Friday, May 05, 2006

The Acorns and the Wildcat [Miyazawa Kenji]

One Saturday evening, Ichiro received a curious postcard. It said:
September 19th
Mr. Kaneta Ichiro,
I hop you are doing fyne. Tomoroww, we have trublesom trial, so come pleese. No wepons pleese.
From, the wildcat
The handwriting was terrible, and the ink so thick that it stuck to his fingers. But Ichiro was very happy. He carefully put the postcard in his school bag, and jumped and leapt about his house. Even after he went to bed he thought of nothing but the wildcat’s meowish face and what the troublesome trial would be like, and couldn’t fall asleep until very late.

When he did wake up, it was fully morning. Going outside, the mountains around him stood up as if they had been made just then, and lined up under a perfectly blue sky. Ichiro hurried to finish his breakfast, and then, alone, climbed the river valley road upstream.

A clear wind whooshed and the chestnut tree scattered a rain of nuts. Ichiro looked up at the chestnut tree and asked, “Chestnut tree! Hullo, chestnut tree! Did the wildcat pass by?”

The chestnut tree quieted down some, and answered, “The wildcat? Early this morning he rushed by in a wagon, headed east.”

“East? That would be the direction I’m headed in. How strange. Well, I’ll just try going on a little further. Thank you, chestnut tree!” The chestnut tree remained silent, and dropped another rain of nuts.

Ichiro traveled a little further and came to the Fluting Falls. The Fluting Falls was a white stone cliff with a small hole in its middle. Water rushed out of the hole with a sound like a flute, and formed a roaring waterfall in the valley below. Ichiro faced the falls and shouted, “Hullo, hullo! Fluting Falls! Did the wildcat pass by?”

The falls whistled an answer: “The wildcat? Just now he rushed by in a wagon, headed west.”

“West? That’s the direction my home is. How strange. Well, I’ll just try going on a little further. Thank you, Fluting Falls!” The falls resumed blowing its flute.

Ichiro traveled a little further and came across the beech tree. Underneath it were numerous white mushrooms forming a strange band, playing don-don-da-DON, don-don-da-DON. Ichiro crouched down and asked, “Hullo, mushrooms! Did the wildcat pass by?”

The mushrooms answered, “The wildcat? Early this morning he rushed by in a wagon, headed south.”

Ichiro cocked his head. “South? That would be towards those mountains. How strange. Well, I’ll just try going on a little further. Thank you, mushrooms!” But the mushrooms were already busy reforming their strange band: Don-don-da-DON, don-don-da-DON.

Ichiro went a little further and came across a squirrel, leaping about the branches of a walnut tree. Ichiro held up a hand to stop it, and asked, “Hullo, squirrel! Did the wildcat pass by?”

The squirrel put its hand to its brow, and peering down at Ichiro answered, “The wildcat? Early this morning when it was still dark he rushed by in a wagon, headed south.”

“That’s the second person who’s said that he went south. How strange. Well, I’ll just try going on a little further. Thank you, squirrel!” But the squirrel was already gone. The only thing Ichiro could see was the topmost walnut tree branch waving, and a flash from a leaf in the beech tree next to it.

Ichiro went a little further, and the river valley road thinned and disappeared. A new small road appeared on the south side of the river, leading into the forest of pitch black nutmeg trees. Ichiro began to climb the new road. The nutmeg branches were blackly interlaced, and not a sliver of blue sky was visible. The road turned steeply uphill. Ichiro continued climbing, his face bright red and dripping beads of sweat. A sudden brightness hurt his eyes, and he found himself in a beautiful golden meadow of grasses that whispered in the wind. He was surrounded by the forest of magnificent olive-colored nutmeg trees.

In the middle of the meadow was a short, oddly-shaped man. He was crouched down and holding a leather whip, and staring silently at Ichiro. Ichiro approached him slowly, and stopped near him, surprised. The man had only one good eye, the other one solid white and twitching. He wore an odd overcoat or jacket. His legs were horribly bent like a goat’s, and his feet malformed like a paddle used for scooping rice. Though the man scared Ichiro a little, Ichiro stayed as calm as possible and asked, “Do you know the wildcat?”

The man looked sideways at Ichiro, and twisting his mouth into a grin answered, “Sir Wildcat will be back shortly. You must be Ichiro.”

Ichiro was frightened, and backed up a step. “That’s right, I’m Ichiro. How do you know my name?”

The odd man grinned. “So you got the postcard?”

“I did. That’s why I’m here.”

“The writing was very bad,” said the man, looking down with a sad expression.

Ichiro felt sorry for him and said, “I thought the writing was quite good.”

The man looked pleased and began breathing heavily. His face turned red all the way to his ears, and he opened the neck of his kimono to let the air in.

“Was the handwriting good, too?” he asked.

Ichiro couldn’t help but laugh, and answered, “It was very good! I’ll bet even a fifth-grader couldn’t write so well!”

The man suddenly made a sour face. “Fifth grade? You mean fifth grade in elementary school?”

His voice sounded so weak and pitiable that Ichiro hurried to say, “No, I meant the fifth grade in college.”

The man was again pleased, and smiled so largely that his mouth seemed to cover his entire face. “I’m the one that wrote that postcard!”

Ichiro stifled a laugh, and asked “Just who are you?”

The man suddenly became serious. “I drive the wagon for Sir Wildcat,” he said.

The wind whooshed, and waves spread through the grass, and the driver bowed deeply. Thinking this odd, Ichiro turned around and saw the wildcat standing there, wearing yellow silk robes and with perfectly round green eyes. Ichiro noticed that the wildcat did indeed have pointed ears. The wildcat made a quick bow. Ichiro returned the wildcat’s greeting. “Hello, there. Thank you for the postcard.”

The wildcat pulled a whisker taut, and stuck out his belly. “Greetings, and welcome,” he said. “I’ve brought you here for your advice. There’s been quite the troublesome argument for three days now, and I’m stuck as judge of the trial. Please, take a seat and relax. The acorns should be here any minute. This trial comes back to bother me every year. “ The wildcat pulled a box of cigarettes from his robe and stuck one in his mouth. “Would you like one?” he asked, offering the box to Ichiro.

Surprised, Ichiro answered, “No thank you.”

The wildcat laughed, and said, “Right, I suppose you’re a bit young, still.” He scratched a match alight, and scrunched his face as he blew out blue smoke. The wildcat’s driver stood straight at attention, but it was obvious from the tears in his eyes how much he was fighting his desire for one of the cigarettes.

Just then, Ichiro heard a sound like crunching salt. Surprised, he crouched down and saw round golden things scattered about and shining in the grass. Looking closely, he saw that they were acorns in red trousers, at least three hundred of them. They were all shouting something: Waah, waah, waah, waah.

“Ah, there they are. They swarm in like a bunch of ants. Hey, hurry up and ring the bell,” the wildcat shouted at the wagon driver, throwing away his cigarette. “The sunlight is good over here today, so cut down this grass.” The wagon driver hurried, taking a large sickle from his belt and cutting down the grass in front of the wildcat. The acorns came bounding from among the grass in all directions, glinting in the sun.

The wagon driver rang a bell, ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling. The ringing and dinging echoed through the nutmeg forest, and the golden acorns quieted a little. At some point the wildcat had changed into long, black robes, and had seated himself in a stately manner across from the acorns. Ichiro thought that the acorns looked like people come to pay homage to the Great Buddha of Nara. The driver cracked his whip two or three times: hyuuu-bang! hyuuu-bang! The acorns were beautiful, shining under the clear, blue sky.

“This trial has been going on for three days now,” said the wildcat, a little nervous but still speaking in a pompous voice. “Why don’t you all just give up and get along?”

The acorns all shouted out: “No! No! Not until you agree that the acorns with pointed heads are the best! And that I have the most pointed head!”

“No, that’s not right! The round acorns are the best! And I’m the roundest acorn there is!”

“The biggest ones are the best! And I’m the biggest one, so I’m the best!”

“What are you talking about? I’m much bigger than you! Even the judge agreed with that yesterday!”

“That’s not it at all. It’s height that matters! Taller is better!”

“Whoever’s best at wrestling is best! Let’s all wrestle to see who’s best.”

All of them were buzzing, the mass of them like a bee hive that had been poked with a stick. All was chaos, and no one could be heard. The wildcat shouted, “Be quiet! Where do you think you are? Silence, silence!” The driver cracked his whip hyuuu-bang! again, and the acorns finally quieted down. The wildcat twirled a whisker tight, and said, “This trial has been going on for three days now. Why don’t you all just give up and get along?”

The acorns all shouted out: “No! No! Not until you agree that the acorns with pointed heads are the best!”

“That’s not right! Round ones are the best!”

“No, big ones are!”

And on and on and on, until no one could be understood. The wildcat shouted, “Silence! Quiet! Where do you think you are? Shut up! Shut up!” The driver cracked his whip hyuuu-bang!, and the wildcat twirled a whisker tight. “This is already the third day of this trial. Why don’t you all just give up and get along?”

“No! No! Ones with pointed heads…” and on and on and on.

The wildcat shouted: “Silence! Quiet! Where do you think you are? Shut up! Shut up!”

The driver cracked his whip hyuuu-bang!, and the acorns fell silent. The wildcat spoke softly to Ichiro. “Do you see? What should we do?”

Ichiro laughed and answered, “You should tell them something I heard in a sermon: That the most foolish of them, the poorest of them, the most wicked of them is the best.”

The wildcat nodded with understanding, and smugly opened the collar of his robes, showing the yellow silk underneath. He pronounced his judgment. “Very well, then. Silence, now, I’m pronouncing judgment. The worst of you, the most foolish, the poorest, the most inept, the most weak-minded of you is the best.”

The acorns fell silent. Totally silent, and still.

The wildcat took off his black robes and, wiping the sweat from his brow, took Ichiro’s hand. The driver was overjoyed as well, and cracked his whip five or six times, hyuuu-bang! hyuuu-hyuuu-bang!

“Thank you very much,” the wildcat said. “You’ve brought this terrible trial to an end after just a minute and a half. Please, from now on I hope that you will become an honorary judge in my court. Please come again if I send you another postcard. I will reward you each time you come.”
“Certainly. But you don’t need to reward me.”

“No, you must accept your reward. My reputation depends on it. I’ll address the postcards to Kaneta Ichiro, and have them sent from ‘The Court’. Is that acceptable?”

“Sure, that’s fine,” said Ichiro. The wildcat stood there for a time curling his whiskers and blinking his eyes, and finally seemed to come to a decision, saying, “And how about if in the future, when I have need of you, on the postcard I will write that on the following day you must report to the court?”

Ichiro laughed. “Hmmm, that sounds a bit odd. Maybe you shouldn’t write that.”

The wildcat seemed to take offense at this, and stood there looking down, twisting his whisker with a disappointed look on his face. Finally he recovered himself, and said, “Well, I’ll just keep the wording the same as before, then. Now, as to your reward for today. Which would you rather have? A box of golden acorns, or the head of a salted salmon?”

“I would rather have the golden acorns, please.”

The wildcat seemed relieved that Ichiro hadn’t chosen the salmon head, and called to the driver, “Bring a cup of acorns! If we don’t have enough gold ones, mix in some gold plated ones! Hurry!”

The driver scooped up the acorns, and shouted “There is exactly one box full!”

The wildcat’s robes flapped in the breeze. The wildcat stretched fully up, closed his eyes, and said through a half-yawn, “Prepare the wagon!” Oddly-shaped gray horses pulled out a wagon made from a huge white mushroom. “Let me give you a ride home,” he said. They boarded the wagon as the driver loaded the box of acorns.


The wagon left the meadow. The trees and brush wavered like smoke. Ichiro looked at the gold acorns, and the wildcat stared vacantly off into the distance. As the wagon advanced the acorns lost their luster, and when it stopped they had become just plain brown acorns. The wildcat’s yellow robes and the driver and the mushroom wagon all disappeared, and Ichiro was standing in front of his home holding his box of acorns.

The wildcat never again sent him a postcard. From time to time Ichiro wondered if he should have told the wildcat that he could command him to report to court.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Acorns photo courtesy of Many Cats 4 Me from Flickr. Thank you for releasing this photo under a Creative Commons license!