This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is very strange indeed.
Review: “The Dream of Akinosuke”, Lafcaido Hearn, 1904.
Our story opens with Miyata Akinosuke, a goshi (a farmer-soldier, a freeholder like an English yeoman). One warm summer day he’s beneath an ancient cedar tree in his garden with a couple of his friends. Wine and the heat make him sleepy, and he excuses himself for a nap. He then has a dream.
A “grand procession” shows up at his house with dignitaries from the Kokuo of Tokyo (in effect, the king). He is asked to travel with it to Tokyo. He is too astonished and embarassed to answer and his will seems “to melt away”.
He accompanies the procession, riding in a carriage (actually a palanquin), to Tokyo. He arrives in a surprisingly short time at an immense palace and is treated with great honor. He is told he is to be given the honor of an audience with Kokuo and dressed in regal garb.
The king tells Akinosuke that he wants him to be the “adopted husband of Our only daughter”, and the wedding is to be performed immediately. The marriage goes off. The king’s daughter is as beautiful as “a maiden of heaven”.
A few days after the wedding, Akinosuke is again summoned before the king. He wants Akinosuke to go to southwestern Japan to the island of Raishu. It is inhabited by a “loyal and docile” people,
but their laws have not yet been brought into proper accord with the laws of Tokoyo; and their customs have not been properly regulated. We entrust you with the duty of improving their social condition as far as may be possible; and We desire that you shall rule them with kindness and wisdom.
Akinoskue goes to Raishu with his new wife. His duties are not hard. During the first three years of his reign, he enacts laws. He doesn’t have much to do after that. Raishu becomes healthy and fertile with no sickness known. Akinosuke’s subjects break no laws.
He rules 20 more years. His wife bears him five children before she sickens and dies. Akinosuke is so consumed with grief he no longer wants to live.
He is summoned back to Tokyo where he is told that he is to go back to his own people. The king’s grandchildren will be well cared for in Tokyo. He is given a regal accompanient back home.
Then Akinosuke wakes up. He comments on his strange dream, and his friends ask him to relate it which he does.
They note it’s a pretty elaborate dream for such a short nap. They do tell him something strange happened while he was asleep. A yellow butterfly lighted around his face. Then it landed on the ground near Akinosuke. Then a big ant came out of a hole in the cedar tree and pulled the butterfly down a hole. Just before Akinosuke woke up, the butterfly flew out of the hole and fluttered near Akinosuke’s face. Then it disappeared.
One of the friends speculates the butterly was Akinosuke’s soul since the butterfly flew into Akinosuke’s mouth. That wouldn’t explain the dream though. Maybe, suggests the other friend, the ants had something to do with it. “Ants are queer beings – possibly goblins.”
Since there’s a large ant nest under the cedar tree, Akinosuke suggests they take a look.
The ground under and around the tree is dug up, and the ants’
tiny constructions of straw, clay, and stems bore an odd resemblance to miniature towns. In the middle of a structure considerably larger than the rest there was a marvelous swarming of small ants around the body of one very big ant, which had yellowish wings and a long black head.
It’s the king he saw, says Akinosuke, and the construction is the Tokyo palace he saw. He finds Raishu in relation to it just as his dream had it. He sees the “mountain” he buried his wife on. At the end, he discovers
“a tiny mound, on the top of which was fixed a water-worn pebble, in shape resembling a Buddhist monument. Underneath it he found—embedded in clay—the dead body of a female ant.”
None of the expected turns show up in this story. The king plays fair with Akinosuke. His wife isn’t cursed or hideous or unpleasant.
The idea of a minature world is very different than all the minature worlds you see in science fiction like Theodore Sturgeon’s “Microcosmic God”. However, like those stories, time also proceeds at a faster rate in the realm of the ants.
Why did Akinosuke’s soul transmigrate, briefly, to a butterfly and then, presumably, to an ant? It’s just one of those things.
Hearn was, of course, a very important writer in explaining Japanese culture and literature to the West, and this story certainly shows it is a very different culture. Others have observed that it is a bit like one of those fairy stories from Celtic lands where a person temporarily enters another realm where time also passes at a different rate to our world.