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Four seasons, a dragon and a river in flood

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Once, long ago to us, Monkey could be found in the land we now call Ningxia. He was getting up to tricks and mischief, as he did. As he still does, probably, because Monkey was never one to change a winning strategy. And, as it so happened, he fell in with a rather shy dragon. It may seem strange that a dragon should be shy, when they are generally such solemn and haughty creatures, full of ambition and the lust for brilliance. However, this dragon was rather young, and on the periphery of all the important posturing that the older dragons did, so she had no idea what she should be doing. Monkey and the Little Dragon travelled together for a time, roaming over the fields when they were prosperous and well-tilled by men and oxen and many lived there, on the foothills of the mountains.

One day, they ventured down to the banks of the Yellow River, because Little Dragon had heard that the river was really the famous Yellow Dragon, who had once saved all of humankind from death by drought, with his other dragon comrades, and had been punished for it by the Jade Emperor by being squashed under a mountain. But the dragons had not relinquished their desire to serve humankind, so they flowed down from the mountains as rivers, where they nurtured the rice paddies and sorghum fields of a million peasants. As they approached the river, Little Dragon begged Monkey to be respectful towards the river and the dragon that controlled it.

Sadly, it's doubtful that Monkey has ever known the meaning of the word, but he was certainly quiet as he watched the water tumble past, rushing and roaring and carrying silt and loess towards the sea. Then he couldn't hold himself back, and started chattering and posturing, showing off his skill. Monkey twirled his staff and ran through his transformations, shouting as loud as he could about his prowess. But the Yellow Dragon, and the Yellow River he controlled, was not one to stand being mocked or treated disrespectfully by the chatter of a monkey, and a sudden rush of water threatened the banks.

Monkey didn't notice; he never did. It never occurred to him that maybe other people saw him differently to how he saw himself, that maybe they needed space and time away from him and his ego. Little Dragon noticed the river's wrath. She dived into the water and swam desperately up and down the banks, shoring them up as best she could and trying to hold the swollen stream of water inside.

She succeeded. The Yellow River didn't burst its banks and the villages and farmlands on the plains were safe, and no one was swept away or drowned in a sudden deluge. In another sense, though, she didn’t succeed, because, when Monkey finally remembered the Little Dragon, and came back to the riverbank to look for her, she was gone. Only a few scales floated on the water to tell that she had been there at all.

Monkey eventually learned to be a little wiser, and not to think so much of himself; to think more of others. He was lucky. Many other monkeys never learn that lesson, and they posture and shriek their whole lives and never even notice. Some people say that Little Dragon is now part of the river, and she swims back and forth, checking the banks and shoring them up as best she can. Others say she tumbled, heels over ears, down the long, swift currents of the river and out to the sea, and no one knows what happened to her after that.

Not all creatures are as lucky as Monkey and get a second chance to learn their lessons. On the other hand, some creatures are remarkably apt at learning the first time. They take in ideas and knowledge with all their senses; what they produce can be revolutionary. One such man was Yu, Tamer of the Waters, Founder of the Xia Dynasty. He was fortunate, for his teacher was Xi Wang Mu, the greatest tutor of them all.

The relationship between teacher and student is different in each case, depending on the skills and talents of both. The result depends on how the metal of the relationship bends and twists until quenched. You can't know until the final tempering whether there will be flaws. Sometimes, the student emerges brittle and overwrought, sometimes with gifts greater than dreamed possible. The gift Xi Wang Mu gave Yu was fourfold: diversion in the spring flood, submission in the summer rains, preparation in the dryness of autumn, and hope, eked out over the winter snows.

But this isn't Yu's story, nor Monkey's either. Yu is squabbled over by archaeologists and historians, and Monkey can be found on children's television. Xi Wang Mu is forgotten. But in her springtime, she rose as the rivers did, in the mountains. No one knows which mountains exactly, even now when the mountains of the Kunlun range themselves would be proud to claim her as theirs originally. Even the Bayan Har mountains would honour her.

She was beautiful then, young and quick and vibrant. She sang her way up and down the valleys of the mountain she lived on, working in the fields of her father. There a god of the forest found her, laughing as loud as a waterfall as she finished planting for the day. All that season he pursued her and she fled. She avoided his lures, declined his invitations, diverted his attention. Still, he chased her.

Finally, her father called her to him. It was evening and the sound of flutes and singing echoed from house to house, but in the small porch of her father's house, it was silent. She knew what he would say, where he would send her. All her evasions were futile, destroyed at a word from her father, tired of feeding three daughters in a small village with too few young men. She was angry, all singing and mirth stilled in her heart, but there was no hope for her left in defiance. She left him without asking his blessing, turning to collect such few belongings as she could take: a cloak she'd woven, a felted blanket, her sewing kit. It would be little enough to sustain her.

In the shadows by the fire, her grandmother waited. In front of her, she knelt.

"Look at you," said the grandmother, "going out into the woods, fire in your heart and anger in your belly."

"The fire will go out soon enough," she said.

"Stay," said the grandmother, "for this woodgod is immortal only as the forest lasts, and fire was ever the enemy. My grandmother told me that immortality can be achieved by any who seek it diligently enough."

She smiled then, took her grandmother's blessing, and a small water jug the old woman pressed into her hands. She left the house without looking back, walking into the triumphant embrace of her suitor.

The story could stop here, for who hasn't heard of the myriad fates that await a mortal claimed by an immortal? It never ends well. But the girl remembered her grandmother's words and cloaked the embers of her heart, embracing her woodgod in turn. She went to his house in the forest and they lived there. Her smile was ready, her singing clear and joyous, and she never, for even a moment, allowed her lover to see into her heart. Together, they laughed and played, and she learned from him all that he knew. She grew herbs in the garden behind the house and tended twin peach trees planted either side of the small stream that flowed past. Each day, she meditated on the water and how it shaped itself to circumstance but was not impeded in purpose. Some days, she was the restless chatter of shallow water over rocks, some days the quiet of a shaded pool.

One morning, she opened her eyes from her meditation to see two peaches hanging from the branches of her peach trees. They were perfect. She reached out and took one in each hand, carrying them before her. Her woodgod lounged in the morning sun and shaded his eyes as she approached.

"Peaches," he said, smiling with uncomplicated delight. She held them both out.

"You choose," she said. As he hesitated, struggling to choose between them, she looked inside her heart for the last time. The fire was there, carefully shrouded in a vortex of the water that made her up. He took one at last, and she raised the other to her lips. Her teeth drove through the downy skin, breaking into the yellow flesh below. Sweetness bloomed on her tongue, juice on her lips, as she tore the first mouthful free. The peach gave itself up to her freely, almost eager to be devoured. She gave herself over to the experience, sticky and sweet and exultant. Finishing the final bite, she let the stone drop from her hand. The woodgod backed away from her and she looked at him straightly for the first time since he'd taken her. She felt the changes in herself, felt her body rushing with water; the fire in her heart burst free, leaping from tree to tree around the clearing.

He screamed and she laughed, deadly and without weakness. She had obtained immortality, and the water and fire made her steam, hot and dangerous. "Eat," she said. "I grew two, didn't I?" He threw down the peach and backed away further, stopping only as the fire at his back scorched his shoulders. She laughed again, raising her arms to the sky and chasing the blue. Her body exploded, gushing forth in waves and she shot up into the air, perfectly spontaneous, perfectly free.

Autumn has always been a busy season. We reap what we sow, but also we make the choices that govern the rest of the year. What we hold back, what we store, when we pick and what time we take, these all make fast the bridges of the next year. Now she was immortal, her original body burned away and she was fierce and bold. Her tiger teeth were sharp, her mind no less so. In the dryness, she made fast like a mountain, like a headwater, like the blessing and scourge of a people. She reaped and stored and planned and waited.

People began to call her by the name we still know, Xi Wang Mu, and began to seek her out. They wanted many things from her. She laughed, but it was now winter, and in winter all we have is hope and waiting. She was content, in this time of stillness, to consider all those who found her and sought her wisdom. She was always distant from their desires, able to judge them coldly and without emotion. Some wanted to be immortal themselves, and to one of those she gave the Dao.

Eventually, Yu found her and asked her guidance. She smiled at him, tiger teeth glinting, and beckoned him forward with her tiger claws. He served the land and the water and the people. He went. At her feet, curled up by her scaly tail, the Little Dragon sat and listened to his plans and questions. She smiled as Xi Wang Mu did.