The Story of Tam and Cam
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The original story has two parts. The first part is about the life of Tấm before she married the king. The second part is what happened after she married him.
A man married again, and his second wife gave birth to a child as dark as rice bran, so the baby was named Cám. He also has a very beautiful baby daughter named Tấm, which means broken rice from his first wife. When Tấm's father's affection for his first daughter diminished soon after (due to the influence of his second wife) and the stepmother began to abuse Tấm and forced her to do all the housework, while Cám lived in luxury. Her hatred for Tấm intensified by the fact that Tấm was much more beautiful than her own daughter Cám, even though Tấm was forced to do all the laboring under the sun.
One day, the stepmother sent Tấm and Cám fishing, promising to reward the girl who caught the most fish with a new yem (shawl). Cám knew her mother would never punish her, therefore instead of trying to catch fish, she bathed carelessly in the river while Tấm was working hard. When Cám noticed all the fish Tấm had caught, Cám advised Tấm to wash the mud out of her hair or else she would be scolded by their mother. As Tấm went out to the river to wash her hair, Cám poured all the fish Tấm had caught into her own basket and ran home.
Upon discovering she had been tricked, Tấm sobbed until Buddha appeared to her and comforted her. He told Tấm to look into her basket to discover the one remaining little goby. He then told Tấm to take the fish home and put it into the well at the back of the house, reciting a special poem/greeting whenever she came to feed it, which meant:
"Goby, goby! Come eat the golden rice, the silver rice of mine. Don't eat stale rice, old porridge that are not mine."
Everyday, Tấm would come out to the well a few times to feed the goby, always reciting the greeting beforehand so that the goby would come up from the water. The fish grew fatter everyday and the stepmother began to suspect Tấm's behavior. One day, the stepmother snuck out close to where Tấm was feeding the fish. She waited until Tấm was gone, and went over to the well, finding nothing. She then repeated the greeting she had heard Tấm reciting, and to her delight, saw the goby come up from the water. The stepmother then caught and killed it and put it in her rice porridge.
When Tấm discovered this, she broke into sobs. Buddha again appeared to Tấm and consoled her, and instructed her to salvage the bones of the carp and bury them in four separate jars underneath each corner of her bed.
A short while later, the king proclaimed a festival. The stepmother and Cám went, but Tấm was left to sort a huge basket of green and black beans. The fairy guardian appeared again and transformed a handful of dust into sparrows, then instructed Tấm to dig out her four jars. From the first jar, Tấm got a beautiful blue and silver gown, a silk yếm and a silk scarf; from the second, a pair of golden slippers; from the third, a richly ornamented saddle and bridle; and from the fourth, a fine horse. Tấm dressed herself and hastened to the feast, arousing the curiosity and admiration of everyone present, but the envy and jealousy of her own sister and stepmother. She left at once, but while crossing a stream she dropped one slipper.
The slipper flowed along the river until it reached the king's garden, and was picked up by one of the king's attendants. The king proclaimed that any maiden whose foot fit the slipper would be made his queen. Every eligible lady who had gone to the festival tried the slipper, including Cám, but all to no avail. Suddenly, a very beautiful stranger appeared whose foot fit perfectly into the slipper (not to mention on her other foot was adorned the corresponding slipper of the same make). Her stepmother and Cám were shocked to discover the mysterious lady was no other than Tấm. Tấm was immediately brought on the royal palanquin to the imperial palace for a grand wedding celebration, right in front of her seething stepmother and stepsister.
At Tấm's father death anniversary, Tấm proved her filial duty and made a short visit home to honor the anniversary with her family, despite the abuse she had suffered. Her stepmother asked Tấm to climb on an areca tree and gather its betel nuts for her father's altar. Tấm obeyed and as she climbed to the top of the tree, her stepmother took an axe and chopped down the tree, so that Tấm fell to her death. By tradition, Cám was married to the king in place of her late sister. Tấm had been reincarnated into a nightingale and followed her sister into the palace.
The king remained despondent and dearly missed his late wife, while Cám tried hard to please him. One day, a palace maid hung out the king's dragon robe to the sun, when the nightingale appeared to sing a song to remind the maid to be careful with her husband's gown. The bird's song captivated everyone who listened to it, and even drew the attention of the king. The king called out to the nightingale to land in the wide sleeves of his robe if it really was the spirit of his late wife. The nightingale did exactly as the king asked, so it was put into a golden cage where the king spent most of his days as it sang songs to him. Cám became increasingly incensed and asked her mother what she should do. Her mother instructed her to catch the bird and feed it to a cat. Cám did as she was told and after skinning it, she threw the feathers over the gate of the palace.
From the feathers rose a beautiful white cedar tree. Its shade was so soothing that the King ordered a hammock to be made under it, and to his immense liking, he always dreamed about his late wife Tấm when he rested under that tree. Cám was jealous again when she learned about it so she told her mother, who instructed Cám to chop down the tree and make a loom out of its wood. But later on, when Cám sat on the loom and tried to weave some cloth, the decorative crow on the loom spoke with Tấm's voice, accusing Cám of stealing her husband.
Following her mother's advice, Cám burned the loom and buried its ashes far outside the palace. From where the ashes were buried, a persimmon tree rose, bearing only a single but magnificent fruit. A poor old woman who worked as a water vendor walked by one day and saw it, begging it to fall to her, and promised that she would not eat it, only admire it. Indeed, it fell to her, and she did not eat it. The next day, the old woman found that when she came home from her errands, the housework was done while she was gone and there was a hot meal waiting for her. This miracle happened continuously for a month, so one day, the old lady pretended to leave but stayed to spy, when she saw Tấm emerge from the fruit and begin to do the household chores. The old woman emerged and tore up the peel so Tấm could no longer turn back.
One day, the king, lost while hunting, stopped by the hut. The old woman offered him betel, and when the king saw how the betel had been prepared, in the peculiar special way his late queen had always prepared it: the betel leaves looked just like the wings of a phoenix; he inquired as to who had prepared the betel. The old woman told him her daughter had done it, and the king made her produce the daughter, and saw it was Tấm. He was overjoyed and Tấm was brought back to the palace as the king's first wife.
Later when Tấm had returned to the palace, Cám asked Tấm about her beauty secret, Tấm told Cám that to be beautiful, just take a bath in boiling water. Cám did exactly what Tấm said and was boiled alive.
Cám's body was then cut into pieces and made into a jar of food. Tấm sent that jar to her stepmother. The stepmother believed what was inside the jar was just food and started to eat it. One day, a crow flew by the stepmother's house and rested on her roof and cried out:
"Delicious! The mother is eating her own daughter's flesh! Is there any left? Give me some."
The stepmother was enraged, but when she finally reached the bottom of the jar, she discovered Cám's skull inside and immediately died of shock.
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