Thursday, July 16, 2009

silver droplets

Arguably the most famous of Ainu folk tales in Japan is the first one in Chiri Yukie's yukar anthology. It has, in the past, been included in Japanese middle school textbooks as a token example of Ainu oral literature. So if a member of the general public has ever heard or read an Ainu folk tale at all, it will most likely be this one.

In her anthology, Chiri Yukie titles this story "The Song Sung by the Owl God: Shirokani pe ran ran pishkan." Shirokani pe ran ran pishkan literally means "Silver drops fall all around" in the Ainu language, but that seems to have little significance beyond the fact that the sound of the words represents the sound of the Owl's song. It is common practice for the Ainu stories to be labeled with the words that begin the story, and in this case the story begins with shirokani pe ran ran pishkan.

The owl in this story is the shima-fukurou (striped owl), or Blakiston's Fish Owl, a now-endangered species that is traditionally worshiped as the guardian of the Ainu village. My English translation of this yukar is titled "Where the Silver Droplets Fall."

Where the Silver Droplets Fall

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall..." I sang my song as I descended on the air current. Passing above a human village, I gazed down and saw that those who had once been poor seemed to have become rich and those who had once been rich seemed to have become poor. I passed over the beach where there were young children playing with small toy bows and small toy arrows.

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall..." I sang as I passed above the heads of the children. The children ran along the ground below me, calling out to me and to one another. "Beautiful bird! Divine Bird! Come on everybody. Let`s shoot our arrows at it. Whoever hits it first is the bravest among us, a true hero."

As they called out to one another in this way, the children of households which had once been poor but were now rich, fit their metal arrows into their metal bows and released the arrows at me. Many little arrows came flying towards me but I caused them to veer up or down and they all missed.

Among them was one child who carried a bow and arrow made only of wood. I saw what the child was wearing and knew that he was from a poor household. But when I looked into his eyes, I thought he must be either the son or grandson of someone of good standing. He stood out among the others in the way he played. This child also fit his wooden arrow into his wooden bow and aimed at me.

As he did so, the children who had once been poor but were now rich laughed at him and said, "Now that’s really funny! You silly pauper, that’s a divine bird. It will never accept your rotten wooden arrow when it won’t even accept our metal arrows. Not in a million years." They kicked him with their legs and hit him with their fists. But the poor boy ignored them and carefully aimed his arrow at me. I watched him and was moved.

"Where the silver droplets fall, where the golden droplets fall," I sang as I drew a circle slowly in the sky. The poor boy drew one leg back and set it firmly behind him while setting the other leg firmly in front of him. He bit on his lower lip and steadied his aim. The arrow was released in a whoosh of air. The tiny arrow flew clean and straight towards me. I stretched out my claw and plucked that little arrow from the air. I sliced through the wind and fluttered to the ground. The children churned up the sand in little storms as they raced one another towards where I had fallen.

I fell to the earth almost at the same moment that the poor boy reached me ahead of the others. He ran to me and grasped me in his hands. But the children who had once been poor and were now rich had caught up with him and endlessly abused him with harsh words and beatings.

"You scoundrel. How dare you beat us to the bird!" And as the children abused him, the poor boy covered my body with his own, pressing me firmly against his belly. He wriggled and squirmed till he had escaped through a gap between the children. Then he leaped away from them and ran as fast as he could.

click here to read the full story.