Archive for the ‘short story’ Category

A Woman and the Bell of Miidera


In the ancient monastery of Miidera there was a great bronze bell. It rang out every morning and evening, a clear, rich note, and its surface shone like sparkling dew. The priests would not allow any woman to strike it, because they thought that such an action would pollute and dull the metal, as well as bring calamity upon them.

When a certain pretty woman who lived in Kyoto heard this, she grew extremely inquisitive, and at last, unable to restrain her curiosity, she said: “I will go and see this wonderful bell of Miidera. I will make it send forth a soft note, and in its shining surface, bigger and brighter than a thousand mirrors, I will paint and powder my face and dress my hair.”

At length this vain and irreverent woman reached the belfry in which the great bell was suspended, at a time when all were absorbed in their sacred duties. She looked into the gleaming bell and saw her pretty eyes, flushed cheeks, and laughing dimples. Presently she stretched forth her little fingers, lightly touched the shining metal, and prayed that she might have as great and splendid a mirror for her own. When the bell felt this woman’s fingers, the bronze that she touched shrank, leaving a little hollow, and losing at the same time all its exquisite polish.

The same action produced an opposite effect. The woman was sucked into the hollow of the bell and she was fastened to the centre as a tongue. Great was the dismay and the people of Miidera thought it was a sign of great calamity that the bell was to be rung than struck. What is more the size of the bell had shrunk overnght! The bell of Miidera worked again but all noticed the sound was no longer the same. The priest thought the over-notes were ethereal, however expressing some great anguish with words accompanying, ‘Oh that hurts!’

compiled by Benny

(The last para is added by the complier. Source: F. Hadland Davis, Myths and Legends of Japan (London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1917



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At Asakusa, in Yedo, there lives a man called Danzayémon, the chief of the Etas. This man traces his pedigree back to Minamoto no Yoritomo, who founded the Shogunate in the year 1192 A.D. The whole of the Etas in Japan are under his jurisdiction; his subordinates are called Koyagashira, or “chiefs of the huts”; and they constitute the government of the Etas. In the “Legacy of Iyéyasu,” the 36th Law provides as follows:

‘All wandering mendicants, such as male sorcerers, female diviners, hermits, blind people, beggars, and tanners (Etas), require license to practise their trade and those who overstep the boundaries of their own classes are disobedient to existing laws’.

The occupation of the Etas is to kill and flay horses, oxen, and other beasts, to stretch drums and make shoes; and if they are very poor, they wander from house to house, working as cobblers, mending old shoes and leather, and so earn a scanty livelihood. Besides this, their daughters and young married women gain a trifle as wandering minstrels, called Torioi, playing on the shamisen, a sort of banjo, and singing ballads. They never marry out of their own fraternity, but remain apart, a despised and shunned race.

At execution by crucifixion it is the duty of the Etas to transfix the victims with spears; and, besides this, they have to perform all sorts of degrading offices about criminals, such as carrying sick prisoners from their cells to the hall of justice, and burying the bodies of those that have been executed. Thus their race is polluted and accursed, and they are hated accordingly.

Now this is how the Etas come to be under the jurisdiction of Danzayémon:

When Minamoto no Yoritomo was yet a child, his father, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, fought with Taira no Kiyomori, and was killed by treachery: so his family was ruined; and Yoshitomo’s concubine, whose name was Tokiwa, took her children and fled from the house, to save her own and their lives. But Kiyomori, desiring to destroy the family of Yoshitomo root and branch, ordered his retainers to divide themselves into bands, and seek out the children. At last they were found; but Tokiwa was so exceedingly beautiful that Kiyomori was inflamed with love for her, and desired her to become his own concubine. Then Tokiwa told Kiyomori that if he would spare her little ones she would share his couch; but that if he killed her children she would destroy herself rather than yield to his desire. When he heard this, Kiyomori, bewildered by the beauty of Tokiwa, spared the lives of her children, but banished them from the capital.

So Yoritomo was sent to Hirugakojima, in the province of Idzu; and when he grew up and became a man, he married the daughter of a peasant. After a while Yoritomo left the province, and went to the wars, leaving his wife pregnant; and in due time she was delivered of a male child, to the delight of her parents, who rejoiced that their daughter should bear seed to a nobleman; but she soon fell sick and died, and the old people took charge of the babe. And when they also died, the care of the child fell to his mother’s kinsmen, and he grew up to be a peasant.

Now Kiyomori, the enemy of Yoritomo, had been gathered to his fathers; and Yoritomo had avenged the death of his father by slaying Munémori, the son of Kiyomori; and there was peace throughout the land. And Yoritomo became the chief of all the noble houses in Japan, and first established the government of the country. When Yoritomo had thus raised himself to power, the son that his peasant wife had born to him could have claimed his rightful claim to the protection of his father. He would have been made lord over a province; but he took no thought of this, and remained a tiller of the earth, forfeiting a glorious inheritance; and his descendants after him lived as peasants in the same village, increasing in prosperity and in good repute among their neighbors.

But the princely line of Yoritomo came to an end in three generations, and the house of Hojo was all-powerful in the land.

Now it happened that the head of the house of Hojo heard that a descendant of Yoritomo was living as a peasant in the land, so he summoned him and said: “It is a hard thing to see the son of an illustrious house live and die a peasant. I will promote you to the rank of Samurai.”

Then the peasant answered: “My lord, if I become a Samurai, and the retainer of some noble, I shall not be so happy as when I was my own master. If I may not remain a husbandman, let me be a chief over men, however humble they may be.”

But my lord Hojo was angry at this, and thinking to punish the peasant for his insolence, said: “Since you wish to become a chief over men, no matter how humble, there is no means of gratifying your strange wish but by making you chief over the Etas of the whole country. So now see that you rule them well.”

When he heard this, the peasant was afraid; but because he had said that he wished to become a chief over men, however humble, he could not choose but become chief of the Etas, he and his children after him for ever; and Danzayémon, who rules the Etas at the present time, and lives at Asakusa, is his lineal descendant.

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men as the Bard would say. (There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’ (Ac.4.sc3-Julius Caesar )



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Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman. The old man, who had a kind heart, kept a young sparrow, which he tenderly nurtured. But the dame was a cross-grained old thing; and one day, when the sparrow had pecked at some paste with which she was going to starch her linen, she flew into a great rage, and cut the sparrow’s tongue and let it loose.

When the old man came home from the hills and found that the bird had flown, he asked what had become of it; so the old woman answered that she had cut its tongue and let it go, because it had stolen her starching-paste. Now the old man, hearing this cruel tale, was sorely grieved, and thought to himself: “Alas! Where can my bird be gone? Poor thing! Poor little tongue-cut sparrow! Where is your home now?” and he wandered far and wide, seeking for his pet, and crying: “Mr. Sparrow! Mr. Sparrow! Where are you living?”

One day, at the foot of a certain mountain, the old man fell in with the lost bird; and when they had congratulated one another on their mutual safety, the sparrow led the old man to his home, and, having introduced him to his wife and chicks, set before him all sorts of dainties, and entertained him hospitably.

“Please partake of our humble fare,” said the sparrow. Poor as it is, you are very welcome.”

“What a polite sparrow!” answered the old man, who remained for a long time as the sparrow’s guest, and was daily feasted right royally. At last the old man said that he must take his leave and return home; and the bird, offering him two wicker baskets, begged him to carry them with him as a parting present. One of the baskets was heavy, and the other was light; so the old man, saying that as he was feeble and stricken in years he would only accept the light one, shouldered it, and trudged off home, leaving the sparrow family disconsolate at parting from him.

When the old man got home, the dame grew very angry, and began to scold him saying: “Well, and pray where have you been this many a day? A pretty thing, indeed, to be gadding about at your time of life!”

“Oh!” replied he, “I have been on a visit to the sparrows; and when I came away, they gave me this wicker basket as a parting gift.” Then they opened the basket to see what was inside, and, lo and behold, it was full of gold and silver and precious things. When the old woman, who was as greedy as she was cross, saw all the riches displayed before her, she changed her scolding strain, and could not contain herself for joy.

“I’ll go and call upon the sparrows, too,” said she, “and get a pretty present.” So she asked the old man the way to the sparrows’ house, and set forth on her journey.

Following his direction, she at last met the tongue-cut sparrow, and exclaimed: “Well met! Well met, Mr. Sparrow! I have been looking forward to the pleasure of seeing you.” So she tried to flatter and cajole the sparrow by soft speeches.

The bird could not but invite the dame to its home; but it took no pains to feast her, and said nothing about a parting gift. She, however, was not to be put off; so she asked for something to carry away with her in remembrance of her visit. The sparrow accordingly produced two baskets, as before, and the greedy old woman, choosing the heavier of the two, carried it off with her. But when she opened the basket to see what was inside, all sorts of hobgoblins and elves sprang out of it, and began to torment her.


(ack: AB Mitford-Tales of Old Japan vol-1/MacMillen&Co, London-1871)

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Visu the Woodsman and the Old Priest


Many years ago there lived on the then barren plain of Suruga a woodsman by the name of Visu. He was a giant in stature, and lived in a hut with his wife and children.

One day Visu received a visit from an old priest, who said to him: “Honorable woodsman, I am afraid you never pray.”

Visu replied: “If you had a wife and a large family to keep, you would never have time to pray.”

This remark made the priest angry, and the old man gave the woodcutter a vivid description of the horror of being reborn as a toad, or a mouse, or an insect for millions of years. Such lurid details were not to Visu’s liking, and he accordingly promised the priest that in future he would pray.

“Work and pray,” said the priest as he took his departure.

Unfortunately Visu did nothing but pray. He prayed all day long and refused to do any work, so that his rice crops withered and his wife and family starved. Visu’s wife, who had hitherto never said a harsh or bitter word to her husband, now became extremely angry, and, pointing to the poor thin bodies of her children, she exclaimed: “Rise, Visu, take up your ax and do something more helpful to us all than the mere mumbling of prayers!”

Visu was so utterly amazed at what his wife had said that it was some time before he could think of a fitting reply. When he did so his words came hot and strong to the ears of his poor, much-wronged wife.

“Woman,” said he, “the Gods come first. You are an impertinent creature to speak to me so, and I will have nothing more to do with you!” Visu snatched up his ax and, without looking round to say farewell, he left the hut, strode out of the wood, and climbed up Fujiyama, where a mist hid him from sight.

When Visu had seated himself upon the mountain he heard a soft rustling sound, and immediately afterward saw a fox dart into a thicket. Now Visu deemed it extremely lucky to see a fox, and, forgetting his prayers, he sprang up, and ran hither and thither in the hope of again finding this sharp-nosed little creature.

He was about to give up the chase when, coming to an open space in a wood, he saw two ladies sitting down by a brook playing go. The woodsman was so completely fascinated that he could do nothing but sit down and watch them. There was no sound except the soft click of pieces on the board and the song of the running brook. The ladies took no notice of Visu, for they seemed to be playing a strange game that had no end, a game that entirely absorbed their attention. Visu could not keep his eyes off these fair women. He watched their long black hair and the little quick hands that shot out now and again from their big silk sleeves in order to move the pieces.

After he had been sitting there for three hundred years, though to him it was but a summer’s afternoon, he saw that one of the players had made a false move. “Wrong, most lovely lady!” he exclaimed excitedly. In a moment these women turned into foxes and ran away.

When Visu attempted to pursue them he found to his horror that his limbs were terribly stiff, that his hair was very long, and that his beard touched the ground. He discovered, moreover, that the handle of his ax, though made of the hardest wood, had crumbled away into a little heap of dust.

After many painful efforts Visu was able to stand on his feet and proceed very slowly toward his little home. When he reached the spot he was surprised to see no hut, and, perceiving a very old woman, he said: “Good lady, I am amazed to find that my little home has disappeared. I went away this afternoon, and now in the evening it has vanished!”

The old woman, who believed that a madman was addressing her, inquired his name. When she was told, she exclaimed: “Bah! You must indeed be mad! Visu lived three hundred years ago! He went away one day, and he never came back again.”

“Three hundred years!” murmured Visu. “It cannot be possible. Where are my dear wife and children?”

“Buried!” hissed the old woman, “and, if what you say is true, you children’s children too. The Gods have prolonged your miserable life in punishment for having neglected your wife and little children.”

Big tears ran down Visu’s withered cheeks as he said in a husky voice: “I have lost my manhood. I have prayed when my dear ones starved and needed the labor of my once strong hands. Old woman, remember my last words: “If you pray, work too!”

We do not know how long the poor but repentant Visu lived after he returned from his strange adventures. His white spirit is still said to haunt Fujiyama when the moon shines brightly.

This story reminds us of Washington Irving’s Rp Van Winkle. What conclusion can we draw from this? There is nothing new under the sun, is it not?  Stories from other lands travel freely like pollens in the air.  Some are sensitive to them and some are not. Creative spirits are such free spirits to spin a yarn out of what impresses upon them and sign it as theirs. Who shall be affected by the idea out of air and make a story is chance. Washington Irving clothed  his memorable tale with the praxis and modes prevailing of his time. In earlier posts I had discussed it as Cosmic Mind. For example  the story of Cain and Abel circulates down through ages. Presto! one rehashes this murder to mean  as ‘Jihad’ . Cain killed his own brother is it not?  Some clerics who have nothing else to do give it a cock and bull  story treatment. There are those who insist on literal interpreting such ideas passed through several hands so much so that the coin they tender is of no value. When they teach from pulpit there are fools who imagine they have divine sanction in slaughtering infidels. Some criminals who have not ever thought of doing a day’s labour carry it out using some others as suicide bombers. They are touted as martyrs. It is all play of words. Only that rest of the world catches fire. We see it happening in our times.




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In ancient days there lived in a remote part of Japan a man and his wife, and they were blessed with a little girl, who was the pet and idol of her parents. On one occasion the man was called away on business in distant Kyoto. Before he went he told his daughter that if she were good and dutiful to her mother he would bring her back a present she would prize very highly. Then the good man took his departure, mother and daughter watching him go.

At last he returned to his home, and after his wife and child had taken off his large hat and sandals he sat down upon the white mats and opened a bamboo basket, watching the eager gaze of his little child. He took out a wonderful doll and a lacquer box of cakes and put them into her outstretched hands. Once more he dived into his basket, and presented his wife with a metal mirror. Its convex surface shone brightly, while upon its back there was a design of pine trees and storks.

The good man’s wife had never seen a mirror before, and on gazing into it she was under the impression that another woman looked out upon her as she gazed with growing wonder. Her husband explained the mystery and bade her take great care of the mirror.

Not long after this happy homecoming and distribution of presents the woman became very ill. Just before she died she called to her little daughter, and said: “Dear child, when I am dead take every care of your father. You will miss me when I have left you. But take this mirror, and when you feel most lonely look into it and you will always see me.” Having said these words she passed away.

In due time the man married again, and his wife was not at all kind to her stepdaughter. But the little one, remembering her mother’s words, would retire to a corner and eagerly look into the mirror, where it seemed to her that she saw her dear mother’s face, not drawn in pain as she had seen it on her deathbed, but young and beautiful.

One day this child’s stepmother chanced to see her crouching in a corner over an object she could not quite see, murmuring to herself. This ignorant woman, who detested the child and believed that her stepdaughter detested her in return, fancied that this little one was performing some strange magical art–perhaps making an image and sticking pins into it. Full of these notions, the stepmother went to her husband and told him that his wicked child was doing her best to kill her by witchcraft.

When the master of the house had listened to this extraordinary recital he went straight to his daughter’s room. He took her by surprise, and immediately the girl saw him she slipped the mirror into her sleeve. For the first time her doting father grew angry, and he feared that there was, after all, truth in what his wife had told him, and he repeated her tale forthwith.

When his daughter had heard this unjust accusation she was amazed at her father’s words, and she told him that she loved him far too well ever to attempt or wish to kill his wife, who she knew was dear to him.

“What have you hidden in your sleeve?” said her father, only half convinced and still much puzzled.

“The mirror you gave my mother, and which she on her deathbed gave to me. Every time I look into its shining surface I see the face of my dear mother, young and beautiful. When my heart aches–and oh! it has ached so much lately–I take out the mirror, and mother’s face, with sweet, kind smile, brings me peace, and helps me to bear hard words and cross looks.”

Then the man understood and loved his child the more for her filial piety. Even the girl’s stepmother, when she knew what had really taken place, was ashamed and asked forgiveness. And this child, who believed she had seen her mother’s face in the mirror, forgave, and trouble forever departed from the home.

(Source: F  Hadland Davis- Myths and Legends of Japan/George G. Harrap&co,London 1912)

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The Painted Wall


A Kiang-si gentleman, named Meng Lung-tan, was lodging at the capital with a Mr. Chu, M.A., when one day chance led them to a certain monastery, within which they found no spacious halls or meditation chambers, but only an old priest in dishabille. On observing the visitors, he arranged his dress and went forward to meet them, leading them round and showing whatever there was to be seen.

In the chapel they saw an image of Chih Kung, and the walls on either side were beautifully painted with life-like representations of men and animals. On the east side were pictured a number of fairies, among whom was a young girl whose maiden tresses were not yet confined by the matron’s knot. She was picking flowers and gently smiling, while her cherry lips seemed about to move, and the moisture of her eyes to overflow. Mr. Chu gazed at her for a long time without taking his eyes off, until at last he became unconscious of anything but the thoughts that were engrossing him. Then, suddenly he felt himself floating in the air, as if riding on a cloud, and found himself passing through the wall, where halls and pavilions stretched away one after another, unlike the abodes of mortals.

Here an old priest was preaching the Law of Buddha, surrounded by a large crowd of listeners. Mr. Chu mingled with the throng and after a few moments, perceived a gentle tug at his sleeve. Turning round, he saw the young girl above-mentioned, who walked laughing away. Mr. Chu at once followed her and passing a winding balustrade, arrived at a small apartment beyond which he dared not venture farther. But the young lady, looking back, waved the flowers she had in her hand as though beckoning him to come on. He accordingly entered and found nobody else within. Then they fell on their knees and worshipped heaven and earth together,’ and rose up as man and wife, after which the bride went away, bidding Mr. Chu keep quiet until she came back.

This went on for a couple of days, when the young lady’s companions began to smell a rat and discovered Mr. Chu’s hiding place. Thereupon they all laughed and said, “My dear, you are now a married woman, and should leave off that maidenly coiffure.” So they gave her the proper hair-pins and head ornaments, and bade her go bind her hair, at which she blushed very much but said nothing. Then one of them cried out, “My sisters, let us be off. Two’s company, more’s none.” At this they all giggled again and went away.

Mr. Chu found his wife very much improved by the alteration in the style of her hair. The high top-knot and the coronet of pendants were very becoming to her. But suddenly they heard a sound like the tramping of heavy-soled boots, accompanied by the clanking of chains and the noise of angry discussion. The bride jumped up in a fright, and she and Mr. Chu peeped out. They saw a man clad in golden armor, with a face as black as jet, carrying in his hands chains and whips, and surrounded by all the girls. He asked, “Are you all here ?”

“All,” they replied.

“If,” said he, “any mortal is here concealed amongst you, denounce him at once, and lay not up sorrow for yourselves.” Here they all answered as before that there was no one. The man then made a movement as if he would search the place, upon which the bride was dreadfully alarmed, and her face turned the colour of ashes. In her terror she said to Mr. Chu, “Hide yourself under the bed,” and opening a small lattice in the wall, disappeared herself. Mr. Chu in his concealment hardly dared to draw his breath; and in a little while he heard the boots tramp into the room and out again, the sound of the voices getting gradually fainter and fainter in the distance. This reassured him, but he still heard the voices of people going backwards and forwards outside; and having been a long time in a cramped position, his ears began to sing as if there was a locust in them, and his eyes to burn like fire. It was almost unbearable. However, he remained quietly awaiting the return of the young lady without giving a thought to the why and wherefore of his present position.

Meanwhile, Meng Lung-tan had noticed the sudden disappearance of his friend, and thinking something was wrong, asked the priest where he was. “He has gone to hear the preaching of the Law,” replied the priest.

“Where ?” said Mr. Meng.

“Oh, not very far,” was the answer. Then with his finger the old priest tapped the wall and called out. “Friend Chu ! what makes you stay away so long?” At this, the likeness of Mr. Chu was figured upon the wall, with his ear inclined in the attitude of one listening. The priest added, “Your friend here has been waiting for you some time;” and immediately Mr. Chu descended from the wall, standing transfixed like a block of wood, with starting eyeballs and trembling legs. Mr. Meng was much terrified, and asked him quietly what was the matter. Now the matter was that while concealed under the bed he had heard a noise resembling thunder and had rushed out to see what it was.

Then they all noticed that the young lady on the wall with the maiden’s tresses had changed the style of her coiffure to that of a married woman. Mr. Chu was greatly astonished at this and asked the old priest the reason.

He replied, “Visions have their origin in those who see them: what explanation can I give ?” This answer was very unsatisfactory to Mr. Chu; neither did his friend, who was rather frightened, know what to make of it all; so they descended the temple steps and went away.




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The Soldier’s Peaches- Stuart Cloet (1897-1976)



Mrs. Brennen took snuff. She got it out of her grandson’s store; going in and helping herself from the big tin on the second shelf. It was a habit her family deplored. Mrs. Brennen did not like snuff much. It was one of the things she had got over. It made her cough. But the fact that her family deplored her taking it prevented her from giving it up completely. She drank a little too. Not much; just enough to get “tiddly.” That was what she called it, “I’m a little tiddly to-day,” she’d say, and the family didn’t like that either. Nor did she, save for the fun of shocking them and the interest outwitting them gave her.

An old woman did not have much fun, and she had her reputation as a character to keep up. Sometimes she wished she was not a character.

“Mad,” people called her behind her back; “eccentric,” to her face. “Dear Mrs. Brennen, you would do that. You are so eccentric.” “Mad” she would not agree to; “eccentric,” yes; if it was eccentric to like sitting on the stoep in the sun and only talking when you wanted to. There was too much talk in the world. Sometimes she would go for days without talking. “One of her spells,” they called it. Oh, yes, she knew what they said: “Old Mrs. Brennen is having one of her spells.” But she was too busy thinking to worry about what people thought. “Let ’em talk,” she said. “If they’d seen what I’ve seen, they’d stay silent. If they’d seen what I’ve seen, they’d have something to think about. Lot of damned old women! That’s what they are, men and all.” Her family made her laugh with their goings-on. When they reached her age, if they ever did, they’d know that nothing mattered very much. She took another pinch of snuff. Some of it slipped between her fingers on to her black alpaca dress. She flicked it off with the back of her fingers and fumed to watch a span of oxen pull up to the store.

The voorloper bent down to pick up some clods to throw into the faces of the oxen. The driver whistled and turned the handle of the brake. The big wheels locked, dragged on a yard or two and stopped. Taking off his hat, the driver went into the store. The voorloper sat in the dust under the horns of the leaders.

Mrs. Brennen wondered how many wagons she had seen pull up like that since she had come to Brennen’s Store as a bride. Thousands and thousands of wagons. Thousands of men, too–white men, Kaffirs, men on foot, in Cape carts, in spiders, or riding, and now they came in motor-cars. Mrs. Brennen did not like motor-cars. Of course they saved time. But what did one do with the time one saved? No one could tell her that. She chuckled. They couldn’t tell her, because they didn’t know.

She had seen two wars and some native troubles. Once when Brennen was away, the store had been burned by Kaffirs. She had just escaped. A friendly native had warned her. She had hidden in the bush. She had taken Susie with her–a sweet little dog. She had never had another dog like Susie-black and white, as soft to touch as silk, with a wet pink nose. Generally, black-and-white dogs had black noses, but Susie’s had been pink. As she crouched among the rocks, the Kaffirs had come quite near her. Susie had tried to bark and she had held her between her knees and strangled her. Then the Kaffirs had gone and she had buried Susie. The road had been moved since then, and the new store built. Susie was buried about where the wagon stood now. She looked at her hands. They were very frail, veined, knotted and lumpy with gout. Once they had been beautiful. Brennen had said she had beautiful hands. Once they had strangled a pet dog while wild Kaffirs swarmed round her.

They were off-loading the wagon. Mealier. Her grandson, George, was buying them, then. He would pay too much for them. He always paid too much for everything. She thought of a horse he had bought once. That must have been twenty years ago. Like all horses said to be salted, it had died of horse sickness. She had told him it wasn’t salted. Anyone could see it was not salted. A salted horse had a look. You couldn’t explain it. You just knew the look it had.

George came out of the store now. A stupid boy. He always had been stupid.

“Don’t pay ten shillings a bag!” she shouted. “Don’t pay more than eight; and sample them!” If it wasn’t for me, I don’t believe he’d sample them, she thought. She watched him drive a knife with a hollow groove into the bags, emptying the pips into his hand. Some chickens ran out to pick up the fallen mealiest One of them picked a tick from the heel of the near wheeler–a big red and white ox that was chewing its cud.

Mrs. Brennen closed her eyes. Sometimes they forgot who she was. Yes, sometimes they forgot that it was still her store. That she was Cecelia Brennen, the mother of them all. The mother of a multitude of fools. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. It was hard to keep track of them now. Each year they came to show her the new babies they had bred. She thought of her first grandson. She had been so pleased with him. She looked at George; he had been the first grandson. He was leaning against the door of the store. Babies were like everything else; when there were so many of them, they became commonplace. It was hard to remember their names or even their mothers’ names. She liked the Kaffir babies best–black like puppies, and pleasantly nameless. The Kaffir women who brought them to her to admire did not expect her to remember anything; all they wanted was a smile and a present. But that was what most people wanted, when you came to think of it–a smile and a present.

She nodded her head. They thought her memory had gone; but she knew more than the whole pack of them put together. Knew everything that was worth remembering. Ninety-three, and the pattern of her life trailed out like a cloak behind her–her loves and hates, that had once been so hot and cold, all meaningless now–just part of the fabric; brilliant threads that had been woven through it. Remember–she remembered all right. The things she forgot, like the names of her great-grandchildren, and of the women her grandsons had married, were not important. What did it matter if she did not recognise them all, so long as they knew her? Besides, women all looked the same now. They had no character–short curly hair, red lips, red nails and no shape.

She watched the wagon go. The driver shouted and clapped his whip. The voorloper trotted in front of the running oxen. The hind wheels were still locked, and dragged. That was like a Kaffir, to start his span with the brake on. The driver clapped his whip again and took off the brake, then he ran forward and jumped on to the disselboom. She remembered a man being brought into the store who had been run over that way. He had slipped and the wheels had gone over his legs. Empty of ballast, the wagon moved noisily. One wheel let out piercing squeaks. Grease, Mrs. Brennen thought. George should have noticed it and sold him some grease.

She stared down the road. It was red, unmetalled, dusty, and wide enough to turn a span. Part of it was bordered with big blue gums; grey foliaged untidy trees whose bark hung in torn white ribbons from the trunks. There was the bottle store, the chemist’s, the Standard Bank, the coolie store, and the usual white houses with red roofs that got smaller and more disreputable as the road went on. The best part of the dorp was behind her. That was where the doctor lived, and the bank manager, and Mr. Fairburn. No one knew quite what Mr. Fairburn did or where he got his money. That was where George wanted to live. He thought it was common to live opposite the store. He wanted to drive down to it in his new car each day, as if he was a professional man.

She laughed. Perhaps that was it, or perhaps he wanted her tucked away safely where she could not see everything that went on. But the store was her life. It did not change, like the children. It did not die. It did not go away. It grew, but it grew slowly and precisely. You knew which way it was going to grow. Seventy years was a long time to sit in one place. She had been asked why she did not travel! Travel. Why go and look for life when it was going on all around you if you had eyes to see and waited long enough? She thought of the story of the two hunters. One had walked for miles, looking for game. The other had sat near a water-hole. The first had killed nothing. The second had taken what he wanted. It was better and less exhausting to let things come to you than to go and search for them. The store was like a water-hole–everyone had to come to it in the end. If they wanted a needle or a plough, they came to Brennen’s.

She saw a car. What a dust it threw up! It came from Pretoria. It was many years since she had been there. They said Church Square was now a garden. It had been the outspan. They had often outspanned there in the old days. Sometimes there had been two hundred wagons, Lying wheel to wheel. But the great days were gone, and where were the men to day who could compare with the men she had known then? Men like the old president, Joubert, De Wet, De la Rey, Cecil Rhodes, or Doctor Jim. Men like Brennen her husband. That was another reason she sat in the store all day. Brennen was with her. She could feel his company.

She looked at George. He had not moved. George was fat. She hated fat men. A fat woman was comfortable, but a fat man an abomination.

The car stopped at the store. A young man got out; he had a letter in his hand. He looked at the notice outside the store. Then he went up to George and gave him the letter. She would find out what was in it later. A man in a car bringing George a letter.

George was bringing him over. He looked like an Englishman. There was even something familiar about him. The turn of his head or the way he walked.

“She may know,” she heard George say, “but she’s difficult. She has spells.”

That was another of George’s delusions–that she was deaf. She hated being shouted at, but it was worth letting them think it for the asides she heard.

“This is Mr. Vane,” George said, putting his mouth to her ear. “He has come from England, Ouma.”

She put out her hand. “I can see he comes from England,” she said. “Look at his boots.” Mrs. Brennen wondered if she would take snuff now or later. He seemed a nice young man, fresh complexioned, very clean and shiny, with reddish hair.

“Sit down,” she said.

He sat down.

“How much did you pay for those mealies, George?” she asked.

“Nine shillings.” He would go in a minute and leave her with the young man. George got up. “I said you weren’t to pay more than eight.”

She looked him up and down. Once she had had great hopes of George.

“I’II be going,” George said. “See you later.”

“Thank you,” the Englishman said. “I do hope I’m not being a nuisance, Mrs. Brennen.”

“Nothing is a nuisance now,” she said.

She got her snuff-box. “Take snuff?” she asked. “No, thank you.”

“Quite right, young man. A filthy habit. He”–she pointed to George’s back–“thinks I am a disgrace to the family.” She chuckled. “But I bred them. If it wasn’t for me, there’d be no family–and the store is mine. That’s what they don’t like. They’d like to sell the store and go into something else–too grand for Brennen’s general store. Ride round in motor-cars. That’s what they want to do–just ride round and round. There’s no sense in riding round and round.” She looked at her visitor. He seemed a little bewildered. Never seen anyone like me before, she thought.

“Never seen anyone like me, have you?” she asked. “And you won’t again, young man; I’m one of the last of them. Real people, we were. Men and women. Real,” she said. She closed her eyes. “What do you want?” she asked. “Why did you come here? Who gave you a letter to George? No good having a letter to George. He’s a fool. He’s my grandson, and I know.”

“It’s a long story.” Francis Vane lit a cigarette. He wondered how to begin. “It’s my father,” he said. “You see, his father–my grandfather–was killed near here with the Three Hundred and First, and I wondered if anyone could tell me about it. They sent me to George Brennen. I had a letter to him.”

“No good sending anyone to him,” Mrs. Brennen said.

“Do you remember them coming here?” Vane asked. “It was in November 1880.”

“Of course I remember,” Mrs. Brennen said. “John–that’s George’s father–was ill then. We thought he would die, and then they came. ‘Kiss me Mother . . . kiss your darling daughter’–that’s the tune they played as they marched in. They had a doctor with them–a Captain Bull. He saved John’s life and we gave him a cage of wild birds. . . . But what do you want to know? she asked.

“I want to know how it happened. You see, my grandfather commanded the Three Hundred and First. He was killed. They said it was his fault That he was incompetent. My father is very old now and he broods about it. He wants to know where his father is buried. He wants to know what happened. He’s very old,” he said again.

“I’m very old,” Mrs. Brennen said, “and I know; I brood too. Thinking, I call it. Your grandfather. Then that’s it. That’s why I thought I’d seen you before. I danced with him that night. He danced well. We gave them a dance in the old store.” She nodded to the warehouse behind the present building. “We cleared everything out. Ploughs, harrows, soft goods and all. We put buck sails over them and gave the officers a dance. They had come from Lydenburg and were going to Pretoria. They didn’t think there’d be a war. They said it would be a massacre if it came–Boars against trained troops like them. The Three Hundred and First,” Mrs. Brennen said. “Yes, the Three Hundred and First.”

Francis Vane leaned forward.

Mrs. Brennen saw it all. She saw them march in. “Kiss me, Mother . . . kiss your darling daughter.” The drum-major tossed his stick, caught it, twirled it; men in red–an endless stream of sunburnt young men in red-mounted officers, rumbling transport, mules, baggage, wagons drawn by oxen, dogs that followed the battalion with lolling tongues.

For a day Brennensdorp had been gay, populated with soldiers. They had swarmed everywhere–walking about in pairs, standing in groups, or Lying on their backs in the shade of the gum trees–they had been small then and their shade thin. She saw them washing in buckets, their young chests bare, their hair wet, their eyes wrinkled against the soapy water. She had propped Johnny up so that he could see the soldiers. And it had been hot. It was not hot like that now. It had been so hot that the sheets of corrugated iron on the roof cracked as they pulled at the nails. The trees had danced up and down on the veld and the road was wet with mirage water. The red jackets of the troops had made it seem hotter. Wherever you looked there were red jackets. How they worked to empty the store! Everyone had helped. They had thrown mealie meal on the floor to make it fit for dancing.

The colonel had come to thank her. “Thank you, Mrs. Brennen,” he had said. “It is very kind of you to entertain us like this.”

Colonel Vane had admired her. She had seen it in his eyes. “I hear your little boy is ill” he said. “Perhaps we can help you. Would you like to see Captain Bull, our doctor?”

She had seen him. A kindly man. He had come at once in his dusty boots. Brennen had given him beer. The bottles were kept cool in a canvas bucket that hung from the roof. “I’ll stay with him, Mrs. Brennen,” the doctor said, and he had stayed watching at the bedside.

The dance had been an event. Boys had been sent out to call in the countryside–all that were loyal, that is–and they had come, every man and woman and girl for miles round. Both sides of the street had been full of their Cape carts and buggies. The regimental band played tune after tune. The doorway was filled with watching Tommies. The dust and mealie flour had risen off the floor in clouds. It clung to the dresses of the girls, to the clothes and moustaches of the men. Music, laughter and some kissing.

There was a tale she had heard about a clown who had made jokes while his little son was dying. She felt like that clown. She kept going in to look at Johnny. The doctor put his finger to his lips and motioned her away. She had gone away. . . .

“May I have the pleasure of this dance, Mrs. Brennen?”


“How well you dance, Mrs. Brennen.”

“How light you are, Mrs. Brennen.”

What did they expect, she wondered. It was strange how one could go on saying and doing all the right things when one was feeling nothing. It was as if one stood some way off watching oneself. She had noticed this, time and again. That cannot be me. This cannot be me. Cecelia Brennen could not be doing this. But Cecelia Brennen was doing it. Her place was with her son; her place was at the dance. She was Mrs. Brennen, the wife of John Brennen, of Brennensdorp. It was her place to entertain the soldiers of the Queen.

There had been a great killing of beasts and fowls, a great baking, a great emptying of casks of wine and brandy. She had seen to it all, and to her sick child as well. She had worn cyclamen taffeta with a bustle and hoops.

Her hair hung in ringlets round her neck. A pretty young thing–the belle of the ball and the mother of a dying child. But he had not died. If only Johnny can grow up strong and healthy, like these officers, she thought. If only— Excusing herself, she ran to see him. Captain Bull was asleep; the child slept, too, his hand in that of the soldier. How tired he looked!

In the morning Johnny was better. “He’ll come through,” the doctor said. He made up medicine for him in a whisky bottle. She and Brennen had wondered what they could give him. They could not give money. “Give him my cage of birds,” Johnny said. They were beautiful birds; little finks of every colour–rooibekkies, blouvinks, kingvinks. They were all tame, and sang and twittered on their perches. She had taken them to Captain Bull. “A present from Johnny,” she said. Brennen had come at that moment with a Kaffir carrying a case of champagne. The champagne and the birds had been stowed in the doctor’s cart. The case of wine on the bed, and the cage slung from the roof and lashed to the sides, so that it should not swing.

“Good morning, Mrs. Brennen.” Colonel Vane rode up. “I am glad to hear your little boy is better.”

Behind the colonel there was a donkey wagon loaded with yellow peaches. It had just come in and the soldiers were crowded round it, eating peaches and stuffing them into their haversacks to eat on the march. The colonel was laughing.

“Fruit’s good for them,” he said.

“It’s a good year for peaches. And the trees in the district are weighed down with them,” she said.

Then the bugles sounded. The colour-sergeants shouted, “Fall in.” The markers were waiting. The men, fully accoutred, ruddy with sleep, ran out. Transport drivers cursed as their hubs bumped. The Three Hundred and First was going. They had come and they were going.

“Kiss me, Mother . . . kiss your darling daughter”–the band struck up again. Like a red snake the regiment swung out of the dorp in a cloud of dust. Then the dust fell. To-night they would lie in Pretoria.

The Three Hundred and First had gone and Johnny would get well. She was sitting with Johnny when it happened. A man came galloping down the street. A private soldier, wounded, riding an officer’s charger. It was streaked with sweat, its chest splashed with foam, its eyes were wild. She recognised the horse. It was Colonel Vane’s horse. The big bay she had patted as he said good-bye.

The soldier pulled up and almost fell from the saddle.

“What is it?” she said. “Oh, what is it?” She knelt beside him in the dust.

“The doctor sent me to get help! They are all finished!” he said. “They’re cut to hell–the whole bloody lot! We walked into it! The colonel’s dead! I took his horse!” He began to cry. “They got us–they got us fair! It was murder!”

He was only a boy. She held him in her arms and the blood from the wound in his neck ran on to her shoulder. Suddenly he sat up. “Bandages,” he said, “and brandy . . . and food! That’s what the doctor said! We’ve got no bandages! They’re all bleeding, and nothing to stop it! Oh, God, Mrs. Brennen, nothing to stop it! I must get back!” He dragged the horse towards him and tried to mount.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know, but I must go back. I can’t stay here.”

“Where is it? Where did it happen?”

“At the little river–they were all round us.”

“The Spruit?”

“That’s what they call it.”

Brennen was inspanning already, loading up the Cape cart. That would be the quickest; the wagons could follow. It was not very far. She ran into the house for sheets, towels, bedding, mattresses, blankets, brandy; the house and store were emptied of everything that might be useful.

She climbed into the cart beside her husband. He had put in four horses instead of two.

“Trot the oxen, Jan!” he shouted to the driver who was inspanning.

“They cannot trot so far, baas!

“Trot them and be damned!” Brennen said.

And then they were off at a gallop, rocking first on one wheel and then on the other as they hit the bumps in the road. Hardly checking for the drift, they splashed through the water. Brennen hit the horses as they slowed up to pull out of it. She had never seen him hit a horse before. They sprang into the traces again with such a jerk that she thought the swingletree would break loose. She looked at the pole. Brennen had tied it with a double riem. They were on the flat now. The horses were bolting. Let them bolt. Nothing could go wrong with a strong cart and good gear on a straight road unless one of the horses fell. The whip clapped like a pistol as Brennen urged them to greater speed. The four reins were like live things in his hands as he cried out the horses’ names: “Bles! Charlie! Klinkie! Chaka!” Chaka was a new black horse. Brennen had put him on the off lead, where he could get at him best with his whip. “Come, Bles! . . . Come, Charlie!” She gripped the arms of her chair. What a drive it had been. She smelt the dust in her nostrils.

The road was always dusty, but now it had been made worse by the passing of a thousand men and their transport. The dust rose in clouds, obliterating everything, so that sometimes she could see only the horses’ ears and their tossing manes. The reins went down to nothing. They disappeared into the dust. She could see no road. That they kept on it was a miracle.

And then they got there. The horses shied and pulled across the road as the leaders almost ran into an overturned wagon.

The dust fell slowly.

“You’ve come.” It was the boy on the colonel’s horse. “I was coming back to find you,” he said.

They got out of the cart. Some soldiers took the horses out. She saw it all–the undulating ground, the bush, the trees by the road–many of them scored by bullets. There was blood everywhere. It ran down the sloping road into pools.

They helped the doctor to move the men, to bandage, to cut more bandages. Tents were pitched, food cooked, great cauldrons of hot water got ready to dress the wounded. She had gone in to Colonel Vane. His legs were off. While she was with him, Frantz Joubert, the Boer commandant, had come in.

“Will you drink with me, Commandant?” the colonel said. “And you, too, Mrs. Brennen.” It was the champagne her husband had given the doctor. They drank. Joubert said, “Here’s to Queen Victoria. May she live long and take her soldiers from the Transvaal.”

They had wrapped the dead in blankets and buried them where they fell along the side of the road, on the veld where they had taken up their positions. Beside almost every body there were peaches; they had fallen from the hands of the men as they were ambushed. Their pipe-clayed haversacks still bulged with them. The dead of the Three Hundred and First were buried with their peaches where they lay.

She saw Johnny’s cage of birds. It was broken and the birds were free. The wild birds were free once more and the men were dead.

“Yes,” she said, looking up, “that’s what happened to the Three Hundred and First. The birds were free and the men were dead, and buried where they fell.”

“But–” Vane said.

She had not spoken. She had sat for nearly half an hour with her head sunk on her breast.

She looked accusingly at her grandson. “And they think I can’t remember. I can remember everything. I can even remember the names.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” George Brennen said–“one of her spells.”

They were silent, staring at the old woman; her head was lowered again.

Suddenly, from the next house, a woman screamed at a child.

“Didn’t I tell you not to eat so many peaches? Peaches–you guzzle peaches all day, and then bring them home at night, so that you can eat more. You’ll be sick, I say. Where did you get them? Did you steal them?”

“I didn’t steal them, Mother. They’re the soldiers’ peaches. We drove ova there to get them. They’re wild peaches.” The child was crying.

Mrs. Brennen got up. “Let her have the peaches. Let her have all she wants. The soldiers’ peaches never hurt anyone.” Mrs. Brennen sat down again. “The soldiers’ peaches,” she said–“that grew out of their pockets.”

Tears ran down her cheeks. They followed the lines of her face and dripped on to the snuff-stained alpaca dress. She made no effort to stay them.


“Out of their pockets?” Vane said.


“She means their haversacks.”


“Then there are peach trees?”


“Yes, there are trees–plenty of them.”

“And they buried them where they fell? Do you know the place well?” Vane asked.

“Everyone knows it well. All the children get peaches from them. They grow like this.” George Brennen traced a pattern on the dust of the stoep with his finger. “Here is where there are the most. . . . That was where the main body got it. . . . They were buried on both sides of the road . . . and out here is where the scouts fell.” He made scattered dots.

“Then there were scouts out,” Vane said. “And it wasn’t my grandfather’s fault.”

“It was nobody’s fault,” Brennen said. “The Boers were hidden and they held their fire.”

Vane laughed. “Can we go over there to-morrow?” he asked. “I’ll make a map of it for my father. Poor father,” he said. “If only he had known this years ago! He nearly came once, and then he was afraid to come–afraid of what he’d find.”

“We call them the soldiers’ peaches,” George Brennen said. “And I wish she had told you the story–I have heard it hundreds of times–but she’s old; she has spells.”

His grandmother looked up. “I remember as well as anyone,” she said. She pointed to Vane. “I remember his grandfather. A fine man. There were some fine men in those days.”

Brennen took Vane’s shoulder. “Come along to my place. Spend the night and we’ll drive over there to-morrow.” END




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