THE PLACE OF THE RED-FOOTED ROOSTER
IN THE HIERARCHY OF SENTIENT BEINGS
A story from the Eleventh Year of Emperor Bunsei (1829), based on a true event
by Mark Lyons
I am not famous, but my rooster is immortal. I am the poor son of a poor farmer, and my station in life is to take the cows to pasture, feed the chickens and collect their eggs. On Saturdays I tie a string around the feet of my young roosters, hang them upside-down on a pole draped over my shoulders and walk the half hour from my village of Yotsuya to the market in Edo. “Guaranteed cockerels! None older than ten weeks!” I sing, as I run my fingers through their feathers. I don’t shout like the other vendors of fowl in the market. There is so much competition that I have had to learn to distinguish myself. Thus, I sing of cockerels in the melody of “Uenimo Haru,”– “Plum Blossoms in Spring”– my favorite song, loved throughout this part of Japan.
Short soft combs, bright red, no barnyard nicks
Fresh cockerels! The brightness in their eyes
Says I have led a happy life
Pecking corn in the barnyard of my master.
Stewed or boiled they will make your family happy, too
Taste my cockerels, fresh cockerels!
Best with onions and plums over a plate of sweet rice.
Sweet cockerels and rice for your sweet husband or wife.
My beautiful voice singing of roosters and love draws people to me. They perhaps are reminded of their youth and past loves and spring and Buddhist holiday meals, are pleased and purchase my roosters. Sometimes they ask me to sing my song even after I have no more roosters to sell. I oblige them. We all go home happy. And they look for me and my cockerels on the next market day.
On Saturday morning of the twenty-third day of the fifth month, there was a great commotion in the market, not the kind of noise when a fight breaks out between two drunkards or a self-important and unemployed samurai thinks he has been insulted, or there is a fire, filled with tension and fear. This was a low hum at first, then shouts of excitement and fingers pointing, necks craning. Someone important was coming through the market, surrounded by buzzing shoppers. The throng swooped along behind a bald old man with large protruding ears that had more hair in them than was found on top of his head, and arthritic fingers that pointed in different directions. He wore the cotton smock of a street sweeper or woodcutter. Hokusai! Hokusai! The great painter Hokusai was passing through our market on his way to the palace of Shogun Iyenari. Hokusai!
Of course, I had heard about him– everyone in our province knew about him. How in a festival many years ago he had painted a portrait of the great Buddhist Priest, Daruma. But that was no ordinary portrait! The portrait was as high as a twenty-year old cedar, stretched out on the grounds of the temple, painted with a broom and great buckets of black ink. They say he sang as he painted, dancing with his broom and swirling brushstrokes of joy. As high as a cedar! The entire festival came to a stop as celebrators surrounded his painting, walking in circles around it in admiration, cheering him on. They say that just as he finished his last brush stroke it began to rain, and the revelers all shouted, “Help the great master roll up his painting, save the painting!”
“No”, said Master Hokusai, “leave it.”
And the rain washed the ink into the street and down to the Sumida River and out to sea. Revelers removed their sandals and danced in the inky Buddha stream, and walked home with black Buddha-dyed soles. They loved him, this painter who had been an errand boy, a merchant of red peppers, a hawker of illustrated calendars, an itinerant banner painter. He called himself Hokusai the Peasant and painted all of us–the tea servers and bean-curd makers, our sake drinkers, our merchants and lonely men and ladies of the pleasure quarter, our divers and fishers, our wrestlers and woodcutters, our children, our farmers. How could we not love him?
So, yes, of course, we all knew who the great Master Hokusai was. And he was walking through our market on his way to the palace of Shogun Iynari. The Shogun,who fancied himself a great patron of the arts, was holding a public competition between his favorite artist—the old Bunchō who painted in the Chinese tradition, and the eccentric Hokusai who dared to paint twenty-meter priests. Hokusai’s assistant carried a five foot wide roll of paper over his shoulder, some buckets, brushes and paints. Hokusai was in no hurry—he loved to linger among our people, slapping our backs, eating our offerings of rice cakes and tea, sipping our sake. Suddenly Hokusai stopped and held up his hand to silence our crowd.
“A chicken! I need a chicken. No, not a chicken: a rooster!” Then he spotted me with my last remaining cockerel hanging on the pole over my shoulder. Hokusai looked me in the eye—this is why we loved him so, how he looked us commoners in the eye, then painted us.
“Is that you I heard singing so sweetly of cockerels?” He reached over and gently petted my up-side-down rooster between his glistening red shoulder blades, then looked it in the eye. “How much?” But he kept looking the chicken in the eye, as if he were asking the chicken itself how much it was worth.
“For you, Master,” I said, “this rooster is a gift.” As you can imagine, I was trembling.
“You sell chickens, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then I will buy your chicken, is forty yen a fair price?” he said as he pulled two coins from his pocket. I held up my hand to refuse his offering, but he slipped the coins into my pocket. “And what is the name of this elegant bird?”
Name? Who names their chickens, when the next day they will be stew? But of course I made up a name: “He Who Dares to Fly.”
Hokusai nodded in approval. “Our chicken monger is a poet. His chicken must be a poet, too. Come with me!” And my newly-named cockerel and I traipsed alongside the great painter as the crowd parted to let us pass.
Half the market, it seems, followed Hokusai, his assistant, me and my cockerel to the entrance of the Shogun’s palace. The Shogun, dressed in his layers of silken robes, sat on his portable throne and explained the rules: (1) the theme of the painting must be of nature; (2) no more than two colors could be used; and (3) the artist would have thirty minutes to complete his painting. The Shogun himself would be the judge.
A coin was flipped by one of the Shogun’s guards. Master Bunchō won the toss. His assistant unrolled his rice paper, and put small black shiny stones at each corner to hold it down. He then set to grinding the ink on his small polished stone, and put three brushes in a bucket of water to soak. Bunchō kneeled before the paper in deep meditation, eyes closed, hands on thighs, waiting for the painting to come to him. He was revered in our province for invoking beauty between the lines, for leaving his spirit on the paper. We were all silent as he stood and bowed to the blank rice paper, asked his helper for his large brush, dipped the brush into the ink, and then into the bowl of water to get the correct translucency of wash. He bent forward, and with great round strokes began. Transfixed, we watched as he changed brushes, mixed cloud-like washes with bold dark powerful strokes, rotated the brushes from the wet side to the dry side with a slight shift of the wrist. There before our eyes a magnificent scene unfolded, of vertical cliffs creating a narrow valley through which a raging spring river roared toward the horizon. There, in the clouds, above the cliffs—one elegant raptor, wings outstretched, riding the updrafts from the raging water, enjoying the view as if looking through our eyes. Bunchō completed his painting with minutes to spare. He bowed to the painting and then to Shogun Iynari. The Shogun returned the bow.
“The name of your painting?” he asked.
“Eagle Rides Water,” said the Master.
The great painter had silenced the crowd, and we awaited Master Hokusai’s response.
As I held my rooster and Hokusai stood with his hands on his hips, his apprentice unrolled his rice
paper, two meters by five, and placed fist-sized coarse granite stones at each corner. The assistant uncovered a container of deep blue paint and unfolded the cloth that held the brushes. Hokusai reached down and took his largest brush, then tapped it quietly in his palm with his eyes closed. Tapping, tapping, waiting for the spirit to flow into his brushes. At last he dipped the brush into the bucket with the same serenity that one drinks tea, dangled it by the tip of the handle and waited until it dripped no more. In one instant he bent down, touched the brush in one corner of the paper and sloshed a single great blue undulating curve as he skipped to the opposite corner. He stood back and contemplated his blue brushstroke for two minutes, as if having a conversation with it.
The Master then uncapped a container of red paint and motioned to me, or rather to my cockerel. I handed him He Who Dares to Fly. Cradling the rooster, Hokusai took the bird’s right foot, dipped it into the can of red paint, withdrew the foot and held it over the can until the paint ceased dripping from its claws. He repeated this gesture with the left foot. He held the cockerel up to his cheek and whispered to it as if in a bedroom conversation, the two of them breathing together. Hokusai bent over and carefully placed the bird on the beginning of the blue brush stroke, then released it. My cockerel stood there on the corner of the painting as if wondering what to do. All of us surrounded the painting in silence, sharing the confusion of the young red rooster. Then Hokusai brought his hands together with one thunderous clap. He Who Dares to Fly squawked and scampered across the rice paper and into the crowd. Red foot prints cris-crossed the deep blue curve.
We all contemplated Hokusai contemplating his painting and waited for him to pick up a brush and complete his work. The Master bowed to the painting, and then to the Shogun. He had completed his task in six minutes. The crowd was silent as a winter nightingale.
“The name of your painting?” Asked Shogun Iynari.
“Red Maple Leaves Floating on the Tatsuta River,” replied Hokusai.
I wanted to cry.
The Shogun’s eyes moved back and forth between the two paintings, flickering as they made their judgment. Then he stood, and we craned our necks in silence. The Shogun bowed twice to Master Hokusai, a signal that he had won the competition. Hokusai returned the bow, then did something that is the reason we loved him so: he stood next to his painting and bowed to us, the merchants and shoppers from the market who had left their stalls and shopping chores to follow him to this moment. Four bows to each corner of the crowd that surrounded him. We returned his bow, then went crazy, dancing and singing around his painting. Then we dispersed to return to our stalls, to selling tobacco and sweets and plums and tea and sake, to sweeping the streets, buying fresh daikon and soy and noodles for our evening meals, servicing lonely men, and hawking chickens.
Market day, for sale
Red maple leaves in autumn
He who dares to fly
Kouyou tobi yuku
Haiku by Mark Lyons, translated into Japanese by Hitomi Yoshida
1 – 6 from Volume 8 of Manga (北斎漫画) by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1817; Michener, James A. (1958) ”Hokusai Sketchbooks: Selections from the Manga”, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.
2. “Rooster” by Katsushika Hokusai, painting, c. 1808 -1809; Victoria and Albert Museum, London
3. “Lightnings Below the Summit” (山下白雨) by Katsushika Hokusai, color woodblock print; c. 1830. From Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
4. “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (冨嶽三十六景 神奈川沖浪裏) by Katsushika Hokusai, color woodblock print; c. 1826. From Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
Mark Lyons lives in Philadelphia. His fiction has been published in several literary journals, and has been read in the Reading Aloud program at Interact Theater, in Philadelphia. He is author of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, written in Spanish and English. Mark was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and awarded Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in literature in 2003 and 2009. Currently he is director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which works with immigrants and youth to teach them to create digital stories about their lives.