The story is about a battle poet in Heian-era Japan uncovering court intrigue at a battle of the seasons and inspired by the writings of Sei Shōnagon. I love that PodCastle has included the story in a seasons episode, along with stories by Shveta Thakrar and Matt Dovey.
I originally wrote the story with the Cranky Ladies of History anthology in mind – Shōnagon was the most amusing, brilliant, and cranky author of The Pillow Book – a form of journal about her opinion of life in Heian-era Japan. When I taught English in Japan, I’d often ask students what they liked most about living in Japan. The two most common answers were: Japanese food and the fact that Japan has four seasons. The second answer initially struck me as an odd thing to say – don’t most countries outside of tropical zones have four seasons? But what the students meant is that Japan has distinctive festivals, customs, food, and weather for each of the four seasons. The Pillow Book’s opening records Shōnagon’s favorite part of the day for each season.
In Spring it is the dawn. As gradually the hills come to light, their outline is faintly dyed with red, and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In Summer, the nights. Not only when the moon shines down, but on dark nights, too, when the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In Autumn, the evenings – evenings when one is moved to see the brilliant sun sink close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; or more charming still, a file of wild geese, tiny in the distant sky. And when finally the sun has set, how moving to hear the sound of the wind and the cry of the insects!
In Winter, the early morning. Beautiful indeed when it has snowed during the night, but delightful, too, when the ground is white with frost; or even when it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room, stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well it fits the season’s mood.
Shōnagon served as a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Teishi. The Pillow Book was written around 1000 AD and is one of the classics of Japanese literature. The book is full of lists of things that Shōnagon likes and dislikes. Some of the lists aren’t that interesting, but others are fascinating for what they reveal about life in a different era. The real joy in the book comes from Shōnagon’s personality – she was an erudite, opinionated woman who didn’t suffer fools and was known for intimidating the men of court with her knowledge of poetry.
A man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore. Or, a man comes on a secret visit wearing a particularly tall lacquered cap, and of course as he scuttles in hastily he manages to knock it against something with a loud bump.
People who go about in a carriage with squeaky wheels are very irritating. It makes you wonder irately if they’re deaf. And if you find yourself riding in one you’ve borrowed from someone, you even begin to loathe its owner.
Things that make you feel cheerful
An ox carriage crammed with ladies on their way back from some viewing expedition, sleeves tumbling out in profusion, with a great crowd of carriage boys running with it, skilfully guiding the ox as the carriage hurtles along.
A particularly eloquent Yin-yang master whom you’ve called in goes down to the dry river-bed and proceeds to rid you of a curse.
Snow falling on the houses of the common people. Moonlight shining into such houses is also a great shame.
An ageing woman who is pregnant. It’s disgusting when she has a young husband, and even worse when she’s in a temper over his going off to another woman.
An old man who’s nodding off, or a heavily bearded old fellow popping nuts into his mouth.
A toothless crone screwing up her face as she eats sour plums.
A commoner wearing crimson skirted trousers. These days you seem to see them wherever you look.