Once upon a time there was a young girl named Tam, whose mother died early and so her father remarried. Soon after, her stepmother gave birth to a daughter named Cam. When Tam’s father died, stepmother began to abuse Tam and forced her to do all the housework, while Cam lived luxuriously. Stepmother’s hatred of Tam was intensified by the fact that Tam was much more beautiful and fair than her own daughter Cam, even though Tam was forced to do all the laboring under the sun.
One day, stepmother sent Tam and Cam to fish, promising to reward the girl who caught the most fish with a new, red silk Ao yem. Cam knew her mother would never punish her and so played carelessly while Tam worked hard fishing. When Cam noticed all the fish Tam had caught, Cam advised Tam to wash the mud out of her hair or else she would be scolded by mother. As Tam washed her hair, Cam poured all the fish Tam had caught into her own basket and ran home.
When she discovered she had been tricked, Tam sobbed until the Goddess of Mercy (or in some versions, the Buddha) appeared to her and comforted her. She told Tam to look into her basket to discover the one remaining little carp. She told Tam to take the carp home and put it into the well at the back of the house, reciting a special greeting whenever she came to feed it.
Everyday, Tam would come out to the well a few times to feed the carp, always reciting the greeting beforehand so that the carp would come up from the water. The carp grew fatter everyday that Tam fed it, and stepmother began to suspect Tam’s behavior. One day, stepmother sneaked out close to where Tam was feeding the fish. She waited until Tam was gone, and went over to the well, finding nothing. Stepmother repeated the greeting she had heard Tam reciting and to her delight, saw the carp come up from the water. Stepmother caught and killed it to put in her rice porridge.
When Tam discovered this, she broke into sobs. The Goddess of Mercy again appeared to Tam 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 hosted a large celebration. Tam pleaded to go along with Cam and stepmother, but stepmother schemed to keep Tam at home. Stepmother mixed together countless black and green beans and ordered Tam to sort them out before she was allowed to go (Tam did not have any decent clothes to wear anyway).
Tam waited until Cam and stepmother had gone for a while and called out to the Goddess of Mercy, who appeared and turned the nearby flies into sparrows that sorted the beans for Tam. Tam was then told to dig up the four jars from the corners of her bed, and found extravagant treasures in each, including a beautiful silk dress, jewelry, golden slippers and even a horse. Tam dressed herself splendidly and made her way to the celebration, but in her excitement she dropped a single slipper into the river.
The slipper flowed along the river until it was picked up by one of the king’s attendants. The king marveled at the beautiful slipper and proclaimed that any maiden at the celebration whose foot fit the slipper would be made into his first wife. Every eligible lady at the celebration tried on the slipper, including Cam, but all to no avail. Suddenly, a beautiful young girl dressed in a magnificent silk gown appeared whose foot fit perfectly into the slipper. Stepmother and Cam were shocked to discover the mysterious lady was Tam. Tam was immediately brought on the royal palanquin into the imperial palace for a grand wedding celebration, right in front of her seething stepmother and stepsister.
On Tam’s father’s death anniversary, Tam proved her filial duty and made a short visit home to honor the anniversary with her family, despite the abuse she had suffered at the hands of stepmother.
Stepmother asked Tam to climb an area tree and gather its betel nuts for her late father’s altar. Tam obeyed and as she climbed to the top of the tree, stepmother took an axe and chopped the tree down, so that Tam fell to her death. Cam put on her sister’s royal garb and entered the palace in her place. Tam had reincarnated into a nightingale and followed her sister into the palace.
The king remained despondent and dearly missed his late wife, while Cam 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 had asked and ever since then, it was put into a golden cage where the king spent most of his days as it sang songs to him. Cam became increasingly incensed and asked her mother what she should do. Her mother instructed her to catch the bird and eat it. Cam did as she was told and after skinning it, threw the feathers over the gate of the palace.
From the feathers of the nightingale rose a tree bearing a single, 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 promising that she would not to 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. The next day she pretended to leave but stayed back to spy, when she saw Tam emerge from the fruit and begin to do the household chores. The old woman emerged and tore up the peel so Tam 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 he asked 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 Tam. He was overjoyed and Tam was brought back into the palace as the king’s first wife.
Cam was distressed and saw that Tam was as beautiful and pale as ever. She begged Tam to reveal her secret of how she was so beautiful and fair-skinned, and that she would do anything to be as fair. Tam told her it was simple and that she would just have to jump into a basin of boiling water. Cam did and died. The Queen survived both of them, and lived happily ever after, and she definitely deserved it.