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The Crane Wife/1

The grateful crane departs

The man was walking home with a load of wood late in the afternoon on a sunny, early winter day. He liked these days, with snow on the ground but none on the trees-- it was easy to spot the trees and logs that were dry enough to cut and hard enough to make good coals. Even so, his feet were cold and he was happy to be near home. Perhaps the farmers couldn't afford to eat their own rice, but he couldn't remember a charcoal maker spending the night with cold feet.

As he approached the edge of Three-Mile Pond (three miles from town but only 5 minutes from his home, maybe 8 minutes in the snow) he heard a terrific beating sound accompanied by thin wails. It was a crane, caught in a bit of string some fool had set out to snare a duck. By morning the crane would have beaten itself to death without being of any use to the duck hunter. The man put down his pack, pulled out his knife, and approached the crane with what he considered soothing words. The crane was not soothed and the footing was not good-- after two or three hard wing strokes across his face the man retreated to his pack and got his short saw. A few strokes with that cut through the root around which the snare was looped. In a moment the crane was gone and the man was sitting in the snow with cold feet and cold hands. His hat seemed to be in the pond.

But in 8 minutes he was home, and in 15 his wood was put away and the remains of the morning's fire were hot enough to begin warming his hands and feet and the miso soup which, with some dried daikon, would be his supper. In fact, he was tired from his struggle with the crane, or perhaps from the day's work, and once warmed he took a short nap. The sky outside was quite dark by the time he was ready to eat. That was when he heard a knock at the door. It continued, quietly but steadily, until he opened the door to find a young lady he had never seen in town or elsewhere.

"I'm so sorry to trouble you when you are busy. I do not know this area well, and I have no place to stay tonight."

The man nodded, and closed the door behind her. She crossed to the raised mat area, slipped out of her sandals to step up and, naturally, knelt by the fire to warm her hands. He quickly found a cushion and, although he was not accustomed to plates, he pulled two plates and an extra bowl from the storage room. Ten days earlier he had carried a large load of charcoal into town to sell, and so he did have a little rice and some better pickles he planned to save for the New Year holiday, but his guest seemed happy with the hot miso soup and daikon. In any case, he did not attempt to impress or embarrass her with a feast.

He could not guess her age, except that she was a decade or more younger than himself. And he could see that she was not one to visit a charcoal burner's hut-- in a few minutes he had begun to think of his home as a hut-- except in a grave emergency. She spoke so politely that he could not understand everything she said. Certainly when he asked where she had come from the answer was more polite than informative. He did not follow up with questions about her destination. But there were no long silences; as she had journeyed up the river valley she had been impressed, like himself, by the sun on the snow and the beauty of the pines that could be seen clearly and individually far across the valley. And she commiserated with the death of his mother two springs ago-- apparently her own parents had passed away not too much earlier.

In fact, it was time for bed before he knew it. This was another embarrassing moment. He spread out his futon for her, and pushed aside her protests while he found something to cover himself with on the other side of the smoldering coals. Then he slept soundly.

He did not awake until sunrise. By that time she had revived the fire and made more miso soup, even taking the time to find mushrooms to give it more substance. After breakfast he offered her directions, and even to walk with her as far as the town.

"This is difficult to say, but I have nowhere to go, and no home to return to. It is an imposition-- a great inconvenience-- I would be very grateful to be able to stay here with you."

And so they were man and wife. That evening he got out the small amount of rice and wine he had been saving, and celebrated properly.

She had another request the following morning as he prepared to leave for the forest.

"Your mother's loom is in the storage room. May I use it to learn to weave?"

"Certainly. I'll pull it out where there is space to work. There is not much yarn, but I'll buy more when the next load of charcoal is ready."

"No. Let me work in the storage room. I request that you never come in while I am working."

"Why not?"

"It is my request."

"All right-- I won't"

"Never. It is my request."

The man stacked some boxes to make more space around the loom, then went looking for wood. In three more days the kiln was full, and he started the burn. After several more days the charcoal was cooled and packed up ready to take into town.

When he was ready to leave, his wife handed him a roll of cloth, wrapped in strong, coarse paper. She asked him to sell it in town, and to buy more yarn and some rice if there was money enough for that. He bore his load the two miles into town with careful steps, but a light heart. Once in town he unloaded the bales of charcoal, and then sat at the edge of the shop office while the choja counted out some coins. Receiving them, he pulled out the coarse paper bundle.

"My wife is learning to weave. Would this cloth be of use to you?"

The choja raised his eyebrows at the word "wife," and raised them higher when the paper was removed and a little of the cloth was unrolled. The man saw immediately that what he had brought was not the dark blue or grey stuff the people of the town wore, and did not use the small, regular patterns his mother had always woven. It was not bright, but the surface of the cloth had a gleam that was almost aglow, and a pattern of pines in the mist. It could not be used for snow trousers or a light robe for a summer evening, but would have to be made into a robe for a fine lady. He dropped his eyes, and sipped tea with a mixture of disappointment and amazement.

"I don't know where you got this, or what it is worth. It is not cloth for this town, but I'll try to find a buyer. Take this and come back in 10 days."

The choja started to hand him a gold coin, but realized none of the shops would be able to make change, and gave him a bundle of silver instead. And he congratulated the man on his marriage.

The man bought yarn and rice as instructed, and also various roots, persimmons and pickles, and even two small fish. He also bought a comb, carved from a light-colored, close-grained wood with a sweet fragrance, for his wife's long black hair. Then he hurried home, light-hearted again.

Each day when he returned from gathering wood, he would unload his burden and stack the wood in the kiln, then open the door and announce his return. The clacking of the loom would stop, and his wife would rush out to welcome him back. After eating, they would sharpen tools and mend cloths, while he told stories of his boyhood and of the forest, and she told fantastic stories of strange things across the sea or in far parts of Japan. Then they would spread out his thin futon and get a night's rest.

On the 10th day the man's kiln was not yet full or ready to burn, so he walked into town unburdened. The choja offered him a sweet cake with his tea, then gave the man three more pieces of gold. He had taken the cloth to the castle and presented it to the lord, and he asked the man to bring another roll in 4 days, if possible.

His wife was weaving, as usual, when he returned. On hearing the choja's request, she said she was only half-way through the second roll. Immediately after cleaning up the evening meal, she retired to the storage room with a light, and he listened to the steady swish and clack of the loom until it was time to retire.

Again the next day, she entered the storage room as soon as the morning meal-- miso soup and dried daikon again-- was completed, and in the evening she asked him to prepare the soup so that she could continue working. He did so, but it was clear that the loom was not moving with its earlier steady rhythm. He insisted that she stay with him after the meal, and he rubbed her shoulders and arms until she fell asleep.

Still, she was up early the next day, and already working the loom when he awoke to find some hot rice gruel waiting for him. During the morning he decided that she should wait another 10 or 20 days before starting a third roll, and that afternoon he returned early, resolved to ask the choja for more time to finish the second roll. But the loom was silent when he entered the house, and there was no reply when he called out that he had returned. Now he was seriously concerned, and hurriedly opened the sliding door to the storage room.

A finished roll of gleaming brocade, more lovely than the first with a lively pattern of sparrows in bamboo, lay on the floor. But his wife was nowhere to be seen-- in her place an exhausted crane lay sprawled across the loom, its breast and sides plucked nearly bare of the feathers that gave that now gave the roll of cloth its luster. He immediately slid the door shut. As he did, he heard a wail much more mournful than those he heard as he had cut through the root at the side of the pond. A moment later his wife called to him through the door.

"You must never look at me while I am weaving."

"I'm sorry. I was afraid you were hurt."

"I am sorry too. You have seen my true form. Now we must part."

"No! Your true form is my wife. I can't let you go."

"Please wait outside."

"You can't leave me now!"

"Please wait outside. It is my request."

The man stood outside in the snow, looking out across the valley where the setting sun had reddened the sky. In few minutes he heard the flap of wings behind him and looked back to see the crane rising above the treetops. But a moment later it swooped down slightly and dropped something from its beak to the cleared area in front of the house, not far from where he stood. The man took a few steps, stooped over, and picked up a comb, carved from a light-colored, close-grained wood with a sweet fragrance, that would always remind him of his wife's long black hair.

The kiln was not quite full, but close enough. He started it burning, then went inside to stare at the ash-covered coals, which were waiting to be revived to warm his hands and heat his evening meal.

Notes: There is no real justification for translating the title of the story as "The Crane Wife." Think of it as a name rather than a translation. The story is frequently told of an elderly couple rather an a single man as here. Tsuru no Ongaeshi has a meaning more like "The Crane's Repayment for Kindness Received." I don't think there are any other mysteries here-- futon are the warm (and minimally soft) padded things one sleeps on and under (there are two). Daikon is a large white root-- literally a "big radish," but with no bite and suited to preparation in many ways. Miso is, well, fermented bean paste, but much better. And the choja is the town's one rich man. That gives him some political and judicial responsibilities, and considerable social responsibilities. But his main job is to get richer at a rate that will not seem oppressive to the rest of the town and surrounding villages.
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