25. The Flower Spirits
ONCE there Was a scholar who had retired from the world to discover the secrets of life. He lived alone in a remote spot. All round his small house he had planted flowers, bamboos and trees, until it was entirely hidden in a thick clump of blossoms. He had a single boy servant who lived in a separate hut and waited upon his master’s orders, and who was not allowed to enter unbidden. The scholar loved flowers above everything else, but he never went outside the boundaries of his garden.
One fine spring evening, when the trees were in blossom and the flowers in full bloom, when a gentle wind was blowing and the moon shining brightly, he sat over a cup of wine, enjoying life.
Suddenly in the light of the moon he saw a graceful girl in dark attire approach him. She bowed deeply, saluted him and said: ‘l am your neighbour. There is a company of girls outside who are traveling to visit their eighteen aunts. They would like to rest a little in your courtyard and have sent me to ask your permission.’
The scholar realized that this was something out of the ordinary and therefore he consented gladly. The girl thanked him and left. After a short while she brought back with her a whole of girls carrying flowers and willow switches, who all greeted the scholar. They were pretty with fine faces and slim graceful figures, and whenever they moved their sleeves they emitted a delightful perfume. They had no equal in the human world. The scholar invited them to come in and sit down. Then he asked them: ‘By whom am I honoured? Have you come from the palace of the moon fairy or from the jade spring of the mother queen of the west?’
‘How could we boast of such exalted origin?’ a girl in a green robe asked with a smile. ‘My name is Salix.’ Then she introduced another girl, dressed in White, and said: ‘This is Miss Prunophora,’ and one dressed in pink: ‘And here is Persica,’ and finally one in a brilliant red garment: ‘And this is Punica. We are all sisters and intend to visit our eighteen zephyr aunts today. This evening the moon is so beautiful and this garden here is so lovely. We are indeed grateful to you for your hospitality.’
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the scholar.
Suddenly the servant in the dark robe came in and announced: ‘The zephyr aunts have also arrived.’ Instantly the girls got up and went to the door to meet them.
We are just on our way to visit the aunts,’ they said with a smile. This gentleman here has invited us to sit down for a while. How pleasant to find that the aunts have come here as well. Tonight is such a beautiful night; we really must drink to the health of our aunts.’ Thereupon they commanded the servant girl to bring in what was necessary.
‘May we take a seat? ‘ the aunts asked.
‘The master of this house is very kind,’ the girls replied, ‘and this place is quiet and remote.’
Thereupon they introduced the scholar to the aunts. He said a few friendly words to the eighteen aunts. There was something airy and unstable about them. Their words came rushing out and, sitting near them, their breath felt chilly.
Meanwhile the servant girl had carried in a table and chairs. The eighteen aunts sat at the head of the table. Then came the girls, and the scholar sat down by them in the lowest place. In an instant the whole table was covered with the most delicious food and the most wonderful fruit, and the cups were full of fragrant wine, more delightful than any in the human world. The moon was shining brightly and the flowers gave out an intoxicating scent. When the wine had made them merry, the girls got up and danced and sang. The notes floated delightfully through the dark night and their dance was like that of butterflies hovering over flowers. Enraptured, the scholar no longer knew whether he was in heaven or on earth. When the dance was at an end the girls sat down at the table again and let their cups circle to the health of the aunts. There was also a toast to the scholar and he replied in elegant words.
But the eighteen aunts were a little frivolous in their nature. The wine, moreover was beginning to affect them. And as one of them raised her cup her hand shook a little and before she knew it she had spilt some of her wine on Punica’s clothes. Punica, who was young and fiery and loved cleanliness, rose angrily as she saw her red robe stained with wine.
‘You are too careless,’ she said angrily. ‘The other sisters are afraid of you, but I have no fear of you.’ Thereupon the aunts for their part became angry and said: “How dare that young thing be rude to us!’ With these words they gathered up their robes and rose to their feet.
All the girls crowded around them and said: ‘Punica is young and inexperienced. She is drunk and does not know What she is doing. You must not blame her. Tomorrow she shall call On you with a switch and receive her punishment.’
But the eighteen aunts would not listen to them and left. Thereupon the girls also took their leave, dispersed among the flowerbeds and disappeared. For a long time, the scholar sat lost in a nostalgic dream.
The following evening the girls all came again.
‘We all live in your garden,’ they told him. ‘Each year we are plagued by evil winds and that is why we have always asked our eighteen aunts to protect us. Yesterday Punica offended them and we are afraid that they will not help us in future. But we know that you have always been fond of us sisters and for that we are deeply grateful to you. We now have a great request—each New Year’s Day you shall make a small scarlet flag and paint on it the sun, the moon and the five planets and plant it at the eastern end of the garden. Then we sisters shall have peace and be protected against all suffering. But since the New Year is past we ask you to put up the flag on the twenty-first of this month; that is when the east wind comes, but the flag will protect us.’
The scholar readily promised to do as they asked and the girls said with one voice: ‘We thank you for your great kindness and will repay you.’ With these words they left him and a sweet fragrance hung over the whole garden.
The scholar then made just such a red flag and early in the morning of the appointed day, when the east wind in fact started to blow, he quickly planted it in the garden. Abruptly a fierce storm broke, making the forests bow low and snapping the trees. But in the garden the flowers did not move at all.
Then the scholar discovered that Salix was the willow, Prunophora the plum, Persica the peach, and the young outspoken punica the pomegranate, and the wind was powerless against their vigorous blossoms. But the eighteen zephyr aunts were the spirits of the Wind.
The following evening the flower fairies again all arrived and in gratitude brought him a bunch of brilliant flowers.
‘You have saved us,’ they said. ‘We have nothing else that we can give you. But if you eat these flowers you will live many long years without growing old. And if you protect us each year then we sisters too will have a long life. The scholar did as he was told and ate the flowers. Instantly his appearance changed and he was as young as a man of twenty. In the course of time he discovered the secrets of life and was translated among the immortals.