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The cat's bowl

The night before I left for Sirens, wakanomori had the pleasant job of introducing a Japanese storyteller who was performing at the local university. She does traditional rakugo storytelling, plus original stories, in English. I asked Wakanomori what they were like, and he told me one of the traditional ones she'd told. It was so entertaining I thought I'd share it here. I listened to a couple of Japanese versions of the story, so what you're getting is Motoko-Wakanomori transmission, influenced by those two linked storytellers.

The Cat's Bowl

Back a couple hundred years ago, there was a canny merchant who traveled the length and breadth of Japan buying and selling antiques. He'd assess a valuable heirloom as next to worthless and purchase it on the cheap and pass off worthless junk as treasure from bygone eras and sell it at many times its worth. He always had his eye out for a bargain.

Late one afternoon, still hours away from the inn where he intended to spend the night, this merchant found himself on a desolate stretch of country road, his thirst and hunger getting the better of him. Fortunately, just at that moment, an old farmhouse came into view. He knocked on the door and asked the old man who answered if he might impose upon him for some refreshment.

"Happy to oblige, good sir," the old man said. He had the merchant sit down by the hearth and swung the kettle over it to heat, then he hurried off to the kitchen.

Left alone by the warming kettle, the merchant took the opportunity to scope out his surroundings. He couldn't help but notice an abundance of cats in the wide, spare room--one asleep on a cushion, another washing itself on the far side of the hearth, two more chasing each other along the corridor that led to the kitchen. When the old man reappeared with rice crackers and mochi wrapped in cherry leaves, a kitten was tagging along with him, and this kitten made so bold as to jump into the merchant's lap, where it circled around, kneading the merchant's thighs and purring.

"Ooh, he likes you!" the old man began, and then, catching the merchant's discomfited expression, he quickly shooed the kitten off his guest's lap.

"Heh-heh, I apologize for this. Mifune really is overly familiar." He poured his guest a cup of tea and set the tray of snacks down on the hearth's edge. Mifune was showing all too much interest in those snacks--the merchant had to lift the tray up, and then Mifune started attacking his arm to try to get at them. It was quite annoying.

"Oh dear, oh dear. Let me just go get Mifune a little something too, then he'll leave you alone," the old man said, heading for the kitchen again.

"You sure do have a lot of cats," the merchant called after him, trying for the third time to push Mifune from his lap.

"Well, you see, my wife was never able to have any children. She consoled herself herself with cats," the old man replied, reappearing. "Now that she's gone, I find them a great comfort. Here now, Mifune, have some mackerel--there's a good boy." He set down a little bowl filled with bits of fish.

The merchant did a double take. That bowl. That pale, pale green. Could it be? But no. Not here in a backwater farmhouse. Not genuine Korean celadon ware! If it was genuine, it would be worth at least 200 gold pieces. He gulped down the last of his mochi.

"I don't suppose I could trouble you for a couple more mochi?" he said, his mouth still full. "These are really delicious." In fact, they were rather rubbery and flavorless, but his host beamed.

"You like them? Certainly!" And once again he disappeared into the kitchen. The merchant jumped up, pushed Mifune away from the bowl, picked it up, and examined it closely. Definitely genuine. His heart was in his mouth. With a trembling hand, he set the bowl back down and hastened back to his seat by the hearth.

"You know," he said slowly, after eating one of the extra mochi the old man brought him. "What you've said about your cats has got me thinking. Although it's true that I'm not all that fond of the creatures, my wife has always been partial to them, always wanted one. I always said no, but now I'm thinking that was selfish of me. It's not like I'm home most days--and she gets so lonely. I bet a feline companion would do her good. And your little Mifune is such a prankster, I'm sure she'd fall in love with him. Might I persuade you to part with him?"

The old man's brow wrinkled. "Part with Mifune? I don't know. . ."

"I'd be willing to offer you three gold coins," the merchant said.

The old man staggered back as though struck.

"Three gold coins?! For little Mifune? Good sir, have you lost your mind?"

"No no no! I know it seems excessive, but watching him play, and thinking of my wife's loneliness . . . It just seems right. Please. Indulge me in this."

"Well, if you insist . . . It does seem like a lot, but . . ."

"One thing, though," the merchant added. "Leaving his familiar surroundings is bound to be a shock for the poor kitten. Having something from home might help him adjust. Might I take along his food bowl?"

The old man inhaled through his teeth, looking regretful.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir, but that won't be possible."

"What do you mean? I'm offering you three gold coins for the kitten, and you can't part with his dirty old bowl?"

"I know, I know. I apologize. But you see, although it looks like nothing more than a dirty old cat bowl, that bowl is in fact fine Korean celadon, worth 200 gold coins."

For several heartbeats, the merchant and the old man stared at each other silently.

"N-no, I can't believe that," the merchant blurted out at last. "If it were really Korean celadon, why in the world would you be using it as a cat bowl?"

"Funny thing about that," the old man said slowly. "I've found that using it as a cat bowl brings me tremendous good luck. Every few years, someone buys a cat off me for several gold pieces."

Image from this website


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 19th, 2015 02:07 am (UTC)
Oct. 19th, 2015 11:12 am (UTC)
Nice to see the guy with the cats come out on top :-)
Oct. 20th, 2015 02:14 am (UTC)
It was diamond cut diamond, I think. (which is certainly more cheerful than diamond cut innocent!)
Oct. 19th, 2015 05:56 am (UTC)
"I've found that using it as a cat bowl brings me tremendous good luck. Every few years, someone buys a cat off me for several gold pieces."

Oct. 19th, 2015 11:12 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed Wakanomori's telling of this and wanted to give it a try. It works best in person, of course.
Oct. 19th, 2015 08:16 am (UTC)
Hmm. Several gold coins "every few years" sounds like a 1-2% return on an admittedly appreciating but fragile asset. Maybe he'd be better off selling the bowl and investigating the benefits of compound interest instead. But I guess he'd also miss out on the entertainment...
Oct. 19th, 2015 11:11 am (UTC)
I'm guessing he doesn't like haggling. This way people push the money on him, and yeah, there's the entertainment value. It gets lonely out there.

On the other hand, good point about the fragility. Though, if you imagine tatami mats, maybe it's less likely to break than it might in some surroundings?
Oct. 19th, 2015 12:08 pm (UTC)
Oct. 21st, 2015 01:11 pm (UTC)
Fun, right?
Oct. 19th, 2015 03:08 pm (UTC)
That is a delightful story. Thanks for sharing!
Oct. 21st, 2015 01:12 pm (UTC)
My pleasure! Thank you for reading!
Oct. 20th, 2015 12:09 pm (UTC)
hehe. Thanks for sharing.
Oct. 21st, 2015 01:12 pm (UTC)
You bet ^_^
Oct. 21st, 2015 01:44 pm (UTC)
Heee! I love it.
Oct. 21st, 2015 03:14 pm (UTC)
Yay! So glad ^_^
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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