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The Water Maiden

by Joel Gn

Since young, all Xu ever desired was to become an artist. He learnt to paint before he knew how to write, but his family was poor. Thus at the tender of age of ten, Xu began to assist his father in the procurement of textiles in his town. They worked from sunrise until sunset, but Xu was an obedient and filial son. He never cheated on the people, neither did he indulge in the evils of wine and women.

One day, as Xu was delivering his textiles to a customer, he came across a gang of little children hurling stones at an old man. The old man was surrounded by the brats, and he painfully begged them to let him go. Xu, knowing that the children were not relenting, rushed over to chase them away, beating their buttocks with a wooden stick.

He helped the injured old man to his feet, and brought him to an abandoned temple nearby to treat his wounds. The old man said nothing to him, and Xu believed him to be a mute, but as evening drew near, and the old man could walk again. He bowed in gratitude and gave him a piece of paper, which read

A treasure lies on the Great West lake,
where men desire
but never take.
She favors the heart
of one so pure,
seek her you must,
for fortune is yours.

The old man smiled and left the temple, his shadow fading slowly under the light of the full moon. Xu never saw or heard from the old man again.

For many nights, Xu thought about the words of the paper, and wondered if they were true. He had seen the West Lake, but he never knew that riches could be found there. Seven days later, he packed his belongings and bade his parents goodbye, for he yearned to discover the mystery beneath those waters. He took his brush along with him to capture the beauty of the Lake in his paintings.

Xu travelled for three days and three nights, with little food and sleep. His heart was consumed with desire, and his curiosity could never be quenched. He finally arrived at the Great West Lake, and he marvelled at the wondrous scenery. He sat along the tall weeds by the shore of the lake, and he began to paint.

His eyes grew weary of painting and drifted towards the surface of the lake. He stared for a moment at his own reflection, but it suddenly disappeared. He blinked in utter amazement; there in front of him, beneath the surface of the dark water, was a young woman’s face. Her beauty surpassed all that he had seen in his life. He painted her face on his potrait and made his way home, hoping to sell the painting the next day.

That night, as he slept, a strong wind swept across his house, and the doors to his room were blown apart. The candle on the table was snuffed out and got up from his bed, trembling in fear. his painting was torn to shreds, and the maiden’s face was no longer there.

He turned around, and there she was, standing in front of him, clad in robes of purple and white. Her long flowing tresses touched the floor and danced wildly as the cold wind blew.

"Do not be afraid," she said, "for I was imprisoned by the Lord of Judgment, but you have set me free. Ask for anything your heart desires, and it shall be yours." And she continued to speak kindly to him, and he was enraptured by her beauty.

Xu took her as his wife, and he became rich and famous. No one had paintings as beautiful as Xu’s in all the land . He became the most sought-after artist and was treated with respect wherever he went. He built magnificent villas for his parents and wife, and travelled far to distant kingdoms to capture their beauty in his picture.

But years passed, and Xu became proud and conceited. His parents died, but he did not attend their funeral. He reveled in his wealth, indulging in wine, women and song. He refused nothing his eyes saw and desired, and countless concubines were added to his harem. He treated the maiden with disdain, as she grew old and gray, and she was locked up alone in a dark chamber to spend her remaining days in isolation.

When her time was up and she knew that Death was near, she took out the paper that Xu used, the one where her face used to be and burnt it to ashes.

She felt the pain of the flame, the waning of life from her eyes. She whispered her husband’s name for the last time, and she was no more.

Overnight, at the turning of the full moon, Xu lost all he had. His villas disappeared, and all his friends left him. The gold ignots he kept turned to stone, and the paintings he had sold were nothing but blank pieces of paper. He looked for his wife, but she was gone. Overwhelmed by his own madness he fled to the lake and drowned himself, screaming into the dark, gloomy sky.

Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author

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