Chapter One - "The Great Race"
At the beginning of time, the Jade Emperor, the Ruler of Heaven, came to a decision. He was going to select twelve animals to be the guards of the Heavenly Palace. To make this decision come to fruition, all the animals had to be noticed. So the Jade Emperor, in his wisdom, called upon an immortal being and tasked it with spreading the news in the earthly world.
The message was simple and straightforward. The earlier an animal walked through the Heavenly Gate, the better rank it would have.
Several animals rose to the challenge. To be a guard at the Heavenly Gate was a great honor and all of them wanted to secure one of the prized positions. Each animal had unique skills, yet it was obvious that reaching the Heavenly Gate would be a competition of wits and speed.
Just before the Heavenly Gate, a great river flowed day and night. To get to the Gate, the animals would have to cross that river. That was a great hurdle for the animals which was easier for some than others. Rat was very bad at swimming. However, what he lacked in swimming skills, he more than made up for in intelligence. The Rat sat thinking, developing his tactics, when he saw the great Ox approach.
“Tell me, are you going to the Gate of Heaven?” the Rat asked the Ox with doleful eyes.
“Yes, I am,” the Ox replied. Even before the Rat asked, the kindhearted Ox knew what the little animal wanted of him.
“Do you think I can travel with you? I will just latch on to your back and you will not even know I’m there.”
“Very well,” the Ox said.
And so it was that the Rat clambered upon the Ox’s back.
The Ox lumbered ahead as the Rat clung to him. The Ox was the first animal to reach the other side of the river but the Rat jumped off his back and scampered to the Jade emperor first. Rat became the first animal of the zodiac calendar. The Ox, kindhearted but naive, had to settle for second place.
The Tiger came third.
“You, Tiger, are strong and powerful. You can run at a great speed and lift the heaviest logs out of your way. Why are you late?” the Jade Emperor asked.
“Oh, great Emperor! I had to fight against the currents, as they were intent on pushing me downstream,” the Tiger explained.
A few moments after the Rabbit arrived, there was a wild swish of wind and the ground trembled as a great creature landed. Flying Dragon claimed the fifth place. Just then the Rabbit arrived, thumping and soggy. Rabbit crossed the river by jumping from one stone to another. But halfway across, the Rabbit slid from the stone he targeted. Rabbit scrambled and struggled to get back on the stone as the currents pushed the struggling hare downriver. The Rabbit, not the best of swimmers, gasped for breath. Rabbit feared that he would drown! Just when his vision began to blur from holding his breath, the Rabbit caught hold of a floating log. Rabbit was just glad to be alive but somehow, miraculously, the log moved towards the shore. With his miraculous escape, the Rabbit became the fourth animal in the zodiac cycle.
The Jade Emperor asked “Why would such a fast, strong creature not come in first?” The Dragon explained that he stopped by a village to bring rain for all the people.
It also took him upon himself to help the Rabbit make it to the shore.
“The poor rabbit hung on to a log and fought for his dear life. I could not watch him die when I could help him out. So, I did what I could,” said the Dragon.
“Thank you oh great Dragon,” the Rabbit said, filled with utmost gratitude.
The Dragon's good nature astonished the Jade Emperor and he was named the fifth animal.
Just then, the Horse galloped in, huffing and puffing. The Horse smiled as she crossed the Heavenly Gate. However, the Horse yelped in fright as she felt something uncurl from her hoof. The Horse reared back, flailing her hoof and out flew the Snake, who had hidden himself there.
The Snake was placed sixth while the Horse was given the seventh place.
Moments later, a chatter was heard. The Goat, Monkey, and Rooster all showed up at the Heavenly Gate.
“Why are you together?” the Jade Emperor asked.
“We knew we might not be able to cross the river on our own,” the Goat bleated.
“So, we came together, the Monkey, the Goat and I,” the Rooster cooed.
Monkey chimed in. “Yes, the Rooster found the raft. Together with the Goat, I cleared all the weeds out of the way. That was how we made it to the shore.”
The Jade Emperor found their teamwork impressive.
“I will name the Goat as the eighth animal, the Monkey as the ninth and then the Rooster as the tenth. You have all done well,” the Jade Emperor said with a smile. The three animals cheered, as their efforts gave them a place at the Heavenly Palace.
The Dog walked in next. She walked at a leisurely pace as if she had no worries in the world. All the other animals were surprised to see the dog coming in so late. The dog was the best at running and swimming. She should have been first!
“I needed a good bath after my long journey,” the dog replied lazily when asked why it came so late.
The time had come to end the race and close the Gate. The Jade Emperor thought he had found all of his guards as there was no other animal in sight. The Jade Emperor pronounced the Dog the eleventh animal.
Just then, an "oink" was heard in the distance. The Pig had arrived!
“I became hungry in the middle of the race,” the Pig said, out of breath and puffy-faced.
The Pig explained that she stopped, ate something and then fell asleep. So she became the last animal to arrive, falling in the twelfth position. These twelve animals lived in the Heavenly Palace ever since then. What they did not know, however, was that the years on the lunar calendar would be named for each animal in the order they reached the Gate. They also did not know that ever since then, their traits – both strength and weakness - directly influenced the people born in their year.
(To be continued...)