In a farming village in the country, there lived a merchant who kept a small store. He worked very hard, but the town was not terribly prosperous and, though he saved as much money as he could, he was not a wealthy man.
His wife had died some years before, but he had two daughters whom he loved very much.
The older daughter, Kitsutsuki, was very beautiful and took great care in how she dressed and did her makeup. She was always reluctant to do chores that might mess up her hair or clothing.
The storekeeper’s younger daughter, Suzume, was also very attractive but spent her time helping around the store and house and never made very much fuss over herself.
One day, the merchant called his daughters to him. “I know you are becoming young women,” he said, “and it is time that you each had a good kimono. One day, you may get married, and there will be other times when you must dress formally. For many years, I have saved money so that, when you came to this time in your life, you could go to the city and have nice kimonos made.”
The merchant then gave them each a small purse of coins, and sent them off to the city to stay at the home of a respectable merchant family with which he had done business for many years.
Kitsutsuki and Suzume were very excited. They went to a fine tailor and had themselves measured for kimonos. But when they heard what these dresses would cost, they were heartbroken. They did not have enough money!
The sisters burst into disappointed tears and the tailor was touched by their plight.
“Perhaps there is a way,” he said. “It is the beautiful, carefully colored cloth that makes these kimonos so expensive. But you seem like clever girls: If I make your kimonos from good white silk, you can dye and color them yourselves, and then you will have enough money.”
The sisters thought this was a good idea, so the tailor began to work on the kimonos and they began to plan the beautiful colors and patterns they would add, once their white kimonos were ready.
It took many days for the tailor to make the dresses, for kimonos are very complicated garments. But at last they were ready, and the sisters tried them on, helping each other to tie the wide obis around their waists.
The kimonos were beautifully made, and the sisters were just beginning to talk about exactly how they would dye and color them, tracing with their fingers the places where the designs would go, when a visitor from their village suddenly arrived.
“Your father is very ill and you must come home at once!” he said.
Without even thinking to take off her new kimono, Suzume quickly gathered up her few belongings and ran out the door.
She hurried down the road towards their village, not stopping to eat or even to get in out of the storm when it began to rain. When she arrived at her home, her new kimono was no longer white, but spattered with mud and covered with dust.
Suzume went directly to her father’s bedroom and, although he was very ill, she had a chance to sit by his bedside, hold his hand and comfort him until he finally closed his eyes forever.
Her sister Kitsutsuki, however, had told the messenger that she was not able to leave yet and would come as soon as she had finished dying and decorating her kimono, in case she needed to have it ready for her father’s funeral.
Indeed, when she arrived back at the village, she looked very beautiful in the bright, new silk.
But Kitsutsuki had arrived too late to speak with her father before he died, or even for his funeral.
As the two sisters sat quietly together in the empty house, a voice came from the heavens.
“Suzume,” it said, “your love for your father and your home caused you to stain your beautiful kimono with mud and dust, but those drab colors shall be for you a badge of honor. Forever you shall live near the homes of people, where you shall easily find your food wherever you look. You will even be able to eat the rice from the harvest fields, and you will always be surrounded by friends.”
Then the voice went on: “Kitsutsuki, you are very beautiful, but you have no instinct for living around others. From this day forward, you shall live far out in the forests, away from the homes of people, and you will spend your time alone. As for food, you shall always have to search hard and to dig worms from inside the trees in order to eat.”
And ever since that day, the drab, brown and gray sparrow, Suzume, has lived in flocks around the houses of people and eaten cheerfully in their yards and rice fields, while Kitsutsuki, the beautiful woodpecker, has stayed out in the forest alone, seeking her food under the bark of the trees.
text by Mike Peterson, c. 2005 - illustrations by Marina Tay, c. 2005