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Authors: Frances Carpenter

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BOOK: Tales of a Korean Grandmother
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and Ok Cha were helping to polish one of the great wooden chests in the apartment of their grandmother. They were rubbing the carved pieces of brass which served as its hinges and ornaments. Under their soft cloths the brass shone like pure gold against the gleaming brown wood.

There were many such chests in the houses of the Kim household. There were clothes chests and treasure chests. There were huge cash chests like the one on which the two children were working. Smaller chests had drawers to hold rice powder for the women's faces, red color for their lips, and black oil for their hair.

Halmoni sat on her tiger-skin rug on the floor, putting the finishing stitches into a new coat collar for her very best silk jacket. Coat collars in Korea had to be replaced often because of the black oil stains which kept the women's hair neat.

"I can't reach the top bits of brass, Halmoni. This cash chest is so tall," Yong Tu complained.

"It takes a big box to hold only a little cash, blessed dragon. Big enough for a man to hide inside—that's the size of a cash chest. And it was while he was hiding in just such a chest, that the King's spy in the old tale had a great fright."

"You've never told us that story, Halmoni," Ok Cha said hopefully.

"Go on with your polishing, and I'll tell it now. It is the tale of clever Sim, who would not stop taking a 'squeeze' from the poor people of the province he ruled. Good kings and good ministers, like your own grandfather, do not like men who squeeze.

"There was such a good king once in this land, and such a good minister, too. It was the Minister—in truth, not a wise man—who appointed his cousin Sim to be governor of that province. Now Sim, this cousin, was clever, far too clever, as you will see.

"The Minister had a white horse without a dark hair on its hide. But he was not satisfied. He wanted a black horse, and it was Sim who provided it. Sim found a gray horse, and he painted it all over black. He brushed every hair with shining black varnish, so that the horse's coat shone like the sides of a black lacquer box. It was to reward Sim for the gift of this shining black horse that the Minister gave him a province to rule over.

"'I shall invent many taxes,' this new Governor said to himself. 'I shall squeeze wherever I can. I shall grow very rich!' Squeeze Sim did, and grow rich he did, too. He had a fine house, and he had a splendid sedan chair, which eight men carried for him. He liked to ride also in his handsome chair on one wheel with four men to guide it as it rolled along over the city streets. It was a fine sight to see Sim come riding along in this one-wheeled chair. Sitting high on the seat, atop the little wheeled pedestal, he looked very proud. Ordinary men hurried to get out of his way. Travelers upon horseback dismounted to bow as he passed. They knew he must be a very important official indeed to ride on a monocycle.

"So much squeeze did Sim take, and so rich did he become, that word came to the King. 'Find out about this Governor Sim,' the King said to his ministers. 'Send Yun to that province to bring back the truth about the squeeze he is taking away from the poor people.'

"Now Sim had a friend in the King's court, who warned him of the coming of Yun, the first spy which the King sent. This Yun is an honest man,' so said Sim's informer. 'You cannot turn him away from the truth by offering him any part of your squeeze. But he is a timid man. He will come riding on a slow mare, with a sucking colt by her side.'

"Clever Sim easily thought of a way to make the King think that his spy, Yun, was crazy. Sim's men stole the mare's colt, and they fastened a tiger's skin on its back. Then they hid it along the roadway which Yun, the spy, had to travel. When the mare came along with Yun sitting lazily upon her back, Sim's men loosed the colt in the tiger's skin. The tiger's head covered the colt's face, and the tiger's tail, stiffened with a piece of bamboo, curved over its back.

"When the mare saw the colt coming towards her, she smelled only the tiger's skin. And she straightway turned tail and galloped back towards the Capital. Along the road, through the streets, and into the Palace court they fled. Yun tried his best to keep his seat on the frightened mare, and the colt, looking for all the world like a tiger, bounded behind. Everyone fled in panic from this curious beast, until the colt began to take its milk from the mare's bag. The courtiers burst into loud laughter at the sight of a mare suckling a tiger. The King, thinking Yun had played this trick himself, exiled him to the lonely island which men call Quelpart.

"'Send Sun this time. He is not so foolish as Yun,' the King next commanded. And soon Sim received warning of the coming of this second spy, who should report on his evil 'squeezing' to the King. 'This spy, Sun, is not timid. He rides a white mule, and there is no colt. But he dearly loves drinking wine and listening to singing girls.'

"So at every inn Sim stationed
the very best singing girls he could find in his province. They filled the spy's wine bowls again and again. They delayed him as long as they could with their merry songs and their graceful dances. It was when the spy was in the finest of all these inns that Sim played the best of all his tricks upon Sun.

"In that inn rich food was set out for the spy and the innkeeper's pretty wife herself gave him wine and entertained him. The only danger to you, Honorable Guest,' the young woman warned Sun, 'is my husband's homecoming. The master of this inn is a jealous man. When he comes and finds you still here with me, you will do well to hide.'

"So when there were sounds of the innkeeper's coming, the spy gladly crawled into a great cash box, like the one you are polishing, Dragon Boy. The woman snapped the huge brass lock shut, pushing its great prongs firmly into their socket.

The mare smelled the tiger's skin and galloped away.

"The innkeeper also played his part well. He pretended to be angry, and the spy inside the box trembled when he heard his cross words. 'Where is that traveler?' the man scolded his wife. 'His white mule is outside. I know you have hidden him. I'll have you no longer as wife in my house.'

"'But how shall we divide all the things we own together,' the woman said, also pretending to be angry. They quarreled and quarreled, but they succeeded in dividing up everything, except the cash box. Each claimed that for his own. At last, to his horror, the prisoner inside it heard the man say, 'Well, we will have to saw the cash box in two.'

"It is far too fine a chest for that,' the wife objected. 'We will take it to the judge.' The spy was relieved to have escaped death from a saw, but he was sure he would be paddled if the chest were opened up before the judge.

"I cannot decide this question with fairness,' said Governor Sim, who played the part of the judge. 'But I'll give you two hundred strings of cash for it, and I'll keep it myself.' The innkeeper and his wife went away home, very well paid for their part in the play-acting.

"Sim loaded the cash box between carrying poles and sent it to the King. Speaking loudly so that the spy, Sun, should not fail to hear him, he said to the porters, 'Drop this chest in the river if you hear any noises that sound as though there are spirits inside!' You can believe the poor, frightened prisoner made no noise at all until that chest was set down at last before the King and his ministers.

"How the ministers laughed when the box was unlocked and poor Sun was dumped out! His legs were so cramped with his long ride in the cash box that he could only crawl about on all fours like a turtle.

"'Here is another trick,' the angry King cried, and he sent the second spy, Sun, to Quelpart Island, too.

"'Kun, the third spy, comes,' Sim's friend at court wrote him. 'He never drinks wine, and he prefers temple bells to
singing. He is not at all timid. He stands in awe only of the shaven-headed priests of the temple.'

"Clever Sim was not long in planning a way to trick this man, too. Like you and Ok Cha, Dragon Boy, Sim well knew the story of the woodcutter who watched the Mountain Spirits play
and who took a nap that lasted for thirty years. For getting rid of Kun, the third spy, he chose that story to help him.

"When Kun arrived at the halfway inn, he heard sounds of strange temple music up on the hillside, it is the gods assembling on their sacred mountain,' the innkeeper told him, following Governor Sim's orders. 'They come here only once in a thousand years. Only very good people are allowed to visit them there.'

"The pious messenger, Kun, trembled with excitement. 'I go to the temple. I worship the Great Buddha. Perhaps the gods would receive me.'

"So Kun climbed the mountain, just as Sim had meant he should do. There in a dell he found four old men dressed in long flowing robes like those of the mountain gods on the screen in your father's Hall of Perfect Learning. There were four young boys, also in curious clothing, waiting upon the old men and handing round wine. Urged by the mountain gods, Kun drank from each bowl. The rich wine was strong, and he fell into sound sleep.

"Before he awoke, Sim's men dressed him in tattered clothing. They put a rotting stick in the place of his staff, and they carried him off far into the high mountains.

"Next morning when Kun came again to his senses, he thought at first he had been taken by the gods to Heaven itself. But he soon saw this was not so, and he started down the mountain again. As if by accident, a man gathering brushwood came up the path. 'Tell me, good sir,' poor Kun inquired of him. 'Have you heard what became of the King's messenger, Kun, who was yesterday at the inn?'

"'There was such a one, I have been told,' the woodcutter replied. 'But they say he was carried off by the gods two hundred years ago.'

"'That heavenly wine must have put me to sleep,' the befuddled Kun said to himself, 'I have slept two hundred years. That is why my clothes are so tattered, why my staff has rotted away, why the King's seal is so rusted.'

"Shaking his head in dismay, he went back to the inn where he heard the same story. The innkeeper brought forth fresh clothes without any holes. He found him a chair and some bearers to carry him home. To Kun's surprise, his own family looked just as they had when he had started out on his journey. So also did the King and the King's Minister.

"'You have not changed in all these two hundred years,' Kun exclaimed to the King. And when he insisted he had drunk with the gods, they declared he was crazy. Kun, too. was sent to join the other two spies on the faraway island of Quelpart in the south."

"And what became of Sim, the Clever Squeezer, Halmoni?" Yong Tu asked, giving a last polish to a brass bat with broad curving wings.

"The King gave up trying to stop him from squeezing. 'He is far too clever to be caught,' he said to the Minister. 'We had best bring him back here to the court. We can set him the task of calming those people who clamor for favors at our palace gate.'

"Well, Sim used his clever tricks to turn these pests one against another. They quarreled so amongst themselves that they forgot to complain of their wants to the King. Some say Sim was made the King's Treasurer, so that he could squeeze as much as he liked without causing distress to the poor."


was admiring herself in a shining mirror I she had taken from the drawers of the treasure chest in her grandmother's room. The round disk of silver shone like the full moon, the little girl thought. She liked the graceful bamboo leaves carved on its back and the embroidered red silk that covered its short, flat handle.

"Whom are you bowing to, little precious?" the old woman said smiling. She was amused at the faces the child was making at her own image in the silver mirror.

"Who should it be but me, Halmoni?" Ok Cha replied, looking surprised at the question.

"I thought perhaps you were like Pil, the tiger hunter, who did not know at first the secret of the mirror which the King sent him."

"Why did the King send a mirror to a tiger hunter, Halmoni?"

"Why else but that Pil had killed a ferocious tiger that had brought terror to his whole kingdom. No ordinary beast was this striped gentleman from the mountains. White whiskers as long as your hand he had, and fur as thick and as soft as softest silk. But that tiger had also teeth as sharp as my needles, and jaws so huge they could carry off a grown man.

"There was a great to-do in Pil's court when the King's messengers came. Nothing so splendid as their fine feathered hats and their bright red-and-green robes had ever been seen there. In the great chest they carried were rich gifts to reward this hunter who had slain the terrible tiger. There were silks of many colors, green as the young rice plants, red as the red peppers, and blue as the sky. There were fans and a long pipe with a carved silver bowl and many other things, too. But, strangest of all, was a silver mirror like that you hold in your hand, blessed Jade Child.

"Now, for all he was such an experienced hunter, Pil was a simple man, and his family, like him, were all countryfolk. They knew almost nothing about the ways of a city. They never had seen such a shining white metal disk as the one Pil lifted out of the King's treasure chest.

"Pil's wife was the first to look closely at the clear surface of the silver mirror. Straightway the woman gave a loud cry.
'Ai-go! Ai-go!'
she wailed when she saw there her own woman's face looking out. 'Here my husband has brought home a second wife to take my place. Or perhaps she's a singing girl. That is much worse. Whoever she is, I'll not have her in my house.' Of course never having owned a mirror before, this woman had never really seen her own face, except in the dull waters of the stream where she washed the family clothes.

"Pil came running to find out what such cries meant. He, too, peered intently into the mirror. Naturally, the face he saw there was that of a man. He, too, flew into a rage, screaming, 'What man is this? My wife has hidden a strange man in our Inner Court,' and he started towards the woman as if he would strangle her.

"The hubbub brought the tiger hunter's old mother hurrying to see what was the matter. When she looked into the magic silver disk, she saw, of course, a face covered with wrinkles and topped with gray hair. It was for all the world like that of her troublesome neighbor who was always borrowing food. '
, here is that beggar from down the road,' she said under her breath. She could not understand why, when she turned around, she found nobody there.

"The grandfather, in his turn, thought the face he saw in the mirror was that of the old
who had come to demand payment for choosing a grave site. 'How did that
make his way into our house without somebody seeing him?' and 'Where has he gone now?' he cried, looking about him and running to look out of the door.

"The story of the strange object in the house of Pil, the tiger hunter, spread through the village. The neighbors gathered, and all tried to solve the problem in vain. There were many loud arguments as each one saw his own unfamiliar face in the mirror.

"Even the village judge could not understand the round silver disk. When he saw the head of a man, capped with his own judge's hat, staring out at him, he began to complain. 'Why is there another judge sent here from the Capital?' he scolded. 'Have I not filled my place well? Call out the tiger hunters! Let them drive this strange judge away from our peaceful village!'

"Happily, the messengers had not yet ridden back to the King's court. How they laughed when they learned of the commotion this royal gift of a mirror had caused!

'"Ho! Ho! Ho!' they laughed. 'Ha! Ha! Ha! Ho! Ho! Ho! Honorable Judge,' they said to the village elder, 'it is yourself you see there in that mirror.' And they explained how the shining metal gave back the face of him who looked into it.

"'Ho! Ho! Ho!' Pil laughed louder than anyone else at the joke on himself. 'Ha! Ha! Ha!' cried his wife, happy that she did not have any cause to be jealous of a second woman under her roof. 'Ho! Ho! Ho!' All the people of that village held their sides, whenever they looked into their own mirrors—for, of course, each household now had to have at least one such wonderful 'seeing glass.' And the tiger hunter Pil, himself, was the man they chose to ride on a fine horse to the King's city to buy them."

BOOK: Tales of a Korean Grandmother
13.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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