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May Day Eve
By Nick Joaquin
The old people had ordered that the dancing should stop at ten o’clock but it was almost midnight before the carriages came filing up the departing guests, while the girls who were staying were promptly herded upstairs to the bedrooms, the young men gathering around to wish them a good night and lamenting their ascent with mock signs and moaning, proclaiming themselves disconsolate but straightway going off to finish the punch and the brandy though they were quite drunk already and simply bursting with wild spirits, merriment, arrogance and audacity, for they were young bucks newly arrived from Europe; the ball had been in their honor; and they had waltzed and polka-ed and bragged and swaggered and flirted all night and where in no mood to sleep yet--no, caramba, not on this moist tropic eve! not on this mystic May eve! --with the night still young and so seductive that it was madness not to go out, not to go forth---and serenade the neighbors! cried one; and swim in the Pasid! cried another; and gather fireflies! cried a third—whereupon there arose a great clamor for coats and capes, for hats and canes, and they were a couple of street-lamps flickered and a last carriage rattled away upon the cobbles while the blind black houses muttered hush-hush, their tile roofs looming like sinister chessboards against a wile sky murky with clouds, save where an evil young moon prowled about in a corner or where a murderous wind whirled, whistling and whining, smelling now of the sea and now of the summer orchards and wafting unbearable childhood fragrances or ripe guavas to the young men trooping so uproariously down the street that the girls who were desiring upstairs in the bedrooms catered screaming to the windows, crowded giggling at the windows, but were soon sighing amorously over those young men bawling below; over those wicked young men and their handsome apparel, their proud flashing eyes, and their elegant mustaches so black and vivid in the moonlight that the girls were quite ravished with love, and began crying to one another how carefree were men but how awful to be a girl and what a horrid, horrid world it was, till old Anastasia plucked them off by the ear or the pigtail and chases them off to bed---while from up the street came the clackety-clack of the watchman’s boots on the cobble and the clang-clang of his lantern against his knee, and the mighty roll of his great voice booming through the night, "Guardia serno-o-o! A las doce han dado-o-o.
And it was May again, said the old Anastasia. It was the first day of May and witches were abroad in the night, she said--for it was a night of divination, and night of lovers, and those who cared might peer into a mirror and would there behold the face of whoever it was they were fated to marry, said the old Anastasia as she hobble about picking up the piled crinolines and folding up shawls and raking slippers in corner while the girls climbing into four great poster-beds that overwhelmed the room began shrieking with terror, scrambling over each other and imploring the old woman not to frighten them.
"Enough, enough, Anastasia! We want to sleep!"
"Go scare the boys instead, you old witch!"
"She is not a witch, she is a maga. She is a maga. She was born of Christmas Eve!"
"St. Anastasia, virgin and martyr."
"Huh? Impossible! She has conquered seven husbands! Are you a virgin, Anastasia?"
"No, but I am seven times a martyr because of you girls!"
"Let her prophesy, let her prophesy! Whom will I marry, old gypsy? Come, tell me."
"You may learn in a mirror if you are not afraid."
"I am not afraid, I will go," cried the young cousin Agueda, jumping up in bed.
"Girls, girls---we are making too much noise! My mother will hear and will come and pinch us all. Agueda, lie down! And you Anastasia, I command you to shut your mouth and go away!""Your mother told me to stay here all night, my grand lady!"
"And I will not lie down!" cried the rebellious Agueda, leaping to the floor. "Stay, old woman. Tell me what I have to do."
"Tell her! Tell her!" chimed the other girls.
The old woman dropped the clothes she had gathered and approached and fixed her eyes on the girl. "You must take a candle," she instructed, "and go into a room that is dark and that has a mirror in it and you must be alone in the room. Go up to the mirror and close your eyes and shy:
Mirror, mirror, show to me him whose woman I will be. If all goes right, just above your left shoulder will appear the face of the man you will marry." A silence. Then: "And hat if all does not go right?" asked Agueda. "Ah, then the Lord have mercy on you!" "Why." "Because you may see--the Devil!"
The girls screamed and clutched one another, shivering. "But what nonsense!" cried Agueda. "This is the year 1847. There are no devil anymore!" Nevertheless she had turned pale. "But where could I go, hugh? Yes, I know! Down to the sala. It has that big mirror and no one is there now." "No, Agueda, no! It is a mortal sin! You will see the devil!" "I do not care! I am not afraid! I will go!" "Oh, you wicked girl! Oh, you mad girl!" "If you do not come to bed, Agueda, I will call my mother." "And if you do I will tell her who came to visit you at the convent last March. Come, old woman---give me that candle. I go." "Oh girls---give me that candle, I go."
But Agueda had already slipped outside; was already tiptoeing across the hall; her feet bare and her dark hair falling down her shoulders and streaming in the wind as she fled down the stairs, the lighted candle sputtering in one hand while with the other she pulled up her white gown from her ankles. She paused breathless in the doorway to the sala and her heart failed her. She tried to imagine the room filled again with lights, laughter, whirling couples, and the jolly jerky music of the fiddlers. But, oh, it was a dark den, a weird cavern for the windows had been closed and the furniture stacked up against the walls. She crossed herself and stepped inside.
The mirror hung on the wall before her; a big antique mirror with a gold frame carved into leaves and flowers and mysterious curlicues. She saw herself approaching fearfully in it: a small while ghost that the darkness bodied forth---but not willingly, not completely, for her eyes and hair were so dark that the face approaching in the mirror seemed only a mask that floated forward; a bright mask with two holes gaping in it, blown forward by the white cloud of her gown. But when she stood before the mirror she lifted the candle level with her chin and the dead mask bloomed into her living face.
She closed her eyes and whispered the incantation. When she had finished such a terror took hold of her that she felt unable to move, unable to open her eyes and thought she would stand there forever, enchanted. But she heard a step behind her, and a smothered giggle, and instantly opened her eyes.
"And what did you see, Mama? Oh, what was it?" But Dona Agueda had forgotten the little girl on her lap: she was staring pass the curly head nestling at her breast and seeing herself in the big mirror hanging in the room. It was the same room and the same mirror out the face she now saw in it was an old face---a hard, bitter, vengeful face, framed in graying hair, and so sadly altered, so sadly different from that other face like a white mask, that fresh young face like a pure mask than she had brought before this mirror one wild May Day midnight years and years ago.... "But what was it Mama? Oh please go on! What did you see?" Dona Agueda looked down at her daughter but her face did not soften though her eyes filled with tears. "I saw the devil." she said bitterly. The child blanched. "The devil, Mama? Oh... Oh..." "Yes, my love. I opened my eyes and there in the mirror, smiling at me over my left shoulder, was the face of the devil." "Oh, my poor little Mama! And were you very frightened?" "You can imagine. And that is why good little girls do not look into mirrors except when their mothers tell them. You must stop this naughty habit, darling, of admiring yourself in every mirror you pass- or you may see something frightful some day." "But the devil, Mama---what did he look like?" "Well, let me see... he has curly hair and a scar on his cheek---" "Like the scar of Papa?" "Well, yes. But this of the devil was a scar of sin, while that of your Papa is a scar of honor. Or so he says." "Go on about the devil." "Well, he had mustaches." "Like those of Papa?" "Oh, no. Those of your Papa are dirty and graying and smell horribly of tobacco, while these of the devil were very black and elegant--oh, how elegant!" "And did he speak to you, Mama?" "Yes… Yes, he spoke to me," said Dona Agueda. And bowing her graying head; she wept.
"Charms like yours have no need for a candle, fair one," he had said, smiling at her in the mirror and stepping back to give her a low mocking bow. She had whirled around and glared at him and he had burst into laughter. "But I remember you!" he cried. "You are Agueda, whom I left a mere infant and came home to find a tremendous beauty, and I danced a waltz with you but you would not give me the polka." "Let me pass," she muttered fiercely, for he was barring the way. "But I want to dance the polka with you, fair one," he said. So they stood before the mirror; their panting breath the only sound in the dark room; the candle shining between them and flinging their shadows to the wall. And young Badoy Montiya (who had crept home very drunk to pass out quietly in bed) suddenly found himself cold sober and very much awake and ready for anything. His eyes sparkled and the scar on his face gleamed scarlet. "Let me pass!" she cried again, in a voice of fury, but he grasped her by the wrist. "No," he smiled. "Not until we have danced." "Go to the devil!" "What a temper has my serrana!" "I am not your serrana!" "Whose, then? Someone I know? Someone I have offended grievously? Because you treat me, you treat all my friends like your mortal enemies." "And why not?" she demanded, jerking her wrist away and flashing her teeth in his face. "Oh, how I detest you, you pompous young men! You go to Europe and you come back elegant lords and we poor girls are too tame to please you. We have no grace like the Parisiennes, we have no fire like the Sevillians, and we have no salt, no salt, no salt! Aie, how you weary me, how you bore me, you fastidious men!" "Come, come---how do you know about us?"
"I was not admiring myself, sir!" "You were admiring the moon perhaps?" "Oh!" she gasped, and burst into tears. The candle dropped from her hand and she covered her face and sobbed piteously. The candle had gone out and they stood in darkness, and young Badoy was conscience-stricken. "Oh, do not cry, little one!" Oh, please forgive me! Please do not cry! But what a brute I am! I was drunk, little one, I was drunk and knew not what I said." He groped and found her hand and touched it to his lips. She shuddered in her white gown. "Let me go," she moaned, and tugged feebly. "No. Say you forgive me first. Say you forgive me, Agueda." But instead she pulled his hand to her mouth and bit it - bit so sharply in the knuckles that he cried with pain and lashed cut with his other hand--lashed out and hit the air, for she was gone, she had fled, and he heard the rustling of her skirts up the stairs as he furiously sucked his bleeding fingers. Cruel thoughts raced through his head: he would go and tell his mother and make her turn the savage girl out of the house--or he would go himself to the girl’s room and drag her out of bed and slap, slap, slap her silly face! But at the same time he was thinking that they were all going to Antipolo in the morning and was already planning how he would maneuver himself into the same boat with her. Oh, he would have his revenge, he would make her pay, that little harlot! She should suffer for this, he thought greedily, licking his bleeding knuckles. But---Judas! He remembered her bare shoulders: gold in her candlelight and delicately furred. He saw the mobile insolence of her neck, and her taut breasts steady in the fluid gown. Son of a Turk, but she was quite enchanting! How could she think she had no fire or grace? And no salt? An arroba she had of it!
"... No lack of salt in the chrism At the moment of thy baptism!" He sang aloud in the dark room and suddenly realized that he had fallen madly in love with her. He ached intensely to see her again---at once! ---to touch her hands and her hair; to hear her harsh voice. He ran to the window and flung open the casements and the beauty of the night struck him back like a blow. It was May, it was summer, and he was young---young! ---and deliriously in love. Such a happiness welled up within him that the tears spurted from his eyes. But he did not forgive her--no! He would still make her pay, he would still have his revenge, he thought viciously, and kissed his wounded fingers. But what a night it had been! "I will never forge this night! he thought aloud in an awed voice, standing by the window in the dark room, the tears in his eyes and the wind in his hair and his bleeding knuckles pressed to his mouth.
But, alas, the heart forgets; the heart is distracted; and May time passes; summer lends; the storms break over the rot-tipe orchards and the heart grows old; while the hours, the days, the months, and the years pile up and pile up, till the mind becomes too crowded, too confused: dust gathers in it; cobwebs multiply; the walls darken and fall into ruin and decay; the memory perished...and there came a time when Don Badoy Montiya walked home through a May Day midnight without remembering, without even caring to remember; being merely concerned in feeling his way across the street with his cane; his eyes having grown quite dim and his legs uncertain--for he was old; he was over sixty; he was a very stopped and shivered old man with white hair and mustaches coming home from a secret meeting of conspirators; his mind still resounding with the speeches and his patriot heart still exultant as he picked his way up the steps to the front door and inside into the slumbering darkness of the house; wholly unconscious of the May night, till on his way down the hall, chancing to glance into the sala, he shuddered, he stopped, his blood ran cold-- for he had seen a face in the mirror there---a ghostly candlelight face with the eyes closed and the lips moving, a face that he suddenly felt he had been there before though it was a full minutes before the lost memory came flowing, came tiding back, so overflooding the actual moment and so swiftly washing away the piled hours and days and months and years that he was left suddenly young again; he was a gay young buck again, lately came from Europe; he had been dancing all night; he was very drunk; he s stepped in the doorway; he saw a face in the dark; he called out...and the lad standing before the mirror (for it was a lad in a night go jumped with fright and almost dropped his candle, but looking around and seeing the old man, laughed out with relief and came running.
"Oh Grandpa, how you frightened me. Don Badoy had turned very pale. "So it was you, you young bandit! And what is all this, hey? What are you doing down here at this hour?" "Nothing, Grandpa. I was only... I am only ..." "Yes, you are the great Señor only and how delighted I am to make your acquaintance, Señor Only! But if I break this cane on your head you maga wish you were someone else, Sir!" "It was just foolishness, Grandpa. They told me I would see my wife."
"Wife? What wife?" "Mine. The boys at school said I would see her if I looked in a mirror tonight and said: Mirror, mirror show to me her whose lover I will be.
Don Badoy cackled ruefully. He took the boy by the hair, pulled him along into the room, sat down on a chair, and drew the boy between his knees. "Now, put your cane down the floor, son, and let us talk this over. So you want your wife already, hey? You want to see her in advance, hey? But so you know that these are wicked games and that wicked boys who play them are in danger of seeing horrors?"
"Well, the boys did warn me I might see a witch instead."
"Exactly! A witch so horrible you may die of fright. And she will be witch you, she will torture you, she will eat
your heart and drink your blood!"
"Oh, come now Grandpa. This is 1890. There are no witches anymore."
"Oh-ho, my young Voltaire! And what if I tell you that I myself have seen a witch.
"Right in this room land right in that mirror," said the old man, and his playful voice had turned savage.
"Not so long ago. When I was a bit older than you. Oh, I was a vain fellow and though I was feeling very sick that night and merely wanted to lie down somewhere and die I could not pass that doorway of course without stopping to see in the mirror what I looked like when dying. But when I poked my head in what should I see in the mirror but...but..."
"And then she bewitch you, Grandpa!"
"She bewitched me and she tortured me. l She ate my heart and drank my blood." said the old man bitterly.
"Oh, my poor little Grandpa! Why have you never told me! And she very horrible?
"Horrible? God, no--- she was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen! Her eyes were somewhat like yours but her hair was like black waters and her golden shoulders were bare. My God, she was enchanting! But I should have known---I should have known even then---the dark and fatal creature she was!"
A silence. Then: "What a horrid mirror this is, Grandpa," whispered the boy.
"What makes you slay that, hey?"
"Well, you saw this witch in it. And Mama once told me that Grandma once told her that Grandma once saw the devil in this mirror. Was it of the scare that Grandma died?"
Don Badoy started. For a moment he had forgotten that she was dead, that she had perished---the poor Agueda; that they were at peace at last, the two of them, her tired body at rest; her broken body set free at last from the brutal pranks of the earth---from the trap of a May night; from the snare of summer; from the terrible silver nets of the moon. She had been a mere heap of white hair and bones in the end: a whimpering withered consumptive, lashing out with her cruel tongue; her eye like live coals; her face like ashes... Now, nothing--- nothing save a name on a stone; save a stone in a graveyard---nothing! was left of the young girl who had flamed so vividly in a mirror one wild May Day midnight, long, long ago.
And remembering how she had sobbed so piteously; remembering how she had bitten his hand and fled and how he had sung aloud in the dark room and surprised his heart in the instant of falling in love: such a grief tore up his throat and eyes that he felt ashamed before the boy; pushed the boy away; stood up and looked out----looked out upon the medieval shadows of the foul street where a couple of street-lamps flickered and a last carriage was rattling away upon the cobbles, while the blind black houses muttered hush-hush, their tiled roofs looming like sinister chessboards against a wild sky murky with clouds, save where an evil old moon prowled about in a corner or where a murderous wind whirled, whistling and whining, smelling now of the sea and now of the summer orchards and wafting unbearable the window; the bowed old man sobbing so bitterly at the window; the tears streaming down his cheeks and the wind in his hair and one hand pressed to his mouth---while from up the street came the clackety-clack of the watchman’s boots on the cobbles, and the clang-clang of his lantern against his knee, and the mighty roll of his voice booming through the night:
"Guardia sereno-o-o! A las doce han dado-o-o!"
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The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few. The time was barely 10 o'clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh depeopled the streets.
Trying doors as he went, twirling his club with many intricate and artful movements, turning now and then to cast his watchful eye adown the pacific thoroughfare, the officer, with his stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace. The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.
When about midway of a certain block the policeman suddenly slowed his walk. In the doorway of a darkened hardware store a man leaned, with an unlighted cigar in his mouth. As the policeman walked up to him the man spoke up quickly.
"It's all right, officer," he said, reassuringly. "I'm just waiting for a friend. It's an appointment made twenty years ago. Sounds a little funny to you, doesn't it? Well, I'll explain if you'd like to make certain it's all straight. About that long ago there used to be a restaurant where this store stands--'Big Joe' Brady's restaurant."
"Until five years ago," said the policeman. "It was torn down then."
The man in the doorway struck a match and lit his cigar. The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow. His scarfpin was a large diamond, oddly set.
"Twenty years ago to-night," said the man, "I dined here at 'Big Joe' Brady's with Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world. He and I were raised here in New York, just like two brothers, together. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune. You couldn't have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth. Well, we agreed that night that we would meet here again exactly twenty years from that date and time, no matter what our conditions might be or from what distance we might have to come. We figured that in twenty years each of us ought to have our destiny worked out and our fortunes made, whatever they were going to be."
"It sounds pretty interesting," said the policeman. "Rather a long time between meets, though, it seems to me. Haven't you heard from your friend since you left?"
"Well, yes, for a time we corresponded," said the other. "But after a year or two we lost track of each other. You see, the West is a pretty big proposition, and I kept hustling around over it pretty lively. But I know Jimmy will meet me here if he's alive, for he always was the truest, stanchest old chap in the world. He'll never forget. I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it's worth it if my old partner turns up."
The waiting man pulled out a handsome watch, the lids of it set with small diamonds.
"Three minutes to ten," he announced. "It was exactly ten o'clock when we parted here at the restaurant door."__
"Did pretty well out West, didn't you?" asked the policeman.
"You bet! I hope Jimmy has done half as well. He was a kind of plodder, though, good fellow as he was. I've had to compete with some of the sharpest wits going to get my pile. A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him."
The policeman twirled his club and took a step or two.
"I'll be on my way. Hope your friend comes around all right. Going to call time on him sharp?"
"I should say not!" said the other. "I'll give him half an hour at least. If Jimmy is alive on earth he'll be here by that time. So long, officer."
"Good-night, sir," said the policeman, passing on along his beat, trying doors as he went.
There was now a fine, cold drizzle falling, and the wind had risen from its uncertain puffs into a steady blow. The few foot passengers astir in that quarter hurried dismally and silently along with coat collars turned high and pocketed hands. And in the door of the hardware store the man who had come a thousand miles to fill an appointment, uncertain almost to absurdity, with the friend of his youth, smoked his cigar and waited.
About twenty minutes he waited, and then a tall man in a long overcoat, with collar turned up to his ears, hurried across from the opposite side of the street. He went directly to the waiting man.
"Is that you, Bob?" he asked, doubtfully.
"Is that you, Jimmy Wells?" cried the man in the door.
"Bless my heart!" exclaimed the new arrival, grasping both the other's hands with his own. "It's Bob, sure as fate. I was certain I'd find you here if you were still in existence. Well, well, well! --twenty years is a long time. The old gone, Bob; I wish it had lasted, so we could have had another dinner there. How has the West treated you, old man?"
"Bully; it has given me everything I asked it for. You've changed lots, Jimmy. I never thought you were so tall by two or three inches."
"Oh, I grew a bit after I was twenty."
"Doing well in New York, Jimmy?"
"Moderately. I have a position in one of the city departments. Come on, Bob; we'll go around to a place I know of, and have a good long talk about old times."
The two men started up the street, arm in arm. The man from the West, his egotism enlarged by success, was beginning to outline the history of his career. The other, submerged in his overcoat, listened with interest.
At the corner stood a drug store, brilliant with electric lights. When they came into this glare each of them turned simultaneously to gaze upon the other's face.
The man from the West stopped suddenly and released his arm.
"You're not Jimmy Wells," he snapped. "Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug."
"It sometimes changes a good man into a bad one, said the tall man. "You've been under arrest for ten minutes, 'Silky' Bob. Chicago thinks you may have dropped over our way and wires us she wants to have a chat with you. Going quietly, are you? That's sensible. Now, before we go on to the station here's a note I was asked to hand you. You may read it here at the window. It's from Patrolman Wells."
The man from the West unfolded the little piece of paper handed him. His hand was steady when he began to read, but it trembled a little by the time he had finished. The note was rather short.
~"Bob: I was at the appointed place on time. When you struck the match to light your cigar I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn't do it myself, so I went around and got a plain clothes man to do the job.
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A long time ago, cricket fighting caught on in the imperial court, with the emperor leading the fad. A local magistrate in Huayin, who wanted to win the favor of the monarch, tried in every way to get him the best fighting crickets. He had a strategy for doing so: He managed to get a cricket that was very good at fighting. He then made his subordinates go to the heads of each village and force them to send in a constant supply of fighting crickets. He would send to the imperial court the crickets that could beat the one he was keeping. Theoretically, everything should have worked smoothly. However, as the magistrate was extremely zealous to please the emperor, he meted out harsh punishment on any village heads who failed to accomplish their tasks. The village heads in turn shifted the burden to the poor villagers, who had to search for the crickets. If they failed to catch them, they had to purchase them from someone else, or they had to pay a levy in cash. The small insects suddenly became a rare commodity. Speculators hoarded good crickets, buying them at a bargain and selling them for an exorbitant price. Many village heads worked hand in hand with the speculators to make profits. In so doing, they bankrupted many a family. Cheng Ming was one such villager. The head of his village delegated part of his duties to him because he found Cheng Ming easy to push around. Cheng Ming did not want to bully his fellow villagers as the village head did him, so he often had to pay cash out of his own pocket when he failed to collect any competent crickets. Soon the little proper ties he had were draining away, and he went into a severe depression. One day, he said to his wife that he wanted to die.“Death is easy, but what will our son do without you?” asked his wife, glancing at their only son, sleeping on the kang. “Why can’t we look for the crickets ourselves instead of buying them? Perhaps we’ll strike some goodluck.” Cheng Ming gave up the idea of suicide and went to search for crickets. Armed with a tiny basket of copper wires for catching crickets and a number of small bamboo tubes for holding them, he went about the tedious task. Each day he got up at dawn and did not return until late in the evening. He searched beneath brick debris, dike crevices, and in the weeds and bushes. Days went by, and he caught only a few mediocre crickets that did not measure up to the magistrate’s standards. His worries increased as the dead line drew closer and closer. The day for cricket delivery finally came, but Cheng Ming could not produce any good ones. He was clubbed a hundred times on the buttocks, a form of corporal punishment in the ancient Chinese judicial system. When he was released the next day, he could barely walk. The wound on his buttocks confined him to bed for days and further delayed his search for crickets. He thought of committing suicide again. His wife did not know what to do
Then they heard about a hunchbacked fortune teller who was visiting the village. Cheng Ming’s wife went to see him. The fortune teller gave her a piece of paper with a picture on it. It was a pavilion with a jiashan (rockgarden) behind it. On the bushes by the jiashan sat a fat male cricket. Beside it, however, lurked a large toad, ready to catch the insect with its long, elastic tongue. When the wife got home, she showed the paper to her husband. Cheng Ming sprang up and jumped to the floor, forgetting the pain in his buttocks.“This is the fortune teller’s hint at the location where I can find a perfect cricket to accomplish my task!” he exclaimed.“But we don’t have a pavilion in our village,” his wife re minded him.“Well, take a closer look and think. Doesn’t the temple on the east side of our village have a rock garden? That must be it.” So saying, Cheng Ming limped to the temple with the support of a make shift crutch. Sure enough, he saw the cricket, and the toad squatting nearby in the rock garden at the back of the temple. He caught the big, black male cricket just before the toad got hold of it. Back home, he carefully placed the cricket in a jar he had prepared for it and stowed the jar away in a safe place. “Everything will be over tomorrow,” he gave a sigh of relief and went to tell his best friends in the village the good news. Cheng Ming’s nine-year-old son was very curious. Seeing his father was gone, he took the jar and wanted to have a peek at the cricket. He was removing the lid carefully, when the big cricket jumped out and hopped away. Panicked, the boy tried to catch the fleeing cricket with his hands, but in a flurry, he accidentally squashed the insect when he finally got hold of it.“Good heavens! What’re you going to say to your father when he comes back?” the mother said in distress and dread. Without a word, the boy went out of the room, tears in his eyes.Cheng Ming became distraught when he saw the dead cricket. He couldn’t believe that all his hopes had been dashed in a second. He looked around for his son, vowing to teach the little scoundrel a good lesson. He searched inside and outside the house, only to locate him in a well at the corner of the court yard. When he fished him out, the boy was already dead. The father’s fury instantly gave way to sorrow. The grieved parents laid their son on the kang and lamented over his body the entire night. As Cheng Ming was dressing his son for burial the next morning, he felt the body still warm. Immediately he put the boy back on the kang, hoping that he would revive. Gradually the boy came back to life, but to his parents’dismay, he was unconscious, as if he were in a trance. The parents grieved again for the loss of their son. Suddenly they heard a cricket chirping. The couple traced the sound to a small cricket on the door step. The appearance of the cricket, however, dashed their hopes, for it was very small. “Well, it’s better than nothing,” Cheng Ming thought. He was about to catch it, when it jumped nimbly on to a wall, cheeping at him. He tip toed to ward it, but it showed no sign of fleeing. Instead, when Cheng Ming came a few steps closer, the little cricket jumped onto his chest.
Though small, the cricket looked smart and energetic. Cheng Ming planned to take it to the village head. Uncertain of its capabilities, ChengMing could not go to sleep. He wanted to put the little cricket to the test before sending it to the village head. The next morning, Cheng Ming went to a young man from a rich family in his neighborhood, having heard him boasting about an “invincible” cricket that he wanted to sell for a high price. When the young man showed his cricket, Cheng Ming hesitated, because his little cricket seemed no match for this gigantic insect. To fight this monster would be to condemn his dwarf to death.“There’s no way my little cricket could survive a confrontation with your big guy,” Cheng Ming said to the young man, holding his jar tight. The young man goaded and taunted him. At last, Cheng Ming decided to take a risk. “Well, it won’t hurt to give a try. If the little cricket is a good-for-nothing, what’s the use of keeping it anyway?” he thought. When they put the two crickets together in a jar, Cheng Ming’s small insect seemed transfixed. No matter how the young man prodded it to fight, it simply would not budge. The young man burst into a guffaw, to the great embarrassment of Cheng Ming. As the young man spurred the little cricket on, it suddenly seemed to have run out of patience. With great wrath, it charged the giant opponent head on. The sudden burst of action stunned both the young man and Cheng Ming. Before the little creature planted its small but sharp teeth into the neck of the big cricket, the terrified young man fished the big insect out of the jar just in time and called off the contest. The little cricket chirped victoriously, and Cheng Ming felt exceedingly happy and proud.Cheng Ming and the young man were commenting on the little cricket’s extraordinary prowess, when a big rooster rushed over to peck at the little cricket in the jar. The little cricket hopped out of the jar in time to dodge the attack. The rooster then went for it a second time, but suddenly began to shake its head violently, screaming in agony. This sudden turn of events baffled Cheng Ming and the onlookers. When they took a closer look, they could not believe their eyes: The little cricket was gnawing on the rooster’s bloody comb. The story of a cricket fighting a rooster soon spread throughout the village and beyond. The next day, Cheng Ming, along with the village head, sent the cricket to the magistrate and asked for a test fight with his master cricket, but the magistrate re fused on the ground that Cheng Ming’s cricket was too small.“I don’t think you have heard its rooster-fighting story,” Cheng Ming proclaimed with great pride. “You can’t judge it only by its appearance.”“Nonsense, how can a cricket fight a rooster?” asked the magistrate. He ordered a big rooster brought to his office, thinking that Cheng Ming would quit telling his tall tales when his cricket became the bird’s snack. The battle between the little cricket and the rooster ended with the same result: The rooster sped away in great pain, the little cricket chirping triumphantly on its heels.
The magistrate was first astonished and then pleased, thinking that he finally had the very insect that could win him the emperor’s favor. He had a golden cage manufactured for the little cricket. Placing it cautiously in the cage, he took it to the emperor. The emperor pitted the little cricket against all his veteran combat ant crickets, and it defeated them one by one. What amused the emperor most was that the little creature could even dance to the tune of his court music! Extremely pleased with the magic little creature, the emperor rewarded the magistrate liberally and promoted him to a higher position. The magistrate, now a governor, in turn exempted Cheng Ming from his levies in cash as well as crickets. A year later, Cheng Ming’s son came out of his stupor. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, to the great surprise and joy of his parents. The first word she uttered to his jubilant parents were, “I’m so tired and hungry.” After a hot meal, he told them, “I dreamed that I had become a cricket, and I fought a lot of other crickets. It was such fun! You know what? The greatest fun I had was my fight with a couple of roosters!”
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