Tales of Old Japan
The Tounge-Cut Sparrow
THERE was once an old man who had a wife with a very bad temper. She did not have any children, and would not take the trouble to adopt a son. So for a little pet he kept a tiny sparrow, and fed it with great care. The woman, not satisfied with scolding her husband, hated the sparrow. Her temper was especially bad on wash days, when her back and knees were strained over the low tub, which rested on the ground.
One day while the man was gone to his work in the rice-fields, the wife was washing the clothes, and had made some starch, and set it in a red wooden bowl to cool. While her back was turned, the sparrow hopped down on the edge of the howl, and pecked at some of the starch. In a rage the woman seized a pair of scissors and cut off the tip of the sparrow's tongue. Flinging the bird in the air she cried out, "Now be off with you!" So the poor sparrow, all bleeding, flew away.
When the man came back and found the bird gone, he made a great ado. He asked his wife, and she told him what she had done and why. The sorrowful old man grieved sorely for his pet, and after looking in every place and calling it by name, gave it up as lost.
Days and weeks and months sped by, and the man was still older and more wrinkled, when one day while wandering over the mountains he again met his sparrow. "Good-morning!" he cried; and to his surprise and delight the sparrow answered him. The clipped tongue had given the bird power of speech. Then each bowed low and made mutual inquiries as to health. The sparrow begged the man to visit his humble abode, and meet his wife and two daughters.
The man went with him and found a nice little house with a bamboo garden, tiny waterfall, stepping stone and everything complete. Then Mrs. Sparrow brought in slices of sugar-jelly, rock-candy, sweet potato custard, and a bowl of hot starch sprinkled with sugar, and a pair of chopsticks on a tray. Miss Sparrow, the elder daughter, brought the tea-caddy and tea-pot, and in a snap of the fingers had a good cup of tea ready, which she offered on a tray, kneeling.
"Please help yourself, The refreshments are very poor, but I hope you will excuse our plainness," said Mother Sparrow. The delighted old man, wondering in himself at such a polite family of sparrows, ate heartily, and drank several cups of tea. Finally, on being pressed, he remained all night.
For several days he enjoyed a visit at the sparrow's home. He looked at the landscapes and the moonlight, feasted to his heart's content, and played checkers with the little daughter. In the evening Mrs. Sparrow would bring out the refreshments and the wine, and seat the guest on a silken cushion, while she played the guitar. Mr. Sparrow and his two daughters danced, sang, and made merry until the man leaning on the velvet arm-rest forgot his cares, his old limbs and his wife's tongue, and felt like a youth again.
But on the fifth day he said he must go home. His host was sorry to hear this, but brought out two baskets made of plaited rattan, such as are used in traveling, carried on men's shoulders. Placing them before his guest, he said, "Please do me the honor to accept a parting gift, Take either one you prefer."
Now one basket was heavy, and the other light. The old man, not being greedy, said he would take the lighter one. So with many thanks and bows and good-byes, he set off homeward.
He reached his hut safely, but instead of a kind welcome his wife began to scold him for being away so long. He begged her to be quiet, and telling of his visit to the sparrows, opened the basket, while the scowling beldame held her tongue, out of sheer curiosity.
Oh, what a splendid sight! There were gold and silver coin, and gems, and coral, and crystal, and amber, and a never-failing bag of money, and an invisible coat and hat, and rolls of books, and all manner of precious things. It seemed that they never would reach the bottom of that magic basket.
At the sight of so much wealth, the woman's scowl changed to a smile of greedy joy. "I'll go right off and get another present from the sparrows," said she.
Her husband plead with her not to go, saying that they already had more than enough to last them the rest of their lives. But she would not listen to him. Binding on her straw scandals, and tucking up her skirts, she seized her staff and set off on the road.
Arriving at the sparrow's house, she began to flatter Mr. Sparrow by soft speeches. Of course the polite bird invited her into his house, but nothing but a cup of tea was offered her, while his wife and daughters kept out of sight. Seeing that she was not going to get any good-bye gift, she made bold to ask for one. The sparrow then brought out and set before her two baskets, one heavy and the other light. She eagerly seized the heavier one, without so much as saying "thank you," and carried it back in triumph with her. When she got home she opened it, expecting all kinds of riches.
But the moment she took off the lid, a horrible cuttle-fish rushed at her, a skeleton poked his bony fingers in her face, and a long, hairy serpent, with a big head and lolling tongue, sprang out and coiled around her, cracking her bones, and squeezing out her breath, till she died.
After the good man had buried his wife, he adopted a son to comfort his old age, and with his treasures lived at ease all his days.
The text came from:
Fairy Tales of Old Japan. London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1911.