The Story of Umétsu Chūbei
*Related in the Bukkyō-Hyakkwa-Zenshō.
Umétsu Chūbei was a young samurai of great strength and courage. He was in the service of the Lord Tomura Jūdayū, whose castle stood upon a lofty hill in the neighborhood of Yokoté, in the province of Dewa. The houses of the lord’s retainers formed a small town at the base of the hill.
Umétsu was one of those selected for night-duty at the castle-gates. There were two night-watches;—the first beginning at sunset and ending at midnight; the second beginning at midnight and ending at sunrise.
Once, when Umétsu happened to be on the second watch, he met with a strange adventure. While ascending the hill at midnight, to take his place on guard, he perceived a woman standing at the last upper turn of the winding road leading to the castle. She appeared to have a child in her arms, and to be waiting for somebody. Only the most extraordinary circumstances could account for the presence of a woman in that lonesome place at so late an hour; and Umétsu remembered that goblins were wont to assume feminine shapes after dark, in order to deceive and destroy men. He therefore doubted whether the seeming woman before him was really a human being; and when he saw her hasten towards him, as if to speak, he intended to pass her by without a word. But he was too much surprised to do so when the woman called him by name, and said, in a very sweet voice:—”Good Sir Umétsu, to-night I am in great trouble, and I have a most painful duty to perform: will you not kindly help me by holding this baby for one little moment?” And she held out the child to him.
Umétsu did not recognize the woman, who appeared to be very young: he suspected the charm of the strange voice, suspected a supernatural snare, suspected everything;—but he was naturally kind; and he felt that it would be unmanly to repress a kindly impulse through fear of goblins. Without replaying, he took the child. “Please hold it till I come back,” said the woman: “I shall return in a very little while.” “I will hold it,” he answered; and immediately the woman turned from him, and, leaving the road, sprang soundlessly down the hill so lightly and so quickly that he could scarcely believe his eyes. She was out of sight in a few seconds.
Umétsu the first looked at the child. It was very small, and appeared to have been just born. It was very still in his hands; and it did not cry at all.
Suddenly it seemed to be growing larger. He looked at it again…. No: it was the same small creature; and it had not even moved. Why had he imagined that it was growing larger?
In another moment he knew why;—and he felt a chill strike through him. The child was not growing larger; but it was growing heavier…. At first it had seemed to weight only seven or eight pounds: then its weight had gradually doubled—tripled—quadrupled. Now it could not weigh less than fifty pounds;—and still it was getting heavier and heavier…. A hundred pounds!—a hundred and fifty!—two hundred!… Umétsu knew that he had been deluded,—that he had not been speaking with any mortal woman,—that the child was not human. But he had made a promise; and a samurai was bound by his promise. So he kept the infant in his arms; and it continued to grow heavier and heavier… two hundred and fifty!—three hundred!—four hundred pounds!… What was going to happen he could not imagine; but he resolved not to be afraid, and not to let the child go while his strength lasted…. Five hundred!—five hundred and fifty!—six hundred pounds! All his muscles began to quiver with the strain;—and still the weight increased…. “Namu Amida Butsu!” he groaned—”Namu Amida Butsu!—Namu Amida Butsu!” Even as he uttered the holy invocation for the third time, the weight passed away from him with a shock; and he stood stupefied, with empty hands,—for the child had unaccountably disappeared. But almost in the same instant he saw the mysterious woman returning as quickly as she had gone. Still panting she came to him; and he then first saw that she was very fair;—but her brow dripped with sweat; and her sleeves were bound back with tasuki-cords, as if she had been working hard.
“Kind Sir Umétsu,” she said, “you do not know how great a service you have done me. I am the Ujigami of this place; and to-night one of my Ujiko found herself in the pains of childbirth, and prayed to me for aid. But the labor proved to be very difficult; and I soon saw that, by my own power alone, I might not be able to save her:—therefore I sought for the help of your strength and courage. And the child that I laid in your hands was the child that had not yet been born; and in the time that you first felt the child becoming heavier and heavier, the danger was very great,—for the Gates of Birth were closed. And when you felt the child become so heavy that you despaired of being able to bear the weight much longer,—in that same moment the mother seemed to be dead, and the family wept for her. Then you three times repeated the prayer, Namu Amida Butsu!—and the third time that you uttered it the power of the Lord Buddha came to our aid, and the Gates of Birth were opened…. And for that which you have done you shall be fitly rewarded. To a brave samurai no gift can be more serviceable than strength: therefore, not only to you, but likewise to your children and to your children’s children, great strength shall be given.”
And, with this promise, the divinity disappeared.
Umétsu Chūbei, wondering greatly, resumed his way to the castle. At sunrise, on being relieved from duty, he proceeded as usual to wash his face and hands before making his morning prayer. But when he began to wring the towel which had served him, he was surprised to feel the tough material snap asunder in his hands. He attempted to twist together the separated portions; and again the stuff parted—like so much wet paper. He tried to wring the four thicknesses; and the result was the same. Presently, after handling various objects of bronze and of iron which yielded to his touch like clay, he understood that he had come into full possession of the great strength promised, and that he would have to be careful thenceforward when touching things, lest they should crumble in his fingers.
On returning home, he made inquiry as to whether any child had been born in the settlement during the night. Then he learned that a birth had actually taken place at the very hour of his adventure, and that the circumstances had been exactly as related to him by the Ujigami.
The children of Umétsu Chūbei inherited their father’s strength. Several of his descendants—all remarkably powerful men—were still living in the province of Dewa at the time when this story was written.
A Japanese Miscellany
1.Story of Foxes｜ 2.The Child of the River｜ 3.Of a Promise Kept｜ 4.Of a Promise Broken｜ 5.Story of the Futon of Tottori｜ 6.The Legend of Yurei-Daki｜ 7.Common Sense｜ 8.A Legend of Fugen-Bosatsu｜ 9.The Story of Umétsu Chūbei｜ 10.Ingwa-Banashi｜ 11.The Corpse-Rider｜ 12.The Story of Chūgorō｜ 13.Chin Chin Kobakama｜ 14.The Fountain of Youth｜ 15.The Goblin Spider｜ 16.Goblin Poetry