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  • Sasa in the Rain
  • Thersa Matsuura (bio)

Once upon a time in old Japan there lived a man named Choushichi, and he was trapped. Five years previous he’d lost his entire family to a particularly cruel wind that carried with it the pox. And now, poor and lonely, he was living with a face so pockmarked and hideous it was the second thing every child in the village feared. (The thing that the children of the village feared most dwelled in the mountains.)

No matter how much Choushichi wanted to shed his luckless life, he couldn’t. The villagers preferred him exactly the way he was. Out loud they pronounced him selfless and long suffering, some even mouthing the word brave. However, in secret they believed he was so hopeless and sad that he attracted bad luck to himself—collected it—thus keeping it away from them and their families. And then there were those villagers who just liked having him around because his wretchedness made them feel better about their own wretched lives. The entire town wanted to keep him exactly the way he was.

Choushichi, though, wanted something else. He wanted to be free: to run away or fall in love or die. Little did he know his journey toward freedom would begin on a spring day when he was awakened by the sound of a red-crowned crane trumpeting for its mate.

Choushichi had overslept, and it was almost dawn. He dressed, hoisted a woven basket onto his back, shouldered his sickle, and trekked into the meadow where he worked.

The meadow was an ocean of sasa (bamboo grass) rolling in jade or golden waves, depending on the season. At almost perfectly spaced intervals there grew giant black pines, their crooked trunks twisting in curious directions, their long-needled branches fanning out to offer shade to the resting traveler. Underneath the trees, the sasa stretched from the end of the village’s millet fields all the way to the foot of the mountains.

Choushichi’s job was cutting and collecting bamboo grass to sell to the sweetmeat maker in town. If he returned early, he’d earn extra money by softening the sasa in water and helping to tuck and tie a lump of sweet, sticky rice and bean paste inside. Better than the miserable pay was the delight of licking his fingers after the treats were made. [End Page 148]

On that spring day—maybe it was the crane’s call—he felt different, a little romantic. After only a few hours’ work wading through the waist-high grass, he found a tree, fit his backside into the curl of a raised root, lit his pipe, and daydreamed. Although his vision was hazy, he imagined for himself a new life in which he was a poet traveling all over Japan, composing verses on small squares of rough paper.

While on these travels, he’d meet a woman with wheat-colored eyes and long, blue-black hair. He would recite his poems to her, and one day they’d marry. Soon they’d have many fine and lively children—as his own brothers and sisters had been—but not one of them would ever get sick, because they’d travel, always one step ahead of that hideous wind and that fiend, bad luck.

But first Choushichi needed to practice being a poet. And because he thought no one could hear, he composed his first poem out loud.

A cloud comes down to fur my hand, I raise it to your cheek The tear I dry is only one Of a never-ending creek

The grass cutter might have been lonely, long suffering, and romantic, but he was no poet. For weeks he stumbled over words and meanings, rhythms and rhymes. He easily plucked a perfect first line from his heart, only to feel lost at what should follow. Sometimes, unable to convey his emotion, he became so frustrated that he’d ball his fists and howl in lament.

One day, after just such an outburst he threw himself into the sea of sasa and wept. Toward evening, his sobbing subsided and he rolled onto his back...