The Story Bag

This is a story from Korea, told to me today by my friend, D.


Long long ago in Korea lived a very rich family with just one child. He was called Sang-wook, which means “healthy”. He loved hearing stories. He would collect them from everyone he met, wherever he went. From teachers, grandparents, visitors, from shop keepers, dog walkers or waiters. To everyone he met he would say, “Tell me a story.”


Every time Sang-Wook found a new story he would keep it somewhere safe - in a special bag he carried with him everywhere. And of course, as he grew and his collection grew, the story bag got bigger and bigger until he was soon having to squeeze the new ones in because there wasn’t any space left.  So to keep any of the stories from escaping, Sang Wook found the strongest string he could and tied the bag at the neck with his best double knot. 


Years passed. Sang-Wook grew into a young man and soon he was ready to marry. As was the custom at the time, his family chose him a bride. Everyone prepared for a very big wedding and the arrival of the new bride to Sang-Wook’s house. One of the people helping with all the preparations was an old servant who had been with the family for many, many years. She had known Sang-Wook since before he was born. Her name was Ji Woo, which means "great wisdom”.


As everyone prepared for the wedding, Ji Woo was working in the kitchen. She was in a peaceful state of mind, doing her work and happy to see Sang-Wook ready for the next stage of his life-adventure.  But then she stopped. She thought she could hear something. What was it?  She listened very carefully: it was like a whispering. A muttering. And not just one voice, but lots.  She tried to follow the sound, and came to stand next to a bag that was hanging from a hook on the wall.  That’s right - it was Sang-Wook’s story bag.  So important to him as a child, he had forgotten about all it and now it was hanging up in the kitchen. 


Ji-Woo put her ear to the bag and listened carefully.  This is what she heard. “Listen, everyone,” said a voice. “It’s Sang-Wook’s wedding tomorrow. We’ve been cooped up in this bag, all on top of each other with no room to breathe, for so long and he has forgotten all about us. This is no way to treat stories! I think we should make him pay.”


“I agree,” said a second voice, “That’s exactly how I feel. I’ve worked up a bit of a plan. When Sang-Wook leaves the house on his horse to meet his bride, I will turn myself into bright red berries by the roadside, all gorgeous and ripe. And I will wait for him. And I will be poisonous!” Ji-Woo heard this and put her hand over her mouth in shock. A third voice piped up. “And, if he doesn’t die after eating the berries, I will turn myself into a bubbling spring. My clear water will make him thirsty and he will drink me. And I will also be poisonous!” Then a fourth voice spoke: “And if you fail, I’ll become a red-hot iron poker, hidden in the bag of hay that’s placed by every bridegroom’s horse. When Sang-Wook steps on when he gets off his horse at the bride’s house, I’ll burn his feet!” Then a fifth voice said: “And if that fails, I’ll turn into a poisonous snake, and hide in his bed!”


Ji Woo was very upset by all she heard and determined that she would not let Sang-Work come to such harm. And she made her own plan. 


The next morning, Sang-Wook was ready to leave his family home and travel on his horse to the home of his new bride. To his surprise, Ji Woo was standing by his horse. “As your oldest servant, I will accompany you,” she said. It was very unusual for a woman to do such a job, but after some good-natured talk, Sang-Wook agreed. 


After a while, Sang-Wook and Ji Woo reached a field. By the roadside were many bright berries. “They look delicious. Pick me some,” said Sang-Wook. But Ji Woo would not. In fact, she pretended not to hear and just carried on, perhaps even walking a little bit faster.   


A few minutes later, they heard the beautiful sound of a bubbling spring and saw its clear, beautiful waters. “Bring me some of that water, Ji Woo,” said Sang-Wook. “I really need a drink.” But again, Ji Woo ignored her master and made the horse go faster. Sang-Wook grumbled, but Ji Woo took no notice.


Soon they reached the bride’s home. A large crowd was waiting for them and cheered at their arrival. Ji Woo led the horse into the yard and it stopped next to a bag of hay, which Sang-Wook was supposed to stand on according to Korean tradition.  But as Sang-Wook climbed off his horse, Ji Woo pretended to trip and knocked Sang-Wook so that he could not step on the bag, where she knew a story had hidden itself as a red-hot poker. Sang-Wook fell to the floor and was very cross. But he would not shout at Ji Woo in front of these strangers and his new bride. Silently, he went to his wedding. 


The wedding was a very happy one. Nothing horrible happened and afterwards, the bride and groom travelled back to Sang-Wook’s house. Night came and the couple went upstairs to bed.  Ji Woo found herself a sword and hid behind the curtains in their bedroom, ready to save them from any poisonous snakes. 


But the bride was wearing a strong perfume and it tickled Ji Woo’s nose. She couldn’t help herself and just as the couple were about to get into bed she SNEEZED! Achoo!  Immediately, Sang-Wook leapt towards the curtains and tore them apart, expecting a bandit. But it was just Ji Woo, the old woman who he’d known since he was a baby. 

“Ji Woo!” he said crossly. “What on earth is going on with you? You’ve been acting strangely all day! Why are you trying to ruin my wedding day?”


“Young master,” said Ji Woo. “Let me explain in a moment, but please, first, will you and your wife please step back”? And with her sword in her hand, she kicked back the bedding and lifted up their mattress. There - as Ji Woo expected - was a horrible snake, waiting to harm the young couple.  With one slash of her sharp sword, Ji Woo got rid of it and threw it out the window.


Then she finally sat down and told the young people the story of the whispers she’d heard coming from the bag on the kitchen wall. “My story bag!” cried Sang-Wook. “I kept them tied up!” His bride looked at him in surprise. “Don’t you know that stories must be shared?” she said. “A story is a living thing. It needs tongues and ears and hearts and dreams, just as you need food and water.” Sang-Wook went very quiet.  “I had so many,” he said. “But I didn’t want to share them. I wanted to keep them for myself.” “They must be shared,” said the bride. “Or else, as we know, they turn very nasty indeed!” 


Sang-Wook leapt up and the three of them went into the kitchen. Very carefully he went to the bag hanging on the hook. “I’m very sorry, dear stories,” he said, “I’m going to share you right now.” And he took down the bag. Ji Woo lit the fire and the bride called the servants to come and shar their evening. Sang-Wook spent whole night sharing all his stories with the whole of the household, and said to them, “I want you to share these stories with everyone you know, so they can spread them and they will never be lost again.”


Let’s Think

* Have you ever used a story to understand a problem in everyday life?

* What stories do you enjoy sharing with people you love?

* What other things, like stories, work best when they are shared?