Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Wife From the Depths (Saisiyat)

For my friend, Gavin Whyte

A young hunter, an orphan, once went out to do a day's hunting. He came home alone, of course, to his hut in the village, tired and hungry. He was amazed to discover a fine hot meal awaiting him on his table.

The neighbors must have done this for me, he thought.

The next night, the night after that, and the night after that--for many nights in a row, actually--he would come home to find a wonderful hot dinner waiting just for him.

Before, he had just simply accepted that the first few of these mysterious meals had been the acts of kindness of his neighbors who all lived in a small village. Now, though, he was totally bewildered because the meals kept appearing nightly, seemingly out of nowhere, and no one in the village claimed to know anything about them.

So, one day he did this: he made sure his friends were hiding in the tall grass near his hut to spy on whoever it was who was coming over to his home and cooking the delicious meals. The young hunter then left to do that day's worth of hunting while the friends watched the hut.

He returned early that evening to discover his friends had surrounded a lovely but embarrassed young woman who insisted on keeping her head lowered. She had been observed entering the hut and leaving it once that night's dinner had been set on the table. Now she was enclosed in a circle of the young hunter and his friends, refusing to speak.

When one of the hunter's friends went over to the tall grass to urinate and did so rather openly, the young woman couldn't help but laugh. She began to talk but didn't reveal much about herself. That was of no consequence,  for whenever the young hunter and the maiden looked at each other, love shone in their eyes. The eyes spoke what the heart didn't say.

So, shortly afterward they became husband and wife.

Now that they had been married, one of the hunter's friends brought them a wedding cake. The hunter sliced a piece and gave it to his bride. Much to his surprise, she took it and carried it to the riverbank.
Before his very eyes, she took a mighty leap right into the river itself. The husband screamed for his wife in terror. He ran up to the bank and looked at the spot where she had jumped. She could still be seen below the water. She rose up to the surface.

"My home is in the river," she said. "Come on in and meet my mother."

The hunter was frightened and didn't dare jump in, no matter how much his wife beckoned to him. Finally, a middle-aged woman who bore a resemblance to his wife stuck her head out of the water right next to the young woman. She then waved hello and likewise beckoned him to jump in.

The hunter took in a deep breath, said some silent prayers, and dived in.

He soon found himself in the river abode of his wife. It was a regal mansion deep below the surface. The hunter discovered no reason to return to the surface, so he stayed below with his wife and parents-in-law. In time, the young married couple had a baby. A month after that happy event and the hunter began to pine for his old life back on the earth's surface. So he said goodbye to his wife, his child, and his parents-in-law.

He returned to his village and his hut. What's more, he then took another wife, what Han Taiwanese people today would call a "little wife."

Now one day the wife from the river came to the surface with their son to search for her husband. She returned to the hut, where she found the second wife. The two wives faced each other; soon they began to squabble about who was better, who was prettier, who was nicer, who was a better cook, and so on. Both defended their appearances and qualities to the other without either feeling that she had come off worse.

Then the quarrel took a new direction.

"All right," said the second wife, "we'll settle this. Let's see who has the nicer clothes. Bring out all your clothes, if you dare! Whoever has the nicer wardrobe shall be the winner. The loser leaves the village and leaves the man behind."

The first wife agreed and left for her river home to fetch her clothing. She returned and hung her clothes up for all to see. She needed at least ten bamboo poles on which to hang her richly made clothes fit for the goddess she was. The second wife, however, had enough clothing to accommodate only one pole. They weren't particularly impressive clothes, either. The first wife, the wife from the depths of the river, had clearly bested the second wife and had thus won the contest.

The second wife, "the little wife," was enraged. Refusing to give in, she rushed out the hut and came back in shortly after, this time, with a jar of ink. She then poured ink all over some of the first wife's clothes.

"Now, you," said the second wife, "get out of here and never come back! Do you hear me?"

The first wife was enraged beyond belief. If he really wants this shrew, he can have her! she thought. She and their son left and returned to the depths of the river.

She later returned to her husband's hut with the small son. Right before the husband's eyes, she took their son and tore him into two living halves.

"Now, husband of mine, here is your half of our son; I shall keep the other half," she said. "I shall return in two years to see how the other half is, whether he is thriving or not. We'll then see who is the better wife and mother."

With that, she and her half of the son were gone.

Now the hunter and his second wife were responsible for taking care of their half of the son. Barely a day later, while under the hunter and second wife's care, the half-son decayed and died.

Two years passed. The first wife and her half of the son returned to the hunter's hut. Her half of the boy was now a healthy and whole young lad. The hunter, now alone, saw clearly who had been the superior wife and mother.

The hunter told his first wife how sorry he was, that he was no longer with the second wife, and that he wanted her, the first wife, back. However, she would have no part of it; she was no longer interested. She and the boy returned to their home in the river.

How the hunter had begged her not to leave! But leave she did.

The hunter never saw either his first wife or his son ever again.

Taiwanese Folktales [台湾民间故事], Shi Cuifeng, ed. N.P.: Hebei Shaonian Ertong Chubanshe, 1987; pp. 210-213. 

The Saisiyat territory is a small wedge between Taoka and Atayal lands in northern central Taiwan in a section of Miaoli and Hsinchu counties. 

Damiana L. Eugenio relates a similar myth from the Ifugao of the Philippines. In this Ifugao version, a poor man, too impoverished to even clothe himself, is pitied by a goddess from the sky, not from the river, as in our story. The young man takes her home to meet his mother before they are wed. Once married, they conceive a child. The goddess, subjected to intense dislike and suspicion by the small-minded villagers, wishes to return to her sky home with their son, but the husband, terrified of heights, refuses to leave, despite all assurances that she would protect him in the ascent. He still refuses and she splits their son, not down the middle but crosswise at the waist, leaving the top half for her husband. She returns to the sky with her half of their son, with the expectations that her husband's half of the child should do well under his care. When she returns to the earth for a visit, she is shocked her husband's half of the child has withered and died. Various parts of the dead child, then, through the goddess's magic, become animals: the head becomes an owl; the nose, a mollusk; the excrement, a type of bird, etc. (Philippine Folk Literature: The Myths; Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993; pp. 33-37). Missing from the Ifugao story are the motifs of a second wife and the husband's being an orphan.

Might the literal splitting of the child be a figurative reflection of just what could result from such a miraculous, supernatural, but ultimately unstable marriage that really should have never been allowed? The end result of such a union is an incomplete child yearning for complete development, coming, as he does, from two basically incompatible parents or parts. In folktales, it takes two totally dedicated and involved parents, not one, to raise successfully a "whole" child (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; New York: Knopf, 1976, p. 70). Not coincidentally, in the Taiwanese tale, the mortal half of the split child perishes, while the immortal half thrives. 

This story, like many preceding it and many to follow, comes from a cycle of tales popular in East Asia and around the world: the supernatural wife/animal bride, in which a shapeshifting animal becomes a bride. Here, it is a river goddess. Other tales like this include "The Swan Maiden" and "The Snail Shell Girl."  In the case of goddess brides, the essence of these tales is as follows: a poor man is pitied by the gods and rewarded for his industriousness, filial piety, honesty, etc., with a princess/goddess from the other realm, usually from the sky or from below the water. They marry. In time he is either persecuted by an evil, corrupt local authority who covets such a beautiful, marvelous wife, or he simply loses his wife for violating a taboo. Ancient Han Chinese versions include one particular tale that goes by different names: "The Snail Shell Girl," "The Snail Wife," "The Waif of White Water, " and so on. (See my postings for 3/19/08 and 7/8/10.) The Greek folktale "The Animal Wife" (Stith Thompson, One Hundred Favorite Folktales; Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974; pp. 143-146) closely parallels Chinese versions. 

Whether she is an exquisite goddess from the river, ocean, or sky; an enticing representation of elusive, wild animal nature; or, a beautiful incarnation of death itself (e.g., Yuki Onna; see any edition of Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan for the tale "Yuki Onna," or the haunting and stunning 1964 movie version of Kwaidan from director Masaki  Kobayashi), the supernatural wife is foolish to take a chance on love with a mortal man. Perhaps she represents a human longing in supernatural form for an impossible life, for the world that once was, an epoch of innocence, a time when animals could speak to humans, a connection lost forever. (For more discussion on this, see Boria Sax's The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature; Blacksburg, Va.: McDonald & Woodward, 1998.) These stories frequently end tragically and are reminders of the permanent gap between idealized nature and us humans. 

Motifs: C31, "Taboo: offending the supernatural wife"; F525, "Person with half a body"; F725.3, "Submarine castle (palace)"; *T299.3, "Separating couple divide child upon separation"; cT589.2, "Boy cut in two; each half becomes a boy." 

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