This is the story of Bean Boy, and of how his parents, wishing him dead, came to try to squash him like a bug using an iron teakettle.
There lived, on the edge of Ogawa village, a childless couple called Sotomura. They were the poorest in the village, and also the most pious, never missing an observance at the shrine, and honoring the gods in all they said. The Sotomuras lived in a rented shack on the south side of the river where the annual swelling of the river Mu inundated fields and houses alike, but since they had no rice paddies at all, the rest of the village considered them fortunate to be able to live there, considering their circumstances.
Being a second son, Mr. Sotomura had no land of his own, so he made tall rain-sandals out of discarded scraps of wood, and Mrs. Sotomura cleaned the houses and outhouses of wealthier families. They worked hard and earned enough rice to eat every day, but they were sad. The couple dearly wished for a son but had never been blessed with one in all their years of trying.
Three times each day Mr. Sotomura put aside his crude tools and prayed fervently:
“Oh gods of river and forest and mountain, please let us have a son to care for us when we grow old.”
And seven times a day Mrs. Sotomura set down her bucket and rags and prayed even more passionately:
“Oh gods of house and field and family, please let us have a son that we may love and care for all the days of our lives.”
Finally, one wet, spring day, their prayers were answered and they were gifted with a son. Mrs. Sotomura was perched on a shelf to stay above the waters flooding the shack, and nestled in the bosom of her patched kimono she found a tiny, tiny baby boy, no bigger than a grain of barley. Even though he was as tiny as a bug, he was beautiful and healthy, and his tiny, fierce cries instantly won her heart.
Her husband declared that the child be named “Seed Boy,” and so he was. But he grew much more rapidly than an ordinary boy, and by the end of the season he could walk and speak and was the size of a large edamame, so they re-named him “Bean Boy.”
Mr. Sotomura was not sure how the others of the village would react to their tiny, clever son, so he decided that Bean Boy would be raised at home and kept a secret from their neighbors. His wife objected to this at first, but was so happy to have the boy that she agreed to it.
Bean boy matured quickly but became no larger. After a year, he was much like a nine-year-old child, but still no bigger than a bean. He was strong, able to lift an entire plum by himself, and quick—able to evade cats, rats, and birds. He was happy with his life but wished that he could grow larger and become a famous samurai one day.
Bean Boy could not help much with his parents’ own work, but his parents gave him other tasks to keep him busy. He found small, lost items, hunted and killed insects in his parents’ hair, and stirred lukewarm tea by swimming furiously about in the family’s big iron tea kettle.
One day, his father had for him an important job. He was to find a lost item beneath the floor of a neighbor’s house.
“I have learned that Goro the cloth merchant lost his seal stamp while visiting my elder brother’s fine house,” his father told him. “Without it he cannot sign documents and conduct his business, so we must help him find it.”
Bean Boy was delighted to be entrusted with such an important duty. “Uncle and the merchant will both be so grateful!” he exclaimed. “Surely we can tell everyone about me once this favor is done.”
His father explained that this could not be so. “People are not ready to know about you, so it must all be done in secret. Do not be seen in my brother’s house, and once you have found the seal beneath the floorboards, you must bring it straight to me.” Bean Boy obediently agreed to do it this way.
Mrs. Sotomura carried Bean Boy in her sleeve and carefully dropped him next to her brother-in-law’s big house as she walked by. Bean Boy made his way in through a tear in a paper screen and down under the floor through a big crack between the boards. After a pause in which he used a bamboo skewer as a spear to fend off a rat, he quickly found the carved seal block. He hurried back home, carrying the seal on his head like a huge bale of rice, walking along the edges of walls and rushing through tall weeds to avoid being seen, and brought the seal to his father, who was overjoyed.
“You have done so well, my Bean Boy,” he said, “that tonight you will feast on a whole azuki bean, all for yourself.”
His parents never mentioned returning the seal to Goro the cloth merchant, but he assumed that they had done so, as they seemed so happy in the days after his heroic adventure. Then, when it was almost time for the rice harvest, his parents bid him go to his uncle’s house again and warned him not to be seen.
“You must go and watch for mice since the harvest is coming,” his father told him. “But do not be noticed. While you are there, remember everything that you see and hear because that is what good boys do.” Bean Boy mentioned that he had not seen any mice when he had been there before, but his parents insisted that he check again. He was to stay all night and all the next day, silent and observant.
Bean Boy did as he was told and hid under the edge of some stacked seat cushions in his uncle’s fine sitting room. He knew that if his father had been the elder brother, then this would be his own family’s home, and he thought of what a fine thing that would be for his parents. He watched and listened for a night and a day, seeing two hurried mice, one old rat, and one menacing cat, and hearing conversations between his uncle and his uncle’s wife.
He returned home and happily reported to his father about the absence of a mouse problem at Uncle’s farm. His father, doubtless an admirer of his brother’s wise discourse, insisted on hearing every word that Bean Boy could remember having heard in the house. Every conversation was reported, but his father seemed especially interested in one in particular.
“He said that he would be going to town,” he told his father. “He has business there that will keep him for three days. It has to do with a wedding.” Bean Boy wished that he himself could visit the big, bustling market town near the mountains and asked his father if they could go, too.
“No, we have much to do here while my rich, happy brother is away,” his father told him.
Over the next several days, his parents gave Bean Boy several difficult and confusing tasks, but he was sure they were important so he was proud to do them.
He secretly helped the apothecary by creeping into his storehouse and sliding open the bolt on the big doors. Mr. Sotomura had explained that the apothecary had lost the key to the lock on the smaller door and so could not get in to access his concoctions and ingredients. The next night, father himself crept silently to the storehouse to confirm that the favor had been done and that everything was well within.
His next task was an exciting one because it involved creeping into the bedroom of his uncle’s beautiful daughter Atsuko. She was Bean Boy’s cousin, and he could never have an improper thought about her, but Bean Boy liked to look at her and was thrilled to get to go into her room. His father gave him the merchant’s seal that he had retrieved before and told him to place it under Atsuko’s sleeping futon. Bean Boy could not imagine why this had to be done, as it didn’t seem in any obvious way to involve returning the seal to the merchant, but he trusted his parents’ wisdom and stealthily performed this task in the dark of night. His cousin’s breathing was slow, and her scent filled his head as he hid the seal and then scurried out of her room, out of the house, across the tiny bridge over the Mu, and back to his own shack.
The next night’s task was even more baffling to Bean Boy and would be even more difficult. He was to sneak into the house of another prosperous family, climb atop a sleeping young man named Isamu, and drip medicine from a tiny bottle into the sleeping lad’s mouth. His father explained that this boy was going to marry cousin Atsuko and thus inherit Uncle’s farm, but that he was sick, and without this medicine he would die before the wedding could take place.
Bean Boy was afraid but did as he was told. Isamu’s face twitched as Bean Boy walked across it, and it seemed that he must wake up, but he kept sleeping. Unstoppering the medicine bottle using both hands, Bean Boy then poured its contents over Isamu’s lips and into his mouth. The young man stirred and coughed and Bean Boy was flung off him and onto the floor mats, but Isamu went back to sleep and Bean Boy made the moonlit trek home.
The next day his parents were speaking excitedly about some “big news” in the village but would not tell him what it was. Feeling guilty at his own naughtiness but unable to repress his curiosity, Bean Boy snuck into the sleeve of his mother’s robe so that he could accompany her through the village and perhaps hear about this “big news.” His mother did not notice him, and so he was able to go along with her, clinging tightly to the inside of her sleeve.
The news that he heard in conversations around the village shocked Bean Boy. It emerged that Isamu, the boy he had tried to help last night, had died in his sleep. No one knew the cause, but all agreed that it was a great tragedy, as the boy had been virtuous and well-loved. Bean Boy supposed that the medicine had just come too late. If only he could have given it to Isamu earlier, perhaps the young man would have lived. Bean Boy wept quietly as his mother went about her day.
In the house of another wealthy farmer, as his mother cleaned the floors of his kitchen, Bean Boy could hear quiet but intense sounds of conversation from the next room, but was vexed that he could not make out the words being spoken. His mother must have had the same frustration because she stopped swabbing the floor and silently walked to the door to listen. Bean Boy could hear, too.
“It’s a terrible, terrible, thing,” said the woman of the house. “It makes me sick to think of it.”
“I know,” replied her friend. “It’s so sad that the boy died so young.”
“Yes,” said the other woman, “but what sickens me more is what will happen to that lovely house and farm.” Her friend asked what she meant, and the woman explained. “Unless they can find another husband for Atsuko before her father dies, the land and everything will go to that horrible brother. What an evil, wretched pig of a man.”
Bean Boy realized that the woman was talking about his own father. He could not imagine why they thought him to be evil. He was tempted to leap from his mother’s sleeve, rush into the room, and defend his father, but had the sense to remain still instead.
“Well,” the friend replied, “She’ll be easy to marry off. Such a beauty, and as pure as the winter’s first snow.”
Bean Boy’s mother hurried back to her work then, so he heard no more of the two women’s words. But what he had heard was so disturbing that he could barely keep himself quiet. Finally, as his mother was wiping sweat from her face, he leapt from her sleeve to the floor and hurried out of the house. He made his way across the whole village in the full light of day but made it home unseen.
He ran to his father, who was working on a pair of sandals, and spoke to him, his voice high with agitation.
“Father, I have heard terrible things in the village,” he cried breathlessly. He explained that he had heard that Isamu had died, and that this somehow meant that Father would inherit Uncle’s farm, and that some people didn’t want that to happen. His father only grunted and nodded at these shocking things, and seemed disinclined to explain any of it to Bean Boy.
“And they seemed to think that Uncle would die sometime soon,” Bean Boy said to him. “Is that true?”
His father snorted. “No, he may look sickly, but my adored brother is strong as a bull. He’ll live longer than I will unless something happens to him.” Bean Boy was reassured by this and went to his favorite corner of the shack to calm his nerves by working on a cherry pit he had been carving into the face of a monkey.
That evening, after their supper of rice gruel, his parents told Bean Boy that they had another job for him.
“It will be frightening,” said his father, “but I know that you can do it.”
“I will, Father,” his tiny son replied. “I will be brave and strong.”
His father smiled and nodded. “I know that you will. Now here is what you must do. This very night you are to take this long needle and go to my brother’s house.” Father set on the table a huge, sharp shoemaker’s needle. “He has returned from town. You will steal into your uncle’s room and climb upon him as you did upon that stupid boy.”
“Stupid boy?” interrupted Bean Boy. “You cannot mean poor Isamu, surely.”
“I meant to say ‘splendid’ boy,” his father told him. “Now stop interrupting.
Bean Boy listened silently.
“Once you are upon his ugly face,” Father continued, “you must climb into his mouth and down his throat, and then set about you with the needle as vigorously as you can, tearing his stomach and other innards to bits. Once he stops thrashing about you will be able to climb back up his throat and come home, I’m almost sure.”
Bean Boy stared at his father. His mind spun like a top, and his blood was throbbing in his ears. Several moments passed before he could speak.
“You want me to… murder my uncle?” he asked. “So that you will inherit his farm?”
“Yes,” said his father. “Don’t be a baby about it. He would do the same to me.”
“But Isamu… Atsuko’s fiancé,” Bean Boy continued, “you had me poison him, didn’t you? With something you stole from the apothecary’s storehouse that I helped you break into? Oh gods what have I done?” He wailed and gasped, falling to his bottom and unable to stand.
“Yes, idiot boy, and tonight you’ll bring everything together by gutting your smug sheep of an uncle,” said Father. Bean Boy shook in helpless misery.
“Now, dear,” said his mother to his father, “Let’s give him a few days to get ready for this task. There’s no hurry now that Mrs. Sato has discovered Goro’s seal under the girl’s bed. By now she will have spread the gossip to every corner of the village that Atsuko is a slut, and no one respectable will ever even think of marrying the girl. We have time.”
Before his father could respond to this, Bean boy got to his feet and shouted.
“No! I won’t do this thing! You have made me a murderer already, but I won’t do any more. I am leaving, and everyone will know what monsters you are!”
More swiftly that one might readily imagine him to be capable of, Bean Boy’s father swung their heavy, iron tea kettle down upon Bean Boy to pulverize him into a paste. Bean Boy’s mother gasped.
“Oh no! How could you kill my useful little boy like that?”
“He is spoiled,” replied Mr. Sotomura. “No good anymore.”
Bean Boy heard this from beneath the floor as he lay on the dirt, having slid through a crack just in time to escape the fate his father had decided for him. He crawled as quickly as he could toward the nearest gap in the wall and fled into the night.
He ran without thinking until his lungs burned, and it was only when he heard the call of an owl echoing menacingly through the darkness that he stopped and considered his situation. Bean Boy huddled under a mushroom and thought.
He was dizzy with the shock of things, but oddly he did not feel afraid. Yes, his parents had turned out to be not only the poorest and most pious people in the village, but also the most evil. Yes, they had used him to commit terrible crimes and likely would kill him if they caught him, but this did not seem to make his situation appreciably more hazardous or frightening.
Bean Boy had always lived with deadly danger. He lived each day with the knowledge that a moment’s inattention could mean his death by a farmer’s sandal, a sneaky rat, a falling stone, a hungry bat, or even a particularly large and aggressive insect. Knowing that his parents sought his death made him sad, but they were really just two more additions to the vast array of owls, foxes, cats, and others who would kill him as readily as look at him.
By morning, he was terribly cold and exhausted from his flight and the sleepless night, but he had decided what he must do. He must go to his uncle, explain the situation, and admit all that he had done. If Uncle was an honorable man, as everyone, including his parents, seemed to acknowledge, then he would treat Bean Boy fairly. And more importantly would see to the punishment of Bean Boy’s parents.
So when the sun had risen above the hills and cousin Atsuko stepped out to draw a bucket of water from her father’s fancy well pump, she found Bean Boy standing in full view atop the flat stone next to the pump, hands at his side, head humbly bowed. Bean Boy opened his mouth to begin to introduce himself.
“Tiny demons from the kingdom of the dead!” she screamed, both terrified and articulate. Before Bean Boy could protest that he was not a demon, the girl swung her bucket down with impressive speed, trapping him beneath the overturned vessel. There was a scraping sound and a disconcerting boom, which he realized was the sound of the girl placing a heavy stone from the garden on top of the bucket to prevent his escape. He heard Atsuko run off, shouting warnings to her family.
While he waited for the girl to return with his uncle, and perhaps with a hungry and cold-eyed cat, Bean Boy pondered what he would say. He would explain that he was not a demon, but in fact a nephew and cousin, and that he had come in good will with important news.
Bean boy stopped, his stomach growing hard and cold. Were those things even true? Was he indeed their blood relation? His mother had always been very vague on the matter of his birth. And how did he know that he was not a demon? Perhaps Uncle’s family had good reason to fear.
He waited for a long time under the bucket, and through its walls he could hear indistinct voices come and go. As the sun heated the bucket, it became very warm inside, and the sweaty boy started to become light-headed.
When the bucket was finally lifted, a weary and dizzy Bean Boy blinked in the blinding sunlight, squinting and peering until he could make out the group arrayed before him. There stood his uncle, tall and imposing in a fine kimono. Bean Boy’s aunt stood beside him, looking stern and somewhat threatening. Atsuko was there, beautiful and wary. And there were two other people present as well.
One was a farmhand named Hiro, a property-less boy from another village, who stood with a huge, wooden carpenter’s mallet, clearly ready to flatten Bean Boy if it was called for.
The other was a stranger to Bean Boy: an old woman wrapped in a dark cloak and carrying long strands of prayer beads wrapped around her fingers. One of her eyes was covered with a cloth patch of old kimono silk.
Uncle spoke first. “Explain yourself, demon,” he commanded.
Bean Boy took a breath and began to explain himself.
Wary of the farmhand’s mallet, he skirted around his own unwitting crimes as he told his tale, focusing instead on his upbringing and the details of his life with the Sotomuras. He spoke only in very general terms about their misdeeds, since the only ones of which he had detailed knowledge were the ones that had involved Bean Boy himself committing theft, murder, and other crimes.
His relatives did not seem to need any convincing about Bean Boy’s parents. Even without details they were more than ready to believe in his parents’ evil intentions and dark schemes. Bean Boy knew that in time he would have to relate his own role in these crimes, but he was glad to leave them out during this tense meeting in the yard of his uncle’s house.
When he was done, his Uncle asked him a few questions.
“Where do you sleep?” he demanded at one point.
“In an old spice box,” Bean Boy told him.
“How strong are you?” Uncle later asked.
“Stronger than a mouse, but not so strong as a rat,” he replied.
The questioning went on and on, but finally Uncle turned to the old woman, who had been eyeing Bean Boy with alarming attentiveness since the bucket had been lifted.
“So, Wise One, can this boy really be my brother’s child? So tiny that we didn’t see his wife’s ripe belly?”
“No,” the woman replied. “There have been accounts of tiny children who burst forth from the thumb of a barren woman, or from a boil or blister, but I don’t credit them. No, this boy is not a boy at all, or at least not a mortal person like us.”
Atsuko gasped, Aunt tensed up, and the farmhand raised his mallet, clearly ready to smash Bean Boy, who almost wished that the hammer would just come down and end all of this.
“So he is a demon after all?” asked Aunt.
“No, no,” said the old woman. “Not at all. He is a nature spirit of the woods, transformed into this shape by human wishes and desires.”
“So you’ve been lying to us!” growled Uncle.
The old woman interrupted him. “No, no, he is not lying. The spirit was given form by the dreams and wishes of your brother and his wife, but he probably had no form at all before that and has no memory of being other than a boy.”
She told them that Bean Boy’s presence was an honor to all of them and that he must be made welcome and cared for, since he was a gift of the gods.
And so it transpired. A birdcage was prepared for him so that he could be safe from the cat at night, and Atsuko took clothes she had made for her wooden dolls and altered them to fit Bean Boy. Uncle and his family kept Bean Boy a secret from the village, as those who raised him had, and when Father and Mother came to inquire at Uncle’s house about whether anything unusual had turned up recently, they were sent away without a word.
It took several days for Bean Boy to muster his courage to tell Uncle all he had done. Life here was so comfortable, and he felt so safe that he feared to endanger his place in his uncle’s house. But he was a truthful boy and had no choice but to confess.
So he told his story in detail, telling Uncle everything that he remembered of the tasks Father had set for him, and what he had thought they were about. To Bean Boy’s surprise, Uncle seemed to hold him blameless in every regard. But to Bean Boy’s disappointment, Uncle did not rouse the villagers to go seize his “parents” and send them to a magistrate.
“There’s little proof of any of these things,” Uncle told him. “And not everyone would understand that you were being cruelly used and that you meant no ill. No, we will keep a watch on my brother and wait for him to commit further crimes without your help, as he surely will. Meanwhile, and for as long as you wish, you shall live here as my guest.”
“But not as your nephew?” Bean Boy quietly asked, wishing that he could truly be a member of this family.
“Indeed not,” said Uncle. “You are no blood relation of ours.”
Bean Boy nodded sadly.
“Besides,” said Uncle. “I think Atsuko has developed a particular liking for you, and who knows where that might lead?”
Bean Boy could not tell from Uncle’s little smile whether he was teasing him, but it didn’t matter. A smile grew upon his own face that he couldn’t banish. Bean Boy felt warm and happy and remained so for the rest of his days.
Daniel Coble toils in the code mines of southern California by day, and emits strange prose by night. His humming, clicking, and whirring during this activity can be heard for blocks around. He has Master’s degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine, two spectacularly awesome daughters, and a nice banjo.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Bean Boy”:
“Delightful” is the best word to describe this piece. In his original submission, author Daniel Coble told us that this is “an odd and somewhat grim re-working of the Japanese folklore character Bean Boy.”
We say “original submission” because his first version ended with Bean Boy fleeing his parents. While we liked it, we felt it needed more. As it turned out, the author felt the same way and in record time sent us the revised and expanded version you see here—an imaginative and heart-warming story.