A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-8


CHAPTER VIII.

My mother is fond of parties and young people and their keen appreciation of pleasure; my father is of a far different turn of mind; he has his happiest moments in smoking leisurely, in manipulating the fishing-rod and line, under the shielding pine-tree, by some quiet river-bank, or in hunting out edible mushrooms in the mountains. He is a respectable, practical Izaak Walton; quaint ripples of smile pass across his face as the nibbling fish gives his line a tantalizing pull; he helps me bait, he teaches me when and how to make sure of my spoil,—for many a victim hangs to the hook just long enough to rise out of water, glitters transiently in the sun and thrills one with joy, and then decides, undeceived, to reject the dainty morsel: there rises an ever widening, ever receding circle on the still liquid surface, a golden flap of the tail, and the fish is invisible, leaving one despondent. I liked mother's and sisters' company, but also appreciated father's soothing, restful influence. At the simple repast in the open solitary scene of the field and stream, after angling all the morning, he said little; yet the expression of calm enjoyment and honest humor on his face brightened his companion. Those were delightful times; I have the scene at this moment before my mental eye:—the broad beach of white sand surrounding the cove, where the river meets the sea, with a lonely stork standing on one leg in shallow water; the briny odor from the sea, and the fresh scent from the meadow; the sighing pines overhead and the turbulent water at the stone abutments of the bridge; the sunny blue sea beyond the sand-bar, studded with white sails; a huge cloud of smoke swaying landward, rising from the distant brick-yard; and in the grayish-blue background the silhouette of a grove and knoll, whereon a wayside shrine stands.

"See what you can do about here," says my father, taking in his line, "I shall follow the river up and find if they bite." He turns his back and disappears and reappears among the scrub oaks and stunted willows that fringe the margin. I stay where I am like a good son; but being no more successful than before, and bored and wishing company, after a reasonable lapse of time, I find myself going after my father. Upon finding him quietly seated under some protruding tree, beneath whose mirrored branches and near whose knotty root the water darkens in a pool, I inquire into his success. "No, nothing marvelous," he responds gently, gazing dreamily across the river, yet wary with the fish that "cometh as a thief in the night." I take the liberty of lifting the lid of his basket and peep at the contents; a large trout disturbed by the jar I gave it, snaps violently—I let down the lid instantly at that—and then it lies exhausted, working its jaw in anguish for water. "Cast your fly and try your luck," says my excellent father. Of course I obey him; and although I was not so successful every time as he, yet could not always help observing privately that the location he had selected was a good fishing hole.

The river I have in mind has a characteristic oriental appellation given it—Dragon-fire. It is a small stream at a short distance from the town of Imabari, having its fountain-heads in the valleys of the mountains visible from the mouth. There is nothing remarkable about this water-course, except a popular belief that, on the eve of a festal day in honor of the temple situated on one of the mountains, a mysterious fire rises from the enchanting "dragon-palace" in the depths of the ocean, where a beautiful queen reigns supreme over her charming watery world with its finny and scaly subjects of various species. The mysterious light, casting an inverted image on the water, moves steadily up the river, under the concentrated gaze of thousands who climb the height partly as devotees but mostly as spectators, until it reaches a massive stone lantern erected upon the ledge of an immense cliff. There it vanishes as strangely as it appeared; and instead the lantern, hitherto dark, lights up suddenly.

I dislike to question the reality of this astonishing phenomenon, or try to explain it with my superficial knowledge of physics. A very pious, gracious old lady in our neighborhood had always a ready listener in me in her superstitious talks concerning the wonders and charitable doings of the Goddess of Mercy, whom she had imposingly enshrined in her apartment and adored unceasingly. Perhaps you would wish to know what the goddess looked like. Well, it was a small bronze statuette in a gilded miniature temple; she wore a scanty Hindoo costume, a halo around her head and an expression gentle, sweet, serene, godly.—You have seen a reproduction of the ideal Italian picture of Christ, with downcast eyes and a look of meek submission, benign tenderness and forgiveness: the Goddess of Mercy seemed quite like that but with slightly more authority. Another conception of the pagan goddess, which I have seen elsewhere, represents her as possessing countless arms, signifying, I imagine, the countless deeds of mercy she achieves for mankind.

The good old lady did not feel satisfied with the home worship; she must play the pilgrim, in spite of years and infirmities, and visit, at least, the nearest public temples. So she set off with her company, a circle of aged zealots like herself, on a journey to a sacred edifice standing somewhere in the mountain which, in fair weather, shows faintly against the sky west of Imabari, towering far above hills and heights of nearer distances. The way is long and tedious and lies through rocky regions. Difficult passes and precipitous declivities were left far behind by assiduous traveling on foot; but the party lost the way, wandered into mountain wilds, silent and sublime, far, far from home or any human habitation; and there was nothing to be heard but the flocks of rooks cawing inauspiciously among the tree-tops. The day advanced rapidly; the sun wheeled down without tarrying, and in the trackless forest the evening gloom gathered early. Mute admiration, commingled with despair, seized the travelers as they surveyed the forest grandeur in its twilight robe. The unpruned trees thrust out dry broken arms from near the roots; the leaves sere and sodden covered the damp, black soil ankle deep rustling under the tread.

The sunset, how glorious! Our travelers threw down their walking-sticks, stretched out their tired limbs and, seated on rocks, spell-bound, gave themselves up to the contemplation of the magnificent fire-painting in the western firmament. Behold the mountains of living coal, the lakes of molten gold, the islands of floating amber, all irregularly shaped as by a wild genius, distributed not as on the earth's surface,—a mountainous pile superimposed on a lake with a stratum of sapphire between! At length, the whole melted into one grand universal conflagration; the undulating tops of the distant mountain-chain appeared boldly against the horizon; the needles and cones of a pine branch, pendant near by in the line of vision, depicted themselves sharply on the canvas of crimson splendor.

Insensibly to our musing friends, however, the red sinking disc finally departed by the western portal, the after-glow died away slowly; and when they awoke from reveries and heaved a sigh, the question of what to be done came pressing upon them. Now the day being over, there was the danger of wild animals in the woods. That could be averted by building a bright fire, but what was to be done for hunger which began to assert itself strongly? With energy gone and darkness and peril thickening about them, yet trusting in the Goddess, the lonely pilgrims peered around for a less exposed spot to nestle in. In this their search, miraculously they came upon what to them looked like a cottage. It was one of the hovels hastily put up with twigs and shrubs by hunters, where they waylay the boar at night and in snow, and where they slice meat, lie by the fire and smoke, and frequently hold a midnight revel over their fat game. Our weary, almost famished tourists entered it, wondering and looking around at each step; they were at once struck with the snug appearance of the interior. There was a heap of ashes, which when disturbed disclosed a few glowing embers; and in a corner was piled on raw hide plenty of excellent venison. The hunters must have left not long since.

The pious old lady goes on to tell that such a thing as this could not have been otherwise than by the dispensation of her merciful Goddess, and that she and her fellow believers fell immediately on their knees to express their heart-felt gratitude for her munificence and protection. The fire was rekindled and fed with armfuls of the dried leaves and dead branches that lay strewn plentifully around; the broad blaze cast an illusive cheerfulness on objects standing near; each time a stick was thrown in the cloven tongues of the fire emitted sparks, which died in their flight among the masses of the overhanging foliage. Taken in connection with the surrounding scene, there was something inexpressibly wild and primitive about the open fire. The party appeased their hunger and waited the return of the proprietors of the rude cottage. They did not come, though the night advanced far; some of the pilgrims were extremely fatigued and dropped to sleep in the warmth, others sat up resolutely, repeating prayers and counting the beads before a pocket image of the Goddess. The low night wind bore to their ear, at intervals, the concert of wolves howling in dismal, forlorn cadence; and they were now and then started by one of these savage marauders appearing in their sight at a safe distance.

The night was passed in this way, and the dawn came; but how to find the right path? While they were in despair and supplicating aid from the Goddess, one of them descried a figure on the brow of an eminence not far distant. It seemed, on nearer approach, to be a venerable mountain sire; his long silver-white beard flowed down his breast; a pair of clear beaming eyes twinkled beneath his great shaggy eyebrows. Being asked in which point of the compass lay the road to the temple, he slowly lifted his cane, a knotty stem of a shrub called akaza, and indicated the west. Apropos of this, the akaza stick is believed to be carried by an imaginary race of men hidden in China's pathless woods and mountains, who are without exception very old but never overtaken by disease or death and live in serene felicity, gathering medicinal herbs, writing on scrolls and in company with cranes and tortoises. In kakemonoes (wall hangings) they are sometimes depicted as taking a literal "flying" visit on craneback, with the inevitable scroll in hand, to their brother sennin's (sennin is the name this happy race goes by) grotto in a neighboring hill or dale.

Our party of wanderers thanked the kind but dignified old man on their hands and knees and raised their heads, when he seemed to dissolve away from view in a most singular manner. This opportune guide, according to my garrulous lady, is a messenger sent by her thousand-armed Goddess to their help; in fine, not a thing occurs but is ordained by Kwannon the Merciful. The story of the adventure was wound up with the safe arrival in the Kwannon temple, and fervent piety kindled at the altar.

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