by Ken Liu
Night. Half moon. An occasional hoot from an owl. The merchant and his wife and all the servants had been sent away. The large house was eerily quiet. Father and I crouched behind the scholar’s rock in the courtyard. Through the rock’s many holes I could see the bedroom window of the merchant’s son. “Oh, Tsiao-jung, my sweet Tsiao-jung…” The young man’s feverish groans were pitiful. Half-delirious, he was tied to his bed for his own good, but Father had left a window open so that his plaintive cries could be carried by the breeze far over the rice paddies. “Do you think she really will come?” I whispered. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and this was my first hunt.
“She will,” Father said. “A hulijing cannot resist the cries of the man she has bewitched.”
“Like how the Butterfly Lovers cannot resist each other?” I thought back to the folk opera troupe that had come through our village last fall.
“Not quite,” Father said. But he seemed to have trouble explaining why. “Just know that it’s not the same.”
I nodded, not sure I understood. But I remembered how the merchant and his wife had come to Father to ask for his help.
“How shameful!” The merchant had muttered. “He’s not even nineteen. How could he have read so many sages’ books and still fall under the spell of such a creature?”
“There’s no shame in being entranced by the beauty and wiles of a hulijing,” Father had said. “Even the great scholar Wong Lai once spent three nights in the company of one, and he took first place at the Imperial Examinations. Your son just needs a little help.”
“You must save him,” the merchant’s wife had said, bowing like a chicken pecking at rice. “If this gets out, the matchmakers won’t touch him at all.”
A hulijing was a demon who stole hearts. I shuddered, worried if I would have the courage to face one.
Father put a warm hand on my shoulder, and I felt calmer. In his hand was Swallow Tail, a sword that had first been forged by our ancestor, General Lau Yip, thirteen generations ago. The sword was charged with hundreds of Daoist blessings and had drunk the blood of countless demons.
A passing cloud obscured the moon for a moment, throwing everything into darkness.
When the moon emerged again, I almost cried out.
There, in the courtyard, was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen.