The Queen Swallow's Gift
retold by Suzanne Crowder Han
Hŭng-bu and Nol-bu were brothers. They and their families lived together with their elderly father, a wealthy landowner. Nol-bu was the oldest.
One day the brothers were called to their father’s bedside. “My sons,” he said in a raspy voice, “it is time for me to leave this world. I want the two of you and your families to live in harmony together, sharing everything equally. That is all I ask.” After a few moments of labored breathing, he closed his eyes and died.
Hŭng-bu and Nol-bu buried him on a mountain slope behind their house. It was an auspicious spot overlooking a stream. As soon as they returned home from the burial ceremony, Nol-bu searched his father’s room and took everything of value he could find.
From that day on, Nol-bu and his wife treated Hŭng-bu and his family like servants. Hŭng-bu’s wife had to do all the cooking, cleaning and washing and his children had to do all the chores and run all the errands. Nol-bu’s family ate first and Hŭng-bu’s family had to make do with the leftovers. If Hŭng-bu’s children cried for more food, Nol-bu’s wife would slap them and say they had eaten more than their share.
Then one day Nol-bu’s wife said to him, “Those brats of Hŭng-bu’s are going to be the ruin of us.”
“What’s that? The ruin of us?” asked Nol-bu.
“Those kids of Hŭng-bu’s. They eat so much there is never anything left. They’re going to be the ruin of us.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to do something about them,” replied Nol-bu, frowning and stroking his chin. “Hŭng-bu!” he screamed after a few minutes. “Come here! I want to see you at once.”
Hŭng-bu hurried to the open hall where Nol-bu was sitting but before he could get his shoes off to enter Nol-bu jumped up and began yelling. “I want you and your family out of this house,” he shouted, shaking his pipe at Hŭng-bu. “You and your brats have been a burden long enough. Now get out! Be gone with you!” With those words, he turned quickly and walked into his study.
A shocked Hŭng-bu helped his wife and crying children gather up what few belongings they had. They left the house to the sound of the resounding bang at of the gate as Nol-bu’s grinning wife slammed it behind them.
They wandered from one place to another until they stumbled upon a rundown old shack which was hardly large enough for them all to lie down. They made a game of trying to find things with which to mend the roof and in no time it was repaired.
Hŭng-bu did odd jobs at houses in nearby villages and his wife and children gathered wild vegetables, mushrooms and berries for their meals. However, Hŭng-bu and his wife began to worry as the autumn nights got colder and it became more and more difficult to find food.
Finally Hŭng-bu’s wife said, “Please go to your brother’s house and get something, even if it is only barley.”
Hŭng-bu hated the thought of facing his brother but he hated facing his starving children even more so the next morning he went to Nol-bu’s house.
“Please, Brother, spare us a few bags of barley,” he said, looking up at Nol-bu who was standing on the porch. “We don’t’ have anything to eat. Please give me something.”
“I’ll give you something,” Nol-bu said haughtily, stepping down from the porch. “Take this, you no-good-for-nothing bum! Take this!” he yelled, hitting Hŭng-bu over and over with a stick. “Get out, you bum! Get out! And don’t come begging around here again!”
Leaving the house, Hŭng-bu passed by the kitchen. At that very moment Nol-bu’s wife was putting hot steamy rice into a bowl.
“Oh, Sister-in-law,” called Hŭng-bu, sticking his head inside the doorway, “please give me a scoop of rice.”
In a flash, Nol-bu’s wife hit Hŭng-bu’s cheek with the rice scoop. “Get out of here, you bum! Get out!” she shrieked.
“Oh, thank you, Sister-in-law. Thank you for hitting me with the rice scoop.” Hŭng-bu laughed as he pulled more rice from his cheek and stuck it in his mouth. “Won’t you hit this cheek, too,” he said, laughing and turning his other cheek to her.
Quickly wiping the scoop on her apron, she swung at Hŭng-bu’s other cheek but hit the doorframe because he ducked. Hŭng-bu laughed as he ran through the yard and out the gate, pulling the remaining grains of rice from his face and eating them.
Somehow Hŭng-bu and his family made it through the long cold winter. They were happy when spring finally arrived because they could gather roots and plants to eat. To their delight, a pair of swallows made a nest in the eaves of their roof. In a few weeks the nest was home to several baby swallows who chirped constantly for food.
One day when Hŭng-bu returned home from working in a nearby field, he noticed a big snake near the corner of the house. He killed it with a hoe. Then he realized that he didn’t hear any chirping coming from under the eaves. He looked into the nest. It was empty. Then he looked on the ground. There was one of the tiny swallows. Hŭng-bu knew at once what had happened. The snake had eaten the other babies but in doing so had pushed this one out of the nest.
Hŭng-bu picked up the baby swallow and examined it. One of its legs was broken. Hŭng-bu gently bound the leg with string and put the bird back in its nest. The children lovingly cared for it, feeding it worms and insects, and soon it was flittering around the yard. In late autumn it flew southward with all the other birds.
The next spring Hŭng-bu and his family were glad to see the birds return for it meant the end of another long, hard winter. One warm day a lone swallow perched on their roof and chirped loudly. Then it flew in a circle around their yard several times, dropped a seed at Hŭng-bu’s feet and flew away. Hŭng-bu and his family carefully planted the seed and looked forward to eating gourds come autumn.
The seed, a gift from the Queen Swallow to repay Hŭng-bu’s kindness, grew quickly into a vine and soon there were three small gourds on it. Hŭng-bu and his wife were surprised at how fast and big the gourds grew. By autumn, when the gourds were ripe enough to eat, they were so big that Hŭng-bu and his children had to use a saw to cut them.
Happily they cut the first gourd. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Out tumbled strings of gold and silver coins, all kinds of precious jewels, and silk and brocade fabrics. Once they were over their surprise, they cut the second gourd. At once the yard became filled with sacks of rice. They cut the last gourd. Out marched hundreds of tiny carpenters. Within a few minutes they constructed a large tile-roofed house surrounded by a wall with a large gate and then disappeared. Hŭng-bu and his family danced for joy. They were wealthy!
Word of Hŭng-bu’s newfound wealth spread quickly throughout the nearby villages and soon reached Nol-bu. It made him very cross and finally he could not stand it any longer – he had to go see for himself.
Nol-bu stood in wonder in front of the impressive tile-roofed gate. Shaking his head, he walked up to it and called loudly, “Hŭng-bu! Hŭng-bu! Let me in!”
Hŭng-bu welcomed Nol-bu as if nothing had ever happened and while they talked in Hŭng-bu’s study, his wife served them persimmon tea. Finally Nol-bu could not restrain himself and he blurted out, “How could a bum like you become wealthy overnight? Come on, tell me the truth. Who did you rob?”
Hŭng-bu told him about the swallow dropping the seed and how they planted it and were so surprised when they cut open the gourds. All I can imagine is that the swallow must have been the one whose leg I bandaged.”
“What’s that?” asked Nol-bu. “You say you bandaged a swallow’s leg and it gave you the magic seed?”
“Well, I’m not exactly sure,” said Hŭng-bu and then he explained about the swallow falling out of the nest.
“Let me get this straight,” said Nol-bu. “A pair of swallows built a nest under the eaves of your roof. When the birds hatched, a snake crawled into the nest and ate all of the birds but one which fell onto the ground and broke its leg. Then you bandaged the leg and when it healed the bird flew away and the next spring brought you a magic gourd seed.”
“It seems that way,” smiled Hŭng-bu.
“I see,” said Nol-bu, stroking his chin pensively. After a few moments silence, he jumped up and said he had to leave.
From that day on, Nol-bu’s thoughts were filled with images of swallows and magic gourd seeds. Spring finally arrived and he and his wife waited anxiously for a pair of swallows to build a nest under the eaves of their house. They even scattered a variety of grains in the yard and on the rooftop in the hope of attracting a pair. At long last a pair of swallows did build a nest under their eaves and in a few weeks it was home to several baby birds.
Every day Nol-bu watched for a snake to raid the nest and every day he was disappointed. Then one day he decided he had waited long enough for a snake to come. He took one of the babies from the nest and broke one of its legs with his bare hands. Then he bound up the leg with some cord and, saying, “Okay, you little bird, I fixed your broken leg so next spring bring me a magic gourd seed,” placed it back in its nest. The bird recovered and flew southward in the autumn.
Spring arrived and Nol-bu watched for the swallow to return. Finally a lone swallow came. It flew around the yard and then dropped a seed at Nol-bu’s feet and flew away. Nol-bu was ecstatic. He shouted to his wife to come out and together they planted the seed. All summer they watched the seed grow into a vine and three of the biggest gourds they had ever seen ripen on it.
Autumn arrived and it was finally time to open the gourds. Talking about how wealthy they were going to be, they sawed open the first gourd. Out jumped hundreds of beggars. In the blink of an eye they were all over the house, eating every edible thing they could find.
“This can’t be!” screamed Nol-bu. “Something is wrong. There’s been a mistake.”
“Surely there must be gold in the next gourd,” cried his wife.
Quickly they sawed open the next gourd. Out poured putrid night soil and covered them from head to foot. But still they did not give up. Slipping and sliding in the foul smelling muck, they sawed open the last gourd. Out tumbled an army of ogres carrying large spiny mallets and at once they began breaking down Nol-bu’s house. When nothing was left standing, they hit Nol-bu and his wife until they passed out. Then they disappeared along with the beggars.
Ironically, on that very day, Hŭng-bu and his wife decided to pay a visit to Nol-bu to try to make bygones be bygones. They were shocked to find the house in a shambles. They searched through the rubble and found Nol-bu and his wife.
They gently propped them up and gave them some water. After a few moments they regained consciousness. Nol-bu looked into Hŭng-bu’s eyes and said, “I was wrong, Hŭng-bu. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
“Don’t talk now,” said Hŭng-bu. “Just rest. You and your family can come live with us. Everything will be fine.”
From that day on, Hŭng-bu and Nol-bu became the best of brothers and their families lived happily together.
reproduced courtesy of Suzanne Crowder Han and Hollym International Corp