Chinese Folktales

46. The Painted Skin

THERE was a man in Taiyüan whose name was Wang. One morning when he was walking in the neighbourhood he encountered a young girl Walking alone, who carried a bundle under her arm. With her small feet she only made slow progress. Wang walked faster and caught up with her. She a charming girl of about sixteen.

He liked the look of her and said to her: ‘Why are you about at this early hour, walking all on your own?’ The girl replied: ‘Strangers cannot relieve each other’s sorrow. Why do you trouble to ask me?’

The young man said: ‘What is your sorrow? If I can help you I shall gladly do so.’

The girl replied sadly: ‘My parents were desperate for money. They sold me as a slave to a rich man. His wife Was jealous; she would scold me in the morning and beat me in the evening. I could bear it no longer and am now run rung away.’

‘And where do you want to go?’

‘Lost people have no home.

Then the young man said: ‘My house is not far from here. Would you care to come and look at it?’

The girl consented gladly. young man took her bundle and conducted her home.

The girl saw that there was no one in the room and asked: ‘Have you no wife?’

‘This is only my study,’ was his reply.

‘It is a good place,’ said the girl. ‘If you pity me and

want to save my life you must not tell anyone that I am here. ‘

The young man promised and hid her in the remote room. Days passed without anyone discovering anything. In the end he dropped a few hints to his wife. She suspected that the girl might be a slave from a great house and urged him to get rid of her. But he would not listen to her.

One day, when he was on his way to the market, he met a priest who locked at him curiously. The priest asked him whom he had just encountered.

‘No one,’ the man replied.

The priest said: ‘You are surrounded by a malign aura. Why do you Say no one?’

The young man insisted on his denial.

So the priest left him saying: ‘How Strange that there are people in the world Who go to their death and will not listen to advice!’

The priest’s words set the young man thinking and he began to suspect the girl. But then he dismissed idea: ‘Surely she is just a pretty girl. Why should she bring me misfortune? I believe the priest just wanted to make a little money out of me by performing the exorcism.’

When he came to his gate he found it bolted from inside and he could not get in. He wondered Who could have bolted it. He therefore climbed over the wall. But the door to the room was also locked. He crept up to the window and peeped inside. He caught sight of a hideous devil, with a blue-green face and teeth like a saw. He had spread out a human skin on the bed. He was holding a brush in his hand and was in the process of painting the skin. When he had finished he dropped the brush, picked up the skin like a garment, slipped it on, and he was transformed into the young girl again.

The young man, having watched this transformation, was greatly alarmed and crawled out of the courtyard on all fours.

Hurriedly he went to find the priest. No one knew where he had gone. He followed his tracks in several directions and eventually found him in the fields. He flung himself down before him and entreated him to save him.

The priest said: ‘We shall drive her out. In fact, the creature is hard pressed. At this very moment she is trying to find a substitute and I have not got it in my heart to touch her life.’ With these words he gave him a magic whisk and commanded him to hang it up on the door of the room. As they parted the priest told him to come and see him again in the temple of the green lord.

The young man went back home. He dared not enter the study but slept in the inner room. He hung up the magic whisk.

At about midnight there was a rattling sound outside the door. The young man was afraid to go and look, and sent his wife instead. She saw the girl approaching. But When the girl Saw the Whisk she dared not enter but remained rooted to the spot, grinding her teeth. It was a long time before she went away.

After a little while the girl returned and said angrily: ‘The priest is trying to frighten me of, but I won’t stand for it. If he doesn’t look out, I’ll devour him first and spit him out afterwards.’

She grabbed the whisk and broke it in two. Then she broke down the door and entered. She made straight for the man’s bed and ripped open his body, tore out his heart and vanished.

The Wife called the maidservant. Lights were brought, but the man was dead. His blood was welling from his chest in streams. The Wife, horrified, was quietly sobbing. The next morning, she sent her husband’s brother to inform the priest.

The priest was angry. ‘l was merciful to her and now the devil has shown such insolence!’ With these words he followed the brother to the house. The girl had disappeared. The priest raised his head and looked around in all directions. ‘Fortunately she has not got far,’ he said. ‘Who lives in the southern courtyard? ‘ The brother replied: ‘l live there.’ ‘That is where she is now,’ said the priest.

The brother was astonished, for he knew nothing about it.

The priest asked: ‘Has no stranger entered your house?’

‘l have just been to the temple to look for you. I don’t know but I Will go and find out.’

After a while he returned. ‘You are right—there is someone there. This morning an old woman came and asked to be employed as a servant for our staff. The people took her on and she is still there.’

“That’s her,’ said the priest.

He walked across with them, took up a wooden sword, stepped into the middle of the courtyard and called out: ‘Devil’s brood, give me back my whisk! ‘

Inside, the servant grew nervous and paled. She came out of the door and tried to escape. Then the priest struck her. The woman fell down. The human skin peeled off her and she was transformed into a devil, rolling on the ground grunting like a pig. The priest cut off its head with his wooden sword. Thereupon the creature changed into thick smoke which swirled up from the ground. The priest produced a gourd flask, opened it and placed it in the midst of the smoke. The smoke began to eddy, and, just as one sucks in air through the mouth, so the smoke instantly disappeared inside the flask. The priest stoppered it and placed it in his pocket. They all then Inspected the human skin—eyebrows, eyes hands and feet, everything Was there complete and accurate. The priest rolled it up and there was a rustle as when a picture is rolled up. He placed it in his pocket as well and turned to leave. But the wife stopped him at the door and with a tear- stained face implored him to bring her husband back to life. The priest protested that this was beyond his powers. The woman began to lament even more bitterly, flung herself to the ground and remained huddled at his feet.

The priest thought for a long time and then he said: ‘My skill is not sufficient to raise the dead, but I will tell you of a man Who may be able to help If you find him and ask him he will surely accede to your request.’ When she enquired who it was he replied: ‘In the market there is a madman Who is for ever rolling about in filth. Why don’t you try to move him with your entreaties? But if he sneers at you and refuses you, you must not get angry.’ The wife’s brother-in-law remembered seeing the madman there and so they took leave of the priest.

The wife and her brother-in-law went there together. soon saw a beggar who was walking down the street, singing like a lunatic. phlegm was flowing from his nose and he was so covered in filth that one could not approach him. The woman knelt down and moved up to him On her knees. The beggar laughed: ‘Darling, do you love me?’ The woman told him of her misfortune. The beggar began to laugh: ‘Surely there are enough men about for you—why should that one he brought back to life?’ The woman continued to tell him her tale of woe. Then he said: ‘How Odd to ask me to bring him back to life. Am I the prince of hell?’ He pretended to be angry and hit out at the woman with his stick. She bit back the pain and suffered it. Gradually the market people collected and surrounded them like a thick wall. The beggar cleared his throat and spat into his palm- He held his hand out to her mouth and said: ‘Eat this!’ The colour rose to the woman’s face and it seemed as if this would be too much for her. But remembering the priest’s Words she forced herself and swallowed it. She felt something hard slide down her throat, like a round lump which stuck in her chest.

Then the beggar burst into loud laughter: Truly, darling, you do love me!’ With these words he rose, walked away and took no further notice of her. She followed him. He a temple. She still followed him. But When she entered he had disappeared. The people looked for him in front and behind the temple, but there was no trace of him.

She returned home ashamed and unhappy. Filled with grief over her husband’s cruel death and with repentance at the humiliation to which she had needlessly submitted she burst into desperate tears, calling for nothing but her death.

The husband’s body was now to be cleaned and prepared for burial. The people in the house were standing a little way apart, watching her, not daring to approach her. But the woman embraced the dead body, tidied its entrails and cried. She cried so violently that her voice stuck in her throat and choked her. Suddenly she felt the lump in her chest rising up and jerking from her mouth, and before she could turn her head away it had dropped into the open chest of the dead man. She stared at it in horror, but in his chest now was a human heart which twitched this way and that. The hot breath of life rose up from it like a cloud of smoke. She was utterly amazed and with her two hands closed up the wound in her husband’s chest. She had to press with all her might. As soon as she yielded a little the air would rush out through the crack. so she ripped her silken cloth in two and wound it round him. And as she touched the corpse with her hand she could feel it gradually becoming warm. She covered it with a blanket. And When she came to look at it again at midnight there was breath in the man’s lungs and by daybreak he had returned to life. He said he had a confused feeling as though he had been in a dream. Moreover, there was a dull pain about his heart. But the wound had closed up and there was only a scab the size of a coin. In due course the man recovered complete health.

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