He rises from his slumber before the sun has come up. There are no sounds in his small
hut but for the rustling of grass, the gentle snoring of his cow, and, if one listens carefully
enough, the faint whispering of the stars, though one might rightly be skeptical about this
last part. The boy bends his thick torso and itches one calloused foot with the other, he
yawns, flexes his sinewed arms, and gets up. The pale mud hut is bathed in the bluish
grey of pre-dawn. But for cow, which the boy has seen no need to name as it's the only
one to his name, he is entirely alone in the world, and has been ever since the death of his
parents, when he was but a small child. Because of this, no one knows the name that he
was given him, but only the name that he has, Niulang, which means cowherd.
The morning has begun like any other, a statement which would ring false in
any case, for no two days are the same, but in this case is especially so, for it is in fact
Nuilang's birthday, only he does not know it. He is turning eighteen, though he does not
know this either, and nor would you guess from the years on his face that he had only
just become a man, if you saw him ploughing the land or carrying a pail of water across
his back, what with those well-defined creases at the corners of his eyes and that sun-
our having called him a boy. For a man, at least so the narrator has been told, and as
confirmed countless television dating shows, this is not such a terrible thing, to look older
than one's years, the creases on a man's face speak of maturity and wisdom, onerously
earned through suffering the ravages of life. For a woman, on the other hand, it a fate
worse than death. It has been this way since time immemorial, or at least the beginning
of recorded history, when one person or another, most likely a man, said, "Isn't it awful
when a woman's face starts to wrinkle"— this was repeated by another person, most
likely also a man, until it became the irrefutable truth that it is today. Nuilang rubs the
cow's belly, as he has every morning for as long as he can remember. How did you
sleep, faithful cow, Niulang asks, but unlike every other morning, on this morning, the
"Well," the cow replies, "as you know, I'm sleeping on nothing but damp earth, and
a thin bed of grass, the same as you, but all things considered, I slept very well, after all,
I'm only a cow, I should thank you for letting me sleep in the mud hut with you, most
people just leave us outside come what may, they think that because we're cows we don't
feel the rain or cold or sleet, this is without mentioning sunstroke, which is especially
dicey for a cow." Nuilang cannot believe his ears, he taps himself twice on the head to
make sure everything is where it's supposed to be, he must not have gotten enough sleep,
though that would be strange, he had gone to sleep and risen from bed at the same time
as every other day, perhaps he is still dreaming, yes, that must be it, or maybe, finally, he
has gone mad from being alone all these years. Before he can descend any further into
madness, the cow speaks again. "Don't be so surprised, you humans think that only you
speak, because you are humans, and that we cannot, because we are cows, it's true that
we prefer to moo, but this does not mean we cannot speak." Niulang could not find any
fault with the cow's logic, having been alone for so long, he wasn't exactly well-honed in
the in the ins and outs of rhetoric, if he was he might have responded— "Everyone knows
that man can speak, but this is the first documented case of a cow speaking; clearly I am
going mad from the need to talk to someone who will talk back to me."
Seeing that Nuilang is satisfied with its explanation, the cow continues, "I can see
you've gotten quite lonely, this is no life for a man, to spend all his days working, with
only a cow for company, why don't you take on a wife." The thought had never occurred
to Nuilang, "A wife?" he asks, astonished: "I'm but a humble cowherd, with hardly a
possession to my name, except for you, a cow, that is, what makes you think a woman
would want to marry me." "Tomorrow, go to the river," the cow replies, "Today is your
eighteenth birthday, you're of a marrying age."
"How do you know all these things?" the cowherd asks the cow. "If you prefer, you
can think of me as a god, as the Hindus do, we all must believe in something, and a cow
is as good as a sheep, or an elephant, or a man."
Nuilang drags his weary feet along the riverbed. He is wearing his father's pair of old
leather sandals for protection, and this is just as well, because he has been trudging along
this muddy creek for the last four hours without a single felicitous coincidence, divine,
bovine or otherwise. The trail along the river is uneven and the stones prick at his feet,
which, despite the sandals, are aching something awful, perhaps something has managed
to lodge itself into his foot, a thistle or burr, and if this were not enough, the sun beats
mercilessly down, suddenly, the cowherd thinks to himself, "I'm sweating like a cow,
which is not quite the phrase he was looking for, it must be the sun." Perhaps he should
have asked the cow to be a bit more specific when it told him to go to the river.
The cowherd sits down by the river and unstraps his sandals. A small stone has
lodged itself into the ball of his foot, flat on one side curving to a sharp edge where it has
dug into his foot, in his heat-induced daze, it reminds him of the hoe he uses to loosen
the hard earth in front of the mud hut, only in this case, his calloused foot is the soil. It
is backbreaking work, hoeing the arid soil, but in this case, the stone has wedged itself
his foot without any aid whatsoever; if only his hoe had such initiative. The cowherd's
foot is bleeding, the wound is dribbles with puss, without another moment's delay, the
cowherd pulls the stone out, "ow." The tip of the stone which had been lodged in the
cowherd's foot now sits in his calloused hand, smeared with reddish purplish blood
glimmering in the mid-afternoon sun. The cowherd's eyes pass over his wound, and he
Though we have thus far portrayed the cowherd as an unflinching, stoical type, capable
of taking any calamity in his stride with a shrug and a determined grimace, he has from
a young age been squeamish at the sight of blood. Just because a man has been hardened
by life and labor, it does not mean that he won't be squeamish at the sight of blood, and
just because a man is squeamish at the sight of blood, it does not mean that he will be
squeamish about other things; in the end, we all have things we are squeamish about, and
this is nothing to be ashamed of. At any rate, the cowherd does not faint, he plunges the
stone into the cold running stream, and after only a few moments, the stone is as if new,
its wet surface gleaming in the light. He takes the stone out of the stream, letting it sit
in the palm of his leathery hand. The cowherd is suddenly pricked by a pang of anger,
he has been duped by his own desperate longing for company, he has exhausted himself
for nothing, trudging this miserable river for the last four hours— how foolish he was
to think that he would find a girl here to marry, one with whom he might gaze upon the
stars, exchanging fantastical stories about the kinds of animals those luminous clusters
of hydrogen and helium resemble, and also, perhaps, who might also help him with his
laundry, and with tidying up the mud hut once in a while. How could he possibly have
believed the words of a cow; in fact, how could he possibly have believed that a cow
Nuilang flings the small stone into the river with all his might. But instead of
breaking the surface of the water and plummeting to the bottom like other stones that
have been flung there in anger, this stone, which just a moment ago had been lodged
in the cowherd's foot, and which may or may not resemble the shape of a hoe, skips
exquisitely off the stream, darting off the water, two times, three times, four, a highly
irregular occurrence for a stone so small, five times, six times, seven times, before
finally, it plops into the water for good and sinks to the bottom of the stream.
This highly irregular occurrence is immediately followed by one even more
irregular, contrary to our earlier pessimism. We now hear the sound of a girl giggling.
The cowherd turns toward it. Hitherto, those things which he had found to be beautiful
were things like the way in which the sun crept along the walls of the mud hut in the
mornings, warming the bales of hay on which he slept, or the tussles of long grass
surrounding his mud hut being tossed by a violent wind, or the way that the dew would
settle over his cow's eyelids in the winter, before the cow woke. But the girl before him
was more beautiful than all of those things put together.
The girl stops giggling as soon as she realizes she has been spotted. She looks at
the cowherd, with his mangy hair and small eyes, blinks twice, then casts her gaze
downwards. Inside, her heart is still giggling, we know this because this is one of the
advantages of being the narrator, and also, if we look closely enough, we can see a faint
smile crinkling her cheeks, in the same way that, if we listen closely enough, we can hear
the stars whispering in the mornings. It is not too late to renounce your skepticism.
"What's your name," the cowherd asks. His heart is beating fast, even though he
has been sitting down. "I don't know the name I was given," she replies, but I know the
name I have, Zhinu, which means weaver girl, because I weave." She is sitting against
a cypress tree with gnarled old branches, and resting on her lap, organized into a neat
bundle, are strips of long, flat leaves, some of which have been woven together.
"What are those," Nuilang asks. "This is what I use to weave with, and this place by the
river is the best place to come to gather it. Haven't you noticed all the flax around here?"
In fact, the cowherd hadn't, because he had been too busy looking at her. Zhinu has
a strange accent, she doesn't sound like she is from around here, or perhaps it is simply
that Nuilang is not used to hearing the sound of another human voice. Having now heard
it again, he realizes that he cannot again live without it, and he wants nothing more than
"Your foot is hurt," Zhinu says. She kneels down next to the cowherd, and taking
several of the leaves from her bundle, she wraps the ball of Nuilang's foot where the
stone had broken his skin. "Does that feel better?" Zhinu asks, but Nuilang barely notices
the flax, instead he notices how her hand feels on his mangled ankles, and how her hands
are just as calloused as his. Next to her, resting gently on the damp soil next to the river,
are the leaves that she has already woven together into a small arch. "It's going to be a
basket," Zhinu says. "It looks like a bridge. It's not finished yet; this is just the bottom of
the basket, that's why it looks like a bridge."
For a short time, neither of them speaks. All that can be heard is the trickling of the
stream over rocks. Then Zhinu speaks again, "I can teach you if you like, we can take
turns, I'll attach one leaf to the basket, and then you attach the next one, and then we can
weave them together." "Here, why don't you go first!"?
Zhinu places a leaf in Nuilang's hand, it has a rougher texture than he expected. He
attaches it clumsily to the existing weaving. He has no idea what he is doing, but it is
better than doing nothing at all, because although he doesn't know what he is doing, he
is doing it with her, which we know to be true because at this precise moment, Zhinu
threads a leaf underneath the one that Nuilang had just placed. He adds another leaf to
the basket-to-be, and she another. Where they are going, neither of them knows, but
they are going there together, and this is what matters. "The reason I like weaving," she
says, "is because you can place a leaf at any angle that you want, and even if you try to
do the same weave, even if you try to weave the same thing, it will always be slightly
different." "So in the end, the number of combinations are infinite, just as at any moment
in time, the number of things that could happen is infinite."
The words have barely left her mouth when it suddenly it begins to rain. It is
pouring down, the weaver girl runs to the cypress tree for cover. The cowherd sees no
reason to plod either. They are now both hunched under the gnarled branches where the
Nuilang first saw the weaver girl. Though Nuilang had not noticed it before, there is
a hand-woven umbrella lying on the sodden ground next to the tree truck. "Here, take
this," Zhinu says, "I live quite close to here, you need it more than me."
"I really couldn't," Nuilang replies. "At any rate, isn't it a bit strange that it's raining in
the middle of this dry summer spell." He says this to try to extend the conversation, but
at this, the rain gets even heavier, big drops of water pummel down from the heavens,
scattering the earth and battering the leaves of the cypress trees, washing the branches
and trunks of dirt and mud. "The rain doesn't mind me," the weaver girl shouts over the
sudden cacophony of the rain. "Really, I couldn't," the cowherd repeats.
The next day, those old enough to remember such things will say that it is the most rain
the village has had for sixty odd years. "I'll come to your mud hut to retrieve it later,"
Zhinyu yells. "How would you know where I live?" Nuilang replies, but the rain is too
loud for us to hear her answer. Finally the cowherd agrees, they can no longer hear each
other over the rain. The cowherd cannot hear what the weaver girl is saying, and nor
can the weaver girl hear what the cowherd is saying. If both of them persisted in their
stubbornness, they would be left standing there forever, which, thought the cowherd only
after he had clasped the umbrella from her hand, might not be such a bad thing after all.
By the time Nuilang has returned to his mud hut, the sun has come out again. The
cow sheepishly makes its way out of the little dwelling, but they do not speak to each
other, for there is nothing to say. Of course, one or the other could have said, "Oh, what
an unexpected rain," but, as each already knows what the other is thinking, there is no
need to say it. Married couples might disagree.
The soil is red in the wetness. The setting sun is also red, its red light piercing the
transparent drops of water dripping off the long grass back to the earth. Nuilang
stands outside the mud hut and clutches the weaver girl's umbrella and paces. He runs
his calloused fingers over the fine cross-hatched weave and waits. He imagines her
calloused fingers on his foot, and her peculiar accent, and her illogical beauty, which
seemed to multiply exponentially every time he looked at her, all of this feels to the
cowherd like it happened only moments ago, though it was actually hours.
"Hello," the weaver girl says, when she finally turns up at the mud hut. "Hello,"
says the cowherd. "Well, here is your umbrella."
"Did you really think I came back just to get my umbrella?" the weaver girl says. They
kiss, and in this moment, the cowherd realizes there are things far more miraculous in life
The next morning, the faint whispering of the stars is much louder than usual. If we
didn't know any better, we might even say that their discourse sounds like a family
quarrel, one that is getting louder and louder until finally both the cowherd and the
weaver girl are awoken by a sound like a clap of thunder, but it is actually just someone
knocking loudly on the wooden door of the mud hut.
"I am the king of heaven," announces the man when the cowherd opens the door.
"Not again," thinks the cowherd. "First my cow starts talking to me, now I have some
lunatic at my door claiming to be the king of heaven".
"Don't look so surprised," says the king of heaven.
"Granted, the idea takes some getting used to, but in several hundred years' time, people
all over Europe will accept that god takes the form of a mere man, they will even wage
wars to defend the legitimacy of this idea, thousands of innocents will be slaughtered to
uphold it. Consider my appearance now as a preview, a matinee if you will."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," the cowherd replies, "but at any rate, even
if you are the king of heaven, as you claim to be, what are you doing here at my door?"
"I'm but a simple cowherd, who until yesterday, had nothing to his name except for a
"What is your name?" asks the king of heaven.
"If you really are the king of heaven, as you suggest, surely you already know my name,
but at any rate, my name is Niulang, which means cowherd."
"This is not the name I was given, but the name I have, because as I have already told
you, I have nothing to my name except a cow, and apart from this, I have nothing at all."
"Although, come to think of it, this isn't quite true, it's probably time that I changed
it, because as of yesterday, I also have the love of a girl who I love in return, and as
anyone will tell you, a man who has not love has nothing, but a man who has love has
"Stop talking in circles," the king of heaven says.
"The girl you have just slept with is my daughter."
"Just because I am a god, it does not mean I am not also her father, and quite frankly, I'm
appalled at her irresponsible behaviour and your total lack of discernment. What kind
person sleeps with the first girl he meets weaving baskets by the river?"
"Anyway, to get back to the point, you must never see her again."
"She is, so to say, grounded, for the next millennia or two, after which time you'll
certainly be dead, even accounting for developments in medical science. To ensure this,
her mother and I will watch over her much more closely than we did on this occasion."
"Did you know that her job is to weave the clouds?"
"Yes, you heard right, to weave the clouds! This is why there has been such a long
draught. We usually give her a summer holiday of a week or two, but this time she
really took it too far. Did you really think she only weaved with leaves? Ha, ha ha! How
absurd! How else do you think she commanded the rain to set up your little dalliance?"
"Well, even if you are the king of heaven, as you claim to be, and I must say I'm still
not totally convinced, and even if she is your daughter, and she weaves clouds, as well as
baskets, I don't see what the problem is."
"The problem," the man who claims to be the king of heaven replies, "is that my
daughter is a goddess, and you are merely a man, and a totally destitute one at that, and
in your own words, you have nothing." "Actually," the cowherd rebuts, "I said I have
everything. Let's not split hairs over words."
"Aren't you also a man?" the cowherd asks. It seems that after his dialectical
skirmish with the cow, and having spent the previous day in the happy company of
another person, the cowherd's tongue has been loosed, and his critical faculties have
"All of this is quite confusing," the cowherd replies.
"Yes, this is why there will be so many books trying to explain my ontology, but none of
"Oh," says the cowherd, because he does not know what else to say in response.
"Well, just because I am a cowherd, and she is, well, your daughter, that is, the daughter
of a god, love is not governed by laws, and as I told you already, I love her, and I'm quite
"You really are naïve, aren't you? Haven't you noticed that my daughter has already
disappeared, she's safely back in heaven, where she belongs. I only have to think it and
it is done. It's all part and parcel of being a god. Everything is subject to the law, and this
includes who we can love, and how, and how much, as for who it is that determines these
laws, that would be me. It's all part and parcel of being a god."
This is where the various accounts of the story diverge and the events of the story become
contentious. One person says this happened, another says that happened— it places
the narrator in a rather awkward position, as I'm sure you understand, a story is only
supposed to have one true version, even if it is a fiction, and nowhere is this more evident
The conventional version of what subsequently happened between the cowherd and
the weaver girl, which may be found in any collection of Chinese folktales for children,
usually goes like this. Seeing how heartbroken the cowherd is, the cow speaks again,
perhaps out of affection for Nuilang, or perhaps because it felt guilty. After all, it was the
cow that instructed Niulang to go to the river, which is what set this curlicued chain of
"Niulang," the cow said, "I'm dying, but don't be too concerned, it all works out in the
end, just follow my instructions. After I die, peel off my hide and wear it. You might
have to do some alterations, as you know, I'm quite a bit larger than you, and it will be
rather unwieldy for you to wear the whole thing, not to mention the fact that it will look
rather ridiculous. Anyway, if you put on my hide, you'll be able to fly up to the heavens
After saying this, the cow falls dead. Niulang follows the cow's instructions as best
he can, but unbeknownst to him, the king of heaven had been eavesdropping on their
conversation. It appears that he wasn't bluffing when he said that he would be watching
his daughter much more closely. As they say, god is everywhere at all times, which
most often means that he is nowhere at all, this being a rare exception. Armed with this
covert reconnaissance, the king of heaven instructs Zhinu's mother to draw a wide and
untraversable river in the heavens, so that on the day that Nuilang shrouds himself in
cowhide and ascends into the clouds, he cannot, despite all his efforts, cross the river,
where his beloved is awaiting. Separated from each other by this river, which, unlike the
river upon which they met, keeps them apart, the only thing the cowherd and the weaver
girl can do is to look at each other. He stuck on one side of the river and she on the other,
knowing that they will forever be separated, until all that is left to do is to weep. Seeing
what she has done, Zhinu's mother is moved with pity. Women are often more sensitive
than men to these sorts of things, though if she really sympathized with their plight, she
would clearly just let them be together. Instead, Zhinu's mother decides to allow them to
cross the river to meet each other once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month of
the lunar calendar, by creating a bridge out of magpies.
The narrator finds the aforementioned version of the events rather dubious, firstly,
because we have heard straight from the cow's mouth, we should think of him as being a
god, which means that he is immutable and therefore cannot die; secondly, if he were not
immutable, the cow would never have offered up his hide in such a nonchalant manner. It
is well known that given the choice between saving one's own hide and saving another's,
we'll always save our own, and thirdly, the characters we have thus far observed would
never have given up so easily. The weaver girl is resourceful and defiant, the cowherd
is persistent and unflinching, besides which, if the weaver girl can weave anything, she
could have just woven a permanent bridge for them to cross, or perhaps the cowherd
could have thrown himself into the river, like the stone he unexpectedly skipped that day,
until he reached the other side. Love trusts all things, hopes all things, believes all things,
and endures all things. As for the magpies, it is simply bad storytelling, everyone knows
that if you show a gun at the beginning of the story, it has to go off at the end, at least
everyone has known this since Chekhov said it, that the magpies really just appear out of
nowhere, there is no explanation for them at all.
So let us consider a second version of the story, one that is only ever whispered
in hushed tones, for fear that the stars will hear. It is for this same reason that the stars
only ever talk in a whisper, rather than at a normal volume. In this second version, the
cowherd and the weaver girl spread the story of the first version far and wide, until it
has been told so many times that the king of heaven is secure in the knowledge that it
must be true. In actual fact, the cowherd and the weaver girl have performed the old
switcheroo, that switcheroo being the story itself. They have substituted the signifier,
that is, the story, for themselves, no one knows exactly how they did this, though perhaps
it was by one of the means described above. After all this has been done, the cowherd
and the weaver girl reunite on earth, with ground beneath their feet and the sun above
their heads. Each day they wake up next to each other, and tend to a small garden. They
collect flowers in the baskets that they weave together, and they weave many other
things, never knowing where they will go, but knowing they are going there together. As
for the cow, having said all that it needed to say, it never spoke again.
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