The crane, an elegant and beautiful bird, is considered to be auspicious in Japan. In this story, a poor farmer receives good fortune after he rescues a wounded crane. But unfortunately his curiosity gets the better of him, and his luck does not hold out. It’s a short, rather sad, but beautiful story.
Read by Richard Scott. Version by Bertie
It was winter. The fields were covered with snow, and the winding river was frozen so thickly that you could walk on it. A poor farmer was returning home along the river bank when he heard a noise from inside a frosty thicket. He understood right away that it was a wounded bird, and his first thought was that it would make an easy catch to take home and boil in his pot, but when he parted the twigs and undergrowth, he found a such a beautiful bird that he did not have the heart to kill it. It was a crane, whose side had been pierced by an arrow. He pulled out the shaft and rubbed some balm into the wound. The crane then spread out its wings and soared into the sky.
The farmer returned to his hovel, ate half a bowl of rice, and went to bed as soon as it was dark as there was nothing else to do. In the early hours of the morning he heard a tap-tap tapping at his door. At first he thought it was the wind, and then he wondered if it was a ghost. At last he realised that he would not sleep until he had opened up and seen who or what was there. He lifted up the latch, expecting to see a ghastly apparition in the moonlight. He was prepared for a spectre from the spirit world. His hand, clasping a great knife, was ready for a robber – but he was utterly unready for the face of a beautiful girl. In fact, she was so lovely that he was quite startled. He was simply amazed that anyone could be so gorgeous, let alone standing at his door.
He let the girl in, and she slept on his bed, while he lay by the ashes of the fire. After she had stayed with him for three days and nights, he finally found the words to ask her to marry him, though he never expected her to accept. The girl replied that she had come to his door hoping that he would ask that very question, and she gladly accepted.
The farmer thought to himself, “Until just recently, I was lonely, poor and wretched. Now I am still poor, but chance or some god has brought me happiness.”
Nobody can live on love alone, however. The winter was long and hard and the couple ran out of rice to take the edge off their hunger. The farmer said, “What are we to do? I have no food, no money, and nothing we can sell.” He himself was on the brink of tears, and he expected that his wife would either grow angry with him for failing to provide for them both, or to break down into sobs too. This, he thought, was the end of their happiness.
Instead she just smiled and said, “Dear husband, do not worry or fret. I will weave a cloth, and you shall take it to the market to sell.”
The farmer shrugged his shoulders, because they had no thread to weave, but his wife went into the one and only room of their house, and as she closed the door she said, “Whatever you do, do not come in.”
Some hours later, she came out of the room carrying a beautiful cloth. It was embroidered with flowers and birds and was so beautiful that it was fit for a princess. The next day the farmer took it to the market and sold it for a great sum. They couple had enough money to last them several winters – But when you have money, there is a tendency to spend. You forget how careful you once were, you buy whatever you want, and you pay prices that are sometimes over the odds. In short, the money run out, and once again the couple were poor.
The farmer was again on the edge of despair but his wife said, “Do not fret. I will weave another cloth. I will go into the back room and work, but whatever you do, do not peep in until I come out.”
While his wife weaved, the farmer sat and wondered how he had been so fortunate to have found such a woman, one so lovely, one who loved him, and one who was able to weave cloth out of nothing. He recalled how she had turned up at his door on a winter’s night, and he thought about how little he knew or understood who she was, why she had come to him, or how she weaved the cloth. He lived with her, he loved her, and yet he hardly knew her. At last his curiosity overcame him; he opened the door and he peeped in through the crack.
This is what he saw: It was his wife, but not a woman. She was the crane that he had saved from the thicket. On the floor was an intricate pattern of feathers, and as she worked, she plucked yet more feathers from her own breast. The cost to her was pain and loss of her own plumage, but she was ready to inflict this on herself for him. Suddenly the bird looked up and saw him. She let out a cry and and shed a single tear from her eye. She flapped her wings and flew up and away, out through the hole in the roof that served as a chimney in the cottage. That was the last the poor farmer ever saw of the grateful crane who had become his wife, and who had plucked feathers from her own breast to keep him from poverty. He never married again, and lived to the end of his days alone.
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