Short Stories: Magical Arts

A tale from Pu Songling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. A necromancer predicts that a young man will die in three days, he waits for death and on that day must fight against all manner of supernatural foe, until he suspects he knows who is trying to kill him...

A certain Mr. Yu was a spirited young fellow, fond of boxing and trials of strength. He was able to take two kettles and swing them round about with the speed of the wind. Now, during the reign of Ch'ung Cheng, when up for the final examination at the captial, he servent became seriously ill. Much troubled at this, he applied to a necromancer in the market-place who was skillful at determining the various leases of life alloted to men. Before he had uttered a word, the necromancer asked him, saying, "Is it not about your servant, Sir, that you would consult me?" Mr. Yu was startled by this, and replied that it was. "The sick man," continued the necromancer, "will come to no harm; you, Sir, are the one in danger." Mr. Yu then begged him to cast his nativity, which he proceeded to do, finally saying to Mr. Yu, "You have but three days to live!" Dreadfully frightened, he remained some time in a state of stupefaction, when the necromancer quietly observed that he possessed the power of averting this calamity by magic, and would exert it for the sum of ten ounces of silver. But Mr. Yu reflected that Life and Death are already fixed, and he didn't see how magic could save him. So he refused, and was just going away, whereupon the necromancer said, "You grudge this trifling outlay. I hope you will not repent it." Mr. Yu's friends also urged him to pay the money, advising him rather to empty his purse than not secure the necromancer's compassion. Mr. Yu, however, would not hear of it, and the three days slipped quickly away. Then he sat down calmly in his inn to see what was going to happen. Nothing did happen all day, and at night he shut his door and trimmed the lamp; then, with a sword at his side, he awaited the approach of death.

By-and-by, the clepsydra showed that two hours had already gone without bringing him any nearer to dissolution; and he was thinking about lying down, when he heard a scratching at the window, and then saw a tiny little man creep through, carrying a spear on his shoulder, who, on reaching the ground, shot up to the ordinary height. Mr. Yu seized his sword and at once struck at it; but only succeeded in cutting the air. His visitor instantly shrank down small again, and made an attempt to escape through the crevice of the window; but Yu redoubled his blows and at last brought him to the ground. Lighting the lamp, he found only a paper man, cut right through the middle.

This made him afraid to sleep, and he sat up watching, until in a little time he saw a horrid hobgoblin creep through the same place. No sooner did it touch the ground than he assailed it lustily with his sword, at length cutting it in half. Seeing, however, that both halves kept on wriggling about, and fearing that it might get up again, he went on hacking at it. Every blow told, giving forth a hard sound, and when he came to examine his work, he found a clay image all knocked to pieces. Upon this he moved his seat near the window, and kept his eye fixed upon the crack.

AFter some time, he heard a noise like a bull bellowing outside the window, and something pushed against the window-frame with such force as to make the whole house tremble and seem about to fall. Mr. Yu, fearing he should be buried under the ruins, thought he could not do better than fight outside; so he accordingly burst open the door with a crash and rushed out.

There he found a huge devil, as tall as the house, and he saw by the dim light of the moon that its face was as black as coal. Its eyes shot forth yellow fire: it had nothing either upon its shoulders or feet; but held a bow in its hand and had some arrows at its waist. Mr. Yu was terrified; and the devil discharged an arrow at him which he struck to the ground with his sword. On Mr. Yu preparing to strike, the devil let off another arrow which the former avoided by jumping aside, the arrow quivering in the wall beyond with a smart crack. The devil here got very angry, and drawing his sword flourished it like a whirlwind, aiming a tremendous blow at Mr. Yu. Mr. Yu ducked, and the whole force of the blow fell upon the stone wall of the house, cutting it right in two. Mr. Yu then ran out from between the devil's legs, and began hacking at its back -- whack! whack! The devil now became furious, and roared like thunder, turning round to get another blow at his assailant. But Mr. Yu again ran between his legs, the devil's sword merely cutting off a piece of his coat. Once more he hacked away -- whack! -- whack! and at length the devil came tumbling down flat. Mr. Yu cut at him right and left, each blow resounding like the watchman's wooden gong, and then, bringing a light, he found it was a wooden image about as tall as a man. The bow and arrows were still there, the latter attached to its waist. Its carved and painted features were most hideous to behold, and wherever Mr. Yu had struck it with his sword, there was blood.

Mr. Yu sat with the light in his hand till morning, when he awaked to the fact that all these devils had been sent by the necromancer in order to kill him, and so evidence his own magical power. The next day, after having told the story far and wide, he went with some others to the place where the necromancer had his stall; but the latter, seeing them coming, vanished in the twinkling of an eye. Some one observed that the blood of a dog would reveal a person who had made himself invisible, and Mr. Yu immediately procured some and went back with it. The necromancer disappeared as before, but on the spot where he had been standing they quickly threw down the dog's blood. Thereupon they saw his head and face all smeared over with blood, his eyes glaring like a devil's; and at once seizing him, they handed him over to the authorities, by whom he was put to death.

Written by Pu Songling. Translated by H.A. Giles.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on August 31, 2000.

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