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Episode 2 – ‘A Gilded Cage’

Wednesday, 27 November, 2013· Last Updated on: Wednesday, 27 November, 2013

in A Gilded Cage

Under the wishing treeUnder the wishing tree

‘Ejima, help me! Put me on my horse!’

Ejima laughed as she set the child on his rocking horse, a wonderfully realistic beast with its white mane, embroidered bridle and purple reins. The little boy rocked to and fro, pleated skirts flying, shouting as if he was imagining himself on the battlefield.

Around her ladies knelt in embroidered kimonos, spinning tops and tossing brocade balls for the little boy, huge red parasols shading them all from the sun. Across the landscaped gardens, hidden among trees and groves of bamboo, were the quarters of her friend Gekkoin, the young shogun’s mother and beloved concubine of his father, the sixth shogun.

Everything was here that a woman could ever want. Yet Ejima wasn’t happy.

It was months since she’d been to the kabuki theatre and met the actor, Shingoro, but she couldn’t put him out of her mind. When she closed her eyes she saw his slanting cheekbones, black eyes and slow smile and pictured him tucking the fan she’d thrown him into his sash, saying in his deep tones, ‘I will treasure it for ever.’

She wished she could send him a message, but that was unthinkable. It was forbidden for any of the women to have contact with a man and she was Gekkoin’s chief lady-in-waiting. She was expected to set an example. She would just have to keep her foolish desires to herself. In any case, Shingoro never thought of her. He was the most famous and popular actor in the entire city of Edo. He must have hundreds of lovers. Why should he take the remotest interest in a lady whom he had met only once, a lady out of sight and reach, hidden away in the shogun’s palace?

A sudden noise woke Ejima from her reverie and she swung round. Manabu, the handsome young grand chamberlain who was regent during the little shogun’s minority, was visiting Gekkoin in her quarters. The two had important matters to discuss – the young shogun’s future, his education and also matters of state for, as his mother, Gekkoin was the most powerful woman in the palace and the little boy’s voice in all things.

But Ejima knew there was more to it than that, far more. Whenever they could the two found an excuse to meet. It was her job to keep watch. The dowager widow of the late shogun was Gekkoin’s deadly rival and enemy and if she were to find them together it would be the ruin of all of them. This seeming earthly paradise was riddled with intrigue.

Then the door of Gekkoin’s apartment slid open and Ejima heaved a sigh of relief. It was not the widow and her train of ladies sweeping into the gardens, hoping to trap them, but Manabu, leaving. Then she saw his face and caught her breath. Something was wrong, badly wrong.

As he turned without a word and strode away, frowning, Ejima rushed into Gekkoin’s lavish chambers. Her friend was on her knees on the matted floor, her hands over her face.

‘He says we can never see each other again,’ she sobbed. ‘The widow is lying in wait, watching for evidence to trap us. I have to agree for the sake of my son. But I can’t. I can’t live without him.’

Ejima stroked her arm. ‘You know he’s right,’ she said. ‘In time you’ll forget him.’ But even as she spoke she knew it was not true. Matters of the heart were not so easily dispensed with.

The cicadas’ drone filled the air, so loud they could hear it inside the room. Tomorrow was the summer festival, when the gods granted wishes. There would be dancing and feasting and games to distract her love-sick friend.

‘You’ll feel better tomorrow,’ she said, ‘when we celebrate the festival.’

Gekkoin raised her head. ‘I’d forgotten. It’s the wish-granting festival. If only I could go to the Asakusa temple. The goddess there has the power to bind lovers together. But now my son is shogun I can’t even leave the palace. What use is high position when you have no freedom?’ Then her face lit up. ‘But you can, Ejima. Will you tie a wish on the wish-fulfilling tree? I’ll write a prayer for the health and good fortune of my little son and another one too, a secret one – for Manabu and I to be together.’

Ejima couldn’t believe what Gekkoin was asking her. She gasped, speechless with excitement. Leave the palace …? She took a breath and said as calmly as she could, ‘Your word is my command.’

There would be no chance to go to the theatre, but she would be out of the palace for a few hours at least. She’d be able to breathe the same air as Shingoro.

Jogging through the city in her sedan chair the following day, high on the shoulders of the liveried bearers, Ejima thrilled to the smells and dust, the noise and bustle. As the guards bellowed to the crowds to stand back, she peeped through the tiny window, wondering if they were passing anywhere near the theatre. Lanterns and streamers decorated the streets outside. She’d never seen such a press of people, all in brilliantly colourful kimonos for the festival day.

The bearers carried her right through the temple gates and into the precincts, close to the vast shadowy temple with its huge red lantern and throngs of worshippers. As she stepped out into the dusty air, an attendant gave her a hat with a long veil to hide her face so she could walk unnoticed among the crowds. Her ladies were buzzing with excitement at the unexpected treat. Scented smoke pumped from the great incense cauldron. While they flocked to waft it over their faces and heads to ensure good health, she slipped away in search of an auspicious branch on which to fix Gekkoin’s prayers for her son. She needed to tie Gekkoin’s secret wish to a branch, too.

She found the perfect tree right beside the temple, close to where the great goddess resided. There were strips of paper as thick as cherry blossom knotted on the branches, swaying in the wind, and fallen papers littering the ground. She stood on tiptoe, pulled down a branch and tied the wishes for the little shogun to it.

Then she reached inside her kimono sleeve and took out the precious strips of paper Gekkoin had given her. Gekkoin had brushed her own name on one and Manabu’s name on the other and twisted them together. Holding the papers in her hand Ejima stretched up again for the branch but it had sprung back out of reach. As she struggled to grasp it she loosed her hold on the paper and a gust of wind snatched it away from her.

She gasped and clapped her hands to her mouth in horror. Heart thundering, she pushed her veil aside and looked desperately up and down the tree, hoping the papers might be caught there somewhere, and among the strips of coloured paper blowing around on the ground between the trampling feet. There were people everywhere. But the two pink, scented papers, twisted together, were nowhere to be seen. If they were to fall into the wrong hands, it would be disaster. The dowager widow would triumph and Gekkoin and Manabu would face execution.

The papers could be anywhere. Ejima had a horrible feeling they had blown away completely. Suddenly she was aware of someone coming towards her. She shrank back, fearful of drawing attention to herself and her plight.

‘Is this what you’re looking for?’

A tremor went through her. She knew the deep voice and manly scent. Surely it couldn’t be …? A hand held out the precious papers, unopened.

‘Thank you,’ she whispered, faint with relief. The newcomer reached up and pulled down the highest branch and held it while she tied the twisted strips of paper there securely. Then he let the branch go and it sprang back. She gazed up at the precious papers fluttering against the blue summer sky.

Timidly she turned to look at him. It was the face she remembered, the face she had dreamed about. When they’d met at the theatre her ladies and his fellow actors had been all around them. They had both behaved formally, conscious of the proprieties. But now they were alone together, just the two of them.

He bowed.

She tried to think of something dignified and gracious to say. After all, although he didn’t know it, he had saved them all from a terrible fate. As chief lady-in-waiting, it was her job to take care of others. She was not used to be being taken care of herself. But just as when she met him at the theatre, she had lost her composure.

‘How lucky that you were here,’ she said, her voice shaking. It was not actually strange at all for him to be there. Most of the city was here at the temple and she knew the theatre was close by.

He was looking at her with his dark eyes. Lowering her own, she saw a lady’s fan tucked into his sash. It was the fan she had thrown him at the theatre. After all these months he still carried it, he still thought of her.

‘I brought a wish too,’ he said, taking a strip of paper from his sleeve. He smiled that slow smile she remembered so well. ‘The gods work quickly. It’s already been granted, even before I tied it on the tree.’ He reached up and knotted it around a branch.

She knew she should be on her way, but she was rooted to the spot. He too seemed reluctant to leave.

‘I was hoping to see you at the theatre again,’ he said. ‘I thought perhaps my performance had displeased you.’

‘Not at all,’ she said. She bowed her head and pulled her veil over her face, her cheeks burning.

To her shock he reached out and took her hand. She felt the heat of his palm, the pressure of his fingers. His touch sent a thrill through her. Then he raised it and put it to his lips.

Trembling, she pulled it away. She needed to make distance between them, remind him that she was a court lady and he an actor, so far below her in rank that he shouldn’t even dare speak to her. ‘You performed a valuable service. I will see that you are rewarded,’ she said as formally as she could. Despite her best efforts her voice shook.

He gazed at her as if he saw past the coldness of her words to the tumult inside her. ‘I haven’t stopped thinking about you, ever since I saw you in the theatre,’ he said. ‘You’re different from anyone I’ve ever met before, not like other women, not like the other palace ladies. You’re an outsider, like me.’

She shook her head, afraid of the feelings sweeping over her. Her life in the palace, her daily duties, Gekkoin, Manabu, the little shogun, her ladies – all that was safe and familiar. With Shingoro she saw new vistas opening before her. It was what she had dreamed of. But now her dream was turning into reality, it made her afraid.

She turned abruptly. It was dangerous to stay a moment longer. It was breaking palace rules to spend so long alone with a man but worse, it was endangering her heart.

‘Can we meet again?’ he said urgently. ‘I know I can’t woo you as a man should a woman. You are too far above me in rank. But we could talk.’

‘You don’t understand. I’m not free,’ she said fiercely. ‘I belong to the palace.’

He paid no attention. ‘There’s a small house, along the canal, beyond the bridge, at the second mooring post past the place where the ferry docks, behind a forked willow tree. You can take a boar’s tusk boat from the theatre. I’ll wait for you there. Tomorrow will be the full moon. I’ll be there at each phase of the moon, from when the sun is at its height until the temple bells ring out the end of the day. Your virtue won’t be compromised and you can be sure of discretion.’

‘You mustn’t wait,’ she said. ‘You’ll be wasting your time. I can never come.’

‘I will wait,’ he said softly. ‘I’ll be waiting there.’

Back at the palace it was hard to go on as if nothing had changed. Ejima could think only of Shingoro – his words, the touch of his lips on her hand, and that the next day he would be waiting for her at the small house near the theatre. Now all she wanted was to meet him there. Silently she sent up a prayer to the gods to bring them together again.

The following day, after the little shogun’s morning entry, when the women all gathered for the daily audience, the dowager widow rose to her feet. She was a proud, rather beautiful woman, a princess of the blood who had been the sixth shogun’s wife. Her face modestly concealed beneath her wimple, she announced that she was leaving on pilgrimage that day and would be absent for several months.

Afterwards Gekkoin took Ejima aside. ‘My prayer has been answered,’ she said, her smile radiant. ‘Manabu will come today. We have policy matters to discuss.’

That day there was to be a tea ceremony beside the lake. Her ladies chatted as they prepared the utensils, relaxed in the knowledge that the widow and her train of ladies were no longer among them, watching out for misdemeanours. As they exchanged glances, whispering, ‘I’ll see him in a few days,’ Ejima realised that she was not the only one who had a secret. With three thousand women in the palace, no one would notice if one slipped away. People would assume she had gone to another wing or was in the gardens or had gone to the small house where the women retired at the wrong time of the month, when they were ritually impure.

It was a balmy morning as the ladies trooped down to the lake. Sunlight sparkled on the water and purple irises bloomed in the shallows. The raised platform there was carpeted with red felt with brocade cushions for the women to kneel on as they took their places and whisked up the first bowls of green tea.

As the ceremony went on, Ejima searched her mind for an excuse to leave the palace but she couldn’t think of any. Reckless though it was, she would just leave, she thought. She no longer cared about the consequences.

After the ceremony was over she dismissed her attendants, went to her rooms and put on a plain everyday kimono so as not draw attention to herself. She walked through the endless corridors, past the rooms where the ladies were chatting, out through the great entranceway to the sheds where the sedan chairs were kept and ordered the bearers to take her to the temple. She dared not mention the theatre.

The sedan chair wove its way out into the streets and through the crowds. At the temple gates she stepped down and dismissed the bearers. In the ten years since she’d entered the palace she’d never been out in the city alone, never had to find her own way. She’d always had her ladies with her, everything had always been carefully planned. At first she felt apprehensive but then her fear was replaced by a thrill of excitement. For the time being at least she was free.

She found the theatre and the canal nearby and looked about for the distinctive horned prow of a boar’s tusk boat.

Whitewashed warehouses and willows lined the banks. Sculling along across the murky water they came to a bridge and a ferry dock. She counted one mooring post, then a second. There was a forked willow there with a small house behind. Her heart beat hard as she paid the boatman and stepped out of the boat.

There were other houses there, open to let in cooling breezes, but the small house behind the willow tree was shuttered and dark. Heart in her mouth she knocked on the door. There was silence. She told herself this was a fool’s errand, there was no one here. She shouldn’t have sent the boatman away. She would have to find another boat and go back straight away so no one would ever know her folly.

Then there was a footstep inside and the door slid open. Shingoro was there, looking at her with his black eyes. He stretched out his hand and smiled his slow smile.

(Originally published in My Weekly)

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