Kerria Rose

Kerria Rose is my translation of a flowering plant in the rose family known as yamabuki in Japanese. Its botanical name is Kerria japonica, from Robert Kerr, the early nineteenth-century British scientific writer who first classified it. Growing wild on riversides and at the edges of woods, the shrubby, deciduous yamabuki sends out sprays of flowers shaped like five-petalled small wild roses, golden yellow in color. Its leaves also have the serrated edges of the roseleaf, although the plant is thornless. Murasaki Shikibu must have loved this flower because it appears frequently in The Tale of Genji. It was the double form, Kerria japonica floripleno, that was first exported to Europe as a specimen plant in 1805. In my own California garden, I prefer the single form to the pom poms.
  Flowers are given layers of symbolic wrapping in Japanese culture. The wisteria, for example, epitomizes courtly elegance; the plum is associated with scholars; and the cherry blossom is the essence of evanescent beauty. The
yamabuki is not so celebrated as any of these, but connotes freshness and innocence. A poem from the Man'yôshû, Japan's earliest collection of verses, speaks of an unforgettable woman "as beautiful as the fragrance of the yamabuki" (yamabuki no nihoheru imo).

In the headnote to a poem in her Collected Poems, Murasaki wrote:

I sent a branch of double-petalled kerria to someone and received in reply a single-petalled flower that was still in bloom. I wrote back the following:
Orikara wo/ Hitoe ni mezuru/ Hana no iro wa/ Usuki wo mitsutsu/Usuki to mo mizu
In its season/ The color of this flower/ Is specially prized;/ It may seem faded,/ But not to me.
                                                                    (Richard Bowring translation)

This is the poem that gave me the idea to assign the name "Kerria Rose" to this totally fictional character, based on the "someone" in the headnote. Kerria Rose first appears in my story as the young woman Murasaki met while mourning the death of her older sister. This scene too, was inspired by information in the heading of another of the poems:

   My elder sister died. I met someone whose younger sister had died and she suggested that we should think of each other as the lost relation. I wrote to her as such, and she to me. Both of us left for far-off lands; I wrote in longing:
Kita e yuku/ Kari no tsubasa ni/ Kotozute yo/ Kumo no uwagaki/ Kakitaezu shite
Send word/ by the wild geese/ Flying north;/ As often as they wing the clouds/ Write constantly.

This exchange occurred just before Murasaki set off for Echizen. The reply came from across the western seas:

   Yukimeguri/ Tare mo miyako ni/ Kaeruyama/ Itsuhata to kiku/ Hodo no harukesa
All who leave the capital/ Will eventually return,/ But when I do not know;/ How far they sound/ Kaeruyama and Itsuhata.
                                                                (Richard Bowring translation.)

Thus Murasaki meets Kerria Rose at a time when she already knows that she will be leaving the capital. This sort of situation, painful awareness that time is short, naturally prompts desperately passionate relationships. Did Murasaki in fact engage in lesbian affairs as I have described? I think it is not implausible, given the language of love she used in poems like the above where the recipient is clearly identified as a woman. Since there were no religious or social injunctions against same-sex relations in Japan at that time, I have worked on the assumption that they occurred. Unlike most scholars of Heian literature, who argue that passionate language in poems between women should be understood metaphorically, I have taken it at its word.
   The character of Kerria Rose is always like an older sister to Murasaki—in the Japanese sense of someone a little older, wiser, and more experienced than oneself. In their early relationship she initiates Murasaki into a sensual love that she had just begun to discover earlier with
Ruri. Later, Kerria Rose is also one step ahead in her religious understanding of the world, and her action of renouncing it. Throughout, she is a sounding board for Murasaki's attempts to develop her tales of Prince Genji.


single form yamabuki in my garden