Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
In the year of the snake, at the start of the reign of Emperor Liu, may his memory shine imperishable, four demons beset the Middle Kingdom. The greatest and most terrible of these demons was vanquished by Emperor Liu himself, the second demon was drowned in oil by the Chancellor, and the Grand Commandant slew the third demon after battling with it for eight days and eight nights.
The fourth demon took the form of a giant serpent, two hundred feet long and as wide in girth as a wagon. Lord Serpent settled itself upon the great wall encircling the Purple Forbidden City, overlooking the palaces and government halls, the gardens and temples. From this high vantage, Lord Serpent surveyed the forces arrayed against him, and laughed at their puniness.
Arrows and spears plinked from his scales like raindrops striking a bucket. He crushed armored warriors into meat patties beneath his massive belly.
The army wheeled siege engines into position, and launched a volley of boulders. Lord Serpent hissed in irritation, a hissing louder than a summer storm sweeping through a forest. He pushed the boulders back over the wall, smashing several unfortunate observers below.
Emperor Liu offered his third largest ruby as a reward to whoever could kill the serpent.
More warriors ventured up the wall, where they too were crushed into meat patties. The siege engines hurled molten iron … which ran harmlessly down the beast’s scales. Lord Serpent laughed and luxuriated in the puddle of hot iron.
Emperor Liu promised his second largest emerald as additional reward.
Jiao, a gray-haired palace laundry woman, left the room where she had been folding sheets. She went to the servants’ kitchen where her son worked, begged from him a skinned lamb and a carving knife, kissed her son, and told him to be good. Then she made her way north toward the serpent.
The soldiers on guard smirked as they saw her waddling along, arms laden with the bloodied lamb, a kitchen knife strapped to her belt. One of the younger men, worried for her, shouted, “Careful, old mother, the snake will swallow you up as easily as a toad swallows a fly.”
Jiao nodded to him, and headed up the stairs that climbed the wall. The men watched, but did not stop her.
Lord Serpent watched, but did not fear her. He did, however, smell the raw lamb in her grasp. He smelled it and he hungered. Rather than crushing Jiao beneath his bulk, he darted his head forward, swallowing her and the lamb together, as easily as a toad swallows a fly.
Jiao held her breath as she slipped down the serpent’s dark gullet. She let go of the lamb. She took firm hold of the knife, praying silently to the gods, to the Heavenly Grandfather, to guide her hand. Then in the slippery passage of the serpent’s insides, she slashed with the knife: slashed through the soft unprotected gullet up into the serpent’s foul heart.
Lord Serpent cried out, thrashing, coiling and uncoiling. He retched up the laundry woman, who stood, dripping slime, as the snake died.
Emperor Liu bowed to Jiao as he bestowed the promised reward, for he was a man of wisdom equal to his rank, humbled that a servant had slain the serpent where his soldiers could not.
Jiao gave the emerald to the young soldier who had shouted a warning to her, gave the ruby to her son, and went back to folding sheets. For she too was wise, and knew that the gods had guided her hand to the serpent’s heart, and one must not ask more of the gods than one needs.