By Rebecca Demarest
There once was a young scholar, Byron, who heard of a fantastic land far across the ocean. It was said that this land was one of grace and beauty and held the secrets of peace and prosperity. Intrigued, he decided to find out what he could. He read books and viewed paintings. He even found a sorcerer adept at creating false moving pictures to try and quench his thirst for knowledge about this far off land. Finding this all inadequate, Byron finally decided he must go find this land for himself, and set out on a long journey.
It took many days and many nights to travel the length the of his home country, and then many more to cross the vast oceans that lay between him and his goal. But, eventually, and without too much mishap, Byron landed on the shores of a fantastic land. The people there were very different from him, shorter and darker in complexion, and he stuck out as a stork among the reeds. They swayed gracefully around him, remarking on his unusually milk-pale skin and great height, but decided that because he shared their black hair, he must not mean harm. He demonstrated his great knowledge and was granted a position in one of their temples of learning, to learn and teach.
It wasn’t long before Byron came upon Hitomi, a fellow teacher and researcher. She was as beautiful as the cherry blossoms, and just as deceptively strong-willed. Her quiet demeanor and graceful stature was but a veil, shielding her great passion and forthrightness. She was as fascinated by this great bird-like foreigner as he was taken with her wit and charm. They flirted around each other, sharing knowledge and taking trips together to research the surrounding country’s history and culture. They visited everything from astounding temples high in the mountains to delicate gardens with tiny trees that were hundreds of years old.
On one such occasion, the two of them visited the beaches where his ship had come to rest. The two of them stared out over the vast ocean, him pointing out the direction in which his land lay and Hitomi pretending she could see so far as to view the great mountains which he said rose over his homeland. Laughing, they decided to take a skiff out into the water to peer across the waves to his native shores. They were not rowing long before a gale blew up and Byron wrestled with the sails while Hitomi clung to the rudder, trying to keep them aimed to shore. The storm raged and blew, trying all its tricks to blow the two of them out of the boat and into the water, but they prevailed. As soon as they were once again on land, the storm abated and they flung themselves to the sand, laughing until what little breath they had left was exhausted.
Over time, the two fell deeply in love, but neither was entirely sure whether their love would be accepted, seeing as how Byron was a stranger from a country so far away. In time, Byron’s reputation spread far and wide. The stories of the great, tall, stork man carried from village to village, until the greatest temple of learning sent for him, promising him riches and comfort to come and reside in their halls.
Byron was torn. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for all his life, the greatest possible place to further his knowledge, but it would mean leaving the side of his beloved. He loved Hitomi, but this was what he had come here for, to learn. He wished that his family were with him, to ask their opinion. His mother had always been so wise in matters of the heart, but the closest he had to a mother in this land was the great Yamauba, the mother of the mountain outside of their village.
Yamauba, the spirit on the mountain, had been protecting and nurturing the village for eons. Her wisdom, Byron reasoned, must be even greater than that of my own mother, so, he decided to climb to the peak to ask for her what she thought. Should he leave his beloved to pursue his dream? Or should he refuse the invitation to stay by her side?
As he hiked, he called out to the forests and the mountains. He called out to the mountain mother, talking of Hitomi’s beauty and intelligence, but also of his dreams to become the greatest scholar in the land, and how he must choose one or the other. He had barely made it half-way up the path when the mountain shook, throwing great clumps of dirt and trees into the air.
Terrified, his only thought was of Hitomi and her safety. He ran down the mountain, even as the pebbles still fell, to find that her family’s rice fields were untouched and she was unharmed. She laughed when he told her where he had been. It was obvious, the answer, she said. When your life was in danger, did you think of your books?
No, he replied, only of you. I shall stay here, and ask for your father’s permission for your hand.
That, too, is silly. She agreed with him that the opportunity in the great temple of learning was too important to him to give up entirely, but they should continue their courtship from afar, making time in each of their studies to travel to one another. The distance wasn’t so great, she said, as he seemed to assume it was. For the sake of their love, they would travel back and forth between the two temples while they studied. Their visits would be all the sweeter for the distance, and it would prove to her father that he was serious in his intentions to marry.
Byron praised her for her great wisdom and made preparations to go to the temple the next day. As he left, a gentle snow fell over the land, unusual for that time of year, but the couple took it as a blessing, and there were many tearful goodbyes.
The temple of learning was all he could have hoped for, with many ancient texts and clever students and teachers to interact with. During holidays, Hitomi always visited, but the visits were too short, leaving Byron dissatisfied. So the scholar traveled back to Hitomi’s house and went to her father to ask for his permission to marry his daughter.
He dressed in his best clothes to present his argument to the old farmer. Byron knelt in front of the man, offering him the proper respect. He laid out his case, piece by piece, highlighting their love for each other, his status as a scholar, and his intention to build a life for the two of them that would be comfortable and fulfilling. The old man nodded along with all of this, but when the young scholar had finished, he shook his head.
You are a stranger to our lands and do not know our ways, he said. I am afraid your novelty over time will fade and my daughter will be unhappy with you.
Let me prove myself, Byron begged. Surely there is some way I can prove that I am worthy of the regard in which your daughter holds me.
I need to think on this, the father replied. Please, I invite you to stay and meditate at the temple with me while I decide whether there is a task in which you can help prove yourself.
The young man agreed, eagerly, and followed the devout father to the local temple, where they seated themselves in front of the altar and began to meditate. The scholar was determined to prove himself, and though the day waned and night came, he complained not one word. As the sun rose, still he did not move or make a noise. That day passed, and another, and another until the father rose at the end of the eighth night and offered his hand to help the tall man from the floor.
Have you decided? Byron asked eagerly.
Yes, but first we must bring in the harvest for if we don’t, it will be spoiled. The farmer returned to his farm, and the young scholar followed, eager to hear the father’s decision. When they reached the fields, the entire family had begun work and Byron picked up an extra sickle and hook to help. By the end of the first day, they had made excellent progress, but there was still much rice left in the fields, and so they returned the next, and the next. After eight days, the last sack of rice was safely stored and the family happily returned to their home for a celebration.
As the father finished his evening repast, Byron respectfully knelt once more in front of him, to ask, May I know what task is expected of me?
Not tonight, my boy, tonight we celebrate an excellent harvest. He gestured for saki to be brought and the family shared it. After a short while, the women went to bed and the men stayed to talk. They emptied bottle after bottle of saki, under the understanding that the old stock must be consumed before new may be laid in from the fresh harvest, and by the end of the evening, eight empty bottles stood before them, ready to be refilled.
Needless to say, at this point, the young scholar fell asleep. In the morning, he stirred himself and went to find the father sitting on the front stoop, smoking a pipe and watching the sun rise. Byron knelt in front of him. Sir, the rice has been harvested and the saki bottles stand empty and clean, ready for a new years wine. May I know now what you need of me to prove myself worthy of your daughter?
The old man did not answer him for a moment, and the two of them listened to the birds. The young scholar was afraid the man might never answer until he replied, For eight days, you meditated faithfully at my side, so I know you are devout. Without being asked, you picked up sickle and hook and helped feed my family, so I know you are hardworking, and will provide well for my daughter. And, last night, though you kept up with me drink for drink, never once were you angry or hostile. You were happy, if drowsy, so I know that if you ever indulge, you will not threaten my daughter. There is only one last task for you to complete.
Anything, Byron swore, I will finish it with speed.
The old man looked bashful. Alas, I am afraid I misled you. I alone do not have the power to grant my daughter’s hand. She was promised many years ago to Yamauba, the great mother, in return for her protection of our valley. You must climb the mountain and ask for her permission to wed Hitomi.
Immediately, Byron promised. Hitomi, eavesdropping on this conversation, declared that she would accompany her beloved up the mountain, and they started out immediately. As soon as they reached the foothills, a great storm blew up, and the couple struggled up the path.
Halfway up the mountain, Byron stopped, and planted his feet. He screamed into the teeth of the storm, I am determined, Yamauba. I love Hitomi and I wish to marry her. Nothing you throw at me will drive me from this path.
Surprisingly, the storm abated somewhat, and an elderly woman appeared from the rocks. I rather thought not, but one last attempt had to be made to show the truth of your heart. You have proven your love over and over again, when I threw the storm across the sea, and when I moved the mountain. Today, once again, you proved your love and determination. Only one last task remains to you.
Exhausted by the never-ending string of challenges, the traveling scholar asked, and what might that be?
Why, you must ask Hitomi herself.
Grinning, Byron knelt before his beloved, clasping her hands, the both of them drenched by the storm. He thought her hair had never looked so beautiful as it did then, being tossed about by the winds that surrounded Yamauba. Hitomi, my beloved, will you marry me?
Hitomi smiled, replying, of course.
Together, they rose, and with the blessing of Yamauba, they returned to Hitomi’s village where a great feast awaited them. They celebrated their marriage with their family and friends and to this day they are happy and studious, the traveling scholar and the farmer’s daughter.
About The Author
Rebecca A. Demarest is an award-winning author, book designer, and technical illustrator living in Seattle, WA with her husband. Together, they maintain a household jungle, cater to a dog-like cat named Cat and a Portuguese Water Dog named Teal’c. When she isn’t writing, you can find her at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas teaching the youth of Seattle how to get their ideas onto the page, crocheting, embroidering, and playing lots of Dungeons and Dragons. She is currently working on the sequels for everything, so, before you ask, yes, you’ll find out what happened to Benny, Sophia will keep sticking her nose in dangerous places, and Thea will find the seedy underbelly of Oz.
Rebecca’s website: http://www.