A new installment in my occasional and hopefully ongoing series of active heroines: lesser-known fairy tales featuring women who do more than wait around to get rescued. This one is from Lafcadio Hearn, and was told to him by his gardener Kinjuro. I give it here, verbatim. The story features the “marriage test” motif, where a hero must pass a test in order to win the fair maiden. In most cases, the fair maiden’s father imposes the test. In some cases — like this one — the fair maiden herself sets the conditions.
A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land, there came to the capital with her parents a samurai girl, so beautiful that all men who saw her fell enamoured of her. And hundreds of young samurai desired and hoped to marry her, and made their desire known to her parents. For it has ever been the custom in Japan that marriages should be arranged by parents. But there are exceptions to all customs, and the case of this maiden was such an exception. Her parents declared that they intended to allow their daughter to choose her own husband, and that all who wished to win her would be free to woo her.
Many men of high rank and of great wealth were admitted to the house as suitors; and each one courted her as he best knew how -— with gifts, and with fair words, and with poems written in her honour, and with promises of eternal love. And to each one she spoke sweetly and hopefully; but she made strange conditions. For every suitor she obliged to bind himself by his word of honour as a samurai to submit to a test of his love for her, and never to divulge to any living person what that test might be. And to this all agreed.
But even the most confident suitors suddenly ceased their importunities after having been put to the test; and all of them appeared to have been greatly terrified by something. Indeed, not a few even fled away from the city, and could not be persuaded by their friends to return. But no one ever so much as hinted why. Therefore it was whispered by those who knew nothing of the mystery, that the beautiful girl must be either a Fox-woman or a goblin.
Now, when all the wooers of high rank had abandoned their suit, there came a samurai who had no wealth but his sword. He was a good man and true, and of pleasing presence; and the girl seemed to like him. But she made him take the same pledge which the others had taken; and after he had taken it, she told him to return upon a certain evening.
When that evening came, he was received at the house by none but the girl herself. With her own hands she set before him the repast of hospitality, and waited upon him, after which she told him that she wished him to go out with her at a late hour. To this he consented gladly, and inquired to what place she desired to go. But she replied nothing to his question, and all at once became very silent, and strange in her manner. And after a while she retired from the apartment, leaving him alone.
Only long after midnight she returned, robed all in white -— like a Soul -— and, without uttering a word, signed to him to follow her. Out of the house they hastened while all the city slept. It was what is called an oborozuki-yo -— ‘moon-clouded night.’ Always upon such a night, ’tis said, do ghosts wander. She swiftly led the way; and the dogs howled as she flitted by; and she passed beyond the confines of the city to a place of knolls shadowed by enormous trees, where an ancient cemetery was. Into it she glided—a white shadow into blackness. He followed, wondering, his hand upon his sword. Then his eyes became accustomed to the gloom; and he saw.
By a new-made grave she paused and signed to him to wait. The tools of the grave-maker were still lying there. Seizing one, she began to dig furiously, with strange haste and strength. At last her spade smote a coffin-lid and made it boom: another moment and the fresh white wood of the kwan was bare. She tore off the lid, revealing a corpse within -— the corpse of a child. With goblin gestures she wrung an arm from the body, wrenched it in twain, and, squatting down, began to devour the upper half. Then, flinging to her lover the other half, she cried to him, “Eat, if thou lovest me! This is what I eat!”
Not even for a single instant did he hesitate. He squatted down upon the other side of the grave, and ate the half of the arm, and said, “Kekko degozarimasu! Mo sukoshi chodai.” [‘It is excellent: I pray you give me a little more.’] For that arm was made of the best kwashi [cake] that Saikyo could produce.
Then the girl sprang to her feet with a burst of laughter, and cried: “You only, of all my brave suitors, did not run away! And I wanted a husband who could not fear. I will marry you; I can love you: you are a man!”
This story is an excerpt from Chapter 10 (“Of Ghosts and Goblins”) of Lafcadio Hearn’s Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, Vol. 2 (1894).
Top image: The legendary twelfth century woman warrior (onna bugeisha) Tomoe Gozen. From Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s print series Mirror of Beauties Past and Present (Image source). I know the heroine of this story wasn’t an onna bugeisha, but I like the print.