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The Magpie and The Bell

2006-07-09 00:54

  It was a long, long time ago. A bright young man was living in a small village surrounded by mountains. After several years of study for the state examination (Kwagu) for government services, he finally embarked on a long journey to the capital city for the examination. He was excited about taking the examination for which he had worked so hard. He walked and walked for a few days from dawn till dusk. He passed through numerous villages and walked through the forests and twisted mountain passes. He was eager to reach the destination as soon as possible.

  One day, as usual, he started early for the day. After several hours of walk through nearly untravelled mountain passes, he was about to turn around a thick growth of bushes, when he heard agonizing crying sounds of a bird. “C-a-w! Caw! Caw! Caw! C-a-w! C-a-w!” Thinking that something tragic was happening to the bird, he ran toward the area. He stopped just below a tall pine tree. The sound came from a magpie's nest on top of the tree. Looking up at the tree top, he tried to investigate the situation closely. There he found a huge snake ready to attack a magpie guarding chicks in her nest. With a bow he was carrying on his back, he shot at the snake. The snake was hit and fell to the ground. It all happened in a matter of moments.

  The young man, then, continued his way, satisfied that he rescued the birds just in time from being swallowed by the snake. He kept walking without even realizing that it was getting dark. He found himself deep in the mountain with no village in sight. Soon it became completely dark and he could hardly see anything other than the night sky through the trees. With exhaustion and hunger pressing down on him, he could hardly take another step. Suddenly he felt a little scared. “Where shall I spend the night?” He looked around in the dark, hoping to find some shelter, when his eyes caught a faint lamp light at quite a distance away. Mustering all his strength, he stumbled toward the light.

  Who would have expected to find such a huge mansion in the midst of a deep mountain? “Hello!…… Is anybody home?” He pounded the gate, shouting with all his strength. “Hello, is anybody there?” After a while, he heard someone opening the gate. It was a beautiful young girl. “It got dark on my way to Seoul. I'm going there for the coming state examination. Would you be kind enough to let me stay overnight?” “Oh, of course, step inside, please. You must be very hungry and tired. I'll prepare something for you to eat.” In no time did she come back with all sorts of rare delicacies. After the feast, the young traveler was overcome by exhaustion. Night was getting deeper. He fell sound asleep.

  The young man was awakened by the sudden feeling of being stifled and choked. He found himself completely coiled and strangled by a huge snake. “He……lp! Help!” He could hardly breathe. “No use screaming, my boy! No one is around here to save you. And I have been waiting for you!” The young man now realized that that beautiful girl was in fact this very snake in disguise. “You are my enemy, my boy. You didn't think you could get out of this mountain safely, did you?” “Enemy? I do not understand. What did I do to you to become your enemy?” “You don't understand, eh? Then, I will tell you why.”

  The snake lady told him that the snake he shot to death earlier that day was her husband and that she lured him into this house in order to revenge her husband's death. Things now became clear to the young man. “Now I am in deep trouble. There is little hope that I can get out of this situation alive.” The young man begged in a trembling voice. “I did not kill your husband because I hated him, but I did so only out of pity for that little magpie. I am now on my way to Seoul to take the important examination after ten years of hard work to prepare for it. Please, do not treat me as enemy. If you spare my life, I will never forget your generosity. Please, mercy on me.”

  The snake would not listen to his plea; instead, constricted his body even harder. He could hardly breathe. He pleaded once again with tears in his eyes. “All right, I'll spare you, if you comply with my wishes.” “Yes, I will. Please, tell me whatever your wishes are.” “Fine. Listen carefully. Deep in this mountain, there is an old abandoned temple. No one lives there now. In that temple, there is a huge bell still hanging. If you toll that bell three times, I will let you go.” “Yes, that can't be too difficult.”

  “But wait, my boy! You are jumping the gun! Don't be so sure! You must ring the bell from here, from right where you are now!” And the snake continued to tell him that if he tolled the bell three times she would be transformed into a dragon and rise to Heaven, and that that was the only way he could save his life.

  The young man felt he was in an impossible situation. “By no means would it be an easy task even to find the temple in this pitch-dark night, much less toll the bell from here in this state of captivity.” The young man resigned himself to his fate with his eyes closed.

  All was so very quiet for a while. Then, suddenly the silence was broken by the bell sounds: “Ding…… Ding…… Ding……” Exactly three strokes of the bell resounded one by one through the silent night air. No sooner did the snake hear the bell tolling than she freed the young man and flew into the dark sky. And, at the same time, the big, elegant house also disappeared in the air like smoke.

  Everything happened so fast that the young man was in a daze. “What a strange happening! Who tolled the bell?” Soon it was dawn. Still bewildered, he set out to find the abandoned temple. After a few hours of walk, he finally found a half-ruined temple with its belfry still intact. Just below the bell, there lay three blood-covered magpies dead with their beaks and heads smashed by the impact.

  This is a story of heroism and retribution. A young, aspiring scholar kills a snake in order to save a magpie. A companion snake, then, lures him into a situation where she wants to revenge. At the last moment, the young scholar is saved by the thankful young magpies, repaying his kindness with their own lives. In this story, magpies symbolize the weak who do not bother anybody, while snakes represent the strong and powerful who prey tyrannically on the weak. The young scholar is a symbol of heroism and righteousness. In Korea, a popular folk belief has it that the magpie is a bird of inspirational instinct, which can foretell people that they will have visitors or house guests in the near future. When magpies make chattering calls on a tree near their house, some people may say: “We may have guests today.”


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