Illustration from A Tale of Tales (이야기 주머니 이야기), Written & Illustrated by Lee Uk Bae, Borim Press
There was once a boy who loved to hear stories. Although he asked everyone he met to tell him a story, no matter how people pleaded, he refused to tell any stories. Since he was the child of wealthy parents, no one dared complain. After his parents died, people felt sorry for him and his faithful servant saw to it that whenever the boy asked, there was someone to tell him a story.
In the corner of the boy’s bedroom hung an old bag, tightly tied with string, forgotten by everyone. But every time the boy was told a story, the spirit of the story went into the bag. In time, there were so many stories the spirits became so crowded they could hardly breathe.
Time passed. When the boy came of age, his uncle arranged for him to marry. The night before the ceremony, the old servant stopped outside the young man’s bedroom and heard angry voices. He crept into the room and listened.
“He’s going to be married tomorrow.”
“We must do something. It’s our only chance.”
“Let him feel what it’s like to suffer as we have all these years.”
“What can we do?”
“I know,” said a deep old voice. “Tomorrow, he will ride to the bride’s house. It’s a long ride and he will soon be thirsty. When he stops to drink water from the well at the side of the road, I will put poison in the cup he drinks from and he will die.”
There were murmurs of approval until a tiny voice asked, “But what if he doesn’t drink? A little further down the road is a field of strawberries. The young man loves strawberries. I will offer him a strawberry that guarantees him eternal sleep.”
“Good idea,” said a husky voice, “but just in case he isn’t hungry, “I will be a red-hot poker in the sack of rice husks he will use to dismount from his horse. When he steps down, he will be engulfed in flames.”
“But he is very rich,” argued a high-pitched voice, “suppose someone carries him off his horse. “I will be a poisonous snake under the rug that lies under the bridal bed. I will bite him when he sleeps and he will never wake.” The voices uttered their approval, relived to know there would be an end to their suffering.
The old servant was horrified, knowing that if he told anyone what he had heard they would think he had gone crazy. They would keep him from accompanying his beloved master to the wedding ceremony. He had promised the boy’s parents he would take good care, but how could he protect him now? All night he worried. When morning came, he had devised a plan.
As the procession was preparing to leave, the old servant begged the uncle of the young man, “Please sir, let me lead my young master to his new home. This would be a fitting end to my years of service.” The young man raised no objections; the uncle agreed.
They had barely gone a quarter of the way when the young man said to the old servant, “Look, there is a well just ahead. Let us stop. I am thirsty.” Instead of stopping, the old man increased the pace and before the young man knew, they had passed the well. “Did you not hear me say I was thirsty? Why did you not stop?”
“Oh sir, I was thinking about your beloved and we passed the well before I knew it.”
“Well, just ahead is a field of strawberries. They will quench my thirst and my hunger. Arrange to stop the procession and pick me strawberries.” Once again, the old servant urged the horses to move so fast they passed the strawberry field before the young man could yell, “Stop.”
The young man yelled at his old servant. “Why did you not stop? Do you want me to die of thirst and hunger?”
“I am so sorry sir but just think, the sooner we arrive the sooner you will see your beloved.”
The uncle spoke with barely contained fury. “This is no way to treat a young man on the way to his wedding. I will take care of you later.”
All too soon they arrived at the home of the young man’s beloved. Just as he was about to dismount from the horse, the old servant slapped the horse’s behind and the young man fell off the horse into the dust. As the uncle helped clean his nephew’s clothes he whispered to the old servant, “Just you wait. There is no punishment too harsh for you.”
After the ceremony and the dinner and the celebration, the newly wedded couple retired to their bedroom and had just fallen asleep when the old servant ran into the bedroom with a sword, pulled back the rug and slew the snake. The bride screamed. The young man called for the guards. There was so much noise and commotion the uncle awoke and rushed into the bedroom where he saw the old man, sword in hand, a dead snake at his feet.
“Take this old servant away. Tie him up and …”
“Please sir,” pleaded the old servant, “I beg of you. Do with me as you wish, but first let me explain.” He told them of the bag in the young man’s bedroom, voices he had heard, about the poisoned water and strawberries. “If you don’t believe me, look in the sack he would have stepped down on and you will find a burned poker with charred straw. If all else failed, the snake under his bed was prepared to bite him.”
“Why?” asked the young man. “What have I done to deserve such enmity?
“All your life you have asked for stories. Each time you asked, someone told you a story. Yet whenever anyone asked you for a story, you refused to tell one. All the spirits of all the stories you would not tell were whisked into the bag on the wall where they were imprisoned, cramped and uncomfortable with no way out until you agree to tell stories.”
Oh,” said the young man, seeing the pain on the old man’s face. “You have served me better than I knew. I promise you, from now on, I will tell a story to anyone who asks.”
And he did.
Once upon a time, Leopard, who was very hungry, saw Tortoise, and chased after him, ready for a fine dinner, but no matter how hard Leopard tried, Tortoise managed to escape.Then, one day, Leopard came upon Tortoise walking slowly on a road. Leopard pounced on Tortoise ready to kill. “Tortoise, prepare to die.”
Tortoise, realizing there was no escape, asked Leopard to grant a favor. Surprised, Leopard asked what Tortoise wanted. “It is not just that you should kill me, but since this will happen, I would like a bit of time to prepare myself, to prepare my mind.” Leopard agreed, thinking that Tortoise would stay still and be quiet. Instead, much to Leopard’s astonishment, Tortoise did not stay still and quiet. Instead, Tortoise scratched the road, digging up stones and dirt and plants, throwing them every which way, creating a huge mess.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Leopard.
“So that after I am dead,” Tortoise replied, “people passing by will know that here is where a great struggle took place.”
In China, a long time ago, a huge serpent was menacing the village—eating animals and crops, and sometimes, people. The villagers, tired of losing neighbors, crops, food, and livelihoods demanded their magistrate protect the community, but no matter what he tried to do, he was unable to stop the rampaging serpent. As a last resort, he sought the advice of a sorcerer who advised the villagers to sacrifice one 13-year-old maiden in the tenth month of each year if they wanted it to stop plundering the village. For nine years, offering the maidens kept the villagers safe from the serpent’s devastation.
In the tenth year, Li Chi, a young girl from a poor family, spoke to the magistrate. She volunteered to go up the mountain and sacrifice herself to the serpent if the magistrate would guarantee that her mother and father would be taken care of until they died. She knew that as she and her five sisters married, they would have to leave home to live with their husbands’ families and when the last girl was married, the old parents would be destitute, alone, and without help.
Unlike the maidens who were forced to go with nothing to protect them. Li Chi made a plan. She asked the magistrate to give her a dog, food, flint, and a sword. Although he was reluctant to provide her with what she requested, his relief that this year he would not have to struggle to find a maiden from increasingly unwilling families overcame his reluctance and he satisfied all her requests.
Li Chi went up the mountains with the dog. Although she wasn’t sure how to find the serpent’s cave, the closer they came, the more powerful was the stench. The dog whined in protest. Li Chi, almost overcome by the horrible odor, found it harder and harder to continue, yet they kept walking toward the smell. When they reached the cave she began her preparation, telling the dog what she must do. Using the flint, Li Chi made a fire to cook the food she brought. Soon delicious smells wafted back into the cave, enticing the hungry serpent. It slithered out from the cave, rearing its ugly head in search of the food. With a nod from Li Chi, the dog leapt up and clawed the serpent’s eyes. Immediately, Li Chi stuck the sword into the neck of the blinded beast, continuing to strike it until the serpent lay dead.
Instead of leaving immediately, Li Chi entered the serpent’s cave and collected the bones of all the nine maidens who had been sacrificed to appease the beast’s appetite. Reverently, she carried the bones back to the village, not only to show the villagers the serpent was dead, but to remind the people that the young girls had died for them. Li Chi ensured that they were buried with the proper ceremony and respect.
The animal community decided they needed a king and voted to make Elephant, King of the Animals because he was the biggest and strongest, yet very gentle. But after a short time, he changed drastically, and not for the better. When he saw animal mothers carrying food to their children, Elephant grabbed and ate it without listening to their cries. He stopped caring where he walked and trampled on nests without apologizing or repairing the damage.
The animals were upset and terrified. They called a meeting when Elephant was sleeping, but no one knew what to do or how to stop Elephant from his rampaging. When Ant said she had a plan that would not only make Elephant stop behaving badly, he would also apologize for the misery he caused, the animals laughed in spite of their despair. If none of the bigger animals could think of a solution, what could a tiny creature like Ant possibly do to influence an enormous animal like Elephant? Ant persisted, continuing to ask permission to take action, until the community gave in, realizing it had no other ideas to remedy the situation.
Ant observed Elephant’s behavior for a few days, noticing that after lunch he always took a long nap. One afternoon, when Elephant was snoring, she climbed up into his brain and started to dance. Elephant woke up with a terrible headache and roared in pain. Ant told him her dancing might be causing his headache but she would only stop if he promised to behave.
Elephant roared his displeasure. “I am Elephant, King of the animals. I do what I want, when I want, as I want.” Ant said nothing. She just kept dancing. Elephant’s headache grew so unbearable, desperate to stop the pain, he finally agreed to all of Ant’s demands—anything to make her stop dancing. Anything to ease the agony in his head.
Just to make sure Elephant didn’t change his mind once she stopped dancing, Ant reminded him, “I have lots of relatives and we all love to dance.”
In the beginning, when the world was new, there was no light. The people huddled together in cold and dark to keep warm, bumping into each other because they couldn’t see. It was a hard time. Feeling hopeless, they held a meeting. One of the animals said, “I have heard that on the other side of the world there are People of the Light. We should go and ask if they will give us some.”
“Don’t be foolish,” responded another. “If they have all the light, why would they give us any? We will have to take it.”
The animals agreed someone should go, but who? It would be a long hard journey. “I’ll go,” said Buzzard. “I’m big and strong. They will have to give it to me.” The animals cheered as he left.
Soon he returned with nothing to show for his effort but a burned place on the back of his head where the light had burned him.
Other big strong animals agreed to go, but each came back empty handed, all burned on some part of their body.
The animals were in despair. No one knew what to do. None of their warriors were able to return with light. In the silence, Grandmother Spider spoke up. “I will go. I have a plan. I will bring back light.”
Everyone laughed at her silly offer. “You’re old. You’re tiny. What makes you think you can do what those who are bigger and stronger and younger than you could not do?”
“Yes, I am old and small, but those who are bigger and stronger and younger did not succeed. I have a plan. I will go. I will bring back light.” The people laughed even harder at her foolishness, but in the end, they had no other choice. They agreed to let her go.
Grandmother spider molded a tiny bowl out of damp clay and waited for it to dry. Then she spun a fine web as she moved toward the People of the Light so she could find her way back. She was so little and so quiet, none of the People of the Light noticed her. They were looking for the warriors coming to steal the light. Carefully working so that no one could see her, Grandmother Spider put a small piece of light into her clay bowl and spun her way back to her people.
When she arrived with the light, at first the people were stunned, then amazed, then joyful. “Now we will have light and warmth”. They gathered around Grandmother Spider. “You have brought us light and warmth. We will always honor you,” they promised. And they have.
Hummingbird hated how she looked—drab, utterly colorless—unlike the beautiful flowers, the brilliant sky, and the glorious shades of grasses and leaves. Nothing she did changed the color of her feathers. One morning, while feeling glum and miserable, she heard a loud groaning, a horrible noise. Much to her horror, it was Panther, an animal who always terrified her. His sharp teeth were almost as big as she was. As he moved closer, his moans grew more unbearable until Hummingbird blurted out, “Why are you making so much noise?”
Panther told her, “Last night, I accidentally stepped on Mouse Mother’s children as I was running through the forest. To punish me, when I was asleep, she put mud on my closed eyes. Now the mud has hardened and I cannot open my eyes. I cannot see. I’m blind. How will I ever find enough food to eat?” He began to wail louder than ever.
“You’re not the only one with a problem,” snapped Hummingbird, “I’m so dull and gray no one even notices me.”
“That’s not a problem. I know exactly how to help you become more colorful.”
“You do?” asked Hummingbird, not at all sure she believed him.
Panther said, “I’ll make a bargain with you. If you peck the mud from my eyes so I can see, I will help you become as colorful as you like.”
Although Hummingbird wanted this more than anything in the world, getting close enough to Panther to peck out the mud from his eyes was almost too frightening to think about. Yet, she yearned to be colorful.
So, despite her fear, she gathered her courage and flew to Panther, making him promise to keep his mouth closed. She pecked out the mud from his eyes as carefully as possible, hoping he wouldn’t open his mouth and eat her when she was finished. When Panther could open his eyes he danced gleefully. “I can see. I can see.”
Hummingbird grumbled, “What about your promise? What about our bargain?
Panther stopped dancing and looked at Hummingbird. Shaking his head, he says, “You really are drab. No wonder you’re unhappy.” Hummingbird was about to tell him that he didn’t have to make her feel bad, she already felt awful, when he said, “Follow me.”
He led her to a clearing in the forest near a bubbling stream and told her to gather as many different colored flowers and grasses as she could find. He put a pot of water over a fire he built. Hummingbird filled the pot with flowers and grasses and seeds and leaves. Following his instructions, she stirred and stirred and stirred. When the mixture was cool, Panther told her to jump into the pot and wet herself all over. Then he told her to fly out and shake herself off. Panther looked at Hummingbird and said, “Better do it once more.”
After the third time of jumping into the pot and shaking herself dry, Panther said, “There, that’s more like it. Fly to the river and look at yourself.”
Filled with dread that Panther’s plan had not worked, Hummingbird made herself fly to the water, afraid of what she would see. “Open your eyes and look!” commanded Panther.
Hummingbird took a deep breath and did she was told. “Oh,” she gasped, hardly believing her eyes, amazed to see such a marvelously colored bird reflected in the water. “I’m beautiful,” she said, stunned.
“Yes, you are, and I’m hungry,” said Panther and he walked into the forest.
"Lake Draksum Tso, Nyingchi, eastern Tibet (19)" by Richard Mortel via Flickr
Little Parrot loved the jungle more than anything. Each morning she flew over the greenery, looked at what lay below, and counted herself fortunate to live in such a place. Only when she was sure that all was well did she fly back to earth and eat breakfast.
But one morning, when she flew overhead, she saw nothing but thick, black smoke. The jungle was on fire! Little Parrot flew to the river as fast as her tiny wings permitted, took a huge gulp of water, flew back to the fire, and spit out the water, trying to quench the huge flames. Back and forth she went, from the river to the fire, from the fire to the river, trying her best to put out the fire though she could only take small gulps each time. She soon became exhausted but kept on going. Her beloved jungle was at risk.
As she was flying for the umptieth time to the river, worried that the jungle would burn before she could put out the fire, she heard a loud harsh laugh. Then she heard a cackling voice say, "Silly parrot. You’re too small to put out such a big fire."
Little Parrot looked up and saw Eagle, the largest bird in the jungle. "I don't need advice,” she said quietly, “I need help.” She continued flying to the river and back to the fire. As she was doing her best to douse the fire, Little Parrot saw a huge stream of water pouring from the skies, quenching part of the fire. Little Parrot did not stop to see who was helping her, she just kept flying to the river and back, hoping that with new help the fire would soon be put out.
When there were no more flames, Little Parrot looked around to see if she could find the source of the help for which she was so grateful. Amazed, she saw that it was Eagle. Though utterly depleted, she flew up to Eagle and said, "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Were it not for your help, the fire would still be burning."
"No," said Eagle, "it is I who must thank you.
There was once a village where the people enjoyed many years of prosperity. The rains came regularly and their crops flourished. In time, their grain bins were so full, one of them collapsed and the grains scattered. However the people had so much stored they left the grain where it was.
In a short time, birds found the grain and decided the village was a good place to live. When the people finished working in the fields, the birds flew down and began eating. The next morning, when the people saw how much grain the birds had eaten, they began to worry that the birds would find a way to eat the stored grain. So, when the birds flew down to eat, the people tried to shoo them away with noise. When this didn’t work, they shot arrows into the air, but this too failed to deter the birds.
The villagers called a meeting to discuss how to get rid of the birds. Although no one wanted to be the first person to mention the Old Man, he was on everyone’s mind. They looked at the Headman who said, “We shall soon starve if we do not rid our village of these birds. We have tried but nothing worked. Perhaps the Old Man will once again help us.” Everyone was silent. “It is true we chased him away because we were afraid of his magic but he is our only hope. I will go to him. Perhaps he will take pity on us and agree to return to help us.”
The next morning the Headman went in search of the Old Man. Although he was dressed in worn clothes and had little in the way of goods, the Old Man was not pleased to see the Headman, nor did he want to return to the village. But, when the Headman told him the children would starve if he didn’t help them, the Old Man agreed to return.
Before returning to the village, the Old Man collected roots and plants to make a powder. That evening, after the village thanked him for coming, he showed them how to dip their arrows into the powder and how to use them.
The leader of the birds saw the people with their bows and arrows, but he was not afraid and continued to eat. When the Old Man quietly said, “Now,” the villagers shot their arrows into the leader of the birds and killed him. Seeing this, the other birds flew away in fear.
The villagers held a great feast to honor the Old Man and for a time, all was well. Then, whispers began. People said, “If he has magic to kill the birds, he can kill us. We must tell him to go.” The whispers grew into a loud chorus and soon, the villagers forced the Old Man to leave.
In time, the birds returned. The villagers watched helplessly as their grain disappeared. Once again, they tried, but nothing stopped the birds from eating their grain. The villagers decided there was nothing to do but ask the Old Man to come back to help them.
The Headman told the Old Man of the village’s troubles and how sorry they were they asked him to leave. The Old Man listened carefully. Then he said, “No.”
The chief of the tribe gives two vases, one red and one blue, to a newly married couple--or, if no vases are available, two tins are used. One is for the husband, the other for the wife. They are also given a bag of mixed grains and broad beans. Daily the husband and wife each choose a single grain to put into his or her vase, according to what kind of day each has spent with the other. For example, a red bean signifies a quarrel or anger, corn means a very good day with much joy. A broad bean shows an exceptional day really perfect (this is rare), and a lentil means a day of peace and harmony with no note of discord. The husband and wife continue putting a grain into the vase every day without showing each other which one they put in, until after a certain time when they empty the vases in front of each other. When they have seen the grains, they are put back in the bag, and the couple begins again. When both vases are shown to contain only lentils--the sign of harmony between the husband and wife--the couple plants these lentils. They create images of a man and a woman out of the earth in which they have planted the lentils to bless the newly planted seeds.
Long ago a poor shepherd boy lived with his grandmother in a yurt (a felt tent), in the middle of the Mongolian steppes. Each day Suho rose early to help his grandmother prepare breakfast before going out to take care of their small flock of sheep. As he kept watch he sang, and his rich voice rose over the grassy plains, breaking the stillness of the day.
One night, when Suho did not return home at his usual time, his grandmother and the other shepherds worried that something terrible had happened. Yet before the next rising of the sun, Suho appeared, carrying a newborn foal in his arms. Beaming with happiness, he told them how he had found the little one too weak to stand, with no mother or master around to feed him. "I was afraid the wolves would eat him so I brought him home."
Days went by and the colt grew strong and healthy under Suho's devoted care. The horse helped Suho look after the sheep, even staving off a bunch of wolves. Suho caressed the horse, rubbing him down, speaking to it as if it were his brother. "White horse, you fought well and bravely. The sheep are safe because of you. I will never forget you." As the years passed, Suho and the horse were inseparable. If his grandmother wanted Suho, she called to his horse.
One day, news spread that the governor declared he would give the hand of his daughter to the man who won the big race. The shepherds of Suho's village urged him to enter, knowing Suho's horse was the finsest and fastest of all the horses. The day of the race, noblemen from all over the country came, riding fine horses, wearing silk clothing, but Suho paid them no mind. When the signal to begin was given, Suho and his white horse took off like the wind, easily winning the race.
Yet when the governor saw that the winner was only a poor shepherd boy, he gave him three pieces of silver and told him to be on his way, without the white horse—for the governor had decided to keep him. Suho retorted, "I came to win a race, not to lose my horse."
"Insolent beggar," shouted the governor. "You dare to answer me back? Guards, take him to the outskirts of the city and make sure he does not return." The guards rushed to obey their master's commands, leaving Suho beaten and bleeding at the edge of the city. He might have died there had not some shepherds nursed his wounds. Suho grieved the loss of his horse, his friend, his companion, but there was nothing he could do to get him back.
Meanwhile, the governor decided to hold a great feast to show off his fine horse. When the time came, the horse, richly bridled and saddled, was brought in for the governor to ride. As his guests admired the impressive horse, the governor heaved himself into the saddle and lightly flicked his whip. The great horse bucked and reared, throwing the governor onto the ground. He neighed once and then galloped off on the steppes, swift as the wind.
The governor shouted to his guards, "Go after him. Catch him if you can, but if you miss, shoot him with your arrows. Do not let him get away alive." The guards did as they were told but they could not catch him for the white horse ran too fast. Although they shot their arrows into his flanks, he kept galloping, leaving the guards in the dust.
Late that evening, when Suho was intoning his nightly lament, mourning the loss of his horse, he heard a noise outside the yurt and went to look. There, panting, with blood gushing out of his wounds, Suho saw his friend. Gently, he removed the arrows and bathed the wounds but the horse grew weaker. Just before the sun rose, his beloved horse died.
Shattered by grief, Suho lay sleepless night after night. He grew listless, forgetting to eat for days at a time. Then, one night, the white horse appeared to him in a dream, nuzzling Suho fondly. "Suho," said the horse in a soft voice, "you must not continue to mourn for me. Take my bones, hide, hair, and sinews and make them into an instrument to play upon when you sing. If you do this, I will remain with you forever.
Suho woke and followed the instructions he had heard in his dream, fashioning an instrument from the bones, hide, hair, and sinews of his beloved horse, ornamented by the figure of the horse's head which he lovingly carved.
Suho drew the bow across the strings as he sang about the joys of riding his beloved horse, his grief at losing him, his sorrow when the horse died. Always, he sensed the presence of his white horse.
Others made horse-headed fiddles like the one Suho created. Even today, if you travel to the vast steppes of Mongolia, you will hear the songs created by Suho to honor the memory of his beloved friend, the white horse.