The Storyteller Han Sook

by A. Alan Beck
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At his morning place under a tall pine tree, Han Sook clutched his bamboo stool to his chest to stop himself from sitting and telling his stories. “I am too old now,” he said to the three villagers who had gathered to hear his tales. “My voice is weak and my eyes are dim.”

“But Han Sook,” said a white-haired man, “I have listened to your stories for forty years and now my grandson comes–”

But Han Sook’s eyes went to the distant figure of T’sien Zhou. T’sien, a handsome storyteller of thirty-two, stood upon the village well and told the cheering crowd in a loud baritone about three warriors who defended the mountain pass from the advancing Mongol army. “When their quivers lay empty, the three men drew their swords and charged into the front ranks of the Mongols.”

The crowd gasped. “What next?”

Han Sook sighed and trudged along a dusty road to his hut by the river and reeds.

“Husband, why are you not at your tree?” said his wife, Min-Yen. Her gnarled fingers plunged a needle in and out of a large piece of thick sailcloth.

“I am tired,” said Han Sook.

“Are you ill?”

Han Sook lay down upon their bed and rolled away from the sunlight streaming through the window. “I do not know what has happened to me.”

He refused to eat any rice or broth for supper and, in the morning, didn’t rise from bed.

Min-Yen returned at noon with the village doctor.

“This isn’t like you, Han Sook,” said the Doctor. “You have told your stories at that tree every day for fifty years.” The Doctor felt the old storyteller’s pulse, listened to his lungs, and massaged the glands below his jaw and arms. “I can find nothing wrong with him. Perhaps he is sick because he isn’t telling stories? Here, tell me your one about the rooster who ate too much grain.”

“Surely, you remember, husband?” Min-Yen said. “How the rooster ate too much grain and couldn’t crow? I remember the day twenty years ago when you composed that story on your stool beside the river. Such a breeze blew down from the mountains and stirred the reeds day and night until you finished writing. It was as if the breeze carried the story to you. You were so happy then.”

But Han Sook didn’t tell the story of the rooster or any other. He lay in his bed and refused food and comfort.

The next morning, Min-Yen told her husband that she was going to the village for some new thread. She took up her walking pole, placed her reed hat on her head and walked across the dusty plain on which the village sat. When she arrived at the pine tree where her husband told his stories, she happened across the white-haired man and his grandson. “I am the wife of Han Sook,” she said. “My husband won’t eat or leave his bed; he refuses to tell any stories. I have come here to find out why.”

“This is sad,” said the white-haired man. “This spring I had begun bringing my grandson to the pine tree. It is the stories of Han Sook that I want him to hear, not T’sien Zhou.” He gestured towards the village well where T’sien told an awestruck crowd about three warriors who raided cattle from a Mongol camp.

“Will you come with me to my husband?” asked Min-Yen, “with your grandson?”

Min-Yen introduced the white-haired man, Li Po, and his grandson to her husband who still lay in bed. “Husband, they are here because they enjoy your stories. Not those of T’sien Zhou.”

“You have paid them to come,” said Han Sook to his wife, “with money we can ill afford to give.”

“That is not true,” said Li Po. “Your stories have stirred me for forty years. Now I bring my grandson to hear the stories of Han Sook.”

“If you didn’t bring him here, he would be with the crowds listening to T’sien’s tales of swords and bloodletting.”

“Husband!” exclaimed Min-Yen. “You have never been jealous before!”

“My grandson came of his own accord,” said Li Po. “It was he who insisted we return to the pine tree this morning, even though I knew you would not be there.”

Han Sook said to the boy, “Aren’t T’sien’s stories of sword play and midnight raids more exciting than roosters who eat too much grain? Or jade dragons that come to life in the light of the moon?”

The boy shook his head. “When I hear your stories, Master Sook, I feel the mountain breeze on my face.”

Li Po nodded. “I, too, feel that gentle wind.”

Han Sook’s eyes filled with tears.

“Husband, what is it?” asked Min Yen.

“Don’t you understand what has happened to me? I no longer feel that breeze.”

“How can that be, Husband?”

“One morning last week as I told my story of the jade dragon, the breeze that nourished me through all the years of poverty and small audiences, through my watching you sew into your old age to support us — left.”

“But surely it will return,” said Li Po.

“Not for me,” said Han Sook. “I am too old.”

The hut fell into the silence of the grave.

“What if you teach my grandson to tell stories?” asked Li Po. “He could carry on your tradition. The mountain breeze will come for him.”

“He is better to learn from T’sien Zhou,” replied Han Sook. “At least then he will know the pleasure of popularity.”

Li Po pushed his grandson forward, but the boy looked down at the ground. “Show Han Sook what you have learned.”

The grandson closed his eyes and cleared his throat. “When a single shaft of moonlight struck the interior of the oak chest, the jade dragon’s green eyes snapped open and set upon the little boy. ‘Why do you disturb my rest?’ said the jade dragon. “Because the men and women of our village no longer dream,’ said the boy. ‘They sleep all day and at night they weep.’”

Li Po touched his cheek. “There, I felt the breeze!”

“As did I, Husband. The boy is a true storyteller.”

Han Sook drew the boy close to his bed. “Did you feel the breeze as you told the story?”

The grandson glanced at the imploring faces of his grandfather and Min Yen. “I … I … I am not sure.” He shook his head.

“Grandson!” cried Li Po.

“He is right to tell the truth,” Han Sook said. “A storyteller must always tell the truth, even if it is in the guise of a tale.” He sat up for the first time in days. “You didn’t feel the breeze because you didn’t emphasize the words correctly. A storyteller’s voice must match the emotion of his characters. If the jade dragon is angry at being awoken, then so must your voice. The boy in the story cannot tell of the fate of his village in such a light voice, there must be a touch of sadness — but not too much. These things and more call down the mountain breeze for the right person at the right time.”

Han Sook took Li Po’s grandson out to the river and sat him on his bamboo stool. “Tell me the story of the jade dragon again. From the beginning, but this time as I instructed.”

The grandson told the story again and again until in the early evening, the reeds bent with a gentle breeze. That was how Han Sook found his apprentice.

One Response to “The Storyteller Han Sook”

  1. Mark says:

    Good solid story – has charm.

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