Japanese tale #46 – The dragon bridge

dragon bridge.jpg

Once upon a time, there was a nobleman named Hidesato. He was a famous warrior, a keen archer, and his brave temper made him crave adventure.

He had lead many battles and defeated fierce beasts all across the kingdom. Yet, his audacious heart always carried him further on the road.

One day, after long hours of travel, Hidesato came by a wide lake. Deep green and serene as a mirror, it spread as far as the eye could see, but strangely no rafts glided over its tranquil waters.

The warrior stopped a bunch of weary farmers and asked:

– I am going back to the capital. Is there any way to cross the lake?

The peasants blinked in sheer horror and shook their heads, pleading:

– My lord, it is madness travelling in this area! If you follow that path, you’ll meet your doom! There is only one bridge here, and it’s a dragon’s lair!

This struck Hidesato’s curiosity. Without listening to the farmer’s’ advice, he went on his way, eager to see by himself if indeed a rare mythical creature lived in this remote place.

And soon enough, the bridge came in sight. It was a formidable structure, with hundred of vermilion pillars plunging into dark waters. It overlooked the widest part of the lake, the other bank so far away one could only guessed its presence.

Not a fowl flew, not a fish swam. Hidesato was not a man to ponder over things for too long. He shrugged, then stepped boldly onto the bridge.

On the floor, a frayed straw rope seemed to show the way. Yet, step after step, the warrior realised that what he had first thought to be a rope was getting bigger and bigger. Soon, straw turned to lacquered red scales.

The rope was the dragon’s tail.

Coiling tightly over and under the bridge, the magnificent beast seemed deeply asleep, its whole body trembling with each breath. Hidesato muttered:

– I have not come this far to run off like a coward…

And walking as quietly as he could, the noble man kept going, lightly jumping over paws big as trunks, avoiding quivering whiskers as thick as his hands.

Hidesato made the last few steps to the bank nearly running. But as soon as he set one foot on land, the bridge went shaking behind him. And the whole wooden structure crumbled down, immediately engulfed by dark waves.

Hidesato gasped and reached for his bow: in front of him, floating over the gushing waters, stood the most fearsome woman he had ever seen.

Brushing away deep red hair which flowed madly around the smooth antlers crowning her head, she shoot a smile too full of sharp teeth as her voice rumbled like thunder caught by dark clouds:

– Lower your bow, human! For I am daughter of the Dragon king, keeper of the lake, and I won’t harm you. For years I have waited for a brave soul who would dare to cross that bridge, one who would become my champion and slay my enemy.

Her golden gaze turned forlorn, stoking Hidesato chivalrous’ nature. She extended a refined clawed hand showing a looming mountain:

–  There lives Omukade, the centipede with blazing eyes. It has killed many of my kin and they say only a human will destroy it.

Hidesato  did not hesitate. He bowed solemnly, as utterly inconsiderate of danger:

– I will my lady, this I swear!

The warrior put on his armor, took his swords and bow and walked to the gloomy mountain. Over him, skies turned grey and heavy as earth grew stark and bleak. And before he had realised, the night had fallen, still and menacing.

The whole world quaked.

Holding his breath, Hidesato opened blind eyes in the dark, darting his bow all around. Beneath him, rocks rattled, pulsing.

In the distance, a sickening clattering sound rose, like hundred and hundred of swords scraping over wet stones. Fighting the cold shiver creeping up and down his spine, Hidesato took cover behind a boulder, his clammy hands tight around his weapon.

The clatter came closer and closer, and suddenly, night vanished. Blazing like wild fire, huge as temple bells, the eyes of Omukade swept the darkness away. Its was a gigantic beast, its carapace shining with a grim glow. A foul scent of putrid corpses left Hidesato gagging for air.

The centipede towered above the archer, hissing between sharp mandibles:

– The dragoness send a mere human after me? Oh little champion, beg, beg for mercy and I’ll might spare your miserable life.

Thunder rolled, tearing up the skies. Hidesato bent his bow and yelled like a madman as he loosed his arrow.

The first bounced on the beast’s armor. Clacking its hundred legs, Omukade rose ready for the kill. But, before it could attack, a red lightning struck from the heavens. Coiling hard around her nemesis, the dragoness had sprang into battle, all fangs and claws.

As the seething giants fought, Hidesato aimed again and let a second arrow loose, without success. Cursing, the warrior dodged a whipping tail. Suddenly, as he ducked under armored legs, he recalled what his old wet nurse said:

“Young master, if a centipede bite you, spit on it. Those creatures loathe human saliva.”

Hidesato seized a third arrow and put the head into his mouth. Then, standing tall, he bent his bow and yelled:

– Right here, Omukade!

As the fuming monster turned his flaming eyes towards him, the archer let his arrow free. And this time, it did not bounced: the projectile pierced the carapace, tearing it as it was no more than silk. Blazing eyes closed forever and night fell again.

Rain started to drizzle, healing the earth, as the dragoness uncoiled, taking her human form back. Her fine gown was torn and bloodied, yet she was smiling, a wild glimmer in her eyes:

– You did well champion, and my kin is now indebted to you. As a thank, I will let you stay in my palace under the lake to rest and feast to your heart’s content.

She extended her clawed hands and a gush a mist blanketed them. When he opened his eyes, a stunned Hidesato discovered an amazing palace of coral walls and mother of pearl floors.

They say Hidesato drifted in the dragon palace for more than a day. And when he left, the grateful dragoness gifted him true treasure: clear ringing bells, a magical cooking pot, an enchanted roll of silk, and a bag of rice always miraculously full.

And the world never forgot his reckless bravery.


Notes:

Fujiwara no Hidesato is a true historical figure whose fate intertwined with mythical stories. Today’s tale is better know as popular story “My lord bag of rice” which follows the very traditional “Let’s kill the big bad monster” setup.

Here the evil creature is a giant youkai named Omukade, a monstrous centipede which is said to have lurked on Mount Mikami. In Japan, centipedes are always depicted as vile and malicious, embodying dark chthonic forces. Those insects are known for their highly painful bite, and a folk belief said spitting over the wound would make the venom disappeared (spoiler: it doesn’t).

The dragon (or snake) on the bridge is a famous motif. Asian dragons have always been associated which water (be it sea, rivers, rain, or lakes). People even thought dragons lived coiled into clouds or in breathtaking underwater palaces. In the tale “My lord bag of rice”, the dragon is sometimes a lady sometimes Ryujin, the sea dragon king himself. But true to their auspicious nature, both always gives the hero treasures symbolizing plenty and abundance.

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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