a Jataka tale, retold
When I was 15 my father died, and when I was 17 he came back as a goose, an enormous goose of abundant plumage and every feather of his was pure gold. He flew in the window one night, circled the room once, and perched on the edge of the soup pot as my mother stood stirring the greens.
In a cloud of steam he told her, “Righteous woman, once my wife, I return to grant you succor. My feathers are pure gold. Each week I will visit you and leave behind a feather. Take it to market and on the proceeds live in virtue with your three daughters.”
To my mother’s credit, she took this very calmly. Lucky for the goose he’d spoken right up -- she’d have wrung his neck and tossed him in the pot.
We obeyed. We have learned to make do with what comes, to improvise. We understand that change often arrives this way, in the flap of a wing, as when my father died in the middle of his evening prayers and left us to fend for ourselves. For this reason we asked no questions — the goose didn’t look likely to entertain any — before he plucked a single feather from his wing and flew away.
That goose, was it really my father?
Certainly the goose had his tone. This world, he believed, was in need of instruction. Instruction he did not hesitate to provide.
It’s not as easy as you might think to sell a gold feather. Because I am the eldest daughter, I followed my mother as she ran through the wintry street holding the feather in her cold cupped hands, afraid every minute that the feather might be stolen, or crushed, or taken from her by the wind.
The jewelers weren’t interested. “How ‘bout a ring or a necklace? A bracelet, maybe? What am I supposed to do with a gold feather?”
The pawnshops were no help either.
I am not pretty like my sister Nandavati, or graceful like my sister Sundarinanda. My name is simply Nanda -- I am the clever daughter. The milliner was my idea.
We stood among the evening hats, dripping gray snow onto a fine carpet. The old woman tried to shoo us out before we left a stain.
“I don’t do repairs,” she said.
My mother held up the gold feather. In her tattered coat, her eyes blinking back tears from the cold, she looked like a sweeper who’d found a star in a trash heap.
The old woman had to admit she’d never seen one like it. She began to march around her shop, pulling down hats. “It demands only the most delectable hat,” she said.
She paid us a tidy sum for it. No doubt the profit she made on our miracle was enormous.
There are less pleasant ways of making of living than haggling over feathers. For the last several years, my sisters and I had done what we could -- and told our mother it was ‘housekeeping for noble families’ when we came home late at night to find her still up, sewing, her eyes watery from squinting in candlelight. Now, however, we stayed home, cloistered in the manner of proper ladies.
At first we slept late and took our time bathing, before sitting down to a leisurely breakfast we had not had to forage or beg for. My mother, whom suffering had bent, found she could straighten up a little, and she began to grow her hair as she had when she when she was married. Nandavati and Sundarinanda left off swearing oaths and searched for respectable topics of discourse, such as chivalry and sewing.
There is little to be said of sewing. Of chivalry we had no experience. Sleeping late grew dull—we woke up bored. Even Nandavati tired of combing, endlessly, her hair.
We put ourselves to work. We embroidered and made curtains. We whitewashed the walls and put a shine to the floor. We tried gardening, flowers and vegetables both. I sprouted beans. Sundarinanda even caught a snake, tried to make a pet of it, but our mother thought it was a bad idea since our father was a goose and, anyway, it wasn’t ladylike.
Late one afternoon, when we’d drank too much tea, and no one could think of a game, Nandavati said, “I wish I had a really nice dress.”
Mother said, “A simple dress is good enough.”
“I ought to have one really nice dress. Not some showoff princess dress, just one good dress so I could walk through town and feel like a lady.”
“You belong at home,” Mother said, but not without sympathy. Poor Mother, stuck at home with her three daughters! Virtue is hard on the nerves.
Then, Sundarinanda spoke up. “I would like dancing shoes.”
“And where would you go dancing?” Mother scolded.
“I could dance right here and imagine,” she said.
“Then you can wear imaginary shoes.”
“You understand nothing,” Sundarinanda protested. “Imagination needs real shoes.”
“I don’t need a dress and I don’t need shoes,” I said. “But I do wish I had something to read.”
“None of that is possible now,” Mother said. Then added, “Perhaps you should talk to your father.”
Please understand: one feather only goes so far. Once the milliner saw we had a steady supply, she bargained hard. One feather was enough for food and thread -- little more. One feather did not provide for luxuries or comforts. It was very nice to survive and all, but – we were getting bored.
That week, when our father flew in the window, we offered him a bowl of grain and thanked him, quite sincerely, for returning to us and saving us from a life of toil. Only after he’d eaten and rested a bit, did Sundarinanda, because she is the youngest, ask very sweetly if she might possibly be permitted to buy a single pair of dancing shoes.
“One feather of mine provides for all your needs,” said the goose.
Nandavati added that she’d like one really nice dress. I said I just wanted something to read.
“One feather doesn’t cover it,” Mother admitted.
Then I said — and likely I should not have — “Perhaps this week we could have two feathers?” Our father was an enormous bird after all. He was quite exceptionally plush.
Father was furious. Angry as only a goose can get. He stormed about the room flapping his wings and hissing, straining his neck, darting his head back and forth through the air so feverishly we all drew back, afraid he might nip us.
It should be noted that all this commotion did not dislodge a single feather.
“See how desire grows in the human heart!” our father squawked. “Ungrateful daughters! Oh, may we be saved from the poison seeds of desire within us! Daughters, I commend you to the practices of devotion, of meditation and spiritual study! Devote yourself to the highest pursuits! Abandon your desire for the petty things of this world!”
We should have expected this response, I suppose. It’s just what he would have said when he was a man.
We are good girls. We tried. Nandavati meditated. Of course she didn’t have proper instruction -- she practiced staring at the wall. She got good at it and stared for hours. Sundarinanda dusted off the altar, lit the lamps, and sat there rocking back and forth and mumbling, exactly as father used to do. I read aloud from the scriptures. Father had taught us that rote repetition was to no avail -- so I kept a pencilled list of names: heroes, wives and offspring, as well as a tally of casualties. Awful things happen to people in holy books. Even just to show up in one is extremely bad news.
Meanwhile, the milliner drove down the price of feathers. This was not the city, after all. Demand was limited.
My sisters and I rose before dawn to bathe and pray at the time the time the scriptures say is most auspicious. We also prayed late into the night to ward off spirits and desires. As a consequence, despite the injunctions of the holy books, we often slept all afternoon.
Thus, all three daughters were awake the night we found our mother pacing the floor, bumping into chairs and beds as if drunk, walking hunched as if returned to her days of sorrow. At last she looked up and saw us: her three daughter laying side by side in narrow beds, watching her and waiting.
“Why you awake?” she said.
“Too many naps during the day.”
“You ought to sleep.”
Mother sat on the edge of my bed and told the truth. She was worried. While my sisters and I had been w ishing for dresses, and books, and dancing shoes, she had been worrying. Fear had grown in her, as desire had grown in us.
“Birds fly away,” said Mother. “It’s just their nature.”
How could such a creature be trusted? Even if he was our father. Departing or arriving, dying or being reborn — everything depended on whether or not the bird flew in the window.
“Besides”, Mother added, “Anything that dies once, can die twice.”
We sat together in the dark and our fears, rather than diminishing, increased. Where did he go when he wasn’t with us? He flew in once a week to drop off a feather—what then? A life we could not imagine, up in the sky, deep in the wood. Certainly it must be perilous to be a golden goose?
Nandini said, “Why must I dress in rags while he flies about gold-feathered?”
Mother chastised her, but soon enough we were all complaining. Why must he begrudge us every nicety? Easy for him to proclaim the necessity of virtue -- he wasn’t sitting home all day. Come to think of it -- hadn’t he been like this all his life? Both lives, that is. Trumpeting his virtue, his devotion, and meanwhile always a miser, ready for us to renounce any of our small pleasures in the name of virtue — his.
Why should he make every choice — a stranger who hardly visited us?
Our golden goose was just a tyrant, after all.
As for the actual plot, I admit it was my idea. I am the clever daughter, remember. I have a mind for money. Why receive only paltry installments, I thought, instead of one lump sum?
The floor was swept, the pots scoured, and lamps lit on the altar. When my father arrived at the window we all were there, tidy and fresh-scrubbed, with all our buttons buttoned. Ready to welcome him.
“Come and eat a bit of rice,” Mother said.
He pecked at it. “It’s not quite cooked,” he said.
It is our offering to you,” Mother said. “Please forgive us if, like us, it is humble and rife with errors.”
Our father ate, and, as he ate, we admired him.
“Who could have imagined a bird so large, so strong,” Nandini said.
“And so bright!” Sundarinandi added. “The glow from your wings is brighter than the lamp!”
“But it’s not these things that matter, Father,” I added. “But rather your nobility of mind.
He preened himself, and ate some more, and said that we were silly girls.
“A little more rice, my love?” Mother said as she scooped more onto his plate.
We flattered him, and as he ate, the half-cooked rice swelled inside him until he became quite immobilized.
At last he bowed his elegant head. “Rice must always be cooked for an hour, no less. This rice was not prepared correctly. As a consequence, I am feeling heavy,” he said. “Perhaps I must stay here tonight.”
“Of course you must,” Mother agreed. “Now please, lay your noble head upon my lap and rest.”
Father lay his long slender neck across her lap, rested his head on her knee, arranged his wings, honked wearily, and slept. We sat together then, until the breath rose beneath his feathers slow and deep.
Mother nodded. Nandini and Sundarinanda took hold of the edges of his wings. I held his feet, which even on a golden bird are cold and scrawny. Mother wound a cloth tight around his beak and held on with both hands.
Our father woke, furious, to find himself trapped.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Mother said. “But I have a family to support. We can’t have you flying off all the time.”
A goose is a powerful bird, even when tired and bloated with rice. Thrashing back and forth, he beat his wings as he fought to shake off our hands. Once he even yanked his beak free from my mother. She grabbed it back. It’s a wonder one of us didn’t lose a finger to my father in his rage.
One of us, alone, could never have managed it, but we were four, and so we held him down, and set to work, and soon we had done it.
We plucked him. Feathers piled up on the floor, until our house was full of gold feathers, until our father the golden goose was entirely bare.
How pitiful he looked then, rendered scrawny, plucked, and pink. Nothing noble about him. He was just an angry and defeated bird.
We had the barrel ready. Sundarinanda opened the lid, and Mother tossed him in, as I took the rag from his beak, and Nandavati pushed him in, so that fell through the air for only an instant, just long enough for him to squawk, “I curse you!”
Sundarinanda slammed down the lid. We rested, collapsed against the barrel, gasping for breath.
When at last we raised our heads to look around at the arena of our struggle, we saw a house full of feathers. Feathers up to our chins.
Mountains of delicate snowy white feathers. Ordinary goose feathers.
Nandavani and Sundarinanda began to shriek and wail. Mother stood silent.
What was there to do? I opened the door, dug out the broom and began to sweep out feathers.
“Don’t,” Mother said. “We’ll make pillows.”
In this way we lost, all at once, our life of comfort. My sisters and I returned to the streets of the town, where we do what we can and must. We look after each other. We try to keep Mother from worrying. Worry is useless. Transformations come. And still we go on living.
Our father remains in the barrel. I open the lid sometimes, just a crack, and peer in at him. In the beginning he was full of curses and condemnation, language unsuitable for man or bird. Lately, he has become quiet and keeps very still, as if listening. His feathers are growing back. He is covered all over with soft white down. He watches. He does not try to escape.
(Tokyo, 2003, 2012)
(Tokyo, 2003, 2012)