ONE afternoon Sister and I were sewing in my room when Hanano came in. It was warm weather and the paper doors had been lifted off so that the entire fronts of the rooms facing the garden were open. We could look across and see Mother sitting beside the dining-room fire-box, holding her long, slender pipe in her hand and gazing out into the garden as if her thoughts were far away.

“Mother is happy in this home,” said Sister. “Her face has the calm, peaceful look of the August Buddha.”

“I wonder,” said Hanano thoughtfully, “if Honourable Grandmother was ever really, strongly, terribly excited in all her life.”

Sister looked at Hanano with a strange smile.

“I never saw her seem excited,” she said slowly. “It was a terrible time when we left the old home, but Mother was calm and steady. She commanded like a general on the battlefield.”

“Oh, tell me!” cried Hanano, sitting up very straight. “Tell me all about it.”

Perhaps it would be well, Sister,” I said. “Hanano is old enough to know. Tell her all of Mother’s life that you can remember.”

So she told how Mother, when only thirteen years of age, was lifted into her wedding palanquin and, accompanied by a long procession of attendants, headed by spearmen and followed by her father’s guards, journeyed to her new home. Father was First Counsellor of the daimiate, and his bride came to a mansion so spacious that in all the years she lived in it there were rooms in which she never set her foot. She saw little of her husband, for his duties as ruler obliged him to make frequent journeys to the capital, and the young wife filled her time in writing poems on slender cards of gold and silver, or playing dolls with her attendants; for, after all, she was only a child.

In time, a son and two daughters were born; but the little girls, with nurses to take every care from their mother, were a good deal like beautiful playthings to her; and her son, the heir who was to carry on the family name, had so many attendants with various duties that she saw him only at stated intervals. He was like a precious jewel for which she had strong affection, but still stronger was the feeling of pride. So in the big, peaceful mansion the girl-wife passed the pleasant, uneventful years.

Then changes came, for clouds of war were gathering slowly over the land. Her husband gradually told her of many important things, and one day he left home on a mission that filled her heart with dread. She was not far out of her teens, but she knew the duties of a samurai’s wife, and with suddenly awakened womanhood she called her son’s tutor and they disguised in shabby clothing her small son, whose life as heir would be forfeit if his father came to harm, and sent him, in the care of faithful Minoto, to the protection of our ancestral temple on the mountain. Then she waited, while every day the clouds grew more threatening. One dark, rainy night there came a warrior to her home bearing the tidings that Father was a prisoner and on his way to the capital. Near the midnight toll of the temple bell he would pass the road at the foot of the mountain, and she would be permitted an interview.

She looked at the messenger steadily. If there should be treachery what would become of her son?

“Are you a samurai?” she asked.

Solemnly the man put his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I am a samurai,” he answered.

“Whether friend or enemy,” she said, “if you are a samurai, I will trust you.”

Though she believed him, those were dangerous days, and so she washed her hair and put on her death-robe, covering it with an ordinary dress. Then, slipping her dagger into her sash and bidding her faithful servant Yoshita to be loyal to his young master, whatever happened, she told the messenger she was ready.

Through the rain and darkness they went—the warrior, his wet armour shining in the lantern-light, followed by Mother in her hidden death-robe. They passed through empty streets and along narrow paths of lonely ricefields until finally they came to the road which curved around the foot of the mountain. There they waited.

Presently lights came swaying through the darkness and they could hear the dull, soft thuds of trotting carriers, coming nearer and nearer, then to a stop. A palanquin covered with a rope net was rested on the ground, a warrior on each side. The carriers stood back. Mother looked up and saw Father’s pale face gazing at her through the small square window. The crossed spears of the warriors were between them. There was a moment’s silence, then Father spoke.

“My wife, I trust you with my sword.”

That was all. Both knew that listening ears were eager for word of the son. Mother only bowed, but Father knew that she understood.

The reed screen was dropped before the face of the prisoner, the warriors shouldered their spears, the carriers lifted the poles of the palanquin to their shoulders, and the little procession passed on into the darkness. The guide she had trusted raised his bowed head and turned toward the ricefields, and poor Mother followed, carrying with her the knowledge of a sacred trust; for those few words from Father’s lips meant: “Death is before me. I trust to you the son who will continue the name of Inagaki and thus insure the heavenly salvation of hundreds of ancestors.”

Again poor Mother bore the heavy burden of anxious uncertainty, until one autumn night when a messenger brought word that the plain was full of soldiers marching toward Nagaoka. For that she had been waiting; so, calm and fearless, she commanded that the entire house be arranged as for honoured guests. The most treasured roll pictures were hung, the rarest ornaments placed on tokonomas, then the retainers and servants were ordered to leave by a rear gateway and to scatter in various directions.

Sister was only a child of seven, but she remembered every detail of that awful night. She and little Sister were awakened by frightened nurses and hurried into dress and sash—for even in their haste and horror the sash, emblem of virtue to every Japanese girl, could not be forgotten by the trusted servant of a samurai family—and taken part way up the mountain to wait in the darkness for Mother, coming more slowly with Honourable Grand-Mother and two menservants.

Sister smiled faintly as she told how Honourable Grandmother and Mother looked as they came up the narrow path, disguised as farmers. Honourable Grandmother’s straw coat kept pulling apart and showing her purple dress, which was of a kind worn only by a retired mistress of her rank, and which she had stubbornly refused to have removed. And she would not walk with her toes turned out as peasants do.

Leaving Honourable Grandmother with them on the mountain-side, Mother went back to the mansion with Yoshita. They could see the two, carrying torches of twisted paper, as they passed from point to point, Yoshita piling straw and Mother lighting with her own hands the fires to destroy her home. Honourable Grandmother sat perfectly quiet, gazing straight before her, but the servants knelt on the ground swaying back and forth, sobbing and wailing, as servants will. Then Mother, with dishevelled hair and smoke-stained face, came toiling up the path, and by the pale light of early dawn the two little girls were dressed in servants’ clothes from the bundle on Yoshita’s back, and the nurses were told to take them in different directions to places of safety. Servants were trustworthy in those days. To each was given a dagger with orders to use it in case capture was inevitable. Those crested daggers are still held as treasures in the families of the faithful nurses.

Sister said it was a long time before she saw Mother again. Her nurse took her to a farmer’s family where she dressed and lived as they did, and her nurse worked in the ricefield with the farmer’s wife. Every night, after her bath, she was rubbed with a brown juice squeezed from wild persimmons—for castle people are lighter than peasants—and was told to talk like the children she played with. She was treated like the others in every way except that always she was served first. “I know now,” explained Sister, “that the farmer suspected who I was, but we were in one of the districts where Father had bestowed upon the headman the privilege of owning two swords, and so we were not betrayed. Little Sister was in a similar place of safety.”

In the meantime, Honourable Grandmother and Mother, in the care of Yoshita, all wearing the dress and wide, drooping hats of peasants, had been wandering from place to place, sometimes living in the mountains, sometimes in a farmer’s family, and sometimes for a few weeks finding refuge in a temple. More than two years this dreadful time lasted; always hiding, always hunted; for though Father was a prisoner and his cause lost, conquest was not complete until the enemy had extinguished for ever the family and name.

“At last,” Sister went on, “Mother came to the farmhouse where I was. She looked so thin, so brown, and so wild that I didn’t know her, and cried out. That night Minoto brought Brother. He told us that the priest, in order to save the child’s life, had given him up, and for several months he had been a prisoner with Father. Both had been very near the honourable death, but a message that the war was ended and all political prisoners were pardoned had saved them. Brother seemed to have almost forgotten me and would not talk much, but I heard him tell Mother that, one day, when soldiers were seen coming up the mountain, the priest had put him in a book chest and, covering him with rolls of sacred writings, had left the cover off and seated himself beside it as if arranging papers. Brother said that he heard rough footsteps and falling furniture, and when all was quiet and he was lifted out, he saw that spears had been thrust through the closed chests standing in the row with the one where he was hidden.

The next day Mother had gathered her family together and Yoshita found a place where they could live. Then Father came, and in a modest way life began all over again.

“So you see, Hanano,” said Sister, “your grandmother’s life has not always been full of peace.”

“It was a wonderful life,” said Hanano in a tone of awe, “wonderful—and terrible. But Honourable Grandmother did things! Oh, she did things!”

I looked at the lithe young body, held so straight, at the uplifted head and the tightly clasped hands. She was very like Mother. One generation removed from the ancient pride and rigid training; one generation ahead of the coming freedom; living, alas! in the sad present—puzzled, misunderstood, and alone!

Sister remained with us throughout the autumn and into the winter. I shall always be doubly thankful for her visit, for those weeks were Mother’s last with us, and they were happy ones. The long talks when she and Sister lived over the old days were like those of friends rather than mother and daughter; for there was only fourteen years between them and Sister was as old-fashioned in many ways as Mother. And when the sorrowful time came, Sister’s presence was an especial comfort to me, for she was familiar with all the old customs and could direct with a tenderness that no other could have shown.

On our sad journey to the temple, as we followed the death kago swaying on the shoulders of the white-robed coolies, my thoughts went back to another day long before, when I, a child of eleven, walked in a procession of mourning friends, my little hands clasped tight about the tablet bearing my father’s name. Over the narrow paths of the ricefields we wound after the chanting priests, while from the high, tossing baskets carried on long poles by their attendants showered hundreds of tiny pieces of the five-coloured sacred paper. They filled the air with clouds of soft colours, floating and mingling as they drifted downward to settle gently on the straw hats and white robes of the mourners.

Now, everything was different. Even the honours we show our dead must bow to the world’s changes, and the services for Mother were the simplest possible to be in accord with her former rank. But she had requested that, in addition to the rites for herself, there should be held the ceremony for “The Nameless.”

My noble, loyal mother! True to her wifehood and to her husband’s family, even as she was entering the door of death she had remembered poor Kikuno, for whom no prayer was ever offered except in this lonely service. And since Brother, the head of the family, was a Christian, she knew it would never again be observed.

All through the calm and peaceful intoning, beneath which sounded the rhythmic throb of the wooden drum, my mind was on my gentle mother’s life of unswerving duty to her highest belief, and I wondered what power had kept her so strong and true. Then, dully, I became aware that the soft music was melting into a weird and mournful chanting that carried my thought to the hopeless soul who had lost the way to Heaven because of her great sin. And so, once more, the descendants of the name she had dishonoured, sat, lowly bowed, while the priests chanted the prayer that help be given to guide the wanderer on her lonely path.

When we came to the pause in the music where the high priest chants the arrival of the dead at the gates of Heaven to present the plea for mercy, the priests raised their cymbals above their heads, and, bringing them slowly together, clashed a long, quivering accompaniment to the soft, muffled beat of the wooden drum. Before my misty eyes the swinging sleeves made a blur of purple, scarlet, and gold, and, listening to the wailing and pleading prayer that had for almost three hundred years winged its way through the curling incense, I wondered if the long-remembering God of Vengeance would not, if only in pity for Mother’s unselfish faithfulness, grant this last plea for the erring one of long ago.

At the temple door I made my last bow to my mother’s dear body, and, with a heavy ache in my heart, stood watching the swaying kago with its curving roof and gilded lotus blossoms as it disappeared at a turn in the road leading to the cremation grounds. Then we returned to the lonely home, and for forty-nine days the candles burned and the incense curled its fragrant way through the carvings of the little whitewood shrine. On the last night I knelt in my mother’s old place and breathed a Christian prayer to the God who understands. Then I slowly closed the gilded doors upon my prayer, believing sincerely that my mother’s journey had ended in peace; and that, wherever she was or whatever she might be doing, she was faithfully taking her part in God’s great plan.

My minister was sorely troubled that I should have observed these last Buddhist rites—unnecessary after my mother had passed beyond the knowledge or the hurt of their neglect. I told him that, had I died even one day after I became a Christian, my mother would have been faithful, to the minutest detail, in giving me the Christian burial that she believed would satisfy my heart; and that I was my mother’s daughter. Influence? Yes. The influence of loyalty, sympathy, understanding; all of which are characteristics of Our Father—hers and mine.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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