Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Old Man and the Crab: a Japanese Folktale

There was once an old couple who lived in a certian village in Echigo Province. One day the old man went to a nearby river, and while he was there he caught a crab. The man took the crab home and placed it under the low verandah encircling the house, intending to make a pet of the creature. He quickly grew fond of the crab, and if there was anything tasty in the larder, he was sure to share it with his pet. Furthermore, whenever he went into the neighboring town on some errand or other, the old man always returned with a baked potato, for of this delicacy the crab was inordinately fond. For its part the crab soon reciprocated the old man's feelings. The old man would speak to the crab in a manner he would have used with his own grandchildren-if there had been any. "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps is here. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought you." The old man doted so much on his little crustacean friend that the old woman gradually came to resent the creature. "My husband is always giving that crab some tasty morsel to eat. When he's not around see if I don't teach the little so-and-so a thing or two," mused the woman. Her opportunity was not long in coming, for a few days later the old man left for town and was gone longer than usual. "Now's my chance. Worse luck for you, Master Crab." So saying, the woman bent down to a level with the verandah and called out "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps is here. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought you." And the crab, thinking it was the old man himself (so good was the woman's impersonation), came scuttling eagerly out. When the crab saw that it was not the kind old man but the menacing figure of his wife, it panicked and attempted to retreat under the house. But it was too slow for the old woman, who whacked the hapless creature with a stick of firewood she had concealed behind her back. The old woman had not intended to kill the creature; she merely wanted to frighten it into running away. Unfortunately, her blow struck the crab in its most vulnerable spot, and writhing in agony, it perished before her eyes. "Oh, what a terrible thing," moaned the woman helplessly. "Whatever shall I do?" Her hesitation was short-lived, for finding comfort in the thought that "What's done is done, and in any case the dead can't be brought back to life," the woman speedily boiled and ate the crab before the old man should return, disposing of the crab's shell by tossing it into a grove of bamboo behind the house. Soon thereafter the old man returned from town, whereupon he went straight to the garden, with the crab's favorite treat in hand, and peered under the verandah. "Hey, Master Crab. Gramps has come. Come on out and see what goodies he's brought," he called out as usual. But the crab, who ordinarily made a prompt appearance, failed to come out. "This is strange," thought the old man. "I wonder if the crab hasn't gone to play in the bamboo grove behind the house?" The old man looked high and low for the crab there, but no matter how many times he called out, the creature failed to appear. " Where could dear crabbie have gone?" he sighed. The man fell into a mournful reverie, and for quite some time he stood before the grove, unmindful of his surroundings. The man was recalled by the sudden appearance of a beautiful little bird, which flew out of the grove and alit on a branch of a tree beside him. The bird sang for a few moments in a dolorous way and then flew back into the bamboo thicket. "What an unusual bird. I wonder what such a pretty little thing is doing here," thought the man, all the while admiring the creature. For its part the bird flew in and out of the bamboo grove repeatedly, as if urging the old man to follow it, whereupon the man decided to enter the grove after the bird. The man saw that someone else had  been there before him, for in one place the soil had recently been turned over. The bird stood beside this patch of ground, scratching it with its foot. Brushing away some of the soil, the man was horrified to discover the shell and leg of a crab, his own crab! "Who could've done such a terrible thing? Could it have been my wife?" he shouted. Seething with rage he stalked into the house to find his wife. "How dare you do such a horrible thing!" he shouted. So angry was the man that he fell in a faint at his wife's feet. The woman began to repent of what she had done. "Please forgive me," she implored. "I didn't mean to kill the crab, merely frighten it. I used too much force when I struck the crab. It was very bad of me. Please forgive me!" The old man was moved by her contrition, and he promptly forgave her. Thereupon the man and his wife constructed a crude monument to the departed crab. From time to time the bamboo grove was visited by a little bird whose beautiful voice rang in the stillness of the copse.
Translation: Brian Southwick, 2009

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