“Ubazakura” –Lafcadio Hearn
Three hundred years ago, in the village called Asamimura, in the district called Onsengori, in the province of Iyo, there lived a good man named Tokubei. This Tokubei was the richest person in the district, and the muraosa, or headman, of the village. In most matters he was fortunate; but he reached the age of forty without knowing the happiness of becoming a father. Therefore he and his wife, in the affliction of their childlessness, addressed many prayers to the divinity Fudo Myo O, who had a famous temple, called Saihoji, in Asamimura.
At last their prayers were heard: the wife of Tokubei gave birth to a daughter. The child was very pretty; and she received the name of Tsuyu. As the mother’s milk was deficient, a milk-nurse, called O-Sode, was hired for the little one.
O-Tsuyu grew up to be a very beautiful girl; but at the age of fifteen she fell sick, and the doctors thought that she was going to die. In that time the nurse O-Sode, who loved O-Tsuyu with a real mother’s love, went to the temple Saihoji, and fervently prayed to Fudo-Sama on behalf of the girl. Every day, for twenty-one days, she went to the temple and prayed; and at the end of that time, O-Tsuyu suddenly and completely recovered.
Then there was great rejoicing in the house of Tokubei; and he gave a feast to all his friends in celebration of the happy event. But on the night of the feast the nurse O-Sode was suddenly taken ill; and on the following morning, the doctor, who had been summoned to attend her, announced that she was dying.
Then the family, in great sorrow, gathered about her bed, to bid her farewell. But she said to them:—
“It is time that I should tell you something which you do not know. My prayer has been heard. I besought Fudo-Sama that I might be permitted to die in the place of O-Tsuyu; and this great favor has been granted me. Therefore you must not grieve about my death… But I have one request to make. I promised Fudo-Sama that I would have a cherry-tree planted in the garden of Saihoji, for a thank-offering and a commemoration. Now I shall not be able myself to plant the tree there: so I must beg that you will fulfill that vow for me… Good-bye, dear friends; and remember that I was happy to die for O-Tsuyu’s sake.”
After the funeral of O-Sode, a young cherry-tree,—the finest that could be found,—was planted in the garden of Saihoji by the parents of O-Tsuyu. The tree grew and flourished; and on the sixteenth day of the second month of the following year,—the anniversary of O-Sode’s death,—it blossomed in a wonderful way. So it continued to blossom for two hundred and fifty-four years,—always upon the sixteenth day of the second month;—and its flowers, pink and white, were like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, bedewed with milk. And the people called it Ubazakura, the Cherry-tree of the Milk-Nurse.
THERE WAS A FALCONER AND HUNTER, named Sonjô, who lived in the district called Tamura-no-Gô, of the province of Mutsu. One day he went out hunting, and could not find any game. But on his way home, at a place called Akanuma, he perceived a pair of oshidori (mandarin-ducks), swimming together in a river that he was about to cross. To kill oshidori is not good; but Sonjô happened to be very hungry, and he shot at the pair. His arrow pierced the male: the female escaped into the rushes of the farther shore, and disappeared. Sonjô took the dead bird home, and cooked it.
That night he dreamed a dreary dream. It seemed to him that a beautiful woman came into his room, and stood by his pillow, and began to weep. So bitterly did she weep that Sonjô felt as if his heart were being torn out while he listened. And the woman cried to him: “Why–oh! why did you kill him?–of what wrong was he guilty?. . . At Akanuma we were so happy together–and you killed him! What harm did he ever do you? Do you even know what you have done?–oh! do you know what a cruel, what a wicked thing you have done?. . . Me too you have killed–for I will not live without my husband! . . . Only to tell you this I came”. . . . Then again she wept aloud–so bitterly that the voice of her crying pierced into the marrow of the listener’s bones;–and she sobbed out the words of this poem:
Sasoëshi mono wo–
Makomo no kuré no
Hitori-né zo uki!
At the coming of twilight I invited him to return with me–! Now to sleep alone in the shadow of the rushes of Akanuma– ah! what misery unspeakable!
And after having uttered these verses she exclaimed: “Ah, you do not know–you cannot know what you have done! But to-morrow, when you go to Akanuma, you will see–you will see. . . .” So saying, and weeping very piteously, she went away.
When Sonjô awoke in the morning, this dream remained so vivid in his mind that he was greatly troubled. He remembered the words: “But to-morrow, when you go to Akanuma, you will see–you will see.” And he resolved to go there at once, that he might learn whether his dream was anything more than dream.
So he went to Akanuma; and there, when he came to the river bank, he saw the female oshidori swimming alone. In the same moment the bird perceived Sonjô; but, instead of trying to escape, she swam straight toward him, looking at him the while in a strange fixed way. Then, with her beak, she suddenly tore open her own body, and died before the hunter’s eyes. . . .
Sonjô shaved his head, and became a priest.
“My First Romance” by Lafcadio Hearn
There has been sent to me, across the world, a little book stamped, on its yellow cover, with names of Scandinavian publishers – names sounding of storm and strand and surge. And the sight of those names, worthy of Frost-Giants, evokes the vision of a face – simply because that face has long been associated, in my imagination, with legends and stories of the North – especially, I think, with the wonderful stories of Björnstjerne Björnson.
It is the face of a Norwegian peasant-girl of nineteen summers – fair and ruddy and strong. She wears her national costume: her eyes are grey like the sea, and her bright braided hair is tied with a blue ribbon. She is tall; and there is an appearance of strong grace about her, for which I can find no word. Her name I never learned, and never shall be able to learn; – and now it does not matter. By this time she may have grandchildren not a few. But for me she will always be the maiden of nineteen summers – fair and fresh from the land of the Hrimthursar – a daughter of gods and Vikings. From the moment of seeing her I wanted die for her; and I dreamed of Valkyrja and of Vala-maids, of Freyja and of Gerda. . . .
She is seated, facing me, in an American railroad-car – a third-class car, full of people whose forms have become indistinguishably dim in memory. She alone remains luminous, vivid: the rest have faded into shadow – all except a man, sitting beside me, whose dark Jewish face, homely and kindly, is still visible in profile. Through the window on our right she watches the strange new world through which we are passing: there is a trembling beneath us, and a rhythm of thunder, while the train sways like a ship in a storm.
An emigrant-train it is; and she, and I, and all those dim people are rushing westward, ever westward – through days and nights that seem preternaturally large – over distances that are monstrous. The light is of a summer day; and shadows slant to the east.
The man beside me says:
“She must leave us tomorrow; – she goes to Redwing, Minnesota. . . . You like her very much? – yes, she’s a fine girl. I think you wish that you were also going to Redwing, Minnesota?”
I do not answer. I am angry that he should know what I wish. And it is very rude of him, I think, to let me know that he knows.
Mischievously, he continues:
“If you like her so much, why don’t you talk to her? Tell me what you would like to say to her; and I’ll interpret for you. . . . Bah! you must not be afraid of the girls!”
Oh! – the idea of telling him what I should like to say to her! . . . Yet it is not possible to see him smile, and to remain vexed with him.
Anyhow, I do not feel inclined to talk. For thirty-eight hours I have not eaten anything; and my romantic dreams, nourished with tobacco-smoke only, are frequently interrupted by a sudden inner aching that makes me wonder how long I shall be able to remain without food. Three more days of railroad travel – and no money! . . . My neighbor yesterday asked me why I did not eat; – how quickly he changed the subject when I told him! Certainly I have no right to complain: there is no reason why he should feed me. And I reflect upon the folly of improvidence.
Then my reflection is interrupted by the apparition of a white hand holding out to me a very, very large slice of brown bread with an inch-thick cut of yellow cheese thereon; and I look up, hesitating, into the face of the Norwegian girl. Smiling, she says to me, in English, with a pretty, childish accent:
“Take it, and eat it.”
I take it, I devour it. Never before nor since did brown bread and cheese seem to me so good. Only after swallowing the very last crumb do I suddenly become aware that, in my surprise and hunger, I forgot to thank her. Impulsively, and at the wrong moment, I try to say some grateful words.
Instantly, and up to the roots of her hair, she flushes crimson: then, bending forward, she puts some question in a clear sharp tone that fills me with fear and shame. I do not understand the question: I understand only that she is angry; and for one cowering moment my instinct divines the power and the depth of Northern anger. My face burns; and her grey eyes, watching it burn, are grey steel; and her smile is the smile of a daughter of men who laugh when they are angry. And I wish myself under the train – under the earth – utterly out of sight forever. But my dark neighbor makes some low-voiced protest – assures her that I had only tried to thank her. Whereat the level brows relax, and she turns away, without a word, to watch the flying landscape; and the splendid flush fades from her cheek as swiftly as it came. But no one speaks: the train rushes into the dusk of five and thirty years ago . . . and that is all!
. . . What can she have imagined that I said? . . . My swarthy comrade would not tell me. Even now my face burns again at the thought of having caused a moment’s anger to the kind heart that pitied me – brought a blush to the cheek of the being for whose sake I would so gladly have given my life . . . But the shadow, the golden shadow of her, is always with me; and, because of her, even the name of the land from which she came is very, very dear to me.
If you follow Teju Cole on Twitter, you’ve likely already read many of his small fates, tweets he composed over two years drawn from Nigerian newspapers. The project follows the spirit of Félix Fénéon’s faits divers, three-line tragedies collected from the news.
Cole has written about the project in detail at his site, as have a number of other sites, but I can’t recall seeing the small fates put together in one place before The New Inquiry published 45 today under the title I don’t normally do this sort of thing. Cole’s small fates operate on a wonderfully strange axis of comedy and horror; they are brief but rich, ironic but intensely real.