The Tiger’s Whisker

A Korean Folktale Retold by Bonnie Malouf.

Once upon a time, many years ago there lived a man and his wife. They were very happy together and kind to each other. They delighted in their life together, working and enjoying life side by side. They kept their house, worked in their fields, and tended a garden edged each year with a row of yellow and crimson flowers. The man often hummed a wordless tune while he worked, and the woman loved the sound of his voice. In the evenings, they would sit or rock on the porch in silence, simply enjoying their time together.

It was a sad day for both of them when the man was called away to go to war. He was gone for two years, and he missed his wife greatly, and she him. She kept and house and labored in the fields herself, doing double the work. Every day she longed for his return. In the war, the man saw terrible things that disturbed him greatly.

When at last the war was over, the woman waited for his return, her eyes searching the road every day, three, four, sometimes ten times a day. Days went by. Weeks. She worried.

Then one day, when she came home from the market, she saw someone sitting on the porch. Still, not moving. Could it be? She dropped what she was carrying and ran to the house.

It was him! She cried out and embraced him. He patted her awkwardly. But he did not embrace her. He barely looked at her.

“It was hard,” he said.

For weeks, she tried to please him, to talk to him, to draw him out. But no matter what she did, he would only sit, staring down the road. He did not speak. He ate very little. He simply sat. Every day, she would say. “Today please, let us talk. Let it be as it was. But it was not.

Finally, the woman grew angry. “What is wrong with you?” she cried. “Nothing reaches you. Answer me!”But he only sighed, “I know” and looked away.

Her anger spent, she began to worry again. She consulted doctors and friends, but none had an answer.

I ask if this tale reminded anyone of an experience or story of their own… listener, especially elders, have shared their memories of wartime, spouses and hard times in their lives.

Finally, one morning she set out to visit the wise woman who lived at the edge of the forest. It was a day’s journey. Amidst potions and dusty books, and jars lined on endless shelves, she told the wise one about her husband. The wise woman closed her eyes in thought.

“There is,” she said, “one potion for his condition. But I am afraid I do not have all the necessary ingredients. They are very hard to find.”

“What do you need?” the woman answered quickly. “Whatever it is, I will find it.〃

“That will be very difficult, my dear.”

“Just tell me. I will find them.” The woman was determined.

“I will need six yellow berries from a rare mountain thorn bush. Those you may find, though it will not
be easy. The other, though, will be full of danger. ‘

“Tell me.”

“I will need the whisker of the great tiger who lives in the cave at the top of the mountain.”

The woman shuddered. Many had gone in search of the great tiger. But none had returned. The village was full of stories of human bones surrounding the cave. How could she?

“I must,” she said, “and I will.”

On the long trip home, she thought and worried about how she would do this. Arriving home, exhausted from the hours of walking, she had formed her plan for finding what she needed.

The next day, and every day after, she awoke before dawn, she hurried through her chores, stopping only to offer her husband food and drink. When the sun was still slowly rising in the sky, she set off for the mountain. She searched until the sun was disappearing and the light waning. Day after day, she did this, until one day, she reached under a large rock, and pulled out her hand, full of scratches and thorns. She pulled and reached, ignoring the blood on her hands and arms until she had pulled out the whole bush, and there on it were yellow berries! She took six berries, wrapped them carefully in her handkerchief, and hurried home, thrilled with her success.

The next day, she went to the market early, returning with a slab of raw meat. Wrapping it carefully in layers of cloth, she put it in a sack, and walked to the mountain. She started up the path. One step ahead of the next, she dared not think about her goal. When she had walked half way up the mountain, she stopped. She began to sing a song…a lullaby that she had heard as a child. Over and over she sang the simple song.

“Hush, hush, don’t be afraid. Hush, hush, the stars will guide and protect you. Hush, hush, don’t be afraid, my sweet, sweet one.”

She rocked as she sang, singing to herself and to that great one she had never seen. Carefully, she unwrapped the meat, leaving it in the middle of the path. Her footsteps were careful and silent as she backed down the path, and waited far away, from a place where she could watch that meat.

After a time, she felt more than heard a presence. Moving smoothly down the path was a beast – a great beast, greater than she had ever seen, she caught her breath and watched as he paced around the meat, watching, watching. Finally, with a last look, he took the meat and went up the path.

The next day, the woman did the same. But this day, she went a bit further up the path, past the next curve. Again, she sang the lullaby softly, over and over. Again she left the meat in the path and watched from afar until the tiger had come to take it.

Each day became a frightening, but regular routine. Each day, she would go further up the path to sing the song and leave the gift. Each day she would wait until the tiger left.

The days had gone by without counting when she walked around the curve that led to the tiger’s cave. Fearfully, she looked for bones but did not see any. Perhaps they were piled inside his cave. She moved forward and began singing the song, unwrapping the meat. The tiger appeared at the mouth of the cave. The woman did not move. She dared not move nor look at him as he began pacing. Softly, shakily, she sang. It was minutes that stretched eternally before he picked up the meat and padded back into his cave.

“Soon,” she thought “very soon.”

The next day she was frightened and excited. She cooked extra food before she left, and gently caressed her husband. She was not sure she would return.

When she reached the top of the mountain, she sat by the cave, singing. The tiger paced, then finally, lay down beside her. She unwrapped the meat and fed it to him, this time looking into his eyes as he ate. He put a paw on her arm. Her body froze in fright, but a voice in her heart stilled her. In the soft lullaby voice, she sang to the tiger the story of her husband and what she wished from the tiger. At the end of her song, he laid his great head next to her and closed his eyes, as if in agreement.

Still singing, she reached up and held one of his whiskers. He did not move. Quickly she pulled it. Still, he did not move. She sang a song of gratitude to him, and went home.

The next day, she went up the mountain one more time. This time, it was gratitude that filled her heart, not fear, and when she reached the tiger’s cave, she gave him a great piece of meat and lay down next to him as he ate it, singing her gratitude and love to him.

Arriving home, she immediately packed for the day’s journey back to the home of the wise woman. She told her husband, who simply nodded and sat, but seemed to smile just a little.

She knocked at the wise woman’s door excitedly, and rushed in laying her hard-won treasures on the table before the hearth.

“I’ve got them” she cried. “I’ve done what you asked. Now you can cure my husband.”

Without a word, the wise one scooped up the precious berries and the tiger’s whisker and threw them into the fire.

The woman jumped. “How dare you!” she cried, lunging at the old one. “I have spent months finding these, at great danger to myself. How dare you destroy them? Is there now no hope at all?” Tears streamed from her eyes, her voice was hoarse from shouting.

The old woman waited. At last she spoke.

“There is no potion to help your husband. But there is great hope. You are that hope. Just as you spent many days searching for the berries, so you will spend many days looking for the lost heart and soul of your husband. And just as you approached the tiger with great and gently caring, patiently waiting for its trust and love, so you must also approach your husband, whose wounds are so great. The gentle patience of your love will be his healing.

The woman went home. She did not ask anything of her husband, but every day silently offered him her love and support. The chores of house and field she continued to do, as best she could. But sometimes, she would stop in the evening, and go sit on the porch with her husband, sit and rock, or just sit, enjoying the time with him. The lullaby sang itself in her head, and sometimes it came from her lips, gently, softly.

Days went by. Weeks.  Months. A new rhythm developed between them. She got up early, tended the house and the fields, humming and singing. And though he still sat and looked blankly down the road, she felt him closer to her each day.

One day, coming home from the market, she looked for him sitting on the porch, and he was not there.

Frightened, she ran to the house, and almost called out for him.

Then she heard a sound – a wordless humming from behind the house. She followed the sound and, amazed, saw her husband looking in the little flower garden, humming a tuneless song. He did not see her at first, then he turned. He motioned to her.

“Look,” he said, “a new rose. It is just beginning to blossom.”

There in the midst of the garden, still lined with yellow and crimson flowers, grown wild in the last months and years, bloomed a new flower. It was a vibrant yellow, rimmed with crimson.

“It’s beautiful!” she said.

Together they stood in silence, touched by the beauty of a flower and by the mystery of life already lived so completely, and yet still full of unexpected gifts.

He reached out his hand and there, in the garden, she took it.

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Telling The Tiger’s Whisker

Compassion and patience can help us cope with trauma and grief. Following the tale, I let people sit in silence for a few moments (although often an eagerness to talk interrupts that silence) and then I ask if this tale reminded anyone of an experience or story of their own. People typically have a lot to say, usually sharing personal stories of how patience and perseverance have been hallmarks of love and how deep wounds have been healed by another’s faithful presence. More than once, listeners, especially elders, have shared their memories of wartime, spouses, and hard times in their lives.

“I guess it says we can save someone’s life if we are really their true friend.”

The story seems to elicit both an honesty and gentleness that is healing in itself and in the emotional tone it sets for the sharing of very old hurts. I have told this folktale at pre- wedding gatherings and anniversaries, with very touching responses.

I have also told this folktale to children from third grade through high school, while discussing themes of community involvement and service. Following the telling of this story, one class interviewed senior citizens about their lives. Student sensitivity seemed heightened by the experience of listening to the tale.

When I told this story to my fourth grade students, I started with a “quieting” activity. Next I asked the class to think of times they had been given something precious, and times they had lost important people or things. Then I told them ”The Tiger’s Whisker”.  After the story, they immediately wrote poems, thoughts, or stories in their journals, and later shared these with the class.

The depth of their feelings was immense. Many of the students spoke about how they felt afraid and lost after the attacks on September eleventh of this year. Some spoke of losing grandparents. Many shared, but one little girl’s response I will never forget. “It is a story that tells us how to be friends,” she said. “My friend might seem fine, and then suddenly I find out that something is really wrong in her life. This story shows me that I could be her friend all the way until she’s okay and how much I could help if I never give up on her. I guess it says we can save someone’s life if we are really their true friend.” I cannot think of a better definition of healing than that.


This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, Spring 2002.

Bonnie Malouf is a professional storyteller who delights in telling stories to all age groups. She teaches storytelling workshops developed for parents, teachers, caregivers, teenagers, camp counselors, and children. In these workshops, Bonnie helps others to relax and enjoy telling stories.


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