The Dark Maiden
from the Ninth Heaven

(Chinese)

There was once a very poor man living in a deserted kiln, who worked when he found anyone to employ him, and otherwise collected firewood in the fields or dung on the roads. He lived all alone; sometimes he earned no money and had to go hungry; at other times he was able to save a few hundred coppers.

At New Year everyone buys the things they need for the festival: fish, meat, wine, vegetables, incense, fireworks, inscriptions, and many more things than I can describe. On New Year’s Eve the poor man took the two hundred coppers he had saved and went into the market. He looked about, but could not find anything that pleased him, until he saw a picture of a beautiful girl hanging on the wall, which so entranced him that he could not take his eyes off it. ‘Do you want to buy it?’ asked the shopkeeper, and when he nodded, he told him that the price was six hundred cash. The poor man did not hesitate, but rushed home, and took all his savings, amounting to five hundred coppers, out of a niche. ‘If I also use the two hundred in my pocket,’ he thought, ‘that together makes seven hundred, and I can buy two bushels of rice as well.’ He ran back to the market, bought the picture, and then spent the rest on a bushel of rice and three white cabbage heads, which he took back to the kiln. Next morning, when everyone was wishing each other a happy New Year, a beautiful picture was hanging up in the old kiln with a large plate of cabbage in front of it. The poor man humbly knelt down and bowed to the lovely woman.

From that day, before every meal and whenever he went out or came in, he used to bow to the picture. Nothing unusual happened for about six months, only the picture made him feel very contented and soothed him whenever he felt tired.

One day he arrived home exhausted and very hungry, to be greeted, as he opened the door, by a delicious odour of food. He made his bow and went to open the pot, which he found full of steaming hot rice. At first he was too frightened to eat, but eventually he placed an offering before the picture as usual, and ate until he was satisfied. In the afternoon he went out to collect firewood, but the food was again ready on his return. He wondered who could have done it, and next morning he merely pretended to go and collect dung, and hid instead behind the kiln and watched to see if anyone went in. After a while no one had entered, but he heard someone moving about inside, and creeping up to the door he peeped into the room, where he saw a beautiful girl standing by the stove making a fire. On the wall there was nothing but a piece of smooth white paper. He was trembling with excitement, but he did not know what to do. In the end he stepped back, coughed, and then walked noisily up to the door, and when he entered, the picture of the beautiful girl was once more hanging on the wall, and the pot was full of half-cooked food, with a fire still burning underneath.

That afternoon he went out again and waited until he heard light footsteps moving across the room, followed by a soft rattling of the cover of the pot, the noise of water being poured into a basin, the chink of flint and firetongs, and the wheezing of the bellows. With bated breath he crept up to the door and burst in, and, quickly rolling up the picture, he hid it out of sight. When he looked round he saw a beautiful girl standing by the fire, at whose feet he went and flung himself down. He remained kneeling till she raised him up, saying: ‘Since this has occurred, we might as well live together, and then you won’t need to be alone so much.’

The girl looked after the house so well that their money increased almost as if it grew. After six months they had so much gold and silver that they decided to build a house with halls, and pavilions, and terraces, and to fill it with many beautiful clothes and treasures. Here they lived happily together, and everyone that went past wondered: ‘How strange. Six months ago there was only a deserted kiln here. Who has built this marvellous palace?’

The husband kept on asking his wife who she was, but she only laughed and gave him no explanation. Once when he bothered her too much, she said, half joking half serious: ‘I am the dark maiden from the Ninth Heaven. As a penalty for some fault I had committed I was condemned to descend to earth for a few years.’ But when he asked her for how many years, she did not reply.

Three years passed and a daughter was born to them, which made them happier than before. One day, however, the wife suddenly became troubled, as if something very important had happened, and later she ceased to eat. Fearing she was ill, her husband wanted to send for a doctor, but she refused to see anyone, and merely asked him casually: ‘Did you keep the roll of white paper? I should so like to look at it again.’ The husband thought that after living with him for three years and bearing him a child she would no longer want to leave him, so he said no more and fetched the roll; but no sooner had he unrolled it than his wife disappeared and the beautiful girl had returned to the paper. He flung himself down and wept, and his little daughter wept too, but the maiden on the picture did not move. He hung it on the wall and worshipped it as before, and later his daughter did the same, but she never returned to life.

When the old people heard this, they said: ‘The appointed time that the dark maiden from the Ninth Heaven was destined to spend on earth having passed, she was able to return to Heaven.’

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