Saturday, 29 December 2012

Face Down in the Dirt; a Crying Ogre

When my first puppy, Hayate, was small, he was always desperate for other dogs to play with him. Usually their humans interfered and he rarely got to satisfy his longing for a playmate (part of the reason puppy two, Kuri, joined the family). No matter what anyone did to Hayate he would be desperate for their affection anyway. When he was still small enough for me to carry in one hand he was bitten by an adult Dalmatian. Hayate screamed and cried, but the second the big dog released him Hayate was down in a play bow, tail waggling, begging to be included even before the blood had dried.
A friend told me a story about her daughter S and a thoroughly unpleasant little girl (TULG) S was passionately consumed with as a pre-schooler. TULG invited S to her birthday party, and S was walking on clouds for days beforehand. She carefully wrapped a gift and dressed in her best party frock. On the day of the party S ran down TULG’s garden path in all her toddler finery, the gift held out, stiff armed, in front of her. Near the end of the path S tripped and fell flat on her face, the present still in her arms (now resting on the ground above her head). Hearing something, TULG opened the front door and coolly assessed the situation. She walked over, plucked the present from S’s hands, walked back inside and slammed the door, leaving S face down in the dirt in her special dress.
The emotion I feel thinking about little S lying in that garden and what I felt watching Hayate willing to forgive anything if someone would just PLAY with him are pretty much the same. I don’t know if I excessively anthropomorphise Hayate or if others are just oblivious to their dogs’ emotions, but that’s a whole other post. What I am writing about today is actually my favourite Japanese children’s story, 泣いた赤鬼 (The Red Ogre Who Cried), by Hamada Hirosuke. It captures these emotions of pathos, yearning and loneliness into an exquisitely understated tale. I first heard the story from my husband, who had come across it at the pre-school he used to work at. It was considered important for the three-year-olds as a message about friendship. To contemporary readers it seems to have an obvious subtext about homosexuality and the cost of “passing” as straight, although I know nothing about how it was perceived in the 1930s when it was first published.
It goes something like this.
There once lived a red ogre, high on a mountain. Although he was an ogre, he was kind and gentle. He was always alone, and wished that he could make friends with the humans who lived in the valley. One day, while thinking about his loneliness, the red ogre decided that he would go for it and try to befriend the humans. He made a sign outside his house, and carefully wrote in his best letters: "Here lives a friendly ogre. Please drop by any-time for tea and tasty snacks."
Some villagers passed by and saw the sign. "Look how nicely it's written" said one. "Perhaps this is a kind ogre after all. Let's visit some time." But the other villager said "It's a trick! He'll get you inside his house then eat you up. Ogres can't be trusted." Listening from inside, surrounded by the snacks he had hopefully prepared, was the red ogre. He ran outside calling "I just want to be friends! Won't you come in and try some snacks?" But the villagers ran away, crying "an ogre is chasing us!"

The red ogre was gentle, but also weak. He cried to himself and broke his sign into splinters. Just then, a blue ogre from another mountain came to visit, flying in on a small rain-cloud. "I came to play" said the blue ogre, "and I saw you crying. What's the matter?" So the red ogre told him the whole story.
 "I have an idea!" said the blue ogre. "I'll go into the valley and cause trouble for the humans. Then you can come and save them from me." And that is exactly what they did. The red ogre came running to save the village. He gently pretended to wrestle the blue ogre. "Harder" the blue ogre whispered, "they have to believe you." The red ogre took a deep breath and began to beat the blue ogre as hard as he could. The bruised blue ogre ran away, and the grateful villagers gathered around the red ogre cheering. "You are a kind ogre after-all!" they exclaimed. The children all begged to play with him, and every day many guests visited the red ogre's house. They talked and laughed and everyone complimented him on his tea and tasty snacks.
After I don't know how many days of having fun with his new friends, the red ogre realised that he hadn't seen the blue ogre for a long time. "I hope I didn't hurt him too badly in the village" the red ogre thought, "I'd better visit him and make sure he's alright." So off he flew on his cloud.
The blue ogre's mountain was far away. It was cold and bare, even more lonely than the red ogre's mountain. All that grew were a few white lilies beside the large stone door. The door was tightly closed, and a sign read "Blue Ogre is Not at Home." Tucked into a corner where only ogre eyes could see it was a letter, addressed to "My Red Friend". The red ogre read the letter three times, four times, over and over again. It said:
"My Dear Friend,
I hope you are having fun with the humans. If they ever saw us together they would be furious, and you would be inconsolable, so I have decided to go away so that they will never find out. A long journey, a far away journey, but I will always be thinking about you, my red friend. Your happiness is so precious to me. Take good care of yourself.
Yours, your blue friend."
As he understood how deeply his friend cared for him the red ogre's eyes filled with tears, and he wept for all he had lost.
I think the ogre, the little girl and the puppy resonate so strongly with me because I feel such immediate understanding and identification. I had an incredibly lonely childhood and went to painfully humiliating lengths to try and find acceptance. I was homeschooled in an immigrant family with few connections to the wider community or culture. There were two girls only a little older than me who were also homeschooled and whose parents were friends of my parents, but girl A detested me and girl B preferred the company of girl A, so my “tween” years consisted pretty much entirely of
“B! Do you want to come over and play today?”
“Maybe… let me just call A and see what she’s doing. If she’s busy I can hang out with you.”
I’ve more than once made tea and tasty snacks and sat at my beautifully decorated table wondering if anyone would come; very often no-one has. That’s the part of the book that I tear up over, far more than the ending. I can’t handle watching vulnerable little beings go through those experiences. Not even my dog. But I’ve chosen to spend time every Sunday in an orphanage with children waiting for parents who may or may not ever come back for them. It’s like picking a scab to see if it’s still bleeding. Anyway, that also isn’t the point of this post. Naita Akaoni is a really great book. You should read it. That’s what I was trying to say.
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  1. Thanks for making me super sad... jeez.

    I can totally relate to what you're talking about here, that definitely resonates with my childhood. I have noticed that since I was an outcast growing up, I am better able to empathize with people. Not always an uplifting experience, but I think it has made me a better person.

    ... and those kids who were mean and used us... we're totally better than them now ;)

    1. Sorry Dr L, I had a bit of a run of depressing posts this year m(__)m It's a great book though! At the pre-school after they finished reading it they always told the kids that they should treasure their friends.
      My friend told me the story about her daughter and the TULG as an example of something that sucks about being a parent: letting your kids make their own mistakes and learn painful things by themselves. She said that when it happened she just wanted to take S home and hug her and tell her to find a new friend, but she had to hold back and let her daughter figure it out for herself. I think that may be the hardest thing about being a parent (not stepping in to "fix" everything). But you are right, those painful experiences are often the most powerful in making us better people. I still remember the first time I met you, when you came over to make sure I'd got some butter for my eggs :) Happy new year lovely lady!

    2. Happy new year to you too! I hope this year brings lots of ridiculously happy posts :)


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