The Little Hare of Oki, A Japanese Fairy Tale

RETOLD BY B. M. BURRELL

Alice lived in New York, but she still had the nurse who had taken care of her when she was a tiny baby in far-away Japan. Nurse wore the picturesque kimono and obi of her native land, and looked so different from other people that friends often wondered how Alice could feel at home with her. Love, however, is the same the world over, and no one loved Alice better than did her little Japanese nurse.

When Papa and Mama were at dinner, and Alice and Nurse had the library all to themselves till bedtime, the little girl would often pull two chairs up to the fire and say coaxingly:

“There is just time for a story!” And Nurse would smile her funny Japanese smile and begin:

“Long, long ago, when the great Japanese gods ruled from high heaven,—”

This was the beginning Alice liked best, for it meant that a fairy tale would follow. And Nurse would perhaps continue:

“—a little hare lived on the island of Oki. It was a beautiful island, but the hare was not satisfied: he wished to get to the mainland. He did not know how to manage this; but one day he thought of a plan. Hopping down to the shore, he waited till a crocodile came out to sun himself, then opened a conversation with him.

“‘There are, I suppose, many crocodiles in the sea,’ he began.

“‘Many, many!’ the crocodile answered.

“‘Not so many, however, as there are hares on the island of Oki,’ returned the little hare.

“‘The crocodiles in the sea outnumber the hares of Oki as the drops in the sea outnumber the trees of the island,’ declared the crocodile, in his deepest voice.

“‘It does not seem right for a little bit of a creature like myself to differ with your lordship,’ said the hare, politely, ‘but I should like to see a proof of your statement.’

“‘How can we prove it?’ the crocodile questioned.

“‘You can call all your friends and place them from here to the mainland, each with his nose on the tail of the neighbor before him; then I can easily jump from one to the other, counting as I go.’

“The crocodile agreed to this plan, thinking it a good one. ‘But how can we count the hares?’ he asked.

“‘That we will decide after I have numbered the crocodiles,’ the hare suggested.

“The crocodile was satisfied, and bade the hare come to the same place next morning to do the counting. Of course the little animal was on hand bright and early.

“There stretched an unbroken line of crocodiles, a floating bridge to the mainland!

“The little hare lost no time hopping across it, you may be sure. As he reached the last crocodile and prepared to jump to shore, his heart was so full of pride at the success of his ruse that he could not resist crying aloud:

“‘How I have fooled you big creatures! I wished for a bridge to the mainland, and you have served my need!’ Then he jumped.

“The last crocodile opened his wide jaws and closed them again with a snap. The hare was too quick to be caught, but the monster’s teeth touched him and tore off most of his fur! As the poor thing limped away, a crocodile called after him:

“‘You see what happens when you trifle with creatures stronger than yourself!’

“The little hare did not know much, but he felt that he was learning. He had no heart to explore the beauties of the mainland now, but crawled  under a bush by the roadside and wished that some one would tell him how to cure his wounds.

“After some time he heard the noise of many people on the road. He crept out to see what was coming, and beheld a crowd of young men, carrying burdens as if they were on a journey. They were all tall and handsome, and wore beautiful clothes fit for princes.

“One of them spied the little hare and cried: ‘Well, friend, why do you look so sad?’

“The hare, proud of being called ‘friend’ by this fine gentleman, told how he had deceived the crocodiles. The men laughed loudly, and one of them said: ‘Since you are so clever, it is strange that you do not know the best way to cure your wounds. You should bathe in the salt sea, and then climb a hill so that the Wind Goddess can blow upon you with her cool breath.’

 

(image)

 the princess and the hare

 

“The little hare thanked the strangers for their advice, and then asked them where they were journeying. They replied that they were eighty-one princes, all wishing to marry the princess of that country. She was very rich, and the responsibility of managing her wealth and kingdom was too much for her; so she had given notice that she desired to marry a wise and noble prince whom she could trust to rule for her.

“‘So wealth and power do not always bring content?’ the hare questioned.

“‘They would content us!’ the eighty princes answered. (The eighty-first was not present. He was of a kindly and gentle disposition, which caused his brothers to laugh at and impose upon him. To-day they had given him most of the luggage to carry, so he could not walk as fast as they.) As they started on the way, one of the princes called to the hare: ‘Good-by! And don’t forget to bathe your wounds in the salt sea!’ And with loud laughter they continued their journey.

“The little hare did not give himself time to forget. He hurried to the shore and let the waves roll over him, but instead of making him feel better, the biting salt water only increased his pain.

“‘I must hurry to the Wind Goddess,’ the poor hare thought.

“He climbed the high hill with difficulty and lay down on the top, hoping for relief from his suffering. But the stiff grass pricked his wounds,  and the biting wind caused them to throb more painfully. At last he realized that the cruel princes had deceived him, and he crawled back to his bush by the roadside, where he lay with closed eyes.

“A gentle voice roused him. ‘Who has wounded you, little hare?’ it asked.

 

(image)

the good-natured prince and the princess

 

“The little hare looked up and saw a beautiful youth standing beside him. His experience with men made him think that it would be best to fly from the stranger; but the young man’s kind glance conquered his fear, and he answered: ‘I left the island of Oki to see the wonders of the mainland, and I have fared badly from the exchange.’ Then he told once more how he had left the island, and also about the bad advice the eighty princes had given him.

“The young man sighed. ‘They used you ill, little creature,’ he said. ‘You learned that it is foolish to meddle with beings stronger than yourself; now you see how wicked it is to torment those weaker. My brother princes should have told you to bathe in the fresh water of the river and to lie on the soft rushes. Now, good-by, little friend. May good luck attend you!’ And he walked quietly away, bending beneath the large burden he carried.

“The little hare knew that the stranger was the eighty-first of the princes, and so for a time, he feared to follow his advice. But he was in such pain that he decided to go to the river, which flowed like a silver ribbon through the fields toward the ocean. Into the cool water he plunged and immediately felt better, as the sand and bitter salt of the sea were washed from his wounds. Then he took a nap on the soft rushes.

“When he awoke he no longer was in pain, so he was filled with gratitude toward the young prince who had given him such kind and wise advice. He sat up, feeling quite strong again, and tried to think of a way in which he could repay his benefactor. In the distance he saw the roofs of the princess’s palace rising among the trees which surrounded it. This gave him an idea, and he lost no time in carrying it out.

“Across the fields he hopped toward the palace, never stopping till he reached the garden wall. He crept in under the high gate, and there stood the princess under a cherry-tree covered with blossoms. The little hare went up to her and  said respectfully:

“‘Gracious Princess, I bring to you advice, if you will accept it from so insignificant a person as I.’

“‘Speak, little hare,’ the beautiful princess answered, for she knew that the best things are often found in unexpected places, and things are not always what they seem to be.

“‘Eighty princes are coming to-day as suitors for your hand. They are dressed in rich and beautiful robes, and their faces are gay and smiling; but all that is only to hide the cruelty of their hearts. Following them is a young man who is as wise as he is kind and gentle. Turn the eighty from your gate, but honor the youngest suitor as greater than they.’

“‘How do you know all this?’ the princess questioned.

“So the little hare told his story for the third time, speaking so earnestly that the princess could not fail to be impressed by it. She thanked him for his advice, and after giving him some tender leaves to eat, prepared to receive the eighty-one brothers. They came a few minutes later, resplendent in the magnificent clothes they had put on in the princess’s honor. Indeed, they all looked so handsome that she found it hard to believe the story of their cruelty. While they were talking of their journey to her kingdom, however, some of the princes told how they had made sport of a little hare too stupid to know that salt was not the best thing for open wounds, and she noticed that the youngest brother was the only one who did not enjoy the story. At this, rage filled her gentle heart.

“‘Turn out the eighty princes!’ she cried to her attendants; ‘no one who is cruel to so small a creature as a little hare is fit to rule over a kingdom. But with you,’ she added, turning to the youngest prince, ‘will I share my throne, for you are a wise and merciful man.’

“You may be sure the youngest prince was happy to hear that, for, after once seeing the beautiful princess, the thought of parting from her was like lead in his breast.

“So the cruel brothers were drummed out of the palace with shouts of scorn; but the gentle prince and princess went into the garden to thank the little hare. They could not find him, however, search as they would; for as soon as he learned of the success of his plan, he had hopped away to see the world, wiser for his day’s experiences.”

“Is that all?” Alice asked.

“That is all,” Nurse answered. “And now it is time for you to go to bed.”