THE TIGER’S WHISKER
A Folktale from Korea
The path that wound between thick, green curtains of hanging vines up the jungle-forested incline was steep and rugged.
A damp, tropical climate encouraged heavy undergrowth to remain persistent, beneath Yun Ok’s sandaled feet. The trail she had made was thin, despite trekking over it daily as she had for many months, in order to reach the dark mouth of the cave.
Though the young woman was not tall, a strong will and life of hard work showed in her determined pace, and the lean muscle on her slight frame.
“Today – today,” she said to herself, “let today be the day the fierce Tiger is tame enough to take food from my hand – that I may cut one precious whisker from his jowls!”
Yun Ok prayed silently as she continued on her way. Her thoughts drifted back to her husband. Her dear, husband – the reason she had bravely begun these trips to the Tigers cave, in the first place.
She pictured him sitting at home in the village of grass-roofed huts at the foot of the mountain. Gazing out of the small window of their home from under his deeply furrowed, brow.
Yun Ok and her husband lived in the country of Korea, where much of the land was used to cultivate rice. The rice paddies stretched in long, curving, bands from behind their neighboring villages like ribbons in multiple shades of green and gold, to where they reached to the base of the mountains beyond them.
As young children they had played together almost every day, laughing while they chased up and down the water-soaked paths that ran between the bright green growth of the paddies where their parents, and the other villagers, labored all day.
When the mid-day sun beat down on the backs of the workers, the children took to where the fields met the forest tree-line. Here they played hide and seek, built little houses from bark and stones, or lay in the shaded fringes of tall grasses making up stories and songs.
Waiting, until their parents straightened their backs and came to join them before opening the knotted top of the simple, cloth-wrapped meal they would all share, for lunch.
As they grew older the two would help in the fields, or stay at home and care for the villages livestock – chickens, pigs, and cows. Together they kept watching over the younger village children, for parents who were at work in the paddies. That this childhood bond would eventually lead to marriage as they reached adulthood, was no surprise to anyone.
For a long while, it was a harmonious marriage, full of continued joy and companionship. Together, year after year they tilled by hand their small plot of land and tended the crops they had grown. They worked together, patiently gathering and then preparing the harvest to sell at the market. Side by side they cared for their little hut, fixing it when necessary and keeping it tidy, and clean. And in the evenings, they sat together over their rice-bowls, laughing and sharing stories.
But then, Yun Ok’s husband had been called to fight in the wars and when he returned, everything had changed. Where once he had been her loving, tender, soul-mate, now his moods had become unpredictable. Most always he was cross, and any little thing would cause his anger to flare.
Only in rare moments did Yun Ok catch a shadow of the husband she knew and loved. Most often now, she was almost afraid to live with him.
It was customary for anyone living in the village who suffered an ailment to rush to a hermit, who lived in the hills. The old man was well learned in all medicinal properties of wild plants and herbs and could craft powerful potions that could cure almost any affliction.
Yun Ok had always prided herself on being able to heal her own troubles and had never sought his help. But now she found herself at her wit’s end and so distraught, that with a heavy heart she decided the time had come to seek his advice.
And so it was that one day she finally made her way to his hut, tucked deep in the wilderness of the hills.
As she approached, Yun Ok saw that his door was open. Quietly, she stepped through. The only light inside was that which came through two small windows. Drying herbs and mushrooms hung in little bundles from twisted hemp string, slung across the low ceiling. The smell was pungent – both bitter and sweet. Through the dimness, Yun Ok saw the old hermits back, where he was bent over a small wooden table one in the light of one window, mixing a poultice in a clay bowl.
Just as she thought to announce her presence, with his back still to her he said, “I hear you, young woman. Tell me your trouble.”
In her soft voice, Yun Ok told him why she had come, describing her husband’s condition as best she could.
“Ah, yes,” he said, still facing away “ this is often the case when soldiers return from war. What do you expect I can do about it?”
“Oh, please make me a potion!” Yun Ok implored him, her hands clenched together at her heart, tears at once streaming down her face “Or infuse oil or a drink! Fashion an amulet! Anything, anything at all that can help him!”
At this, the hermit put down his stirring-spoon and turned around.
“Young woman,” he said “I can cure a broken bone, a rash, a cough – or an ear infection. This request is not in my realm of healing categories!”
“Ah – I thought it would be so,” she said, bowing her head down sadly as she wiped tears from her cheeks.
The old hermit paused and sighed “ It will take me three days to look into it. You may come back then.“ So saying, he turned around and went back to his stirring.
Yun Ok pressed her palms together in silent gratitude. Bowing her head briefly, she turned away and with a lighter heart, made her way back home.
To Yun Ok, those three days crept by more slowly than a whole month had ever taken to pass in her life. In fact, to her, it felt like a year had gone by when finally the sun went down at the end of the third day. The next morning she set off, almost running the entire way up to the hermit’s hut. As she moved toward the hut she found him at the door, greeting her with a smile.
“ I have good news,” he said “there is a potion that will restore your husband’s temperament to the loving, kind, and happy one it was. But you must know that it requires a most unusual ingredient, one that will take tremendous courage and patience to obtain.”
In great joy Yun Ok cried out “I will brave anything, anything, to save my husband. Tell me. I will do it!”
The hermit nodded and with steady eyes upon her, said “ Then listen carefully to what it is;
You must bring me one whisker from a live tiger.”
Yun Ok gasped, and struggled for words to express her shock but was stunned into silence.
The Hermit’s gaze on her was steady.
“I cannot make this potion you so desperately seek, without it.” he said, “Now go. There is nothing more to say. Your task is set before you.”
That night, Yun Ok could not sleep. The Siberian Tiger who lived in a cave on the mountain was feared by all who lived in the villages of those parts. He had often hunted the people’s cattle, and twice or three times, had taken the life of a farmer, and child. He was fierce and wild, powerful, and dangerous. She pictured his sharp fangs, his gleaming, yellow eyes. The black streaks on the orange fur of his powerful, swift body and the long, sharp claws. How was she ever going to get close enough to him to get one of his whiskers, without losing her own life? And what would become of her husband then??
She tossed and turned on her mat, sleepless, her mind going around in circles until just as the moon sunk into the horizon, she had steadied herself and made a plan.
By the time the sun had begun to reach fingers of light over the fields behind her, Yun Ok was already a good way up the mountain – with a sack containing a bowl of rice and meat slung over her shoulder.
Up she climbed, forging the trail she would follow daily for the next several months. Until she arrived at the cave in which the Tiger was known to live.
The determined young woman crept up as close as she dared to go. The mouth of the cave gaped wide, and black, and deep, before her. Yun Ok’s heart pounded in her chest as she softly clicked her tongue once, and then again, to call the Tigers attention. And then she set the bowl of meat and rice in the grass.
Slowly she backed away, silently, as silently she could, keeping her eyes fixed on the cave. When she felt it was safe to turn, she scooped up her sack and ran the rest of the way down the mountain. Her feet moved so quickly that she did not even feel the branches tearing her clothes or scratching her arms and legs as she ran.
The next day she went again. When she came to the spot she had left the bowl the day before, she saw that it was overturned, and empty. This time she placed the fresh bowl of food a bit closer to the mouth of the cave and grabbing up the first one quickly, once again ran down the mountain – only this time, less frantically. And so it continued. Each day as the path became more clear and the bowl of food was patiently set a bit closer, Yun Ok’s courage grew.
Almost a month had gone by when one day, as she placed the bowl on the ground she saw the gleaming eyes of the tiger shining out of the quiet depths of the dark cave. Their eyes met – the bright yellow of his and deep brown of hers locking for several long moments – before she backed away, shaking inside, and walked briskly down the trail.
Another week later and she was close enough to see the outline of his massive shape, just inside the entrance. The fine black stripes which stood out against the white fur circling his eyes and the thicker ones, which ran down the orange fur of his spine to the white of his underbelly. Each time she went, he came a bit closer – and she stayed a little longer. Until one day a few months later she found herself directly in the mouth of the cave, with the Tiger lying only a few feet away.
She felt the cool, damp air from inside the cave and the heat of his breath on her skin. Standing as still as stone she hardly dared to breathe, herself. Yun Ok sensed the power of the tiger’s immense presence as she moved a bit further into the cave.
And then she saw him rise, and through the ground felt the weight of his enormous paws, moving towards her. She set down the bowl by her feet and did not waver. In a moment his magnificent striped head bowed down to the bowl, and he ate.
Before she realized what she was doing, she had reached out and placed the palm of her hand between his ears. Pushing her fingers further into the smooth, soft fur, she stroked his forehead. The tiger looked up, and for a moment she froze. But when she heard the deep rumble of a purr coming from his throat, Yun Ok exhaled. The tiger lowered his head again, ate what was left, and slowly turned back into the cave to lie down.
Yun Ok knew that the time had come when she could finally take the whisker.
The next morning was the day she found herself praying on the way up the trail:
‘ “Today – today – let today be the day the fierce Tiger is tame enough to take food from my hand, that I may cut one precious whisker from his jowls!” ‘
This day, along with the bowl of food, she had taken with her a tiny, sharp knife, which she had carefully tucked into her sash. The tiger had already come to where she stood. Yun Ok took a piece of meat from the bowl and held it out toward him.
At first, the great beast sniffed at it and then, pulled it from her fingers with his teeth. After he had finished chewing and had swallowed, she again began to stroke his forehead. The tiger lay down with a long, deep sigh. She kneeled to gently rub the soft skin of his throat. Bending down to his ear she whispered: “Tiger, great tiger, please – forgive me – but I must take one of your whiskers.” The tiger purred contentedly and closed his eyes. Carefully, quickly, she slipped the knife from her sash with her other hand and with one swift stroke, sliced a whisker off at its base. The tiger remained unmoved in a deep, contented sleep.
Slowly she stood and softly spoke her thanks.
Yun Ok turned, looked back once, and for the last time, followed the trail back to the village.
The wait, until her husband left for the rice fields the next morning, seemed endless. The precious whisker was safe in her pocket but as soon as he left, she clutched it against her chest and ran as fast as she could, to the old hermits home.
Breathless, she burst through the door and cried out “I have it! I have the tigers whisker!!”
“ Oh, do you now?” the hermit said, as he slowly turned to face her.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, “it is here, in my hand!” and she stretched out her arm for him to see it.
“Well,” he said, as he took it from her “Well, well! How did you do it?”
As he carefully turned the wiry, smooth, length of the whisker between his wizened fingers, Yun Ok told him how over the last, long months, she had visited the tiger. How she had slowly, patiently gained his trust with the bowl of food until she was close enough to cut off the whisker, without harm.
The hermit examined it closely until he was satisfied that it truly was the whisker of a live tiger, and then –
flicked it into the fire where it sizzled and spat for a brief moment before going up in a thin wisp of smoke.
“What have you done? What have you done?!” Yun Ok cried, horrified “It took me months to obtain the whisker and now, in one second you have destroyed it!”
“Yun Ok,” the old hermit said softly, laying his hand on her shoulder “you no longer need the whisker. Tell me, is your husband more vicious than a tiger? With patience and gradual care, you managed to tame a wild, dangerous beast!
Do you think a man would respond any differently? Go home, and nurture your husband with the same patience and care you showed the tiger. Surely, you know what to do.”
Yun Ok stood speechless as the lesson the hermit had taught her became clear. And then she turned and walked down the trail to her home.
Yes. Now, she knew what to do.