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The Black Bowl

from Japanese Fairy Tales





Long ago, in a part of the country not very remote from Kioto, the great
gay city, there dwelt an honest couple. In a lonely place was their
cottage, upon the outskirts of a deep wood of pine trees. Folks had it
that the wood was haunted. They said it was full of deceiving foxes;
they said that beneath the mossy ground the elves built their kitchens;
they said that long-nosed Tengu had tea-parties in the forest thrice a
month, and that the fairies' children played at hide-and-seek there
every morning before seven. Over and above all this they didn't mind
saying that the honest couple were queer in their ways, that the woman
was a wise woman, and that the man was a warlock--which was as may be.
But sure it was that they did no harm to living soul, that they lived as
poor as poor, and that they had one fair daughter. She was as neat and
pretty as a princess, and her manners were very fine; but for all that
she worked as hard as a boy in the rice-fields, and within doors she was
the housewife indeed, for she washed and cooked and drew water. She
went barefoot in a grey homespun gown, and tied her back hair with a
tough wistaria tendril. Brown she was and thin, but the sweetest
beggar-maid that ever made shift with a bed of dry moss and no supper.

By-and-by the good man her father dies, and the wise woman her mother
sickens within the year, and soon she lies in a corner of the cottage
waiting for her end, with the maid near her crying bitter tears.

"Child," says the mother, "do you know you are as pretty as a princess?"

"Am I that?" says the maid, and goes on with her crying.

"Do you know that your manners are fine?" says the mother.

"Are they, then?" says the maid, and goes on with her crying.

"My own baby," says the mother, "could you stop your crying a minute and
listen to me?"

So the maid stopped crying and put her head close by her mother's on the
poor pillow.

"Now listen," says the mother, "and afterwards remember. It is a bad
thing for a poor girl to be pretty. If she is pretty and lonely and
innocent, none but the gods will help her. They will help you, my poor
child, and I have thought of a way besides. Fetch me the great black
rice-bowl from the shelf."

The girl fetched it.

"See, now, I put it on your head and all your beauty is hidden away."

"Alack, mother," said the poor child, "it is heavy."

"It will save you from what is heavier to bear," said the mother. "If
you love me, promise me that you will not move it till the time comes."

"I promise! I promise! But how shall I know when the time comes?"

"That you shall know.... And now help me outside, for the sweet morning
dawns and I've a fancy to see the fairies' children once again, as they
run in the forest."

So the child, having the black bowl upon her head, held her mother in
her arms in a grassy place near the great trees, and presently they saw
the fairies' children threading their way between the dark trunks as
they played at hide-and-seek. Their bright garments fluttered, and they
laughed lightly as they went. The mother smiled to see them; before
seven she died very sweetly as she smiled.

When her little store of rice was done, the maid with the wooden bowl
knew well enough that she must starve or go and find more. So first she
tended her father's and mother's graves and poured water for the dead,
as is meet, and recited many a holy text. Then she bound on her sandals,
kilted her grey skirts to show her scarlet petticoat, tied her household
gods in a blue printed handkerchief, and set out all alone to seek her
fortunes, the brave girl!

For all her slenderness and pretty feet she was a rarely odd sight, and
soon she was to know it. The great black bowl covered her head and
shadowed her face. As she went through a village two women looked up
from washing in the stream, stared and laughed.

"It's a boggart come alive," says one.

"Out upon her," cries the other, "for a shameless wench! Out upon her
false modesty to roam the country thus with her head in a black bowl, as
who should cry aloud to every passing man, 'Come and see what is
hidden!' It is enough to make a wholesome body sick."

On went the poor maid, and sometimes the children pelted her with mud
and pebbles for sport. Sometimes she was handled roughly by village
louts, who scoffed and caught at her dress as she went; they even laid
hands upon the bowl itself and sought to drag it from her head by force.
But they only played at that game once, for the bowl stung them as
fiercely as if it had been a nettle, and the bullies ran away howling.

The beggar-maiden might seek her fortune, but it was very hard to find.
She might ask for work; but see, would she get it? None were wishful to
employ a girl with a black bowl on her head.

At last, on a fine day when she was tired out, she sat her upon a stone
and began to cry as if her heart would break. Down rolled her tears from
under the black bowl. They rolled down her cheeks and reached her white
chin.

A wandering ballad-singer passed that way, with his biwa slung across
his back. He had a sharp eye and marked the tears upon the maid's white
chin. It was all he could see of her face, and, "Oh, girl with the black
bowl on your head," quoth he, "why do you sit weeping by the roadside?"

"I weep," she answered, "because the world is hard. I am hungry and
tired.... No one will give me work or pay me money."

"Now that's unfortunate," said the ballad-singer, for he had a kind
heart; "but I haven't a rin of my own, or it would be yours. Indeed I
am sorry for you. In the circumstances the best I can do for you is to
make you a little song." With that he whips his biwa round, thrums on
it with his fingers and starts as easy as you please. "To the tears on
your white chin," he says, and sings:

"The white cherry blooms by the roadside,
How black is the canopy of cloud!
The wild cherry droops by the roadside,
Beware of the black canopy of cloud.
Hark, hear the rain, hear the rainfall
From the black canopy of cloud.
Alas, the wild cherry, its sweet flowers are marred,
Marred are the sweet flowers, forlorn on the spray!"

"Sir, I do not understand your song," said the girl with the bowl on her
head.

"Yet it is plain enough," said the ballad-singer, and went his way. He
came to the house of a passing rich farmer. In he went, and they asked
him to sing before the master of the house.

"With all the will in the world," says the ballad-singer. "I will sing
him a new song that I have just made." So he sang of the wild cherry and
the great black cloud.

When he had made an end, "Tell us the interpretation of your song," says
the master of the house.

"With all the will in the world," quoth the ballad-singer. "The wild
cherry is the face of a maiden whom I saw sitting by the wayside. She
wore a great black wooden bowl upon her head, which is the great black
cloud in my song, and from under it her tears flowed like rain, for I
saw the drops upon her white chin. And she said that she wept for
hunger, and because no one would give her work nor pay her money."

"Now I would I might help the poor girl with the bowl on her head," said
the master of the house.

"That you may if you wish," quoth the ballad-singer. "She sits but a
stone's throw from your gate."

The long and short of it was that the maid was put to labour in the rich
farmer's harvest-fields. All the day long she worked in the waving rice,
with her grey skirts kilted and her sleeves bound back with cords. All
day long she plied the sickle, and the sun shone down upon the black
bowl; but she had food to eat and good rest at night, and was well
content.

She found favour in her master's eyes, and he kept her in the fields
till all the harvest was gathered in. Then he took her into his house,
where there was plenty for her to do, for his wife was but sickly. Now
the maiden lived well and happily as a bird, and went singing about her
labours. And every night she thanked the august gods for her good
fortune. Still she wore the black bowl upon her head.

At the New Year time, "Bustle, bustle," says the farmer's wife; "scrub
and cook and sew; put your best foot foremost, my dear, for we must have
the house look at its very neatest."

"To be sure, and with all my heart," says the girl, and she put her back
into the work; "but, mistress," she says, "if I may be so bold as to
ask, are we having a party, or what?"

"Indeed we are, and many of them," says the farmer's wife. "My son that
is in Kioto, the great and gay, is coming home for a visit."

Presently home he comes, the handsome young man. Then the neighbours
were called in, and great was the merry-making. They feasted and they
danced, they jested and they sang, many a bowl of good red rice they
ate, and many a cup of good sake they drank. All this time the girl,
with bowl on her head, plied her work modestly in the kitchen, and well
out of the way she was--the farmer's wife saw to that, good soul! All
the same, one fine day the company called for more wine, and the wine
was done, so the son of the house takes up the sake bottle and goes
with it himself to the kitchen. What should he see there but the maiden
sitting upon a pile of faggots, and fanning the kitchen fire with a
split bamboo fan!

"My life, but I must see what is under that black bowl," says the
handsome young man to himself. And sure enough he made it his daily
care, and peeped as much as he could, which was not very much; but
seemingly it was enough for him, for he thought no more of Kioto, the
great and gay, but stayed at home to do his courting.

His father laughed and his mother fretted, the neighbours held up their
hands, all to no purpose.

"Oh, dear, dear maiden with the wooden bowl, she shall be my bride and
no other. I must and will have her," cried the impetuous young man, and
very soon he fixed the wedding-day himself.

When the time came, the young maidens of the village went to array the
bride. They dressed her in a fair and costly robe of white brocade, and
in trailing hakama of scarlet silk, and on her shoulders they hung a
cloak of blue and purple and gold. They chattered, but as for the bride
she said never a word. She was sad because she brought her bridegroom
nothing, and because his parents were sore at his choice of a
beggar-maid. She said nothing, but the tears glistened on her white
chin.

"Now off with the ugly old bowl," cried the maidens; "it is time to
dress the bride's hair and to do it with golden combs." So they laid
hands to the bowl and would have lifted it away, but they could not move
it.

"Try again," they said, and tugged at it with all their might. But it
would not stir.

"There's witchcraft in it," they said; "try a third time." They tried a
third time, and still the bowl stuck fast, but it gave out fearsome
moans and cries.

"Ah! Let be, let be for pity's sake," said the poor bride, "for you make
my head ache."

They were forced to lead her as she was to the bridegroom's presence.

"My dear, I am not afraid of the wooden bowl," said the young man.

So they poured the sake from the silver flagon, and from the silver
cup the two of them drank the mystic "Three Times Three" that made them
man and wife.

Then the black bowl burst asunder with a loud noise, and fell to the
ground in a thousand pieces. With it fell a shower of silver and gold,
and pearls and rubies and emeralds, and every jewel of price. Great was
the astonishment of the company as they gazed upon a dowry that for a
princess would have been rich and rare.

But the bridegroom looked into the bride's face. "My dear," he said,
"there are no jewels that shine like your eyes."





Next: The Star Lovers

Previous: The Good Thunder



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