"Each feather, it fell from skin"

>> Thursday, December 10, 2009

One of my latest crushes: The Decemberists, performing "The Crane Wife 3" live in Boston, 2006. The video is shaky, but the sound quite good.

"The Crane Wife" is a Japanese folktale echoing a number of archetypal themes. The story, as I would retell it, goes something like this:

Once upon a time, on one of the smaller islands, there was a very poor but very kind fisherman.

One night, after bringing in the nets, he heard a sound in the reeds that tore his heart, and he couldn't help but go and see what it might be. It took him a while, but following the sounds he found a wounded crane, unable to fly, lying with her wings spread upon the ground.

Although the fisherman could barely feed himself, he knew that cranes bring good fortune; too, even if she had been an ordinary bird, I think he would have done what he could, for such was his nature. So, he brought the bird home and nursed her back to health until she was able to fly away.

Many months later, there was a knocking at his door, and when the fisherman answered, he was stunned to see the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his entire life, tall and graceful, with a long neck and ivory skin, and he was smitten instantly. Not even knowing what he was saying, the fisherman told the stranger at his door that although he was poor and could not keep her as she deserved, he would marry her in his next heartbeat if he could.

Much to his surprise, the strange, beautiful woman instantly said yes, she would marry him. The fisherman was shocked; he stuttered, he even argued with her--did she realize how poor he was, and how a woman such as she surely had parents who could arrange a match with a wealthier, more successful man? But the woman said she was an orphan, and she mysteriously insisted she had come to this very house hoping the inhabitant would take her in again--a statement that baffled the fisherman and he mumbled something to that effect with a fat tongue and clumsy lips, but the woman wouldn't elaborate.

And so they were wed.

Time passed, and of course the couple found themselves so very poor. The fisherman was lamenting this fact to his bride when she surprised him again: "I am a little skilled with a loom," she said, "and I shall make a blanket for you to sell in the market that I think will put us even. But you must honor some strange requests--I find that I am nervous when I am watched, and so I will shut myself in the back room while I work, and you must never see me at the loom or ever disturb me, and only leave my meals at the door which I will take when you are not around."

This was strange, indeed, but the fisherman loved his wife, and so he agreed to the odd conditions. Shortly thereafter, then, his wife went into the back room, and he did not see her for some days. When she emerged, in her slender arms she bore the softest, finest blanket he had ever seen or touched, and he was amazed. And when he took the blanket to market, he found it fetched more than even he would have guessed.

Time passed, and of course the money from the blanket and meager sales of the fish the fisherman caught ran short, and the couple found themselves again wondering how they would make their expenses for the next month.

When the fisherman's wife suggested she could make another blanket, the fisherman nervously said, "I wonder--when I took the last blanket to market, so many people asked if I had any more to sell... if you made two blankets this time, we would not only be able to pay our bills, but perhaps we could even have a little extra for some of the things we talked about needing if we could afford to replace them."

His wife quickly agreed, and returned to the back room. The fisherman did not see her for several days, and she emerged with two blankets this time, both of which were perhaps even finer than the one she'd made previously. The blankets each sold for more than the first, and the fisherman was surprised to find that there were even people from distant villages who had come to the local market after hearing rumors of the fineness of the first blanket his wife had made.

And so the couple could pay their bills, and buy a few necessities they'd been avoiding the purchase of, and made some repairs that had been deferred, and life was a little more comfortable for the couple than it had been, and they were very happy for a time.

But as time went on, the fisherman found that there were always more things that they needed, and then there were things that they wanted. And so he suggested that his wife spend more time, and more, and more making blankets that they could sell. And although she became wan and weary looking, and he saw less and less of her, and when he did see her she recoiled quickly and wincing strangely when he would touch her, still he continued to ask her to work at her loom and always she acquiesced without a moment's hesitation.

And the fisherman and his wife became very wealthy, and they expanded the fisherman's hut until it was a sizable house, almost like one a noble might have lived in, and the y had many fine things.

But as time went on and the fisherman spent more time home, counting money and receiving important guests and less time and then no time casting his nets (so he could hardly be called a fisherman anymore, and we only use the word so you know who we're talking about), he became so, so, so curious about his wife's. He wondered why his wife insisted upon such secrecy. And he even told himself, sometimes, maybe even honestly, though I don't know, that if she could pass her technique along, perhaps train some of the local girls to work the loom, perhaps they could even spend more time together and she wouldn't need to work so much.

So it came to pass that the fisherman decided he would spy on his wife--perhaps if he looked in, he said to himself, she would not need to be so nervous in the future. He might tell her (he thought) that he'd watched her in secret and she had no need to be shy, or (and this made him feel guilty, and he quickly tried to put it aside) maybe if he was able to observe his wife's technique, he could instruct someone himself.

But most of all, he was simply curious.

One night, then, the fisherman sneaked over to the door of the room where his wife was at work, and he slid the door open a tiny crack, and he looked inside. What he saw shocked him--he didn't see his wife anywhere, but inside the room, working the loom, was a crane! The fisherman quickly saw, too, the secret of the blankets' softness, for the crane was plucking feathers from her own wings and breast, and weaving them into the silk on the loom as she worked.

The fisherman was so surprised he sat down suddenly and let go all the breath he'd been holding to stay quiet--whichever of the sounds the bird heard, or both, she suddenly turned her head and saw the small crack in the door, and the fisherman beyond it, and with a clatter of her great wings she rushed through the door, pushing the fisherman aside and fleeing outside, where she launched herself into the air and became first a shadow against the moon, then a speck, and then the bird was gone from the sight of any mortal eyes.

The fisherman never saw his wife, nor the crane again.

The old man I heard this story from, who claimed he was from the village where this happened, or a village near, or perhaps he knew somebody from the island where the village was--anyway, he told me that when the fisherman died, he left a sizable estate to his heirs, but then in his next breath, he told me the fisherman died impoverished and poor.

I suppose the old man must have had something mixed up, as old people sometimes do.


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