There was once a young man who had lost both his parents and was left entirely alone in the world. There was no one to keep house for him. When he returned home in the evening, tired and hungry, he had to prepare his own meal and wash his own dishes.
It was distasteful to continue living in this manner, and the young man often thought how pleasant it would be to have a helpmate. He earned so little, however, that no father would ever have considered him seriously as a prospective son-in-law.
One evening, the young man returned home to find a five meal on the table and his house in perfect order. He sat down at the table, ate the food, and went to bed wholly satisfied; still he was unable to imagine who might be taking such good care of him. In the morning, when he arose, breakfast had been prepared and was already on the table. It was all very unusual because the house had been locked during the night and he had not heard the slightest noise.
The matter continued in the same way for several days. It was evident that some unknown person was looking out for his welfare. Although grateful for the service he was receiving the young man was plagued by curiosity and greatly desired to make acquaintance of his unknown benefactor.
One morning, he pretended to depart as usual but slipped back into the house through an open window. Then he saw a wonderfully beautiful young woman step out of a picture that was hanging on the wall. She immediately set about cleaning and polishing the furniture. With a leap he locked the door and ran to the center of the room, where he grasped the young woman by the arms and held her firmly.
"Are you the one who has been preparing my meals and doing my housework?" he asked.
"I was sorry for you," she replied. "That's why I did it."
"I want you to take care of me for the rest of my life," said the young man then. "Will you marry me?"
"That would not be possible," replied the young woman. "You are a real man and I am only a portrait on the wall. We are not of the same mold."
Thereupon, the young man removed the picture from the wall and locked it in a trunk.
"You can no longer go back to the picture," he said triumphantly. "Now, will you be my wife?"
The young woman had to give her consent. They were married, lived happily together, and became the parents of three handsome sons. The man grew older with time, but his wife did not age. She always appeared just as young as the day on which she had stepped forth from the portrait.
People then began to wonder about the woman's perennial youthfulness and even her three sons showed their concern. One day, the eldest asked his father about it. At first, the father refused to answer his son's questions; but the latter persisted until told that his mother was a living picture and would never change. He refused to believe it, however, and the father became angry at his son's lack of respect.
"If you will not believe me," he said, "take a look at the frame from which your mother stepped forth."
Then he gave his son the key to the trunk in which the picture frame was kept.
Even when he had seen the frame for himself, the son refused to believe that his mother had once been a part of it. But as he did not wish to anger his father further, he waited until he had left the house before questioning his mother.
"Mother," he asked then, "Is it true that you originated from a picture?"
"Who ever told you that?" she asked in turn.
"I have seen the frame," replied the son, "but I do not believe that you were ever in it."
"Where is the frame?" asked the mother excitedly.
The son produced the key, opened the trunk, took out the frame, and handed it to his mother. She accepted it without a word and then hung it on the wall in its old place.
"Call your brothers!" she ordered.
When the mother's three sons were there with her, she spoke to them in heartrending words.
"I can no longer remain with you, my sons," she said. "I no longer belong to the world of mankind. Say farewell for me to your father, thank him for the good life he has given me, and love each other."
Having said these words, she dried her tears and stepped into the frame.
"Mother," cried the three sons, "come back!"
But the mother looked at them emotionlessly from the portrait and paid no attention to their pleas.
That evening, when the husband returned home and learned of the misfortune that had befallen his family, he wanted to hang himself from grief. But then, thinking of his sons, he reconsidered. He placed a cloth over the picture, removed it from the wall, carried it from the house, and sold it to an art dealer.
Several years later, the man married again. His second wife was of this world and cared for his children as if they were her own. She grew old naturally and finally died.
=== Note: The theme of "the secret housewife" is a recurrent one in Oriental folklore. In the story presented here, the young woman is obviously a "fairy" or immortal (tien) and comes to earth through the medium of a picture. Sometimes, she is a shape-changing fox (a fallen deity) or a celestial maiden who loses her special garment and is bound to earth until it is returned to her.
There is a long poem in Vietnamese, written by an anonymous author, entitled "Bich-Cau Ky-Ngo (The Strange Meeting at Bich-Cau)" that also makes use of this theme. The young man's name is Tu Uyen and the tien who steps out of the picture to do his housework and then to become his wife is named Giang Kieu. The poem is much elaborate than the rather simple version given here.