The Willow Wife (a Japanese folktale)
O nce upon a time, a beautiful willow tree stood near the center of a village. Everyone who passed the tree marveled at its strength and beauty. In spring and summertime, when those branches waved in the wind, people admired the willow’s elegance and grace. In wintertime, when the willow’s branches were covered with snow, it protected people, like a huge umbrella.
A young man named Hiroshi lived with his family, and from his bedroom window he could see the tree. Each morning when Hiroshi woke, he looked out his window and sighed with pleasure at the sight of the tree waving in the wind, proud and sturdy in the rain, exquisite in the sunshine. When Hiroshi walked to school, he passed the tree. He often stopped to admire it, taking in its beauty and its scent.
One day the village elders decided it was time to build a bridge over the river. Soon the workmen began to chop down trees for timber for that bridge. When Hiroshi, now a young man, heard the sound of those axes, his heart skipped a beat; he feared his beloved willow might fall. He visited the elders to beg for mercy for the tree. “I love the willow,” he said. “I will give you money — anything it takes to save this tree from the builders’ axes.”
Impressed by Hiroshi’s devotion, the elders granted his wish, and the willow tree was saved.
After this, Hiroshi was more grateful than ever for the willow tree. He began to visit it every morning and every night. Many days he stood beneath its branches and said prayers of thanks for all the gifts of this world — for his family, for the birds and beasts, and most especially for this tree, which gave him such joy. Some days he whispered his troubles to the willow tree. When he had finished, he felt healed. He was so certain that the willow understood. His devotion grew deeper as he grew older.
As Hiroshi approached the tree one evening, he saw a beautiful woman standing in the place where he usually said his prayers. He walked up to her and bowed. “Dear lady,” he said, “are you waiting for someone?”
“He will not come,” she said, smiling sweetly at him.
“What kind of man is this who does not meet such a fair woman?” Hiroshi replied. “It is a terrible thing when love is not returned.”
“He loves me,” the woman said.
“But he does not come to you,” he said. “Why is that?”
She smiled warmly. “His heart has always been here, under the willow tree,” and then she disappeared.
But the next night she was there again, and once again they talked. They spoke of the loveliness of this spot, of the peaceful night, the watchful stars. The next night they met again. The young woman told Hiroshi that her name was Kaori, but when he began to ask her more questions, she waved her hand. “Ask me nothing more about my family,” she said. “You know all that you must know.”
Hiroshi thought that she was shy, and he did not press her.
The next night they met again. Soon they were deeply in love, so one night Hiroshi asked her to marry him.
“I will,” Kaori said, “but promise you will never ask me about my past.”
“I promise,” Hiroshi said, for he did not care about that. He knew this was a woman he loved as dearly as he loved the willow tree.
Soon they married, and the next year they had a son they named Daiki. They were the happiest family in Japan. Everyone said so. They were always smiling and laughing, so pleased were they by the gift of their love for each other.
The years passed, and the willow tree near their home became a place the couple often wandered to say their prayers of thanks. One day they were in the village when they heard the story of the emperor who wished to build a temple to Kwannon, the goddess of mercy.
“He needs timber from every village,” the people said. “He asks for our most sacred trees.”
Hiroshi’s heart contracted when he heard these words. “We must not cut down our willow,” he said, but no matter how long and hard he argued, the elders of the village disagreed.
“We have no tree as large and beautiful as the willow,” they said. “It will be our most sacred gift for the most sacred of all temples.”
A few days later, Hiroshi was in bed when he woke to the sound of axes, and he knew they were chopping down his beloved tree. Beside him, Kaori shuddered. “My love,” she whispered into her husband’s ear, “my hair is falling from my body.”
“What do you mean?” Hiroshi asked, and he put his arms around her. He felt her trembling.
“My limbs are shattering!” she cried. Tears began to run down her face.?
“No, my dear, you are only dreaming,” he said, and he held her closer.
Suddenly there was a loud crash outside. In that instant, his wife disappeared. He lay in bed holding only a long, slender branch of golden willow leaves. Kaori’s sweet scent and tender body were gone.
“Where are you, Kaori?” he cried, but now, too late, he understood that the woman he had always loved was the spirit of the willow.
Hiroshi and Daiki mourned deeply the loss of their gentle, loving wife and mother. But they never forgot to give thanks for the blessing of her love, which had given them both life and happiness.
“TELL ME A STORY 3: Women of Wonder,” the third CD in the audiobook series, is now available. For more information, visit www.mythsandtales.com.