"Let me tell you a story…"
The old man stumbled through the night, eyes wide in fright, knuckles raw and bloody from all the times he had scraped them in falling. He dare not look behind him, chased into the night by the voice, that kindly voice. Behind that kindness hid steel, steel and a dark vein of anger.
"Once, in the mountains, lived an old man and an old woman, who together tilled a small plot of land. They were a virtuous and happy couple, with only one lack: they had never born children. Instead, they had a loyal dog, Shiro, white and wolfish, and they doted on him like he was their son, and gave him the best of everything. But… you know this don’t you?”
The fleeing man didn’t respond, his breath ragged from running, too afraid to look behind at the one who chased after. The calm voice of vengeance.
“On that mountain there was another couple, another elderly couple, as bitter and greedy as the first was kind and virtuous. When Shiro sniffed around their home, seeking company or scrap, they spit at him and kicked at him. How cruel they were to that sweet and innocent dog!”
He couldn’t see but two feet in front of his face. Soon, he knew, his flight would end. And he would face the justice that harried after. Tears streamed down his cheeks. How had it come to this? All he wanted was to be acknowledged, all he craved was a taste of the magic he had witnessed. Was that so wrong?
“One day, as the man from the first couple returned from a hard day laboring in the fields, he saw his beloved dog whining at the path that lead up the mountain. He saw the old man and barked, wagging his tail, clearly indicating that he should follow.
“Trusting Shiro implicitly, he did. The loyal mutt lead him to a patch of turned Earth under a cherry tree and barking, scratched at the Earth, indicating where to dig. And the old man obliged, and dug where Shiro indicated. You, of course, know what he found.”
The old man fell to the ground, and did not rise, he was tired of running. Tired of fighting the inevitable. Perhaps this had been destined ever since that faithful day. Since he had raised his hands in anger and destroyed that beautiful creature.
“Gold, untold riches, flowed from that hole in the ground, a fountain of wealth. The old man was astonished. Never before had he seen such riches. Soon, the other couple heard of what he had found, and connived to steal Shiro away from the kindly couple.
“The greedy old man forced Shiro back up the mountain, desperate to find the spot wherefrom wealth tumbled so freely. The dog, sensing his anger, was afraid and began to whimper. The greedy man, thinking he indicated that here to lay wealth, began to dig. But instead of gold, snakes and garbage flew from the ground. In anger, the greedy old man slew Shiro.”
Desperate, the fallen old man began to beg. ‘Please, I didn’t realize. Please, I only wanted…’ But the kindly old voice that followed after, that hid steel, interrupted his pleas for forgiveness.
“The kindly old couple grieved at their loss, and buried their beloved dog as they would a child. From his grave, sprouted a sapling. Months of growth in a matter of days. Soon, Shiro appeared to the old man in a dream. ‘Make a mortar of my sapling,’ The dog yelped, somehow understood in the impossible manner of dreams. They obliged, and prepared rice cakes in the mortar in his honor. But as they pounded rice in the mortar, it too turned to gold.”
The greedy old man, still on his knees, had stopped begging for forgiveness and began praying to whatever God he believed in for absolution. He heard steps in the distance, slow and measured, like his reckoning could wait all the time in the world.
“Hearing of this wealth, the greedy old couple rushed over, seizing the mortar for themselves. Alas, when they tried to crush rice in the mortar, instead of gold, only mud was made. Dismayed, they hacked the mortar with pieces with an axe and tossed them into a fire, leaving nothing but ash. The kindly old man was disheartened, but gathered the ash in a box and returned to his home, bearing the ashes as solemnly as if they were the remains of Shiro himself.”
From the night a shadow emerged, stooped and limping, growing closer and closer to the penitent sinner as he prayed for a forgiveness that was not forthcoming. As the figure grew closer, the old man quailed in his prayers, his hopes for repentance overwhelmed by fear.
“’Let’s sprinkle these ashes in Shiro’s favorite field, where we grow radishes.’ The old man suggested to his wife, who agreed. When they attempted to do so, the wind swept them up into a nearby cherry tree, dead many years. Immediately it bloomed beautiful blossoms, to the couple’s astonishment and delight.
“’This is how I’ll remember Shiro,’ The old man decided, ‘By making the flowers bloom.’
“And he went from tree to tree, and where he sprinkled, life sprouted once again. Soon the king heard of his exploits, and sent for him and his box of ashes so that he too could witness the miracle. The old man bowed low before him, and said humbly ‘Now, I’ll make the flowers bloom.’ He sprinkled the ashes on a nearby tree, and indeed it grew beautiful, white flowers.”
The old man listened to the tale with a growing chill, as the face of justice that loomed grew ever more familiar. It was the kindly old man and his box of ashes, but he was not smiling that day. His patience with greed and avarice had come to an end.
“But, not to be outdone, the greedy man came running, carrying the leftover ashes from the fire. ‘No, I am the greatest flower bloomer in the land!’ He boasted, and sprinkled his ashes. Alas, wind carried his ashes not onto the trees, but into the eyes and mouth of the king, who choked and sputtered angrily. ‘Fool!’ He cried, throwing the old man in prison.”
The kind old man stooped down, to see his fallen neighbor eye to eye.
“That should have been the end to that tale. That greedy man should have known that was the end.”
He opened the box, and prepared to grab from the dwindling supply of ashes.
“But no, when he got out, the fool attempted to return to the village on the mountain where they both once lived, and was shunned. No longer welcomed by the townsfolk, or even his wife, who we had forgiven. And the greedy old man grew bitter. In his anger, he broke into the kind couple’s home, and killed the old man’s wife. He sought to deny them both the happiness that had eluded him his entire life.”
The old man stopped begging, stopped praying to God. No relief was forthcoming, nor was forgiveness. He closed his eyes, and waited. The kindly old man brought the ashes to his lips, then paused.
“So here we are. You, the greedy old man, me the widower, grieving for my wife and for poor Shiro. But even in death there can be beauty. Now… I make the flowers bloom.”
With those words, he blew the ashes all over the greedy old man. At first, nothing happened, the greedy one thought he might be granted a reprieve. Until small lesions appeared on his flesh, red and pink and white angry welts. Slowly they sprouted, then more quickly they grew. The pain was excruciating, but he did not scream. He felt his skin cells growing, and segmenting, becoming rigid and porous, less skin now than bark. From his fingers, now branches, grew white flowers. His feet sunk into the earth, his toes grew in every direction like roots seeking moisture. His last thoughts, before succumbing to the wind, boughs bending and groaning in the dark: I… wanted… I only wanted…
“You only wanted what I had, but not the virtue it demanded. Now look what you’ve become.”
As the kindly widower descended back down the mountain, behind him he left a flourishing, if gnarled tree. Its size and countenance suggesting a man.