Kwaidan

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Author: Lafcadio Hearn

I

This morning sky, after the night’s tempest, is a pure and dazzling blue. The air — the delicious air! — is full of sweet resinous odors, shed from the countless pine-boughs broken and strewn by the gale. In the neighboring bamboo-grove I hear the flute-call of the bird that praises the Sutra of the Lotos; and the land is very still by reason of the south wind. Now the summer, long delayed, is truly with us: butterflies of queer Japanese colors are flickering about; semi (1) are wheezing; wasps are humming; gnats are dancing in the sun; and the ants are busy repairing their damaged habitations... I bethink me of a Japanese poem:—

Yuku e naki: Ari no sumai ya!
Go-getsu ame.

[Now the poor creature has nowhere to go!... Alas for the dwellings of the ants in this rain of the fifth month!]

But those big black ants in my garden do not seem to need any sympathy. They have weathered the storm in some unimaginable way, while great trees were being uprooted, and houses blown to fragments, and roads washed out of existence. Yet, before the typhoon, they took no other visible precaution than to block up the gates of their subterranean town. And the spectacle of their triumphant toil to-day impels me to attempt an essay on Ants.

I should have like to preface my disquisitions with something from the old Japanese literature,— something emotional or metaphysical. But all that my Japanese friends were able to find for me on the subject,— excepting some verses of little worth,— was Chinese. This Chinese material consisted chiefly of strange stories; and one of them seems to me worth quoting,— faute de mieux.

*

In the province of Taishu, in China, there was a pious man who, every day, during many years, fervently worshiped a certain goddess. One morning, while he was engaged in his devotions, a beautiful woman, wearing a yellow robe, came into his chamber and stood before him. He, greatly surprised, asked her what she wanted, and why she had entered unannounced. She answered: "I am not a woman: I am the goddess whom you have so long and so faithfully worshiped; and I have now come to prove to you that your devotion has not been in vain... Are you acquainted with the language of Ants?" The worshiper replied: "I am only a low-born and ignorant person,— not a scholar; and even of the language of superior men I know nothing." At these words the goddess smiled, and drew from her bosom a little box, shaped like an incense box. She opened the box, dipped a finger into it, and took therefrom some kind of ointment with which she anointed the ears of the man. "Now," she said to him, "try to find some Ants, and when you find any, stoop down, and listen carefully to their talk. You will be able to understand it; and you will hear of something to your advantage... Only remember that you must not frighten or vex the Ants." Then the goddess vanished away.

The man immediately went out to look for some Ants. He had scarcely crossed the threshold of his door when he perceived two Ants upon a stone supporting one of the house-pillars. He stooped over them, and listened; and he was astonished to find that he could hear them talking, and could understand what they said. "Let us try to find a warmer place," proposed one of the Ants. "Why a warmer place?" asked the other;— "what is the matter with this place?" "It is too damp and cold below," said the first Ant; "there is a big treasure buried here; and the sunshine cannot warm the ground about it." Then the two Ants went away together, and the listener ran for a spade.

By digging in the neighborhood of the pillar, he soon found a number of large jars full of gold coin. The discovery of this treasure made him a very rich man.

Afterwards he often tried to listen to the conversation of Ants. But he was never again able to hear them speak. The ointment of the goddess had opened his ears to their mysterious language for only a single day.

*

Now I, like that Chinese devotee, must confess myself a very ignorant person, and naturally unable to hear the conversation of Ants. But the Fairy of Science sometimes touches my ears and eyes with her wand; and then, for a little time, I am able to hear things inaudible, and to perceive things imperceptible.

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Chicago: Lafcadio Hearn, "I," Kwaidan, trans. Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946 in Kwaidan (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920), Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FVN9DS16J8AXH1.

MLA: Hearn, Lafcadio. "I." Kwaidan, translted by Garnett, Constance Black, 1862-1946, in Kwaidan, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1920, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FVN9DS16J8AXH1.

Harvard: Hearn, L, 'I' in Kwaidan, trans. . cited in 1920, Kwaidan, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8FVN9DS16J8AXH1.