D. L. Ashliman
It was springtime, and along Mio's pine-clad shore there came a sound of birds. The blue sea danced and sparkled in the sunshine, and Hairukoo, a fisherman, sat down to enjoy the scene. As he did so he chanced to see, hanging on a pine tree, a beautiful robe of pure white feathers.
As Hairukoo was about to take down the robe he saw coming toward him from the sea an extremely lovely maiden, who requested that the fisherman would restore the robe to her.
Hairukoo gazed upon the lady with considerable admiration. Said he, "I found this robe, and I mean to keep it, for it is a marvel to be placed among the treasures of Japan. No, I cannot possibly give it to you."
"Oh," cried the maiden pitifully, "I cannot go soaring into the sky without my robe of feathers, for if you persist in keeping it I can never more return to my celestial home. Oh, good fisherman, I beg of you to restore my robe!"
The fisherman, who must have been a hard-hearted fellow, refused to relent.
"The more you plead," said he, "the more determined I am to keep what I have found."
Thus the maiden made answer:
Speak not, dear fisherman! Speak not that word!
Ah! know'st thou not that, like the hapless bird
Whose wings are broke, I seek, but seek in vain,
Reft of my wings, to soar to heav'n's blue plain?
After further argument on the subject the fisherman's heart softened a little.
"I will restore your robe of feathers," said he, "if you will at once dance before me."
Then the maiden replied, "I will dance it here -- the dance that makes the Palace of the Moon turn round, so that even poor transitory man may learn its mysteries. But I cannot dance without my feathers."
"No," said the fisherman suspiciously. "If I give you this robe, you will fly away without dancing before me."
This remark made the maiden extremely angry.
"The pledge of mortals may be broken," said she, "but there is no falsehood among the heavenly beings."
These words put the fisherman to shame, and, without more ado, he gave the maiden her robe of feathers.
When the maiden had put on her pure white garment she struck a musical instrument and began to dance, and while she danced and played she sang of many strange and beautiful things concerning her faraway home in the moon. She sang of the might Palace of the Moon, where thirty monarchs ruled, fifteen in robes of white when that shining orb was full, and fifteen robed in black when the moon was waning. As she sang and played and danced she blessed Japan, "that earth may still her proper increase yield!"
The fisherman did not long enjoy this kindly exhibition of the Moon Lady's skill, for very soon her dainty feet ceased to tap upon the sand. She rose into the air, the white feathers of her robe gleaming against the pine trees or against the blue sky itself. Up, up she went, still playing and singing, past the summits of the mountains, higher and higher, until her song was hushed, until she reached the glorious Palace of the Moon.
Mosaku and his apprentice Minokichi journeyed to a forest, some little distance from their village. It was a bitterly cold night when they neared their destination, and saw in front of them a cold sweep of water. They desired to cross this river, but the ferryman had gone away, leaving his boat on the other side of the water, and as the weather was too inclement to admit of swimming across the river they were glad to take shelter in the ferryman's little hut.
Mosaku fell asleep almost immediately he entered this humble but welcome shelter. Minokichi, however, lay awake for a long time listening to the cry of the wind and the hiss of the snow as it was blown against the door.
Minokichi at last fell asleep, to be soon awakened by a shower of snow falling across his face. He found that the door had been blown open, and that standing in the room was a fair woman in dazzlingly white garments. For a moment she stood thus; then she bent over Mosaku, her breath coming forth like white smoke. After bending thus over the old man for a minute or two she turned to Minokichi and hovered over him. He tried to cry out, for the breath of this woman was like a freezing blast of wind. She told him that she had intended to treat him as she had done the old man at his side, but forbore on account of his youth and beauty. Threatening Minokichi with instant death if he dared to mention to anyone what he had seen, she suddenly vanished.
Then Minokichi called out to his beloved master, "Mosaku, Mosaku, wake! Something very terrible has happened!" But there was no reply. He touched the hand of his master in the dark, and found it was like a piece of ice. Mosaku was dead!
During the next winter, while Minokichi was returning home, he chanced to meet a pretty girl by the name of Yuki. She informed him that she was going to Yedo, where she desired to find a situation as a servant. Minokichi was charmed with this maiden, and he went so far as to ask if she were betrothed, and hearing that she was not, he took her to his own home, and in due time married her.
Yuki presented her husband with ten fine and handsome children, fairer of skin than average. When Minokichi's mother died, her last words were in praise of Yuki, and her eulogy was echoed by many of the country folk in the district.
One night, while Yuki was sewing, the light of a paper lamp shining upon her face, Minokichi recalled the extraordinary experience he had had in the ferryman's hut.
"Yuki," said he, "you remind me so much of a beautiful white woman I saw when I was eighteen years old. She killed my master with her ice-cold breath. I am sure she was some strange spirit, and yet tonight she seems to resemble you."
Yuki flung down her sewing. There was a horrible smile on her face as she bent close to her husband and shrieked, "It was I, Yuki-Onna, who came to you then, and silently killed your master! Oh, faithless wretch, you have broken your promise to keep the matter secret, and if it were not for our sleeping children I would kill you now! Remember, if they have aught to complain of at your hands I shall hear, I shall know, and on a night when the snow falls I will kill you!"
Then Yuki-Onna, the Lady of the Snow, changed into a white mist, and, shrieking and shuddering, passed through the smoke-hole, never to return again.
In a certain Japanese village there grew a great willow tree. For many generations the people loved it. In the summer it was a resting place, a place where the villagers might meet after the work and heat of the day were over, and there talk till the moonlight streamed through the branches. In winter it was like a great half-opened umbrella covered with sparkling snow.
Heitaro, a young farmer, lived quite near this tree, and he, more than any of his companions, had entered into a deep communion with the imposing willow. It was almost the first object he saw upon waking, and upon his return from work in the fields he looked out eagerly for its familiar form. Sometimes he would burn a joss-stick beneath its branches and kneel down and pray.
One day an old man of the village came to Heitaro and explained to him that the villagers were anxious to build a bridge over the river, and that they particularly wanted the great willow tree for timber.
"For timber?" said Heitaro, hiding his face in his hands. "My dear willow tree for a bridge, one to bear the incessant patter of feet? Never, never, old man!"
When Heitaro had somewhat recovered himself, he offered to give the old man some of his own trees, if he and the villagers would accept them for timber and spare the ancient willow.
The old man readily accepted this offer, and the willow tree continued to stand in the village as it had stood for so many years.
One night while Heitaro sat under the great willow he suddenly saw a beautiful woman standing close beside him, looking at him shyly, as if wanting to speak.
"Honorable lady," said he, "I will go home. I see you wait for some one. Heitaro is not without kindness towards those who love."
"He will not come now," said the woman, smiling.
"Can he have grown cold? Oh, how terrible when a mock love comes and leaves ashes and a grave behind!"
"He has not grown cold, dear lord."
"And yet he does not come! What strange mystery is this?"
"He has come! His heart has been always here, here under this willow tree." And with a radiant smile the woman disappeared.
Night after night they met under the old willow tree. The woman's shyness had entirely disappeared, and it seemed that she could not hear too much from Heitaro's lips in praise of the willow under which they sat.
One night he said to her, "Little one, will you be my wife -- you who seem to come from the very tree itself?"
"Yes," said the woman. "Call me Higo ("Willow") and ask no questions, for love of me. I have no father or mother, and someday you will understand."
Heitaro and Higo were married, and in due time they were blessed with a child, whom they called Chiyodo. Simple was their dwelling, but those it contained were the happiest people in all Japan.
While this happy couple went about their respective duties great news came to the village. The villagers were full of it, and it was not long before it reached Heitaro's ears. The ex-Emperor Toba wished to build a temple to Kwannon [goddess of mercy] in Kyoto, and those in authority sent far and wide for timber. The villagers said that they must contribute towards building the sacred edifice by presenting their great willow tree. All Heitaro's argument and persuasion and promise of other trees were ineffectual, for neither he nor anyone else could give as large and handsome a tree as the great willow.
Heitaro went home and told his wife. "Oh, wife," said he, "they are about to cut down our dear willow tree! Before I married you I could not have borne it. Having you, little one, perhaps I shall get over it someday."
That night Heitaro was aroused by hearing a piercing cry.
"Heitaro," said his wife, "it grows dark! The room is full of whispers. Are you there, Heitaro? Hark! They are cutting down the willow tree. Look how its shadow trembles in the moonlight. I am the soul of the willow tree. The villagers are killing me. Oh, how they cut and tear me to pieces! Dear Heitaro, the pain, the pain! Put your hands here, and here. Surely the blows cannot fall now!"
"My Willow Wife! My Willow Wife!" sobbed Heitaro.
"Husband," said Higo, very faintly, pressing her wet, agonized face close to his, "I am going now. Such a love as ours cannot be cut down, however fierce the blows. I shall wait for you and Chiyodo -- My hair is falling through the sky! My body is breaking!"
There was a loud crash outside. The great willow tree lay green and disheveled upon the ground.
Heitaro looked round for her he loved more than anything else in the world. Willow Wife had gone!
An old man named Takahama lived in a little house behind the cemetery of the temple of Sozanji. He was extremely amiable and generally liked by his neighbors, though most of them considered him to be a little mad. His madness, it would appear, entirely rested upon the fact that he had never married or evinced desire for intimate companionship with women.
One summer day he became very ill, so ill, in fact, that he sent for his sister-in-law and her son. They both came and did all they could to bring comfort during his last hours. While they watched, Takahama fell asleep; but he had no sooner done so than a large white butterfly flew into the room and rested on the old man's pillow. The young man tried to drive it away with a fan; but it came back three times, as if loath to leave the sufferer.
At last Takahama's nephew chased it out into the garden, through the gate, and into the cemetery beyond, where it lingered over a woman's tomb, and then mysteriously disappeared. On examining the tomb the young man found the name "Akiko" written upon it, together with a description narrating how Akiko died when she was eighteen. Though the tomb was covered with moss and must have been erected fifty years previously, the boy saw that it was surrounded with flowers, and that the little water tank had been recently filled.
When the young man returned to the house he found that Takahama had passed away, and he returned to his mother and told her what he had seen in the cemetery.
"Akiko?" murmured his mother. "When your uncle was young he was betrothed to Akiko. She died of consumption shortly before her wedding day. When Akiko left this world your uncle resolved never to marry, and to live ever near her grave. For all these years he has remained faithful to his vow, and kept in his heart all the sweet memories of his one and only love. Every day Takahama went to the cemetery, whether the air was fragrant with summer breeze or thick with falling snow. Every day he went to her grave and prayed for her happiness, swept the tomb and set flowers there. When Takahama was dying, and he could no longer perform his loving task, Akiko came for him. That white butterfly was her sweet and loving soul."
The Prince of Hizen, a distinguished member of the Nabéshima family, lingered in the garden with O Toyo, the favorite among his ladies. When the sun set they retired to the palace, but failed to notice that they were being followed by a large cat.
O Toyo went to her room and fell asleep. At midnight she awoke and gazed about her, as if suddenly aware of some dreadful presence in the apartment. At length she saw, crouching close beside her, a gigantic cat, and before she could cry out for assistance the animal sprang upon her and strangled her. The animal then made a hole under the verandah, buried the corpse, and assumed the form of the beautiful O Toyo.
The prince, who knew nothing of what had happened, continued to love the false O Toyo, unaware that in reality he was caressing a foul beast. He noticed, little by little, that his strength failed, and it was not long before he became dangerously ill. Physicians were summoned, but they could do nothing to restore the royal patient. It was observed that he suffered most during the night, and was troubled by horrible dreams. This being so, his councilors arranged that a hundred retainers should sit with their lord and keep watch while he slept.
The watch went into the sickroom, but just before ten o'clock it was overcome by a mysterious drowsiness. When all the men were asleep the false O Toyo crept into the apartment and disturbed the prince until sunrise. Night after night the retainers came to guard their master, but always they fell asleep at the same hour, and even three loyal councilors had a similar experience.
During this time the prince grew worse, and at length a priest named Ruiten was appointed to pray on his behalf. One night, while he was engaged in his supplications, he heard a strange noise proceeding from the garden. On looking out of the window he saw a young soldier washing himself. When he had finished his ablutions he stood before an image of Buddha, and prayed most ardently for the recovery of the prince.
Ruiten, delighted to find such zeal and loyalty, invited the young man to enter his house, and when he had done so inquired his name.
"I am Ito Soda," said the young man, "and serve in the infantry of Nabéshima. I have heard of my lord's sickness and long to have the honor of nursing him; but being of low rank it is not meet that I should come into his presence. I have, nevertheless, prayed to the Buddha that my lord's life may be spared. I believe that the Prince of Hizen is bewitched, and if I might remain with him I would do my utmost to find and crush the evil power that is the cause of his illness."
Ruiten was so favorably impressed with these words that he went the next day to consult with one of the councilors, and after much discussion it was arranged that Ito Soda should keep watch with the hundred retainers.
When Ito Soda entered the royal apartment he saw that his master slept in the middle of the room, and he also observed the hundred retainers sitting in the chamber quietly chatting together in the hope that they would be able to keep off approaching drowsiness. By ten o'clock all the retainers, in spite of their efforts, had fallen asleep.
Ito Soda tried to keep his eyes open, but a heaviness was gradually overcoming him, and he realized that if he wished to keep awake he must resort to extreme measures. When he had carefully spread oil-paper over the mats he stuck his dirk into his thigh. The sharp pain he experienced warded off sleep for a time, but eventually he felt his eyes closing once more. Resolved to outwit the spell which had proved too much for the retainers, he twisted the knife in his thigh, and thus increased the pain and kept his loyal watch, while blood continually dripped upon the oil-paper.
While Ito Soda watched he saw the sliding doors drawn open and a beautiful woman creep softly into the apartment. With a smile she noticed the sleeping retainers, and was about to approach the prince when she observed Ito Soda. After she had spoken curtly to him she approached the prince and inquired how he fared, but the prince was too ill to make a reply. Ito Soda watched every movement, and believed she tried to bewitch the prince, but she was always frustrated in her evil purpose by the dauntless eyes of Ito Soda, and at last she was compelled to retire.
In the morning the retainers awoke, and were filled with shame when they learnt how Ito Soda had kept his vigil. The councilors loudly praised the young soldier for his loyalty and enterprise, and he was commanded to keep watch again that night. He did so, and once more the false O Toyo entered the sickroom, and, as on the previous night, she was compelled to retreat without being able to cast her spell over the prince.
It was discovered that immediately the faithful Soda had kept guard, the prince was able to obtain peaceful slumber, and, moreover, that he began to get better, for the false O Toyo, having been frustrated on two occasions, now kept away altogether, and the guard was not troubled with mysterious drowsiness. Soda, impressed by these strange circumstances, went to one of the councilors and informed him that the so-called O Toyo was a goblin of some kind.
That night Soda planned to go to the creature's room and try to kill her, arranging that in case she should escape there should be eight retainers outside waiting to capture her and dispatch her immediately.
At the appointed hour Soda went to the creature's apartment, pretending that he bore a message from the prince.
"What is the message?" inquired the woman.
"Kindly read this letter," replied Soda, and with these words he drew his dirk and tried to kill her.
The false O Toyo seized a halberd and endeavored to strike her adversary. Blow followed blow, but at last perceiving that flight would serve her better than battle, she threw away her weapon, and in a moment the lovely maiden turned into a cat and sprang onto the roof. The eight men waiting outside in case of emergency shot at the animal, but the creature succeeded in eluding them.
The cat made all speed for the mountains, and caused trouble among the people who lived in the vicinity, but was finally killed during a hunt ordered by the Prince of Hizen.
The prince became well again, and Ito Soda received the honor and reward he so richly deserved.
A young man of Matsue was returning home from a wedding party when he saw, just in front of his house, a firefly. He paused a moment, surprised to see such an insect on a cold winter's night with snow on the ground. While he stood and meditated, the firefly flew toward him, and the young man struck at it with his stick, but the insect flew away and entered the garden adjoining his own.
The next day he called at his neighbor's house, and was about to relate the experience of the previous night when the eldest daughter of the family entered the room, and exclaimed, "I had no idea you were here, and yet a moment ago you were in my mind. Last night I dreamt that I became a firefly. It was all very real and very beautiful, and while I was darting hither and thither I saw you, and flew toward you, intending to tell you that I had learnt to fly, but you thrust me aside with your stick, and the incident still frightens me."
The young man, having heard these words from the lips of his betrothed, held his peace.
Many years ago at Gamogun, in the province of Omi, was a castle called Adzuchi-no-shiro. It was a magnificent old place, surrounded by walls and a moat filled with lotus lilies. The feudal lord was a very brave and wealthy man, Yuki Naizen-no-jo. His wife had been dead for some years. He had no son; but he had a beautiful daughter aged eighteen, who (for some reason which is not quite clear to me) was given the title of Princess.
For a considerable period there had been peace and quiet in the land; the feudal lords were on the best of terms, and everyone was happy. Amid these circumstances Lord Naizen-no-jo perceived that there was a good opportunity to find a husband for his daughter Princess Aya; and after a time the second son of the Lord of Ako, of Harima Province, was selected, to the satisfaction of both fathers, the affair having little to do with the principals. Lord Ako's second son had viewed his bride with approval, and she him. One may say that young people are bound to approve each other when it is the parents' wish that they be united. Many suicides result from this.
Princess Aya made her mind up to try and love her prospective husband. She saw nothing of him; but she thought of him, and talked of him.
One evening when Princess Aya was walking in the magnificent gardens by the moonlight, accompanied by her maids-in-waiting, she wandered down through her favorite peony bed to the pond where she loved to gaze at her reflection on the nights of the full moon, to listen to frogs, and to watch the fireflies.
When nearing the pond her foot slipped, and she would have fallen into the water had it not been that a young man appeared as if by magic and caught her. He disappeared as soon as he had put her on her feet again.
The maids-of-honor saw her slip; they saw a glimmer of light, and that was all. But Princess Aya had seen more. She had seen the handsomest young man she could imagine.
"Twenty-one years old," she said to O Sadayo San, her favorite maid, "he must have been -- a samurai of the highest order. His dress was covered with my favorite peonies, and his swords were richly mounted. Oh that I could have seen him a minute longer, to thank him for saving me from the water! Who can he be? And how could he have got into our gardens, through all the guards?"
So spoke the princess to her maids, directing them at the same time that they were to say a word to no one, for fear that her father should hear, find the young man, and behead him for trespass.
After this evening Princess Aya fell sick. She could not eat or sleep, and turned pale. The day for her marriage with the young Lord of Ako came and went without the event; she was far too sick for that. The best of the doctors had been sent from Kyoto, which was then the capital; but none of them had been able to do anything, and the maid grew thinner and thinner.
As a last resource, the Lord Naizen-no-jo, her father, sent for her most confidential maid and friend, O Sadayo, and demanded if she could give any reason for his daughter's mysterious sickness. Had she a secret lover? Had she a particular dislike for her betrothed?
"Sir," said O Sadayo, "I do not like to tell secrets; but here it seems my duty to your lordship's daughter as well as to your lordship. Some three weeks ago, when the moon was at its full, we were walking in the peony beds down near the pond where the princess loves to be. She stumbled and nearly fell into the water, when a strange thing happened. In an instant a most beautiful young samurai appeared and helped her up, thus preventing her from falling into the pond. We could all see the glimmer of him; but your daughter and I saw him most distinctly. Before your daughter could thank him he had disappeared. None of us could understand how it was possible for a man to get into the gardens of the princess, for the gates of the castle are guarded on all sides, and the princess's garden is so much better guarded than the rest that it seems truly incredible that a man could get in. We maids were asked to say nothing for fear of your lordship's anger. Since that evening it is that our beloved princess Aya has been sick, sir. It is sickness of the heart. She is deeply in love with the young samurai she saw for so brief a space. Indeed, my lord, there never was such a handsome man in the world before, and if we cannot find him the young princess, I fear, will die."
"How is it possible for a man to get into the grounds?" said Lord Yuki Naizen-no-jo. "People say foxes and badgers assume the figures of men sometimes; but even so it is impossible for such supernatural beings to enter my castle grounds, guarded as it is at every opening."
That evening the poor princess was more wearily unhappy than ever before. Thinking to enliven her a little, the maids sent for a celebrated player on the biwa, called Yashaskita Kengyo. The weather being hot, they were sitting on the gallery (engawa); and while the musician was playing "Dannoura" there appeared suddenly from behind the peonies the same handsome young samurai. He was visible to all this time -- even the peonies embroidered on his dress.
"There he is! There he is!" they cried; at which he instantly disappeared again. The princess was highly excited, and seemed more lively than she had been for days; the old Daimio grew more puzzled than ever when he heard of it.
Next night, while two of the maids were playing for their mistress -- O Yae San the flute, and O Yakumo the koto -- the figure of the young man appeared again. A thorough search having been made during the day in the immense peony beds with absolutely no result, not even the sign of a footmark, the thing was increasingly strange.
A consultation was held, and it was decided by the lord of the castle to invite a veteran officer of great strength and renown, Maki Hiogo, to capture the youth should he appear that evening. Maki Hiogo readily consented, and at the appointed time, dressed in black and consequently invisible, concealed himself among the peonies.
Music seemed to have a fascination for the young samurai. It was while music was being played that he had made his appearances. Consequently, O Yae and O Yakumo resumed their concert, while all gazed eagerly towards the peony beds. As the ladies played a piece called "Sofuren," there, sure enough, arose the figure of a young samurai, dressed magnificently in clothes which were covered with embroidered peonies.
Everyone gazed at him, and wondered why Maki Hiogo did not jump up and catch him. The fact was that Maki Hiogo was so much astonished by the noble bearing of the youth that at first he did not want to touch him. Recovering himself, and thinking of his duty to his lord, he stealthily approached the young man, and, seizing him round the waist, held him tight. After a few seconds Maki Hiogo felt a kind of wet steam falling on his face; by degrees it made him faint; and he fell to the ground, still grasping the young samurai, for he had made up his mind that he would secure him.
Everyone had seen the scuffle, and some of the guards came hurrying to the place. Just as they reached the spot Maki Hiogo came to his senses, and shouted "Come, gentlemen! I have caught him. Come and see!" But on looking at what he held in his arms he discovered it to be only a large peony!
By this time the Lord Naizen-no-jo had arrived at the spot where Maki Hiogo lay, and so had the Princess Aya and her maids.
All were astounded and mystified except the Daimio himself, who said "Ah! It is as I said. No fox or badger spirit could pass our guards and get into this garden. It is the spirit of the peony flower that took the form of a prince." Turning to his daughter and her maids, he said, "You must take this a compliment, and pay great respect to the peony, and show the one caught by Maki Hiogo kindness as well by taking care of it."
The Princess Aya carried the flower back to her room, where she put it in a vase of water and placed it near her pillow. She felt as if she had her sweetheart with her. Day by day she got better. She tended the peony herself, and, strange to say, the flower seemed to get stronger and stronger, instead of fading. At last the princess recovered. She became radiantly beautiful, while the peony continued to remain in perfect bloom, showing no sign of dying.
The Princess Aya being now perfectly well, her father could no longer put off the wedding. Consequently, some days later, the Lord of Ako and his family arrived at the castle, and his second son was married to the princess.
As soon as the wedding was over the peony was found still in its vase -- but dead and withered. The villagers always after this, instead of speaking of the Princess Aya, or Aya Hime, called her Botan Hime or Peony Princess.
Revised April 5, 2015.