Chasing the Moon

Stories by Akiko Sugimoto

Possed by the Magic of Kanji
Witch in Training
Landscapes of Stone
Going North
Mao at Baiyunguan
My 1997
Guizi and Ahn
Three Chinese Stories

Chasing the Moon (9)

By Sugimoto Akiko

Three Chinese Stories

A version of this story appeared in
The East, 42(3), September/October 2006, pages 40-42

1. Jiaoren

A gust of wind blew over the darkness of a land that was nowhere and had nothing. After this a mountain formed and soared until it practically pierced the heavens. Then on its summit appeared a hollow, which filled with rain, making a lake that looked like the pupil of an eye.

The lake was always pure and clear, and from it began to flow a river, which dropped to the foot of the mountain. When the wind blew, wavelets swept the surface of the lake, making the pupil appear to be weeping.

Some humans lived at the foot of the mountain, and in the lake, which they they called Shuihu ( water lake), resided a merman named Jiaoren (Ll mythical fish-human, mermaid, merman). Jiaoren's work was to take beads of ice, which crystallized on a single bare tree that grew in the center of the lake, plant them in shells, and make jewels [ zhu] that release a soft light like the moon.

Every time it rained, drops on the tree would freeze into crystals of water, and Jiaoren would dive into the lake to gather them. One day, though, after some rain had poured from the heavens, Jiaoren quietly rose to a bank near the tree and began to cry.

"People of Shuihu, owners of this lake," he said. "The water is too cold for me, so I cannot dive."

After a while the sun came out and shone on the lake. A voice then welled up from somewhere deep in the lake and reverberated all the way to the heavens.

"Sun, would you please make some of the cold flow into the river? I would like to thin the dense cold of this lake."

Sun, hearing this, began to breath deeply, in and out, in and out. Shortly the water in the lake began to warm. Jiaoren, beside himself with joy, dove to get a bead of ice, and planted it in a shell.

One evening, the water of the lake again became too cold. This time when Jiaoren cried, he heard a song coming from somewhere.

"Let them be in the sky
the sentiments of clouds;
let them drift in the sky
their white vows"

And in the heavens a cloud was born, then another and another, and catching a wind they began to drift somewhere.

"Ah, people of Shuihu. I'm delighted that humans call the jewels I make pearls [^ zhenzhu, true jewels]. But I know differently," Jiaoren shouted. "The pearls I've made will slowly dissolve. They will develop holes and lose their light. Why have I done this? Why have I deceived humans this way for so long?"

"You too drift along in concert with your heart," the people of Shuihu replied.

That night the moon was bright. A fragrant mist stood on the lake. Jiaoren was overwhelmed with a desire to go down the river. He swiftly fell with the current, which was colder than he expected, but as other streams joined the river it became warmer than the lake.

Jiaoren arrived at the foot of the mountain, and before he knew it he was no longer moving. The river had been sucked into sea of sand and disappeared. Everything was desolate and silent. Jiaoren, looking up at the moon above the mountain, wept alone. His tears spilled onto the golden sand and became ruby-like jewels, but the wind carried them away.

The story of Jiaoren, who shed tears of blood, has spread everywhere in the human world. Some humans learn from it that there exist some living things even more foolish and lonely than they are, and this somewhat relieves their hearts. Some humans also sense that they too are drifting, and look up at the heavens as though to wonder where.

2. The Sun, the Moon, and the cat

The moon, like a silvery-white ship, drifted among the forest of stars. Wearing two pair of pants and socks, and a pair of platform boots, I was walking toward a morning market that was said to be to the east. Just as the sun began to show its face, I arrived at a place with a sign that read "Bizarre Animal Market".

A man was riding a rusty tricycle around the entrance of the market with a cage in his hand. "Bizarre! Bizarre! This one's really bizarre!" he shouted, while the cricket in the cage rasped "Koro koro, koro koro koro."

Everything was still enveloped in mist, and as I cut through it into the market, I found myself in a sea of green awnings that could have been seaweed. The faces of all the vendors, sitting with their wares on the cold ground under the awnings, were bluish and sunken. I shivered as though I were walking on the bottom of a deep sea.

Under one awning was a pen, and sprawled out in the pen was a large sliver cat. Hunkering by the pen was a man, and I heard him whisper, "If I dissolve the fur of this cat, and make rings inlaid with his sparking eyes, I can sell them for a very good price.

As I lingered around the pen, the cat suddenly lifted his head, and I heard him say, "Did you know that we living things, after departing this world, become either stars, or demons that roam the earth?"

When I nodded, the cat began to tell me about the Sun and the Moon.

"I once read a book that explained all the secrets of the world. The chapter on the Sun and the Moon said that originally there were ten suns flying around the heavens in a group, but the earth was too hot, so a skilled bowman shot nine of them down, leaving just one."

"And the Moon?" I asked.

"The Moon," the cat said, "began to shine one night long ago after a a certain woman, in grief, ascended the heavens with a frog the color of a kingfisher."

The cat then stretched his back, opened his eyes wide, and said, "My right eye is the Sun and the left is the Moon."

Everything around me suddenly brightened and I closed my eyes. When I opened them, the cat was squinting, and swishing his fluffy tail he spoke to me again.

"Look at me," he said. "I used to have seven bodies but now I have only one. Every time I lost a life, one of my tails disappeared. I've been caught up in a number of human wars. You never have enough lives when you fight."

After telling me this, the cat slowly sprawled out and slept.

3. Wenwen

I was in my third summer at Beijing University. By the dormitory where I lived was a pond filled with lotuses, which covered the water with fire when they bloomed. On the other side of the pond was a brick wall, and beyond the wall was a dry dirt road that ran along that part of the campus.

I often went out to buy apples at a fruit shop along this road. The shop was set up under a white awning, and sitting in a chair by the fruit, as though to help her father, was a little girl named Wenwen ().

Wenwen usually wore green pants that had a big split in the crotch. Mr. Pan, her father, would point at Wenwen as she wrote characters or drew pictures on the ground with a twig and say, "She's going to be in the second grade this fall. She's already learned a lot of characters."

One day Wenwen pointed toward the university and said, "What's all that singing I hear on the other side of the wall?"

Thinking she must have heard the chorus of frogs in the lotus pond, I said, "There's a large pond over there, and there's a country of frogs in it." Taking a stick, I wrote "frog kingdom" (Š^) in the dirt.

Wenwen hunkered by the characters, and while tracing them a number of times she repeated, "Qingwa wangguo, qingwa wangguo."

Mr. Pan, who had lit a cigarette and was puffing away, said "Wenwen's a frog," and laughed.

The next time I went to the shop, Wenwen spread a newspaper on the ground, took a piece of green chalk, and began drawing what appeared to be several apples. Each of the apples soon had stripes, big eyes, and hands and feet.

"Which one's the king?" I asked. Wenwen pointed to one of the frogs and said, "This one used to be the king, but he lost his crown, and no one can tell who the king is, so for now there is no king."

Another day, as thunderclouds were mounting the sky, I bought some cotton candy and gave it to Wenwen as a gift for her story. Wenwen shouted "Clouds, clouds" as she showed the candy to Mr. Pan and began very slowly eating it. The dust that was forever being kicked up on the street showered the candy and Wenwen's cheeks with sand.

"The clouds have become gray," I said.

Wenwen, looking as though she had just come off the desert, cocked her head, and a moment later she said, "If the clouds are this sweet, why isn't the rain sweet?"

The croaking from the far side of the wall became suddenly louder.

(Translated by William Wetherall)

Sugimoto Akiko has had an interest in literature since childhood. She studied philosophy at Beijing University in China, and graduated from Temple University in Tokyo, where she studied comparative religion, psychology, and Asian studies. She hopes to continue writing, with a sense of humor and romance, about the lights and shadows of human experience. The writer Inoue Yasushi ( 1907-1991) was her grandmother's older brother.