The Wise Old Woman
Traditional Japanese folktale
retold by Yoshiko Uchida
Many long years ago, there lived an arrogant and cruel young lord who ruled over a small village in the western hills of Japan. “I have no use for old people in my village,” he said haughtily. “They are neither useful nor able to work for a living. I therefore decree that anyone over seventy-one must be banished from the village and left in the mountains to die.”
“What a dreadful decree! What a cruel and unreasonable lord we have,” the people of the village murmured. The lord fearfully punished anyone who disobeyed him, and so villagers who turned seventy-one were tearfully carried into the mountains, never to return.
Gradually there were fewer and fewer old people in the village and soon they disappeared altogether. Then the young lord was pleased. “What a fine village of young, healthy, and hard-working people I have,” he bragged. “Soon it will be the finest village in all of Japan.”
Now, there lived in this village a kind young farmer and his aged mother. They were poor, but the farmer was good to his mother, and the two of them lived happily together. However, as the years went by, the mother grew older. Before long she reached the terrible age of seventy-one.
“If only I could somehow deceive the cruel lord,” the farmer thought. However, there were records in the village books, and everyone knew that his mother had turned seventy-one.
Each day the son put off telling his mother that he must take her into the mountains to die, but the people of the village began to talk. The farmer knew that if he did not take his mother away soon, the lord would send his soldiers, and throw them both into a dark dungeon to die a terrible death.
“Mother——” he would begin, as he tried to tell her what he must do, but he could not go on.
Then one day the mother herself spoke of the lord’s dread decree. “Well, my son,” she said, “the time has come for you to take me to the mountains. We must hurry before the lord sends his soldiers for you.” She did not seem worried at all that she must go to the mountains to die.
“Forgive me, dear mother, for what I must do,” the farmer said sadly. The next morning he lifted his mother to his shoulders, and set off on the steep path toward the mountains. Up and up he climbed, until the trees clustered close, and the path was gone. There was no longer even the sound of birds, and they heard only the soft wail of the wind in the trees. The son walked slowly, for he could not bear to think of leaving his old mother in the mountains. On and on he climbed, not wanting to stop, and leave her behind. Soon, he heard his mother breaking off small twigs from the trees that they passed.
“Mother, what are you doing?” he asked.
“Do not worry, my son,” she answered gently. “I am just marking the way so you will not get lost returning to the village.”
The son stopped. “Even now you are thinking of me?” he asked, wonderingly.
The mother nodded. “Of course, my son,” she replied. “You will always be in my thoughts. How could it be otherwise?”
At that, the young farmer could bear it no longer. “Mother, I cannot leave you in the mountains to die all alone,” he said. “We are going home and no matter what the lord does to punish me, I will never desert you again.”
So they waited until the sun had set, and a lone star crept into the silent sky. Then, in the dark shadows of night, the farmer carried his mother down the hill and they returned quietly to their little house. The farmer dug a deep hole in the floor of his kitchen, and made a small room where he could hide his mother. From that day, she spent all her time in the secret room, and the farmer carried meals to her there. The rest of the time, he was careful to work in the fields, and act as though he lived alone. In this way, for almost two years he kept his mother safely hidden, and no one in the village knew that she was there.
Then one day there was a terrible commotion among the villagers, for Lord Higa of the town beyond the hills threatened to conquer their village, and make it his own.
“Only one thing can spare you,” Lord Higa announced. “Bring me a box containing one thousand ropes of ash and I will spare your village.”
The cruel young lord quickly gathered together all the wise men of his village. “You are men of wisdom,” he said. “Surely you can tell me how to meet Lord Higa’s demands, so our village can be spared.”
The wise men shook their heads. “It is impossible to make even one rope of ash, sire,” they answered. “How can we ever make one thousand?”
“Fools!” the lord cried angrily. “What good is your wisdom if you cannot help me now?”
And he posted a notice in the village square offering a great reward of gold to any villager who could help him save their village.
All the people in the village whispered, “Surely, it is an impossible thing, for ash crumbles at the touch of the finger. How could anyone ever make a rope of ash?” They shook their heads and sighed, “Alas, alas, we must be conquered by yet another cruel lord.”
The young farmer, too, supposed that this must be, and he wondered what would happen to his mother if a new lord even more terrible than their own came to rule over them.
When his mother saw the troubled look on his face, she asked, “Why are you so worried, my son?”
The farmer told her of the impossible demand made by Lord Higa if the village was to be spared, but his mother did not seem troubled at all. Instead she laughed softly, and said, “Why, that is not such an impossible task. All one has to do is soak ordinary rope in salt water, and dry it well. When it is burned, it will hold its shape, and there is your rope of ash! Tell the villagers to hurry and find one thousand pieces of rope.”
The farmer shook his head in amazement. “Mother, you are wonderfully wise,” he said, and he rushed to tell the young lord what he must do.
“You are wiser than all the wise men of the village,” the lord said when he heard the farmer’s solution, and he rewarded him with many pieces of gold. The thousand ropes of ash were quickly made and the village was spared.
In a few days, however, there was another great commotion in the village as Lord Higa sent another threat. This time he sent a log with a small hole that curved and bent seven times through its length. He demanded that a single strand of silk be threaded through the hole. “If you cannot perform this task,” the Higa threatened, “I shall come to conquer your village.”
The young lord hurried once more to his wise men, but they all shook their heads in bewilderment. “A needle cannot bend its way through such curves,” they moaned. “Again we are faced with an impossible demand.”
“And again you are stupid fools!” the lord said, stamping his foot impatiently. He then posted a second notice in the village square asking the villagers for their help.
Once more the young farmer hurried with the problem to his mother in her secret room.
“Why, that is not so difficult,” his mother said with a quick smile. “Put some sugar at one end of the hole. Then tie a silk thread to an ant, and put it at the other end. It will weave his way through the curves to get to the sugar, and it will take the silk thread with him.”
“Mother, you are remarkable!” the son cried, and he hurried off to the lord with the solution to the second problem.
Once more the lord commended the young farmer, and rewarded him with many pieces of gold. “You are a brilliant man and you have saved our village again,” he said gratefully.
Yet the lord’s troubles were not over even then, for a few days later Lord Higa sent still another demand. “This time you will undoubtedly fail, and then I shall conquer your village,” he threatened. “Bring me a drum that sounds without being beaten.”
“But that is not possible,” sighed the people of the village. “How can anyone make a drum sound without beating it?”
This time the wise men held their heads in their hands and moaned, “It is hopeless. It is hopeless. This time Lord Higa will conquer us all.”
The young farmer hurried home breathlessly. “Mother, Mother, we must solve another terrible problem or Lord Higa will conquer our village!” He quickly told his mother about the impossible drum.
His mother, however, smiled and answered, “Why, this is the easiest of them all. Make a drum with sides of paper, and put a bumblebee inside. As it tries to escape, it will beat itself against the paper, and you will have a drum that sounds without being beaten.”
The young farmer was amazed at his mother’s wisdom. “You are far wiser than any of the wise men of the village,” he said, and he hurried to tell the young lord how to meet Lord Higa’s third demand.
When the lord heard the answer, he was greatly impressed. “Surely a young man like you cannot be wiser than all my wise men,” he said. “Tell me honestly, who has helped you solve all these difficult problems?”
The young farmer could not lie. “My lord,” he began slowly, “for the past two years I have broken the law of the land. I have kept my aged mother hidden beneath the floor of my house, and it is she who solved each of your problems and saved the village from Lord Higa.”
He trembled as he spoke, for he feared the lord’s displeasure and rage. Surely now the soldiers would be summoned to throw him into the dark dungeon. Instead, when he glanced fearfully at the lord, he saw that the young ruler was not angry at all. Rather, he was silent and thoughtful, for at last he realized how much wisdom and knowledge old people possess.
“I have been very wrong,” he said finally. “I must ask the forgiveness of your mother and of all my people. Never again will I demand that the old people of our village be sent to the mountains to die. They will be treated with the respect and honor they deserve, and share with us the wisdom of their years.”
So it was. From that day, the villagers were no longer forced to abandon their parents in the mountains, and the village became once more a happy, cheerful place in which to live. The terrible Lord Higa stopped sending his impossible demands, and no longer threatened to conquer them, for he too was impressed. “Even in such a small village there is much wisdom,” he declared, “and its people should be allowed to live in peace.”
That is exactly what the farmer and his mother and all the people of the village did for all the years thereafter.