Read to Me!
This is a Japanese crane story from Satsuma in Kagoshima-ken. Cranes are associated with good fortune and long life in Japan.
The Crane Wife
Once there was a man named Karoku. He was poor and lived with his mother, and although they had very little they got along well together.
One day Karoku went into town with a few coins he had scraped together, to buy some new material for his mother's futon. As he traveled, he came upon a crane struggling in a trap, and he began to work to get it free. At once a man appeared and shouted at him, "That is my crane! I trapped it! How dare you interfere!"
Karoku bowed and said, "I am so sorry to interfere. Here is some money. May I buy the crane?" They struck a bargain and Karoku finished freeing the crane. It stayed still for a moment and looked at him as if it would speak, then silently turned toward the west and flew away.
Karoku had to go home without the bedding, but when he told his mother about the crane, she said "That was well done, my son. Be assured your good deed will come back to you."
The very next evening, Karoku heard a knock on the door, and when he opened it a beautiful lady stood outside. "Karoku, Karoku, may I come in?" she said. Karoku replied, "My house is poor and dirty, you should not soil your beautiful clothes and hands here."
But the lady insisted she wished to come in and Karoku let her enter and sit by the fire. When they had eaten a mouthful, the beautiful lady said, "Karoku, Karoku, will you be so kind as to marry me?" Karoku replied, "I am poor and I scarcely know where the next meal is coming from. How should I support a wife?"
But the lady insisted she wished to marry him, and Karoku's mother at length agreed too, and so Karoku and the beautiful lady were married.
One day the wife said, "Karoku, Karoku, I must shut myself in a closet for three days. Do not open the door to look at me!" And Karoku said, "But how shall I know you are all right?" And she said, "I shall be all right. Now promise!" So Karoku promised.
Although he worried about her, at the end of three days she did indeed come out of the closet, looking a little tired, and carrying a bolt of the most beautiful material Karoku had ever seen. "Karoku, Karoku, take this to the lord of the district," she said, "and sell it to him for two thousand ryo coins."
Karoku took the material to the lord, who exclaimed at this beautiful cloth, and said, "I wish to buy another bolt like this and will pay you three thousand ryo for it." So he paid Karoku two thousand ryo for the first bolt and also three thousand ryo for the second bolt in advance, and Karoku went home.
When he told his wife about the cloth, she said, "Karoku, Karoku, I will be happy to go in the closet and weave another bolt. This time it will take me longer, seven full days, and remember that you must not open the door to the closet!"
So she went into the closet and closed the door. Well, Karoku managed at first, but after three days he was worried, and after five days without a sound from the closet he began to imagine that she was dead. Finally he could contain his worry no longer, and opened the door.
There stood, not the beautiful wife, but a crane, a Crane with No Feathers, for she had just plucked the very last one in order to weave the lovely bolt of cloth. She looked at him as if to speak, then silently turned toward the west. At once a hundred cranes appeared out of the sunset and lifted her, and they all flew away.
Well, there was Karoku with enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his life, but without his beautiful wife. He sorrowed greatly, and wandered up and down the province looking for even the smallest sign that she had been there.
One day as he sat by the shore, an old man came rowing in toward him. "That's odd," though Karoku, "There are no islands near here." And he said to the old man, "Where do you come from?" The old man said, "I come from the Island of a Thousand Crane Feathers."
"Take me there!" said Karoku, his heart beating. And the old man bowed and motioned him into the boat, and they soon came to an island. As Karoku climbed out of the boat and stepped on the beach, he turned to thank the old man, but the boat and the man had vanished like a puff of smoke.
So Karoku walked through the sand, through the grass, through the trees, until he came to a lake. And there, on an island, seated in the midst of a thousand cranes, sat his Crane with No Feathers, she who had been his wife, she who was the Queen of the Cranes.
They feasted Karoku, and honored him, but he saw that his beautiful Crane Wife would not be coming back home with him. So in three days, the old man came in the boat, and rowed him back to the mainland, and Karoku went home and lived alone for the rest of his life.