Japanese tale #45 – Hungry boy

hungry boy.jpg

Once upon a time, an old couple lived in a small house by the sea. It was a poor household but everybody around knew they were very sweet elderly people, always ready to help those in need.

A few years ago, they had even taken a young orphan, Maru, under their wings, and both of them treated him like their own grandson.

But time passed by, and soon bent back and trembling hands prevented the old couple to teach the boy their trade. And one day, they asked Maru to come, sit and listen:

– We love you oh so much but you know how old and weary we both are. We won’t be able to teach you properly all that we know. That’s why we have asked the fisherman’s chief to take you in has an apprentice.

Maru started to cry. His grandmother, her own eyes wet, smiled tenderly and hugged him saying:

– Shhh, don’t cry. The chief is a good man and he will treat you well. And you know, even of you will now live with him, this house will stay yours. Our door will always be open for you!

And all was said and done. A few days later, Maru took the path along the coast to go the fisherman’s, a few miles away.

Yet, that evening, as the old couple sat sadly in their now silent and empty house, someone knocked on the door.

Both started, alerted, none of them waiting any visitor. A small voice rang in the dusk:

– Grandma, grandpa, it’s me Maru!

The old woman got up as quickly as her cracking bones could and opened the door:

– Maru! Are you hurt?

The grandfather added, his voice worried:

– You were supposed to stay with your master. Has he not been good to you?

The boy smiled, eyes glittering with joy – and a hint of mischief:

– I missed you too much! My legs are young, I don’t mind walking back everyday to spend the the night with you!

The old couple felt their old hearts soared at those kind words. They embraced their child and led him in.

Joyfully, the little family shared a simple yet hearty meal. And the next day, Maru left before dawn to the fisherman’s house, his bundle full of fresh rice ball and dried fish.

Weeks went by quietly. Every evening, Maru arrived just after dark, sat and excitingly related his workday while wolfing down a proper home cooked meal. And every morning, he left for work with a light, jumping gait, eager to start his day.

Then one afternoon, as the old man was tending nets on the beach while nearby his wife picked up clams at low tide, Maru appeared from nowhere, running madly toward them, a big smile on his lips.

The boy threw himself into his grandfather’s arms, laughing between tears:

– It has been so long! I am so glad Master gave me a few days off. Oh I have missed you so, so much!

The old man chuckled:

– But we’ve not been apart that long, you were here just a few hours ago.

Maru took a few steps back, confused:

– What are you talking about? It’s the first time I have come back to you in ages.

The old couple froze. Both knew their boy like the back of their writhed hands, and he was not a liar. The grandmother cleared her throat and said:

– Oh my, but then who… what on earth have we welcomed and feed every night?

The old man furrowed his brows:

– We’re sure gonna find out!

They all returned the tiny house. As the sun lazily set, the grandmother put rice porridge on the stove. And they waited for their nighttime visitor.

Sure thing, as soon as the day disappeared, there was a knock on the door and a small cheerful voice chimed:

– Grandma, grandpa, it’s me Maru!

The true Maru gaped at this: the impostor did sound exactly like him!

The grandfather took his fishing rod and nodded at his wife. She seized her wooden pestle, breathed deeply and answered in a quiet tone:

– You must be famished dear! Come in, the door is opened.

The false Maru bursted in, excited as every hungry kids are. And stopped dead in his tracks in front of his twin:

– Oh! crap!

But, before the impostor could retreat and vanish in the night, the old woman closed the door. The grandfather poked the intruder with his fishing rod:

– What are you? Not my sweet grandson for sure though you tricked us good!

The false Maru face fell and he started bawling loudly:

– What are you doing? I am your sweet Maru!

The grandmother tsked and scowled at him:

– We don’t like liars in this house. When I think I have feeded and cared for you!

At the mention of food, the impostor gulped, stopping his dramatic crying in a flash. The false boy throw a pensive look around him, and said in an eager voice:

–  But if I am no liar, you’ll invite me at your table again, right? Right?

And before anyone could answer him, the strange boy turned on his heels, shifting. In a swirl, a tanuki appeared in his place. The small animal joined his front paws and bowed and begged, with bright puppy eyes:

– Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! But it is so hard living in the forest, going on an empty belly for days!

The grandfather scratched his head as the grandmother let out a big sigh:

– Well, dinner is ready anyway. And now you’re here, I guess you can join us again tonight.

The tanuki beamed:

– Thank you! Thank you! I love you grandma!

In a wink, the mischievous beast took place alongside a baffled Maru. Moments later, under the amused gaze of the old couple, boy and beast were chatting and bickering as if they had been raised together from birth.

And this is how a human child gained a tanuki twin brother.


Tanuki are probably the best shape shifters of Japanese folklore. Where Kitsune (fox) human personas are often described as outstandingly beautiful people, tanuki can become anyone – a shop owner, your neighbor, and even your own family! In some tales, those mischievous animals do so well they pose as humans fooling everyone for years!

The break between night and day symbolizes in many cultures the threshold between our world and the world of monsters. Without surprise, in many stories, the creature which appears at dusk will not be human. And it’s daylight which will chase those otherworldly beings back to their dens. Until the next night!

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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