Excerpt from Black Dragonfly
by Jean Pasley
Black Dragonfly is a novel based on the remarkable life of the nomadic Irish writer, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Japan’s two centuries of isolation have recently ended, and Western influences are flooding in. Hearn arrives to record this unique culture before it vanishes. After spending a few difficult months in Yokohama, he moves to Matsue, a remote city as yet untouched by the modern world.
Winter, Matsue, Japan, 1890
Since taking up his post at the school Hearn had been showered with gifts: food, sake, a little wooden pillow, Japanese clothes, wooden sandals, and all kinds of things to make his life comfortable. But the strangest gift of all was presented to him by the daughter of the Governor of Izumo, who thought that the foreign teacher might be lonely. It was a caged insect: a grass lark. At first he was baffled by the insect, which he needed a magnifying glass to see. It was about the size of a mosquito with a pair of antennae much longer than its own body. He brought it home and that evening at sunset the room filled with delicate ghostly music of indescribable sweetness. As the darkness deepened, the sound became sweeter and sweeter, sometimes swelling until the whole house seemed to vibrate with elfish resonance, sometimes thinning down into the faintest imaginable thread of a voice. All night long the tiny insect sang and it did not cease until the temple bell proclaimed dawn.
The days were full. His duties at the school were not difficult and the boys were all wonderfully docile and patient. Once they realised that he did not consider them savages as their previous teacher had, they were most receptive. Teaching schoolboys turned out to be much more agreeable than he had expected. A fellow teacher, Nishida San, spoke reasonable English, and he prepared the lessons in advance so that Hearn’s lack of Japanese made for no difficulty in the classroom.
Nishida San had a plain, broad face that belied his thin body and he oozed eagerness to please, so much so, that at first Hearn thought him a little simple. Nishida San may have been slow in his responses but he was far from simple; he was a deep thinker who thought everything through thoroughly before speaking.
Stress became a thing of the past, and every night Hearn went home looking forward to the song of the grass lark. Loud or low, it kept up a penetrating sound that was strangely soothing. He assumed that the song it sang was a love song; it was calling out for a mate. Breeding and selling of insects was a lucrative industry, and he was about to buy a female, but he was warned that if the grass lark mated it would die.
Night after night he listened to the creature’s plaintive, unanswered trilling. It touched him like a reproach and became a torment of conscience and of wonder. How was it that the grass lark knew this mating song? He had been told that it was hatched from an egg in a clay jar in the shop of an insect merchant and had only ever lived in a cage, as had its parents and all the generations that had gone before it. It had never known life in the fields and yet it sang the song of its species as faultlessly as if it understood the significance of every note. It was a song of organic memory, a deep dim memory of former lives when it trilled at night from the dewy grasses of the hills.
The poor little grass lark continued to sing his heart out for the bride who would never come; it had forgotten about the resulting death and only remembered the need for love. He began to think that perhaps humans’ search for love was also a phantom of organic memory. The living present had very little to do with it. He himself had stumbled blindly into love, to his own detriment. Still, it seemed cruel to deny the grass lark its basic instinct and he was about to release it when he realised that it would not find a mate; it was late in the season and they were probably all dead. The little creature was only alive because of the relative warmth of the room. If he set it free it would not survive a single night. Even if he let it go in the daytime, it would soon be devoured by ants, or centipedes or the ghastly earth spiders that prowled the garden.
Winter came and the shoji screens were no defence against the plummeting temperature. The grass lark died and he was irrationally heartbroken. His custom of feeding it every day–the tiniest sliver of cucumber– and thinking about its needs and wants had created an attachment, which he only became conscious of when the relationship ended. It was absurd; life seemed suddenly empty and all because of an insect half the size of a grain of barley.
The first snowstorm piled five feet of snow around his flimsy house. The lake froze. The city, the fields and the mountains were smothered with snow. Severe winds chilled him to the bone and his one little hibachi stove provided only an illusion of heat. He caught pneumonia and was forced to spend weeks in bed, shaking, feverish and coughing up blood. Concerned well-wishers visited daily bearing warming broths, curious medicinal remedies and charcoal for the hibachi. It was his first serious setback since his arrival in Matsue and with it came a check to his enthusiasm about his great Japanese project.
“I believe I would be warmer living in a cattle barn. Another winter like this will put me underground.”
He drank the warm sake his colleague, and now friend, Nishida San had brought.
“So much snow. Most unusual.”
“I never saw a heavier snowfall, not even in Canada.”
“Soon it will melt and you will be well again.”
He could see that Nishida San was embarrassed, almost ashamed, as if he was to blame for the climate and for Hearn’s illness. He put on a cheerful face to placate his friend.
“You’ve all been astonishingly kind to me. Thank you, Nishida San. If not for you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Some weeks later, when he was back at work, Nishida San surprised him with a peculiar solution to the ongoing problem of Hearn’s inability to keep warm.
“You should marry, Hearn San.”
“What? Marry because I am cold?”
He searched his friend’s face to see if he was teasing. He was not.
“That wouldn’t be a good reason to marry.”
They were sitting in the chilly teachers’ room drinking tea. His desk was next to Nishida San’s and on each desk was a small hibachi made of glazed blue and white stoneware. In an attempt to warm himself, Hearn held his hands close to the few lumps of glowing charcoal in the bed of ashes in his hibachi. Nishida San looked at him with concern.
“You really do need a wife, Hearn San. Somebody to look after you, to keep you warm at nights, to cook and clean for you and keep your clothes in good repair.”
“That sounds like a form of slavery.”
“Oh, no, it would be an honour for any Japanese woman to serve you.”
“Nonsense. Besides, I couldn’t make such a commitment. I’ll only be here for a few years and then I’m going to retire to the West Indies.”
“But until then you should have a wife.”
“Even if I agreed, who would have me? I’m an old man.”
“You’re not young but I know someone who might marry you.”
The woman he had in mind was twenty-two year old Koizumi Setsuko, the only daughter of a proud samurai family with good breeding and steel in the blood. Despite her aristocratic roots, with the abolition of the samurai class her family had fallen from a position of privilege to abject poverty. Their only income, and it was paltry, came from the mother who took in needlework and from Setsuko, who had been reduced to taking a job as a humble servant.
“I’m a romantic. I couldn’t possibly—”
“This is not romance, Hearn San. It’s practical. You must think about it.”
“My dear friend, to live forever in one woman’s company would kill a man with boredom.”
“It need not be forever. Marriage with a foreign man would not be considered permanent and could be easily ended if you decided to leave.”
“No, I couldn’t bear to be tied down.”
“Oh, but this woman is quiet and dutiful. You will hardly notice her but you will notice the comforts she will bring you. And she will let you come and go as you please.”
“Is it possible that such a woman exists?” said Hearn, who had often dreamed of having a quiet wife, who would leave him in peace to do his work.
At home that evening he slid open the shoji screens and sat on the floor looking out at the chilly night, thinking about Nishida San’s proposal. In the distance, paper lanterns hung along the far side of the lake like a long line of shimmering fireflies. Across the river, the broad shoji screens of hundreds of dwellings were suffused with the soft yellow radiance of invisible lamps. In these lighted spaces he could see slender moving shadows, the silhouettes of graceful women. He silently prayed that glass would never be adopted in Japan as it would put an end to these delicious shadows. He listened to the voices of the city until the great bell of Tokoji temple rolled its soft thunder across the dark and he thought how pleasant it would be to have a graceful Japanese woman moving silently about in the shadows of his own house.
The following day, he broached the subject with Nishida-san.
“That woman you were talking about—”
“Yes. Perhaps I should meet her.”
End of Excerpt
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