I am the only one who gets off the train at Tōno. Dis­abled since birth, I’ve come to this rur­al Japan­ese out­post to research dis­abil­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the famous folk­tales of the region.

The most pop­u­lar char­ac­ter of the Tōno leg­ends is the mis­chie­vous kap­pa, seen all over the town: on post­box­es, in sou­venir shops, and even at the koban, the police box. The kap­pa is some­what frog-like and has long skin­ny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hol­low on the top of its head. At the Tōno City Muse­um, I learn about the belief that women who become preg­nant with a kappa’s child give birth to deformed babies. Accord­ing to the tale, passed down for gen­er­a­tions, these babies are hacked to pieces and buried in small wine casks.

As often hap­pened dur­ing my time in Japan, I did not expect to find what I found in Tōno. I left the city haunt­ed by a tale unre­lat­ed to my research, which remind­ed me both of tales by Sholem Ale­ichem and the paint­ings of Marc Chagall.

First, the tale: A girl falls in love with her family’s horse. Day and night she vis­its the horse in his sta­ble. The girl’s father becomes wor­ried about his daughter’s attach­ment to the horse, but no mat­ter what he says the girl con­tin­ues to vis­it the horse. She is dis­cov­ered spend­ing her nights sleep­ing with the horse.

The father takes the horse out into the for­est and kills it, hang­ing it from a mul­ber­ry tree. When he returns to the house, his daugh­ter is gone; she can­not be found any­where in or near the house.

The father returns to the for­est. He stops in his tracks. He sees his daugh­ter now hang­ing with the horse from the tree. Before he takes anoth­er step, the horse rears up and ascends into the sky, car­ry­ing the girl with him to the heavens.

What is it about this tale of for­bid­den love in the shad­ow of loss that con­nects to my Jew­ish soul?

This sto­ry reminds me of Tevye’s reac­tion to his daugh­ters’ mar­riages out­side the con­ven­tions of their shtetl in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daugh­ters. Tevye’s eldest daugh­ter, Tzei­t­el, wants to mar­ry for love rather than through the tra­di­tion­al match­mak­ing. This, Tevye fig­ures out how to accept, allow­ing the mar­riage with­out com­pro­mis­ing his values.

How­ev­er, it is the love of Cha­va, his third daugh­ter, for Fyed­ka, a Ukrain­ian Chris­t­ian, and her con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­i­ty, that puts Tevye to the test. In the Ale­ichem tale, Tevye does not par­don Chava’s defec­tion. Tevye pro­nounces her dead and observes shi­va, until Cha­va repents and returns to her Jew­ish home. Those famil­iar with the sto­ry from Fid­dler on the Roof, the beloved Broad­way musi­cal, might be con­fused because this res­o­lu­tion was changed for the stage. In Fid­dler on the Roof, Tevye even­tu­al­ly accepts Cha­va back into the fam­i­ly and, as the rest of his fam­i­ly leave Anat­ev­ka for Amer­i­ca, he watch­es his daugh­ter depart with Fyed­ka to Poland.

In the Tōno tale, the father’s reac­tion to his daughter’s for­bid­den love is sim­i­lar to that of Aleichem’s Tevye. But what if the father react­ed more like the Tevye in Fid­dler, find­ing his way to accept his daughter’s non­tra­di­tion­al love? What would have been lost? He might have saved his daughter’s, and the horse’s, life.

And what to make of the vision of the fly­ing horse, car­ry­ing his daugh­ter away from him, up into the heav­ens? For me, Chagall’s fly­ing fig­ures and ani­mals, espe­cial­ly in Song of Songs IV,” a 1958 illus­tra­tion for the Old Tes­ta­ment, fur­ther illu­mi­nates the Tōno tale. In the paint­ing, a fly­ing horse car­ries a new­ly mar­ried cou­ple into the sky. Nowhere in the text of the Song of Songs” is a fly­ing horse men­tioned. Nor are upside down birds, also includ­ed in Chagall’s paint­ing. Here, Cha­gall rep­re­sents the spir­it of the bride and groom’s mar­riage as spir­i­tu­al ecsta­sy free­ing them from the scene below. An angel trum­pets their celes­tial ascen­sion in a sky nei­ther dawn nor sun­set, with both sun and moon.

Relat­ing Ale­ichem and Cha­gall unlocks for me deep­er mean­ings that answer why the Tōno tale still haunts me. Love can be both a means to free­dom and to sep­a­ra­tion, some­times at the same time. In love, we can find a free­dom both of and from our­selves. But it is also love that can sep­a­rate us from fam­i­ly, friends, and the cul­ture or soci­ety from which we come.

The price of for­bid­ding — whether through love, or by hav­ing a body that looks dif­fer­ent — is a theme cen­tral to many Tōno tales. Like the kap­pa tale, in which deformed babies are killed and buried, the for­bid­den love of the daugh­ter and her horse has seri­ous reper­cus­sions. This, too, is what becomes of break­ing social bar­ri­ers. At the heart of these sto­ries are both the ecsta­sy of, and the price we some­times pay, for love.

Images (LTR) via: Crown Pub­lish­ers, Kad­owa­ka Shoten, and WikiArt

Ken­ny Fries’s new book is In the Province of the Gods, which received the Cre­ative Cap­i­tal lit­er­a­ture grant. His oth­er books include The His­to­ry of My Shoes and the Evo­lu­tion of Darwin’s The­o­ry and Body, Remem­ber: A Mem­oir. He edit­ed Star­ing Back: The Dis­abil­i­ty Expe­ri­ence from the Inside Out. He was a Cre­ative Arts Fel­low of the Japan‑U.S. Friend­ship Com­mis­sion and the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts, and twice a Ful­bright Schol­ar (Japan and Ger­many). He teach­es in the MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing Pro­gram at God­dard College.