Healing Waters by Mary Cook
Editor’s note: The sweet simplicity of this story is a delight. It really could be a fable from thousands of years ago. Very satisfying
If you could live at any time in any place, I would strongly urge you not to choose eleventh century Japan. It was a time of terror and turmoil; a place ravaged by wars, plagues, and disasters.
In a tiny village in the foothills of Mount Fuji, a youth anxiously tended his sick mother. His name was Yosoji, but we’ll call him Yoshi as that sits more comfortably on the Western tongue. The scourge of smallpox was the latest and worst plague to visit Japan. There was hardly a household in the land that had escaped the deadly grip of this disease.
More tears were shed, more incense burned, more desperate offerings made at shrines and temples throughout the land than ever before. As his mother slid closer to death, Yoshi decided to consult a fortune-teller, since all other options had been exhausted.
The fortune-teller was firm and clear in his advice. “You must muster all your strength and courage, but there is a cure for your mother if you are brave enough to fetch it. In a dangerous place, half a day’s journey from here, a stream flows down from Mount Fuji whose water is said to cure all ills.
“You will need to take care as the forested areas you will pass through are full of dangers; of wild animals and demons, as well as men who would kill you for the robe you have on your back.”
Bowing in thanks, Yoshi returned home to make his mother comfortable before setting out on the journey described to him by the fortune-teller. The uphill way was rough and rocky, but Yoshi strode out, brimming with a joy born of hope. Eventually, he came to a point where the path divided into three. Uncertain which path to take, he looked each way, straining his eyes to catch a glimpse of the healing stream.
Out of a white mist, a young woman appeared before him. Dressed all in white, with shimmering crystals in her hair, she was the most beautiful woman Yoshi had ever seen. She greeted him in a voice that rang out with the silvery sound of birdsong.
Yoshi was surprised to learn she knew why he was there. Indeed, she seemed to know everything about him, and she offered to be his guide. “You are a good son, she told him. Your filial piety will earn you the reward you seek, so I will take you to the stream. Its healing waters will certainly cure your mother.”
Gratefully, Yoshi followed her lead. Before long, they reached a stream that rushed down the side of the sacred mountain. It was as pure as it could be, with every pebble on the bed of the stream clearly visible.
The woman urged him to fill his gourd and return quickly to his mother so that she could drink her fill. “Drink some yourself also,” she told him. “That way you will protect yourself from the illness. You will need to be in good health to look after your mother. Meet me here again after three days.”
After she’d guided him back to the three paths, Yoshi asked to whom he was indebted. “I cannot tell, nor should you ask,” she replied firmly.
He thanked her, bowed low and quickly took his leave. Arriving home that evening, Yoshi found his mother’s condition had worsened, but he helped her to drink the water from the mystic stream. The next day she was much better. Yoshi gave her some more water at intervals throughout the next two days. On the third day, he set off again to find his guide already waiting for him at the junction of the three paths.
Again, Yoshi filled his gourd, taking enough of the magical water to share with all the stricken villagers at home. Five times Yoshi made the journey to and from the stream, aided each time by the mysterious, white-robed woman. By this time, not only had his mother made a full recovery, but all the people in his village were well again. Yoshi was hailed as a hero. The fortune-teller whom he’d consulted in the first instance also came in for lavish praise. People took him gifts of rice and steamed dumplings as an expression of their gratitude.
Amidst all this adulation, Yoshi alone was uneasy. The person most deserving of their gratitude was the beautiful woman in white who had guided him to the healing stream. He felt he should visit her once more in order to thank her properly. He looked around for a suitable gift for her. His eyes lit on a wild bush whose pure white flowers were the closest in purity to the exquisite beauty of his guide. Snatching a branch, he determined to take it to her.
As he made this final journey on his own, Yoshi was nervous. His youthful courage had deserted him. The pine forests were oppressive, closing in on him. The previously benign mass of Mount Fuji took on the shape of thunder, the color of war.
Reaching the stream, Yoshi found it had dried up. The pebbles that had shone up from its depths were now covered with rotting weed that emitted an unpleasant odor. Kneeling, Yoshi willed his guide to reveal herself to him.
Suddenly and silently, she appeared before him. Yoshi held out the floral gift he had brought her. Once again, he asked her to tell him who she was. But in a flash of intuition he knew – she was the White Goddess who served the sacred mountain. She accepted the branch graciously but told him gravely he must not return now the stream was dry and no longer needed.
Raising the branch above her head, she threw it as far as she could. Where it landed, it immediately took root and grew into a beautiful, white-flowered tree even as Yoshi watched. A white cloud descended, enveloping the goddess. Yoshi’s yearning gaze followed her, but he never saw her again.
It is said that dew from the leaves of Yoshi’s tree can cure all ailments. Even today, people travel from miles around to stand under the tree and test its healing powers. Most of these people have forgotten who Yoshi was, but I don’t think we should. You never know when we might need to seek the help of the healing waters.
Mary Cook is a UK-based writer whose articles, short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, both in print and online. She has contributed to many anthologies, including the To Japan with Love series and has worked as an overseas correspondent for the Tokyo-based Hiragana Times.