There was once an old fishing village in a remote area of Japan. The head family had lived there for hundreds of years, and had fished in the nearby sea for just as long. The family had fallen on hard times and now there was only Takahisa and his aged grandmother. Takahisa’s parents had been fishermen but had died when he was a child. His grandmother had done her best raising the boy, teaching him about the old ways and recounting traditional tales each night at bedtime. But when Takahisa grew to be a young man he rejected the old ways, to his grandmother’s great despair.
One day the grandmother was cleaning fish on the shores of the sea. With her was a kappa, a creature many believed did not exist. The kappa had protected the family since an ancient ancestor had saved its life, and it had grown to respect the family and love the grandmother. The old woman and the kappa worked silently; the kappa’s clawed hands cleaning fish as ably as the grandmother’s wrinkled ones. The kappa was shaped like a monkey but it had the skin of a lizard, scaled and damp, for it was a creature of the water. The kappa always carried water from its home in an indent on the top of its head, for in this way the kappa could move about on land. Those smart enough to trick the kappa into losing this water could control the creature. This was known to the grandmother, but she respected the kappa and it helped her willingly.
As the grandmother and the kappa were finishing for the day, Takahisa wandered by on his way home. He went to his grandmother but, instead of greeting her respectfully, he called her names, as he often did those days.
“Old woman, why are you still out here? You should be inside, serving my dinner!”
“Grandson, I am old and do not move as quickly as I once did. If you help I will finish sooner and you will have your dinner.”
“Help? To clean fish? Why should I help? It’s your duty to make my dinner, and to make it on time!”
“And what duty do you perform, that you deserve food?” The kappa’s lips curled in a sneer.
The grandson was shocked; the kappa had never addressed him before. But the feeling was quickly replaced by anger. “I’m the head of this household. I need no other reason to demand that my dinner be served to me on time.” He turned towards his grandmother and gave her a disgusted look. “This old woman is no longer of any use, she’s too slow, the busu.”
At this the grandmother cowered, and there was great sadness in her face. But the kappa was so offended it flew into a rage. “I can no longer be attached to a household where such a man lives.” It glared at Takahisa, who now sported a look of superiority on his young face.
“Good! Be gone, we don’t need you.” The grandson stormed off, the kappa returned to his pond, and the grandmother knelt by the water’s edge and wept.
For weeks, it seemed the kappa had disappeared. But the grandmother remembered the old ways and prepared herself for what she knew would come. Then one night an old fisherman was attacked while returning home late in the evening. He was horribly wounded, and the other villagers were terrified when they spoke to him.
“Tell us what happened, Masa.”
The old man tried to sit up in his bed, to better address the villagers who’d come to visit, but he was old and weak, and his injuries great. “I was walking home, having caught only a single fish to feed my family. The moon was full and lit my way.”
He gulped in air before continuing. “Suddenly a heavy fog descended around me, and I could no longer see the path home. I know the way so continued, my feet guiding me. Then I heard a noise, a wet slapping sound close behind me. I stopped and the sound stopped; as soon as I started again, the sound resumed. I began to run, when I felt knives in my back, sharp and fierce.” He rolled on his side and exposed his back to the visitors, who gasped when they saw it. There were five angry, ragged gouges running from his right shoulder down his entire back. The wounds were already infected, running with pus and corruption.
The fisherman continued his tale. “The force of the pain caused me to fall, and I scrambled on my hands and knees. A foul odor enveloped me, and I heard laughter behind me, deep and muffled, as if coming from beneath the water. I tried to get away but something grabbed me by the ankle and dragged me back.”
The neighbors gasped and looked at each other. “How did you get away?”
“I don’t know.” Masa shook his head. “I kicked as hard as I could, and finally I was released.”
Takahisa’s grandmother was in the crowd and saw the wounds. She alone knew what had harmed the old man, and prayed this would be the end of it. She knew it wasn’t though.
More attacks followed and no one was safe. A young farmer was left mutilated after a particularly vicious assault, his left arm ripped from his shoulder. If not for a skilled healer, he would have died from his injuries. Men, women, and children were hurt, and the injuries grew until the villagers feared leaving their homes.
A few brave men knew they had to fish to provide food for the village, and ventured out cautiously. But all the fish were rotted and inedible because the kappa had cast a spell so that anything removed from the water would be poisoned. The village soon began to starve.
Yuriko, Takahisa’s girlfriend, met with the young man in the field where they’d shared more joyous times, and begged him to apologize to both his grandmother and the kappa. Despite her pleading, Takahisa was still too proud.
“You’re just an emotional woman, don’t bother me with your tears.”
“Taka, people are being attacked, and the sea has been poisoned. The villagers are starving.”
“Bah. There is no magic here, the kappa has no power. All will be well soon enough.”
Desperate, Yuriko tried to reason with the young man one last time. “You must do something!”
Takahisa turned, his eyes flashing his anger. “Why me? As soon as I’m able I will leave this place and go to the city.”
“Your family is the head of the village, we need your help!” But Takahisa had stopped listening. Scowling, he strode away from Yuriko, leaving her standing alone.
Sighing, the young woman headed home across the field, passing close by the kappa’s pond. As she neared the water there was an enormous splash and the kappa suddenly appeared. The creature leered wickedly at Yuriko and, when she tried to run, it grabbed her arm with its scaly hand and pulled her closer, leaving red welts on her flesh. The terrified girl screamed and struggled to get away but it was no use; the kappa would not let her go. The kappa dragged Yuriko into the water and held her captive, beating the poor young woman daily.
When Takahisa heard what had happened to Yuriko he was furious, and rushed off to fight the kappa, vowing to kill it. When he arrived at the pond the creature was waiting for him. Its lips, cold and grey, grinned at the boy while its beady black eyes silently mocked him. In his haste Takahisa had forgotten a weapon, but was sure he could kill the kappa with his bare hands. He lunged at the creature again and again, trying to grab the thing’s neck.
The kappa sensed each move before it happened, and easily avoided every one of the grandson’s attacks. It took pleasure in the young man’s efforts, and rewarded Taka with a swipe of its clawed hand each time. Takahisa grew angrier with each attempt, and was soon so frustrated he threw his head back and screamed before rushing away, the kappa’s mocking laughter following him. When he returned home his grandmother tried to help him with his wounds but Takahisa shrugged her off.
“Be gone, old woman, leave me be.”
“My grandson, you will not defeat the kappa in this way.”
The grandson growled. “And what do you know about it? The creature is cunning but I was unprepared. Tomorrow I’ll win the fight and rescue Yuriko.”
He interrupted. “Speak to me no longer, busu. This is none of your concern.”
The next day, armed with a ceremonial knife that was once his father’s, Takahisa returned to the pond and ordered the kappa to appear before him. When there was no response, he repeated his order more loudly. Still nothing happened. He cursed and swore oaths yet the kappa did not appear. Takahisa returned home in tears. His honor demanded he save Yuriko but he was failing. He was losing his love, and could think of nothing to save her.
That night he remembered the days when he had been a young boy, and his grandmother had held him and told him the old stories. He crawled from his bed and stood before his grandmother, who had stayed up late to mend Takahisa’s cloak. Bowing, he addressed the old woman.
“Grandmother, I beg your forgiveness. I’ve behaved most shamefully and have been an insolent grandson. I’ve treated you very poorly and I apologize deeply.” When he finished he looked up and saw tears running down his grandmother’s face. Thinking he’d hurt her further he rushed to his grandmother’s side and threw his arms around her like he’d done when he was a child. The old woman laughed, and they talked late into the night.
The next morning Takahisa rose early, made tea for his grandmother, and snuck out of the house quietly so as not to wake the old woman. He approached the pond and stopped by the water’s edge.
“Kappa! I respectfully ask to speak with you.” Takahisa backed away from the pond. A few moments later the kappa appeared, its scaled skin dripping. The creature stood before Takahisa and waited. The grandson took a breath.
“Kappa, I’m ashamed of my behavior, both to my grandmother and yourself. I offer my apology.” Takahisa bowed deeply to the kappa and waited. He remembered from the stories his grandmother told him that the kappa was a very old and traditional creature. Sure enough, the kappa, following the proper etiquette, bowed back to Takahisa. As it did so, the water it carried spilled from its head onto the ground. The kappa shrieked, a cold strangled sound, and froze.
Takahisa approached the kappa slowly. “Please accept my apology, I meant you no harm. I only wished to show you that I’ve changed. I humbly ask you to release Yuriko, and return to my family and help my grandmother again. I promise I’ll be respectful of the old ways. And I’ll replace the water on your head.”
The kappa, while frozen, could still talk. It thought for a moment, then agreed to let Yuriko go and return to Takahisa’s family, for it had decided to give the grandson a chance and it missed the grandmother greatly. Takahisa kept his word and became a great man in the village, kind and helpful to all. The kappa apologized to Yuriko and helped to heal her wounds. When she was well enough, Yuriko married Takahisa and together with the grandmother they lived their lives in peace.
Copyright Kelly Evans