Kurosawa Akiko was always an earnest, dutiful child, doing her fair share of the work all the day and even the night, despite her small body. She always tried to carry the biggest bucket before (most disappointedly) settling with the smallest, as she wasn’t strong enough to carry that much water yet. It always bewildered Akiko how her father and mother and sister could carry big things, like the bucket, when she could not. One day, she came up to them and asked them why she couldn’t carry big things.
“You’re too little,” said her sister.
“You’re not strong enough,” said her father.
“You’re too young,” said her mother.
But none of these answers suited the little child, and thus she went to ask her two year old brother, who only babbled in confusion. This answer, neither, suited her, and she went to ponder it by herself, sitting down by their beautiful koi pond where she watched the fish swim. Black and white and orange fish, going about their day of eating, resting and swimming without a care in the world. She wondered if the fish could carry big things, but when she tried to put things on their backs, they just swam away. She eventually gave up with that and sat back, wondering about what she could do.
Akiko decided that if she was too little, too weak, and too young, then she would become big and strong and old! She went to her mother, asking how she could become big, strong, and old.
“You will become older as the years pass,” said she, “and as those years pass, you will also become bigger and stronger.”
This answer didn’t satisfy the impatient little girl, and she went away again to ponder it. Over the next few days, she decided to become stronger by exercising, trying to push heavy things around, but she hurt her knees and needed bandages. She decided to eat more to become bigger, but she got a stomach ache from eating too much. She tried to become older by wrinkling her face, but her mother couldn’t bear to let her ruin her beauty when she was so young and scolded her. The little girl was discouraged, and wished for nothing more than to be able to lift heavy things, so that she could help her family more.
Later that month, her father asked her to fetch a pail of water late in the evening, and she went as she usually did to fetch it in a small pail from a nearby spring. Near this spring, she found a koi fish, but one unlike any she’d seen; it had shining golden scales, and cast a golden light onto the nearby grass, and was warm to the touch. It lied silently in the grass, not thrashing, but still breathing; taking pity on the beautiful creature, she put it in her bucket, hoping to put it in the koi pond at home. She went home, put the fish in the pond, and then handed the bucket to her father, but as it smelled too strongly of fish now, he insisted that she got clean water, and she did so. When she returned and gave the pail to her father, her mother called out to them, and this is what she said:
“There’s a mysterious new fish in the koi pond,” she said. “What should we do with it?”
Akiko’s father and sister came to the pond, and brought her brother with them, and her mother pointed out the fish. Though, it was hardly necessary, as the fish glowed with a brilliant shine in the darkness.
“It’s not a fish that I’ve seen before,” said her father.
“It’s so pretty!” exclaimed her sister.
Her little brother approached the edge and tried to touch it, but he fell into the pond, and they began to worry for his health in the cool water, but when they felt the splashing on their faces and pulled him out, they found that it had become warm.
“Where did it come from?” asked her mother.
“Uh,” Akiko began rather hesitantly, righting her posture. “I found it on the ground by the spring, and I thought that it would be a shame to let it die there, so I brought it to our pond… It’s kind of strange, because it was really warm and it glows.”
“Well, we have enough fish here already,” said her father. “If it’s so warm, then let’s put it inside and have it heat our things.”
Akiko didn’t wish for something so beautiful to be confined to such a small space, but her mother and sister agreed and overruled her, and thus the fish was put in a bowl full of water and set on a table. They used the bowl that night to warm their blankets and pillows, and when Akiko went to sleep that night, it was so wonderfully warm that she fell asleep immediately.
The next morning, she awoke to such a horrid racket that she could’ve sworn that bandits were raiding her home, and she grasped her pillow just in case when she went to investigate. She found nothing out of the ordinary in most of the house, but discovered such a horrid mess in the room in which the fish had been left overnight that she gasped and dropped her pillow. The fish bowl had been shattered, spilling water and broken glass all over the floor, and leading towards the shoji doors she saw footsteps, rendered in water and a shimmering golden liquid that had dripped on the floor. The doors had been left open, and the water and gold liquid trailed outside, far into the forest outside their home. Soon, her family members came in, and seeing the mess, began to throw accusations left and right for the mess.
The father blamed the fish, the mother didn’t know who to blame, and the big sister blamed little Akiko, as she was the one who’d brought them the fish; but none of this bothered her, because Akiko was already fetching her sandals, and when she had them she quickly began to follow the trail of golden droplets into the woods.
After a while, the voices of her bickering family faded away, and she was left alone with the plants and animals and the trail of golden drops. Slowly, the drops began to become smaller and more infrequent, and Akiko worried that she would become lost; but before that happened, and around noon, she encountered a pond surrounded by beautiful flowers and filled with fish of all kinds. However, what was most notable about this pond was that there was a young woman bathing in it, and she was covered in golden fish scales that shone with a beautiful, soothing golden light. A few leaves were on her body, as if herbs patching up wounds; glass cuts? A water lily sat upon her head, and growing from her scalp there were curling vines and colorful flowers, so long that they trailed past her waist and into the water. So warm was she that Akiko felt the heat radiating from her even from the edge of the pond, and the water around her came up in wisps of steam. The fish of the pond crowded around her, as if to share in her warmth.
Akiko was left in awe at the wondrous sight before her, and she was left standing at the edge, taking the scene into her memory so that she would never forget it. Slowly, she realized that the fish-lady was turning around to look at her; the lady smiled gently, and held out a hand as if inviting her into the water, but said nothing. Akiko decided that the lady couldn’t possibly mean harm, with a smile like that and the favor she’d done for her yesterday, so she took off her shoes and socks and lifted her kimono over the surface as she took the woman’s hand and stepped into the water. Her hand was hot, like freshly made tea, and the water was warm and nice.
“Who are you?” asked Akiko, “What do you want?”
The woman grinned and, slowly letting go of her hand, plunged down into the water. Akiko could see her swimming with graceful motions underneath by the glow she gave, seeing the fish that followed her, and she appeared again at the other end of the pond, looking at her hopefully. The child was unused to seeing this behavior in adults, who usually always remained dignified, but she recognized it nonetheless, and said- “Do you want to play?”
The lady grinned with the smile of a child, before diving under the water again. Akiko wondered for a moment how she could play with her, and walked back to shore to pick up a stick nearby. She turned back to the pond and threw it out into the water, and before it could land the lady appeared and caught it, the smile on her face like the delighted smiles of children playing with a kendama; but instead of throwing it back, she plunged under the water, and didn’t come back up again for a long time.
Akiko wondered as to what she should do, now that the lady had disappeared, but then a golden hand came out of the water, holding some leaves she couldn’t recognize, and the lady’s head followed, smiling at her. Akiko took the leaves into her hand; they felt slightly slippery on her fingertips.
When she looked back up at the fish-woman in confusion, the lady pointed at her mouth without saying anything, and Akiko thought that it meant to eat them, and did so. When she had consumed the lot of them, she didn’t feel any different, but the woman smiled mischievously and took her hand, suddenly pulling her into the water without warning.
Akiko panicked, having never been particularly good with swimming or holding her breath, and covered her nose and mouth. Slowly, she began to realize that her eyes were not at all bothered by the water, and that she could breathe just as well in it. She was surprised by this, delighted even- the sight of the lady laughing to herself, supposedly over the child’s panic, didn’t dampen her mood, though she began to swim after her in a playful chase for revenge.
As they swam tirelessly under the water in play, Akiko heard suddenly, “I kind of like you!”
She slowed as she tried to make sense of it, blinking dumbly, and she found the glowing lady looking back at her with a friendly smile. “What do you mean?” she said back, big bubbles coming from her mouth as she spoke.
“I like you!” the lady repeated insistently, though her mouth failed to move, as if she spoke by telepathy. “What’s your name?”
Akiko stopped trying to swim to listen. “My name is Kurosawa Akiko. What’s yours?”
“Most people call me the Sun Koi,” she tells her, bowing slightly, “But you’re welcome to call me Youko.”
The child nodded to her respectfully. “You have a nice name, Youko-sama. Are you a youkai or a kami?”
She shrugs. “Something of that sort.”
Akiko gave her a disappointed frown. “That’s not very specific, Youko-sama.”
“I’m not sure of it myself, if I must be honest,” she says finally. “I suppose you could call me a kami, or a youkai, or an oni, or whatever you fancy.”
The child frowned. “Don’t be silly; you couldn’t be an oni.”
“All the same,” she said cryptically, before beginning to swim away again. Akiko once again tried to swim after her and follow her graceful, agile movements, but she couldn’t hope to keep up with her clumsy limbs and little body, weighed down with a soaked kimono. She had begun to doubt her ability to keep up at all when Youko slowed down just enough for her to catch her arm, but Akiko didn’t seem to be happy with this victory, because when Youko announced, with great enthusiasm, that she’d managed to catch her, the child simply stared down at her feet sadly.
“What’s the matter?” she asked as she realized it, “You caught me!”
“Only because you let me,” Akiko replied, moping. “You slowed down so that I could grab your arm.”
Youko sighed and smiled, and thinking of how she could console her, put her hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Be glad that you caught me at all,” she said.
The child only sighed. “I suppose…” She looked with a terrible regret into the depths. “I only wish that I was stronger and bigger and older, so that I could do things that my parents and sister can. I feel like a burden sometimes, because I’m not as useful as they are. This proves it.”
After a bit, the woman gave her a reassuring smile and slowly embraced her in her warm arms, saying in a soft voice, “I’ve been blessed with a long, long life. I was born billions of years ago, from the first fish to see sunlight. I have had many, many friends over my long life, and one by one, they have grown old and died. And you know what almost always happens with those who become old?”
Akiko shook her head.
“When people become old,” she continued, “their bones and muscles become aged and worn, and all of the strength and ability they have built up over the years will start to fade as they become less able to keep up with their old habits. They need the help of younger people to support them. Your parents may be young and able now, but old age comes quickly, and when you are old enough to do the things that they can, they will be too old to do them, and that’s when your help will really be needed. I’m sure that you’re a great help now, and they greatly appreciate your assistance when they need it, but you need to remember that once your parents are old and you are able, they will need your help with many more things, and you won’t have the free time that you used to, and adults have more rules applied to them than children. Remember to enjoy your childhood while you are still young.” She pulled away a bit to look at her. “It’s precious.”
The child could only stare at her with fascination, as if enlightened. After a bit, she nodded, somber. “Okay.”
Youko hugged her again after a moment, and Akiko found herself relaxing to enjoy her radiating heat. When she pulled away, she teased her by saying “Catch me if you can!”, and Akiko went to swim after her. They spent the rest of the day playing in the water, splashing and swimming until it was almost sunset, at which Youko grasped her arm and pulled her to the surface.
“My leaves wear off at sunset,” she explained. “And it is also when I become a fish again. Your family must be worried. It would be good to go back to them before it becomes dark.”
Akiko agreed, and went to go get her socks and shoes on, but worried that the golden trail she’d followed would be gone.
“It’s alright,” said she as she pulled herself out of the water, her leafy hair trailing down to her ankles. “If we walk quickly, I may be able to lead you back with my light. If I become a fish along the way, I request that you put me back in a pond somewhere so that I am not left trapped on land; at that point, you are free to carry me around as light.”
Akiko nodded. “Alright. Thank you, Youko-sama.”
The two left off into the woods, hand in hand, following what Akiko thought was where the path had been. It soon became too late for Youko to continue, as she suddenly became a shining koi once more, and Akiko picked her up in her arms to light her way. Akiko continued down the path alone, and began to worry that she would become lost in the darkness; but her father soon emerged from the shadows, having been looking for his missing daughter. She related to him all that had transpired in the time that she’d been gone, about how she’d followed the golden droplets to the pond and played and talked with Youko all day. He didn’t seem to believe, but at least humored her and brought her home, allowing her to put the golden koi into their pond for the night. The family rejoiced when they saw their daughter home, and enjoyed good rice that night for supper.
Akiko went to sleep wondering where Youko was going to go next, and wondering if they would miss each other; and the next morning, the golden koi was gone, and footprints were seen in the pond’s muddy shores, leading to the west. Akiko found a note written on the muddy banks, and it said:
If you ever need me, just call me, and I’ll be there.
Akiko also remembered her words and their promise, and instead of searching for work when there was none, went to play with her little brother or enjoyed herself, or often she would call Youko’s name, so that they could play with and see each other again. And when Akiko became a mother of two, she taught them the things that the Sun Koi had taught her, and she taught them the virtues of not only good work, but good play. Even in old age, Akiko remembered Youko’s name, and called her so that they could see each other and talk.
The two remained friends for the rest of her days, and the Sun Koi still walks the Earth, looking for more friends to play with.