A Tiger’s Whisker

A Korean folklore retold:

Once, there was a young woman who felt so lucky to have married such a gentle and loving man.
But that was before war broke out.
Her husband was forced to fight for their country.

Day after day, she would anxiously await for her husband’s return.
The passing of months weighed on her heart heavily, but she refused to let the hope of a blissful reunion wane.

Her husband did return from war.
But her husband wasn’t her husband.
Ever since he had come back, he was angry, mean even.
She often found herself being afraid. Yet, in few passing moments, she’d get a glimpse of the husband she knew and loved.

Near her village, deep in the mountains, lived one of the most renowned doctors. When anyone in her village was sick or hurting, a visit to him would solve their ailments. Most of the time.
She had been a proud woman, thinking that she can heal her husband on her own. But now she felt she was in over her head.
So she began the hike to the mountain to see the doctor.

As she came up to the doctor’s hut, she saw that the door was open.
She nervously peered in, and the old man without turning around said,
“I heard you walking up. What seems to be the problem?”
She explained her situation.
“Ah. Of course,” the doctor said. “This, unfortunately, is very common for soldiers who return from war. They have seen terrible things. It can change them. But… what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Give me medicine! Make me a potion! Something! Anything! Please! Whatever it takes to get my husband back!”

The old man gave her a long and deep stare.
“Child, this is not the same as fixing a broken bone or curing a fever or healing a cough. This kind of thing will take a few days for me to think of a cure. Come back in three days.”

Three days later, the young woman returned to the hut.
“Child,” said the doctor. “I do have some good news for you. There is a potion that will help your husband return to his old self. But it requires a special ingredient.”

“What is it? I’ll do anything necessary to obtain that ingredient!”

“It’s a whisker from a live tiger.”

The young woman’s heart dropped to her stomach. “A whisker from a live tiger? Such a thing is not possible!”

“But I cannot make the potion without it. And I am too old these days to get it myself. There’s nothing more I can say to you or do for you without that ingredient.”

The young woman returned home, crestfallen.
She tossed and turned that night. How was she to get a whisker from an actual living tiger?

Yet her love for her husband outweighed her fears.
Early next morning, she left the house quietly, as to not awake her husband, with a bowl of rice covered in meat sauce.

She went to the cave on the mountainside where a tiger was rumored to live. She crept up as quietly as she could and set the bowl down at the opening of the cave.

The next day, she took another bowl of rice covered with meat sauce to the cave. She saw that the previous bowl was empty. She exchanged the empty bowl for the full one and left as quietly as she could, praying she wouldn’t wake the sleeping tiger.

This was her new daily routine. Weeks went by. Though the bowls were empty every morning, she never saw the tiger.

Then, one morning, she saw the tiger’s head poking out of the cave.
She froze in fear.
She made sure not to look the tiger in its eyes and slowly yet steadily approached the empty bowl to exchange it with the full bowl.

When she felt there was enough distance between her and the cave, she fell to the ground and let out a cry. She was so scared and so nervous and so glad to be alive.

The following morning, she was more anxious than ever. But she was determined to help her husband.
As she approached the cave, she saw the tiger’s head poking out of the cave. She felt a little bit more braver than the previous day and went to exchange the bowls.
Each day after that, she noticed the tiger would come out of its cave a little more. In fact, when it heard her footsteps, the tiger would come closer and closer to her.

At first, she was frightened to the core but the tiger hadn’t attacked her yet.
“You know,” she thought. “It’s actually a lot more friendly than we may have first thought.”

The next time she visited the tiger, with all the courage she could muster, she carefully and gently stretched out her hand towards the tiger’s head. When it didn’t flinch, she gently placed her hand on the tiger’s head and began to pet it. The tiger simply allowed it and purred.
She was so scared, yet so excited. The tiger trusted her enough to let her pet it.

Many weeks passed since this momentous moment.
She knew that she had to try to get one of its whiskers now.
The next day, she brought along a small knife with the tiger’s food.
As she gently pet its head, she asked, “Oh Tiger! May I please have one of your whiskers?”

As if it understood, the tiger tilted its head. The young woman took her small knife and cut off a whisker, careful not to hurt the tiger.
She began to gently cry at finally obtaining the special ingredient.
“Thank you so much, my dear gentle friend. Thank you.”

She went straight to the doctor and burst into his hut yelling, “I have it! I have the tiger’s whisker!”

The doctor was a mused. “Huh. From a live tiger?”
“Oh my. Tell me, how did you do it?”

The young woman told the doctor all about how she earned the trust of the tiger over the months.
With pride and excitement, she handed him the whisker.
The old man took it, looked at it intently, and threw it into the fire where it burned right up.

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?!” screamed the young woman.
“Child,” the doctor calmly responded, “you no longer need the whisker.”
“But… why…”
“Tell me. Is your husband more dangerous than a tiger? If an animal such as a tiger will respond to your patient care, don’t you think a man who’s come back from the war will too?”

The young woman sat there stunned.
She didn’t know what to say.
She thought about how she had led the tiger to trust her.
Then she thought of her husband.
She had nothing more than when she started this journey.
Except now, she knew what she could do.
Surely, if she could earn the trust of a tiger, she could find the right way to lead her husband home, too.

She gave the doctor a deep bow and began her hike home, renewed with a sense of hope.

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