The bit of bone swung from the grubby twine tied around her neck every time she bent towards a corpse. Round and white from a thousand years of sun, it looked more like a marble, like a gonggi stone that a child could toss into the air and catch on the back of her hand. But it was indeed the top knuckle of Min’s little finger, where she had spelled her heart one morning, lifetimes ago. In the blue haze of dawn, she had chopped it off with a butcher’s knife, just like her mother had, and her mother’s mother before her.
Each time Min bent down, the knuckle-bone swung and her mask slipped off her thin face so that she gagged on the thick smoke and the stench of burnt flesh in the summer heat. She longed to rest. Navigating between the bodies was becoming unbearable, with flies already settling and crawling in and out of festering lesions and torn limbs. She tried to work efficiently, sinking her claws into each chest and tying each dripping heart into the ripped folds of her own chima before looting theirs.
By the third hour, there were droves of other scavengers flocking to the shore. Some were hermits from the countryside, still dressed in the rough, hemp hanboks of their eras, their pointed ears and ninetails ragged. The others, the ones closer to human forms, had traveled all the way from the royal courts, draped in vibrant, embroidered silks. With more and more foreigners flooding Chosun with their strange gadgets and alchemy, it had become more difficult for these women to venture outside of the spirit world. Many of their kind had already been caught and burned alive, and so they had to rely on these harvests in-between. There had not been such a marvelous tragedy, such an opportunity in so many years.
Wiping the sweat pearled on her forehead, Min sat on some driftwood and stopped to taste one of the hearts. A small one, just to renew her energy. She’d purify and cook the rest with the proper rituals later, once she was back in her mountain. Maybe tomorrow, she’d even preserve the surplus with dates and ginseng roots. And once her skin turned taut once again, her rosy lips full, bosom fuller, she’d go down into the village to look for a handsome traveler. Sighing, she licked her cracked lips and bit down into the fleshy mass in her hand. As the thick, warm blood dribbled down her chin, she braced herself for the heart’s delicious terror to spread into her own chest.
The fire had started below deck. She could feel its heat licking her ankles, hear the crackling and then, the roar. She could see it. The noblemen’s tall, black hats of fine horsehair gauze, the ladies’ oiled and lacquered wigs. All igniting instantly, these yangban done in by their own vanity. The clever ones had at least flung their children into the shallow waters. Ah, Min realized, this heart had belonged to a mother. And as inky smoke filled her lungs, the woman had prayed to a god Min had not heard of before. Maybe a Western god who was too far away to answer. Min had lived through the reign and fall of many a god, and still, these fools were quicker to answer to a glittering, new one than the virtuous ancestors they had abandoned.
The ache in Min’s lower back melted away, so too the liver spots on the backs of her hands. She watched the handful of survivors, the children who’d been able to swim, wander the shoreline. Their silks had burnt off, cheeks blistered raw, and shoulders peeling. Yet, some snickered as they swung from rib to rib in the smoldering ship’s skeleton, their palms blackened with soot. Others used driftwood to poke at shattered brain matter among the rocks.
Most of the little ones had not been in the mortal realm for more than five years, and could therefore see the scavengers. But the scavengers generally ignored the children, other than to hiss at the occasional inconsolable babe looking for his umma.
These were not mothers, but foxes who had robbed emperors’ generals and their warriors as they lay dying, spirits who’d ripped jade from hilts, sawed gold rings from shivering fingers, and saved consuming the hearts for last. Humans were generally blind to these immortal beings when they were in-between, young children and shamans being the exception. But the dying saw the most exquisite women with gentle moon faces and flowing robes, believing they were being ferried to the heavens to be rewarded for their glory and honor.
Min was bending towards a throat adorned with an amber pendant when she felt an elbow jabbing into her ribcage. It was Sun, a toothless hag whose heart-bone had worn down into the size of rat dung over the millennia.
Sun snatched the pendant, crooning, “Oh, this would be wasted on such an ugly fox like you. I will wear it tonight in the metropolis.” She slammed her knobby fist down into the corpse’s torso and tore out its heart. “And maybe bed a pretty nobleman.”
Min glanced at the ornament, the amber encased in gold filament the shape of a phoenix, and then down at Sun’s matted tails. Only three of the nine remained. It was only a matter of time before Sun would succumb to the rules of the mortal world, and wither away to dust.
Smiling, Min moved further down the beach.
The cove was devoid of vultures, due to the high tide. She wondered if she should wait, but she could see fresh bodies drifting into the caves, hanboks still saturated with the greasy iridescence of the ship’s lamp oils. There would be enough hearts in there for another hundred years of youth. And so she tied her own skirts about her waist and waded into the darkness.
The air was unsullied here. The soft lapping of the water against the cavernous walls echoed through Min’s bones, and she was surprised to find she could still feel the chill after all these centuries. When she heard the whimper, she thought a mongrel had gotten stuck in the cave. Dumb beasts always dutifully following their masters only to litter the battlefields with their own carcasses. And dead dogs meant more rot and more flies. Min fought to keep her chin above the water and reached for her rusted dagger, ready to drown the pathetic creature.
Her eyes strained and adjusted to the murky light to find the source even more of an annoyance. A child. No more than four years old, with ruddy cheeks and snot running down into his bow-shaped lips. He perched in charred rags on one of the rocks jutting from the walls.
“Umma,” he sniveled, as he reached out with plump arms.
She should have recoiled. She should have drowned the brat. But her left hand — the hand from which she’d removed her heart-bone in such a crude manner that her stunted little finger was still jagged at the edges — reached out in return. As if magnetized, seduced, charmed. Surely, Sun had devised this spell to steal Min’s heart-bone, so that she could return to the mortal realm as young and beautiful and alive as Min had once been.
She swam over to the child, brushed his peach fuzz cheek with her knuckles, and took him into her arms. How strangely familiar his weight, his scent like crisp globes of pears. And how cold. It was then that she realized she could not see his breath when he exhaled in this chilly cave. By the time she might take him back to the wreckage through all this frigid water, his heart would stop. A pity, but then, it would belong to her, creamy and tender and —
The boy grabbed the bone from her neck, the wet twine snapping easily, and he put it in between his blue lips.
“No! No! What have you done?!” She shook his shoulders, but her heart only fell deeper onto his tongue.
Her chest began to tighten, her throat closing. “That is not candy. Give it back, ah-gah, or else I will slit your face open.”
The boy’s eyes grew round as rice cakes, and he began to cry.
And then, little by little, she began to remember. Those sweet moments from before, before that blue haze of dawn.
A home made of earth and straw, a stone hearth.
A broad-shouldered man with his back to her, grilling mackerel over a flame.
A little fox with thick, black hair braided down her back, stumbling through the tall grass before her.
Min laughed. That little auburn ninetails swishing from side to side. She used to pretend to chase it, didn’t she? She used to tug on it when she caught it, and her daughter would shriek in delight.
Singing an old kumiho song, Min swam with the boy in her arms, back to the shoreline. She could see the villagers had arrived. He clung to her dripping skirts, still sucking on her heart. The smoke was clearing, but her breathing was labored and everything was crumbling into tiny bits of sand. She used her remaining strength to brush his hair from his tear-filled eyes and kissed his forehead.
“Swallow,” she said.
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Sarah Jinee Park is a Korean-American writer, editor, and siren from Queens, NY. She spent the last two years teaching creative writing and graphic noveling to children and publishing their works on a digital platform, all the while desperately yearning for the ocean. Currently on sabbatical in the “Island of Enchantment” (commonly known as Puerto Rico), she is working on a surrealist novel and learning how to live a greener and more sustainable lifestyle.
Her poem “1951” will be published in the forthcoming second issue of Polychrome Mag. Read more of her work at sarahjineepark.com/
Sarah says: “The Kumiho’s Song” is a spin on the Korean myth of the kumiho, a nine-tailed fox that could live for a thousand years and take on the form of a beautiful woman to seduce men, sometimes eating their hearts. Growing up, I only ever knew these kumihos to be evil creatures, that to even call a woman a “fox” in Korean was akin to slut-shaming, but that these fox-women were also extremely intelligent and powerful. (Of course men feared them!) There are also folktales of men stealing the kumiho’s “yuhwu guseul” (a marble or bead) to gain their vast knowledge. I wanted to tell a story breaking that cycle of thievery and deception, a story that painted the kumiho as a sympathetic figure instead. And not because she is beautiful or because she falls in love with a man in a sentimental, heteronormative way.”
The public domain illustration of a vixen on this page was sourced from here.