Tuesday, October 18

The Lazy Fisherman

In a certain place, at a certain time, lived a fisherman and his wife. They were a poor but happy couple whose home was quite near the Imperial compound. The only characteristic that marred their marital bliss was the unfortunate fact of the fisherman's laziness. The fisherman's wife did her best to keep it a secret, but the neighbors all knew, and pitied her.

"What a hateful thing, O husband," she would wail upon his return each night. "Today the noodle vendor told me of a thing that I would believe impossible! And yet, it is true." The fisherman's wife would tell her husband of a different celestial punishment visited upon the lazy each and every night, until even her deep well of invention began to run dry. It made no difference, alas, and her husband continued to be known all through their village as the lazy fisherman.

At the same time, gossip reported that a small pond in the shrine next to the Imperial compound was close to overflowing with large and fat fish, the likes of which had never been seen. It was said that this was proof that the kami favored the masters of the shrine, and that luck was sure to follow those who visited and paid their respects. One afternoon, as the fisherman remained abed, he heard a conversation from outside.

"So many fish I have never seen in all my days! The smallest one was as large as my forearm," said the noodle vendor, whose forearms were wide and bulging with the exercise of pulling the stock of fresh soba and udon. "I offered a coin to the shrine and on my way out, an enormous carp leaped into the air, its golden scales shining like the sun."

"I, too, visited the shrine last week," interjected the salt woman. "The fish were leaping in greeting, and the shrine maidens were dancing with joy. A more beautiful sight I have never seen."

The lazy fisherman sat bolt upright. The long walk to the lake in which he was usually forced to cast his nets would be no more. If only he could find a way to fish in the shrine pond! He was not a man who was much concerned with the gods, and not one to think about consequences.

The fisherman leapt out of bed and began to check his nets for holes. His wife, startled by this unusual flurry of activity, hurried out of the kitchen.

"Husband, you have risen! And a full two hours earlier than usual! Can it be that you have decided to honor the gods and live a more fulfilling life?"

"Cease your intemperate noise, wife, and sit with me. We must repair all these nets by sunset. I go to fish in the shrine's pond this evening, and with such a heavy catch, they must remain well-knotted."

His wife sank to her knees, her mouth agape. "Have you lost your mind, O husband? If you dare to kill the living luck of the shrine the gods will surely curse us all!"

Scoffing, the lazy fisherman continued his work without her help. He repaired his nets long into the twilight, while she wept and wailed about ill luck and disaster. When the moon rose, he bundled his belongings upon his back and set out on the short walk to the shrine, still ignoring her warnings.

At the top of the hill, where the road split between the forest and the shrine, a large rock marked the fork. As he passed the rock, he began to hear a soft weeping, and turned in surprise to see a beautiful girl sitting in its shadow. Her soft black hair swept down in long waves around her slender hands, which were pressed against her face as she wept. The fisherman shifted his weight from side to side as he thought about the large catch awaiting him at the shrine, but his conscience, usually so silent, spurred him to stop for a moment.

"What is wrong, O maiden? Can I be of some service?" He was careful to address her respectfully, as her clothes were of the highest quality. He began to wonder if she had accidentally wandered out of the Imperial compound. "Though I may be unworthy to speak to you, I do not wish to leave you unattended in the night. Pray, O maiden, lift your head and let me know how to serve you," he begged.

The girl turned away, still weeping into her hands, and her shoulders began to shake even harder. "I cannot tell you, fisherman, for I see you are on your way to a heavy catch," she whispered.

The fisherman gritted his teeth and attempted to sound insouciant. "I have more time to help than I have to fish. Please tell me what is wrong."

"Very well, O fisherman, I shall reveal to you my secret," she spoke, only a little louder than before. "I mourn for the fish you are about to slaughter, for I am the guardian of the shrine pond!" As she said these words, she dropped her lovely hands from her face, and the fisherman fell back in horror, for the front of her head was as smooth and featureless as an egg. With a shriek, he dropped his nets and ran for home.

As he dashed down the main thoroughfare of the village, his feet tangled in each other and he fell, sprawling, at the feet of the man who ran the ramen shop.

"There, friend, where do you run with such speed?" The ramen vendor reached down to help up the lazy fisherman, his wide, friendly face round and smiling. "Your wife has been weeping and worrying all night. Come into my shop and rest before you go home, or you will frighten her even more!"

"Oh, thank you," the fisherman panted, unaccustomed to such exertion. "You will never believe what I saw tonight!"

The ramen vendor placed a bowl of soup in front of the fisherman, soup so hot and fragrant with red chili oil that the comforting aroma drove away the fear in the fisherman's heart. As he sipped the soup, he began to tell his strange story, slowly relaxing under his friend's familiar gaze.

"Your wife warned you about intruding on the peace of the shrine," the ramen vendor laughed. "And you were lucky enough to meet with the guardian before you killed the fish, weren't you?"

"Well, yes, but have you ever heard of such a creature?" the fisherman asked.

"Oh, my, yes. I've heard of a spirit who can take on the face of a familiar person and one who can wipe it away. There are many spirits in these hills, you know," the ramen vendor continued. A strange feeling began to rise in the fisherman's throat. 

The man's hand rose to stroke at his chin as he began to tell a tale of the vengeful Noppera-bō, the faceless ones. The fisherman watched in dread as, with each stroke of the hand, the ramen vendor's once-familiar face disappeared before the fisherman's horrified eyes.

The fisherman fell backwards out of the ramen shop, still-hot soup spreading across the counter, a red sheen of oil staining his hands and clothes. He scrambled away crabwise as the ramen vendor approached slowly. The faceless one drifted closer, his feet no longer seeming to touch the ground, and a low moan emerged from the blank skin.  Just before it came close enough to touch, the fisherman's nerve broke completely, and he jumped up and ran home.

He collapsed onto the porch, where his wife was still sobbing about ill-luck and curses. His heart was pounding in his chest like a taiko drum and he was covered in the dust of the street and still-fragrant chili oil. His wife arose in a hurry and ran to comfort him, but upon hearing his tale, jumped away. 

"You failed to heed the guardian of the shrine?" She raised her hands to her face in shock and it melted away like cold fog on a sunny morning. A shriek issued forth from the pale and empty oval of her suddenly formless skin, and the fisherman's heart finally gave out.

This is a famous Japanese folktale, though I've cobbled together a few iterations of it.  Editing help was kindly given, when I ran into a pronoun situation, by Maren and Wendryn of IndieInk.org.  Our forum rocks. Thank you so much!