The narrative of Mitsuye Yamada’s “A Bedtime Story” tells a story within a story. In the frame story an adult recalls a folktale that had been told as a bedtime story. The main part of the poem consists of that story, a Japanese legend about an elderly woman seeking shelter in rural villages. According to the tale, the old woman is refused entry at every household she approaches. Finally, growing exhausted, she lies down to rest in a clearing on a hilltop. All is dark in the sleeping village below, except for a few scattered lights. As the old woman is catching her breath, the moon appears between parted clouds. Upon seeing it, the woman addresses the sleeping villagers.
The final stanza returns to the frame story, as the speaker recollects the story-telling occasion. The speaker pictures the comfortable family home on a hillside in Seattle and remembers the father pausing right at the point in the story when the old woman thanks the villagers for refusing to give her hospitality, since being forced to stay outdoors has enabled her the privilege of seeing the full moon, a “memorable sight.” Finally, the child’s incredulous question ends the poem: Was that all there was?