible to be short with so aged a person, whatever his status, though he still had no business being in Grant's garden under Grant's cherry tree. "This is private property."

           The ancient came up to him, saying something in a very insistent fashion, of which Grant understood not a word. He had no trouble conversing with most women and upper-class males, or even men of the merchant class; but stall-keepers and rickshaw men might as well be talking Chinese for all the sense they made to him. Still, it was easy enough to guess what this one wanted. Grant searched in his pocket for some spare coins and held them out. The man shook his head and spoke again.

           "I don't understand," Grant said helplessly. "Wait here-" he waved him back and returned to the house.

           "O-seki-san! O-seki-san!" She wasn't in the living room. He went into the hallway and found the housekeeper bustling towards him from the kitchen area. "O-seki-san, there's a man in the garden. I can't understand what he wants but I suppose it's food. Give him whatever it is, would you, and send him on his way."

           "A man in the garden?" O-seki was staring at him.

           "Yes, yes- an old coolie man. I suppose he's in need."

           "The master wishes me to talk to a coolie man in the garden?"

           "Yes, that's what I said." What was the matter? O-seki usually had no trouble understanding his Japanese.

           "The master wishes me to talk to the coolie man in the garden and give him food?"

           "Yes, yes, exactly. Please do it." She just kept looking at him without expression. Grant looked back at her in increasing annoyance. But before he could say anything more, O-seki-san said, "Certainly," and walked past him to the back living room. Grant wrestled a moment with temper and then followed after, only to find her returning from the verandah.

           "There's no coolie man in the garden, sir."

           "Oh. I guess he got tired of waiting," Grant said. "Very well."

           "Shall I bring the master his tea?"

           "Yes please." O-seki-san pattered off. Grant went back to the verandah. The old man was standing by the steps. Grant's eyebrows rose in surprise; then he groaned inwardly. Oh dear- not again.

           Japanese is a difficult language, as everyone knows: full of ambiguous phrases and words that can have two or three quite different meanings. But Japanese customs are often equally as opaque; there are things one just doesn't *do*, and unfortunately the Japanese were often averse to telling him what they were. In the early days of Grant's sojourn, when he went down to the lavatory in the morning before dressing for the day, O-seki-san would pass him in the hallway with never a word or look in response to his cheerful good morning. He'd been hurt and perplexed, and demanded the reason for her incivility. She'd apologized but not explained: and the next day she did it again. An English-speaking colleague at the college eventually enlightened him: as long as he was in deshabille and bound on such an intimate errand, it was tactless for the servants to take note of his existence: therefore at such times it behooved both him and them to pretend he was invisible.

And now: O-seki-san wouldn't tell him outright that it was beneath a housekeeper's dignity to speak to low-class men in the garden. She wouldn't even convey it by a look or tone of voice as an English housekeeper would. She'd merely go out to the garden as she was bidden, and since it was impossible for a respectable woman to speak to a low-class man, the low-class man for all intents and purposes wasn't there.

           Grant went back inside as the housekeeper brought in his tea.

           "O-seki-san, where's Tarou?"

           "In the kitchen sweeping the grate."

           "Call him here, would you?"

           The boy came, grubby and cheerful. "Master?"

           "Tarou, look. There's a workingman in the garden and I don't know what he wants. Go find out and then tell him to leave."

           "Yes sir." He vanished. Grant sipped his tea a little mournfully, then brightened. Maybe he'd make the round of the Yanaka second-hand stores today. Finding some little statue or piece of china would console him for this morning's chagrin. Maybe he could entice young Ren from the Rainywillow Store to come with him...? Ren's knowledge of antiquities was almost as encyclopedic as his grandfather's, the store's owner. And Ren would haggle for him with the shopkeepers, who sometimes fought shy of Grant's foreign features. More to the point- at least today- Ren's Japanese was perfectly clear and allowed Grant to believe that his study of the language hadn't been in vain. Grant smiled at the prospect and was able to ask Tarou quite genially what the man had wanted.

           "I'm sorry, sir. There's no workingman in the garden."

           Unable to suppress a terrible suspicion, Grant peered sideways through the lace curtain. The old man was still standing by the verandah steps. Grant's shoulders sagged in despair. If it was below the dignity of even a scullery boy to talk to the interloper, who would?


           He put on his hat and left the house by the front door, trying not to feel that he was taking the coward's way out. Surely once he was gone the servants would feel free to deal with the intruder in a fashion more congenial to their customs. But this was clearly not to be Grant's day. Barely had the gate closed behind him when he found a tall dark-bearded man standing in his path. This one was a workingman: he had a mason's wooden measure under his arm and a square hat on his head like an English carpenter's. But his Japanese was just as impenetrable as the coolie in the garden's. Grant supposed they must be acquaintances if not in fact confederates, for the tall man kept gesturing imperiously at the house as he spoke.

           "I don't understand!" Grant cried, near to the end of his patience. The two stared at each other in mutual bafflement. "Look. Come with me." He made a beckoning gesture and took off towards the Rainywillow Store. After a minute the workingman followed him.

           "I hope Ren's at home," Grant thought as he moved through the streets of kimonoed Japanese. Ren was unconventional enough that he might not mind these distinctions in status. In fact-- Grant's mind shifted uneasily away from the thought of Ren's unconventionality. He'd seen odd things- impossible things- happen when Ren was by. Grant glanced over his shoulder at the workingman a few paces behind him, as mundane as a Japanese could get. At least, he thought more cheerfully, a pair of intrusive labourers should be child's play compared with umm that- and didn't define that more precisely, though his mind's eye gave him a brief picture of painted cherry blossoms blowing off the panels of a screen and whirling away into the air.

           Nonetheless he wasn't about to bring the man into the shop. One occasionally encountered magnates or retired statesmen within, sitting over tea with the elderly proprietor. A carpenter, or whatever he was, was doubtless well enough in the ordinary way, but not in the same room as a Mitsui or an Ogura. "Stay here, please," he said to the workman, who looked nervously at the store window and back at Grant. "Here," he repeated, pointing to the willow tree before the gate; made a 'wait there' gesture for emphasis, and pulled the door aside.

           "Hello!" he called from the vestibule, and was relieved to hear Ren's light footsteps coming from the interior.

           "Professor! Welcome in. Please come up."

           "Uhh- yes, certainly, in a moment. Umm-" he glanced over his shoulder out the half-opened door.

           "Is something the matter?"

           Grant lowered his voice instinctively. Maybe he couldn't understand working class men but that didn't mean they couldn't understand him. In a hurried whisper he told Ren about the coolie in the garden who couldn't be asked to leave and the carpenter outside who wanted something equally obscure.

           "I really hesitate to ask this," he said, "and please do say no if it- ahh- if it would compromise you professionally- I mean, if it's in any way inconvenient for you to be seen speaking to ahh such a person-- although the man outside seems perfectly respectable, not one of the coolie class certainly--"

           "Please don't concern yourself, Professor. I'll be happy to see what he wants." Ren stepped down into the vestibule, into his geta, and went outside. Grant stood nervously in the shadows of the front area, from an obscure desire to avoid being seen, and listened to the conversation on the other side of the wall. But after Ren's first greeting everything was as impenetrable as before. Was working class Japanese truly so obscure a language? Or could this in fact be a real Japanese dialect, as incomprehensible to a Tokyo-dweller as Highland Scots to a Londoner? Or... He listened to the cadences of the conversation and smote his forehead in belated comprehension. Ren returned to find him with a rueful expression on his face.

           "He's a Chinese," Grant said, and Ren smiled.

           "Yes, exactly."

           "I'm sorry. Though it's good you do speak Chinese, in the event--"

           "Only a little, I'm afraid."

           "But you found out what he wanted?"

           "He was looking for a friend."

           "Oh dear. I thought he knew the man was in my garden."

           "I don't think that's who he's looking for, but evidently I was able to satisfy him. He's gone off now. But perhaps it might be an idea to go back to your place just to see how the land lies."

           Grant accepted the offer gratefully, but in fact, when they got back, the garden was empty of any human forms. Grant surveyed the view with a mixture of relief and dissatisfaction.      

           "I don't suppose it would do to ask O-seki-san how they got him to leave?" he asked Ren, and Ren shook his head with a smile.

           "Well, I hope he got whatever it was he was after," Grant muttered.

           "I wonder," Ren said, using that ambiguous doubtful phrase Grant had finally learned was neither ambiguous nor doubtful in the mouth of a Japanese speaker. But Ren didn't enlarge on what it was he didn't wonder about, and instead turned the conversation to the matter of Grant's recent shopping expeditions. Grant naturally needed no prompting to talk about the delight of his life. Soon Tarou had brought down a stack of boxes from the upper room where the Professor kept the overflow of his antique hunts and spur of the moment purchases.

           "And this carved lid," Grant was saying as he displayed an oblong of pale green jade, "look how beautifully the chrysanthemums are rendered, the edge on each blossom..."

           "No box to go with it?"

           "Long since vanished, I'm sure. But the lid alone is worth having."

           "Indeed. It's the work of a master. But lonely for the box that matched it."

           Grant pretended not to have heard. "And this netsuke, isn't it charming? A page, would it be?"

           "A little young- he's still wearing children's kimono with his hair in buns at each side. A young boy of the samurai class, I'd say. And what's in here?" He indicated a box off to one side.

           "Oh, that. Mh- not your field, I think. I bought it because I liked the look of it but really, it's just peasant work."

           "Might I see it anyway?"

           Reluctantly Grant opened the box for him.

           "Ahh." Ren turned the little figure in his sensitive fingers. It was a man in a mustard-coloured robe, hair bound up in a topknot, lounging on an elbow with a cup in his hand. "It needs to be exposed to the air."

           "It does?"

           "Mud figures, even glazed ones like this, need to breathe the air and dew to be at their best."

           "Oh, I didn't know that." Really, Ren knew everything. Not just about the Momoyama tea cups and Muromachi scrolls of a collector, but folk art and crafts as well. "So I should leave it out of its box? Isn't there a danger of it being broken?"

           "You need only do it for a short while. I'd suggest putting it out on the back verandah overnight. After that it should be fine."

           Grant was a little dubious still, but, well, Ren knew his stuff. And of course it was only a cheap piece of popular art. No real value, Grant told himself firmly later on; but he took a last long look at the bright mustard-coloured robe and the details of the man's little smile when he put it on the table outside before going to bed.


           Ren wasn't terribly surprised to be summoned so urgently- and so early- to the Professor's house next day.

           "Ren--" the Professor said helplessly as he led him to the verandah. "I just don't understand."

           "It's simple enough," Ren said. "Your figure here-" he nodded at the reclining man in the yellow robe- "is Li Bo, the Tang poet of wine and love."

           "Yes, but the others--"

"Are his friends and colleagues." Next to the yellow-robed Li Bo was the small figure of an old man in a round rush hat with white hair to his shoulders. "This is Du Fu, the greatest poet of Tang, who spent much of his life in wandering."

"Du Fu," Grant echoed mechanically.

"And beside him-" this was a tall man in a square cap carrying a long wooden lathe- "is their younger contemporary Wang Wei. He had a long and distinguished career at court, hence his academician's hat and wooden tablet."

"Wooden tablet..."

"Chinese officials carried them when they had audience with the emperor."

"The emperor." Grant swallowed. "Ren--"

"Yes, Professor?"



Grant's shoulders slumped as he gave up.

"Ren, what do I do with them?"

"You can pack them away now if you like. Just be sure they're in the same box."



Often a man's life is such
that he seldom sees his friends,
like the constellations Shen and Shang
which never share the same sky.
If not this evening, then what evening
should we share this lamp light?


Saying how difficult it has been
for us to meet at last,
you pour ten cups in a row!
But even after ten cups
I'm not drunk, being so moved
by your lasting friendship.
Tomorrow we will be separated
by the peaks of mountains,
each of our worldly affairs
lost to the other's sight.

-Du Fu, Poem for Wei Ba

tr. David Lunde



Oct-Dec 07