The Crystal Heart

– A Vietnamese Legend

Long ago, in a palace by the Red River, there lived a great mandarin* and his daughter, Mi Nuong. Like other young ladies of wealthy families, Mi Nuong was told to stay inside the house, away from the eyes of admiring men. She spent most of her time in her room at the top of a tower. There she would sit on a bench by a moon-shaped window, reading or embroidering, chatting with her maid, and looking out at the garden and the river.

One day as she sat there, a song floated to her from the distance, in a voice deep and sweet. She looked out and saw a fishing boat coming up the river.

“Do you hear it?” she asked her maid. “How beautifully he sings!” She listened again as the voice drew nearer.

My love is like a blossom in the breeze.

My love is like a moonbeam on the waves.

“He must be young and very handsome,” said Mi Nuong. She felt a sudden thrill. “Perhaps he knows I am here and sings it just for me!”

The maid’s eyes lit up. “My lady, perhaps he’s a mandarin’s son in disguise – the man you are destined to marry!”

Mi Nuong felt her face turn red and her heart skip a beat. She tried to look carefully at the man, but he was too far off to see clearly. The boat and the song glided slowly up the river and away.

“Yes,” she said softly. “Perhaps he is.”

All day long, Mi Nuong waited by the window, hoping to hear the singer again. The next day she waited too, and the next. But the voice did not return.

“Why doesn’t he come back?” she asked her maid sadly.

As the days passed, Mi Nuong grew pale and weak. Finally, she went to her bed and stayed there.

The mandarin came to her. “Daughter, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing, Father,” she said faintly.

The mandarin sent for the doctor. But after seeing Mi Nuong, the doctor told him, “I can find no illness. And without an illness, I can offer no cure.”

The weeks passed, and Mi Nuong grew no better. Then one day her maid went to talk to the mandarin.

“My lord, I know what troubles your daughter. Mi Nuong is sick for love. To cure her, you must find the handsome young man who sings this song.” And she sang it for him.

“It will be done,” said the mandarin, and he sent out a messenger immediately.

Days later, the messenger returned. “Lord, in no great house of this region does any young man know the song. But in a nearby village I found a man who sings it, a fisherman named Truong Chi. I have brought him to the palace.”

“A fisherman?” said the mandarin in disbelief. “Let me see him.”

The messenger brought him in. The fisherman stood uneasily, his eyes wide as they looked around the richly decorated room.

For a moment, the mandarin was too surprised to speak. The man was neither young nor handsome. His clothes were ragged and he stank of fish. He is certainly no match for my daughter! thought the mandarin. Somehow, she must not realize who he really is . . . .

He gave his order to the messenger. “Take the fisherman to my daughter’s door and have him sing his song.”

Soon Truong Chi stood anxiously outside the young lady’s room. He could not understand why they’d brought him here. What could they want? He was just a fisherman, wishing only to make an honest living. He had hurt no one, and done nothing wrong! At the messenger’s signal, he nervously started to sing.

My love is like a blossom in the breeze.

My love is like a moonbeam on the waves.

In the room beyond the door, Mi Nuong’s eyes flew open. “He’s here!” she cried to her maid. “How can that be? Oh, quickly, help me dress!”

Mi Nuong jumped from her bed. Never had she so quickly got dressed, put up her hair, made herself up. By the time the song was nearly finished, she looked like a heavenly angel in flowing robes.

“Now, open the door!” she said, trying to calm her wildly beating heart. She forced herself to stand shyly, looking down at the floor, like a modest young lady should.

As the door opened, Truong Chi did not know what to expect. Then suddenly he found himself looking at the greatest beauty he had ever seen. He felt his heart leap, and in that moment, he fell deeply, hopelessly, desperately in love.

Mi Nuong could not wait a moment longer. She lifted her eyes to look upon her beloved. And in that moment, her eyes grew wide and she burst out laughing.

A mandarin’s son? Her destined love? Why, he was nothing but a common fisherman! How terribly, terribly silly she had been!

Shaking with laughter at her folly, she turned her head away and whispered, “Close the door.”

The door shut in Truong Chi’s face. He stood there frozen, the young lady’s laughter ringing in his ears. He felt his heart grow cold and hard.

Truong Chi was sent home. But he could not go on with life as before. Hardly eating or sleeping, he grew pale and ill. He no longer cared if he lived or died.

And so he died.

The villagers found him on the sleeping mat in his hut. On his chest sat a large crystal. “What is it?” a man asked.

It is his heart,” said a wise old woman. “The laughter of the mandarin’s daughter hurt it so deeply, it turned hard to stop the pain.”

“What do we do with it?” asked a young woman. “It is very lovely. Like one of his songs!”

“We should put it in his boat,” said another young man, “and let it float down to the sea.”

At sundown, they put the crystal in the fisherman’s boat. Then they pushed the boat out and watched sadly as it drifted down the river and out of sight.

But the boat did not drift to the sea. It came back to land by the mandarin’s palace. And the mandarin found it at sunrise as he strolled along the river bank.

“What have we here?” he said, reaching in to pick up the crystal. He turned it over in his hand, examining and admiring it. “What a splendid gift the river has brought!”

A few days later, when no one had claimed it, the mandarin sent it to a jeweller to be made into a teacup. He took the cup one evening to Mi Nuong’s room.

“A gift for my lovely daughter,” he said.

“Oh, Father, it’s beautiful! I can hardly wait to drink from it!”

When the mandarin left, she told her maid, “It’s late, so you can go to bed. But first make me some tea, so I can drink from my cup.”

The maid finished making the tea and left. Mi Nuong poured the tea, blew out the candles on the table, and carried the cup to her window seat. A full moon shone into the room, and looking out, she watched the moonlight play upon the river. The scent of blossoms drifted from the garden.

Mi Nuong lifted the cup to her lips. But just as she was about to drink, she cried out in surprise and fear. She quickly put the cup down on the bench.

On the surface of the tea was the face of Truong Chi, looking at her with eyes filled with love. And now his sweet song filled the room, familiar but slightly changed.

Mi Nuong is like a blossom in the breeze.

Mi Nuong is like a moonbeam on the waves.

And Mi Nuong remembered those eyes she had seen so briefly through the open door, and she remembered her laughter. “What have I done? I was so cruel! I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t know… I’m sorry. So very, very sorry!”

Her eyes filled with tears. A single tear dropped into the cup.

It was enough. The crystal melted away, releasing the spirit of Truong Chi. Then Mi Nuong heard the song one last time, floating off over the river.

Mi Nuong is like a blossom in the breeze.

Mi Nuong is like a moonbeam on the waves.

“Goodbye,” said Mi Nuong softly. “Goodbye.”

* * *

It was not many months later when Mi Nuong was given in marriage to the son of a great mandarin. He was young and handsome, and she felt that her dreams had come true. Yet now, as she looked at a different garden and a different view of the river, she often still heard the song of the fisherman echo softly in her heart.