Myths in Isolation tales – T is for Tiangou. The story of Chang Er by Suzi Clark

Tiangou. The original drawing of this celestial body swallowing dog is now hanging on a wall somewhere, as is his right I feel.

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The Story of Chang Er

Chang Er was an ordinary sort of woman, on an ordinary evening, in an ordinary village near Cheong Chin, on the banks of the Yangtse Chiang.

Her husband Hou Yi was an archer with the Emperor’s troop, and was often away from home, leaving her to tend the vegetable patch, wash the cotton sheets, collect firewood to take the chill off the evening mist, and sing her sorrow to the lonely moon.

She was sorrowful because she could not have children, and she knew that it would complete her husband’s happiness, if she could present him with a son. A fat, happy son. Although, to trick the gods, she would say modestly “Oh, no, he is an ugly baby … nothing to look at, scrawny and always wailing.” Just to trick the gods.

At forty-five, this gift had been denied.

But she knew how much he loved her. He had even sent her the pelt of a white fox, wrapped in thin scarlet silk, so that it looked as though the blood of the animal spilled out over her bamboo table.

“To keep you safe, and protect you from robbers, my darling wife,” said the note written by the mandarin. Chang Er knew this because she had taken the note to the market to have it read to her.

But the red silk disturbed her. Instead of peace and tranquillity, the white pelt with the hole where the arrow had pierced its heart, made her feel sad. So she laid it not around her shoulders, but outside the front door, to propitiate the gods.

That night, she heard a howling outside the door. She opened it and there, standing on the fox pelt was a large black dog. It looked hungry, and it had its front paw in the air. She looked at the dog and the dog looked back. She could see where a thorn had gone into the pad of its paw, from the blood dripping on to the white fur.

Although Chang Er had never had a dog, she was curious and she felt a stirring of compassion so she let the animal into her home. She poured cool water into a porcelain tea bow and put it down. The dog sniffed the water and then lapped it up. She put some left over rice noodles on a bamboo mat. The dog sniffed them and then delicately licked them up, one at a time. The little slivers of chicken seemed to please the dog. When the mat was empty, it turned towards her and put its paw in her lap. Gingerly, afraid of been bitten, she patted the black head and then in one swift movement, she pulled the thorn out of its paw.

The dog yelped, and hobbling to the open door, it turned and looked back at her, as if in reproach. From where she was sitting, it looked as though the dog disappeared into the moonlight. Perhaps it would have eaten the moon as well, she thought, wistfully. She closed the door.

But the next morning, when she went out into the garden, she paused. There, where the scarlet silk had lain under the pelt, there was a strange plant growing. It had heavy red fruit, smaller than plums but bigger than cherries. Chang Er felt a sudden sense of lightness in her heart. She pulled off one of the fruits, bright with dew. She licked off the dew and very carefully bit into the fruit. It was filled with tiny yellow pips. The juice was delicious. It trickled down her chin and she giggled.

And then she felt a strange sensation in her belly, not like poison, not like fear, but like life. She looked up and down the garden path her beloved Hou Yi was striding towards her, his face alight with laughter, his bow slung over his shoulders. In his arms he was carrying the white pelt. It was muddy and wet. “Look what I found in the vegetable patch!” he said to his wife. “Did it not please you, wife?”

“Oh, yes,” she said meekly. Then she patted her belly again, and felt the sensation once again. She cradled her hand around the curve. It felt full and round as a harvest moon. “And I have some news that will please you, too.”

For a moment, in the corner of her eye, she felt sure she saw the fleeting shadow of a black dog dipping behind the weeping willow tree. Tiangou, she thought. Sometimes the blackest of spirits bring the greatest of gifts in return for a simple kindness.

Suzi Clark, for Katherine Soutar. 2020.

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