Author's note: Hello there! Here we go again, a new story about Japanese legends!
This story is sort of a sequel to my previous story, 'Kitsune-Hime: Lady of Foxes'. If you haven't read that story, it's not compulsory; this one will still make sense without it. I hadn't originally planned to write a sequel; 'Kitsune-Hime' was meant to be a self-contained story. However, I had this idea, and now I think it would be nice to have a whole series of '-hime' stories - even if they only amount to a diptych! If I explained how this one follows on from 'Kitsune-Hime' I would give away spoilers, so please read patiently, all will be revealed!
This story is based on a Japanese fable called 'The Girl Who Loved Insects' (or, alternately, 'The Lady Who Loved Vermin'; the nouns are interchangeable). Long story short, a young lady loves to study insects, and has several other eccentric (for the time) habits, for which others regard her as strange. The original story professes to have a Part 2, but no scroll containing it has ever been found, and the story is left without resolution, the lady still regarded as strange and without a suitor to ask for her hand. I thought I would play with the story a bit, substituting what I think should have happened to the lady after the original scroll ended.
Once again, I get to indulge in my love of ancient Japanese mythology and culture. I've been doing a lot of research for a comic I'm drawing that is set in the Heian period, which is when this story also takes place; I've learned a lot of things that I didn't know when I wrote 'Kitsune-Hime'. I've added some footnotes at the end of the chapter, to explain a few period concepts, and just for the sake of interest; they are marked in the text with bracketed numbers.
Alright; otherwise, I hope everyone enjoys reading this story! I appreciate all reviews, and I'll try to write the next chapter as soon as I can!
Mushi-hime: The Lady Who Loved Insects
Chapter One: A Frightful Young Lady
"Just a short while longer, my lord."
Though it was the older of the two men who addressed these words to his companion, he seemed to be saying them more for his own benefit.
They were in a room which was large, airy and well-appointed; however, their backs were turned to its rich furnishings, leaving them oblivious to its spacious proportions. They stood right at the edge of the tatami matting, where the chamber opened onto a narrow verandah. A small courtyard lay beyond this, but it was cordoned off by a hanging screen of a particularly dense weave; they had to almost press their faces against it in order to peer between its closely-spaced slats.
Only a thin snatch of breeze filtered through it. The younger man compensated for the weakness of its current with the ornate fan he had been carrying folded in his sleeve. It was made of black paper, emblazoned with a gilt pattern of chrysanthemum blossoms. He wafted it gently back and forth, seemingly using the repetitive task just to pass the time. By contrast, the older man distractedly wiped a fine sheen of moisture from his forehead with the edge of his wide silk sleeve. His robe was a deep shade of greyish-purple, a little more sombre than indigo, as befitted his years. It was embroidered with sprays of wisteria, the motif also appearing in the clan insignia upon its back.
This man was the famed Lord Fujiwara no Munesuke, Inspector Grand Counsellor of His Imperial Majesty's Court (1).
Though normally a wise and competent administrator, he was here displaying signs that those famously calm nerves were much disturbed; that those infamously sharp wits had been rendered blunt. The dampness of his brow was not caused by the mild spring sunshine that filtered through the screen; it was nervous perspiration.
The young man beside him showed no such signs of anxiety; he merely stood fluttering his fan, a half-amused, half-polite smile similarly fluttering about his lips.
A snatch of sound reached them from outside.
Lord Munesuke tensed, seeming to hold his breath. He reached across and laid his arm on that of his companion, in a cautionary gesture. The young man's fan had grown still, though a shadow of his smile remained, anticipation and curiosity mingling freely in its upward curve. Both men gazed intently through a gap in the screen.
At first the sound was a general hubbub, coming from some distance away, but gradually drawing closer. It grew and grew, until they could hear the one sound straining with many separate voices. Though they became louder and louder, it was impossible to pick out any words, for they jumbled and ran into each other in an indefinable cacophony, like a babbling stream coursing nosily over rocks. This meandering talk was of a similarly rough nature, hardly befitting the ears of these two noblemen clad, in their rich swathes of brocade, crowned by their high-peaked black gauze hats. This was the language of peasants, borne from the farmers' field; it had no right to be uttered within the refined surrounds of civilized Heian-kyo (2).
The wicker gate at the edge of the courtyard swung open, allowing access from an adjoining thoroughfare. Half a dozen coarsely-dressed young urchins tumbled through it, jostling and scrapping at each other like a litter of rowdy puppies. Lord Munesuke shuddered to see such a pack of crude visitors thus invading his stately home. The young nobleman beside him simply watched with an air of idle interest, as the group strode brazenly across the courtyard, heading for the adjacent wing of the house. Just across from where the two men stood, running along the northern side of the courtyard, was another room, similarly furnished with a verandah and hung with wicker screens. The blind was only half-drawn; the boys clustered around it, peering into the murky room beyond.
"Young Miss!" many young voices called, repeating each other in their eagerness. "Young Miss! Fujiwara-jo! We've got 'em for you!"
A stealthy slithering of silk issued from somewhere behind the blind; then there was a sharp rustle, and a soft padding of muffled footsteps.
A pair of legs slowly emerged beneath the blind, clad in pale-mauve hakama and tipped with white feet. They were narrow, delicate limbs, though their tread was slightly halting and awkward. The screen blocked all view of their owner from the waist up; however, it was clear that the slender form they could only half-see was that of a young woman.
"There you are, my little swarm!" a voice said from behind the blind; it was both warmly familiar, and stridently commanding. "Did you acquire all that I asked for?"
"Yes'm!" the boys dutifully replied. One by one they stepped forward, reaching into sleeves and folds of shirts as they did so, closely clutching something. A pair of white hands appeared beneath the blind, unflinchingly reaching out to take the bounty offered by their grimy paws.
"Well done, Grasshopper, you've brought me even more mantises today! Not as many snails next time, Toady, I have plenty already. These larvae are fine, Millipede, but what of the pupae you promised me?" Thus the lady prattled on, praising and assessing their efforts. All the while, her face was hidden from view; all that could be seen of her were her white hands, lightly plucking at those of each of the boys, taking each of the tiny offerings that they held up for her scrutiny. "Well now," she said at length, "that is a fine collection of specimens for today! I want more of the same next time, and some cicadas if you can catch them – not just their outer coats, if you please; I have shed skins aplenty, but no actual live ones. Here is your reward – one at a time now, no shoving, there is plenty to go round."
The boys stepped up again, this time to receive something from her hand. Then, with a chorus of joyous whoops, they cavorted back across the courtyard. It was evident that their wages had been paid in some form of candy; they all munched happily as they re-passed the two men, who had observed all these happenings from behind the safety of their screen.
As the slipshod gang piled back out through the gate again, Lord Munesuke could not suppress a low mutter of disgust.
It must have reached the young lady's ears. She had been lingering close to the sunlight on the verandah, examining what the boys had brought her; at the sound, she gave a visible start.
She stood stock-still behind her screen. Her body turned slightly towards them, as if she were gazing intently at their hiding place. Her suspicions were apparently aroused, for she hurriedly gathered her collection in her sleeves, then retreated further into the depths of the room. The hem of her robe – a vivid shade of violet, sewn with a katydid design – was the last they saw of her as she furtively slipped from view. They waited a few moments more, not daring to make the slightest sound; however, she did not emerge again.
Lord Munesuke turned to his companion with an air of long-suffering resignation.
"As you see, sir," he said, in a voice that was little more than a whisper, "this is the sort of daughter that I have."
They retreated to Lord Munesuke's personal study. Cushions were laid out for them, and an attendant brought them refreshments.
The older statesman seemed to be deeply engrossed in his own thoughts; as soon as his cup had been filled, he absently lifted it towards his mouth. He had almost moistened his lips when he suddenly came to himself, remembering he was not alone; with an embarrassed chuckle, he gestured for his companion to enjoy the wine first. After they had each taken a few appreciative gulps – and Lord Munesuke had had sufficient time to inwardly rebuke himself, hastily recollecting his manners – he dismissed the servant with a curt nod. He carefully refilled his guest's wine cup with his own hands, his eyes downcast all the while.
Once he had fulfilled his duty as an attentive host, he glanced around quickly, as though to reassure himself of their privacy. At last, he asked his companion, in a strained rush of words: "Well, what is your opinion of her?"
The young nobleman smiled politely at him over the rim of his cup. "Lord Munesuke, I hardly saw nor heard enough upon which to form an opinion."
His voice was soft and respectful, yet spoke with confidence; his tone was apologetic, yet resolute.
Lord Munesuke shook his head; his brow was creased. "It hasn't stopped many others from forming their own opinions, most of which are utterly outrageous. I have heard such frightful talk – my steward has brought me reports of all kinds of wild rumours, issued from the mouths of local gawkers, passing tradesmen, our own servants. Even among honoured acquaintances, I have heard things said in voices which their owners thought to be quieter than they actually were. They say that Fujiwara-gozen is uncouth, uncultured, lacking in charm and refinement; that she lets spiders spin webs in her hair, and honeybees build their comb in the drape of her sleeves. Some even say that she is a tengu(3), collecting insects on which to feast; or that she is an insect herself, sipping nectar from flowers at mealtimes and sleeping at night in a silken cocoon."
The young nobleman laughed at this, though Munesuke's words had been spoken in all seriousness. His laughter had a rich, resonate timbre to it; it was full of reassurance. "Surely you do not believe such slanderous words – against your own daughter!"
Lord Munesuke shrugged uncertainly, though he looked rather sheepish. "I do not know what to think. I have not seen her myself for months; the child declares that 'women and demons should not be seen, only heard'. Thus she keeps herself hidden away, even from my eyes, else her irregular appearance might alarm me."
"'Irregular'?" the young man repeated.
"Indeed. She refuses to blacken her teeth, nor groom her eyebrows (4). I fear that her complexion has yellowed from going out in the sun so much, and her hands coarsened from rummaging in the dirt. She cares little for such things, calling them 'frivolous trifles'. There is no correcting or convincing her otherwise; at my behest, I have had her women talk to her many times, but she still will not be swayed. She retorts that there is little to gain from flaunting fine silks upon one's person, when one has only moths fluttering in one's mind. She sees the half-formed vigour of developing caterpillars as the source of all wisdom, and does naught but cultivate her mind in their stead, making her study of these low vermin to the exclusion of all other matters."
"A noble sentiment," the young man declared, in complimentary tones.
The statesman nodded, though he didn't look convinced. "I might agree, if she were my son; but even if she were, there is little to gain from watching worms inch along branches, with one's fingernails caked in dirt all the while. If she were a boy, I would divert her attention to affairs of greater consequence – the study of Chinese classics, tactical manuals, records of state, compositions of poetry. But she is a woman, and one of increasingly advanced age; she is nearing four and twenty (5). Not only is she uninterested in marriage, but she seems to wish to do all in her power to make herself an untenable bride. I have racked my mind, yet I cannot think of a single suitor of high enough standing who would even consider taking her for a wife. As my one daughter, and my only child besides, she should be my dearest treasure; instead, she is becoming a burden and an embarrassment to me. If only she had not inherited my own stubborn nature, or at least had a womanly influence to help temper it. If my Natsuri were still alive-"(6)
He stopped abruptly. Such matters were far too personal – and too painful – to mention before company.
With a sympathetic glance in his direction, the young man set down his cup. "What would you have me do?" he asked.
Lord Munesuke looked back at him with a grave expression; worry and desperation flickered in his eyes. "I had hoped you could determine… perhaps, if the worst could be confirmed as untrue…" He dithered over his words; at last, he drew in a lengthy breath, staring at his companion in earnest as he blurted out his direst fears. "Is she… possessed by demons?"
"Hardly." With a complacent air, the young nobleman lifted his cup and took a long sip.
Lord Munesuke relaxed visibly at this. "I know it is disgraceful for a father to ask such a thing, but I had to be sure-"
"It is disgraceful that a mind as brilliant as yours should reflect lights that are far dimmer than your own," the young man said, adopting a brusque manner which functioned as a respectful rebuke, as well as a vent for his own apparent irritation. "Disregard such incredible claims. They are spoken by those who know nothing of that about which they prattle, and would do better to not so much as ponder such things. Such is not the province of gossipers and gadabouts." He set his cup down, causing it to emit a note of finality as it struck the floor.
Munesuke was uncharacteristically meek in the face of such criticism. "I was wrong to even entertain such suspicions. As her only living guardian, my worries for her had so festered and multiplied, I suppose I began to…"
"I can understand your concern," the young man admitted, with a good dose of irony in his tone. "I myself have long been a constant object for outlandish speculation. Luckily for me, I have never been tempted to believe a word of it – I myself know just how true it is, and no one else need mind about it."
Lord Munesuke did not answer, shifting uncomfortably on his cushion. He had, indeed, heard some of the many astounding rumours that surrounded his guest; unlike the young nobleman, he had begun to at least half-believe several of them. He was keenly curious, yet didn't dare ask outright whether the stories were true.
It would be immeasurably rude to ask, he thought to himself. How could one even contemplate voicing such queries? But then, the tales told at court were related by such reliable sources; and the reputation of the man himself… given his position, it could very well be…
He looked up to realize that the young man was watching him knowingly, as if he divined his very thoughts as they passed through his mind. Being so caught in his guilt made him flush with embarrassment; however, the young man merely gave a dismissive wave of his hand.
"No matter. If such fears for your own daughter are allayed, I trust I have served my purpose?"
"Yes," Lord Munesuke said, in grateful tones, "you have my sincerest thanks for your service."
There was a significant pause. It seemed that Lord Munesuke wished to say more, but was unsure of how to do so. The young nobleman eyed him thoughtfully, the same bemused half-smile still hovering about his lips.
"If you wish to further remedy the situation," he said, "I am sure you must have some other acquaintance who would be better-suited to make a match-"
"Oh!" exclaimed Lord Munesuke, "I had no intention of asking-"
"Then what do you intend?"
"I had hoped," Lord Munesuke said, in a beseeching tone, "that you might be able to help me dissuade my daughter from continuing in her current manner. She is a mature woman, very almost past the prime of her life; I myself am advancing in age, and would wish to see her well provided for within my lifetime (7). However, as her parent, it would distress me to force her into something to which she is not agreeable. If she could be somehow convinced to change her own mind...?"
His companion pulled a face. The prospect of undertaking delicate negotiations with a headstrong young maiden did not impress him favourably. "Surely the women of your household…?"
"She will not listen to them; she dismisses their lack of intelligence. Yet she respects fact and reasoning, so I thought-"
"If she won't heed her own father, who himself has one of the best reasoning minds in all the land, I do not see how the persuasion of a complete stranger should be more effective."
"Ah." Lord Munesuke looked crestfallen. "P-perhaps it was unreasonable of me to ask…"
The young nobleman tapped a finger on the rim of his cup in idle contemplation, as though puzzling over something. Then, with a satisfied smirk, he leaned forward companionably.
"Perhaps," he said, "if she is so preoccupied with her creatures, she will listen to them in relation to such matters."
"Y-your suggesting her insects could-?" Thinking that he meant to use slugs and beetles as intermediaries, Munesuke regarded the young man, for a moment, as if he were just as unbalanced as his own daughter.
"I merely meant that she might be dissuaded from pursuing such an interest so avidly. This strange fascination is, after all, the root of your problems; with such distraction eliminated, her feminine mind might naturally turn to other things, including matrimony. Besides, such a hobby can be dangerous in itself. There are some bugs that like to bite, and have little regard for the status, nor shapeliness, of the hands which they nip."
"Could such a thing be done?" Munesuke asked hopefully. His mind recalled all the futile arguments he had suffered through; if there was another means of reaching resolution, and his companion could see it through…
"Hmm. I wonder." The young man retrieved his fan from his sleeve and brandished it thoughtfully. Munesuke waited whilst he silently plotted, wondering what sort of plan he schemed, and how it might impact his daughter. He nearly started when the nobleman suddenly tapped his fan congenially upon his own knee.
"I think it could be done. I must make some necessary preparations, but I see little difficulty…"
"If you could do such a thing," Munesuke said, with grave sincerity, "you would have my greatest thanks and favour. If there is some way in which I could repay-"
"Pshaw, I have simple wants," the young man interrupted, waving the offer aside with his fan. "Mostly I am in constant need of entertainment, which this endeavour shall provide amply in itself. If you might permit me to return in three days' time, I think it could be easily arranged."
"Then, I am indebted to you." Lord Munesuke raised his cup, a smile alighting upon his face for the first time in the past hour. "Allow me to toast your success."
The young man raised his cup as well, mirroring his salute. "On the contrary, allow me to toast your success – and your daughter."
Lord Munesuke acknowledged this dedication with a gracious nod of his head. Then they both tilted their cups, drinking deeply.
(1) Lord Munesuke was a real person. He was purported to be the father of The Girl Who Loved Insects – if she indeed ever existed – because he himself was known to keep bees. Apparently, at a court gathering, he once saved the emperor and several other nobles, when a wasp nest fell from the eaves; he lured the swarm away with a branch of loquat fruit, which he then threw into the river, thus proving that even the most eccentric hobby can become useful.
(2) Heian-kyo: the old name for the modern city of Kyoto, used during the Heian period. I now realize that in my previous story, I gave the name of the capital as Edo (Tokyo). Whoops!
(3) tengu: a type of yokai (Japanese demon), taking the form of a monstrous bird. Some tengu were said to be good, teaching warriors to fight and generally acting with benevolence; others were a nuisance, tricking people and trying to lead priests astray.
(4) Both were common practices among noblewomen. Because white face-powder made teeth look yellow by comparison, women made a black paste – from boiling iron filling in sake, apparently – and applied it to their teeth; to show natural pearly-whites was considered incredibly uncouth. Women also shaved off their eyebrows and drew small, dot-like ones higher up their foreheads, near the hairline. This was considered the height of feminine beauty in its time.
(5) The average life expectancy for a woman during the Heian era was 27 years. Apparently Sei Shonagon, a noblewoman and author of The Pillow Book who lived well into her forties, was regarded as an unsightly old hag!
(6) I don't know the name of the historical Lord Munesuke's wife – assuming he had one – so I invented one. The Girl Who Loved Insects doesn't have any other given name either, so I will have to invent one for her later – for now, she is known as Fujiwara-gozen (her surname, and a title roughly translating as 'Lady').
(7) For the record, the average life expectancy for a man was 32 years. As the father of an adult child, Lord Munesuke is a bit older than that in this story; it was not so unheard of for men to live to be old and grey, since, unlike women, they didn't have to contend with the dangerous prospect of childbirth.