Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Cowherd and the Weaver

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From “The Treasury of Vietnamese Folk Tales”
Illustrator: Pham Hoang Van

Deep in the woods there once existed a well with an endless source of pure and cool water known as the Fairy Well. Since few people passed that way, heavenly fairies often gathered there to fetch water, bathe and play.

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One day, a hardworking but lonely young man went deep into the woods to collect firewood and got lost. While trying to find his way home, he stumbled upon the Fairy Well and saw three fairies bathing and relaxing. Noting that they’d left their white wings on the bank, the young man tiptoed closer, stole a pair of wings and hid behind a tree.

After their bath, the three fairies went ashore. The first two found their wings and flew away. While the last fairy searched in vain, the young man stepped out and said: “Please follow me home and be my wife. I will make you happy.”

Although the fairy wept and begged, the young man refused to return her wings. Finally, she agreed to follow him home. Back at his house, he hid her wings and prepared food, clothing and bedding for the fairy. In time, she agreed to be his wife.

Some time later, the fairy gave birth to a son. When the boy was three, the young man loved to watch him play. By this time, his wife seldom asked for her wings or spoke of returning to heaven.

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One day, the young man had to go away to work. Before leaving, he told his wife: “If you get hungry, please take rice from the vang and ré jars. Never touch the rẹ jar, or wasps will sting you and our son.”

The wife didn’t follow her husband’s instructions. Having eaten everything in the vang jar, she turned to the rẹ jar. But instead of wasps, the fairy found her wings hidden beneath the rẹ jar.

Having retrieved her wings, the fairy longed to visit her parents and sisters. Yet she was unused to the wings. Having not flown for so long she was clumsy. She began to practice daily.

In time, she grew used to the wings. But love for her son made her hesitant to leave. When her husband was due to return, she decided it was time to go. She prepared a huge batch of cakes for the boy, waved her son indoors and said: “Please stay at home. If you’re hungry, take these cakes, and don’t ask for me!” She stuck a comb in his tunic and said: “Give this comb to your father.” She then soared into the sky.

When the young man returned, he was devastated to find that his wife had vanished leaving her comb behind on her son’s tunic. Both father and son cried bitterly day and night.

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One day, the pair set off to find the Fairy Well, the path now overgrown with thick bushes. The man kept searching and managed to find the Well, then hid in hopes of seeing his wife. The following day at noon an old fairy flew down to fetch water. The young man begged her: “I am the husband of the fairy who descended to bathe here three years ago. She became my wife and the mother of my son. But all of a sudden she flew back to heaven. Please help us to ask her to fly down to visit us. This is the comb she left. Please take it – my wife will recognize it.”

“I know her”, said the old fairy. “She is a Fairy Weaver and she misses you all day long! I will tell her”.

The young man and his son waited until the following afternoon when two fairies descended from heaven and threw a rope to the young man. They promised to lift the pair to heaven and told them to close their eyes and stay quiet. The two were pulled higher and higher.

At midnight, they entered the heavenly kingdom. The family reunion was joyful.

After two days, the man and boy had to leave. The rules were strict: humans could not stay in heaven. Despite her love for her husband and son, the Weaver Fairy could not return to the mortal world. They had to part ways. That day, the fairy wailed and presented her husband with a drum and a jar of rice. “Once you reach the ground, bang on the drum three times and I will cut the rope,” she told him.

By midday, the father and son were only halfway down. Seeing his son cry in hunger, the man poured out some rice to feed him. The hungry boy spilled some rice onto the drum and a flock of ravens swooped down and pecked at it. Up in heaven, the Weaver Fairy heard the drum beats and thought her husband and son were safely on the ground. She cut the rope and the pair fell into the sea.

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Realizing they were to blame for this tragedy, the ravens flew to heaven crying loudly. The Heavenly Emperor learned of this sad story and took pity on the family, summoning the husband and son to heaven. The Weaver Fairy’s husband was appointed Buffalo Herder and tasked with minding the heavenly buffalos on the far side of the Milky Way. On the other side, the Weaver Fairy worked diligently. To pay for their sins, the ravens were commanded to collect stones each year on Lunar July 7th and carry them to heaven on their heads, then build a bridge across the Milky Way so that the family could briefly reunite.

Since that time, it usually rains on Lunar July 7th. The raindrops are said to be the tears of this heavenly family, who reunite just once a year. It is also said that ravens are bald because they have to carry the stones for the bridge upon their heads.

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