The First Korean

A long, long time ago, before nations or cities, a wizard ventured into a forest after a long journey. He came to the roots of a large tree in the center of the forest and fell to the ground, exhausted. He called out:

“Is anybody here? I have travelled far, and I am hungry, and I would be very grateful for some food.”

And all the animals in the forest came rushing over. They were excited, and put aside their petty squabbles, for wizards were rare, and would surely have something of great wonder to share with them.

“Hello, wizard!” they cried. “How can we help you?”
“I would like to know where I might find some food,” he replied “You see, I have travelled far, and I am very hungry.” the wizard replied.

So the animals all brought the wizard a share of their food, and he ate very well. After he was done, the animals came to him again and asked,

“Oh wizard,” they said.  “Now that you have eaten, we would like to ask: what can we do to be more like you?”

Odd as it was, the animals of this forest wanted nothing more than to become human. They wanted it deeply, and loudly. They did not know why, but they did know that if they were human, their lives would be better somehow. The wizard knew this. Even so, he asked them,

“What do you mean?”

The animals shifted about, none of them knowing how to answer in the right way. Then finally, the bravest of them, the tiger, bowed his head and grunted:

“Great wizard, we would like you to transform us. Being an animal in this forest is difficult and sad, for nothing ever changes. The predators will always be predators and the weak will remain weak. It is a weary life, and we all long for the agency which humans possess.”

The animals nodded and softly cried their assent. The wizard stroked his chin as he considered this. He would like to do the animals this favor, for they had fed him when he was hungry, and treated him with respect. But he was worried. To create a human was a very dangerous thing, after all. So the wizard, in his wisdom, decided to test them, so that he could be sure of their fortitude and goodness. He said this:

“Very well. I will teach you all the secret to becoming human.”

The animals, already rapt in their attention, were utterly silent. And what an odd thing it was! For the forest was never silent, had never been silent, since its conception. Never, until now, with all the animals considering this awesome possibility. The wizard looked around him for a moment, and continued:

“What you must do is not very difficult, especially in consideration of the thing you will gain.”

The air burned.

“What you must do is this: for the next one hundred days, you must eat nothing but ginger. This will prepare you in the right way. And after one hundred days have passed, I will return here, and transform those who are successful into humans.”

The animals burst into laughter.

“That is all?” They said. “We thought that becoming human would be the hardest thing in the world! This is nothing! Nothing”

The wizard smiled. “Indeed,” he replied.

But he was not heard, for all the animals were laughing, and laughing loudly, and they kept on laughing until long after he had left. Even the most serious of the animals, the owl, hooted and guffawed. Only one amongst them did not laugh. For the bear bitterly hated ginger. He lived off of meat and honey, and anything else, made his tongue curl up in distaste. Yet the bear wished more than any to be human.

The next day, the strongest animals took most of the ginger for themselves, leaving the weaker animals to salvage scraps. And yet, the strongest animals were the first to give up; they quickly recoiled at the taste of ginger, as they were so used to eating meat. The smell of it soured their noses and tongues, until even their meats gained a tang. And so they surrendered to their challenge.

“Why bother?” They asked, “When our lives are already so comfortable? We rule over this forest, what more do we need?”

And they were unhuman.

Then the weaker animals slowly began to fold. For the strong animals had, after giving up on their challenge, left all their ginger to rot. The only choice left to weaker animals had was to eat rotten ginger, which would make them sick. This was unthinkable. What of their families? Instead of doing this, they reasoned,

“How do we even know that the wizard is telling the truth? Look at how the strongest animals abuse their powers, to keep themselves powerful. Does it make sense that a wizard would create humans, who have the potential to challenge his powers? No, the wizard must be lying; he will not return for us. It is much better to accept what we have, than to strive for something that we do not know exists.”

And they were unhuman.

But even as the animals, both weak and strong, gave into their discourse, they felt a tugging inside their hearts, which seemed to cry ‘No! Continue! Fight’. But they did not. Living life with a goal, it turned out, was enormously difficult, and all the animals eventually saw that there was no point, no real reason, to make their lives worse in the service of an idea that could not be eaten. All, except for the bear.

The bear had taken only a meager amount of ginger, and so quickly ran out. Thus, each day he bowed his head, and went to the forgotten piles of ginger left behind by the other strong animals. The ginger had grown grey and gnarled and hard, but fighting his disgust, he picked up a mouthful and walk back to his den, where he would close his eyes and swallow the ginger without chewing it.

Winter came, turning the entire forest into a dull white blur. While the other strong animals slept with full and warm bellies, the bear moaned at the mouth of his den; he had barely enough to survive. He spent his days watching the weaker animals scurry about from tree hollows and holes in the ground, always with some thing in their mouths, always with their snouts to the ground, running around and about in their great unconscious race.

The bear often wondered what the point of it all was. He almost quit, on several occasions. He came up with reason after reason to quit, and some of them were quite good. But each time, when he found himself on the verge of hopelessness, the tugging in his heart would win him over, and he would find the strength to go on for another day–another week–a month?

He learned, achingly, that no single moment was past endurance, and that all things could be taken slowly, and that forcibly ignoring the huge scope of the thing he wanted to accomplish, and instead focusing intensely on the present moment, was the only way to survive. And then it was spring. The white blur faded away, giving rise to colors and smells that seemed impossible.

And the bear swallowed ginger.

During the winter he had grown weak and thin, and lay emaciated at the mouth of his den, praying. He didn’t pray to anything, exactly, though occasionally the wizard would visit him in his dreams. The wizard never did anything in them: he simply would watch the bear and then, after some time, walk away.

Several days passed this way, the bear dreaming and the world blooming, until one day the wizard finally returned. The weaker animals saw him coming and their faces were ashen. The stronger animals were imperious; they had to be, for they had no excuse. The wizard passed them all. He came into the shadow of the trees, and made his way towards the bear’s den. And as he walked, all the animals of the forest trailed behind him, heads jutting out in curiosity.

The rodents, the serpents, the birds, the insects, the tigers, the lizards, the old hippopotamus, all the predators of the sky and earth, even the grass and the trees, watched and paid close attention as the wizard walked over to the bear’s den. All was quiet. The bear woke, and the wizard placed a hand on his snout. They both smiled, knowingly.


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