Once upon a time, deep in the heart of Japan, there was a small village which stood near a huge lake. In such a remote area, of dark forests and treacherous rocks, the quiet lake was a true blessing.
Calm, clear water spread as far as the eye could see. This serene world, made of greys and blues, was only disrupted by the smooth glide of waterbirds and the rippling rings of fishes.
The small village was a fishermen community. All got up long before dawn, laying out nets and creels. And just at the break of day, silent barques slid effortlessly on the lake, ready for catch.
One morning, fishermen woke up in a cloud. A thick white haze was shrouding the waters, enfolding their whole universe in an eerie beauty.
Villagers got together on the landing. One man shivered:
– We know mist, but this? I’ve got goosebumps just looking at it!
A woman agreed vigorously:
– You’re right! Sure thing, I won’t get out today: I don’t wanna get lost!
And nodding to each other, all fishermen went back home. All, but one.
The man shrugged:
– Be damned if some smoke frightens me. I’ll just keep close to the banks.
And the fisherman took his barque out.
At this hour, the lake was usually bustling with life. Animals came drinking, frogs sang and you could hear birds’ fluttering wings.
But the fisherman was only surrounded by silence.
Something moved in the haze.
Ringing laughters echoed in the dawn.
The fisherman quickly moored his barque and dove between reeds. Quiet as a shadow, he followed the bell-like sound.
Eight silhouettes appeared in the mist. The man gasped.
Maidens were bathing in the lake. Indifferent to the freezing cold despite their nakedness, they chattered cheerily in a foreign tongue, strange yet musical.
With graceful gestures, the ladies were combing their long hair, black as the deepest waters. They all had otherworldly pale skins, white as a swan’s plumage.
The fisherman was afraid any move would catch the unearthly being’s attention. His eyes darted all around, searching for an escape.
Between tendrils of haze, he suddenly advised a strange cloth hanging on a pine branch just above him.
Before he had realised, the man’s curious hands had caught it.
It was the most incredible thing his hardened fingers had ever touched. Soft as goose down, thousands and thousands of feathers had been intricately weaved into a robe. Light as the air, the amazing fabric shone with ever-changing colors under the first rays of sun.
A piercing shriek shattered the fisherman’s reverie.
In a gust of wind, the maidens rushed out of the lake. They seized their cloaks and vanished in the blink of an eye.
Only one lady remained standing tall on the bank, still as a statue.
– Give it back.
The man could not stop trembling yet alone uttered a single word.
– Please, give it back.
She smiled and took a step forward.
The fisherman backed up hastily, crawling in the mud, holding the feathered robe tight against him like an armor.
The maiden arched a brow but her smiled did not faltered and she took another step.
– Please? I need it to return to the skies.
The man gulped.
She took a step and another and soon she was towering him. She extended her hand:
– I’ll dance for you.
The fisherman was completely mesmerized. Trembling still, he slowly handed her the cloak.
The maiden chirped happily and dressed herself in a fluid movement. She smiled at him and, true to her word, she started to dance.
Lithe and smooth, she seemed to float over earth and water alike, her feathered cloak trailing behind her like a kite in the wind. She turned and turned, playing with ribbons of haze and rings of water. And soon she disappeared into mist.
Entranced, the fisherman had lost all notion of time.
Shaking, he got into his barque and headed back to the village.
His distressed friends had a hard time believing his story. But, they say that after this event, this remote region was blessed with plenty for centuries. All thanks to the heaven maiden’s dance.
Celestial maidens (tennin or tenshi) are known across all Asia. In Buddhist tradition, they are benevolent heavenly beings, dressed in feathered robes, which can be loosely compared to the Western concept of angels.
This tale is a pretty famous one in Japan & China. I’ve read several versions of it and this one is by far my favourite. Many others include the fisherman tricking the maiden into marrying him, true to the swan-maiden tale motif which can be found all across the world.
I must admit the non-consensual and patriarchal aura of those stories bugs me. Many exist with the maiden choosing her destiny (be it staying/ leaving/ hiding the true) and the maiden… can also be a man. Yet sadly those are not the versions usually published in tales books!
This version of The feathered cloak, hagoromo in Japanese, is based on the auspicious noh play of the same name (you can watch a rendition here) at the exception that the play is said to happen by the sea, in Miho no Matsubara. It is always quite strange to see a celestial dance embodied by the very earthy and static noh theater! In my mind, the tenshi dance is far much lighter and watery, much like Chinese water sleeve dance (水袖舞 – shui xiu wu).