The Flying Plum Tree

ume flowers! Don’t forget the springtime even though your master is no longer with you. When an easterly wind blows be sure to send me your sweet fragrance.

                                           Sugawara no Michizane  (845-903)

 * * *

What little was bequeathed and even less to quarrel over. Some to be auctioned, much to be donated. And what remains? The accusing eyes of strangers in yellowed photographs, second or third cousins on someone’s side, once, or twice removed; several pairs of reading glasses and almost as many sets of teeth; china thimbles, one for every month, apart from May; a birthday book with name after name crossed out. Years from now, who will there be to recall that her favourite of the English Lakes was Grasmere; that she loved one man for twenty years and never told him and that the song she always sang, when she thought no one was listening, was “Strawberry Fields Forever”?

 “Choose a keepsake, a little something to remember her by. It’s what she would have wanted.”

damson flowers

in her delicate hand

a recipe for jam

 On the way home, I buy a new journal – handmade, with Japanese binding – and the best fountain pen I can afford. I make an occasion of my first entry, carefully gluing her legacy to the inside cover, then, painstakingly, in the cursive style I was taught at school, I copy out the ideas I scrawled in biro in a reporter’s notebook a few days earlier:

 It is time to say goodbye, my friend. You have served me well. It seems only yesterday I felt your unfamiliar weight in my hand, but you soon found your stride and ran like a young wolf across the snow. There was no denying the hair from which you were made! Now you are old, like me, and I will care for you as I wish someone might attend to me, but there is no one left. All whom I have loved are long gone…but this much you know. Like Tobiume that uprooted itself to fly to its master, such is my desire to be with the ones who have passed.

 I will wrap you in this silk, the colour of the blossoms Tenjin-sama himself wished would blush his cheek. I remember how I once went to the shrine in Egara with my father. Ah! The scent of those two plum trees by the main hall, one white, one red…There was a prayer spoken by the chief priest and then there were flutes, I think…yes, flutes! Afterwards, the priests led the procession to the oven. There must have been five hundred brushes.  How quickly the flames caught hold of the bamboo, the bristles. I saw so many spirits dance upon the air!


plum blossom shade…

laying the brush

to rest




Fude Kuyoo: a memorial service for writing brushes

Tenjin-sama:  Sugawara no Michizane,the Shinto kami of scholarship, calligraphy etc , poet and politician.

Tobiume: the flying plum tree which legend has it flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to be with Sugawara when he was in exile.

Presence #47 2012





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