Japanese tale #17 – A mysterious birth

fox-birth

Once upon a time was a very skilled midwife going by the name of Chiyo. It was a tiny old lady, with a wrinkled face and a crooked back which hurt during rainy days. But her hands were strong and her voice calm and steady.

Nobody had counted how many babies had been delivered thanks to her, but every villagers around knew what to do when expectant mothers faced a difficult childbirth: call for Chiyo.

One night, as Chiyo was sleeping soundly like only elderly persons can, someone came knocking loudly at her door.

– Help, oh please I need your help!

The old woman awoke with a start. She had heard this kind of distress in the voices of men many times before.

When she opened the door, a well dressed man she had never seen before fell to her knees, bowing and pleading:

– It’s my daughter-in-law! It’s her first birth and something’s not right! Oh I beg you, please help us!

The distraught man was sobbing at her feet. Chiyo had seen many like him and time had taught her what to do. She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder:

– Just calm down. I’m gonna fetch my things. Tell me, where is your house?

The man was up in a flash:

– I’ll guide you.

Chiyo dressed as quickly as she could with her aching old limbs and took her medicine bag, full of herbs and fresh towels. She could hear the stranger pacing in front of her door. As soon as she was ready, he said:

– I’ll carry you, we’ll go faster this way.

And the man took off running. Riding piggyback, Chiyo could not believe how fast he moved. The slumbering fields quickly disappeared and they entered the dark forest. Feeling dizzy, she closed her eyes.

A few minutes later, the man slowed and gently put her back on her feet. Chiyo’s jaw dropped: in front of her stood the most incredible house she had ever seen, smooth wood and precious gold shining in the lantern light.

Yet she had no time to gape. A young man, lines of worry on his dashing face, came to her:

– You came! Thank you my lady!

He swiftly took her bag and grabbed her hand, leading her into the mansion.

They crossed luxurious rooms after luxurious rooms, full of anxious manservants who all bowed deeply to her in the candlelight. Chiyo was not accustomed to such deference and muttered:

– I am but a midwife…

Then, at the end of a long corridor, a lady in waiting lead them to the mistress’s room, crowded by fidgety noble women and maids. The lady herself, pale in her white kimono, was tragically beautiful. Laying on a futon, she gave Chiyo a trembling smile.

The midwife put one steady hand on her belly, and a tender one on the lady’s shoulder:

– It’s gonna be alright my darling. Let’s do this together okay?

The lady nodded, a bit braver than moments before.

Chiyo ordered the maids to bring hot water. She put medicine herbs to burn to purify the air and went on with her work.

– Breath darling. Yes like that. Squeeze my hand if you need, I am right here with you.

And then, hours later, a baby’s cry finally pierced the night.

– Look sweetheart, your baby girl is here!

Chiyo was surprised to see the lady’s husband entering the room. Not caring about the blood, he embraced his wife tightly before smiling at the infant wrapped in an embroidered kimono. The little family was a truly moving sight and Chiyo caught many women smiling brightly.

Tears in his eyes, the newly grandfather bowed to Chiyo:

– We will never be able to repay you what you did for us all tonight.

He gently lead her to a gorgeous room where a feast and a comfortable bedding were waiting.

– Our home is yours. A bath awaits you too. Please ask if you require anything.

After this long night, Chiyo was indeed famished. She bathed and ate and fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.

The morning after, the first thing she saw was a butterfly fluttering merrily above her. Startled, Chiyo got up.

The luxurious house was gone. In its place, stood a little hut made of fresh branches and leaves. Everywhere on the ground, many foxes tracks went around, pacing to and fro.

The midwife took her bag and froze, surprised: one single silver coin shone under the morning sun. And as she started to walk toward the village, muttering under her breath, she was surprised to feel that her back and old knees didn’t hurt as much as usual.

Later on, when she told her strange story to the villagers, they simply all nodded:

– You are a good midwife. No wonder even the foxes knew who to call when they needed help!


Notes:

In the past weeks, we’ve seen some examples of Kitsune’s personna: the trickster here and there and the divine here. Today’s story shows another recurrent motif: the grateful youkai.

Kitsune are especially prone to those actions as they are often described as very human-like. If some foxes embody the worst of humanity (spite, cruelty etc.), others show its best: love, humility, kindness and gratefulness. Like many western tales, those stories are created to give a moral compass to children (and grown-up!).

Foxes are social animals and usually monogamous, picking a partner for life. Large group (a skulk, with one dominant couple and around 5 to 10 other adults) is rare but can happen if the territory is rich. Same goes in youkai stories. In fact, if some Kitsune are lonely creatures, others are depicted as whole households – often very much like daimyo lords’ ones. This can be seen in the kitsune no yomeiri (fox’s wedding) tales but also in more domestic stories like today’s.

In times where obstetric and surgery were still unknown, childbirth was a very dangerous moment for women. Japan had many superstitions associated with pregnancy and labour – some still followed today. Special herbs were burned to ward off evil away and a miko could attend to “catch” the lingering ghosts attracted by the blood (blood was highly taboo). If you wish to learn more, this article about childbirth during Heian period is very interesting.

On a side note, kimono embroidery on a kid’s kimono is still today a popular protective charm: it’s called semamori.

I’ve named the midwife Chiyo which, when written with those kanji 千代, means “thousand generations”. A fitting name considering her job!

[sources images:  1 / 2 / 3]

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