The little bird flew slowly but surely across the water, the twigs in her beak cutting through tendrils of fog. The sun creeping over the horizon turned the boundless mist to a strange luminous substance, but the little bird knew where she was going. She swooped down below the clouds and dropped her freight, watching as the twigs fell into the ocean.
After a moment, the ocean murmured, "Good morning."
The little bird wheeled around and alighted on a crag of rock jutting up from the water. She raised a wing and nudged her beak beneath her outer feathers, fussing with the fine down lining her body. "Good morning," she finally returned, frostily.
"You seem tired today," the ocean observed.
"Only temporarily, I assure you," she said, bristling.
"I didn't mean - what I meant, is you should rest a while," the ocean said. The little bird chirruped disdainfully and went back to cleaning her feathers.
"I could tell you a story," the ocean offered. When the little bird refused the reply, the ocean sighed a great deep swell of a sigh, and began.
There once was a peddler who sold shoes for a living. It was a hard life, as he had to travel far and wide to sell his wares. One day he was traveling to a far-off town when he came across a dark wood. It was already late in the day, but he had passed the last town a while ago and he didn't want to turn back the way he came. So he set off through the woods even as the sun began to set.
Soon enough it was completely dark, only his lantern lighting his way. Now, this peddler was not a cowardly man, but he was still nervous to be traveling on his own after dark. Suddenly, he noticed a clinking, jingling, jangling sound behind him. The sound followed his footsteps, but in an irregular fashion; it would sometimes pause for a while, then hurry on again in a rush, like chimes set in running water.
The peddler didn't know what was making the sound, but his wares were heavy on his back, and the trail was narrow enough that it would have been difficult to turn around and look. So he re-shouldered his pack and kept onwards, and the sound still followed him.
After a while, the peddler began imagining what the sound could be. Perhaps it was a mule, the rings on its harness clinking together. He needed a mule, although he couldn't afford one; some small but sturdy creature to help bear the load.
Or perhaps it was a horse following him. No, a parade of horses, the finest horses in all of China - sleek profiles and glossy coats, haltered in silk, manes and fetlocks dressed in pearls.
Or perhaps it was gold and silver he was hearing; perhaps his cargo of shoes had magically turned into a cascade of gold and silver coins jangling with every step. Except the sound didn't match his steps, so perhaps-
Perhaps the shoes themselves had turned into gold and silver, and what he was hearing now was a hundred fox maidens dancing along behind him, wearing sprigs of plum-blossoms in their hair as they picked slippers out of his pack to wear.
Perhaps the fox maidens were accompanying their mistress, Chang-e, the goddess of the moon; fair as frost on a winter night, resplendent in a raiment of jade and rich brocade.
Perhaps it was a procession of ghostly monks, ringing bells in mourning for the living they left behind.
Perhaps the Eight Immortals had shrunk themselves to the size of frogs, and were even now holding a feast perched atop his pack, the sound of them toasting each other drifting down to his ears.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The peddler kept walking for as long as he could, but eventually he was overcome by weariness and realized he would have to rest and sleep for a while. He unloaded his pack off his shoulders, and as he set it down he saw that one of the numerous straps he used to secure his pack had come loose. The long strap had been dragging freely behind him, and the buckle at the end had been catching on the branches and leaves as he walked.
"Oh, so that's what it was!" The peddler laughed at himself for his own foolishness. He then made himself a nest in the bracken alongside the trail, and went to sleep.
The next morning, he awoke to someone shaking him roughly.
"Aiya, wake up! It's late already, and we have a long way to go!" The peddler scrambled backwards, rubbing his eyes as he saw an exquisitely beautiful lady standing over him. He looked around in bewilderment.
Over there by a pool of water stood a cluster of horses, the pearls adorning their manes gleaming as they bent their heads to drink.
Nearby were a number of dainty maidens, brushing out their hair with jeweled combs. One of them was lying languidly along the arc of a fallen bamboo trunk, her gold and silver slippers glittering fiercely in the sun.
And now over here sitting in a straight row were a dozen monks as translucent and fragile as new ice, their rusted bronze bells resting silent before them.
Then from somewhere above him came the sound of laughter, and the peddler craned his neck to see the Eight Immortals settled quite peacefully on a bamboo leaf that was bobbing precariously, even as small as they were. There was Lady He, carrying a miniature lotus and minuscule bamboo ladle; she appeared to be laughing at a scowling Iron-Crutch Li. The other six Immortals were still sleeping, their eyelids no bigger than a grain of rice.
The peddler backed away in terror, but an irritated bray stopped him in his tracks.
He whirled around to see a supremely ordinary mule, looking grumpily at him as it chewed on a mouthful of grass.
That was more than enough. The peddler screamed and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him.
He was never seen from again.
But ever after, travelers would report strange sounds and strange sights while journeying through the woods; snippets of ghostly conversation and laughter, glimpses of silk ribbons streaming by, a pair of silver shoes perched at the top of a tree many fathoms high. And sometimes the pealing of bells sounding out across the forest, although no one could ever quite say if they were singing in celebration or sorrow.
The ocean fell silent after ending its story. The little bird fluttered her feathers for a moment before settling back down.
"And I suppose the point of that particular story is that one should march into the nearest local woods and start hallucinating about girls and horses and money straightaway?" she suggested acidly. "Or perhaps this is a story of the virtues of using broken straps when packing luggage, instead."
The ocean did not reply for a moment. "I would say, rather, that the point is to be not afraid when the world turns out just as weird and wild as one imagines."
The little bird sniffed, not deigning to reply. She nibbled at the moss growing in the nearest crevice; it was bitter and drenched in salt, but she pecked at it anyways.
"Shall I tell you another story?" the ocean asked.
"I don't see how I can stop you," the little bird said.
And so the ocean told the little bird a second story.
Once there was a young girl who was born in the countryside where there no hills or valleys, only fields so flat that the horizon never seemed more than a few steps away. One day, her family received the news that a distant relative had died and left them some property, and so her parents sent her to fetch it. The city where the relative had lived was very far away, so her parents gave her food, money, and other supplies before sending her on her way. She had travelled for many days when suddenly, arising out of the mist, she saw a great mountain towering above her.
The girl was utterly astonished. The beauty of the mountain pierced her like an arrow.
"What wonder is this?" she exclaimed. "What new world have I discovered?" And so she set off to explore the mountain, to climb up its crags and peaks; to acquaint herself with the spiky pines growing doggedly from solid rock; to reach up and touch the ribbons of mist wreathing the highest spires; to discover the trickling brook running through the steep hidden ravines, a thread of lush music murmuring deep beneath the echoing of the cruel winds above. She was so enchanted by the mountain that she wandered without care for the passage of time. After she finally left and traveled the rest of the way to the city, she learned that more than a month had passed since she'd left home.
She went to her relative's house, a little ashamed at her lateness but her head was still filled with dreams of the mountain. Once she went into the house, she saw that it was entirely empty except for a few scrolls of blank paper, a set of well-used brushes, and a bundle of ink sticks tied neatly together.
"But this is perfect," she cried in delight. She gathered up the supplies and set off back home, but she couldn't wait to capture what she had seen. She started painting the mountain every waking moment, even while eating, even while walking. When she ran out of paper, she tore off panels of cloth from her clothes, and when modesty cut short that tactic, she plucked leaves from trees she passed. When she ran out of ink, she burned twigs and used the ashes. She had no experience painting, but she worked as if there was a fever burning within her.
By the time she reached home, her family first scolded her for being away for so long and causing them such worry, and then they scolded her for using up the inheritance that the relative had left.
The girl paid them no heed; she begged her parents for some money so she could buy more inks and paper. Gradually, her skill at painting improved to the point that she could sell her paintings for money, but she always only ever painted the mountain. People asked her why she never painted anything else, but she laughed and replied that she couldn't imagine anything else worth painting.
Finally, she had saved enough money that she could go on another journey, so she left everything behind and traveled with all possible haste back to the mountain. She spent many blissful days there, exploring every nook and cranny; but then one morning she woke to find her sister next to her.
"Sister, there is wonderful news!" the girl's sister cried. "The Emperor has seen your paintings, and he wishes to compose a verse to inscribe on your next work."
It turned out that word had spread among the local literati of the girl's paintings, and her family had been able to sell them for a great deal of money. Word of the girl's paintings had even spread to the Imperial Court, the point being that the Emperor had ordered one brought to him.
"How life-like it is! How exactly like the real thing, as if the mountain itself is standing before me," the Emperor had exclaimed. And so he had sent a messenger to the girl's family requesting the privilege of inscribing his own original verse on the girl's next painting.
"Oh, but..." the girl began reluctantly, glancing longingly around her.
"Let me rephrase, since you seem to have difficulty understanding," the sister said. "When the Emperor requests anything, that's actually called a command."
The girl sighed, her shoulders slumping. "Very well," she said.
"By the way, what is the painting technique you used to achieve the effect of the mountains rising out of the paper?" her sister asked. "Nobody has ever seen the like, and no one knows how you did it, not even the painting masters who have come to visit."
"Um..." the girl said. "Excuse me?"
When the girl returned home to her studio, she had no more stepped across the threshold when her paintings flew across the room and curled around her in a rustling embrace. Startled but unafraid, the girl eventually managed to disentangle herself.
"What's all this, then?" she asked kindly, more in jest than in earnest. But she saw writing appear at the corner of one of the paintings, as if written by an invisible hand.
閣下, we were so worried when you did not return, the text read. We thought you might never come back, that you had forgotten us. And then we heard you had traveled far away to visit the mountain, and so we decided we would become mountainous too.
And when the girl bent over to look, she saw that the ink brush strokes had become tangible and somehow rose above the surface, as if the rocks and trees she had painted were trying to grow out of the paper. The girl laughed, and ran a gentle hand over the paintings. "There is no need to carry such worries your heart," she said. "For I must paint a picture fit for the Emperor."
The Emperor liked the first painting that the girl created so well that he then ordered a whole set of paintings for his summer palace, to be painted on the finest silk and hung from ivory rods. And so the girl remained in her studio, devoted to her task. After a while she began to love the work of painting as well - the rhythm and grace of using the brush, the deep and glossy character that came from using thick ink with only a few drops of water mixed in, the airy misty quality that came from using thin ink with many cups of water mixed in.
The girl eventually finished the paintings for the Emperor, and that night she fell asleep exhausted. In her dream, the mountain suddenly appeared before her, but it appeared obscured by shadow, as if it were grieving.
"But what is the matter?" the girl asked.
The mountain was sad because the girl had been away for so long, the mountain said without words. There were others who had come to see the mountain in the time that the girl had been away, it was true, but the only thing that they ever said was, "How like a picture it is! This scenery is exactly like a painting!"
The mountain did not see what was so extraordinary about pictures or paintings, if those were those flat little things that travelers sometimes carried with them with all that scribbling all over them. The mountain could do the exact same thing - had done, in fact.
The mountain emerged further from the mist, and the girl saw to her astonishment that there was now a new cliff face, as if the mountain had split part of itself off entirely in one blow. The girl circled the mountain in bewilderment and saw the cliff was completely sheer, as flat as a sheet of paper. The rock face was oddly colored, a thousand infinitely subtle shades over the surface of the stone - as if someone had poured a vast ink wash straight down the the side of the mountain.
The girl drew closer and saw that along the vertical edge of the cliff face, there were even curious darker markings that one might have called characters.
"Oh, but - " the girl hid her face in her sleeve for a moment, in laughter or in tears, she hardly knew which. "This was hardly necessary!"
But will you come back? the mountain asked plaintively.
"Yes," the girl said. "Yes, I will come back."
And so when the girl awoke, she packed all her belongings and hired as many servants as she could to journey with her as she traveled back again. She set up her studio in the shadow of the mountain, and for the rest of her days she lived and worked and painted there.
But after her death, the seals bearing her name on her paintings ran red as if with tears, or blood; and although there were rumors that the girl's name was in fact inscribed in the side of the cliff for the great affection the mountain bore for the girl, no one could ever say for sure what was written there. And so the girl's name was lost to time, a secret kept only by paper and stone.
The ocean paused hopefully after the end of its second story. The little bird blinked a little, then shook her head, once, twice.
"In that case I'll be sure to use better quality ink than she did, if ever I become a painter who engages in a love affair with a mountain," the bird said, her voice tart.
The ocean churned in agitation.
"Why will you not listen?" it asked. "Very well, I don't think even you will be able to miss the point this time."
And so the ocean told the little bird a third story.
There was once a boy whose parents had died in a fire when he was very young, and he himself bore a long, ugly scar from the fire where a burning piece of wood had struck him across the chest. There were no relatives to take care of him, and so he was taken in by a local wealthy family as a servant. But the family and even the other servants treated him cruelly, and the boy often wept in private, cursing his luck.
There was a temple in the center of the village that the boy visited whenever he could; there was a small room off to the side with an altar dedicated to Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Hanging on the wall above the altar was a splendid silk painting, the Goddess of Mercy in the center surrounded on both sides by celestial attendants, a sumptuous feast spread before them. The boy always came to look at the painting whenever he could, wishing he could leap into it and enter that world.
One particularly hard day after the boy had been beaten and starved for dropping a plate, he waited until the household had gone to bed and crept away to the temple, to the shrine dedicated to Guanyin. Moonlight coming through the windows shone down on the boy as he knelt before the altar and prayed. He stayed there, forehead pressed to the ground, until his body grew cold and tired.
He suddenly felt a warm hand touch his shoulder. He looked up to see Guanyin smiling down at him, her gentle face radiating light.
“Come,” she said, raising him to his feet. “I grant you your wish; you can now come and go as you please, in all the worlds you can dream of.” And with that the boy could feel her drawing him into the world of the painting. There was suddenly warmth, and color, and light, and music all around, and the delicious fragrance of rich food waiting to be eaten. The boy looked down at himself and saw that he was garbed in silks and satins. Blinking, he felt below the robes along his chest for his scar; there was nothing but unblemished skin. The boy sighed; so this was all a dream, then.
But even dream food was better than none, and so he fell to devouring it right away. After he had eaten his fill, he joined in the general merriment, laughing and drinking with the celestial lords and ladies. The feast eventually drew to a close, though, with the guests leaving one by one. The boy sighed as the room emptied. “I suppose I must return home, then,” he remarked sadly.
One of the ladies-in-waiting took him by the hand. “If you wish to return home, you may go through here,” she said, gesturing at a painting hanging on the wall. The boy took a closer look and saw to his surprise that it was a painting of Guanyin’s shrine, except now with shafts of sunlight coming through the window instead. The lady gave him a nudge, and the boy tumbled head over heels. Once he picked himself up, he found he was back in the temple. He put a hand up to his chest. The scar was there again. He looked back up at the painting, and Guanyin and her attendants looked down on him exactly as before - except the feast laid out in front of them appeared to have significantly less food.
The boy went back to the house, where life was just as unbearable as before. But now the boy knew how to escape; he scouted out all of the paintings in the house and public buildings about town, and stepped in and out as he pleased. At first, he always returned to the real world before traveling elsewhere, but he eventually found that he could travel within paintings into other paintings, leaping from one picture to another. After that, he hardly ever came back to his own world, except sometimes to sleep or steal some food from the kitchen; he still wasn't sure how substantial dream-food was.
In this fashion, he visited all manner of tranquil lakes and majestic mountains, gardens full of bamboo, plum, pine.
He feasted in the courtyard of the Queen Mother of the West with all manner of fairies and deities, peach blossoms flowering riotously overhead.
He went before the Ten Yama Kings who ruled the Underworld, and after a series of delicate negotiations, met his parents for the first time he could remember. He learned that his father enjoyed drinking jasmine tea, and his mother had a surpassing weakness for red bean cakes. He learned where they were buried so he could leave offerings for them during the Festival of Ghosts.
He learned to swim by visiting the Dragon King of the Sheng River, staying in a sumptuous room in his majesty’s underwater palace.
He went to see the famous Daba evergreen forests, discovered that there were rather too many tigers living there for his tastes, and left as quickly as he could.
He discovered that he could jump onto any flat surface during the Lantern Festival, when he took a deep breath and leapt onto a luminous paper lantern a child was holding onto. He stared open mouthed at the sky as the child let go, and he floated closer to the stars than he could have ever imagined.
Getting back down safely was tricky, but he managed it.
He went back to the Underworld, and studied at the feet of the greatest past masters of poetry, calligraphy, painting. Once he was satisfied with his own skill in painting, he thought very carefully, and then painted the life he wanted for himself. A spacious house in a quiet village, with plenty of wall space for as many paintings as he pleased. He finished putting on the final touches, set down his brush, and then stepped inside.
He lived in the world of his own making for a long while, peaceful and happy. Then, one day, he decided to return to the real world for a short while to thank Guanyin for her gift to him.
He returned to the village where he had grown up, the temple seemingly unchanged; perhaps a little worn at the edges. People now bowed to him in the streets, seeing that he looked wealthy and respectable.
The boy - by this time a man - stepped into the shrine dedicated to Guanyin, and knelt where he had knelt so many years before.
“Goddess, thank you for the gift you bestowed upon me,” he said. “I have returned to reality to express my gratitude, but I will return shortly to the dream you gave me the ability to create.”
The image of Guanyin frowned.
“I appreciate your gratitude,” she said. “But what do you mean, that this is reality, and the world you left is a dream? You are dreaming now, you see.”
Shocked, the man felt along his chest for the scar - and his mouth fell open when he realized it was no longer there.
“Wait, how can this be?” he cried, and quickly unfurled the sketch he kept in his pocket of the world he had created. He stepped in quickly and tore open his robe, then gaped when he saw the old familiar scar across his chest.
"Aiya, have you lost track of where you have been traveling?" Guanyin demanded, following him. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised considering the way you've jumped all over the place, 乱七八糟!"
"But how can this be reality?" the man cried. "I have done impossible things in this world, Goddess! I have traveled to the Heavens and journeyed to the Underworld; I have gone to visit my mother and father, and a dozen other ghosts besides; I have flown the clouds with phoenixes and tumbled over waterfalls with dragons. How can this be real?"
Guanyin shook her head. "Life, Death, Dream; the way you distinguish between these is whether or not you can do what you think is impossible?" she chided. "Silly, foolish boy!"
The ocean fell silent again, and then after a moment murmured, "Don't tell me you didn't understand the point of that story. I don't think I can make myself plainer."
The little bird looked at the ocean thoughtfully. "I think you can, but let me tell you a story in return." She hopped down to a lower crevice, nearer to the water's edge.
"There was once a girl who was the youngest daughter of the Emperor, and ever since she was a child she had always loved and feared the ocean. But she learned to overcome her fear, and often went out sailing. One day when she was sailing, the ocean grew fierce and stormy, capsizing the girl's boat and drowning her. After her death, she was transformed into a bird. Determined to avenge her own death, every day she would fly back and forth from land to sea, dropping a stone or twig with each trip, crying 'jing wei jing wei!' And so she was called the Jingwei bird.
The ocean did not understand at first what she was doing. 'Why do you continue throwing these stones and twigs at me every day?' the ocean cried.
'I will fill you up with these twigs and stones, so that you may never harm anyone else!' the little bird retorted, for she hated the ocean in death as she had never hated it in life.
The ocean laughed at her. 'You are being foolish, little bird. You cannot fill me up, for I am vast and infinite!'
The little bird would not listen. 'You cannot stop me from throwing these stones and twigs, for I will succeed, even if I must fly to and fro every day for a thousand years!'"
The ocean swirled uneasily, with the restlessness of one who has heard a long-familiar story retold once again. The little bird continued.
"But what the little bird did not realize at the beginning of that thousand years was that it is impossible to spend even a hundred years with anybody and continue hating them. She gradually began to remember how much she had loved the ocean before, that she had once found its vastness beautiful and profound rather than hateful. But she continued flying back and forth dropping twigs and branches, because she had been doing so for so long that she did not know how to do anything else.
And besides, the ocean had mocked her even after causing her death, and so she did not think it would be kind to her even if she found anything to say to the ocean."
The little bird cocked her head, eying the ocean shrewdly. "But then the ocean started telling the little bird stories of impossible things coming true, and the little bird thought that the ocean was being rather evasive and not getting to the point at all, despite its denials to the contrary."
The ocean foamed a bit sheepishly. "Did the little bird ever think that the ocean had loved the Emperor's daughter in return, and wanted to keep her for itself always?" it finally said. "And that maybe the ocean hadn't realized how things would turn out."
The little bird hopped even further down, so that the water lapped gently at her delicate claws. "No, the little bird never thought that, because the ocean never said." She fluttered her wings a few times. "You know, it's a shame that the ocean never asked the little bird's forgiveness, because she would have given it, oh, after the first few decades," she said, almost matter-of-fact. "Which to the ocean is but a blink of an eye. But because the ocean had never asked for it, the little bird had no choice but to think that that the ocean did not think her forgiveness worth asking."
The ocean shifted back and forth, the light playing across the waves. "Well, the ocean may have been vast and endless," it said, "But even the ocean knew not to ask for impossible things." It paused, then continued. "But the ocean did gradually realize that as unlikely as it appeared, the ocean's own vastness was equally matched by the courage within the little bird's tiny, infinite heart.
And then the ocean grew worried, for it knew that the little bird was actually a seabird, and that she needed to eat fish and other sea creatures for proper nourishment. But the little bird never came near the surface of the water, but only pecked and nibbled at moss, and grass, and other green things. And so over the years the little bird continued to fly back and forth, but her wings grew weaker, her flight slower.
And the ocean knew that it had to remind the little bird that even as brave as she was, the truth was that courage is not an unchanging, constant thing - it must be renewed and remade afresh to meet every new challenge, however impossible that might seem."
The ocean was quiet for a little while, as if trying to gauge the little bird's reaction. The little bird skimmed her beak along the surface of the water for a moment, then ducked her head in briefly; it was redolent with salt and iron, but it felt cool and refreshing rolling over her feathers.
"Impossible, hm?" she said, taking flight from the rock.
The ocean sighed, watching the little bird fly ever further away.
"Nothing is impossible," the little bird said, hovering in the air, "Unless we make it so."
And with that, she dove.