There were once two farmer men who were brothers. Both of them worked hard in seed-time and in harvest-time. They stood knee-deep in water to plant out the young rice, bending their backs a thousand times an hour; they wielded the sickle when the hot sun shone; when the rain poured down in torrents, there they were still at their digging or such like, huddled up in their rice-straw rain coats, for in the sweat of their brows did they eat their bread.
The elder of the two brothers was called Cho. For all he laboured so hard he was passing rich. From a boy he had had a saving way with him, and had put by a mint of money. He had a big farm, too, and not a year but that he did well, what with his rice, and his silk-worms, and his granaries and storehouses. But there was nothing to show for all this, if it will be believed. He was a mean, sour man with not so much as a "good day" and a cup of tea for a wayfarer, or a cake of cold rice for a beggar man. His children whimpered when he came near them, and his wife was much to be pitied.
The younger of the two brothers was called Kane. For all he laboured so hard he was as poor as a church mouse. Bad was his luck, his silkworms died, and his rice would not flourish. In spite of this he was a merry fellow, a bachelor who loved a song and an honest cup of sake. His roof, his pipe, his meagre supper, all these he would share, very gladly, with the first-comer. He had the nimblest tongue for a comical joke, and the kindest heart in the world. But it is a true thing, though it is a pity all the same, that a man cannot live on love and laughter, and presently Kane was in a bad way.
"There's nothing for it," he says, "but to pocket my pride" (for he had some) "and go and see what my brother Cho will do for me, and I'm greatly mistaken if it will be much."
So he borrows some clothes from a friend for the visit, and sets off in very neat hakama, looking quite the gentleman, and singing a song to keep his heart up.
He sees his brother standing outside his house, and the first minute he thinks he is seeing a boggart, Cho is in such ragged gear. But presently he sings out, "You're early, Cho."
"You're early, Kane," says Cho.
"May I come in and talk a bit?" asks Kane.
"Yes," says Cho, "you can; but you won't find anything to eat at this time of day, nor yet to drink, so let disappointments be avoided."
"Very well," says Kane; "as it happens, it's not food I've come for."
When they were inside the house and sitting on the mats, Cho says, "That's a fine suit of clothes you've got on you, Kane. You must be doing well. It's not me that can afford to go about the muddy roads dressed up like a prince. Times are bad, very bad."
In spite of this not being a good beginning, Kane plucks up his courage and laughs. And presently he says :
"Look here, brother. These are borrowed clothes, my own will hardly hold together. My rice crop was ruined, and my silk-worms are dead. I have not a rin to buy rice seed or new worms. I am at my wits' end, and I have come to you begging, so now you have it. For the sake of the mother that bore us both, give me a handful of seed and a few silk-worms' eggs."
At this Cho made as if he would faint with astonishment and dismay.
"Alack! Alack!" he says. "I am a poor man, a very poor man. Must I rob my wife and my miserable children?" And thus he bewailed himself and talked for half an hour.
But to make a long story short, Cho says that out of filial piety, and because of the blessed mother of them both, he must make shift to give Kane the silk-worms' eggs and the rice. So he gets a handful of dead eggs and a handful of musty and mouldy rice. "These are no good to man or beast," says the old fox to himself, and he laughs. But to his own blood-brother he says, "Here, Kane. It's the best silk-worms' eggs I am giving you, and the best rice of all my poor store, and I cannot afford it at all; and may the gods forgive me for robbing my poor wife and my children."
Kane thanks his brother with all his heart for his great generosity, and bows his head to the mats three times. Then off he goes, with the silk-worms' eggs and the rice in his sleeve, skipping and jumping with joy, for he thought that his luck had turned at last. But in the muddy parts of the road he was careful to hold up his hakama, for they were borrowed.
When he reached home he gathered great store of green mulberry leaves. This was for the silkworms that were going to be hatched out of the dead eggs. And he sat down and waited for the silk-worms to come. And come they did, too, and that was very strange, because the eggs were dead eggs for sure. The silk-worms were a lively lot; they ate the mulberry leaves in a twinkling, and lost no time at all, but began to wind themselves into cocoons that minute. Then Kane was the happy man. He went out and told his good fortune to all the neighbours. This was where he made his mistake. And he found a peddlar man who did his rounds in those parts, and gave him a message to take to his brother Cho, with his compliments and respectful thanks, that the silk-worms were doing uncommonly well. This was where he made a bigger mistake. It was a pity he could not let well alone.
When Cho heard of his brother's luck he was not pleased. Pretty soon he tied on his straw sandals and was off to Kane's farm. Kane was out when he got there, but Cho did not care for that. He went to have a look at the silk-worms. And when he saw how they were beginning to spin themselves into cocoons, as neat as you please, he took a sharp knife and cut every one of them in two. Then he went away home, the bad man ! When Kane came to look after his silk-worms he could not help thinking they looked a bit queer. He scratches his head and he says, "It almost appears as though each of them has been cut in half. They seem dead," he says. Then out he goes and gathers a great lot of mulberry leaves. And all those half silk-worms set to and ate up the mulberry leaves, and after that there were just twice as many silk-worms spinning away as there were before. And that was very strange, because the silk-worms were dead for sure.