Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Fox Maiden (Manchu)

There was a young woodcutter named Bayang'a who lived all by himself; he had to, for he was too poor to afford a wife. Anyway, he was out in the forest chopping wood one day when he heard a commotion behind some trees and bushes. He stepped over to take a look.

In a clearing a group of boys had captured a young fox and were finishing tying up its legs. The fox was a beautiful creature, with piercing and sparkling black eyes.

"Where did you boys get that fox?" asked Bayang'a.

"In that cave over there, " one of them answered, pointing to a cave just beyond the clearing.

"And what do you plan to do with it?"

"Skin it!" replied another. "Then we'll sell the fur as lining for a jacket!"

Bayang'a looked the fox over. He shook his head. "Yes, maybe when it's bigger, but it's still too small. Killing it now would really be a waste, a shame. How about if I buy it from you?"

The boys agreed, and Bayang'a paid them the little money he had on himself. The boys ran off with their "riches," and Bayang'a carried the fox to the mouth of the cave, where he untied the creature's legs.

"All right, there you go," he said. "Go back into your cave and find your parents!" The fox darted back inside. "And make sure you don't go carelessly running around in these parts!"

The fox's old father cried tears of joy to be reunited with his daughter. "I thought I'd never see you again!" he said, embracing her. "What happened?"

The daughter fox explained how a kindhearted woodcutter had arrived in just in time and bought her from the boys who had intended to skin her for her fur.

"Then this is what you must do," said the father. "You must help him. You must reward him. We foxes always repay a kindness, so the next time you see him, you must find a way to repay him!"

The daughter fox agreed. She had found Bayang'a not only tenderhearted but also rather handsome. She decided she would repay him with the magic known to all foxes.

So, not long after that, the daughter fox left the cave and, seeing Bayang'a off in the distance, chopping wood, turned herself into a mortal, a beautiful girl with alabaster skin and long, black hair like shimmering silk. She approached Bayang'a.

"Hello, there, Brother," she said.

Bayang'a stopped what he was doing. "Hello to you."

"Why are you chopping all this wood?"

"I sell what I can and burn the rest for myself."

"And you use that which you burn to cook for yourself?"

"If I don't cook for myself, no one else will!"

"Is there no one else in your life, Brother?"

"No one else. Just myself."

"Well, I too, as a person," she said slyly, "have no one else in my life, either. I wouldn't mind being married to one such as yourself!"

Bayang'a's face turned a deep red. He looked down for a few seconds. Then, he looked up and asked, "You'd be happy married to a poor person such as myself?"

" 'Poor'! Ha! What's being 'poor'? I have two hands; I am not afraid to roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty! You and I'd always have food to eat!"

Well, the long and short of it was they did indeed marry each other!

Now married to Bayang'a, the fox girl did not remain idle. As soon as she was married, she sat in Bayang'a's small home and embroidered purses and pouches. She didn't stop until she had beautifully embroidered ninety-nine of them.

These were no ordinary designs!

The embroidered birds actually seemed to fly; the deer, if you didn't blink, appeared to prance and to run; the swaying tall grass, if you sniffed, exuded a fragrant redolence; and the fish, you'd swear, leaped right out of the water and back into the brine.

It took her five days to do the job. Once completed with the embroidering, she turned the bags over to her husband.

"Bayang'a," she said, "take these to the market to sell. Take this extra large bag and display it outside the stall. It will get the attention of the crowd for sure! One more thing: Make sure you absolutely do not tell anyone who had embroidered them!"

"Yes, my wife."

Bayang'a, shouldering a pole to carry two large sacks containing the ninety-nine bags, went to the town market. It happened to be some festive day, so the market was bustling with people from near and far. There were stalls everywhere--those selling huge red dates, sugar, fabrics of every kind, glutinous rice cakes wrapped in leaves, and so on. Each vendor pitched his or her wares with nearly ear-splitting inducements to the passersby. "The melon seller insisted his melons were sweet; the flower seller claimed his flowers were fragrant; the pickle seller swore his pickles were sour," as the old saying goes.

Bayang'a, totally unversed in the way of selling a product, chose an out-of-the-way spot to set up his stall. Luckily for him, the sheer fragrance of the pouches and purses, especially the rather large one displayed on a pole by his stall, quickly attracted people his way. Soon, he was doing a very brisk business.

"Unbelievable!" one customer exclaimed, holding up the pouch he had bought, examining it from every angle. "I'll tell you this--not even a celestial goddess could embroider like this!"

Before long all the purses and pouches had been sold--all but one, the large sample purse. And it was this purse that caught the attention of the local garrison commander, an officer called Liu Shi San.

"Bayang'a!" he said, coming up to the stall, looking over the large purse. "Who on earth did this embroidery?"

"Oh . . . just somebody . . ."

"Come, come now! Who did this amazing work? a fairy?"

"Just . . . just . . . somebody I know . . . "

"Bayang'a, I'm asking you a direct question. Allow me to ask you again. Who did this work?"

"A . . . relative."

" 'A relative.' Very well, Bayang'a. I wish to have some. Can you have your relative embroider some more for me?"

"Certainly, Your Excellency."

"One more thing: You must take me to meet the embroiderer."

"Well . . . I don't know . . . "

"Baiyang'a, are you refusing my order? My patience with you is already wearing thin. Pack up your things and your earnings, and let's go."

Well, Baiyang'a was in a fix. He couldn't very well refuse a royal officer, so he dutifully led Commander Liu Shi San to his home, where, the officer came face-to-face with Baiyang'a's gorgeous bride. Her beautiful black eyes, however, glowered at the officer like angry burning coals.

Immediately, the commander was smitten by her beauty; in fact, he was just about shot through the heart. However, he was, above everything else, a loyal subject of his king. Wait until I tell His Majesty about this fetching woman! he thought. He was sure he'd be rewarded beyond his dreams when the king himself discovered this stunning young lady and added her to his collection of beauties.

Commander Liu Shi San stuttered and stammered. Without even saying how many pouches he wished to order, he abruptly grabbed one of the embroidered bags, turned around, leaped over the threshold bar, and fled to the royal palace. Once there, he told his sovereign about the girl with the milky-complexioned egg-shaped face, ruby lips, and shimmering dark eyes.

"Moreover, Your Majesty," added the commander, "she embroidered this pouch!" He produced the pouch, which, if you looked at it from the right angle, you could see darting deer, leaping fish, and churning water. You could also, of course, smell the sweetness of the swaying grasses.

"Who is this woman who is as lovely as a celestial maiden and who can also embroider thus?" asked the king.

"Bayang'a's wife, Your Majesty."

"Bring her to me at once!" thundered the king. "Drag her forcibly if you must but bring her here immediately!"

The fox girl knew as soon as the commander had left that their troubles were just beginning.

"Bayang'a, act quickly. That man will be back to take me to the palace--"

"I shall never let anyone separate us!" Bayang'a cried, embracing her.

She pushed him away and said, "No, act quickly, I said! We have no time to lose! Go up the mountain and strip away bark from yellow bi trees. Bring lots of the bark back to me right away!"

Without a further word, Bayang'a quickly headed up the mountain. He came back as fast as he could with a sack full of yellow bi bark. His wife took the bark, crushed it in a tub, added some water, stirred the ingredients and made a paste. She then applied the paste to her face and the rest of her body.

"How do I look?" she asked Bayang'a.

"You . . . you look very sick . . . as if you had jaundice!"

Before long, the commander, as expected, showed up with some of his men. Without any resistance, the fox girl allowed him to escort her to the king's palace. She strode into the king's chamber, without kneeling or even so much as a lowering of her head.

"The wife of Bayang'a reports to His Majesty!" she said to the astonished king.

Commander Liu Shi San looked at the king. He had imagined his king would be ecstatic to have such a rare beauty before his eyes. Instead, the monarch looked both displeased and disgusted.

"Take her away!" the king cried. "Send her to the kitchen and have her boil water! Filthy-looking, ill-bred creature!"

"Your Majesty, I must report something to you," said the fox girl, turning her head back to the king as she was led towards the royal kitchen. The king looked at her. "Just recently I became ill. I'm very ill right now, as a matter of fact. Please don't blame me before I die for infecting your kitchen staff and anyone in the royal household!"

"Get her out of here before I fall ill!" screamed the king, attempting to pull up his shirt up with one hand to cover his face and pinching his nose with fingers from the other hand. "Turn her out at once! Go! Go! Go!"

The fox girl was escorted to the outer gates of the palace. Once beyond the threshold of the palace gate, she had the heavy gates slammed in her face. She smiled, shrugged and trudged back home.

Inside the palace, the king slowly turned to the commander. "You brought that filthy, diseased woman in here! Guards! Guards! Take the ex-commander to the chopping block this instance!"

Once back home, the fox girl and Bayang'a decided to flee the area, which they did!


from Minjian gushi, pp. 182-185. (See 3/26/08 for complete citation.)

This is yet another version from the worldwide Supernatural Wife cycle of tales. Other examples can be found at 12/21/07 and 1/23/08. In the story the fox wife never reveals her true identity to her husband and presumably remains in human form for evermore. Commander Liu Shi San's name simply means "sixty-three." Like many characters from Chinese and Indo-European folktales, he behaves like a clueless automaton, allowing a dangerously ill-appearing woman to approach his king. I have not been able to locate the identity of the bi tree.

Motifs: B601.14, "Marriage to fox in human form"; D313.1, "Fox transformed to human"; J242.3, "Fox masks as beauty."