“Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” by Feng Menglong, a story published in Constant Words to Awaken the World in 1627, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang in Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (University of Washington Press, 2009). Constant Words to Awaken the World is not much of a title, so I can see why it was changed. “Divine Foxes Lose a Book at Small Water Bay” is an unsurpassable title. Its only problem is that it overpromises.
Ricardo de la Caravana de Recuerdos was asking forfavorite short stories several months ago. Amid the usual suspects, commenters supplied many curiosities, none more curious than “Divine Foxes,” suggested by humblehappiness aka Cleanthess, who I am pleased to say also visits Wuthering Expectations on occasion.
The narrator begins with an old story about a man who saves an injured bird and is rewarded by the bird with good fortune. Everyone knows this story in some form.
Why even bother to tell it? Well, dear audience, I did so because I plan to move on to a story about a young man who also hit nonhuman beings with slingshot pellets. But, unlike the one who repented after having hurt the bird, this young man ruined his family’s considerable fortune as a consequence of his action and became an object of ridicule. (117)
The young man who errs, Wang Chen, “had only a slight acquaintance with the classics and histories and barely knew the rudiments of writing,” which is what makes his sin especially serious when he comes upon “two wild foxes talking and laughing” who “were discussing the book that one of them was holding in its hand” and injures them both with his slingshot just to get a look at the book. What does he care about books? And then it turns out that it is “printed in ancient tadpole-like characters completely unknown to him” (119).
For the rest of the story, the foxes, who have magic powers mostly related to disguise, try to get their book back. Wang Chen keeps it from them out of nothing but peevishness. Eventually, the foxes succeed through a scheme that seems unnecessarily complex, in the process not exactly ruining Wang Chen, but causing his family to lose half of its wealth.
The narrator occasionally inserts poems and italicized commentary, such as this one at the end (Wang Zai is Wang Chen’s brother:
(What did Wang Zai do to deserve such punishment? The foxes were wicked enough. That’s why they don’t get reincarnated as humans, after all.)
A glimpse into another ethical world appears there, almost as strange as the central mystery of the story, the book that the foxes were discussing so intensely. What could be in it? The true catalog to Borges’s Library of Babel; the key to all mythologies. Something like that. Or perhaps just the Tang Dynasty fairy fox equivalent of George R. R. Martin, stolen before either fox had reached the end.
Book bloggers will sympathize with the foxes.
I guess this counts as a kind of Halloween story. Magic Chinese foxes instead of ghosts.
Of the 2,800 pages of Feng Menglong that has been translated, I have only read “Divine Foxes.” Cleanthess – what’s the wise thing to do next?