In a far far away land many eons ago lived a small boy by the name of Niu.
When Niu was old enough his mother would send him every week to the village market place to buy fruits and nuts and all kinds of food for them to eat.
One day Niu was walking through the marketplace looking with great curiosity at all the stalls. He often did this as there were such beautiful colours and things all around and the most interesting aromas.
It was on this day that Niu happened to stop at one particular stall where two women were twittering away. Niu could not help but overhear their excited conversation.
"It's a shame I tell you that no man does anything. That's what it is - a real shame!"
"I tried to persuade my husband to take care of the matter but he simply refuses. Honestly, I sometimes think he has the courage of an elephant - when it sees a mouse that is."
The two women giggled with delight. Niu interrupted, "Excuse me."
"Mm?" The women looked at Niu.
"Pardon me, but what is your husband so scared of?"
"You were listening to our conversation. How rude," remarked the one woman.
"I mean no offence," retorted Niu politely, "I could not help but overhear - after all you were nearly shouting."
"Well I never!" exclaimed the one woman in disgust but she was cut short by the owner of the stall.
"Well you must admit you were a bit loud," she said jumping to the boy's defence. "The chimes were almost shaking."
The two women were taken slightly aback but recovered and regained a degree of tact. "Young man," said the one, "have you ever been in those mountains behind the village?"
"No," replied Niu puzzled.
"No wonder, or else you would know what we were talking about."
"And what might that be," Niu's curious nature led him to ask.
The other woman took the gap, "Nobody travels in those mountains because there is a great red fire-breathing dragon that eats men alive and cares nothing for their pitiful pleas." She cringed in horror.
"Yes, and it will eat you too if you let it!" continued the other woman.
"How do you know all this?" asked Niu.
"Because we have heard. Travellers have told us these terrible tales."
"Where do these travellers come from?" Niu wanted to know.
"Oh all over - from the east and west and north and ... well not the south because of those," the woman hesitated and shuddered, "mountains of death."
"So nobody has actually gone up into those mountains?" Niu puzzled.
"Then how do they know there is a fire-breathing dragon there if no one has ever seen it?"
"Well you see ... um ... uh...well...well there's just a dragon there and that's all there is to it!" explained the one woman in quite a huff, if you could call it explaining.
Niu walked away quite dissatisfied. He thought about the great red fire-breathing dragon in the mountains and how frightening it must be and yet no one had ever seen it. So how could they possibly know about it?
That night Niu lay awake lost in thought trying to make sense of what he had heard in the market place. But try as he might Niu could not. For weeks thereafter Niu carried a puzzled look on his face until finally it became too much for him to bare.
So on that day Niu told his mother he wanted to go see some things for himself - to go exploring. His mother did not really ask questions as all boys are like that at some time in their lives. But little did Niu's mother know that he was going to those mountains that seemed to cast a long shadow over the village and everyone in it.
Niu walked and walked until he reached the foot of the great, black, menacing mountain. Niu paused for a moment. He thought, "What am I doing. The dragon eats strong men and I am just a boy. What can I do to save myself?"
But a little nagging voice inside Niu irked him to climb the mountain. Higher and higher he climbed until he was too afraid to look down. Finally he reached the top and scanned the area. He could see his village down in the valley far below. But what was that on the other side of the mountain? Could it be ... Yes it was! It was another village. How strange that he had never heard of this village.
Did anyone else know he wondered. Then he remembered why he had climbed the mountain. But where was the terrible red, fire-breathing dragon? Niu did not know. Was he asleep or hiding or could it be that he had flown away? Niu was most unsettled for here was a mystery with no answer.
And how was he going to make the villagers believe that there was no dragon and that there was instead another village on the other side of the mountain?
It was getting late. Niu knew he had to go back to the village before it was too dark to climb down the mountain.
Just as he started walking back he stumbled and fell. Niu was suddenly terrified:
"Perhaps there is a dragon here and it is sleeping. But now I have tripped over its tail and he is certain to wake up and eat me."
Niu was too scared to stand up or look back but he knew he had to. So he slowly, carefully, fearfully turned his head and glanced back at his clumsy foot. And there he saw a book.
"A book, here on top of the mountain, " Niu wondered. He got up and bent over to pick it up. It was all dusty and dirty and old and a little jammed in the rocks. But Niu was determined to see what it said and so gently he nudged it out off its safekeep. He carefully blew the dust off and opened this strange looking book.
Inside was writing Niu had never seen before and so could not understand. But he knew of a wise old man in the village who had been young when all the trees in the land of China were still just seeds, or so the old man had told him. He would know what it said.
So with the book clutched tightly under one arm so that it could not move even the length of an eyelash he climbed down the mountain. Just before nightfall Niu arrived home. His parents had been awfully concerned because he had been away such a long time. So Niu told them his story and showed them the book. They sat and listened raptly.
The following day Niu and his parents paid a visit to the wise old man. He looked at the book with his old, tired eyes and squinted a little. Then:
"Where did you find this?" asked the old man almost out of breath he was so excited. Niu repeated his story.
The old man laughed. He explained, "This is a book my grandfather wrote for me when I was as tall as the grass. He would read it to me often and it would make me laugh."
"But what is the story about," Niu demanded.
"Ah, have you not guessed?"
"No," said Niu. "It is written with symbols I do not understand."
"Yes, you are right. I had forgotten. In those times people wrote differently to now."
"So what is the story about," Niu repeated impatiently. The mystery had to be solved before he could rest.
"Give an old man a chance," replied the wise one and smiled knowingly. "It is a story of a great red fire-breathing dragon that does not really breathe fire and does not really eat men but is the friendliest and kindest and gentlest creature of all." Niu seemed confused.
The old man continued, "My grandfather taught me a very important lesson with that story. One can never tell by just hearing about someone or seeing them what they are really like." He smiled wisely and also because the villagers had taken a simple make-believe child's story and turned it into something that had frightened them for years.
Niu and his parents laughed. But Niu also wanted to know about the other village he saw. The old man told him that he did not know the answer because it had not been there when he was young.
Niu was surprised that the wise old man of the village did not know everything and soon he was off on another mystery solving adventure.
As for the villagers...let us just say they felt like mules when they heard Niu's story and saw the book. From that day they were more careful about what they said and what they chose to believe.