Meeting at Night
The night was cool and the silver moon was full. A passing breeze ruffled the branches of the cherry tree. A small snow-squall of petals blew off it, then a handful more, and then ceased. Two or three late-comers drifted to the ground and all was peaceful again.
Minamoto no Hiromasa sat on the verandah, his cup untouched beside him, looking out at the great tree in Seimei's garden. Seimei sat resting his back against a pillar, right leg up and elbow on that knee, drinking his wine in delicate sips.
"Naa, Seimei," Hiromasa said after a long silence. "Don't you think it's true after all, that we're like the cherry blossoms? We bloom and die at the same time, and our lives are cut off just at their most beautiful."
"Mmh. You're thinking of Fujiwara no Nobutaka?"
Hiromasa nodded. "I still can't believe it. Just last week we played together before the Emperor when he called for evening music. Nobutaka-dono's flute-playing was so exquisite it took my breath away. No really, Seimei. I could barely form my own notes, I was so-- so--" He sighed deeply. "And then that sudden fever five days ago, and now he's gone. I just realized that I'll never play with him again."
"I felt bad enough when Tachibana no Motoyori died last winter, knowing I'd never hear him on the koto again. But this is worse. We've lost two of the court's greatest musicians, just in the space of six months. It makes a man think."
"Think he might be the next musician to go?"
"No, no. You've missed my point completely. Remember last year at the banquet for the visit of the Shugi-sha, when Motoyori-dono and Nobutaka-dono played that duet together? Evening Flowers, it was. The whole court was in tears over it."
"*I* was. You have no heart."
"Maybe not. But I agree, that performance was exquisite."
"Yes. Yes it was. So you see? Their playing was so beautiful, I couldn't imagine anything more perfect: and now it's gone forever, just like those cherry blossoms."
"That's the way of music. It lives in the ear and then is gone. Until the next time."
"But there'll be no next time to hear Nobutaka-dono's flute," and Hiromasa turned sad eyes back to the cherry tree.
"One may hear the flute, even if Nobutaka isn't playing it. Will you come with me tonight? I've been asked to call at his house."
Hiromasa turned back, startled. "Why? Is something amiss there?"
"Amiss? I don't know. But it seems Nobutaka's spirit is haunting his old chambers."
"Haunting?" Hiromasa looked distressed. "But why?"
"That's what I'm being asked to find out. Will you come with me?"
"Will you come with me, Hiromasa?"
"Mhh." Hiromasa sighed. "I'll come."
"Then let's be on our way."
In the ox carriage Seimei gave him the whole story.
"Nobutaka's lady came to visit me this morning. The night after the funeral, three days ago, the servants observed a light shining in their master's old room. Suspecting thieves, one of the guards went to investigate. He found a man in the robes and cap of a Master of Court Music bending over the table where the flute Green Rushes lay. Relieved of his first suspicion but puzzled as to how such a personage came to be in the house unannounced, the guard addressed him politely and asked his name. As the figure turned to answer it vanished. In shock the man ran to tell the others. The next night the same light was seen, in a room where no lamp was lit. This time Nobutaka's lady herself went to confront the apparition. And again, when she called out to her husband, the figure vanished from sight. And thus she came to consult me as to what might be disturbing Nobutaka's soul."
"An interesting story, don't you think?"
"What is it, Hiromasa?"
"Umh. I don't like to think that Nobutaka-dono is unable to find rest."
"His death was sudden," Seimei suggested, "and not the most peaceful a man might choose."
"That's true. He burned like straw in a fire, they say, and recognized no-one around him. He had no chance to say farewell to his family and friends, or make any dispositions of his estate. I suppose it's natural he'd feel regret for this world."
Seimei leaned back in his seatl. "Very likely. Sudden death will do that to a man."
Nobutaka's sleeping place was almost empty. The mats of his bed had been taken out and burned after the funeral, and except for the screens the only furniture was a low table that held the famous flute Green Rushes in its brocade wrapping.
Hiromasa's heart lifted unexpectedly at the sight of it. He turned to Nobutaka's lady. "Madam, might I be permitted--?"
"Please," she said. "My husband admired your genius, Hiromasa-dono, and treasured the opportunities he had to play with you."
"Wait a moment, Hiromasa," Seimei intervened. "I need to set up some wards first."
"Ahh- yes. Wards," Hiromasa echoed unhappily. He unwrapped the flute and held it in impatient hands. "Well," he said after a minute, "what are you waiting for, Seimei? Set up your wards."
"Mhh. In good time." He was pacing about the room, looking at both side of the screens and curtains of state. He pushed one to the side and looked at what was behind it. "Madam, your husband kept his koto in this room as well?"
"Yes. He used to play duets late at night. I often heard the music from my apartments."
"Ah, I see. Was this a usual habit of his?"
"No. It began only a few months ago." There was an indefinable note in her voice from which Hiromasa concluded that Nobutaka's partner was one of the ladies of his household, and undoubtedly his mistress.
"Ah, I see." Seimei was eying the koto with a smile. "Very well then. It's near the hour when the spirit appears. Let's get to work. Hiromasa, you may stay by the table there with Green Rushes while I put the wards about you."
"I!? You mean I'm to be alone??!"
"Yes of course. Who else?"
"What? But- I mean-" He looked white-eyed at Seimei who cocked his head in inquiry. "I mean- don't you think Nobutaka-dono may be angry- I mean, to see me in his room with his flute--"
"He won't see you, of that you may be certain," Seimei answered. "You need only remain within the wards I'm about to set up, and not say a word."
"Ssh." Seimei put a finger to his lips, eyes dancing. Not at all reassured, Hiromasa sat back on his heels as Seimei performed a circle around him, murmuring beneath his breath while his hands made odd little signs. "There," he said. "Lady Michiko and I will be behind that screen in our own circle. Madam, if you will come this way?"
Hiromasa heard the same low sounds repeated from the screen in the corner, and then there was silence. Cold sweat trickled down his back. Now that the little lamp they'd carried was hidden behind Seimei's screen, this inner chamber was in darkness. Only a glimmer of moonlight reached here through the blinds of the next room. He held Green Rushes more tightly in his hands, fighting the urge to put it to his lips. Playing the flute was the one thing that could calm his spirit when he was disturbed or out of sorts. And surely, he thought of a sudden, surely Fujiwara no Nobutaka must have felt the same. What else would bring him back to his old dwelling but attachment to this flute, the companion of his happiest hours? 'If I were to die as suddenly as he,' Hiromasa thought, 'is there anything that would grieve me more than leaving Twin Leaves behind without having played it one last time in farewell?'
His eyes filled with tears at thought of Nobutaka's loss and loneliness, and of their own loss of Nobutaka's music. For a moment the world shimmered in his sight. Then he realized that the shimmer wasn't in his eyes alone. Standing before him was the form of a man in court robes and cap, with a white light like moonshine glimmering all about him. Hiromasa raised wet eyes to the man's indistinct features. He saw the radiant smile of welcome: and saw in the same moment that it wasn't Fujiwara no Nobutaka. His breath seemed to stop in his chest. Frozen in shock he watched as the spirit of Tachibana no Motoyori turned away from him and sat down behind the koto.
Hiromasa found himself taking a great breath. As if of their own volition his hands raised Green Rushes to his lips. As if of their own volition his eyes met the shadowy ones across from him. He blew into Green Rushes at the same moment as Tachibana's fingers plucked the strings of the koto, and the first notes of Evening Flowers sounded in the little room.
Hiromasa was silent in the carriage going back. His hands cradled Green Rushes as if it was an Imperial Treasure but his mind was still full of confusion.
"Naa, Seimei," he said at last.
"Did you realize before---?"
"Hardly. If someone says the spirit of Fujiwara no Nobutaka is haunting his old rooms, I expect to see Fujiwara no Nobutaka. That's common sense."
"I only realized who it might be when I saw the aura about the koto. How lucky that you were with me. No shikigami could have accompanied him as well as you did."
There was a long silence.
"What is it, Hiromasa?"
"Just-- I was wondering. Suppose I were to die. Would I come back like that, do you think?"
"Come back to play your flute, you mean? Well, would you?"
Hiromasa felt his face going red. "No. I mean, like *that*. Would I come back to-- to visit you-- to sit on your verandah again and drink wine with you-- No, I'm being stupid. Never mind."
Seimei turned his head sideways to give him that odd upturned smile of his.
"/If/ you die, remember that I always have two cups put out of an evening. I'd be a little annoyed if you didn't show up."