PARTS of the seas of the Japanese Archipelago are speckled with thousands of round white jelly-fish, that swim a few feet below the surface. One can see the great steamer go ploughing through them as through a field of frosted cakes. The huge paddle-wheels make a perfect pudding of thousands of them, as they are dashed against the paddle-box and whipped into a froth like white of eggs or churned into a thick cream by the propeller blades. Sometimes the shoals are of great breadth, and then it veritably looks as though a crockery shop had been upset in the ocean, and ten thousand white dinner-plates had broken loose. Around the bays and harbors the Japanese boys at play drive them with paddles into shoals, and sometimes they poke sticks through them. This they can do easily, because the jelly-fish has no jacket of shell or bone like the lobster, nor any skin like a fish, and so always has to swim naked, exposed to all kinds of danger. Sometimes great jelly-fishes, two or three feet in diameter, sail gaily along near the shore, as proud as the long-handled-umbrella of a daimiō, and as brilliantly colored as a Japanese parasol. Floating all around their bodies, like the streamers of a temple festival, or a court lady's ribbons, are their long tentacles or feelers. No peacock stretching his bannered tail could make a finer sight, or look prouder than these floating sun-fishes, or bladders of living jelly.
But alas for all things made of water! Let but a wave of unusual force, or a sudden gust of wind come, and this lump of pride lies collapsed and stranded on the shore, like a pancake upset into a turnover, in which batter and crust are hopelessly mixed together. When found fresh, men often come down to the shore and cutting huge slices of blubber, as transparent as ice, they eat the solid water with their rice, in lieu of drink.
A jelly-fish as big as an umbrella, and weighing as much as a big boy, will, after lying a few hours in the sun leave scarcely a trace on the spot for their bodies are little more than animated masses of water. At night, however where a jelly-fish has stranded, the ground seems to crawl and emit a dull fire of phosphorescence which the Japanese call "dragon's light."
But the jelly-fish once had a shell, and was not so defenceless, say the fairy tales. How it lost it is thus told.
In the days of old, the jelly-fish was one of the retainers in waiting upon the Queen of the World under the Sea, at her palace in Riu Gu. In those days he had a shell, and as his head was hard, no one dared to insult him, or stick him with their horns, or pinch him with their claws, or scratch him with their nails, or brush rudely by him with their fins. In short, this fish instead of being a lump of jelly, as white and helpless as a pudding, as we see him now, was a lordly fellow that could get his back up and keep it high when he wished to. He waited on the queen and right proud was he of his office. He was on good terms with the King's dragon, which often allowed him to play with his scaly tail but never hurt him in the least.
One day the Queen fell sick, and every hour grew worse. The King became anxious, and her subjects talked about nothing else but her sickness. There was grief all through the water-world; from the mermaids on their beds of sponge, and the dragons in the rocky caverns, down to the tiny gudgeons in the rivers, that were considered no more than mere bait. The jolly cuttle-fish stopped playing his drums and guitar, folded his six arms and hid away moping in his hole. His servant the lobster in vain lighted his candle at night, and tried to induce him to come out of his lair. The dolphins and porpoises wept tears, but the clams, oysters and limpets shut up their shells and did not even wiggle. The flounders and skates lay flat on the ocean's floor, never even lifting up their noses. The squid wept a great deal of ink, and the jelly-fish nearly melted to pure water. The tortoise was patient and offered to do anything for the relief of the Queen.
But nothing could be done. The cuttle-fish who professed to be "a kind of a" doctor, offered the use of all his cups to suck out the poison, if that were the trouble.
But it wasn't. It was internal, and nothing but medicine that could be swallowed would reach the disease.
At last some one suggested that the liver of a monkey would be a specific for the royal sickness, and it was resolved to try it. The tortoise, who was the Queen's messenger, because he could live on both land and water, swim or crawl, was summoned. He was told to go upon earth to a certain mountain, catch a monkey and bring him alive to the Under-world.
Off started the tortoise on his journey to the earth, and going to a mountain where the monkeys lived, squatted down at the foot of a tree and pretended to be asleep though keeping his claws and tail out. There he waited patiently, well knowing that curiosity and the monkey's love of tricks would bring one within reach of his talons. Pretty soon, a family of chattering monkeys came running along among the branches overhead, when suddenly a young saru (monkey) caught sight of the sleeping tortoise.
"Naru hodo" (Is it possible?) said the long-handed fellow, "here's fun; let's tickle the old fellow's back and pull his tail."
All agreed, and forthwith a dozen monkeys, joining hand over hand, made a long ladder of themselves until they just reached the tortoise's back. (They didn't use their tails, for Japanese monkeys have none, except stumps two inches long). However, he who was to be the tail end of this living rope, when all was ready, crawled along and slipped over the whole line, whispering as he slid:
"'Sh! don't chatter or laugh, you'll wake the old fellow up."
Now the monkey expected to hold on the living pendulum by one long hand, and swinging down with the other, to pull the tortoise's tail, and see how near he could come to his snout without being snapped up. For a monkey well knew that a tortoise could neither jump off its legs nor climb a tree.
Once! Twice! The monkey pendulum swung back and forth without touching.
Three! Four! The monkey's finger-nails scratched the tortoise's back. Yet old Hard Shell pretended to be sound asleep.
Five! Six! The monkey caught hold of the tortoise's tail and jerked it hard. Old Tortoise now moved out its head a little, as if still only half awake.
Seven! Eight! This time the monkey intended to pull the tortoise's head, when just as he came within reach, the tortoise snapped him, held him in his claws, and as the monkey pendulum swung back he lost his hold. In an instant he was jerked loose, and fell head-foremost to the ground, half stunned.
Frightened at the loss of their end link, the other monkeys of the chain wound themselves up like a windlass over the branches, and squatting on the trees, set up a doleful chattering.
"Now," says the tortoise, "I want you to go with me. If you don't, I'll eat you up. Get on my back and I'll carry you; but I must hold your paw in my mouth so you won't run away."
Half frightened to death, the monkey obeyed, and the tortoise trotted off to the sea, swam to the spot over the Queen's palace, and in a fillip of the finger was down in the gardens of Riu Gu.
Here, let me say, that according to another version of this story the monkeys assembled in force when they suspected what the tortoise had come after, and catching him napping turned him over on his back so that he could not move or bite. Then they took his under shell off, so that he had to travel back to Riu Gu and get another one. This last version however is uncertain and it looks like a piece of invention to suppose that the monkeys had a sufficient medical knowledge to make them suspicious of the design of the tortoise on the monkey's liver. I prefer the regular account.
The Queen hearing of the monkey's arrival thanked the tortoise, and commanded her cook and baker to feed him well and treat him kindly, for the queen felt really sorry because he was to lose his liver.
As for the monkey he enjoyed himself very much, and ran around everywhere amusing the star-fishes, clams, oysters and other pulpy creatures that could not run, by his rapid climbing of the rocks and coral bushes, and by rolling over the sponge beds and cutting all manner of antics.
They had never before seen anything like it. Poor fellow! he didn't suspect what was to come.
All this time however the jelly-fish pitied him in his heart, and could hardly keep what he knew to himself. Seeing that the monkey, lonely and homesick was standing by the shore of a pond, the jelly-fish squeezed himself up near him and said:
"Excuse my addressing you, I feel very sorry for you because you are to be put to death."
"Why?" said the monkey, "What have I done?"
"Oh, nothing," said the jelly-fish, "only our queen is sick and she wants your liver for medicine."
Then if ever any one saw a sick looking monkey it was this one. As the Japanese say "his liver was smashed." He felt dreadfully afraid. He put his hands over his eyes, and immediately began to plan how to save both his liver and his life.
After a while the rain began to fall heavily, and the monkey ran in out of the garden, and standing in the hall of the Queen's palace began to weep bitterly. Just then the tortoise, passing by, saw his captive.
"What are you crying about?"
"Aita! aita!" cried the monkey, "When I left my home on the earth, I forgot to bring my liver with me, but hung it upon a tree, and now it is raining and my liver will decay and I'll die. Aita! aita!" and the poor monkey's eyes became red as a tai fish, and streamed with tears.
When the tortoise told the Queen's courtiers what the monkey had said, their faces fell.
"Why, here's a pretty piece of business. The monkey is of no use without his liver. We must send him after it."
So they dispatched the tortoise to the earth again, the monkey sitting a-straddle of his back. They came to the mountain again, and the tortoise being a little lazy, waited at the foot while the monkey scampered off, saying he would be back in an hour. The two creatures had become so well acquainted that the old Hard Shell fully trusted the lively little fellow.
But instead of an hour the tortoise waited till evening. No monkey came. So finding himself fooled, and knowing all the monkeys would take the alarm, he waddled back and told the Queen all about it.
"Then," said the Queen after reprimanding her messenger for his silly confidence, "the monkey must have got wind of our intention to use his liver, and what is more, some one of my retainers or servants must have told him."
Then the Queen issued an order commanding all her subjects to appear before the Dragon-King of the Sea. Whoever did this wicked thing, Kai Riu O would punish him.
Now it happened that all the fish and sea animals of all sorts, that swam, crawled, rolled or moved in any way, appeared before Kai Riu O, the Dragon-King, and his Queen--all except the jelly-fish. Then the Queen knew the jelly-fish was the guilty one. She ordered the culprit to be brought into her presence. Then publicly, before all her retainers and servants, she cried out:
"You leaky-tongued wretch, for your crime of betraying the confidence of your sovereign, you shall no longer remain among shell-fish. I condemn you to lose your shell."
Then she stripped off his shell, and left the poor jelly-fish entirely naked and ashamed.
"Be off, you tell-tale. Hereafter all your children shall be soft and defenceless."
The poor jelly-fish blushed crimson, squeezed himself out, and swam off out of sight. Since that time jelly-fishes have had no shells.