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  • The Cicada Shell, from The Tale of Genji
  • Lady Murasaki Shikibu (bio)
    Translated by Charles De Wolf (bio)

"Never before have I been so rebuffed!" his Lordship lamented, unable to sleep. "This night I have come to know the cruel nature of the world, and the humiliation is such that I wonder how I may endure."

The tears shed by the boy lying beside him only added to his charm. Small and slender, with hair that was not so very long, he bore a poignant resemblance to that other figure his Lordship had held and caressed. Well aware that further pursuit would be most unseemly, his Lordship resigned himself to brooding away the nocturnal hours and sent the youth on no more errands. While it was still dark, he arose and departed, leaving the boy quite forlorn.

The lady was not without her own bitter regrets, as there came from his Lordship not a single word. She was not indifferent to his disappointment, and the thought that, with cool-headed resolve he had put an end to his quest, weighed upon her no less than the fear that he would resume his recklessness. Even as she hoped that the entire incident was now behind her, she, too, found herself pensive and restless.

As much as his Lordship sought to convince himself that she was hardly a woman with whom he should be concerned, pride alone prevented him from putting her out of his mind. He again turned to the boy:

"My misery would be so much less if I came to terms with this debacle, and yet I cannot bear to do so. Go now and find some means by which I may meet her."

The task would be daunting, but the lad was pleased to be so honored. He had been waiting in childlike eagerness for an opportunity, when the Governor of Kii was summoned to his province, thereby opening, most conveniently, a penumbral path to the ladies the governor had left behind. The boy took it upon himself to bring his Lordship there in his own carriage.

His master might well have fretted about putting himself in the hands of one so young, but there was no time for delay and so, disguised in casual apparel, he hastily went along, anxious to arrive before the closing of the gates. They passed through a little-used entrance, whereupon the boy alighted.

To the boy's relief, the men on guard took him for a mere child and showed neither suspicion nor solicitude. He bade his Lordship to wait next to the twin doors at the east side, while he himself went to the south corner and called out in a loud voice, pounding on the shutters before going inside. [End Page 89]

"Oh, you are leaving us all exposed to view!" cried one of the women.

"Why have you lowered the shutters on such a warm evening?" he replied.

"The lady of the west wing has been visiting here since noon. Their ladyships are engaged in Go."

Eager for a glimpse, his Lordship stealthily followed in the boy's footsteps and quietly slipped in between a gap in the blinds. The shutters were still open, with a screen immediately before his Lordship folded back. Facing west, he could see that the curtains that should have been in place as a further precaution were instead draped over their stands, perhaps because of the heat, so that all was in plain view.

The women were sitting near a lamp, so his Lordship could distinguish there, where she was reclining beside the central pillar, the profile of the one he took to be his heart's desire. She was dressed in what seemed to be twilled undergarments of deep lavender, with a less clearly visible outer robe. Narrow-headed and slender of frame, she was of a demure and modest appearance. Even from her companion she seemed to be concealing her face; except when placing stones on the board, she kept her hands well within her sleeves.

The lady's opponent was facing east, thereby giving his Lordship an un - obstructed view of her. Over a white undergarment of gossamer, she wore...