The Crane Maiden
version 1.2, 1/00
This story has literally dozens of variations. The common theme is that a person is kind to an animal (usually a bird) and is then visited by very kind, beautiful young woman. Eventually, she takes it upon herself to weave a beautiful length of cloth in secrecy. Selling the cloth brings the person previously unimagined wealth. When she weaves another bolt of cloth, her true nature is discovered and she must leave.
There are three primary characters in this story: Tsuru - The Crane Maiden, Tochiro-the old man, and Lan-his wife. This story is most appropriate for use with grades three through six, however, its appeal is very broad.
Once upon the time, in old Japan, there lived a poor but honest and gentle wood cutter. Tochiro lived happily with his wife of many years in the snow country of Japan. For as long as he could remember, each day he would enter the forest to collect fallen wood. He brought the wood back to his house where he and his wife, Lan, would break the wood into small pieces, tie them together in a bundle, and carry it to the village to sell.
Although they had very little to call their own, they were very happy.
"I think it will be a very cold winter," said Lan.
"Yes, I hope that I will be able to get home before the storm," said Tochiro.
"Do you think it will storm tonight?" Said Lan.
"Almost certainly," said Tochiro, "see the clouds up by the mountain? But that means I should have no trouble selling the wood."
"If you can get a good price, be sure to pick up some of that fine green tea. There's nothing better for keeping warm on a cold night," said Lan as she helped Tochiro put the wood on his back. "Be careful on the road Tochiro. Come home safely."
"I'll be home before night fall." And with that, Tochiro started down the road to the village. Although the road was long, Tochiro enjoyed walking to the village each week.
Suddenly, as he walked along the road, he heard pitiful cry from the woods. Following the sound, he came upon a beautiful Crane caught in a cruel trap. Tochiro was moved to great pity by the animal's plight. Soothing the Crane with soft words, he freed it from the trap. The crane paused for brief moment, almost as if thanking Tochiro for his help, then with a mighty flap of its wings, it flew gracefully into the sky and was gone.
That evening, he returned home to his wife and as they sat down to dinner, there was a knock at the door. A young girl in a flowing white kimono was standing outside their door in the snow. "Forgive my intrusion, but I seem to have lost my way. May I stop and warm myself at your fire?"
Tochiro and Lan were stunned by the subtle beauty of the girl's face. Lan said, "Of course, please come in." The girl smiled, but did not move. Tochiro said, "Come in and make yourself warm. What is your name child?"
Stepping through the door, the girl said "My name is Tsuru."
"Come in and warm yourself by the fire Tsuru," said Tochiro.
When Tsuru was seated by the fire, Lan pulled Tochiro aside and whispered to him, "We can't possibly let her go back out in this storm." Tochiro agreed. "She can sleep in our bed tonight." And so the couple bundled the girl off to their bed and set the about making themselves comfortable sleeping on the floor for the night.
When they awoke the next morning, a wonderful smell filled the air. Amazed, the couple walked into the kitchen to find Tsuru hard at work over the hearth. "Good morning," she said, "If you wash your hands, we can have breakfast. The porridge is warm and ready."
The old couple smiled, and Tochiro laughed "In our old age, we have a daughter."
Now, Tochiro had meant that as a joke, but, the harsh cold continued for several days. Once they discovered that Tsuru had no family, they insisted that she stay through the winter. By the time spring came, it was as if they had always been together.
It had been very hard winter, and Tochiro had not been able to collect and sell much wood. As the Spring Festival approached, Tochiro spoke to Lan and said "I wish we could afford a New Year's present for Tsuru, she's been such a joy. But, I'm afraid I'm going to have to bargain very hard to get the necessities this year."
Later that evening, Tsuru spoke to the couple saying, "Dear parents, I know it has been a long and hard winter, and that there has not been much wood to sell. I may be able to help. There is in old loom in the back room. I want to use it to weave a cloth for you to sell at the Festival."
Lan cried out, "Oh! That with the wonderful. I used to love to weave before my hands grew so stiff. I think there is still some silk thread in the back room... Come, and I'll help you look for it."
"No. If I do this, I must work alone. You must promise that no one will look in on me as I'm weaving."
"In all the time you have been here, you have never asked us for anything. If you wish to work alone, then no one will look in on you," said Tochiro. Lan agreed wholeheartedly.
The next morning after breakfast, Tsuru closed the door to the back room and began to work. All through the day, Lan and Tochiro heard the sound of loom. For three days, Tsuru seemed to work without stopping, closed up and alone in the room. True to their word, Lan and Tochiro left her undisturbed.
On the third day (the day before the Spring Festival), Tsuru emerged carrying a length of fabric unlike any they had ever seen. It was soft and light and seemed to glow when light hit it. Tsuru said, "Take this to the village, Father. Offer it for sale, but do not put a price on it and you will to far better then you could imagine."
When Tochiro reached the village, he had no sooner unwrapped the fabric than a crowd started together around him. The first voice offered him 10 gold pieces, the next 20, then 50... the bidding continued until a merchant offered him 100 gold pieces. That stopped the bidding only because no one could afford to pay more.
Tochiro returned home amazed. Even after he had purchased supplies (and a few luxuries), he still had more money then he had ever had. Lan was also astonished. They set to work at once making wonderful rice cakes to celebrate the New Year. Tsuru quietly smiled and enjoyed the celebration as Tochiro and Lan served as hosts for their neighbors as everyone welcomed the New Year.
Spring and Summer passed quickly. Tsuru made many friends among the children who lived nearby. As the first chill of winter approached, she said to her parents, "It is time for me to weave another cloth. At will begin tomorrow, and remember, no one must look in while I work."
For two days, Tsuru worked closed up in the back room. In the afternoon of the third day, some of the neighbors (who had become curious) came calling. "Ah, is Tsuru weaving again?" asked one. "Soon you will have more gold to hide under your floor," said another. "I've heard so much about that cloth. How does she weave it?" asked a third.
"We don't know. Tsuru asked that we not look in on her while she's working, so we haven't."
"What an odd promise," said one. "I would never make such a promise to my daughter. What harm can there be in a small look?" said another. "Perhaps the technique is a family secret. I would still like to see how the loom is set up though. Maybe I could ask her for a peek when she stops to eat," said the third.
"She doesn't stop to eat. Once she begins working, she doesn't let anything interrupt her," said Lan. As soon as she spoke, Lan realized she should simply have kept silent. The neighbors began another furious round of questions, becoming more and more indignant at not receiving any answers. Finally, one of their neighbors went to the door of the weaving room as if to peek through the crack in the door.
Tochiro was there at once to stop him. Tochiro placed his hand on the door to stop the neighbor from opening it. When his hand touched the door, the sound from the loom stopped, suddenly. The neighbor backed away ashamed at his own rudeness. Tochiro stepped back from the door slightly, expecting the sound of the loom to continue, but silence hung over the room.
The neighbors began to quietly make their goodbyes, and still the silence permeated the house. "Perhaps she has finished," offered one of the neighbors. "More likely she's fainted from not eating," said the second. "Are you sure she's all right?" asked the third. Tochiro called out to Tsuru and opened the door. As he did so, Lan cried, "No Tochiro, Tsuru has forbidden it!"
Her warning came too late. Tochiro had opened the door and he saw a beautiful light crane seated at the loom. Her beak held feathers that she had just plucked from her body and was about to weave into the cloth. Tochiro slammed the door closed.
A moment later, Tsuru came out to the room holding the almost finished cloth. "Beloved parents, I am the crane you rescued from the trap. I wanted to show my gratitude, but now that you know my true nature, I can not remain here." Tsuru handed the cloth to them and kissed them tenderly on the cheek. "Remember me." Without another word, she turned and walked out of the house. The moment she stepped over the threshold, she transformed into a crane again. With a mighty flap of her wings, she took to the sky. Lan and Tochiro rushed out of the house. The Crane Maiden circled once overhead, gave a single cried as if to say "goodbye," and flew off to over the horizon never to be seen again.