They sit down with a certain reserve,
Murasaki Shikibu and Miss Jane Austen,
stiffly polite in the inevitable way of those
who do not know how best not to cause
offence. It’s all smiles and gestures
and you firsts, shuffling their feet
until the tea arrives. Murasaki unfolds
rice cakes, powdered with flour,
their stuffing showing darkly through
the opaque surface. Jane eats slowly,
the jelly tugging at her teeth, slippery
as it moves down her throat. Like a frog,
she thinks, but then the sensation fades,
and she finds she likes the taste of bean paste.
She pours the tea, a matching set of course,
begonias and pansies on the pottery, holds
the strainer over the cup, takes sugar for herself
and gestures to the cream offhandedly.
Murasaki waits with distant curiosity,
wondering at the black and crispy leaves.
Tea to her is medicine, but she admires
the way the light fractures through the shell
of her cup and kindles on the golden rim,
as though the pottery was breathing. She
tips in sugar and cream indulgently,
to blur the acrid, bitter taste. How strange
it is, this English drink. But it warms
and soothes and she gets used to it.
She takes another cup, Jane another cake.
And all this time they talk.
It’s clumsy at first, cautious, tentative,
until Jane tells a little story, just an anecdote
about a party and a widow and a harp to which
she adds a wicked flourish. Murasaki
laughs behind her sleeve, knowing at once
exactly what Jane means. Then
the thing is done. They trade tales
delightedly, each one revelling in the foolish
aspects of humanity they reveal. They slip
easily through a thousand years and two continents
to find the gossiping old mothers, the young
men with less sense than money, the women
pinned by culture in their not-so-different
ways. It doesn’t erase the shock for Jane,
like a breath of cold air on her neck, when Murasaki
mentions all at once rapping on the shutters,
and the way a good lover leaves at dawn, as though
that were nothing at all. Jane blushes, looks away,
moves on. It doesn’t erase the chill Murasaki
feels in the pit of her stomach at offhand
mentions of wars, colonies, Antigua, plantations.
She died before the shadow of imperialism grew
its wings. Still, they find their ways. The
conversation, like a barge, slides slowly
through the ripples of their understanding,
for better or worse. And at last
Jane cannot contain her bubbling thought.
She asks the question, formed in her mind
since almost her first glimpse of black-dyed teeth.
‘Why did you make him a man?’
Murasaki stops, teacup at her lips. She sets
it down, pauses, straightens the hem
of her sleeve. ‘I wanted to write
a public story, and those belong to men.
I did my best, I think, with the women.’
Jane nods, to say yes, no, isn’t it always
the same. ‘But still.’ ‘But still,’ Murasaki
says. She smiles, perhaps a little vicious, after
all, she has her pride. ‘Why did you
give them happy endings?’ Now Jane
must think, pulling at a rice cake and dusting
her chin with flour. ‘Because those are the endings
that women write. Because they are the kind
of endings I like best. Because in spite
of everything, I remain hopeful.’ A little
silence floods the table. Murasaki nods. She
is familiar with hope in all its permutations.
It looks like the women she named after flowers.
The sun is going down. Their limbs
are stiff with sitting, their toes are cold.
Soon, the dream will end, as all dreams do,
and we will remember that they never
met, that they are the women
who wrote everything but themselves.
All we have, to love and know them
by, is their work, their novels like beacons,
lighthouses in a dark and savage sea,
each beam repeating ‘we are here,’ ‘we
never went away,’ and maybe ‘it was
not so different, now and then, to be
a woman.’ This is the dream. It did
not happen. And yet, next week perhaps,
they will go to a Parisian café in the 1920s.
They have not yet run out of gossip and stories.
They will order lemon tea, take the buttery madeleines,
dip them with a spoon to the point of dissolution,
and laugh at Proust.