The Three Gifts

retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Click play to listen to a narration of this story.
Narration provided by Stephen Kim



Long ago, there was a man who was so poor he had nothing to leave his sons but a millstone, a gourd, a bamboo staff, and a drum.

When he knew his time had come, the poor man called his three sons to his deathbed and said to them, “All my life I have worked hard, but these are the only things I have for you. Make your way in the world with them.”

To the eldest, he gave the millstone. To the second son, he gave the gourd and the bamboo staff. And to the youngest, he gave the drum.

“The value of these things is only as good as your own good sense,” the man said to his sons. “Use them well.” And then he passed away.

After their father’s funeral, the three brothers went into the world to live by their wits, as their father had advised. At first they traveled together, but by and by they came to a road that forked three ways. There they made a solemn pact to meet up again, and then they split up, each brother taking one of the paths, making his own way into the world.

The oldest son walked towards the mountains with his millstone on his back, and by evening he was tired, hungry, and unable to walk another step on his aching feet. He could find no place to spend that night, and so he found an old tree that offered some protection from the elements and decided to sleep under the shelter of its branches for the night. He set down the millstone to use as a pillow and tried to make himself comfortable, but as the twilight quickly turned to darkness, he realized he was on a mountain where wild animals, perhaps even tigers, might be roaming about. So he lifted the millstone, and with great difficulty, he climbed up the tree.

With the millstone braced between the trunk and a branch, he settled for the night and soon fell into a deep, exhausted sleep. It was not long before he was wakened by loud voices coming from under the tree. A gang of thieves was bickering amongst themselves as they divided up their loot.

“You have a thousand nyang more than me.”

“What do you mean, I have a thousand nyang more? You have more!”

“You bastard, give it here!”

“Where’s my share? Why’s it smaller than yours?”

The thieves went on and on, arguing deep into the night. Just before daybreak, the oldest son had an idea. He grabbed the wooden handle of the millstone and started to turn it with all his strength. When the thieves heard the terrible grinding sound above them, they looked around in alarm.

“I hear thunder from a clear sky,” said one of the thieves. “It is the wrath of Heaven! Run for your lives before the lightning strikes you!”

The thieves ran in all directions, too frightened to take their loot with them. Before sunrise, the oldest son came down from the tree and took all the money and jewels the thieves had left in their panic. With the millstone and his good sense, he became a very rich man.

The second son wandered aimlessly like a beggar. One evening, just after dusk, he was so tired he collapsed on a stone slab. It was the night of the new moon and it was overcast—pitch black without a star in the sky. When he realized he was lying on a stone offering table in a graveyard, he was terribly frightened, but he had no choice but to spend the night there.

In the middle of the night he heard footsteps approaching and now he was so scared his liver shrunk to the size of a pea. He held his breath and listened as the footsteps came closer and closer until they stopped—at the very edge of the offering table where he lay.

“Now I am surely dead,” he thought.

He waited for something dreadful to happen, but instead he heard a voice.

“Hey, brother Skeleton, we haven’t got all night! Isn’t it tonight that we’re supposed to steal the soul of that rich man’s daughter? Ungh?” It was a goblin.

The second son quickly recovered his wits. “Of course,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I was already up waiting for you.”

The goblin was suddenly suspicious. “There’s a human smell about you,” he said. “What if I said I didn’t believe you were a skeleton? Ungh?”

“Believe what you want,” said the second son, with all the confidence he could put into his voice.

The goblin hesitated. “Eh, then put your head over here and I’ll give it a feel.”

Thinking quickly, the second son held out the gourd he had gotten from his father.

“Well, that’s you all right,” said the goblin. “Smooth as a pot. But let me feel your arm just to be sure.”

The second son held out his bamboo cane.

“Why, you’ve gotten even thinner,” said the goblin. “Not a hint of meat on the bone. How long’s it been since you died?”

“Didn’t you just tell me we haven’t got all night?” said the second son. “And now you want to chat?”

“Never mind then,” said the goblin. “You’re right. We don’t want to be late.”

They rushed down together into the village to the house of the rich man, where everything was quiet and everyone was asleep.

“You wait here by the front gate, just in case,” said the goblin. “I’ll be back with the daughter’s spirit.”

The second son had hardly begun to wait when the goblin emerged from the house with his hands clasped together.

“What happened to the daughter’s spirit?” the second son asked.

“I have it right here,” the goblin answered. “I’m holding it in my hands.”

“Careful, she’ll get away,” said the second son. “Here—put her in my pouch and you won’t have to worry.”

“All right. But you tie the string really tight,” the goblin said as he put the spirit into the second son’s money pouch. They walked back toward the cemetery, but they had not gotten very far before they heard the village cock crowing.

“Damn!” said the goblin. “I have to get back before the sun comes up. You take your time and we’ll meet again tomorrow night.”

He rushed off into the distance and disappeared. After daybreak, having nowhere else to go, the second son walked back down to the village. People were gathered outside the rich man’s house, and from inside he heard a terrible commotion and the sounds of people weeping.

Pretending ignorance, he asked a servant, “What has happened? Why is everyone crying?”

“How could such a terrible thing happen to the master’s daughter?” wailed the servant. “She was in perfectly good health and then suddenly, last night, she just died.”

“Tell your master that I am a shaman and I may be able to bring her back to life.” The servant immediately stopped crying and ran into the house.

In a moment the rich man came running out. “Is it true?” he asked. “I will give you any amount of money if you can bring her back to life! Oh, please, I beg you, just bring her back to me!”

“I will do my best,” said the second son. “But you must all leave the house at once. And under no circumstances am I to be disturbed while I work.”

“Anything,” said the rich man, and he cleared out the household, leaving the second son all alone with the body of his daughter.

She was a beautiful young woman, certainly too young to be dead, but she was pale and stiff, and her skin was already cold to the touch. The second son examined her for marks, then put his ear close to her nose to hear if she was breathing. There was absolutely no sign of life, but each time he drew close to her body he could feel something move inside his pouch.

The second son went into the kitchen and began clanging pots and pans together to make a big racket. He chanted, shouted nonsense and occasionally let out a loud shriek. He knew that they were all listening outside. After a while he placed his pouch just under the daughter’s nose and untied the string. Something misty emerged and the daughter’s chest suddenly heaved a breath.

In a moment she sat up and let out a big yawn, stretching her arms above her. And then, seeing the strange man in her room, she screamed. That was the signal for everyone to come running back into the house. The whole place was in an uproar with people shouting and exclaiming.

“Calm yourself,” the rich man said, seeing his daughter alive again. “This man is a great shaman. He has brought you back to life!”

He danced with joy. “Thank you, oh, thank you,” he said, taking the second son by the hands. “How can I ever repay this debt? All the money in the world would not do! This must have been destiny. See how she looks at you? Does she please you, young man? Would you take my daughter as your wife?”

And so the second son married the rich man’s daughter and received half his fortune as a wedding gift, becoming a very rich man himself.

Meanwhile, the youngest son was traveling here and there, carrying the drum his father had given him. He was the cheerful sort, wandering without a lonely or desolate thought, and eventually he found himself in a beautiful forest.

Though he was weary, the scenery was so beautiful that he ignored his tiredness and sang as he walked, and moved by a particular surge of joy, he beat his drum and danced a happy dance. Then he saw the strangest thing—a tiger dancing a jig through a grove of bo* trees.

The youngest son was so delighted that he forgot to be afraid. He kept on pounding his drum, and the tiger danced toward him waving his huge front paws in the air. The youngest son continued to sing and beat his drum while the tiger danced.

They continued on this way, singing and dancing, so preoccupied that they did not realize they were approaching a village. And the villagers, not knowing the truth, took the two of them to be a traveling show and gathered to watch in amazement, tossing money at them as they passed.

So the youngest son traveled with the tiger from village to village and town to town, performing with the tiger, and soon he had become as wealthy as his brothers.

News of the remarkable drummer with the dancing tiger spread throughout the land, and it was not long before the king himself heard of them and commanded that a performance be held in the palace. When they were summoned before the king, the youngest son put on the performance of his life and the tiger danced with great energy.

The king was so impressed he offered to buy the tiger at once. “I will give you any amount you desire,” he said.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” said the youngest son, “But this tiger is a family treasure passed down from generation to generation. I cannot sell it to you.”

Time and again, he refused, and in the end it is said the king paid the handsome price of 10,000 nyang for it. Now the youngest son was the richest of the three brothers.

The three brothers met again on the appointed day. They embraced each other and danced with joy when they learned from each other that they had all become fabulously rich. The seemingly worthless objects their father had given them had turned out to be the most precious gifts of all, and realizing this, they were grateful to their father for what he had left them.

* Also known as the bodhi tree or the peepal (or pipal) tree—ficus religiosa. The species of tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

reproduced courtesy of Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo-Leaf Books

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