The original Ise tales, a collection of anecdotes and waka poems, date back to the Heian period in Japan (794-1185). Among versions available in English translation is the delightful Ise Stories/Ise monogatari, translated and with commentary by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler. The five new stories here borrow from the ancient style and format.
Back then, not that long ago, there was a woman married to a man who was, in most ways, quite satisfactory. Still there was this: Now and then, at night, his nose would bleed, from the left nostril only, onto his pillow. Making up the bed the next morning, seeing her husband’s blood there, having to change the linen, the wife would feel offended. Not wanting to make a scene, she sent him:
On your pillow case,
blood spots, like ink blots lovers
drip on posh paper;
untreated, leave stains; next time
please warn me, your loving wife.
The man was astonished. Instead of a stain on a pillow case, shouldn’t his wife be worrying about his health? What if he had a nose tumor? Was there some better explanation for such single-channel bleeding? Perhaps he should have told that to his wife. However, preferring not to engage in verbal sparring, the man wrote the following and left it on her side of the bed:
Dearest wife, let’s hope
benign, pray many springs yet
come again, whilst you
and I bide loyal helpmates,
patient, kind, your loving spouse.
Reading it, reminded how easy-going her husband could be, also now worried for his health, the wife felt chagrined and sorry. What was wrong with her anyway? Composing a poem, she propped it on his night table:
Spring comes, spring goes, the
earth spins, unpiloted we
hurtle through space, time
slows, only love holds, behold
us, still lovebirds, souls tethered.
Alongside it, she left him a tube of petroleum jelly and an accompanying note. It read: To be applied inside nostril before retiring each evening. The man did so. Problem solved. In future mornings, his linen was spotless. Pleased with the outcome, the woman told herself: Pillow talk, for sure the best way to resolve thorny issues.
Some time ago there was this man, past middle age, with the usual health issues that age entails. He had no money to speak of. Also, no family, and only one friend, a woman with whom he’d had a longstanding and platonic relationship. The friend was romantically involved with a different man whose house she sometimes shared. Other times she stayed in her own teeny-tiny apartment. At some point, the first man gave her:
Ashes to ashes,
dust to dust, comes to all; sweet
dreams, rest easy, plan
in place; friend to friend, last re-
quest: see ashes placed in plot.
So that there could be no mistaking the meaning of the message, enclosed with it was a slip of paper on which was written the name and address of the cemetery plus the location of the gravesite.
Feeling she didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, the woman sent him back:
Never knowing who
will outlive whom, best friends, at
best, can pledge only
such my pledge to you; prosit.
The man told himself: Now I can die happy. Within the year, he did. Not long after, his friend received his ashes. They arrived by mail, inside a sturdy cardboard box, ready for interment. Fine. But when the woman went to the cemetery to make arrangements, she discovered there was an “opening grave fee”. Though possibly only average, given her modest financial status, the amount seemed exorbitant. They were only ashes, after all, not an intact body. In any event, it came to much more than she felt she wanted to spend. Sure, friends, but it’s not like we were married, she thought. So she put the cardboard box with the ashes under her bed.
That worked well for a while. But in such a tiny apartment, eventually she needed that space for other things. So sometime after, she carried the box to her sweetheart’s house and put it under his bed, where it has remained ever since. Occasionally, remembering the box, the woman worries she should see to its proper entombment. But time passes and she doesn’t. Whether the man whose house it is knows any of this the story doesn’t say. One thing seems certain: That woman lacking room to store the ashes must not believe in ghosts. One can only hope that neither did her deceased friend. Nor the man under whose bed those ashes yet rest.
Back then there was a woman faced with a delicate situation concerning her spouse. When urinating, he would often dribble on the floor, or worse, on the seat. Using the toilet afterward, his wife would be dismayed, finding this or that nethermost part of her anatomy unpleasantly damp. Too embarrassed to confront him, she sent her husband:
Sweet sleeves of rain grace
lawns in spring, whilst plashed puddles
catch up unwary
wives; how unseemly, sitting
down on dew splashed seat to pee.
After thinking it over, he responded:
In future, will perch,
instead of stand, when piddling;
age impairs one’s aim,
turns once virile male into
female; my apologies.
Afterward, that’s what he did.
With the issue resolved, and also considering how much her husband must love her, the wife now berated herself for her earlier carping. A pharmacist by training, she knew that in a healthy person urine is both non-toxic and near sterile; in fact, a totally harmless nitrogenous liquid. So why had she made such a fuss in the first place? Plus weren’t they both growing old? Surely, a dribble here or there shouldn’t seem such a big deal. Propped against his dresser mirror, she left:
Old soul mate, now I
see, making molehill into
mountain, I thank you
for your graciousness, how rare
a husband like you, much love.
As the saying goes: All’s well that ends well. Yet, it’s worth noting: The man’s wife did not suggest her husband go back to his former way of peeing.
Back then there was a getting-on-in-age woman married to a somewhat older man who saved every last thing. He told her, “One never knows what will come in handy when.” You could call him a hoarder. So much junk. It drove the wife crazy. She gave him:
clutter-bug, tchotchke keeper;
dear loyal squirrel,
squirreling away; rainy days
been and gone; weeding season.
Having carefully read and considered his wife’s note, the husband put it into a drawer for safekeeping, then sent her back:
Gardener mine, help wel-
come; why not garage sale? Win-
ter’s cold, spring’s wet, sum-
mer’s hot; say fall. Print signs, price
tags—for now, store in cellar.
This exchange happened in mid-December. Still, looking on the bright side, the man’s wife took her husband’s note to mean he agreed with her, somewhat. Therefore, on an afternoon when he was away, the woman went down to the basement to straighten up. Not to throw out, she told herself. Just to sort a few things. She hadn’t gotten far, however, when she came across a cache of love letters in her husband’s handwriting, her name nowhere on them. How shocking! How shameful! Supposing them to be copies, the originals sent to some much younger flame, who knows when, she was beside herself with sorrow and with anger. How to deal with such at her age?
Thoroughly disheartened, back and joints aching from so much unaccustomed bending and lifting, endearments not meant for her ringing in her head, she left everything where it was and made her way back upstairs. Now she went to gaze at herself in the hallway mirror. How ancient she looked. How homely. Who would ever love a person looking like that? Fixing herself a cup of tea, sitting to sip it, she thought back on her life. How hopeless she felt. How useless. Also, she was childless. What’s such a person to do? Before heading back to the basement, she penned a poem to her husband, first three lines were his, tucked it into an envelope, then taped it to the outside of the entryway door:
“Sweet sweet chickadee,
touching feathers, cloacal
kiss…” Bad poet, bad
choice, see swan, monogamous;
betrayed partner’s hybrid dirge.
Sometime later, the husband arrived home. Right away he saw the note. Even before going indoors, he read it. Ah! He smiled, remembering all those letters written to his wife so many years ago. Expressing such youthful, unbounded love, he would have been much too embarrassed to give them to her. Of course she was angry. Once she knew the truth of it, he could just hear her say, “Not a bad poem for such a handsome swain.” He went inside to tell her. Not finding her anywhere, he descended the cellar stairs.
Oh, no! Cover your eyes! Horror of horrors! Halfway down he could see her body suspended on a rope attached to a ceiling beam from which, not that much earlier, she had hanged herself. Fainting from shock, the man tumbled head over heels down the rest of the steps, landing on the cement floor, cracking his skull in the process. His corpse lay there for nearly a week until a neighbor, noticing newspapers piled up on the front stoop, notified the police who broke down the front door and found both husband and wife, deceased.
About so tragic a tale, what can one say? Hearing what happened, some ventured: At least they didn’t have children. How much sadder that would have been. Others said: It goes to show a person should always keep belongings in order, plus saving intimate papers, even if innocent and explicable, is always a mistake. It’s also true, when encountering dubious evidence, before flying off the handle, it’s best first to seek some reasonable explanation.
Back then there was a man. He was old. He was grumpy. He forgot a lot. Including that he forgot a lot. It made his wife crazy. A decade younger than he, her memory was better. Seeing him in his new state made her sad. She thought: If only there were some way, without hurting his feelings, to help him recognize and circumvent his lapses. Finally, hoping it might help, she gave him a notebook. Tucked inside it was this:
Who could not use a
remembering pad: daily
write down what to do,
check off what’s been done, end each
list: kiss wife, sweet dreams, good night.
Inside the front cover, where the husband would always be sure to see it, his wife also wrote: Never forget that I love you.
His reading skills not what they used to be, the man perused the note slowly, then frowned. About to set down both note and book, however, he noticed the cover entry, read it, and smiled. Thinking that, of course, he didn’t need such a pad, nevertheless, it gladdened his heart to know that, despite his many years, his wife still loved him. Discarding the note, he kept the notebook.
Pretty soon, though, he’d forgotten what it was for. Also, how he’d come to have it. He did, however, remember that, not long ago, his wife had given him something. Properly reared and well-mannered as he was, plus early-formed habits being the most lasting, on a page torn from the book, the man wrote his wife a thank you note. As he’d learned to do in elementary school, he remembered first to put an address, a date, and a salutation. Next came this:
Rose are red, some
times they are blue, mustard greens
are to eat, sweet corn
is to roast, this toast’s to thank
you for such a nice present.
He read it over. Something seemed missing. Finally, recalling that every proper letter needs a closing, he wondered what to put. That’s when he noticed the words written inside the front cover of his book. How perfect, he thought. Copying them carefully, he placed them at the end of his letter: Never forget that I love you. He left the letter on his wife’s dresser.
Seeing it there later that day, reading it, understanding how much of himself her husband truly had lost, the woman wept. Then she read the closing again. Slowly, she smiled through her tears. “Neither you nor I, my love, ever,” she whispered.
Several years went by. First one, then the other one, died, each remembering until the very end. Should one say, then, this story has a happy ending?
Barbara Ann Porte is a writer and a librarian. Her fiction has been published by HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hanging Loose Press, and Orchard Books. Her short stories and poems have been published in various literary magazines including Praxis, Hanging Loose, Confrontation, and Gargoyle. Her books for young readers have won numerous awards including American Library Association notable book citations. Her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and elsewhere. Born and raised in New York City, she currently lives in Virginia.