A Japanese folktale: Yaichiro’s battle

Thersa Matsuura’s debut collection of short stories, A Robe of Feathers, is a darkly insightful look at how myth and reality can blur.

Andrea Miller
14 June 2009

In Japan, superstitions, legends, and folk tales have traditionally been passed down through generations, pervading daily life. Thersa Matsuura’s debut collection of short stories, A Robe of Feathers, is a darkly insightful look at how this line dividing myth from reality can blur. Here is an excerpt from the book—the strange and haunting story of Yaichiro’s battle.

Yaichiro’s heel sunk into the loose rock on the narrow footpath that ran through Ikidomari Hills. He closed his eyes, clutched tight the tiny carved sculpture to his chest, and took the fall on his shoulder. The shoulder didn’t break but after that it didn’t hang properly either. The young man pushed himself up with one hand and continued along the dark, unfamiliar pass.

He needed a dog.

“I’m never going to make it.” Yaichiro immediately regretted speaking out loud when, sure he’d heard a chuckled agreement from behind, he swung around and nearly lost his footing again. No one was there.

It was all his fault.

One month earlier, Yaichiro, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter, Michi, were celebrating the Autumn Harvest Festival. It was the year’s biggest event and everyone in the village was there. At the end of a long day of dancing and drums, homemade sweetmeats, and warmed sake his wife advised him that it was time to return home and spend the rest of the evening with his family. Yaichiro would have gone, too, if his boss hadn’t been so keen on watching him dance and attempt to play a broken wooden flute. One stern word and another bottle of sake and the young man was—whether he liked it or not—there for the night.

He remembered the exact moment: he was dancing in a circle when suddenly beside him appeared a filthy old man in a tattered kimono. Yaichiro’s head was dizzy from sake and song and he bumped into the elderly fellow, knocking a splintered bamboo fan from his hand. Yaichiro had half-intended to bend down and retrieve the item, but the other dancers continued their spinning and clapping in time with the drumbeat, and he was swept along.

At the time he felt only mild impertinence thinking the disheveled old goat was merely the local Poverty God. When everything he owned had already been lost, there was not much to fear from him. Yaichiro didn’t give the incident a second thought until two weeks ago, when several sores appeared on Michi’s face and hands and inside her mouth.

His wife questioned him relentlessly, imploring that he admit to what he had done this time. The young man hung his head and pleaded innocence, listening while she wept and listed every day of bad luck they had ever suffered and each act of irreverence on his part that had caused it.

Remember the time they dressed in their best clothes and went to pay a New Year’s visit to the shrine? Yaichiro, forgetting his money purse, had tossed a small stone into the offering box and a week later their tiny shed burned down with three clay pots full of pickled plums inside. And then there was the abrupt demise of dear Grandpa. It was undoubtedly the shock of visiting his wife’s ancestral altar and discovering every golden ornament, every brass candle holder, even Grandma’s posthumous Buddhist name mysteriously vanished that lead to his collapse. Who carries the entire contents of a family altar to the river to clean anyway? Yaichiro kept his head bowed and apologized once more for each sin named.

The next day the local doctor was called. He brought with him the blind woman who was said to possess powers far greater than his own. Several minutes were spent examining the child until they both agreed Yaichiro’s household had been visited by the God of Smallpox.

Ruined with guilt, the young man tended the girl day and night while his wife remained for hours on end at the local shrine paying proper respect to the deity in hopes that mercy would be granted. In order to expel the illness Yaichiro dressed the child in red and helped her to color small hoso-e pictures while reciting prayers. When she recovered, these depictions of the great warrior Minamoto no Tametomo bravely defeating the stick-thin, pox-marked god would be burned and floated down the river.

But Michi didn’t get better. Instead her blisters grew and multiplied until one day the rash color turned from red to purple—a most unfortunate omen. Both the doctor and the sightless seer were called upon once more. They clucked their tongues and knitted their brows and without so much as touching the small child to see if she still held a fever, they announced with smug agreement that tonight would prove her fate, tonight would be the battle. By tomorrow morning everyone would know the outcome, would know if this frail little girl or the God of Smallpox won.

Yaichiro snapped. He would no longer pay homage to this god of death. Against all caution and common sense, Yaichiro kissed the girl on the forehead, rummaged through an old chest of drawers, and snuck out of the house. He needed a dog.

It was popular knowledge that the God of Smallpox despised dogs. This he learned when, soon after Michi was diagnosed with the disease, each canine in the village was either destroyed or chased with such vigor and hate that it did not dare return.

Yaichiro set out.

After ten hours of walking, after dozens of cuts and bruises, as well as the one shoulder that now jutted out funny on top and shot tingles down to the tips of his fingers, he crested the final hill. Overhead a nearly full moon slipped from behind the clouds lighting up the town below. He made it. As if to offer further encouragement, rising up on the wind he heard a dog howl. It was a sign, he thought. Yaichiro smiled to himself.

“I need a dog and that one will do,” he said.

The netsuke he grasped so tightly in his not-numb hand was made from a sperm whale’s tooth. It just happened to be a carving of a dog. This secret trinket was the last remaining object of any worth in Yaichiro’s home. And while it belonged to his wife, he knew that she would forgive him when, after bringing a dog into the house, he would drive away the god that brought nothing but devastation, and with that bring back their daughter. Michi would win her fight. Yaichiro admired the delicate craftsmanship in the moonlight and thought giddily to himself that he could easily buy two dogs for the price of it.

Yaichiro skidded down the slope and ran towards the town that was so near now he could identify the trembling golden glow of oil lamps behind papered windows. There was no time to waste. But still halfway to his destination, he stopped.

Somewhere nearby he heard a baby crying. That’s when he noticed it. Up ahead on the well-worn footpath sat a child swaddled in blankets. There was no one else in sight.

Yaichiro’s first instinct was to keep running. The moon had already risen high in the sky, and he had to return home before dawn. However, he couldn’t shake the niggling suspicion that this was a test, that maybe the gods had placed the baby here for him to find, to see what he’d do. He tucked the carving into his sleeve, freeing his good arm, and carefully scooped up the child. He would leave it with someone in town.

The baby ceased its crying and began to make happy gurgling noises. Yaichiro bounced it once and laughed for the first time in weeks, sure once more he had made the correct decision. He held the child close, ready to continue his journey, when something strange happened.

Before he could take another step in the direction of the town, he felt the baby clutch two handfuls of his jacket and squeeze. It seemed to be growing heavier as well. Yaichiro attempted to put the child down, but it refused and fastened itself tighter using both legs to gain extra purchase. He had heard rumors of this trickster.

Against his better judgment, Yaichiro glanced back down and met the child’s stare. Panic hastened his heart. He felt immediate revulsion. The body latched tightly to his frame, limbs splayed, resembling a tick readying itself for its blood meal. While the face that peered up, a baby’s face, betrayed emotion no child could ever feel. It smiled. And just like that the child’s eyes sunk into shadowed sockets growing jaundiced as they did. Its plump skin thinned, cracking into a web of wrinkles folding over to form weighty cheeks held up only by that ever-present mocking sneer. Yaichiro felt his stomach turn as the biting stink of decay met his nose. This was a konaki jiji, the old man who cries like a child.

By now it had increased its weight to that of a full-grown man and showed no signs of letting go. Yaichiro attempted to use his good arm to pull the thing off. He tried to force his hand between himself and the creature; he even tried hitting it repeatedly on the back and head. Still it clung. He recalled the stories he’d heard.

If he could just endure the burden, then the konaki jiji would reward him with magical powers . . . or so the rumors went. Maybe this, too, was a test. The weight had reached that of four men and Yaichiro’s knees began to buckle. The fiend cackled as if reading his thoughts. Those who could not withstand the trial were doomed to be crushed alive. It soon felt as if the entire Ikidomari Mountain was resting atop him.

Yaichiro felt one knee pop and then there was nothing he could do; he collapsed to the ground. The netsuke fell from his sleeve and rolled to a stop just in front of his face. The moon must still be out, he thought, because not far off he could hear the howling. He kept his eyes on the small, intricately carved dog. He needed a dog.

The konaki jiji’s laugh was deafening now. He was truly enjoying himself. Yaichiro was wheezing. He felt his bones slide in their joints, heard audible snaps that hurt less than they should. Until finally, his breath would not come. Just before his vision failed, he glimpsed once more the face of the monster and saw that it had morphed into Michi. Her pox had changed from purple to red—they were clearing up. She hugged his neck and asked him to play. Her smile, something he thought he’d never see again, dispelled his anger, his grief, and his guilt. From nearby came more howling—he counted at least four animals. But it didn’t matter. Yaichiro’s last thought, before he ran off with his little girl, was how he didn’t need a dog after all, not one, or two, or four.

From A Robe of Feathers, by Thersa Matsuura © 2009. Reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint.

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is the editor of Lion’s Roar magazine. She’s the author of Awakening My Heart: Essays, Articles, and Interviews on the Buddhist Life, as well as the picture book The Day the Buddha Woke Up.