Continued From The Last Issue
IN times beyond recall there lived a widow and her daughter in a lonely valley of northern China between two snow-topped mountains. Far and wide did the maiden's craft and beauty gain renown: throughout the day she would labour at her chores and keep the household spick and span. Many were the young men who came to court her, but the old widow always found reason to turn them down. She feared living out her days alone.
Now beyond the snow-topped mountains, in a bamboo forest, there dwelt three demon brothers. They too had heard of the hard-working and beautiful maid; and the eldest brother made up His mind to wed her.
So the three demons turned themselves into mighty warriors, saddled three black steeds and, in the twinkling of an eye, appeared before the widow's humble cottage. On entering this abode, they bowed low before the mother and, turning to the maid, pronounced the time-honoured speech of courtship.
'Gentle flower, we come to court you. Untold is our wealth, countless are our yaks and horses, immeasurable is our corn. Honour our home as mistress and share all that we own.'
The old woman was loath to refuse outright such might warriors. So, as custom required, she curtseyed low and said, 'I thank you for the honour, but I cannot thus give my daughter to an unknown clan. For sure, you do not even know her name. But I tell you this: you can guess her name, you may take her for your wife.'
Many were the names then chosen by the demons; yet they could not guess correctly and they had to return without the maiden.
Along the way they met a hare scampering through the bush.
'Stop!' shouted the brothers. 'Over in the valley lives a widow with a lovely daughter. Find out the maiden's name and we'll reward you with all the food you need for
winter.' Off ran the hare to the lonely cottage in the valley and hid beneath the
window, straining his long ears to catch the daughter's name.
Presently, the mother began to call her daughter, 'Lotus Blossom, Lotus Blossom, bring in the corn before it rains.'
'So that's it: Lotus Blossom,' thought the hare.
He repeated it several times under his breath and ran off to tell the demon brothers. As he was running through the forest, a shower of apples suddenly fell about him and made him jump. He stopped a while to eat a few. They were so delicious that he quite forgot the first half of the maiden's name. Blossom, Blossom …whirled inside his head, but which blossom it was he could not recall.
Then, in an instant, it came to him: 'Apple Blossom!' That's the name-or, at least, I think it is,' he cried. And on he scampered to the demon brothers.
The brothers were delighted to learn the maiden's name and back they went to the valley between the snow-topped mountains.
When they came to widow's cottage they declared in a single voice, 'your daughter's name is Apple Blossom! Keep your promise and give her up.'
' You're wrong, you're wrong,' the old woman cried. 'That's not her name. Be off with you.'
The three brothers returned home cross and empty handed. On the way they met a fox.
'Hello there, Mistress Fox,' they shouted. 'We'll give you all the meat you wish if you do us one small favour: just run to the lonely valley where an old widow and her daughter live. Find out the maiden's name and tell it to us.'
Off ran the fox, who soon found the widow's home and hid behind the door.
It was not long before she heard the mother's voice, 'Lotus Blossom, Lotus Blossom, it will soon be dark; come home and cook the supper.'
'So her name is Lotus Blossom!' thought the fox, and skipped off to find the brothers, repeating the name Lotus Blossom so as not to let it slip from her mind.
Along the way she saw a shoal of catfish that made her belly rumble. In her eagerness to catch them, the maiden's name quite slipped from her mind.
'The second part is Blossom, now what's the first?' she asked herself. 'Could it perhaps be Catfish Blossom?' With that name on her tongue she ran back to the demon brothers.
Once more the three brothers set off to court the maiden. And just as before, when they reached the cottage they declared in a single voice, 'Your daughter's name is Catfish Blossom!'
'You're wrong, you're wrong,' the old woman cried. 'That's not her name at all. Be off with you!'
The demon brothers stared at one another in despair and anger. But there was nothing to be done; they had to return home empty-handed. On the way they saw magpie in a tree.
'Sister Magpie,' you'll find a cottage where a widow and her daughter live. Discover the maiden's mane and we'll reward you with some golden trinkets.'
The magpie was mighty fond of trinkets, so quickly she flew to the little cottage, sat atop a tree beside the house strained her ears.
By and by, she heard the mother calling to her daughter,
'Lotus Blossom, lotus Blossom, finish your spinning, put out the candle and come to bed.'
'Aha,' said the Sister Magpie with a smile, 'the girl's name is Lotus Blossom- mauve flower of the lotus bush.' And she flew straight back to the demon brothers.
'The hare told us Apple Blossom; the fox said catfish Blossom; and they were both quite wrong,' said the eldest brother. 'Now Sister Magpie tells us Lotus Blossom. I suppose we have naught to lose in trying it.' And off they went to try their luck a third time.
'Your daughter's name is lotus Blossom,' they told the widow hopefully.
As the Chinese saying goes, a promise from the lips must fly straight and true like an arrow from a bow. The brothers had correctly named the girl, so the mother had to give up her daughter to them.
She led a white stallion from the stables, set her daughter upon it and whispered a last instruction to her, 'Look after this stallion, daughter dear; he will serve you well in time to come.'
For a long time the old woman stood on the road gazing through tearful eyes after her departing daughter; after all she would never see Lotus Blossom again.
A black time now came upon the maiden: from dawn to dusk she knew no rest nor peace. The brothers made her cook and scrub and mend, they treated her worse than a captured slave and beat her without mercy whenever she displeased them. And when the poor girl complained to her husband, he only cursed her more, telling her to obey his brothers' every command.
One day the brothers told the maid, 'We are going on a journey and will not return for several days. Stay home and see you keep the household the household clean. But beware: on no account must you open the door leading to the room behind the house!'
With that they mounted their black steeds and rode away.
Now poor Lotus Blossom was alone. She went about her chores, fed the goats, swept the rooms and set to spinning some flax. And every now and then she glanced at the forbidden door with rising curiosity.
'Would it really matter,' she wondered, 'if I just took a little peep inside?’
Finally she could restrain her curiosity no longer. She tip-toed to the door and opened it just enough to see inside. The horrifying sight that met her gaze turned her blood to ice. For the room was full of human bones picked clean. Round the walls hung torn and bloodstained bits of clothing; and among them was her own mother's shawl, she poured out bitter tears. 'Do not cry, my dear daughter,' her mother's voice seemed to say to her. It was the black shawl speaking. 'escape from here as fast as you can. The evil demons have gone to seek new victims. When they return they will eat you too. Make haste, mount the snow-white stallion and ride away. First, however, put on this ragged shawl; it will protect you.’
TO BE CONTINUED
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