The Story Behind The Stories


d2The improvised music in When Rivers Meet coalesced around Ben Grossman's retelling of traditional stories drawn from all over the world.

Reproduced here are the transcribed adaptations of those stories.

The CD recording also features the same stories retold in Korean by Dong-Won Kim and Ju-Hyung Lee.


The Bell Tower

Adapted from The Bell Tower: A Korean folk tale also known by the title “The Magpie That Repaid the Young Man’s Kindness.”

Long ago, far away, a young man journeyed by foot from his country home to the city for work. For protection, he carried a bow. He would walk each day, and at night he would sleep at an inn. Several days passed in this way.

Then, one afternoon he found himself on a lonely stretch of road: neither inns nor houses in sight. He sped up, hoping to find a room for the night.

     “Gak–gak gak–gak!”

He heard two magpies shrieking. A serpent was slithering along a tree branch toward their nest. The creature was about to eat their chicks, and the birds could do nothing but watch.

The young man grabbed his bow and drew an arrow. With one shot straight and true, the serpent fell dead from the tree.

Night had fallen. The young man feared he would sleep along the road, until he saw a light twinkling in the near distance. He reached the house and knocked on the door. A beautiful woman answered.

     “I am a traveller,” he said. “Please let me sleep here tonight.”

The woman led him to a comfortable room where he fell asleep at once.

He awoke hours later unable to breathe. A large serpent was coiling herself around his chest, squeezing tighter and tighter.

     “You murdered my husband,” the serpent hissed, “And now I will kill you.”

The young man tried to bargain with her. He asked for forgiveness; she hissed and squeezed harder.

He offered her money; she laughed and tightened her coils.

Then he confessed the truth.

     “Your husband was about to kill some magpie chicks. I felt sorry for them and acted without thinking.”

A mother herself, the serpent admired that the man had acted out of love. She made him a deal.

     “I will let you live until midnight,” she said, “after that, I will not be so kind. But if you are able to ring the bell in the tower behind this house three times before then, I will let you go free.”

The young man stepped out of the house into the darkness of night. He ran to the bell tower only to find there were no doors, no windows, no footholds to climb up to the bell. What was there to do?

     “It is time,” said the serpent. “Prepare to die.” She flicked her long tongue and hissed.

      “Deng! Deng! Deng!”

The bell rang clearly in the darkness. The snake honoured her promise and slithered away.

But how could the bell sound with no one to ring it, wondered the young man?

At dawn, he walked to the bell tower. On the ground were two magpies — the same two magpies whose chicks he had saved — wet with dew, their wings broken, their skulls crushed from ringing the bell.

The young man held the dead magpies in his hands and cried a long time for the kindness that they had returned.

The Answered Unanswered Question

Adapted from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's version of The Answered Unanswered Question: a fable from the Silk Road region.

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Long ago, in an ancient city, there lived a Master surrounded by devoted and faithful disciples.

Every day he stimulated the imagination of his pupils, answering even the trickiest questions without ever making a mistake.

One day the most capable of his students started to wonder to himself.

      “Is there any question on earth that the master can’t answer?”

As he was walking around, thinking about how to trick his teacher, he came upon a meadow full of flowers.

Suddenly, he had an idea. He caught a beautiful butterfly and trapped it. The butterfly clung to his hand with its spindly legs and tickled him.

Returning back to the city the student approached his Master and, smiling broadly, asked,

     “Tell me please, Master, is the butterfly I’m holding between my hands alive or dead?”

He continued to hold the butterfly tightly in his closed palms, ready at any moment either to kill it or to let it go, only to prove to the teacher that he was wrong.

But not even glancing at the pupil, the Master replied,

“The answer is in your hands, my friend. The answer is in your hands.”

Black Angel

Adapted from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's version of Black Angel: an Iraqi fable also known as “Death in Samarkand” or as “Appointment in Samarra.”

The disciple of a famous Sufi was ruminating in an inn when he overheard a conversation between two people sitting close to him.

Unnoticed, he continued to eavesdrop on their conversation, realizing with horror that one of the speakers was the Angel of Death.

      “I will be visiting three people in this city over the next three weeks,” he said to his companion.

The young disciple was terrified. He tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, hunching his shoulders over the table, pressing himself against the wall, and holding his breath.

He remained unmoving in his corner as long as the Angel and his companion remained at the inn.

Only after they left did the young man extricate himself from his hiding place, his entire body trembling as he did so.

     “What if I am one of the people whom the Angel of Death intends to visit?” he exclaimed. “I must disappear from this city."

Immediately. This is the only way I will escape a possible meeting with Death.”

He left the city at once, dashing away on a whirlwind like a fleet-footed horse.

He galloped day and night, night and day, without regard for the direction he travelled, never stopping for even a moment. Finally, he found himself in the ancient walled city of ... Samarkand. Safe.

Meanwhile, the Angel of Death had made the acquaintance of the young man’s teacher.

     “Where is your disciple,” he asked.     

     “He’s here in the city,” answered the teacher.

     “Perhaps at the inn. He spends much of his free time in contemplation there. A very capable student he is.”

     “He’s here in this city?” said the Angel with surprise. “That’s strange, very strange ... you see, it is written on my list that I am to meet with him in two weeks' time—not here but in distant Samarkand.”

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The Father, His Son, and Their Donkey

Adapted from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's version of The Father, His Son, and Their Donkey: adapted from Aesop’s Fables.

Once upon a time, on a humid, sweltering day, in the thick of the midday heat, a father, his son, and their donkey travelled along the dusty city streets. While the father sat on the donkey, the son led the animal with a bridle.

     “That poor boy’s feet can hardly keep up with the donkey,” said a passerby to the father. “How lazy you are: you sit on the donkey while your son struggles along exhausted!”

The father took this person’s words to heart. He dismounted the donkey and told his son to take his place. And so, they continued on …

Soon, another passerby said in a loud voice,

     “That boy should be ashamed, riding on the donkey-like some kind of sultan, while his poor old father runs along behind.”

These words distressed the boy, who persuaded his father to sit behind him on the donkey. And they continued on …

      “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Exclaimed a woman. “The donkey’s back is sagging, his feet are giving way, and those two idlers sit as if they were reclining on a sofa. Such unprecedented, monstrous cruelty! Oh, poor animal!”

In disgrace, father and son both climbed off the donkey, stood beside it, then continued wordlessly along. They hadn’t gone more than a few steps before another passerby began to laugh loudly.

     “What’s with your donkey? He doesn’t even carry one of you on his back? It’s clear that he’s good for nothing!”

Sighing heavily, the father placed his hand on his son’s shoulder.

     “Whatever we do, whatever we try, there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t see things our way,” he said. “It seems to me that we should decide for ourselves what to do: how to travel, and how to live.”

And they continued on …

The Tapestry


Adapted from The Tapestry: a Chinese fable also known as “The Magic Brocade” and adapted from “The Piece of Chuang Brocade,” from Taoist Tales edited by Raymond van Over.

There was once a woman who lived with her three sons on a hardscrabble farm in the deep shade of a towering mountain. For their survival, the family depended on the woman’s wondrous gift for weaving brocade. The flowers, birds, and animals that she wove were as if living––and her brocade was in high demand at the neighbouring market.

One day at the market the woman saw an incredibly beautiful painting of a country estate: tall stone buildings, a vegetable garden, a fish pond, fruitful orchards; a yard filled with lowing cows, grunting pigs, and cackling chickens; and patchwork fields that stretched into the distance.

      “While I cannot afford to buy it, I can weave this lovely scene myself,” she said.

From that day on she wove nothing but her tapestry. The family grew poor, surviving on nothing but the money the sons raised through selling firewood. Before long, the two eldest sons began to complain that their mother made no money. The youngest, however, encouraged his mother’s dream.

The woman wove and wove. One year. Two years. When tears slid down her face, she wove them into a clear stream and a fish pond. When blood dripped from her worn fingertips, she wove it into the dazzling sun and orchard apples.

Three years passed. At last, the tapestry was done! The woman carried it from the dark hut into the open air.

      “Oh, how beautiful!” exclaimed her sons. They all laughed joyously to see the tapestry shimmer and gleam.

Suddenly, a great wind whisked the tapestry up into the sky and away to the east.

Her eldest son travelled to retrieve it. At a stone house, an old crone told him that he would find it eastward in the land of the fairies — after he passed through a volcano, over a treacherous polar sea, and across a vast desert.

     “You will surely die,” she told him. “I will not stop you if you choose to go, but if you decide not to, I will give you a box of gold.” He chose the gold and scampered off to the big city.

When he did not return home, the second son set out to find the tapestry. He too encountered the crone and, like his brother before him, dashed off to the big city with his gold.

By and by, the youngest son followed his brothers, but unlike them, he chose to take the perilous journey to the east.

He passed through the volcano, over the icy sea, and across the parched desert and into the kingdom of fairies.

He followed the sound of sweet singing and girlish laughter to a great hall. There he saw his mother’s tapestry hanging on a wall, while a group of fairies wove away at their own copy of it. The fairies welcomed the son.

     “Please give us one more night and you can take the tapestry home to your mother,” the fairies said. He agreed.

As he slept, one fairy, taken with the beauty of the scene, embroidered an image of herself standing in a red dress by the red flowers.

The son woke up in the early morning hours. Fearing that the fairies wouldn’t release the tapestry to him, he grabbed it from the table, ran from the great hall, across the burning desert, over the frozen sea, through the spewing volcano, all the way home.

      “My son,” cried his mother when she saw him.

      “The tapestry!” he shouted, handing it to her.

She unfurled it. So life-like was the image, that the scene became real: tall stone buildings, a vegetable garden, a fish pond, fruitful orchards; a yard filled with lowing cows, grunting pigs, and cackling chickens; patchwork fields that stretched into the distance — and a beautiful young woman dressed in red.

So it came to pass that the mother, her son, his new wife, and their many children came to spend their lives on the perfect country estate.

And the two oldest sons? Having gambled their gold away, they were reduced to begging in the city.

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