THAT summer Mother was far from well. Lately her occasional attacks of asthma had become more frequent and trying. Thinking that a visit from my elder sister, who had always lived near our old home, would give Mother the happiness, not only of seeing her daughter, but also of hearing the pleasant gossip of old neighbours and friends, I wrote asking her to come to Tokyo. In a few weeks she was with us and proved a veritable blessing to us all. She was a comfort to Mother, a wise adviser to me, and an encyclopedia of interesting family history to the children; for there was nothing Sister liked better than telling stories of our old home as it was when she was a child.

Almost every day that summer, about the time the sun was sinking behind the tiled roof of our neighbour’s tall house and the cool shadows were creeping across our garden, we would gather in the big room opening on the porch. One at a time we came, each fresh from a hot. bath and clothed in the coolest of linen. Mother sat on her silk cushion, straight and dignified; but Sister, more informal, usually discarded a cushion, preferring, instead, the cool, clean mats. She was a beautiful woman. I can see her now, slipping quietly into her place, the suggestion of a wave in her shining widow-cut hair, and her sweet face seeming to be only waiting for an excuse to break into one of her gentle smiles. Between Sister and Mother were the children: Hanano’s fingers, always busy, shaping bits of gay silk into a set of bean-bags or cutting out a paper doll for Chiyo, who, gazing with loving admiration at her sister, sat with her own dear, lazy little hands folded on her lap.

This was our hour to spend in talking of the small happenings of the day: school successes and trials, incidents connected with home affairs and stray items of neighbourhood gossip. But almost inevitably the conversation would eventually drift into a channel that called forth from someone the familiar, “Oh, isn’t that interesting! Tell us about it!” or “Yes, I remember. Do tell that to the children.”

One afternoon Mother mentioned that the priest had called that day to make arrangements for a certain temple service called “For the Nameless” that was held by our family every year.

“Why is it called ‘For the Nameless’?” asked Hanano. “It has such a lonesome sound.”

“It is a sad story,” replied Mother. “A story that began almost three hundred years ago and has not yet ended.”

“How could Kikuno’s story have anything to do with the little room at the end of the hall?” I asked abruptly, my mind going back to the half-forgotten memory of a door that was never opened. “It didn’t happen in that house.”

“No; but the hall room was built right over the haunted spot,” replied Sister. “Is it true, Honourable Mother, that after the mansion was burned someone planted chrysanthemum in the garden, and soft, mysterious lights were seen floating among the flowers?”

Hanano had dropped her sewing into her lap, and both children were gazing at Sister with eager, wide-open eyes.

“Your fate until dinner time is decided, Sister,” I laughed. “The children scent a story. Now you can tell them why you wouldn’t use the cushion decorated with chrysanthemums at the restaurant the other day.”

“I must seem foolish-minded to you, Etsu-bo, with your progressive ideas,” said Sister, with a half-ashamed smile, “but I have never outgrown the feeling that chrysanthemums are an omen of misfortune to our family.”

“I know,” I said, sympathetically. “I used to feel so, too. I didn’t really get over it until I went to America. The name Mary is as common there as Kiku is here, but I had associated it only with sacredness and dignity; for it is the holiest name for a woman in the world. Some people even pray to it. And when, one time, just after I went to America, I heard a shopwoman call roughly, ‘Mary, come here!’ and out ran a ragged child with a dirty face, I was astounded. And a neighbour of ours had an ignorant servant girl by that name. It was a shock at first; but I finally learned that association is a narrow thing. When we apply it broadly the original feeling does not fit.”

“People learn to forget when they travel,” said Sister quietly; “but as far back as I can remember, no chrysanthemum flower was ever brought into our house, no chrysanthemum decoration was ever used on our screens, our dishes, our dresses, or our fans; and, with all the pretty flower names in our family, that of Kiku—chrysanthemum—has never been borne by an Inagaki. Even a servant with that name was never allowed to work for us unless she was willing to be called something else while she lived in our house.”

“Why? Oh, do tell us about it!” pleaded both children.

So again I heard the story, familiar from childhood, but changing continually in its significance as I grew older, until it became fixed in my mind as the hero tale of a brave old samurai who represented the double virtue of a great and tender love combined with the hard, cold strength of loyalty to duty.

This ancestor of mine was lord of our family during the period when it was a government requirement that men of his class should have two handmaids. This was to guard against the possibility of there being no heir, that being an unspeakable calamity to people who believed that a childless family meant heavenly annihilation. Handmaids were always selected by the wife, from families of her own rank; and their position, although inferior in influence, was considered as honoured and lofty as that of the wife.

The second of my ancestor’s handmaids was named Kikuno. Her lord was old enough to be her father, but it must be true that he loved her, for our family records show that he loaded her relatives with gifts and with honours. Of course, we Japanese never say anything not nice about our ancestors, and it may be that family traditions are not always reliable, but they all praise this man, and I like to believe them true.

Every house of noble class, in those days, was divided into the home department, ruled by the mistress, where there were only women attendants, and the lord’s department, where every branch of work was done by men. For delicate and artistic duties, such as tea-serving and flower-arranging, graceful youths were chosen who dressed in gay garments with swinging sleeves like girls, and wore their hair in an artistic crown-queue with fluffy sides.

Among these attendants of my ancestor was a youth who was an especial favourite. He must have possessed both rank and culture, for he was the son of his lord’s highest retainer. Although the departments of the lord and the mistress were entirely separate, there was daily passing back and forth on formal errands, and also many gatherings for duty or for entertainment, in which both men and women took part. On these occasions the gentle Kikuno and the handsome youth were frequently thrown together. She was only seventeen. Her lord was twice her age, and his thoughts were of war and its grim duties. The gentle, soft-voiced youth, whose talk was of poetry and flowers, won her heart; and it was the old story of Launcelot and Guinevere.

We have no reason to believe that any real wrong was in the heart of either; but a Japanese girl was taught from childhood to subdue self, and when she married—and to become a handmaid was one type of marriage—she was expected to live with no thought of self at all.

Rumours reached the ears of the master, but he waved them aside as absurd. One day, however, he walked into the great room adjoining the court and found the two talking in low voices, and—an unpardonable breach of etiquette—alone. This was, of course, a stain on the family name, which, according to the code of honour of that day, could be wiped out only with blood, or—a disgrace a thousand times worse than death—the exile of the culprits through the water gate, thus making them outcasts.

The old lord was merciful and allowed them honourable death by the sword. Both recognized the justice of their fate. Kikuno went away to prepare for death, and the young man, with slow and ceremonious dignity, removed this two swords and slipped his right arm from his outer dress, leaving only the white silk undergarment. Then he gave the sash a quick, loosening jerk, and with his short sword in his hand, quietly seated himself on the mat. I often pity the wronged lord as I think of him sitting there, erect and silent. I know his heart was full of grief as well as bitterness and indignation, but whatever the struggle within, he had to be true to the duty plainly marked out by the inexorable usage of the day.

Poor Kikuno went to her baby boy for a few last loving touches as he lay sleeping in his nurse’s arms, but she said good-bye to no one else. She washed the rouge from her lips, loosened her hair, tied it with the paper death-bow, and put on her white death-robe. Then she went back to the room where her lover and her lord were silently waiting.

Without the slightest deviation, the unchanging ceremony of Japanese etiquette was carried out. She kneeled and bowed deeply, first to her wronged lord and then to the beautiful girl-dressed youth beside him. Seating herself with her face to the west, she took her long sash of soft crêpe and tightly bound her folded knees. For one moment she placed together her hands, clasping a crystal rosary; then slipping the rosary over one wrist, she lifted her dagger to press the point to her throat. Her lord was a stern and a just man, but he must have loved the woman very tenderly, for he did a wonderful thing. Leaning quickly forward, he took away her dagger and placed in her hand his own short sword. It was a Masamune, a precious family heirloom, and sacred because a gift to his grandfather from the great Ieyasu.

Well, they both died: the youth, bravely, like a samurai; but poor Kikuno threw out one hand as she fell, which struck the plaster wall and left a lasting stain.

The man’s body was sent to his family with the polite message that his death had taken place suddenly. Everyone understood, and, like the youth himself, recognized the justice of his fate. He was buried at midnight, and ever afterward both the temple and his family gave him only silent death anniversaries. But the woman was buried with great honour—suitable to the mother of the young lord—and a large sum was given to charity in her name. Then the lord forbade any of his descendants ever to cultivate the chrysanthemum flower or to allow the name, Kiku, in the household. The baby, whose frail mother had robbed him of his birthright, was sent away—for no stain must descend to the next generation—and a later-born little one carried on the family name.

The blood-stained room was closed, and until the burning of the mansion about two hundred years later was never opened. When my father rebuilt his ruined home many of the relatives urged him to leave an open space above the site of that room, but he refused, saying that the kindly spirit of living friends had taught him to believe in the kindly spirit of the dead. My father was a very progressive man for that day.

But the servants never forgot. They said the new room had on its plaster wall the same faint, dark stain of a wide-open hand that was on the wall of the old; and so many ghostly stories were told, that finally, for purely practical reasons, my mother was obliged to close this room also.

The little son of Kikuno became a priest who, in later life, built a small temple on Cedar Mountain. It was so placed that its shadow falls over a lonely nameless grave guarded by a statue of the goddess of Mercy.

But the memory of love and pity cannot die. For almost three hundred years my stern old ancestor has lain among his people in his extravagant bed of vermilion and charcoal; and for almost three hundred years the descendants of the name whose honour he upheld have, in respect for his unexpressed heart wish, held each year a sacred service in memory of “The Nameless.”


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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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