The Story of the Aged Mother
By Matsuo Basho
Illustrated By: Stella Wei
Adapted by Elaine Lindy of Stories to Grow By. "The Story of the Aged Mother" is a Japanese folktale that tells the story of an unkind ruler who issues cruel orders, including one demand that all old folks are to be abandoned and left to die. This is the tale of a mother and her son and their love for one another.
Long, long ago there lived at the foot of the mountain a poor farmer and his aged, widowed mother. They owned a bit of land which supplied them with food, and they were humble, peaceful, and happy.
The province where they lived was called "Shining." Shining was governed by a terrible leader. He was a warrior and hated anything that seemed weak or frail. One day, he issued a cruel proclamation. The entire province was given strict orders to immediately put to death all of the old people. Those were the days when the custom of abandoning old people to die was not uncommon. The poor farmer loved his aged mother dearly, and the order filled his heart with sadness. But no one ever thought twice about obeying the order of the governor. And so with many deep sighs, the youth prepared for what at that time was considered the kindest mode of death.
At sundown when his day’s work was ended, the son took a quantity of unwhitened rice which was the main food of the poor. He cooked and dried it, and tied it in a square cloth. He swung the bundle around his neck along with a gourd filled with cool, sweet water. Then he lifted his helpless old mother to his back and started on his long, painful journey up the mountain.
The road was long and steep. It was crossed and re-crossed by many paths made by the hunters and woodcutters. One path or another, it mattered not to the young man, as long as he went up. On he went, ever upward towards the high bare top of what is known as Obatsuyama, the mountain of “abandoning the aged.”
The eyes of the old mother were not so dim but that they noted the reckless hastening from one path to another. Her loving heart grew anxious. Her son did not know the mountain’s many paths and his return might be dangerous for him, so she stretched forth her hand and snapped the twigs from brushes as they passed. Then quietly dropped a handful every few steps of the way so that as they climbed, the narrow path behind them was dotted at frequent intervals with tiny piles of twigs.
At last the summit was reached.
Weary and heartsick, the youth gently set down his mother and quietly prepared a place of comfort as his last duty to the loved one. Gathering fallen pine needles, he made a soft cushion and tenderly lifted his old mother onto it. He rapped her padded coat more closely about the stooping shoulders and with tearful eyes and an aching heart he said farewell.
The trembling mother’s voice was full of unselfish love as she gave her last advice. “The mountain road is full of dangers, my son," she said. "Look carefully and follow the path that tracks the piles of twigs. They will guide you down.” The son’s surprised eyes looked back over the path, then at the poor old, shriveled hands all scratched and soiled by their work of love. His heart broke.
Bowing to the ground, the son cried out, “Oh, Honorable mother, your kindness breaks my heart! I will not leave you. Together we will follow the path of twigs, and together we will die!”
Once more he carried her.
How light she seemed now. and hastened down the path, through the shadows and the moonlight, to the little hut in the valley. Beneath the kitchen floor was a walled closet for food, which was covered and hidden from view. There the son hid his mother, giving her with everything she needed, always watching and fearing she would be discovered. Time passed. He was beginning to feel safe when again the governor sent forth heralds bearing an unreasonable order, seemingly as a boast of his power. His demand was that his subjects should present him with a rope of ashes.
The entire province trembled with dread. The order must be obeyed yet who in all Shining could make a rope of ashes? One night, in great distress, the son whispered the news to his hidden mother. “Wait!” she said. “I will think. I will think.” On the second day she told him what to do.
“Make rope of twisted straw,” she said. “Then stretch it upon a row of flat stones and burn it on a windless night.” He called the people together and did as she said and when the blaze died down, there upon the stones, with every twist and fiber showing perfectly, lay a rope of ashes.
The governor was pleased at the wit of the youth and praised greatly, but he demanded to know where he had obtained his wisdom. “Alas! Alas!” cried the farmer, “the truth must be told!” and with deep bows he related his story.
The governor listened and then meditated in silence. Finally he lifted his head. “The province of Shining needs more than the strength of youth,” he said gravely. “Ah, that I should have forgotten the well-known saying, 'with the crown of snow, there cometh wisdom!'" That very hour, the cruel law was abolished. And the custom drifted so far into the past that only its legend remains.