A delightful little piece by master storyteller Tanaka Kōtarō, who wrote a huge number of “unsettling” tales in the early Showa era.
Translated by Edward Lipsett
The man from the village was using a conveniently sized rock from the riverbank to smash the tree bark into a pulp. Five or six of his fellows stood nearby, every so often removing the pulped bark from the depression in the rock boulder he was using as an anvil. They balled up the paste and dropped it into the reed basket, once in a while scraping up the spatters and adding them in as well.
Deep in the mountains beyond Ondake Peak, in Kiso, the peaks on both sides towered over the stream running through the valley… rough trails ran off through the somewhat gentler slope on one side, but on the other rocky upthrusts like bamboo shoots clustered thickly, draped with greenery spreading like the tangles of a woman’s hair. The tops of the rocks were aflame with crimson rhododendrons, and while the thin slice of sky visible above them was blazing with the hot sun of noon, the depths of the valley were as cool as autumn.
They had trekked to the mountain stream in the early morning to catch fish by dumping poison into the deep pool here, climbing up the trail from the village down below. They stripped the bark from the pepper tree, grinding it up with star anise, water, pepper and other ingredients to make the poison they needed.
“This is plenty. More than we need!” said one of the men, tilting the basket full of paste.
The supply of unpulped bark was running low, too.
“Time for a break, I guess… let’s eat first,” said another, standing from his crouch, stretching back, arms spread wide.
The seven villagers sat down in a circle on a flat rock nearby, pulled out their lunchboxes and began popping rice balls into their mouths with the fingers. As they enjoyed their snack with obvious delight, they talked of the fish they would soon catch.
“There’s some big trout hiding in this stream!” said one.
The man next to him finished swallowing his rice ball, and countered: “Nah. Just little stuff, lots of char and such…”
A monk in a white robe suddenly walked over to the group, and one of the men noticed him as he was just about to pop another rice ball into his mouth.
“Hey, a monk!”
The other men turned toward the visitor, the ones closest to him twisting to look down at him.
He wore a sedge hat and carried a bamboo staff, the color of the surrounding greenery tinging his white robe faintly.
“May I ask why you have come all the way up here?” asked the monk, gently.
“To dump a little poison in the stream,” explained the man who had first noticed the monk. He was a strapping fellow, the youngest of the lot.
“Poison? You mean poison to catch fish with?”
“That’s murder! Fishing with bait gives the fish a chance to think about it, and might be acceptable, but poison kills so many creatures that have committed no sin! You would destroy both root and branch!”
Nobody answered him, but they looked into each other’s eyes.
“You mustn’t kill,” continued the monk. “The lives of the fish are the same as your own lives, and creatures that kill others to live must eventually themselves receive their just rewards for their actions. You mustn’t kill! You mustn’t! I am not a vagabond, and I do not lie, or threaten others.”
“Well… I guess he’s right about that…” muttered said one of the group, a man with a narrow, ruddy face as he crossed his arms and cocked his head in thought.
“Yeah, I suppose… so, call it off?” asked the bearded man sitting to the right of the young buck.
“Well, ain’t no reason we can’t finish eating while we think about it,” suggested one who had turned to look down at the monk.
“Help yourself; we got plenty!” said the red-faced man, pointing at the rice balls.
“Thank you. In that case, I believe I’ll join you,” he responded, sitting down and laying his staff down next to him.
The man in front of the monk slid his body a bit to the side to let the visitor join the circle, while the red-faced man to his right slid the box of rice balls over.
“Thank you,” said the monk, taking three rice balls into the palm of his hand and popping one into his mouth. He swallowed it with a single gulp.
The young man noticed, and grinned, figuring that the monk must be hungry. The monk popped the other two rice balls into his mouth the same way, swallowing them down in a flash.
Once the monk had joined them in the meal, the men returned to their food. They began talking in quiet voices, so low that the monk couldn’t hear them, about whether they should go ahead with their plan or not.
“Maybe we should give it up, like the monk suggested,” whispered the broad-faced man missing a front tooth. He was sitting next to the young man.
“You gotta be kidding!” sneered the young man in a whisper back. “That monk has no business telling us what to do!”
With all the rice balls gone they opened up the big basket, pulling out the smaller rice gruel containers made of bark and the other foods. As they ate, the ruddy-faced man divided the cooked, unpolished rice into portions on the cover of the basket, then stood to grab a few broad kumazasa bamboo leaves. He piled some of the rice onto the leaves and set them down in front of the monk.
The monk accepted it, and began to eat. The young man, curious about how he ate, watched him out of the corner of his eye. The monk would scoop up rice with his fingers and put it in his mouth, then tilt his head back as if he was having difficulty swallowing… but even so, the rice disappeared one mouthful after another. The young man thought he had had never seen such a curious way of eating.
They finished, and trooped down to the river for a drink of water. Some lowered their mouths into the stream, lapping it up like dogs. The monk followed the villagers down to the water, lying down on a rock. He held the edge of his sedge hat with one hand to prevent it from getting wet, and dipped his mouth into the current, looking most contented.
“So what’ll we do?” asked the red-faced man as he wrapped the lunchbox up in a hemp cloth.
“Huh? What’s the problem? Do it, of course,” said the bearded man.
“But the monk said…” wavered the other.
“Ain’t no monk gonna say it’s OK to kill another living thing,” broke in the broad-faced man from the side.
“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” agreed the ruddy-faced man.
The monk clambered back up, stepping from rock to rock. The broad-faced man watched him, speaking to the bearded man: “Sure can’t quit now, not after all that hard work.”
The monk halted in front of the bearded man.
“So you’re going to dump in the poison after all, then…”
“Well, we’ll talk about it now and figure out what to do,” said the bearded man, laughing inwardly at the monk. “Still, we started getting ready for this yesterday, and we go up at the second cock’s crow this morning to get here…”
“It seems you intend to go ahead with it. I tell you, you must not kill! Whether fish or man, we all want to live!”
“I can’t make the decision myself… we talk about it, and it the others want to stop, I’ll go along.”
“Do not kill! Those who kill others will surely receive their just rewards,” warned the monk again.
“”We’ll all talk about it.”
“Well, I must be on my way,” said the monk, looking around at all the men gathered there. He thanked them for their kindness, and once again entreated them: “Please, do not kill.”
He walked away quietly, deeper into the mountains. The men were left with the image of the shimmering indigo light they had seen in his eyes.
“Where the heck did he come from?” demanded the strapping young man.
“Just some beggar monk, I ‘spect,” said the bearded man disinterestedly. “Up in the mountains like that, he prob’ly thought we were a whole village or something!”
The monk vanished into the shadowy undergrowth, and the men gathered together to discuss whether they should proceed with their plan or not.
“If none of you wants to go ahead with it, I’ll do it myself,” said the bearded man.
The ones who had been wavering made up their minds at his words, and the decision was made to release the poison. They all stripped down, and, carrying the baskets with the bark paste, with nets and baskets to scoop up fish, climbed down to the river. They poured the poison into the little pool of placid water, no more than a meter or two across.
They looked out across the water with eager eyes, and in the time it takes to smoke a pipeful a bluish-white fish floated to the top, belly-up and maybe 15 cm in length. It was a mountain trout.
“There’s one!” exclaimed one man.
One of the men with a net cast it, hauling in the fish dexterously. About ten minnows floated like little bubbles on the water, then two more bluish-white fish floated up into sight. A long, thin body with a yellowish belly appeared… an eel.
“An eel! We got an eel!” cried the young man excitedly.
After scooping up almost a dozen char and mountain trout the group gave up on that pool, and walked downstream to the next one. Already some of the poison had drifted down in the current, and five or six eels were floundering weakly, belly-up. They dumped in a little more poison, and six or seven half-dead mountain trout and char floated up.
They worked their way downstream, at each pool dumping in a little poison and catching the dying fish as they floated up to the surface.
As the sun began to slip behind the mountains, casting the valley into shadow, they came to the largest pool yet.
“He’s in here,” predicted the bearded man, who was in charge of dumping the poison. He dumped in twice the amount that he’d used for the other pools. Two or three char floated up to the surface, and then a single trout.
“Pool’s pretty big… poison won’t work that well here,” warned the broad-faced man.
The bearded man chucked in more bark paste. A few men used tree branches to stir it into the water. A char, about a foot long, floated up.
“That’s him! We got him!” the men said.
The man with the net hopped from rock to rock toward the fish, and scooped up the fish as it was drifting downstream. Three or four char were floating in the water as well, and the man started toward them next.
Suddenly the skies grew dark, and the leaves began to sigh and rustle above them. Huge raindrops started falling. The dark blue waters of the pool began to move, and the white back of a huge indigo-blue fish appeared. The size of a full-grown man, the giant char floated silently in the pool, white belly exposed.
The rain became a downpour and the valley grew even darker.
The giant char was sort of a legend in those parts, and measured a full five feet from head to tail. They strung a wisteria vine through its gills, and two of the them shouldered it.
That night someone had the idea of celebrating the rewards of a hard day’s work, with the giant char joining them as dinner, and they began to cook it up at the home of one of the men. The bearded man brought the big knife.
“If we’d done what that monk said we’d never be here with this fish!” he boasted, running his knife in and down through the belly.
The strapping young man lit a torch, holding it above the cutting board for light. The bearded man thrust his fingers inside the char’s belly and pulled out its innards… and something else rolled out with them: the three rice balls they had given to the strange old monk for lunch.
The bearded man grunted in astonishment, and fainted dead away.
岩魚の怪 （Iwana no kai）by 田中 貢太郎 (Tanaka Kōtarō)
Original work was taken from the Aozora Bunko and is in the public domain:
The text used in this translation is from this Tanaka collection 田中貢太郎日本怪談事典
English translation © 2014 Edward Lipsett. All rights reserved.