Japanese tale #65 – The old charcoal burners

charcoal burners.jpg

Once upon a time, an old man and his beloved wife lived a humble life on a distant mountainside.

For years, they had made their living of charcoal making.

Every morning, the man climbed the steep slopes of the forest to cut thick oak trees. He then brought lumbers down to the clearing where their kilns stood, and he and his wife transformed wood over the course of long tedious workdays.

Under their attentive and patient care, logs turned to lumps of the deepest black dusted by a hint of silvery white. That charcoal was so pure it burnt clear and smokeless.

Their production was so highly sought that every week, the woman perched big bags over her shoulders, and made her round to small hamlets and villages alike.

Such a hard work had taken a toll on them both, back bent by heavy charges, eyes and breath clouded by smothering smoke.Yet, they relentlessly kept working, taking great pride in their task.

One day, as the old man was cutting trees up in the mountain, he suddenly got dizzy.

– How hard it is to grow old!

Muscles knotted from his hard routine, he gingerly sat down on a stump.

And he let his axe fall.

– Oh no!

The tool went down and down the hill, bumping over fallen branches, sliding under ferns. Each time it bounced on rocks, the metal head chimed like a bell.

The old man followed as quickly as he could on stiff yet still sure legs.

Finally, a loud clang shattered the cold air. And silence returned to the forest.

Carefully treading upon slippery soil, the man searched for his trusty axe. And as he went around a big oak, he paused.

Just below him was a boulder which has been standing there since ancient times. On top of it was his axe, its sharp edge buried deep in a crack which has not been here before.

And from the crack, water spouted, joyfully gurgling as a small pool started to form.

– My, have I just discovered a spring?

His morning work and that mad race down the mountain had turned the old man’s throat dry. Parched, he hesitated a moment, then shrugged:

– When you’re old, nothing frightens you anymore!

And, plunging his hands in the spring, he took three mouthsful.

The water had a slight metallic undertaste, not unlike blood. It was also so cutting cold that his lips and entire face tingled. Icy tendrils ran down his throat and seemed to spread to his stomach, and legs and arms.

The man let out a content sigh:

– Such a nice mountain spring! I am feeling so refreshed!

For the first time in years, his head felt clear, and his back did not hurt as much as usual.

He effortlessly took his axe out of the crack. And smiling, ran back to the clearing.

– Honey! Honey! You will not believe what I’ve found!

His wife raised her head from the smouldering kilns. Then did a double take.

In front of her, stood her husband indeed. But it was the sturdy young man she had wed so many years ago.

– But how… What happened to you up there?

The now-young man laughed and giddily related his strange morning. His wife was astounded:

– If such an amazing water exists, I have to drink some too! I’ll be able to take back all the years I lost!

And without missing a beat, the old woman handed rake and shovel to her husband.

– I’ll be back before you know!

She put on her straw-filled shoes, took her bag and left for the old boulder.

Afternoon passed, yet the man did not caught any sign of his wife, returning all young and healthy from the magical spring.

By nightfall, he was was truly worried. All night he watched out for her, his now-clear eyes searching the darkness around. Without success.

As soon as the first ray of sun appeared in the sky, the man took off to the forest.

Calling his wife’s name at the top of his lungs, he briskly walked toward the boulder. No response echoed.

Suddenly, a high-pitched cry pierced the chattering of the birds.

The man slowed down and cautiously made his way toward the sound.

The boulder stood tall and the spring now ran into a small crystal pond at its feet.

By the edge, a big bag and a sooty kimono laid on dewy moss.

And tucked inside, was a pretty sullen-looking baby girl.


Notes:

As all around the world, water hold in Japan a near magical aura. Symbol of life, it is also a symbol of change, having the power to reflect the true image of one’s soul – and cleansing it anew. Running water is especially thought to have purifying properties, which explains waterfall or river meditations (tagyo / mizugyo, see this tale) and all the sacred springs which can be found all around Japan.

If this “fountain of youth” story is pretty generic in its development, showing in a classical buddhist way the limits of earthly desires (true immortality is the one of soul), the fact that protagonists are charcoal makers is an interesting motif.

Charcoal have been an important part of japanese daily life since ancient times. Coal existed in many different shapes and qualities, from low grade chunks, to the still highly seeked binchotan (“white” charcoal). Charcoal burners lived at the edges of forests, so to speak between the known (civilisation) and the unknown (wilderness). This was a liminal place of transformations where everything could happen, from the seemingly magical charcoal making (like water, fire is also a symbol of purification and rebirth)… to truly supernatural events!

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3 ]

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