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Japanese fairy tales


Once upon a time a long, long time ago there was a boy who was clever and polite and kind, and it would seem as if he was a very fine boy indeed. But he had one fault. He would draw pictures of cats.
Now that does not appear to be a very bad fault, but the trouble was that Kihachi would not do anything else. He drew cats at school when he should have been studying his lessons. He drew them when all the other children were at play and when it would have been far better for him to have been running and jumping.
When his brothers and sisters were sleeping peacefully at night upon their wooden pillows, Kihachi would arise from his sleeping mat and, stealing to the paper partitions of the little room into which streamed the moonlight, he would draw cats. In the early morning when the sun gleamed over the tiny garden and the dew lay like jewels upon the rice fields, still Kihachi could be found drawing cats.
He drew large cats and small cats, mother cats and kittens. He drew them even upon his clothes, and this caused his mother much annoyance, though she was very patient. When, however, it came to pass that she found a whole family of kittens playing their pranks, in pencil, upon her own best obi,1 she felt that something must be done.
"My lord," she said to her husband, "this boy and his cats make me too much trouble. I have done everything to cause him to stop, but to no avail. I have even burned him with the moxa 2 but still he does not cease. He says he can not. Our other sons are able to help you in the field and our daughter is a great assistance to me in the household. But Kihachi does not work, and his schoolmaster says he will not study. He will do nothing but draw cats. What shall we do with him?"
"It may be that so strange a boy will grow up to be something quite different from us," said his father. "He is always agreeable. Every morning he says most politely, 'O hayo, O tat' San, O hayo, O oka San.' 3 It seems to me Bot chan 4 is not bad. Perhaps he would make a good priest. Let us take him to the temple and see if he will not there forget his cats."
So they took him to the temple and the priest received them with courtesy. "Enter, honorably enter!" he said, and they entered saying, "We have brought to you our youngest boy in the hope that you will graciously permit him to become your acolyte."
The priest asked Kihachi many questions, very difficult ones, and these he answered so cleverly that the old man said to the parents, "This child is destined to be great. He is very clever. Leave him with me and I will teach him all he needs to become a priest."
So Kihachi stayed in the temple and he studied very hard. He liked to get up early as the mists were breaking over Fuji San and the temple bells were ringing in the dawn. He loved to sit in the twilight when the flowers of the yamabuki are mirrored in the still marsh waters. He loved to pluck the primrose, flower of happiness, and to twine it with the nanten 1 into wreaths for the shrine of Buddha. He liked to read and to study the sacred books and he learned many prayers, but still he liked to draw, and still he drew cats.
He drew them on the margins of the books, on the prayer rolls, on the very kakemonos 2 of the temple, and this much displeased the good old priest.
At last he could not stand it any longer and he called the boy to him. Kihachi bowed very low, his hands and forehead touching the floor.
"Bot chan," said the priest, "you will never make a good priest. You may some day become a great artist, but you will never be anything else. You had better go away from the temple and seek your fortune in the world. Here is a bag of rice for you. Put it in a bundle of your clothes, and go, and may good fortune go with you. I will give you one last bit of advice, When darkness gathers, fear great places, seek small shelter."
Kihachi thanked the priest and went mournfully away from the temple. It seemed to him as if he was always to be unhappy because of his cats, but he could not help drawing them. He was afraid to go home, for he knew his father would punish him for disobeying the priest. He did not know what to do. At last he thought of a large temple in the next village, and wondered if some of the priests there would not take him for an acolyte.
"At least I can try," he said, and hurried on, hoping to reach the temple before night.
It was a long way, and his feet grew very sore and he was tired. So it was a great disappointment when he reached the temple to find it deserted. Not a priest was there to offer incense, not an acolyte to ring the temple bells.
"How strange it is that everything is covered with dust! There are cobwebs spun over the altars!" he said. "It seems to me an acolyte is needed. I shall stay at least for the night and perhaps to-morrow the priests may return. They will commend me if I make things very clean."
He laid down his bundle and began to clean the temple with a will, and soon it was quite free from dirt and dust. Then he sat down and rested, but noticing a large screen with quite a blank space upon it, he drew out his writing box and began to draw cats as hard as he could draw.
He thought nothing of how time was passing until suddenly he noticed it was growing quite dark, and he began to be a little afraid. He looked about him. How huge and deserted seemed the temple hall! How small a boy he was! Then he remembered the old priest's parting words, "When darkness hovers, fear great places, seek small shelters." Surely this was a great place! He hunted about hoping to find a small place which might be safer, and, surely enough, there was a tiny recess in the wall with a door which could be slid into place. He entered and found there was just room enough for him to curl up and go to sleep, which he did, for he was so tired that sleep came to him quickly.
He slept soundly, but at last was awakened by a loud noise. It seemed as if a thousand ogres were fighting, and with the noise of the fighting came horrid screams. Kihachi was afraid to make a peephole in the paper partition, and so he lay very still until at last there was a more awful scream than before and the sound of a heavy fall. Then all was still.
Kihachi lay quite still until the morning light began to creep into his cabinet, and then he thought, "I must get up and ring the dawn bell; for when the priests return they will be pleased to find that I have attended to everything."
So he jumped up and hastened to ring the bell. Pure and clear its tones rang out over the cool morning air, and Kihachi noticed figures in the valley below moving rapidly, and he said, "Here come the priests. I hope they will be pleased with what I have done."
Then he went to look at the cats he had drawn in the great temple hall the night before. But what a sight met his eyes! Upon the floor of the temple was a pool of blood and beside it the body of a fierce and terrible rat, the largest he had ever seen. It was as large as a cow, indeed it was a monster rat goblin.
"What killed you?" he cried, "there must have been a battle royal here in the night, for I heard sounds as if an army of cats was let loose."
Then his heart stood still, for he saw that the mouths of all the cats he had drawn were covered with blood!
"My cats killed the rat goblin!" he cried joyfully; and at that moment he heard steps and turning, saw the headman of the village with several other men entering the temple.
"What does this mean?" asked the headman. "Do you not know that this temple is haunted by a terrible rat goblin? Surely you did not spend the night here?"
"I spent it quite comfortably," said Kihachi, "and I think the goblin is dead." Then he showed the headman the rat and his cats, and told him what had happened in the night. The headman said, "It is well that you obeyed the old priest's instructions to 'seek small shelters.' This goblin has haunted the temple for many months and no one who has come here has ever returned. Your cats are very lifelike; I believe that some day you will be a great artist. In the city yonder you will find my brother. Go to him and tell him your story. He will help you. You have done my village a good turn with your cats, so here is a present to help you along;" and he gave him twenty yen.
Then was Kihachi very glad in his heart, and he made his thanks to the headman and went his way.
And thereafter, when he became a great artist and taught many boys to draw, he laughed as he told his pupils, "My first great picture was a drawing of cats, and for it I received twenty yen." And his pupils were much astonished and called him always "The Painter of Cats."