Inspired by a Korean Folktale

by Sukhee Ryu '96

Once upon a time, deep in the dark woods, there lived a poor widow with her young son. Her husband had been the strongest and the most kind-hearted woodcutter in the village, the villagers used to say, but one frosty morning, not too long after he had kissed her goodbye before going into the woods, he was found dead, half-eaten, his arms and legs missing, heart torn out of his chest, his lifeless eyes frozen in horror. Wolves did it, the villagers whispered, though no one knew for sure - they buried him before she could weep over his mangled body. They said blood kept pouring out of his remains even after he was buried, and it seemed as though the grave itself had been wounded: trickles of red blood oozed out of the earth and encircled the poor woodcutter's grave.

That was a long long time ago - she could not even remember how long. Since then, she had eked out a living by gathering branches in the forest and selling them in the market as firewood. Her son, he had always been a good child. In the winter, bundled up in rags, he went out to the forest with his mother and gathered branches until his small, soft hands became coarse and bloody; in the summer, he went about half-naked and always brought her bunches of wildflowers. During the long, sleepless nights, he told her about the forest, his eyes moist with excitement. Ah, Mother, the whole forest was dotted with a thousand violet flowers today ... and I saw a bat fluttering out of a tree like a black cloth caught in the wind.

Now she was no longer young or sorrowful. Her hair had lost its black luster, and her little boy was seventeen, a strong and kind-hearted woodcutter like his father, the center of her joy and sorrow. She no longer gathered firewood. Her son cut enough wood for two. Each night he returned from the village market with enough food for both of them and a little bit of sweet cake to delight her old sweet tooth.

One night, he returned later than usual, his shirt soaked in sweat. She could hear his heart beating wildly. Ah, Mother, I saw a deer today, he said, it begged me for help. I hid it behind my pile of wood, and soon enough, a big wolf appeared out of nowhere looking for the deer, and not finding it, it finally ran off. The deer thanked me for its life and told me a secret. There is a pond in the forest where the winged horses descend from the heaven to bathe; if I can only catch one while it is in the pond, it will take me up to heaven, and there, I shall see the splendor of the clouds bejeweled with stars. The widow begged him not to go - there were man-eating wolves in the forest - but for the first time in his life, he did not obey her. He went out to the forest that night in search of the pond where the winged horses bathe.

He did not find it that night, nor the night after. For months, he searched the woods for the mysterious pond but could not find it. Still, his wild eyes glistened with enchanted vision. Tomorrow, for sure, I shall see it, he told himself as he lay down on the mat to sleep. The villagers whispered. He went mad, they said, but the old woman knew her son was a poet at heart, easily enchanted by his own imagination. When he failed to return home one night, the villagers lit up their torch and went into the forest, looking for his remains. Surely he has been eaten by the wolves, they whispered, but they could not find him anywhere. For days, they looked for him but could not find him.

That was a long, long time ago - the widow could not even remember how long. She grew old. Her hair turned white. Once again, she gathered fallen branches in the forest, but now her hands were stiff and her legs were weak. Soon, she could not even gather enough branches to keep herself warm at night. Even in the summer, her bones shivered in gnawing chill and loneliness. As she wandered about in the forest, the dry leaves fell to pave her way, and the sad, lonely trees seemed to be nodding at her in mute understanding. She knew why they kept on shivering, though their branches ached from shivering, and why they remained standing while the squirrels and the stray dogs clawed their secret wounds and the birds pecked at their armpits. At times, the villagers found her crying for no apparent reason. "She is senile," they whispered. She stopped eating. Her dried skin did not seem to need any nourishment. She no longer found rest in sleep.

One night, her son came to her on his winged horse. Ah, Mother, it's been a long time since I went away. I missed you so, he spoke to her tenderly. The widow covered her face with her withered hands and cried loudly like a child. She wanted to tell him to come inside and rest while she prepared a bowl of hot pumpkin soup for him, but she could not find her voice. Another surge of tears crawled up her throat. Mother, cry no more, her son comforted her. I cannot come into the house because as soon as I dismount, the horse will fly away and never come back. But, come with me mother. I shall take you with me and show you all the beautiful things I've seen -

When the widow sat behind her son and put her face on his back, she felt as though she had always been with him. He was a big man now, but she knew the tiny scars on his back, the ridges of his backbones, and his arms that had thickened through countless cutting and binding and lifting of wood. She could not stop crying, even as the sleep, violent like a storm, began to spread in her body. He has grown so much, she thought, as the horse unfolded her wings to fly.

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