Japanese Folktales: A Bridge of Magpies

A bridge of Magpies – Warwick Goble [Public domain]

This is a retelling of a Japanese folktale called The Star Lovers, from a collection by Grace Jones titled, Japanese Fairy Tales.

The Weaving Maiden

It is a love story from the old days of old Japan and tells of the Weaving Maiden who dwelt upon the shore of the Bright River of Heaven.  Her duty was to weave the garments for all of the gods. She took her duty most seriously working tirelessly hour after hour weaving the white cloth for the garments of the gods.  Ream upon ream of cloth lay piled all around her but she never stopped for rest or respite. Instead she spent all her time weaving. You see she was afraid. She was afraid because she had heard this saying,

“Sorrow, sorrow, age-long sorrow
And  eternal gloom
Shall fall upon the Weaving Maiden
When she leaves her loom.”

Therefore, she worked every hour, day and night making the clothing for the gods.  In truth, they had clothes to spare. Conversely, in her efforts to clothe them she never took the time to ensure she was clad elegantly as befitted her own status.  Instead she wore an old ill-fitting and worn tunic. She never bothered with the beautiful jewelry her father often lavished upon her either. Instead, she went bare of foot and allowed her hair to stream down over her shoulders and her back.   When she was at work on the loom she just flung it casually over her one shoulder to keep it out of the way.

All her time was taken up with her work and she had never played with the other children of the gods among the stars.  She had never interacted with them at all. She did not love or weep and she did not eat, she was not glad or sorry . She just sat at her loom and shuttle and wove and wove. She wove her very being into the cloth that she was weaving and it came out white.

At last her father noticed her industry and said, “ My daughter, you are working too hard.”

“But it is my duty, father,” she replied.

“Nonsense! You are too young to think of duty,” he replied.

“Father, why are you are displeased with me?” she asked.

“Daughter, are you wood, are you stone, or perhaps a pale flower all alone on the wayside?” he asked.

“Father, you know well I am none of these, therefore why do you ask?” she replied.

“Indeed, you are none of these, therefore, leave your loom and go out and live.  Enjoy yourself and make friends and have fun. Be like others of your own age and live,” he answered.

“Why ever should I be like others!” she asked.

“What,you dare to question me your father? Leave your loom now!”  he said sternly.

But she replied,

“Sorrow, sorrow, age-long sorrow
And  eternal gloom …

But her father cut her short saying angrily, “Do not throw that foolish saying at me.  Age-long sorrow has no relevance to us, we are gods!”.

Taking her hand gently, but firmly, he covered over the loom and led her from the room.  He gave her beautiful clothing and made sure her hair was groomed and styled and adorned with jewels and flowers and he gave her wonderful jewelry and gems.  He made her look wonderfully beautiful and the first one to notice her was the Herd Boy of Heaven who looked after the flocks and herds along the banks of the Bright River.  

The Herd Boy of Heaven

The Weaving Maiden was transformed beyond all recognition.  Her lips were red and her eyes were like the stars she now played among.  She sang and danced all day long and made many, many new friends. Instead of spending long hours at the loom alone she played with the children of the Gods.  She danced lightly across the sky in shoes made of silver with the Herd Boy of Heaven and soon they were lovers.  Their laughter resounded through the Heavens and the gods themselves joined in.   For the first time in her life she was enjoying herself and having fun and she had someone she loved who loved her greatly and she was happy.  In her happiness she said,  “No longer will I spend long hours at the loom weaving the clothes of the gods and goddesses.”

She stopped worry about fulfilling her duty and stopped using her loom altogether.

“I have my life to live and will weave no more!” she said to herself and ran to the Herd Boy who held her in his arms, her eyes shining and her face smiling.  From then on she lived her life as she thought she should. But the gods began to run out of new clothes and her father grew angry and said,

“Has my daughter gone mad? Everyone is laughing at her and who will weave the gods new clothes this spring?”

Three times he called his daughter to him and warned her.  Three times she ignored him and the last time she said,

“But father, who was it who stopped me weaving?  Who was it who clad me in fine clothes and jewels and sent me away from my loom?  Father you are the one who opened the door and now neither mortal or god can shut it!”

“You think I cannot stop it?  I will show you what I can do!”   He called the magpies of the earth and they  flocked to him from near and far. Spreading their wings from end to end they formed a fragile bridge spanning the Bright River. With no further discussion he banished the Herd Boy to the far side of the Bright River and he sadly stepped over the fragile bridge.  She wept bitterly as she watched her love cross the frail bridge of magpies. Once he had stepped onto the other side of the Bright River the magpies quickly flew up dispersing to where they had come from. The Weaving Maiden was left standing on the opposite bank with her father unable to follow.

Sorrow

She stood upon the shore holding her arms out to her love on the opposite shore and crying. Throwing herself down on the river bank she sobbed her heart out while the Herd Boy sobbing disconsolately held out his arms to her.  A long time she lay sobbing on the ground until she could cry no more.

At last she rose and returned to her loom and began working away again. After a while she stopped and gazed into space and said,

“Sorrow, sorrow, age-long sorrow
And  eternal gloom …”

Putting her head in her hands she wept.  After a while she stopped, straightened her back and said,

“I will not return to what I was. Once I neither loved or wept.  I was neither sorry of happy. Now, I know how to love, now I know how to weep, now I know what happiness is, now am I know sorrow. I will not go back to what I was!”

Taking up the shuttle she laboured diligently as the tears rolled down her face but she continued weaving the clothing of the gods.  Sometimes the cloth came out grey as grief, at other times it came out rosy or gold as in pleasant dreams and the colours change according to her mood.  This new style of clothing pleased the gods and her father was pleased for a change and said,

“I see I have my hardworking and diligent daughter back and you are happy and quiet.”          

But she told him.

“I am not happy and it is the quiet of dark despair.  I am but the most miserable one in Heaven!”

He looked on his daughter and seeing her heart was breaking he regretted what he had done and said, “Truly, I am sorry but what can I now do?”

“Bring back the Herd Boy of the Bright River – give me back my love!”

“I cannot.  What has been done cannot be undone.  He has been banished by a god and it can never be undone.” he told her regretfully.

“This was my fear, I knew it!” she said bitterly.

He thought for a while and then said,

“Yet, there is one thing I can do.  On the seventh day of the seventh moon, from now until eternity, I will summon the magpies from all parts of the earth to the Bright River.  They shall make a bridge with their wings and you may cross lightly over to the other side to be with your love for one day. Then you must return the same way.”

Thereafter, on the seventh day of the seventh moon the magpies of the earth arrive at  the Bright River and make a frail bridge with their wings. Joyful the Weaving Maiden, with shining eyes, her heart fluttering and smiling happily treads lightly across the bridge into the arms of her waiting lover.  To this day this tryst is kept except when the rains come and the river is too swollen and strong for the magpies to make their bridge. In such times the poor lovers must wait until the seventh day, of the seventh moon, comes around once again and pray for:

Clear skies, fair weather,

A bridge of magpies.

© 24/04/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright April 24th, 2019 zteve t evans

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