One soft, pink autumn afternoon some of the ladies of the court of Fujiwara no Sumitomo of the Heike clan decided to have a picnic by the Moon Viewing Lagoon; there to enjoy the changing colors of the leaves, eat dainty snacks and drink fine sake.
Lady Dainagon no Suke carried her writing materials in her own hands in a black lacquered box, Lady Senju no Mae carried only a folding fan and Lady Sotsu no Suke carried a wide umbrella which she held high over their heads.
Behind them trudged an aging servant carrying, hoisted on his left shoulder, a heavy wicker basket whose load seemed to press his straw sandals into the earth On top of the basket were tied down a pair of rolled up rattan mats. He could not walk fast and the ladies, though annoyed, walked slowly so as not to show insult by leaving him far behind.
They found a place where an old willow tree hung down its stringy branches so the leaves floated with the current. Golden fish were already jumping to snatch insects that fell from the leaves onto the water.
The ladies waited as the old servant carefully lowered his burden, unfastened the mats and rolled them out in the cavernous shade. The three court ladies removed their geta sandals and sat delicately in white tabi socks and light kimonos.
Lady Sotsu pensively twirled her umbrella as the old servant unpacked the case and set up the sake cups, poured the wine into the small white carafe and set out bamboo trays of rice cakes on rice paper. When the last tray was set he withdrew under the shade of another tree far from the ladies and waited. Lady Sotsu studied his sad face looking out over the water and wished she might write a poem to remember him but couldn’t think of the right words.
Lady Dainagon poured the wine and passed out the tiny cups. “I’m told that you have discovered the son of Lord Torimori,” she said to Lady Senju no Mae. “Or he has discovered you.”
“It’s nothing special,” said Lady Senju. “Look at Lady Sotsu there. What are you thinking, sister?”
She turned as though startled. “Hmph?”
“She’s much distracted,” said Lady Dainagon, looking the other way as though Lady Senju wasn’t present.
“Do you have your divination stones?” said Lady Sotsu.
Lady Dainagon opened her chest of writing materials and brought out a slim china cup with a lid and a dozen colored dice. “Here. Do you want to know about Lord Torimori’s boy? Or yourself?”
“Myself first. What is an auspicious day for him to visit?”
Lady Dainagon shook the dice in the cup, rolled them out and peered over them. “Not this month. Make him wait. Make his jade stones ache for you a little first. Lady Senju?”
Lady Senju turned away from gazing at the servant and glanced at them in an empty way. “Hai?”
“How are you, sister?” said Lady Dainagon, lowering the cup. “What ails you?”
“That poor old man. What does he think about all day? What's his name?”
“Tanzo?” Said Lady Setsu.
“I don’t know, ”said Lady Dainagon. “He’s just some dusty old thing.”
“Call him over,” said Lady Senju. “Please.”
“Ojii-san!” Lady Dainagon stood and waved her hand, calling louder “Ojii-san!”
The old man leaped painfully to his feet and hobbled over. As he reached the mat he stood sternly with his feet together, hands formally at his sides and gave a curt bow.
“What is your name, sir?”
“Sit with us, Ojii-san,” said Lady Senju. “Tell us the story of your life in the time it takes for a fish to jump twice and you can share our wine and food.”
The other two women frowned at Lady Senju, shocked at her outrageous breach of etiquette. The old man kept his face unreadable and his eyes down. “My life is nothing,” he said.
“Every person’s life is something,” said Lady Senju. “Stay with us. You were young once. Give us some wisdom from that bounty of your experience.”
He looked up cautiously and glanced from face to face. “I would not presume to do such a thing, but because you have asked me to do so, I will try to please you if I can. Two jumps of a fish is not much time for a life. So.” He grunted, sat and settled back on his knees and straightened his back with great dignity.
Lady Dainagon examined his posture. He carries himself like a samurai, she thought. Maybe he is a ronin who fell on hard times.
“Ima wa mukasi . . . “ he began.
. . . . once upon a time.
There was once an old man and an old woman who was childless and lived in a straw hut by a bamboo grove. Near the bamboo grove was a small river that ran steadily and laughed like a baby. The couple worked hard because they were only poor peasants. The old man gathered wood to trade and cut grass to clear land. They were hungry most of the time.
One day the old man, whose name we do not need, was standing in the river hoping to spear a fish with a sharp stick when a big ripe peach came floating by. He thought “My wife likes peaches; this will be a nice gift for her. He caught the peach in his hands, washed the mud from it and brought it home.
Just as the old wife was about to cut the peach in two and share it with him suddenly it split open and a handsome baby boy was there. The baby spoke to them and said “Don’t be afraid, I’m not a demon. The gods have sent me to you in your old age to look after you.”
Well, they called the boy “Momotaro” which means “son of a peach”.
At that moment a fish splashed and the ladies and the old servant turned to look. “One jump,” said Lady Sotsu. “One jump left. Continue, sir.”
Momotaro grew up to manhood very fast, because he was a magical boy and he needed to grow fast to look after them. But it was no use. In a year with the coming of winter the old woman died and the old man was very sad because he had loved her. Momotaro looked on the vacant corpse of the woman who had been a mother to him and felt a terrible rage. “Why should there be death?” he said. “Why should the good and evil grow old alike? I will fix this terrible injustice.”
He went down to the underworld and there found Yara, the god of death. When men and women would come time to die, Yara would imprison their vital energy with divine chains and the body would expire. Momotaro flattered him and asked him to show him how the chains worked. The god did so and Momotaro trapped him in his chains and defeated death.
But the gods were angry with Momotaro and condemned him to carry a huge and ponderous rock up a hill and each time he reached the top of the hill the rock would slip and roll back down. He would do this for the amusement of others until Yara would be freed and death returned to the world. But Momotaro carried his rock with the dignity of a man of great purpose and refused to free Yara.
A fish jumped and the others turned to look.
“Must that be the end of your story?” said Lady Dainagon.
“And are you Momotaro?” said Lady Sotsu. “What has this to do with you?”
“It has everything to do with him, don’t you see?” said Lady Setsu. “Forget the fish. Have a cup of wine and continue.” She gave him a small white cup of sake she poured herself. “What a cruel fate. Is there no hope for him?”
The man took a sip of wine and smacked his lips. “The Goddess Kwannon pitied him and made the rock very small so that he could carry it in one hand.”
“But he still had to carry it,” said Lady Sotsu. “What an empty life. Vacant illusion and there’s no meaning.”
“This is true,” said the old servant. “But the goddess Kwannon pitied him again and cast a spell so that he enjoyed carrying the rock up the hill and did it cheerfully though each time it slipped from his hands and he would have to go down and fetch it over and over.”
“And this is your story?” said Lake Sotsu.
“And did Kwannon pity him again?” said Lady Dainagon, before the old servant could reply.
The old servant took another sip and held out his cup. Lady Senju filled it and waited. As he sipped the second cup he said “Kwannon, goddess of compassion, pitied him yet again. She placed a passionate young woman at the top of the hill to seduce him. Each time he carried the rock up the hill she undressed him and bathed him in steaming water, and massaged his jade stalk to frenzy. He would tear her bright clothes from her with his fists and she gave herself as yielding as the willow in a typhoon for him to lay her out in the grass and he would thrust her until they burst together like berries in a boiling pot. With each and every meeting they made the wind and rain and as soon as he spent inside her they would forget they had ever seen each other.
Then full of forgetfulness, he would go down the hill to fetch his rock and bring it up again and the lady would be there waiting to seduce him as if for the first time. They pleasured each other day after day as he climbed the hill, loving, spilling yin and yang energy into each other, and then forgetting.”
“What became of him, Oiji-san?” said Lady Sonju, touching his knee. “Is he still carrying heavy loads for others? Still toiling with his rock?”
The old servant allowed a true look to slip through his eyes and set down his cup gently. “No, great lady,” he said. “Each time they discovered each other and she bathed his grief away and they tumbled skin to skin and made the wind and rain and exhausted their passion in each others loins, until one day Yara freed himself and Momotaro began to grow old. But the woman had been filled so often with his hot seed that she became fat with child and in the instant the child came forth they remembered their mortality and recognized each other. The son grew up. Yara’s curse fell on the son even as his father died. And now – “ he raised the little cup “- the son carries his father’s rock up the hill.”
“What a stupid thing to do day after day,” said Lady Setsu.
The old servant looked at her boldly. “Yes, great lady. It surely is.”
Remembering Albert Camus
November 1913 - January 1960