Swords by Lu Hsun
Mei Chien Chih had no sooner lain down beside his mother
than rats came out to gnaw the wooden lid of the pan. The sound got on
his nerves. The soft hoots he gave had some effect at first, but
presently the rats ignored him, crunching and munching as they
pleased. He dared not make a loud noise to drive them away, for fear
of waking his mother, so tired by her labours during the day that as
soon as her head touched the pillow she had fallen asleep.
After a long time silence fell. He was dozing off when a sudden
splash made him open his eyes with a start. He heard the rasping of
claws against earthenware.
"Good! I hope you drown!" he thought gleefully and sat up quietly.
Getting out of bed, he picked his way by the light of the moon to
the door. He groped for the fire stick behind it, lit a chip of pine
wood and lighted up the water vat. Sure enough, a huge rat had fallen
in. There was too little water inside for it to get out. It was just
swimming round, scrabbling at the side of the vat.
"Serves you right!" the boy exulted. This was one of the creatures
that kept him awake every night by gnawing the furniture. He stuck the
torch into a small hole in the mud wall to gloat over the sight, till
the creature's beady eyes revolted him and reaching for a dried reed
he pushed it under the water. After a time he removed the reed and the
rat, coming to the surface, went on swimming round and scrabbling at
the side of the vat, but less powerfully than before. Its eyes were
under water—all that could be seen was the red rip of a small pointed
nose, snuffling desperately.
For some time he had had an aversion to red-nosed people. Yet now
this small pointed red nose struck him as pathetic. He thrust his reed
under the creature's belly. The rat clutched at it, and after catching
its breath clambered upon it. But the sight of its whole body—sopping
black fur, bloated belly, worm-like tail—struck him again as so
revolting that he hastily shook the reed. The rat dropped back with a
splash into the vat. Then he hit it several times over the head to
make it sink.
Now the pine chip had been changed six times. The rat, exhausted,
was floating submerged in the middle of the jar, from time to time
straining slightly towards the surface. Once more the boy was seized
with pity. He broke the reed in two and, with considerable difficulty,
fished the creature up and put it on the floor. To begin with, it
didn't budge; then it rook a breath; after a long time its feet
twitched and it turned over, as if meaning to make off. This gave Mei
Chien Chih a jolt. He raised his left foot instinctively and brought
it heavily down. He heard a small cry. When he squatted down to look,
there was blood on the rat's muzzle—it was probably dead.
He felt sorry again, as remorseful as if he had committed a crime.
He squatted there, staring, unable to get up.
By this time his mother was awake.
"What are you doing, son?" she asked from the bed.
He rose hastily and turned to her answering briefly.
"I know it's a rat. But what are you doing? Killing it or saving
He made no answer. The torch had burned out. He stood there
silently in the darkness, accustoming his eyes to the pale light of
His mother sighed.
"After midnight you'll be sixteen, but you're still the same—so
lukewarm. You never change. It looks as if your father will have no
one to avenge him."
Seated in the grey moonlight, his mother seemed to be trembling
from head to foot. The infinite grief in her low tones made him
shiver. The next moment, though, hot blood raced through his veins.
"Avenge my father? Does he need avenging?" He stepped. forward in
"He does. And the task falls to you. I have long wanted to tell
you, but while you were small I said nothing. Now you're not a child
any longer though you still act like one. I just don't know what to
do. Can a boy like you carry through a real man's job?"
"I can. Tell me, mother. I'm going to change. . . ."
"Of course. I can only tell you. And you'll have to change. . . .
Well, come over here."
He walked over. His mother sat upright in bed, her eyes flashing in
the shadowy white moonlight.
"Listen!" she said gravely. "Your father was famed as a forger of
swords, the best in all the land. I sold his tools to keep us from
starving, so there's nothing left for you to see. But he was the best
sword-maker in the whole world. Twenty years ago, the king's concubine
gave birth to a piece of iron which they said she conceived after
embracing an iron pillar. It was pure, transparent iron. The king,
realizing that this was a rare treasure, decided to have it made into
a sword with which to defend his kingdom, kill his enemies and ensure
his own safety. As ill luck would have it, your father was chosen for
the task, and in both hands he brought the iron home. He tempered it
day and night for three whole years, until he had forged two swords.
"What a fearful sight when he finally opened his furnace! A jet of
white vapour billowed up into the sky, while the earth shook. The
white vapour became a white cloud above this spot; by degrees it
turned a deep scarlet and cast a peachblossom tint over everything. In
our pitch-black furnace lay two red-hot swords. As your father
sprinkled them drop by drop with clear well water, the swords hissed
and spat and little by little turned blue. So seven days and seven
nights passed, till the swords disappeared from sight. But if you
looked hard, they were still in the furnace, pure blue and as
transparent as two icicles.
"Great happiness flashed from your father's eyes. Picking up the
swords, he stroked and fondled them. Then lines of sadness appeared on
his forehead and at the corners of his mouth. He put the swords in two
"'You've only to look at the portents of the last few days to
realize that everybody must know the swords are forged,' he told me
softly. 'Tomorrow I must go to present one to the king. But the day
that I present it will be the last day of my life. I am afraid we
shall never meet again.'
"Horrified, uncertain what he meant, I didn't know what to reply.
All I could say was: 'But you've done such fine work.'
"'Ah, you don't understand! The king is suspicious and cruel. Now
I've forged two swords the like of which have never been seen, he is
bound to kill me to prevent my forging swords for any of his rivals
who might oppose or surpass him.'
"I shed tears.
"'Don't grieve,' he said. 'There's no way out. Tears can't wash
away fate. I've been prepared for this for some time. His eyes seemed
to dart lightning as he placed a sheath on my knee. 'This is the male
sword,' he told me. 'Keep it. Tomorrow I shall take the female to the
king. If I don't come back, you'll know I'm dead. Won't you be brought
to bed in four or five months? Don't grieve, but bear our child and
bring him up well. As soon as he's grown, give him this sword and tell
him to cut off the king's head to avenge me!'"
"Did my father come back that day?" demanded the boy.
"He did not," she replied calmly. "I asked everywhere, but there
was no news of him. Later someone told me that the first to stain with
his blood the sword forged by your father was your father himself. For
fear his ghost should haunt the palace, they buried his body at the
front gate, his head in the park at the back."
Mei Chien Chih felt as if he were on fire and sparks were flashing
from every hair of his head. He clenched his fists in the dark till
the knuckles cracked.
His mother stood up and lifted aside the board at the head of the
bed. Then she lit a torch, took a hoe from behind the door and handed
it to her son with the order:
Though the lad's heart was pounding, he dug calmly, stroke after
stroke. He scooped out yellow earth to a depth of over five feet,
when the colour changed to that of rotten wood.
"Look! Be careful now!" cried his mother.
Lying flat beside the hole he had made, he reached down gingerly to
shift the rotted wood till the tips of his fingers touched something
as cold as ice. It was the pure, transparent sword. He made out where
the hilt was, grasped it, and lifted it out.
The moon and stars outside the window and the pine torch inside the
room abruptly lost their brightness. The world was filled with a blue,
steely light. And in this steely light the sword appeared to melt away
and vanish from sight. But when the lad looked hard he saw something
over three feet long which didn't seem particularly sharp—in fact the
blade was rounded like a leek.
"You must stop being soft now," said his mother. "Take this sword
to avenge your father!"
"I've already stopped being soft. With this sword I'll avenge him!"
"I hope so. Put on a blue coat and strap the sword to your back. No
one will see it if they are the same colour. I've got the coat ready
here." His mother pointed to the shabby chest behind the bed. "You'll
set out tomorrow. Don't worry about me.
Mei Chien Chih tried on the new coat and found that it fitted him
perfectly. He wrapped it around the sword which he placed by his
pillow, and calmly lay down again. He believed he had already stopped
being soft. He determined to act as if nothing were on his mind, to
fall straight asleep, to wake the next morning as usual, and then to
set out confidently in search of his mortal foe.
However, he couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned, eager all the
time to sit up. He heard his mother's long, soft, hopeless sighs.
Then he heard the first crow of the cock and knew that a new day had
dawned, that he was sixteen.
Mei Chien Chih, his eyelids swollen, left the house without once
looking back. In the blue coat with the sword on his back, he strode
swiftly towards the city. There was as yet no light in the east. The
vapours of night still hid in the dew that clung to the tip of each
fir leaf. But by the time he reached the far end of the forest, the
dew drops were sparkling with lights which little by little took on
the tints of dawn. Far ahead he could just see the outline of the dark
grey, crenellated city walls.
Mingling with the vegetable vendors, he entered the city. The
streets were already full of noise and bustle. Men stood about idly
in groups. Every now and then women put their heads out from their
doors. Most of their eyelids were swollen from sleep too, their hair
was uncombed and their faces were pale because they had had no time to
put on rouge.
Mei Chien Chih sensed that some great event was about to take
place, something eagerly yet patiently awaited by all these people.
As he advanced, a child darted past, almost knocking into the point
of the sword on his back. He broke into a cold sweat. Turning north
not far from the palace, he found a press of people craning their
necks towards the road. He heard the cries of women and children in
the crowd. Afraid his invisible sword might hurt one of them, he dared
not push his way forward; but new arrivals pressed him from behind. He
had to move out of their way, till all he could see was the backs of
those in front and their craning necks.
All of a sudden, the people in front fell one by one to their
knees. In the distance appeared two riders galloping forward side by
side. They were followed by warriors carrying batons, spears, swords,
bows and flags, who raised a cloud of yellow dust. After them came a
large cart drawn by four horses, bearing musicians sounding gongs and
drums and blowing strange wind instruments. Behind were carriages with
courtiers in bright clothes, old men or short, plump fellows, their
faces glistening with sweat. These were followed by outriders armed
with swords, spears and halberds. Then the kneeling people prostrated
themselves and Mei Chien Chih saw a great carriage with a yellow
canopy drive up. In the middle of this was seated a fat man in
brightly coloured clothes with a grizzled moustache and small head. He
was wearing a sword like the one on the boy's back.
Mei Chien Chih gave an instinctive shudder, but at once he felt
burning hot. Reaching out for the hilt of the sword on his back, he
picked his way forward between the necks of the kneeling crowd.
But he had taken no more than five or six steps when someone
tripped him and he fell headlong on top of a young fellow with a
wizened face. He was getting up nervously to see whether the point of
his sword had done any damage, when he received two hard punches in
the ribs. Without stopping to protest he looked at the road. But the
carriage with the yellow canopy had passed. Even the mounted
attendants behind it were already some distance away.
On both sides of the road everyone got up again. The young man with
the wizened face had seized Mei Chien Chih by the collar and would not
let go. He accused him of crushing his solar plexus, and ordered the
boy to pay with his own life if he died before the age of eighty.
Idlers crowded round to gape but said nothing, till a few taking the
side of the wizened youth let fall some jokes and curses. Mei Chien
Chih could neither laugh at such adversaries nor lose his temper.
Annoying as they were, he could not get rid of them. This went on for
about the time it takes to cook a pan of millet. He was afire with
impatience. Still the onlookers, watching as avidly as ever, refused
Then through the throng pushed a dark man, lean as an iron rake,
with a black beard and black eyes. Without a word, he smiled coldly
at Mei Chien Chih, then raised his hand to flick the jaw of the
youngster with the wizened face and looked steadily into his eyes.
For a moment the youth returned his stare, then let go of the boy's
collar and went off. The dark man went off too, and the disappointed
spectators drifted away. A few came up to ask Mei Chien Chih his age
and address, and whether he had sisters at home. But he ignored them.
He walked south, reflecting that in the bustling city it would be
easy to wound someone by accident. He had better wait outside the
South Gate for the king's return, to avenge his father. That open,
deserted space was the best place for his purpose. By now the whole
city was discussing the king's trip to the mountain. What a retinue!
What majesty! What an honour to have seen the king! They had
prostrated themselves so low that they should be considered as
examples to all the nation! They buzzed like a swarm of bees. Near
the South Gate, however, it became quieter.
Having left the city, he sat down under a big mulberry tree to eat
two rolls of steamed bread. As he ate, the thought of his mother
brought a lump to his throat, but presently that passed. All around
grew quieter and quieter, until he could hear his own breathing quite
As dusk fell, he grew more and more uneasy. He strained his eyes
ahead, but there was not a sign of the king. The villagers who had
taken vegetables to the city to sell were going home one by one with
Long after all these had gone, the dark man came darting out from
"Run, Mei Chien Chih! The king is after you!" His voice was like
the hoot of an owl.
Mei Chien Chih trembled from head to foot. Spellbound, he followed
the dark man, running as if he had wings. Ar last, stopping to catch
breath, he realized they had reached the edge of the fir wood. Far
behind were the silver rays of the rising moon; but in front all he
could see were the dark man's eyes gleaming like will-o'-the-wisps.
"How did you know me? . . . " asked the lad in fearful amazement.
"I've always known you." The man laughed. "I know you carry the
male sword on your back to avenge your father. And I know you will
fail. Not only so, but today someone has informed against you. Your
enemy went back to the palace by the East Gate and has issued an order
for your arrest."
Mei Chien Chih began to despair.
"Oh, no wonder mother sighed," he muttered.
"But she knows only half. She doesn't know that I'm going to take
vengeance for you."
"You? Are you willing to take vengeance for me, champion of
"Ah, don't insult me by giving me that title."
"Well, then, is it out of sympathy for widows and orphans?"
"Don't use words that have been sullied, child," he replied
sternly. "Justice, sympathy and such terms, which once were clean,
have now become capital for fiendish usurers. I have no place for
these in my heart. I want only to avenge you!"
"Good. But how will you do it?"
"I want two things only from you." His voice sounded from beneath
two burning eyes. "What two things? First your sword, then your head!"
Mei Chien Chih thought the request a strange one. But though he
hesitated, he was not afraid. For a moment he was speechless.
"Don't be afraid that I want to trick you out of your life and your
treasure," continued the implacable voice in the dark. "It's entirely
up to you. If you trust me, I'll go; if not, I won't."
"But why are you going to take vengeance for me? Did you know my
"I knew him from the start, just as I've always known you. But
that's not the reason. You don't understand, my clever lad, how I
excel at revenge. What's yours is mine, what concerns him concerns me
too. I bear on my soul so many wounds inflicted by others as well as
by myself, that now I hate myself."
The voice in the darkness was silent. Mei Chien Chib raised his
hand to draw the blue sword from his back and with the same movement
swung it forward from the nape of his neck. As his head fell on the
green moss at his feet, he handed the sword to the dark man.
"Aha!" The man took the sword with one hand, with the other he
picked up Mei Chien Chih's head by the hair. He kissed the warm dead
lips twice and burst into cold, shrill laughter.
His laughter spread through the fir wood. At once, deep in the
forest, flashed blazing eyes like the light of the will-o'the-wisp
which the next instant came so close that you could hear the
snuffling of famished wolves. With one bite, Mei Chien Chih's blue
coat was torn to shreds; the next disposed of his whole body, while
the blood was instantaneously licked clean. The only sound was the
soft crunching of bones.
The huge wolf at the head of the pack hurled itself at the dark
man. But with one sweep of the blue sword, its head fell on the green
moss at his feet. With one bite the other wolves tore its skin to
shreds, then next disposed of its whole body, while the blood was
instantaneously licked clean. The only sound was the soft crunching of
The dark man picked up the blue coat from the ground to wrap up Mei
Chien Chih's head. Having fastened this and the blue sword on his
back, he turned on his heel and swung off through the darkness towards
The wolves stood stock-still, hunched up, tongues lolling, panting.
They watched him with green eyes as he strode away.
He swung through the darkness towards the capital, singing in a
shrill voice as he went:
Sing hey, sing ho!
The single one who loved the sword
Has taken death as his reward.
Those who go single are galore,
Who love the sword are alone no more!
Foe for foe, ha! Head for head!
Two men by their own hands are dead.
The king had taken no pleasure in his trip to the mountain, and the
secret report of an assassin lying in wait on the road sent him back
even more depressed. He was in a bad temper that night. He complained
that not even the ninth concubine's hair was as black and glossy as
the day before. Fortunately, perched kittenishly on the royal knee,
she wriggled over seventy times till at last the wrinkles on the
kingly brow were smoothed out.
But on rising after noon the next day the king was in a bad mood
again. By the time lunch was over, he was furious.
"I'm bored!" he cried with a great yawn.
From the queen down to the court jester, all were thrown into a
panic. The king had long since tired of his old ministers' sermons
and the clowning of his plump dwarfs; recently he had even been
finding insipid the marvellous tricks of rope-walkers, pole-climbers,
jugglers, somersaulters, sword-swallowers and fire-spitters. He was
given to bursts of rage, during which he would draw his sword to kill
men on the slightest pretext.
Two eunuchs just back after playing truant from the palace,
observing the gloom which reigned over the court, knew that dire
trouble was impending again. One of them turned pale with fear. The
other, however, quite confident, made his way unhurriedly to the
king's presence to prostrate himself and announce:
"Your slave begs to inform you that he has just met a remarkable
man with rare skill, who should be able to amuse Your Majesty."
"What?" The king was not one to waste words.
"He's a lean, dark fellow who looks like a beggar. He's dressed in
blue, has a round blue bundle on his back and sings snatches of
strange doggerel. When questioned, he says he can do a wonderful trick
the like of which has never been seen, unique in the world and
absolutely new. The sight will end all care and bring peace to the
world. But when we asked for a demonstration, he wouldn't give one. He
says he needs a golden dragon and a golden cauldron. . . ."
"A golden dragon? That's me. A golden cauldron? I have one."
"That's just what your slave thought. . . ."
"Bring him in!"
Before the king's voice had died away, four guards hurried out with
the eunuch. From the queen down to the court jester, all beamed with
delight, hoping this conjuror would end all care and bring peace to
the world. Even if the show fell flat, there would be the lean, dark,
beggarly-looking fellow to bear the brunt of the royal displeasure. If
they could last till he was brought in, all would be well.
They did not have long to wait. Six men came hurrying towards the
golden throne. The eunuch led the way, the four guards brought up the
rear, and in the middle was a dark man. On nearer inspection they
could see his blue coat, black beard, eyebrows and hair. He was so
thin that his cheekbones stood out and his eyes were sunken. As he
knelt respectfully to prostrate himself, they saw a small round
bundle, wrapped in blue cloth patterned in a dark red, on his back.
"Well!" shouted the king impatiently. The simplicity of this
fellow's paraphernalia did not augur well for his tricks.
"Your subject's name is Yen-chih-ao-che, born in Wenwen Village. I
wasn't bred to any trade, but when I was grown I met a sage who taught
me how to conjure with a boy's head. I can't do this alone, though. It
must be in the presence of a golden dragon, and I must have a golden
cauldron filled with clear water and heated with charcoal. Then when
the boy's head is put in and the water boils, the head will rise and
fall and dance all manner of figures. It will laugh and sing too in a
marvellous voice. Whoever hears its song and sees its dance will know
an end to care. When all men see it, the whole world will be at peace."
"Go ahead!" the king ordered loudly.
They did not have long to wait. A great golden cauldron, big enough
to boil an ox, was set outside the court. It was filled with clear
water, and charcoal was lit beneath it. The dark man stood at one
side. When the charcoal was red he put down his bundle and undid it.
Then with both hands he held up a boy's head with fine eyebrows, large
eyes, white teeth and red lips. A smile was on its face. Its tangled
hair was like faint blue smoke. The dark man raised it high, turning
round to display it to the whole assembly. He held it over the
cauldron while he muttered something unintelligible, and finally
dropped it with a splash into the water. Foam flew up at least five
feet high. Then all was still.
For a long time nothing happened. The king lost patience, the
queen, concubines, ministers and eunuchs began to feel alarmed, while
the plump dwarfs started to sneer. These sneers made the king suspect
that he was being made to look a fool. He turned to the guards to
order them to have this oaf, who dared deceive his monarch, thrown
into the great cauldron and boiled to death.
But that very instant he heard the water bubbling. The fire burning
with all its might cast a ruddy glow over the dark man, turning him
the dull red of molten iron. The king looked round. The dark man,
stretching both hands towards the sky, stared into space and danced,
singing in a shrill voice:
Sing hey for love, for love heigh ho!
Ah, love! Ah, blood! Who is not so?
Men grope in the dark, the king laughs loud,
Ten thousand heads in death have bowed.
I only use one single head,
For one man's head let blood be shed!
Blood—let it flow!
Sing hey, sing ho!
As he sang, the water in the cauldron seethed up like a small
cone-shaped mountain, flowing and eddying from tip to base. The head
bobbed up and down with the water, skimming round and round, turning
nimble somersaults as it went. They could just make out the smile of
pleasure on its face. Then abruptly it gave this up to start swimming
against the stream, circling, weaving to and fro, splashing water in
all directions so that hot drops showered the court. One of the dwarfs
gave a yelp and rubbed his nose. Scalded, he couldn't suppress a cry
The dark man stopped singing. The head remained motionless in the
middle of the water, a grave expression on its face. After a few
seconds, it began to bob up and down slowly again. From bobbing it put
on speed to swim up and down, not quickly but with infinite grace.
Three times it circled the cauldron, ducking up and down. Then, its
eyes wide, the jet-black pupils phenomenally bright, it sang:
The sovereign's rule spreads far and wide,
He conquers foes on every side.
The world may end, but not his might,
So here I come all gleaming bright.
Bright gleams the sword—forget me not!
A royal sight, but sad my lot.
Sing hey, sing ho, a royal sight!
Come back, where gleams the bright blue light.
The head stopped suddenly at the crest of the water. After several
somersaults, it started plying up and down again, casting bewitching
glances to right and to left as it sang once more:
Heigh ho, for the love we know!
I cut one head, one head, heigh ho!
I use one single head, not more,
The heads he uses are galore! . . .
By the last line of the song the head was submerged, and since it
did not reappear the singing became indistinct. As the song grew
fainter, the seething water subsided little by little like an ebbing
tide, until it was below the rim of the cauldron. From a distance
nothing could be seen.
"Well?" demanded the king impatiently, tired of waiting.
"Your Majesty!" The dark man went down on one knee. "It's dancing
the most miraculous Dance of Union at the bottom of the cauldron. You
can't see this unless you come close. I can't make it come up, because
this Dance of Union has to be performed at the bottom of the cauldron."
The king stood up and strode down the steps to the cauldron.
Regardless of the heat, he bent forward to watch. The water was as
smooth as a mirror. The head, lying there motionless, looked up and
fixed its eyes on the king. When the king's glance fell on its face,
it gave a charming smile. This smile made the king feel that they had
met before. Who could this be? While he wondered, the dark man drew
the blue sword from his back and swept it forward like lightning from
the nape of the king's neck. The king's head fell with a splash into
When enemies meet they know each other at a glance, particularly at
close quarters. The moment the king's head touched the water, Mei
Chien Chih's head came up to meet it and savagely bit its ear. The
water in the cauldron boiled and bubbled as the two heads engaged upon
a fight to the death. After about twenty encounters, the king was
wounded in five places, Mei Chien Chih in seven. The crafty king
contrived to slip behind his enemy, and in an unguarded moment Mei
Chien Chih let himself be caught by the back of his neck, so that he
could not turn round. The king fastened his teeth into him and would
not let go, like a silkworm burrowing into a mulberry leaf. The boy's
cries of pain could be heard outside the cauldron.
From the queen down to the court jester, all who had been petrified
with fright before were galvanized into life by this sound. They felt
as if the sun had been swallowed up in darkness. But even as they
trembled, they knew a secret joy. They waited, round-eyed.
The dark man, rather taken aback, did not change colour.
Effortlessly he raised his arm like a withered branch holding the
invisible sword. He stretched forward as if to peer into the
cauldron. Of a sudden his arm bent, the blue sword thrust down and
his head fell into the cauldron with a plop, sending snow-white foam
flying in all directions.
As soon as his head hit the water, it charged at the king's head
and took the royal nose between its teeth, nearly biting it off. The
king gave a cry of pain and Mei Chien Chih seized this chance to get
away, whirling round to cling with a vice-like grip to his jaw. They
pulled with all their might in opposite directions, so that the king
could not keep his mouth shut. Then they fell on him savagely, like
famished hens pecking at rice, till the king's head was mauled and
savaged out of all recognition. To begin with he lashed about
frantically in the cauldron; then he simply lay there groaning; and
finally he fell silent, having breathed his last.
Presently the dark man and Mei Chien Chih stopped biting. They left
the king's head and swam once round the edge of the cauldron to see
whether their enemy was shamming or not. Assured that the king was
indeed dead, they exchanged glances and smiled. Then, closing their
eyes, their faces towards the sky, they sank to the bottom of the
golden dragon] The ancient Chinese emperors, to bolster their
prestige, often called themselves dragons. The dragon in Chinese
legend was divine.
The smoke drifted away, the fire went out. Not a ripple remained on
the water. The extraordinary silence brought high and low to their
senses. Someone gave a cry, and at once all called out together in
horror. Someone walked over to the golden cauldron, and the others
pressed after him. Those crowded at the back could only peer between
the necks of those in front.
The heat still scorched their cheeks. The water, now as smooth as a
mirror, was coated with oil which reflected a sea of faces: the queen,
the concubines, guards, old ministers, dwarfs, eunuchs. . . .
"Heavens! Our king's head is still in there! Oh, horrors!" The
sixth concubine suddenly burst into frantic sobbing.
From the queen down to the court jester, all were seized by
consternation. They scattered in panic, at a loss, running round in
circles. The wisest old councillor went forward alone and put out a
hand to touch the side of the cauldron. He winced, snatched back his
hand and put two fingers to his mouth to blow on them.
Finally regaining control, they gathered outside the palace to
discuss how best to recover the king's head. They consulted for the
time it would take to cook three pans of millet. Their conclusion
was: collect wire scoops from the big kitchen, and order the guards
to do their best to retrieve the royal head.
Soon the implements were ready:
wire scoops, strainers, golden plates and dusters were all placed
by the cauldron. The guards rolled up their sleeves. Some with wire
scoops, some with strainers, respectfully they set about bringing up
the remains. The scoops clashed against each other and scraped the
edge of the cauldron, while the water eddied in their wake. After some
time, one of the guards, with a grave face, raised his scoop slowly
and carefully in both hands. Drops of water like pearls were dripping
from the utensil, in which lay a snow-white skull. As the others cried
Out with astonishment, he deposited the skull on one golden plate.
"Oh, dear! Our king!" The queen, concubines, ministers and even the
eunuchs burst out sobbing. They soon stopped, however, when another
guard fished out another skull identical with the first.
They watched dully with tear-filled eyes as the sweating guards
went on with their salvaging. They retrieved a tangled mass of white
hair and black hair, and several spoonfuls of some shorter hair no
doubt from white and black moustaches. Then another skull. Then three
They stopped only when nothing but clear soup was left in the
cauldron, and divided what they had on to three golden plates: one of
skulls, one of hair, one of hairpins.
"His Majesty had only one head, Which is his?" demanded the ninth
"Quite so. . . ." The ministers looked at each other in dismay.
"If the skin and flesh hadn't boiled away, it would be easy to
tell," remarked one kneeling dwarf.
They forced themselves to examine the skulls carefully, but the
size and colour were about the same. They could not even distinguish
which was the boy's. The queen said the king had a scar on his right
temple as the result of a fall while still crown prince, and this
might have left a trace on the skull. Sure enough, a dwarf discovered
such a mark on one skull, and there was general rejoicing until
another dwarf discovered a similar mark on the right temple of a
slightly yellower skull.
"I know!" exclaimed the third concubine happily. "Our king had a
very high nose."
The eunuchs hastened to examine the noses. To be sure, one of them
was relatively high, though there wasn't much to choose between them;
but unfortunately that particular skull had no mark on the right
"Besides," said the ministers to the eunuchs, "was the back of His
Majesty's skull so protuberant?"
"We never paid any attention to the back of His Majesty's skull. .
The queen and the concubines searched their memories. Some said it
had been protuberant, some flat. When they questioned the eunuch who
had combed the royal hair, he would not commit himself to an answer.
That evening a council of princes and ministers was held to
determine which head was the king's, but with no better result than
during the day. In fact, even the hair and moustaches presented a
problem. The white was of course the king's, but since he had been
grizzled it was very hard to decide about the black. After half a
night's discussion, they had just eliminated a few red hairs when the
ninth concubine protested. She was sure she had seen a few brown hairs
in the king's moustache; in which case how could they be sure there
was not a single red one? They had to put them all together again and
leave the case unsettled.
By the early hours of the morning they had reached no solution.
They prolonged the discussion yawning, till the cock crowed a second
time, before fixing on a safe and satisfactory solution: All three
heads should be placed in the golden coffin beside the king's body for
The funeral took place a week later. The whole city was agog.
Citizens of the capital and spectators from far away flocked to the
royal funeral. As soon as it was light, the road was thronged with
men and women. Sandwiched in between were tables bearing sacrificial
offerings. Shortly before midday horsemen cantered out to clear the
roads. Some time later came a procession of flags, batons, spears,
bows, halberds and the like, followed by four cartloads of musicians.
Then, rising and falling with the uneven ground, a yellow canopy drew
near. It was possible to make out the hearse with the golden coffin in
which lay three heads and one body.
The people knelt down, revealing rows of tables with offerings.
Some loyal subjects gulped back tears of rage to think that the
spirits of the two regicides were enjoying the sacrifice now together
with the king. But there was nothing they could do about it.
Then followed the carriages of the queen and concubines. The crowd
stared at them and they stared at the crowd, not stopping their
wailing. After them came the ministers, eunuchs and dwarfs, all of
whom assumed a mournful air. But no one paid the least attention to
them, and their ranks were squeezed out of all semblance of order.