Here’s another folk tale from Chizu Village out in Tottori to celebrate the Year of the Horse. For those you keeping track, the lunar year (as celebrated in other Asian countries) started on January 31 this year, but Japan has long ago switched to the Gregorian calendar, leading to another level of complexity of the calendar and meaning that we’re already a month into the Year of the Horse here.

A long time ago, there was a family with no worries, plenty of money, and a single child. There was a poor family nearby that also only had one child, the two of them got along quite well. They were always seen together. One day, while chatting as usual, one said, “When we grow up, we should go on a journey.”

“Sure, let’s do it.”

Their families were supportive. “Well, a journey would build character. Go ahead!”

Seeing as they were always together, they of course went on this journey together. The rich family provided a suitable amount of cash for their son, and the poor family managed to give their son a little bit of cash.

On their journey, they decided to stay at an inn. The rich boy fell fast asleep as soon as he lied down in bed, but the poor boy had trouble sleeping and tossed and turned and tossed and turned all night. In the middle of the night, a woman–he wasn’t sure whether she was the madame of the inn or her daughter or what–walked through the hall, the tatami mats creak, creak, creaking under her steps. Opening the door to their room, she slipped inside, and made her way over the sunken fireplace, where she took something out of her sleeve and began to stir around the ash as though she was cleaning up. Not so, however–she had husked rice, and planted it in the ashes. Immediately, it sprouted into a young rice plant and grew bigger and bigger, bearing a fresh ear of rice. The woman plucked it, and the rice turned into dango–rice dumplings.

The following morning, the dango was in bowls on the table. The poor boy was folding up their beds when we noticed the rich boy had begun eating the dango for breakfast, and couldn’t stop him in time.

Swallowing the dango, the rich boy turned into a horse.

He started neighing and grunting, and a man came inside and put a rope around his neck and led him out. He immediately put the horse to work in the fields, and continued forcing him to work as soon as he woke up every morning for the following days.

This is wrong! the poor boy thought. The only reason I didn’t turn into a horse is because I didn’t eat the dango. And since I’m still a human, I have to find some way to save my friend! He left the inn and ran, looking for anything thing that might help him.

He passed by an old man, who asked, “Where are you going, young man?” In a wordy breath, the boy told him what had happen, the old man nodded. “I see, so that’s what it is. I’ll tell you how to turn your friend back into a human. Over there, there’s a field. There’re eggplants in that field, you see. Lots of them! Look for seven in a row that are all pointing east. Pluck those seven, and take them back to your friend and make him eat them, and then he’ll turn back into a human.”

As he was told, the poor boy found the field full of eggplants, but he couldn’t find the seven in a row facing east. There would be four, or there would be five, but there would never be seven. For days, he continued to search and search through the field and managed to find a row of six, but there was not a seventh. He was growing very weary from searching and wondered how he would ever find them, but decided to go one more row for good measure. As he was walking along that row, there would be one or two here and there that faced east, but at last, there they were–the seven in a row all facing east!

He plucked them and ran back to the inn, and found that the horse had grown thin and weary from hard labor. The poor boy took the rope off of his neck and the horse neighed in thanks but said no human words. “Good, I made it in time,” the human breathed a sigh of relief, and began to feed him the eggplants. First one, then two, then a third, and a fourth, but after the fifth the horse turned his head and refused to consume any more. The poor boy tugged at his neck to try to get him to face him again, pleaded with him, drew pictures in the sand to try to explain that he needed to finish eating them in order to turn human again, and petted his neck.

The horse relaxed, and the poor boy forced the sixth eggplant in his mouth. “Just one more, you can do it!” he encouraged him, but the horse forced his head away again. The boy petted his neck and rubbed his shoulders and back, trying to make the horse cooperate. “Just eat one more, and then you can be human again!” The horse at last relaxed again, and the poor boy shoved the seventh eggplant down his throat.

The moment after the horse swallowed it, he turned back into a human, and–both quite relieved–they ran away from the inn together and returned home.

“Well, you weren’t gone for very long. Did you build some character?” the father of the rich boy asked.

“We sure did! You see, it was like this,” the rich boy answered. “I was put through all kinds of suffering like this and this and like that, and you know what, Father? My friend is a great friend, and he did this and this and that for me.

Hearing this, his father replied, “Really? We’re really owe you, then! You’re his savior! If you hadn’t have been there for him, my son would have had to be a horse for the rest of his life.”

“That’s right, Father! I would have been forced to hard labor in that field every day, and life would be miserable!”

“Thank goodness everything’s turned out alright. And you know what? We have such fortune in our family that we’re alright with only half of it. How about it? How about you inherit half my fortune, and your friend inherits the other half?”

He enthusiastically agreed, and the father followed through on his promise immediately. Both boys grew up supported by half each of the fortune, and lived very pleasant lives thereafter.

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