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Blue Bamboo: Tales by Dazai Osamu

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Blue Bamboo:

Tales by

Dazai Osamu

Translated and with

an introduction by

Ralph F. McCarthy

Kurodahan Press


Table of Contents


On Love and Beauty

The Chrysanthemum Spirit

The Mermaid and the Samurai

Blue Bamboo

Alt Heidelberg


Lanterns of Romance

Copyright information

Translator’s Introduction

Scholars and fans often divide the career of Dazai Osamu (1909–1948) into three periods—early, middle, and late. The early and late periods tend to get all the attention, but in my lonely opinion Dazai was at his best in the middle period, which corresponds roughly to the years of the Pacific War. All the stories in this collection, with the exception of the early “Romanesque,” were written during that time.

These translations were first published by Kodansha International in 1993, as Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance, but soon went out of print. Rereading the stories nearly twenty years later, I found that I still loved them but that the translations needed a lot of work. I think I’ve improved them considerably, and I’m grateful to Kurodahan Press for the opportunity to present these somewhat spiffed-up versions.

A few notes on the individual stories:

On Love and Beauty

(Ai to bi ni tsuite) May 1939

Please don’t be deterred by the rather incomprehensible lecture on mathematics with which the youngest son opens the story-within-the-story—things sail along quite smoothly once he finally shuts up. I find myself wishing that Dazai had written dozens of stories featuring this quirky family and their favorite pastime, but in fact he left only one sequel—the last story in this collection, “Lanterns of Romance.”

The Chrysanthemum Spirit

(Seihintan) January 1941

Dazai’s title, literally translated, would be something like “A Tale of Honest Poverty.” The story is based loosely on a vignette from a voluminous collection of Chinese folklore and ghost stories entitled Liao Chai Chih I, compiled by P’u Sung-ling in the seventeenth century and partially ; translated by Herbert A. Giles as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Dazai places the action in Edo (which is, of course, the old name for Tokyo) and invents the moral conflict reflected in the title he chose. I have deleted from the translation the opening paragraph, in which Dazai introduces the work. Here it is:

The following is based on a tale from the Liao Chai Chih I. The original consists of a mere 1,834 Chinese characters, which would fill only about four and a half sheets of the standard manuscript paper we use in Japan. An extraordinarily short little piece, but reading it triggers such a flood of images in the mind that one experiences as complete a sense of satisfaction as might be garnered from most stories of thirty pages or more, and what I’d like to do is to set down the various meanderings of the imagination that occurred to me as I read it. It might be argued that in doing so I’m straying from the proper path as a writer, but since I consider the Liao Chai Chih I to be more a sort of sourcebook of folklore than a classic of literature, I don’t think it would be such a terrible sin for a twentieth-century author to make use of his unruly daydreams and impressions to fashion a tale based essentially on one of these old stories and present it to the reader as an original work. There is a lot of talk these days about a “new order,” but my own personal new order would appear to be nothing more nor less than the exhumation of romanticism.

The Mermaid and the Samurai

(Ningyo no umi) October 1944

This is one of the twelve retellings of stories by Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) that Dazai published during World War II. Dazai’s title literally means “The Sea of Mermaids.” While the story follows the basic outline of Saikaku’s “The Sea of Life-taking Mermaids” (which is a mere three or four pages in length), Dazai expands freely, adding characters and details and turning the whole thing into a near-parody of the melodramatic samurai plays and movies of his time. The following is from an introduction Dazai wrote to his collection of Saikaku tales:

I have entitled this collection New Tales of the Provinces but am tempted to give it the subtitle My Saikaku. Whatever it is, it is not a modern translation of Saikaku. Modern translations of classics are, generally speaking, pointless endeavors—certainly nothing that anyone who calls himself an author should undertake. About three years ago I published a short story called “A Tale of Honest Poverty,” which was based on a piece from the Liao Chai Chih I but greatly embellished with my own vagrant musings, and I have used the same method for the present collection.

Blue Bamboo

(Chikusei) April 1945

This, too, is a very loose retelling of a story in Liao Chai Chih I (included in Giles’s translation under the title “The Man Who Was Changed into a Crow”). Dazai preserves the basic situation and little else: the moral dilemma and its resolution are entirely of his own invention, and the countless references to Chinese classics—most of which would have been familiar to Japanese readers in 1945—are nowhere to be found in the original. Dazai appended an “author’s note,” in which he tells us: “This is an original work. I wrote it in the hope that it would be read by the people of China. It is to be translated into Chinese.”

“Blue Bamboo” was, in fact, published in that language (in the Japanese Imperial Government-sponsored journal Greater East Asian Literature) even before it was published in Japanese.

Alt Heidelberg

(Aruto Haideruberuhi) March 1940

This story is perhaps the odd man out here, in that it’s a blatantly autobiographical first-person narrative, but we think it makes a nice companion piece.


(Romanesuku) November 1934

“Romanesque” was included in Dazai’s first collection of stories, The Twilight Years. He often described it as his “debut work” and always seemed to remain quite fond of it, although some readers may be inclined to agree with this comment from “On The Twilight Years,” an essay he wrote in 1938: “‘Romanesque,’ for example, is full of comical absurdities, but it’s a bit out of control, so I can’t really recommend it all that highly.”

Lanterns of Romance

(Roman doro) December 1940–June 1941

Dazai’s well-documented reverence of Hans Christian Andersen is indicated here by his letting our old friend, the youngest son, plagiarize extended passages from “The Snow Queen” almost verbatim.

At the beginning of “Lanterns of Romance,” Dazai reproduces (with only a few very minor changes) the first three or four pages of “On Love and Beauty,” and I have had to do some cutting and patching here—deleting even a bit more than merely the redundant material. To ease my conscience, and because it seems a fitting way to end this perhaps superfluous introduction, allow me to present the bulk of my additional deletion here. Dazai is referring to “On Love and Beauty” in this passage:

Being an unpopular writer, I didn’t manage to get the story published immediately in a magazine, and for a long time it remained in the bottom of my desk drawer. Since I also had three or four other unpublished works laid aside—hidden treasures, if you will—in early spring of the year before last I suddenly threw them all together for publication in a single volume. Even now I retain a certain fondness for that collection, meager as it is. All the works are naive, sentimental little offerings, but they nonetheless gave me great pleasure to write and were conceived without the least trace of ambition or ulterior design. So-called tours de force tend somehow to be awkward affairs that, upon rereading, can leave even the author with an unpleasant taste in his mouth, but this is a defect that short, carefree little pieces do not share. As usual, that collection of stories didn’t sell very well, but I wasn’t particularly disappointed. At times I even think it’s a good thing it didn’t sell. Though I feel affection for the stories, I don’t consider them to be of the highest quality in terms of content. They are all, in a sense, sloppy works that simply aren’t capable of standing up to a stern, objective reading. But an author’s affection doesn’t always correspond to his objective judgment, and I sometimes find myself stealthily spreading that treacly collection of stories out on my desk and rereading them. Of all the tales in the collection, the most frivolous, and the one that the author loves most dearly, is the very one I refer to above, the one inspired by those five brothers and sisters....

here were five brothers and sisters, and all of them loved romances.

The eldest son was twenty-eight and a Bachelor of Laws. He tended to come across as arrogant and standoffish, but this was only a forbidding mask to disguise his own vulnerability; he was in fact a fragile and very gentle person. Even as he complained, whenever the brothers and sisters went to the movies, that the samurai film they were watching was rubbish, or silly, he was always the first to burst into tears, overwhelmed by the main character’s inner conflict between duty and heart. Always. On emerging from the movie theater, however, he’d be wearing a petulant sort of scowl, and all the way home he’d refuse to utter a single word.

He often professed, without the least hesitation, that he’d never told a lie in his life. Doubtful as that may be, it is true that he had a certain virtuous, irreproachable side to his character. His marks in school had not been very good, and after graduation he hadn’t sought employment but had devoted himself instead to looking after the family. He was currently involved in research on Ibsen. Recently, upon rereading A Doll’s House, he had made a major discovery and worked himself into quite a lather: Nora was in love. She was in love with the doctor, Rank. That was his discovery. He called the brothers and sisters together, pointed out the relevant passage, and attempted to explain it to them in a commanding bellow, but all in vain. Far from sharing his excitement, the brothers and sisters merely cocked their heads, grinning and murmuring “H’mm,” or “I wonder.” They were not inclined to take their eldest brother very seriously, and at times even seemed to regard him as somewhat comical.

The elder daughter, who was twenty-five and still unwed, worked at the Railways Ministry. She boasted a rather good command of French. She was tall and very thin, with a long, narrow face, and her younger siblings sometimes referred to her as “The Horse.” Her hair was cut short, and she wore round glasses with black frames. Warm and gregarious by nature, she made friends easily and became thoroughly attached to them, only to be abandoned in due course. This was, in fact, her hobby; secretly she took pleasure in the heartache and melancholia such rejections afforded her. Once, however, when she fell hard for a young official in her department and was, as usual, cast aside, her devastation was quite real, and because the situation at work was as awkward as it was disheartening, she thought it best to plead lung problems. After lying in bed for a week with bandages wrapped around her neck, coughing like mad, she was finally taken to see a specialist, who studied her X-rays and congratulated her on having as healthy a set of lungs as he’d ever seen.

Her real love, in any case, was literature. She read a tremendous amount, and her tastes knew no historical or geographical bounds. She was also stealthily writing something of her own, a treasure that she kept hidden in the right-hand drawer of her bookcase. Placed neatly atop the manuscript was a note that read: “To be made public two years after my death.” The “two years” was amended occasionally to read “ten years” or “two months” or even, at times, “one hundred years.”

The second son was twenty-three. He was a snob. Though enrolled in medical school at the Imperial University, he rarely attended classes, being frail of constitution and frequently ill. He had a face that was almost startlingly lovely. And he was a miser. When the eldest son proudly brought home a ridiculous, worn-out old tennis racket that had supposedly been used by Montaigne and that he bragged of having purchased, after much haggling, for fifty yen, the second son, overwhelmed by the attempt to conceal his righteous indignation, came down with a bad fever that eventually did damage to his kidneys.

He had a tendency to look down on others. Whenever someone ventured an opinion on any topic he would respond with a scornful, uncanny laugh, a grating cackle like the call of some sort of goblin crow. His one and only idol was Goethe, although there was something suspicious about his admiration of the man: he seemed to respect the Master not so much for his pure, poetic spirit as for the lofty social status he enjoyed. But the fact remains that whenever the brothers and sisters held competitions in impromptu verse, the second son always came out on top. He was a natural poet. Precisely because he was such a snob, he had a well-defined, objective grasp of human passion, and if he’d put his mind to it he might even have become an acclaimed writer. A slightly lame sixteen-year-old maid who worked for the family was hopelessly in love with him.

The younger daughter was twenty. She was a narcissist. When a certain newspaper held a campaign to find Miss Japan, she was so tormented by the question of whether or not to nominate herself that she tossed and turned in bed for three consecutive nights, suppressing an urge to scream and tear at her hair. She found relief only when it came to her attention that she was too short to qualify for the competition anyway, and promptly erased the whole thing from her mind. Of all the brothers and sisters, she alone was extraordinarily petite, standing only four feet, seven inches tall. But by no means was she unattractive. She was, in fact, quite an eyeful. Late at night, she would sit in front of a mirror in the nude, practicing coy smiles, or spreading lotion on her shapely white legs, then softly kissing her fingertips and closing her eyes as if enraptured. Once, when a pimple the size of a pinprick appeared on the tip of her nose, she grew so depressed that she almost committed suicide.

There was a distinctive character to the younger daughter’s choice of reading material. She would go to used book stores to search out such works of the early Meiji era as Chance Encounters with Beautiful Women and Inspirational Tales of Leadership. These she would bring home and pore over, chuckling to herself as she read. She enjoyed contemporary foreign works in translation, and she also managed somehow to accumulate a great number of obscure little coterie magazines, which she would read from cover to cover, muttering “How amusing!” or “Clever, very clever!” But her real favorite—though she kept this to herself—was the great romantic Izumi Kyoka.

The youngest son was seventeen. He had just matriculated at Tokyo First Higher School, where he was enrolled in the science department. Upon entering higher school, his personality had undergone a sudden transformation. This was a source of great hilarity for the elder brothers and sisters, but the youngest son took his newfound sophistication quite seriously indeed. When a minor dispute of any sort arose in the household, he would inevitably stick his nose into the matter and, though no one was asking him to, pronounce his carefully considered judgment. The entire family was appalled by this and tended to give him a wide berth these days, but the elder daughter, who could not bear to see him sulking and pouting, had written a poem to console him in his lonely exile:

Ah, the sadness of

having become a grownup,

mature in every way,

and being the only one

who knows it.

His face resembled that of a bear cub, and the elder brothers and sisters in fact found him adorable and had always tended to pamper him. As a result of this treatment, he was a bit scatterbrained. He loved detective stories and from time to time, alone in his room, experimented with disguises. He’d recently bought a dual-language edition of Conan Doyle stories, purportedly for the purpose of studying English, but in fact he was reading only the Japanese translation. He quietly suffered the tragic conviction that of all the brothers and sisters, he alone worried about their mother sufficiently.

The father had died some five years before, but there was no threat to their standard of living. Which is to say that they were a family of some substance. Occasionally they were all overcome with a suffocating sense of boredom, and such was the case on this particular day. It was a dark and cloudy Sunday. Summer was on its way, but first the gloomy rainy season must be endured. They’d all gathered in the drawing room, where the mother was dispensing apple juice to her five children. The youngest son’s cup was considerably larger than everyone else’s.

It was customary in this household for the brothers and sisters to relieve bouts of boredom by taking turns spinning out a collective story. The mother too sometimes joined in.

“Any ideas?” The eldest son swept a pompous gaze over the assemblage. “I’d like today’s protagonist to be a bit eccentric, perhaps.”

“Let’s make him an elderly man.” The younger daughter struck a hopelessly affected pose—elbow on table, chin on palm, forefinger raised to rest against cheek. “I gave this a lot of thought last night”—it had, in fact, just occurred to her at that moment—“and I realized that elderly men comprise the most romantic category of human beings. An old woman won’t do at all. It has to be a man. An elderly man can be merely sitting on a veranda, and that’s all it takes, it’s already romantic. Ahh...”

“An old man, eh?” The eldest son pretended to think it over for a moment. “All right, so be it. Let’s make it a nice story, though, full of sweetness and light. ‘The Return of Gulliver’ last time was a bit too dark. I mean... I’ve been rereading Brand recently, and I have to admit it makes my shoulders stiff. It’s just too harrowing.” A rare confession.

“I’ll go first!” The youngest son nominated himself in a shrill voice without bothering to pause and arrange his thoughts. He gulped down his apple juice. And then, slowly and deliberately, he began setting forth his ideas.

“I, uh...I... Allow me to explain how I see it.” The others smiled ruefully at his attempt to sound mature, and the second son produced his famous jeering cackle, but the youngest forged ahead.

“I think this elderly gentleman must be a great mathematician. Yes, I’m sure of it. A great and renowned mathematician. A Doctor of Mathematics, naturally, and a world-class scholar. Mathematics is changing drastically these days, as I’m sure you’re all well aware. It’s going through a transitional period. This has been underway for the past ten years or so—since about 1920, to be more precise, or just after the end of the World War.”

It was painfully obvious that he was parroting, word for word, a lecture he’d attended at school the day before.

“If one looks back on the history of mathematics, one can see how the science has evolved in concert with the times. The first stage in this process came with the discovery of differential and integral calculus. That spawned what in broad terms we might call modern mathematics, as opposed to the traditional Greek variety. New territory had been opened, and directly afterward we had a period of, not refinement, strictly speaking, but expansion. That was the mathematics of the eighteenth century. As we move into the nineteenth century we find, sure enough, another rash of new ideas, and this too was a time of sudden change. To choose one representative figure, we might mention Gauss, for example. That’s G, a, u, double-s. But if we define a transitional period as a time during which continual, rapid change takes place, then the present is, indeed, a transitional period to end all transitional periods.”

This was of no use whatsoever—least of all as a story. The youngest son was nonetheless positively triumphant, convinced that he was beginning to hit his stride.

“Things have become extremely complicated. We are now awash in a deluge of theorems, and mathematics as we know it has reached a dead end. It has been reduced to a science of mere rote memorization. And the one man who at this crucial juncture has dared to stand up and proclaim freedom for mathematics is none other than our elderly professor. He’s a great man. Had he become a detective, he undoubtedly would have solved even the most difficult and bizarre case after nothing more than a quick stroll through the scene of the crime. That’s how brilliant he is. At any rate, as Cantor himself has put it,”—here we go again—“freedom is the very essence of mathematics. This is certainly true.

“Our word for ‘freedom’—jiyusei—was coined as a translation of the German Freiheit. But it’s said that the Japanese word was originally used in a strictly political sense and may not be an exact equivalent. Freiheit is a simple concept that means ‘not enslaved,’ ‘not subject to restraint.’ Examples of things that are not frei are to be found in any number of familiar places... so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to choose a single illustration. But take our telephone number, for example, which, as you all know, is four eight two three. How do we write it? With a comma between the first and second integers. Four comma eight two three. Now, if we were to write it with a slash, as they do in Paris—four eight slash two three—one could see the logic, but this custom of separating each group of three digits with a comma is nothing less than a form of slavery. Our elderly professor is making every effort to smash such corrupt conventions. He is a great man. Poincaré tells us that the only thing worthy of our love is truth, and I heartily agree. To grasp the truth in a concise and direct manner is the highest of human endeavors. There is nothing superior to it.”

So, what about the story? The other brothers and sisters were by now exchanging disconcerted looks, but the youngest son remained oblivious to them as he plowed ahead with his wobbly thesis.

“To enter the realm of empty academic theory is to run the risk of digressing from the point, but if I might ask you to bear with me for a moment, it so happens that I am currently engaged in the study of mathematical analysis, and since it is rather fresh in my mind, I should like to present a certain problem inherent in this field as an example of what I’m trying to say. These days it has become customary for treatments of mathematical analysis to begin with a discussion of the theory of sets—a questionable tendency in and of itself. Tradition, it would seem, can inspire in people an almost religious faith, and this sort of blind dogmatism has even begun to infiltrate the world of mathematics. It must be driven out at all costs. And that is precisely what our elderly professor has taken it upon himself to do—to rise to the battle against tradition.”

The youngest son was growing noticeably excited. Everyone else was bored to tears, but he had roused himself to a righteous fervor worthy of his elderly professor.

“Let’s examine the case of absolute convergence. In the past, ‘absolute convergence’ meant that a sum was conditionally constant irrespective of order or sequence—the operative word being ‘conditionally.’ What it means nowadays, on the other hand, is simply that progression series of absolute value must converge. It’s said that if progression series converge and progression series of absolute value do not converge, one can change the order of the terms to make them tend to an arbitrary limit, so it turns out that... that they converge anyway, so... so it’s all right.” Suddenly he was losing his grasp on the subject. He felt terribly alone. He thought of the textbook by Professor Takagi sitting on the desk in his room, but he could hardly stop here and go get it. Everything was explained clearly in the book. He was on the verge of tears. His voice faltered, his breast was trembling, and in a tone so shrill it resembled a shriek he said: “In short...”

The brothers and sisters all sat with bowed heads, giggling to themselves.

“In short,” he said again, suppressing a sob, “the problem with tradition is that it can cause even an error of great magnitude to go unnoticed, but there are a lot of problematic little details involved that we don’t have time to go into here. In any case, I would like to express my fervent wish for the publication of an introduction to mathematical analysis that has a freer point of view and is more accessible to the layman.”

And here the youngest son’s part of the story ended. What a mess. A chill had even fallen over the room. There was simply no way to continue the story, nothing to graft onto. Everyone seemed lost in morbid contemplation. The elder daughter, however, being the compassionate person she was, wanted to come to her youngest sibling’s aid. She stifled a final giggle, composed herself, and began to speak in a quiet voice.

“As the preceding discussion has amply demonstrated, our elderly professor is a man of lofty character. A lofty character is always shadowed by adversity. This is a rule with no exceptions. The old professor doesn’t fit in. Forever regarded as strange or eccentric by his neighbors, he can’t help but feel miserably lonely at times, and on this particular night he is, as usual, alone, as he picks up his walking stick and heads for Shinjuku.

“Our story takes place in summer. Great crowds of people throng the streets of Shinjuku. The professor presents a heartrending sight in his old, wrinkled, cotton yukata, with the sash tied high above his waist and the loose ends dangling down almost to his heels, like the tail of a rat. What makes things worse is that, although the professor is a man who perspires a great deal, he has forgotten his handkerchief. At first he wipes his brow with the palm of his hand, but this method proves no match for such a prodigious amount of sweat. It gushes from his forehead like water overflowing a mountain pool, streaming down his nose and temples, washing over the entire surface of his face, and dripping from his chin to his chest, and he feels perfectly wretched, as if he’s had a jug of sticky camellia oil dumped over his head. He finally begins to use the sleeves of his yukata, swiftly passing one sleeve over his face, walking a few steps, then surreptitiously doing the same with the other sleeve, and before long both sleeves are drenched. The professor is by nature indifferent to appearances, but this flood of perspiration is just too much for him, and at last he decides to take refuge in a beer hall.

“Inside, the air being pushed around by the fans is warm and damp, but at least his perspiration subsides somewhat. The radio in the beer hall is blaring a lecture on current affairs, and suddenly the professor takes notice of the voice delivering the lecture. It’s a voice he’s heard before. It sounds like that weasel, he thinks, and sure enough, when the lecture ends, the announcer comes on to pronounce the name of ‘that weasel,’ attaching the honorific title ‘His Excellency.’ The professor wishes he could wash out his ears. The weasel is a man who studied alongside the professor throughout higher school and university—a calculating schemer who climbed to a lofty position in the Ministry of Education. Now and then the professor and the weasel have occasion to come face to face at class reunions or academic conferences, and each time they meet, the weasel heaps gratuitous derision upon him. He delivers a series of boorish, banal jibes, and although nothing he says is the least bit funny, the members of his entourage laugh uproariously at every word, all but slapping their knees. On one such occasion the professor kicked his chair back and rose to his feet in a rage but unfortunately stepped on an orange he’d dropped earlier, squishing it and allowing a startled, feeble shriek to escape his lips. ‘Eek!’ he cried, at which the entire company exploded with laughter. Thus the professor’s righteous anger ended in a sad and pitiful farce. But he is not about to give up. He’s determined to punch that weasel in the nose one day.

“Hearing his loathsome, grating voice on the radio has put the professor in a most unpleasant mood, and he gulps down a beer. Never having been one to hold his liquor very well, he grows tipsy almost at once. A young girl selling fortunes enters the beer hall. The professor calls her over and in a soft, familiar tone of voice says: ‘How old are you, dear? Thirteen? You don’t say. That means that in another five years... no, four years... no, no, in another three years, you can get married. Now listen carefully. How much is thirteen plus three? H’mm?’ And so on. Even a respected professor of mathematics can behave rather inappropriately when drunk. Now, however, having been somewhat overly persistent in teasing the girl, he realizes he has little choice but to buy one of her fortunes. The professor is not a superstitious man, but tonight, partially because of the radio broadcast, he feels somewhat vulnerable and has a sudden urge to consult the fortune as to what will become of his research, and where his destiny will lead him. When one’s life begins to unravel, one is tempted, sadly enough, to cling to the thread of prophecy.

“The fortune is of the invisible ink variety. The professor heats the paper with the flame of a match, opening his bleary eyes wide in an attempt to focus on the words as they appear. At first he’s uncertain what he’s seeing—it merely looks like some sort of design—but gradually the lines resolve into clear-cut characters written in a flowing, old-fashioned style:


“Seeing this, the professor beams. Well, no, ‘beams’ is hardly the word. Our noble professor erupts with a vulgar-sounding chuckle—‘Er, her, her, her’—then thrusts out his chin and looks about at the other drunken customers. None of them take any particular notice of the professor, but that doesn’t stop him from nodding to each of them and producing a series of silly laughs—‘Ha, ha. Just as you wish! Hee, hee, hee. Excuse me. Ho, ho!’—as he strolls serenely out of the beer hall, his self-confidence thoroughly restored.

“Outside, a slow-moving river of people flows over the street. It’s quite a crush. People jostling and shoving, all of them dripping with sweat but trying to look composed and indifferent as they shuffle along. They’re walking with no goal or destination in mind, to be sure, but precisely because their daily lives are so dreary they are harboring, all of them, some faint flicker of hope that compels them to stroll through the Shinjuku night with looks of cool composure on their faces. Walk up and down those streets all you like, not a single good thing will come of it. This much is certain. But happiness is being able to hope, however faintly, for happiness. So, at least, we must believe if we are to live in the world of today. Discharged from the beer hall’s revolving door, the professor totters and dives into the city’s sad current of migrant souls and is at once jostled and swept downstream, floundering and flailing as if he were drowning. Tonight, however, of all the members of this vast throng, the professor is quite possibly the one with the greatest confidence. The odds of his obtaining happiness are better than anyone else’s. Recalling his good fortune from time to time as he walks along, he smiles or nods to himself, or raises his eyebrows to give his expression a grave and dignified aspect, or makes inept and rather uncouth attempts at whistling.

“Then, suddenly, he collides head-on with a young student. This, however, is only to be expected. In a crowd this size, it’s natural that one will bump into someone else occasionally. Nothing comes of the encounter; the student merely walks on. But a short while later the professor collides with a beautiful young lady. Nothing comes of this either, though: she merely continues along the street. It is not yet time for happiness to arrive. The new development is to come from behind him. Someone taps the professor lightly on the back. This time it’s no accident.”

The elder daughter stopped there. She’d been speaking all this time with downcast eyes. Now she snatched off her glasses and began vigorously polishing the lenses with her handkerchief—something she always did when self-conscious.

The second son continued.

“I’m afraid I’m not very good at doing descriptive passages. Or, rather, it’s not that I’m not good at it, it’s just that it seems like too much trouble today. So I’ll keep this brief and to the point.” Such cheek.

“The professor turns to see a plump woman of about forty. She’s holding a small dog with a remarkably ugly face. The two of them have the following conversation.

“‘Happy?’ she says.

“‘Sure, I’m happy. Since you’ve been gone, everything’s fine. Everything’s, well, just as I wish.’

“‘H’mph. I suppose you’ve got yourself some young thing?’

“‘Something wrong with that?’

“‘Yes, there is something wrong with that. Didn’t you promise me that if I only gave up dogs I could return to you any time I pleased?’

“‘That’s not likely to happen, though, is it? God, this one’s a real horror. Just horrible. It looks like a creature that eats larvae or something. What a monstrosity. Ugh. It’s nauseating.’

“‘You don’t have to go all pale in the face for my benefit. Isn’t that right, Pro? Is the bad man making fun of you? Bark at him. Go on. Woof! Woof!’

“‘Stop that. You’re as contrary as ever, aren’t you. You know, just talking to you sends chills down my spine. “Pro”? What the hell is that? Can’t you come up with a name with a bit more class? Idiot.’

“‘What’s wrong with “Pro”? It’s short for “Professor.” I named him in honor of you. Isn’t he sweet?’

“‘I can’t stand this.’

“‘My! You still perspire as much as ever, don’t you? Goodness! Don’t wipe it off with your sleeve. How do you think that looks? Don’t you have a handkerchief? Your new wife must be an awfully careless person. I never once forgot to see that you had three handkerchiefs and a fan whenever you went out in summer.’

“‘I won’t have you finding fault with my hallowed home. It’s most unpleasant.’

“‘Well, excuse me. Here. Take this handkerchief.’

“‘Thanks. I’ll just borrow it for the time being.’

“‘You’ve become a complete stranger, haven’t you?’

“‘When two people separate, they become strangers. That’s just the way it... Wait... This handkerchief Sure enough, it has the same old... No. No, it smells of dogs.’

“‘What a thing to say. The fragrance brings back memories, doesn’t it?’

“‘Don’t be stupid. You know what your problem is? Ill breeding.’

“‘Me? What about yourself? Do you insist on your new wife babying you too? You mustn’t, you know, at your age. How do you think it looks? She’ll grow to hate you. Having her put your socks on you while you’re still in bed, and—’

“‘I told you I won’t have you finding fault with my hallowed home. Listen, I’m happy now. Everything’s going splendidly.’

“‘And do you still have soup in the morning? With one raw egg? Or two?’

“‘Two. Sometimes three. I have more of everything now than I did with you. I’ll tell you, when I look back, I get the feeling there can’t be many women in this world with a tongue as sharp as yours. Why did you have to yell at me so much? I felt like an unwanted guest in my own home. Dining ill and supping worse. I haven’t forgotten that. I was working on some very important research in those days, you know. You didn’t understand that at all. Nagging me from morning to night about the buttons on my vest, or my cigarette butts... Thanks to you my research, and everything else in my life, was a shambles. As soon as I split up with you, I ripped every button off my vest and started throwing all my cigarette butts into coffee cups. That was a wonderful feeling. Absolutely exhilarating. I laughed so hard, all by myself, that tears came to my eyes. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how I’d suffered at your hands. Afterwards, I just grew angrier and angrier. Even now, I’m plenty angry. You don’t have any idea how to treat a person.’

“‘I’m sorry. I was young. Forgive me. I... I... Now I understand. The dogs were never really the problem, were they?’

“‘There you go, wringing out the tears again. That always was your way. Well, it won’t work anymore. Right now, for me, everything is just as I wish. See? You want to have a cup of tea somewhere?’

“‘I can’t. I...Now I understand perfectly. You and I have become strangers, haven’t we? No, we always were strangers. Our hearts were in different worlds, a thousand miles, a million miles apart. If we were together, we’d only be miserable, both of us. I want to make a clean break with you now. I... You see, I’m going to have a hallowed home of my own soon.’

“‘Oh? You found a good prospect?’

“‘It’ll be fine. He’s... He works in a factory. He’s the foreman. I understand that if it weren’t for him, the machines in the factory wouldn’t run at all. He’s a big man... A mountain of a man. Solid as a rock.’

“‘Not like me, eh?’

“‘No. He’s not a scholar. He doesn’t do research or anything. But he’s awfully good at what he does.’

“‘I’m sure you’ll be very happy. Goodbye, then. I’ll just borrow this handkerchief for now.’

“‘Goodbye. Ah! Your sash is coming undone. Here, I’ll tie it for you. Really, there’s no end to looking after you, is there? Give my regards to your wife.’

“‘Sure. If I think of it.’”

The second brother fell silent, then let out a self-deprecating cackle. If his observations seemed strangely sophisticated for one of his youth, this was nothing new.

“I already know how it ends.” The younger daughter smugly continued. “Here’s what happens, I’m quite sure. After the professor parts with the woman, there’s a sudden downpour. No wonder it’s been so humid. The people walking the streets scatter in every direction, like a batch of newborn spiders. It’s like magic, the way they disappear, and the streets of Shinjuku, which were so crowded only moments before, are now silent and empty of everything but the rain splattering in silver explosions on the pavement. The professor takes refuge under the eaves of a flower shop, hunching his shoulders and shrinking into a crouch. From time to time he pulls out the handkerchief and gazes at it for a moment, then hastily stuffs it back into his sleeve.

“It occurs to him to buy some flowers. If he does that and brings them back to his wife, who’s waiting at home, she’s sure to be delighted. Never before in the professor’s life has he purchased flowers. He’s not quite himself today. The radio, the fortune, the ex-wife, the handkerchief—a lot has transpired. Coming to a momentous resolve, he dashes into the flower shop and, though he’s terribly flustered and embarrassed and sweating profusely, somehow summons the courage to buy three large, long-stemmed roses. He’s shocked at how expensive they are. Outside the flower shop, he grabs a taxi and heads straight for home.

“The lantern glows brightly over the front door of his house on the outskirts of town. Home, sweet home. A refuge of warmth and comfort, the one place where everything goes splendidly. As he opens the door, he calls out in a loud voice: ‘I’m home!’ He’s in high spirits. It’s silent inside, but that doesn’t stop him. Bearing the flowers like a torch, he marches through the house and enters his study.

“‘I’m home. Got caught in the rain—what an ordeal! How do you like these? I’m told everything will turn out just as I wish.’

“He’s speaking to a photograph that sits atop his desk. It’s a photo of the woman with whom he has just made a clean break. But, no, not as she is now. It’s a photo taken a decade ago. She wears a beautiful smile.”

Narcissus struck her affected pose again, chin on hand, forefinger against cheek, and gazed about the room as if to say: “Nothing to it.”

“Yes. Well,” the eldest son began with a pedantic air. “I suppose that more or less wraps things up. However...” As the eldest, he had his dignity to maintain. Compared to the other brothers and sisters, he had not been blessed with a very rich imagination and was incompetent at telling stories. He simply lacked talent in that direction. But to be excluded by the others for such a reason would have been unbearable for him. He therefore tended to add something superfluous to the end of each story. “However, you’ve all left out an essential point in the narrative. I refer to the professor’s physical appearance.” It was the best he could do.

“The description of physical appearance is extremely important in a work of fiction. By describing what a character looks like, you bring him alive and remind people of someone close to them, thereby lending intimacy to the tale and involving the audience, so that they cease to be mere passive observers. The way I see it, the elderly professor is a small man—five feet, two inches tall and less than a hundred and ten pounds. As for his face, it is round, with a high, broad, deeply furrowed forehead, thin eyebrows, a small nose, a wide, firm mouth, a white, bushy beard, and silver-rimmed spectacles.” This was nothing less than a description of the eldest son’s revered Ibsen. Such was the trivial nature of his powers of imagination. He appeared to have succeeded, as usual, in adding something that amounted to almost nothing.

With this, at any rate, the story ended, and no sooner had it done so than boredom returned with a vengeance; the brothers and sisters all fell victim to the oppressive sense of bleakness that comes after a small bit of stimulation. An ugly mood hung over the room, stifling small talk; it was as if a single word from any of them might have resulted in blows.

The mother, who’d sat apart from the others throughout, smiling dreamily as her five children revealed their characters one by one in the way they advanced the story, now got quietly to her feet and went to the paper screen door. She slid it open, then gasped and said: “Goodness! There’s a strange old man in a frock coat standing at the gate, staring in.”

All five of the brothers and sisters jumped to their feet, aghast.

Their mother doubled over laughing.

nce upon a time, in Mukojima in Edo, there lived a man with the rather uninteresting name of Mayama Sainosuke. Sainosuke was very poor and still a bachelor at the age of thirty-two. Chrysanthemums were the great love of his life. If told of an excellent strain of chrysanthemum seedlings being grown in some corner of the land, he would go to the most absurd lengths to search them out and purchase a few for his own garden. It’s said that he’d undertake such a mission though it meant a journey of a thousand leagues, which ought to give you some idea of just how far gone he was.

One year in early autumn Sainosuke received word of an extraordinary variety of mums in the town of Numazu in Izu, and no sooner had he heard the news than he changed into his traveling gear and set out with a strange gleam in his eye. He crossed the mountains of Hakone, swept into Numazu, and tramped through the streets until he located and acquired a couple of truly splendid seedlings. After carefully wrapping these treasures in oil-paper, he smiled smugly to himself and headed for home.

As he was crossing back over the mountains of Hakone, with the city of Odawara just coming into view below, Sainosuke became aware of the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves on the road behind him. Euphoric over the purchase of his precious mums, he thought nothing of this at first, but when the animal continued to follow him at the same distance, neither drawing nearer nor falling behind, clopping along with the same leisurely rhythm for five, eight, ten miles, he began to wonder about it, and finally he turned to look back. Not more than twenty paces behind him was an emaciated old horse, upon which sat a youth with strikingly handsome features. He flashed a smile, and Sainosuke, not wanting to appear impolite, returned the smile and stopped to wait for him. The youth rode up, dismounted, and said: “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“It is a lovely day,” Sainosuke agreed.

And with that they continued walking along side by side, the youth leading his horse by the reins. Looking his companion over, Sainosuke could see that, though clearly not of samurai stock, the lad possessed a certain elegance of bearing; he was neatly dressed and had an easy, confident way about him.

“Headed for Edo?” the youth asked in a disarmingly familiar manner, and Sainosuke responded in kind: “Yep. Going back home.”

“Oh, you live there, then. And where have you been to?”

Small talk between travelers is always the same. In the course of exchanging the usual information, Sainosuke divulged the purpose of his trip to Numazu, and at the mention of chrysanthemums the young man’s eyes lit up.

“You don’t say! It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who loves mums. I know a thing or two about them myself, you see. I must say, though, that it’s not so much the quality of the seedlings as how you care for them.” He was beginning to describe his own method of cultivation when Sainosuke interrupted him excitedly.

“Well, I can’t agree with you there!” Chrysanthemum fanatic that he was, the topic was one that stimulated his strongest passions. “If you ask me, it’s absolutely vital to have the best seedlings. Let me give you an example,” he said, and proceeded to hold forth at some length, drawing upon the extensive knowledge he’d acquired over the years. The youth didn’t contest Sainosuke’s opinions in so many words, but his occasional muttered interjections of “Oh?” and “H’mm” and so on not only suggested that he disagreed but somehow seemed to hint at an uncommon depth of experience. The more zealously Sainosuke preached, the less confident he felt of himself, and finally, in a voice that was nearly a sob, he said: “Enough! Not another word. Theory will get us nowhere. The only way to convince you I’m right would be to show you the mums in my garden.”

“I suppose that’s true,” the youth said, nodding rather indifferently. Sainosuke, for his part, had worked himself into quite a state. He was so eager to show this young man his chrysanthemums and make him gasp in awe that he was literally trembling.

“All right, then,” he said, throwing all caution to the wind. “What do you say to this: Come with me straight to my house in Edo and see my mums for yourself. One quick look, that’s all I ask.”

The youth laughed. “Unfortunately I’m in no position to oblige you there. As soon as we reach Edo I’ve got to start searching for work.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sainosuke wasn’t about to take no for an answer now. “You can find a job after you’ve come to my house and rested up. You’ve simply got to see my chrysanthemums.”

“I’m afraid you’re putting me on the spot here.” The youth was no longer smiling. He walked along for some time with his head bowed in thought, then finally looked up and said, in a rather doleful tone of voice: “Allow me to explain. My name’s Tomoto Saburo. My elder sister and I have been living alone in Numazu since our parents died. That was some years ago, but recently my sister took a sudden disliking to the place and began to insist we move to Edo. Finally we disposed of our belongings and, well, here we are, on our way to the city. It’s not as if we have any prospects waiting for us there, however, and I don’t mind telling you that this is far from being a carefree, lighthearted journey. It’s certainly no time to be engaging in some silly argument about chrysanthemums. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth at all, and wouldn’t have, except that I’m partial to mums myself. If you don’t mind, I’d rather just drop the subject. Please forget I ever brought it up. My sister and I have got to be moving along anyway. Perhaps we’ll meet again under more favorable circumstances.”

The youth nodded goodbye and was about to climb back on the horse, but Sainosuke clutched tightly at his sleeve.

“Wait a minute. If that’s how it is, then all the more reason for you to come to my house. What are you so worried about? I’m a poor man myself, but not so destitute that I can’t put you up for a while. Just leave everything to me. You say you’re with your sister? Where is she?”

Turning, Sainosuke noticed for the first time a girl in red traveling attire peeking at him from the other side of the horse. He blushed when their eyes met.

In the end, unable to rebuff his ardent appeal, the two young people agreed to be Sainosuke’s guests at his humble home in Mukojima. When they arrived and saw that the cottage Sainosuke lived in was even more dilapidated than his professions of poverty had led them to imagine, they looked at each other and sighed. Sainosuke, however, merely ushered them straight to his garden, not even pausing to change his clothes, and delivered a long and self-congratulatory presentation on his prized mums. He then showed the pair to a little shed in the rear of the garden and explained that this was where they were to stay. Cramped as the shed was, they could see that it was at least preferable to Sainosuke’s ramshackle cottage, which was so filthy and filled with trash that one hesitated even to step inside.

“Well, Sis, this is a fine state of affairs,” the younger Tomoto whispered as he undid his traveling gear inside the shed. “Prisoners of a madman.”

“He is a bit strange,” the sister replied with a smile. “But he seems harmless enough. I’m sure we’ll be comfortable here. And the garden is certainly spacious. You must plant some nice chrysanthemums for him, to show our appreciation.”

“What? Don’t tell me you want to stay here for any length of time?”

“Why not? I like it here,” she said, her cheeks flushing slightly. The sister was just twenty or so and lovely, with a slender figure and skin as smooth and white as porcelain.

By the following morning, Sainosuke and Saburo were already having the first of many arguments. The lean old horse, which the youth and his sister had taken turns riding all the way from Numazu, had disappeared. They’d left it tethered to a stake in the garden the night before, but when Sainosuke went out to check on his mums first thing in the morning it had vanished, leaving a path of destruction through his flower beds. Sainosuke took one look at the trampled, gnawed, and uprooted plants and flew into a rage. He pounded on the door of the shed.

Saburo opened it at once and said: “What is it? Something wrong?”

“See for yourself. That bandy-legged horse of yours has gone and destroyed my garden. It’s enough to make me want to lie down and die!”

“It is a mess, isn’t it,” said the youth, calmly surveying the damage. “And the horse?”

“Who cares? He’s run off, I guess.”

“But that’s terrible.”

“What are you talking about? A rickety old nag like that!”

“I beg your pardon. That happens to be an extremely clever animal. We must go and find him immediately. The devil take your silly chrysanthemums.”

“What! What did you say?” Sainosuke paled. “Are you belittling my mums?”

It was then that Saburo’s sister stepped out of the shed with a demure smile on her face.

“Saburo,” she said, “apologize to the gentleman. That skinny horse of ours is no great loss. I may not have tethered it properly. But the thing to do now is to fix up the chrysanthemum patch. It’s a perfect chance to express our gratitude for all the kindness we’ve been shown.”

“Oh, so that’s it,” Saburo groaned. “You planned this, didn’t you?”

He heaved a deep sigh but grudgingly began to tend to the damaged plants. Watching him, Sainosuke couldn’t help but marvel: even those mums that were nearly dead from having been trampled or uprooted sprang back to life as the youth replanted them. The roots soaked up moisture from the soil in great draughts, the stems swelled, the buds grew plump and heavy, and the wilted leaves stretched out firm and erect, pulsating with vitality. Sainosuke wasn’t about to let on how astonished he was, however. He was a man who’d spent his whole life growing mums, and he had his pride to maintain.

“Well, do what you can here,” he said as coolly as possible, then strode into his cottage, where he climbed in bed and buried himself beneath the quilt. Soon he was back on his feet, however, peeping out at the garden through a crack in the shutters. Sure enough, all the plants Saburo tended were springing miraculously to life.

That night Saburo came smiling to the cottage.

“Sorry about this morning,” he said. “But, listen, my sister and I were talking things over, and, well, if you’ll pardon my saying so, you don’t seem to be leading a very comfortable life here. We were thinking that if you’d lend me half your garden, I could grow some really first-rate mums for you to sell in the market in Asakusa or somewhere. I’d be happy to do it.”

Sainosuke, whose self-esteem as a grower of chrysanthemums had been severely shaken that morning, was not in the best of moods. Seeing this as a chance to even the score, he twisted his lips in a contemptuous sneer.

“Out of the question,” he said. “Of all the vulgar ideas! And here I thought you were a man of taste and breeding. I’m shocked. To even think of selling one’s beloved flowers simply to put food on the table! It’s too outrageous for words, a violation of the very spirit of chrysanthemums! To turn a noble-minded pastime into a scheme to make money is, why it’s, it’s obscene, is what it is. I’ll have nothing to do with it.”

Sainosuke spewed out this rebuke in the gruff and guttural tones of a samurai issuing a challenge, and Saburo, understandably enough, took offense. His reply was rather heated.

“Using one’s god-given talent to put food on the table hardly qualifies as greed, and to sneer at me and accuse me of being vulgar for wishing to do so is appallingly wrongheaded. It’s arrogant and childish—the attitude of a spoiled little brat. It’s true that a man shouldn’t be overly covetous of riches, but to take undue pride in one’s poverty is every bit as base and mean.”

“When have I ever boasted of my poverty? Look, my ancestors left me with a small inheritance, and it’s all I’ve ever needed. I want for nothing. And I’ll thank you not to meddle in my affairs.”

Once again their exchange had blossomed into a full-blown row.

“You’re being awfully narrow-minded, you know.”

“Fine. Call me narrow-minded. Call me a spoiled brat. Call me anything you like. I simply prefer to carry on as I always have, sharing the joys and sorrows of life with my mums.”

“All right, all right!” Saburo shrugged and smiled ruefully. “You win. But listen: There’s a small plot of bare ground behind the shed. Would you consider lending that to us for the time being?”

“You must realize by now that I’m not a man who’s attached to worldly possessions. I don’t imagine you’ll find such a tiny plot sufficient to your needs. Half my garden remains unplanted: take all of that if you like. Do with it as you see fit. Allow me to make one thing clear, however: I will not associate with anyone who would grow mums with the intention of offering them for sale. From this day on, I want you to consider me a complete stranger.”

Saburo gaped at him incredulously for a moment, then shook his head in exasperation.

“So be it,” he said. “I won’t refuse such a generous offer. In fact, if I might further impose upon your generosity, I noticed that you’ve discarded a number of old chrysanthemum seedlings behind the shed...”

“You needn’t bother me with requests for every trifle. Take them.”

And thus they parted, on the worst of terms. The next day Sainosuke divided his garden in two and erected a tall fence along the border, obstructing the view from either side. Relations between the two households were severed.

As autumn advanced, all of Sainosuke’s chrysanthemums burst into beautiful bloom. Satisfying as this was, he couldn’t help wondering how his neighbors’ flowers had fared, and finally one day his curiosity got the best of him and he decided to peek over the fence. What he saw left him agog. The other half of the garden was ablaze from end to end with the largest and most spectacular blooms Sainosuke had ever seen. And that wasn’t the only surprise. The shed had been rebuilt and was now a charming and cozy little cottage. This was hardly a sight to soothe Sainosuke’s soul. Not only were his own chrysanthemums no match for Saburo’s, the upstart had gone and built himself an elegant little home. No doubt he’d made a small fortune selling his mums. It was an outrage! Determined to teach the youth a lesson, he scrambled over the fence, his heart wracked with an insufferable mixture of righteous indignation and envy. Close up, Saburo’s mums were even more impressive. The flowers were blooming for all they were worth; each individual petal was extraordinarily long and thick and vibrating with life. Adding insult to injury was the fact that, as Sainosuke soon realized, the plants were none other than the worthless seedlings he’d discarded behind the shed. He let out a gurgle of despair, and just as he did so a voice called to him from behind.

“Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you to drop by.”

Flustered, Sainosuke spun around to see Saburo standing there, grinning at him.

“You win!” he nearly shouted in frustration. “I know when I’m beaten, and I’m man enough to admit it too. Listen, I’m... I’m here to ask you to take me on as your apprentice. Everything that’s passed between us...” He paused to unload a great sigh of relief. “It’s all just water under the bridge. We’ll let bygones be bygones. However, I—”

“Wait. Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say. I’m not a man of your moral fiber. As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve been selling off the chrysanthemums little by little. Please don’t look down on us for that. My sister is always fretting about what you’ll think, but we’re only doing what we need to do to survive. Unlike yourself, we have no inheritance to fall back on—it’s either sell the mums or die of starvation. Please be so indulgent as to overlook that, and let us be friends again.”

The sincerity of Saburo’s plea and the sad droop of his head melted Sainosuke’s heart.

“Don’t be silly,” he said meekly, and bowed. “I’m not worthy of your apology. I feel no enmity toward either of you. Besides, I’m the one who’s asking you be my teacher. If anyone should apologize, it’s me.”

And so they were reconciled, at least for the time being. Sainosuke dismantled the fence in the garden, and the members of the two households resumed relations, although, to be sure, conflicts still arose now and then.

“You must have some secret to raising these mums.”

“Nothing of the sort. I’ve already taught you everything I know. The rest is in the fingertips, but that’s where it gets a bit mysterious. I simply seem to have a certain touch, and since it’s something I’m not really conscious of, I can’t very well teach it to you in words. It’s a genius of sorts, I suppose.”

“Oh, I get it. So you’re a genius and I’m a nincompoop. Right? Not much hope of teaching anything to a nincompoop, right?”

“You needn’t put it like that. Let’s just say that my life depends on getting the best blossoms I can. If they don’t sell, I don’t eat. Perhaps that’s why the flowers grow so large—because I’m driven by necessity. People like you, on the other hand, who grow mums as a hobby, are motivated more by simple curiosity, or the desire to satisfy their pride.”

“Oh, I see. You’re telling me I should sell my mums too, is that it? Do you really think I’d stoop so low? How dare you say such a thing!”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all. Why must you be this way?”

The relationship, in short, lacked a certain harmony.

As time went by, the Tomotos’ fortune only increased. When the new year came along they hired a team of carpenters and, without so much as consulting Sainosuke, began construction of a sizable mansion that extended from the rear of the garden to within an inch or so of his cottage. Sainosuke had just begun to consider severing relations again when, one day, Saburo came calling with a pensive and serious expression on his face.

“Please accept my sister as your bride,” he said somberly.

Sainosuke could feel his cheeks burning. From the first time he’d laid eyes on the sister he’d been unable to dispel that image of tenderness and purity from his mind. But, true to form, his manly pride now forced him to launch into a queer sort of argument.

“I can’t afford a betrothal gift, and I’m not qualified to take a bride like her anyway. You’re rich people now, you know,” he said, hiding his true feelings behind the sarcasm.

“Not at all. Everything we have is yours. That was how my sister intended it to be from the beginning. And there’s no need to worry about a betrothal gift. All you have to do is move in with us, just as you are. My sister is in love with you.”

Sainosuke shook his head, trying his best to feign composure. “Not interested. I have my own house. You won’t catch me marrying into money. Not that I have anything against your sister, mind you,” he said, and laughed in a way that he hoped sounded cavalier. “But to marry for money is the greatest shame a man can bring upon himself. I refuse. Go back and tell your sister that. And tell her that if she doesn’t mind living in honest poverty, she can come move in with me.”

Thus they parted once again on less than amicable terms. That night, however, along with a gentle breeze, a delicate white butterfly came fluttering into Sainosuke’s room.

“I don’t mind living in honest poverty,” she said with a giggle. Her name was Kié.

For a while the two of them passed their days and nights within the confines of Sainosuke’s ramshackle cottage, but eventually Kié opened a hole in the rear wall and another in the adjoining wall of the Tomoto mansion, allowing her to go freely from one to the other. And, to Sainosuke’s great dismay, she also began to bring along whatever furnishings or utensils she needed.

“This won’t do. That brazier, that vase... all these things are from your house. Don’t you realize how it sullies a man’s honor to use his wife’s possessions? I want you to stop carting this junk over here.”

Kié would only smile when he scolded her like this and continue to bring the things she needed. Sainosuke, who fancied himself a man of incorruptible integrity, finally resorted to purchasing a large ledger in which he wrote: “This is to acknowledge receipt of the following items, to be temporarily retained by the undersigned.” He started trying to list every article Kié had brought from the mansion, but found to his chagrin that there was now nothing in the cottage that didn’t fit that description. Realizing that he might fill any number of ledgers without completing the task, he gave up all hope. He continued to resent what was happening, however, and one night he turned to Kié and said: “Thanks to you I’ve ended up being a kept man. To acquire wealth through marriage is the greatest disgrace a man can suffer. For thirty years I’ve lived in noble, honest poverty, and now it’s all been for nothing, thanks to you and that brother of yours.”

The bitterness in his voice stung Kié’s heart, and she looked at him sadly and said: “It’s all my fault, I suppose. It’s just that I wanted to do everything I could to find some way to repay you for your kindness. I’m afraid I didn’t realize how committed you were to that honest poverty of yours. Let’s do this: We’ll sell all my things, and the new house as well. Then you can take the money and use it any way you like.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he snapped at her. “You think a man like myself would accept your filthy money?”

“Well, then, what is to be done?” There was a sob in Kié’s voice. “Saburo, too, feels a great debt of gratitude to you. That’s why he works so hard to get money by growing the mums and delivering them all over town. What are we to do? We just don’t see eye to eye on this at all, do we?”

“There’s only one thing we can do: separate.” Sainosuke’s own high-minded pronouncements had backed him into a corner, and now he found himself having to utter these painful words, which were nowhere in his heart. “Let the pure live in moral purity and the corrupt in corruption. There’s no other way. I’m not qualified to order anyone else about; I’ll leave this place to you, build a little hut in the corner of the garden, and pass my days enjoying the solitary pleasures of honest poverty.”

It was all quite ridiculous, but once a man has spoken there’s no turning back. First thing the following morning Sainosuke slapped together a little lean-to in the corner of the garden. He moved into this tiny space that night and sat there on his knees, shivering in the cold. After he’d spent a mere two nights enjoying his honest poverty, however, the freezing temperatures began to take their toll, and on the third night he stole back to his cottage and tapped lightly on the rain shutter. It opened a crack and Kié’s fair, smiling face appeared.

“So much for moral purity,” she said with a giggle.

Sainosuke was deeply ashamed. From that night on, not a single obstinate demand would ever again escape his lips.

By the time the cherry trees along the Sumida River began to bloom, construction of the Tomoto mansion was complete. It was now connected to the cottage in such a way that there was no distinction between the two. Sainosuke, however, offered not a word of complaint. He left the household affairs entirely up to Kié and Saburo, and spent his days playing Chinese chess with friends from the neighborhood.

One day the three members of the household set out for the Sumida to view the cherry blossoms. They settled down with their lunch at a suitable spot on the riverbank, and Sainosuke lost no time in breaking out the saké he’d brought and urging Saburo to join him. Kié shot a forbidding glance at her brother, but he calmly accepted a cup.

“Sis,” he said, “it’s all right if I have a drink or two today. We’ve saved up enough now so that you and Sainosuke can take it easy for the rest of your lives, even if I’m not around. I’m tired of growing chrysanthemums.”

And with this mysterious declaration Saburo began guzzling saké at an alarming rate. He was soon thoroughly drunk, and finally he lay down and stretched out on the grass. And then, right before their eyes, his body melted away and disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving nothing behind but his kimono and sandals. Flabbergasted, Sainosuke snatched up the kimono, only to find, growing out of the earth beneath it, a fresh, bright green chrysanthemum seedling. Now, for the first time, he realized that Saburo and Kié were not mere human beings. But Sainosuke, who by this time had come to truly appreciate the young pair’s wisdom and affection, felt not in the least horrified at the realization. He only grew to love Kié, his poor chrysanthemum fairy, all the more deeply.

When autumn came, Saburo’s seedling, which Sainosuke had replanted in his garden, produced a single blossom. The flower was faintly rouge, like a drinker’s blush, and gave off a light scent of saké. As for Kié, tradition tells us that there was “no change forever.” In other words, she lived as a human being to the end of her days.

uring the reign of Emperor Gofukakusa, in the first year of the Hoji Era, on the twentieth day of the third month, a mermaid washed ashore at Oura in Tsugaru Province. The creature had a full head of long green hair, like strands of seaweed; its face, which bore a sorrowful expression, was that of a beautiful young woman, except for a small crimson cockscomb that adorned the center of its forehead; its upper body was transparent, like crystal, with a slight bluish tinge; its breasts were like two red berries of the nandina bamboo; its lower body resembled that of a fish and was covered with tiny scales like golden flower petals; its tail fin was translucent yellow and in the shape of an enormous ginkgo leaf; and its voice was as clear and resonant as the song of a skylark. This story has been handed down to us as a reminder of the strange and mysterious things to be found in our world, but the fact is that any number of wondrous creatures inhabit the northern seas to this day.

Long ago, in the fiefdom of Matsumae, there lived a samurai named Chudo Konnai, a man of great courage and unquestionable integrity, who served as administrator of the coastal areas. One day in winter, while making the rounds of the beaches of Matsumae, Konnai came to the inlet of Sakegawa, and there at dusk he boarded a ferry with five or six other passengers in hopes of reaching the next port before dark. When they set out, the weather was fair and the waters smooth and placid, which was rare for winter in the north, but as the shore was receding behind them, the seas suddenly grew wild and angry, in spite of the fact that there was still no wind to speak of, and the boat was tossed about like a cork on the waves.

The passengers turned pale with fear and began raising a great commotion: One man cried out the name of the woman he loved, shouting “Farewell! Farewell!” while trembling like a frightened dog; another pulled from his basket a sutra to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, raised it to his forehead, oblivious to the fact that he was holding it upside-down, then spread it out and read it aloud in a quavering voice; another grabbed his gourd of saké and guzzled down every last drop, saying that death was one thing but he couldn’t bear the thought of letting good wine go to waste, then dangling before the others the empty gourd, no larger than his hand, and solemnly declaring that, besides, it would make an excellent flotation device; another, for reasons of his own, no doubt, fervently licked the tip of his finger and rubbed the spittle on his forehead; another rummaged anxiously through his purse, counted his money, and, eyeing the other passengers suspiciously, growled that he was missing one ryo of gold; and yet another whiled away the moments before an almost certain death by trying to start an argument, claiming that someone had touched his knee. The waves, meanwhile, swelled to even greater size, and soon the boat began to bounce and shudder so violently that everyone fell silent, too terror-stricken even to scream. The captain was the first to succumb. “Have mercy upon us!” he groaned, plopping face down on the deck and lying there as still as a corpse while the others followed suit, collapsing in tears and finally fainting dead away.

Only Chudo Konnai maintained his composure. He sat with his back to the gunwale, his legs crossed and his arms folded, peering silently ahead. Now the sea before him turned a golden hue and began to boil and erupt in bubbles of five distinct colors; the water parted in two rolling, white-capped waves; and from between them there emerged a mermaid, similar in every detail to the ones Konnai had heard tell of in stories, who tossed back her emerald curls with a shake of the head and began to snake toward the boat with astonishing speed, cutting through the water with swift, powerful strokes of her crystalline arms and opening her small red mouth to let out a single, piercing, whistle-like cry.

“Damnable wretch,” Konnai muttered beneath his breath. “Obstruct the waterways, would you?” Furious, he took a small bow from his baggage, invoked the aid of Heaven, and launched an arrow. His aim was true; the arrow lodged in the mermaid’s shoulder, and without so much as a startled cry she sank beneath the waves. And no sooner had she vanished than the troubled waters grew calm again. The setting sun was shining serenely upon the deck and the glassy sea when the captain finally rose to his knees, blinked, rubbed his eyes, simpered moronically, and said: “Well, I’ll be damned. Must’ve been a dream.”

Konnai was not the frivolous sort of samurai who would ever stoop to boasting of his own exploits. He said nothing, but sat back against the gunwale with folded arms and a quiet smile. One by one the other passengers lifted their pallid faces and looked about. One of them burst into a deafening cackle in hopes of hiding his own embarrassment, another shook his empty gourd and began grumbling about having wasted all that good saké without even getting drunk, and the eighty-year-old retired merchant, who moments ago had been trembling uncontrollably and shouting the name of his young mistress back home, was now calmly adjusting the collar of his kimono and instructing the others as to the nature of their ordeal: “Well, that was a frightful experience, what? Obviously we’ve just witnessed what is known as the ‘Dragon’s Ascent,’ a phenomenon often observed in the seas off Etchu and Echizen, particularly during the summer months. It begins with the sudden appearance of a legion of dark clouds that descend toward the water, while the water itself rises to meet the clouds, as if being sucked through a hole in the sky, creating an enormous, whirling, black pillar of water and clouds. And if you gaze intently into that fearsome pillar you will clearly discern the figure of a dragon ascending toward the heavens. So it is written in a book I once read. I am also reminded of another book, in which a man describes setting out from Edo by sea. He relates that as the ship was plying the seas off Okitsu, within sight of the Tokaido Road, a swarm of black clouds swept down upon them. Greatly perturbed, the captain of the ship declared that a dragon was trying to pluck his vessel out of the sea and ordered all those aboard to cut off their hair. The clipped locks were fed into a fire, causing a mighty stench to rise skyward, and, lo and behold, the black, swirling clouds above them scattered and vanished in a twinkling. Were I myself a bit younger, I would not have hesitated to cut off my own hair just now, but unfortunately...” And with that he fell silent and solemnly rubbed his hairless pate. “Oh, is that so?” the sutra-chanter said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, then turned away, muttering that any fool could see it was all the doing of Kannon-sama, piously closed his eyes, and began to chant: Namu kanze ondai bosatsu. “Ah! Here it is!” cried another ecstatically, digging the missing gold piece out from the folds of his kimono.

Not a man among them realized that they owed their very lives to Konnai, who merely sat with a half-smile on his face even as the ship at last came swaying gently into harbor and the passengers scrambled ashore, congratulating one another and celebrating with simple-minded whoops and cries.

It was not long after this incident that Chudo Konnai arrived back at Matsumae Castle. Once he’d given a full report on his coastal inspection tour to his superior, Noda Musashi, and the conversation had turned to matters of a more casual and private nature, Konnai offhandedly related, without embellishing the story in the least, all that had transpired in the seas off Sakegawa. Musashi, having long admired Konnai’s honesty of character, did not doubt for a moment that he had in fact encountered such a wondrous creature. “A rare occurrence, indeed, in this day and age!” he exclaimed, slapping his knee. “Let us lose no time in reporting this affair to His Lordship!” Konnai blushed and protested that it was hardly a matter of such importance, but Musashi interrupted him, saying: “Nonsense! It’s an extraordinary feat, the like of which has never been equaled in history. It is a tale that will serve as a great inspiration to the young men of our clan, and spur them on to greater efforts.” He spoke emphatically, leaving no room for argument, and, urging the embarrassed Konnai to hurry, ushered him into the daimyo’s presence.

It so happened that the other ranking retainers were also in attendance at the main hall that day, and when Noda Musashi, still in a state of considerable excitement, asked for their attention and began to recount in full detail the strange adventure that had befallen Konnai during his trip, prefacing his remarks by saying that he was about to describe a feat of unprecedented skill and courage, all present, including the daimyo himself, edged closer and hung on his every word. All, that is, but one—a man by the name of Aosaki Hyakuemon.

This Hyakuemon was the son of one Hyakunojo, who had devoted many years of loyal service to the daimyo as a chief retainer of the Matsumae clan. Upon his father’s death Hyakuemon had inherited the same rank and stipend, in spite of the fact that he had done—and continued to do—nothing whatsoever to earn them, but rather lived a life of idleness and debauchery. So puffed up with pride in his lineage was he, that he held his fellow retainers in contempt and had always refused to marry, declaring whenever the subject arose that he could scarcely permit the daughter of some parvenu to assume the Aosaki name. He was now forty-one, however, and not a samurai in the land would have relinquished his daughter to such a man, though he were to beg on bended knee. Disgruntled by this state of affairs, for which he alone was to blame, Hyakuemon never lost an opportunity to seek retaliation by heaping derision upon other members of the clan. He was universally disliked, not only for his unsavory character but for his physical appearance, which was the very image of a pale blue demon from hell. He stood nearly six feet tall and was extraordinarily thin and bony, with fingers as long and slender as writing-brushes, small and deep-set eyes that flickered with a perverse greenish glow, a great hooked nose, hollow, sunken cheeks, and a perpetual frown of distaste.

Before Musashi had got more than midway through the tale of Konnai’s adventure, this Hyakuemon laughed through his beaklike nose and turned to a young tea-server who sat hunched over timidly in the rear of the hall. ‘Well, Gensai,” he said, “what do you make of this? Is it not rather questionable conduct to impose such a preposterous tale upon His Lordship? There are no monsters in this world, no unexplainable mysteries; the monkey’s face is red, the dog has four feet: so it always has been and so it always will be. A mermaid, no less! Are we here to listen to fairy tales? A grown man, a man of supposed distinction, speaking of sea monsters with red coxcombs—well, I ask you!”

Hyakuemon’s voice grew ever louder and harsher.

“What say you, Gensai? Even supposing these freakish lady-fish, these so-called mermaids, did inhabit the northern seas, to shoot such a creature with a bow and arrow one would need virtually supernatural powers. Your average, mediocre archer would not stand a chance! Birds have wings; fish have fins. To bring down a small bird in flight, or shoot a goldfish as it swims, is not easily done; but to fell a monster with a—what was it, a crystal body?—why, one would need the skill of Raiko, Tsuna, Hachiro, Tawara Toda, and the God of Arms all rolled into one. I speak from experience. The goldfish in my fountain at home—you yourself have seen them, have you not? As you know, they enjoy but a shallow pool in which to flit about, and yet, just the other day, to while away the time, I unleashed some two hundred arrows at them with a child’s bow—two hundred arrows—and failed to score a single hit. Let us hope that our Konnai here, finding himself caught in a storm at sea, was not simply so frightened that he let fly his arrow at an old rotting log adrift on the waves!”

Thus Hyakuemon ranted on, ostensibly addressing the mortified young tea-server, who cringed and fidgeted as the man clutched at his sleeve, but speaking loudly enough to make certain the daimyo could hear his snide and calumnious remarks. Finally Noda Musashi, who had long harbored enmity toward Hyakuemon for his arrogant and brazen manner and could now no longer contain his wrath, spun about to face him.

“That is merely your lack of education speaking,” he growled through clenched teeth. “Only someone who possesses nothing but the most superficial knowledge would categorically state that there are no mysteries, no monsters in this world. Japan is a sacred land, the land of the gods; wonders which defy the limits of human understanding are everyday occurrences here. The occasional appearance of marvelous and fantastic beings is only to be expected in a land with more than a thousand leagues of mountains and seashores and three thousand years of history, a land which, I need scarcely add, is by no means to be compared with the piddling fountain in your garden. In ancient times, during the reign of Emperor Nintoku, there lived in Hida a man with two faces, one on either side of his head; during Emperor Temmu’s reign, a bull with twelve horns was raised at a mountain cottage in Tamba; and on the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the fourth year of Keiun, during the reign of Emperor Mommu, a demon with three heads who measured twenty-six feet in height and five feet across arrived on these shores from a foreign land. With precedents such as these, you have no cause to doubt the existence of this mermaid.”

As Musashi reeled off this rebuttal in the torrential, eloquent flow of words for which he was renowned, Hyakuemon’s pale face went even paler, and finally, with a scornful sneer, he replied: “Superficial knowledge? If anyone is guilty of that, it is you, sir. But I am not fond of debate. Debates are for ignoble souls such as yourself who are anxious to achieve distinction. We are not children; we might exchange empty theories until we’re out of breath and merely end up adhering all the more stubbornly to our respective views. Arguing is a foolish waste of time. I’m not saying that there cannot possibly be such things as mermaids in this world; I’m merely saying that I’ve never seen one, and that it’s a pity that, in addition to his amusing tale, Konnai didn’t bring this marvel along with him to present before His Lordship.”

Musashi, enraged no less by the loathsome and provoking disdain with which Hyakuemon spoke than by the words themselves, edged closer to him and said: “To a true samurai, trust is everything. He who will not believe without seeing is a pitiful excuse for a man. Without trust, how can one know what is real and what is not? Indeed, one may see and yet not believe—is this not the same as never seeing? Is not everything, then, no more than an immaterial dream? The recognition of any reality begins with trust. And the source of all trust is love for one’s fellow man. But you—you have not a speck of love in your miserable heart, nor of faith. Behold how honest Konnai, the blameless target of your venomous tongue, trembles with rage, wringing bitter tears from the depths of his faithful soul. Konnai is not, like yourself, sir, a man to whom it would ever occur to resort to prevarication. Surely not even you can claim to be unaware of his unwavering fidelity over the years.”

Thus Musashi pressed his case, but Hyakuemon merely ignored him and pointed toward the front of the hall. “Look there!” he barked. “His Lordship is taking his leave. He does not appear to be amused.” Hyakuemon prostrated himself before the daimyo as the latter retired to his inner chambers, but he could not resist having the final word. “Insufferable fools,” he muttered as he rose to his feet once the daimyo had gone. “You may wish to give the name ‘honesty’ to what others would call dimwittedness, but leave it to such ‘honest men’ as yourselves to deceive the world with your fabulous dreams and superstitions.” And with that, he left the hall, creeping off as silently as a cat.

As for the other retainers present, some despised Hyakuemon for his mean-spirited pettiness, while others considered Musashi’s eloquence sheer affectation and felt that neither was worth siding with, and still others, who’d been dozing throughout, merely climbed woozily to their feet, oblivious to all that had transpired. By ones and twos they left the hall until none but Musashi and Konnai remained. Musashi gnashed his teeth in vexation.

“How the wretch prattles on!” he growled. “Konnai, I can guess what is in your heart. As the true samurai that you are, you realize there is but one course of action; but know that whatever comes of this, I, Musashi, will take your side. In any case, such insolence must not go unpunished.”

These words of encouragement, stouthearted though they were, only left Konnai feeling all the more keenly the hopelessness of his situation, and for some moments, wracked with mournful sobs, he could make no reply at all. Such it is for those in the grips of misfortune: declarations of support and sympathy, rather than providing comfort, may serve only to increase the victim’s pain. Overwhelmed with despair, Konnai bowed his head and wept, even as he resigned himself to the fact that his life was all but over. At length, wiping the tears away with both fists, he looked up and spoke in a voice still punctuated with sobs:

“Thank you. The abuse which Hyakuemon has heaped upon me today is scarcely such as I can find it in me to ignore. I assure you that, though I may be his inferior in terms of rank, my only thought was: Knave! I shall slice you in two! Being in the presence of His Lordship, however, I had no choice but to endure the unendurable and choke back these tears of rage. But make no mistake—I am resolved to do what must be done. To chase the bastard Hyakuemon down at this very moment and dispense of his life with one stroke of my sword would be easy enough; but then the world would believe I’d shed his blood out of anger that he’d exposed my lie. My account of the mermaid would come to be regarded with even greater suspicion, which could not but reflect unfavorably upon yourself as well. Since, in any case, this life of mine is lost, I shall delay the end only long enough to return to the inlet at Sakegawa, where, if the God of Arms has not forsaken me, I will recover the carcass of that mermaid, bring it back to the castle for all to see, rebuke Hyakuemon with an easy mind, cut him down, and then gladly commit seppuku.”

Such was the pathos of this speech that Musashi too began to weep. “Would I had never meddled in your affairs!” he said. “Announcing your heroic feat before His Lordship was a grave error. To think that all for some meaningless debate over mermaids, a worthy man must die! Forgive me, Konnai. May you not be born a samurai in the next life!” Turning his tear-stained face away, Musashi rose to his feet. “I shall look after your household in your absence,” he said gruffly, and strode out of the hall.

Konnai’s wife had died of an illness some six years before, and he now shared his house with his only daughter and a maidservant. The daughter, Yaé, was a tall and sturdy girl of sixteen with fair skin and lovely features; the maidservant, whose name was Mari, was a petite and clever young woman some twenty-one years of age. Konnai returned home that day making every effort to appear carefree and cheerful. “I must leave immediately on another trip,” he said, “and I may be gone quite a while this time. Watch out for each other.” And without another word, he surreptitiously gathered up most of his savings, stuffed the money into his clothes, and dashed out of the house.

“Father’s acting awfully strange,” Yaé said, after seeing him off.

“Yes, he is,” Mari calmly agreed. Konnai was inept when it came to deceiving people, and his smiling, lighthearted pose had been of no avail; both his sixteen-year-old daughter and the maidservant had seen right through it.

“And why would he take all that gold?” wondered Yaé. They’d even seen him snatch up his savings.

Mari nodded pensively and muttered: “It must be something rather serious.”

“I’m frightened.” Yaé placed her hands over her breast. “My heart is pounding.”

“There’s no telling what might happen,” Mari said. “We must prepare the house for any eventuality.”

They were rolling up their sleeves to begin cleaning the house when Noda Musashi slipped in through the back door, unaccompanied and dressed in a plain kimono.

“Has your father left already?” he whispered to Yaé.

“Yes. And he took all his gold and silver with him.”

Musashi forced a grim smile. “It may be a rather long trip. If you should need anything at all while he’s gone, you mustn’t hesitate to come to me.” He pressed a large sum of money into her hands. “This should hold you for the time being.”

Certain now that her father was in some sort of trouble, Yaé, samurai child that she was, slept that night in her kimono, with the sash firmly tied, hugging a dagger to her breast.

Konnai reached Sakegawa the following morning. His first order of business was to assemble all the fishermen in the village and distribute among them every last piece of the silver and gold he’d brought.

“I speak to you not in my official capacity, but as an individual in a difficult predicament,” he began, dutifully making that important distinction. “It is in regard to a personal and confidential matter,” he continued, then faltered and blushed. With a rueful smile, prefacing his remarks with a defensive “You may not believe what I’m about to tell you,” and shouting to be heard over the howling wind that pelted the seashore with snow, he proceeded to recount the entire affair of the mermaid, ending with a desperate plea: “This is the request of a lifetime. I beseech you to recover that mermaid’s carcass for me. If I do not present it to a certain man, I, Konnai, will lose face as a samurai, and my honor will be blighted forever. It’s cold weather for such work, I know, but I beg you to spare no efforts until we’ve retrieved that monster’s body.”

The elderly fishermen sympathized, believing Konnai’s story without question, and while it must be admitted that the younger men had their doubts about mermaids and such, they too were at least curious enough to join in casting the great nets and dragging the bottom of the inlet. Unfortunately, all they managed to snag that day were common herring, cod, crabs, sardines, and flatfish—nothing the least bit out of the ordinary—and the same was true the following day and the day after that. Though every man in the village participated, enduring all manner of hardship, bobbing about in their boats, battered by wind and waves, casting their nets, and diving into the icy waters, it was all in vain, and finally, toward the end of the third day, the younger men began to complain as they stood around the fires on the beach, making loud, vulgar jokes—“Just look at that samurai’s eyes, he ain’t normal I tell you, he’s loony is what he is, and we’re crazy for takin’ a lunatic at his word and divin’ into that freezin’ water. Me, I’ve had enough, I quit. Why should I be out here lookin’ for some sea mermaid we’ll never find when I could be gettin’ warm in the arms of my land mermaid back in the village?”

As the young men roared with laughter, Konnai sat a short distance away, alone in his torment, pretending not to hear and concentrating his entire being on the fervent prayers he offered up to the deities of the sea. “Let me retrieve but a single golden scale or a single strand of hair from that monster,” he prayed, “so that I may preserve my honor, and that of Musashi as well, and together we can reproach Hyakuemon to our heart’s content, after which I shall give him a taste of the blade of truth, deliver him his just punishment, and dispel from my heart these bitter clouds of rancor.”

Moved by the pathetic sight of Konnai forlornly stretching his neck to peer from one end of the inlet to the other, an elderly fisherman approached with tears of pity welling up in his eyes. “Now, now,” he said. “Everything’ll work out just fine, don’t you worry, mister samurai, sir. Those youngsters don’t know what they’re talkin’ about, but we older fellows, we figure there’s sure enough a mermaid down there with the good samurai’s arrow stickin’ out of her, because, see, the seas around here, hell, they’ve always been full of the strangest fish, ever since way back when. Why, when we were boys, listen, right here off this shore, we sometimes used to see this giant old fish that people called the okina, and, oh my, what a commotion there used to be over that! I’m not lyin’ when I tell you the damn thing was five, six miles long, maybe longer—nobody knows for sure how big it was ’cause nobody ever saw it all in one piece—but when that monster come around, why, the sea would start a-rumblin’ like a thunderstorm and the waves would swell up like mountains, even if there weren’t no wind, and all the whales, why, they’d scatter in every direction, fleein’ for their lives, and the fishermen would start screamin’ ‘Okina! Yah! It’s the okina!’ and row toward shore as fast as they could, and then finally that fish would rise to the surface, and I’m tellin’ you it looked like a whole string of islands had suddenly popped out of the sea. Yes, sir, there’s some frightenin’ strange fish and monsters out in these waters, always has been, just ask anybody who’s lived around here long enough, which is why there’s no doubt in our minds that you saw what you say you saw, and I’ll tell you one thing for sure: We’re goin’ to find that mermaid’s body for you. You won’t have to lose your face or nothin’ like that.”

The old fisherman brushed the snow off Konnai’s shoulders as he delivered these naive yet earnest words of encouragement, but his kindness only left the samurai feeling all the more forlorn. Alas! Has it come to this? Have I fallen so far as to receive the pity of an old and ignorant fisherman? Thus Konnai asked himself bitterly, even twisting the old man’s meaning, convincing himself that behind his kind words was a sense of hopelessness and resignation. “I beg of you!” he shouted, scrambling to his feet. “I really did shoot a monstrous fish in the waters of this inlet. I swear by the God of Arms I did! I implore you. Please don’t give up until you’ve found at least a strand of that mermaid’s hair, or a scale from her freakish body!”

And with that he kicked at a pile of drifted snow and ran off down the beach to where the fishermen were packing up their things and preparing to call it a day. “I beg you!” he cried, grabbing one of them by the arm, his eyes wild and desperate. “Just a short while longer!” But the fishermen, having been paid beforehand, were running out of enthusiasm; they halfheartedly tossed their nets in the shallows near the shore a few more times, then began disappearing by ones and twos until there was not so much as a stray dog left on the beach.

Even after the sun went down and the north wind began to blow with still greater force, whipping the snow into a blinding blizzard, Konnai continued to pace back and forth, stamping his feet on the deserted shoreline until long after midnight, when, rather than retreating to the village, he took shelter as he had each night from the start in a little boathouse next to the water, dozing there for only a short time and then, well before dawn, running back out again to the beach. Spying a drifting tangle of seaweed and mistaking it for his prey, he would rejoice momentarily, only to shed bitter tears when, soon enough, he realized his mistake. Then, spotting a piece of driftwood near the shore, he would splash out into the surf with a glimmer of hope, only to return to the beach with a sinking heart. Since arriving at Sakegawa he had been intent only on finding the mermaid’s remains and had scarcely eaten, as a result of which his mind had grown so beclouded that he now began to wonder if he really had seen a mermaid that time, if he wasn’t merely deceiving himself into thinking that he’d shot such a creature, or if it hadn’t been only a dream after all—doubts that left him laughing madly, deliriously, as he stood there alone on the snow-covered beach. Ah, he thought, if only I had fainted dead away like the other passengers on the boat and had never laid eyes on that cursed creature; it is simply because of my reckless indifference to peril that I witnessed such a wonder of nature and must suffer like this! How I envy those self-satisfied commoners who, seeing nothing and comprehending nothing, are convinced they know it all! There are in this world things of such mystery and awesome beauty that the small-minded cannot even imagine them. There are, yet he who discovers them risks falling into a bottomless hell. I must have done something heinous in a previous life, to have accumulated such karma. Or perhaps I was born beneath an evil star that destined me to a wretched and ignominious death. If so, why delay it any longer? Why not just throw myself into these crashing, rocky waters and hope to be reborn a mermaid?

With head bowed, he stumbled along the beach, seemingly already in Death’s grasp yet still unable to abandon hope of finding the mermaid’s carcass. As the sky became imbued with the pale first light of dawn, he sighed heavily and thought, in all seriousness: Ah, if nothing else, let me at least behold that okina of which the old man spoke!

And so we leave our unfortunate hero, confused and ranting incoherently, apparently out of his senses and, from the look of things, unlikely to live much longer.

Back at home, Yaé had been offering constant prayers to all gods and buddhas for the safe return of her father, but when three days, then four days passed without any hint as to his fate, save for a series of minor but ominous mishaps—a teacup dropped and smashed, the breaking of a sandal thong, a pine branch in the garden snapping under the weight of only a thin layer of snow—she found herself unable to remain sitting at home, and when the sun went down she stole to Musashi’s house, where she ascertained that her father’s destination had been the inlet at Sakegawa. That same night she made preparations and set out with the maidservant Mari to find him. Making their way along the midnight road by the light of a freshly fallen snow, resting under the eaves of houses or snuggling together for warmth in caves by the sea, dozing off to the sound of the waves before once again leaping up to continue their journey, urging each other on but, being women, making slow progress, the mistress and her servant did not reach Sakegawa until the evening of the third day. There, they staggered to the seashore only to find, to their unspeakable horror, Konnai, now a cold and withered corpse, stretched out on a mat of coarse straw. They were told that his body had been discovered drifting near the shore that morning, his head so entangled with seaweed that at first he was mistaken for the mermaid he’d claimed to have shot.

Yaé and Mari fell upon Konnai’s body from either side and clung to him, too grief-stricken to speak and sobbing with such passion that even the thick-skinned fishermen turned away, unable to watch. Yaé, whose mother was long dead and who now found herself abandoned by her father as well, wept uncontrollably, nearly out of her mind with grief. But finally, having come to a great resolve in her heart, she lifted her pale face and said: “Mari. We too must die.”

“Yes,” Mari said, nodding.

They stood up quietly, and just then there came to their ears the thunder of a horse’s hooves and the powerful voice of Noda Musashi calling to them as he galloped down to the seashore. Dismounting, Musashi stood over the body of Konnai and hung his head.

“What an abominable waste. Has it come to this, then? Shit! What care I for mermaids now? Musashi is not amused; Musashi is very, very angry, and when Musashi is angry, he is not to be reasoned with. He can be the most unreasonable of men. Whether mermaids exist or not is of no importance now. All that matters is that a certain vile bastard be punished. You, fishermen! Bring horses for these two women. Now! Find a pair of horses and bring them here, damn you!”

After thus directing his rage at the commoners milling about nearby, Musashi turned to glare at Yaé.

“And you! Stop that sobbing! There is work to do, revenge to be exacted. If we don’t return immediately, burst into Hyakuemon’s home, relieve him of his foul head, and bring it back to present to Konnai, I shall not permit you to refer to yourself as the daughter of a samurai. Enough of your sniveling!”

“Hyakuemon?” Mari took a step forward and cocked her head to one side. “Do you mean Aosaki Hyakuemon?”

“Of course. Who else would it be?”

“In that case,” Mari said calmly, “I begin to see... For some time now this Aosaki, old as he is, has had his heart set on my mistress. He’s been very insistent that she become his bride. My mistress, naturally, says that she would die before she’d marry a man with a nose like that. Not, of course, that the master was about to permit such a—”

“So that’s it. That explains everything. The worm had the temerity to claim to be a confirmed bachelor, a woman hater, when in fact he was a rejected lover all along. How despicable. The man is absolutely beneath contempt. To lash out at Konnai in retaliation for his own wounded feelings is worse than loathsome—it’s ludicrous. Ha!” Musashi shouted triumphantly. “The preposterous fool!”

That night, with Musashi leading the way, the two young women stole into Hyakuemon’s home, halberds in hand. They found their enemy in a room in the rear, drinking saké with a concubine. Musashi, with one stroke of his sword, lopped off Hyakuemon’s long and spindly right arm. Hyakuemon didn’t so much as wince, however, even as his severed arm dropped to the floor, but made to unsheathe his own sword with his left hand. Mari stepped in from the side and kicked his legs out from under him, but he rose to his knees, still undaunted, and thrust his sword at Yaé. With a gasp of astonishment, Musashi sank his own blade into Hyakuemon’s shoulder, and he fell, sprawling backward but, far from giving up the ghost, writhed about on the floor like a snake, pulled a dagger from his sash, and hur