Fiction / December 2013 (Issue 22)

The Cowherd and The Weaver Girl

by Zhou Tingfeng


He rises from his slumber before the sun has come up. There are no sounds in his small hut but for the rustling of grass, the gentle snoring of his cow, and, if one listens carefully enough, the faint whispering of the stars, though one might rightly be sceptical about this last part. The boy bends his thick torso and itches one calloused foot with the other, he yawns, flexes his sinewed arms and gets up. The pale mud hut is bathed in the bluish grey of pre-dawn. But for cow, which the boy has seen no need to name as it's his only one, he is entirely alone in the world and has been ever since the death of his parents, when he but was a small child. Because of this, no one knows the name that was given him but only the name that he has, Niulang, which means cowherd.

The morning has begun like any other, a statement which would ring false in any case, for no two days are the same, but in this case is especially so, for it is in fact Nuilang's birthday, only he does not know it. He is turning eighteen, though he does not know this either, nor would you guess from the years on his face that he had only just become a man,what with those well-defined creases at the corners of his eyes and that sun-beaten brow, if you saw him ploughing the land or carrying a pail of water across his back, you would swear that he was at least twenty-six or twenty-seven, despite our having called him a boy. For a man, at least so the narrator has been told, and as confirmed by countless television dating shows, this is not such a terrible thing, to look older than one's years,the creases on a man's face speak of maturity and wisdom, onerously earned through suffering the ravages of life. For a woman, on the other hand, it's a fate worse than death. It has been this way since time immemorial, or at least the beginning of recorded history, when one person or another, most likely a man, said, Isn't it awful when a woman's face starts to wrinkle,this was then repeated by another person, most likely also a man, until it became the irrefutable truth that it is today. Nuilang rubs the cow's belly, as he has every morning for as long as he can remember. How did you sleep, faithful cow, Niulang asks, but unlike every other morning, on this morning, the cow speaks back.

Well, the cow replies, as you know, I'm sleeping on nothing but damp earth and a thin bed of grass, the same as you, but, all things considered, I slept very well, after all, I'm only a cow, I should thank you for letting me sleep in the mud hut with you, most people just leave us outside come what may, they think that because we're cows we don't feel the rain or cold or sleet, this is without mentioning sunstroke, which is especially dicey for a cow. Nuilang cannot believe his ears,he taps himself twice on the head to make sure everything is where it's supposed to be,he must not have gotten enough sleep, though that would be strange, as he had gone to sleep and risen from bed at the same time as every other day,perhaps he is still dreaming, yes, that must be it, or maybe, finally, he has gone mad from being alone all these years. Before he can descend any further into madness, the cow speaks again, Don't be so surprised, you humans think that only you speak, because you are humans, and that we cannot, because we are cows,it's true that we prefer to moo, but this does not mean we cannot speak. Niulang could not find any fault with the cow's logic, having been alone for so long, he wasn't exactly well-honed in the in the ins and outs of rhetoric,if he was, he might have responded, Everyone knows that man can speak, but this is the first documented case of a cow speaking, clearly, I am going mad from the need to talk to someone who will talk back to me.

Seeing that Nuilang is satisfied with its explanation, the cow continues, I can see you've gotten quite lonely, this is no life for a man, to spend all his days working, with only a cow for company, why don't you take on a wife. The thought had never occurred to Nuilang, A wife, he asks, astonished, I'm but a humble cowherd, with hardly a possession to my name, except for you, a cow, that is, what makes you think a woman would want to marry me. Tomorrow, go to the river, the cow replies, Today is your eighteenth birthday, you're of a marrying age.

How do you know all these things, the cowherd asks the cow. If you prefer, you can think of me as a god, as the Hindus do, we all must believe in something, and a cow is as good as a sheep or an elephant or a man.


Nuilang drags his weary feet along the riverbed. He is wearing his father's old leather sandals for protection, and this is just as well, because he has been trudging along this muddy creek for the last four hours without a single felicitous coincidence, divine, bovine or otherwise. The trail along the river is uneven and the stones prick at his feet, which, despite the sandals, are aching something awful, perhaps something has managed to lodge itself into his foot, a thistle or burr, and, if this were not enough, the sun beats mercilessly down, the cowherd thinks to himself, I'm sweating like a cow, which was not quite the phrase he was looking for, it must be the sun. Perhaps he should have asked the cow to be a bit more specific when it told him to go to the river.

The cowherd sits down by the river and unstraps his sandals. A small stone has lodged itself into the ball of his foot, flat on one side curving to a sharp edge where it has dug into his foot,in his heat-induced daze, it reminds him of the hoe he uses to loosen the hard earth in front of the mud hut, only in this case, his calloused foot is the soilit is backbreaking work, hoeing the arid soil, but the stone has wedged itself in his foot without any aid whatsoever, if only his hoe had such initiative. The cowherd's foot is bleeding, the wound dribbling with puss, without another moment's delay, the cowherd pulls the stone out, Ow. The tip of the stone which had been lodged in the cowherd's foot now sits in his calloused hand, smeared with purplish blood glimmering in the mid-afternoon sun. The cowherd's eyes pass over his wound, and he starts to feel faint. Though we have thus far portrayed the cowherd as an unflinching, stoical type, capable of taking any calamity in his stride with a shrug and a determined grimace, he has from a young age been squeamish at the sight of blood,just because a man has been hardened by life and labour, does not mean he won't be squeamish at the sight of blood, and just because a man is squeamish at the sight of blood, does not mean he will be squeamish about other things. In the end, we all have things we are squeamish about, and this is nothing to be ashamed of. At any rate, the cowherd does not faint but plunges the stone into the cold running stream, and, after only a few moments, the stone is as if new, its wet surface gleaming in the light. He takes the stone out of the stream, letting it sit in the palm of his leathery hand. The cowherd is suddenly pricked by a pang of anger. He has been duped by his own desperate longing for company, he has exhausted himself for nothing, trudging this miserable river for the last four hours,how foolish he was to think that he would find a girl here to marry, one with whom he might gaze upon the stars, exchanging fantastical stories about the kinds of animals those luminous clusters of hydrogen and helium resemble, and, also, perhaps, who might also help him with his laundry and with tidying up the mud hut once in a while. How could he possibly have believed the words of a cow, in fact, how could he possibly have believed that a cow could talk in the first place.

Nuilang flings the small stone into the river with all his might. But instead of breaking the surface of the water and plummeting to the bottom like other stones that have been flung there in anger, this stone, which just a moment ago had been lodged in the cowherd's foot and which may or may not resemble a hoe, skips exquisitely off the stream, darting off the water, two times, three times, four, a highly irregular occurrence for a stone so small, five times, six times, seven times, before finally plopping into the water for good and sinking to the bottom of the stream.

This highly irregular occurrence is immediately followed by one even more irregular, contrary to our earlier pessimism, we now hear the sound of a girl giggling. The cowherd turns toward it. Hitherto, those things which he had found to be beautiful were things like the way in which the sun crept along the walls of the mud hut in the mornings, warming the bales of hay on which he slept, or the tussles of long grass surrounding his mud hut being tossed by a violent wind, or the way that the dew would settle over his cow's eyelids in the winter before it woke. But the girl before him was more beautiful than all of those things put together.

The girl stops giggling as soon as she realises she has been spottedshe looks at the cowherd, with his mangy hair and small eyes, blinks twice, then casts her gaze downwards. Inside, her heart is still giggling, we know this because this is one of the advantages of being the narrator, and, also, if we look closely enough, we can see a faint smile crinkling her cheeks, in the same way that, if we listen closely enough, we can hear the stars whispering in the morning. It is not too late to renounce your scepticism.

What's your name, the cowherd asks. His heart is beating fast, even though he has been sitting down. I don't know the name I was given, she replies, but I know the name I have, Zhinu, which means weaver girl, because I weave. She is sitting against cypress tree with gnarled old branches, and, resting on her lap and organised into a neat bundle are strips of long, flat leaves, some of which have been woven together. What are those, Nuilang asks. This is what I use to weave with, and this place by the river is the best place to come to gather it, haven't you noticed all the flax around here. In fact, the cowherd hadn't, because he had been too busy looking at her. Zhinu has a strange accent, she doesn't sound like she is from around here, or perhaps it is simply that Nuilang is not used to hearing the sound of another human voice. Having now heard it again, he realises that he cannot again live without it, and he wants nothing more than for the weaver girl to speak again.

Your foot is hurt, Zhinu says. She kneels down next to the cowherd, and taking several of the leaves from her bundle, she wraps the ball of Nuilang's foot where the stone has broken his skin. Does that feel better, Zhinu asks, but Nuilang barely notices the flax, instead he notices how her hand feels on his mangled ankles and how her hands are just as calloused as his. Next to her, resting gently on the damp soil next to the river, are the leaves that she has already woven together into a small arch. It's going to be a basket, Zhinu says. It looks like a bridge. It's not finished yet, this is just the bottom of the basket, that's why it looks like a bridge.

For a short time, neither of them speak, all that can be heard is the trickling of the stream over rocks. Then Zhinu speaks again, I can teach you if you like, we can take turns, I'll attach one leaf to the basket, and then you attach the next one, and then we can weave them together, here, why don't you go first. Zhinu places a leaf in Nuilang's hand, it has a rougher texture than he expected. He attaches it clumsily to the existing weaving, he has no idea what he is doing, but it is better than doing nothing at all, because although he doesn't know what he is doing, he is doing it with her, which we know to be true because at this precise moment, Zhinu threads a leaf underneath the one that Nuilang had just placed. He adds another leaf to the basket-to-be, and she another, where they are going, neither of them knows, but they are going there together, and this is what matters. The reason I like weaving, she says, is because you can place a leaf at any angle that you want, and, even if you try to do the same weave, even if you try to weave the same thing, it will always be slightly different. So in the end, the number of combinations is infinite, just as at any moment in time, the number of things that could happen is infinite.

The words have barely left her mouth when it suddenly begins to rain. It is pouring down, the weaver girl runs to the cypress tree for cover, the cowherd sees no reason to plod either, they are now both hunched under the gnarled branches where Nuilang first saw the weaver girl. Though Nuilang had not noticed it before, there is a hand-woven umbrella lying on the sodden ground next to the tree truck. Here, take this, Zhinu says, I live quite close to here, you need it more than me. If only the rest of the world thought in this way, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, but it will still be several millennia before these words are uttered, and then roundly ignored. I really couldn't, Nuilang replies, At any rate, isn't it a bit strange that it's raining in the middle of this dry summer spell. He says this to try to extend the conversation, but at this, the rain gets even heavier, big drops of water pummel down from the heavens, scattering the earth and battering the leaves of the cypress trees, washing the branches and trunks of dirt and mudThe rain doesn't mind me, the weaver girl shouts over the sudden cacophony. Really, I couldn't, the cowherd repeats. Just take it. No. I'll come to your mud hut to retrieve it later, Zhinyu yells. How do you know where I live.Nuilang replies, but the rain is too loud for us to hear her answer. There is nothing for the cowherd to do but agree. They can no longer hear each other over the rain, the cowherd cannot hear what the weaver girl is saying, nor can the weaver girl hear what the cowherd is saying, and if both of them persisted in their stubbornness, they would be left standing there forever, which, the cowherd thought, only after he had clasped the umbrella from her hand, might not be such a bad thing after all.

By the time Nuilang has returned to his mud hut, the sun has come out again. The cow sheepishly makes its way out of the little dwelling, but they do not say anything to each other, for there is nothing to say,of course, one or the other could have said, Oh, what an unexpected rain, but as each already knows what the other is thinking, there is no need to say it, although married couples might disagree. The soil is red in the wet, the setting sun is also red, its light piercing the transparent drops of water dripping off the long grass back to the earth. Nuilang stands outside the mud hut, clutches the weaver girl's umbrella, runs his calloused fingers over the fine cross-hatched weave and waits. He imagines her calloused fingers on his foot, and her peculiar accent, and her illogical beauty, which seemed to multiply exponentially every time he looked at her,all of this feels to the cowherd like it happened only moments ago, though it was actually hours, time does not wait for us, but we must wait for it.

Hello, the weaver girl says, when she finally turns up at the mud hut. Hello, says the cowherd. Well, here is your umbrella. Did you really think I came back just to get my umbrella, the weaver girl says. They kiss, and, in this moment, the cowherd realises there are things far more miraculous in life than a cow talking.


The next morning, the faint whispering of the stars is much louder than usual. If we didn't know any better, we might even say that their discourse sounds like a family quarrel, one that is getting louder and louder until finally both the cowherd and the weaver girl are awoken by a sound like a clap of thunder, but which is actually just someone knocking loudly on the wooden door of the mud hut.

I am the king of heaven, announces the man when the cowherd opens the door. Not again, thinks the cowherd, first my cow starts talking to me, now I have some lunatic at my door claiming to be the king of heaven. Don't look so surprised, says the king of heaven, Granted, the idea takes some getting used to, but in several hundred years' time, people all over europe will accept that god takes the form of a mere man, they will even wage wars to defend the legitimacy of this idea, thousands of innocents will be slaughtered to uphold it, consider my appearance now as a preview, a matinee if you will. I have no idea what you're talking about, the cowherd replies, But at any rate, even if you are the king of heaven, as you claim to be, what are you doing here at my door, I'm but a simple cowherd, who until yesterday, had nothing to his name except for a cow and this mud hut. What is your name, asks the king of heaven. If you really are the king of heaven, as you suggest, surely you already know my name, but at any rate, my name is Niulang, which means cowherd, this is not the name I was given, but the name that I have, because as I have already told you, I have nothing to my name except a cow, apart from this, I have nothing at all, although, come to think of it, this isn't quite true, it's probably time that I changed it, because as of yesterday, I also have the love of a girl who I love in return, and, as anyone will tell you, a man who has not love has nothing, but a man who has love has everything.

Stop talking in circles, the king of heaven says, The girl you have just slept with is my daughter. What, says the cowherd. This time, there is no one to tell him not to be so astonished, for this fact is in fact quite astonishing. Just because I am a god, it does not mean I am not also her father, and, quite frankly, I'm appalled at her irresponsible behaviour and your total lack of discernment, what kind person sleeps with the first girl he meets weaving baskets by the river. Anyway, to get back to the point, you must never see her again, she is, so to say, grounded, for the next millennia or two, after which time you'll certainly be dead, even accounting for developments in medical science. To ensure this, her mother and I will watch over her much more closely than we did on this occasion, did you know that her job is to weave the clouds, yes, you heard right, to weave the clouds, this is why there has been such a long draught, we usually give her a summer holiday of a week or two, but this time she really took it too far, did you really think she only weaved with leaves, ha, ha ha, how absurd, how else do you think she commanded the rain to set up your little dalliance.

Well, even if you are the king of heaven, as you claim to be, and I must say I'm still not totally convinced, and even if she is your daughter, and she weaves clouds as well as baskets, I don't see what the problem is. The problem, the man who claims to be the king of heaven replies, is that my daughter is a goddess, and you are merely a man, and a totally destitute one at that, in your own words, you have nothing. Actually, the cowherd rebuts, I said I have everything. Let's not split hairs over words.

Aren't you also a man, the cowherd asks. It seems that after his dialectical skirmish with the cow, and, having spent the previous day in the happy company of another person, the cowherd's tongue has been loosed, and his critical faculties have improved dramatically. Yes, but I'm also a god. All of this is quite confusing, the cowherd replies. Yes, this is why there will be so many books trying to explain my ontology, but none of them will quite get it right. Oh, says the cowherd, because he does not know what else to say in response. Well, just because I am a cowherd, and she is, well, your daughter, that is, the daughter of a god, love is not governed by laws, and as I told you already, I love her, and I'm quite sure that she also loves me.

You really are naïve, aren't you, haven't you noticed that my daughter has already disappeared, she's safely back in heaven, where she belongs, I only have to think it and it is done, it's all part and parcel of being a god. Everything is subject to the law, and this includes who we can love, and how and how much, as for who it is that determines these laws, that would be me, it's all part and parcel of being a god.


This is where the various accounts of the story diverge and the events of the story become contentious, one person says this happened, another says that happened, it places the narrator in a rather awkward position, as I'm sure you understand, a story is only supposed to have one true version, even if it is a fiction, and nowhere is this more evident than when we come to the writing of history.

The conventional version of what subsequently happened between the cowherd and the weaver girl, which may be found in any collection of chinese folktales for children, usually goes like this. Seeing how heartbroken the cowherd is, the cow speaks again, perhaps out of affection for Nuilang, or perhaps because it feels guilty, after all it was the cow that instructed Niulang to go to the river, which is what set this curlicued chain of events into action. Niulang, the cow says, I'm dying, but don't be too concerned, it all works out in the end, just follow my instructions. After I die, peel off my hide and wear it, you might have to do some alterations, as you know, I'm quite a bit larger than you, and it will be rather unwieldy for you to wear the whole thing, not to mention the fact that it will look rather ridiculous, anyway, if you put on my hide, you'll be able to fly up to the heavens to find Zhinu. After saying this, the cow falls dead. Niulang follows the cow's instructions as best he can, but unbeknownst to him, the king of heaven has been eavesdropping on their conversation, it appears that he wasn't bluffing when he said that he would be watching his daughter much more closely. As they say, god is everywhere at all times, which most often means that he is nowhere at all, this being a rare exception. Armed with this covert reconnaissance, the king of heaven instructs Zhinu's mother to draw a wide and untraversable river in the heavens, so that on the day that Nuilang shrouds himself in cowhide and ascends into the clouds, he cannot, despite all his efforts, cross to the river, where his beloved is awaiting. Separated from each other by this river, which, unlike the river upon which they met, keeps them apart rather than pulls them together, the only thing the cowherd and the weaver girl can do is to look at each other, knowing that they will forever be separated, until all that is left to do is to weep. Seeing what she has done, Zhinu's mother is moved with pity, women are often more sensitive than men to these sorts of things, though if she really sympathised with their plight, she would clearly just let them be together. Instead, Zhinu's mother decides to allow them to cross the river to meet each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, by building a bridge out of magpies.

This narrator finds the aforementioned version of the events rather dubious, firstly, because we have heard straight from the cow's mouth that we should think of him as being a god, which means that he is immutable and therefore cannot die, secondly, if he were not immutable, the cow would never have offered up his hide in such a nonchalant manner, it is well known that given the choice between saving one's own hide and saving another's, we'll always save our own, and thirdly, the characters we have thus far observed would never have given up so easily, the weaver girl is resourceful and defiant, the cowherd persistent and unflinching, besides which, the weaver girl can weave anything and could have just woven a permanent bridge for them to cross, or perhaps the cowherd could have thrown himself into the river, like the stone he unexpectedly skipped that day, until he reached the other side, love trusts all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. As for the magpies, it is simply bad storytelling, everyone knows that if you show a gun at the beginning of the story, it has to go off at the end, at least everyone has known this since Chekhov said it, and the magpies really just appear out of nowhere, there is no explanation for them at all.

So let us consider a second version of the story, one that is only ever whispered in hushed tones, for fear that the stars will hear, it is for this same reason that the stars only ever talk in a whisper, rather than at a normal volume. In this second version, the cowherd and the weaver girl spread the story of the first version far and wide, until it has been told so many times that the king of heaven is secure in the knowledge that it must be true. In actual fact, the cowherd and the weaver girl have performed the old switcheroo, the switcheroo being the story itself. They have substituted the signifier, that is, the story, for themselves, no one knows exactly how they did this, though perhaps it was by one of the means described above. After all this has been done, the cowherd and the weaver girl reunite on earth, with ground beneath their feet and the sun above their heads. Each day, they wake up next to each other and tend to a small garden, they collect flowers in the baskets that they weave together and they weave many other things, never knowing where they will go, but knowing they are going there together. As for the cow, having said all that it needed to say, it never spoke again.

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