Adapted from Nguyen Dong Chi’s ‘Collection of Vietnamese Folk Tales’
Illustrator Le Thanh Tung
Once upon a time, there was a poor young couple who made ends meet by working for others. Despite their poverty, they were very happy. Every evening, they’d sit by the fire or under the moonlight to talk or sing love songs. Sometimes, they even forgot to eat dinner.
One year, the weather was bad and the crops failed. Famine spread to all corners of the country. The couple could not find work. It seemed they might starve to death!
One afternoon, after finishing a bowl of pennywort soup, the husband told his wife: “I must try to find work elsewhere.” The wife wanted to follow him, but the husband convinced her to stay. “I don’t want you to face even more hardships,” he said. “Just wait for three years! I hope to return with a fortune. If I haven’t returned in three years, you will know that I’m dead and can find another husband.” The wife wept and moaned. But not knowing what else to do, she obeyed her husband. After he left, the wife found a job as a maid. Charming and hardworking, she was well liked by her employers. And yet she never forgot her husband.
Time flowed like a river. There was less and less talk of famine. The pomelo trees in the garden bore fruit three times, but there was no sign of the wife’s husband.
The employer’s wife passed away suddenly. Already fond of his maid, the employer asked her to marry him. She said: “My husband promised to come back within three years. Now that time has passed and I believe he is dead. But let me perform a three-year mourning period to show my respect.”
Another three years passed so quickly. There was still no sign of the woman’s ill-fated husband. Every day, she looked to the horizon at sundown waiting to see someone on the road, her face drenched in tears.
She replaced her white mourning turban, which had already turned brownish, and thanked him. “Please, let me wait another year.”
When that year had passed with no word, she finally believed that her husband had died. After a feast to bid farewell to her husband and his family, she came to the new man’s house.
Three months after the wedding, her first husband returned. He was still poor. His only wish was to see his dear wife.
Everyone in the village was startled. The wife was too ashamed to show herself. Yet the former husband came and consoled the pair. “I was away for too long. It’s all my fault. You have behaved correctly and I only mean to see you for a few moments. Now, I will leave this place.”
The woman begged him to stay, while the new husband promised he could have her back. But the man was determined. He did not want to destroy the newlyweds’ happiness.
Since he could not bear to go far from his wife again, he decided to kill himself. The villagers found in hanging from the pipal tree at the village entrance.
The tragic death hit the woman like lightning. Why hadn’t she waited a little longer?
The next morning, as the villagers performed funeral rites for the ill-fated man, they were shocked to find the woman dead in the village pond. The woman’s new husband cried: “Why did I take another man’s wife?” That same day, he divided all his property between his relations, donated some money to the local pagoda, and took his own life.
In the netherworld, all three were brought to the court of the Emperor of the Underworld for judgement. The former husband said he could not bear to be far from his wife so he killed himself to stay near her. The second husband said he could not live without her. The woman said she loved both of them.
Impressed by their sincerity, the Emperor of the Underworld decided to help them to stay together. He turned them into the three stones of the kitchen fire. They would always be able to see each other, and the fire would warm up their love for each other. He also gave them the roles of Kitchen Gods, to watch over all families on earth.