Read Tales of a Korean Grandmother Online

Authors: Frances Carpenter

Tales of a Korean Grandmother (7 page)

"The
yangban
was dismayed. But as he wrung his hands over his plight, there came into his gates a procession such as had never been seen in his courts. Horses bearing wild boars and tender young deer; fish of all kinds; wild ducks and more game than the guests could possibly eat.

"At the head of the procession was a chair covered with tiger skins and borne by sixteen men. In it rode a splendid young man. You can guess the
yangban
was surprised when he learned that this shining Prince was in truth his youngest daughter's despised husband, who had worn the frog's skin.

"The
yangban
bowed before the Star Prince, although that is not the custom between a man and his son-in-law. He begged forgiveness for his neglect, and he offered the frog-husband the seat of honor at the feast.

"But the Star Prince only bade his bride make ready for their long journey, and a great cloud from Heaven snatched them up to the sky. That night the wise men who study the heavens found two new stars shining brightly just overhead. What else could they be but the fair Yun Ok and her frog, the son of the Star King?

"The fortune brought to Lah by the frog lasted throughout his whole life. His riches grew ever greater and greater, and he wore the jade button in his official hat. Through all the twelve months it was New Year in his courts."

THE
GREAT
FIFTEENTH
DAY

I
 
WASHED
my face nine times, Yong Tu, and I cleaned my teeth with salt nine times, too," Ok Cha said to her brother on the morning of the Fifteenth Day of the First Month.

"I combed my hair nine times, and I shall eat nine kinds of nuts today," the Korean boy replied.

It was the Great Fifteenth Day, the day which ended the New Year holiday season, and it was the last chance to make sure of the New Year good luck. Each child raced with the others to see how many "lucky nines" he could collect during the day.

The women also believed the number nine would bring them good luck. They gladly prepared the nine meals for the family; they swept the floors nine times; and nine times they stuffed fuel into the stove. The Master of the House himself bowed nine times before the tablets in the Ancestors' House.

This dignified father of Ok Cha and Yong Tu was careful to omit none of the usual doings of this day. Under his watchful eyes his younger brothers and the boys made the three straw figures which should represent each of the three men of the household. To hide amid the straw, he gave them pieces of cash, Korean copper coins with big holes cut in their centers. He decided which old coats should be put upon the straw manikins. Together, all the men and boys of the household went to the gate to see the straw men tossed out into the street.

"You should have seen the street boys fall on our straw men, Halmoni," Yong Tu reported to his grandmother. "They pulled off the old garments, and they tore at the straw to get the cash out."

"That is well, my grandson." The old woman nodded her head in great satisfaction. "The more they kick the straw figures, the luckier our men will be. The bad spirits will be well fooled. They will think those are truly your father and uncles. The good spirits will read the paper prayers you tucked inside them. They will then help keep away ill luck from our house."

Yong Tu himself wrote the prayers on the strips of paper hidden inside the straw figures. With careful brush strokes he had written this sentence on each, "For the coming twelve months, from sickness and bad luck protect me." The boy had kept watch through the bamboo gate until he could be sure that the straw figures were well kicked apart.

"All the bad luck of the past year has gone with those straw men," the Korean grandmother told the children. "Your fathers can now make a fresh start. They have cast out their old, unlucky selves. Today they are new men, beginning a new year."

Sometimes Ok Cha and Yong Tu thought the Great Fifteenth Day was even better than the New Year itself. This two-weeks New Year holiday, with its visitors and its gifts, its delicious food and its firecrackers to drive off the spirits, were filled with pleasures. The seesaw was in constant motion. The girls, standing upright upon it, were tossed higher and higher into the air. Even Mai Hee, or Plum Child, Halmoni's oldest granddaughter, enjoyed this sport.

No Korean girl of those times would have wished to seesaw sitting down. That was not the custom. Also, it would not have been nearly so breath-taking as to be bounced high in the air, and then to come down neatly again on one's two feet. For making safe landings, little girls like Ok Cha clung to a balance rope hung from over their heads.

"My father used to say," Halmoni explained, "the reason seesaws were invented was because girls grew tired of being shut up inside the Inner Court. When they bounced high into the air, they could look out over the walls into the street beyond."

On this Great Fifteenth Day the sky above the Kim courts was dotted with kites. Those that were lowest showed their red, green, and purple colorings. Those higher up were like a flock of dark birds, flying across the blue sky.

Yong Tu and his cousins had finished the kites they were making for the contest to be held on this day. With strong silken thread they had carefully tied two splints of bamboo across each other to form a giant letter A'. They had run other silk threads from end to end on these rods, to form the outside frame of the kite. Then they had covered the frame well with fine Korean paper, made from the bark of the mulberry tree. They took care to leave the center crossing uncovered, cutting out a small disc of the paper, so that the silken kite string could be tied to the bamboo splints. The reels for the kite strings were as carefully made as were the kites themselves.

Halmoni had provided bits of old pottery which the boys pounded into tiny sharp bits for coating their kite strings. Running the strings first through sticky glue, then through the powdered pottery, they gave them a good cutting edge. For in kite fighting it was the string that could cut in two any other string crossing it, which won the day. Yong Tu was proud because he managed to keep his kite longest up in the air. Of all the kitefliers of his age, he thus became the champion.

"The very first of such 'flying ones' was made hundreds and hundreds of years ago," Halmoni said to Ok Cha and the other girls, as they stood in the Inner Court and watched Yong Tu's kite make its triumphant flight from the street beyond the bamboo gate. "It was during one of the many times when the 'dwarf men of Japan' came here to try to conquer our country. The battles were not going well for the soldiers of our Little Kingdom. One night a star shot across the sky like an arrow, over their heads. An arrow star, as everyone knows, is a sign of bad luck. All were discouraged. They were sure they would lose in the next day's fighting. The general it was who thought of a way to lift up their spirits. He made a large kite, and he tied a small lantern fast to its frame. Then he sent it flying high in the sky.

The seesaw was in constant motion during the New Year holidays. The girls standing upright upon it were tossed higher and higher into the air.

"When the soldiers saw the lantern's light, they shouted, 'Here's a good sign! A new star hangs in the sky. A sure omen of victory!' And the next day they fought with renewed courage and might, and the enemy was driven away."

Halmoni liked to explain about the different doings of the Great Fifteenth Day to the children.

"Tonight, out on the hills, the farmers will gather to watch the full moon rise, my blessed ones. By its color on this night they will know whether their crops will be good in the coming season. If the moon is too pale, that means there will be too much rain. If it is too red, there will not be nearly enough, and the rice plants will dry up. But if it is a rich yellow, the color of a golden chrysanthemum, there will be just enough rain and more than enough rice to keep the spirits of hunger away from their gates.

"And the farmers will dig up their bamboo and their beans to find out in just which months the good rains will come," the old Korean grandmother continued. She described how each farmer had split a section of young bamboo and laid twelve little beans side by side within it. He then had tied the halves of the bamboo together again and covered it lightly with earth, where it could be moistened by rain and by dew.

"Each of those beans stands for one of the twelve months," Halmoni said. "When the farmer digs it up tonight and opens the bamboo case, he will examine each little bean. The ones that are dampest will be the months in which the most rain will come."

In the city, too, there were special doings on the night of the Great Fifteenth Day. The men and boys "walked the bridges," crossing once for every year of their age. They carried with them picnic baskets filled with good things so that they might eat and drink with friends whom they met upon the bridges.

Of all the events of the day for Yong Tu, most exciting was the great stone fight outside the city on the bare wintry fields.

"You should have seen that fight this afternoon, Halmoni," the boy said to his grandmother when they were eating their evening rice.
"Ai,
it was like a battle, and many people were hurt. The teams lined up facing each other. The men had pads on their shoulders and special hats to protect their heads. You should have heard them shout when those stones began to fly. You should have seen how clever they were at dodging them, too. One stone—but only a little one, Halmoni—flew so close to my father's head that it knocked his hat off.
He,
I was almost afraid. But the hat was not hurt," the boy hastened to add. "And my father did not mind. He was shouting as loudly as the rest of the crowd."

"Too many heads are broken in the stone fights," the old woman declared. "It is not as if it were a true battle. It has no such good purpose as had the very first stone fight."

"Tell me about the very first stone fight, Halmoni," the boy begged. "Was it long ago?"

"Very, very long ago, Dragon Head," the old grandmother said, nodding her head. "How long ago nobody seems to know. Perhaps it was when the tall horsemen galloped over our land from that northern place called Mongolia. Perhaps it was their chieftain, Genghis Khan himself, who led those fierce horsemen to conquer us. Or, it may have been later when the Chinese came across our neighbor-land, Manchuria, in quest of our treasures.

"But whenever it was, it was in the midst of a war. The battle which was the key to the victory was being fought. A brave Korean general had lined his men up above a narrow pass in the mountains. His soldiers were as courageous and strong as any tiger, but their gunpowder gave out. A tiger could not fight without teeth or claws. How could our soldiers fight without any gunpowder?

"That is the question the general asked himself when he lay down to sleep on this night. His heart was indeed heavy, and his rest was disturbed. But in his dreams, a good Spirit came to him and said, 'Be not dismayed! Under a tree, not far away, you will find a heap of stones. Throw these down on your enemy, and you will drive him away.'

"With his dream fresh in his mind the general called his men to the tree and showed them the pile of stones. Like rain, the brave soldiers sent the sharp rocks flying down on the heads of their advancing foe. More and more stones were hurled until all the foe had been killed.

"When the strange battle was reported to the Emperor, he took delight in seeing it enacted before him again in his palace courtyard. Each year thereafter, when the rice fields were bare and there was time for such sport, stone fights were held for his amusement.

"To meet future attacks from enemies from the north, that Emperor had many other piles of stones laid up beside the roads. The story of the good Spirit in the general's dream spread over the land. Travelers passing the stone piles began to throw pebbles upon them, with a prayer that the Spirit would protect them as it once had protected the general. Your father, Yong Tu, never fails to take this precaution when he travels out into the country to inspect our rice fields."

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