A kind-hearted childless old couple, animal abuse, friendship beyond death, and the theme of virtue rewarded and sin punished: the quintessential building blocks of the mukashibanashi appear all of them in this tale. Also, the jiisan makes cherry trees bloom in midwinter, while his younger and wealthier, yet more curmudgeonly rival tries to accomplish the same in vain...
Mukashi mukashi, once upon a time, two childless couples lived in the same village; one of them young and wealthy, the other aged and humble. Old Man and Old Woman Bloom had a pet dog, a white spitz called Shiro ("Whitey"), who kept them company and was the grandson they never had, aside from guarding their little chicken farm and rice pads. While Young Man and Young Woman Gloom did not even keep a bug, such as a beetle or cricket, as a pet in their grand estate, for they thought they had more serious things in which to take their time, such as writing poetry or arranging flowers; furthermore, they were hard-hearted and curmudgeonly, while the old folks were always friendly and smiling, and it was not a rare sight to see them on their porch, with Shiro at their feet and all the village children gathered round in a half-circle listening to old yokai tales.
It came as no surprise that the Glooms hated the Blooms with all of their hearts, or rather what they had left within their chests; blame the green-eyed monster. Yet soon that hatred which the young nobles kept concealed would finally see the light thanks to a strike of luck their rivals could not even foresee that they would have.
One summer evening at sunset, Old Man Bloom returned home from the rice pads as usual to find Shiro barking livelier than usual and standing on his hind legs, as if he were to call the master's attention. Needless to say the old farmer followed his spitz to the back of the little rice-straw-thatched cottage, to find a hole dug in the ground as if to bury a bone and something shining in the sun at the bottom of the hole. Picking up one of these egg shaped things and dusting it clean of soils, Old Man Bloom realised that it was a koban, a Japanese doubloon, a gold coin (which looks exactly like the charm on Meowth's brow); furthermore, the hole was full of koban, as he took his hoe and dug deeper than what Shiro had dug to bury his bone on that fateful day. Imagine the face of Old Woman Bloom when her husband came home with a basket full of golden treasure! That evening, they drank to the health of their puppy and praised him for such a valuable finding... now they could even afford an estate just like the young Glooms', and would never bother to live off the land again! Those lucky old folks!
Those lucky old folks... thought Young Man Gloom; the news of the aged farmers' fortune had spread throughout the shire like wildfire. Needless to say he and his lady wife were more cross than ever, yet still it would be unwise to wear their hearts upon their sleeves. A cunning plan was what they needed.
One day, a maid from the Gloom estate showed up at the porch of the little cottage. "The Master would like to borrow your dog for today." The Blooms were too kind-hearted to refuse, and, furthermore, they thought the local nobles decent folk (as all the smallfolk in the shire did), so off Shiro went with the maid to the estate.
That day, Young Man Gloom, a spade in his right hand and Shiro on a tight leash in his left, prowled the estate gardens. "DIG, YOU BLOODY MUTT!! THERE MUST BE TREASURE IN HERE!!", he commanded like a spoiled child giving a tantrum, as he pulled the leash, which tightened around the spitz's neck like a noose, and threatened him wielding the spade. At nightfall, the gardens were full of holes, creating a lunar landscape around the mansion, but not a single copper was to have been found. Now the lordling had finally run out of patience, and, setting all of the anger pent up within him free, he had no other choice than to blame the bloody mutt for his misfortune. Dropping the spade, he seized the leash with both hands and pulled with all his strength, increased by anger. After kicking and writhing for a while, trying in vain to break free, Shiro was strangled to death. A remorseless Young Man Gloom shoved the dead dog into one of the holes in the shade of a mighty pine, covered the hole with soil, and commanded the estate gardeners to cover up the rest of the holes. "And don't tell the lady a word about this." What's more, he didn't tell her himself. So Young Woman Gloom never got to know what her husband had done to the old folks' white spitz.
The next day, a maid showed up at the Blooms', crying floods of tears and saying the Master was very sorry for Shiro having fallen ill and breathed his last in the Gloom Mansion the day before. Needless to say the old folk shed sad and bitter, sincere tears, being (unlike the false maidservant) truly brokenhearted. So both Old Blooms, husband and wife, donned their mourning white kimonos, for throughout Asia white is the colour of mourning, and went on with their daily chores wearily, listlessly. That night, they had a dream in which a familiar white spitz appeared to them as a ghost, telling his masters how the wicked lordling had choked him to death in a fit of rage and buried him under the mightiest pine in the estate gardens.
The next day, Old Man Bloom, still in mourning and with his rice-straw hat full of koban, showed up at the gates of the Gloom estate, asking the young nobles to chop down the oldest pine tree in their gardens, for he wished to purchase the trunk to make a fine pinewood rice mortar, or hand mill, out of that. The glitter of gold was enough to coax the guards, the servants, and even the Young Glooms themselves, into doing the farmer's bidding... for what was an old pine that had stood on the mansion grounds for generations compared to a hat full of doubloons? And thus, soon the pine trunk was in the Bloom cottage, carved into a nice wooden hand mill where the old woman pounded her rice to make, for Mid-Autumn and New Year, for Girls' Day and Boys' Day, moon cakes which tasted better than any other moon cakes within the whole Empire of the Rising Sun.
(A moon cake is a cake made out of rice paste, really sticky, given this name for being as white and round as the full moon. Girls' Day [the Princess Festival in the Pokémon anime] is on the 3rd of March, and it's customary to wrap moon cakes in cherry blossoms; while Boys' Day [Kids' Day in the Pokémon anime] is on the 5th of May, and it's customary to wrap moon cakes in oak leaves). Furthermore, that pinewood mortar always churned up moon cakes, in holiday or workday, and never ran out of them; the pestle was always feather-light and the cakes were always scrumptious, ensuring that the Old Blooms never grew weary of living exclusively of moon cakes day in and day out.
No wonder that, when word of this second wonder reached the Gloom estate after the Mid-Autumn festival, the young Master sent out a maid to ask the old farmers to borrow the mortar for the day. Though they had a reason to mistrust their lords, after losing Shiro and learning from his ghost the true story of how their spitz had died, the Blooms were too kind-hearted, and besides too weak-willed, to say no this time as well.
That day, the cooks of the Gloom Mansion took it in turns to pound rice in the magical mill, but its pestle felt heavy as if made of basalt stone, and every single try made cakes that were equally hard, and besides tasted like pumice in the mouth. Even the young Master and his lady wife got to experience that disappointment, so, at nightfall, they made a bonfire in the mansion gardens and the mortar proved to be quite inflammable.
Of course they would have never set fire to it if they had known in the first place that magical objects, in every oral tradition, have a righteous tendency to turn against greedy, selfish owners. But alas, upper-class twats as they always had been, the Young Glooms soon reduced the warming, blazing, searing pinewood hand mill to ashes.
The next day, the maid came to the Bloom cottage as usual, lamenting that a clumsy kitchen boy had accidentally shoved the mortar into the oven and burned it, not to a crisp, but to ashes. "Ashes to ashes," the mournful Old Blooms said to one another, drying up each other's tears and clad once more in mourning white. That night, a familiar ghost dog appeared to them in their dreams for a second time and told them the truth about the wooden hand mill. Hat full of koban, Old Man Bloom returned to the Gloom estate, and the glitter of gold once more convinced the guards and gardeners to let the aged farmer rake up the ashes of the former night's bonfire.
These ashes the Old Blooms kept in their ancestor household shrine, as a keepsake to be reckoned with, to remember both their ersatz grandchild and their wonder mortar. However, when autumn turned to winter and every treetop but the pines' was bare and frosted, the ground wrapped in a white blanket as if all of Nature were in mourning, and both old folks were busy making rice straw hats, a playful draught of the winds of winter stole through the Bloom cottage, picking up some of the ashes from their altar, and getting out through a cranny in the wall, to sprinkle the dashes of ashes on some barren and frostbitten cherry treetops.
The next day, returning home from the market-town where he had sold the aforementioned straw hats, Old Man Bloom realised that the cherry trees near the cottage were pink and fluffy as sunset clouds, laden with those lovely blossoms that are always seen as a sign of springtime, standing out in stark contrast to both the surrounding treetops and the blanket of snow on the ground. Cherry blossoms in midwinter! And he was sober and wide awake! Now hadn't a draught of air passed in and picked up some of their ashes from the altar at home the day before? Putting two and two together, the elated old farmer dashed off homeward and returned to the spot with his wife in tow. Needless to give an impression of her surprise! The next day, the Old Blooms scattered ashes on other cherry treetops and their hypothesis that the ashes retained the powers of the pinewood mortar was confirmed. At the same time, word spread through the shire that the Shogun himself, the military dictator and ruler of the lands in those days, had left his palace in Edo, the capital (present-day Tokyo), to take a tour of the provinces, and that rather soon, in that same winter month, the shire would have the great honour of being blessed with his august presence. Old Man Bloom had already heard of the Shogun's arrival from the folks at the market where he and other farmers sold their hats in winter... the whole entourage of the ruler would be impressed to find cherry blossoms in the direst season indeed! Needless to say they were impressed, all the warriors in polished breastplates and maids in the finest silks... but most impressed was the dictator himself, even more when he saw the cherry treetops turn from bare and cold to fluffy and rosy as the good old folks scattered ashes over the frosted branches.
That winter, the Old Blooms received a bottle of the best distilled sake to warm themselves from within, and a chest filled with twice or thrice as many koban as Shiro had found by chance when burying the fated bone that stated it all. They were even offered a position as the Shogun's own gardeners, but wisely chose to remain in their humble thatched cottage rather than live among high-and-mighty courtiers.
Now the Young Glooms, who had tried before in vain to seek favour at court, felt more possessed than ever by the green-eyed monster. As winter changed into spring and every cherry treetop was pink and fluffy as a sunset cloud, their scheming did never change. "We send a ninja to steal some of their ashes in the middle of the night. Then, when the Shogun does his next tour of the provinces in midwinter, we'll try to replicate the success of these lucky old bastards, posing as disciples of Old Man Bloom's!"
Needless to say these upper-class twats did exactly as they had planned, or rather schemed. And that winter, the courtly entourage got word that the local lordlings had become disciples of Old Man Bloom's and they were obviously pretty pleased with it. Claiming that he was far more successful than his frail old codger of a mentor, Young Man Gloom scattered some ashes over the barren treetops to no avail; not even a cherry bud came forth on those frosted branches, and, furthermore, the same wistful draught that changed the lives of the Old Blooms for the third time now stole into the scene and carried the pinewood ashes towards the Shogun's august eyes.
A wincing, squinting dictator commanded his armoured guards to seize Young Man and Young Woman Gloom and carry them to a fortress prison for a lifetime behind bars for miracle-worker impersonation. And of course his will was done. Since, if you remember, the Young Glooms were childless at the start of it all, the Old Blooms seized their chance and took over their empty, ownerless estate. And there they lived for a few decades, for Japanese seniors can live up to a century... but, unfortunately, as they shuffled off this mortal coil, their successors in the mansion were wicked, scheming courtiers.
REMARKS ON THIS TALE:
- This story, like that of Benizara and Kakezara, speaks volumes about the common mukashibanashi motif of poetic justice, of virtue rewarded and sin punished.
- The Yo-kai Elder Bloom, Hanasakajii in Japanese, is based obviously upon the titular character of this tale: a friendly aged man with a basket of ashes, dressed in the colours of springtime, with cherry petals for facial hair.
- Most dogs in Japan, regardless of breed or fur colour, are called Shiro after the pet of the Blooms (the Hanasakas in the original version).
- The mortar or hand mill in this tale is the same kind that appears in Saru Kani Gassen/The Macaque Vs. the Crab. Only that this one is magical and its ashes make flowers bloom in winter if a good-hearted person scatters them about, obviously!
- The so-called "charm" the Pokémon Meowth wears on his brow is actually a koban (that's right!)
- The motif of colourful plants (whether flowers or berries) popping up in midwinter is very frequent in such kind-and-unkind tales, in which the righteous are always rewarded with such a rarity while the unrighteous are never graced with it. The "Dobrunka and Zloboha" versions of the Dyed Moroz tale (as told in Bohemia and Italy, for instance) have the former character, the kind orphan stepsister, receive during three winter nights during which she helps the seasons gathered round a campfire, in this order, flowers from Springtime personified, berries from Summer, and mushrooms from Autumn. Her envious stepsister, the stepmother's daughter Zloboha, who had asked her for those three fools' errands, goes herself to command the seasons like a spoiled brat for flowers, berries, and mushrooms... only to have Old Man Winter summon a blizzard that freezes her to death.
- The ending of this version is of my own invention, thinking that life goes on after happy ever after (at the end of the day, valar morghulis), and remembering the closure of a fairytale by Oscar Wilde: "Yet ruled he not long, so great had been his suffering, and so bitter the fire of his testing, for after the space of three years he died. And he who came after him ruled evilly."