The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter

retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Long ago, there was a woodcutter who lived alone with his old mother up in the mountains. One day he was chopping wood when a deer dashed out of the forest and threw itself at his feet.

“Please,” said the deer, “you must hide me. A hunter is after me and he will surely kill me if you do not save me.”

The woodcutter let the deer hide in the pile of wood he had just cut, and when the hunter appeared and asked if a deer had run by, the woodcutter pointed toward the other side of the forest.

When the hunter had run off and it was safe, the deer emerged from the wood pile. “You have saved my life,” he said. I owe you a debt of gratitude, and I shall repay the favor. There is a secret lake up in the mountain. Go there on a night when the moon is full and you will see three heavenly maidens come down to bathe there. When they have removed their clothes, you must hide the clothes of the youngest. Keep her clothes hidden and give them back to her only after she has borne you three children.”

So, on the night of the next full moon, the woodcutter went to the secret lake, and just as the deer had said, three maidens came down from the Heavenly Kingdom to bathe. As the deer had instructed, he hid the youngest maiden’s clothes and waited hidden among the trees.

When the heavenly maidens had finished bathing, they emerged from the water to put on their clothes, but the youngest could not find hers. When she searched and searched and could not find them, she wept because she could not return to the Heavenly Kingdom without them. The woodcutter waited until the two older maidens had ascended into the sky and the he came out from his hiding place and asked the distraught maiden what was troubling her. He offered her his shirt and invited her to come back with him to his house.

Having no choice, the heavenly maiden went with the woodcutter and lived with him as his wife. It was not long before they had a child. They were happy, but each day the heavenly maiden would sigh and lament the loss of her clothes. The following year, they had another child, and the woodcutter felt sorry for her. When she mentioned her lost clothes again, telling him that she would never be able to return to Heaven, he forgot the deer’s warning and gave them to her. She immediately put them on, took a child under each arm, and she flew into the sky. That is how the woodcutter lost his wife.

The woodcutter was heartbroken. When the deer saw him again in the woods, he asked the woodcutter, “Why did you return her clothes before she had the third child?”

“I could not bear her sorrow,” said the woodcutter. “I wanted to cheer her up, and I forgot your warning.”

“Go back to the lake during the next full moon,” said the deer. “The heavenly maidens no longer come down themselves, but they will send down a bucket on a long chain to draw the water. It will come down three times. Let it go twice, but on the third time, you must pour out the water and climb inside. Then it will take you up to the Heavenly Kingdom.”

The woodcutter thanked the deer and did exactly as he instructed, and that is how he joined his wife and two children in Heaven. He lived there happily for a long time, but one day he realized he had not seen his mother. “I have been here too long. I must go down to the mortal world and visit her,” he said to his wife. Though he promised to return after his visit, the heavenly maiden was distraught.

“Please,” she begged him. “Anything but that. You may look down and see her and know that she is doing well, but if you return to the mortal world, you can never come back..”

“It is my duty as a son,” said the woodcutter. “I promise it will only be a brief visit. I will return.”

“Then I will send you down on a flying horse,” said the heavenly maiden. “You may visit your mother, but you must not dismount for any reason. The moment your foot touches the mortal earth, you cannot return. Promise me that you will not touch the earth.”

The woodcutter promised, and he flew down to the earth on the back of a magical horse, which landed right at the door of his mother’s house.

“Aigu!” she cried when she saw him. “Where have you been all these long years?”

The woodcutter told her how he had gone to the Heavenly Kingdom to be with his wife and children, and how he had come to visit her because he missed her. And then he explained that he could not dismount from the horse and that he would have to leave soon.

The woodcutter’s mother sobbed. “Every day that you have been gone, I cooked for you and set you a table. In time I thought you must be dead, but I did not give up hope, and now you have come. Please, my son, come in and eat a meal I have prepared for you before you leave forever.”

“Mother,” said the woodcutter, “If I step upon the earth, I cannot ever return to Heaven.”

“Please,” she said, “I have made your favorite. Pumpkin soup. I will bring you a bowl and you can eat it on horseback.”

The woodcutter could not refuse his mother’s plea. When she returned with the bowl of pumpkin soup, he took it, and in his haste he ate too quickly. The soup was hot, and it burned the woodcutter’s mouth. He spat it out, crying out in pain, and when the hot soup burned the horse it reared up, throwing the poor woodcutter to the ground. Before he could get up, the horse had already flown back to Heaven without him. There was no way to return.

They say the woodcutter died of a broken heart. His spirit became a rooster, and that is why each dawn the cock crows, Pagkuuuuuk! Pagkuuuuk!—it sounds like it is crying “Pumpkin soup! Pumpkin soup! I can’t return because of the pumpkin soup!”

reproduced courtesy of Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo-Leaf Books

back to Korean Folktales Index