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Episode 3 – ‘A Gilded Cage’

Friday, 29 November, 2013· Last Updated on: Monday, 2 December, 2013

in A Gilded Cage

A Gilded Cage Episode 3A secret visit

Ejima knelt, feet tucked under her, on the veranda of the small house behind the forked willow tree, watching boats glide to and fro along the canal in front of her. Birds sang, cocks crowed and smells of wood smoke and of cooking rice and grilling fish drifted in the air.

Shingoro was sitting on the edge of the porch, swinging his legs. He took a puff on his long-stemmed pipe, blew out a cloud of smoke, tapped out the embers and refilled the tiny bowl.

Ejima heaved a contented sigh. She’d come to love this house with its threadbare matting, faded walls, torn paper screens and sun-bleached wooden veranda. When she was back at the palace, surrounded by luxury, she yearned to be here. She had no idea who the house belonged to or how she and Shingoro came to be here. No one disturbed them, no one saw her. Shingoro had been as good as his word.

She thought back to the first time she’d come, how she’d stood outside, telling herself that she was on a fool’s errand and ought to go back to the palace straight away. Then the door had opened and Shingoro had been standing in the vestibule, looking at her with his black eyes. When he’d asked her to visit him he’d said they would talk. She didn’t know what she’d thought would happen. She knew nothing of men. She’d spent her entire adult life in the palace, where it was against the rules even to see a man.

But seeing him there, she couldn’t even think, let alone talk. A force stronger than anything she’d ever felt in her life before propelled her into his arms. She glowed as she remembered that first embrace, his arms around her, their lips touching.

Since then with every month that passed she’d watched out for signs that she might be with child. She didn’t know what she would do if that happened but so far she’d been lucky.

The worst thing was having to leave, to go back to the palace. To her relief, no one there even seemed to notice when she was away. She’d thought up excuses but no one ever asked. She always left at different times so there would be no pattern to her absences and when she was there she carried out all her duties with care, attending to every need of the four-year-old shogun and his mother, Gekkoin, the beloved concubine of the last shogun. With the fearsome dowager widow of the late shogun away on pilgrimage, life at the palace had become quite lax. Gekkoin was free to carry on her secret affair with Manabu, the handsome young grand chamberlain, without fear of discovery, and Ejima didn’t need to be always there to keep watch.

‘Goldfish, goldfish!’ The sing song cry came floating from the other side of the house, breaking into her reverie, followed by another voice singing out a different melody: ‘Tofu, tofu!’

Ejima turned to Shingoro in delight. ‘I love hearing the street vendors,’ she cried. ‘All those years at the palace I never heard them. It was too huge, the walls were too thick, you couldn’t hear the noise of the city at all. It makes me feel as if I was a little girl again, growing up in the merchants’ district. Goldfish vendors and tofu vendors and all those other tradesmen were always passing by our house.’

Shingoro cocked an eyebrow. ‘You mean to say you’re a merchant’s daughter?’ he said, teasing her. ‘And all this time I thought you were so grand. A merchant’s daughter is not much grander than an actor. I don’t need to be as in awe of you as I thought.’

‘You’re not in awe of me at all,’ she laughed, sitting down next to him and nuzzling his cheek.

The sun’s rays were slanting lower and lower, throwing the tattered leaves of the forked willow into shadow, but Ejima still couldn’t bear to tear herself away. Then suddenly she heard the temple bells begin to ring, proclaiming the end of day. She sprang to her feet in panic. She had to get back to the palace or she’d be locked out; the gates closed at sunset.

Shingoro was on his feet as well. She flung her arms around him. Leaving him was like losing part of herself. She was always afraid that something would come between them, that she wouldn’t be able to get away or that he’d forget her in the intervening days. Sometimes she wondered what he did when she was not there. She knew how popular he was, how all the women adored him and flocked to see him perform.

‘I miss you so much when we’re apart. I wish I didn’t have to leave. I wish we could be together forever,’ she whispered. She held him tighter. ‘If we could only spend a night together, just once.’

‘I’ll be here, as I always am, waiting for you,’ he said, gently disentangling himself from her arms.

There was no more time. She pulled on her jacket and Shingoro hailed a boat. They’d worked out the best route through the maze of canals to the palace gates. Bobbing up and down in the stern as the little boat sculled across the water, she gazed at the house and the forked willow, getting smaller in the distance, and at Shingoro silhouetted on the bank, till they disappeared from view. She dried her eyes sadly as the boat rounded a bend. The five-storeyed keep of the castle with its sweeping roofs and massive white walls loomed before her, filling the sky.

By the time she reached the ramparts, the gates were closed and bolted. She walked to and fro, wringing her hands, gazing up at the granite blocks towering against the night sky. The moon was entering its last quarter, rising in a great half circle. Stars twinkled. She called out but there was silence. No sound penetrated those great stone walls.

Finally she heard rattling and heaved a sigh of relief. The side gate opened and a watchman appeared holding up a lantern.

Ejima drew herself up and said, ‘Thank you, my good man,’ as if it was the most natural thing in the world that she should be out and about so late. She took out her purse and thrust a handful of coins into his palm. He bowed.

‘I would appreciate your absolute discretion,’ she said sternly. He bowed even lower as she slipped through the gate.

The women’s palace glittered in the darkness, the windows forming oblongs of pale light along the towering walls. As she passed the sheds where the sedan chairs were kept and headed towards the back entrance, she heard music and soft voices. A medley of exquisite perfumes floated out. The palace had been home for so many years, it should have felt welcoming, yet to her it seemed as oppressive as a prison. All she could think of was Shingoro and how she longed to be with him. She was getting careless, she told herself, taking too many risks. If she was ever caught it would be the end for both of them.

She hurried between the great wooden doors of the back entrance, head bowed, ignoring the guards and the trunks piled to each side. While the grand main entrance linked the men’s and women’s palaces and was the path the shogun took on his daily visit, this was the tradesmen’s entrance, where merchants brought silks for the three thousand court ladies to choose from and buy. It connected the palace with the outside world.

As chief lady-in-waiting, Ejima was far too grand to negotiate with merchants and bearers always brought the merchants’ trunks to her rooms. Before she met Shingoro she’d used this entrance only a few times – once when she’d entered the palace as a fourteen-year-old girl, then on the rare occasions when she was sent to pray at the shogun’s tomb or on an errand for Gekkoin. But these days she regularly passed through, head and face covered, hoping no one would notice her.

Safely inside the palace, Ejima made her way through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, past audience chambers, kitchens, dining halls and ladies’ quarters, back to her suite of rooms. As she slid open the door, her ladies fell to their knees in a rustle of silk, bowing, heads pressed to the matting. The bush warbler was in its cage in the corner, chirruping.

Ejima knew her ladies must have noticed her absences but it was not their place to pay attention to what she did. They clustered round and began to dress her for dinner, applying her make up, combing and oiling her floor-length hair and arranging it in a great loop at the back of her head, helping her into scented robes, tying her obi sash in a huge bow and touching up her lipstick.

There was a chest standing against one wall. While her ladies fussed around her, she gazed at it idly. A merchant must have brought a delivery during the day, while she was away. She knew she should sort through it and choose silks to buy, but she couldn’t, not now. She couldn’t think of anything but her yearning for Shingoro.

It was lacquered in a lustrous shade of deep red inlaid with gold, with handles for carrying poles. And it was enormous, big enough to carry a consignment of silks or linens or bedding … or even, she thought suddenly, a man!

Looking at it, an idea began to dawn. How wonderful it would be if she could smuggle Shingoro in, just for one night!

The thought made her smile. Then she gasped, horrified at her own folly. It was total madness, she told herself, even to think of such a thing. Men were prohibited from ever entering the palace. Even the palace guards were women. If she and Shingoro were caught, they would face execution. Worst of all, Gekkoin, her beloved friend and mistress, would be shamed and the dowager widow would triumph and take control over the palace.

‘Please, Madame, please stay still,’ pleaded the lady-in-waiting who was applying her make up.

Ejima nodded. But nevertheless, the thought wouldn’t go away. Surely, if they were very careful, there were ways it could be done. She’d have to take her ladies into her confidence, get them to sort out the details, and she could ask the master of the Dewaya silk emporium to help. He was always eager to find favour with her and she had given him good business over the years. She would make sure he was generously rewarded – though the more people that knew her secret, the more danger there’d be that someone would let it slip out. And of course, Shingoro would have to agree, though she didn’t see any problem with that. She could already hear his merry laugh; it was just the sort of mad adventure he would enjoy.

It would be difficult, very difficult, but not impossible. And the thought of spending a whole night with him here was too tempting to resist. She could hardly wait to see him so she could start to tell him about her plan.

Several phases of the moon had gone by. The maples in the grounds had turned brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow. Even inside the palace it was growing cold. Everyone knew the dowager widow would be on her way back soon, for no one travelled in winter. That made it all the more urgent to smuggle Shingoro in just once, before she returned.

One fine afternoon, Ejima was in her rooms, pacing up and down in an agony of suspense. Then she heard the soft tread of stockinged feet and the voice of her chief maid, Sakurai, issuing orders: ‘This way, this way. Be quick, please.’

‘I’ve never known a trunk so heavy,’ came a bearer’s voice. ‘Must be bedding in here.’

Ejima’s heart skipped a beat. She fled to the inner room as the door to her chambers slid open.

‘Put it down gently,’ said Sakurai. ‘We don’t want the silks to be crushed.’

Ejima waited till the bearers had gone then returned to the outer room, forcing herself to walk slowly. There was a trunk against the wall, an ordinary red-lacquered trunk. She glanced at it, doing her best to ignore it as she always did the many chests that were brought to her apartments, her heart pounding, wondering how anyone inside could breathe.

‘Thank you,’ she said, as casually as she could. ‘You may take the rest of the day off. No need to come back till I summon you.’

Chatting softly her ladies filed out. Sakurai gave a knowing smile as she too slid the door closed behind her. Ejima was burning with impatience but she waited till the last of the voices had died away, then ran to the trunk. She took a breath and tapped gently on the lid.

‘They’ve gone,’ she said. ‘It’s just us. Hurry, get out!’

Trembling, she tried to lift the lid but it wouldn’t budge. For a moment there was silence and she wondered desperately if something terrible had happened – that he’d died, he’d suffocated. Then a voice began to declaim Sukeroku’s famous speech from the kabuki play and the lid rose as if by magic as a pair of hands appeared, pushing it up from inside.

‘Hush,’ Ejima said, laughing.

‘Keep clear.’ A familiar head and shoulders appeared as the lid slipped over and clattered onto the matting. Shingoro leapt to his feet, smiling that smile that made her heart stop, and gave a theatrical bow, then jumped out. They embraced, so intoxicated with joy that they forgot the need for caution.

‘I’ve been carried on stage hidden in a trunk many times but this is the first time I’ve done it for real,’ he said, smoothing his hair and straightening his clothes. ‘Good thing the old man put in breathing holes! I nearly suffocated in there. When we got to the gates, the guards were checking the papers, asking what was inside. I was sure they were going to open it. It would have been the end of me if they’d found me. But the merchant made sure it all went smoothly.’

‘Thank the gods for that,’ said Ejima, quivering with horror at the thought that he might have been caught. ‘I can’t believe you’re really here.’ She wanted to pinch herself to make sure she was awake.

He embraced her again then looked around, eyes wide. ‘So this is where you live!’ She glanced at the room, seeing it through his eyes – the folding gold-leaf screens painted with pine trees, the shelves laden with ornaments, the hanging scrolls, the vases, cosmetic boxes inlaid with gold, boxes of shells for the shell-matching game, the racks of priceless kimonos. No one outside the palace could even imagine such extravagant luxury.

But he was not looking at the room any more. When she went to the house beside the willow, she wore the dullest, most ordinary, shabby robes. She dared not draw attention to herself. But here her kimonos were of the finest silk, embroidered in gold and draped over perfumed censors at night to scent them. It was her chance to let him see her looking her best.

‘I knew you were a great lady,’ he said softly, his eyes fixed on her. ‘But now I see you’re a queen.’

‘Just a merchant’s daughter,’ she said, laughing. ‘A fine match for an actor.’

He pressed his nose to her hair. ‘You smell so sweet.’

‘Come,’ she said, leading him into the inner room. She took his hand and pulled him onto the billowing heaps of bedding, soft as down. No matter what became of them, she thought, for the rest of her life she would never forget this night.

The pale light of dawn streamed through the paper screens that covered the windows. Ejima and Shingoro lay entwined in each others’ arms, gazing up at the delicate bamboo fretwork of the ceiling. The bush warbler chirruped in the next room.

‘Do you remember that first time we met, when you came to the theatre?’ said Shingoro. ‘I hardly knew the palace existed, let alone that such a beautiful lady lived here. And I never for a moment imagined I’d be here myself! I was going to try and persuade you to come away with me but now I see what a paradise you live in I’m sure you’d never leave.’

Ejima wanted to tell him that her life of luxury had been meaningless, dry as dust, before she met him – but he already knew that. ‘You’re teasing,’ she said, laughing. ‘I don’t need luxury. I’d leave any time to be with you.’

Suddenly she became aware of a commotion outside her rooms. In the inner room where they were lying it was very quiet but outside she heard feet running to and fro and agitated voices.

There was a knock and the outer door slid open.

‘Madam.’ Sakurai’s voice was shaking. ‘The dowager widow, Madam. She’s back. She’s demanding to see you.’

(Originally published in My Weekly)

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