The Salt Peddler and the White Fox

(This story was originally posted on Dr. Jason N. Joh's page of Korean legends and folk tales.  Since that page is now only available from the Wayback Machine, we are reprinting it here).

(NOTES): People who are judged to be merely cunning, sly and clever are often kept at a distance, sometimes hated, and even feared. Whatever the original reasons may have been, the fox is a symbol for such a disgusting person. The longer they live, the more cunning and slyer they would become. The longer the fox lives, so is it believed, the more disgusting it becomes by acquiring evil supernatural power. In this story of a salt peddler and a fox, a simple, ordinary poor peddler fights with courage the evil spirit, symbolized by the old fox, and wins. The death of the fox may be the death of human meanness, a base, ignoble quality of man, which is good only for making others hurt and miserable.

Long, long ago, there was a salt peddler who was very poor. One day, as he had been doing everyday, he left his house early in the morning with a sackful of salt on his back. He travelled from one village to another, peddling salt to the villagers. After his last visit for the day to a remote village, he headed for home. He was virtually dragging his feet due to exhaustion from the day's work. He was still far away from his home when dusk settled in. It became completely dark in the middle of a rugged mountain with the dense growth of brushes and trees. Overwhelmed by fatigue and darkness, he could proceed any longer; so, he looked around to find some shelter for the night.

After a while, a huge rock caught his eye, He managed to reach the rock, whose top could be seen against the night sky. He put down his empty A-frame back carrier. He then noticed a cave-like hollow spot at a corner of the underside of the rock. The cave was large enough for him to crawl into and stretch himself; so, he settled in for the night. His eyelids became heavier and heavier. He was about to fall asleep, when he heard a strange sound. He became wide awake. So frightened was he that his hair stood on end. "What could it be?" With both jaws pressed against each other and holding his breath, he peered into the dark. He could not see anything unusual. He stuck out his head slightly. He could hear the sound more distictly. it was a faint voice of a woman.

Since it was unmistakably a human voice, he felt a little relieved. "But, what is she doing at this time of the night and in this rugged mounatin?" Curious, he crawled out of the cave to look around. However, he could not see a woman or anything else unusual. So, he came back to his shelter and lay down, hoping to sleep.

The salt peddler tried to forget everything and was ready to sleep, when he heard something, again. It sounded even more strange coming from somewhere above. He crawled quietly out of the cave, again, and looked up at the top of the rock. And he almost screamed! He saw a white fox, with her long tail drooping, sitting on top of the rock and grinding a human skull against the surface of the rock. The peddler was all but petrified at the frightful sight. But with all the courage he could muster, he crawled ever quietly toward a big tree nearby and watched every move of the fox behind it. The fox apparently did not notice him. She kept grinding the skull, occasionally turning it and apparently making it into some kind of container. After a while, the
fox was trying the skull container on her head and, when it did not fit well, she muttered with an irritated voice. She kept grinding and then tried it on, again. She repeated these several times, until finally she was satisfied. "Now, it fits! It's perfect." She wore the skull container and made several tumbling feats like an accomplished acrobat.

The whole scene gave the peddler icy chills in his spine. Though scared and shaking, he was staring at the fox so that he would not miss anything she did. After several more tumbling feats, the white fox suddenly disappeared and, instead, there stood a stooped old woman. Tidying up her hair, she talked to herself: "Oh, dear me, I'm a little late; they must be waiting for me anxiously." Then, she jumped down and started walking toward the village the peddler visited last that day.

The peddler soon became more curious than frightened, and decided to follow the old woman. Often he had to run to catch up with her. When the granny finally reached the village, she went straight into the house of the wealthiest in the village. "Here I am...finally!" When she announced her arrival, there was a commotion in the house, people dashing out to meet and greet her and asking why she was so late. The old woman seemed to know why she was expected there. She went straight into the room reserved for the housewife and her guests.

The peddler then approached the gate and asked for an overnight stay. Well known to the villagers, he was led to a male guest room across the women's living quarters. It was close to mid-night. The peddler lay down on the floor, trying to listen to every sound coming from the women's room across a small court yard. He could hear only indistinguishable noises. After a while, everything quieted down. Then, suddenly, there was a loud gong sound, followed by someone chanting incantations with intermittent interruptions by low, steady gong sounds. The peddler could swear that the chanting voice he heard was that of the old fox-woman. He sensed that something terribly wrong was going on in that room. "Without knowing the real identity of that old woman, they are letting her chant spells. The old fox must be cursing on someone, pretending to be exorcising some evil spirit," he thought. He felt he must do something about it. Just then, a farmhand of the house came into the room to sleep. "What's going on there? Is anybody ill?" asked the peddler. The farmhand casually said that because the old master of the household suddenly fell seriously ill, the family invited the granny, an old acquaintance who had the reputation of being the magic chanter in the vicinity, for her service. He hardly said that before he started snoring. Things were as the peddler had suspected. Except for occaslonal gong sounds, it was rather quiet. Perhaps, family members all fell asleep.

The salt peddler came out of the guest room and tiptoed across the court yard toward the women's quarters. The old woman's chanting was almost imperceptively low and mumbled. He stepped quietly up onto the wooden floor and sat in front of the paper-pasted sliding door of the room. Wetting his forefinger and gently pushed it through the paper door. Then he peeped into the room through the hole. All but the old woman were sleeping. The old fox-woman was still chanting spells with her eyes closed and with a gong stick in her right hand. The peddler listened carefully to her chantings in order to discern what was being said. "...this is mine, my feast... if this old stock ... Dies.... Die...die...hurry up and die! After you are dead, your soul, too, will be mine. Die! Die! Hurry up and go to hell! The sooner..., the better...." This old witch must be smiling, too, though the peddler could not see it.

The peddler felt indignation. It was upsetting to see the family members sleep without knowing what was really going on. He could not merely sit there doing nothing about it. He slipped down from the floor and went to a storage room. He came out with a wooden pestle and dashed into the family room. Everyone got up from sleep and looked at this mid-night intruder with a pestle in his hand. Without a single word, the peddler struck the old chanter hard on the head with the pestle. Everyone in the room jumped up and stepped aside, astonished and dumbfounded. And the old fox-woman fell flat with the barking sounds of a fox, and turned back into a white fox with a cracked human skull on its head. While all this was happening everyone in the whole house gathered in the room, looking at one another and at the blood-covered fox. The peddler then told them about what had happened since that evening in the mountain. "How horrible! It was close! The master would have died...."

Next morning, the old master recovered as suddenly as he had fallen ill. The salt peddler was richly rewarded by the master, and from that day on he lived happily without having to peddle salt any longer.

The Fox Girl

From Korean Folktales by James Riordan

There was once a wealthy man who had a son but no daughter.  So badly did he want a daughter that he spent much of his time praying at temples and consulting fortunetellers.  Finally, his prayers were answered and a girl was born: she was the apple of her fathers’ eye and could do no wrong.

           When she was fifteen years old, the girl went mushrooming on the mountainside and was so engaged in her task that she did not notice the gathering shadows of dusk.  Meanwhile, at home, her parents were becoming anxious, and they formed a search-party to comb the hills.  However, just as they reached the top of a ridge they spotted the girl through the gloom in the valley below.  Her father was much relieved.

           ‘Where have you bee, my dear?’ asked her father ‘We were so worried for you; a wild beast could have killed you.’

           ‘Forgive me, Father,’ she replied.  ‘I was so tired I fell asleep beneath a bush; when I awoke the sun was already going down.’

           The incident was soon forgotten.  But a few days later a strange thing happened: one of the master’s cows died in the night.  Next night another died, then another.  The bodies showed no sign of wound or illness.  The master was so concerned he ordered the cowherd to keep watch all through the night to catch the culprit.

           That night, the man hid behind some hay in the corner of the cowshed and waited patently.  At midnight he was astonished to see the master’s daughter creep into the shed and approach a cow.  Anxiously he watched her oil her hands and arms with sesame oil; then to his horror, she slipped her arm into the cow’s belly and pulled out its liver. And she ate it.

           The poor cow rolled over and died.

           In the morning the cowherd went to the master and recounted all he had seen.

           The father, who loved his daughter with all his hear, shouted angrily at the man, ‘How dare you invent such wicked stories against my daughter.  You will pay for these lies.’

           And the man was dismissed.

           Next night a second cowherd was set to guard the cows.  He too hid behind some hay and witnessed the daughter’s odd conduct: she oiled her hands and arms, thrust one arm into the cow’s belly, pulled out the liver and ate it.  And the cow rolled over and died.

           Next morning he went to the master and told him the story.

           The father still would not believe such tales of his beloved daughter.  So the man was dismissed.

           A third herdsman spent the night in the cowshed and reported all he had seen.  He too was sacked.

           Thus it continued: each night a cow died.  Then, when no cows were left, the pigs began to die, and then the horses all of the same mysterious ailment.  In the end, all the cowherds, swineherds, and stable boys were dismissed and no one from the village would work for the rich man. All that was left of the once-mighty herd of cattle was a solitary old horse.

           Next night, the master sent his only son to solve the mystery. The young man concealed himself behind some hay and kept watch.  In the middle of the night he heard footsteps and the barn door opened.  It was his sister stealthily entering.  In his relief, he was about to cry out to her.  Yet something in her look stopped him: her eyes were sly and narrow, her thin lips cruelly curled, her face stony and stern.

           He stared in disbelief as she greased her arms and thrust them into the horse’s belly, pulling out its liver. With blood dripping from her lips, she then chewed and swallowed the steaming meat.

           He dared not breath until she had returned to the house.

           At dawn he called his father into the barn and showed him the dead horse.

           ‘Father,’ he said grimly, ‘you will not like what you hear; but I must tell you the truth.  It is my sister. She it is who came in the night and ate the horse’s liver.’

           His father stared at him with hurt and anger in his eyes. He was silent for a moment, then shouted at his son, ‘you must be madly jealous of you sister to make up such tales.  No doubt you fell asleep and had a nightmare.  Get out of my sight, I don’t want you in my house.’

           Not knowing where to go, the disconsolate son wandered off into the hills.  After several months he came upon an old monk struggling across a mountain stream.  Having helped the monk to safety, he was invited to stay the night at a nearby temple.  And there he told the story of this sister.  The old man nodded sadly.

           ‘Yes, I understand,’ he said. ‘That night, when your sister was in the hills, she must have been eaten by a fox who took her form, the very likeness of your sister.  So it was really the fox who killed the animals.’

           ‘Then I must return at once,’ the lad exclaimed, ‘and warn my parents.’

           ‘I fear it is too late,’ said the old monk. ‘Morning is wiser than evening.  Set out tomorrow.’

           Next morning, the young man was given three small bottles: red, green, and blue.

           ‘Take this horse,’ said the monk, ‘and use the bottles as I have instructed.’

           With that the boy thanked the monk and rode off down the mountain track.  It was several days before he arrived home.  Once there, he could hardly believe his eyes: the house and yard were overgrown with weeds.  And there, in the middle of the yard, was his sister, sitting in the sun, catching lice and worms, and eating them.

           ‘My dear brother,’ she cried on seeing him.  ‘Where have you been all these months?  How I’ve missed you.’

           She went to hug and kiss him, but he drew back in alarm.

           ‘Where are Father and Mother?’ he asked.

           ‘They lie in their graves,’ she replied, giving no explanation for their deaths.

           Realizing that she had eaten them too, the young man knew he had to escape before she killed him as well but how?  Suddenly he had an idea.

           ‘Dear Sister, I have come a long way and I’m very hungry,’ he said.  ‘Could you prepare a meal?’

           He thought he would escape while she was cooking.  But the fox girl was cunning.

           ‘Assuredly, dear Brother.  But I shall tie a rope to your leg and the other end to my waist.’

           She left him in the yard while she went to prepare some food; every now and then she tugged on the rope to make sure he had not run away.  After some time he managed to undo the knot, tie the rope to a gatepost and ride swiftly away on his horse.  It was some time before the fox girl realized she had been tricked.

           She rushed after him with the speed of a fox and it was not long before she was gaining on him.  He glanced back and, to his horror, saw her rapidly catching him up, reaching out her hand to grasp his horse’s tail.  Recalling the old monk’s instructions, he swiftly took the little red bottle from his pocket and threw it behind him.

           The bottle instantly burst into a ball of red fire, blocking the fox girl’s path.  Although the flames singed her hair and clothes, she raced round the fire and was soon overtaking her brother again.  This time he threw down the green bottle and straightaway a dense green bush of brambles sprang up, barring her way.  Although she was scratched and bleeding from the thorns, she fought her way through and began to catch up with the fleeing brother.

           Just as she was about to grab the horse’s tail, however, he took out the blue bottle and desperately cast it behind him.  This time it formed a mighty blue lake that soon engulfed the fox girl who splashed and thrashed in the water before sinking below the waves.

           As the brother watched from the shore, he saw the dead body of the fox float to the surface of the lake.  At last he had killed the fox who had taken his sister’s form.