Long ago, a merchant lived in a village in Zhejiang Province, near the city of Suzhou, with his daughter and a beautiful white stallion. One wintry day, the merchant told his daughter he had to travel to Shanghai on business.
"Please look after my horse while I am gone," he said. "Take care of him as if he were your brother, for I may be gone a long while."
The girl loved her father, and she loved the stallion. Naturally she took great care of the creature. She walked him and fed him, and she told him stories, the same stories she loved to tell her father.
One cold morning, after a few weeks had passed, as the girl was brushing the horse, she began to feel terribly lonely, and in jest she leaned in and whispered, "If you will bring my father home, I'll marry you."
The moment the stallion heard these words he shivered with joy.
"What's wrong?" the girl asked, but too late. The horse had raced out of the barn and galloped away so fast, she could barely catch her breath.
And the horse was so fast, he reached Shanghai by the afternoon, and there he searched the streets to find the merchant. At last he found him in the market, and he ran to his side.
When the merchant saw his horse, he was certain something was wrong at home. He leaned in and asked, "What's happened? Is my daughter hurt?"
Without a moment's hesitation, the merchant leaped onto the horse's back and together they galloped toward home, traveling faster than the wintry wind.
When they reached the house and the merchant saw his daughter standing outside, he was so relieved that he wept. He ran to embrace her, but as he did, the stallion began to neigh and whinny and kick at the earth.
The merchant turned and said sternly, "Stop that!"
But the horse grew wilder still.
"What's wrong with you?" the merchant cried, and his daughter looked down at the ground.
"Father," she said, "I must confess. I told the horse if he brought you home, I would marry him."
Hearing this, the merchant was appalled. His face grew hot with fury and shame as the horse kicked and neighed more wildly still.
"No one must ever know about this!" the merchant said, and before the girl could say a word, he took out his crossbow, aimed and silenced the horse forever.
He brought the lifeless horse into the barn, and there he hung the hide to dry.
The next morning he set off for Shanghai once again.
A few days later, the daughter and her friend walked into the barn. When the daughter saw the horsehide, she sighed and said, "This strange horse wanted to marry me. Can you imagine anything so mad?"
The hide began to move, and the two girls screamed. But before they could run away, the hide moved from the wall and wrapped itself around the merchant's daughter. It wound around her so tightly she could not move or speak.
Her friend stared in horror and cried, "What's happening?" But seeing there was nothing to be done, she ran home to get her father. Together they returned to the barn, but when they walked inside, they saw nothing -- no horsehide, no girl, no sign of struggle. It was as if it had all been a dream.
Still, the girl insisted her friend was in trouble, and so she and her father told everyone in their village to search for the girl. All the villagers joined in the quest to find her. They sought her in every house and farm, in every field and valley and cave, in every corner of the city and the countryside, but they could find no sign at all of the horsehide or the girl.
A few months after the girl had disappeared, a little boy was walking past a grove of mulberry trees when he saw something strange hanging from the branches of one of the trees. It was a long silky envelope -- as big as the girl -- but it no longer looked like a girl or a horse's hide. He ran to tell the girl's friend and her father.
The girl's friend removed the cocoon from the branch, and when she opened it, she discovered the girl had become a silkworm and had spun threads of silk, thick and strong. She understood at once this was a precious discovery, and she and her father took the silk to Shanghai, where they sold it for a great deal of money.
They gave their bounty to the merchant, of course, but he was heartbroken. Nothing could make him smile.
And then, one warm, spring day, months after his daughter disappeared, the merchant was walking through a field dreaming of her when he happened to look up at the sky.
There, among the clouds, he saw his daughter riding upon the white stallion. "Do not weep for me, father," she called to him. "I have been assigned a task in heaven -- I watch over the silkworms."
The merchant's heart expanded, and when he told the people of his village what he had seen, they began to build temples to the girl, who was called the Silkworm Goddess. Each year they offered sacrifices in her name, and they called her "the girl with the horse's head."