Once upon a time a young man lived alone with his herd of cattle. People called him Niulang, or cowherd. Niulang was a good man who worked hard and was kind to everyone, but people noticed that he often daydreamed. Some days he would stop working and stare up at the clouds.
The cattle were his only companions, and he called them his brothers and spoke to them. "Brothers," he would say, "look at the sky. Those clouds look different every day. What makes them so beautiful?"
One of the oxen began to speak to Niulang, and he told him tales of fairies who wove those clouds. After that, Niulang could not stop asking questions about the fairy weavers.
One day Niulang's ox brother told him of a fairy named Zhinu, the youngest daughter of the goddess of heaven. "She is the finest weaver of all," the ox explained, and soon Niulang was dreaming of her.
"The fairies bathe in the western hills," the ox told his human brother. "Let us go there, and you will see."
And so Niulang led his cattle to the western hills. There, beside a crystal-clear lake surrounded by mountains, he stopped and waited. "When the fairies come," the ox told him, "you will see Zhinu. You must steal her feather cloak, and she will have to stay on Earth."
True to the ox's words, one day at almost noon, Niulang saw beautiful birds flying toward the lake. He hid behind the trees and watched. The moment the birds landed, their feathered cloaks fell from their bodies, and they transformed into lovely fairy maidens.
He had never seen such beauty, and remembering his ox brother's advice, he sneaked to the edge of the lake and snatched Zhinu's cloak of feathers. Then he ran away and hid.
Soon the fairies walked out of the water and donned their cloaks, but Zhinu's was missing. She looked around, terrified, and as she turned, Niulang appeared from behind the tree. He bowed low and said, "Forgive me, but I have fallen in love with you. I have your cloak of feathers, but I wish for you to stay here and marry me."
The poor fairy was so startled that she could barely speak. She reluctantly agreed to go with Niulang. He helped her onto his brother ox's back, and they rode to his little hut. There they began to talk, and soon she loved him, too. With each passing day, they loved each other more and more.
The people who met them spoke of how lovely they were. Niulang became happier and more generous as well. And Zhinu was not only beautiful, she was also smart and kind and a talented weaver. She began to teach the women of the village how to weave, and soon everyone loved her almost as much as her husband did.
No one seemed to notice that, strangely, she did not eat and was never hungry. Even Niulang pretended not to notice.
After two years, Zhinu gave birth to twins, one girl and one boy.
A year after the children were born, Niulang's brother ox came to him.
"I am old," the ox said. "It is time for me to leave, but promise me one thing: When I die, keep my hide. Never throw it away. Keep it, and if ever you are in danger, wrap it around yourself."
Niulang promised he would. Not long after, the old ox passed away.
Another year went by. All was well until one day, when Zhinu came to her husband with tears in her eyes and said, "My love, I must return to heaven today. You and I were joined by fate, but that has ended, and the heavenly goddess is calling me home."
Many years had passed on Earth, but in heaven just one day had passed, and the goddess had noticed Zhinu was gone. The clouds in the sky were growing thin, and the heavenly goddess needed her weaver to return. And so Zhinu took her cloak of feathers and wrapped it around herself and flew away.
Niulang was beside himself with sorrow. He grabbed a yoke slung with two baskets that he had made. He placed his daughter in one basket and his son in another. He slung the yoke over his shoulders and began to run after his wife, but as he ran, he saw Zhinu ascend higher in the sky.
"Don't go!" Niulang cried, but he saw he would never catch her.
Then he remembered his brother ox's words, and he wrapped the hide over himself and his children. As he did, he felt himself grow light. Soon, he was flying.
He chased Zhinu into the sky, moving faster as he called out, "I love you! We are coming!" But just as he neared the gates of heaven, a great river billowed up before him. This was the celestial river we know as the Milky Way. And that river separated Niulang and Zhinu.
Helpless, Niulang watched as the celestial soldiers opened the gates and welcomed his wife into heaven.
"Please, old brother, help me!" Niulang cried as he pulled the hide more tightly around him.
Soon he heard his brother's voice in his ear. "I am sorry, but I cannot help you here. The celestial river separates mortals from immortals. I'm afraid your human body is too heavy to cross, and there is nothing I can do to change that."
A moment later on Earth, people saw a bright star appear beside the Milky Way.
People say this is Niulang, but they call him Altair, the star that stands on the earthly side of the Milky Way. There are two little stars beside him, and these, they say, are his son and daughter.
But the heavenly goddess was moved by Niulang's passion and his devotion, so she decided he could meet his wife once a year. And so each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, thousands of magpies from the human world gather on the shores of the celestial river to form a living bridge, and Niulang and Zhinu meet on that bridge.
They say if you listen closely, you will hear Niulang and Zhinu whispering to each other, and on that night you will not find a single magpie in the world because they are too busy making the bridge and celebrating true love.
"Tell Me a Story 3: Women of Wonder," the third CD in the audiobook series, is now available. For more information, please visit www.mythsandtales.com.