The Phantom Scholar
Heian Japan, 801 C.E
Maeda Haru was in an altogether desperate mood although this fact was not immediately detectable. She cut an imposing figure. Her hair trailed down her neck in a smooth, dark waterfall. Her creamy white skin set off her tiny, deep red mouth. Her multi-layered junihitoe was the fashionable pale plum color that she knew the other court ladies would be wearing as well. The only hint that she did not feel as majestic as she appeared was the worried vertical crease etched between her elegantly arched eyebrows. That evening she would feast with the court as usual, but tonight, a new scholar was coming. He would be moving in to the court, to become one of the emperor’s advisors. Although this is not a first-time event, the court does, of course, want to look as regal as their seemingly important titles.
False titles, Haru thought. People were pretending. The emperor was more of a figure, a face, representing royalty. The real power lies with the noble Fujiwara family, who lived in the court.
As Haru descended the wooden steps to the dinner area, the different environment had an effect that began to wash over her face like a light, harmless mist, turning her slight frown into a soft smile. All courtiers became good at the art of deception.
As the dinner guests began to assemble, they exchanged pleasantries, layered with ulterior meanings and shallow words. Many told Haru how wonderful she looked tonight, flattery that she accepted half-heartedly. Soon, they all were seated, and the new scholar was announced.
“Presenting Komatsu no Shiro Kazunori scholar and adviser to the Emperor Horikawa.”
He walked hesitantly in, his face taking in the scene of the powdered palace people, all looking at him, in their eyes a mixture of curiosity and distrust. He had the traditional faint moustache and thin beard, yet his dark eyes had a twinkling vitality that set him apart from the other scholars.
His name, Kazunori, suggested wisdom, first teaching, but his handsome, youthful face portrayed naivety. Of course, names are not always the most accurate way of evaluating a person. Look at me, Haru thought. Haru. Meaning sunshine. Hah.
The dinner progressed, with Haru focused only on Kazunori. He charmed everybody with his quick wit.
Of course, he noticed her too, as she was one of the more attractive court ladies. His darting eyes kept stealing glances in her direction, wondering why she was seemed to be staring at him.
The dinner ended, and the courtiers stood up and began to scatter, mingling with each other, the women laughing lightly, the men nodding their heads at each other.
I am the opposite of sunshine, Haru thought darkly, and she departed for her room. When she arrived, she shut the door softly and retrieved a small key underneath her bed that she used to open one of the drawers in her table. Pulling out a small book, Haru blew on it slightly, and opened it up. Smoothing down the pages, she smiled a genuine smile. When Haru was younger, her late father had taught her how to write in Chinese, although it was forbidden for women to learn. Haru had been writing from the age of eleven. Eight years later, and still unmarried, she had written three books. However, they were never to be published, as nobody alive knew that she wrote, let alone in Chinese. She could write in Japanese, but written Chinese was the language of the imperial court. It was Haru’s greatest wish to have her books published as she wrote them, in the official language of writing, in the language that she had learned as a child. But even Haru knew that she couldn’t change the law.
Meanwhile, Kazunori was tiring. He knew everyone in the court would want to become acquainted with him, but he was weary from his long journey, and he wanted to retire to his new parlor. When he finally was able to excuse himself, he walked quickly in the direction of his room. Thoroughly exhausted, he was tempted to lie down, but had some writing to do, so he settled himself at his table and picked up a horsehair brush. He dipped it in a pot of ink, and, just as he was bout to touch the tip to the book that was set out before him, he realized that it was filled with Chinese characters.
“What?” he whispered aloud, and took a closer look. It looked to him like a note was placed upon the book. He picked it up close to his eyes and began to read it. Komatsu no Shiro Kazunori, I am writing this to you because I have a rather large favor to ask of you. The letter proceeded to explain an unusual idea that flustered Kazunori. Thank you for reading this, and I hope you will consider what I am asking. It was signed, A friend in need.
It seemed that someone wanted him to publish their manuscript, as his own. Why would someone ask this of him? And moreover, who?
Haru was now walking quickly back to her room, attempting to be inconspicuous. Clearly, it was not working, as one of the lower attendants stopped her.
“Are you distressed, Haruhime?” she said, using the Japanese title for Lady Haru.
Haru jumped, and then smiled pleasantly, but it did not reach her eyes. “No, no, I’m perfectly fine, thank you.” At that, the attendant hesitated, then bowed lightly and walked away. Haru blew out a sigh, and began to walk towards her room again, slower this time.
She had just put her first book in Kazunori’s room, the location of which she had charmed out of one of the guards, hoping he would do as she asked. She looked out the windows. The skies were a pale grey-violet, with the creeping indigo of night slowly descending upon the horizon. It was becoming late. Haru called in another attendant to help her undress, and wash. When she was in her thin sleeping gown, she slipped into bed, sleep swooping in and clouding Haru’s world. Her eyelashes began to look thicker, until all she could see was the black insides of her eyelids.
Two weeks passed. Then Haru began to hear whispers of a book, a good book, whose copies were circulating through the court. When she requested a copy, she discovered it was her book. Of course, the author was a Komatsu Kazunori, but the Imperial Court was calling her writing good!
A month passed. Every time Haru walked through the court, she heard a small comment about her book. A certain glow began to surround her, and others seemed to feel it, commenting on Haru’s lighter stride and brighter eyes. It attracted those who were around her, including Kazunori, man of the hour. Haru politely complimented him on his book, to blend in with the other court ladies.
However, she was not blending in, not in Kazunori’s eyes. Her comments seemed more reserved. She possibly just dislikes the book, Kazunori thought. Yet he could not shake his interest in her, how he paid attention to small details as she passed him. Her long white neck, slender like a swan. Her lissome body as she nearly floated around the palace. A small infatuation for a beautiful woman, Kazunori reminded himself. Court ladies are not to be trusted.
Another month passed. Haru was in her room, carefully tucking her second manuscript into the many layers of her pale blue junihitoe. She walked silently to Kazunori’s room, flashing her best smile at those who noticed her. She kissed her book and set it down on his table, tip-toeing back out. One of the guards approached her, but he was easily managed and she quickly flattered him until he asked to walk her to wherever she was going, an offer she politely declined. As soon as she was back in her room, she smiled at herself in her pearl hand mirror.
Later that evening, Kazunori finally escaped the thoughtful questions of the men and the flirtatious compliments of the women. He fled to his room and breathed a sigh.
This book of his—not of his, of course, but of whomever’s—was a huge success. Even Kazunori found himself complimenting this mystery author privately, when he was reading excerpts from it. He was about to sit down on his bed, when he noticed a familiar something. On his desk, was a new book. It looked the same as the original copy of the first one, and Kazunori felt an uncertain excitement rise up in him.
He spent the rest of that night reading this new piece of writing, which was better than the first. I, he thought to himself, have started to fall in love with this phantom writer. The next day he immediately had copies bound and reproduced. In less than two weeks he was receiving praise for his newest work.
During a dinner, one month after Haru’s second book was published, the conversation was, as usual, focused on Kazunori and his superior writing skills. One of the court ladies, Moto Gin, was flirting shamelessly with Kazunori, tilting her head with exaggerated curiosity as he explained an idea to her, and laughing a high-pitched laugh when he said something witty. Haru’s heart began to quicken, and she hoped a flush wasn’t showing through the powder on her face. Emotions flitted through her mind, ready to explode. Why was she feeling this way? The fireworks inside her head were nearly bringing her physical pain. She was possessive of Kazunori. She felt like he was hers, in a way, and only she was permitted to have an intimate connection with him. Intimate! She thought, scornfully. I hardly talk to him. But it was intimate. Through her writing, he knew her. Haru’s hand trembled, and quietly excused herself, deciding to go to her room and give him her last book.
Kazunori watched Maeda Haru walk away, and, minutes later, he also excused himself, to follow her. He had noticed her watching him during the dinner, and wondered the tiniest bit why she was the coldest to him. He did not know which direction she had gone, but after briefly wandering the palace halls, he spotted her hurrying towards the south wing. He quietly pursued her, until he saw her pull something out of her gown and duck into a room. He realized it was his room. Suddenly intimidated, Kazunori hesitated in front of his door. A woman?
Haru stroked the scroll manuscript and laid it down on the table. As she was lifting her hand back up to tuck it back into the sleeve of her junihitoe another hand grasped her white slender wrist. The hand was thicker, stronger, and darker than her own. She slowly moved her gaze up the body and to the face of the figure, only to recognize the young face of Kazunori. Oh no, she thought, and waited for the dreaded reprimanding and assurance that she had been caught. Instead he loosened his grip, sliding his hand up her arm. Haru stared him straight in his eyes, her pale skin considerably whiter with fear. She breathed out as he moved his hand. Kazunori tilted his head as he continued to move his hand up to her neck, trailing it from her delicate collarbones to her sharp jaw. Even further to her face where he left it there, slightly cupped around her angular cheek. Haru’s eyes instinctively fluttered closed. Kazunori dropped his hand slowly, trailing back down. The two stood there for a minute. Two figures in the soft purple twilight of the Asian night, bodies close but not touching. Haru was looking up into Kazunori’s eyes, two dark orbs that were roaming all over her. They swiveled from her defined hairline to her white face to her red lips. They moved down to her vulnerable neck to her flattened breast to her narrow waist. He began to lean in, and she instinctively stood on her toes to meet him. Their faces a microscopic distance apart. His eyes fluttered closed.
Suddenly Kazunori felt a soft hand touch against his lips. He opened his eyes only to find that Haru had disappeared. He quickly spun around just in time to see the pale blue silk of her junihitoe vanish near his door. He ran to the entrance and looked to the left. Her figure was growing smaller as she ran to the other end of the corridor. Kazunori’s feet suddenly weighed him down more than ever before and he stumbled back into his room, falling onto his bed.
The next morning, Haru was nowhere in sight. Kazunori’s heart ached, and he subtly asked around about her absence. From what he heard, Haru had taken leave to a house in a quiet Japanese area, due to an illness. His heart sank, and he decided he would wait. He would wait for her to come back.
Maeda Haru was never seen again.
In a small, quiet house, on the outskirts of a small, quiet, Japanese town, lived small, quiet Japanese woman, and her one attendant. She was known as Maeda Haru to those who thought her confined to her deathbed, and just Haruhime, to the one soul who knew the truth. She remained there until the day she died, twenty years later, a calligraphy brush in her hand.
One quiet, rosy evening, Kazunori received a small package, with a message saying that an anonymous relative left a few scrolls for him in her will. Opening the scrolls, Kazunori gasped, nearly fainting. An old man, he asked an attendant to come help him. His beard had turned gray. His sparkling black eyes had turned dull.
“Can you tell me which house these came from?” Kazunori practically begged the attendant. The attendant obliged, and left to go find the location of the household. Once Kazunori was informed, he left at once, bringing three attendants with him.
He asked the attendants to wait outside while he entered the empty house. It smelled of decaying wood and jasmine. His finger stroked the panels of the inner walls, and an overwhelming feeling of sadness and nostalgia for came over him, hitting his frail heart like a tidal wave and wracking his senile body with sobs, shaking like an earthquake. A sharp pain hit his chest and he fluttered his eyes closed, falling to his knees, one hand on his chest.
Komatsu no Shiro Kazunori died of a heart attack in that house.
The local children continued to tell stories of the spirits that now rested in that house, together at last.
The phantom scholar and her lover from afar.
Anna Maheu, Age 14, Grade 9, Hunter College High School, Honorable Mention