In a time long ago and a place far away, there lived a king, queen, and their son, the prince. The king and queen made sure he had the best teachers and the most knowledgeable sages to instruct him in all that he should know in order to be a wise and kind ruler when he became king.
One day, the prince began to act like a rooster. He took off all his clothes, flapped his arms as if they were wings, began to crow, and stopped speaking the language of the kingdom. He refused to eat anything but corn from the floor, under the table, all by himself.
The king and queen were very upset and called in the best doctors and healers, begging them to treat the prince, to turn him back into a man, but nothing anyone did made a difference. The roosterprince continued to crow and flap his arms, hop around the palace, and eat under the table.
Just when the king and queen had given up all hope, an old man came to the palace and said, “Your Majesty, I would like to try to cure the prince.”
The king asked, “Where are your medicines and potions? What is your plan?”
The old man replied, “I have my own ways. Allow me seven days with the prince. All I ask is that you leave us alone and make no comment, even if my requests appear strange.” Reluctantly, the king and queen agreed to let the old man try.
They brought the old man to the prince and left the room. The first thing he did was to take off his clothing, jump under the table, and sit opposite the roosterprince who stared at the old man for a long time. The old man was patient and said nothing. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” crowed the roosterprince.
“I’m a rooster. Can’t you see that?” answered the old man using the prince’s language.
“Oh, I’m a rooster, too. Welcome,” replied the prince. Time passed and the two companionably crowed and flapped their arms.
The next day, the old man got out from under the table and began to walk around, a little straighter each time he circled the table. The roosterprince had grown so fond of the man he began to follow him, hopping wherever they went.
The next day, the man put on a shirt and a pair of trousers. “What are you wearing, my friend,” asked the roosterprince. “Roosters don’t wear clothing.”
“You’re right dear prince, but I was a bit chilled. However, I assure you, you can still be a good rooster, even with clothes on. Try it.” The roosterprince put on a shirt and a pair of trousers and continued crowing and flapping his arms.
On the third day the man sat at the table and ate some corn from a golden platter. When the roosterprince joined him and started eating, the man signaled to the servants, and soon the table was set with silverware, goblets, golden plates, and platters of delicious food. When the old man began to eat, using a fork, a knife, and a spoon, the prince imitated him. After they had eaten a whole meal, the roosterprince crowed happily.
The following night, the man went to sleep—on a bed, once again assuring the roosterprince, “Don’t worry, my prince, you can be a good rooster even if you sleep in a bed, so the roosterprince slept each night in a bed and ate at the table.
Soon after, the man began to discuss the philosophy of life with the roosterprince, but he objected. “Wait a minute! Roosters don’t have to think, and they certainly don’t have to debate the merits of a way of life.”
“You may be right,” agreed the old man, “but you can be a good rooster and still engage in discussion. After all, you know you’re a rooster and that’s what matters.” The roosterprince thought this over and began to discuss philosophical ideas with the man.
On the seventh day, the old man bid farewell to the roosterprince. Before he left, he said, “Please remember—roosters are fair game for hunters so always pretend you are a human prince. This way you will live a long and interesting life. Act wisely and help others. Farewell, dear roosterprince.”
In time, when he became king, ruling over the kingdom, no one beside himself knew that he was still a rooster.
There was once a king and queen who lived happily together until the king and his men were captured in battle. After three years, the king found a way to send his wife a message, commanding her to raise a large army and money for ransom to secure his release and that of his men.
The queen thought the plan was not sensible. Too many months would pass before she could raise the money to fund an army and pay the ransom. She decided to make her own plan. Without telling the king’s advisors, she transformed herself from queen to troubadour. Taking only her lute, she started to walk. After a short time she met up with a band of pilgrims who invited her to join them.
Two monks began crossing a torrential river. At the midpoint they encountered a young woman who was struggling to stay above the water. One of the monks lifted her up, put her on his back, and carried her to safety on the far bank. They bowed to each other in thanks, then the two monks went on their way.
Shortly after they began walking, the monk who hadn’t carried the girl berated his fellow monk. “You carried a woman on your back. You’ve broken your vows. How can you live with yourself? How can you keep being a monk?”
He replied. “I carried a woman to safety. I put her down and began walking. You’re still carrying her.”
It was very far, this small village. So far that one could not find the way back in a day. This is where Anniko found herself.
Anniko leaned her tired body against the tree. She knew her village was a great distance from where she was, yet she did not know where to find another village. In her loneliness, she looked up at the bird whose song she had followed. It was a lovely song, so lovely she had forgotten to look where she was going. Now, watching the sun leave, she shivered, knowing night would soon come. To keep herself safe from wild animals that roamed at night she climbed up into a tree. When she heard the roar of a lion circling the trunk of the tree she wished more than ever she had never left her village.
The return of the sun’s warmth woke her, welcoming her to the new day. When she looked around she knew she was lost. Afraid of walking in circles, she decided to follow the path of the sun. Just before dusk, she came to a strange and unknown village.
Anniko and the villagers stared at each other, amazed. She had never seen people with long necks. They had never seen a person with a short neck. They might have stared at each other until the sun went down but Anniko was hungry and thirsty and tired. “Please,” she asked, “might I have something to eat and drink?” Overcoming their astonishment, the villagers gave her food, water, and a mat on which to sleep.
The next morning, Anniko rose with the sun. As she had done every morning in her village, she sang a song to welcome the day. Once again the People of the Long Necks were filled with wonder. They had never heard such beautiful sounds. Anniko was happy they liked her music and offered to help with the day’s chores. As she worked, she sang, easing their effort.
Although the villagers and Anniko grew to be fond of each other, there was one man who did not like her. He especially did not like to hear Anniko sing and waited for an opportunity to get rid of her. One day, when Anniko was alone, sitting in the sun, combing her hair, he quietly crept up behind her. After looking around to make sure no one was nearby, he confronted her. “You are ruining our village. If you stay here we can no longer be known as the People of the Long Necks for you have a short neck and you will never have a long neck. You need to leave our village, now!”
Anniko was too upset to say anything. Perhaps the others think as he does but were too kind to tell me, she thought. With the man’s words ringing in her ear, Anniko quickly left the village.
That evening, the villagers gathered to hear the song Anniko sang to greet the evening but they heard no song. “Where is Anniko?” they asked. No one knew. The man said nothing, pleased with the quiet. When the villagers began to leave there was one who said, “I think I know the person we should ask. Follow me!” They went to the house of the man and asked, “Where is Anniko?”
At first he denied knowing what they meant, but the villagers kept asking. “All right,” he said, “I will tell you. Anniko does not belong in our village. We are the People of the Long Necks. She has a short neck. If she lives with us, we can no longer say we are the People of the Long Necks. Listen to me, I am right. Let her be wherever she is. We don’t need her to spoil our ways and we don’t need her songs. We did well enough before she came.”
But the villagers missed Anniko. They had grown fond of her singing and helpful ways. They decided to go into the forest to look for her even though they had no idea where she might have gone. After they had been looking for a long time, one of the villagers suggested, “Perhaps we could sing to her as she sang to us. Perhaps she will hear our singing and we will find each other.” Although everyone thought this was a good idea, they looked at each other, puzzled. No one knew how to sing. But they wanted to find Anniko so badly they decided to try.
Their first sounds were noises, more like screeches and squawks than song. They put their hands over their ears and kept trying. Finally, they decided it was too hard to learn to sing and to sing a song so they simply chanted, “Anniko. Anniko. We are here. Anniko.” There was no response but they kept chanting. “Anniko. Anniko. We are here. Anniko.” Although they heard nothing, they kept chanting, “Anniko. Anniko. We are here. Anniko.” Then, in the distance, they thought they heard a sweet sound. A song. Listening intently, they followed the sound, walking toward what they heard. The song got louder and louder until the villagers and Anniko were face to face.
They greeted her joyfully, but she remembered the words of the man and remained quiet. The villagers understood. “Never mind what that man said. We want you to stay in our village. We are the People of the Long Necks and we will always be so. Your presence does not change this. Your songs lift our spirits and fill our hearts with happiness. Please, come back with us. Please, stay with us.”
Anniko looked at the villagers and saw they spoke the truth. Holding her head high, she sang to them as they left the forest and made their way home.
There was once a poor tailor. Though he had made many coats for many people, he never made one for himself though he wanted one.
One day he decided to save whatever money he earned so he could buy himself material for a coat. Little by little, and bit by bit, he finally had enough money to buy what he needed to make his coat. He brought the material back to his shop and cut it out very carefully so as not to waste any of it. The thought of having a new coat was so pleasurable he worked on it all through the night. When morning came, he had a new coat to put on. Satisfied with his effort, he wore the coat until it was in tatters.
One day he looked at the worn-out coat and thought if he was careful, he could cut a jacket from the less worn bits of the coat. And so he did. He wore the jacket until it too was in tatters.
One day he looked at it and thought if he was very careful he could cut a vest from the jacket. And so he did.
From the vest came a cap.
From the cap came two pockets.
From the pockets came some buttons.
From the buttons there was just enough material to make a story.
A long time ago people discovered that the lorikeet, a small, intelligent bird, could speak with little teaching. Not only was she able to repeat what she heard, she could also give voice to her own thoughts.
One day, a farmer working in his rice fields saw his neighbor's buffalo. The hungry farmer, killed the buffalo, cut up the animal, made a fine meal for himself and hid what he could not eat.
His neighbor came by and asked, "Have you seen my buffalo?"
The man said, "No."
The lorikeet flew to the neighbor and said, “He has killed and eaten part of your buffalo. The rest he has hidden in his fields and rice house." The neighbor looked and saw the meat, just as the bird foretold. He asked the farmer whose meat it was.
The farmer said, "This is not your buffalo meat. This is my meat."
The lorikeet repeated her words. "He has killed and eaten part of your buffalo. The rest he has hidden in his fields and rice house.
The neighbor was puzzled and wondered who was speaking the truth so he asked the magistrate to hear the case the following day.
The farmer was clever. He covered the lorikeet's cage with a huge pot. All night he beat on the pot to make the sounds of thunder. He poured water over the pot to create rain. He shook the pot to make it feel very windy.
In the morning, the farmer took the bird and appeared in court. The bird told her story. The judge was impressed by the bird's intelligence and clarity.
The farmer spoke, "The bird speaks well, but she speaks nonsense. Ask her to describe last night's weather."
The judge agreed. The lorikeet replied, "Last night we had a ferocious storm with much thunder, heavy rains and a strong wind."
"You see," said the farmer. "She speaks well but she speaks nonsense."
The judge spoke, "It is true. Last night was calm and clear. Case dismissed."
The lorikeet was exiled to the forest where she lived as she had before she knew people. One day in the forest, she saw a new bird covered with brilliantly colored feathers. She questioned the bird. "Who are you? Why are you here?"
The bird preened and spoke, "I have come from another country, but I will live here. I speak the language of people."
"The lorikeet said, "I welcome you with some advice. If you would speak to people, let them teach you what to say. People are not interested in truth or wisdom. They wish to hear only their own words.
And so it is. Parrots repeat what they are taught. People are content.
As a young child, Sila was rescued from the sea after the boat she was on capsized and her parents drowned. Her five older brothers took care of her.
From the beginning, Sila loved the sea and swam far and well—better than anyone else in the village. At first her brothers were proud of her, but when villagers complained the brothers were not teaching her properly, they told her it was time to stop swimming and learn the ways of village girls. Sila loved her brothers and did as she was told, but away from the sea she grew thin and pale. Her brothers were so worried they asked Raven for help. Raven told them, "Your sister is not like other young girls. She must be allowed to be who she is if you want her to be healthy and happy." Reluctantly the brothers agreed for they loved their sister.
As Sila grew up the villagers ridiculed Sila and her brothers. The brothers grew ashamed and forced Sila to do the tasks of young village women. Sila tried, but she became quiet and sad. She never talked or laughed as she had when she was allowed to swim as she pleased. Once again her brothers called on Raven. He reminded them, "Your sister is not like other young women. She must be allowed to be who she is if you want her to be healthy and happy.” Fearing for her life, the brothers allowed Sila to return to the sea.
They began to follow Sila and noticed that she swam with a strange creature. The brothers were afraid the creature would harm their sister so they tried to kill it but the creature escaped. The brothers made new, sharper arrows. Sila pleaded with her brothers, "Let the creature be. He is no danger to anyone." But her brothers refused to listen. In time, the arrow sang its killing song and the creature died.
Sila was beside herself with grief. Her brothers assured her they had killed the creature for her sake, but Sila was not comforted. They kept Sila under their watch in a tepee and when Sila gave birth to a child the brothers noticed the child did not look like other children. They were afraid and asked Raven for advice. Raven said, "Your sister is not like other young mothers. She must be allowed to be who she is if you want her to be healthy and happy." The brothers listened reluctantly, not happy with Raven’s advice. They took to watching Sila and the child closely.
Although Sila swam with her child she feared for his life. She knew she could not keep him safe for very long. One day, she swam with her son to a place he had never been. She told him what he needed to know and bid him leave her even though her heart was breaking.
For a second time Sila was consumed with grief. Her brothers tried to keep her busy helping their wives and children but Sila yearned for her child. She knew her brothers would kill him if they saw him so she called on Raven. "Help me safely see my son. I cannot live this way."
Raven took pity on Sila and created a thick white cloud that separated Sila from her brothers. They could not see her as she ran from the village and once again, swam in her beloved sea, joyfully greeting her son.
When Sila did not return, the brothers called on Raven to help them find her. Raven refused. "You would not let her be who she is, therefore you do not deserve to live with her. She is gone to be with those who love her as she is. There will always be a thick cloud of fog between you."
This time it was the brothers who grieved.
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.
Wit and wisdom from around the world and through the ages. Tales by Nancy King.