A Tiger, a Worm, a Snail

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The various peoples of Vietnam value faithfulness, virtue and intelligence, and this is reflected in the folktales of the land. Family loyalty and duty take precedence over individual concerns, ideally.

We'll take a look at two tales from different parts of the country that illustrate these values in quite different ways.

The Tiger

In one of the better-known folktales it is told about a fisherman who cared for his aging mother. Every evening he would cast his nets into the river, and every morning he would collect the fish that had been caught in them, and this is how they lived.

One morning he discovered that one of his nets had been torn open and was empty of fish. That day he repaired the net and in the evening cast his several nets into the river as usual. The next morning he was alarmed to discover that all of his nets had been rent and twisted, and there was not a single fish in any of them!

He carefully repaired all the nets, and set them out in the evening. But the next morning he came upon the same dismal scene of torn and empty nets. This same situation occurred day after day until, seeing that his dear mother was weakening from lack of food, he determined to spend an entire night hidden in the shadows beside the river and to capture whoever was responsible for this.

The next morning his body was found, lacerated and lifeless, beside the flowing river.

To the villagers, this was clearly the work of a tiger — the most feared of animals! They walked the forest paths in fear.

The fisherman's mother grieved profoundly for her only son, and visited his grave daily. One evening, lost in grief, as she was returning home from the graveyard she came upon a tiger. Distraught as she was, she challenged him directly: "Are you the one who killed my son? What am I to do now? I shall soon die of sadness and hunger." The tiger just stood there, rather meekly for a tiger. "Will you provide for me? Will you do for me as my son did?" The tiger nodded slightly, but the woman simply turned her back on him and slowly proceeded home.

The next day, and every few days after, she found a deer or a boar laid before the threshold of her house. She would quickly cook and eat her fill, then sell the rest of the meat at the market. For two months this went on before she decided to find out who was being so generous to her. She stayed awake the whole night until, toward dawn, she saw the same tiger she had spoken to near the graveyard come along dragging fresh game, which he laid at her door. She invited him in, and it wasn't long before a friendship developed between them.

Now they visited every time he brought game, and once he came to her when he was ill and she kept him in her home and nursed him until he was well enough to return to the forest.

And so it was until the woman lay dying. "Please promise me you will no longer kill people," she said. The tiger hung his head low and nodded. He remained by her side all through the night.

Soon afterwards the villagers found enough wild game piled before her front door to pay for a big funeral. And during the funeral the forest was filled with the roaring of a tiger.

It was a tradition in all of the villages thereabouts for people to gather on the thirtieth day of the last month of the year, bearing offerings for the spirits of their ancestors so that they might spend time together again. And ever after it was always noticed and admired that on that very day, the loyal tiger returned with an offering of wild game.

The Worm and the Snail

In the mountains overlooking the Red River Valley it is told of a good family with two fine daughters who seemed always to be doing their duties; yet one day, by and by, while returning home, they stopped to eat some figs and that evening felt very strange.

In time, both sisters gave birth, one to a worm and one to a snail. The midwives fled the house, screaming, "Demons! Demons!" Everybody in the village, including the sisters themselves, shared the same fear and believed the worm and the snail to be actual demons! So they all ran away, leaving the worm and the snail to wander about the abandoned village on their own, and this they did for many lonely years.

Eventually, after crossing paths a number of times, the two creatures decide to live together to ease their loneliness, and they become husband and wife. And it is soon after this that one night an incredible rainstorm flies over the village, with howling winds and raindrops that seemed to circle round their house.

The next day, the snail sees a handsome man in the house. She asks him who he is, and his reply surprises her: "I am your husband." And he drops his shriveled worm skin on the floor.

Later that same day the man sees a beautiful woman enter the courtyard. "My wife is not at home," he calls to her. The woman holds out a snail shell and replies, "Yes she is, for I am she."

They stare at each other, bemused and pleased, and figure that there was something about the eerie storm of the previous night that has transformed them into people.

And life goes on and they do their chores and farm the land. The fields are fertile and the crops grow strong and plentifully. While working together at the harvest one morning they hear two crows gabbing about local conditions, decrying the dry fields and failed crops of the next village over. The husband and wife decide to help these people out, to share their abundance with them. So they journey forth, and when they arrive they are discovered to be the very snail and the very worm whom the people of this village fled from some years ago — now transformed into ordinary people like themselves!

The end result is that the villagers-in-exile, as it were, move back home and share in the abundance, and all is peachy from there on out.

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These folktales, with warmth and high style, demonstrate the broad and imaginative and tutelary talents active within this culture, today as in a long history of centuries past.

After having read this, it might be fun for you to consider which creature you can identify with the most: the tiger, the worm, or the snail?

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