It was during our university's archaeology expedition to China.
Only very few students had the chance to visit the exciting new excavation sites near the Chinese Bayankala mountain range. I was one of the lucky few, chosen more by pure luck than any deserving on my part. Nevertheless I was there and intended to make the best of it I could.
Despite not being able to speak a word Chinese beyond the simple phrases of my tourist's language book I took to exploring the sights the surrounding land offered in my free time. A friend I had made among the Chinese work crew had recommended to me the ancient and mysterious martial arts training ground of Jusenkyou.
When I found the place and went there some days later, I was relieved that the guide spoke a number of foreign languages, among them English, which I could understand. He was a very stocky man of average to small height who was smoking a pipe of what I hoped was tobacco.
"Yes, honourable customer, this is ancient training ground of Jusenkyou: ground of accursed springs."
And it was true - the whole area was riddled with small pools, each separate from the others. There were poles of bamboo sticking out of the water, that I assumed had some significance in martial arts training.
"Each spring have own tragic legend", said the guide, pointing out the nearest pool. I did not pay too much attention. The ground formation with all these pools was very strange and I wondered what had formed them.
"Ah, honourable customer, better not go too near. It is very dangerous - nobody use this training ground anymore"
I was looking into a pool and the water looked curious. There were reflexes on the surface that seemed to have no origin on this side. I leaned closer.
"Honourable customer, please listen. You do not want to fall into pool. There is very tragic legend of eighteen hundred years ago..."
I could see my reflection in the pool. It looked at the same time familiar and completely different. Kinda like an animal. I leaned still closer and suddenly noticed that I was about to lose my footing. I waved my arms but it was already too late to regain balance. I tilted over and fell.
At the last second before I hit the water a hand grabbed my shirt and hauled me back. The guide had grabbed me in time - he looked very angry. He grabbed me by my lapels and shook me.
"This is the last straw! Whatever happen to ancient tradition of listening to guide before bringing doom to oneself?! You want fall into pool so hard? Then go, fall!" He pushed me over backwards and I fell sprawling into the water.
I gurgled and splashed trying to get back to the surface, but something was happening. There was a painful sensation all over my skin, that felt like a thousand needles pricking at once, like my whole body went to sleep and was now waking up. Then there was another feeling - it felt like stretching in the morning, only in reverse. I couldn't move my fingers anymore, and thinking back, I realize that I probably saw that my hands had turned into paws, but I doubt it really registered with my brain. Only when the hand reached into the water from above and picked me up by the scruff of my neck, I understood my change.
The guide looked huge now, and still very angry.
"There! Now you know why spring of drowned cat have that name! You satisfied now?"
"Meow!" I said.
"Perhaps you want to try out Yahzuniichuan, too? Is not as if stupid old guide have anything better to do than watch customers jump into pools and be ignored by them."
He plunged my helpless feline form into another pool. Again I felt the indescribable sensation of transformation wash over me.
"But perhaps that spring is only for blind moles who walk right in without listening? Perhaps honourable customer want a spring what is more fitting to his tastes?"
"Quack," I answered diplomatically.
I do not know how many springs I "visited" that afternoon, but it must have been over a dozen before the guide finally calmed down and threw me into a human pool. Thankful to be back in my old form I burst towards the surface and took a deep breath. It was then that I noticed that something was amiss - literally.
"Waaah!" I cried out in a decidedly female voice.
The guide threw my clothes towards me and pointed over to another spring.
"Spring of drowned man is right there. Take it and only come back when have learned patience and courtesy of paying attention."
He went away, muttering to himself in Chinese, no doubt about the stupidity of customers.
I collected my clothes and dunked into the last pool. I was astonished how strange it felt to be myself again. Wet and shaken I went back to our place at the excavation.
Needless to say that ever after I have treated the guides at museums and other places with utmost respect and did my best not to upset them... They all are only human after all and can only take so much.
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