05/26/2010

The Two Sisters: A Vietnamese Story of Pride and Jealousy

In the foot of a jungle-covered mountain, there used to live an old-woodcutter and his twin daughters, Thảo and Hiền. Despite his old age, the woodcutter works extremely hard for his two children. Every day, he would take his axe and cut huge woods or gather small sticks from the jungle floor to sell to the village nearby.

The twins, on the other hand, were born each with a hump on their back. However, both were blessed with beautiful faces and smooth, fair skin. But despite their being twins, the two girls were extremely different from each other. Thảo is sweet-natured, loving and helpful to their father. Every day, she would take the pail and draw water from the nearby well. She tends their garden and untiringly feed their ducks. She would cook for her father and sister every single day and make sure their hut is clean. She loves to hum around or sing her favorite song as she works on her chores. When she is done with her work, she takes her basket with her and head off to the woods to gather fresh fruits for her father. Her content spirit never made Thảo unhappy about the hump on her back. She believes that a man of pure heart would still be willing to marry her despite her imperfections and love her truly for her character and not her appearance.

In contrast, Hiền is selfish, vain and lazy. But as she appears to be the woodcutter’s favorite daughter, she always gets away with her laziness. Everytime the two sisters are told to catch fish from the pond, Thảo wades into the muddy water with her net while Hiền idly sits under the tree endlessly complaining about how the sun is ruining her fair skin. She would refuse to come near the muddy water, nor touch the fish-filled pails. But everytime they come home, their father would never scold her for not helping out in the chores. Hiền grew up then believing that a beautiful girl like her should never be doing any of the hard work. Despite the unfair treatment, Thảo’s pure heart had always taught her to love her sister dearly and take care of their father faithfully. She continues to do her chores everyday with pure joy and contentment.

One day, their father was very ill and couldn’t get up to gather woods in the jungle. So he decided to call his two daughters. As he lay on his straw mat, Thảo gently fanned him with a palm leaf while putting a damp cloth across his warm brows. On one corner of the room, Hiền crossed her arms as she proudly turns up her nose and complained of the disagreeable smell of the herb concoctions prepared alongside their father’s cot. In a weak voice, their father urged the two girls to go the woods for the day and gather some sticks to sell to the village. Hence, they wouldn’t have anything to eat.

But as usual, Hiền complained and refused to go to the jungle for fear that the sticks and twigs would ruin her delicate hands. She argued about how dangerous the jungle is for a pretty girl like her. But Thảo offered to go to the jungle alone, claiming she is not afraid of snakes and tigers and that she could gather enough sticks to sell to the village. As long as Hiền would take care of their father while she’s out in the jungle, Thảo promised to be home in time, bringing along their dinner. Glad to have his favorite daughter behind, their father agreed.

With a large basket in her hands, Thảo headed for the woods. As soon as she got there, she started gathering all the sticks she could find on the jungle floor. She happily hummed and sang as she was filling her basket one by one with sticks. When her basket was half-full, she went deeper into the jungle in search for more sticks until she reached a place filled with so many twigs and broken branches lying around. Delighted, Thảo quickly gathered everything she could thinking how happy her father might be with all the sticks she would be able to sell in the market. Finally, her basket could no longer hold more sticks, so she decided to start off for the village. When she looked around, she realized she is in an unfamiliar place in the jungle, a part she had never been before.

Realizing she was lost, Thảo tried to find her way back. But the more she retraces her steps, the deeper she goes in the midst of the woods. As hours went by, Thảo realized it was starting to get dark. With a basket full of sticks in her hands, she continued to try to find her way home until darkness engulfed the whole jungle. As she made her way through the bushes and trees, she started to hear some strange noises from afar. Following the noise, she soon saw a small flicker of light. As she grew closer to peek through the leaves, she saw that the light came from a bonfire where a group of mountain tribes-men were dancing and chanting around. The men were dressed in colorful costumes and each was carrying a bow and an arrow.

Fascinated by their singing and dancing, Thảo decided to watch a little longer. But to her surprise, one of the bowmen saw her, quickly leaped from the shadows and began to grab her. As the tribesman led Thảo to the rest of the group, the chanting and the dancing stopped. Seeing a very beautiful girl with a hump on her back, everyone gathered around her with curious eyes. Soon, their leader came forward and commanded that the girl should be tied up. Fearing for her life, Thảo pleaded to be released. When asked what she could offer in exchange for her freedom, certainly Thảo wouldn’t want to upset her father by giving up her basket of sticks. So, she offered to sing them a song.

Surprisingly, the leader agreed and promised her that if her song will delight his tribe, he will let her go. Quietly, the bowmen waited while Thảo cleared her throat. She decided to sing the same song she hums around when she does her chores. She took a deep breath and started to sing. Suddenly, all the bowmen went quiet as the sound of her pure, sweet voice filled the corners of the jungle. As the winds carried the beautiful melody, the birds and the insects stopped chirping and all the animals in the woods stood still to listen. As she continued to sing on, her golden voice rising and falling along with the cool jungle air, the bowmen remained quiet and dazed over such captivating tunes coming from a truly lovely face. When she stopped, everyone seem to have awakened from a deep spell.

With a friendly smile, the tribe’s leader agreed to let her go. But as Thảo turned to leave, the bowmen begged her to stay and sing them more songs. Realizing it was late and that she needed to be home, Thảo declined, but her pure, sweet heart fell sorry for the men who were dearly delighted by her song so she promised to come back the next day to sing again for them. With that, the bowmen cheered and soon she became friends with them. But to make sure she comes back the next day, the leader told her that they would take something from her to ensure her return. Thảo, willing to keep her promise, agreed to him. The leader then removed the hump from Thảo’s back and handed it over to one of the bowmen for safekeeping. He gave her directions out of the jungle and bid goodbye.

It was dark when Thảo reached their hut. For fear that her father would scold her, she told them about how she got lost in the jungle, met the bowmen and how they removed the hump from her back. As her father and Hiền listened, she also told them about her promise to come back the next day to sing them a song. For fear that her daughter might be in danger, her father forbid her to go. But as Hiền jealously watched her sister, who is now without hump, she thought of a sly idea to have her hump removed as well.

Thinking she could take her sister’s place and go to the jungle the next day and sing for the bowmen, she could also come home without her hump. Besides, being twins, they would never know she isn’t Thảo. She begged her father to go to the jungle instead of Thảo, and when her father feared that she would be harmed, Hiền angrily protested and shouted. Finding it hard to refuse his favorite daughter, their father soon agreed.

The next evening, Hiền headed out for the jungle. She wandered around the woods until it grew dark. Finally, when it was very dark and quiet, Hiền heard strange noises from a distance. Just as how she remembered her sister’s story, she followed the voices and saw the same flicker of light. Peeking through the bushes, she saw a group of tribesmen dancing and chanting around a huge bonfire. Then, Hiền walked through the bushes and stood into the clearing. At the sight of her, thinking she was Thảo, the bowmen rejoiced while their leader steered her over the fire where she could sing for everyone.

Without hesitation, Hiền started to sing. But as she was not gifted with a beautiful voice like her sister, the bowmen were surprised. As Hiền went on with her harsh voice, everyone started laughing. Soon, the leader told her to stop and go home. Humiliated, Hiền’s face turned red with anger and she shouted back to the leader. Displeased by her character, the leader told her never to come back. He then called on one of his men to take the hump he asked to be safeguarded, and thinking she was Thảo, the leader gave her back what he believed was rightfully hers to make sure she would never return to bother them again. With that, he placed the hump on Hiền’s back and commanded her to leave, pointing his sharp machete at her. Scared, Hiền hurriedly left the jungle. With now two humps on her back, she came home to their hut in tears. From that day on, she had to carry twice the burden she used to have. Her pride, jealousy and discontent taught her a lesson she would forever carry.