3 Truths From a Tall Tale About Love and Loss
"Stories are a communal currency of humanity." Tahir Shah, in Arabian Nights
Isn’t it interesting that corporate leaders and entrepreneurs are quoting Dr. Seuss daily on social media? In a world riddled with complexity, we yearn for wisdom but for that to be delivered in elegant simplicity.
My Thai grandmother was the best “no B-S” advice giver I knew. When she wanted to teach me a lesson, she would sit me down and give it to me straight. Sometimes, she would tell me ghost stories. The fairy tales of my childhood were dark, and grandma never sugarcoated them for me. She also has a way of bringing the moral of the story to one conclusion: listen to your elder.
Her stories were never from books but told from memory. They were stories that happened to pass from generation to generation with the storyteller’s own moderations and embellishments. I am guilty of doing that here so I beg your indulgence if you should hear a different version from your grandma.
One night in particular, she chose to tell me a story about a young soldier and his bride. A month after they were wed, the young soldier was called away to duty. Soon after, his bride discovered that she was pregnant. The news filled her with great joy; the pregnancy would make the wait for her beloved a little bearable.
But there were complications during childbirth, and both mother and child died.
The entire village came to mourn them. The occasion was made more solemn because no one was able to get word to the husband.
A year later, the young soldier returned from the war.
It was nightfall when he spotted his home. As he drew near, he heard a beautiful voice singing a lullaby and a little baby cooing. His heart welled up at the thought of seeing his family.
The front door was opened, and as he stepped inside, there was his beautiful wife - her dark hair swirled all about her shoulders, her eyes luminous and skin all aglow, and she was holding their baby in her arms.
She smiled and greeted him, “Husband, I have missed you. I’m so happy you are home.”
The two embraced. Her skin was cold but he thought it best to ignore.
“Come meet your son.” She held out the baby to him. The baby’s skin was as cold as his wife’s, but again, he thought it best to ignore.
Then his wife said, “You must be hungry, let me make you dinner.”
She went off to the kitchen and brought back a plate of shrimp and rice. It tasted terrible but he ate in silence.
What the young soldier didn’t know was that his dead wife was now a phi, an evil spirit. She put a spell on him so that he would see only what she wished him to see. She made him think she was still beautiful, when, in fact, she was a hideous fiend. The dinner she fed him was a plate of maggots.
Then she caused him to fall asleep. When the young soldier woke up, it was nighttime again. He called out to his wife but she didn’t answer. Then he heard someone at his door.
When he went to open it, he saw Ajahn, a most holy man from the temple. As soon as Ajahn came in, he placed the amulet around the young soldier’s neck. The amulet, blessed with holy water, was meant to ward off evil.
“Would you stay for dinner? My wife should be home soon.” The soldier asked.
“She is not your wife, it’s a phi.” Ajahn tells him.
The young soldier thought the monk to be senile but said nothing out of respect.
“You shall soon see for yourself.” The monk said gently.
That moment, the door opened and in came the young soldier's wife. Only it wasn’t his wife.
No longer under the spell of the phi and with the amulet as protection, the young soldier finally saw the truth. His beautiful wife was gone, and in her place, was a fiend with a tangle of black hair, rotting flesh and face ridden with maggots.
When she caught sight of the monk, her reptile tongue flicked and hissed at him but before she could take another step, the monk took from the folds of his robe a flask of holy water and threw it at her. The fiend screamed and thrashed before it vaporized into thin air.
Well, you know the moral of the story. Listen to your elders.
But we, as adults, can glean other practical lessons from this tall tale.
1. The present reality may be painful to face but it is far better than to live with past illusions.
2. We don’t see people and things are they are; we see them through the myopic lens of our own past experiences.
3. We should always trust our intuition. It is the closest thing to the Divine and the nearest thing to absolute truth.
What childhood stories did you grow up with and what did they teach you?