- Kenning Season
The goddess Benzaiten appeared to me in a tree. I was in the city park, eating meat on a stick, and then there was a noise like doves and when I looked up to see what was touching my head she was there.
She looked down at me from among the white and pink blossoms and said, "You don't belong here."
"Neither do you," I said (which was rude, but I was surprised). "What are you doing in a tree?"
She laughed, and her long sleeves moved. They were what I'd felt stroking my hair.
"This is the season when everyone writes poems," she said. "And I'm god of the arts, so of course I'm here. Didn't you know that? Isn't that why you're here, to look at the trees in their riot of blossom and write me a poem about how they resemble mist and clouds over distant mountains for only this one week in spring?"
"No," I said, embarrassed. "I didn't know I was supposed to. I'm just here because I like the lanterns in the trees."
"It's common knowledge," she said. "Everyone knows. Year in and year out. I'm always at the moon-viewing window when it's moon-viewing time, and I'll be in the bamboo grove when it's cicada time. Every single year.
"But then," she added, voice annoyingly kind, "maybe your ignorance isn't surprising. You're a foreigner here, after all."
"Are you a local?" I said snappishly. She laughed again and disappeared.
They have a story here about a little girl who comes out of a bamboo stalk. A woodsman finds her when he's out chopping—the bamboo stalk starts glowing with a radiant light, and voilà. The childless old man and wife adopt and raise the child, et cetera, et cetera. Then one day she starts crying, tells them she's from the moon, and leaves them to go back there. It's really pretty sad.
Recently, I saw this story acted out by a group of high-school seniors in English class. Actually, they drew illustrations and held them up while they talked—it's a traditional storytelling method around here, and my [End Page 162] co-teacher had thought it might be good for making them think they were having fun.
The group that chose the story of the Bamboo Daughter were big boys, tall and sporty and almost eighteen. They wanted us to understand that they were practically in college and didn't take fairy tales seriously. Still, they did a nice job with the pictures. The characters' hairstyles and robes and courtly hats were right out of a history book. And when it came time for the princess's return to the moon, they rendered it as accomplished via giant spaceship, with a tractor beam and everything—even E.T.–style flying bicycles.
"That's great!" I said. "Is it a traditional part of the story?"
They all laughed. The sportiest of the three said, "It's a new tradition, maybe."
"Is she really a space alien?"
"Definitely!" they all said together.
After class, when we were cleaning up the markers and glue, I opened my mouth and said something to my co-teacher about a story I'd recently read—an old tale from this part of the world, in which a Taoist priest summons down the goddess of the moon. My co-teacher interrupted me.
"That story's not from here," she said. "You're thinking of a completely different story. From China."
"Oh," I said, crestfallen. I had been hoping to impress her with my erudition. "I had thought they might be related. Since in both stories the lady comes down from the moon—"
"No," she said. "That's completely different."
She was a nice lady, and only got stern when it came to correcting people's facts. She was stern now.
She said, "The bamboo princess appears here. In this country. She's just a baby, you see. That makes her native to here."
"Oh," I said. "And so is the...