“Who is the man in the moon?” Chow Lee asked his grandmother one evening as they sat on a bench by their cottage door.
Grandmother smiled and looked at the full moon rising above the cassia trees. “Aiyah! That is a long story.”
“Oh, tell it to me, Grandmother!” Chow Lee pleaded. “Please!”
“Once long ago,” she began, “two Chinese merchants strolled by a river. Suddenly a wounded swallow fell at their feet. Kindhearted Chu Yuan bent down, picked up the bird, and cradled it in his hand. ‘How sad,’ he said to his friend Li Kang. ‘This tiny creature consumes its weight in insects every day.’
“‘Such a useful bird,’ Li Kang agreed. ‘But what good is a swallow with a broken wing?’
“Chu Yuan stroked the bird’s head. ‘I will mend it,’ he said. He took the injured bird home where he carefully set its wing. He cared for the swallow until it was strong again.
“One morning the bird flew away. Later, when Chu Yuan was sitting in his courtyard, the swallow returned and dropped a seed into his lap. Delighted with the bird’s gift of gratitude, Chu Yuan planted the seed. It sprouted and grew into a lush cucumber vine loaded with fruit. When he picked the cucumbers, however, they felt strangely heavy. Chu Yuan cut one open and discovered that the seeds inside were made of pure gold.
“Gleefully he ran to show his friend the treasure. ‘See, Li Kang, my reward from a grateful swallow!’
“Li Kang congratulated Chu Yuan on his good fortune. Secretly, however, Li Kang thought, What an easy way to become rich! I, too, must find such a bird. He searched many days for a wounded swallow, but found none.
“Finally, filled with impatience, Li Kang snared a swallow and broke its wing. Pretending to feel sorry for the bird, he mended the injured wing. The swallow recovered and flew away.
“The next morning Li Kang waited eagerly in his courtyard. The swallow did return, and it dropped a seed into Li Kang’s lap. Li Kang planted it and waited impatiently for the seed to sprout. In time it grew into a sturdy vine and climbed up the side of his house.
“‘Come, Chu Yuan, and see my cucumber vine,’ Li Kang said to his friend. ‘It grows higher and higher.’
“‘What a remarkable plant!’ Chu Yuan declared as he watched it disappear above the roof of the house.
“Li Kang rubbed his hands together. ‘If the cucumbers are as big as this stem, I shall need my ax to cut them away.’ Seizing his ax, he stuck the handle into his belt and began to climb the vine. But no matter how fast he climbed, the top of the vine always stayed ahead of him.
“At last the plant reached the moon and stopped growing. Li Kang clambered to the top of the vine, but not a cucumber could he find. As he stepped onto the moon, the plant vanished.
“Li Kang looked about. ‘Perhaps the vine brought me here to find gold seeds on the moon,’ he said to himself. He searched until he came to a cassia tree. High in its leafy branches hung many long pods of pure gold. ‘Ha! I was right!’ he exclaimed. ‘That is why the plant brought me here. Now I shall be even richer than Chu Yuan.’ He tried to climb the tree, but for every step he took upward, he slid back two.
“Just then the moon goddess, Shu Lin, happened by. ‘If you wish to obtain the pods of the cassia tree,’ she said, smiling at greedy Li Kang, ‘you must cut down the tree.’
“Li Kang bowed low to Shu Lin and said, ‘I am most grateful to you, Your Highness. I shall cut the tree down at once. It is fortunate that I have my ax with me.’ Pulling the ax from his belt, he swung at the cassia tree. No sooner did a chip fly from the trunk, however, than the hole filled in again with bark.
“And to this day,” Grandmother said, pointing to the golden moon in the sky, “if you look closely, Chow Lee, you can see the leafy cassia tree with its golden pods. Underneath stoops greedy Li Kang, the man in the moon, still swinging away with his ax!”