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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1869581
by Narsil
Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Folklore · #1869581
A short story based on the Chinese legend of Wu Meng.
The heat was stifling on a summer night in Jin Dynasty China, and the mosquitoes were feasting in the small hut beside the river.

The little boy in the hut turned in his bed and rubbed his eyes. Or, more accurately, he turned in the bed that was shared between him, his father and his little sister. He had woken from a nightmare, just to find that reality wasn’t much better, what with the loud buzzing noise around him and the dreadful itch from the mosquito bites.

He waved his hand and wriggled his body to shoo the mosquitoes feasting on his blood. To his relief, they flew away for a while, but only to come back after a moment and continue their feasting.

The boy was determined not to give in easily. He wrapped himself in his blankets like a mummy, leaving just his eyes uncovered. He wriggled a bit, which made the mosquitoes go away again, but only for a while; but whenever they came back he wriggled again even more furiously. The mosquitoes repeated their attack many times, but the boy proved the stronger, and the mosquitoes finally decided to give up on this lively beast with such thick impenetrable hide.

Through the slit in his blankets, the boy watched the aftermath of the battle. He watched with satisfaction as the mosquitoes fled away from him and hovered in indecision. However, what they did next was something he hadn’t foreseen. Finding the boy too disagreeable for them, the ones that had been feasting on him joined their friends who were feasting on the boy’s father and sister.

The little boy was angry. He loved his sister very much, and he did not want the mosquitoes to bother her! And his father… the boy didn’t care much for his father, but still, he was still… well, Father.

The boy tried to shoo the mosquitoes away from his sister as he had tried to shoo them away from himself, but it was no use, the mosquitoes were determined not to retreat any further. Swatting the mosquitoes was even more futile, for they were too many and too fast for him to swat in the dark.

The little boy collapsed on the bed in despair. Still huddled in his blankets, he watched as one of the mosquitoes that had been feeding on his sister flew back to him and tried to penetrate the mass of cloth covering him.

In a flash, the boy realised what he had to do. He knew it would be terrible for him, but he was not scared; in fact, he felt a sense of destiny as he unravelled the blankets around him, once again rendering himself vulnerable to the attacks of the mosquitoes.

But he did not stop there. Thrilled and nervous, he took off his shirt; he then hesitated a while, but after taking another glance at the mosquitoes feeding on his sister, he muttered bloody mosquitoes and slipped out of his pants, ridding himself of the last line of defence he had against the parasites.

The little boy rolled his blankets into a bundle and put them at his feet; then he lay still, watching the mosquitoes hover above him, once again in decision. He breathed as softly as he could, thinking, I bet Father will stop me if he finds I’m suffering for him like this.

The mosquitoes were more puzzled than ever. Here was prey that was wide awake, yet unmoving; and his thick hide had mysteriously disappeared. It was too good to be true, and consequently they were so cautious of the boy that it would have made no difference if he were boiling hot.

Warily, a mosquito landed on the boy’s foot, which was the safest place, far from the boy’s hands. Nonetheless, the insect kept its eyes fixed on those two giant vessels of wrath as it started to suck; yet nothing happened except that the boy’s foot muscles contracted in discomfort.

A second mosquito flew onto the boy’s nose, where the boy was bound to notice it. As the insect began to suck, it felt the nose twitch; yet once again nothing happened.

The mosquitoes were getting bolder, but they needed to see the white flag. After conferring among themselves, they decided what to do.

A third mosquito, their bravest warrior, flew onto the place the boy would not normally let even other humans touch. As the insect’s legs tickled the tender skin, the organ made several involuntary twitches, and the boy’s face went slightly red; but still nothing happened as the insect feasted on the blood of the boy’s most sensitive organ.

Taking this as a sign of ultimate surrender, nothing more was needed to persuade the rest of the mosquitoes to start the banquet. Gradually, all the mosquitoes went from the boy’s father and sister to the boy, determined to make the best of this heaven-sent feast.

The boy itched all over, but he was determined to stay still. He felt like one of those heroes in books, saving the damsel in distress. He spent the night imagining what adventures he’d have, fighting the dreadful army of mosquitoes in the sinister fortress Culicidae.

The boy lay awake for hours, not daring to fall asleep lest his father saw him in this fashion and told him to stop for the sake of his health. And that – to stop – was something the boy would not do, no matter what, for the very thought of the mosquitoes sucking his sister’s blood again made him go made with rage.

Just before dawn, when all the mosquitoes had had their fill, the boy put his clothes on and threw his blankets on himself again and went back to sleep.

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For the next couple of weeks, the little boy lay awake in bed every night and stripped once he heard his father’s first snore. The mosquitoes took the free meal for granted after a while, and they didn’t bother the boy’s father or sister all through that time.

The only sleep the little boy got was during class; and it was not good sleep. Once he closed his eyes, mosquitoes of all kinds came to torture his subconscious. There were giant mosquitoes that chased him breathless all around the classroom, always an inch from touching him. There were tiny mosquitoes that danced and buzzed around him making him dizzy. And there were mosquitoes which, to the boy’s relief, could not fly up to his desk where he sought refuge; but more and more of them spawned on the floor, and the sea of mosquitoes would rise slowly to devour the little boy, trapped on his little island.

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“You there, young lad!” said the professor, walking over to the boy. The boy, jolting awake from his slumber, looked up at the professor with bleary eyes. “Tell me, what was the similarity Confucius pointed out between time and a river?”

The boy had always been a good pupil, but he could never concentrate in school now – he was either sleeping or scratching himself. He looked blankly at the teacher.

The old professor was not a man about to take any nonsense. “We’ve just been through this,” he muttered dangerously. “Confucius said that time, like a river, does not distinguish between night and day, it flows on nonetheless.” He paused to make an impression. “But, young lad, you seem to think that sleep does not distinguish between night and day either, is that so?”

The class giggled. “Silence!” cried the old professor, whom, as I mentioned, did not take nonsense. The class fell silent at once. He turned to the boy. “Never in all my years of teaching have I ever met a boy who dared fall asleep during my class,” he growled. “Never! What would your ancestors think? What would your parents think? Have you ever thought for them? Your saintly mother would be horrified at the state you’re in!”

The boy flinched at this mention of his parents. Like many Chinese children those days, he felt that dishonouring his family was the worst thing that could happen to him. So what the professor said next hurt particularly badly. “Out!” cried the old man. “I will not teach you anymore, you are not fit to be my student.” The class gasped and whispered, and the boy flushed red. This had happened to other pupils before, but he had never even imagined it happening to himself. The boy took one look at the professor and knew that pleading would be useless; so he bowed and stuttered a farewell, and rushed out of the classroom, not daring to meet the eyes of any of his classmates.

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That night, the boy hesitated before stripping, for he loathed this whole business with the mosquitoes, which had got him into such big trouble. He looked at his sister, and for the first time even that did not persuade him to continue the practice, so tired of it he was.

But then his eyes met those of his father, and he remembered what his professor had said about honouring his parents, and he was filled with shame. So the boy dutifully stripped naked once again, and the mosquitoes rejoiced.

But the boy, plagued with worries, was all but worn out, and for the first time in weeks, he could not control himself and fell into a deep stupor, in which he had a marvellous dream.

He dreamt he was at the tip of the tallest mountain in the kingdom, so tall and treacherous that no one had conquered it before. From where he stood, he could see the whole of China and the lands beyond. To the west, the boy saw the great mountain ranges of Tibet; to the north, he saw the vast plains of Mongolia, where barbarians and savages ruled in their little kingdoms; to the east, he saw the sea and the isle of Japan, which few people had seen; and to the south, he saw the exotic lands where it was hot all year round, and where fruits of all kinds were rumoured to grow.

As the boy was marvelling at what he saw, the mythical King Shun stepped down from the clouds above and came towards him. Legend had it that Shun was so dutiful to his cruel stepmother that the elephants took pity on him and aided him; the legend also said that finally Shun’s piety reached the emperor, King Yao, who, being greatly moved, made Shun his heir.

King Shun, dressed in shining robes, looked down at the boy kindly. “Even here in heaven, word of your piety has reached my ears,” said he. “And just as King Yao made me emperor after him, so do I now bestow to you all the land you see, from India to Japan, from Mongolia to Vietnam, and the seas beyond. And you, who have humbled yourself even before mosquitoes, shall become king of all insects, birds, beasts, and men, and of much more besides.” And King Shun smiled at the boy again, and the boy bowed in return, hardly believing that such a wonderful thing could happen to him.

And suddenly, as he regarded the unbelievably saintly man before him, the boy realised he was right – this wasn’t going to happen to him.

The smile on the king’s face became a sneer. His handsome complexion became an abominable hue, and features were exaggerated to a hideous extent. “You really fell for that, didn’t you?” jeered the ogre. “Well, wake up. Saints in real life have a hard time, it’s ogres like me who rule the world!” And with that, the ogre seized the boy by his hair and dangled him over the precipice.

The boy thought it was curious that he hadn’t previously noticed how cold it was up on the mountain, and how he had never realised up till now that he was just as naked as he was when he went to bed. Now, the chilling wind pierced his defenceless body like a sword, and the eagles flying past, free from the cares of the world, seemed to mock his nakedness. The boy closed his eyes, waiting for the fall.

The grip on his hair loosened –

And the boy fell to the floor of his father’s study room, bringing his nightmare to an abrupt halt. The piercing cold was replaced by the heat of summer, and the unfriendly cliffs were replaced by the familiar mud walls of his house.

Looming over the boy was the towering figure of his father.

That’s it, thought the boy. The game is up. My father will hug me and he will ask me why I did this for him and he’d say he’s so sorry we’re so poor, but he’s so proud of me, and then he’ll make me put on my clothes and go to sleep. The boy reproached himself for being so careless as to fall asleep, but he was also relieved that his ordeal of piety was over.

“Get up,” said his father. The man’s voice was stern, and the boy obeyed at once.

“Turn around, and touch your toes,” continued his father.

The boy started to feel there was something amiss. This was not the sentimental commendation he had expected; instead, he thought the procedure was more like the preliminaries to a spanking. That’s an absurd idea, the boy thought reproachfully to himself. Father wouldn’t spank me for helping him! So the boy did as he was told, wondering what pleasant surprise his father was about to reward him.

Crack! The boy jumped in pain and turned, looking in shock at his father, who bawled at him to resume his original position. Crack! The pain was unbearable, even more piercing than the wind on the mountain, yet the physical pain was nothing compared to the agony of the unfairness of it all. The boy’s father laid a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder to stop his reflexive jumps. Crack! Tears flowed from the boy’s eyes, and he begged in vain for the spanking to stop.

Crack! “You ungrateful brat!” roared his father. “Getting yourself kicked out of school, and sleeping naked with your sister!” Crack! The boy took a while to digest his father’s words. When did his sister get into this?

What with the incessant beatings, the crying and his father’s outbursts of rage, it took a long while for the boy to get his thoughts straight. Yet he recalled something a friend once told him, something about what adults did in bed. He vaguely remembered that men and women liked to be naked together in bed, and that his friend had giggled at this, giving the boy the impression that this was something very naughty, maybe even just as bad as throwing stones at the neighbours’ windows, which was something his friend had done before but that the boy had never even dreamt of doing. He had always been such a good boy.

When the spanking was finally finished, the boy’s father turned the boy around to face him. The boy kept sobbing for a while, but when he stopped, he was grimly silent. Man and boy glared at one another. You’d be so ashamed of yourself if I told you what really happened, thought the boy. But I’m not going to tell you – just to make you feel even worse when you find out in hell.

The father was the first to speak. “Well?” he asked. “What do you have to say for yourself?” But the boy did not answer. “Say something!” commanded the man, but in vain. The boy was defiant.

The father took a deep breath, thinking of what to say. “Put on your clothes and go to bed,” he said at last exasperatedly. The boy silently obeyed.

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The heat was stifling that summer night, long ago in Jin Dynasty China.

The little boy lay in his bed, thoughts racing through his mind. He had been wrong to trust King Shun. He had been wrong to trust Mencius, Confucius, his old professor – all those clever adults who had told him how good behaviour is always rewarded. Above all, he had been wrong to trust his father. The world he lived in was unfair: he felt foolish for only realising it now.

As the boy looked up at the mosquitoes hovering above him, he thought he heard a voice coming from one of them. You shouldn’t blame your father, said the mosquito. It’s much easier for him to think you’re doing something bad than to think you’re doing something good; and do you know why? It’s because no one in the real world ever even thinks of doing anything as goody-goody as what you did. It just doesn’t happen. You humans like to think you’re different from us. You like to think you’re compassionate, self-sacrificing and empathetic, not like us bloodthirsty, self-serving mosquitoes. But that’s all rubbish. You know that now.

The boy knew everything the mosquito said was right. His father had confirmed every word.
© Copyright 2012 Narsil (vingilot at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1869581