Monday, September 29, 2008

A Frog for a Husband

Off in a valley, among very stony mountains, lived an old farmer named Pak We and his wife. His land was poor and he had to toil from sunrise to sunset and often in the night, when the moon was shining, to get food. No child had ever come to his home and he was in too great straits of poverty to adopt a son. So he took his amusement in fishing in the pond higher up on the hills that fed the stream which watered his millet and rice fields. Being very skilful, he often caught a good string of fish and these he sold in the village nearby to get for himself and his wife the few comforts they needed. Thus the old couple kept themselves happy, despite their cheerless life, though they often wondered what would become of them when they got too old to work.

But one summer Pak noticed that there were fewer fish in the pond, and that every day they seemed to be less in number. Where he used to catch a stringful in an hour, he could hardly get half that many during a whole day.

What was the matter? Was he getting less skilful? Was the bait poor? Not at all! His worms were as fat, his hooks and lines in as good order, and his eyesight was as keen as ever.

When Pak noticed also that the water was getting shallower, he was startled. Could it be that the pond was drying up? Things grew worse day by day until at last there were no fish.

Where once sparkled the wavelets of a pond was now an arid waste of earth and stones, over which trickled hardly more than a narrow rill, which he could jump over. No fish and no pond meant no water for his rice fields. In horror at the idea of starving, or having to move away from his old home and become a pauper, Pak looked down from what had been the banks of the pond to find the cause of all this trouble. There in the mud among the pebbles he saw a bullfrog, nearly as big as an elephant, blinking at him with its huge round eyes.

In a rage the farmer Pak burst out, charging the frog with cruelty in eating up all the fish and drinking up all the water, threatening starvation to man and wife. Then Pak proceeded to curse the whole line of the frog's ancestors and relatives, especially in the female line, for eight generations back, as Koreans usually do.

But instead of being sorry, or showing any anger at such a scolding, the bullfrog only blinked and bowed, saying, "Don't worry, Farmer Pak. You'll be glad of it, by and by. Besides, I want to go home with you and live in your house."

"What! Occupy my home, you clammy reptile! No you won't," said Pak.

"Oh! but I have news to tell you and you won't be sorry, for you see what I can do. Better take me in."

Old Pak thought it over. How should he face his wife with such a guest? But then, the frog had news to tell and that might please the old lady, who was fond of gossip. Since her husband was not very talkative, she might be willing to harbor so strange a guest. So they started down the valley. Pak shuffled along as fast as his old shins could move, but the bullfrog covered the distance in a few leaps, for his hind legs were three feet long.

Arrived at his door, Mrs. Pak was horrified at the prospect of boarding such a guest. But when the husband told her that Froggie knew all about everybody and could chat interestingly by the hour, she changed her manner and bade him welcome. Indeed, she so warmed in friendliness that she gave him one of her best rooms. All the leaves, grass, and brushwood that had been gathered in the woodshed to supply the kitchen fire and house flues, was carried into the room. There it was doused with tubs of water to make a nice soft place such as bullfrogs like. After this he was fed all the worms he wanted.

Then after his dinner and a nap, Mrs. Pak and Mr. Pak donned their best clothes and went in to make a formal call on their guest. Mr. Pak put on his horsehair hat and long white coat, as white as snow, which had been starched and beaten by his loving wife, until it glistened all over like hoar frost.

Mr. Bullfrog was so affable and charming in conversation, besides telling so many good stories and serving up so many dainty bits of gossip, that Mrs. Pak was delighted beyond expression. Indeed, she felt almost like adopting Froggie as her son.

The night passed quietly away, but when the first rays of light appeared, Froggie was out on the porch singing a most melodious tune to the rising sun. When Mr. and Mrs. Pak rose up to greet their guest and to hear his song, they were amazed to find that the music was bringing them blessings. Everything they had wished for, during their whole lives, seemed now at hand, with more undreamed of coming in troops. In the yard stood oxen, donkeys, and horses loaded with every kind of box, bale, and bundle, waiting to be unloaded, and more were coming; stout men porters appeared and began to unpack, while troops of lovely girls in shining white took from the men's hands beautiful things made of jade, gold, and silver. There were fine clothes and hats for Mr. Pak, jade-tipped hairpins, tortoise-shell and ivory combs, silk gowns, embroidered and jeweled girdles, and every sort of frocks and woman's garments for Mrs. Pak, besides inlaid cabinets, clothes racks, and wardrobes. Above all, was a polished metal mirror that looked like the full autumn moon, over which Mrs. Pak was now tempted to spend every minute of her time.

Four or five of the prettiest maidens they had ever seen in all their lives danced, sang and played sweetest music. The unpacking of boxes, bales, and bundles continued. Tables of jade and finest sandalwood were spread with the richest foods and wines. Soon, under the skilful hands of carpenters and decorators, instead of oiled paper on the floors, covering old bricks and broken flat stones set over the flues, and smoky rafters and mud walls poorly papered, there rose a new house. It had elegant wide halls and large rooms with partitions made of choicest joiner work. It was furnished with growing flowers, game boards for chess, and had everything in it like a palace.

As for the riches of the larder and the good things to eat daily laid on the table, no pen but a Korean's can tell of them all. In the new storehouse were piles of dried fish, edible seaweed, bags of rice, bins of millet, tubs of kim-chee made of various sorts of the pepper-hash, and Korean hot pickle in which the natives delight, to say nothing of peaches, pears, persimmons, chestnuts, honey, barley, sugar, candy, cake, and pastry, all arranged in high piles and gay colors.

The old couple seemed able to eat and enjoy twice as big dinners as formerly, for all the while the adopted bullfrog was very entertaining. Mr. and Mrs. Pak laughed continually, declaring they had never heard such good stories as he told. The good wife was, however, quite equal to her guest in retailing gossip. One of her favorite subjects, of which she never tired, was the beauty and charm of Miss Peach. She was the accomplished daughter of the big Yang-ban, or nobleman, Mr. Poom, who lived in a great house, with a host of servants and retainers in the next village, and Mrs. Pak insisted there was no young woman in the world like her. It was noticed that Mr. Bullfrog was particularly interested when Miss Peach Poom was the subject of the old lady's praises.

After a week of such luxury, during which Mr. and Mrs. Pak seemed to dwell in the Nirvana, or Paradise, which the good priests often talked about, Mr. Pak's full cup of joy was dashed to earth when the bullfrog informed him that he intended to marry, and that Mr. Pak must get him a wife. Still worse than that, Pak was informed by the frog that he would have no one but Miss Peach, the daughter of Poom, so renowned for her beauty and graces.

At this, old Pak nearly went wild. He begged to be excused from the task, but the bullfrog was inexorable. So, after imprecating his wife's tongue, for her ever putting it into the frog's head to marry Miss Peach, he donned his fine clothes and set out to see Mr. Poom. He expected to be beaten to death for his brazen effrontery in asking a noble lady to marry a frog.

Now this Mr. Poom had long been the magistrate of a district, who had squeezed much money wrongly from the poor people over whom he ruled, and having won great wealth, had retired and come back to his native place to live. Yet to keep up his old habits, he still kept a cross bench on which common people who offended him were thrown and beaten with paddles, until often they went away bleeding cripples. This man had two daughters married, but the third, the youngest and most beautiful, Miss Peach, now eighteen years old, was the only one Mr. Bullfrog would have for his bride.

Arriving at the Pooms' grand mansion, Mr. Pak told of the suitor's wealth, power and fame, high position and promise, and how he had made the old couple happy.

Old Poom had pricked up his ears from the first mention of riches and power, and became highly interested as Pak went on sounding the praises of his prospective son-in-law.

"And what is his name?" asked Mr. Poom.

Here Pak was in a quandary. He knew that the frog family was the oldest and most numerous in the world and was famous for fine voices. He fell into a brown study for a few minutes. Then, looking up, he declared that he had so long thought of the suitor's graces and accomplishments, that he had forgotten his name and could not then recall it.

So Mr. Poom, in order to help Pak out, ran over the list of famous families in Korea, reciting the names of the Kims, Sims, Mins, the Hos, Chos, Kos, Quongs, and Hongs, etc., etc., for Mr. Poom was an authority on the Korean peerage.

"It is none of these," said Pak. "I deeply regret that I cannot recall the name."

"Strange," said Mr. Poom. "I have named all the families of any standing in the kingdom. What is his office or rank and where do his relations live?"

Pak was pressed so hard by Mr. Poom's searching questions that at last he had to confess that the suitor for the beautiful maiden was not a man but a frog.

"What! Do you want me to marry my daughter to a pond-croaker? You shall suffer for thus insulting me in my own house. Slaves, bring the cross bench and give this wretch twenty blows."

Forthwith, while four men brought out the whipping bench, three others seized poor Pak, stripped off his coat, and bound him with feet and arms stretched out to the bench. Then a tall, stalwart fellow raised the huge paddle of wood to let fall with all his might on the bare flesh of the old man. But all this while the sky was darkening, and, before the first blow was given, the lightning flashed, the thunder rolled, and floods of rain fell that threatened to overwhelm house, garden, and all in a deluge. The hail, which began to pelt the cattle, was first the size of an egg and then of stones, like cannon balls.

"Hold," cried the frightened Mr. Poom. "I'll wait and ask further."

Thereupon the lightning and thunder ceased, the sun burst out in splendor.

Mightily impress by this, Mr. Poom at last agreed to let his daughter become the bride of the frog, not telling her who her husband was to be. Within an hour, while she was getting ready, a string of fine horses and donkeys with palanquins loaded with presents for the bride and her family appeared. Besides boxes of silk dresses and perfumes, headgear and articles for a lady's boudoir, there were troops of maidens to wait on the bride. Arraying Miss Peach in the loveliest of robes, they also dressed her hair, until, what with satin puffs and frame, jade-tipped silver hairpins, rosettes, and flowers, her headgear stood over a foot high above her forehead, on which was the bride's red round spot.

Then, when the happy maiden had sufficiently admired herself in the metal mirror and heard the praises of her attendant virgins, she entered the bridal palanquin -- a gorgeous mass of splendor. According to custom, her eyes were sealed shut and covered with wax, for a Korean bride sees nothing of her husband until the end of the feast, when she meets him in the bridal chamber.

So to his house she was carried in great pomp and with gay attendance of brilliantly arrayed maidens. The marriage ceremony and the grand supper were happy affairs for all the guests, even though the bride, according to Korean etiquette, was as if blind, quietly and patiently waiting sightless throughout the whole joyful occasion. The actual ceremony was witnessed only by the foster parents and the bridegroom.

When in the bridal chamber, the bride having unsealed her eyes, and her vision being clear, she looked up at the one she had married and found not a man, but a frog, she was furiously angry. She burst out into a protest against having such a bridegroom. Gently and in tenderest tones the bridegroom attempted first to comfort her. Then, handing her a pair of scissors, he begged her to rip open the skin along his back from shoulder to thigh, for it was very tight and he was suffering pain from it. In her bitter disappointment at being married to a frog, she seized the scissors and almost viciously began to cut from nape to waist. Her surprise was great to find what seemed to be silk underneath the speckled skin.

When she had slit down two yards or so, her husband the frog stood upon his hind legs. He twisted himself about as if in a convulsion, pulled his whole speckled hide hard with his front paws, and then jumping out of his skin, stood before his bride a prince. Fair, tall, of superb figure, and gorgeously arrayed, he was the ideal of her dreams. A jeweled baldric bound his waist, embroidery of golden dragons on his shoulders and breast told of his rank, while on his head was the cap of royalty with a sparkling diamond in the centre. Yet no clothes, handsome as they were, could compare in beauty with his glorious manhood. Never had she seen so fair a mortal.

Happy was the bride whose feelings were thus changed in a moment from repulsion and horror to warmest affection and strongest veneration. The next morning when, to the amazement of his foster father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Pak, the prince presented himself and his bride at breakfast, he told the story of his life. As son of the King of the Stars he had committed some offense, in punishment for which his father condemned him to live upon the earth in the form of a frog. Furthermore he had laid upon his son the duty of performing three tasks. These must be done before he should be allowed to come back and live in Star Land. These were, to drink up all the water in the lake, to eat all the fish, and to win a human bride, the handsomest woman in the world.

All the precious things which he had presented to Pak and his wife to make their old days comfortable, and the gifts sent to the bride's house before her wedding day, had come by power from the skies. Now, leaving his foster parents on earth to enjoy their gifts, he must return home to his father, taking his bride with him. Scarcely had he spoken these words than a chariot and horses, silver bright, appeared at the door of the house. Bowing low to his foster parents, and stepping in with his bride, the pair disappeared beyond the clouds. From this time forth a new double star was seen in the sky.

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