A long time ago, a small family lived happily in the shadow of a great king's palace. The mother and father had one little girl who always obeyed and listened to her parents. As she aged, she grew more and more beautiful by the day. Her fellow villagers called her Ngoc, which means "pearl", in compliment of her stunning beauty. She was very hard working, always helping out her mom at home and cooking for her dad before he went off to work every morning. The family was not rich, but they earned enough to sustain a peaceful lifestyle. One day, Ngoc's mom got very sick. The family was forced to use all the money they had saved for quite some time to hire a reputable doctor. The doctor did what he could, but finally shook his head in submission. He was sorry to admit that there was no way to cure the poor lady. After her mother passed away, Ngoc was not as happy of a person as she was before, and the relationship between her and her father started to fall apart. Seeing the great sorrow within his daughter, he wanted to bring back the happiness in the family and have someone to take care of his little girl. He remarried with a local widow, whose husband had died a few years past. Ngoc saw her dad regain happiness and seeing someone taking care of and loving him once again made her happier every day. Her stepmother appeared to be a very nice woman and her stepsister soon enough became her close friend. Unfortunately, her dad worked much too hard to recover the money the family had spent on the doctor and he too fell ill. Very soon after that, he died of an unknown cause. Ngoc was mourning for days, but held onto the thought that she had her stepmother's and stepsister's support. However, Ngoc was betrayed. As soon as she recovered from the death of her father, they made her go work in the field from early morning until very late night.
She came home very tired every day, but she still worked just as hard the next morning. Even though she doesn't pay much attention to her appearance, her heavenly beauty refused to fade. This made her stepmother and stepsister very angry and jealous. As she grew older, Ngoc became more beautiful than any girl in the kingdom, with her smooth, white skin rivaling the surface of an unblemished pearl. Her full lips gleamed with a natural red color alongside her dark, silky hair. Her eyes always shone like diamond, full of hope and life. The rumor of her beauty was soon enough spread all around the country and countless nobles and wealthy families came asking for permission for their son to marry Ngoc. However, her stepmother always bade her to hide in a barrel behind their house whenever people paid a visit:
"You, my beautiful daughter, murders and thieves are coming!
You'd better hide,
Hide well, hide well!
I will find you in the barrel once they are gone!"
Then, she introduced to the nobles her own daughter as Ngoc instead. They all shook their heads at the stepsister because she was untalented and very lazy, and her beauty was no match for what stories they had heard. One day, when Ngoc was hidden in the barrel in the back of the house, she wondered why thieves so often came to their place. Worried for her family, she tried to escape the barrel, but her stepmother had locked the lid. She was crying inside when suddenly an arrow hit the locked lid and popped it open. Ngoc saw that the arrow flew from the longbow of a very handsome young man, whose smile was as bright as the sun and whose intelligence showed in his eyes. Behind him stood many soldiers, all of whom were stunned by Ngoc's beauty.
"Who are you and what were you doing in that barrel?"
Ngoc was very shy as they approached closer to her. The young man's smile was all she could see. She saw now that it was brighter than the sun, and her heart began to race.
"I was locked in this barrel. May I ask who are you?"
The whole army laughed at her innocent question. However, the handsome man signaled them to stop, for fear they would scare the young beauty away. He knew at the moment that he was falling in love with this gorgeous girl, a kind of feeling known to some as "love at first sight." He was not a believer of such emotion. But as soon as he looked upon her, he saw past even Ngoc's beauty, and into a beautiful heart, a person who could not have done anything wrong to the world, who could do everything but harm anyone.
"Beautiful girl, please let me take care of you, for I am the king of this land. Please come with me to my palace and we will have a beautiful wedding."
As soon as she heard that the man in front of her was the king, she blushed and bowed down seeking pardon. He took her hand and they departed for the palace, not stopping to say goodbye to her stepmother before she left.
A month later, good news was delivered to the village: the new queen would pay her first visit to the village right after the big wedding. All the villagers were excited and decorated the village to celebrate her visit. As the army marched closer and closer to the village, the stepmother began to have bad feelings, but she ignored it since she too was excited to see the queen. Ngoc was carried among the whole army, in her red velvet gown studded with gold and pearls, looking as colorful as a diamond in sunlight. She stepped into her old house and gladly greeted her surprised stepmother and stepsister after a whole month apart. It also happened to be Ngoc's dad's death anniversary. She couldn't help but mourn for her dad, wishing he was still here to see her living happily with her new husband. The stepmother saw this and, knowing that Ngoc was a very filial daughter, came up with a sinister plan. She asked Ngoc:
"Oh lovely daughter, I loved and missed you so much. It is your dad's death anniversary today. A wonderful daughter like you would love to clean your father's altar."
Ngoc agreed to the idea and remembered her responsibility to clean her dad's altar in remembrance of his dedication to raising her to be such a wonderful person. She took an empty bucket and brought it down to the river to get some water. Many soldiers wanted to help her but she refused the aid, telling them to rest instead. As she was trying to get some clean water out of the river, her stepmother pushed her into the water and drowned her, running into the house afterwards pretending she had nothing to do with Ngoc's death.
As the king heard the news of his queen's drowning, he was very upset and sorrowful for many days. The stepmother used this chance to send her own daughter into the palace to serve the king, hoping to win the king's heart.
Days passed, but nothing that the stepsister did could make the king happy. He was very careless of her appearance in the palace no matter how hard she tried in front of him. All day long, he sat in the courtyard, reading books and listening to the red bird's sad song. He had no idea why the red bird always followed him and sang so sweetly, but it quickly became his favorite. He feed it himself, and slept best while listening to it sing while wrapped under his sleeve.
Eventually the stepsister learned of this, and she became very mad. She washed the king's gown very carelessly, with frustration and anger. The red bird flew to her and said:
"Wash my husband's clothes, wash my husband's clothes
Wash it careful, wash it clean
Or else I will report it to him!"
The stepsister was frightened and rushed right back into the palace. She ordered her maid to catch the bird as the king slept in the courtyard and to burn it until its bones became ashes and its feathers dirt. The king woke up without seeing the bird under his sleeve and went into depression. He sang out his emotions:
"Ngoc, Ngoc, you are the pearl in my eyes
Now you have left, my mind has gone
Red bird, red bird, all I have left was you
Now you have left, I am dying too"
The stepsister overheard the king singing, she got very jealous because in his eyes he was only Ngoc and the bird, but not her. She decided she would do anything to get her image into the king's head. She ordered all the chefs and maids to leave the palace so she can be around the king as much as possible. Day after day of being by the king's side, however, she still never got any closer to his heart, for it was bleeding from missing his love. One day, she decided to mix into the king's soup an herb called "love-charm." This charm was a magic practice that was supposed to get anyone to fall in love with the person they first saw. Thinking the king will fall for her trick, the stepsister became excited. After tasting the first spoon, though, the king spit it out and became furious with her. He asked her where all his chefs and maids who cooked and served him well every day were. She couldn't say anything but to tell him the truth about firing them.
"How dare you fire all my maids and chefs, and how dare you cook for me
I won't eat any woman's soup, except the one my wife made
Leave and don't ever dare to come back
Now that you are dead in my eyes"
The stepsister ran away crying. Unfortunately, the magic charm didn't work for her this time, but only brought her trouble. She went back to the village to stay with her mother. In the meantime, after all of the stress, the king decided to go hunting again. It was very hard for him to hunt again because every arrow he shot reminded him of his dearest wife. He broke down crying in front of the whole army because he could no longer take the pain of losing his wife. Every teardrop that fell from his eyes swelled the river beneath his feet. Eventually, the whole army yelled out when they spotted a body floating on the other side of the river. The body was dressed in a red velvet gown, the beautiful gown that the king last saw his wife wear. He immediately stopped crying and ordered the entire army to carefully carry the body to the shore. He looked at his dearest and cried out her name, holding her body very tightly until long after the sun sank behind the palace. One of his soldiers suggested that the king bring Ngoc's body back to the palace because the cold of night began to fall upon them. The king refused to move and collapsed on the ground next to the body of the woman he loved. As he slept that night, he still held onto her hand tightly, never letting go. Not knowing what to do, the army brought him back into the palace alongside Ngoc's body, and had the courtiers plan a grand funeral ceremony for the following day in memory of the dead queen. In the morning, a monk doctor walked out of the king's room after seeing to his health. On the way out of the palace, he walked past the garden where Ngoc's dead body lie. He felt the tension of a spirit that was trapped wandering around in the palace. Immediately, he sat down next to the body, and said:
"Beautiful, innocent lady
Please come back if you can
Our king is in misery
What is love that caused such trouble?"
Quickly the sky turned dark and sudden rain was fell hard upon the palace grounds. Above in the sky, a soft voice spoke to the monk saying:
"What is the purpose of coming back?"
If I was killed by my own family
What is the purpose of coming back?
If my murderers are still free"
The monk realized the queen did not die of an accident. After some inquiry, the monk discovered who the queen's family was and where they lived. He immediately talked to the courtier, who provided him with the army to go capture the stepmother and stepsister. However, this was kept secret from the king, whose health had not yet recovered. The monk travelled to the village and said to the stepmother and stepsister that the king the latter and wanted them to come to the palace as soon as they could. Those two were very happy and forgot about all of the terrible sins they committed against Ngoc. They immediately packed their bags and went to the palace.
In the meantime, the king recovered from his sickness and rushed straight to the garden where Ngoc's body rested. He asked all the maids to leave so he could weep for her in solitude. Knowing that he could not live without her, the king wished to pass beyond the world into the realm where he and Ngoc could be together once again. He cried out tearfully:
"Please, my beautiful
Let me come to you
Let me take care of you for eternity
For you are the only one I love"
His other hand was holding a knife, placed gently on his wrist. When he made the first cut, one drop of blood fell down onto Ngoc's palm. The second cut dripped blood straight through every layer of her clothes, down to her very heart. As the king prepared for a finally cut, the silence was broken by the patter of a running horse's hooves. Soon, the whole army with the monk in the lead yelled their king's name. Afraid that they might stop him, the king made the last cut into his wrist, deep enough that his blood poured out like a waterfall. He sank down onto the brick, lying beside his beloved one, and whispered:
"Here I am, I am coming to you"
The monk's voice was the loudest of all, screaming out from the bottom of his lungs:
"Please King, please don't die
We found who took away your lover's life!
Please come back
For the whole country depends upon you!"
As these words echoed against the palace walls, the sky turned very bright once again. The sun shone as a candle does in the darkest cavern. A sudden clap of thunder roared loudly from above and lightning struck the two lovers, lying dead on the ground. A second later, the two once dead opened their eyes. The moment they looked upon each other, the sky returned to its normal summer blue. They whispered each other's names and stared at each other for a very long time. Ngoc and her love had finally been reunited.
The stepmother and stepsister were to spend their lives in the cold, damp prison. Ngoc did not want to take away their lives, for she desired them to have one last chance to think of their mistakes and perhaps become better people in the end. As for the king and queen, they lived very happily together. People said that this was the greatest love story of all time. Nothing could separate their love for one another, not even the elusive barriers between life and death. Sometimes in life, all we need is the person we love most and the world will be much brighter. Even though being with the one you love may mean death, it would be far less painful than to live a life without them.