Read Tales of a Korean Grandmother Online

Authors: Frances Carpenter

Tales of a Korean Grandmother (11 page)


white-clad Korean grandmother looked anxiously up at the dark clouds racing across the heavens above her.

"The rain comes, blessed ones," she warned the children in the Inner Court. "Hurry, like the crickets, into the house!"

The boys and girls scarcely heard her, so intent were they on the games they were playing on the hard-packed earth of the Inner Court. Ok Cha and two of her small cousins were sitting with their legs tucked under their full gay-colored skirts. They were busy with
or jack-stones. Instead of metal jacks, however, these small girls were tossing and picking up the thick Korean pennies, called "cash." Ok Cha had safely got through "laying the eggs" and "setting the eggs," but she missed the third toss when she tried to knock on the ground in "hatching the eggs."

Yong Tu and the other boys also were playing a game with these dark metal coins made of copper and brass. They were "hitting the cash," throwing one coin at another placed in the center of a square drawn on the ground. The boys did not mind losing a cash or two to one another. These coins were worth little, only a fraction as much as a penny of the United States.

Suddenly the dark clouds over their heads began to send huge drops of rain down on the young players. Although their grandmother's words had gone unheeded, the boys and girls jumped at this direct warning. Like startled chickens, they rushed up the veranda steps to take shelter within the old woman's room.

And just in time, too, for now the clouds seemed to open and great sheets of water were drenching the earth. It was the midsummer season of the Great Rains. Almost every day floods like this descended from the clouded sky.

"All my cash are gone but these two!" Yong Tu lamented, running the lonely coins back and forth along his cash string of braided straw. Everyone in Korea carried his cash on such strings, which were run through the square holes punched in the coins' centers. The strings of cash in this family's huge money chests were heavy and long. It took a sturdy servant, or even a pony, to carry enough cash to buy the family supplies in the city market.

"You should have a magic cash string, like that of Woo, the beggars' friend," Halmoni said to the boy. "That string never grew less. Sit down and wait until the rain has passed by, and
'll tell you about it."

The children all gathered about their beloved grandmother. And while they nibbled contentedly at the pine nuts and honey candy she brought forth, she told them the tale.

"The man in this story was a spoonmaker named Woo, who lived in a modest house in the Street of Spoonmakers here in our city. Woo was a kind husband and a good father. There were always bundles of grass for mending holes in his roof. There was always fresh rice straw to make sandals for his children's feet. And there were always rice and
in the brown jars in his court.

"This Woo had a heart as big as the sky, my precious ones. Of course, when his children were small and needed clothing and food, he took care of them first. But when his son was grown up and his daughters were married, he began to give more and more to the beggars who knocked at the gate of his spoonmaking shop. It was a bowl of rice to this one, and a few cash to that one. Now a few cash will not buy a coat or a pig, but if you put enough raindrops together you have a river. And like a river, cash flowed out of Woo's money chests into the outstretched hands of these hungry beggars.

"How those miserable fellows fought to get to their friend, Woo the Spoonmaker! The man had to take only one step out of his gate, and they came running. Night after night he returned to his home without one coin in the belt pocket his good wife had embroidered for him.

"At last there was no cash at all left in his money chests. There was nothing with which to buy rice for his eating bowls, nor brass to make shining spoons which might have brought him new money. As happens to many, Woo began to borrow. And as happens also to those who do not pay back what they borrow, he was hauled before the judge.

"There he was soundly paddled, and it was only when the jailers found out Woo had nothing to give them that they let him go. It was a bruised, beaten Woo, a sad, sorry spoonmaker, that limped through the muddy streets to his poor home again.

"Woo was just entering his gate when the toe of his sandal tripped upon something hard. Looking down in the dirt to see what it could be, Woo found a straw string on which were strung seven pieces of cash.

"'Seven cash are not many, but they will buy us at least some rice for our supper,' Woo said to his sad wife. And he sent his son out to bring back the good grain.

"Now here the wonder took place. Woo had picked off five of the coins to give to his son. Yet when he looked down at the string, there were still seven cash on it. He could not believe his eyes. He called his good wife to come and count the coins also. He pulled off four more coins; still seven remained. When Woo lay down on the floor to sleep that night, the riddle still puzzled him. He rose again and again to test the cash string. No matter how many times he pulled coins off of its end, always seven were left.

"'Thus is goodness rewarded,' his wife said to Woo. And they hid their magic string of cash well, saying no word of its powers.

"Bright shining spoons now were made again in Woo's house on the Street of the Spoonmakers. So if the neighbors wondered about the new roof on his house and the fine new hat the man wore, they could think they were bought with money his customers paid him.

"Now Woo's great heart was still as big as the sky, and he still gave to the poor. But he made his gifts in secret now, lest the judge and the jailers should drag him back to the prison. Instead of strewing money about through the crowds on the streets, he made journeys into the country, tossing a few cash through the dogholes in the gates of poor families. Or he went even farther into the hills to the temple of the Great Buddha. There he gave strings of cash to the good priests for their poor boxes.

"At this same time, my children, there were puzzled faces in the Royal Treasure House here in the Capital. 'How can it be that so much money disappears?' the King's Treasurer asked his assistants.

"All shook their heads. Each one knew how many coins he himself had slipped into his pocket, as his proper 'squeeze.' You know what a 'squeeze' is, I am sure. You've often heard your father complain of officials who take for themselves a fat share of the taxes the people pay to the King. Well, that is a squeeze.

"But many more coins than their squeeze had vanished. Who could be the thief? The assistants stood guard while the King's Treasurer watched.

"One morning at daybreak the Treasurer heard a sharp, clinking sound on the tops of the piles of cash. To his amazement, several coins rose into the air and flew out through a hole in the Treasury roof. Off they went, by twos and by threes, by fours and by fives. Each time Woo pulled cash off his magic string, coins were whisked away. By closely watching, the Treasurer could see them riding the wind to the roof of Woo's little house.

"The good
who had put the magic string at Woo's gate gave the spoonmaker warning before the Treasury guards came to get him.

"'Take our precious cash string with you and hide it well,' Woo said to his wife. 'Make your way to the temple of the Great Buddha. The good priests will give us shelter. Wait there till I come!'

"With their son his wife set out at once for the faraway temple on the Diamond Mountain. The cash string was safely tucked away, far inside her sleeve.

"The Treasury guards came, and Woo was again brought before the Judge. But this time there was no mention of paddling. A man who knew such a secret as his was far too important to be beaten to death. 'Perhaps,' the Judge thought, 'this spoonmaker can be persuaded to bring money through the air into my pocket, too.'

"Now Woo had no intention of parting with the secret of his magic cash string. And he knew he must find a way to make his escape before the Judge put him in jail, where the locks were strong and the paddles were like iron.

"'Honorable Judge,' this spoonmaker said craftily, 'I will indeed show you the secret of my coins that ride on the wind. But it will take time. I need a great sheet of paper, some ink and an inkstone, and a rabbit-hair pen.'

"The large sheet of paper was pasted upon a broad screen, and with the hair pen Woo began to draw black lines upon it. The attendants gaped as they saw appear, there before their very eyes, a donkey, life-size. The little round eyes, the stiff hairy mane, the tiny neat hoofs, the long tufted tail one after another, each part of the donkey's body came into being under Woo's brush.

"'I must not work too fast. My wife must have a good start,' Woo thought to himself, and he took great pains in drawing the nose and the mouth of the donkey. The courtiers began to laugh and to whisper, 'It looks just like the Judge.'

"'But it has only one ear,' one onlooker said.

"'That's like the Judge, too. He never hears but one side of a case,' another declared. And they fell to laughing louder and louder.

"The Judge, hearing their merriment, came to look at the donkey himself. Straightway he flew into a rage, for he, too, saw the likeness. 'Bring out the paddles,' cried the angry official. But Woo quickly brushed in the other ear, and the picture was finished.

"At once the paper donkey began to move its head. With a loud heehaw a live animal trotted right out of the screen. Woo leaped on its back, and the donkey galloped away. Across the courtyard and out of the open gate it went before the astonished guards could stop it. And that was the last those people ever saw of Woo, the beggars' friend."

"What became of him, Halmoni?" Yong Tu asked the story-teller.

"Did he catch up with his wife?" Ok Cha wanted to know.

"That he did, little precious," the Korean grandmother answered. "And though the people of Seoul never saw Woo again, still they heard much about him. The beggars followed him to his new home in the Temple of the Great Buddha on the Diamond Mountain. And they received from the priests there alms which Woo provided. So long as Woo lived, cash from the Royal Treasure House still rode on the winds to refill his magic string.

"When Woo finally died, some say the Court Treasurers neglected to mention it to the King. They only took more and more 'squeeze' for themselves, and they still blamed it on Woo and his magic cash string. The piles of money in the Treasury grew smaller year after year.

"Then a wiser king came to sit on our Dragon Throne. One day he hid his jade person under a beggar's robe. He went to seek Woo himself at the Temple of the Great Buddha. To that king's surprise, he found the temple in ruins and he learned Woo had died many, many years since. From that time on, not nearly so much money flew out of the Royal Treasury into the pockets of dishonest officials.


great bell of Seoul spoke to the men of the city each evening about nine o'clock. At that hour the bellmen thrust the huge, hanging beam against its metal sides, and its booming notes sounded through all the streets of the Capital. "All men indoors! Lock the seven city gates! Clear the streets so that women may safely leave the inner courts!" This was the message which "Man Guide," as the bell was called, gave out with its thundering voice.

"There are rough men in our land, just as there are in other lands," Halmoni said to Ok Cha. "Tales are told of bold ones who carry off brides from the very gates of their houses. When men are abroad, women are safe only inside their own inner court."

That is why none but servant maids, singing girls, and those in from the country were seen in the streets of Seoul in the daytime. That is why, so Halmoni said, a wise king had long ago ordered the custom of ringing the men into their houses when evening came. With the streets empty, and under the shelter of darkness, it was quite safe for women then to walk abroad to pay visits. They might even go to buy in the shops the things peddlers had not yet brought to their gates.

When Ok Cha's mother and the other women of the Kim household walked out of the bamboo gate, each one threw over her head a long, bright green silken coat. With its sleeves flapping empty about her shoulders, she drew it together over her face, so that only one eye peeped out. Safely hidden thus, she would be mistaken for an ordinary woman. No one would guess she belonged to a rich family like the Kims.

"There's a story about those green coats," Halmoni once told Ok Cha. "Earlier they were men's garments. Then there was a war. A beautiful princess escaped from the enemy by throwing her father's green coat over her head and covering her face with it. That proved what a good protection it was. Ever since, the women of Seoul have worn such a coat during their walks on the streets."

Ok Cha liked to go out into the city with her mother and the maidservant who carried the lantern. She learned to pick her way carefully amid the dirt and the holes in the narrow unpaved streets. At the same time she could see all the interesting things about which Yong Tu and the men of her family talked so much.

Ok Cha's mother threw over her head a long, bright green silken coat for her walks outside the bamboo gate.

The part of the city the little girl liked the best was that called Chung-dong, or the Village of the Pure Queen. There could be seen the curving roofs of the Emperor's palace, the only building in Seoul which rose more than one story above the ground. It would not be fitting, Halmoni said, that other buildings should be taller and perhaps look down on the courts of their Jade Ruler. Ok Cha was always a little afraid of the statues of the Flame Swallowers which protected the palace from fire. These were two monsters in stone which would surely eat up the fire spirits before they could enter the royal gates. With all the houses of the palace attendants, and with the many temples near by, Ok Cha thought that Chung-dong was far more like a town than like a village.

"Who was the Pure Queen, Halmoni?" the little girl asked one morning, following an evening excursion into the city with her mother and the other women of the Inner Court.

that person was a good person, and a wise one, too. They say that she was called Kang and that she was only a simple girl who lived far out in the country. One evening when Kang was drawing water up from the village well, a fine general rode up on horseback. He was an important man, as one could see by the number of servants who ran by his side and by the number of soldiers who formed his bodyguard. But great ones and lesser ones are much the same, Jade Child, when it comes to being thirsty and tired.

"The day was hot, and the journey had been long. The General's face was the color of a red peony bloom. Beads of water made tiny brooks that trickled down his broad cheeks. 'Give me water to drink,' the General said to the girl, when he had given her polite greeting.

"The girl Kang bowed in return, and she filled a big bowl of water, freshly drawn from the well. But before she handed the bowl up to the great man, she plucked a number of tender green willow leaves and dropped them into the cold water.

"The General took the bowl in his hands and began to drink. He was greatly annoyed when he found how the willow leaves got in his way. Instead of taking the huge gulps, which his thirst called for, he was forced to sip slowly.

"When he had drained the big bowl at last, the General scolded the girl; but he spoke gently, because she was in truth of a jade prettiness.

"'It was not very polite of this young person to throw leaves into my drinking bowl,' the General said to Kang.

"'It was only because I feared for the health of the Great General,' the young girl replied. 'You were overheated and tired, honorable sir. With quick drinking you would have swallowed the spirits of sickness. You might even have died. It was to prevent this that I put the willow leaves into the bowl. They forced you to drink slowly with very small sips. Thus no harm could come to you.'

"The General said to himself, 'This maid is as wise as she is beautiful. There is love for her in my heart.' Then he said to the girl, 'I will make you my bride if you will but wait until the war ends.'

"Well, my children, the girl waited, and at last that war was over. When Kang's bridegroom came riding upon his white horse, who should he be but this very same General. And who should that general have been but the famous General Yi, who later became King of our Dragon Backed Country. It is a son of this Yi family who dwells in the Jade Palace of our land today.

"Now, of course, the King had many other wives also in his palace, as do all kings," Halmoni went on with her tale. "But they say he admired none as he admired his good Queen Kang. Her wisdom shed light upon his most troublesome problems of state, and he always consulted her.

"No doubt she even had a voice in choosing the place for this city of Seoul. Her sedan chair was carried just behind the chair of the King when this valley in the mountains was selected for his new capital. We know she had a voice in choosing her own grave site.

"'When I have mounted the Dragon, you must build a huge kite and write my name
upon it,' the good Queen said to the King. 'Let the wind take the kite high into the air above the Royal Palace. Then do you break the string. Where the kite falls, there let my spirit rest.'

"So it was done, precious girl. The King himself sent the huge kite up into the sky. With his own jade fingers he cut its string. Like a great wounded butterfly, the kite slowly fluttered down to the earth. On the little ridge where it landed, Queen Kang's tomb was built.

"'The Pure Tomb,' it was called. For many years it remained there, close to the Palace. The sad King liked to listen to the music of the bells in the little temple above it. He thought they were like the soft voice of his departed Queen Kang.

"Another king of that family moved this tomb later to the eastern edge of the city. More and more houses were built upon its former site so near the Palace. But the people did not forget the wisdom and goodness of their former Queen Kang. They called that place, as we still do, the 'Village of the Pure Queen.'"

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