China is an old, old country. Its first emperor ruled more than 2,000 years ago. This is a story about King Mu, who lived even before that — in the dim mists of the past, around 3,000 years ago.
Mu lived in a palace with many courtiers and wives. But for some time, he had been feeling restless. He neglected his kingdom. He didn’t want to talk with his wives or play with his children.
He wanted to travel to the land of the west.
He had heard that the Queen Mother of the West had a beautiful garden. In the garden grew the peaches of immortality. They took 3,000 years to ripen. But if King Mu could eat them, he would never die.
No one would travel with Mu but his charioteer, Tsao Fu (TSOW-FOO). Now, Tsao Fu was famous throughout the kingdom as a skillful chariot-driver. He knew horses. And he was so strong, he could stop a team of horses galloping at full speed.
His horses were named Eager, Gentle Deer, Beautiful Bay (a bay is a reddish-brown horse), and Green Ear.
This loyal follower hitched his horses to the king’s golden chariot and drove off with him. They traveled toward the west, keeping the North Star to their right shoulder.
After some weeks, they reached the land of the nomads who lived their whole lives on horseback and in tents. The nomads washed the king’s feet with horse’s milk and gave them a soft pile of furs to sleep on.
They had journeyed on for months when they reached the Kunlun Mountains on the northern edge of Tibet — some of the highest peaks in the world.
The pass through the mountains was so high that the snow never melted. Tsao Fu became dizzy from the thin air, and the snow confused the horses. Tsao Fu climbed down from the chariot and walked in front of the lead horse, holding on to its harness. Tsao Fu couldn’t see either, but it calmed the horses just to have him there. At night they slept together, horses and men, keeping each other warm.
At last they came to the land of the west. But there was a problem. The garden of the Queen Mother of the West was bordered by an enchanted river. Nothing could float on it — not a raft, not a boat, not a stick of balsa wood. The king and his loyal charioteer looked at the river in dismay. Could they have come this far and not get across? Their hearts sank.
But as they stared at the water, it started boil and churn, as though something was going on just under the surface. It was a mob of small water creatures — fish, turtles, even little crayfish and newts. They put their bodies shell to shell and fin to fin and formed a bridge over the water! Tsao Fu cheered and drove his horses across the river.
The Queen Mother of the West welcomed King Mu. She held a huge banquet. Her peaches, which had been ripening for 3,000 years, were ready to be eaten. She invited all the gods and goddesses, who arrived at the feast in chariots pulled by winged dragons. And she served them all the peaches of immortality.
Tsao Fu, as a reward of his faithfulness, was given a home in the heavens, in the stars that we call Cepheus (SEFF-ee-us).
When you’re outside around 9:00 on a clear October evening, face north and look directly overhead. You’ll see the house. Its roof points toward the north. The house is tipped a little, as though it’s not quite flat on the ground.
This is Cepheus, and these stars are the celestial home of Tsao Fu, the brave charioteer of King Mu, driving his horses through the night.