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The River Of Sorrows






Along the path leading to the city of All-virtues, in the obscure night,
a poor coolie, grumbling under a heavy load of salt, was trudging on as
fast as he could.

"I shall never get there before the hour of the Rat, and my wife will
say again; 'Wang The-tenth has drunk too many cups of wine.' She does
not know the weight of that stuff!"

As he was thus thinking, two men suddenly jumped from either side of the
road and held him by the arms.

"What do you want?" cried the poor man. "I am only an unhappy carrier,
and my load is only salt, very common salt."

"We don't want your salt, and you had better throw it down. We are sent
from the Regions below and we want you to come down with us."

"Am I dead already?" asked The-tenth. "I did not know. I must tell my
wife. Can't you come again to-morrow night?"

"Impossible to wait. You must come immediately. But I don't think you
are dead. It is only to work for a few days down below."

"This is rather strange," replied The-tenth. "With all the people who
have died since the world has been the world you still want living men?
We don't go and ask you to do our work, do we?"

While thus arguing, he felt himself suffocated by a heavy smell and lost
consciousness.

When he awoke, he was on the bank of a fairly large river. Hundreds of
men were standing in the water; some of them carried baskets; others,
with spades and different utensils, were dragging out what they could
from the bottom. Soldiers with heavy sticks struck those who stopped
even for a second.

On the bank several men were standing, and a number of others came from
time to time. A magistrate was sitting behind a big red table, turning
over the pages of a book. At last, he called "Wang The-tenth."

"Wang The-tenth!" repeated the soldiers. And they threw the poor man
down in a kneeling position in front of the magistrate, who looked on
the book and said:

"You have been an undutiful son; do you remember the day when you told
your father he was a fool?"

Then speaking to the soldiers, he said:

"To the river!"

The guards pushed the man, gave him a basket, and ordered him to help in
the cleaning of the river.

The water was red and thick; its stench was abominable; the bodies of
the workmen were all red, and The-tenth discovered it was blood. He
looked at the first basket he took to the bank; it was only putrid flesh
and broken bones.

Thus he worked day by day without stopping. When he was not going fast
enough, the guards struck him with their sticks, and their sticks were
bones. In the deep places he had to put his head into the water and felt
the filthy stuff fill his nostrils and mouth.

Among the workers he recognised many people he used to know. A great
number died and were carried away by the stream.

At last two guards called his name, helped him to the bank, and suddenly
he found himself again on the path leading to the city of All-virtues.

Now, on the night when The-tenth was taken away, his wife waited for
him. Troubled not to see him, she started as soon as the sun beamed, and
looked for him on the road. She soon found his body lying unconscious.
Trying in vain to revive him, she thought him dead, and wept bitterly.

Not being strong enough to bring home his body, she came back to town in
order to ask the help of her family. In the afternoon, clad in the white
dress of mourning, and accompanied by her four brothers, she started
again.

What was her astonishment and fear when, approaching the place where she
had found the body, she saw her husband walking towards her. He was all
covered with blood, and the stench was so strong that everybody pinched
his nose.

When he had explained what had happened, they all returned to the
village. The-tenth knelt reverently before his ancestors' tablet,
offered butter and rice, and burnt incense.

This very day he asked a Taoist priest what was the river he had worked
in. The priest explained to him it was called the River-of-sorrows. It
took its source in the outer world in every tear that was shed. The
people that killed themselves out of despair were floated down its
stream to the kingdom of shadows.

Sometimes the sorrows on earth were so great that people killed
themselves by thousands and did not shed any tears; the blood then was
too thick to wash away the decayed remains, and the river-bed had to be
cleaned lest it should overflow and drown the whole world. Living men
alone were employed in this work, for only living men can cure living
men's sorrows.





Next: The Mysterious Island

Previous: Through Many Lives



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