Grimmer than Grimm

"Friends" from childhood? Right...

“Friends” from childhood? Right…

THE STORY OF TẤM AND CÁM

Once upon a time, under a roof misfortune forced them to share, lived two paternal sisters named Tấm and Cám. Tấm, the eldest, lost her mother early. Her father was unlucky enough to join his first wife a few years after remarrying, leaving Tấm with her stepmother and younger half-sibling Cám.

One day, Cám’s mother gave the two girls a basket each and sent them out fishing for the tiny freshwater prawns usually used to make a sauce. Whoever caught the most would be rewarded with the coveted luxury of a traditional red camisole.1

Tấm, industrious and terrified of her stepmother’s wrath, spent the whole day absorbed in her labours. Cam was her mother’s unashamed favourite and had learned to expect her indulgence. She frittered the best of the afternoon away. But seeing her hardworking half-sister’s basket almost full was too tempting. She called out:

“Sis! Hey Tấm!
You’re covered in dirt.
A dip would be wise
or Mum’s greeting will hurt.”2

While Tấm dashed off to a pond to clean up, Cám decanted her sister’s prawns and sprinted home with the bounty.

Tấm was devastated. She stared at the emptiness, cradled her head, and wept. Loudly enough to catch a grandfather spirit’ssympathetic ear.3 He manifested himself to hear of her troubles, and deciding she warranted consolation, beckoned towards a goby fish suddenly flopping around the bottom of Tấm’s basket. Take it home he told her, look after it in your well, and each time you feed it, chant:

“Goby Goby gabby gabby,
Enjoy our gold and silver rice.
Don’t eat the warmed up gruel of others,
Such lowly fare will not suffice.”

Tấm followed the spirit’s instructions. It didn’t take long for Cám and her mother to notice Tấm reserving a rice bowl during meals and her after-dinner visits to the well. The stepmother dispatched Cám to lie in wait and spy. Once she reported the truth, Cám’s mother sent Tấm far into the fields to attend to the family’s water buffalo. The conspiring duo waited until she was out of sight before dragging up the goby and gorging.

Tấm sobbed over the remains of her fish. Her grandfather spirit guardian answered her cries. She told him the tragedy from beginning to end. The spirit instructed her to collect the bones of the fish in four jars and bury them under the legs of her bed. Tấm obeyed immediately.

The King had announced a festival scheduled for a few days later. Both Cám and her mother were intent on attending. Tấm was eager to accompany them, but when the time came, her stepmother forbade her from leaving until a pile of hulled and brown rice grains deliberately and thoroughly mixed earlier was separated and sorted. Besides, the stepmother needled, Tấm didn’t own any clothes appropriate in the presence of royalty. Tears came unwillingly as she gazed at Cám and her mother departing, and the grandfather spirit materialised once more.

He called down a sparrow flock, its nimble numbers sorting the rice grains in the blink of an eye. Next, he told Tấm to dig up the four jars under her bed. She was amazed to discover the disinterred jars tightly packed with fine garments, an ornate pair of slippers glittering with gold thread,4 and a miniature saddle that unfolded itself into a rider-ready steed once freed from its container. Tấm changed quickly, a little dazed. She looked stunning.

Galloping over a bridge shook off one of Tấm’s shimmering slippers. It wedged in some reeds near the middle of the crossing. The King’s Escort, on the way to the festival themselves, caught the flash of gold as they passed and made the effort to retrieve it. The King stared in wonder when the slipper was presented to him. He promised marriage to whichever woman or maiden could wear it. All who heard fought to be the first to try but no feet would fit. Cám and her mother were no different. Tấm’s turn eventually arrived, and the slipper clung to the foot of its owner as if it were printed on. She was ushered onto a palanquin, borne by the Royal Household, and paraded to the palace for the wedding—right under the eyes of her stepmother and half-sister, smouldering with jealousy.

On her father’s death anniversary, the new Queen Tấm returned home to pay her filial respects. Her stepmother asked her to pick some betel nuts for her father’s altar offerings. When Tấm, in search of the areca tree’s best, had climbed to its peak, the stepmother snatched up an axe and attacked its base. Tấm fell to her death. Cám recovered the royal accoutrements from her half-sister’s body and rushed to the palace. She thought she could take Tấm’s place. Tấm’s essence had escaped into an oriole, shadowing Cam’s steps overheard as it too flew back to its human form’s nest.

The oriole caught Cám washing the King’s vestments. It twittered out:

“Scrub the shirt of my husband,
Scrub away till it’s clean,
Hang the shirt of my husband,
Hang the shirt on its beam.
Keep the shirt of my husband
away from the hedge that rips seams.”

The King noticed the same oriole often following in his wake. He was struck by memories of Tấm and said:

“Yellow shadow, oriole,
If you’re my wife
my sleeve’s your bole.”

Upon those words the bird glided down and alighted on the arm of the king. Each day hence the King and his bird could not be separated. Cám, sick with envy, visited her mother and abused the irritating thing. Cám’s mother recommended trapping the bird. Feeding it to a cat would hide almost all evidence, and any stray feathers could be buried in the palace gardens to keep the King none the wiser. Not long after Cám had enacted her scheme, a chinaberry tree5 erupted from the feather grave unnaturally quickly, lush with foliage. The King ordered a hammock hung between its beautiful branches. Lying in the fresh air, the pleasant shade, images of Tấm flashed through his mind. He treasured its comfort. Cam’s mother persuaded her daughter to chop it down and have a loom made from its wood. Sitting to weave for the first time, a raven perched on the handle startled Cám with a cry:

“Crreeeaakk crraaacckkk creeaaakkk cccrrriiiicck,
Who once was Tấm’s husband, your daring defies,
Your reckoning’s coming, she’ll tear out your eyes.”

Cám fled to consult her mother. She needed little swaying to burn the loom and scatter its ashes beside a road far from the palace. The ash pile sprouted a gold apple tree,6 a large, lonely fruit dangling from its limbs. An elderly water-seller, noticing the striking fruit, said:

“Gold apple, gold apple, drop into my sack, I’ll savour your fragrance, not use you to snack.”

The fruit released itself and the water-seller brought it home. From then on, the old woman returned from her daily market trips to find the house ordered and tidied and food prepared. One day, pretending to leave as usual, she doubled back to see what happened. She watched as a beautiful young lady stepped out of the fruit, cooked a meal, and cleaned. The water-seller ran to the empty fruit and shredded it. The young lady and the old woman began living as mother and daughter.

Members of the Royal Household visited the old woman’s water stall one morning. She poured out the purchased volume and invited the King to relax with some betel. Struck by the parcel’s resemblance to those Tấm used to roll and fold for him, the King asked the old woman who had prepared it. She called her young companion forth. The King recognised his wife, escorted her back to the palace, and the couple resumed their happy marriage where disaster had left off.

Sometime later, Cám saw that her half-sister not only lived but looked even paler and more beautiful than before. She couldn’t help herself. She needed to know how the miracle was possible. Tấm explained the secret to her perfect skin lay in baths of boiling water. An ecstatic Cám filled a tub and dived in.

Tấm commanded a servant to cleave Cám’s cooked corpse into eight cutlets,7 use the leftovers in a sauce, and send the feast to her stepmother. Her stepmother never doubted Tấm’s decent heart. She ate with vigour. A crow darted in to a perch on the door, looked on for a while, before squawking:

“Delicious, nutritious, to think you weren’t suspicious.
Your daughter’s meat smells mighty fine, spare a slice for me and mine?”8

Horror. It dawned that the main ingredient of Tấm’s banquet was in fact Cám’s flesh and blood. The agony of recognition drove her berserk. She stumbled from the house in a frenzy, was struck by lightning, and died.

*********

truyen co tich

Not one of Hollywood’s gritty, edgy, oh so tired fairytale reimagining. According to the informal Vietnamese essay my teacher gave me to read along with the story, this version of Truyện Tấm Cám—perhaps the most famous—was bashed into shape by a Vietnamese researcher named Vũ Ngọc Phan. There are apparently at least 39 Cinderella-like stories recorded in Vietnam alone. Phan’s closest predecessor is an 1886 iteration taken down by the Frenchman G. Jeanneau.

Jeanneau’s interpretation suffered from its myriad sources—Mỹ Tho, the area Jeanneau cited as as his story’s origin, was ethnically diverse, and each people dragged their own version of the basic tale into the mix. Time muddied details, blurred everything together. The resulting Frankenstein’s monster was logically ugly—the essay’s author (uncredited, unfortunately) describes it as “râu ông nọ cắm cằm bà kia”, or “planting this man’s beard on the chin of that woman”. Phan’s adaption’s special spice comes from his attempts to repair Jeanneau’s inconsistencies and contradictions. Tấm and Cám became half-sisters instead of twins. In Jeanneau’s version, Tấm’s boiling beauty treatment suggestion is without malicious intent. The beard is an ending where Tấm still makes a sauce out of Cám’s corpse, plugged onto what otherwise follows the “twins” narrative. Phan makes it clear Tấm knows her words push Cám towards the cooking pot. Cinderella becomes a saga of delayed, delicious revenge, served at slightly above room temperature.

It also becomes “objectionable”. Authorities think children are incapable of processing such grisly details. A collection of Truyện Cổ Tích I picked up on Đinh Lễ—deliberately chosen for its comparatively mature cover—includes the story will all cannibalism redacted and a lame conclusion where the stepmother crumples after hearing the results of Cam’s whitening attempt. Boooooo.

Google engineer Neil Fraser recently attracted attention by lavishing praise on Vietnamese students’ programming skills. Deservedly so. Impressive stuff. But not exactly outside what little I understand about Vietnamese education’s comfort zone. Rigidly structured, clear rights and wrongs, nestled deep within the folds of the overarching development and modernisation crusade.

Phan’s Tấm risks questions of morality. John Berger’s quoted as noting “Far Away and Once Upon a Time are codewords for Here and Now.” Between cackling like a maniac at the use of “khúc” to describe Cám’s dismemberment, my teacher surprised me, mentioning Tấm burns through most Vietnamese readers’ sympathy. Her payback is too terrible. Childhood unfairness, an openly grudging guardian, and three bemurderings does not a reasonable pseudo-sororicide make, it seems. Frustration, injustice, and the proportionality of response is an apt conversation for a society where the beneficiaries and victims of its purported successes are flung further and further apart.

Much more importantly though: this is exactly the type of twisted, transgressive story that turned me into a reader. It’s easy, arrested-development-indicating easy, to recall the glee that greeted my grandma’s uncensored recountings of appalling northern European myths and folktales. The nightmares were worth it. Roald Dahl’s most mundane stories, like Boy, are replete with horrors—graphic adenoid excisions, boil lancings, an accident that pretty much severs a child’s nose. Maurice Sendak famously “[refused] to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” If a reading habit’s broadly positive, something you want to encourage, diluting the darkness of an ending like Truyện Tấm Cám’s is a panicked, lazy waste.


1. Cái Yếm

2. In the original, the sing-song quality of all this italicised dialogue comes from nonsense words and lots of từ láy. The only way I could think of mimicking this in English was more direct rhymes—the fundamental meanings are the same, but sometimes synonyms are swapped out and syntax rearranged to accommodate this.

3. ”Bụt” also means Buddha, though in folk tales usually refers to a general spirit of the land or the like.

4. Đôi hài thêu

5. Cây Xoan Đào.

6. Cây Thị.

7. My favourite part. The word used is “khúc” rather than “miếng”. It’s specific, definitely more evocative. Khúc is the word for those bone-in fish steaks.

8. “Ngon ngỏn ngòn ngon, mẹ ăn thịt con, có còn xin miếng?”

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