“That is what I always thought love would be. A kind of understanding.”
“You are very romantic for a Fire Horse,” Spring Blossom said.
“Maybe. I also like the story of the kitchen god who throws himself into the fire.”
This is a story that I tried to work into THE FIRE HORSE GIRL several time. None of my attempts were successful because it is one of those great pieces that exist outside the story an author is telling at that moment. In the final version of THE FIRE HORSE GIRL, it exists only in the one line above. Still, I think Jade Moon would have a complicated and interesting relationship with the story. It is a good story, so she would like that. It ends with some pretty brutal justice, which would probably meet with her approval. On the other hand, she might not like that Zhang ends up as the eyes and ears of the Jade Emperor inside every household…including hers.
* * *
Once there was a mortal named Zhang. He was a wealthy farmer with fruitful lands, waters filled with fish, and fields filled with livestock. But Zhang could not be content with his vast riches and devoted wife. He wanted more. He took a mistress, a woman even greedier than himself. She demanded that Zhang banish his faithful wife from his home so that she could reign over the household. Zhang’s wife left quietly and Zhang and his mistress lived a life of excess and waste. Eventually, Zhang and his mistress squandered all of his wealth. Now that Zhang was poor, the mistress deserted him.
Zhang wandered from town to town, begging for food and shelter. Eventually, Zhang lost his sight and had to stumble along in darkness. One day, he arrived in a little village exhausted and hungry. He had not eaten for days and could barely walk another step, so he collapsed in the street.
When he woke, he could smell the smoke of a fire. “Eat,” a voice said softly.
Zhang’s hands were guided to plates of food in front of him. He ate greedily before falling asleep.
He woke again to find more food and drink. Zhang could hear the woman bustling around the kitchen. “I don’t deserve your kindness. I brought this on myself.”
Hands pressed a bowl between his palms.
“I had a good wife, wealth, and happiness, and I lost it all.”
The woman was still for a moment. “Not all,” she said. “Open your eyes, Zhang.”
Zhang opened his eyes and found that he could see, and the woman kneeling across from him was his wife. The shame of all he had done burned inside him. He jumped into the hearth fire and let the flames devour him. His wife tried to save him, but it was too late. When the Jade Emperor heard Zhang’s story, he declared him the Kitchen God. He made him the all-seeing, all-knowing presence in the house as a reward for learning his lesson.
A week before the lunar new year, the Kitchen God travels to the Jade Emperor to report the good and the bad of the year.
Homes keep a paper image near the hearth, the center of the home, and before he goes to report, they smear it’s mouth with honey or molasses and offer bribes to ensure a good report. Nushi probably had to leave some pretty big bribes and smear his mouth with the thickest syrup to keep him from talking about Jade Moon to the Jade Emperor. But that is another story.