My novella “The Color of the Moon” began about sixteen years ago on a yellow legal pad on the banks of
the Panama Canal, when I was still getting over a personal experience of obsession and haunting. I knew I wanted to find a way to put that experience into words, and I wanted to try my hand at writing fiction. Something exotic.
From the yellow pad to key board I wrote a fairly straight forward story set around the end of the Heian Period in
Japan, of a young Buddhist monk and itinerary musician – a “biwa-hoshi” – who meets a noble woman of the Imperial family. He gives her a private performance in a tea house, chanting the Heikyo-ku saga and playing on a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute, followed by naughty conversation and seduction by the noble woman only to find out later she is a ghost.
“The Color of the Moon” is what I think of as a “riff”. A riff is when you take a well known and traditional thing and spin it in a new direction. That might be Anne Rice taking “Sleeping Beauty” and turning it into a series of erotic BDSM novels, or Neil Gaiman taking “Snow White” and turning it into a vampire story. “Color of the Moon” is a riff on the most famous of all Japanese ghost stories “Mimi Nashi Hoichi” or “Hoichi the Earless”. This ancient ghost story is one of hundreds of “Kwaidan“, a tradition going back thousands of years. Known collectively as “kwaidanshu“, generations of Japanese kids learned the crusty old spook stories on “dark and
stormy” nights at their grandmother’s knee and passed them on to new generations in different forms. In recent years kwaidanshu have spread to American cinema in such movies as “The Ring” and “The Grudge”. The Ring is an American remake of the Japanese film “Ring-Gu”, which is a modern Japanese retelling of “The Tale of Oyu”, an ancient story of a young woman who is cruelly drowned in a well and returns as an angry ghost. Like a Japanese equivalent of Shakespeare, kwaidanshu were preserved in elaborate Kabuki and Noh plays such as “Woman of the Snow” (a vampire story!), “Hoichi the Earless” of course, and the infamous “Tale of the Peony Lantern” which involves a sex scene with a decaying dead body. Yeah.
Having written my brave little story, I wanted to check it against the historical facts, through a book called
“Kwaidan” written by Lafcadio Hearn over a hundred years ago. Hearn was a writer living in Japan , and along with treatises on mosquitoes, took an interest in collecting local folk stories. In 1998 Amazon was still in it s infancy and I ordered a copy, noting it had been reviewed by a lady in Miyazaki Japan who spoke good English, named Mire Uno. In those more innocent times email addresses were included with reviewer’s comments and I was able to
contact her easily. I told her about my project and that I would be interested in getting her take on it. This was before I had ever heard of the idea of “first readers”. It turned out that kwaidanshu were a hobby of hers. She collected traditional ghost stories and even had a web page in English devoted to them. Perfect! We made a deal. I edited the English on her web page and in return she agreed to look at my stuff.
Mire was a sharp critic but polite, Japanese folks are nothing if not polite. But she let me know, it would not do, it would not do. It was ignorant, unmitigated oushikuso! Gai-jin san, it will not do. It will not do. When does my little tea house tryst happen? Around a hundred years after the fall of the Minomoto dynasty, I figure about 1185 AD.
A tea house? Tea houses had not been invented in 1185. Partly because tea had not been invented.
The Japanese were just learning about tea from China, and it was regarded as an aphrodisiac (as what has not?) and reserved for males only of the highest rank. The Emperor or local feudal lords might indulge in a cup to put some wood in their ink brush before visiting their consorts, but not a woman, much less of mid level rank such as Lady Dainagon. And with a impoverished Biwa-Hoshi? Not in your dreams, gai-jin san. For a woman of even so-so rank, a peripheral member of the Imperial family in a backwater place, to be left alone in the company of someone regarded as below common would be scandalous. (Aie-ya! Oushikuso!) Impossible. It would like Princess Diana inviting a homeless man to spend the night in her room. It will not do. So how would they meet if this thing were done right?
The woman would be ensconced behind a mizu screen, a partition made of reeds or silk. The Biwa-Hoshi would never be permitted to see her face and she would never see his. Ever. It would be an insult. There would also be an armed samurai hidden in the woodwork behind a screen or wall panel watching everything and his job is to deal harshly with insults. If the Biwa-Hoshi got even a little bit randy or suggestive, he was fully authorized to jump out, draw his blade and knock the guy’s fool head off without warning. Okay, and by the way, did I mention she can’t speak to the Biwa-Hoshi directly? That’s how far apart on the food chain they are. Another person, a personal attendant would sit next to the mizuscreen and play the part of a human telephone. Lady Dainagon would speak to the attendant, even if the Biwa-Hoshi is just a few feet away, and the Biwa-Hoshi would whisper his response to the attendant who would convey his words to the mystery woman behind the screen. Now – your job? With these historical obstacles – I, who had never written a sex scene before in my life, have to get these two people making the “Wind and The Rain” hot and heavy.
Here is the final version of the scene in the tea house, as published by Whisky Creek Press in 2007. They are alone, and Shoji has been summoned for the second night to play. The mystery woman is hidden behind a screen. He has never seen her, and she has found a way to get rid of the attendant for this night. As he entered the room , he has heard her voice for the first time singing a nursery song about an orphan girl, accompanying herself skillfully on a koto. The voice behind the screen addresses him, and he responds:
“August person,” he began timidly, “I am Shoji, the biwa hoshi of last night.”
“Who is your biwa?”
“My biwa is ‘Shoja’, the ‘Sound of the Temple Bell’.”
“My koto is ‘Tsuke-Kage’, and ‘Moon’s Shadow’ is delighted to meet ‘Sound of the Temple Bell’. As I am delighted to meet you.”
Shoji relaxed a little. “I enjoy your music more than my own,” he said. “I think you are the better musician.”
“That’s kind of you,” she said. “But I know you’re only being generous to me. Play something. Play from one of your stories.”
“Shall I play for you ‘The Battle of Dan No Ura’ ?”
He was surprised at how emphatic she was.
“Rather we should play that one for you.” she said.
“I have this opportunity to thank you for your gift last night. I have not carried it with me, but I treasure it very much.”
“Thank you. I may have a better gift for you tonight.”
“A better gift is not possible.”
“Play ‘Kenreimon’in’,” she said “The story of the Emperor’s mother.”
He settled the biwa on his lap again. Glancing down he saw the words he had begun to paint on the bachi, the waka he had composed in the sand. He struck a chord on the biwa. He drew a slow rising arpeggio.
“This is the empress
Whom we compared to the moon
In earlier days
But no radiance brightens
The lonely mountain dwelling.”
As he continued in the ancient traditional, he saw her stir behind the screen. A few reeds were drawn down and
he knew she was watching him.
“Did I ever think to find myself dwelling
Deep in the mountains
Gazing at the moon on high
Far from the royal palace?
Wave flowers! In full bloom
On the surface of the pond
Blossoms have scattered
From the cherry trees
Along the water’s edge
That is you cuckoo – raising your voice
Seeking the fragrance for the flowering orange
Remembering someone you lost long ago?”
He saw her eyes watching him from behind the screen, welling with tears. He began the poem he had composed.
“In heaven flies one
Crane, leaving fences behind
Remembering its loved kind.
Parting wind pierces the bone.”
There was a crash and breaking wood. The mizu screen was thrown down. “That is not how the song goes!” she shrieked.
He froze, staring at her. Though he knew it was only a dream, he still felt fear. He saw her for the first time. She jumped to her feet, tall and fierce, clutching the towering black koto upright to her chest. She wore an indigo kimono, with a field of golden butterflies, bound by a sash. Two ivory pins held her hair behind her head. Her strong beautiful face was aristocratic, arrogant, but bright with passion. It was the woman he had seen in the bucket water and her large eyes had pinked with tears.
“Don’t stop!” she screamed. “Why do you stop! I didn’t tell you to stop!” He continued.
“So it is when fate
Steals our hopes, the former
Lost but not forgotten
Comes to haunt us in our dreams
Though we never can return.”
She collapsed, still hugging the koto to her breast. She shook her head wildly. “No more. Please, no
* * * * *
So that was the pleasant tea house scene when Mire and I got done with it.
Along my journey from oushikuso, with Mire Uno as my scholarly guide, I began to really develop an appreciation for detail and the power of implied authenticity. Here’s another scene, near the end of the novella. Ichinori, an elder priest and exorcist has decided for reasons of personal glory to engage in a spiritual duel to the death with Lady Dainagon. Because of his contempt for women, ghosts or otherwise and court women especially, he completely underestimates what he’s up against. She traps him with birds and savagely brings him down:
* * * * *
He became numb to their deaths, their broken hollow bones, the smeared meat and gore that covered him from top to bottom. He only wanted it to stop. He tried to speak a mantra and a crow bit his lip, biting off a small piece of it. He hammered his fist on the hateful bird, and was shocked at the pleasure of seeing it die. Blood ran down his mouth and over his teeth. He crawled on his belly, wondering only when the steel would fall on his neck, ending this and leaving him in painless oblivion.
He felt dirt under his fingernails. The road. As he heaved himself forward a strong beak bit his crotch as if it would hold him there for the demon to come and kill him. He kicked out at it, screaming madly and tumbled forward into the free ground. He rolled onto his face, and his mouth was filled the taste of blood and sand. He smelled his clothes in the dim light, the stink of offal, feathers and blood. He vomited.
There were sounds approaching from behind, but he was too exhausted and revolted with himself to look.
“Demon.” he whispered to the dirt. “You have caused me to kill. Even if I die now, I will find you.”
He was aware of a pair of wooden komageta sandals standing in the road beside his face. Small feminine feet in white tabi socks. He smelled the scent of clove oil and saw the glint of the dying lamp shining off the polished tip of the wakizashi that dangled next to his nose.
“Damn you.” he hissed. “My spirit will find you in hell!”
The demon whore was breathing heavily above him, with either exertion or passion. The komageta sandals
scuffed angrily in the dirt and the wakizashi blade rose. He waited calmly, and prepared his spirit to receive death. Instead he heard it snick back into the saya in her sash. Her knees bent with a rustle of silk. The night breeze carried teasing strands of sweet scented hair into his face. Close to his ear he heard the demon’s soft, excited voice.
* * * * *
Ursula K. LeGuin said something about scene description which I have never allowed myself to forget. To make a
background vivid it’s better to bring out one unique detail, like a drop of water on a leaf. If a man is in a railroad yard in the dead of night with a full moon over head, don’t just say it’s dark. We know that already. The way you make it dark, is by describing the moonlight glinting off a single piece of broken glass in the dirt. That makes it feel dark.
I write first for my own aesthetic pleasure. There are little historically correct touches here that still give me
pleasure to read sixteen years later. The oil lamp dying in the background, yet bright enough to gleam off the highly polished blade of Lady Dainagon’s wakizashi. The scent of clove oil on the menacing blade tip next to Ichinori’s nose. The wooden geta sandals in the road. The description of tabi socks. The rustle of fine silk. I just can’t get enough of that stuff. Details like this make this scene breathe for me even after all these years. I just hope it breathes for the reader too.
Thank you Mire Uno, wherever you are. Thank you thank you.
The original publication of “The Color fo the Moon” is still available for a pittance at Whisky Creek Torrid:
Or as a Kindle book at Amazon:
If you’re curious about Lady Dainogon before the events of The Color of the Moon, this week at the Oh Get a Grip blog, where the theme is “Fairy Tales”, I’ve composed a Japanese fairy tale in which she appears with ladies of the court , back in better days:
And thank you for reading my stuff.