When I was a child, my grandmother gave me a story about seven sisters who lived in Japan. I have lost this over the decades but want to write it up in my own words, and add to it as my memory of 60 plus years ago is not as good as it was even two years ago. However, with stories, adding and subtracting do not matter. This story is 99% mine and 1% of the original.
Valuable stories hold universal truths. This story is about beauty and love. The idea of Seven Sisters is ancient, owing to the constellation of the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology. Most ancient cultures have stories about these stars. The number seven is sacred to many cultures, as well.
Whether this old Japanese story is related to the star cluster, which one can see with the naked eye on a clear night, I do not know. Here is my version of the old tale—enjoy.
Long ago, in the Heian period, there lived an old widower with seven lovely daughters. This man was a fisherman, and one of the daughters helped him in the boat to catch the few fish to sell in the marketplace daily. The old man loved his daughters, who were named, Harumi, the eldest who had been born in the Spring, when the old man was young and handsome, and his wife lovely and kind. The second daughter was called Chinatsu, as she had been born in the summer, when the fisherman grew prosperous and his wife more beautiful and kind. The third daughter was named, Akito, as she was a child of bright intellect, with a happy manner. The fourth was called Fuyuko, as she was born in the dead of winter, when the fisherman had to find furs from his trader friend for the mother and child in the cold nights. The fifth girl was named Hekima, for she was a child of the mother’s wisdom and grew to be a silent and reflective child. The sixth was called Miho, of truth and beauty, and, the seventh was called Katsu, the victorious one, as her beloved mother had died giving birth to this child, who gained victory over death at birth. Miho was her twin, who came out first, and Katsu followed, graphing the ankle of her sister. Miho and Katsu grew up in harmony and loveliness, but without a mother, and were devoted to their father.
Now, the old man had lost his ability to fish despite the help of Fuyuko, the winter child, who went out in the boat daily with him. The old man soon grew ill, and had to be in bed daily, where Chinatsu brought him hot fish soup, and Akito told him stories of the ancient days of Japan. Soon, however, the old man realised he was dying and that he could no longer take care of his lovely daughters. He would have to send them to the city to become slaves of a rich person, or beg. As he lay on his mat, listening to Harumi play on a small harp, and sing to him, the old man received an inspiration. He would ask Hekima to write an advertisement to take to the city. In this advertisement, the old man would say that he has seven rare beautiful gifts in his humble house, and whoever could discover the beauty of the gifts would win a prize. Hekima added that only single men should apply to play this game and unwind the puzzle of the old man’s words. Each man would be given a riddle to solve. If they solved it, they would win a prize.
Akito and Katsu put on their best gowns, Akito in pink and Katsu in lavender, and walked the ten miles to the city. They found a board near the court of the emperor where people could place notices and nailed Hekima’s parchment to the board. Many people gathered around the two beautiful maidens to read the scroll. Akito noticed one young, tall and well-built man in the back of the crowd, who was tall enough to read the notice over their heads. However, the maidens did not speak to the crowd or this well-dressed man.
When they returned to their home, Harumi met them at the door and announced, “Father is dying. We must help him live to see us happily married.” She organised the young women to take turns near the sick bed and went into the kitchen to make fish soup. When Harumi looked out her back window, she was surprised to see seven men coming up the hill by the sea near the hut. She was not afraid, but quickly washed and dressed her father to meet these men. The old man grew stronger as he knew his prayers for his daughters may soon be answered. He was not sure, however, and called Hekima near him. “You who has the wisdom of your mother in your eyes and soul, sit with me and help me with these interviews.” Hekima dressed in her one, beautiful blue gown, fixed her hair, and sat next to her father, as the men approached the door. Harumi answered the door, and the tall man who Akito and Katsu had seen at the notice board spoke first. “We have read the note and we want to solve the puzzle. My name is Yuuto. May we see your father, please? Harumi, dressed in a gown of bright yellow followers, let the men into the small room of the old man. The father sat up in his bed, resting his hand on Hekima’s and Fuyuko’s arms. He looked pleased, but apprehensive, as he looked at the young men standing about his bed.
The young women stood outside the door of the room, with Katsu peering around the door. She looked carefully at Yuuto and hoped he would solved her riddle. The father spoke again, as some of the men looked at the lovely young women and wondered at their exceptional beauty.
“There are seven riddles and I shall speak them out to you. The man who solves the riddle gets a prize.” The men agreed. They were young and adventurous and found this scene both challenging and amusing.
Yuuto spoke first. “Give me the riddle to begin this game, Old Man, please.” The old man answered, “No, I want the tall man in the back, who is so quiet and calm, to get the first riddle. The old man could read the hearts of these men and he wanted a husband for his eldest, Harumi, first of all. “Young man, in the dark blue and black cloak, what is your name and what do you do?
The quiet man came forward, “I am Daiki and I am the lesser steward of the emperor. I am older than most of these youth, but I have never married. In the court, I am derided by many for my quiet manner, but the Emperor loves me. I am here because Yuuto asked me to come and he is my best friend.”
The old man nodded. “Daiki, here is your riddle and you have one day to give me the answer. You may return tomorrow, but stay for our humble supper of fish and bread. Here is your riddle, ‘What is the brightest gift of a man’s life?”
Daiki looked at the ground. “I want to think on this. I shall wander to the seaside and ponder this riddle.” He bowed and took his leave, walking through the kitchen to the seaside. For a moment, he looked at Harumi, in her flowered gown, making the soup and bread. She did not look up. He continued out the door but paused to look back at the maiden working in the kitchen so diligently with love and skill. As he walked down to the sandy beach, he thought, “That young maiden would make a good wife for a steward. However, I need to solve the puzzle.” And, he sat down on a rock and watched the sea birds fly overhead. The waves spoke to his heart.
“ A good wife of beauty and industry is the brightest,” the waves said to his heart. Daiki knew his heart. He went back, but to the front door and knocked, Harumi answered and bowed to him, her dark eyes shining with admiration.
“May I please see your father?” Harumi nodded and led Daiki back to the sick room. The old man sat up again, and stared at Daiki, who came and bowed before him. “Before I answer the riddle, will you truly give me the prize today?” The old man smiled. “Yes, but first you must not tell the other six what you prize is. I have asked them to wait in the garden and they shall not see you leave. Do you have the answer?”
Daiki bowed again, his dark robe flowing about him. “The brightest gift in a man’s life is a wife of skill and beauty, love and industry.” The old man took Daiki’s hand and asked Hekima to get her eldest sister from the kitchen. Harumi entered with Hekima and came up to her father. He took her hand and placed it in Daiki’s. “I give you the spring of my life, my eldest Harumi, to grace your house.” Harumi and Daiki held hands while the old man blessed them. Then, Harumi went to her room and called in her sisters, giving them each a present of things from her little box. Then, she made a small bundle of clothes, a small snack for the journey and got fresh water from the well, carefully putting her small harp in a cloth bag. Daiki met her at the back door and they left to find the priest in the city to bless them in marriage.
The old man called in a second young man. He was short, but strong, like a bull. “What is your name?” The young man answered, “My name is Gou. I have my own business felling trees and making ornate gates for the emperor. I am his favourite architect. However, I am not very rich, but comfortable and looking forward to this game, Old Father.”
The old man was pleased that Gou had addressed him as father. He replied. “Here is your riddle. What is a businessman’s greatest gift? You may leave and stand by the sea if you need to think.”
Now, Gou was a man of quick thought. He knew his answer, “The greatest gift a businessman can have is a dutiful wife, who makes his life easy at home, create beauty with flowers and colour, so that the man may find rest in his house.”
The old man smiled. Gou reminded him of himself when he was young. “You have answered correctly. Now, my second daughter is Chinatsu, dressed in red by the door. She is the daughter of my prosperity.” Gou looked at the door and saw the beautiful woman who was holding a garland of water lilies. “If she wants me, let her dress me with the flowers of light,” Gou replied. Chinatsu came forward and placed the garland about the man’s neck. They held hands while the old man gave them his blessing. Then, the old man told them to leave by the kitchen door so that the other men would not see them go. The two bowed and walked back to the city to find the priest to bless their marriage.
The old man then called Akito into his room. “I want you to look out into the garden and choose the man you desire for a husband. Your quick intellect will choose correctly.” Akito bowed and stood by the front door looking out into the small walled garden. She had already decided on Yuuto, but went to make sure her discernment was sound. Returning to her father, she whispered Yuuto’s name to her father. He smiled and told Hekima to fetch Yuuto. The tall man came in and saw Akito serving tea to the old man. Yuuto noticed her beauty and her calm manner, but also her bright eyes of intelligence when she looked up at him.
The old man said, “Yuuto, here is your riddle. Of all the gifts God has given us men, what is the most valuable?” Yuuto stood like a giant oak next to the small, but lovely Akito.
“That is not hard. I am a philosopher who serves the emperor in his study. I give him great joy by discussing such subjects. The greatest gift of value is our intellect, which separates us from all the animals and fish in the seas.” The old man smiled. Akito stood up from her position of serving tea and handed a cup to Yuuto, who said, “I do not know your name, but I would call you Akito.” The beautiful woman smiled, and the old man said, “That is her name and she is your prize, if you are not yet married.”
Yuuto laughed. “No woman has wanted me as I like to talk about philosophy and not food.” Akito smiled as well. Then, the old man took their hands and put them together. “Find the priest and live a happy life.” The two bowed, Akito took a few things from her room and hugged her four sisters goodbye. Then, she and Yuuto walked slowing back to the city talking the entire way.
The old man grew tire. “I cannot meet the others today. Please tell them to come back tomorrow.” Hekima went into the garden and shared her father’s message. The men bowed and left, wondering where the other three had disappeared. One wondered whether there was some strange magic snatching away the other three youths. One man smiled. He was Hyousuke, a captain in the emperor’s army. He had figured out the meaning of the old man’s game, and had his eye on Fuyuko, the silent daughter, who in the entire visit was spinning a silk burial garment for her father in the sick room. She was dressed in deep purple, and kept to herself. Hyousuke liked her quiet manner and industry. Plus, she was one of the most beautiful of the daughters, slim with long black hair and gentle eyes. He was preparing for the next day’s challenge.
The remaining four daughters cleaned the house and brought in new flowers. Fuyuko had been given the keys to the pantries by the eldest and was cooking dinner, when a large bird flew past the window. It was a heron, telling her that she would prosper in her life. Fuyuko smiled and said nothing.
The next morning, after the old man had found good sleep, four men appeared at the door. However, one was a new man, not seen yesterday. Hyousuke approached the sick bed and bowed to the old man. “One of our men was called to another town by his sister’s husband. However, we have brought another companion, who would like to play the game.” The old man bowed. God was arranging things for his daughters, not him. Fuyuko entered the room with flowers in her hair and breakfast for the old man. The old man saw Hyousuke look at Fuyuko with interest. The old man then said, “This is your puzzle. Why did God create women?” Hyousuke looked puzzled. “I must go outside and think on this answer.” He bowed and took a walk to the sea. Meanwhile, the next man entered the room when Katsu asked him to come. The old man looked at his handsome youth, perhaps the most handsome of all the men. He noticed something about him—a ring on his finger. The old man smiled to himself, and said, “Your riddle is this, but first tell me your name.”
The young man answered, “I am the one who was not here yesterday, but I understand there is a prize for answering the riddle. However, I cannot tell you my name until after I receive my prize.” The old man bowed to the youth.
“Here is your riddle, In all the empire of the good emperor we have to rule over us, what is his most precious gift, given to him by God?”
The young man looked at the floor, and then he noticed a small woman sitting in the back of the room, arranging flowers for a small table. It was Hekima, the constant companion of her father. “I think I know the answer, but there are three parts to this answer.”
The old man said, “Continue.”
“The three parts lie in one body and one spirit. The first is wisdom, the most precious of all gifts given to emperors to rule in justice and mercy. The second is beauty, which must surround the peaceful mind and which the emperor gives to his people through the arts. The third is peace, the best gift an emperor can give his subjects. If all of these are found in a woman, the emperor will be blessed all his days. This would be his greatest gift.”
The old man got up and bowed to the young man. “You are Kamino, the second son of our great father-emperor. I do not know if you will accept the gift prize of this riddle.”
The young man helped the old man up and with Hekimo settled him in his bed. Hekimo then bowed before the prince. He asked her to rise. “Yesterday, I was not here, but when Yuuto brought his bride to the priest, I guessed there was a connection to this game. I take Hekimo as my wife from this day, if it pleases the father.”
The old man wept, as this was the daughter who was his constant joy, but he put her hand in that of Kamino and blessed them. Kamino assured the old man of his love and took out a bag of gold from his pocket. “Here is enough for you to live in health and peace for the rest of your life. I shall now leave secretly with this bride.” The two men blessed each other while Hekimo gathered her things and hugged her sisters.
The prince and the young woman left by the back door. They held hands all the way to the palace where they were greeted by the emperor, who blessed their marriage and the wisdom of the choice of his son.
Now, Hyousouke had his found his answer to the riddle and entered the house again and asked Fuyuko if he could see the old man. The old man said, “Enter”, and the young man came into the small room. “Do you know the answer to this riddle?” Hyousouke looked at the floor, then at Fuyuko. “Yes, and here it is. God created women to bring beauty into the lives of men.”
The old man stood up and embraced the young man. “I can tell by your demeanour that you are a great solider. Take my daughter with you to create beauty in your home all your days”. He took Fuyuko’s hand and put it in Hyousouke’s hand. He blessed them and the young maiden gathered her few things, said goodbye to Miho, and left with her husband by the back door. Only one man was left in the garden. Miho was in the front room arranging flowers with sticks and stones. She was wearing a light green gown. Her loveliness was that of tranquility and love. The old man put his hand on her shoulder. “I do not want you to go, and now that the emperor has given me enough money to be well again and have you here with me, I can provide. However, if you want to be married, you may go, and I have enough money for a dowry”.
Miho put her arms around her father. “I want to stay and serve you, Father.” The old man cried. He has not wanted to be left alone.”Well,” he stammered, “let us see who and what the young man in the garden is like. Call him in.”
This last young man was pale and tall. Miho looked at him with interest. He seemed very young, younger than the others, and like herself, patient and kind. The old man said, “I have one gift left. I shall give you a riddle but the prize may not be yours. You shall see.”
The young man replied. “I do see. I see that all your daughters have left with worthy men. I understand the game. Let me say to you old man, that I shall not take your last daughter from you, but if you take me into your house to help you until you go to your ancestors, I shall be blessed. I am only the lowly son of a fisherman, who died last year. I have one small boat, but I am strong. If you accept me as a son, I shall help you in your home with your lovely daughter as my bride.”
The old man wept. He had found the perfect son-in-law for his dying days. Miho’s eyes were bright with tears. She nodded to her father and he took her hand and placed it in the hand of the young man.
“We do not know your name,” the old man said.
The youth answered, “Keitaro,Gift. I am the answer to the riddle of your last days.” The old man smiled and the three held hands. Then, Keitaro ran to get the priest and the two were married that day in the house of the old man. The old man began to thrive and threw off death. For many years, he and Keitaro fished, teaching the six grandchildren to fish. Miho taught her daughters to weave and to arrange flowers, to sew and to sing. She taught truth and love to her children, and when the old man died after many happy years, she blessed his memory by passing down this story to her descendants.
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,