|The Child of the Wild Geese||Written by Kenji Miyazawa
Translated by George Wallace
In the south of the desert, sitting at the side of a small spring surrounded by willow trees, I mixed my roasted barley with water, and began to eat my lunch. Soon an old pilgrim arrived. In silence we bowed to one another. On my travels I had not met a single soul all morning, and was reluctant to get up and leave the spring and the pilgrim once I had finished my meal.|
For a while I could not take my eyes off the old man's prominent Adam's apple as it jerked up and down while he ate. I wanted so very much to strike up a conversation with him, but he sat there so quietly that I felt reluctant to disturb him.
Then I suddenly discovered that behind the spring there was a small shrine. It was so small a geographer or an explorer could easily have carried it away with him as a relic. It was still quite new, painted yellow and red, and seemed rather strange. Before it stood a simple banner.
I noticed that the old man seemed to have finished his meal, so I asked him, "Excuse me, you wouldn't happen to know to whom this place is dedicated, would you?"
I realized that the old man too had been anxious to start a conversation. After nodding to me two or three times in silence as he swallowed down the last of his food, he spoke to me in a quiet voice.
"It is dedicated to the child of the . . ."
"What kind of child?"
"They say he was The Child of The Wild Geese."
The old man put his plate to one side and bending down, scooped up some spring water to wash out his mouth.
"They say he was The Child of The Wild Geese, and his story has been handed down to us as if it were a fairy-tale. They say he was a child from heaven who appeared in this region not so long ago. Such shrines as this one are to be found everywhere today, even on the other side of the desert."
"A child came down from heaven? Was it banished from the skies for some crime it had committed?"
"That I do not know for sure, but it is often rumoured to be so by the people hereabouts. Perhaps that was indeed the reason."
"Please would you tell me his story? Or are you in a hurry to be on your way?"
"No, I'm in no hurry at all. I will tell you everything I know. In Sasha there lived a man by the name of Kei Suriya. People said he was from a famous family. But now he had fallen on hard times and was living a simple life with his wife. He spent his time copying old Buddhist sutras while his wife weaved away at her loom.
One morning Suriya went out for a walk into the fields with his cousin who was carrying a gun. On the ground lay beautiful blue and green stones, the sky looked hazily white and the smell of snow was in the air.
Suriya asked his cousin if it wasn't about time he put a stop to his habit of killing animals for his own amusement. His cousin replied in a curt voice that he had no intention of changing his ways.
'What a cruel, heartless fellow you are! Have you any idea at all what kind of creatures they are that you spend your time wounding and killing?
Whatever they may be, their lives are poor and wretched,'Suriya reminded him once again.
'You may be right, but then again you may be wrong. If things are as you say, that makes it all the more fun for me. Why don't you stop going on and on about all this? I have heard it all before, in those sermons the priests used to give us. Look over there! There go some wild geese! Just you watch me shoot them down!' Suriya's cousin grabbed his rifle and ran off in hot pursuit. Suriya stood there, staring at the large black geese as they flew by in formation.
Suddenly a shot rang out. The lead goose was hit in the chest and reeled from side to side before bursting into flames and careering to the ground, screaming pitifully. Bang! Up flew another bullet, piercing the chest of the next goose. Yet none of the other birds made the least attempt to scatter and flee. On the contrary, they flew after their two wounded brothers, crying and screaming all the while.
A third bullet flew up into the air, and then a fourth. Soon six bullets had been fired and six geese hit; only the very last bird, a small one, was still left. The six burning geese were doubled up in pain as they fell out of the sky screaming in agony. The small goose in the rear followed them, weeping. Even in the throes of death, the geese maintained formation as they plunged to earth.
Suddenly, to Suriya's horror, all the geese turned into humans; now there were six people engulfed in flames screaming and writhing in pain. Behind them came a beautiful heavenly child, the only one to have escaped injury. Suriya recognized the child --- there was no doubt about it. The first of the six figures crashed to the ground. It was an old man with a white beard. Collapsing in flames onto the ground, he put his bony hands together as if to beg a favour of Suriya. He screamed in agony.
'Please, Mr Suriya, I beg of you. Please take care of my grandson for me!'
Suriya ran to him and said, 'Yes, of course I will look after him. But what has happened to you?'
One after another the wild geese fell to earth, burning in flames. They were all adults and one of them was a woman with a beautiful necklace. According to later reports, the woman was supposed to have stretched out her hands towards the child as it ran round and round her in a circle crying. The old man spoke once more.
'We belong to a heavenly race. For our sins we were turned into wild geese, but now at last our sins have been atoned and we can go back to heaven. Only my grandson cannot yet go back. His fate is linked with yours. I beg of you, please bring up this child as if he were your own.'
'Please do not worry. I give you my word that I'll look after him as if he were my own,' Suriya reassured him.
Whereupon the old man rubbed his hands together in prayer. As his head sank down and touched the earth, suddenly flames leaped up into the sky, and the figures and their shadows were no more.
Suriya and his cousin, with his rifle slung over his shoulder, stood there stunned and amazed, as if they had experienced the same dream together. Later however, the cousin told of how his rifle was still hot and that he had six bullets less than when he had set out earlier that morning. The grass where the six figures had fallen on their knees was still pressed flat.
And then there was the boy himself.
'From today onwards you are my son, so you need cry no more. Your mother and brothers have ascended into a beautiful country. Please come with me,' Suriya said to the boy.
Suriya led the child back to his home. The wilderness through which they passed was covered with blue-green stones, and all about was silent, but for the sound of the child's sobbing as he followed Suriya home.
Suriya discussed with his wife what name they should give the child. As they pondered the matter for a few days, the child's story spread throughout the whole of Sasha, and as everyone had taken to calling him The Goose Child, Suriya had no option but to do the same."
The old man was short of breath for a moment. As I gazed down at the moss by my feet, I could see before me in my mind's eye the terrible scene as the wild geese fell from the skies, engulfed in flames, burning pitifully. The old man looked at me for a while before resuming his story.
"At the end of spring the wheat blossoms fly twinkling over the fields. The harsh white light from the distant icebergs stings the naked eye with its fierce intensity. The fruit trees sway in the breeze and the lark sends out crystal clear waves of sound with its bright voice in the sky. The child was now six years old. One spring evening Suriya went for a walk with the child through the town. A bat flew by, like a shadow in the night, underneath the heavy, wine-red clouds.
The town's children had fastened string to their sticks and were running after them. Calling out, 'Goose child! Goose child!', they threw their sticks down, joined hands and formed a large circle around Suriya and the child.
Suriya laughed. The children were teasing the boy, as children do, singing all together, 'Goose child, goose child! You have come down from heaven to Suriya.' One of them called out, 'Goose child, you foundling, will you still be here when the spring comes?'
They all burst out laughing at this and suddenly a small stone came flying towards the goose child, hitting him on the cheek. Suriya covered the child with his body to protect him from the other children and shouted at them angrily, 'What do you think you're playing at? Has this child done anything to hurt you? Stones should never be thrown, not even as a joke!'
One by one the children came to apologize to the boy and to comfort him. One of them even wanted to give him some dried figs that he had in his pocket.
During the whole time a smile had played upon the lips of the goose child. Suriya's face broke into a smile too as he forgave the children before continuing on with their walk through the town. In the stillness of the bright yellow, agate evening mist Suriya spoke to the child.
'You were brave not to cry.'
According to what people say, the child was then supposed to have clung tightly to his father and asked,'But grandfather had seven bullets in him, didn't he?'"
The old pilgrim looked me in the face. I returned his gaze, looking into his mournful eyes. He continued with his story.
"There was another time when one evening the child could not get off to sleep. He tossed and turned restlessly on his bed.
'Mother, I just can't get to sleep,'the child said. Suriya's wife got up and went to him, gently caressing his head. The child's head was burning hot and he was trembling like a leaf. It felt as if a large three-day-old moon was floating about inside his head; it seemed to be full of fern buds. Slowly it felt as if something square was spreading out within him, something marvelously soft and white. Then the square turned into a large box. His mother was worried how hot his forehead had become.
Suriya put his hands together in prayer, sitting at his desk before the sutra he had just been copying. He then rose from his chair and made the child stand. He tied a red leather belt around the boy's waist and together they walked outside into the open air.
All the houses roundabout stood with their doors shut, and their roofs all stood in a row silhouetted under the starry sky. Suddenly the child could hear the sound of flowing water. After he had thought for a while, the child asked,'Father, does water flow at night too?'
Suriya looked at the large blue star that was rising up on the far side of the desert and answered,'Yes, water flows at night too. It doesn't matter whether it's day or night, water will always flow, except in places where the land is quite flat.'
All at once the child's fever died away and now all he wanted was to rush back to his mother.
'Father, let's go back home now,' he said pulling Suriya by the sleeve of his coat. They walked home where his mother was waiting for them, and as she closed the door behind them, the child was already back in bed, fast asleep.
I have also heard the following story about the child.
One day Suriya and the child were sitting down to eat at the dining table. Before them many kinds of food were laid out, including two carp cooked in honey. Suriya's wife gave one to her husband and the other to the child. 'I don't want any,' said the child.
'But they taste wonderful! Here, pass me your chopsticks.'
Suriya's wife took the child's chopsticks and deftly lifted the meat off the bone.
'Why don't you try some at least? It tastes so nice!'
The child watched intently as his mother divided the fish up. Suddenly he felt overwhelmed by a strange sensation in his chest. He felt unbearably miserable and sad. Jumping up from his chair, he rushed outside like an arrow flying through the air. Looking up into the sky blanketed in white cloud, the child burst out crying.
'What on earth is up with him?' Suriya's wife asked her husband in amazement. 'Go and find out what's the matter,' Suriya told his wife, a worried look on his face. But by the time she had reached the door --- so the story goes - --the child had already stopped crying. A smile was on his lips.
There was another time when Suriya and the child were walking by the horse market. A foal was sucking milk from its mother. A horse dealer dressed in coarse black clothes came and took the foal away from its mother, tied it to another foal and was about to lead them away. The foal's mother neighed loudly in despair, but the man ignored her and began to lead the young horses away. As they were about to disappear around a corner, the foal kicked out its hind legs, trying to get rid of the flies that were sitting on its belly.
The child looked again into the brown eyes of the mother horse. Suddenly he grabbed hold of Suriya and burst into tears. But Suriya did not scold him. Instead he sought to cover the child's face with his sleeve, as if to protect him. After they had left the horse market, Suriya had the child sit down on the green grass of the river bank. He took an apricot from his pocket, gave it to the child and asked in a gentle voice, 'What was it that made you cry back there?'
'But father, they took the foal away from its mother against its will!' 'That often happens to horses, you know. It has already grown quite big, so from now on it must work by itself.'
'But it is still young enough to be sucking milk from its mother. It's only a baby!'
'As long as it stays with its mother, it will always rely on her. There was nothing else to be done.'
'But father, soon they'll be making them carry heavy packs up into those ter rible mountains! And then when they run out of things to eat, they'll kill the horses for food!'
Suriya calmly told the boy not to talk like an adult and act so precociously. In fact the child's words had greatly surprised him. When the child turned twelve, Suriya sent him to a private school in the capital which was some distance way.
The child's mother sat weaving tirelessly at her spinning wheel to earn money to pay for the child's school fees and his pocket money. Winter came, covering the mountains of Tienshan with snow. The mulberry leaves, now all yellow and withered, fell rustling from the trees. One day the child returned home. Standing at the window his mother saw him approach, and went out to meet him.
Suriya continued copying his sutras as if he had not noticed a thing. 'What are you doing here, then? You should be at school.'
'But I want to work with you, mother. I have no time for studying.' Not wishing to bother her husband, Suriya's wife told the boy, 'Don't you start all that grown-up talk of yours again! Now, you get yourself straight back to school and get on with your studying otherwise you'll never amount to anything in life!'
'But mother, your hands are all rough and cracked. Yet look at mine and how soft they are!'
'You shouldn't say such things! Everyone's hands get rough as they get older. Get back to school sharpish and study, you hear! I'm counting on you to go out into the world and do something with your life. Father will give you a right telling-off when he hears what you've been up to! Be off with you now!'
The child trudged dejectedly out the garden gate and then stopped. His mother went out and walked with him for a while as far as the marsh, as he headed back towards the school.
As she turned to go, his mother told him once more, 'Be on your way now!'
But the child stood there gazing back towards the house. His mother turned round to face him again; her heart went out to him. She pulled a reed from the bushes and made it into a little flute which she gave him. Finally the child set off on his way. Soon his silhouette grew smaller and smaller as it receded into the distance whilst the cold clouds stretched out up above and the reeds bent in the breeze. All of a sudden the sound of flapping wings could be heard in the sky as a skein of wild geese flew by. Suriya looked up from his desk by the window and shuddered.
It was now the coldest time of the year. And then when the sharp winter was finally over, the wheat buds appeared, as veils of mist hovered over the desert floor like sugar water. Then came the time for the white blossoms of the apricot and the pear trees to burst forth. The trees and themeadows turned a deep green, as the clouds circled in the sky, their summits the colour of chalcedony.
It was at about this time that work began on excavating the remains of the old temple of Sasha that lay buried in sand on the outskirts of the town. A whole wall had been discovered still fully intact, on which there was a picture of three heavenly children. Everyone who saw it remarked how one of the figures was so vivid it almost seemed to be alive.
One beautiful fine day Suriya went to the capital to visit his son's teacher. Suriya thanked him for looking after his son and gave him three bundles of cloth as a present. He told the teacher that he wanted to take the child for a walk and that he would bring him back later that day.
Suriya and the child were walking through the crowded streets when without thinking Suriya said, 'Oh, what a lovely blue sky there is today. You are just at the age when you get to think how nice it'd be to have wings and to fly off up into the sky!'
The child replied despondently,'But father, I want to stay with you! I don't want to fly away!'
Suriya laughed. 'Don't worry. Nobody can simply fly off. Life just isn't like that.'
'But father, I don't want to go away! Nobody really needs to leave home, do they?' The child asked.
His father was slightly taken aback. 'What do you mean 'nobody really needs to leave home.'
'Nobody has to, do they? Nobody has to be left stranded far away from home, do they?'
'Of course not. No one has to leave home,' Suriya replied simply, lost in thought.
The two of them walked over the market square and headed for the edge of town. There was sand everywhere. Many people were standing in a big hole that had been freshly dug. Suriya and the child climbed down to join them. Facing them was an old wall on which the picture of three heavenly children could be seen, its colours worn and faded. Suriya shuddered. He felt as if he had suddenly been overwhelmed by something large and heavy that had fallen down from the distant heavens. But when he spoke, there was no trace of worry in his voice.
'This is truly remarkable. The picture is so well painted, it's uncanny. I cannot put my finger on it but somehow this heavenly child reminds me of you.'
Suriya turned to face the child. Then with a smile on his face, the child slumped to the ground. In surprise Suriya quickly grabbed hold of him with both his hands and held him tight. In his father's arms, the child murmured as if in a dream, 'Grandfather has sent me a message.'
'What's wrong with you?' Suriya called out in panic. 'You can't simply leave me like this!'
'Father, forgive me,' the child said in a weak voice. 'I am your child. It was you, in an earlier life, who painted this picture on the wall.' People were running in all directions, calling out to one another, 'It's the Goose Child! It's the Goose Child!'
The child moved his lips slightly and seemed to murmur something, but Suriya could not make out what he was saying. Or so the story goes. That is all that I know."
The old man got up to leave. I was sad to bid him farewell. I stood up and placed the palms of my hands together in greeting. "I thank you for this wonderful story you have told me. We are but strangers who have met at a spring on the edge of a desert. But I believe our meeting was not simply coincidence. We are no more than travellers whose paths have happened to cross. But be that as it may, we will walk forward together on the path to enlightenment revealed to us by the Holy Buddha. I bid you farewell and wish you a happy life."
Silently the old man returned my bow. He seemed about to say something, then suddenly he turned and without a word walked slowly into the wilderness from which I had come. I set off on my way with my palms pressed together as I walked into the lonely, stony desert, in the exact opposite direction to the path taken by the old man.