Fragrance in Literature-The Dragon Painter, by Mary McNeil Fenollosa

The Dragon Painter, by Mary McNeil Fenollosa

Now, in the kitchen, a great searching among jars and boxes on high shelves told of preparation for the occasional brew. Again she thought of calling Umè. Umè could reach the highest shelf without standing on an inverted rice-pot, or the even more precarious fish-cleaning bench. And again, for a reason not quite plain to herself, Mata decided not to call. She threw a fresh handful of twigs and dried ferns to the sleeping ashes of the brazier, set a copper skillet deep into the answering flame, and began dropping dried bits of herbs into the simmering water. Instantly the air was changed,—was tinged and interpenetrated with hurrying, spicy fumes, with hints of a bitter bark, of jellied gums, of resin, and a compelling odor which should have been sweet, but was only nauseating. The steam assumed new colors as it rose. Each sprite of aromatic perfume when released plunged into noiseless tumult with opposing fumes. The kitchen was a crucible, and the old dame a mediaeval alchemist. The flames and smoke striving upward, as if to reach her bending face, made it glow with the hue of the copper kettle, a wrinkled copper, etched deep with lines of life, of merriment, perplexity, of shrewd and practical experience.

He did not speak or try to touch her. A second gust of wind came from the cliff, blowing against his hand a long tress of her hair. It was warm and perfumed, and had the clinging tenderness of youth. He shivered now, as she was doing, and stood looking down at his hand. Umè made a swift motion as if to pass him; but he threw out the barrier of an arm.

"That is enough," said the old man, and with a sigh held the missive out. Tatsu snatched it through the air. The perfume of plum blossoms was stealing from it. Once alone he crushed the delicate tissue against eyes and lips and throat. He rolled upon the bed in agony, only to press again to his heart this balm of her written words. It seemed to him, then, that the letter might really have come from the Meido-land. Could it be true, as the old priest said, that her soul continually hovered near, waiting only for him to give it recognition? "Umè, Umè,—my wife! Come back to me!" he cried aloud in an agony so great that it should drag her backward through that dark shadow-world,—not only the phantom of what she was, but Umè-ko herself, with the flower-like body, and the smile of light. He opened the missive slowly, that not a shred should be torn, and spread the thin tissue smoothly on his foreign pillow.

January, with its snows, had passed. The plum-tree buds had opened, one by one, in the chill, early winds of spring, giving at times unwilling hospitality to flakes of snow whiter than themselves. In February, under warmer sunshine, the blossoms showed in constellations, a myriad on a single branch. Then, all too soon, the falling of wan petals made a perfumed tragedy of snow upon the garden paths.
Tatsu grew to love the old dragon plum as Umè-ko had loved it. She was its name-child, Umè, and he felt its sweetness to be one with her. At night the perfume crept in to him through crannies of the close-shut amado and shoji, revivifying, to keen agony, his longing for his wife. There were moonlit nights he could not rest for it, but would rise, pacing the cold, wet pebbles of the garden, or wandering, like a distracted spirit that had lost its way, through the thoroughfares of the sleeping town.

He was absent from the house for several hours. The long walk through unseen streets and over unnoticed bridges had given the boon, at least, of physical fatigue. Now, perhaps, he could get to sleep before the black ants of thought had rediscovered him. Entering the room quietly he closed the shoji, smoothed the bed-clothes with an impatient hand, and knelt, for an instant, before the shrine. Perhaps, after all, rest was not to come. The air was sweet and heavy with Umè-ko. The faint perfume of sandalwood which, living, always hung about her garments, flowed in with the odor of the plum. She must be near,—Umè herself, in mortal garments. In the next room, the veranda, hiding in the closet to spring out merrily upon him! He groaned and strove to plunge his mind into prayer.

About half the distance up the steep the temple bell above them sounded six slow, deliberate strokes. First came the sonorous impact of the swinging beam against curved metal, then the "boom," the echo,—the echoes of that echo to endless repetition, sifting in layers through the thinner air upon them, sweeping like vapor low along the hillside with a presence and reality so intense that it should have had color, or, at least, perfume; settling in a fine dew of sound on quivering ferns and grasses, permeating, it would seem, with its melodious vibration the very wood of the houses and the trunks of living trees.

Once when his suffering had passed beyond the power of all earthly alleviation, and it seemed as if each moment would fling the shuddering victim into the dark land of perpetual madness, Kano urged that the venerable abbot from the Shingon temple on the hill be summoned. He came in full regalia of office,—splendid in crimson and gold. With him were two acolytes, young and slender figures, also in brocade, but with hoods of a sort of golden gauze drawn forward so as to conceal the faces within. They bore incense burners, sets of the mystic vagra, and other implements of esoteric ceremony. The high priest carried only his tall staff of polished wood, tipped with brass, and surmounted by a glittering, symbolic design, the "Wheel of the Law," the hub of which is a lotos flower.

Tatsu, at sight of them, tossed angrily on his bed, railing aloud, in his thin, querulous voice, and scoffing at any power of theirs to comfort, until, in spite of himself, a strange calm seemed to move about him and encircle him. He listened to the chanted words, and the splendid invocations, spoken in a tongue older than the very gods of his own land, wondering, the while, at his own acquiescence. Surely there was a sweet presence in the room that held him as a smile of love might hold. He was sorry when the ceremony came to an end. The abbot, whispering to the others, sent all from the room but himself, Tatsu, and the smaller of the acolytes, who still knelt motionless at the head of the sick man's couch, holding upward an incense burner in the shape of a lotos seed-pod. The blue incense smoke breathed upward, sank again as if heavy with its own delight, encircling, almost as if with conscious intention, the kneeling figure, and then moved outward to Tatsu and the enclosing walls.

In that gray cemetery on the further slope Kano's wife, the young mother who died so long ago that Umè-ko could not remember her at all, slept beneath a granite shaft which said, "A Flower having blossomed in the Night, the Halls of the Gods are fragrant." This was the Buddhist kaimyo, or priestly invocation to the spirit of the dead. Of the more personal part of the young mother, her name, age, and the date of her "divine retirement," these were recorded in the household shrine of the Kano cottage, where her "ihai" stood, just behind a little lamp of pure vegetable oil whose light had never yet been suffered to die. Through this shrine, and the daily loving offices required by it, she had never ceased to be a presence in the house. Even in his passionate desire for a son to inherit the name and traditions of his race, old Kano had not been able to endure the thought of a second wife who might wish the shrine removed.

The voice, trailing away through silence and the night, had a tone of supernatural sweetness. When it had quite faded Kano stared on, for a long time, into the fragrant solitude. Stars were out now by thousands, a gold mosaic set into a high purple dome. Off to the south a wide blur of artificial light hung above the city, the visible expression, as it were, of the low, human roar of life, audible even in this sheltered nook. To the north, almost it seemed within touch of his hands, the temple cliff rose black, formidable, and impressive, a gigantic wall of silence. The camphor tree overhead was thrown out darkly against the stars, like its own shadow. The velvety boom of the temple bell, striking nine, held in its echoes the color and the softness of the hour.

A little later, when the neighborhood reverberated to the slamming of amado and the sharp rattle of paper dusters against taut shoji panes; when fragrant faggot smoke went up from every cottage, and the street cries of itinerant venders signalled domestic buying for the day, Mata discovered the wild man in the garden, and roused her sleeping master with the news. She went, too, to Umè's room, and was reassured to see the girl apparently in slumber within a neat bed, the andon burning temperately in its corner, and the whole place eloquent of innocence and peace, Kano shivered himself into his day clothes (the process was not long), and hurried out to meet his guest.

Naturally Umè-ko did not succeed. Tatsu merely laughed at her flagrant efforts at duplicity. He felt no need of painting, no desire to paint. He had won the Dragon Maiden. Life could give him no more! There was no anger or resentment in his feeling toward Kano, or even the old scourge Mata. No, he was too happy! To lie dreaming on the fragrant, matted floor near Umè, where he could listen to her soft breathing and at times pull her closer by a silken sleeve,—this was enough for Tatsu. Nothing had power to arouse in him a sense of duty, of obligation to himself, or to his adopted father. He would not argue about it, and could scarcely be said to listen. He lived and moved and breathed in love as in a fourth dimension. To the old man's frequent remonstrances he would turn a gentle, deprecating face. He had promised Umè-ko never again to speak rudely to their father. Besides, why should he? The outer world was all so beautiful and sad and unimportant. A sunset cloud, or a bird swinging from a hagi spray could bring sharp, swift tears to his eyes. Beauty could move him, but not old Kano's genuine sufferings. Yet, the old man, bleating from the arid rocks of age, was doubtless a pathetic spectacle, and must be listened to kindly.

A huge coal barge on its way to the Yokohama harbor glided close to them along the dark surface of the tide. At the far end of the barge a fire was burning, and above it, from a round black cauldron, boiling rice sent up puffs of white, fragrant steam. The red light fell upon a ring of faces, evidently a mother and her children; and on the broad, naked back of the father who leaned far outward on his guiding pole. Umè turned her eyes away. "I think I can walk now," she said.

"In former days, before—before my illness, I came here often," said the other. His eyes hung on the written words of the kaimyo. "If you grieved deeply, it must have been great solace that you could come thus to her grave," he added wistfully. Then, as Kano still remained silent, he read aloud the beautiful daishi, "A flower having blossomed in the night, the Halls of the Gods are Fragrant."

On the third day, Kano being thus absent, and old Mata alone in her kitchen as nervous, she would have told you, as a fish with half its scales off, she heard the fusuma of the distant room shudder, and then, with a sound of feeble jerks, begin to separate. She knew that it was Tatsu, and rallied herself for the approach. Through the shaded corridor came a figure scarcely animate, moving it would seem in answer to a soundless call. It entered the kitchen halting, and looking about as one in an unfamiliar place. On a square stone brasier, fed with glowing coals, the rice-pot steamed. The delicate vapor, tinged with aroma of the cooking food, made a fine mist in the air. Suddenly he thrust an arm out toward the fire. "Rice!—I am faint with hunger," he whispered. As if the few words had taken his last store of strength, he sank to the floor. Mata sprang to him. He had swooned. His face, young and beautiful in spite of the centuries of pain upon it, lay back, helpless, on her arm. She stared strangely down upon him, wondering where the old antipathy had gone, and striving (for she was an obstinate old soul, was Mata) consciously to recall it,—but the core of her hate was gone. Like a true woman she began to make self-excuses for the change. "It may have been because of this poor boy and his unhappy karma that my nursling had to die," said she. "But, look what love has done to him! Death is only another name for paradise compared with the agony sunken deep into this young face!"

Umè remained in her chamber. She had not been seen since the dance. All her fusuma and shoji were closed. Mata, in leaving her master, looked tentatively toward this room, but after an imperceptible pause kept on down the central passageway of the house to the bathroom, at the far end. The place smelled of steam, of charcoal fumes, and cedar wood. With two long, thin iron "fire-sticks," Mata poked, from the top, the heap of darkening coals in the cylindrical furnace that was built into one end of the tub. For the protection of the bather this was surrounded with a wooden lattice which, being always wet when the furnace was in use, never charred. The tub itself was of sugi-wood. After years of service it still gave out unfailingly its aromatic breath, and felt soft to the touch, like young leaves. Sighing heavily, the old servant bared her arm and leaned over to stir the water, to draw down by long, elliptical swirls of motion the heated upper layers into cold strata at the bottom. She then wiped her arm on her apron and went to the threshold of the guest-room to inform the waiting occupant. "In ten minutes more, without fail, the water will be at right heat for your augustness."

The amado went back as if of itself. In an instant Umè's face was among the dew-wet leaves of the plum tree. Oh, it was sweet! The night smelled of silence and the stars. She threw back her head to drink it like a liquid. She lifted the insect in its cage. By holding it high, against a star of special brightness, she could see the tiny bit of life gazing at her through its bars. She opened the door of the cage, and set it among the twigs of the plum. Then barefooted, ungirdled, with hair unbound, she stepped down upon the stone beneath the tree, and then to the garden path.

The hospital room, in an upper story, was small, with matted floors, and a single square window to the east. The narrow white iron bed was set close to this window, so that the invalid might gaze out freely. Tatsu did not ask that it be changed though, indeed, each recurrent dawn brought martyrdom to him. The sound of sparrows at the eaves, the smell of dew, the look of the morning mist as it spread great wings above the city, hovering for an instant before its flight, the glow of the first pink light upon his coverlid, each was an iron of memory searing a soul already faint with pain. The attendant often marvelled why, at this hour, Tatsu buried his face from sight, and, emerging into clearer day, bore the look of one who had met death in a narrow pass.