Excerpt – A Thousand Years Of Love

Chapter One Arrows

The Palace of Heian, 1004, Kyoto,Japan

"THE IKARUGA PALACE in Nara was famed for its beautiful statue of a meditating bodhisattva. Its face was an expression of maternal love, a quality that seemed to attract many pilgrims to the temple.

It was early winter. Icicles hung from the eaves of the roof of the main hall. Drops of snow fell onto the gray tiles, sliding off, slipping down to the four demons guarding the corners.

The late afternoon sun slipped out from behind clouds, shimmering, then disappearing to cast shadows on the ground in front of the temple.

The inside of the temple was cold, the air heavy with incense and still filled with the voice of a priest reciting the sutra. Minutes before his breath had been visible in the air, his chant punctuated by the ringing of the bell.

The bodhisattva sat on the altar in half lotus position, flanked by two gold lotus flowers. Glittering light from lanterns shone off the closed eyes and the sculptured folds of the cloth covering its knees.

Lady Kaishi, daughter of the Minister of the Left of the Palace of Heian, sat alone in front of the statue. Thin, winter light from the verandah lit up her forehead and the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were clear and intense, focused on the bodhisattva’s face.

She prayed for one thing. To find her mother’s grave.

She sent her prayer into the heart of the bodhisattva, imagining her words as arrows piercing its heart.

Her hands rubbed a pair of sandalwood prayer beads back and forth. She prayed intensely, clasping her beads until her knuckles were white and the tips of her fingers pink. She closed her eyes and prayed and prayed. When she opened them, she looked down at her hands. They looked as if they were hugging each other, and for some reason she was comforted by this.

When she had finished with her prayer she stood up slowly, her legs unsteady from kneeling so long. Her throat was dry, and she felt she needed a breath of fresh air.

She walked out on the verandah and down the wooden steps that led to the garden behind the temple. The garden was directly behind the courtyard, separated by a stone wall. Earlier, she had seen some young priests practicing archery.

There was a pond in the garden. She looked into the emerald green water and saw the reflection of sky in water, pink clouds moving between lotus pods…the sun slipped out and shone off her outer robe of crimson beaten silk…light danced off the Chinese flower and tortoise shell pattern. Like ladies in waiting, the sleeves of her five inner robes competed to outshine each other before the sun retreated. A dark red lining through the gauze of Indian sandalwood produced camellia blossom…blue green through white produced bamboo grass…silver waves glittered on the train flowing behind her.

She stared at her reflection in the water. Her skin was pale, except for patches where her face powder had come off.

Suddenly, she felt something whiz by and a rush of air. She
looked up in the direction of the sound.

IN THE COURTYARD NEXT to the garden a young priest stood on a wooden board raised about two inches off the ground. He moved his left foot against the board in a circular motion. Raising his head, he stared at the straw target about thirty feet in front of him. His eyes narrowed and focused. Lifting his bow, he drew back the arrow.

In his mind’s eye he saw the face of the Dragon Woman.

He could see the beginning of her breasts underneath her silk robe and the sheen of her skin against red silk…she held out a cup of sake with a single pearl shimmering in the glass, her eyes beckoning to him, words flowing like jewels from her lips…

*“My angry blood for a thousand years will be emeralds under the earth!”

Throwing back her head she laughed and drank from the cup, then shattered it against the wall.

He pulled back and shot.

Gray clouds moved against the sky, darkening the courtyard.
LADY KAISHI STARED at the face of the young priest peering over the wall. His eyes widened as he saw the arrow embedded in the tree next to her.
A few minutes later he appeared in the garden. He stood a polite distance away, then prostrated himself on the ground before her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t even see you!” He repeated this over and over.

Lady Kaishi could only see the top of his shaved head now, but she had seen his face for a moment. He looked familiar.

He remained in the prostrated position for a few minutes, then stood up, glancing at her, before bashfully looking down at his feet, playing with the bow in his hands.

She stared at him, trying to remember where she had seen him before. He somehow looked out of place in his black robe, his powerful muscles concealed.

The color red came to her…a red robed figure galloping on a gray roan, his arrow hitting a gold target.And now in priest’s robes. She stared at him for a moment, then spoke. “Didn’t you take part in the mounted archery competition last year?”

“Yes. I was an Attendant in the Bodyguard Unit of the Left.”

“And now you have joined the priesthood?”

He looked embarrassed. “Yes.” He suddenly prostrated himself again in the snow before her. “Please, do not report this incident to my senior priest. He has a terrible temper. I have been punished already. He won’t allow me to go on the pilgrimage next year, after my training is complete!”

“A pilgrimage. To where?”

“To China. Mt. Tendai.”

Her heartbeat quickened. She brought a fan up to her face, and quickly fanned it back and forth. Turning away, she walked towards the tree with the arrow. She stared at it, an image of her mother’s face in the waves coming to her…the scent of her father’s robes.

She turned around. “Are you in contact with someone there now?”
“Well…I know of a priest who is living in Hangzhou.”

She stared at him. “What did you say?”

He looked puzzled. “Hangzhou.”

Hangzhou? I would like you to give a message to the priest. Where are you staying?”

“On Mt. Hiei.”

“Can you deliver the message to him?”

“Well, perhaps I can give it to some other priests who are leaving in the Third Month, on a Chinese business ship.”

Their conversation was interrupted by one of the nuns. She clattered down the steps in wooden clogs, prayer beads in her right hand, followed by one of Lady Kaishi’s attendants holding a paper umbrella.

The angry expression on the nun’s face was framed by the gray cloth covering her head and half of her forehead. She stared at the arrow embedded in the tree, and then at the bow in the young priest’s hands.

“Again this happens!” Her voice was shrill, shattering the snowy silence. “This is the last time!” She turned to Lady Kaishi and prostrated herself on the ground before her. “I am so sorry to have caused such trouble,” she repeated over and over again.

The priest looked at Lady Kaishi, then down at his feet again.

The nun stood up and turned to the priest. “I will inform your senior priest of this behavior immediately!” Her cheeks burned bright red.

The priest’s face turned pale.

Lady Kaishi stepped forward. “Maybe we can reach another solution.”

The nun turned to her. Her expression changed immediately to accommodate Lady Kaishi, daughter of the Minister of the Left. She smiled sweetly, a gap showing in her teeth. “Another solution?”

“The priest has just informed me that he will be returning to Mt. Hiei tomorrow. He has promised to meditate deeply on his behavior. Is that not right?” she said, turning to the priest.

He nodded his head, still staring at the ground.

“There’s no reason to cause any heartache,” said Lady Kaishi. She pulled her robes closer around her. “Perhaps we should go inside. It’s getting a bit chilly.”

The nun stared at Lady Kaishi for a moment. A drop of snow fell on her cheek, melted down her face, and onto her black habit. She smiled. “Of course.”

The snow continued for the next few days during her trip back to the palace. She arrived in the early evening. From the window of her carriage, Lady Kaishi watched drops of water fall into the moat surrounding the huge gate to the palace, Rashomon. Gold dolphin finials at the ends of the green tiled roof glowed against the darkening sky. Through the spaces between massive red pillars she could see Suzaku Avenue running through the center of the city. It was about a two and half mile ride up to the northern part in the Left Capital, to her estate. Her outriders rode ahead through a wooden door at the side of the gate. Lady Kaishi’s carriage followed, the black ox straining against the red harness attached to its yoke.

She could hear the gravel underneath the wheels of the carriage, feel how cold her hands were. She stretched her fingers over the charcoal brazier at her feet. Gazing out the window, she thought how lovely the snow looked on the branches, like slender white arms.

She thought again of the conversation with the priest.

“A pilgrimage. To where?”

“To China. Mt. Tendai.”

They passed the East Temple, its pagoda spiraling into the sky.

“What did you say?”

“Hangzhou.”

She was hesitant about her happiness, as if she was at the edge of an emerald pool, enticed by the cool waters, yet unwilling to jump.

They arrived at Nijo Avenue and turned right, towards the Kamo River. They passed the Shinsenen garden…the Northern Person came to mind. She had been sitting on a boat next to her that autumn night with other people of the court.

Until that moment it had been a lovely evening. The dragon head boat gliding across the pond, the reflection of autumn leaves gleaming gold in the wake…the moon, half hidden by clouds. The Northern Person sitting at the front of the boat, holding a gold leaf fan…her inner kimono grass green, the outer sea blue..she stood up, the robes of the kimono shining in the moonlight to reveal the colors of Chinese Bellflower…when she spoke her voice was soft and low…

“ The moon is our mother
divine is her glow
how unfortunate are those
who fail to receive her light.”

Then she had sighed and dropped the fan into the water. Her actions had been so smooth and elegant that they concealed her true nature.

Lady Kaishi was the very image of her deceased mother. When her father looked at Lady Kaishi, the memories of her mother would come back to him. In his mind, no one could replace her. The Northern Person was his principal wife. To be second to Lady Kaishi’s mother, a dead woman, filled the Northern Person with a rage, which she vented on Lady Kaishi.
Only Lady Kaishi understood the poem that night had been meant for her, and that it referred to the years she had been denied love from her mother. She remembered her anger that night, and how she had wanted to take the beautiful features of the Northern Person in her hands and crush them.

Lady Kaishi felt ashamed and tried to cast away her hatred for the woman, but couldn’t.

It is terrible to feel this way. Where is my compassion?

The mud-roofed walls surrounding her estate came into view. She searched for the bodhisattva’s face in their smoothness, but only saw the smile of the Northern Person and heard her soft voice…

How unfortunate are those who fail to receive her light.

The entourage entered through the outer east gate. She waited inside the carriage while her attendants took out the portable shrine from the carriage house to her immediate left. It was terribly cold, and she didn’t feel like walking through the central corridor to her quarters on the cold, wooden floors.

They carried her through the inner east gate to her quarters, the eastern pavilion. Through the falling snow she saw Ai kneeling on the verandah, waiting for her.

Chapter Two Letters

THE FIRST THING that had drawn Lady Kaishi to Lady Ai seven years ago when she came into Lady Kaishi’s service as her senior lady in waiting was not her skill at calligraphy or the way she played the koto. It was her warmth. She greeted her now, flowing through the alternating shades of indigo she was swathed in to reveal a color combination of “moongrass.” The blues contrasted vividly with the sheen of her black hair. She stood up to help Lady Kaishi out of the shrine.

“Your hands are ice cold! How long have you been out here waiting?” exclaimed Lady Kaishi.

“Not long. I heard your carriage at the main gate. Dinner should be ready in a few minutes.” Lady Ai led her through the west corridor to a room that was slightly warmer than outside. In the middle of the room stood a black lacquered charcoal brazier. Lady Kaishi sat on the tatami mat in front of it and stretched her hands over the top, warming them. She smiled at Ai.

Ai arrived in the capital seven years ago when she was twenty-seven, from the province of Kai. She often told Lady Kaishi of the shadows of the mountains of Kai, and how one could hear the nightingale sing on spring nights, and breathe the coolness of the Fuji River on summer days.

Someone coughed outside the room. Ai opened the sliding paper door. Lady Godaishi, Lady Kaishi’s other lady in waiting, came into the room on her knees, followed by two other female attendants holding trays of food. They placed two upraised tatami mats facing opposite each other a polite distance from Lady Kaishi. Ai sat down, then Godaishi.

The attendants placed three small lacquered tables in front of Lady Kaishi, a square one with a round plate of white rice in the middle, piled high, surrounded by four small dishes for seasonings: rice wine, soybean paste, vinegar, and salt. The next table came laden with steamed abalone, sliced sea bream, mountain potato, Japanese parsley, and a bowl of boiled kelp; the last tray held a plate of three sardines on dried seaweed.

The attendants left Godaishi, Ai, and Lady Kaishi alone. They ate in silence. Lady Kaishi knew they were curious to hear about her retreat, especially Godaishi.

Godaishi came from the province of Kaga. Lady Kaishi found her rough country dialect refreshing, as it cut through the pretentious air of the nobility. Indeed, it was her tongue that earned her the reputation as the biggest gossip in the capital. She seemed to know everything about everyone. She was also the best backgammon player in the capital. If her tongue was not wagging she was rolling dice against a backgammon board with her right hand, rubbing prayer beads in the left, whispering a prayer from a sutra for a high score.

Lady Kaishi knew she must be filled with curiosity about the retreat. She waited for Godaishi to cast out her net for interesting tidbits of gossip. ]
“May I ask if you attained salvation from your retreat?” asked Godaishi.

“I don’t know if I attained salvation,” Lady Kaishi said smiling, spreading some soybean paste onto her eggplant. “I did meet an archer from the Imperial Guard though.”

Godaishi stared at her, chopsticks in midair. She put them down, her eyes gleaming in the shadowy light. “Really? From the Bodyguard Unit of the Left, by chance?”

“Yes.”

Godaishi’s eyes widened. “You must mean the Archer Priest.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you know WHY he joined the priesthood?”

Ai looked away, murmuring, “I hope Lord Ema has mercy on your tongue.”

Godaishi continued. “It seems that he fell in love with the Dragon Woman…she tossed and turned him like a small boat in the sea for months until he could stand it no longer and renounced himself.” She paused, lowering her voice. “They say many a man has sailed through her waters.”
“You know, it really isn’t kind to talk about people that way. I’m not joking about Lord Ema,” said Ai. “When you reach his Place of Judgment, don’t be surprised if he cuts off your tongue! How would you feel if YOU were the target of gossip?”

Godaishi picked at the abalone on her plate. An image she had seen of Lord Ema, Guardian of Hell, came to her from a picture scroll. A muscled demon with a red mane, holding a pair of thongs in his hands, pulling out the tongue of a man stripped nude and lashed to a tree.

“Well, I guess I’m not as beautiful or exciting as the Dragon Woman, so no one ever discusses me..the men flock to her like flies to liana syrup…although she has said she can only love one.” She looked up at Ai. “I don’t know how I would feel. Happy, perhaps.”

There was a cough at the door. Godaishi shuffled over on her knees to open it. It was one of the attendants who had brought the food earlier. “A letter has arrived for Lady Kaishi,” she said.

It was written on simple white paper, heavy with the scent of musk incense, and attached with pine. The seal was frozen and glistening with drops of snow. Lady Kaishi slowly opened it, feeling Godaishi’s eyes on her. She knew she was curious to know who the sender was.

How is the plum tree?
Are the blossoms
peeking out from the snow?
May I visit your lovely garden?
tomorrow afternoon?

She smiled, quickly read it again, then looked up. “It’s from my stepbrother, the Provisional Major Counselor.”

Godaishi’s face lit up. “How handsome he is!”

Lady Kaishi laughed.

Later that night she retired to her room, after losing twice to Godaishi in backgammon.

A tall lacquer candle holder with a gold base stood in the corner, its flame lighting up the painting on the Yamoto-e folding screen against the right wall, depicting a scene of a river flowing through pine trees against a background of green hills.

A white curtain of state billowed in the breeze. Lady Kaishi had left the black latticed shutters open to see the snowscape lit up by the moon. In front of the curtain sat two lacquered shelves with a maki-e design of gold cranes flying with leaves in their mouth. Silk tassels hung from each corner. On the first shelf stood a bronze incense burner. Next to that, a silver bowl she used to wash her hair with rice water. On the second shelf was a lacquered bowl for washing her hands and face, and a bronze bowl for gargling.

Moonlight streamed into the room, glimmering off the lacquered poles at the entrance to her bed chamber. Sometimes at night she was unable to sleep because of light flowing in from the rice paper screens at the top, when the moon was full, and the room bathed in light.

A bronze mirror in the shape of a lotus leaf sat on a stand against the center wall, flanked by a lacquered mirror box, decorated in a maki-e design of sparrows and blades of grass. Two small boxes sat on a low table, in which she kept her lipstick, combs, wooden ear cleaner, scissors, and eyebrow plucker.

She sat in the center of the room, kneeling on a round straw mat, writing Chinese characters on white paper sprinkled with gold dust in the shape of clouds. Her long back hair hung down over the right side of her face, shimmering in the light.

She wore a series of robes, deep red lined with dark green, purple lined with white oak, and over them a glossy silk black kimono with a pattern of gold dead leaves.

Holding the brush between the forefinger and thumb of her right hand, she wrote, her left hand on the floor. She was not as fluid as usual and the characters wouldn’t come. When her brush was dry, she rubbed some more ink onto her ink stone and poured a bit of water onto it from a small silver plate. Dipping her brush into it, she tried again.

“Oh, now it’s too watery!” Frustrated, she put down her brush, stood up, and walked over to the ante room that separated her room from the open verandah.

Looking out to the garden, she watched the snow fall silently into a tree planted on one of the three islands in the artificial pond. It was the plum tree that Yoryusen had given her for her sixteenth birthday. “You have become a woman now,” he said. Even now she could feel the heat from his presence, remembering him standing behind her.

She turned around and walked back to her place. Dipping her brush into the ink she wrote again. This time her characters were bolder, clearer.

I have spoken with Priest Yamanori on Mt. Hiei, and he’s informed me that you are now in China. I am writing to ask if it would be possible for you to consult with the local people there as to the whereabouts of the remains of The Ling Ling Sha, who is believed to have drowned in 980, in Hangzhou Harbor. Her grave has not yet been discovered. She lived very close to the harbor.

She put down her brush and walked to the window again. The clump of snow had disappeared beneath the cold waters of the pond. She returned to her space and began writing again.

Would you be so kind as to help me with this matter? I would be eternally grateful.

The 15th day of the First Month.

Lady Kaishi, daughter of the Minister of the Left of the Heian Palace.

She was about to seal the letter when she tore it up and started over again. She wrote three rough drafts before she was finished. She sealed it, and attached a fresh camellia blossom.

She went out to summon the messenger. “Deliver this to Priest Yamanori on Mt. Hiei.”

He bowed, taking the letter into the falling snow.

She watched from the verandah as he disappeared into the night.

Chapter 10 Hangzhou

The Temple of the Purple Clouds.

"They left in the latter part of the Hour of the Rabbit. The temple was located in the northern part of the lake, and would take a few hours to reach on foot.The morning was beautiful, crisp and clear. White clouds drifted behind the green hills surrounding the lake.

“What are those?” He pointed to a line of three stone pagodas spiraling from the water into the sky.

“Those are the Impressions of the Moon above Three Deep Pools,” answered the young priest.

They crossed the Wave Reflections Bridge to come upon a small harbor. A school of bright orange carp swam up to them, expecting food. Staring down at them reminded Priest Nyorin of the beautiful carp in Japan, and he felt sad.

Green willows surrounded the lake, their branches hanging over the water. They came upon a small pagoda bearing a wooden roof.

“The Lotus Temple in the Breeze. Can you see the eight sides of the lotus?” said the young priest. He turned to Priest Nyorin and pointed to the roof, his face soft in the late morning wind.

Priest Nyorin was not watching him, but a woman sitting under the willows, rinsing some stones. She put them in her right hand and cupped water with her left, pouring water over them. She did this several times. Then she stood up and walked over to the line of stone rocks jutting out of the water leading to the pagoda. She carefully stepped on each rock, slowly making her way to the pagoda. She knelt down, clasped her hands together and faced north, towards a temple perched on a jagged peak in the distance. Then she placed each stone in her hands and raised them high, offering them to the temple.

Priest Nyorin gazed at the temple. “What temple is that?”

The young priest followed his gaze. “The Temple of the Purple Clouds. They say it is the home of the Goddess of the West Lake.” He glanced at the woman. “She is offering the stones to her.”

When they reached the northern part of the lake at the Hour of the Sheep, the sun was high in the sky. Late afternoon sunlight bathed the waters in shades of gold.

A bamboo grove reminded Priest Nyorin of the groves in Sagano outside of Kyoto. A swept stone path curved through the grove and into the cool darkness of the bamboo. Sunlight sparkled through the green leaves."

* From “Autumn Comes” by Li Ho. Taken from POEMS OF THE LATE T’ANG,
p. 103, translated by A.C. Graham, Penguin Books, 1965. Copyright A.C. Graham, 1965. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books, Ltd.

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