The Woodcutter's Tale [an old Japanese tale retold]

This is a tale of long ago. A young woodcutter lived in the mountains, cutting wood to sell in the town below. In this fashion he earned his living, trading the wood for rice and what little he needed, and growing a small garden of vegetables.

One spring day the village merchant asked him to bring him five times the usual amount of wood, for the merchant's son was getting a wife, and they needed to prepare for the wedding. The woodcutter agreed, thinking how fortunate the merchant's son was. The woodcutter was far too poor to afford a wife.

In order to gather the extra wood, the woodcutter decided to go further than he had gone before, into the forest of the next mountain. Around noon he found a cool stream, where he ate his lunch of barley-rice and small fish. Following the stream down the far side of the mountain, gathering wood, he came to a lake. Mirrored in the clear water was a great plum tree, with countless white flowers blooming and filling the air with their sweet fragrance. "Surely," he said aloud, "that is the most beautiful thing in the world." He stood there, absorbing the sight and the scent for a while, before he turned on his way home.

The next day he passed by the lake and the plum tree again. This time he came closer to the tree, where the air was thick with the sweet smell of the blossoms. He was tempted to take a branch home with him, to savor along the way, but when his hand grasped a low bough, he thought he heard the tree sigh. "It is only the wind," he said to himself. "But I would be a fool to harm such a beautiful tree in any way." So he turned home without the branch.

Early the next morning he delivered the wood to the merchant. The wedding was to be in five days, so the merchant's house was full of people. Pocketing the few coins he received in payment, the woodcutter thought again how lucky the merchant's son was. "But," he consoled himself, "the merchant's son will never set foot in the mountains, so he will never see such beauty as that plum tree in full bloom." Then he considered himself a very fortunate man indeed.

Since he did not need to gather as much wood as before, the woodcutter did not go to the next mountain any more. But he thought often of the plum tree, and his heart was glad.

One summer day, the woodcutter saw a woman coming towards him through the forest. She hobbled along slowly, leaning on a stick, and seemed very tired. Wondering what a woman was doing in the mountains, he stopped his work and approached her.

"What are you doing here? The mountains are not safe for a woman traveling alone."

The woman sank to the ground. "I am trying to escape," she panted. "My father's servants are searching for me in all the towns, but they will not look in the mountains, for they know my legs are weak."

The woodcutter gave her his bamboo water-bottle, and she drank gratefully. "Why are you trying to escape them?"

"My father wishes me to marry a rich nobleman, but it is rumored that he beat his last wife to death! The nunneries will not take me in, since my father is very powerful, but I would rather die in the mountains than be given to that man!"

The young woman burst into tears, and the woodcutter, hardly knowing what he said, offered his humble shack for her refuge. He led her there, carrying her where the paths were steep. When he picked her up, she smelled like plum blossoms, but he thought it was perfume, since she looked as though she came from a wealthy family.

While she rested on his tattered bedding, the woodcutter finished his work, and returned early to prepare a modest meal of barley-rice and broiled fish. When they had done eating, the woman thanked him for his kindness again, and hesitantly asked him if he had no wife.

"I am only a poor woodcutter," he replied. "I could never afford a wife."

The woman brought out a small bundle she had been carrying, and opened it to show him fifty pieces of gold. "Would this be enough for you to keep me as your wife?"

The woodcutter was astounded, but was glad to have her as his wife. He used a gold piece to buy new bedding for both of them, as well as some pure rice. He continued to work hard, and the woman gradually grew strong enough to work in his vegetable garden. They were very happy, and every spring he took her to see the plum tree blooming in the next mountain, which she loved as much as he. Although they never had any children, the woodcutter thought himself the luckiest man in the world.

They lived many years together, but surprisingly, the woman never seemed to grow old. The woodcutter's face became wrinkled, and his hair turned grey, but his wife was as young as the day she first came to him. Still more years passed, until the notches they carved on a pillar every new year numbered fifty.

"My husband, I must soon leave you," the woman said sadly, as they sat by the plum tree one day.

"Why do you say that? You are too young to think of dying!"

She shook her head. "I may appear young, but I am actually two hundred years old. I am not a mortal woman, but the spirit of this plum tree. Fifty years ago, when you passed by my tree without tearing my boughs, I asked the gods to give me human form until I was transplanted to paradise. They were pleased to grant my wish, and I have had fifty happy years as your wife."

The woodcutter would not believe her, although she insisted it was true. She became silent then, and spent the next few weeks tending the vegetable garden and mending his clothes.

That summer, a great storm passed through the mountains. As the thunder crashed and the wind tore at their tiny home, the woodcutter felt his wife turning restlessly. He held her hand to comfort her, and after a while, the storm subsided and she lay still beside him.

He awoke in the morning, still holding her hand, but when he turned to wake her, he cried out in dismay. The hand he held was made of wood! There, beside him, lay a perfect statue of his wife, formed of wood. She was smiling, somewhat sadly, but her wooden eyes could not see him.

Remembering what she had said that spring, the woodcutter ran through the forest into the next mountain, until he came to the old plum tree. It lay split in half, both halves toppled to the ground. A lightning had struck it in the night.

The woodcutter wept bitterly for losing his wife, and even more for not believing what she had said. He took the beautiful statue of his wife to a priest, and told him his tale, asking if there were any way to meet his wife again. The priest advised him to learn how to prune plum trees, in the hopes that the gods would grant him entrance into paradise to tend to his wife. The woodcutter agreed, and became a pruner. When he died the next winter, the priest had him buried where the old plum tree had been, along with the wooden statue of the plum tree's spirit.