There were once two stepsisters named Tam and Cam. Tam was the daughter of their father's first wife. She died when the child was young so her father took a second wife. Some years later the father died and left Tam to live with her stepmother and stepsister.
Her stepmother was most severe and treated the girl harshly. Tam had to labor all day and long into the night. When there was any daylight she had to care for the buffalo, carry water for the cooking, do the washing and pick vegetables and water-fern for the pigs to eat. At night she had to spend a lot of time husking the rice. While Tam worked hard her sister did nothing but play games. She was given pretty clothes to wear and always got the best food.
Early one morning the second-mother gave two creels to Tam and Cam and told them to go to the paddy fields to catch tiny shrimp and crab. I will give a yêm of red cloth to the one who brings home a full creel," she promised.
Tam was very familiar with the task of finding shrimp and crab in the paddy fields, and by lunchtime she had filled her creel. Cam walked and waded from field to field but she could not catch anything. She looked at Tam's full creel and said to her, "Oh, my dear sister Tam, your hair is covered in mud. Get into the pond to wash it, or you will be scolded by mother when you return home."
Believing what her sister told her, Tam hurried to the pond to wash herself. As soon as her stepsister entered the water, Cam emptied the shrimp and crab into her own creel, and hurried home to claim the yêm of red cloth.
When she had finished washing and saw her empty creel Tam burst into tears.
A Buddha who was sitting on a lotus in the sky heard her sobs and came down beside her. "Why are you crying?" asked the Buddha.
Tam told him all that had happened and the Buddha comforted her. "Do not be tearful. Look into your creel and see if anything is left."
Tam looked into the creel and said to the Buddha, "There is only one tiny bông fish."
"Take the fish and put it in the pond near your home. At every meal you must save a bowl of rice with which to feed it. When you want the fish to rise to the surface to eat the rice you must call like this:
Dear bông, dear bông,
Goodbye child, I wish you well." After saying this the Buddha disappeared.
Tam put the fish in the pond as she had been bidden, and every day, after lunch and the evening meal, she took some rice to feed it. Day by day the bông fish grew, and the girl became great friends with it.
Seeing Tam take rice to the pond after each meal the second-mother became suspicious, and bade Cam go to spy on her stepsister. Cam hid in a bush near the pond. When Tam called the bông fish the hidden girl listened to the words, and rushed to her mother to tell her of the secret.
That evening, the second-mother instructed Tam that on the following day she must take the buffalo to the far field.
"It is now the season for vegetables. Buffalo cannot graze in the village. Tomorrow you have to take the buffalo to the far field. If you graze in the village it will be taken by the notables."
Tam set off very early the next morning to ride the buffalo to the far field. When she was gone, Cam and her mother took rice to the pond and called the bông fish. It rose to the surface and the woman caught it. She then took it to the kitchen where she cooked and ate it.
Tam returned in the evening, and after eating her meal took rice to the pond to feed her friend. She called and called, again and again, but she saw only a drop of blood on the surface of the water. Tam knew that something terrible had happened to the bông fish and began to weep.
The Buddha appeared by her side again. "Why do you weep this time, my child?"
Tam sobbed out her story and the Buddha spoke. "Your fish has been caught and eaten. Now, stop crying. You must find the bones of the fish and put them in four jars. After doing this you must bury the jars. Put one under each of the legs of your bed."
Tam searched and searched for the bones of her beloved friend but could not find them anywhere. As she looked even further a rooster came and called to her.
Tam gave rice to the rooster, and when it had eaten it strutted into the kitchen. In no time at all the elegant fowl returned with the bones and laid them at Tam's feet. The girl placed the bones into four jars and buried one under each of the legs of her bed.
Some months later the king proclaimed that there would be a great festival. All the people of Tam's village were going to attend, and the road was thronged with well dressed people making their way to the capital. Cam and her mother put on their finest clothes in readiness to join them. When the woman saw that Tam also wanted to attend the gala day she winked at Cam. Then she mixed a basketful of unhusked rice with the basket of clean rice Tam had prepared the previous evening. "You may go to the festival when you have separated this grain. If there isn't any rice to cook when we return home you will be beaten."
With that, she and her daughter joined the happy people on their way to the festival, and left Tam to her lonely task. She started to separate the rice, but she could see that it was hopeless and she began to weep.
Once again the Buddha appeared by her side. "Why are there tears in your eyes?" he asked.
Tam explained about the rice grains that had to be separated, and how the festival would be over by the time she had finished.
"Bring your baskets to the yard," said the Buddha. I will call the birds to help you."
The birds came and pecked and fluttered until, in no time at all, they had divided the rice into two baskets. Not one single grain did they eat, but when they flew away Tam began to weep again.
"Now why are you crying?" asked the Buddha.
"My clothes are too poor," sobbed Tam. "I thank you for your help, but I cannot go dressed like this."
"Go and dig up the four jars," ordered the Buddha. "Then you will have all you need."
Tam obeyed and opened the jars. In the first she found a beautiful silk dress, a silk yêm and a scarf of the same material. In the second jar she found a pair of embroidered shoes of a cunning design which fitted her perfectly. When she opened the third jar great was her surprise when she saw a miniature horse. It neighed once, and grew to become a noble steed. In the fourth jar there was a richly ornamented saddle and bridle which grew to fit the horse. She washed herself and brushed her hair until it shone. Then she put on her wonderful new clothes and rode off to the festival.
On the way she had to ride through a stream flowing over the road. As she did so, one of her embroidered shoes fell into the water and sank beneath the surface. She was in such a hurry that she could not stop to search for it, so she wrapped the other shoe in her scarf and rode on.
Shortly afterwards, the king and his entourage, led by two elephants, arrived at the same spot. The elephants refused to enter the water and lowered their tusks, bellowing and trumpeting. When no amount of goading would force them on, the king ordered his followers to search the water. One of them found the embroidered shoe and brought it to the king, who inspected it closely.
Finally he said, "The girl who wore a shoe as beautiful as this must herself be very beautiful. Let us go on to the festival and find her. Whoever it fits will be my wife."
There was great excitement when all the women learned of the king's decision, and they eagerly waited for their turn to try on the shoe.
Cam and her mother struggled to make it fit, but to no avail, and when they saw Tam waiting patiently nearby the woman sneered at her. "How can someone as common as you be the owner of such a shoe? And where did you steal those fine clothes? Wait till we get home. If there isn't any rice to cook I am going to beat you severely."
Tam said nothing, but when it came her turn to try on the shoe it fitted perfectly. Then she showed the other one that was wrapped in the scarf, and everyone knew that she was the future queen.
The king ordered his servants to take Tam to the palace in a palanquin, and she rode off happily under the furious and jealous gazes of her stepsister and stepmother.
Tam was very happy living in the citadel with the king, but she never forgot her father. As the anniversary of his death came nearer she asked the king if she could return to her village to prepare the offering.
When Cam and her mother saw that Tam had returned, their jealous minds formed a wicked plan. "You must make an offering of betel to your father," said the stepmother. "That areca tree over there has the best nuts. You are a good climber, so you must go to the top of the tree and get some."
Tam climbed the tree and when she was at the top her stepmother took an axe and began to chop at the trunk. The tree shivered and shook and Tam cried out in alarm. "What is happening? Why is the tree shaking so?"
"There are a lot of ants here," called her stepmother. "I am chasing them away."
She continued to chop until the tree fell. Its crown, with Tam in it, toppled into a deep pond and the beautiful young woman was drowned. The wicked murderer gathered Tam's clothes, gave them to Cam, and led her to the citadel. She explained about the terrible "accident" to the king and offered Cam as a replacement wife. The king was very unhappy, but he said nothing.
When Tam died she was transformed into a vang anh bird. The bird flew back to the palace gardens and there she saw Cam washing the king's clothes near the well. She called out to her. "Those are my husband's clothes. Dry the clothes on the pole, not on the fence, lest they be torn."
Then she flew to the window of the king's room, singing as she went. The bird followed the king everywhere and he, who was missing Tam greatly, spoke to it, "Dear bird, dear bird, if you are my wife, please come to my sleeve."
The bird sat on the king's hand and then hopped onto his sleeve. The king loved the bird so much that he often forgot to eat or sleep, and he had a golden cage made for it. He attended to it day and night and completely ignored Cam.
Cam went to her mother and told her about the bird. The woman advised that she must kill it and eat it, and make up a story to tell the king. Cam waited until the king was absent then she did, as her mother had instructed. She threw the feathers into the garden afterwards.
When the king returned he asked about the bird and Cam answered, "I had a great craving for bird meat so I had it for a meal." The king said nothing.
The feathers grew into a tree. Whenever the king sat beneath it the branches bent down and made a parasol to shade him. He ordered a hammock to be placed under the tree and every day he rested there.
Cam was not happy about this, and once again she sought her mother's counsel.
"You must cut down the tree in secret. Use the wood to make a loom and tell the king you will weave some cloth for him."
On a stormy day Cam had the tree felled and made into a loom. When the king asked her about it she said that the wind had blown it over, and that now she would weave. cloth for him on the loom made from its timber. When she sat down at the loom it spoke to her, "Klick klack, klick klack, you took my husband. I will take your eyes."
The terrified Cam went to her mother and told her of the loom's words. "Burn the loom and take the ashes far away from the palace," she told her daughter.
Cam did as she was bidden and threw the ashes at the side of the road a great distance from the king's home. The ashes grew into a green thi, tree and when the season came it bore one piece of fruit, with a wonderful fragrance that could be smelled from far away.
An old woman, who sold drinking water at a nearby stall, was attracted by the scent and she stood beneath the tree. She looked at the fruit, opened her pocket and called longingly, "Dear thi, drop into my pocket. I will only smell you, never eat you."
The fruit fell into her pocket, and she loved and treasured it, keeping it in her room to look at and to smell its fragrance.
Each day, when the old woman went to her stall, a small figure stepped from the thi fruit and grew into the form of Tam. She cleaned the house, put things in order, cooked the rice and made soup out of vegetables from the garden. Then she became tiny again and went back inside the thi fruit.
The old woman was curious and decided to find out who was helping. her. One morning she pretended to go to her stall and hid behind a tree near the back door. She watched through a crack and saw Tam emerge from the thi fruit and grow into a beautiful girl. The old woman was very happy and rushed into the house and embraced her. She tore apart the skin of the fruit and threw it away. Tam lived happily with the old woman and helped her with the housework every day. She also made cakes and prepared betel to sell on the stall.
One day the king left his citadel and rode through the countryside. When he came to the old woman's stall he saw that it was neat and clean, so he stopped. The old woman offered him water and betel, and when he accepted it he saw that the betel had been prepared to look like the wings of an eagle. He remembered that his wife had prepared betel exactly in this fashion.
"Who prepared this betel?" he asked.
"It was done by my daughter," replied the old woman.
"Where is your daughter? Let me see her."
The old woman called Tam. When she came the king recognized his beloved wife, looking even younger and more beautiful. The king was very happy, and as the old woman told him the story he sent his servants to bring a rich palanquin to carry his wife back to the citadel.
When Cam saw that Tam had returned she was most fearful. She did her best to ingratiate herself and asked her stepsister the secret of her great beauty
"Do you wish to be very beautiful?" asked Tam. "Come, I will show you how." Tam had her servants dig a hole and prepare a large jar of boiling water. "If you want to be beautiful you must get into this hole," Tam told her wicked stepsister.
When Cam was in the hole Tam ordered the servants to pour in the boiling water, and so her stepsister met her death. Tam had the body made into mam, a rich sauce, and sent it to her stepmother, saying that it was a present from her daughter.
Each day the woman ate some of the mam with her meals, always commenting how delicious it was. A crow came to her house, perched on the roof ridge and cawed, "Delicious! The mother is eating her own daughter's flesh Is there any left? Give me some."
The stepmother was very angry and chased the bird away, but, on the day when the jar of mam was nearly empty, she saw her daughter's skull and fell down dead.
Revised January 29, 2001.