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A Bug's Life

by Yumeno Kyusaku

Translated, illustrated,
and narrated by Tom Vincent
00:00 / 07:25

Kantaro the charcoal burner had no wife or children, and day after day he would stand in front of his charcoal kiln deep in the mountains, watching the smoke and reflecting on his lonely life.


This year as always he had filled the kiln with good oak, and prepared everything ready to be lit by the time the new year came round, when on the second night of the year he had the strangest dream. As Kantaro was sleeping, he heard a small, sad voice singing:


In town the people set in for winter,

Bright and happy and beautiful.

In the trees the insects set in for winter,

Dark and sad and forlorn.


The wind howls through the winter night

The snow and frost falls thickly,

The oak tree we depend on

Is cut down and left to die

And fills the charcoal kiln,

Tomorrow rising as smoke deep in the mountains.


And together with that oak

Turned to ash and smokey charcoal,

Not a trace left to be seen

Of that sad, sad life.

Who will take pity on it?


One tiny, tiny insect,

Who will take pity on it?


As the song came closer, Kantaro opened his eyes and there in the darkness stood a beautiful princess, crying sorrowfully into the sleeves of her kimono.


He jumped up in surprise and then realized it was a dream, dawn had broken, and outside he could see that a heavy snow had fallen in the night.


Kantaro realized he had overslept, and hurried to the charcoal kiln to light the fire, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. The kiln was full of oak logs, and surely there must be insects among them. And what about all the other trees, there must be insects in them, too? If they knew that they would be burnt in the kiln together with their homes, surely they would be filled with sadness.


One tiny, tiny insect,

Who will take pity on it?


Kantaro was sure he could hear the song from his dream coming from inside his snow-covered kiln.


He made his mind up, and broke apart the kiln that he had built so carefully. And one log at a time, he took all the wood out and inspected it from end to end, but as hard as he looked he couldn’t find a single insect hole anywhere. 


Kantaro kicked himself for being so stupid. If he didn’t light the kiln he would have nothing to eat, and all because he had believed a ridiculous dream. 


But as he kept checking the wood, he finally got to the very last one. It was a big oak log, and right in the center he found a single, tiny insect hole.


This must be the one from the dream, he thought. But when he peered inside he couldn’t see anything, and if he was to split it with his axe he might kill the insect that he had gone to so much trouble to save. There was nothing for it. Kantaro made himself a packed lunch, heaved the big log onto his back and carried it deep into the mountains where no human would go, and placed it in a ridge between a rock. Spring will come soon enough, he thought, and the insect will hatch, and a butterfly or some such will be able to fly off.


The bug had been saved, and now Kantaro had no mind to go back to burning charcoal. But he had been a charcoal burner since he was a boy, and that was the only job he knew. As he was wondering just what he should do, he missed the path home and went deeper into the mountains.


He walked and walked, but there was only mountain to be seen, and nothing at all to eat. The sun set and rose again, and still the same. Eventually Kantaro was so hungry he thought he would die, so he dug up roots to eat, and stitched fallen leaves into clothes, and like a hermit crossed mountain after mountain to get home.


Through snow and wind and rain he went, eating roots and bark, and nobody could imagine the hardships he saw. And to think it was all for the sake of one tiny insect’s life, and that all because of a dream - Kantaro vexed and mourned and cried great tears as he went.


Eventually it seemed that spring had come, it stopped snowing and the wind was warm, and only a light snow blew across the mountain road. Buds appeared on the trees in the warmth of the sun, and the air filled with cheerful birdsong. 


But Kantaro was starved and exhausted, and he could no longer see where he was going. He struggled along bumping into rocks here and trees there, and then finally, not knowing where he was, collapsed in a heap.


To save a tiny insect 

Is to save just one life.

To save an elephant

Is to save just one life, too.

Insect or elephant,

The gratitude is the same.

Elephant or insect,

The same beautiful heart.


He who saves a man

Has the heart of a man.


He who saves an insect 

Has the heart of a god.


All attend to the god!

All give thanks to the god!


Kantaro heard the strange song clear and bright, and opening his eyes found that he was lying on a wonderful bed, and all around it crowds of beautiful angels were attending to him. I must be dreaming again, he thought, and went to close his eyes when all of a sudden he realized the princess was standing by his bedside, smiling.


Kantaro jumped up in surprise, and  - who would have thought - his hair and beard had turned quite white, and he was wearing a bright white kimono just like a god. And he felt pure and god-like as well, and quite forgot all the suffering and sadness he had been through.


“The god has awoken!”


All the angels prostrated themselves before him.


So Kantaro stayed there, feeling like a god. There was no need to eat or to worry any more. Everyday he just sat listening to the angels’ springtime songs and watching their springtime dances. 


Then one day, Kantaro and all the angels flew out of their home. And as they left the gates, he turned back and saw that their house was a tiny hole in the same oak log that he had set between the rocks, deep in the mountains. 


Kantaro went straight to see his old home. And there was his house just as it had been, with the charcoal kiln in front of it. And when he went to see who could be burning charcoal, a man who looked just like the old Kantaro came out of the house - even his kimono was exactly the same. The man looked over at the god-shaped Kantaro and said:


“Ah, look at all the butterflies. If I had listened to that strange dream I had at new year and saved the bugs in those oak trees, I guess they'd all be turning into butterflies, too, about now. And I would be starved and dead to boot. Ridiculous. Who would give their own life for a bug’s. Right, let’s get on with making charcoal. Lots of insect holes in this lot, that’s for sure.”


And he lit the fire in the kiln and before long a big plume of smoke was rising up through the trees. 


And Kantaro the god didn’t know if what he was seeing was real, or if he was dreaming again, or what was going on.




This translation, illustration and narration of A Bug's Life is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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