Fly me to the moon - on a banyan tree!
The big day is approaching; the moon is getting ever brighter and closer. The Mid-Autumn Festival is only a few days away. It is time for another tale of the Mid-Autumn legends. Let me introduce to you: The Man on the Moon. No, not the award-winning Jim Carrey movie. The Vietnamese legend of the man on the moon or Chu Cuoi is a story of a man who is, like Chang’e, trapped on the moon, destined to forever sit alone looking down with longing at the mortal Earth life that they can never get back.
The story below has been translated by Vietnam.com website.
Long time ago, in a tiny bamboo hut beside the jungle, there lived a poor woodcutter named Chú Cuội. He had lived every day of his life cutting small trees in the woods and gathering dry sticks to sell as fuel in the market. He then would tie the woods and sticks up in bundles and carry them home with a long wooden pole he uses to hold the bundles on both ends, which he would balance on his shoulder. Because Chú Cuội is poor and had no money to buy himself an ox and wood cart, he carries the bundles all the way to town and to the market by himself. One morning, as he was gathering stick in the woods, he spotted three tigers playing among each other. He looked around and learned that the three cubs were left alone by their mother to hunt for food. Desperate to make some money to buy himself an ox, Chú Cuội planned on catching one of the cubs and sell it in the market. Slowly, he laid down his bundle of sticks and crept behind a fallen log. While waiting for a chance to grab one of the playing cubs, the youngest one accidentally rolled right next to him. Quickly, Chú Cuội grabbed it by the back of its neck, careful not to be bitten and scratched as the cub kept on squirming. The two other cubs saw what happened to their brother and scampered away in fear.
Thinking it was safe to go, Chú Cuội started to head out of the jungle. But before he was even able to take a few steps, he heard a great, loud roar from behind. When Chú Cuội turned around, he was startled to see the mother tiger. As quickly as he can, Chú Cuội climbed the closest tree he could find, still, with the cub in his hands. But as he was making his way up to the tree, the cub managed to struggle free from his grasp, fell, and landed hard on the ground. From atop, Chú Cuội watched as the mother tiger as she approached an old, twisted Banyan tree growing near a bubbling stream. She tore off a few leaves from the tree, chewed them up, and placed the leaves on the cub’s head. To his amazement, the baby tiger jumped off from his feet and started playing with his brothers as if nothing happened. The mother, then, led his cubs to a dear she hunted earlier, and everyone went on to eat.
When the tigers left, Chú Cuội came down from the tree. Because of curiosity, he went to the ancient Banyan tree, plucked a few leaves, and smelled them. He found that they don’t smell any different from other banyan leaves, so he thought that the cub may have just been stunned, and the banyan leaves had nothing to do with its quick recovery. Still a little curious, he placed some of the leaves in his pocket so he could study them closer when he gets home. Chú Cuội then gathered his axe and headed out of the woods. On the way to his hut, he noticed a dead dog lying on the side of the road. He recognized the dog as belonging to his fellow woodcutter’s son, and grew concerned on how the boy might feel when he finds his dog dead. Recalling what the mother tiger did to her cub, he chewed some of the Banyan leaves he had in his pocket and placed them on the dog’s head. To his surprise, the dog bounced back to his feet, licked Chú Cuội’s hand, and ran down the road. Realizing he had discovered an enchanted tree, Chú Cuội became very excited and went home as quickly as he could. He gathered his digging tools and hurried back to the stream in the jungle where the Banyan is. He dug the tree and brought it home, where he replanted it, watered it, until it flourished and grew strong.
Weeks had passed, and the Tet was nearing. Chú Cuội prepared to set off to town bringing bundles of woods, tree branches with delicate pink peach blossoms, and some bright yellow hoa mai flowers, hoping to sell them in the market as people are busy making preparations for the Lunar New Year’s celebration. For him, this is one of his favourite times of the year as people are all friendly and joyful. Finally he reached town. But instead of finding cheerful faces and busy streets full of children playing expected every festive season, the streets were silent and were filled with sad faces. Curious to know what‘s going on, he approached an old man who told him about the daughter of the great lord from the East who owns most of the lands in their region. She is known for her great beauty and special love for flowers and nature. Now, she lies ill on her bed. And though everything was done, none of her father’s riches can make her well and they fear she won’t be able to live through Tet. When Chú Cuội heard the awful news, he was greatly saddened. But then, he remembered he had stuck a few leaves of the magical tree in his pocket. Ever since he had learned of its powers, he had always carried a few leaves with him to help wounded animals, a sick friend or to cure his cuts while chopping woods. He believes his Banyan leaves can cure the lord’s beautiful daughter. So, Chú Cuội laid down his sticks and flowers and headed for the East towards the lord’s castle. It was a long journey, and it took him the whole day to reach the East. He also walked the stairs towards the castle gates and when he finally reached the top, he was tired and covered with dust. When the guards saw a man with dirty, bare feet and ragged clothes standing outside, they were not pleased. Thinking he is a beggar, they refused to let him enter. But Chú Cuội did not leave, instead, he tried to convince them that he could cure the lord’s daughter. With that, one of the guards pushed the tired and weak Chú Cuội to the steps, which caused him to cut his foot. But when the guards saw how Chú Cuội took some banyan leaves out of his pocket, chewed them, and placed them on his foot, they were surprised to see how quickly his wound healed. They then realized that Chú Cuội was telling the truth and they hurriedly led him to the chamber of the lord’s daughter where she lies. From the moment Chú Cuội saw Nguyet Tien, he was so taken by her beauty. But he noticed how pale she was and how she is growing weaker by the minute. Not wasting any time, he took the very last of the banyan leaves from his pocket, broke them into pieces and gently placed them on the beautiful girl’s tongue. In just a moment, the pale cheeks started to turn red and she began to open her eyes. Grateful for saving his daughter’s life, the lord gave Nguyet Tien’s hand to Chú Cuội for marriage and offered him some of his lands and riches.
Using the gold the lord had given to him as gift, Chú Cuội started to build a nice home for his new bride. He decided to build it at the very spot where his bamboo hut stood, but making sure he does not disturb the Banyan tree. After some time, the house was ready. He then took Nguyet Tien, his beautiful bride, home with him. Day by day, their affection for each other grew deeper. They were both happy with their new home and lived a peaceful and happy life. As Nguyet Tien is always fascinated with nature, she decided to plant her favourite flowers around the house. Chú Cuội agreed, but told her never to plant around the Banyan tree.
Months have passed, their beautiful house flourished with the loveliest flowers Nguyet Tien had planted. One day, when Chú Cuội was out walking in the woods, Nguyet Tien has some pretty dalias she wanted to plant. But as the whole yard is already filled with blooming flowers, she had nowhere to plant it except around the Banyan tree. Thinking her husband would understand, as long as she doesn’t hurt the tree, she carefully dug around the Banyan to plant the Dalias. But her shovel slipped and accidentally cut one of the roots of the Banyan. To her surprise, the tree groaned loudly in pain which made her jump back and scream from fear. The tree, which was in pain, swayed its body from side to side, pulling its roots one after the other, and started climbing into the evening sky, where a full moon was rising. Chú Cuội heard his wife’s screams from afar and started running back from the jungle. But just before he reached his house, he saw his precious tree pulling its last root from the ground. He quickly grabbed the root and tried to pull the tree back, but the Banyan was too strong for Chú Cuội and continued to climb up the sky as the young man continued to cling to its root.
As the tree continued to soar upward, Chú Cuội, still holding on to it, looked below and saw his crying wife looking farther and farther as the courtyard and his house looked smaller and smaller. He then saw the saw the whole village appearing like cluster of dots as the tree went up and passed the skies, stars and eventually stopped when they reached the moon. Then, the Banyan tree sank its roots into the gentle glittering moon dust. There, the tree stayed and settled. Years and decades have passed, Chú Cuội continued to sit under the Banyan tree, looking below the Earth, constantly wondering how to get home. Up to this day, every time someone looks up the moon, they could see a tiny figure of a man sitting under a tree, playing the flute. Sadly, it is Chú Cuội, still counting the days and years as they pass by, wondering if he could ever get back to earth, and forever longing for his wife Nguyet Tien.
While myths and legends are certainly very entertaining, one might ask how people came up with these stories. It is possible that the myths connected to the Mid-Autumn festival are a result of a phenomenon known as “man in the moon” - pareidolic images of a human face, head or body that certain traditions recognize in the disc of the full moon. Stories of people, objects, or animals trapped on the moon are popular in other cultures as well. European tradition, Christian lore, Norse mythology, Roman legends, and some Germanic cultures also have their own versions of “the man in the moon”.
It is heart-warming to know that despite our geographical distance, we humans are not so different after all.