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She stepped down from the carretela of Ca Celin with a quick, delicate grace. She was lovely. SHe was tall. She looked up to my brother with a smile, and her forehead was on a level with his mouth.
"You are Baldo," she said and placed her hand lightly on my shoulder. Her nails were long, but they were not painted. She was fragrant like a morning when papayas are in bloom. And a small dimple appeared momently high on her right cheek. "And this is Labang of whom I have heard so much." She held the wrist of one hand with the other and looked at Labang, and Labang never stopped chewing his cud. He swallowed and brought up to his mouth more cud and the sound of his insides was like a drum.
I laid a hand on Labang's massive neck and said to her: "You may scratch his forehead now."
She hesitated and I saw that her eyes were on the long, curving horns. But she came and touched Labang's forehead with her long fingers, and Labang never stopped chewing his cud except that his big eyes half closed. And by and by she was scratching his forehead very daintily.
My brother Leon put down the two trunks on the grassy side of the road. He paid Ca Celin twice the usual fare from the station to the edge of Nagrebcan. Then he was standing beside us, and she turned to him eagerly. I watched Ca Celin, where he stood in front of his horse, and he ran his fingers through its forelock and could not keep his eyes away from her.
"Maria---" my brother Leon said.
He did not say Maring. He did not say Mayang. I knew then that he had always called her Maria and that to us all she would be Maria; and in my mind I said 'Maria' and it was a beautiful name.
Now where did she get that name? I pondered the matter quietly to myself, thinking Father might not like it. But it was only the name of my brother Leon said backward and it sounded much better that way.
"There is Nagrebcan, Maria," my brother Leon said, gesturing widely toward the west.
She moved close to him and slipped her arm through his. And after a while she said quietly.
"You love Nagrebcan, don't you, Noel?"
Ca Celin drove away hi-yi-ing to his horse loudly. At the bend of the camino real where the big duhat tree grew, he rattled the handle of his braided rattan whip against the spokes of the wheel.
We stood alone on the roadside.
The sun was in our eyes, for it was dipping into the bright sea. The sky was wide and deep and very blue above us: but along the saw-tooth rim of the Katayaghan hills to the southwest flamed huge masses of clouds. Before us the fields swam in a golden haze through which floated big purple and red and yellow bubbles when I looked at the sinking sun. Labang's white coat, which I had wshed and brushed that morning with coconut husk, glistened like beaten cotton under the lamplight and his horns appeared tipped with fire.
He faced the sun and from his mouth came a call so loud and vibrant that the earth seemed to tremble underfoot. And far away in the middle of the field a cow lowed softly in answer.
"Hitch him to the cart, Baldo," my brother Leon said, laughing, and she laughed with him a big uncertainly, and I saw that he had put his arm around her shoulders.
"Why does he make that sound?" she asked. "I have never heard the like of it."
"There is not another like it," my brother Leon said. "I have yet to hear another bull call like Labang. In all the world there is no other bull like him."
She was smiling at him, and I stopped in the act of tying the sinta across Labang's neck to the opposite end of the yoke, because her teeth were very white, her eyes were so full of laughter, and there was the small dimple high up on her right cheek.
"If you continue to talk about him like that, either I shall fall in love with him or become greatly jealous."
My brother Leon laughed and she laughed and they looked at each other and it seemed to me there was a world of laughter between them and in them.
I climbed into the cart over the wheel and Labang would have bolted, for he was always like that, but I kept a firm hold on his rope. He was restless and would not stand still, so that my brother Leon had to say "Labang" several times. When he was quiet again, my brother Leon lifted the trunks into the cart, placing the smaller on top.
She looked down once at her high-heeled shoes, then she gave her left hand to my brother Leon, placed a foot on the hub of the wheel, and in one breath she had swung up into the cart. Oh, the fragrance of her. But Labang was fairly dancing with impatience and it was all I could do to keep him from running away.
"Give me the rope, Baldo," my brother Leon said. "Maria, sit down on the hay and hold on to anything." Then he put a foot on the left shaft and that instand labang leaped forward. My brother Leon laughed as he drew himself up to the top of the side of the cart and made the slack of the rope hiss above the back of labang. The wind whistled against my cheeks and the rattling of the wheels on the pebbly road echoed in my ears.
She sat up straight on the bottom of the cart, legs bent togther to one side, her skirts spread over them so that only the toes and heels of her shoes were visible. her eyes were on my brother Leon's back; I saw the wind on her hair. When Labang slowed down, my brother Leon handed to me the rope. I knelt on the straw inside the cart and pulled on the rope until Labang was merely shuffling along, then I made him turn around.
"What is it you have forgotten now, Baldo?" my brother Leon said.
I did not say anything but tickled with my fingers the rump of Labang; and away we went---back to where I had unhitched and waited for them. The sun had sunk and down from the wooded sides of the Katayaghan hills shadows were stealing into the fields. High up overhead the sky burned with many slow fires.
When I sent Labang down the deep cut that would take us to the dry bed of the Waig which could be used as a path to our place during the dry season, my brother Leon laid a hand on my shoulder and said sternly:
"Who told you to drive through the fields tonight?"
His hand was heavy on my shoulder, but I did not look at him or utter a word until we were on the rocky bottom of the Waig.
"Baldo, you fool, answer me before I lay the rope of Labang on you. Why do you follow the Wait instead of the camino real?"
His fingers bit into my shoulder.
"Father, he told me to follow the Waig tonight, Manong."
Swiftly, his hand fell away from my shoulder and he reached for the rope of Labang. Then my brother Leon laughed, and he sat back, and laughing still, he said:
"And I suppose Father also told you to hitch Labang to the cart and meet us with him instead of with Castano and the calesa."
Without waiting for me to answer, he turned to her and said, "Maria, why do you think Father should do that, now?" He laughed and added, "Have you ever seen so many stars before?"
I looked back and they were sitting side by side, leaning against the trunks, hands clasped across knees. Seemingly, but a man's height above the tops of the steep banks of the Wait, hung the stars. But in the deep gorge the shadows had fallen heavily, and even the white of Labang's coat was merely a dim, grayish blur. Crickets chirped from their homes in the cracks in the banks. The thick, unpleasant smell of dangla bushes and cooling sun-heated earth mingled with the clean, sharp scent of arrais roots exposed to the night air and of the hay inside the cart.
"Look, Noel, yonder is our star!" Deep surprise and gladness were in her voice. Very low in the west, almost touching the ragged edge of the bank, was the star, the biggest and brightest in the sky.
"I have been looking at it," my brother Leon said. "Do you remember how I would tell you that when you want to see stars you must come to Nagrebcan?"
"Yes, Noel," she said. "Look at it," she murmured, half to herself. "It is so many times bigger and brighter than it was at Ermita beach."
"The air here is clean, free of dust and smoke."
"So it is, Noel," she said, drawing a long breath.
"Making fun of me, Maria?"
She laughed then and they laughed together and she took my brother Leon's hand and put it against her face.
I stopped Labang, climbed down, and lighted the lantern that hung from the cart between the wheels.
"Good boy, Baldo," my brother Leon said as I climbed back into the cart, and my heart sant.
Now the shadows took fright and did not crowd so near. Clumps of andadasi and arrais flashed into view and quickly disappeared as we passed by. Ahead, the elongated shadow of Labang bobbled up and down and swayed drunkenly from side to side, for the lantern rocked jerkily with the cart.
"Have we far to go yet, Noel?" she asked.
"Ask Baldo," my brother Leon said, "we have been neglecting him."
"I am asking you, Baldo," she said.
Without looking back, I answered, picking my words slowly:
"Soon we will get out of the Wait and pass into the fields. After the fields is home---Manong."
"So near already."
I did not say anything more because I did not know what to make of the tone of her voice as she said her last words. All the laughter seemed to have gone out of her. I waited for my brother Leon to say something, but he was not saying anything. Suddenly he broke out into song and the song was 'Sky Sown with Stars'---the same that he and Father sang when we cut hay in the fields at night before he went away to study. He must have taught her the song because she joined him, and her voice flowed into his like a gentle stream meeting a stronger one. And each time the wheels encountered a big rock, her voice would catch in her throat, but my brother Leon would sing on, until, laughing softly, she would join him again.
Then we were climbing out into the fields, and through the spokes of the wheels the light of the lantern mocked the shadows. Labang quickened his steps. The jolting became more frequent and painful as we crossed the low dikes.
"But it is so very wide here," she said. The light of the stars broke and scattered the darkness so that one could see far on every side, though indistinctly.
"You miss the houses, and the cars, and the people and the noise, don't you?" My brother Leon stopped singing.
"Yes, but in a different way. I am glad they are not here."
With difficulty I turned Labang to the left, for he wanted to go straight on. He was breathing hard, but I knew he was more thirsty than tired. In a little while we drope up the grassy side onto the camino real.
"---you see," my brother Leon was explaining, "the camino real curves around the foot of the Katayaghan hills and passes by our house. We drove through the fields because---but I'll be asking Father as soon as we get home."
"Noel," she said.
"I am afraid. He may not like me."
"Does that worry you still, Maria?" my brother Leon said. "From the way you talk, he might be an ogre, for all the world. Except when his leg that was wounded in the Revolution is troubling him, Father is the mildest-tempered, gentlest man I know."
We came to the house of Lacay Julian and I spoke to Labang loudly, but Moning did not come to the window, so I surmised she must be eating with the rest of her family. And I thought of the food being made ready at home and my mouth watered. We met the twins, Urong and Celin, and I said "Hoy!" calling them by name. And they shouted back and asked if my brother Leon and his wife were with me. And my brother Leon shouted to them and then told me to make Labang run; their answers were lost in the noise of the wheels.
I stopped labang on the road before our house and would have gotten down but my brother Leon took the rope and told me to stay in the cart. He turned Labang into the open gate and we dashed into our yard. I thought we would crash into the camachile tree, but my brother Leon reined in Labang in time. There was light downstairs in the kitchen, and Mother stood in the doorway, and I could see her smiling shyly. My brother Leon was helping Maria over the wheel. The first words that fell from his lips after he had kissed Mother's hand were:
"Father... where is he?"
"He is in his room upstairs," Mother said, her face becoming serious. "His leg is bothering him again."
I did not hear anything more because I had to go back to the cart to unhitch Labang. But I hardly tied him under the barn when I heard Father calling me. I met my brother Leon going to bring up the trunks. As I passed through the kitchen, there were Mother and my sister Aurelia and Maria and it seemed to me they were crying, all of them.
There was no light in Father's room. There was no movement. He sat in the big armchair by the western window, and a star shone directly through it. He was smoking, but he removed the roll of tobacco from his mouth when he saw me. He laid it carefully on the windowsill before speaking.
"Did you meet anybody on the way?" he asked.
"No, Father," I said. "Nobody passes through the Waig at night."
He reached for his roll of tobacco and hithced himself up in the chair.
"She is very beautiful, Father."
"Was she afraid of Labang?" My father had not raised his voice, but the room seemed to resound with it. And again I saw her eyes on the long curving horns and the arm of my brother Leon around her shoulders.
"No, Father, she was not afraid."
"On the way---"
"She looked at the stars, Father. And Manong Leon sang."
"What did he sing?"
"---Sky Sown with Stars... She sang with him."
He was silent again. I could hear the low voices of Mother and my sister Aurelia downstairs. There was also the voice of my brother Leon, and I thought that Father's voice must have been like it when Father was young. He had laid the roll of tobacco on the windowsill once more. I watched the smoke waver faintly upward from the lighted end and vanish slowly into the night outside.
The door opened and my brother Leon and Maria came in.
"Have you watered Labang?" Father spoke to me.
I told him that Labang was resting yet under the barn.
"It is time you watered him, my son," my father said.
I looked at Maria and she was lovely. She was tall. Beside my brother Leon, she was tall and very still. Then I went out, and in the darkened hall the fragrance of her was like a morning when papayas are in bloom.how my brother leon brought home a wife
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(1) Nearly five hundred years ago the Celestially August, the Son of Heaven, Yong-Lo, of the “Illustrious” or Ming dynasty, commanded the worthy official Kouan-Yu that he should have a bell made of such size that the sound thereof might be heard for one hundred li. And he further ordained that the voice of the bell should be strengthened with brass, and deepened with gold, and sweetened with silver; and that the face and the great lips of it should be graven with blessed sayings from the sacred books, and that it should be suspended in the centre of the imperial capital to sound through all the many-coloured ways of the City of Pe-King.
(2) Therefore the worthy mandarin Kouan-Yu assembled the master-moulders and the renowned bellsmiths of the empire, and all men of great repute and cunning in foundry work; and they measured the materials for the alloy, and treated them skilfully, and prepared the moulds, the fires, the instruments, and the monstrous melting-pot for fusing the metal. And they laboured exceedingly, like giants neglecting only rest and sleep and the comforts of life; toiling both night and day in obedience to Kouan-Yu, and striving in all things to do the behest of the Son of Heaven.
(3) But when the metal had been cast, and the earthen mould separated from the glowing casting, it was discovered that, despite their great labour and ceaseless care, the result was void of worth; for the metals had rebelled one against the other—the gold had scorned alliance with the brass, the silver would not mingle with the molten iron. Therefore the moulds had to be once more prepared, and the fires rekindled, and the metal remelted, and all the work tediously and toilsomely repeated. The Son of Heaven heard and was angry, but spake nothing.
(4) A second time the bell was cast, and the result was even worse. Still the metals obstinately refused to blend one with the other; and there was no uniformity in the bell, and the sides of it were cracked and fissured, and the lips of it were slagged and split asunder; so that all the labour had to be repeated even a third time, to the great dismay of Kouan-Yu. And when the Son of Heaven heard these things, he was angrier than before; and sent his messenger to Kouan-Yu with a letter, written upon lemon-coloured silk and sealed with the seal of the dragon, containing these words:
(5) “From the Mighty Young-Lo, the Sublime Tait-Sung, the Celestial and August, whose reign is called ‘Ming,’ to Kouan-Yu the Fuh-yin: Twice thou hast betrayed the trust we have deigned graciously to place in thee; if thou fail a third time in fulfilling our command, thy head shall be severed from thy neck. Tremble, and obey!”
(6) Now, Kouan-Yu had a daughter of dazzling loveliness whose name—Ko-Ngai—was ever in the mouths of poets, and whose heart was even more beautiful than her face. Ko-Ngai loved her father with such love that she had refused a hundred worthy suitors rather than make his home desolate by her absence; and when she had seen the awful yellow missive, sealed with the Dragon-Seal, she fainted away with fear for her father’s sake. And when her senses and her strength returned to her, she could not rest or sleep for thinking of her parent’s danger, until she had secretly sold some of her jewels, and with the money so obtained had hastened to an astrologer, and paid him a great price to advise her by what means her father might be saved from the peril impending over him. So the astrologer made observations of the heavens, and marked the aspect of the Silver Stream (which we call the Milky Way), and examined the signs of the Zodiac—the Hwang-tao, or Yellow Road—and consulted the table of the Five Hin, or Principles of the Universe, and the mystical books of the alchemists. And after a long silence, he made answer to her, saying: “Gold and brass will never meet in wedlock, silver and iron never will embrace, until the flesh of a maiden be melted in the crucible; until the blood of a virgin be mixed with the metals in their fusion.” So Ko-Ngai returned home sorrowful at heart; but she kept secret all that she had heard, and told no one what she had done.
(7) At last came the awful day when the third and last effort to cast the great bell was to be made; and Ko-Ngai, together with her waiting-woman, accompanied her father to the foundry, and they took their places upon a platform overlooking the toiling of the moulders and the lava of liquefied metal. All the workmen wrought at their tasks in silence; there was no sound heard but the muttering of the fires. And the muttering deepened into a roar like the roar of typhoons approaching, and the blood-red lake of metal slowly brightened like the vermilion of a sunrise, and the vermilion was transmuted into a radiant glow of gold, and the gold whitened blindingly, like the silver face of a full moon. Then the workers ceased to feed the raving flame, and all fixed their eyes upon the eyes of Kouan-Yu; and Kouan-Yu prepared to give the signal to cast.
(8) But ere ever he lifted his finger, a cry caused him to turn his head and all heard the voice of Ko-Ngai sounding sharply sweet as a bird’s song above the great thunder of the fires—“For thy sake, O my father!” And even as she cried, she leaped into the white flood of metal; and the lava of the furnace roared to receive her, and spattered monstrous flakes of flame to the roof, and burst over the verge of the earthen crater, and cast up a whirling fountain of many-coloured fires, and subsided quakingly, with lightnings and with thunders and with mutterings.
(9) Then the father of Ko-Ngai, wild with his grief, would have leaped in after her, but that strong men held him back and kept firm grasp upon him until he had fainted away, and they could bear him like one dead to his home. And the serving-woman of Ko-Ngai, dizzy and speechless for pain, stood before the furnace, still holding in her hands a shoe, a tiny, dainty shoe, with embroidery of pearls and flowers—the shoe of her beautiful mistress that was. For she had sought to grasp Ko-Ngai by the foot as she leaped, but had only been able to clutch the shoe, and the pretty shoe came off in her hand; and she continued to stare at it like one gone mad.
(10) But in spite of all these things, the command of the Celestial and August had to be obeyed, and the work of the moulders to be finished, hopeless as the result might be. Yet the glow of the metal seemed purer and whiter than before; and there was no sign of the beautiful body that had been entombed therein. So the ponderous casting was made; and lo! when the metal had become cool, it was found that the bell was beautiful to look upon and perfect in form, and wonderful in colour above all other bells. Nor was there any trace found of the body of Ko-Ngai; for it had been totally absorbed by the precious alloy, and blended with the well-blended brass and gold, with the intermingling of the silver and the iron. And when they sounded the bell, its tones were found to be deeper and mellower and mightier than the tones of any other bell, reaching even beyond the distance of one hundred li, like a pealing of summer thunder; and yet also like some vast voice uttering a name, a woman’s name, the name of Ko-Ngai.
And still, between each mighty stroke there is a long low moaning heard; and ever the moaning ends with a sound of sobbing and of complaining, as though a weeping woman should murmur, “Hiai!” And still, when the people hear that great golden moan they keep silence, but when the sharp, sweet shuddering comes in the air, and the sobbing of “Hiai!” then, indeed, do all the Chinese mothers in all the many-coloured ways of Pe-King whisper to their little ones: “Listen! that is Ko-Ngai crying for her shoe! That is Ko-Ngai calling for her shoe!”
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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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