By Kazehana Hiromi
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a young man who was skilled at telling stories.
He would travel from village to village, town to town, strumming his lyre and making story after story. He would let people hear them for change to get himself a meal and a place to sleep, and would do it again the next day.
One day, while he sung his songs at a village bar as he always did, a single suspicious messenger came to him.
With a black mantle covering their entire body, their head with a hood pulled deeply over it looked as if it contained horn-like protrusions beneath. Their face was shadowed and couldn’t be seen.
“My master heard of your reputation, and desires a story. My master cannot leave her mansion. Come with me.”
“If she wishes to hear my stories, then she’s a precious customer. Very well, then let’s be off.”
The villagers tried to stop him, but the young man calmly followed behind the messenger.
The place he was brought was an old mansion deep in the deep forest’s depths. The master he spoke of was actually an evil witch.
She was extremely beautiful and knowledgeable, but she would only ever do bad things, so god eventually grew fed up and sealed her in her mansion.
Passing through the parlor, the young man was surprised as he caught sight of the witch. The reason being that the lower half of her body had been turned to stone.
Stuck in a splendid seat fit for a queen, the witch wasn’t even able to stand.
“I’m glad you could come. As you can see, I am incredibly bored here. Even if I wished to play a bit, as I am I cannot even catch a single newt. So rest at ease. Now why don’t you let me hear one?”
Even half made of stone, the witch was beautiful, and the young man found her lovely. She grinned as she beckoned to him.
Taking his lyre in hand, the man took a seat at the witch’s feet.
“Milady, I thank you for your invitation. What sort of story do you wish for today? A bright and fun comedy? A sweet and enchanting tale of love? Or perhaps a gallant tale of adventure?”
“I already know all the stories in the world. I called you here because I heard you made stories anew. I want you to tell me a tale I’ve never heard before.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll gladly oblige.”
The young man eagerly took a look around the room. And using whatever caught his eyes as the ingredients, he had crafted a tale in the blink of an eye.
In the mouse hole in the wall lay a secret passage, and a ghost of old sat in the empty chair. The suspicious messenger became the bravest of knights.
The story the young man put together was much too unfinished and unrefined, and childish, but it was curiously glistening, and it had the power to draw in and keep those that heard it.
Even the witch who knew all the stories in the world found herself enraptured.
On the other hand- to the young man- the witch was a listener without peer. She wouldn’t jeer in the middle of his tale, or cry petty cries of, ‘Hurry it up,’ or ‘That’s nonsense’. She would merely listen with her eyes glimmering, laughing at the happy scenes, and letting her eyes grow cloudy at the sorrowful ones.
The two of them recited, listened in a trance, spending quite a delightful piece of time.
The satisfied witch prepared a feast for the young man, and let him stay in a room fitting of a king. Even if the witch couldn’t move, there were many of her servants in the mansion to look after him.
The next day, and the day after that, the witch listened to the young man’s stories. Her long years of boredom were completely blown away, and she felt as if she had returned to her days of old. And once that had come over her, the witch’s bad habits began to come out.
She wanted to monopolize the young man’s wonderful stories.
“How about it? Why don’t you stay here forever, making stories for me alone?”
As the witch said that to the young man, she showed him a single pot.
“From now on, all of your stories belong to me. They will be stowed away in this gourd of magic. When one day you age and pass away, your soul will be locked in here alongside them. And then for ever and ever, I will be able to listen to your stories as many times I want.
If you say yes, in exchange, I promise I’ll never let you have any painful memories. You will never have to knock on bar doors with an empty stomach, or shake, driven out into the rain to spend your nights.”
The young man was surprised, but without thinking much, he nodded a yes.
“Very well. From here on, I will stay here forever making stories for milady alone.”
For besides making and telling stories, the young man was absolutely no good at anything else.
He was unable to count the money he begged for, and he couldn’t even put it away in his purse to use sparingly.
Even when tangles with terrible drunks, or hearing complaints at his stories, or being smacked around for them, he wasn’t able to do anything in return.
So for the youth, while he found happiness when times were good, there was many a time when he cried out at his frightful misfortune.
He wouldn’t have to go through such feelings again. And there wasn’t a person more worth telling stories in the world than the witch
“Okay. Then it’s a promise. You won’t tell a story to any besides me. And I will never let you go through any pain.”
The witch grinned, and pulled out the cork on the gourd.
From then, the young man spent many long years at the witch’s mansion.
The witch told him various things. About distant worlds, about people of the past. The mansion had a library, and the young man could read books as much as he wanted.
And little by little, the young man became clever, and the stories he put together grew deeper and larger.
No matter what story the young man told, the witch would never tell him it was no good or boring. They would enjoy their time together, and even once the story ended, they’d talk and discuss each and every piece that appeared in the tale.
Because of that, the young man’s stories became more and more abundant, and their time together was filled with happiness.
When the young man became a full-fledged man, he suddenly said.
“Milady. If one of us breaks the promise, what will happen?”
“What is this? You’ve gotten the mind to go outside, and have many hear the tales you tell?”
The witch was put in a bad mood. The man smiled, and shook his head a no.
“From the start, I was never making my stories to be popular or famous. When there’s no better a listener in the world than milady, I’ve never thought to give my stories to another.”
“Then why would you say such a thing?”
The witch stared intently at the man, asking in her anxiety.
“Could it be your life here is hard? If you want to go outside, you can go if you wish. If you won’t let any others hear your stories, and you promise to return, then be it a month or a years, go out all you wish. I’ll be waiting here however long it takes.”
“Nay. I’m not in any pain. But let me see. If it’s alright for me to venture outside, shall I search for a present you’d be pleased with?”
The man laughed and answered, and in the end without going anywhere, he continued spending his time by the witch’s side.
The magic gourd continued to fill with stories. The stories the man told were very strong and vibrant, and each and every one of them was like a blazing fire.
At times, the witch would call out the first story he ever told her, and the once-young man’s face would turn red in embarrassment, but without telling her to cast aside such a thing, together with the witch, he would happily incline his ear to the story.
Before it came to anyone’s attention, the man had become an old man.
The voice he used to tell his tales had cracked, and the blazing flames of stories had died out, being replaced with a quiet ocean. What he would once take two or three days to tell, he would have to recite over ten, or even twenty.
But even so without change, the witch would lend her ear and enjoy the old man’s tales.
When the old man became bed-ridden, the witch prepared a bed right by her chair.
“The day your soul is welcomed in here can’t be far off.”
The witch spoke a little lonesomely as she stroked the magic gourd. She knew it would come to this, and once the old man died, his stories would never belong to another.
And yet the witch wasn’t the slightest bit happy about it.
Even if she had his soul in his hands, it would be something different from the one living and breathing before her eyes. The magic gourd with his soul would surely tell her stories for the rest of eternity. But never would a new tale be born.
As the witch sulked, the old man lying on the bed spoke.
“Milady. Perhaps you’ll never get your hands on my soul.”
“What’s this? You plan to live another hundred years?”
Seeing the old man’s flame of life on the verge of going out, the witch intentionally joked. To such a witch, the old man sent eyes of pity and gave a sorrowful smile.
“Nay. It is because you broke our promise.”
“You said it. That you would never let me go through any painful memories. Sure enough, every day I spent to now was filled with happiness. But it cannot go on. Milady, I will say it now. I am in pain.”
Tears dripped from the old man’s eyes, falling down his face to form stains on his pillow.
In the witch’s hands, the magic gourd began to clatter and shake.
“The fact that I must part with you is more painful than death. I can’t tell you my stories anymore. I can no longer see your sadness or joy at each of my words, with these eyes. That is nothing but bitter, painful, enough that even my soul would be torn to pieces…!”
The moment the old man had finished wringing out his voice, the magic gourd floated in the air, gave a brilliant glint and shattered away.
All the tales it stored over many decades had ridden the wind and flew away. Those sparkling, brilliant tales like the sprouting of new leaves, and those blazing fiery tales, and those quiet tales like the ocean.
The fragments of the shattered magic gourd scattered across her cold lap of stone. The witch looked down over them, stuck a while in a daze.
Eventually, quietly, the tears began to fall.
In the centuries she had been alive, they were the first warm tears she ever spilled.
The witch raised her voice to cry. She bawled and cried, and cried, and cried… and by the time she noticed it, her legs were kicking along.
Staggering as she stood, the witch clung to the old man, but his eyelids and lips were closed and unmoving. The voice he would use to tell her stories, and the way he called her milady, she would never hear them again.
The stories released from the magic gourd to near and afar, they rode the wind as far as they went.
The bright and fun comedies, the sweet and enchanting tale of love, and the gallant tale of adventure. They broke into countless fragments, and gently danced across the peoples’ hearts showing them dreams of splendor.
Among the people were those that told stories. The storytellers tilted their heads wondering why they were recalling such stories as they sang them as songs and put them away in books… and the form of a single witch came to their minds.
The freed witch had grown bored once more.
When she could now go wherever she wished, she didn’t want to go anywhere, spending sluggish days shut up in her mansion.
She would sit by the grave made in the courtyard, often staring blankly from dawn to dusk.
Nothing she did was any fun. In the past, she would go out to villages all around to perform various forms of mischief. She would make the pumpkins in the fields sing through the night, or connect the ends of the blacksmith’s horseshoes, or charm the village youths before suddenly turning herself into an unsightly old hag.
But now even if she thought about such mischief, it wouldn’t bring the slightest smile.
On that day, the witch was dazing out by the grave once more.
She still remembered the stories he told her, and she could mutter them herself, but they were no longer anything but boring tales that had lost their power.
Hah, when she sighed, she heard some noisy voices in the direction of the mansion.
What could it be, the witch frowned as she stood. She hadn’t had any plans for a visitor and in the first place, when a crowd gathered around a witch’s mansion, it was never for anything good. At times, the humans would remember the witch was there and come to beat her.
Preparing to hit a sneeze bomb at them, the witch circled around to the front of the mansion. And blinking her eyes, she was rooted to the spot.
There were various people gathered there.
Youths and adults, men and women. From the black-haired villagers of nearby to the blond-haired blue-eyes people of across the seas.
As the witch gazed, one of the youths noticed her and gave a smile.
“Ah, it’s milady! Pleasure to meet you!”
Those along turned and, so it’s true, she isn’t stone anymore, they began talking amongst themselves, as they gathered around the witch in droves. Let alone scared, they seemed extremely delighted.
This was the first anything like this had happened, and with her eyes open wide, the witch looked around at the humans.
“What do you intend to start here? You know this is the mansion of a witch, don’t you?”
“Yes, milady. I apologize for barging in all of a sudden. We have all received stories from the magic gourd.”
As the young man answered with a smile, a singing girl stepped forward, and let a strum from her lyre. It was the starting sound of a story once held in the gourd.
“When the story fell from the sky, I was astonished, but while I was singing, I came to know about you. That’s why I came here.”
Next a scholarly man lined up next to her, triumphantly holding up a single volume. The title of dazzling decorative letters was one the witch had once thought up alongside the reciter.
“The continuation of the story, I came for you to hear a new story.”
The witch couldn’t respond. She cried and cried, and again, the tears wouldn’t stop.
Everyone gently surrounding the witch, and called over with a smile. Who was going to tell their story first? From me? Or me?
The witch didn’t try to make a magic gourd again.
Instead so whenever anyone came from anywhere in the world, she opened a path in the forest, and left the gates wide open.
So from there and ever on, the witch was surrounded by many living stories, spending her days in happiness.