The Snake and the Boar
retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl
Long ago, there was scholar who had failed to get a civil post. Life was hard for him. Because he had devoted all his time to his studies, he did not know how to farm the land, and so he had no way to support his wife and son or his elderly mother. But he had a friend in the capital who had studied with him and who had passed the civil examinations to get a good government post. One day a letter arrived from this friend, inviting him to Seoul.
"If life is hard for you, come to my house and I shall lend you the food and money you need to keep alive," it said.
So the scholar, having no other recourse, said goodbye to his family and made his way to Seoul to see his friend. He walked and walked for days, wearing out several pairs of straw sandals. He slept out in the open under the stars and the moon, but one night, as he was crossing the mountains, he was fearful for some reason, and so he did not stop even after nightfall. Though he was hungry he struggled to keep going until finally he saw a light flickering in the darkness.
"I am saved," he thought. It was a house. Though it was late, the scholar called at the door, hoping he could stay for the night and perhaps get something to eat.
Much to his surprise, a beautiful woman came to the gate. "Aigu!" she exclaimed. "You look exhausted and starved. What brings a gentleman here in the middle of the night?"
He told her the truth. "I have a friend up in Seoul, and circumstances are hard for me, so I am on my way there to ask for his help."
"You are welcome to stay at my house," said the woman. "Have some supper and enjoy a good night's sleep before you go on your way tomorrow."
She prepared him a table of the most wonderful delicacies, and though he enjoyed the food, the scholar wondered uneasily how she happened to get such rare foods when she lived alone in the mountains. After supper, he thanked her. "I have had a most wonderful meal," he said, "but I cannot help noticing that you are all by yourself and I cannot help but feel concerned for you. I must sleep before I go on, but it would be improper for me to stay the night in this house alone with you."
"Do not concern yourself," she said. "My husband is dead and I have no children. That is why I live alone like this. You are a scholar on hard times who has stopped here for shelter. Please, do not worry. Get some sleep and rest a while."
So the scholar had a restful sleep for once in a long time. He tried to leave the next day, but the woman would not let him go. She told him to rest a few days longer and she fawned over him until she had convinced him to stay. Under her spell, the scholar forgot all about going to Seoul. He stayed one day longer, and then another and another. Each day, he was fed lavishly and waited on hand and foot, and so he whiled away the time, well-rested and well-fed. One day, when he had his wits about him, he realized a whole month had passed.
It occurred to him that he had hardly thought of his family during that whole time. They must be starving while he was enjoying himself with a full belly, thinking high-minded thoughts in the company of this beautiful woman. He realized he had been bewitched. What was he to do?
"I must be on my way. Now," said the scholar.
"Why are you in such a rush to leave?" asked the woman. "Stay a while longer."
"I have come to my senses," said the scholar. "I have been under your spell all this time, but now my mind is clear. I must hurry to Seoul and ask my friend's help so that my family does not starve."
"Do not worry," said the woman. "I have already sent food and clothes to your family. Rest your mind and enjoy yourself some more before you go on."
He was reassured. "Thank you. I am grateful," he said. "But I cannot simply take advantage of your kindness and stay here the rest of my life." Knowing that he was indebted to her until his dying day, he stayed, biding his time. She had sent food and clothing to this family, after all—what was there to worry about?
Months passed as he relaxed there, and finally, one day, he realized that he missed his family terribly. "I want to see my son and my wife," he said to the woman. "May I visit them and come back again?"
"If you wish to visit them, then you may go," said the woman. "And you may return to me again, but it must be before a hundred days have passed." She sent him off on horseback with a purse full of money and a bag of silver, gold, and jewelry. It had taken several days and nights of walking to get to the woman's house on foot, but on horseback, it only took a single day to reach his home.
When he arrived at his village, he discovered that his house had disappeared. In place of the thatched hut he had lived in, he saw a palatial house with a tile roof. He asked a villager what had happened to his old house and where the new house had come from.
"Aigu, isn't it wonderful?" said the man. "The whole village has been in an uproar since you went away to Seoul. You friend sent down all that money with orders that we get the best carpenters and masons together and build this place in three months' time. Well, we got everyone we could, and got it finished just in time for your return! Why have you been away for so long?
"Your wife's a changed woman and your son's become a fine young scholar. Everyone's lot has improved thanks to the generosity of your friend in Seoul."
When the scholar went inside the new house he found his wife dressed and made up like a woman of the royal palace and his son all aglow, wearing the clothes of a young scholar. They were overjoyed to see him and ran into his arms.
"How rich and generous your friend must be to help us this way!" said his wife. "I thought you would be sending back some sacks of rice. I never imagined it would be like this."
His elderly mother was in excellent health, thanks to the medicines the woman's money had bought. "Your friend must be a model of filial virtue," she said.
"Yes, he lives well since he won his post, and he is helping us as much as he can," the scholar replied.
For the next several days, he had time to reflect on his situation, and the scholar resolved to stay with his family for 99 days and return before the 100 days were up. He wanted to see the mysterious woman again, and yet he could not live a deception. He had to tell his wife the truth.
"I have done a terrible thing," said the scholar. "It is not the friend you think who has been supporting us."
"What are you saying?" said his wife. "Then who is it sending the gold and jewels?"
The scholar confessed the whole truth to his wife. He told her about the strange woman, about how she had seduced him, about how she had compelled him to stay, how he had stayed longer out of guilt when he learned she had sent money to his family. "Please," he said, "can you forgive me for this terrible wrong I have done you?"
His wife was silent for a long time, and then she said, "What is the point of your begging my forgiveness? The truth is that we could not live like this without the help of that woman's generosity. You have made an excellent arrangement."
"Then do you forgive me?" the scholar asked.
"It is not a matter of forgiveness," said his wife. "Go to her and spend a season with her. Then come and spend a season with your family. Do that for the rest of your life if that is what you wish.
"Now that we are rich, what need is there for you to continue your studies for the civil exam? You will not need a government post. We will raise our children, take care of your mother, and live happily with no worries for the rest of our days."
The scholar was shocked by his wife's response. He had expected her to be angry and jealous despite all the wealth she had received. He had expected her to forbid his return to the woman, but instead she had generously forgiven him. He praised her for her kindness and her good heart, and from that day on, he treated her with great respect.
The scholar left his home early on the 99th day and rode back to the woman's house. When he drew near the place the day grew dark, and once again it was late at night when he arrived. But this time he was stopped by an old man with a white beard, who stood in the moonlight beside a paulownia tree.*
"Are you going now, or are you coming?" asked the old man.
"I am arriving," said the scholar. "Who are you? And why are you asking after my business?"
"I am a friend of your father's, and I come from where he lives," said the old man.
"But that is not possible. My father is dead. He has gone on into the other world."
"That is where I come from," said the old man. "I am here to warn you about the woman you have come to see. She is a not a woman, but an evil old serpent in disguise. Though she seems to be helping you, her true intent is to eat you and all the members of your family.
"She could have eaten you when you first came, but now she has seduced you and your family with her gold and jewels. Go to her tonight and she will feed on you, and tomorrow she will eat your mother, your wife and your son. That is how she will transform into a dragon and ascend to Heaven.
"But if she does not eat all of you, then she cannot become a dragon. She chose you because you are of a proper lineage. Your father saw all of this from the Heavenly Kingdom, and he asked me to warn you. And since I was on my way down to the human world to see to my own business, I agreed. That is why I was waiting here for you."
The scholar's blood ran cold. "If what you say is true, then how will I stop her? If I don't go to her house tonight, couldn't she simply come after me? And how I am to know that you are not lying to me?"
"I do this only as a favor to your father," said the old man. "If you doubt me, then do not go in by the front gate tonight. Climb over the back wall. Go quietly in through the back gate and poke a hole in the paper panel in the door to her room. Look inside and you will see her true form.
"Then climb over the wall once again and make your way to the front gate. Call her as if you are just arriving. She will come to you in her womanly form and seduce you again. Play along. She will sit you in the warm side of the room and ply you with delicacies as before. But this time, when you eat, put the first spoonful in your mouth and then spit it out and throw it back at her. You must remember to spit on her as you do this. Then she will turn back into her serpent form and die, and you and your family will be saved."
"Very well," said the scholar. "I will do as you say, and if you are right about her true form, then I will spit on her and kill her."
The scholar went to the back of the house and stealthily climbed over the wall. He went to her room, where he could see her silhouette against the paper panels of the door. He wet his finger with saliva and poked a small hole in the paper. When he put his eye to the hole to peek inside, he had to bite his tongue to keep from making a sound. Inside was a gigantic serpent, thick as a tree trunk and coiled upon itself on the floor, flicking its forked tongue in and out of its mouth.
What the old man had said was true. The scholar climbed over the back wall and forced himself to the front gate, where he announced his arrival. "Is anyone home?" he called, hoping his voice would not betray his fear.
When the woman came to open the gate, she was overjoyed to see him. "You're back!" she exclaimed. "You stayed the whole 99 days, but you've returned just in the nick of time." She asked after his family, and he told her that they were prospering, thanks to her kindness.
"They are happy beyond words," said the scholar. "I do not know how to thank you."
"Come inside," said the woman. "I'll cook you a meal. The room is warm."
The scholar went into the room, and while he waited, he had time to think. He was a scholar. All his life he had been taught to learn the classics and to cultivate virtue and compassion. Yet he had failed miserably as a scholar, having not won a civil post, and it was in desperation that he had set out to ask the help of his successful friend in Seoul. But he had happened upon this woman, and thanks to her his family had enjoyed the happiness and the luxury of living like royalty. Six months of happiness, beyond their wildest dreams, all due to her. Instead of starving to death, they had lived like members of the court.
"How would things have been without her?" he thought. Would he have made it to Seoul? Would his friend have helped him at all? And if he had, certainly not in the way this woman had transformed their lives. "What use is there in the likes of me living on the kindness of a friend?" he thought. What grand fate could they aspire to after their deaths, anyway? If they gave up their lives for this woman's transformation into a dragon, then at least they would have been responsible for the ascension of a magnificent creature into Heaven. She had given them six months of dreamlike joy, after all, which they could never have achieved without her. "Though I have failed as a scholar, I can still be virtuous and compassionate," he thought. "What is the sacrifice of four human lives as miserable as ours for the heavenly ascension of a dragon?"
In what seemed to be no time at all, the woman brought in a grand meal and watched him expectantly as he lifted the first spoonful of food to his mouth. He realized she must be gloating as she fattened him up to eat, and yet he still could not do what the old man had said.
In the end he did not spit it out and throw it at her. He ate the whole meal, since it would be his last, though he realized the irony of the fact that he was hungry in any case. When he had finished, he pushed the table back and told her she could clear it.
"Why did you not do it?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"It is only by killing me that you can save yourself and your family. Why did you not throw the food and spit at me when you had the chance? Now you've condemned yourself and your family to death."
The scholar realized she had been testing him, knowing all along what the old man had told him, but he had to ask, "How did you know?"
"Did you really think I would not know? I have the power to transform myself into any form I please. Did you think you could keep anything from me? I know you spoke to the old man and sneaked a look at my true form. But I do not understand why you failed to follow his directions. Tell me why you did not do it."
"I could not," said the scholar. "You are the one who made me and my family happy for the past six months. We live in a palatial house and enjoy lavish meals. Our happiness is all due to you. We were not worthy of it.
"It would be a different matter if you were not to become a dragon. But when I thought of our unworthy lives, I realized they could have meaning if by eating us you could ascend to Heaven. What better thing could people like us accomplish? What misery would we be suffering if not for you? In the grand scheme of things, it is only right for us to give up our lives for your sake."
The woman embraced the scholar, crying tears of joy and relief. "Because of your compassion and your kind heart, we shall both live," she said. "Things will go well for you and for me. That white-haired old man you met by the paulownia tree—he is a boar that has lived for a thousand years. And I am a thousand-year-old serpent. He and I are in a contest to the death to see which of us will become a dragon, for only one of us may transform and ascend to Heaven.
"But he has failed in his devious ploy. If you had thrown the food and spat upon me, I would have been defiled and would never have been become a dragon. Then, surely, I would have killed you and your family out of vengeful anger. How could I let you live after that? But because of your compassion and kind heart, which the old boar did not anticipate, I shall become a dragon and you and many generations of your offspring will prosper. You are truly a virtuous man."
"I do not understand," said the scholar.
The woman explained to him that Heaven had given her the task of earning the trust of an honorable human and compelling him to sacrifice himself to her. That is why she had done everything for him. Now that his selflessness was known to Heaven, she was able to complete her transformation and make her ascension.
"May your life be long and happy," she said. There was a blinding flash of light and the roar of thunder. Where once there had been a woman, a huge dragon emerged, and it rose straight up into Heaven.
The scholar fainted. When he returned to consciousness, he was lying in front of a large boulder. He recalled climbing over the back wall and going to the front gate to enter the house, but now he realized it had all been an illusion. There was no house, no wall, no gate—it was all just a large, gray boulder, and beneath it was the hole in which the dragon had spent her last thousand years as a serpent.
It is said that there was a table set for him, with a full lavish meal prepared, and that he ate it and regained his strength before he made his way back home. And as the dragon had said, his life and the lives of his many offspring were long and happy.
* This is an odd detail as far as the plot of the story is concerned, and it doesn't make much sense in translation. In Korean, the paulownia tree is called odong namu, playing as a pun on the word oda, which means "to come." In one of the traditional mask dances, there is a scene in which one of the characters in the section called "The Yangban Dance" praises his precious son, comparing his value to that of gold, silver, and jewels. One part of his song lists several trees, punning on their names, including the line: "Oda kada odong namu," which translates as "Coming and going paulownia tree." The paulownia tree is also the only tree on which the mythical phoenix is said to alight. The Chinese phoenix is generally associated with the imperial family, especially the empress (which is why it is also known as the "Empress Tree"), and in iconography is often paired with a dragon. Paulownia wood was also traditionally used for coffins. Mourners at a traditional Korean funeral carried a paulownia cane if the mother had died. All in all, quite a loaded symbol.
reproduced courtesy of Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo-Leaf Books