The Story Spirits (Korea)
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.
Wit and wisdom from around the world and through the ages. Tales by Nancy King.