as told by Michael Ramberg
Chilseok is the traditional mid-summer festival in Korea, celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. It coincides with the monsoon season, when rains fall heavily for about six weeks, and that moment of summer when wheat goes out of season, giving way to the harvest of squash and melons. Chilseok was traditionally celebrated with meals of wheat-based food and fried pumpkin, but is now best known for the tale of Jiknyeo and Gyeonu, whose tears of joy at their reunion are said to fall every 7th day of every 7th month to this day.
Long ago, in the southern provinces, when the sky's blue was deeper and the sun more yellow, there lived a weaver maiden named Jiknyeo. Her handicraft was the wonder of her village, and was known throughout the province. At a young age she was mistress of a shop which she ruled with a kind, steady hand. It was said marriages that took place in hanbok made of cloth she had woven were blessed by the King of Heaven, who was rumored to be her true father. Her parents worried because she was not married, and would not look at any of the men of the village, as they were all too common to her. For though she was kind, and of good manners, there was something in her mind that thought she was favored for greater things than to marry the fisherman's son.
That was, until she met Gyeonu. Gyeonu was a herder who kept watch of the cattle. I do not know if cowherds have the kind of skill that can be renowned far and wide, but I would assume to have won the love of Jiknyeo he must have had some skill indeed. Because win her heart he did, and her dreams of marrying into royalty disappeared without the faintest of memories as a love she did not believe she could ever possess swept over her completely. The two were soon engaged, and on their wedding day she wore her finest weavings, and he wore the finest leathers from the finest cattle.
Their marriage was a happy one. They lay in each other's arms for hours, staring at the stars, and picnicked in blooming fields with no regard to how much time was passing. The magpies and the crows sat in the trees and watched, chattering gaily, bathed in the glow of the young couple's happiness. But there began the unhappy end of their tale.
For while they were happy in marriage, the province was not. They had come to depend on the renown of Jiknyeo's weaving, and of the money brought in by Gyeonu's skillful husbandry. But because they spent day after day in each other's company, there was less cloth for magnificent clothing in the market. The girls apprenticed to Jiknyeo were lazy, and without her guidance they stopped weaving as well. Likewise, without supervision, Gyeonu's cows would wander away to graze on thistles and rapeseed, which made them worthless at the market.
Finally, the King of Heaven had enough. He called the two lovers to the bridge that spanned the great chasm in the courtyard of his Summer Palace. They stood beneath the great star-filled dome of Heaven, in the shadow of his palace of star-decked splendor, amazed. He said to them, “Jiknyeo. Gyeonu. I admire you. I am impressed with the strength of your devotion. It is one of the true beauties of my Kingdom. But I must be practical. It is one thing, Jiknyeo, to let the rumors that you are my daughter run unchecked—you dishonor your parents. But to let the rumor live, and then neglect your duties, that is disrespectful to me. And you, Gyeonu. You are a cowherd. You are a fine cowherd, as such things go, but if you do not do even that, even for such a great thing as your love for Jiknyeo, then you are nothing. The people—they complain. We have no meat. There are no new clothes. You must attend to your duties first, and to each other second. I have spoken!”
The two lovers, ashamed before the Great King of Heaven, promised to do better. Jiknyeo went back to the loom and instructed her maidens to weave, and Gyeonu returned to the fields. But their love for each other called them away from their duties, and back to the riverbanks where the magpies and crows gathered on branches above them as the lovers lost themselves to time. Soon the cows were again wandering the forest, and again the other maidens grew lost without Jiknyeo to teach and inspire them. So the king did what he had to do. He called in the two lovers and said to them, “I am sorry. But I have come to a decision. You, Gyeonu, must leave this palace by the Eastern door, to live on that side of the great chasm that this hall bridges. And you, Jiknyeo, must leave by the Western door. Never shall you see each other again!”
And so Gyeonu left by the Eastern door, and Jiknyeo by the West, and when they were gone the King of Heaven let the bridge fall and the great chasm stood between them, and they were lost to each other forever. Jiknyeo set to great crying. Tears like rivers fell for months, until the rivers rose and the village was near to flooding. The villagers prayed to the King of Heaven, but he was stone-hearted. Even the crows and magpies who had watched over Jiknyeo and Gyeonu were worried —what would happen if the entire province washed away? They held a gathering to discuss what they could do. They decided that if they all came together, flocking in a great mass, beak to talon, wings a-tangled, they could re-form a bridge of sorts where the bridge of the old palace had been. It would be difficult, no doubt, with much loss of feather, and perhaps it would not work at all. But to what else could they resort? The floodwaters were still rising, the salty deluge lapping at the rims of their nests in the lower boughs… And so this they did.
Jiknyeo lifted her eyes and saw the strange bridge across the chasm, and with a small welling of hope in her throat, her tears slackened, then stopped altogether when she saw Gyeonu awaiting her at the other end. They both walked across the backs of the magpies and crows, who suffered their steps with a mix of pride and pain. Suddenly the lovers were together again. They rejoiced, and danced, but tenderly, so as not to disturb the birds at their feet. They made plans to leave—to her side or his? And what of the King of Heaven?
Soon enough they found out, for he appeared before them on the bridge at that moment. He shook his head and sighed, and they spent most of a day waiting for him to gather his thoughts. Finally, he said, "Jiknyeo. Gyeonu. This love of yours, it is entirely without reason. It is a thing I do not understand. It seems it must be that you are together."
And their hearts rose.
But he continued: "Except that I have decreed otherwise, I would make it so. But neither can you be apart, as your tears would surely flood this world. However, being King of Heaven, this I can do: These birds, every July 7th, will form a bridge in this place, and the two of you can meet for a day. And one day only."
They were puzzled, the two lovers and all the birds below them. It seemed a little thing for a King to change his word, but perhaps it was not so at all. How could such a solution be amenable to any of them? Who can know the ways of kings? They must be wise indeed if the best solution makes no sense to those involved. Nevertheless, it was so decreed. They parted, each lover to their own side, and the bridge of birds broke apart, their feathers falling to the streams which were just beginning to subside, to be carried away like Jiknyeo's tears.
And so it is to this day, that on July 7th the crows and magpies form a bridge over the chasm of heaven, and Jiknyeo and Gyeonu meet for one day, and the rain that falls on that day are their tears of joy for their brief reunion.