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Tales of the Chinese Zodiac #1 of 12

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When lightning struck Widow Mingmei's tree, a dozen monkeys fell out of its branches. As it was newly the Year of the Monkey, the Widow took this as a sign of great fortune.

Six of the monkeys had fur the color of gold, and so the widow gave them to the six poorest families in the village. Three of the monkeys had bright red rings around their eyes, so she gifted them to the three villagers who had suffered from the worst luck in the last year. Of the remaining three monkeys, she gave the blue-furred one to her daughter, who had just lost her only son to fever, and she gave the rice-white monkey to her sister Jin-Hua, who had never tasted love.

But the black monkey, Mingmei kept for herself. It was smaller than the others, smelled vaguely of ginger, and watched her constantly with its glassy brown monkey eyes. She named it Tao, meaning long life, for she hoped it would stay with her for many years.

Tao proved quite useful around the house. It washed dishes and chopped wood, and even fetched fruit for Mingmei from the highest branches of her trees. But at night, when Mingmei retired to the small cot in her bedroom, the monkey would not follow. Mingmei fell asleep to the sounds of screeches and clanking metal pots each night, but didn't dare look to see what Tao was doing.

Months passed. The poor families grew wealthy, the unlucky ones found themselves happier than they'd ever been. Mingmei's daughter was once again pregnant, and her sister Jin-Hua had married a handsome man from another village. Only Mingmei's monkey remained a mystery, with its black ginger-scented fur and eyes full of night.

And then one night, Mingmei awoke to a scream. No longer caring to hide her eyes from Tao's secret, she ran into the kitchen. Tao lay gravely wounded on the floor, a dented pot in his twitching paw. Next to him knelt Widow Mingmei's long-dead husband.

"For months he has fought me," her husband said. "Each night I have come to bring you home with me, to my house on the other side of death. Each night, this monkey has raked my face and hit me with iron pans, and forced me away. But tonight I have won."

Mingmei, her eyes full with the promise of tears, did not know what to say, nor what to think. She had not seen her husband since the last Year of the Monkey, the year he had died. But she did know what to do. Mingmei lifted the pot from Tao's hand and struck her dead husband in the head.

"I'll go to the other side when the time is right," she said, "not when you decide it's time."

Her husband left, holding his head, and never returned. Mingmei nursed the black monkey back to health, and the two are living still.


Jenn Reese photo


Jenn Reese has published stories in cool places like Polyphony 4, Flytrap, Strange Horizons, and various anthologies. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she practices martial arts, plays strategy games, and laments the loss of Buffy. You can follow her adventures at her website. To contact her, send her email at jenn@sff.net. Her previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.
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