|The Great Bear of the Crows||Written by Kenji Miyazawa
Translated by George Wallace
Cold, mean-looking, low-lying clouds dripped, dripped, dripped so close to the ground it was impossible to tell whether the fields were lit up by the white light of the snow or that of the sun.|
Buffeted by the low-lying cloud, the volunteer division of the crow fleet could do nothing but take up emergency anchoring and wait for the cloud to clear. They lined up in rows in the snow-covered rice field whose surface shined as if covered with sheets of galvanized steel. Sitting at anchor, none of their ships moved in the slightest.
Even the pitch-black, smooth-plumed crow captain stood stiffly to attention, not moving a muscle.
The crow admiral himself remained motionless the whole while, not even batting an eyelid in spite of his advanced age. His eyes were now ash-grey and whenever he cawed, his voice would grate and squeak like a battered old doll.
There had once been a child who, unable to tell the age of a crow by looking at it, had said,
"Hey, you know something? We've got two crows in this town with sore throats!"The child was no doubt mistaken. There was in fact only one crow and that was the admiral. He didn't even have a sore throat. It was just that his voice had grown weary from too many long years spent shouting out orders up in the sky. And this was precisely why all the crows in the volunteer fleet considered the admiral's voice the sweetest sound hey knew.
Sitting at emergency anchorage in the snow, the crow fleet looked like pebbles or perhaps even sesame seeds dotted on the landscape. Through a telescope they looked like potatoes, some big, some small. Nightfall approached.
At last the clouds began to clear, rising just enough to allow the crows to take to the wing.
The admiral cleared his throat and bellowed an order.
"Commence manoeuvres! Move forward!"The fleet commander took the lead, beating his wings against the snow as he flew up into the sky. The eighteen ships in the captain's division ollowed one by one, shooting up into the sky whilst maintaining a suitable distance between them.
Next up, the thirty-two strong battle fleet set off, shortly to be followed by the dignified shape of the admiral. Circling above them the captain had already completed four wide sweeps of the sky, going as far as to touch the tip of the cloud base, and now he set the course, heading straight ahead towards the yonder woods.
Twenty-nine cruisers followed by twenty-five gunboats, all set off one by one, up into the sky. The last two ships to leave the field finally set off together rising up into the sky, the only blemish in an otherwise perfect copybook operation.
The captain flew up as far as the wood and then veered off to the left. As he did so, the admiral gave the order, "Cannons, fire!" The massed ranks of the fleet all fired at once.
"Craw! Craw! Craw! Craw!"One of the ships that had gone wounded at the recent battle at Nidanatora jerked its leg back in pain as it fired its cannon, the almighty sound reverberating throughout its body.
The admiral made four wide sweeps of the sky and then thundered out the order to withdraw.
"Ranks, retire!" With that he left his unit, returning to his official residence in the cedar tree. All the crows broke formation and went back to their barracks, all that is except the crow captain who instead flew off by himself over towards the honey locust tree in the West.
The clouds were almost black and only over the western mountains could a pool of gloomy pale blue sky be seen peeking forth. From its muggy depths a silvery star shined forth, a star the crows called 'Mashirii'.
The crow captain flew down as swift as an arrow, alighting on a branch of the honey locust tree where, for some time past now, a second crow had been quietly sitting. It was obviously worried about something. It was the captain's fiancee, the gunboat with the most beautiful voice in the fleet.
"Craw! Craw! Sorry I'm late. Oh, weren't those manoeuvres today tiring? I'm whacked."
"Craw! Sitting here waiting for you's given me a nice little rest, so I don't feel tired at all, really."
"Oh, jolly good. Look, my dear, the fact of the matter is I'll soon be going away for quite a while, leaving you on your own. No helping it, I'm afraid."
"On my goodness! This is dreadful!"
"The battle fleet commander has told me that tomorrow I'm due to set off on the trail of the mountain crow. It'll be my job to track him down."
"Oh dear God! That mountain crow has a fearsome reputation."
"That's right, I'm afraid. His eyes stick out and his beak's thin, all of which goes to make him look pretty darned daunting. But no need to worry, he won't pose much of a problem."
"Are you sure you'll be all right?"
"Of course I'm sure. But this is war after all and in battle you never know just what might happen. If the worst comes to the worst, I want you to go out and find yourself a decent husband, you hear me now?"
"Oh, it doesn't bear thinking about! This is simply too awful for words! What am I to do? Craw! Craw! Craw!"
"Stop your crying and pull yourself together, someone's coming!"One of the captain's subordinates, the crow sergeant came rushing over and saluted, his head slightly tilted to one side.
"Craw! It's time for the roll-call, captain. Everyone's ready and waiting."
"Thank you, sergeant, I'll rejoin my unit immediately. You can fly back now."
"Right you are, captain," the sergeant said and flew off.
"Stop your crying, for heaven's sake. We'll still be able to see each other again tomorrow at roll-call. Now look after yourself. I should already be on parade so I'd better get going at once. Give me your hand."The two birds grasped each other tightly by the hand. Then the captain pushed off from the branch and hurried back to rejoin his troops. The female crow remained there as if frozen to the branch,not moving a single muscle.
And then it was midnight.
The clouds had all cleared away, leaving the sky, which shone like freshly smolten steel, full of an ice-cold light. A few small stars joined together before exploding and the axle of the water wheel squeaked as it turned.
Suddenly a crack appeared in the thin steel of the sky, splitting it in two. Long threatening arms hung down through the crack and tried to catch hold of the crows and carry them off to the yonder side of the heavens. The crow volunteer fleet were now all busy with their battle preparations, hurriedly pulling on their black trousers. They took off into the air, circling the sky in a flurry of feathers and flapping wings. There was no more time left for older brothers to keep a watchful eye on their siblings. In the melee and confusion lovers even sometimes crashed into each other as they rushed about.
No, it was not like that at all.
It was totally different.
The moon appeared, rising up over the eastern mountains. It was already waning, looked pressed flat and blue and seemed to be crying. The crow fleet was quietly settled for the night.
Suddenly a silence fell over the wood. The only noise to be heard was that of a young sailor who, losing his footing, opened his eyes in surprise and with a voice still full of sleep let fly a burst with his cannon, "Craw!"
The crow captain meanwhile was still wide awake, unable to sleep.
"Tomorrow I'll die in battle," he murmured to himself, turning his gaze towards the wood where his fiancee waited.
In the treetops, as soft and black as seaweed, slept the young gunboat with the beautiful voice. Her sleep was light, troubled by dreams. In one, she and the crow captain were flying all by themselves, on and on, up into the blue-black sky, swapping the occasional glance as they flapped their wings for all they were worth. The Great Bear of the crows, the Majieru star, loomed large as it drew ever closer. Soon even the pale green apple trees could be seen that grew on its surface.
Suddenly finding their wings as stiff as stone, the two crows fell tumbling out of the sky, careering downwards, head over heels. Calling out Majieru's name, she awoke with a start to find herself falling off her branch. Quickly extending her wings, she righted herself, regaining her balance. Looking over towards the captain's quarters, it was not long before she was asleep again.
This time she dreamed she saw a mountain crow wearing a pince-nez appear before them. He made as if to shake the captain's hand.When the latter refused, the mountain crow suddenly pulled out a glistening pistol and bam! bam! bam! shot the captain dead. He fell to the ground, clutching his soft black chest.
She called out Majieru's name once more in surprise and woke up.
The crow captain had clearly heard everything, from the beating of her wings as she sought to right herself on the branch to the sound of her voice as she prayed, calling out Majieru's name. The captain sighed and looking up at the seven beautiful stars of the Great Bear quietly said a prayer of his own.
"I don't know if it'll be me who wins tomorrow or the mountain crow. That is for you to decide. All that I do know is that I will fight with all my strength, as is only right for me to do. What-ever happens tomorrow, it will be according to your will." Over in the eastern sky there was already some silvery light to be seen.
Suddenly from the far distant cold of the North came a faint sound as if something had touched against a key. The crow captain quickly grabbed his night glasses and looked to see what it was. There in the snowy white mountain pass a sole chestnut tree could be seen bathed in starlight. Sitting in the treetop gazing up at the sky was something that could only be the enemy. It was a mountain crow. The captain felt his heart race as he sensed the proximity of battle .
"Craw! Emergency stations! Craw! Emergency stations!"The captain's men promptly pushed off from their branches, flying up into the air, circling around their leader.
"Charge!"Taking the front, the captain headed northwards full of impetuosity. The eastern sky shone white like freshly polished steel.
The mountain crow leapt off its branch as quickly as it could, and spreading its wings wide, sought to escape to the North. But its way was already cut off by the torpedo destroyers who had him surrounded.
"Craw! Craw! Craw! Craw! Craw!" The noise of their cannon fire was deafening. In desperation the mountain crow flew up into the sky scrambling with its legs in a vain effort to gain extra speed.The captain was already on him, dealing a fearsome blow to his pitch-black head. The mountain crow staggered and as he began to fall, the sergeant added a stinging blow into his side. Closing its ash-grey eyes, the mountain crow fell to the ground where it lay stretched out in the cold snow in the early morning light.
"Craw! Sergeant, I want you to make sure the corpse is brought back to barracks. Craw! All right, everyone, return to base!""Yes sir!" As the strong sergeant lifted up the corpse, the captain began to fly back to the wood, followed by his eighteen ships. Once back in their barracks, the torpedo destroyers regrouped, panting heavily, their breath white in the cold morning air.
"Any injuries? Anyone been wounded?" The crow captain asked as he did the rounds, checking to see everyone was all right.
It was by now quite light.
The sun's rays poured down onto the mountain snow like peach juice, gradually flowing down into the valley below. White lily flowers seemed to burst into bloom in the midst of the snow, drenched in the sunlight.
The dazzling sun stood sadly twinkling in the sky above the snowy mountains to the East.
"Line up! Everyone on parade!" The admiral yelled.
"Line up! Everyone on parade!" The captain yelled.
The crows all stood in neat rows in the snow-covered rice field.
The crow captain broke ranks, walking straight ahead with his long strides over the glistening snow. He stopped in front of the admiral.
"Report to the admiral! Today, at dawn, having ascertained the mooring of the enemy ship in the mountain pass at Sepira, our fleet launched an immediate attack, sinking the enemy. No casualties were suffered on our side. End of report, sir!"The members of the destroyer fleet were so overwhelmed with joy, they wept hot tears that poured down onto the snow.
With tears welling up in his ash-grey eyes, the crow admiral turned to address the crow captain.
"Craw! Craw! You have done an excellent job! Congratulations! Well done, indeed! Today you have earned yourself promotion to the rank of major. I'll leave it to you to decide which of your men deserve decoration."The newly-promoted crow major's thoughts turned to the mountain crow who had been driven down the mountain by hunger only to find himself surrounded by nineteen hostile ships. He remembered how he had perished in battle, and once more he wept.
"Thank you very much, sir. With your permission, admiral, I would like to bury the enemy's dead."
"Permission granted. Bury him with full honours."Saluting the admiral, the major stepped back and rejoining his troops he looked up into the blue sky over towards the Majieru star.
"Blessed Majieru, please make the world such that we never again find ourselves forced to kill an enemy we cannot bring ourselves to hate. To that end I would gladly lay down my own life and have my body torn apart again and again."In the clear blue sky from whence the Majieru star was approaching a blue light welled up and shined forth.
All this while the beautiful pitch-black crow gunboat stood there motionless, shoulder to shoulder with all the others, tears rolling down her cheeks. The gunboat leader pretended not to notice. From tomorrow she would again be able to rejoin her fiancee out on manoeuvres. The thought of this made her so happy,she opened her beak wide, again and again, as if to shout for joy. The sun's rays passed through her beak, lighting it up bright red.
This too the gunboat leader turned a blind eye to, as he pretended to look away.
(1921, December 21st)