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The Maiden Of Unai

from Japanese Fairy Tales





The Maiden of Unai was fair as an earthly deity, but the eyes of man
might not behold her. She dwelt in a hidden place in her father's house,
and of what cheer she made the live-long day not a soul could tell, but
her father who kept watch, and her mother who kept ward, and her ancient
nurse who tended her. The cause was this.

When the maid was about seven years old, with her black hair loose and
hanging to her shoulder, an ancient man, a traveller, came, footsore and
weary, to her father's house. He was made welcome, served with rice and
with tea, whilst the master of the house sat by, and the mistress, to do
him honour. Meanwhile the little maid was here and there, catching at
her mother's sleeve, pattering with bare feet over the mats, or bouncing
a great green and scarlet ball in a corner. And the stranger lifted his
eyes and marked the child.

After he had eaten, he called for a bowl of clear water, and taking from
his wallet a handful of fine silver sand he let it slip through his
fingers and it sank to the bottom of the bowl. In a little he spoke.

"My lord," he said to the master of the house, "I was hungry and weary,
and you have fed me and refreshed me. I am a poor man and it is hard for
me to show my gratitude. Now I am a soothsayer by profession, very
far-famed for the skill of my divination. Therefore, in return for your
kindness I have looked into the future of your child. Will you hear her
destiny?"

The child knelt in a corner of the room bouncing her green and scarlet
ball.

The master of the house bade the soothsayer speak on.

This one looked down into the bowl of water where the sand was, and
said: "The Maiden of Unai shall grow up fairer than the children of men.
Her beauty shall shine as the beauty of an earthly deity. Every man who
looks upon her shall pine with love and longing, and when she is fifteen
years old there shall die for her sake a mighty hero from near, and a
valiant hero from afar. And there shall be sorrow and mourning because
of her, loud and grievous, so that the sound of it shall reach High
Heaven and offend the peace of the gods."

The master of the house said, "Is this a true divination?"

"Indeed, my lord," said the soothsayer, "it is too true." And with that
he bound on his sandals, and taking his staff and his great hat of
rice-straw, he spoke no other word, but went his ways; neither was he
any more seen nor heard tell of upon that country-side.

And the child knelt in a corner of the room, bouncing her green and
scarlet ball.

The father and mother took counsel.

The mother wept, but she said, "Let be, for who can alter the pattern
set up upon the looms of the weaving women of Heaven?" But the father
cried, "I will fight. I will avert the portent; the thing shall not come
to pass. Who am I that I should give credence to a dog of a soothsayer
who lies in his teeth?" And though his wife shook her head and moaned,
he gave her counsel no heed, for he was a man.

So they hid the child in a secret chamber, where an old wise woman
tended her, fed her, bathed her, combed her hair, taught her to make
songs and to sing, to dance so that her feet moved like rosy butterflies
over the white mats, or to sit at a frame with a wonder of needlework
stretched upon it, drawing the needle and the silken thread hour after
hour.

For eight years the maid set eyes upon no human being save her father,
her mother, and her nurse, these three only. All the day she spent in
her distant chamber, far removed from the sights and the sounds of the
world. Only in the night she came forth into her father's garden, when
the moon shone and the birds slept and the flowers had no colour. And
with every season that passed the maid grew more beautiful. Her hair
hung down to her knees and was black as a thundercloud. Her forehead
was the plum blossom, her cheek the wild cherry, and her mouth the
flower of the pomegranate. At fifteen years old she was the loveliest
thing that ever saw the light, and the sun was sick with jealousy
because only the moon might shine upon her.

In spite of all, the fame of her beauty became known, and because she
was kept so guarded men thought of her the more, and because she might
not be seen men longed to behold her. And because of the mystery and the
maiden, gallants and warriors and men of note came from far and near and
flocked to the house of Unai; and they made a hedge about it with
themselves and their bright swords; and they swore that they would not
leave the place till they had sight of the maid, and this they would
have either by favour or by force.

Then the master of the house did even as he must, and he sent her mother
to bring the maid down. So the mother went, taking with her a robe of
grey silk and a great girdle of brocade, green and gold; and she found
the maid, her daughter, sitting in her secret chamber singing.

The maid sang thus:

"Nothing has changed since the time of the gods,
Neither the running of water nor the way of love."

And the mother was astonished and said, "What manner of song is this,
and where heard you of such a thing as love?"

And she answered, "I have read of it in a book."

Then they took her, her mother and the wise woman, and they tied her
hair and pinned it high upon her head with gold and coral pins, and held
it with a great lacquer comb. She said, "How heavy it is!"

While they dressed her in the robe of grey silk, and tied the girdle of
brocade, first she shuddered and said, "I am cold." Then they would have
thrown over her a mantle broidered with plum blossom and pine, but she
would have none of it, saying, "No, no, I burn."

They painted her lips with beni, and when she saw it she murmured,
"Alack, there is blood upon my lips!" But they led her down and out on
to a balcony, where the men who were assembled might see her. She was
fairer than the children of men, and her beauty shone like the beauty of
an earthly deity. And all the warriors who were there looked upon her
and were silent, for already they were faint with love and longing. And
the maid stood with eyes cast down, and slowly the hot blush rose to her
cheek and she was lovelier than before.

Three or four score men of name sought her hand, being distraught for
love of her, and amongst them were two braver and nobler than the rest.
The one came from afar and was the champion of Chinu, and the other came
from near, the champion of Unai. They were young, strong, and
black-haired. They were equal in years, in strength, and in valour.
Both were girded with great swords, and full-charged quivers were upon
their backs, and six-foot bows of white wood were in their hands.
Together they stood beneath the balcony of the maiden of Unai, like twin
brothers in beauty and attainments. Together they cried aloud with
passionate voices, telling of their eternal love, and bidding the maiden
choose between them.

She lifted up her eyes and looked fixedly upon them, but spoke no word.

Then they drew their swords and made as if to fight the matter out there
and then; but the maid's father spoke: "Put up your swords, fair sirs; I
have devised a better way for the decision of this thing. If it please
you, enter my house."

Now part of the house of Unai was built out upon a platform over the
river that flowed past. It was the fifth month and the wistaria was in
blossom upon the trellis, and hung downwards nearly into the water. The
river was swift and deep. Here the master of the house brought the
champions, and the maiden was there also. But the mother and the wise
woman stood a little way apart, and hid their faces in their long
sleeves. Presently a white water-bird dropped from the blue sky, and
rocked to and fro upon the water of the river.

"Now, champions," cried the father of the maiden, "draw me your bows and
let fly each of you an arrow at yonder white bird that floats upon the
river. He that shall strike the bird and prove himself to be the better
marksman, he shall wed my daughter, the peerless Maiden of Unai."

Then immediately the two champions drew their bows of white wood and let
fly each of them an arrow. Each arrow sped swift; each arrow struck
true. The champion of Chinu struck the water-bird in the head, but the
champion of Unai struck her in the tail so that the white feathers were
scattered. Then the champions cried, "Enough of this trifling. There is
but one way." And again their bright swords leapt from their scabbards.

But the maid stood trembling, holding the gnarled stem of the wistaria
in her hands. She trembled and shook the branches so that the frail
flowers fell about her. "My lords, my lords," she cried, "oh, brave and
beautiful heroes of fame, it is not meet that one of you should die for
such as I am. I honour you; I love you both--therefore farewell." With
that, still holding to the wistaria, she swung herself clear of the
balcony and dropped into the deep and swift-flowing river. "Weep not,"
she cried, "for no woman dies to-day. It is but a child that is lost."
And so she sank.

Down sprang the champion of Chinu into the flood, and in the same
instant down sprang the champion of Unai. Alack, they were heavy with
the arms that they bore, and they sank and were entangled in the long
water weeds. And so the three of them were drowned.

But at night when the moon shone, the pale dead rose, floating to the
surface of the water. The champion of Unai held the maiden's right hand
in his own, but the champion of Chinu lay with his head against the
maiden's heart, bound close to her by a tress of her long hair; and as
he lay he smiled.

The three corpses they lifted from the water, and laid them together
upon a bier of fair white wood, and over them they strewed herbs and
sweet flowers, and laid a veil over their faces of fine white silk. And
they lighted fires and burned incense. Gallants and warriors and men of
note who loved the maiden, alive or dead, stood about her bier and made
a hedge with themselves and their bright swords. And there was sorrow
and mourning, loud and grievous, so that the sound of it reached High
Heaven and offended the peace of the gods.

A grave was dug wide and deep, and the three were buried therein. The
maid they laid in the middle, and the two champions upon either side.
Idzumo was the native place of the champion of Chinu, so they brought
earth from thence in a junk, and with this earth they covered him.

So the maid slept there in the grave, the champions faithfully guarding
her, for they had buried with them their bows of white wood and their
good armour and their spears and their bright swords. Nothing was
forgotten that is needful for adventure in the Land of Yomi.





Next: The Robe Of Feathers

Previous: The Bell Of Dojoji



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