The Young Farmer & the Emperor’s Command

The Young Farmer & the Emperor's Command

The Story of the Aged MotherThe Young Farmer & the Emperor's Command

By Matsuo Basho

Illustrated By: Stella Wei

Adapted by Elaine Lindy of Stories to Grow By from "The Story of the Aged Mother," a Japanese folktale.

LONG, LONG AGO IN JAPAN 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 Hitachi.  The Governor of Hitachi was a warrior and he hated anything that was weak or frail. One day, he issued a horrible proclamation - all of the old people in the province must be put to death.  "There is no place in Hitachi," he decreed, "for those who take and do not give.  Old people take and take, and give nothing back.  I will not put up with this anymore." In those days it was not uncommon to leave very old people alone to die, but to command this to happen all at once for all the old people in Hitachi was even more cruel.

The Story of the Aged Mother

The poor farmer loved his aged mother dearly and the order filled his heart with sadness. "What do I care who takes and who gives," thought the son.  "I love my mother and that's all I care about."  But no one ever thought twice about disobeying an 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 young farmer took a quantity of 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 a 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 Story of the Aged Mother

The eyes of the old mother were not so dim to at least notice 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 she 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 wrapped her padded coat more closely about the stooping shoulders.  With tearful eyes and an aching heart, he said farewell.

Gathering fallen pine needles, he made a soft cushion and tenderly lifted his old mother onto it.

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, and 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 if together we must die, so be it.”

How light she seemed now!  He 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.

How light she seemed now!

Time passed.  He was beginning to feel safe when again the Governor sent forth heralds bearing an order that seemed almost absurd.  It was as if the Governor making an impossible demand only 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 of Hitachi 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.” The next day she told him what to do.

“Make a rope of twisted straw,” she said. “Stretch it upon a long flat stone and burn it on a windless night.” He called the people together and did as she said.  When the blaze died down, there upon the stone with every twist and fiber showing perfectly, lay a rope of ashes.

The Story of the Aged Mother

The Governor was pleased at the wit of the youth and praised him greatly, but he demanded to know where he had obtained his wisdom. “Alas!” cried the young farmer, “the truth must be told!” With deep bows he related his story, how the idea had come from his aged mother whom he had not killed as commanded but instead had been secretly keeping alive.

The Governor listened, frowning.  Finally he lifted his head. “It is not everyday that I reconsider a decision.  I'm reminded of a saying from my youth: 'With the crown of snow, there cometh wisdom.'  It is clear the old people give us wisdom from their experience that the young do not have." That very hour, that cruel law was abolished.

At their dinner of rice and grilled fish that evening, the son mused, "I'm not sure it matters if someone is giving or not, for us to care for them." 

"You got that right," said the mother.

"Though it's good the Governor changed his decree," said the son, "for whatever reason he had."

"There's wisdom in that too, son," said the mother with a smile.  

For Hitachi and all of Japan, the custom of leaving the elderly to die drifted so far into the past that only its legend remains.



Posted in Asia, Holidays, Japan, Mother's Day, STORIES FOR KIDS, World Tales.

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