|The Poison Powder Police Chief||Written by Kenji Miyazawa
Translated by David Sulz
Four ice-cold rivers cut deep crevices in the glacier as they boiled and foamed from the Mount Carakon highlands to the country of Prauha below. The main town of the country of Prauha was also called Prauha and the four mountain torrents joined to form a great, peaceful river in the centre of the town. The great, peaceful river was, for the most part, just that: peaceful. It was so peaceful, in fact, that the clouds in the sky and the trees along the bank reflected in the deep pools as clearly as in a great, perfect mirror.|
You probably noticed that the river was peaceful "for the most part", that is because the river occasionally flooded and overflowed its banks a hundred metres on either side, reaching far up into the willows that grew along the banks. During these floods the river was fearsome , roaring and pounding past the town. Fortunately, the waters always receded as quickly as they came, leaving the wide, white banks exposed.
The flat banks were dotted with long, narrow ponds left from the receding water. The position of the ponds changed with every flood as the old ones were filled in and new ones formed but there had always been and would always be ponds along the river bank.
The ponds were full of life. The reeds and bull-rushes gave cover to the many fish who made their homes there. Of these fish, the loaches and the catfish were the most numerous but only because the townspeople of Prauha refused to eat them unless absolutely necessary. Also numerous, of course, were the carps and Crucian carps. There were haya to be found, too.
One year, there was a rumour that a massive sturgeon had escaped from the ocean, swum upstream, and got trapped in one of the bigger pools. It goes without saying that the adults and the older children knew such a thing to impossible and laughed at Richiki, the poor barber with only two pairs of scissors, who had started the rumour in the first place. He was widely regarded as the town fool, anyway.
The younger children, however, spent whole days staring into the ponds looking for the giant fish. As you might have guessed, they never found a giant sturgeon swimming (or floating) in any of the pools no matter how hard and how long they looked. At last, even the smallest of the children gave up and looked on Richiki with scorn and contempt.
As does any country, Prauha had laws. The first (and therefore most important) Law of Prauha was as follows:
Law # 1 - "No person shall ever use gunpowder to kill birds nor shall anyone use poison powder to catch fish."
If you are wondering what, exactly, poison powder is and what it has to do with fishing, here is how Richiki (the foolish barber) explained it:
"Peel the bark from a pepper tree at midnight of a springtime Day of the Horse. Dry the bark twice, but only during the 18 days before the seasons change. Grind the dried pepper bark finely in a mortar and pestle. Then, on a sunny day, take 1 kan-me (about 4 kg) of this powder and add 700 mon-me (about 280 g) of maple ash to it. Keep the mix in a cloth bag. When you go fishing, put the bag in the water and rub it between your hands so that the poison powder seeps out. When the fish drink the poison powder, they will gasp for breath for a short time before rolling over and floating to the surface dead, white underbellies to the sky."
In the Prauhanian language, this technique is known as "Eppu-kappu" (isn't that a great word?) and the most important job of the Prauha Police Force is to make sure that nobody does it and to arrest anyone who tries.
One summer, a new Police Chief came to Prauha. He was a strange-looking fellow because he looked somewhat like an otter. His teeth were all silver-plated and he had a long, red moustache which he waxed at the tips so it stuck straight out to the sides. He wore lots of splendid gold braid on his shoulders and a long red cape. Every day, he wandered about the town making certain that everything was as it should be.
"Don't you think that your donkey's load is too heavy?" he would say to the owner on seeing a heavily-laden donkey walking slowly with a drooping head.
"Now, you make sure you say all the right charms so that your baby gets well quickly," he would say if he walked by a house where a sick baby was crying.
All in all, he was a kindly, considerate Police Chief.
Some time after the arrival of the new Police Chief, it became obvious that someone was breaking that very important First Law of Prauha. No one was catching any fish in the big ponds along the river bank and, on top of that, rotting fish were found floating amongst the reeds. Then, one spring morning, all of the pepper trees in the village were found stripped clean of bark. To be precise, the stripped trees were noticed on the day after the Day of the Horse. Strangely, however, the new Police Chief paid no attention to these happenings.
"You don't say? Really?" was the most he would say when someone informed him of the matter.
One morning, a group of children were gathered in front of the calligraphy teacher's house. Everyone was circled around two children who were talking excitedly.
"We got in trouble with the Police Chief," one of them said.
"What kind of trouble?" a bigger kid at the front of the circle asked.
"He yelled at us," the other kid in the middle replied. "We were down at the river throwing rocks. We didn't know he was there. He was down by one of the ponds with three or four other men. I think he caught the people who were using the poison powder."
"What did he say when he yelled at you?"
"Who's there? Yeah, you, throwing rocks. We're looking for the bad people who are breaking the very important Law #1, so we'll be here all day. You'd better go straight home and don't say anything to anyone. O.K.?'"
"It looks like they're going to catch those bad people soon," someone said.
However, a whole six months passed without the criminals being caught and once again the children gathered.
"It's true, I tell you, I can prove it," someone said. "Last night, just when the moon was coming up, I saw the Police Chief rushing through town. He was dressed all in black and he was wearing a hood. He stopped and talked to a strange man, that small guy with the rifle. Anyway, I heard the Police Chief say,
"Next time, you make it better, grind it finer, make it more powdery."
"Then the rifle guy said something I couldn't hear and the Police Chief got angry,
"Look here," he said. "I paid you 2 whole taels for that bag of powder and you cut it with oak bark. I know you did so don't try to deny it."
"I'd bet anything they were talking about pepper tree bark."
At this, another child piped up,
"It's true, the police chief bought two bags of maple ash from our place; I should know because I had to deliver it myself. I'll bet he mixed it with the ground up pepper tree bark."
"That's it! That's it!" everyone yelled and clapped their hands.
As might be expected, rumours of the Police Chief's involvement in the poison powder affair spread quickly through the town.
When Richiki, the barber, heard this rumour he sat right down and made up a Balance of Accounts (he had lots of free time because, as you remember he was not a popular barber and had few customers).
Balance of Account for Poison Powder Fishing
1 - 60kg bag of dried pepper tree bark 2 taels
1 - 60kg bag of ash 30 maels
TOTAL 2 taels, 30 maels
7.5 kg of eel 13 taels
other 10 taels
TOTAL 23 taels
PROFIT (to Police Chief) 20 taels, 70 maels
It was not long before the rumour reached even the smallest children's ears. When they saw a police man on his rounds, they ran far enough away to be heard but not caught, took up a defiant and mocking pose, and called out in a loud voice,
"Hey, Mr. Poison Fishing Policeman, how about sharing some of your catfish with me?"
Children mocking policemen in the streets was the last straw. The situation was critical and could be ignored no longer so the Mayor paid a visit to the Police Chief (he took six of his underlings along, just in case).
At the Police Station, the Police Chief showed the Mayor into the reception room. They sat on chairs across a table from each other but the Police Chief did not look at the Mayor; rather his gold eyes were focused somewhere off in the distance.
"Well, Mr. Police Chief," the Mayor began, "I'm sure I don't have to tell you that someone is breaking the "Forest, Field, and River Management Law" or Law #1 as everyone knows it. What is going on?"
"Really? You don't say? I wasn't aware of it," responded the Police Chief.
"Surely you must know of it?" the Mayor continued, slightly taken aback. "As a matter of fact, my own pepper tree in my own garden has been completely stripped of bark. Furthermore, everyone has seen the dead fish floating in the ponds, white underbellies to the sky.
The Police Chief gave a curious laugh. The Mayor suspected he was hiding something.
"Hmmm, yes, I have been hearing some rumours lately, now that I think about it," the Police Chief said.
"Yes, there have been rumours, indeed," continued the Mayor. "In fact, the children have been saying that it's you. I am quite perturbed."
The Police Chief exploded out of his chair, "That's scandalous. My honour is at stake here. Hence, I will arrest the perpetrator forthwith."
"You could do that?" asked the Mayor. "You have enough evidence?"
"Yes, I can do it immediately, right now, with no further delay," said Police Chief. "I have all the evidence I need." "So, you already know who it is, then?" asked the Mayor.
"Yes, I know only too well for the guilty party is, in fact, me. I have been fishing with the forbidden poison powder," the Police Chief replied, sticking his face out so that the Mayor could get a good look at it.
The Mayor was surprised, to say the least.
"So it really was you after all?" he asked.
"Without a doubt."
The Police Chief sat down again and rang the bell on the table, GONNNNNNNG. Within moments, his First Detective, the one with the unkempt red beard appeared to take him away.
The Judge decided that there was only one punishment appropriate for such a serious crime: death by execution. On the appointed day, the Police Chief was brought to the public square with his hands tied securely behind his back.
As the giant, curved sword hung in the air, glinting in the sunlight, ready to separate his head and his body, the ex-Police Chief let out a wonderful, joyous laugh.
"How wonderful it was!" he exclaimed. "Fishing with the poison powder in this world was a dream come true, I shall remember it forever. Soon, however, I shall go to hell where I can fish with poison powder to my heart's content."
The blade fell.
The townspeople stood by in amazement.