Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Little Priest with the Majic Nose

Long ago in Echigo there lived an old man. Every day he would go into the mountains to collect firewood, which he would then take to town to sell. In this way he just managed to eke out a living. On a certain day he took his firewood to town as usual, but he was unable to sell even a single cord. Exhausted from walking from one end of town to the other with his heavy load of wood, he paused to rest on a bridge. Gazing into the river below, the man made up his mind to make an offer of the unsold wood to the river god, rather than carry it all the way home. "I'm sorry to make you such a pitiful present, god of the river, but please condescend to accept my firewood." So saying, the man tossed bundle after bundle of wood into the waters below. When he had finished and was preparing to return home, out of the river rose a beautiful young maiden bearing a precious little child in her arms. "I am the river god's helper," she said to the surprised old man. "The god wishes to thank you for your offering of firewood, which greatly pleases him. In return, the god wishes that you should accept this small token of his gratitude." And with that she presented the little child. The old man, rubbing his hands excitedly, took the child from the maiden. "This is no ordinary child," explained the girl. "We call him 'little priest with the nose of majic'. Should you desire anything in the world, just state your wish, and the child shall grant it. There is one thing you yourself must never fail to do, however: every day you must feed the child a shrimp. Is that understood?" The old man could barely contain his delight at this good fortune. "Of course, of course. Every day, without fail. I shall take excellent care of this lovely child, be assured I shall." When he had said this the young girl vanished, and the man betook himself homewards, the priceless child safely cradled in his arms. When he returned home the old man placed the child on a shelf supporting religious objects, and he proceeded to take great care of the little priest, remembering the girl's injunction. At first the man was afraid to test the veracity of the girl's story, fearful of dissappointment, but one day screwing up his courage, the man asked the child for a sack of rice. "Little priest, please be so kind as to grant me some rice." Standing back to observe what followed, the man saw the priest blow his nose, which made a peculiar tinkling sound, and in an instant a sack of rice appeared. The old man was stunned. He also discovered no end to his wants. "I want piles of money. A house. A storeroom for my valuables." And on and on. It is no wonder, then, that before long the old man was the wealthiest individual in the district. Gone were the days when he would tramp into the mountains to collect firewood, when throughout the town would ring his cry "Firewood for sale, firewood for sale." And it seemed to the man, accustomed as he now was to this new life of indolent ease, that walking into town every day to buy a shrimp for the little priest had become an onerous chore, something closely resembling work. Accordingly, the man one day announced to the child a drastic change in their relations. "Little priest, I find that nothing remains to wish for. I no longer have any need of you, so I intend to return you to the river god." No sooner had he uttered these words than a strange sniffing sound issued from the nose of the little priest, and in an instant the house, the storeroom, and every other wonderful possession utterly vanished. "Wait! Wait! Don't leave me, little priest! I didn't mean what I said!" cried the man, driven to distraction. But the little priest too had disappeared without a trace. Looking about him the old man beheld the hovel he had formerly inhabited and all of its mean furnishings. The next day the streets of the town rang anew with the cry of "Firewood for sale, firewood for sale."
Translation 2009, Brian Southwick

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Little Snow Child- an Old Story from Niigata

Long ago in Niigata there was a poor farming family. It was a large family: the grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, and many children all lived together. Although the people had little money, they lived happily in a house at the bottom of a mountain.
One snowy evening in winter the family sat around a warm fire. There was a pot of wild pig soup over the fire, and a delicious smell filled the house. Everyone was quite hungry, and they couldn’t wait to start eating.
“Isn’t the soup ready yet?” asked some of the children.
“We can’t wait any longer!” shouted the other children.
Just then there was a noise at the back door. The door opened, and some snow was blown into the house. Everyone turned around and was surprised to see a strange boy standing in the room. He was not like other boys because he had seven faces!
“Where are you from? Why are you here?” The people asked the boy these and many other questions, but he didn’t answer any of them.
The boy with seven faces looked very cold. He walked up to the fire and said, “May I sit by the fire with you?”
“Yes, please sit down. In a few minutes our dinner will be ready. Please have some wild pig soup with us,” said the grandfather.
“Do you have a house of your own? Where are you going to go after dinner?” asked the children, who were very curious. But the strange boy sat by the fire and said nothing.
“Well everyone, I think the soup is ready,” said the mother a few minutes later. She gave the strange boy a bowl and took the top off of the soup pot.
Suddenly the boy stood up. “Thank you, but I’m full,” he said. Then he left the house.
“What a strange boy. Why did he come here? He should have stayed to have dinner with us,” said everyone together.
The mother again lifted the top off of the soup pot. When she looked inside she was very surprised. “What? Where is the soup?” she shouted. Everyone went up to the pot and looked inside. Almost all of the soup was gone! “The boy ate the soup! He said that he was full,” they said. The children then ran out of the house to look for the strange boy, but they couldn’t find him anywhere.
When the children got back home their grandmother told them an interesting story. “Have you ever heard of the ‘snow child’?” she asked. “On winter nights the snow child sometimes visits people’s houses. Because they think he is a human, the people invite him to have dinner with them. But the child isn’t really human, and he eats all of their food. When I was a little girl I heard the story of the snow child for the first time. Touch the cushion the strange boy used,” she said.
The children went over by the fire and found the cushion used by the boy. They touched it, and they were surprised to find that it was quite wet.
Copyright 2009, Brian Southwick

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Niigata Folktale

Long ago two old men, one the pink of honesty, the other an arrant knave, inhabited a certain village in Echigo, as Niigata was then called. They happened to be next door neighbors, and one year, late in December, the two stood before their houses, passing the time of day. After exchanging greetings, the first said, "The second of January is just around the corner. That evening, as is the Japanese custom, let's both pray for good fortune." "Yes, that's an excellent idea. I certainly won't forget to do just that," rejoined the other. Bidding one another good day, the two went their separate ways. A few days afterward, on the morning of January 3 to be exact, the two men hailed each other across the common hedge separating their gardens.
"Happy New Year", said the greedy old man to his neighbor. "What sort of dream did you have? Was it a good one?" "Indeed it was. I dreamt of a great fortune that descended from the sky," the other replied. "And what about you?" he asked. "In my dream my fortune rose out of the ground. So we've both had good dreams." "Yes, it's going to be a very good year for the two of us." And the two parted in extremely good humor. A few days later, the weather proving exceedingly mild, the honest old man decided to plant some early beans. Taking up his hoe, he went outside into the vegetable garden behind his house. He began to form rows, and the morning was well advanced when his hoe struck a hard object just beow the surface. "There shouldn't be any stones in my vegetable patch. What could this be?" he wondered. The man began to dig the stone out, and what was his surprise to discover it was a large earthenware jar? Removing the lid and peering inside, the man found that it was filled with tightly packed gold bars, both large and small, gleaming with a blinding brightness.""Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "If this isn't the treasure my neighbor dreamed about, then I'm very much mistaken." And the honest old man immedately ran to his neighbor's to announce the wonderful news. The dishonest, greedy neighbor was quite breathless with glee, and being told where he would find his treasure, ran out of the house and into the next-door kitchen garden. Meanwhile, his worthy neighbor returned to his own home to tell his wife what had happened. It wasn't difficult to find the jar, for it was exactly where the honest old man had said it would be. Rubbing his hands with anticipation and singing "'Clank, clank' go the bars of gold", the miserly old man slowly lifted the lid fom the jar. As he did so, a mysterious swishing sound greeted his ears. Opening the lid further, he was surprised when something ropelike slid out. He then removed the lid completely, only to receive the shock of his life. For instead of gold bars, the jar contained a writhing mass of serpents, all tangled and coiled into one disgusting mass. "You dirty dog," he apostrophized his worthy neighbor. "Filled to the top with bars of gold, you say? You sure fooled me. But I warn you, two can play at this game!" And with that threat levelled at his unsuspecting neighbor, the man ran to his toolshed. Removing the longest ladder he owned, he returned next door with it, propping it against his neighbor's house. Up he climbed, straining under the weight of the snake-filled jar. Once on the roof the man crawled to the chimney, down which he peered. No sight could have provided a greater contrast with his own mood, for in the room below, sitting around a crackling fire warming themselves, were the man's neighbor and his wife, chatting merrily away. Looking on, the greedy man seethed with indignation. "Playing dirty tricks makes you feel good, does it? Take this, then, with my compliments!" And removing the lid from the jar, he dumped its contents into the room below. The man and his wife were suddenly interrupted by a cascade of gold bars dropping into the room through the chimney. "Look at that," exclaimed the man. "My dream has come true. Just as in my dream, our fortune has come to us from the sky. My, if strange things don't happen in twos." The old couple were extremely wealthy now, and needless to say, they lived happily ever after.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Grateful Wolf: A Japanese Folktale

***Note the parallels between this story and the Aesop fable "Androcles and the Lion".
Once upon a time an old woman and her son lived in a village in the mountains. Although the two worked very hard every day, they were extremely poor. One night the old woman fell seriously ill. The nearest doctor lived in a village on the other side of the mountain, and the path to his village traversed an area frequented by wolves. As a result, no one from either village dared to venture forth along this path after dark. However, the old woman's case was severe, so her son decided to summon the doctor. The boy left the village and hurried along the mountain path, all the while praying to the gods to protect him from wolves. But just as he'd feared, before long a wolf appeared. It was a huge wolf that approached him, and the boy mustered his courage and glared defiantly at the wolf. "Look here, Mr. Wolf!" he challenged. "You'll have to forget about eating me for dinner today. My mother is ill, and I'm on my way to fetch the doctor. You just let me walk on by, I say." But the animal continued to approach, and toward the end of this speech the boy's courage began to fail. "Please, Mr. Wolf. If you allow me to fetch the doctor and conduct him to my ailing mother, I'll return and you may eat me if you like", said the boy, now pleading with the wolf. The wolf paid the boy no heed, however, but inched even nearer. He could now feel the wolf's hot breath on his face, so close was the creature. The tearful boy resigned himself to his apparent fate, closing his eyes and preparing for the first snap of the wolf's sharp teeth. But nothing happened. "I wonder if the wolf isn't going to let me go after all?" said the boy to himself. After several fearful moments the boy slowly opened his eyes. The wolf was no more than a foot away. The boy immediately closed his eyes again. But the wolf remained, standing quietly by the boy's side. "This is strange," said the boy, beginning to feel that there was some hope after all. "It seems the wolf would like to tell me something." The wolf then opened its mouth wide and began wagging its head. "Perhaps the wolf has the toothache and wants my help," mused the boy. Peering into the animal's mouth, the boy noticed the glitter of some foreign object. "Aha! There's a bone stuck in the wolf's throat," he exclaimed. No longer afraid, he reached deep into the wolf's mouth and removed the bone. The wolf appeared grateful, bowing its head several times before vanishing into the forest. The boy then hurried on his way to the doctor's. He arrived safely, but the doctor refused to accompany the boy home, fearing the wolves he felt sure to encounter along the way. So the boy obtained some medicine for his mother and set out on his return journey. He hadn't gone far before he encountered a pack of some fifty wolves. Baring their fangs, the wolves approached the boy. "It's all over for me this time," he thought to himself; "Mother, I'm sorry," he sobbed. Resigning himself to his fate, the boy was preparing for the coming attack, when all of a sudden a great wolf leaped into the ring of encircling wolves, growling and driving them back as he went. Then, in one body, the wolves fled into the forest, leaving the boy alone with his protector. The boy looked at the animal closely, and what if it wasn't the very wolf he had helped earlier that evening! With the wolf at his side the boy arrived home safely.When the boy walked outside the next morning, he was met with a great surprise. A mountain of wild game was piled up before the door of the house! The boy took the carcasses to the town to sell, and in this way he realized a large sum of money. In time the boy's mother completely recovered from her illness, and the two lived very happily for many years.
Copyright 2009, Brian Southwick

The Grateful Crane: A Tale from Sado Island

There was once an old couple who lived deep in the mountains of Sado Island. The two were very poor and just managed to eke out a living by growing their own vegetables, gathering wild food, and selling firewood in a nearby village. One cold, snowy day, the old man went to town to sell some firewood. On his way home he saw a crane. It was caught in a trap and couldn't fly. The old man was sad, and he wanted to help the bird. "Don't move," he said soothingly to the crane. "I'll help you." The old man took the crane out of the trap, and the bird flew away into the mountains. When he returned home, the old man told his wife about the crane. Just then, the old couple heard a knock at the door. "Who can that be?" the old woman wondered. When she opened the door, she was surprised to see a beautiful young woman standing outside. "Please forgive my knocking at your door at night. It is snowing very heavily, and on my way to visit a friend I lost my way. Could I please stay with you tonight?" the young woman asked. "It's especially cold outdoors, and if you don't mind spending the night in such a poor house as ours, where there aren't futons enough to go around, we should be honored to have you as our guest." So saying, the old woman beckoned the delighted young woman inside. The blizzard continued for days, and still the young woman remained with the old couple. The woman, to demonstrate her gratitude for the couple's kindness, did all the cooking, washing, and many chores besides. The old couple, who were childless, came to regard the young woman as their own daughter. For her part the woman loved the man and his wife so ardently that she asked them to adopt her as their own, which the elated old couple immediately agreed to do. One day the young woman announced that she desired to do some weaving. "Please go to the village and get some fabric for me. I'll weave some beautiful cloth for you," she said. The old man hurried out to buy some cloth for the woman. When he returned, the woman said to the couple, "Don't on any account peek into the room while I am at work. I implore you, don't open the door of the room." "We understand you- have no fear. Please weave some beautiful cloth," replied the old couple. The young woman entered the room and closed the door. For three days the sound of the loom was heard, nor in all that time did the woman pause in her work. Finally, on the evening of the third day, the "whoosh" and "clack" of the loom ceased, and the woman opened the door, bearing in her arms a roll of cloth. "It's the most beautiful cloth we've ever seen," the old man and woman exclaimed in unison. "It's called 'crane's cloth',"explained the woman. "Why don't you take it to the village tomorrow to sell? Then you can buy me some more fabric." And so the old man left early the next morning. "Crane's cloth for sale. Crane's cloth for sale" heard the people of the village as the old man passed. The cloth sold quickly, and with the money he received the man bought more fabric and a few household items before returning home. After reminding the old coulpe not to watch her at work, the young woman shut the door of the workroom and began weaving another roll of cloth with the new fabric. Two days passed, then three. "I'd give anything to know how she weaves such beautiful cloth," admitted the old woman to her husband. "Surely it wouldn't hurt to take one little peek." "No, no, we mustn't," remonstrated her husband. "Remember the promise we made." But under his wife's repeated cajoling and coaxing, the man finally relented. Peering into the room, the old lady was dumbfounded by what she beheld. For instead of the beautiful young woman a crane was bending over the loom, using its long beak to weave its own feathers into the fabric. "Grandpa, grandpa, a crane is weaving the cloth!" she whispered excitedly. That evening the young woman emerged from the room carrying a roll of cloth. "Thank you for your many kindnesses," she said. "I'll never forget how you welcomed me into your home one snowy evening, a complete stranger who had lost her way. I am the crane you released from the trap. Because you looked into the room where I was weaving, I must now leave you. Thank you again for everything." With that the woman spread her arms, assumed the form of a crane, and rose into the sky. After circling the house, the crane flew off toward the mountains. The saddened old couple followed the bird's flight and remained gazing wistfully mountainwards, long after the creature had disappeared from view.
Translation 2009, Brian Southwick

The Wealthy Charcoal Burner: An Old Japanese Tale

There was once a wealthy individual named Chosha who lived in a certain village. He was a notorious miser who had never been known to perform a charitable act. Nevertheless, he was always the first in line to receive handouts. Every night Chosha would repair to the godown where his valuables were stored, and there he would open a stout box wherein his gold coins were kept. These he would count, first the large, then the small. Nothing in the world gave him so much pleasure as the feel of the gold coins in his hand and their dull gleam in the light of a guttering candle. One day Chosha went to the godown as usual, and he received a terrible shock. For no matter how many times he recounted his hoard, there was no escaping the awful truth: some of the gold pieces were missing! "How can this be?" he wondered aloud. "I have never spent a single one." Any yet the inescapable fact remained: there were fewer gold pieces, and his moneybags were perceptibly lighter. The next night Chosha discovered that even more of his gold had disappeared. "Could it have been a thief?" he asked, looking fearfully into the shadowy corners of the storeroom. He waited and waited , but no burglar appeared to explain the mystery. He felt his eyes becoming heavy with sleep and was composing himself to spend the rest of the night in the godown when he sat bolt upright. A strange clinking sound reached his ears, issuing from somewhere in the darkness. "What's that sound? There's no one here but me!" Chosha almost shouted in fright. Peering into the midnight darkness of the storeroom, Chosha beheld a mysterious sight. Out of the box in which he kept his money issued a golden stream. As if that weren't enough, as the gold coins rose to float about the room above Chosha's head, they began conversing in the following manner: "We won't remain in this house any longer. Our owner, Chosha, doesn't know the meaning of charity. We weren't made simply to be hoarded. Let's escape from this place at once." So saying, the gold pieces moved like a swarm of bees toward the door. "Hey, wait!You belong to me. Don't you go anywhere!" yelled Chosha. Unavailingly, however, for without further ado the gold coins flew out of the godown in one body, jingling into the night. Chosha dashed out of the storeroom in pursuit of his money but, in an instant, the gold pieces disappeared from sight. Continuing their flight until they were deep in the mountains, Chosha's gold coins paused to consider their final destination. "Now that we have left Chosha, where shall we go?" asked some of them, whereupon one of the small coins suggested the following. "There lives in these parts a charcoal burner, one Tota. This Tota is a hard worker, but he is quite poor. Even so, Tota is the first to help others in distress." Another of the coins piped up, "That reminds me of a story I recently heard concerning a poor charcoal burner. It seems the man anonymously gave all the money he had saved to a poor bedridden neighbor. It must have been Tota." Another added, "That settles it! We're off to Tota's house." All of this took place unbeknownst to Tota, of course, who at that time was sleeping the sleep of the just. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when he awoke the next morning to find a considerable treasure in gold coins piled up before his door. Quickly gathering the coins together, Tota set off for the village, where he shared his unlooked for fortune with the needy. With what he retained for himself he built a house. Soon thereafter he married. His charcoal business thrived, and in due course Tota became headman of the village and its wealthiest denizen.
Copyright 2009, Brian Southwick