Written by Norman Hinsdale Pitman.
What we shall eat tomorrow, I haven’t the slightest idea!” said Mrs. Wang to her oldest son, as he started out one morning in search of work.
“Oh, the gods will provide. I’ll find a few coins somewhere,” replied the boy, trying to speak cheerfully, although in his heart he also had not the slightest idea in which direction to turn.
The winter had been a hard one: extreme cold, deep snow, and harsh winds. The Wang house had suffered greatly. The roof had fallen in, weighed down by heavy snow. Then a hurricane had blown a wall over, and Ming-li, the son, up all night and exposed to a bitter cold wind, had caught pneumonia. Long days of illness followed, with the spending of extra money for medicine. All their small savings had soon melted away, and at the shop where Ming-li had been working hired someone else. When at last he got up from his sick-bed he was too weak for hard labour and there seemed to be no work in the neighbouring villages for him to do. Night after night he came home, trying not to be discouraged, but in his heart feeling the deep pangs of sorrow that come to the good son who sees his mother suffering for want of food and clothing.
“Bless his good heart!” said the poor woman after he had gone. “No mother ever had a better boy. I hope he is right in saying the gods will provide. It has been getting so much worse these past few weeks. Why, even the rats have deserted our cottage, and there’s nothing left for poor Tabby, while old Blackfoot is so skinny”
When the old woman referred to the sorrows of her pets, her remarks were answered by a pitiful mewing and woebegone barking from the corner where the two unfed creatures were curled up together trying to keep warm.
Just then there was a loud knocking at the gate. When Mrs. Wang called out, “Come in!” She was surprised to see an old bald-headed priest standing in the doorway. “Sorry, but we have nothing,” she went on, feeling sure the visitor had come in search of food. “We have fed on scraps these two weeks—on scraps and scrapings—and now we are living on the memories of what we used to have when my son’s father was here. Our cat was so fat she couldn’t climb to the roof. Now look at her. You can hardly see her, she’s so thin. No, I’m sorry we can’t help you, friend priest, but you see how it is.”
“I didn’t come for your help,” cried the clean-shaven one, looking at her kindly, “but only to see what I could do to help you. The gods have listened long to the prayers of your devoted son. They honour him because he has done so much to try and help your family. They have seen how faithfully he has helped you ever since his illness, and now, when he is worn out and unable to work, they are eager to reward him. You likewise have been a good mother and shall receive the gift I am now bringing.”
“What do you mean?” faltered Mrs. Wang, hardly believing her ears at hearing a priest speak of bestowing mercies. “Have you come here to laugh at our misfortunes?”
“By no means. Here in my hand I hold a tiny golden beetle which you will find has a magic power greater than any you ever dreamed of. I will leave this precious thing with you, a present.”
“Yes, it will sell for a good sum,” murmured the other, looking closely at the trinket, “and will give us millet for several days. Thanks, good priest, for your kindness.”
“But you must by no means sell this golden beetle, for it has the power to fill your stomachs as long as you live.”
The woman stared in open-mouthed wonder at the priest’s surprising words.
“Yes, you must not doubt me, but listen carefully to what I tell you. Whenever you wish for food, you have only to place this ornamental bettle in a kettle of boiling water, saying over and over again the names of what you want to eat. In three minutes take off the lid, and there will be your dinner, smoking hot, and cooked more perfectly than any food you have ever eaten.”
“May I try it now?” she asked eagerly.
“As soon as I am gone.”
When the door was shut, the old woman hurriedly kindled a fire, boiled some water, and then dropped in the golden beetle, repeating these words again and again:
“Dumplings, dumplings, come to me,
I am thin as thin can be.
Dumplings, dumplings, smoking hot,
Dumplings, dumplings, fill the pot.”
Would those three minutes never pass? Could the priest have told the truth? Her old head was nearly wild with excitement as clouds of steam rose from the kettle. Off came the lid! She could wait no longer. Wonder of wonders! There before her unbelieving eyes was a pot, full to the brim of pork dumplings, dancing up and down in the bubbling water, the best, the most delicious dumplings she had ever tasted. She ate and ate till there was no room left in her greedy stomach, and then she feasted the cat and the dog until they were ready to burst.
“Good fortune has come at last,” whispered Blackfoot, the dog, to Whitehead, the cat, as they lay down to sun themselves outside. “I fear I couldn’t have held out another week without running away to look for food. I don’t know just what’s happened, but there’s no use questioning the gods.”
Mrs. Wang fairly danced for joy at the thought of her son’s return and of how she would be able to feed him.
“Poor boy, how surprised he will be at our fortune—and it’s all on account of his goodness to his old mother.”
When Ming-li came, with a dark cloud overhanging his brow, the woman saw plainly that disappointment was written there.
“Come, come, lad!” she cried cheerily, “clear up your face and smile, for the gods have been good to us and I shall soon show you how richly your devotion has been rewarded.” So saying, she dropped the golden beetle into the boiling water and stirred up the fire.
Thinking his mother had gone stark mad for want of food, Ming-li stared seriously at her. Anything was preferable to this misery. Should he sell his last outer garment for a few pennies and buy millet for her? Blackfoot licked his hand comfortingly, as if to say, “Cheer up, master, fortune has turned in our favour.” Whitehead leaped upon a bench, purring like a sawmill.
Ming-li did not have long to wait. Almost in the twinkling of an eye he heard his mother crying out,
“Sit down at the table, son, and eat these dumplings while they are smoking hot.”
Could he have heard correctly? Did his ears deceive him? No, there on the table was a huge platter full of the delicious pork dumplings he liked better than anything else in the world, except, of course, his mother.
“Eat and ask no questions,” said his mother. “When you are satisfied I will tell you everything.”
Wise advice! Very soon the young man’s chopsticks were twinkling like a little star in the verses. He ate long and happily, while his good mother watched him, her heart overflowing with joy at seeing him at last able to satisfy his hunger. But still the old woman could hardly wait for him to finish, she was so anxious to tell him her wonderful secret.
“Here, son!” she cried at last, as he began to pause between mouthfuls, “look at my treasure!” And she held out to him the golden beetle.
“First tell me what good fairy of a rich man has been filling our hands with silver?”
“That’s just what I am trying to tell you,” she laughed, “for there was a fairy here this afternoon sure enough, only he was dressed like a bald priest. That golden beetle is all he gave me, but with it comes a secret worth thousands of cash to us.”
The youth fingered the trinket idly, still doubting his senses, and waiting impatiently for the secret of his delicious dinner. “But, mother, what has this brass bauble to do with the wonderful dumplings we had , the finest I ever ate?”
“Baubles indeed! Brass! Fie, fie, my boy! You little know what you are saying. Only listen and you shall hear a tale that will open your eyes.”
She then told him what had happened, and ended by setting all of the left-over dumplings upon the floor for Blackfoot and Whitehead, a thing her son had never seen her do before, for they had been miserably poor and had had to save every scrap for the next meal.
Now began a long period of perfect happiness. Mother, son, dog and cat—all enjoyed themselves to their hearts’ content. All manner of new foods such as they never tasted were called forth from the pot by the wonderful little beetle. Egg drop soup, sweet pork, and a hundred other delicacies were theirs for the asking, and soon Ming-li regained all his strength. As for the two animals, they became fat and sleek and their hair grew long and glossy. And the family lived happily together.