These three stories by legendary writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa were translated from the original Japanese by Ryan C.K. Choi.
Once upon a time in China, there was a student who lived alone in the countryside. There he was preparing for the imperial examinations. Every day he studied at his desk by the window, contemplating in moments of rest the peach blossom tree in the center of his yard as people did in his days. In the house next to his, the only one in sight, he sometimes saw a beautiful girl doing her chores, and he wondered who she was. She too seemed to live alone. No one in town knew anything about her or her family or their means. In time, the student’s desire to meet her grew enormously.
One spring afternoon at sunset, after a day of reading, the student stepped out onto the porch to stretch when he heard, through the garden birds chirping, frantic shouts at the house next door. Thinking this was his chance at last he sprinted heroically out the gates and up the path to the girl’s house where he found his neighbor, a sprite-like girl, shoving a burly grizzled lumberjack onto a bench and bopping his head with her fist, her eyebrows spiked in terrific fury. The lumberjack was twice the girl’s size, yet he sat before her meekly sniveling as if she were a giantess. Astonished, the student ran up and seized the girl’s wrist.
“Why are you hitting him? He’s just an old man! You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Old? Hah! This nincompoop is a kid. He’s younger than me.”
“You’re a liar.”
“I am not. I’m his mother, don’t you see?”
The student went pale. He let go of her wrist and examined the girl’s face. His neighbor was as beautiful up close as she was from afar, though he noticed now in her complexion a rather anomalous grainy ruddiness, and she also never blinked.
“Yes, this son of mine is worthless,” the girl snapped. “He’s an embarrassment. All he does is make trouble. He doesn’t listen and he’s selfish. He should know better, even at his age.”
“But how old is he? He looks like he’s in his seventies, at least. If he’s your son, how old are you?”
“I’m three-thousand-six-hundred years old.”
The student realized then that his neighbor was not a human but a senjo1, and before his eyes she vanished, looking peeved, abandoning the grizzled lumberjack in the lucid spring sunset.
Dedicated to Sakutarō Hagiwara
A man was trimming reeds from the riverside, weaving a roof for the birthing hut he had built for his pregnant wife. When it was complete, he left his wife alone and returned to the river and knelt in the reeds. As he waited he prayed to the goddess Amaterasu for the safety of mother and child. At sunset, the woman appeared before the man and said, “Return in seven days’ time and then I will show you the child.”
The man longed to see his child that instant but agreed to the mother’s request. At nightfall, hungry and desolate, he untied his canoe and rowed back to the village.
Back home, the thought of waiting seven days became torturous. The man had a necklace of seven curved jewels, and for solace he took to removing one jewel from it at the end of each day, and thus passed the time: the sun rising in the east, setting in the west, then he would lop off a jewel and restring the necklace.
On the sixth day, he couldn’t wait any longer. At night he rowed his canoe up river, tied it to the reeds and snuck toward the hut, now so quiescent that it seemed lifeless, save for the vibrant autumn reed scents wafting from the roof to his nose. Softly without entering the man opened the door into the darkness, and on the bed of reeds across the room he heard a measured rasping sound. He poked his head inside to look. His wife was not there, so the man entered, and more softly than he had opened the door he stole to the bedside where he let out a bloodcurdling scream that shook the reeds all the way back to the village.
The reason for his reaction was sound. His wife had given birth to seven albino rat snakes…
The shock the father feels upon seeing the snakes is the feeling that I get when I read my own writings.
I had a dream—
There was a busy party in the restaurant’s grand reception room. Guests were wearing Japanese or Western style clothes according to their tastes. More than adornments for the body, their choice of dress was the topic of a raucous discussion.
“Your frock is rather dated, don’t you think? I bet it was tailored back when naturalism was the craze.”
“I’m impressed. This is Yūki silk, the gemlike craft is sui generis.”
“The coat’s texture is flat as a page. There’s no depth to the weave, it’s all sheen. Unthinking variation.”
“Did you see that guy’s suit? When was the last time you saw someone in serge blue? That’s a mark of the petit bourgeoisie.”
“I figured it out now, your obi, it’s knotted like a rakugoka’s! Why not get on the table and tell us a tale!”
“Is this Ōshima pongee? There’s a group of monks I see every day in Yamanote, and you look like one of them.”
Such was the nature of the conversation.
Huddled in the seat at the foot of the table was a nightmarishly thin man in a tawdry yellow kimono cut from unbleached rags. A family crest was splashed across his back in primitive script. The kimono was so outrageous that it became the target of a roast, and the ringmaster was a young professor with a fiery mane who stood and pointed at the thin man and declaimed, “There’s an orgy in the old fart’s clothes!”
The professor, starkly lean himself, had on a baggy ivory gown, like that of a Dominican friar—though he was, in fact, aping his idol Balzac—but because he did not have the build of the French novelist, he looked feebly sunk in the whirl of folds and sleeves.
The thin man cackled wryly, then fell silent.
A second man leapt to his feet and flared his chest at the professor. “Speak for yourself!” he yelled. “You always dress in that natty bag!”
The kimono of this youthful defender was spun from an ambiguous type of silk, either Meisen or Ōshima. But he too was far from pristine and seemed like he had not bathed for weeks. He had a fetid stench and there was grime smeared everywhere on his collar.
And the thin man still said nothing, sitting unequivocally craven in his seat.
At the head of the table, a roar of laughter sounded from a giant in a bold-striped suit. He was muscular and broad-shouldered, and grinning magnanimously he raised his hands to hush the crowd. He made a show of clearing his throat, then advocated on behalf of the thin man, “Why vilify the poor man’s dress? Is it because of its age, or the vile taste it intimates? No one denies that this parched uretic yellow is hideous. But since this has been established, can’t we move past it and agree that the color matches his pallor? And even if not, there is time for him to change. Instead of picking on him, let’s encourage him to wear something less offensive.”
People cheered, “hear, hear!” Others heckled and booed, “Don’t baby the clod, he’s no peer of ours. He’ll flop again!”
And when he thought that no one was watching, the thin man—hunched, scratching his head—pussyfooted out the door and into the night and raced back to his two-story cottage on the city’s outskirts. Spread throughout the upper and lower floors of his home was an eccentric array of outfits, each on its own wall hook. He had the exact thing in mind to wear: it was shiny, like the scales of a serpent, and unassailable. After digging around, he unveiled a partial suit of chainmail armor—jacket, boots, and gloves. He changed into the armor and felt his courage restored. He sat cross-legged on the ground and began smoking cigarettes, and he said something, but it was then that I awoke, and now that I’m awake, I can’t remember what he said. This is regrettable, especially since I’m writing this story about the dream.
- Senjo is a female sennin, a figure in Japanese mythology by way of China. Sennin (loanword from Middle Chinese) is translated variously as wizard, immortal, genie, hermit, or mage. Pronunciations: “sen-joh” and “sen-neen.”