Longlong ago in old Japan, a poor mute birdcatcher named Hideo is banished from his village, accused of being the evil bandit who steals from the richest shogun and the poorest villager alike. Finding shelter beneath the boughs of a tree, Hideo hears a rustling and makes a catch beyond his wildest dreams. In the folds of his net, he finds a beautiful, mysterious creature of gold and feathers: a phoenix maiden few humans have ever seen. With one look, the maiden strikes love in the birdcatcher’s heart, and the two find a bond that keeps them safe from the sorrows of the outside world. But one day, news of hardship and starvation reaches Hideo’s cars. He knows he must return to his village and with the maiden’s help, put stop to the real bandit’s reign of terror.
In this original story of courage and honor and love, Deborah Nourse Lattimore weaves a tale as rich as a shogun’s treasure.
Under the pear blossom moon, a poor birdcatcher named Hideo watched a hawk circling overhead. If he caught it, the villagers in the valley below would trade rice to own it. With a silent sweep of his net, Hideo caught the bird. He felt his own heartbeat fiercely as the creature struggled in his grasp.
No sooner had Hideo come to a clearing in the forest than did a bandit ride down upon him, knocking him into a shallow ditch. As Hideo stood up and brushed himself off, he caught a glimpse of the bandit’s forehead; over one eyebrow was a deep scar. For months there had been talking of a bandit in the mountains, a bandit who stole from the shogun himself. Hideo was grateful he had only been knocked down and not killed.
When Hideo arrived in the village, people came to look at the hawk. Then Nobu, head of the village council, appeared.
“Where did you get that hawk?” He shouted at Hideo, “It has a silk cord around its leg.”
Hideo looked at Nobu, then pointed back towards the mountains.
“Answer me, you!” Shouted Nobu.
“He cannot speak, Lord Nobu,” said the farmer. “He is the voiceless one from the mountains”
“Ah!” grunted Nobu, “A fool! A bad omen to have around!”
“It was just yesterday that the word came from the shogun’s palace that prize hunting hawk was missing, along with a treasure and some ponies, too,” said a farmer. “Surely if word gets back to the shogun that this fool was seen here with a prize hawk, soldiers will come and burn our village to the ground!”
“Get out of here!” Shouted Nobu, shoving Hideo towards the road.
Hideo stopped and looked hard at Nobu. He seemed familiar.
“What are you looking at you fool? Go on!” Yelled Nobu. “Never come back, or it will be your death!”
Hideo trudged away from the village. At the fork in the road near the forest, he released the brilliant black hawk. Perhaps there would be no rice to eat tonight, but the bird would be free.
Alone and hungry, Hideo lay down beneath a spreading pine tree. The sweet sounds of the wind stirring the needles lulled Hideo to sleep. But all of a sudden something stirred in the boughs. In an instant, Hideo threw his net Something was in it! Hideo pulled and pulled. It twisted and wrestled against him.
“Oh! Please! Set me free!” Said a soft, trembling voice. “Let me go and I will reward you!”
Hideo dropped the net. Gently and slowly he pushed aside the branches above his head. A dazzling, golden light burst through the needles. The air was heavy with the fragrance of cinnamon and incense. Hideo staggered back and stopped. In the midst of the light was a beautiful maiden. Her robe shimmered in silks of every color. over which lay a garment of golden feathers. Her strange and delicate face turned to Hideo and struck love in the birdcatcher’s heart. For a while, neither Hideo nor the maiden moved. At last, she spoke.
“Very few mortals ever see me or my kind,” said the maiden. “The last to come this way was a bandit, and he killed my husband. Since then I have waited here alone and afraid. You have spared me, and I owe you my life. What wish I can grant you, birdcatcher?”
But Hideo could ask for nothing he hung his head down in silence. The maiden seemed to read his thoughts
“No, you are right. I cannot restore your voice,” said the maiden “Stay with me ut a while, and neither of us shall be lonely.”
She clapped her hands, and an evening meal spread upon golden plates lay at Hideo’s feet. And as Hideo began to eat, the maiden sang soft, sweet songs
It seemed to Hideo to be the longest, most wondrous day of his life, and yet, without his realizing it, the whole month had passed. For him, there was no day or night or loneliness or hunger.
But the day came when noises entered the forest, noises Hideo knew to be the shogun’s men searching for something or someone. The bandit! Hideo thought. No one has found him. If he is not found soon, and the shogun’s treasure is not returned, the village will be burned to the ground! As the soldiers passed down on the forest path, Hideo slowly covered his mouth and tears fell from his eyes. And the maiden again read his thoughts.
“This is the day you must leave me, “said the maiden.” For although you and I love each other, only you can save the village. Find the bandit who killed my husband and who not only steals you from me but also steals the very life from the village
Then the maiden plucked a single golden feather from her gown and placed it in Hideo’s cupped palm. Though it shone with fiery flames, it did not burn. When Hideo looked up, the maiden was gone.
Hideo tied the feather to a thread and put it around his neck. Then he set off for the village. He stopped at the forest’s edge. Something was wrong. Where was the sound of the rushing stream that filled the rice paddies in the valley? Walking on, Hideo saw that the streambed was dry, blocked by a large log. Hideo pushed against the log with all his strength until it turned and twisted into the flowing water. In minutes, the stream was full and fat and rushing downhill. There are many ways to steal the life from the village, he thought. The feather around his neck glowed.
On Hideo walked towards the valley and the village below. He far when he came upon going more wood cuttings and logs. This time they were blocking a pond filled with fat, redfish. Why the village ponds must be empty of fish, he thought. And, as before, Hideo pushed away from the logs and branches. And as before, the feather glowed, but this time it was brighter,
On Hideo walked, but soon his path was almost completely blocked. He had to climb over logs and branches scattered all around what seemed to be the opening of a cave. Leaning against a great stone outcropping he looked closer. He could just make out the sounds of horses’ whinnies. The stolen treasure! he thought. Through a small opening in the brush, he saw that he was right. The glitter of gold and silken fabrics were everywhere, and just beyond casks filled with jewels stood a string of handsome horses and racing ponies, nervously pawing the ground
Hideo ran. The father around his neck glowed brighter and brighter, and by the time Hideo arrived in the village, the feather was nearly a flame.
Angry farmers stood beside the dried rice paddies and empty fishponds. Among them was Nobu, who turned and stared at Hideo.
“Look!” A farmer shouted. “It is the fool!” And he shook his fist at Hideo.
“Perhaps he is to blame for our misfortune. No water, no fish, and the shogun’s men are coming, too.”
But before Hideo could get anyone’s attention, water rushed into the ponds and they were brimming with fish. The farmers jumped back in amazement, and then they all looked at Hideo Nobu, too, who looked at Hideo. He saw the brilliant flame of gold that the feather was.
“What kind of sorcery is this?” He demanded, his face turning red with anger.
But Hideo stared fixedly at the scar over one of Nobu’s eyebrows. Suddenly he remembered where he had seen Nobu before. Nobu was the bandit! Nobu, wise leader of the council, the one who spoke for all, was a thief!
“Get him!” Yelled Nobu. “Kill him! The fool is the bandit! See, he wears part of the treasure around his neck!”
The crowd yelled and shoved some moved with Nobu. Hideo held the feather close. How can I tell them? he thought desperately. Without knowing why Hideo turned and ran towards the forest. The farmers followed, and with them came Nobu. They passed the flowing fishpond. They followed the racing stream up higher and higher into the forest they all went until they came to the spreading pine tree where Hideo had first found the beautiful maiden.
Dozens of hands fell upon Hideo and held him tightly. Nobu stepped forward, a knife in his hand. The tree branches broke apart and a stream of golden light flooded the sky. The beautiful maiden appeared.
“Ah” she cried, looking at Nobu. “That is the bandit! He is the one who killed my husband, the Phoenix, the bird of prosperity! It was he who almost destroyed your village, too!”
The villagers set Hideo free and grabbed Nobu instead, who, in his shame, confessed what he had done. The villagers begged Hideo to return with them, to live in the village, and to serve on the council of the wise. And for a moment Hideo thought he might. But when he remembered the joy he felt beneath the great pine tree, under the strange and beautiful maiden, Hideo decided to stay in the woods. the gentle gaze of the strange and beautiful maiden, Hideo decides to stay in the woods.
No one in the valley ever saw Hideo again. But from that day on the village prospered. Many, many years after the treasure was returned to the shogun, the ninth Lord of Owari and the tenth followed him, and his son and son’s son after him, a family walking on the forest path noticed a great, spreading pine tree. Its magnificent boughs and rich, green needles sheltered them from the afternoon sun. But suddenly it glowed as if it were burning with fire. The frightened family ran back, still watching. Within the golden flames, they thought they saw two phoenixes, their wings entwined around each other. Then, with a burst of light, the fire burned out and only ash remained as suddenly as the fire died, the two phoenixes flew LIP and out of the ashes, out, over the tops of the trees, over the mountains of Owari, their golden wings beating as one.
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