The Mud Snail Bride
retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl
Long ago there was a young man who had just lost his parents. Life was hard, trying to get by on his own. He cleared himself a patch of land, neither hilly nor flat, between the mountains and the paddies, and he labored on it each day. He lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof, cooked for himself, and tended to his fields day in and day out; and after some time had passed, he grew weary. He sat down and sighed, "Who will ever live with me when I'm such a lowly farmer? Who will ever share my meals with me?"
The man was shocked when a small voice said, from within the earth, "I will share your meals with you."
He did not hear it again for a long while, but one day, as he was resting after a hard morning's work, he said again, "Who will live with me after I till this soil? Who will share my meals with me?"
Once again, a small voice answered from the ground, "I will share your meals with you."
It was a woman's voice, and the young man took a liking to it. Each day he worked in his fields and returned to his hut at dusk to go to sleep, and each morning he would take his cooking pot and his rice and return to the field to work.
One day he wondered out loud again, "Who will I share my meals with when I bring in the harvest?"
"You will share your meals with me," said the voice.
"Who are you?" asked the young man.
"I cannot tell you today," said the voice. "But if you are patient, I will tell you everything three days from now."
For the next three days, the young man worked hard in his field, waiting anxiously for the time to pass, and after the third day, he asked, "Where are you?"
"Take your bowl and dig in the mud, and you will see me," said the voice.
The young man took his bowl and dug up a clump of mud. He found a snail in it, as large as an owl's eye. "What manner of creature are you?" he asked, but it did not answer.
The snail foamed and bubbled in the mud, and so he took it home and put it in the water jug. The next day he went to work in the field as usual, and when he returned at dusk to cook for himself, he saw that the snail was still there.
Each evening, the young man's routine was the same: take the rice pot, cook the rice, eat, and sleep. In the morning he would wake up and take the leftover food with him to work out in the field. Then, at dusk, he would return and begin again. But three days after he had put the snail in the water jug, he went to get the rice pot and found the rice already cooked inside. And much to his amazement, there were also side dishes waiting for him.
The food was much better than his own cooking, and though he wondered at this strange event, he did not question it, and he went to sleep that night well-fed and content.
In the morning he found breakfast was ready for him, and that night when he returned from the field, he found dinner waiting.
He ate the food again, but that night, as he lay on his bed mat, he thought, "Tomorrow I will return early and see what is happening."
The next day he ate the breakfast that was waiting for him, and he went to work in the field as usual, but instead of returning at dusk he came early and peeked into the kitchen.
At first he saw nothing unusual. It was not until dinnertime that something moved in the water jug, and then, much to his amazement, a beautiful young woman emerged. She cleaned up the breakfast dishes, scrubbed the rice pot, and cooked his meal, and then she disappeared back into the water jug.
Now the young man knew the truth. He quietly walked back toward the field and doubled back as the sun went down. That night he ate his dinner, and the next day he returned early from the field once again, just before dinnertime. When the young woman emerged from the water jug to prepare his meal, he leapt into the kitchen and grabbed her by the wrists.
"Be my wife," he said to her. "I am alone and you are alone, so let us live together."
"It is not yet time," said the woman. "You need not force me, for in three days we may become husband and wife. Be patient and tend to your field."
So he waited for three days, working hard in the fields, and when the time came the young woman appeared out of the water jug but did not go back inside. As she had said, there was no need to restrain her. She prepared his food, set the table, and brought it into the room—and this time it was set for two.
That night they made a solemn promise to each other to be husband and wife. They bowed together before an altar with a bowl of water, and so they were married.
The young woman was a great beauty, and it was not long before the people of the nearby villages were talking about her. In time the rumor spread far and wide about the young man who lived in the mountains with a woman of unearthly beauty, and the local magistrate could not help but hear and be envious.
"Just how beautiful could she be?" he asked his servants. "She is married to a common farmer, after all."
"They say she is as beautiful as the faeries of the Heavenly Kingdom," they said.
Now the Magistrate had to go and have a look for himself, and when he saw her he knew that the rumors were true. Indeed, she was too beautiful to be the wife of a lowly farmer. He decided he would take her for himself and make her one of his concubines. When he had returned, he dispatched an official with an order to the young man, commanding him to appear at court and surrender his wife, and when the young man came, the Magistrate said to him, "Your wife is too good for a man of your humble station. You must hand her over to me."
"She is not mine to give," said the young man. "We are married in the eyes of Heaven now, and she is no ordinary woman."
Some say that the Magistrate was cruel, and that he simply took the young man's wife from him, and that in his terrible grief and anger, the young man bashed his head against a wooden pillar and killed himself. But that is the tale told in unhappy times. In truth the Magistrate was a more reasonable man.
"Is that so?" said the Magistrate. "Tell me, how is she not ordinary? And how is it that a lowly man such as yourself happened upon the most beautiful woman in the kingdom?" The young man told the whole story, and the Magistrate stroked his beard. "Now I see how the rumors came to be," he said, "But regardless her origin or your marriage, you must obey me by law. Hand her over to me at once."
"I cannot. She is not here," said the young man. "Let me return to my home and I will ask her to come."
"Very well, I will let you go. But I expect you to return with her tomorrow," said the Magistrate.
That night the young man had no appetite, and he sat like a scarecrow at the table. His wife could not help but notice, and she asked him what was the matter.
"I was called before the Magistrate today and he demanded that I give you to him. How am I to eat, my dear wife?"
"Tell him you will not give me up," she said. "Then he will ask you to play him a game of chess with me as the prize."
"But I do not know how to play chess," said the young man. "I would surely lose if I played him, and then I would lose you."
"Just do as I say. The Magistrate will naturally offer you the first move, but when he does, tell him that he must move first. After he makes his first move, a little blowfly will land on one of your pieces. It will fly from that piece and land on the board. Wherever it lands, that is where you put your piece."
The young man went back to the Magistrate the following morning, and he did just as his wife had instructed. "She said she would not come, and I will not give her up," he said.
"Then let us play a game of chess," said the Magistrate.* "If you win, you may keep her and I shall not disturb you again. But if you lose, she is mine."
The young man agreed as his wife had instructed and soon they sat facing each other across the intersecting lines of the game board.
"You are the junior player, so make the first move," said the Magistrate.
"No," said the young man. "You are the Magistrate. You must make the first move."
The Magistrate moved first and then, just as his wife had said, a tiny fly appeared. It landed on one of the young man's pieces and then flew to a spot on the board. The young man placed his piece on that spot with a loud clack. Each time the Magistrate had placed one of his pieces, the young man followed the fly, placing his pieces wherever it landed.
They played from morning to afternoon, and by the time evening came the Magistrate resigned. "Chess is a game for civilized men," he said. "But you play like a demon has possessed you. This will not do. Come back tomorrow, and we shall have a contest on horseback to decide who will have your wife. I will give you a horse. We will ride to the river and jump to the other bank. If you cannot make the jump, then your wife is mine."
The young man returned home, and again he sat there, with his strength sapped and with no appetite. "I am sure to lose you now," he said to his wife. "The Magistrate challenged me to a horse jumping contest tomorrow. I must jump across the river. If I can't, he will take you from me. He will ride a good horse and give me a bad one, won't he?"
"Yes. That is his plan. But do as I tell you and everything will turn out fine. Of course, the Magistrate will take the best horse. He will pick an inferior one for you, but to make the contest look fair he will pick one that looks strong. Do not accept the one he offers. If you look in the far corner of the stable, you will see a horse that looks like a tired, old donkey. Ask the Magistrate for that one. He will laugh and ask you why you have selected the bad horse when he is riding a good one.
"Tell him that you are afraid because you have never ridden a horse before, and that you will feel more comfortable on the small one. He will not object. When you are at the river, the Magistrate's horse will take five steps back before he jumps. You must take ten steps back, and just before you are ready, whisper to the horse, 'Old nag, old nag, please let me keep my dear wife.' Then you may jump."
Comforted by his wife's instructions, the young man slept soundly that night and went back to the Magistrate in the morning.
"So, you have returned to finish our wager," said the Magistrate. He mounted his finest stallion and told his groom to bring out a mare for the young man.
"Oh, that horse is too big," said the young man. "It scares me." He went into the stable himself and searched until he saw, off in the far corner, the horse that looked like a scrawny old donkey. "I will ride this one," he said, leading it outside.
"Surely, you are joking," said the Magistrate.
"I have never been on a horse before. This one is small, and I am not afraid of it. I would like to ride this one."
The Magistrate had planned to give him a decent horse, since he was stealing the young man's wife, but even so, the young man's choice of the old nag was not something he objected to. "Very well," said the Magistrate.
When the young man rode to the river on the old nag, the local villagers came out to watch and make fun of his humiliation, jeering and laughing.
But the young man held firm. "I made my choice, and I will go with it," he declared.
The Magistrate jumped first. His stallion took five steps back, galloped forward, and leaped with a mighty whinny. But it did not quite clear the river—its hind legs landed in the mud of the river bank and it struggled a long time before it got out.
When it was the young man's turn to jump, he did just as his wife had instructed. He took ten steps back and slapped the old horse's flank.
"Old nag, old nag, please let me keep my dear wife," he whispered, and with a loud snort, the scrawny horse leaped effortlessly across the river and lighted on the opposite bank.
The Magistrate finally admitted defeat. "Your wife is clearly a gift from Heaven," he said. "She belongs to you, so I wish the two of you a happy life together."
Having put the young man through such hardship to defend his wife's honor, the Magistrate could not send him away empty-handed, and so he rewarded the young man with half of his own wealth.†
* In some versions of this tale, the game is paduk (more commonly known by English speakers by its Japanese name, go), but the Korean chess, which is called changi, is the more fitting game because its sound is similar to the word for a man getting married: chang'ga.
† Earlier variants of this tale have a terribly unhappy ending. For example, the version in Zong In-sob's Folktales from Korea (pp. 29-31) ends with the magistrate simply taking the young man's wife and the young man killing himself by running head-first into a pillar. He turns into a blue bird and his wife dies, heartbroken and refusing to eat. That variant was collected in 1912, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, which might explain its hopeless ending. This variant is compiled from other versions, including one told in the 1980s, during Korea's economic boom, a time of great optimism.
reproduced courtesy of Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo-Leaf Books