The Story of Snow Doll


When I was a child my mother used to tell me Japanese folklore stories. Her favourite story was – O Tsuru no Ongaeshi – The Grateful Crane.

There are two versions of it, one with a young man and one with an old couple. I was told the latter version.

It is the tale of a crane who is rescued from a hunter’s trap and set free by an old man who is out collecting firewood in Winter. A while later on a snowy night a young woman turns up at the house of the old man and his wife. She claims to be lost and is welcomed into the home.

She ends up staying with the couple, being adopted as their daughter.

They are a poor couple and the young woman offers to help them earn more to thank them for their hospitality and generosity. She asks that they give her some yarn, a loom and a room where she can weave in private, but they must promise not to disturb her while she is weaving.

The promise is made.

The young woman shuts herself away in the room to weave and creates a beautiful piece of material, which the couple sells for a small fortune. She weaves some more, and soon the couple become very well off. Of course they are very curious to know how she can create such beautiful material from the simple yarn she has been given, and one night, overcome with the need to know, they sneak a peek…

…and see a crane at the loom, plucking out its wing feathers and weaving them into the cloth.

The following day the young woman gives them the cloth and announces that since they broke their promise and now know her secret, she must leave. She thanks them for rescuing her when she was a crane and for giving her a lovely home. She is very grateful for all that they have done for her.

She walks out into the snow, turns into a crane and flies away.

If you do a search for this story on the internet, you will find many variations of the two versions.

The story changes subtly depending on who is telling it, and also who is hearing or reading it, as with all tales told, be they folklore or real life.

And thus the moral of a fable changes too, based on our personal values, even if someone else tells us what they believe the moral is, even if the basic plot of the tale is clear about the lesson which is being passed on through it.

That is the magic of tales, real or imagined, fact or fiction, we each find something different within them, something which speaks to us, our own life story. Past, present and sometimes future. So the original fact or fiction changes and becomes our version of it, our view of reality.

This particular tale meant a lot to my mother, and she enjoyed telling it to me. For her this was a poignant tale and touched something deep within her, a yearning, as though she was trying to find an answer, a resolution, redemption, in the ritual re-telling of the tale. Maybe even change the fates of the characters in it. She did tell it slightly differently each time. But the old couple always gave in to curiosity and the young woman had to turn back into the crane and leave.

I think her love for this story was connected to her childhood in Japan, which was the happiest time of her life before it became a grim and dark experience for her. Everything Japanese made her happy for a while, a sparkle shone in her eyes and made her being glow, then it flickered and faded as everything else left her yearning, the sort of yearning which drives a person insane with pain, a wound which never heals and which gets passed on to others who interact with the one suffering.

The time when she was a child in Japan was the only time she spent being close with her own mother, enjoying being a child, a child who had a mother who loved her. Then her mother left, turned into a crane and flew away.

My mother never had the opportunity to say goodbye, worse still she was haunted by the magical thinking of a child, the dark side of magical thinking, which believed that somehow she had caused her mother to turn into a crane and fly away, abandoning her. She thought it was her fault and she could not make amends, could not turn back time and do things differently, be good, be perfect, be the kind of child whose mother would stay and never leave. The crane was gone forever, never to return.

When I came across this doll, she reminded me of O Tsuru. One snowy day last year I took the doll out into the garden and placed her in the snow. For a moment… as I was focusing on getting a shot which encompassed the idea in my mind… the tale came alive in the scene seen through my lens, and in that moment I thought the doll might turn into a crane and fly away. But for me that would have been an uplifting experience.

For my mother it would have been unbearably sad.