This story takes place thousands of years ago, long before Siddhartha Gautam seated himself beneath the bodhi tree and Buddhism came to the land. A time when the people of the land practised the ancient religion of earth and sky; and even today, in remote hamlets, the people still practice that same religion, setting a white stone in the earth at the centre of each paddy field. “In honour of the goddess,” I was told, “and to ensure the fertility of the crop.”
In that land there lived a warrior, a servant of the sun god. The warrior – like warriors of every age and land – liked nothing better than to go on great quests, righting wrongs. He would go out from his village armed with a great bow and with two keen edged scimitars at his belt. The scimitars were so sharp, his favourite party trick was to take a woman’s hair and split it longways with a scimitar’s edge.
One day, the warrior buckled his twin scimitars to his belt, slung his great bow on his back and set off on his quest. After many adventures, he made his way up a deep, wide gorge. The people who lived in this valley had terraced the hillsides. Their tiny fields reached high up the steep hills, wherever there was a patch of earth which could be terraced and cultivated.
Below him, as he walked, the warrior could see a river meandering through the stony floor of the gorge. Its waters were a pale green, the colour of jade. He came to a place where a great bow in the river had hollowed out a deep and silent pool. Beyond the pool was a high, conical mountain, its sides terraced almost to its crown. Below the pool, a long bridge hung in a high catenary above the river, giving access to the other side. The wooden slats of the bridge were whitened in the sunlight. The high, bright noonday sun reflected in the pale jade of the pool.
It was a rich and tranquil scene. Except, the warrior noticed, the terracing of the conical mountain was broken and the little fields uncultivated. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the mountain’s crown. And a scaly dragon blocked his way across the bridge.
The dragon’s foot clawed the wooden parapet of the bridge. Its forked tail lashed the parapet on the other side. Between, the coils of its body curled across the slats of the bridge. Smoke and flame drifted lazily from the dragon’s nostrils as it eyed the warrior menacingly.
Undeterred, the warrior drew his twin scimitars and closed upon the dragon. Not that they would have been of any avail against such an adversary, with its fiery breath and armoured hide. Steadily, he climbed the rough scales of the dragon’s body as if they were steps, knowing, at any moment, the dragon might turn its monstrous head and with a single fiery breath burn his life to a cinder. Then, he was over the dragon’s horny back and stepping down the other side. Gingerly, and with long strides, he stepped over the coils of the dragon’s body as it lay across the bridge, knowing, at any moment, the dragon might tighten its coils and squeeze the last breath from his body.
Then, he was past the dragon, walking over the slats of the bridge to the other side, with measured tread, not looking back. He heard a quavering voice behind him, “Warrior,” and more loudly, “Warrior!” Turning, the dragon was gone, and in its place an old man, his back bent and his face lined with grief. Upon his whitened head there was a dragon crown.
“I am the dragon king of the river lake,” said the old man. “Long have I lain across the bridge in the form of a dragon, waiting for a warrior with courage enough to overcome its fearsome nature as you did. I can take the fiery form of a dragon but I do not possess its power. I need you, warrior, to right the wrong which is being done to me and my family. I need you to slay my enemy, who comes nightly to the river lake and carries off one of my sons, my daughters, my grandsons or my granddaughters.”
“I am bound by my oath to the sun god,” replied the warrior, “to take up the cause of one who is ill-used by another and to right wrongs. But who is your enemy?” “My enemy is a centipede,” said the dragon king.
“A centipede!” I hear you cry. “A centipede!” echoed the warrior. “But this is no ordinary centipede,” explained the dragon king, “This is a centipede who has grown fat on the bodies and souls of my sons and my daughters, my grandsons and my granddaughters. Soon, none will remain and I too will perish.”
The warrior agreed to undertake the quest, and the dragon king led him into his domain beneath the waters of the river lake. As the waters closed around him, the warrior was astonished that his clothes remained dry and not only was he able to breathe, but the air had a sweeter and livelier quality than the cold, dry air of the gorge. They entered the dragon king’s palace of white marble, with its tall turrets and balconies rising to just below the surface of the river lake, commanding a clear and secret view of the conical mountain.
The dragon king honoured his guest with a fine feast served by goldfish and red carp and silvery trout; crispy lakeweed, freshwater anemones in sweet and sour, lemon rice and crystallised lotus flowers in stem ginger. They drank bowl after bowl of the spicy tea which grew on the lower terraces of the conical mountain in better times.
Around midnight they heard the call of the watch fish from the high turrets, “Centipede! Centipede!” They rushed to the highest balcony of the marble palace, where the warrior saw the conical mountain transformed into a monstrous helter skelter as the centipede spiralled down its sides from the dark lair at the summit, its hundred feet shaking the conical mountain with their incessant tramp, tramp, tramp. And its eyes were vast furnaces of churning liquid heat, burning and flashing. The centipede had grown huge on the lives and the flesh of the dragon king’s kin, its over-gorged maw dribbling the slaver of appetite.
The centipede came closer and closer, its head covering the short patch of ground between the conical mountain and the river lake, while its body still spiralled around the mountain, tramp, tramp, tramp. The warrior took his great bow, but reaching into his quiver he found to his dismay that only three arrows remained. He slotted the first arrow into the bow, drew back with a mighty strength, and taking careful aim he let fly. The arrow found its mark, striking the centipede right between the eyes, but bounced off the hard flesh harmlessly. The warrior slotted the second arrow, drawing back with even greater strength. He let fly, and again the arrow found its mark and again it bounced off harmlessly.
Now, the centipede’s terrible head had reached the river lake. It towered over the warrior. He felt the burning caldrons of its eyes as they seared his flesh. He saw the pale, merciless serrations of its teeth. He saw the insatiable, cavernous blackness of its maw. The foul stench of its slimy slaver dribbling from its mouth in torrents made the warrior retch and gag. Then, he remembered. Human spittle is toxic to centipedes.
He drew his last arrow from the quiver, spat upon the arrow head, “Thwutt!” With slow, immaculate care the warrior slotted the arrow into the bow and shot with all his remaining force.
The arrow found its mark. It burnt steaming into the horny flesh of the centipede’s forehead, like acid on human flesh, as the force of the arrow penetrated deep, deep into the centipede’s brain. A hundred feet drummed upon the ground. A hundred segments clashed together like cymbals. The eyes boiled and burnt and flamed like twin volcanoes. Then, their light faded. Silence came.
A full moon rose, its pale orb shining on the long bridge and the broken terraces of the conical mountain and reflecting in the dark, quiet waters of the river lake.
The rest of the night was spent in feasting and rejoicing. In the morning, the dragon king offered the warrior two gifts in thanks for slaying his enemy. The first gift, a bronze bell with a deep, clear tone, the warrior mounted at the centre of his village. To this very day, the tolling of the bell offers perpetual prayers to the warrior’s master, the sun god. The second gift was a simple bag of rice. But no ordinary bag of rice, for however much the warrior took from it, to feed himself and his family, the bag was always full to overflowing.
And so, the warrior became famous throughout the land and was known to all as ‘My Lord, Bag of Rice.’
© David England, 2003
Based on the story, My Lord Bag of Rice, from The Japanese Fairy Book, rendered into English by Yei Theodora Osaki, 1903, published by Constable and Company Limited.