Ooku by Chie
Chie: This oneshot was partly inspired by a periodical dorama I watched last year.
Though I suppose I also wanted to try and depict what the life as the wife of a ruling noble would really be like. At least during the Tokugawa era.
I sat on the dark and polished wooden floor, overlooking the small garden that was protected by white stone walls. With those walls, the garden was completely separated from the world lying outside.
Just like I was. Just like this palace was.
It had been over 4 years now since I had entered the ōoku, the inner palace of the Edo Castle. It had been almost 4 years since I married the shogun, Sesshoumaru. Of course the decision had not been mine, but I did not resent it. Marrying the shogun was a great honour to me, to my family and to my clan. I left my maiden home willingly. And when I finally met the shogun in our wedding ceremony, my heart skipped a beat. I fell in love with that silent, enigmatic man.
I loved my husband, and that was why I had allowed myself to be imprisoned in this palace.
Ōoku was the innermost palace of the Edo castle. Ōoku was the realm of women, for it did not house a single male. No, ōoku kept in its confines the countless female servants as well as the important women in the shogun’s life – his mother, his concubines, and me. His wife.
There was only one corridor connecting the ōoku to the rest of the Edo castle. The one door leading to that one corridor at all times bore a lock.
The women of ōoku could not leave the ōoku unless they were specifically granted permission to. I could not recall hearing about any instance where that would have actually happened.
I was like a bird in a cage. And yet I did not resist my confines. I submitted to my life in a cage, because I loved my husband.
I took a sip of the tea one of the servants had brought me. It was bitter, and I revelled in that taste. It echoed the bitterness I felt in my chest.
I raised my gaze to look at the night around me. The moon was waning away, and was nothing but a thin crescent against the blue-black velvet of the night sky. It reminded me of him, and I turned my gaze away.
It was very late. The two of my attendants who were keeping me company, both high-born ladies from notable clans, were nodding off behind me.
But I could not sleep. I felt too restless, and my heart was aching too much to permit me the quiet and peaceful sleep that would wash away my pain.
I pulled the outer kimono tighter around my shoulders. Even though it was almost summer, the night air still was cool, and underneath the outer kimono I was only wearing the thin white yukata I wore to sleep.
The sound of the bells still haunted my ears. It made me break some more inside.
Earlier this evening, the bells had rung, signalling that the shogun had entered the ōoku. There was only one reason for him to arrive into this kingdom of women that late in the evening, and that was to spend the night.
He did not, however, come to see me. Not even in passing.
With chilling certainty I knew that he was seeking the bed of one of his concubines this evening.
And that thought haunted me so that I could not sleep.
I knew I should have accepted it, I knew that it was completely normal for noblemen to keep concubines…
But my heart was selfish. It wanted to keep him all to itself.
“Having trouble sleeping?”
I startled and whirled around. My surprised gaze landed on a woman noticeably older than me. Her long silky hair of a silvery white hue was flowing freely down her back. She was alone and unaccompanied.
I hastily lowered my widened eyes and bowed my head down in respect.
The woman chuckled, and then sat down next to me, turning to look at the small garden.
“You did not answer my question,” the woman gently reminded after a moment of silence.
“I am feeling restless tonight,” I answered, trying to quell my nervousness. The lady’s appearance had been sudden, and this was the first time I was alone with her.
My two attendants were already sleeping where they sat by now.
Of course I had met her on several occasions, but our meetings had always been formal, and other people had always been present.
“On nights like this one really does feel the solitude most keenly. Do you think so, lady Kagome?”
Her tone of voice was gentle, and I was a bit surprised that she had used my name. It had been so very long since I had heard my name; everyone in this castle addressed me by my title.
I was not sure what I should answer to the lady. Her words had struck a chord in me, but I was the wife of a shogun. I had to set an example to all the women of ōoku. Complaining was not a becoming characteristic in a lady.
“It is my duty to bear the solitude in silence, my lady,” I finally replied.
She glanced at me, and I saw a twinkle of amusement in her eyes.
“Ah,” she replied. “But even if you kept reminding yourself about this duty, I doubt that would make it any easier to bear.”
She was right, and I knew it. I think she knew it too.
“You have adjusted well,” she said then, her voice unexpectedly friendly. “It is not an easy life to lead as the shogun’s wife.”
“The match was a great honour to me, and I am happy with my life,” I replied, feeling a bit defiant.
To my surprise, she laughed. It was a merry, fluid sound, even though I could sense a slight edge of sorrow in it.
“You cannot lie to me, lady Kagome, even if you tried.” it was a rebuke, but a very gentle one at that. “I was a wife of a shogun too, at one time.” she reminded me quietly. Her golden eyes were glowing softly as she stared into the dark garden. “Endlessly repeating words like ‘duty’ and ‘fate’ will make your mind more at ease, but even so the pain will ever gnaw at your heart. It is most definitely not a happy life. One may feel resigned to it, one may feel determined to bear with it. If one is lucky, one may even feel content. But gaining true happiness within the walls of this castle is something I find quite dubious.”
I hung my head. Despite myself I was intently listening to my mother-in-law’s wisdom.
Unable to find the words I wanted to say, I blurted out the very first thing that crossed my mind.
“I love him.” the words slipped out of my mouth before I could have stopped them. I immediately regretted them. It was not my place to be confessing such a thing, to his mother nonetheless!
She turned to look at me. At first the look in her eyes was mysterious and she said nothing. Then, she leaned to me and lightly but gently embraced me. I was shocked still, and my eyes were wide in disbelief and surprise as she pulled away and gently tucked a loose stand of hair behind my ear.
“That is a double-edged sword,” she breathed softly, her voice distant as if she was speaking from the far away past. “Such strong emotion will help to make all the hardship you face bearable. You root yourself with your love, and you take comfort in it, and at times the love will make you the happiest person on the earth.”
She shook her head, almost as if to command her to return to the present.
Her eyes once again ventured to look at me, and a knowing look lingered in those golden orbs.
“But on nights like these, it will break your heart.”
I inhaled sharply, and I could feel my lower lip trembling. For a moment, I missed my own mother terribly.
As if sensing my sudden need, the lady smiled at me and reached to me, cupping my cheek in her slender hand.
“You will have to stay strong, my dear. And you will have to remember that my son truly regards you with affection.”
“Does he really?” I found myself asking.
She nodded, an assuring smile gracing her lips.
“Mothers know these kinds of things.”
“Thank you.” I managed to say.
“You should go to sleep,” she told me. “And if you have trouble sleeping on nights like these, do not hesitate to call on me.”
“I would not dare to make you lose your sleep over me, my lady!” I protested in horror.
“Nonsense. I enjoy your company, dear lady Kagome. And we old people do no longer need much sleep in any case. Now go, child.”
I nodded hesitantly and got to my feet. I roused my drowsing attendants. They woke up with a start and swiftly ushered me back into my room.
Unbeknownst to me, my mother-in-law’s golden eyes followed my retreating back closely. Her lips were pursed as she was pondering to herself, resolving that on the morrow, she would talk with his son, and try to make him promise that he would not make his young wife feel so neglected any longer.