Tuesday, 26 June 2012

It started like this. As a teacher I want to find quality texts for my children to use in literacy lessons, but inevitably the best texts are too long- and I don't want to butcher Pullman or Morpurgo.

Often I ended up writing short stories myself, and started getting a very positive reaction from the children in terms of their response to the text and the ways in which they wrote for themselves.

Last year one of my very polite girls suggested 'Why don't you publish that sir?'

After many umms and ahhs and a bit of editing and improving I came up with this.

Based both on a family holiday in Japan and my interest in oral storytelling, this filled a gap in the traditional tales section of the curriculum.

My first effort, so be kind- would appreciate any feedback- and a contract would be even better!!



Visit Japan in the spring and you will witness the annual obsession with cherry blossom, to such an extent that the weather forecast each night includes a ‘blossom front’ as over the course of two months the blossoms appear on Kyushu in the south, through Honshu and onto Hokkaido in the north.


At the foot of the Philosopher’s Walk in the hills above old Kyoto, near the Kitomizu Temple, there are two weeping cherry trees. What made these unusual though was their near perfect symmetry. The weeping boughs seemed to bow towards each other, but more peculiar still was that each trunk seemed to bend down towards the ground before rising again to support the blooms. Exactly halfway between them, perched on a rock was a statue of a small dog, an Akita I believe.

As I knelt, running my fingers over the gnarled texture of the ‘knee’ of the left hand tree, a gentle tap on the shoulder caused me to turn.

‘Excuse me sir. You seem like a nice English gentleman. I will practice my English on you!’ announced a confident little girl in pig tails and white knee socks that were part of the Japanese school uniform.

‘Certainly, if your grandfather doesn’t mind.’ For holding her hand was a little man, stooped so no taller than his granddaughter. He nodded enthusiastically, then whispered something into her ear.

‘Grandfather says he will tell you how these trees came to be, and I will translate,’ she proudly declared. ‘Can you spare an hour?’

So we settled down to this tale.


Many years ago, before the city came out this far, and before the temples had been built, this land belonged to a man and his wife. They had been married for many years and were very much in love. However their union had never been blessed with children.

Hanako was a true beauty. Her name meant ‘flower child’ and she was gifted with the clear and fragrant complexion of the white jasmine flower. In the years of their courtship, Minoru would bring Hanaku a single fresh flower every single day, a habit he joyfully continued after their wedding.

Hanaku wished desperately to become a mother, but  as season followed season, there was no sign of any pregnancy.

‘Be patient my love; in time the spirits will provide!’ Minoru would always say. Though he said the same words several times each year, Hanaku would not argue for she knew the meaning of her husband’s name: ‘truth’.

Sure enough, in the spring of the seventeenth year of their marriage, as Hanaku worked the land outside their small dwelling, a gust of warming breeze shook the neighbouring cherry trees. A handful of older blooms scattered over the neighbouring stream, but one single fresh blossom hovered in the air like the most delicate of dragon flies. Hanaku was transfixed by its flight. As she watched it slowly fluttered, like a butterfly now, and landed on her kimono, just above her belly. At that moment she felt a magical glow and a spine-tingling shiver.

She ran immediately to Minoru. ‘Dearest husband! It has happened! We are to be blessed with a child. The spirits have provided, just as you said they would.’ Together they danced for joy in the milky spring sunshine.

Not everyone shared in their elation however, for next to their property lived Onryo, a grumpy and arthritic old man who never had any visitors and who shook his stick at anyone near him when he travelled beyond his gate, which was not often. Onryo was no ordinary human being though. He was the earthly manifestation of the vengeful spirit, and he looked on even the merest speck of human happiness with disdain, hatred and jealousy. He spied Hanaku’s joy, grumbled to himself and shuffled into his shabby dwelling.

The months passed, Hanaku’s belly swelled, as did the fruits on the cherry tree that had borne the good news. Minoru set his mind to preparing the house for the new arrival. So it was with the passing of autumn, that the time had come.

The baby arrived, healthy and chubby. A baby girl, with a complexion to match that of her mother, and eyes as wide and as brown as a halved lychee. Hanaku and Minoru knew that the infant had arrived as a reward for their feelings for and trust in each other. So they called her Aiko; ai meaning ‘love and affection’, and ko meaning ‘child’.

The first cry of the new-born, though not a piercing banshee yowl, but a reminder that little ones need feeding, was enough to awaken the dozing Onryo. This sign of unbridled happiness was at the very limit of his tolerance, and unbeknownst to his neighbours, the most vengeful side of his personality was about to be awakened.

Aiko was quite literally a bundle of joy. Everywhere the family went, her smile and eyes brought light and pleasure to everyone they met. She would chuckle at every tickle of her chin, at each squeeze of her cheeks, and every time her father threw her up in the air her merriment could be heard the length of the hill side. She walked within a year and would chase after birds and rabbits, who wouldn’t fly or hop away, entranced as they were by her hypnotic laughter, and who let the little girl pet them ever so gently.

Hanaku taught her the names of all the flowers, birds and insects. Minoru explained the value of telling the truth, and being trustworthy. Aiko fell in love with the beauty of everything around her and would spend hours sitting below a tree to see the birds arriving to build their nests, watching the fledglings taking their first nervy exits, and waiting for the sepals to open on the flowers to reveal their first blooms.

Hanaku loved to tell her daughter the story of the falling cherry blossom and the faith that Minoru had shown in the spirits. Each spring she would wait for the first blossoms to fall, and then chase after them trying to catch them on the tip of her tongue, on her nose or delicately between her thumb and forefinger.

When she was four years old, a strong gust threw some blossoms high into the air, and a second swirling gust sent them in every direction. Aiko ran to the blooms as she always did her eyes on a particular prize. She ran, skipping over rocks, flowers and a stream. Oh yes! The very stream that ran along the side of their land. The very stream that marked the land belonging to Onryo.

Of course little girls probably don’t understand what it means to trespass on someone else’s land, but Onryo certainly did. He hobbled from his house, waving his stick and yelling at her to get off his land. ‘I don’t ever want to see you on her again!’ he bellowed so loudly that even the birds were quietened.

Aiko, having never seen or heard such a noise, leapt the stream and ran bawling her eyes out into the arms of her parents. ‘He is a tired and grumpy old man’ said her father, for this was the truth that he knew. Little did he know that the events of that day had triggered more thoughts on Onryo’s mind.

One year passed. Aiko’s continued happiness helped her forget the trauma of the old man’s anger. The next spring, another flurry sent the blossoms scattering. Once more Aiko chased the falling flowers, her eyes on the  widest one. She ran, skipping over rocks, flowers and a stream. Oh yes! The very stream that ran along the side of their land. The very stream that marked the land belonging to Onryo.

Onryo however was waiting. ‘Don’t you remember last year! You do that again, I swear you will never leave here again.’

Once more Aiko leapt the stream and ran to the comforting embrace of her parents. ‘He probably can’t see the beauty of the nature around him,’ her mother whispered, for she knew nothing of his real hatred of beauty.

A further year passed. Now six, Aiko still marvelled at the wonders of nature’s cycles and waited for the cherry blossom with heightened anticipation. Sure enough the blooms emerged, opened and were caught by a draft of warm air. Aiko had focussed her attention on one exceptionally fat bud, and its emerging flower, and when it fell, that was her target.

She ran, skipping over rocks, flowers and a stream. Oh yes! The very stream that ran along the side of their land. The very stream that marked the land belonging to Onryo.

Onryo too had watched the buds emerging, had seen the exceptionally fat bud and waited for the moment that it would fall. He emerged from behind a bamboo screen.

‘I have told you twice before about coming onto my land. Last year I told you that you would never leave if you did that again!’

Before she had the chance to run or even to call to her parents, Onryo stared deep into her eyes. A demon red glow, heightened by the deep jet black of his pupils, rendered her helpless. Rooted to the spot on top of the rock where she stood, Aiko felt a sensation from her feet, travelling up towards her knees. As she looked down she saw that she now had fur on her legs, and her feet had become paws. As the demon’s spell continued, she fell onto all fours, fur now growing from her back and her ears lengthening.

Fighting her fear she called to her parents, ‘Mother! Father! Help me!’ but all they heard was a puppy dog howl. This was enough to alert them, and as they saw Aiko’s nose and mouth become the muzzle of an Akita, they jumped the stream together.

‘Ah the brat’s pathetic parents. You were too old to have any happiness anyway,’ Onryo cackled as he engaged their eyes in the same glare.

This time however they were transformed not into dogs, but into stone. They tried to bend down to their daughter, but the stone reached their knees which struck, bent and rigid. They could now lean over, but couldn’t quite reach her. ‘Run Aiko! Get help!’

Aiko wouldn’t leave. It was too late. Within minutes Minoru and Hanaku were transformed to stone, knees bent, arms trailing in a vain attempt to reach their daughter. Onryo had had his vengeance. Even he wouldn’t waste roe on tying the dog to the trees. She would stay, and probably die of hunger.

Aiko began to cry, slowly at first, then great buckets of uncontrolled tears. These were not only tears of sadness, but tears of love, beauty and truth. As they fell on the ground they  seeped into the stone that was the feet of her parents. The stone, dampened by the tears, began to transform into the trunks of two trees. More tears fell, and the statues continued to change, with the arms becoming  branches and the fingers growing into twigs. By the time that the tears stopped Hanaku and Minoru were two cherry trees, the very cherry trees that brought them the news of their daughter.

Aiko had cried out all the love and affection that she could muster. She was exhausted, and had no tears left to transform herself. She was completely dried out, and felt herself changing again, this time into the stone that her parents had so recently been. She sat, a little Akita puppy, at the feet of her parental cherry trees.

As for Onryo; his demon magic was no answer to the power of love and truth. This drained away his energies as he watched turning him into a hollow stalk of bamboo, hollow for the feelings he never had.

To this day, visitors still ask how the trees and the little dog came to be. Look ever so carefully. Can you find the tiniest streak of a tear?