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   Chapter 1 KITSUNé-BI

The Romance of the Milky Way, and Other Studies & Stories By Lafcadio Hearn Characters: 2436

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The Will-o'-the-wisp is called kitsuné-bi ("fox-fire"), because the goblin-fox was formerly supposed to create it. In old Japanese pictures it is represented as a tongue of pale red flame, hovering in darkness, and shedding no radiance upon the surfaces over which it glides.

To understand some of the following kyōka on the subject, the reader should know that certain superstitions about the magical power of the fox have given rise to several queer folk-sayings,-one of which relates to marrying a stranger. Formerly a good citizen was expected to marry within his own community, not outside of it; and the man who dared to ignore traditional custom in this regard would have found it difficult to appease the communal indignation. Even to-day the villager who, after a long absence from his birthplace, returns with a strange bride, is likely to hear unpleasant things said,-such as: "Wakaranai-mono we hippaté-kita!... Doko no uma no honé da ka?" ("Goodness knows what kind of a thing he has dragged here after him! Where did he pick up that old horse-bone?") The expression uma no honé, "old horse-bone," requires explanation.

A goblin-fox has the power to assume many shapes; but, for the purpose of decei

ving men, he usually takes the form of a pretty woman. When he wants to create a charming phantom of this kind, he picks up an old horse-bone or cow-bone, and holds it in his mouth. Presently the bone becomes luminous; and the figure of a woman defines about it,-the figure of a courtesan or singing-girl.... So the village query about the man who marries a strange wife, "What old horse-bone has he picked up?" signifies really, "What wanton has bewitched him?" It further implies the suspicion that the stranger may be of outcast blood: a certain class of women of pleasure having been chiefly recruited, from ancient time, among the daughters of éta and other pariah-people.

Hi tomoshité

Kitsuné no kwaséshi,

Asobimé26 wa-

Izuka no uma no

Honé ni ya aruran!

[-Ah the wanton (lighting her lantern)!-so a fox-fire is kindled in the time of fox-transformation!... Perhaps she is really nothing more than an old horse-bone from somewhere or other....]

Kitsuné-bi no

Moyuru ni tsukété,

Waga tama no

Kiyuru yō nari


[Because of that Fox-fire burning there, the very soul of me is like to be extinguished in this narrow path (or, in this heart-depressing solitude).27]

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