The First Korean

A long time ago, before nations and cities, a lone wizard ventured into a forest after a long journey. Nobody knew where he was from, or where he was going, but at that point in his eternal journey, he was there.

He was drenched. Caterpillars watched from their tired beds as the water on him dried and turned to salt, giving the wizard a sharp, ringing glow, and as he walked into the woods the falling leaves swirled and danced about, to welcome him.

The wizard came to the roots of a large, gnarled tree in a clearing in the center of the forest. He sat down at its base, on a blanket of rose-colored leaves. He called out:

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

And the animals of the forest came rushing. They had been watching him for some time, and although they curious, they would never approach a wizard without invitation. Their fascination helped them put aside their common squabbles, for wizards were rare and would surely have wonders to share.

“Hello, wizard!” they cried. “How can we help you?”

“I would like to know where I might find food,” he repeated.

And so the animals brought the wizard what they could, and he ate well. After he finished, the animals came to him again, flocking to the clearing where he sat. Loudly, they cried,

“Oh wizard,  we would like to ask you a Question.”

“Yes! Yes! A Question! A Question!”

“No, you fool! We should ask for immortality!”

“Or food forever!”

The wizard was amused by their bickering. Now, it is important here to understand that some wizards are unkind. In fact, many of them would have simply taken food, without asking, and left without repayment. For all wizards were powerful. That is what they have in common. They hold no obligations and no responsibilities, and if they wanted to they could rule the world. Fortunately, this particular wizard was kind. Kind and wise, and he knew there was value and joy to be found in goodness and justice; he wanted to help those who had helped him. And so he replied to the animals,

“I will do what is within my power to grant your request. Though unfortunately, I can only grant one.”

The animals erupted in titters again. There was chirping, screeching, buzzing, and from the back, a plaintive howl. Even the adolescent caterpillars, sleeping in their oblivious beds, looked out from their warm beds. The wizard smiled, knowingly.

Amidst the confusion, a roar erupted from the center of the crowd. It was the lion. The lion was the strongest and the fastest of the animals, and so had authority. The animals parted to make a path for her, though some of the stronger ones grumbled as they did so. The lion came to the front, right up to the wizard, and lowered before him her magnificent, golden head. The wizard quickly spoke:

“Please, friend. There is no need for such deference. Address me as you would an equal.”

So the lion lifted her proud head and spoke, with a clarion voice:

“Thank you. If it pleases you, I speak for all the animals here.”

None of the animals spoke, though all present could feel a pressure tightening in the air. The wizard frowned. Then the lion turned her head, the muscles in her body bulging through her sleek coat.

“Unless… someone is dissatisfied?”

Nobody spoke. The lion returned her gaze to the wizard, who continued to look upon the congregation with reproach. He disliked the way in which this decision was made. But he would not interfere. After all, he thought, life was meaningless if all the answers were simply given. The lion spoke again:

“Wizard, I will give your our request. We were not unified. But we are now. We are unified in myself.”

The wizard nodded gravely.

“O wizard, we ask that you make us human.”

The congregation widened their eyes in amazement. Those without eyes lifted their heads still higher. For once, all of the animals were in agreement: this was a worthy request. Without exception, every animal in the forest wanted to be human. They did not know why, but they vaguely felt that if they were human, their lives would be better somehow. The wizard knew this. But still he asked them,

“What do you mean?”

The animals shifted about, none of them knowing how to answer in the right way. Then the lion replied:

“Great wizard, we would like you to transform us. Being an animal in this forest is difficult, and sad, because nothing ever changes. We are trapped. The predators chained to their instincts, the weak to their bleak fates. It is a weary life, and we all long for freedom.”

The animals nodded and cried their assent. The wizard stroked his chin and 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 worried. To create a human was a dangerous thing. So the wizard, in his wisdom, decided on a test, so that he would know which among them was prepared to attain humanity.

“Very well.”

The animals, already rapt in their attention, were now silent. The fear of the lion made them quiet before, but that was not true silence. For even in their fear, their bodies hummed, speaking unconsciously the natural language of breathing things. But now, as they considered the awesome possibility set before them, the animals were for the first time consciously silent. It was an extraordinary thing. The forest was never silent, had never been silent. Not since its conception. It was unnatural. The wizard looked around for a moment, and continued:

“Before I do so, however, you must complete a task, so that I can be sure you are ready.”

“Do not worry,” he said quickly, feeling their anxiety rise. “This thing which I ask of you is not difficult, especially in consideration of the thing you will gain. And if you accomplish this task, I swear that I will make you human.”

The air burned with anticipation.  

“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, to transform those who are successful.”

The forest was silent for another moment, and then all the animals burst into laughter.

“That is all?” The lion grinned, her sharp teeth flashing. “We thought becoming human would be the hardest thing in the world! This is nothing!”

The wizard smiled. “Indeed,” he replied.

But he was not heard. The animals’ raucous laughter rose into the canopy, until the birds heard it, and they lifted it still higher, to the sky above. Even the most serious and wise of the animals, the owl, hooted and guffawed when he heard the wizard say this. But amidst all the laughter, the wizard said to the crowd:

“When the winter months turn to spring, I will return, and I will know who has accomplished this. The successful shall become human.”  

This, too, was lost to them. They were too busy with their mirth. “How easy this will be!” they all shouted. Only one amongst them did not laugh.

The bear hated ginger. She lived off of fish and fruit; other things made her tongue curl up in distaste. The mere thought of eating ginger for a hundred days made her mouth twitch. Yet the bear wanted more than any other to be human. Like the other animals she did not know why, but she knew there could be nothing more important. She felt it, deep within her: this was something that needed to happen. Yes, she said to herself, she would make it happen.

In the coming days the strongest animals, led by the lion, took most of the ginger for themselves, leaving the weaker ones to salvage scraps. And yet, the strongest animals were the first to give up; they 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 already rule over this forest, what more do we need?”

The weaker animals held out longer, scrounging for scraps of ginger, eating it out of sight. Then they, too, 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 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? Does it make sense that a wizard would create humans, who might be able to challenge his powers? No, the wizard must be lying; he will not return for us. Why would he? It is much better to accept what we have, than to strive for something that we do not know exists, and lose the precious little we have worked so hard to gain.”

But even as the animals, both weak and strong, gave in to their reason, they felt a tugging inside their hearts, which seemed to cry ‘No! Continue! Fight!’ But they did not do this. Living life with a purpose, they discovered, was impossible. And within a month, all the animals came to see that there was no point in making their lives harder for an idea that could not be eaten. All, except for the bear.

The bear had taken only a modest amount of ginger, and after a week, she had run out. And so each day she bowed her head and went to the forgotten piles of ginger, already made disgusting by the stronger animals, and made absolutely vile by the weak. Every day, she wondered if this was worth it. Then he would pick up a mouthful and walk back to her den, where she closed her eyes and swallowed the ginger without chewing.

Winter came prematurely that year, erasing the forest in white. The leaves didn’t have time to vanish from the trees before the snow began to fall, thick and hard, on the earth. And while the other strong animals slept with warm, full bellies, the bear moaned at the mouth of her den; she had barely enough to survive. At night her sleep was punctuated by cracking and howling: branches snapping under the weight of the snow, and the wolves, terrified at the wooden thunder.

The bear was awoken, too, by the throbbing of her stomach at night. Her eyes would open in a rare moment of dark silence, the afterimages of food-dreams burned into her vision, taking tantalizing form on the cavern walls around her. She would then go over to her dwindling winter stock of ginger and swallow a mouthful of ginger, her mouth going slowly numb as she chewed her way back into fitful rest.

In the day the bright sun was torture for her eyes when it shone against the gleaming snow. She spent this time with her eyes half open, exhausted but too hungry to fall asleep, watching the weaker animals scurry about, always with something in their mouths or paws, always frantic, always sprinting in their great unconscious race.

She nearly quit. She nearly quit not once, not twice, but thirteen times throughout the winter months. She came up with reason after reason to do so, and some of them were quite good. ‘Why am I doing this’ was a commonly resurgent one, as was ‘I am starving.’ But each time she found herself on the verge of hopelessness a tugging in her heart would win her over, and she would find the strength to go on.

Outside of her, the cold raged and deepened, and the bear tunnelled deep inside of herself to escape it. She was dependent on it, for a while, and she learned lessons about what it was to need and want, and that anything could become an addiction if she wasn’t careful.

She learned other things, too. Things that no animal before her had ever needed to know. She learned that no moment in the world is by itself unendurable. That physical feeling often slides into the spiritual, and vice versa. That boredom is horror in disguise. And finally, that one has the power to decide what has meaning and what does not.

She could decide, if she had the courage and strength, that the agony in her stomach was unimportant. That the thing she wanted (what was it again? The endless waking and dreaming made her forget sometimes) was valuable, and Good. But only if she wanted it to be. If she made it so.

In all of this knowledge she found if not peace of mind, necessarily, then a rough equilibrium, the ultimate balance of which she could never be certain, but sustained her through the endless expanse of time.

And then, slowly, slowly, the wind begin to fall. The snow settled, hardened, and receded as the days grew wider by invisible degrees. And then before anyone noticed anything the white blur had faded away, and colors crept back into the world.

And the bear kept swallowing ginger.

During the winter she had grown weak and thin, and now lay emaciated at the mouth of her den, praying. She didn’t pray to anything in particular, though occasionally the wizard would come to visit in her 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 real wizard finally returned. The leaves, green now, danced as they did before, with all the renewed energy of spring. There was an bemused look to him. The weaker animals saw him coming and their faces turned ashen as they faced their cowardice. The strong were imperious, the lion most of all. They had to be, for they had no real reason to fail. The wizard ignored 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, to see just what would happen.

The insects, the serpents, the birds, the hunters, the runners–all the predators and victims of sky and earth paid close attention as the wizard walked to the bear’s den. There was a hum. The bear opened her eyes to what must have seemed a dream. The wizard reached out, and placed a hand on her snout. They both smiled, knowingly.

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