issue 176 - October 1987
Long, long ago in Hua Xian village, Dai Huang began to dig. When finally a small boy was sent to ask him what he was up to, he replied: 'Here I am building the biggest, the best kiln Hua Xian has ever seen'.
And so he was. He called the villagers together for the first firing. He slaughtered a pig so the kiln would burn hot and fierce and would not turn out any soft, yellow, useless bricks. Stepping through the warm blood, Dai Huang lit the fire.
And of course the people bought the bricks. They were dark and heavy and very, very hard, and the people needed to repair disused outhouses to store that year's bumper crop. They needed to repair the crumbling walls of their draughty homes, too. And they needed to buy Dai Huang's new hard bricks, because some malicious spirit had come one dark night to kick holes in the backs of the other, smaller kilns.
At night, as they huddled round their fires, the people would murmur about the evil spirit who kicked holes in their kilns so that they had to buy their bricks from Dal Huang. You never know what's out there, they said, looking fearfully over their shoulders. But Dai Huang was not around to hear their whispers. He had built a big new house in the valley, beside the best clay for making good hard bricks. He hardly ever came to the village any more.
But when the long hard Chinese winter was nearly over, the villagers began to come to the house of Dai Huang. They needed bricks, they told him; and some needed more time to pay. Ants and mice and rats, some said, had crept between the bricks of their new storehouses and eaten half their crop. One poor man, Li Lu, had lost the lot. Grumpily Dai Huang chose Li Lu, to help him construct a newer, bigger kiln. 'You can pay your debt to me this way,' Dai Huang told Li Lu curtly.
Dai Huang examined his new kiln the next day. But the bricks were soft and crumbled uselessly away when he removed the moulds. The people made gifts to the ancestors, to keep away evil spirits. And Dai Huang went with gifts to consult the wise one.
'Dai Huang,' said the wise one. 'I know you. There is evil in your heart, and so your sacrifices are too small. A pig! Ha! No!. The spirits want your daughter.'
Dai Huang walked through the village, which was shuttered against evil. Then he cried 'Daughter!' to a girl just disappearing round a corner. She turned her head. This 12-year-old had dark eyes more slanted than his daughter's, and a nose turned pertly upwards, but otherwise the resemblance was amazing.
'You are mistaken, lam the daughter of Li Lu sir,' the girl replied and, walking carefully on bound feet, went on her way. Dai Huang followed her. 'Sell me your daughter, Li Lu,' he cried when he reached the house, 'and I will release you from half your debt to me.'
Early that evening, Li Lu arrived with his daughter at Dai Huang's grand house. Dai Huang had another proposition for him. 'If you would like me to forgive you the other half of your great debt, then fire the kiln tomorrow morning, well before dawn. Then this is what you have to do...'
He turned his back on the little girls, the poor one looking so much like the rich man's child, as they disappeared into the house to eat their rice together.
The dogs howled in the village all that night, and Dai Huang's daughter could not sleep. She lay awake, excited at the prospect of the pig sacrifice Dai Huang had promised she could watch at dawn. She watched the kiln's flames flicker on the walls.
Li Lu stoked the glow and went through Dai Huang's instructions once again. 'I'll send a slave boy from a far off province, Dal Huang had said. 'Just before dawn. Do not speak to him. Just pick him up, and throw him into the flames, and I'll free you from your debt.' And satisfied that this sacrifice would satisfy the spirits and make his kiln the best one ever, Dai Huang slept peacefully in the fine house beside the kiln.
Dai Huang's daughter nudged the new slave girl as the sky began to lighten in the east. 'Wake up!' she whispered. 'It's time for you to take breakfast to the labourer at the kiln! But Li Lu's daughter slept so soundly that in the end Dai Huang's daughter dressed quickly. She took the breakfast and, slipping out of the door, approached the kiln's glow and the labourer's dark back. 'Here...' she said. Without a sound, Li Lu turned and caught her up. Without a sound, the fire's wicked eye changed colour as the villagers opened their doors to walk down the valley for the second sacrifice.
Li Lu turned. Stretching and yawning, his daughter stood at the door of Dai Huang's big house. Quickly, fearfully, looking over each shoulder in turn, Li Lu called her to come home. And through the blueness of the dawn they walked back to the village together.
Carol Fewster, who wrote this story, is an English teacher in China.