Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Magic Mortar

Many thanks to Tim Van Egmond who pointed me to the story!
Also many thanks to Sean Herman who allowed me to use his art. See link under image for his DeviantArt work.  He is also an amazing tattoo artist, I discovered!

The Magic Mortar, retold by Simon Brooks (c) 2012
A tale from Japan

Once, long ago in Japan, there were two brothers. The older brother was wealthy, greddy, and mean-spirited. However, the younger brother was generous, and kind-hearted, but had few possessions or money.

It had been a hard year for the younger brother and New Year was fast approaching.  How could they celebrate the New Year if they had little to no rice or wine?  The young man’s wife told him to go to his older brother and asked for some rice.  If he gave enough, they could make their own wine. Otherwise water would be fine. So the young brother made his way from his own humble home to his brothers fine palace which sat on it’s own island.

The younger brother borrowed a boat and rowed over the sea and came to the palace.  When he walked in and asked the servants where his brother was, he was told by the pond feeding the coy fish.  He made his way out down the long paths between shady trees to where his brother was.

"What do you want this time?" asked the older brother.

"Tomorrow is New Year and I have little rice for wife and children to celebrate.  Could I borrow some?  I will return whatever you are able to spare later in the year."

"No!  You should not be so generous.  Maybe if you were more like me, you would not have to come scrounging for food on New Years Eve. Go!  And don't come back!"

The younger brother rowed back to the main land and returned the boat.  As he trudged home, he felt the weight of the world upon his shoulders.  As he was walking, an old man called out to him: “What is it that bothers you so, young man? You bend your back down like mine!”  The young brother looked up and saw the man was carrying a bundle of firewood on his back.

Image used with permission from the artist Sean Herman - via DeviantArt
“Here,” said the young man. “Let me carry that and I will tell you my story,” which he did.  When they reached the old man’s house, the man pointed to a wall and said: “See that gap in the wall?”  The young man nodded.  “Well, go in there and you will see a statue of Buddha and beneath, some tiny people.  Give the little men this rice cake.” The old man gave the young brother a rice cake whose top was coated with honey. “But only when they offer you a stone mortar.  Go on! Go!”

The young brother was puzzled, but thanked the old man and made his way through the gap in the wall and saw the stature of Buddha.  A tiny shriek came from by his feet, and when he looked he saw, he found he had trodden on one of the little men. “I ma so sorry,” he said.  “You are so small I did not see you there.  Are you alright?”  He lifted the wee fellow up and apologized again.  The wee fellow saw the rice cake.

“What’s that?” asked the little man.  “It smells so good! Can I have it?”

“This is very valuable to me. What would you give me in exchange?”

The little man asked to be put down and he went and talked to his friends. When he looked back up at the young brother he said: “How about yards of silk?”

“No, this cake is more precious to me than silk,” said the young brother.

The little man ran back and talked with his friends again and came back and said: “Well, what about a large bag of gold?”

“I am not sure,” said the young brother.  “What else might you have?”

The little man ran back to his friends and a great deal of whispering began.  Eventually the little fellow came back and said: “We have a stone mortar.  Would you take that?”

“That sounds like a fair trade,” said the young brother. So out came the stone mortar and the brother handed the little men the rice cake.  As the young brother turned, the wee man called out: “Wait!  You need to listen.  That is a magic mortar. It will give you whatever you want.  All you need to do, is sing what you want and turn the pestle clockwise.  When you have enough, stop the pestle and turn it counter-clockwise and sing stop!”

The young brother could not believe his luck and ran home after thanking the little gentlemen.

When he got home his wife asked if he had rice and said, no but had something better.  He pulled out the stone mortar and told her about the old gentleman and the little men.

“Does it work?” she asked.  The young brother looked at his wife and said: “Let’s find out.”

He held the mortar in one hand and turned the pestle clockwise with the other, and sang:
“Rice, rice, can we have some rice? Rice, rice, can we have some rice?” And the pestle suddenly speeded up and rice began to flow up from the bottom of the mortar until it overflowed onto the floor!  The younger brother called out: “Stop, stop, we have enough rice! Stop, stop, we have enough rice!” and the pestle stopped turning and the rice stopped.  The husband and wife smiled at each other.  The younger brothers wife asked if he could ask for wine.  They got a vessel and the younger brother tilted the mortar over it and sang: “Wine, wine, can we have some wine?” and the pestle took itself from his hand and spun faster and out flowed wine, until he sang it to stop.

The younger brother was ecstatic! “We could have a great party and invite all our neighbours over!”  But his wife said their house was not big enough for all the neighbours. So the younger brother took the mortar in one hand and turned the pestle clockwise with the other, and sang: “House, house, can we have a bigger house?” and shots were heard and the house began to grow new walls and as the house grew it was filled with fine furniture until the younger brother sang the mortar to stop. Which it did.

And so they asked their neighbours to come and celebrate New Year with them. And the next day, on New Years Day, they came.  Many were surprised to see the new house and the fine clothes and furniture the younger brother and his wife now had, but people were too polite to ask where it had come from.

Well the older brother heard about the celebrations and came to join in.  When he saw the new wealth, of course he had to ask: “Yesterday you came to me asking for rice and now you have all this!  How did you come by all your new wealth?”

The younger brother knew not to tell his older brother, so said “I suppose that it came because of my kindness and a lot of luck!” But he said no more.

People feasted and laughed and played until late.  When people began to leave, the younger brother said, wait.  “I want to give all the children who have come a little gift.  Wait one moment.”  He went off to the kitchen and the older brother quietly followed and saw the younger brother pick up the stone mortar and sing it to produce sweet candy curd cakes.

“Arr is that how it is done, is it?” and he sneaked back to the others.  But, he did not see how the mortar was stopped.  After the other guests had left, the older brother asked his younger brother if he could stay the night.  “I have eaten too much and my belly aches.”

“Of course you can,” replied the younger brother. So he and his wife took out a tatmi mat for sleeping and laid it out for the older brother.  But as soon as the younger brother and his wife were asleep, the older brother got up and stole the mortar and took it with him to his boat and began to make his way over the waters to his island.  He was thirsty and hungry, despite what he had told his brother so looked around his boat and found some un-salted rice cakes. He picked up the mortar and holding the pestle sang out, “Give me salt, give me salt!” and salt began to fill the mortar.  He sprinkled some on his rice cake and ate it, putting the mortar down on the deck of the boat.  But the mortar continued to make salt.  As he rowed he found the boat getting harder and harder to row and then realized that the boat was filling with salt.  He tried to stop the mortar but in his panic did not say the right words, and could not have even if he knew the right words to say.  He tried bailing the boat out, but it sank and took the older brother with it as well as the mortar.

And because no one has asked the mortar to stop making salt, it still makes salt to this day.  Which is why the seas are filled with salt.

 Retelling copyright (C) 2012.  Do not copy, duplicate or reproduce in any form.  It's illegal and NOT cool.

Ready to Tell Tales, by Holt and Mooney
The Magic Listening Cap: More Folk Tales from Japan, by Yoshiko Uchinda
Benjamin Franklin Literary & Medical Society, Inc.
Sting of the Geisha by M. M. Rumberg

Monday, December 03, 2012

Tiz the season

Crow II by Simon Brooks, (c) 2012
Recently I have spent a lot of time working on voice over work and learning new stories and rehearsing some of my old favourites.  Last night I told some of these tales for teens and grown-ups in Amherst, NH.  There was a wonderfully warm crowd there and the atmosphere was cozy, I thought.  I was telling Winter Holiday stories. Although I am not a practicing Christian, I am Spiritual and my upbringing was Christian.  So most of the stories reflected that.  I always feel a little odd telling Jewish tales, not being Jewish! Almost all of the stories were folktales, although I also told the true story of the unofficial truce on Christmas eve, December 1914.  Although the Pope himself could not stop the war or get a cease fire, and although the suffragettes could not petition for the war to end, the fighting soldiers themselves began truce. On Christmas Eve the Germans set up trees they had been sent, and lit candles along the trenches and  when the Germans sangs hymns and carols the British sang their own, not to be outdone! It had been raining up to Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day the weather was good.  Together, on Christmas, they swapped gifts and buttons, exchanged cigarettes and rations, and played football (soccer), in some places along the front, as many as 50 soldiers on each side.  No-mans-land being the pitch (field) they played on.

Raven by Simon Brooks, (c) 2012
All of the stories I told, although featuring Christmas, have a strong message in their own right.  The message is about sharing, looking after each other as well ourselves, of giving to those in need - because no matter how badly off we might find ourselves, there are always people worse off than yourself.  The stories are about fairness and caring and most of those I told were about family.  These things are not ties to any religion, but are tied to all.  And you do not need to be religious or spiritual to practice these traits!  So whilst we are shopping for those we know and love, do a little shopping for those you don't know and give to those in less than comfortable circumstances, and please consider dropping food off at food banks.  If you can't afford to do this, then maybe volunteer somewhere.

I will be telling more winter stories at a couple of other venues before the year is out, and one of the stories I will be telling will be a Siberian version of this tale:  I remember watching a lot of Canadian short films growing up (it's the Commonwealth thing!), but never saw this one!  I love it though, and wanted to share it.  The differences between the version I found in James Riordan's Siberian Folktales and the one above on YouTube told by the Native speakers themselves, is the Siberian Raven paints Owl with ash from a fire and not oil as in the Inuit tale.  And the reason Raven gets painted black is slightly different, although both tales blame Owl for one thing or another - lack of patience, or vanity, although in the Inuit tale Raven is being his usual bouncy self which don't help Owl!  What are YOUR favourite winter/holiday tales? Tell me in the comments, or shoot me an email!  I would love to hear from you.

One last thing before I go!  Over this season folks often try to get together with family.  This would be a great time to record tales our parents and grandparents tell, either personal stories about themselves and a time and place all but forgotten, or their favourite stories from childhood.  If you need help coming up with ideas to start a 'story time', there are some great resources at:  and there is a wonderful PDF here: that StoryCorp have put out.  And here is a link to why we should be recording stories our families tell from an earlier date on my blog:

None of us are going to be around forever, so catch those stories for our later generations and give them a piece of your own family history.


which is the same site as:!

PS, the images used in this blog are original art done by myself.  Please do not copy, cut and paste, or redistribute in any manner or form. It is not cool, AND it's illegal!