- The Tongue-cut Sparrow
Original Stories inspired by Japanese folklore:
- The Fox's Wedding
- The Fox and the Blossom
- Snow and a Raven
A note about the Japanes equivalent of 'once upon a time'.
One was quite old, each line on his face held a thousand stories of lifetimes lived and lessons learned. The other was quite young, and so beautiful that the Sun and Moon alike fought to touch his cheek. But here the snow bit most viciously that the lines on his face were soon filled and smoothed with a sharp sheen of ice. And the winds did howl and screech creating such a tempest that their frightened eyes could no longer see further than their own fingertips, let alone the dancing rays of the Sun or the Moon. So they crawled, with a painful weary slowness, into an abandoned hut on the mountainside, too tired anymore to fight or flee. Finally, protected from some of the wind, they slumped onto the icy floor and soon embraced sleep.
Outside the wind changed, the screeching dulled to buzzing whispers and if anyone had been awake to listen they would’ve heard a soft flute dancing between buffeting currents of air. And then, she appeared. She was impossibly tall, a pillar of eerily still white robes, and translucent skin lined with streaks of bright blue veins, the people who lived in those mountains called her Yuki-Onna. Only her black hair wriggled and reacted in delight to the piercing winds, framing her round face and drawing attention to her equally blackened lips. She glided, suspended in air above legs that seemed to be missing feet, towards the two men’s shelter. A slight smile dancing on her lips, for she was quite hungry, and here were two warm snacks nicely bundled up in their own exhaustion and foolishness.
She reached the old man first, and without hesitation, leaned down and kissed his lined forehead. Instantly, he went rigid and frost covered his whole body; he was dead. Licking the leftover life off of her lips, she was pleased but not quite satiated. So slowly she slid towards the other sleeping figure, but at that moment the Moon saw his chance to slip through a crack in the window and illuminate a sliver of the young man’s face. Feeling the open door, and the touch of the moon, his eyes blinked open in surprise. He was not the only one filled with surprise, Yuki-Onna realized as she felt the hunger in her stomach replaced by an oddly warm flow of affection. This young man was so pure, and so handsome—she knew that she could not be responsible for his death.
And so she spoke “I had every intention of killing you while you slept, like the other man. But you are as beautiful as the freshly laid snow in the morning when the sun makes it gleam, so I will let you live this one time. But you may never tell anyone about tonight, if you do, I will know instantly and you will lose what you love most, your life will be forfeit.”
His eyes round with terror, he nodded, and she followed the stream of wind slipping out of the cracks in the walls into the night.
Many years went by from that night, the young man took a wife with bright blue laughing eyes and when she asked why he was afraid of the winter snow, he did not break promise and kept his secret buried in his chest. And so they lived happily married.
More years passed by from that night, and the man and the woman had three children, and when they asked why he would not go into the icy mountains, he did not break his promise and kept his secret buried in his chest. And so they lived as a happy family.
And then one night, his tongue slipped, “I love you so very much, my dearest one, and so, I am certain I can trust you with my secret.”
Her blue eyes flashed in the firelight, but she said nothing.
“The reason for my fear of snow and ice, oh my love, all that fear… I have met the ghost Yuki-Onna, once when I was very young.”
At the mention of Yuki-Onna, the wife’s lips began to darken with rage, but the young man was so absorbed in his truth telling that he did not notice.
“She was the one who killed my father but for some reason, she allowed me to live. For years the fear has burdened my heart, but I think the secret is safe in our love.”
Finally he looked up into his beloved’s face, and was met with that of Yuki-Onna. Those blue eyes he adored so much had frozen over, and her soft lips had blackened into the pucker that had stolen his father’s life. He had been married all those years to the ghost that held his life in her hands, and he had just doomed himself.
Voice full of rage, but also a tortured sorrow, twisted their way out of her lips, “I thought you had learned to keep your wagging tongue still, apparently I was wrong. I, unlike you, always keep my promises.”
She spat those last words at his cowering form in the corner of the room.
And with that, a furious gale of wind threw the front door open, and she was gone.
And he was left shivering in the corner, alone and afraid, but still very much alive.
This is one of the most well-known fairy tales in Japanese folklore.
Mukashi mukashi ... (once upon a time) there lived an old farmer and his wife. Now the old man was gentle and kind, but his wife was a sharp-tongued shrew, always nagging and scolding. Over the years, the poor man had learned to ignore his wife. Every day he went out to work in his fields, and when he returned home in the evening, he amused himself by teaching his pet sparrow tricks and giving her treats from his dinner. They were very good friends, and he named her Suzume-san, or Miss Sparrow.
One day, the wife had set out a bowl of rice in water to turn into starch that she would use for ironing clothes. The sparrow, thinking that the bowl of rice was for her, ate it up. When the old woman saw what the sparrow had done, she flew into a rage. "Dirty bird!" she cried, "you have eaten up my starch and now I must make more!"
The poor sparrow spread her wings and bowed low. "My mistress, please forgive me," she said. "It was an honest mistake and I am heartily sorry for it." But the wife seized the sparrow and saying, "I'll soon teach you not to speak to your betters!" she cut out the tongue of the hapless bird and drove it off.
When her husband came home that night and Suzume-san did not come out to greet him, he became concerned. "What happened to Miss Sparrow?" he asked his wife. At first she dissembled, but as he pressed her, she finally told him the entire story. The old man wept tears to hear how his friend had been abused. "You heartless woman!" he accused his wife. "My Suzume-san is out there in the forest, bleeding and in pain. I must go find her and bring her home." And without saying anything else, he took a lantern and set off to find the sparrow.
The farmer traveled deep into the forest, looking everywhere and calling "Suzume-san! Suzume-san! Where are you?" Finally he came to a beautiful bamboo grove where the full moon shone down brilliantly, and when he called out again, he was delighted to hear a familiar voice in reply, "I am here, O-tosan (father)." When Suzume-san stepped out into the light, she was dressed in rich radiant silk robes, and at that moment the old farmer knew that she was no common sparrow, but a fairy in disguise.
"Oh, Suzume-san, please let me apologize for the cruel deeds of my wife," he said. "I came looking for you to bring you home and care for you."
"That will not be necessary," answered the fairy. "As you can see, I am quite healed. And now, let me take you to my home and introduce you to my family!"
The house of Suzume-san was not far away, and when the old man entered, he was amazed at its beauty and richness. He was dressed in silk robes and treated as an honored guest. The sparrow's daughters served him a sumptuous meal of choice dishes and fine wines and danced and sang for his pleasure. At the end of the evening, the old man bowed low and thanked his host for her hospitality.
"This is nothing," said the sparrow. "You have been a good friend to me for many years. Allow me to repay your kindness with these gifts." And she had two chests, one large and one small, brought out before the old man. "Please choose which chest to take home with you."
The old farmer said, "I am too old and weak to carry the large chest; please give me the small one." And he picked it up and set off home, with many fond farewells from the family of Suzume-san.
When he returned home at daybreak, his wife began to scold him for being out all night. "Peace, wife," he said, and told her the story of what had happened. Her eyes grew rounder and rounder as she heard the tale. Finally she burst out, "So what is in the chest? Open it, open it!" When the chest was opened, both husband and wife were amazed to find that it was filled with gold and silver and jewels enough to live the rest of their lives in splendor and ease.
Now, the husband immediately said, "Oh, my wonderful Suzume-san, thank you for your generosity!" but his greedy wife said, "Why did you not take the large chest? We could be even richer!" The old man said, "This is more than we could possibly need." But the wife nagged and nagged until at last the old man told her where the home of the sparrow could be found.
When the old woman reached the sparrow's house she knocked on the door loudly. "Open up for your mistress!" she called. When Suzume-san opened the door, she was surprised at the brazenness of the old woman, given what she had done. Nor did the wife apologize for her heartless deed. Instead, she declared, "I don't need any fancy food or entertainment. Just give me the other chest that my fool of a husband was too lazy to carry." So the large chest was brought and given to the old woman, who hoisted it upon her back and began to walk home.
The chest was quite heavy and seemed to grow heavier with each step that the old woman took. And with every step her mind was filled with the riches it surely contained. Finally, she could stand it no more. "I must take a look at what is inside!" she thought. So she opened the chest. To her surprise and dismay, instead of gold and riches, what came out were frightful hobgoblins and demons! Snakes hissed at her and ghosts gibbered, making her quake and quail in fright. She picked up her skirts and ran as fast as she could back home.
When she arrived at home safely, she collapsed in relief. "Oh my husband," she said, "I have had the most horrible ordeal. But I see now that the sparrow has only paid me back for my evil deeds. I will do my best to mend my ways and become a better person." She was true to her word, and as the years passed, the old farmer and his wife visited the sparrow's house many times and they were great friends until the end of their days.
This is a japanese folktale. I am sorry for my humble translation, but I am not a fluent English speaker.
There was a time, when food was really rare, a village had a strange tradition.
When a person reaches the age of 70, he had to be taken to a mountain and die alone.
That was an agreement between everybody in there.
One day, a man took his mother to the path through the mountain. In tears, he left her there and when he realised, he was lost, but then he saw a trail made by his mother that was worried about her son´s return.
The man decided to go back and hide his mother at home, taking all the risks, even if it didn´t lasts a few months.
Days had past and the regent said that everybody needed to pay a tribute if they couldn´t solve his quest: make a rope with ashes. The next day, the young man returned with the rope and gave it to the regent.
Surprised, the regent asked another question, to tell which end is root and which is the bough of the stick. Again, problem solved.
One more time, the regent asked to the man to make a drum that will sound without a man´s beat. And then, he made it again.
All the problems were solved by the mother of the man, dipping the rope into salty water and burning it; putting the stick into a basin filled of water to see what side does float; putting bees inside a drum to sound like if was by itself.
Saying that to the regent, he declared that the elderly people were very important to the village, and they souldn´t never be abandoned again.
There was once a boy named Kenji who lived with his pregnant mother near the woods. His father had died leaving them behind. Kenji was a very curious boy and spent many summer days turning over rocks, climbing trees and playing in the water while his mother sold fish at the market.
One sunny day, Kenji was chasing a dragonfly when he came across a hut he had never seen before. Being as curious as he was, he quietly approached and peered through the window. Inside he saw a very old woman pouring herself tea.
As she did, she spoke aloud, “and the ogre, waist deep in the sea, held his son over the water and placed him out of harm’s way while he shielded the village from the storm. His son cried and as he turned to look at him, he slipped and drowned. Years later a large rock that resembled the ogre appeared where he had stood protecting the villagers.”
Kenji gasped and covered his mouth, but the old woman had already noticed him. “Come in, child. I will tell you more tales if you bring in the firewood,” she said through her open window.
After telling Kenji several stories, she urged him to go home. As she opened the door it began to rain although there were no rain clouds in the sky. “Ahhh kitsune no yomeiri,” she whispered. “Come back in, child. It is better for you to stay inside.”
“Why must I stay inside? What is kitsune no yomeiri?” he questioned.
“Today must be the day in which foxes marry. The rain on a sunny day is a distraction so that humans may not see them.”
“I want to see the foxes’ wedding!”
“No, child, it is dangerous!” she warned.
Whether he heard her or not is uncertain, for he had already dashed out of the hut heading deep into the forest. As he passed the rock that looked like a raccoon, he heard the sound of flutes and drums. He hid behind the large rock.
Before him was a display he had never before seen. Kimono clad foxes were walking in a wedding procession. Among them was a fox wearing a white kimono and beside her in a midnight shade of blue was the fox she was to marry. Kenji was astonished and could not stop his mouth from gaping.
It was at that moment that a dragonfly flew into his mouth. Kenji coughed and fell over. The music stopped. Kenji looked up into the eyes of the bride and in her eyes was a cold, rage. He got up and ran as fast as he could back home.
When he arrived, his mother was crying. “Kenji, take this knife and leave. You cannot come back here ever again. The foxes are looking for you and they mean to kill you.”
“Mother, I am frightened. Where will I go?”
“I do not know Kenji. You should not have broken the rules. Now I have lost a son. I will not lose this baby as well.”
Kenji ran to the old woman’s hut. She would know what to do. When he got there, he pounded on the door but there was no answer. He looked through the window and there was no one there. The house was empty, as if no one had ever lived in it.
Kenji sat down and cried.
The next morning, a boy’s sandal was found by the river...
This story was inspired by actual Japanese folklore. Whenever it rains on a sunny day, avoid the forest for the fox's wedding is taking place.
*Apr 16: my apologies, I somehow got the word order mixed up. It is actually kitsune no yomeiri, thanks to Debit72 and her mom for their eagle eyes! I have corrected the title and the errors in the story
For another Japanese tale, please check out: The Tale of Sakura (kamishibai story)
Many years ago, one spring afternoon, a samurai was called to the house of his lord. Finding his lord sat below the cherry blossom, the samurai chose not to break the silence, and he too gazed at the beautiful petals. A breeze brushed the tree, and hundreds of small, soft flowers fell like a thick pink snow upon the lord and his samurai. At last, the lord spoke.
"I have been killed, my old friend. My enemies came before dawn, and I was struck with many poison darts."
The samurai was inconsolable. He had served the lord for many years, and the two had grown old together, spending their days walking in the forest, fishing, listening to the stories of the many guests who came to visit the lord. Taking the spent darts from his master, the samurai (who was learned in the manufacture of arms) recognised the three assassins by the design of their weapons. The samurai swore revenge, and would have left right then to pursue the ninja responsible for the lord's death.
The lord bid his servant to stay.
"You have many years to seek these men, if you so wish," he said. "But you have only today to sit and watch the cherry blossoms fall with me."
Hearing this, the samurai knew he had to stay. So he sat beside his lord, and they saw how the sunset made the drifting blossom glow as though enchanted. The last petals fell with night. As the moon turned the fallen blossom silver, the warrior was no longer a samurai. His lord had died, and now he was a ronin.
The ronin gathered up all that he held dear in the world, and left at dawn, in search of his lord's killers.
It was only two days later that he arrived in the village of the first ninja. Before he entered the village, he stopped by a cherry tree. As he watched the blossom fall in the wind, he remembered his lord. He did not move until the tree was bare, and no more blossom fell. When he found the ninja who was one of his lord's assassins, the samurai drew his sword, and killed him.
It was not enough to quell the ronin's anger. He laid waste to the village, burning the houses and killing all who crossed his path. Afterwards, he did not weep. He just missed his friend.
It took a year of travelling and searching for the ronin to find the village of the next assassin. Whether by fate or by chance, his arrival coincided once again with the bloom of the cherry blossom. As before, he stood and contemplated the blossom, recalling fond memories of his lord. He waited, thinking, for three days, until the tree's branches shivered naked in the air.
Just as he had before, he killed the ninja who had struck his lord. And, just as he had before, his uncontrollable rage drove him to set a great fire among the houses, striking down every person who tried to stop him.
News spread of the grieving ronin. Travellers wove long, horrifying stories of a man ten feet tall, a man with scales instead of skin, a man with eyes as black as coal and teeth stained red with blood, yet still a man who wept to see the cherry blossom fall.
Tales were even carried as far as the home of the third ninja. He went into the woods to ask a kitsune fox for his advice. The ninja confessed to the fox that the ronin would be coming for him, and sought only to save others from the ronin's wildness. Hearing this, the fox thought for some time, and then asked the ninja if he would willingly offer his own life in order to save the rest of the villagers. The ninja did not hesitate. He would.
The fox promised to say the village from the ronin, but to do so he need the ninja to cut out his own heart, as he had cut out the ronin's. Without another word, the ninja took out a blade, and cut out his own heart, which he handed to the fox. The ninja died.
The fox carried the man's heart to where a cherry tree grew, by the road above the town. Here, he buried the heart among the tree's roots.
Another two years after he massacred the second ninja's village, the ronin came to the home of the final ninja. The cherry tree by the road stood in full bloom; not the pale pink bloom of the other trees, but a deep, velvety red. The ronin was entranced by the blossom, not knowing that the heart of his enemy lay buried just a few steps from where he stood.
Memories of his lord overcame him, and the ronin began to cry. He dried his eyes, but could not bear to look away from the beautiful red blossom. He thought: Once the blossom falls, I shall kill the ninja, and my mission will be over.
The sun set, and not a single petal fell. Morning came, brushing new vibrancy into the colour of the flowers. The ronin had never known there could be so many different, wonderful variations in red. He thought: Once the blossom falls, I shall kill the ninja, and my mission will be over.
A week passed, and still the ronin stood contemplating the tree, which had not shed a single bloom. Travellers passed the ronin by, cautious not to draw his attention away from the blossom. A month went by. A year. A decade. A century. A farmer fell asleep one night, and his unguarded lantern destroyed half of the village. It was rebuilt. It grew into a town, a city. The wooden houses because brick, and concrete, and glass, and grew to a hundred floors high, and roads and railtracks were built to connect the city to the world, and still the ronin waited for the blossom to fall. He thought: Once the blossom falls, I shall kill the ninja, and my mission will be over.
After all, he thought, I have many years to seek that man. But I have only today to stand and watch the cherry blossoms fall.
(This story is of my own invention. I hope I have used all the words correctly, and that I have not caused any offence in writing such a stereotypical take on Japanese culture as a ronin who loves cherry blossom. Seriously, I cannot stress this enough: if what I have written is problematic, please do not hesitate to let me know.)
His child was growing ever so colder. The winter spares no one especially the hungry and the weak. The father and child are dying and only time's pace is what's keeping death at bay. But the child is to die tonight when the first drop of snow touches the earth again and the moment draws closer.
The Shinigami waited.
When what was left of the sun's light had gone, the father gathered what strength he could to cook the nights meal. Weak as he was, he took a bowl of stew to his son.There, he saw, the Shinigami crouched beside his boy.
"I have come to claim the boy, Hunter," the Shinigami said. "Say to him your farewells."
"No, i beg you," The Hunter said. "He is all i have. You have already taken his mother, please spare him. I offer my life, instead. He has so much to live for."
"Your time nears but i have come for the boy now. I cannot change what is. That is my function. Now bid your goodbyes for soon the snow shall fall once more."
"Then i offer to you this food, death-god," the hunter said, giving the bowl of stew to the Shinigami instead. "I know your journey shall be arduous but this is all i can give."
"I require no sustenance. Now, have your moment with your son."
The hunter moved to his boy. He took him in his arms and held him tight, whispering to him his soft consolations and goodbyes. The boy was as cold as ice.
"Hunter, in return for your kindness to me, i shall offer you a chance. There lives a Kenzo fox with a pure heart in the mountains. Find this fox and give me its heart and i shall spare your child. Make haste, for i can only give you until the morrow's end. I shall send my brother's raven to guide you."
The Hunter hurried, taking only his wolf pelt, Yumi and a few aged arrows. Upon coming out he saw a raven. It flew and he followed it, his feet burying in the thick snow. They traveled for endless leagues, going deeper and higher into the mountain's terrain. At dawn, they arrived in a clearing. It was a field of snow with only a single, leafless tree in its heart. The raven landed on one of the tree's bare branches, cawing loud and ominous.
From beneath the tree emerged a vulpine shape, slow and hesitant. The Hunter dropped on the snow, crawling slowly closer and hiding behind a white covered stone. He readied his bow, knocking an arrow. The Hunter waited. The Fox continued to slink outside. Its fur was pure white, a streak of the night ran from its nape down to its back. Then there was no longer a Fox.
There stood a woman. Her skin was pale as snow; her hair was the blackness of a raven's back, tumbling down to her waist. She was wearing an ivory colored Kimono with a scattering of pale cherry blossoms on its edges. She stood proud.
"Shall you shoot me, Hunter?" The woman asked, looking where he was crouching with such brilliant, emerald eyes. "Then strike swift and true, if you must."
"How did you know i was here?" The hunter asked.
"I could smell you from afar."
"Lady, who are you?"
"I am a Kitsune. I am the guardian of this place. Why have you come, hunter?"
"Fox, i ask forgiveness but i seek to claim your heart. I need it to bargain for my son's life from a claiming Shinigami."
"Approach me," she said. And He did. She sniffed at him. "I can smell a death stench from your child. But also with you. Why not claim my heart for yourself?"
"Because life is the only gift i can give my son."
They were silent. The fox continued to scrutinize the Hunter with her bright, green eyes.
"Your heart speaks the truth," she said. "Very well."
She lifted a hand and dug deep into her chest with her sharp Fox nails and she took out her heart. She ripped a piece of her kimono and wrapped the heart with it. "Here, take it and save your son. He has more use for it than I." Then she crumpled on the sheet of snow, taking the form of the Fox once more.
The Hunter took her lifeless body and carried it beneath the tree. He dug at the snow and put her body inside the hollow den, covering her with a layer of snow. Then, kneeling down, he offered a prayer to her spirit. And he departed the place. The raven made one final somber caw and it flew away with him. They arrived at the Hunter's dwelling at the brink of dusk. The hunter banged into the house and saw the Shinigami waiting by the growing shadows inside the room.
"Here is the Fox's heart. I have taken it just as you have asked. Now bring my son back to me." The hunter handed the bloodied wrap to the death-god and waited. The Shinigami sniffed at the package and licked the drops of blood from its fingers. It seemed satisfied. It then crouched beside the boy and it breathed in his mouth. The boy sighed and color began to creep back to him.
"There. I have made true my word. Tomorrow, the boy shall wake. Now, i must go. I will return for you, Hunter, soon enough."
"Wait, Shinigami," the Hunter said. "I know i am stepping my bounds but i ask a boon from you. You are a death-god. Would it be possible for me to speak to the Kenzo once more? I have not given her my gratitude for the deed she's done."
"As you sleep, in your dream, she will appear. Speak to her then." And the Shinigami was gone.
The Hunter looked at his child one last time and he kissed him in one cheek. Then the Hunter slept and he dreamed.
He was standing on a massive stone in the middle of a surging sea. The water's turmoil was only matched by the wind's violence. And the sky was a gray mess and the sea was an inky black. And then the Fox was with him.
"Why have you called to me." She asked. He hair was whipping in the wind but her voice was clear and crisp.
"I have come to thank you for what you have done for my child" he said. "And i have something else which i wish to give to you." He reached into his chest and brought out his own heart. "I ask you to take this." He said. Offering it to her.
"I cannot take that. You child needs you alive."
"I am dying, Fox, but you can go back and live. My only wish is you protect him until he is capable and tell him of me when he grows older."
Reluctantly, the Fox took the heart. She placed it into the hollow space in her chest and felt a sudden tug.
He took the Fox's face into his hand and kissed her cheek, "Now go back and live." And he pushed her into the cold, surging water. She was drowning and she needed to take in air. And her green eyes flashed open and she took a long, deep breath. She was in her den and it was covered in snow. She was back. She scratched at the snow by the entrance and escaped. And she ran.
The boy was wailing when the Fox arrived. He was sitting beside a limp body, banging softly at the body's chest. She knew it was no use. The heart that once beat for that body was now inside hers. And the fox started to keen for the Hunter.
Note: God, i think i may have over done this a tad bit :
i just made all this up.