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It’s no secret that Carrie’s been having trouble starting her thesis. And, okay, maybe she has been complaining for weeks, and maybe Professor Kawamura has started breathing down her neck, and maybe Yumi and Kazu have been bearing the brunt of it all. But it still came as a surprise when, yesterday, Yumi suggested they go to Ishiyama-dera Temple to ask advice from Murasaki Shikibu.

Carrie had blinked at her across the low tea-table.

“Uh,” she said. “Murasaki Shikibu? The author of the Tale of Genji?

Yumi laughed. “Naturally.”

“You mean—the Lady Murasaki who died in the eleventh century AD?”

Yumi’s eyes gleamed in the light of Kazu’s desk lamp. “Yes, of course! Who else do you think?”

At which point Kazu, sprawled on the floor cushions, had jerked up like some lissome zombie and said, “You know, that’s a great idea.”

Yumi beamed. “We’ll get the first train.”

“But—” Carrie said.

“You’ve been so worried,” Yumi said. “This can’t hurt. Let’s try it, Carrie. Please?” And she had reached over the table and put her warm hand over Carrie’s pale cool one.

Carrie realized she must be missing something. But then again, she’d been feeling that way ever since she came to Japan. And when had she not followed Yumi’s suggestions? Exactly never, that was all, not once since she’d arrived at Shiga Dai.

And the hour was late, and they’d had a few beers, and Yumi was grinning brilliantly. So, as so often happened, all Carrie could think to say was, “Yes.”

Yumi hopped a little and said, “Great!” Kazu said nothing, but gave that inward smile that made Carrie fear her infatuation must be way more obvious than she’d like.

But, across the table, Yumi’s face was just shining.

 


 

So now here they are, all bright and early—well, early enough: they’ve made it onto the 10:50 semi-express from Hikone, which, Carrie thinks, is pretty good, considering the beers.

On Carrie’s left side, Kazu’s grabbed the window seat. Yumi, meanwhile, has sprawled across both facing seats, dozing in the sun. Yumi has an amazing talent for sleeping.

Behind the dark silhouette of Kazu’s head the world unfurls like a picture scroll. It’s a beautiful day—warm, even for February, with the lake a rich blue like brocade. A pair of torii gates open onto the water. A crane beats long wings from a jetty. It’s all very traditional, as if they are traveling back through time in a majestically static Japan where Nothing Has Ever Changed.

Then the window dazzles with convenience-store neon. Four animatronic cats in samurai helmets flog a pachinko parlor. Carrie decides, with some regret, that they must be in the real world after all.

Kazu nudges her. “Hey, want some roll cake?”

“What kind?”

“I like the sweet-potato cheese. Or the black-sesame lemon. But the red bean yogurt milk’s pretty good too.”

Carrie settles on green-tea-and-salty-chocolate, and tries to eat without getting crumbs on her borrowed yukata. Her brain, left to its own devices, locks into its usual anxiety groove, and flips back and forth between wondering a) what exactly will happen when they reach this temple, and b) whether it’s OK to stare at Yumi while she sleeps.

Even sprawled across scruffy upholstery, Yumi looks like a painting. Today, as for the past several weeks, she’s dressed as Raphael’s La Donna Velata, complete with choker, gleaming pearls, and a dusky mantilla that floats around her when she walks. (Neither the veil nor the many-layered gown in shades of sand, taupe, and biscuit seem to hinder Yumi’s movements around campus; Carrie views this as a triumph of Japanese fashion engineering.)

Fluttering in the air-con, Yumi’s veil hides and reveals her shoulders and dark hair. The dress holds her like a silk cocoon.

Asleep, Yumi should be less distracting. She shouldn’t strike Carrie as if she were the sun, the center of the sky. And yet Carrie feels a familiar sting in her eyes, and has to look away.

“Hey,” says Kazu. “Are you okay? You look flushed.”

Carrie tries not to blush.

“Listen, don’t worry. This is going to be fun.” Kazu’s grin flashes white. “Just imagine that we’re in our own epic! A monogatari for the modern age: 'The Tale of How Carrie Went to Ishiyama, and Finally Started Her Thesis.’”

Carrie smiles, and feels better.

“Kazu … about this.” She drops her voice, obscurely self-conscious. “How’s this going to work? The part where we—you know—talk to Lady Murasaki?”

“Ah.” Kazu assumes a contemplative look, which goes very well with today’s outfit. (Kazu’s been on a Mannerist Portraiture kick since the New Year, all high-collared jackets and slashed black satin. Today, a little felt cap suggests Bronzino, or maybe Pontormo—definitely someone’s Portrait of a Young Man. The effect is like a Renaissance philosopher; Carrie feels there ought to be a lace ruff somewhere.)

Kazu says, “I think Yumi hopes meeting Lady Murasaki might help you get unstuck. Students—girls especially—go for writing help all the time.”

“Oh. Okay. So, Lady Murasaki is … uh, enshrined there? At the temple?”

Soft laughter from the opposite seat. Apparently Yumi has been less asleep than she seemed.

“Oh, Carrie,” she says. “You should know by now women writers never get enshrined.”

Kazu frowns. “Pretty much no writers do.”

“What about Tenjin?”

“Uh … okay, Tenjin, yeah. But—”

Yumi smirks. “Forget Tenjin, he’s not the point. Carrie, Lady Murasaki is … well, kind of a mascot of Ishiyama-dera. She went there, a thousand years ago, to take a break from the Heian-kyo court in Kyoto. Apparently, it was a high-pressure place.” Carrie can sympathize. “And, while she was at the temple, she’s supposed to have written the Tale of Genji.”

“Not all fifty-four volumes,” says Kazu. “Just a few chapters. And even that’s a maybe. You know temples, they’ll say anything to get tourists."

Yumi ignores this. “So now she’s like a mascot and they keep her there in a special room. Kazu and I have seen her. It was cool, right, Kaz?”

Kazu shrugs. “Struck me as dorky at the time. But it was a school field trip, so I guess we were all dorks, in our uniforms and knee socks.”

Carrie has been trying to process they keep her in a room, but gets distracted picturing Yumi in knee socks. Next time she tunes in, Kazu is saying, “Anyway, Carrie, it’ll be a good experience for you. Our Traditional Classical & Honorable, Et Cetera.”

“What it will do,” Yumi says quietly, “is give you perspective.” She smoothes a wrinkle from her bodice. “Which you need.”

“Well,” says Carrie, feeling lost. “I guess as long as no one quizzes me on The Tale of Genji I’ll be OK.”

Kazu laughs. “Murasaki won't bring it up. Her own writing? That would be immodest. She’s a traditional Heian court lady, remember?”

“Oh,” says Carrie. “Right. A cultural thing.”

Yumi cocks her head. “Carrie, have you really never read the Tale of Genji?”

“Um,” Carrie says. “This is embarrassing. I mean, I’m a modernist. I know Genji’s like Shakespeare here, I know you guys read it in school … I do know the outline. I’ve read bits and pieces.”

Yumi’s watching her carefully. “What do you remember?”

Carrie hesitates. It’s been years. She remembers a palace, a court. A prince with a shining face. Shadows, swords, incense. Faces concealed behind screens and fans … “It made me claustrophobic,” she says.

Kazu nods. "Sounds right. Court women like Murasaki weren’t supposed to be on public view. It was hard even to leave the palace.”

"And that,” says Yumi, “is why she wrote a story about a prince who could go anywhere and do anything. Read books, ride horses.” Her eyelids dip. “Have sex with lots of beautiful women."

Kazu bursts out laughing. "It’s romance, Yumi! Prince Genji romances those ladies."

“Sex, sex, sex,” says Yumi. “I've read the book."

"Well, that'll certainly impress Lady Murasaki. Carrie, why don't you just ask her about all the sex she put in Genji?”

Carrie’s face is flaming.

Kazu pats her shoulder. “Relax. I’m joking.”

“I know,” Carrie says, too stiffly.

Yumi laughs low in her throat. “I’m going to back to sleep until we get to Ishiyama,” she says. “But, Carrie, don’t worry. You look beautiful, and Lady Murasaki loved beauty.” She gives Carrie that sleepy, beatific, Renaissance smile. “Also … she knew a lot about human nature. Ask the right question, and I’m sure that whatever she tells you will be what you need to know.”

Carrie stares out the window, in order to avoid looking at Yumi drifting off again. She feels depressingly sure that she doesn’t know how to ask the Right Question. Her questions have all been Wrong since she got here. Even things that should be simple—either/or, yes or no—turn blurry and unanswerable: binaries collapse, certainties complexify.

Things like: “Is that person angry, or just embarrassed?” Or: “Is this temple visit about culture, or religion?” Or, “Does Yumi like me, or does she like me?”

Or: “How do we talk to Lady Murasaki, if she’s … ?”

She sighs. “Kazu?” she says.

Kazu turns—inadvertently, as Carrie’s brain decides to point out, evoking yet another of her binary problems. Carrie’s particular English-language brain finds X-gender confusing; the embarrassingly conservative English she was raised with keeps wanting binary pronouns—he or she, boy or girl. Another example, she thinks with frustration, of her mind being stuck in place: weighed down with assumptions, demanding certainty, trying to pin down things that are really in constant fluid motion …

She considers the sideburns, the clean jawline. The hat and collar say boy. But there’s femininity in the curve of chin, a line of the neck.

Kazu seems bemused. “Do I have crumbs on my face?”

“No, I just—got sidetracked.” She fumbles. “I keep seeing you as a guy. I’m sorry. I think it’s the clothes.”

“Oh. Does that worry you?”

Carrie sighs. “I don’t understand how stuff works half the time these days, Kaz. I hate being wrong. I just … I don’t want to be wrong about you.”

There’s a pause. “I ... appreciate that,” Kazu says. “Well then, let’s do this: don’t worry about it. Just think of me as a boy. I give you permission, let’s say, starting now, and until further notice.”

Carrie hesitates. “Are you sure? Because—in English, you know, sometimes, even, the he and the she—

Kazu’s eyes crinkle. “Yes, pronouns too, Carrie, if you need them. In consideration of your poor feeble English-speaking brain.”

Carrie makes a face. “It’s not my brain that talks.”

And yet with this infinitesimal lessening of ambiguity, the world does ease a little, becomes simpler to navigate.

She says truthfully, “You are elegant, dressed like that. Just like a picture.”

Kazu bows—he bows, to her, lips quirking. “Well, I do want to impress Lady Murasaki," he says. "You look nice, too."

Carrie fidgets. She’s wearing Yumi’s yukata—Yumi helped her put it on this morning, and that was an experience—but it does seem strange that she’s the only one in Japanese clothes. What kind of impression will that make on Lady Murasaki?

Then she feels even dumber for worrying about what a person dead for a millennium might think.

“Kaz, I’m sorry, but I have to ask. You keep saying we’re going to talk to Lady Murasaki …” One Wrong Question, coming up. “But—isn’t Lady Murasaki dead?”

There’s what seems like a long pause.

Kazu purses his lips. “Well,” he says. “She died, of course.”

“Yes?”

“In Heian times, about a thousand years ago.”

Carrie nods encouragingly. Kazu looks thoughtfully into the air, perhaps revisiting some knee-socked reminiscence of days past.

Carrie loses her patience. “So how are we supposed to talk to her?”

Kazu blinks and refocuses. “You mean, what do they keep in the Genji room?”

Carrie tries not to look creeped out. “Yes?”

“Ah. That would be her hologram.”

Carrie’s mouth clicks shut. “Oh.

The world clicks along outside, blue and cement. Across from her Yumi dozes, apparently really asleep now.

Carrie says, hearing the note of hopelessness in her voice: “I’m going to ask thesis advice from a hologram?

Kazu pats her kindly on the shoulder. “The world is full of surprises.”

“Kazu. Why don’t I ever understand anything that’s going on?”

Kazu shrugs. “The world’s a mysterious place.”

Carrie groans and slumps back in her seat.

“Cheer up,” Kazu tells her. “Try to stop worrying. And have some more cake.” Carrie pops a strawberry-sweet-corn roll and chews it grimly.

Yumi dreams on, tranquil as a Waterhouse painting. Carrie lets her head drop against the scratchy headrest and tries to stop worrying about all the unframeable questions rattling round in her brain: why she doesn’t know how to ask questions, and how she’s ever going to get Kawamura her proposal, and how the sunlight can possibly be so painfully bright playing across Yumi’s face, her pearl-headed hairpins, her inhaling and exhaling chest.

 


 

Kazu seems to have a point about cake, at least, because Carrie’s feeling better by the time they arrive at Ishiyama station.

They’re the only ones getting off. “It's not high season yet," says Kazu. "Next month, when the irises bloom, it’ll be wall-to-wall tourists. But right now, it’s just us desperate students with our petitions."

He’s walking between Carrie and Yumi. A flash shower has washed the sky an even brighter blue, and the sun’s radiant on Yumi’s pearls, on Kazu’s starched cuffs, on the last tattered cherry blossoms lining the path.

"With due respect, ladies, can you step it up? It's starting to get hot."

Yumi snorts. “Easy for you to say. Some of us are trying to be elegant here. Just because you’re in bloomers …”

Carrie looks down to hide her smile. She knows that she, not Yumi, is the one slowing them down. The yukata’s not hard to walk in, but the raised wooden geta sandals—they belong to Yumi, too—make Carrie feel off-balance with every step.

Yumi twinkles at her across the slashed black satin of Kazu’s chest. "Carrie, you look so exotic! I should have put you in my yukata long ago.”

This doesn’t do much for Carrie’s balance, but she grins back at Yumi anyway like the giant dork she is.

Kazu says briskly, “We all look great. Lady M. will be impressed. Speaking of which, we should do a hologram best-practice rundown for Carrie ...” He pauses to steer them around a puddle. “Don't mention the date, or the season. Heian recreations get confused; the calendar’s changed too much since they were first around. Don’t mention that it’s February, or the irises—"

Carrie frowns. "But weren’t seasons important to their culture?”

“Oh, very.” Yumi laughs. “They changed their robe colors every two weeks!”

“Rich people and their hobbies,” mutters Kazu.

“Well then, can't she see for herself when the flowers bloom?"

Kazu shakes his head. "Not sure. There's something about paradoxes they can't perceive. The AI’s designed from Murasaki’s own diaries—and the Tale of Genji, of course ... Anyway, I'm not sure how far she can see outside her room."

Yumi says, "You could ask the neuro club, when we get back. They study all kinds of recreations—androids, holograms, that Musashi mecha in Kobe ..."

Carrie blinks. “We have a neuro club?”

"It’s not exactly a sexy hobby,” says Kazu drily. “Most people don’t spend their free time visiting recreations of famous dead people.”

Carrie smiles at them both. "I'm lucky to have such good friends to indulge me.”

“Nerdy ones, you mean,” says Yumi. “Anyway, it’s not luck—it’s your personal charm. Don’t you know you’re the most interesting foreigner at Shiga Dai?"

Carrie smiles down at the ground—at the trampled blossoms, the wet grass, her damp feet in the geta.

The thing is that, whatever one might say about Carrie herself, Yumi is neither a nerd nor an outsider of any kind. But when Carrie first arrived—an awkward, stumbling foreigner—it was Yumi who swept in to rescue her. Kazu is dignified, cautious, and selective about his friends, but Yumi could be the center of any social group. Yet she’s abandoned her other friends to spend all her time with the two of them. Why?

Carrie realizes, of course, that Yumi flirts with her. But does Yumi want anything in return? If Carrie reached back, out of her pit of disorientation and itching desire, would everything come crashing down in a snarl of cross-cultural humiliation?

There’s also the possibility that Yumi’s seeking something sensual but fleeting. Transient heat and light, like that epic prince. Some people like to try foreigners on, like an exotic dress, just to see what the fabric feels like under their hands. When she imagines this with Yumi, Carrie can feel her body tremble, but she is afraid her heart would not survive the aftermath.

This world is full of aesthetics, conventions, implications that Carrie doesn’t understand. It galls her that she finds herself unable to ask any of the most important questions, although she’s spent half the past decade studying—in theory—all the words.

“Ah!” Kazu cries, interrupting her reverie. “Look alive, ladies. We’ve arrived.”

 


 

Inside the temple grounds, Yumi takes charge. "These rocks give the temple its name—see how they look like a mountain? And that’s the lily pond, and there's the worship hall. They have a famous statue of Kannon. It’s on the Saigoku pilgrimage trail.”

“You sound like a tour guide,” says Kazu suspiciously. “I thought you hadn’t been here lately.”

“Research—ever heard of it? We’re responsible for Carrie here.” Yumi swivels. “And there’s the amulet counter. Let's stop and get an ema.”

Carrie buys a votive tablet. It is wooden, feather-light, and the length of her hand. It bears an image of a long-haired woman at a writing table, awash in a sea of robes. Gazing at it makes her feel an odd sense of unease.

Yumi leads them up between azalea bushes, along otherwise empty paths. “This is lucky! We’re the only ones here. We picked a good time.”

She halts with a flourish. “And this," she says, "is the Genji room."

What Carrie sees is a wooden entrance in a silvered wooden wall. An ornately carved doorway curls downward, like a flower. It looks about a thousand years old.

Within, dim shapes suggest a standing screen, floor cushions, a low table like the one in Kazu’s room. Despite the warm spring day, despite the scent of leaves and azaleas, beyond the door everything is cool, monochromatic, still.

There's nobody there.

Yumi nudges her hip. “Come on!”

Carrie's geta clonk hollowly on the porchboards as they approach the doorway. She realizes, with a curl of panic, that she feels exactly the way she does when she has to meet her thesis advisor unprepared. She has absolutely no idea what she is going to say.

Yumi stops her with a touch. Ceremoniously, she says something out loud—it’s Japanese, but so intimidatingly humble and formal that Carrie can't pick out even the verbs.

Kazu whispers in her ear, "I think she got that from a period drama." Carrie huffs a tiny laugh and feels better.

"Lady Murasaki! Shikibu!” says Yumi. “Will you honor us, your humble supplicants, with a moment of your time?” She's holding up the ema, bowing from the waist, eyes down. Carrie wonders if she’s not overdoing it.

There's a breathing sound, like a flame kindling, and the room isn't empty any more.

Lady Murasaki is looking down at the writing table. Carrie can see the line of her jaw, the dark tracery of her eyelashes. In her right hand, she holds an inkstone and a brush.

Carrie sucks in a breath.

Murasaki’s eyes are cast down toward the table, which is littered with writing paper in scrolls. Her face and hands are a strange, bloodless color. Even stranger, they flicker slightly, as if lit by an invisible lantern.

Her robes make trailing patterns on the floor—a dozen purples, from snow-like lavender to shadow-dark, plus one in a disturbing shade of red. Winter colors, Carrie thinks, despite the irises, the sun. At first glance she sees a black robe too, until she realizes it’s just Lady Murasaki's impossibly long hair, stacked in heaps amid the silk.

Yumi clears her throat.

"Lady Murasaki. We've come to speak with you."

Murasaki looks up.

The facial movements aren't convincing, not really. The eyes aren't really alive. But, still, there's something there, that makes Carrie stare, and stop herself back from leaning forward into them.

Murasaki’s gaze lands on Kazu and holds there, dropping and returning.

Yumi murmurs, "I think it's trying to decide if Kazu's male or female. If we're all girls, we can talk face to face. But if it decides Kazu's a guy, there'll have to be a screen, or maybe a fan. Heian women can't talk to men directly."

Kazu snorts softly. "I didn't have this problem last time. I must be making progress." To the flickering shadows he says assertively: "I'm female."

The shadows seem to analyze this.

Carrie whispers to Yumi, "Will it just take Kazu's word?”

"Well, Kazu doesn't fit neatly into categories. Really, how can it tell? It assumes you and I are girls because of our clothes, but if you were doing your cute-tomboy look, it'd have trouble." Yumi squeezes her wrist and gives her a smile, and Carrie has to drop her eyes like Lady Murasaki.

"Welcome to my humble chamber," says the hologram.

“That’s it!” says Yumi. “We’re in. Remember, Kazu is a girl now, okay?” Carrie nods and instructs her brain that this is not the time for a pronoun headache.

Yumi bows again. "Lady Murasaki! We’ve come to you for advice. We hoped you might have some words for our friend. She’s having trouble starting her … uh, her book."

"It’s a thesis," Carrie protests.

Kazu chuckles. "She won't know that word. She's from before the invention of the university."

"But surely she’s sort of up to date,” Carrie whispers. “I mean, you said students come here. And anyway, she accepted you—and me, even though I’m a Westerner in a yukata. And …” She frowns. “Are you sure it’s polite, to talk in front of her like this?"

Kazu says, "She won’t parse it. She's only sort of real. Not completely an awake person. Her brain’s not completely ... alive.”

“She’s trapped inside her room,” Yumi adds, “and always waits until she’s spoken to. Just like a proper Heian lady.”

“As for ‘accepting’ me,” says Kazu, “it’s more as if she can’t see me. Heian culture was deeply binary. There’s no category for ‘between men and women.' She can't conceptualize me as I am, so I just dropped the idea-of-me into the more convenient jar." Kazu laughs, a little bitterly, and that is so unlike Kazu that it jabs Carrie's heart. "Really, we haven't changed much since then."

“Well, Lady Shikibu?” says Yumi. “Have you any advice?”

The hologram’s eyes move back and forth among them. "'Advice'?"

"Yes. Please," says Yumi. "Since you’re so renowned for your wisdom and scholarship.”

Carrie thinks Murasaki seems unsettled by this. But then, how is a hologram supposed to look?

Murasaki’s face, she realizes, is coated with some kind of powder. That would explain the pallor. Maybe she has a natural human color underneath.

The hologram clears its throat—such a human sound that Carrie jumps.

"In general," the hologram begins, "it is ... awkward ... to say profound things. It is better to speak with simplicity. The difficulty is to understand the occasion, and adapt oneself to it."

Yumi says, "Our friend's occasion is … Well, it’s her work of writing. Of scholarship.”

The hologram touches a scroll of paper, with a soft reverence. “But why come here to make inquiries? It would not be becoming for such a person as I to chatter away.”

“Lady Murasaki!” says Yumi. “Of course we’ve come to see you. Everyone’s read your Genji. I mean, it’s the finest work written by women or men. It’s survived the centuries! It's made you more renowned than Sei Shonagon, or any Queen or Emperor …”

Kazu hisses, "Slow your roll. Modest Heian lady, remember? You'll freak her out."

Indeed, the hologram’s eyes have gone wide.

“Those who are always trying to outdo one another attract notice!” it says. “Anyone who is too richly gifted—anyone who cannot turn aside from things that interest her—how can such a person possibly end happily?"

It turns the writing brush over in its hands. Its long hair shadows its lowered face.

"When my brother Nobunori was a boy,” it says, “my father was anxious to make a good Chinese scholar of him. Of course.” The brush turns. The long sleeves ripple like water.

"I sat beside him at his lessons. He was slow and often forgot. But I learned the classics so quickly that soon I was prompting him every time he slipped up."

“At this, my father would sigh and say to me: 'If only you'd been born a boy! How happy and proud I would be!'"

Carrie opens her mouth. A jab from Kazu’s elbow silences her.

"But I heard people saying that it is not beautiful—even for a man—to be proud of his learning.” It pauses. “After that, I wrote not a single stroke in Chinese. I pretended I could not even read the characters written on the royal screens. I grew clumsy with my writing brush. I was ashamed to—to think how others would hate me.”

"But you can read Chinese,” says Yumi. “I mean, you could. You tutored the Queen!”

Murasaki looks alarmed. “Our lessons are held very secretly, when no one is around. Even reading sutras is not encouraged for women.”

Carrie can feel Yumi beside her radiating distress. “But you could write. You did. Your writing is famous—even today … your writing made you immortal.”

The hologram says heavily: "It would be very unfortunate if my writings were scattered about and made known to others."

Yumi shakes her head fiercely. She is very unhappy, though Carrie can’t quite understand why. She feels a sudden overwhelming desire to touch her.

"I have written a great deal," Murasaki says. "But recently I have torn up all my old writings. I buried some. I made dolls' houses of the rest."

To her surprise, Carrie finds tears prickling her eyes.

Beside her, Yumi has gone still as glass. Abruptly, she spins round and stalks away. Carrie can hear her chopines thunking on the planks.

After a moment, the clatter of Kazu’s broad, square soles follows.

Carrie stays where she is, looking into the shadows of the Genji room. Murasaki has not lifted her head, her shadowed face.

Behind her, she hears Yumi and Kazu conferring in mutters. “What is this?” Yumi demands. “I don’t remember hearing all this—this bullshit, last time.”

“I don’t know,” Kazu says. He sounds (no: she—sounds) disturbed, if less obscurely angry than Yumi. “But you’re right; I don’t remember her being like this. Maybe she’s been updated? It’s been seven years.”

Yumi snorts. “I bet. I just bet someone in the Ministry decided it would be better for all those ambitious college girls to hear what kind of life advice a Heian lady would really give. So much for cultural progress!”

Carrie looks again at the pale figure, enfolded in shadows. Eyes down, silent, waiting.

“Maybe she’s just unhappy,” she says.

She hadn’t planned to say that, and she’s not quite sure why she did. But it makes a certain sense, so she follows it. “Maybe she’s just having a bad day.”

Kazu sounds startled. “The hologram?"

“I mean, she’s a writer, right? So she’s sensitive. Maybe she feels different at different times. Or with different people.” The figure seems small in the grey room, despite the robes. Isolated. “Maybe something’s making her unhappy.”

“Hm,” Kazu says. He (no, no! she) has returned to Carrie’s side. “It’s possible. After all, none of us are experts. Maybe her algorithms do work that way.”

“Maybe,” says Yumi. “You think we can leverage that to—you know—actually get her to talk to us?”

“Let’s try.” Kazu turns back to the hologram.

Carrie notes with a flicker of surprise that although otherwise statue-still, the hologram is moving its ink-brush hand across the paper, as if it were writing. But the brush doesn’t leave any marks.

“Lady Murasaki.” Kazu clears her throat. “How are you … ah … doing today?”

The silence hangs, heavy.

Then, softly, the hologram says: “Although an unimportant person, I had passed my life without feeling contempt for myself, until I came to Court. Now, I experience all its bitterness.”

You traveled far from home, Carrie thinks. You didn't understand how things worked.

"There is no silence here,” says the hologram. “I remember my former career as a wanderer on dream paths. And I loathe myself for having become so familiar with Court life.”

“It gets hard,” Carrie says quietly. “Being in a strange place, alone.” She is keenly aware of Yumi’s taut listening silence beside her.

“The hours here are different from those at home. Our dreams are broken by the sound of shoes along the corridor …” Its hand moves fitfully, ghostlike, across the paper. “I feel, more and more deeply, that I have gone into a world not intended for me."

Carrie murmurs, “Does it make it hard for you to write?”

The hologram looks right up at Carrie with its dark, blank eyes. "I think of the days when I looked out of the great doors of my home, and the colors of flowers—the voices of birds, the skies of spring and autumn, moon shadows, frost and snow—told me nothing but that time was revolving."

Carrie blurts out, “Were you lonely, then?” And then, with a sudden leap of intuition, something internal making itself known, she says, “Are you lonely, here, now? Are you … Do you know where—? Do you miss …?”

The hologram’s eyes are fixed upon her. It says: “It is useless to talk with those who do not understand one.”

Carrie, throat tight, nods.

“Yet the human heart is an invisible and dreadful being.” The eyes slide away. “O worthless heart,” it whispers. “I long for Lady Dainagon, with whom I spent every night before the queen. When we told each other all our secrets …”

Carrie feels giddy, on the verge of an epiphany, as if a question’s about to be answered that she hadn’t realized she’d asked.

The hologram raises its head. “An invisible,” it says, firmly and clearly, and its shallow eyes are open wide and Carrie realizes they are staring through her and that is horrifying and shouldn’t be, because it is not alive—

“—And dreadful being,” says Murasaki.

Yumi takes a sharp breath. “Lady—“

There’s a snap, as of a flame going out.

The shadows flatten. The air deflates.

The room is filled with nothing but silence.

 


 

The porch outside the Genji room is filled with nothing but silence.

Beside her, Carrie hears Yumi let out a long, hissed breath. After a moment, Kazu does too.

“Wow,” Kazu says. “That … wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.” She sighs. “Sorry, Carrie. I’m afraid our audience is over.”

Carrie can’t take her eyes from the ink-grey shadows. Beside her, Yumi is still and silent.

Kazu touches her arm, and Carrie jumps. “Come on,” Kazu says. Her voice is gentle. “Let’s go. She isn’t coming back.”

Carrie lets Kazu’s hand turn her round. Suddenly the sky is large again beyond the porch, the sun warm, the wind shivering the leaves in the temple yard.

Kazu’s already heading away down the steps, back toward the path to the main grounds.

Carrie looks at Yumi. Yumi looks back at her, silent as the hologram was, and for once Carrie finds her face completely unreadable.

Carrie opens her mouth, closes it again. Then she turns, and follows Kazu down between the azaleas, Yumi’s footsteps soft and clear behind her.

Kazu’s voice floats back; her brisk pace has carried her ahead. “That really was so weird, though! Was it the algorithm? But why would that make her—? And at the end, when she …” She doesn’t seem to mind not being answered, turning round her own half-finished sentences, savoring the puzzle.

Carrie reaches the sloping path down to the main complex. The rustle of stiff skirts tells her Yumi’s keeping pace behind her.

Carrie picks her way down the steps, careful in someone else’s geta.

Yumi’s voice is soft. “What are you thinking about?”

“Dreams. Paths. Time revolving.” Carrie frowns. “Invisible things.”

Only Yumi’s quiet breathing.

“Shadows,” says Carrie. “And secrets.” At the bottom stair, she steps forward onto grass and turns again to face Yumi. “I think she was lonely,” she says. “How about you?”

The question’s ambiguity hangs in the air. Yumi doesn’t look away.

“Yes,” she says.

Carrie swallows. She looks at the grass, and says, “It must be terrible, to be alone in a room.”

“I can imagine,” says Yumi. “Being alone is awful, for anyone. It must be even worse in a strange place.”

Carrie bites her lip. “Do you think she knows?” she blurts. “I mean, do you think she knows exactly how—knows where—

“Yes. Yes, Carrie. She knows.”

Carrie looks up.

“You heard how much she misses Lady Dainagon,” says Yumi. “To whom she used to tell the secrets of her heart. She knows how alone she is. She knows.” She holds out her hand to Carrie. “It’s terrible to be alone.”

After a moment, Carrie takes Yumi’s hand. Yumi steps down, the last step, to join her on the grass, and her eyes are not strange or shallow at all.

Carrie’s head feels oddly clear, and very light. It’s strange: she realizes she had expected that if this moment ever came, she would find in Yumi’s face a clear answer, a beautiful yes, or a no. But what she sees is instead less certain than that, more fluid.

And yet, regarding her from the frame of her veil, it is certain that Yumi’s face—Carrie’s heart twists with it—is shining.

“Ladies!” Kazu calls, impatient and invisible among the trees. “Where are you two? Come on!”

Yumi starts toward the path, still holding Carrie’s hand, and Carrie, seeking balance, follows.

Yumi sounds bizarrely calm, as if they’re just walking together on campus. “So,” she says, “have you found that inspiration you were looking for?” At Carrie’s expression, she actually grins. “For your thesis, I mean.”

Carrie laughs. She feels shocky. “I ... don’t know. I forgot.” The world’s vastly expanded, full of possibilities. She can’t seem to find her anxiety. A thousand ideas prickle at the edges of her mind, waiting to be plucked, examined, grown. “I’m not worried, though.” She’s astonished to find it true. She repeats, “I’m not worried. I’ll just start the pen moving on the paper, and something will come out.”

Yumi stops and turns to look at her, smiling, shining, and Carrie realizes, surprised and sudden, that she is suspended outside of time, and if she opens her mouth nothing will come out except the colors of flowers, the voices of birds, the skies of spring and autumn, poetry, poetry.

“Hey!” —and Kazu’s voice crackles into the glass, shatters it and breaks them back out into the noon-hot garden. “I’m a gentleman, but I’m not gallant enough to wait for you forever. Come on!”

It’s tricky, at first, walking while holding hands is tricky, at first—Carrie almost tumbles over her sandals—but Carrie doesn’t want to let go. The hand in hers is warm and alive.

And then Yumi’s solid weight becomes a balance, and the rhythm begins to make sense.

Their shoes leave tracks behind them in the wet earth, as they make their way, together, down through the February sun.



S.R. Mandel is from San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, in that order. She is participating in the Odyssey writers’ workshop in 2019. She has lived in France, central Japan, and the Middle East, and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Apex, Lackington’s, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. She likes things that are several things at the same time. Find her @susannah_speaks or online at srmandel.com.
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