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The Superior Pet
A Chinese Tale

Once there was a family that lost all its money. They had to sell their big house and all their fields, but the parents could not forget they had once been rich, and they did not let their daughter forget either.
Out of all their vast wealth, they managed to keep only a silver ear scoop. It was a slender silver spoon about five inches long. People put it into their ears to take out the wax.

"It's a silly enough thing," her father used to say, "but from it we'll rebuild the family fortune somehow."

When the daughter grew old enough to marry, no rich family wanted her with only an ear scoop for a dowry, and her parents thought poor farmers were beneath her.

When her parents died, no one wanted her. She lived with other unmarried women in a house that the clan provided, but it was very crowded. She lived there many years.

Although she sewed from sunrise to sunset, she was still very poor. As she got older, her eyes got worse. Soon, she could not sew the fine stitches she once had. As a result, even though she worked just as hard as before, she got less money. Eventually, she could no longer pay her share of the food and other costs.

"Why don't you sell that old ear scoop?" the other women would ask her.

"It's all I have from my parents," the old woman said indignantly.

Because she had been in the house so long, she had a nice spot in a corner, but the other women wanted her to move to another place.

"You can't pay your share and yet you take up all that space," the other women complained. They found dozens of little ways to be unpleasant. Among other things, she always had to be last -- even to use the wash water. They would give her only the stringiest vegetables and the weakest tea. And they always served her rice scraped from the bottom, which was hard and crunchy and difficult for the old woman's teeth to chew.

One day, a younger cousin caught a mouse. But in catching it, she had injured one of its feet. "Look at this thing. It's all white."

"That proves it must be a superior mouse," the old woman said. "There's not another like it in the district."

"The pest is probably a superior eater too," her cousin said. "I'm not going to have it nibbling at our food and clothes."

But the mouse looked so small and fragile and helpless that the old woman knew it needed her. She had never had anyone to love, and, as such things go, her heart fixed on the mouse. A superior mouse will make a superior pet, she thought to herself. And out loud she said, "Give it to me. I'll get rid of it."

Her cousin was glad to give the unpleasant task to the old woman. "Here then."

But the old woman did not kill the mouse. Instead, she kept it in a little box. She made a soft nest for it out of scraps of cloth. She even went hungry so she could save some of her rice for her superior pet. In time, the mouse's foot healed.

One day, though, her cousin found the mouse. "You old liar. You kept that filthy little thing."

She was going to throw the box down the well, but the old woman grabbed it from her. "This is mine. It's a superior mouse."

"You've gone too far this time. Beggars can't act like empresses," her cousin said. She called all the other women around her. Naturally, they took the cousin's side.

The old woman clutched the box to her and looked at the circle of hard, stern faces. She saw no mercy there. "I'll go," she said in a small voice.

Her cousin was surprised. "You've never been away from the village in your life."

"Then I'll learn." The old woman packed her few belongings quickly -- including the ear scoop. Then she left the house where she had lived all those years. I should be afraid, she thought to herself, but I feel years younger. She gave a little skip as she walked away from her village and up into the hills.

She looked for roots and plants for herself and her mouse. But it was autumn, and the villagers had already stripped the hills bare looking for fuel.

It was cold that night, and the old woman kept the box against her stomach to keep her pet warm. The next day she wandered even farther. But she still found nothing to eat.

Finally, she came to a wall that paralleled the road. Beyond the wall lay only a few old moss-covered stones and bushes.

Her feet ached with the cold and exertion, so she sat down with her back against the wall. On her lap she set out the box with her superior mouse. Then she opened the lid so it could breathe. Then she took out the silver ear scoop and held it in front of her pet. "We'll have to sell this. But the money won't last forever. And then what will we do?"

But the ear scoop dropped from her nervous fingers and fell into the weeds.

"Now I'll have to clean it." As she bent to get it, the white mouse leaped from her lap and onto the ground. Snatching up the spoon between its teeth, the mouse scurried to the wall. Desperately the old woman tried to grab the mouse, but it vanished through a crack in the wall.

"You ungrateful little thief," the old woman said. "I gave up everything for you. Is this how you repay me?" Anger made her forget that she was cold and tired.

She dug and tore at the crumbling old bricks, and when her fingers began to bleed, she picked up a sharp stick instead and began to pry them out. She pulled brick after brick away from the wall, and still there was no sign of the furry bandit.

When she lifted the final brick from the spot, the last of the sunlight winked off something. Hardly daring to breathe, she dug into the dirt itself. There, buried in the earth was a large golden vase. She scrabbled even deeper and found more objects of gold and silver. And beneath them was a pile of emeralds and rubies and pearls. And right in the middle of the pile of jewels was her silver ear scoop.

The superior mouse had repaid her kindness before it had gone on its way. And in certain parts of China, the farm folk still think that white mice bring good luck.

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