Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Sound of Water, the Crashing of the Waves (Manchu)

There was once an old fiddler whose music could soften the stoniest of hearts. He had a lovely daughter of sixteen named Muke, or "water." Her singing could make one look to the heavens and laugh or look below and silently weep. Her singing was that beautiful! Together, the old fiddler and his daughter traveled along Bohai Bay and performed for many families in fishing and herding villages.

In time the feudal magistrate of Bohai heard about this golden flower who could sing so beautifully and ordered her and her father to his manor. Once they were there, the magistrate fell madly in love with Muke just after laying his eyes upon her. He then had her father kicked out. All the fiddler could do now was to play his fiddle mournfully on the banks of the Mudan River and cry for his daughter locked up in the magistrate's manor.

The magistrate of Bohai now had Muke, but from that day on, all was not well for him. He could no longer have a full night's sleep. No sooner did he immediately fall asleep then he would be awakened by the sound of water from the small outside his window. At times the stream would sound like the mighty East China Sea itself, with its huge waves rising from the depths and crashing thunderously against ships and rocks. At other times, though, it sounded hauntingly like weeping. Then, at still other times, it resembled whispered laughing, snickering. Wherever he tried to sleep, he could not escape these sounds that seemed to come from outside but also from the confines of his skull. After countless nights of no sleep, the magistrate was very upset, his nerves frayed and raw.

Summoning Muke, the magistrate asked her, "Girl, since the day you stepped foot onto my property, I have not had one good night's sleep. I no longer feel like eating and cannot think straight. Why is that, you think? Tell me."

"Your Excellency," Muke answered, her eyes reddening, "it is because my father is thinking of me."

"Your father is thinking of you?" replied the magistrate. "How does that make the waters of the stream I used to love so much roar like a great river or ocean?"

"My father is playing the song 'Thinking of the Water,' Excellency. His voice and music penetrate the waters of the Mudan, from which your little stream flows. I know this, for I can hear him too."

The magistrate turned away from her and snapped his fingers for his attendants. "Send some men to the Mudan and have them bring the girl's father to me!" he barked.

The magistrate's guards finally found the old man sitting by the water, his legs crossed, his hands folded in his lap, his fiddle resting by his side and his eyes closed.

"Let's go, Grandpa," said one guard, shaking the old fiddler's shoulder. However, the old man showed no response.

"I said to go! The magistrate of Bohai is waiting for you, and he doesn't like to be kept waiting. So if I were you--"

The old man neither moved nor said a word.

The guard touched the old fiddler's neck and knelt down to look closely at the little old man below him. The old fiddler was stone, cold dead and had been so for a long time.

The guards rushed back to the palace and reported directly to the magistrate, who was somewhat relieved. Maybe now that accursed noise of surging, breaking water would finally stop.

When it continued even louder that very night, the enraged magistrate ordered Muke beheaded, thinking it had been she all along responsible for the mysterious noise. However, the sound of crashing, turbulent water continued night after night.

Before long, the magistrate died a madman's death in some dark corner of his estate, cursing and screaming at the sound of waves only he could hear.

Even now when people in that part of Manchuria hear the distant sound of water churning and roaring, they say, "The fiddler is crying for his Muke again!"


From Heilongjiang minjian gushi xuan (A selection of folktales from Heilongjiang) pp. 89-91. (Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1983.)

Motif: D2063.1.1, "Tormenting by sympathetic magic."

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