The following is an old country folktale of the sort a grandfather would tell his grandchildren before bedtime. So imagine you are little boy or girl sitting around an irori fire with your family on a full-moon autumn night, with the wind rustling the dried leaves on the trees just outside the closed wooden amado doors, as your white-bearded grandfather tells you this tale. Don’t be frightened!
Long ago and far away a traveling merchant was crossing over a mountain in the country of Oki in Japan (Sanin area) at sunset. As he reached the highest point he came upon a large lone pine tree with a crotch at about twice a man’s height. Using a bit of rope he always carried, the chubby merchant managed to pull himself up into the crotch and fell soundly asleep as the darkness deepened around him.
Hearing a strange sound, the merchant woke suddenly and was shocked to see his tree surrounded by dozens of large, long-toothed goblin cats glaring up at him in the darkness and yowling. He panicked fearing the monsters would jump into the tree and attack, and him without any way to escape. But all he could do was sit in the tree and pray the goblin cats would just go away.
At some point the beleaguered merchant began to realize the goblin cats were not just yowling but were actually speaking words he could just make out.
“My fellow goblin cats” said the boss cat. “That plump human in yon tree is the perfect main course for our banquet tonight, but obviously we can’t wait here all night for it to fall out.” The largest cat proposed a solution. “Noble goblin cats, I tell you what; I’ll climb the tree and push the fat lump out. When he hits the ground you jump on him, and our feast will be secured.” Without waiting for a response from his demonic feline friends the goblin cat placed a stick against the tree’s trunk, extended his sharp claws, and using the stick for his first step, slowly crept up the tree trunk towards the intended victuals.
Hearing these strange words and seeing the boss goblin cat’s preparations, the merchant realized he was facing a sticky end best avoided, so he quietly unsheathed his long 9sun 5bu dagger (288mm, 11.3 inches) and readied it for the cat’s attack. (If you like blades, here are some links to YouTube videos of beautiful formally recognized historical examples: (Yoshimitsu tanto (designated National Treasure); A tanto by Sukesada of the Osafune School of Bizen in the “yoroidoushi” style intended to penetrate armor. A tanto designated as a “Tangible Cultural Property” with the name “Uebataima“.)
The plump merchant couldn’t see anything in the poor light, but he heard the frightening sound of the goblin cat’s claws cutting into the treebark as it climbed “Zaku.., zaku…, zaku..”
He thought to himself “Here it comes!” “Just a little more now!!”
Suddenly the merchant saw the cat’s face just as it leaped at him with hooked claws extended and salivating fangs bared, but the merchant’s dagger pierced deeply into the big goblin cat’s abdomen releasing a fountain of blood, killing it instantly. The cat’s body collapsed in the same tree crotch with the merchant.
The goblin cats surrounding the base of the tree yowled and screeched like the demons from hell they were as they circled the tree’s base, shredding the bark with their wickedly sharp claws, then yowled and screeched some more. At last one of the evil creatures calmed down enough to say “It seems tonight’s dinner is more formidable than we first thought.” Hearing this, the merchant pushed the dead goblin cat’s limp and sticky body out of the tree so it landed with a wet thump right in front of furious goblin cats circling below.
Looking at their expired leader’s body, the goblin cats all jumped twisting into the air, cutting with their claws, spitting, frothing, screeching and yowling even harder. Then one said angrily “Now dinner’s gone and done it! This means war!” Spitting, hissing, and screaming things I won’t repeat to you children the goblin cats all scrambled up the tree towards the merchant getting in each other’s way and making a real hash of the job. In the confusion the merchant, who wasn’t really all that good with weapons, used his dagger to hack and stab every goblin cat that came within his reach killing and injuring more of the monsters.
The surviving goblin cats stopped their reckless attack and huddled panting and bloodied at the tree’s base arguing how to deal with this difficult menu item. “What shall we doooooo! What shall we doooooo!!“ they yowled up at the sky in frustration.
As they gradually calmed down one cool cat said “We must avenge these foul murders even if we all die in the attempt.” Another cat added “I’m not afraid to die but I worry about what will become of our mates and kittens if we are killed.”
The cool cat thought for a minute and finally said “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s go ask the blacksmith’s granny for help.” And with that all the goblin cats sped off into the dark like greased lightning.
Seeing his chance to escape, the merchant sheathed his dagger, gathered up his pack, and started to climb down from the tree. But before he could lower himself all the way down from his perch in the tree he heard the rhythmically chanting voices. In the dim light of the rising moon the merchant could just make out a palanquin born by six goblin cats chanting in cadence and surrounded by many others approach and stop beneath his tree.
“This is the place, Granny.” “Please knock that fat human out of this tree so we can eat him at our banquet!” beseeched the goblin cats.
The palanquin door slowly slid open revealing not a human grandmother but a huge white goblin cat of great dignity wearing a sleeveless kimono with a snow-white shawl over its shoulders. The monster rolled its large eyes in disgust at the smaller goblin cats and said “What is wrong with you useless ninnies?! Can’t you even take care of a pitiful human like that? You bunch are hopeless as yakuza.”
She paused her berating of her fellow goblin cats, and gazing up into the tree said “Well, I suppose I must knock this human out of the tree myself. Such a bother! You useless idiots stay out of my way now.”
With one voice the smaller goblin cats all yowled “Thank you Grandmother!”
Grandma cat removed her white shawl and handed it to the closest younger goblin cat, then began carefully testing her claws on the tree trunk. When her claws were ready, and without a second look up at the trapped merchant, she slowly began to climb the tree.
Let me pause here, children, to catch my breath and wet my whistle….. Ahh, thank you Hanako, an excellent libation indeed! Your mother’s sake brewing skills improve every year. And you helped, did you? An excellent child. Well done. Just one more sip.
Ah yes, and where was I? That’s right. The huge white goblin cat, who did not look anything like a granny at all, was slowly climbing a tree high in the moonlit mountains, one sharp claw at a time, to kill a plump, tasty human who had repelled and killed several precious members of her goblin cat yakuza gang.
So far the frightened merchant had bravely driven off every attack, but this time his legs were shaking with dread at the memory of the many goblin cats and the boss goblin cat that had attacked him already, but to make things worse, now a huge white monster goblin cat had arrived in a deluxe palanquin no less, and was climbing his tree! What terrible creatures they were! Can you imagine it little children?
Once again he heard the zaku.. zaku… zaku sound of claws cutting into the tree coming closer, but this time the pace seemed slower than before, perhaps because the newly arrived goblin cat was older and bigger. The poor merchant’s whole body shook like a leaf with fear.
It’s getting closer…. It’s almost here!!
But after another minute passed the big goblin cat still hadn’t reached his roost, so the merchant began to hope he might be able to to fend off the monster with his blade.
He gripped his knife tighter in his sweaty hands… and raised it over his head… just like this!
Suddenly the big goblin cat’s huge eyes appeared right in front of the treed human’s face. Gyaaaaaaa! he screamed in fear.
The monster struck out with its wicked, curved claws cutting the shocked merchant’s face deeply. But the merchant recovered his senses, and despite his injury, cut about wildly with his knife.
The big white goblin cat jumped up onto a limb of the tree and deftly swatted away the merchant’s frantic blows with her huge paws.
In between blows the man and the goblin cat spat curses and gasped for breath covering each other’s face with stringy spittle.
Although it seemed like the battle continued for hours, in less than a minute the merchant had been driven out to the end of the tree limb with no room to retreat. Suddenly, one of the goblin cats down below called out in despair, “Oh no, the sun is rising!”
Hearing this, the big white goblin cat stopped her attack, jumped down from the tree, stepped briskly into the palanquin, slid the door closed, and raced down the mountain road followed by all the other goblin cats scrambling like cockroaches in the sunlight.
As the sun began to rise in the East, the panting merchant collapsed back into his tree crotch. He thought about running far away from the terrible place until he recalled how afraid the goblin cats had seemed of the morning sun. And he thought of getting revenge for his injuries too, but confident there were enough hours of daylight left to make a decision, he collapsed back into his tree crotch and fell into an exhausted sleep. As he slept, he remembered the goblin cats that had first surrounded his tree saying something about the blacksmith’s grandmother.
When the sun was high and bright, the merchant climbed down from his tree, sore in every joint and with deep and painful cuts on his face, and followed the path down the mountain the goblin cats had taken. After he had walked a while he began to hear the “tink tonk tink tonk” sound of a hammer striking metal. Soon he came upon a small blacksmith’s shop with a house nearby. Inside the smithy was sweaty man hammering away at a hoe blade.
“May I ask you a question, good blacksmith?” said the merchant. The blacksmith paused his hammering, looked over the cut and bloody merchant and responded “Yup, what do you want?”
The merchant said “I heard there was a grandmother living around here….” The blacksmith pointed his hammer towards the house and said “Well, maybe. My granny is been sick and hasn’t left the house over there in a long time.” He raised his chin, squinted his eys at the disheveled merchant, just like this, and asked sharply, “What’s your business?” The merchant calmly answered “I have something to deliver to her.” The blacksmith then asked “Who is it from?” The merchant said “they didn’t give their name, just handed me this package and left.” The package the merchant was holding contained a whole yellowtail tuna fish he had bought at a fishmonger’s shop on the way. It wasn’t a very fresh fish though, and stank badly.
The blacksmith gave the merchant a distrusting look, when from inside the house they heard a hoarse voice croaking out “Saburo!” The blacksmith’s name was apparently Saburo because he called back “Yes, grandmother?” The voice answered “What’s going on?” Saburo answered “Somebody brought you a big fish, grandmother.” “Well, what are you waiting for, bring it here.”
With that, Saburo accepted the stinky fish and took it inside the house. When he returned, the merchant whispered to him explaining the events of the night before and pointing at the deep cuts on his face and arms as evidence. But the blacksmith would not believe the strange story and responded “That’s ridiculous!” “But I tell you, it’s true” said the merchant. “If you doubt me, just take a look for yourself.”
The two men then walked around to the back of the house as quietly as a pair of tiny mice wearing fuzzy bunny slippers, slid open the shoji doors into grandma’s room just a crack, and peered inside where they saw an old woman wearing a white kimono sitting up on her futon. The old woman reached out to the package containing the fish, brought her nose close, and smelled it “sniff, sniff.” As the two men watched, she greedily snatched the big raw smelly fish from inside the paper packaging and began to greedily bite off large chunks and swallow them.
With this, the merchant slammed open the shoji door, and jumped into the room. Saburo was too shocked to do anything but let out a roar of indignation. Surprised by the sudden noise, grandma turned back into her true form of a huge, white goblin cat, but before she could attack or flee, the merchant drew his sword and cut down the monster which leaked rivers of bright blue blood and died right there, thank you very much.
Saburo was so shocked by seeing his grandmother change into a monster and then die in a puddle of blue blood he could do nothing but stand there with his mouth hanging open as flies buzzed in and out.
Finally, the merchant asked “How long has she been alone in this room?” Saburo closed his mouth, opened it again, and said “About three years now.” “Three years, huh? Well your real grandmother is nothing more than bones by now, I wager.”
At the merchant’s urging, the blacksmith and his neighbors searched the house, and towards evening they found a pile of white bones wearing the Blackmith’s grandmother’s kimono under the floor, meaning the big white goblin cat had killed grandma and had been passing itself of as her for 3 whole years.
A sad but all too common story. Time for bed now my little ones.
(A folk tale from Oki Province)
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