[This is a well-known Japanese folk tale. There are many versions and translations of it, but the gist of the story remains the same from one to the next.]
Once upon a time, an old man was married to a shrew. The couple lived in the countryside on the edge of a mountain forest. They had no children, but the man befriended one of the sparrows that resided in the adjacent forest. The old man fed the sparrow, offering whatever he had to the small bird.
Over time, the man and the sparrow grew almost inseparable. However, one day the man had to go into town to buy provisions. It may have been that the man chose that particular day for his errand because his horrid wife was most ill-tempered on laundry days, and that was a laundry day.
While the husband was away, the sparrow came around. Seeing a pile of starch, the sparrow pecked at it. Infuriated, the old woman snatched up the bird in one hand and a scissors in the other, and she snipped part of the bird’s tongue out. Then as she tossed the sparrow free, she said, “Away with you. That’ll teach you to get into my starch.”
The bird flew deep into the mountains.
When the husband returned, he inquired as to whether his wife had seen the bird. The sparrow was usually around the homestead at that time of day.
The hag proudly told the husband of her actions and how she’d punished the insolent bird.
The old man lost no time in trudging out into the forest to try to make sure his friend was alright. He called out to the sparrow, but there was no response. He feared his wife had wounded the bird even more than she’d boasted. Eventually, exhaustion forced the old man to give up his search. He prayed that the little bird would be alright, but he couldn’t keep looking for it.
A couple of years later, the man was foraging for mushrooms in the forest when he ran into the sparrow. The sparrow invited the man back to his home.
The sparrow offered the man food, refreshments, and even accommodations as they took several days to catch up on the events of each other’s lives. The sparrow now had a family and was doing well.
After a few days of catching up, the old man decided that he must get back, but he promised to come back around to visit occasionally. (The sparrow was reasonably reluctant to visit the man at his home with the vile woman around.) The sparrow family offered the old man a choice of parting gift, they presented two woven baskets. The baskets appeared identical, but one was light and the other was heavy. The old man didn’t feel deserving of a gift, but he took the lighter basket. He had to take one to avoid offending his host, but he didn’t wish to be greedy.
When the man got home, he was berated by the shrew for being away so long. She then interrogated him about the new basket. The man told his wife the entire story, including about how the sparrows offered him two baskets, and how he’d taken the lighter one.
His wife snatched the lid off of the basket and investigated its contents. She found that the reason the basket was so light was that it contained just a few precious jewels and several gold coins. By weight it wasn’t much, but its value was considerable.
The wife thought, Hm. I’ll go visit the sparrows. I’ll make a little apology for snipping at the bird’s tongue, and when they offer me my parting gift, I’ll be smart enough to take the heavy basket. Just imagine the riches it must contain.
The wife tricked her husband into giving her directions, saying she wanted to make a heartfelt apology. She then went to visit the sparrow family. She made a half-hearted apology for injuring the sparrow, claiming she’d only meant to scare him but the scissors had gotten away from her. The meeting was awkward and the sparrows were relieved to have the woman going on her way.
They offered the woman a choice of parting gifts as well. The woman lifted both baskets. Just as her husband had said, one basket was light and the other was heavy. She lugged the heavy basket up on her back, and without even saying her good-byes she sped toward her home as quickly as her legs would carry her. She had fantasies about what she would do with her new-found wealth.
It wasn’t long before she needed a break because the basket was heavy and her legs weren’t used to such a burden. Standing on the forest trail, the couldn’t resist peaking at her riches. The woman tugged the lid off and dove her head into the mouth of the basket to see what precious jewels, gold, and silver would greet her. However, what lurched out was an evil ogre, enveloped in a mist of demon spirits.
Clutching her chest, the old woman had a heart attack in the face of the horrific contents of her basket, dying where she had stood.