Robe of Feathers
(From Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales- Grace James, 1912)
Mio Strand is in the Province of Suruga. Its sand is yellow and fine, strewn with rose shells at the ebb tide. Its pine trees are ancient and they lean all one way, which is the way that the wild wind wills. Before Mio rolls the deep sea, and behind Mio rises Fuji, the most sacred, the mountain of mountains. Small marvel that the Strange People should come to Mio.
Of the Strange People not much is known, even at Mio, though it is sure they come there. It seems they are shy indeed, more’s the pity. They come through the blue air, or across the mysterious paths of the sea. Their footprints are never, never seen upon the wet beach, for they tread too lightly. But sometimes in their dancing they sweep their robes upon the sand and leave it ribbed and ruffled; so, often enough, it may be seen at Mio.
This is not all. Once a fisherman of Mio set eyes upon a maiden of the Strange People, and talked with her and made her do his bidding. This is a true thing, and thus it came about.
The fisherman was out in his boat all night. He cast his net here and he cast his net there, but he caught nothing at all for his pains. It may be believed that he grew weary enough before the morning. In the cold of the dawn, he brought his boat to shore and set foot on Mio Strand, shivering.
Then, so he says, a warm wind met him and blew through his garments and his hair, so that he flushed and glowed. The very sand was full of comfort to his chilly feet. Upon the warm wind a fragrance was borne, cedar and vervain, and the scent of a hundred flowers.
Flowers dropped softly through the air like bright rain. The fisherman stretched out his hands and caught them, lotus and jessamine and pomegranate. And all the while sweet music sounded.
“This is never Mio Strand,” cried the fisherman, bewildered, “where I have pulled my boat ashore a thousand times or flown kites upon a holiday. Alack, I fear me I have sailed to the Fortunate Isles unawares, or come unwillingly to the Sea King’s garden; or very like I am dead and never knew it, and this is Yomi. O Yomi, Land of Yomi, how like thou art to Mio Strand, my dear home!”
After he had said this, the fisherman looked up the beach and down the beach, and he turned and saw Fuji, the mountain of mountains, and then he turned and saw the deep rolling sea and knew he was at Mio and no other place, and gave a long sigh.
“Thanks be,” he said, and lifting his eyes he saw a robe of feathers hanging upon the branch of a pine tree. In the robe were feathers of all the birds that fly, everyone; the kingfisher and the golden pheasant, the love bird, the swan, the crow, the cormorant, the dove, the bullfinch, the falcon, the plover, and the heron.
“Ah, the pretty fluttering thing!” said the fisherman, and he took it from the pine tree where it hung.
“Ah, the warm, sweet, fairy thing!” said the fisherman; “I’ll take it home for a treasure, sure no money could buy it, and I’ll show it to all the folk of the village.” And off he set for home with the fairy feathers over his arm.
Now the maiden of the Strange People had been playing all this time with the White Children of the Foam that live in the salt sea. She looked up through the cold clear water and marked that her robe hung no longer on the pine-tree branch.
“Alas, alas!” she cried, “my robe, my feather robe!” Swifter than any arrow she sprang from the water, and sped, fleet of foot, along the wet sand. The White Children of the Foam followed at her flashing heels. Clad in the cloak of her long hair, she came up with the fisherman.
“Give me my feather robe,” she said, and held out her hand for it.
“Why?” said the fisherman.
“’Tis mine. I want it. I must have it.”
“Oho,” said the fisherman, “finding’s keeping,” and he didn’t give her the feather robe.
“I am a Fairy,” she said.
“Farewell, Fairy,” said the fisherman.
“A Moon Fairy,” she said.
“Farewell, Moon Fairy,” said the fisherman, and he made to take his way along Mio Strand.
At that, she snatched at the feather robe, but the fisherman held fast. The feathers fluttered out and dropped upon the sand.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said the fisherman. “You’ll have it all to pieces.”
“I am a Moon Fairy, and at dawn I came to play upon fair Mio Strand; without my feathers I cannot go back to my place, my home in High Heaven. Therefore give me my feathers.”
“No,” said the fisherman.
“Oh, fisherman, fisherman, give me my robe.”
“I couldn’t think of it,” said the fisherman.
At this, the maiden fell upon her knees and drooped like a lily in the heat of the day. With her arms, she held the fisherman about the knees, and as she clung to him beseeching him, he felt her tears upon his bare feet.
She wept and said:
“I am a bird, a frail bird, A wounded bird with broken wings, I must die far from home, For the Five Woes are come upon me. The red flowers in my hair are faded; My robe is made unclean; Faintness comes upon me; I cannot see—farewell, dear sight of my eyes; I have lost joy. Oh, blessed flying clouds, and happy birds, And golden dust in the wind, And flying thoughts and flying prayers! I have lost all joy.”
“Oh, stop,” said the fisherman, “you may have your robe.”
“Give,” she cried.
“Softly, softly,” said the fisherman. “Not so fast. I will give you your robe if you will dance for me here on Mio Strand.”
“What must I dance?” she asked.
“You must dance the mystic dance that makes the Palace of the Moon turn round.”
She said, “Give me my feathers and I will dance it. I cannot dance without my feathers.”
“What if you cheat me, what if you break your promise and fly immediately to the moon and no dancing at all?”
“Ah, fisherman,” she said, “the faith of a Fairy!”
Then he gave her the robe.
Now, when she had arrayed herself and flung back her hair, the Fairy began to dance upon the yellow sand. In and out of the feather robe crept her fairy feet. Slowly, softly, she went with folded wings and sang:
“Oh, the gold and silver mountains of the Moon, And the sweet Singing Birds of Heaven! They sing in the branches of the cinnamon tree, To entertain the thirty kings that are there. Fifteen kings in white garments, To reign for fifteen days. Fifteen kings in black garments, To reign for fifteen days. I hear the music of Heaven; Away, away, I fly to Fairy Places.”
At this, the Fairy spread her rainbow-colored wings, and the wind that they made fluttered the red flowers in her hair. Out streamed the robe of feathers bright and gay.
The Fairy laughed. Her feet touched the waves of the sea; her feet touched the grass and the flowers inshore. They touched the high branches of the pines and then the white clouds.
“Farewell, fisherman!” the Fairy cried, and he saw her no more.
Long, long he stood gazing up into the sky. At length, he stooped and picked up a little feather from the shore, a grey dove’s feather. He smoothed it out with his finger and hid it in his girdle.
Then he went to his home.