The Unreliable Child

  • New Writer Introduction
  • YERIN CHANG

 

Author’s Note: This original fairy tale is an imaginative retelling of the history of the Koryo-saram population, a minority group of ethnic Koreans in Central Asia. Due to famine and harsh economic conditions brought on by the decline of the Joseon Dynasty, Koreans began immigrating to Russia in the 1860s, only a few years after the first publication of Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Tales. To write this piece, I imagined what it might have been like for characters/elements in Korean folklore to enter the vast world of Russian fairy tales by combining elements of both and by personifying the Koryo-saram population as a lost child, who is made responsible for the chaos and suffers for it.

I would like to thank Sibelan Forrester for guiding me through this project.

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There once was a lost child, with a body too small to tell whether it would grow to be a woman or a man. Yet the child had memories far beyond its age, from a distant land beyond even the Firebird’s reach. Its hair was as dark as rich soil, with eyes equally as dark and large from hunger. It wandered into the woods; in the woods stood a hut, and in the hut lived Baba Yaga who, upon seeing the child, seized it, and brought it into her house.

“The land has smelled like a smell that I have never smelled before,” said Baba Yaga. “And you smell like it too. Who are you? If you don’t answer, I’ll eat you.”

The child remained silent; it would have spoken if it could.

“I see you have hair and eyes as dark as rich soil. You have a hunger in your eyes, the kind I have only seen in the eyes of the Firecat: a terrible beast, with a pelt that blazes like fire, and who smokes a tobacco pipe.1 It smells like you and hunts my prey. Do you know him? If you don’t answer, I’ll eat you.”

The child again remained silent; it would have spoken if it could.

“Someone has been stealing my skulls, and my red horseman has disappeared. Yet the sun still shines, and it gives a girlish giggle.2 I see you are not strong enough to be responsible for any of this, but what do you know? If you don’t answer, I’ll eat you.”

The child once again remained silent; it would have spoken if it could. Baba Yaga sighed. “I see you are mute and cannot speak. Very well, then. I would eat you, but you smell thoroughly unappetizing. So make yourself useful to me: Bring back the red horseman, find out who is stealing my skulls, and slay the beast who eats my prey. Go and complete these tasks in three days – if you don’t, I’ll really kill you!” And the child was pushed out the door.

The child walked and walked, feeling quite sorry for itself and weeping for its fate that it believed was surely doomed. After what may have been a minute or forever, the child looked up and found itself in front of a palace, where a woman who introduced herself as Vasilisa the Beautiful greeted him and gave him food and drink from her own table. True to her name, she was the most beautiful woman the child had ever seen, and it was touched by her kindness.

After the child had eaten and drank its fill and rested, the queen’s white hands reached for the child’s own. “To tell you the truth, child, my hair has been darkening to the color of rich soil, the same hue as your own.3 My husband the king called for the best healers and wisemen in the land, but nothing has succeeded in restoring it. Can you help me?”

The child nodded and immediately set to work, humming a strange song while combing Vasilisa’s hair. With every brush, her hair became lighter and lighter until it shone with all of its former glory, the color of wheat and gold. Vasilisa thanked the child and implored it to stay, but upon seeing that the child was determined to go, she gifted it a shirt that could hide anything in its pockets and protect its wearer from rain. Then the queen kissed the child and bade it farewell.

Now dressed in Vasilisa’s shirt, the child returned to the woods but did not dare enter Baba Yaga’s hut, only looking at it from afar out of fear for its own life. After what might have been a minute or forever, the child spotted a nine-tailed fox fitting one of Baba Yaga’s skulls on its own head.4 Eager to tell Baba Yaga the news, the child rushed quietly to the hut, but not quietly enough for the fox’s ears. The fox pounced on the child and was about to deliver the fatal blow when the child cried: “Help!”

“You can speak to me?” said the fox, retracting its claws.

“Yes! Please have mercy on me,” said the child. “I got lost in a strange land and was captured by a ferocious old woman, who promised would spare me only if I brought back her red horseman, found out who’s been stealing her skulls, and killed the tiger who eats her prey. The most beautiful woman in the world gave me this shirt that can hide anything in its pockets and protect its wearer from rain, but it’s all I have and nothing else.”

“Well, I don’t like the taste of children, anyway,” said the fox after some thought. “But you’ll have to help me hunt. I’m starving.” The child had no choice but to agree.

Per the fox’s instructions, the child tucked the fox in its pocket, hid in a bush, and waited. At dawn, a white horseman rode past. At noon, the sun giggled, but no horseman could be seen. Finally, at night, a black horseman rode into the woods, and the child held on to the horse’s tail before he could pass. Both the horseman and his steed remained oblivious to the small child as they galloped into the night.

“Now!” whispered the fox after what may have been a minute or forever, and the child let go. It was too dark to see anything except for the figure of a man in the distance. Even from afar, the child could see that the man had eyes and hair as dark as night and skin as pale as the moon.

The child released the fox from its pocket, and the creature immediately shape-shifted into a beautiful woman. She approached the man confidently, seductively swaying her hips, and, after what may have been a minute or forever, tore the man’s heart out and ate his liver.5

Reverting back to her original form, the nine-tailed fox snuck back into the child’s pocket, and the child caught the tail of the white horseman’s steed to return.

“Thanks for the meal,” said the fox. “Go to the top of the tallest mountain; you’ll find the tiger there. And don’t worry about the red horseman. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to hide.” The fox was gone before the child could thank her or say goodbye, and it began to rain. It rained as it had never rained before, as if the sun was weeping over her brother’s liverless, cold body.

Protected by Vasilisa’s shirt, the child walked for what may have been a minute or forever and found the Firecat resting, as the fox had promised, at the top of the tallest mountain. The beast eyed the child intently. “Normally, I would eat small ones like you, but I can see that you’re one of us. What do you want?”

“I got lost in a strange land and was captured by a ferocious old woman, who promised would spare me only if I brought back her red horseman, found out who’s been stealing her skulls, and killed the tiger who eats her prey. The most beautiful woman in the world gave me this shirt that can hide anything in its pockets and protect its wearer from rain, but it’s all I have and nothing else. I used the shirt to help a fox, who told me that I would find a tiger here,” explained the child.

The tiger snorted. “Well, we both know that you can’t kill me, and I would very much prefer to live,” said the Firecat.
“Tell that old hag that she sent you in vain; I’m not leaving until I find that bear-woman and dig my claws into her soft, disgustingly human flesh.”6

The child cried its way down the mountain, and, hearing the child’s loud weeping, a fearsome group of one-legged goblins
appeared in tall blue flames.7 “Son of Dangun, why do you weep?”8

“I got lost in a strange land and was captured by a ferocious old woman, who promised would spare me only if I brought back her red horseman, found out who’s been stealing her skulls, and killed the tiger who eats her prey. The most beautiful woman in the world gave me this shirt that can hide anything in its pockets and protect its wearer from rain, but it’s all I have and nothing else. I used the shirt to help a fox, who told me that I would find a tiger here. But the tiger won’t leave until he’s found a bear, and I can’t kill him,” said the child tearfully.

The goblins gave a harsh laugh. “Well, find the crying green frog and silence him, and we will help you.9 His wails have grown louder since he couldn’t find his mother’s grave, and we’ve had enough of it. A small child like you should be able to find him.”10

The child agreed. The green frog was easily found, and the child, after realizing that he would not listen to its pleas, crushed him with its foot. As soon as the deed was done, the goblins appeared once again and slammed their magic clubs against the ground.11 The child suddenly found its arms filled with dried persimmons. Thanking the goblins, the child returned to the top of the mountain, and the tiger, upon seeing the speckled fruit, became terrified, slipped off the mountain, and fell to his death.12 The rain stopped, as if to celebrate; the alien sun had cried herself to death, and the old sun of the red horseman had returned.

The child returned to the woods and led Baba Yaga to the den where the fox had hid. As Baba Yaga approached the fox, the child discovered to its sad surprise that it could not understand entirely what were surely the fox’s pleas. After the deed was done, the child found itself hungry and ate the dried persimmons on its way back to the hut; they were wet from the rain but still tasted almost unbearably sweet.

“Well done. I never expected you to actually succeed, but I’m a woman of my word. Go, and never return. You have disrupted the balance of this world once; I will not let you do it again. I know you can’t speak, so there’s no need to thank me,” said Baba Yaga, with the smallest hint of a twisted grin.

The child remained silent no longer. “I’ve betrayed the nine-tailed fox, crushed the green frog’s head, and killed the sacred tiger. I can’t return; I’ll be shunned.” Tears welled in the child’s eyes. “I can’t even understand what they’re saying anymore.”13

After what may have been a minute or forever in stunned silence, Baba Yaga muttered, “How unreliable,”14 cut the child up into a thousand tiny pieces, and scattered them across the grassland plains. It is said that the parts grew to be dark-haired and dark-eyed people, who still roam the plains today.

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Notes:
1. Korean folktales often begin with the phrase: “In the old, old days, when tigers smoked tobacco pipes . . .”

2. Based on a Korean folktale about a brother and sister who, after praying to heaven to escape a hungry tiger, became the sun and the moon, respectively. They soon switched places because the sister was afraid of the dark.

3. Based on the Korean folktale “Kongjwi and Patwji,” which has close parallels with the Russian folktale “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (except, of course, the colors of the heroines’ hair).

4. Based on the Korean folktale “The Salt Seller & the Fox,” in which a fox shape-shifts by fitting a human skill on its own head.

5. In Korean folktales, nine-tailed foxes (gumiho) shape-shift into beautiful women and seduce men whom they hunt for prey. They are known to especially enjoy eating liver.

6. Based on a foundational Korean myth of the tiger and the bear. Both animals prayed to the Lord of Heaven to become human; the Lord of Heaven ordered them eat only mugwort and garlic and remain out of sunlight for 100 days. Only the bear succeeded and was transformed into a woman.

7. In Korean folklore, goblins (dokkaebi) are mild, friendly, and playful creatures who can be found out in the day only in rain or fog. They are almost always surrounded by magical light or tall blue flames.

8. Dangun was the legendary founder and god-king of Gojoseon, the first kingdom of Korea. According to legend, he is the son of the bear-woman and Hwanung, the Lord of Heaven.

9. Based on a Korean folktale about a green frog that always did the opposite of what his mother asked him to do. On her deathbed, the mother asked to be buried on the riverbank, hoping that her son would do the opposite and bury her on the mountain. The son finally became obedient and buried her near the river, and cries whenever it rains by his mother’s grave for fear that it would wash away to this day.

10. Based on stories that my Korean parents told me about how they and their friends would catch frogs when they were little.

11. Dokkaebi are known to possess magic clubs (dokkaebi bangmangi) which can summon things (basically like magic wands).

12. Based on the Korean folktale “The Tiger & the Persimmon,” in which a tiger overhears a mother and her crying child. The child does not stop when the mother warns that a tiger is coming, but stops immediately when given a dried persimmon. The eavesdropping tiger becomes terrified of the mighty persimmon and runs away.

13. Command of Korean among the Koryo-saram population has continued to fall. According to census data, the number of Russian mother tongue speakers overtook that of Korean mother tongue speakers as early as 1989.

14. Based on how Stalin referred to the Koryo-saram population as “The Unreliable People.” As part of a campaign of massive ethnic cleansing, he forcibly deported them to the unsettled country of Central Asia in 1937. As of 2020, approximately 500,000 Koreans currently reside in the former Soviet Union.

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Her writing is just now being published for the first time. Most of the time in the international literary arena, cliche writing occupies the literary environment. Here comes a new fresh writing.

Alephi is proud to introduce this writer to the international literary arena!

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