I am seated beside the Empress at a banquet honoring nobles from the north who are visiting Kyoto. My hair decorations jingle distractingly when I turn my head, but the Empress gave them to me, so I must wear them. They are shaped like gold flames, swirling around the layers of hair piled on my head. She gave the headdress to me saying it reminded her of my fiery, passionate nature. Sticks of ivory and silver protrude so far from her own hair arrangement, I fear that I will poke my eye out if I lean over and whisper to her. It is hot in the room, and we are wearing a full complement of eighteen robes. In spite of all the fans we are wielding, I feel suffocated. The real reason that women don’t eat much during these banquets is that we are so hot and weighted down by our robes and headdresses we can barely move. It is not uncommon for women to swoon on such occasions. The cold sake is refreshing, and drinking makes one feel less miserable, but one must be careful not to drink so much as to become unladylike in one’s behavior. It seems perfectly all right for the men to become ungentleman-like, pounding on the tables, making obscene jokes that we can hear, or worse, lascivious comments regarding us. They pull serving maids onto their laps and fondle them in full view of everyone, stumble out to the garden and vomit in the carp ponds, challenge each other to archery contests that leave arrows bristling from trees, walls, pillars and doors, or lay on the floor giggling until they pass out. I don’t even know why they invite us to these parties, as they could just place a bunch of stuffed dolls representing us at one end of the table and it would be just as entertaining. I can’t wait to get back to my room to take off all these layers. I smile thinking of how wonderful it is going to feel to have Machiko take off this headdress and brush out my hair. The other huge advantage of fans, besides their cooling properties, is that when you can no longer keep your hot, disgruntled feelings out of your face, you can hold your fan in front of you, conveying an impression of mystery rather than misery.
The only entertaining aspect is the younger women speculating behind their fans about this or that nobleman, how they are in bed, whether they are available for marriage, who is likely to end up with who. The gallants come over and kneel beside us periodically to tell jokes and flirt and beg for dainties off our plates. Some of them are very attractive, and every bit as beautifully made up as we are, wearing fewer layers, but taking just as much care to match their sleeves and decorate their hair with an artful placement of feathers or gems. Because they do not wear as many layers, you can see the outline of their bodies, which makes things more interesting. I get my share of swains; men who pride themselves on their wordplay are always eager to test wits with me. Eyebrows, eyelids and teeth are darkened, our faces bright with rice powder, lips carmine. To one young man pushing up against me like a cat, begging for a kiss, I say;
“Lips a bridge of flowers
Over the dark abyss....
Can such a fall be risked?”
Immediately my poem catches the fancy of the room and the first two lines, “Lips a bridge of flowers/over the dark abyss,” are whispered around the table again and again in a variety of intonations.
As the evening goes on, the poems become more and more sexually suggestive, as the young men test to see which of the women might be receptive to a late night visit. A woman of our class would not risk her reputation by going to a man’s quarters, which makes it difficult. There are so many women housed close together in the Empress’s quarters privacy is hard to come by, and the Empress takes seriously her responsibility to protect the young ladies in her care who have come to court looking for husbands. She makes clear that she disapproves of anyone entertaining men behind curtains in the warren of little rooms and alcoves in our section of the Palace, and houses the young girls two and three to a room together. After a banquet she often has her servants arrange beds for her and the young maidens in the main rooms so she can keep an eye on them. I have one of the most private rooms though it is far more likely I will be carousing with two or three of the other ladies after a banquet, rather than the men who have spent so much time trying to impress us.
Dishes of food continue to be brought, fantastic combinations of fish, fruits and vegetables arranged as gorgeously as Ikebana. I envy the men who are so much less constrained than we are. “I wish I were that morsel, entering between your lips,” sighs one swain as I bring one irresistible delicacy to my mouth.
Some of the visiting nobles from another district have brought a troupe of dancers with them to show off their local customs. In Kyoto, nobles enjoy adding their own fillips and interpretations of the old dances, making them both evocative and modern. The dances we witness tonight seem old-fashioned and quaint by comparison. When you know the people who are dancing it is always an interesting insight into another part of their personality. This performance seems stilted, but the dancers are not of noble birth and must be utterly awed to be in the presence of the Emperor, in such glamorous surroundings. The men applaud loudly after every set. The Empress has prepared gifts for the dancers, as well as many presents for the visiting nobles. It is important to be gracious, since it is the noble families with their fiefs in the countryside who provide the rice, cloth, sake and other goods which keep the court as wealthy and opulent as it is, and the last few years have seen peasant unrest and rebellion in many areas.
The dancers have just launched into another dance requested as an encore when messengers burst in, interrupting the performance. Normally, court messengers are very discreet and subtle in their approach, so I can only think there is some crises. They go directly to the Emperor, Shigemori and Lord Kiyomori. Tsunemasa joins them, frown lines hiking up his forehead, and Munemori struggles up from under three attractive serving maids to join the discussion.
Shigemori is the one who has been talking with the noblemen visiting from the north; they stand near him, legs widespread as if they were ready to take some action, looking alarmed.
Lady Daigon-no-suke, who has been sitting with her husband, Shigehira, comes over and informs us that the messengers are reporting that there has been a serious outbreak of fire in the city. Fires are a common enough occurrence. Buildings in Kyoto are very close together, constructed mostly of wood with thatch roofs. The normal hazards of splattering cooking oil, or a lantern knocked over is enough to wipe out a few blocks, though the soldiers are very accustomed to organizing bucket brigades from the River Uji and can usually subdue it as they would any enemy.
“Well, is it under control?” the Empress asks.
“Regrettably not,” Lady Daigon-no-suke replies. “Apparently the wind is blowing quite hard and it is spreading rapidly.”
Tokushi nods and servants rush to help her stand up; some help rising is required when wearing the formal complement of robes. Shigemori comes around the table to talk with her. I can tell by his gestures that he is saying calming things. He seems to take it as his responsibility to cushion his younger sister from the harsher realities. Shigehira, another of Tokushi’s brothers, comes and stands beside them for a moment, then dashes off.
“The Palace can’t be in danger, can it?” whispers one of the frightened ladies
“Of course not, that’s absurd,” one of the gallants assures her. “We shall keep you quite safe, in any case.”
The girls are concerned about their families who live elsewhere in Kyoto, and all are anxious to find out what area of the city is affected, though the gardens and pools surrounding most mansions generally keep them safe.
Emperor Takakura comes to stand beside Tokushi. He seems serene, as always, and she smiles at him warmly. They give such an impression of a happy couple. He announces that there is a severe conflagration, and apologizes to his guests for the necessity of interrupting the banquet, but that all the men must attend to the situation, and that the guests should quickly leave the mansions in which they are staying and find accommodation closer to the palace.
Suddenly servants are running everywhere. The noblemen are all talking seriously and importantly of who needs to do what. One young man says he will take his horse, Sumi-e, ‘Ink-Painting’, and ride ‘faster than the wind can carry the flames’ to the garrison on the northern edge of the city to fetch soldiers to fight the fire. He strides out stripping off layers of outer garments and tying his hair back. He cuts a heroic figure, and the way the ladies clutch their chests and fan themselves tells me that if Tommayo survives this night, he will not lack for female companionship for a long time to come.
Tsunemasa comes over to us, and speaks softly and reassuringly. He says we should all retire to our quarters. Most of the other men of the nobility scatter to their homes in Kyoto to protect their own families and belongings. Tsunemasa and one of the other men escort us back to our quarters. Tokushi tries to get Takakura to stay with us, but he bows politely and says he must direct the efforts to save the people of Kyoto.
“Then I should stay by your side,” she says.
“No, no. Return to your quarters and keep your ladies calm. That is all I could possibly require of you.”
Tokushi looks disappointed, but claps her hands. “Come ladies, we must leave the men to respond to this crises. We will only be in the way.”
Lord Kiyomori has left to gather troops to fight the fire. Shigemori is clearly in command here. I cannot hear what he is saying to the men he is directing, but his every gesture draws immediate compliance and respect.
“Oh, it is all so exciting. I think I am going to faint,” one of the younger women exclaims.
“It’s probably just the number of robes you have on,” I say. I am feeling faint myself as we move along the hallways back to our quarters. Fire destroyed my life once. There is nothing I fear more. All I can think is how badly I want to get back to my room and strip off all my clothing in case we need to flee. We could never outrun flames dressed as we are; we are like bulky cloth wicks waiting to ignite.
“Just in case, ladies, we must change into our traveling costumes,” Tokushi cautions.
The inside of my mouth tastes coppery.
“Oh, heavens, my Lady, are we in danger?” one of the ladies cries out. Several of the girls are crying for their families, one slides to the floor in a dramatic faint, others are hyperventilating. I breathe slowly and deliberately to manage my own terror.
“No, no, it is merely a precaution,” Tokushi says, trying to calm the girls.
“Don’t be ridiculous, “Lady Daigon-no-suke exclaims. “There is no reason to stay formally dressed anyway, is there? Just take off your clothes, make yourselves comfortable...” she begins barking orders to servants who rush over and begin undressing their charges with shaking hands. The girls whose families live in Kyoto are the most frantic, since none of us knows which areas of the city are most endangered. I am glad my loved ones are far away.
With Machiko’s help, I am the first one undressed and redressed in a simple tunic over divided pants. A piercing shriek comes from the direction of the garden. I run out, though my hair has not been taken down yet. Several of the maids and a couple of the younger women are staring, clenched fists to their mouths, at the city stretching out beyond the Palace. The wall and the Palace roof obscure the view, but a pinkish glow has commandeered the whole sky, flickering and shifting like a demonic presence. We run down the path to one of the moon bridges arcing across the water and climb up to its apex. From this vantage point we can barely see over the tops of the Palace buildings. The wind is whipping through the garden, setting the chimes in my hair furiously fluttering like flags, jingling with the intensity of alarms. Alarm bells are ringing throughout the city, and faintly, I see parts of the city glowing red gold with the advancing flames. One of the girls starts shrieking for her family so vigorously she almost falls off the bridge. I go back to my room, buffeted by the wind kami as I run back across the garden, and take the ornaments out of my hair, yanking them out faster than Machiko can put them away. I wonder how my stepmother and her family are faring. Usually it is the poorer districts, and the area of the pleasure houses where people tend to be drunk which fare the worst, but with the wind like this, nothing is safe. For once I am glad not to be a man, for they are expected to go out and supervise the fire-fighting activities. Machiko takes out the hair extensions and the hair decorations I could not reach. It is all I can do not to shout at her to hurry. I keep imagining the sound of crashing timbers, and I desperately want to go back outside. If worst comes to worst we could go into the ponds and breathe through reeds. Machiko finally finishes, gives my hair a quick brush, then ties it back loosely.
The ladies gather outside in their traveling costumes with simple jackets. I tuck my layers up under my sash in case I have to run. I know I should help Tokushi try to calm the others, but while I may not look panicky I am as bad off as the worst of them, almost frozen with fear. Tokushi sends messengers to find out if it would be best for her and the ladies to take carriages and exit the city.
I see that some of the ladies have retreated to the highest moon bridge in the garden. “I’ll go check on the ladies in the garden,” I say. “Perhaps you should get all those remaining inside to come out.”
“I’ll take care of those,” she says, watching some of the women running around packing hysterically, sobbing that they want to go home. I am afraid to let Tokushi go back inside, but I allow Machiko to lead me back towards the others in the garden.
The ladies are standing on top of the bridge, shading their eyes with their hands. A reflected rose-gold light plays across their faces. Machiko gently pushes me along; I am so rigid it is as if my knees and hips have forgotten how to bend. It is so bright out now, it is like day in the night. The carp mill about expectantly along the edges of the artificial stream and under the bridge, gold and orange, white and black, like fire in the water. One of the girls calls from the top of the bridge; “Machiko, bring Seiko up here. With her height, she can see the best.” By the time we reach the crest of the bridge, my heart is pounding as if we had climbed Fujiyama. Turning towards the city, I understand the stunned expressions on their faces. A huge quadrant of the city is on fire, solid flame for as far as the eye can see. It is still a ways off from us, but if a quarter of the city is already on fire, what hope is there that any will be spared? Why did it take so long before messengers came to the Palace?
I hope Tsunemasa and the other men supervising the peasants and soldiers fighting the fire are safe. How can any number of men passing buckets of water from the Uji River hope to stop such an unquenchable dragon of flame? It just doesn’t seem possible that a conflagration this size could be stopped by anything but a torrential rain. As if she had heard my though, Machiko clasps my hand and says, “Maybe the clouds will bring rain.” But those are not storm clouds swirling black in the tempestuous wind, but billows of smoke; the acrid smell and heat reaching us even here. As we watch, the wind drives huge showers of sparks before it, and where the sparks touch shops and houses, new flames gush skyward.
I want to say that we must leave the Capitol now, while there is still time but it is as if my tongue had evaporated, leaving me with no power of speech. The roaring of the fire sounds like a distant ocean, or the bellowing of a dragon, but there is another sound, that while fainter, is more terrible; the screams of humans and animals. I sway almost over the side of the bridge. Machiko grabs me and half carries me down the bridge, her sturdy frame all muscle as she braces me from falling. I can’t breathe, but not from the smoke which is still faint. An enormous hand is squeezing my heart and lungs together; my mind flickers like a blown candle. I collapse onto my knees at the bottom of the bridge.
“Mistress, mistress, are you well?” Machiko asks.
“No. We need...to get all the women out.” With Machiko’s help I stagger back to the Palace, find Lady Daigon-no-suke.
“We must escape. The whole city is going to burn,” I gasp to her.
Her painted-on eyebrows rear up onto her forehead in alarm. She strides over to Tokushi, who is attempting to comfort a heap of sobbing girls moaning and tearing their hair on the floor, takes her by the elbow and steers her over to us.
“Lady, we must flee here. The fire...the fire...” I stagger, unable to breathe as a fish thrown into hostile air. Only Machiko’s strong arms keep me from falling.
“Is it truly that bad Seiko?” Tokushi asks.
I nod. “We must take the women....before it’s too late...”
“I am waiting to hear back. Until Tsunemasa or Shigehira or my father sends word we cannot....”
Just then a maidservant rushes up, folds over in a bow. “My Lady, Lord Tsunemasa is here with a young page--they are covered in soot...”
“Show him in immediately.” Tokushi orders. There is no time for formalities. Servants quickly seat us on some pillows, and on that instant Tsunemasa and the page arrive and kneel beside us, leaving streaks of ash on the floor.
“Shall we prepare to depart?” Tokushi asks.
“My lady, it is more dangerous to leave now than to stay,” Tsunemasa replies.
I hear my voice croaking, “We must leave immediately.”
Tsunemasa looks at me, alarmed, then gathers himself, takes my hand. “Lady Fujiwara, are you speaking now as a soothsayer...or as a woman who lost her mother in a fire?”
I pull my hand away from him, angry that he should speak familiarly of my past in front of others. He who is usually so mannerly! I want to shout at him but an unseen hand is gripping all the breath out of my throat.
“Forgive me,” he says, “but there is too much chaos; the streets are impassable. The soldiers cannot fight the fire and subdue the looters as well. You are safer here.”
Tokushi bows her head to him. “We put our faith in you, cousin. You are the Master of my Household. Our lives are in your hands.”
“We have just finished burning a large section three streets wide to create a firebreak to protect the Palace,” he says.
Is he mad? They set a fire themselves? This is the person we should trust?
Tsunemasa goes on to explain that by setting a blaze and extinguishing it, the advancing larger fire will find nothing to cling to and will not be able to leap across to continue its carnage.
I do not understand how lighting a fire can stop a fire. He and Tokushi keep talking, but it is as if they had begun speaking in another language. My hair and the back of my garments are heavy, soaking with blood. My hands are raw, abraded from gripping tightly to a statue of Kannon.
Servants kneel before us, offering trays of tea and sake. Machiko pushes the ceramic edge of a cup between my lips. Vaguely I feel Tokushi’s hand on my shoulder. Later, servants apologize for the delay in preparing some food for us, saying that most of the kitchen servants and cooks have fled.
Then we are back outside, though I have no memory of how we got here. Machiko has my box of remedies and is asking which one will help me. I have no remedy for preventing death by fire. We are sitting under a willow by the water. The grass is cool. I look at the reeds sighing in the wind, thinking that we can cut them open to make breathing tubes and lie under the water with the carp. The smoke is thick now in the garden, and women are sobbing that it is the end of the world. It is amazing how peaceful Tokushi continues to be, calming the girls with her soft, authoritative voice. I can tell that Lady Daigon-no-suke must be frightened because she is more gruff than usual, and I have come to see that when she sounds the most harsh is when she feels the most anxious. I am holding Machiko’s hand as tightly as I ever did when I was in labor. Servants continue to ferry tea and sake and small treats from the kitchen as if it were a moon-viewing party rather than an end of the world party.
“Lord Taira Tsunemasa will take care of us, Mistress,” Machiko assures me. “He won’t let anything happen to us.” But I know that no matter how powerful someone is, it does not make them immortal. My mother was killed, and she had more power than all the Taira combined.
No one sleeps, and while the light of the fire made the night seem like day, the smoke from the fire makes the next day seem like night. No one wants to risk falling asleep inside the Palace, so servants bring out layers of kimonos and futons and make beds for us out in the garden. Women sit in clusters crying and praying. Petitions are offered up to Shina Tsu Hime to cease the evil winds that are driving the flames. A brazier of fire is lit and everyone writes prayers on paper and offers them to the flames, conjuring the fire Goddesses Huchi and Fuchi to have mercy on us. Some beg pity from Kannon, others burn pine incense and perform water ablution ceremonies to invoke the protection of Kishi-Mujin, the ancient mother Goddess. Tokushi asks me to invoke protection from Inari, but these forces are not middle counselors to be bribed or cajoled. If Inari could not save her own Priestess, Fujiwara Fujuri, on her own mountain, how can she protect us here? Fire is without conscience; it seeks only to perpetuate its own life by devouring whatever is in its path. My only prayer is to put my hand on the trunk of the willow, to feel her green life force pulsing under my hand, to absorb her calm acceptance.
By evening, most of those who had been sobbing and hysterical have been reduced to weak whimpers. All of us are choking and coughing on the smoke. Tokushi asks me to make up some teas to help all of us with the pain in our lungs, but I am unable to move. Machiko knows the lung formulas, so she enlists another servant to help her brew them on portable stoves that have been set up outside. Tokushi sends messengers to find other healers, and soon two men and a woman are brought to us and start brewing steams and teas over the stoves, and placing acupuncture needles in the women who are suffering most. The sight of even those small fires under the stoves makes me tremble. I am helpless to stop them, since I can neither speak nor move. I can only cling tightly to the rough bark of the willow, and drink whatever Machiko puts to my lips.
Finally I sleep, holding onto Machiko, and wake the next morning to find Tsunemasa telling Tokushi that the fire, while not yet extinguished, has at least been contained. Sixteen mansions have been destroyed, and untold thousands of people, cattle, horses and other animals have lost their lives. Tommayo, the young man who galloped bravely off through the fire is safe, though his horse’s tail has been scorched. All of Tokushi’s brothers and cousins are safe. My lungs feel raw, and like everyone I am hacking and sneezing up soot, but quivering with relief.
A few days later, I find Machiko sobbing. She has just gotten word that all her brothers and sisters and their families survived the fire. I feel ashamed that she was able to be so strong for me in spite of having no idea how her family fared in the disaster. Two of their homes were destroyed, but I give Machiko enough money to see that they are rebuilt. It is the least I can do to show my gratitude for her caring for me while I was lost in the past, and leading me back to my life.
A pall of smoke hangs over the grounds for days. As soon as the fires were put out, the wind stopped as if it had been conjured up by evil sorcerers just to fan the flames. Now that the winds would be welcome to disperse the stench, they retreat, and no amount of entreaties to Tatsu Ta Hime to gently blow away the contamination helps. Many of the women have lung sicknesses, from the combined effects of smoke and sorrow. I am troubled by the apparent sickness of my mind. It seems that I am falling back into that blankness that absorbed me after my mother’s death, and I do not know how to banish it. Chinese physicians come to see me several times a day, stimulating points to heal my spirit and giving me vile tasting concoctions. Shamans come to cleanse the Empress’s apartments, banishing ghosts and evil spirits. Yet in spite of their efforts, if it were not for Machiko brushing my hair, singing to me and talking to me even when I did not reply, I might have retreated to that cold, frozen part of my mind and never emerged again.
Word went out that the same evil sorcerers who had conjured this terrible fire had attacked the Empress’ sorceress, and for all I know, perhaps that was true. A third of the city of Kyoto had been destroyed by the fire. The stench of burnt flesh, human and animal was so pervasive, no amount of incense and perfumes could cover it up. Funeral pyres cremating the remains of those who had not been already reduced to ash kept the smell of fresh smoke drifting. Though they tried to cremate the half-burnt bodies quickly to prevent the spread of disease, contagion spread through the city like another fire, adding corpses to those already stacked waiting for fresh supplies of wood to be fetched from the mountains. The whispering said that Yoritomo and the other Genji must have hired some extremely powerful sorcerers to attack the Capitol magically. I do not have the strength to prevail against these dark forces. I have my mother’s key, but not her powers. The fault is mine. I have failed to help Tokushi produce an heir.
We were not allowed to go out and witness the devastation, as those sights would be far too horrible for the eyes of aristocratic ladies. Often rebellious against the restrictions imposed on my gender, this time I was thoroughly relieved to shielded and sheltered. I remember well enough the blackened remains of my mother’s house.