Tuesday, August 9, 2011

little peachling

I almost never eat peaches. It's because I still half expect to bite in and find a tiny child inside. A Japanese child, no less.  When I was just learning to read, I got this beautiful book about the peachling child. His name was Momotaro.  On the cover was a picture (Ukiyo-e style of course) of a peach cut in half, and instead of the pit, Momotaro is sitting inside. There are peach blossoms all over the cover, and a black frame lining the edges of the cover.

The illustrations were magical.

Little Peachling grew into a full-sized man who could commune with animals. He left his adoptive parents, a woodcutter and his wife, who of course had been childless before the miracle of his coming.

So. Childless couples have always existed. Bachofen would say that if a folk tale has a story about it, then it's probably something that's really been on the minds of humans for a really long time.  Inability to conceive is certainly like that.  As is finding foundlings. And adoption. I think I was comforted by that as a child. This vulnerable foundling grew up and found his strength and power. It could be done.

In Tunisia, when we lived there, children were fairly transmutable.  Since I didn't have any, people were always giving me one.

"Take my child, please—"

And so, I would borrow children when I needed them.  They made social intercourse much much easier. A woman without a child. Real bummer. No validation at all. Walking around town all alone? Couldn't be done.  Walk with a child? And a woman could go anywhere.

Children in rural Tunisia made great little spies. They saw everything. And were so easily bribed.  They had access to everyone. Delivered messages. They could shop in the markets and handle money. Girl or boy. Didn't matter. They had access to the courtyards at home. The cafés. The bath houses. Cemeteries.  Uncles. Aunts.

They were free.

And as they grew, their lives bifurcated. Girls lives became more restricted to the courtyard, farm, or field. While boys had greater access to places further afield. Especially, as they got older, those cafés.  The women and girls were generally pretty happy to see them go. North Africa, at least then (and less so now) was extremely homophilic.

Girls and boys. Growing up. Sticking to their own kind. More and more.

Momotaro didn't do that.

I was completely captivated by his tale. He had, of course, this miraculous genesis. And then he grew into 'a strong and brave man' — with not a single word in the tale about courtyards, farms, fields or other people. Not a word of the mundane in his story. He goes from peach boy to warrior in one fell swoop. He carries a sword. And a fan.

I wanted to be like that. A sword. And a fan.  Took a long time to get there.

The Peach Boy had three nonhuman friends and companions. A dog. A monkey. And a pheasant.

I wanted friends like that.

They went off together to punish Ogres for their wickedness. They had a quest. What could be better than that?

The whole story captivated me as a child. I think it set the stage, without my noticing, for a lifelong passion for all things from long ago Japan.  Like Arthur Whaley, who translated Lady Muraski's Tale of Genji into (Victorian) English, I never wanted to actually set foot in contemporary Japan. It would ruin my 18th century impression.

My vision was all Ukiyo-e woodblock print impressions. Kuniyoshi impressions. Primarily from the Edo period. That's what I see—and I don't want it to change.  For all my usual desire to know, in this case I'm just fine not knowing. The tale gave me strength and courage and hope if not downright knowledge that everything would be okay. Surely that's enough.

Why think about this right now?

I cut into a beautiful and fragrant peach just now. Very carefully, as I always do. One slice along the spine. And gently (as always) pried the two halves apart, and opened wide. And held my breath.

No baby boy within.

My shoulders sank. As they always do. My breath released with a sigh. No tiny child. No child to grow up strong and brave and take up sword and fan. And befriend dog and monkey and pheasant. And fight the Ogres. And win. And come back home again.

I sliced it up into thin crescents. And ate it slice by slice.

And realized. I have my sword. I have my fan. I didn't need to be a man. And when I read that story then, that was when my quest began.

Oh. And it's delicious. The peach, too.

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