This fairy tale comes from Chinese Fairytales, an anthology by Sun Xuegang and Cai Guoyun, and takes a delightfully unexpected approach to a familiar set-up. A young woodcutter called Liu Hai lives in a small cottage in the forest with his blind, elderly mother. One morning he goes out with his axe and spies a large dead tree that will be easy work to disassemble. In fact, it’s ridiculously easy. All he has to do is lift his axe and the tree falls to bits in front of him. Bewildered and a bit suspicious, he nevertheless makes use of his good fortune and ties the lot into a bundle.
His benefactor is not long in presenting herself. Liu Hai notices a girl on the path behind him as he returns home and when he reaches his cottage she tries to follow him inside. “Who are you?” he asks, baffled. “Why are you following me from the forest?” The girl introduces herself as Ninth Sister and asks for water. That’s only for starters, though; as soon as she’s finished drinking, she brushes blithely past her host to go chat with his mum. Pulling out a string of red pearls, she swings the jewels before the old lady’s eyes and her sight is magically restored.
That’s one hell of an icebreaker. Ninth Sister then goes on to explain that she is homeless, living in the forest, and has been watching Liu Hai for a while. “Forgive my boldness,” she tells his mother, “but I want to marry him and live here as your daughter-in-law.”
Liu Hai thinks this is a terrible idea. He can’t afford to look after another person, his time is taken up with the care of his mother, this girl is a bit odd…but she’s also beautiful and forthright and his mother thinks she’s fantastic, so it’s not that hard to win him over. They marry the same day. Life continues steadily for some time, until one day Ninth Sister goes to the market and a blind beggar comes calling on Liu Hai’s mother. Sympathising with the stranger’s plight, the kind-hearted old lady fetches out her daughter-in-law’s red pearls to replicate her own cure, but this beggar is not all he seems. As soon as the jewels are held before him, he snatches them and turns to run.
This is when Ninth Sister returns home. Realising what’s happened, she tries to stop the beggar too, but then he transforms into an enormous golden toad and leaps into a passing breeze. Clearly, this is not your run of the mill type burglary. Ninth Sister bursts into tears. “Now I can no longer live here with you and Liu Hai!” she cries, and runs away into the mountains.
When the news is related to her husband, he immediately sets out after her. She has made no effort to hide; before long he comes across a cave where she sits crying with her sisters. They are, as it turns out, all fox spirits. After millennia studying the Tao, Ninth Sister turned her life energy into the pearls and could stay in the human world, but now they are stolen she can’t come back. “Even if you were a fox, I would still love you,” Liu Hai declares. “I will find the golden toad and bring back your pearls!”
At this point, his walking stick starts to talk. It is apparently a god. Having listened first-hand to Liu Hai’s troubles, it offers to help him locate the toad, who is currently in his own cave gloating over the pearls. His plan is to swallow them and become immortal. When Liu Hai and the fox spirits appear outside, the toad throws handfuls of magic coins that become a minor avalanche of stones. The walking stick protects its owner/ worshipper and the sisters use their own magic to repel the boulders, but by the time they reach the cave the toad has already swallowed the pearls.
This is the sort of situation when it’s nice to have a god on your side. The walking stick turns into a boa constrictor and squeezes the toad so hard the pearls are forced out of his mouth. When Ninth Sister has safely reclaimed them, the walking stick releases its victim, and the toad limps unhappily away. The fox spirits don’t care; their sister’s life and happiness has been restored and she returns home with her husband. And his omniscient walking stick.
A supportive husband who doesn’t care his wife is supernatural, a clan of fox spirits and a walking stick with convenient godly powers – there is much to like. Best of all, Liu Hai doesn’t need to kidnap his magical lover to make her marry him. She could see what kind of a man he was for herself.