Five days have passed since I was a prisoner in those red brick walls, but every night I return there. In my night time terrors I am back in the squalor of that cell, surrounded by anguished people, so cramped that you can barely sit comfortably, let alone lie down to sleep. Cells without heat in the harsh Seoul winters, or cool relief in the sweltering summers; breeding grounds for exhaustion, frost bite and death.
In night time in these mountains, my spirit rises from my body hidden in the undergrowth, and floats back to Seodaemun prison to review its structure. Here is where the workshop is, where we produce clothes and paper; and here is the poplar, a mournful tree beside the execution hall, which prisoners cling to in their last haunted moments, weeping for a country lost. And here is a dark, long tunnel, leading out of the compound, along which the spent bodies are deported.
Here is the cell, no larger than a standing coffin, where we are kept in isolation. And here is the box with spikes nailed into its sides, where we are forced to crouch, gasping as they kick and shake it.
My cell mates say that hardship faced by the body is painful, but it’s preferable to the hardship of sharing names, facts and locations. That’ll only cause a deeper kind of damage; the kind that wears away bodies from the inside out.
Here in the undergrowth I’m changing back into a human from an animal. In the secret enclosures of the mountains, my battered pelt turns back into human flesh, and my stooped back straightens.
Awakening from dreams of Seodaemun, I push onwards on my way down south. Pine leaves crackle delicately beneath my feet, and the moon above is bright and fat.
I’m heading south to Jeju island, to look for my baby sister.
I haven’t seen her for two years. When a neighbour informed my family that our names were blacklisted, we made plans to escape to Jeju. We had distant relatives that would take us in and hide us. But the police arrived in the night, when we were sleeping, and rounded us all up. Everyone except for my sister. She knew how to hide when visitors arrived, how to curl up and not make a noise, until I would come to find her, to coax her out.
She’ll be four years old now.
Up ahead, through the trees, the moon casts its light over a running creature. A small, snow-white mammal, darting through the undergrowth. I glimpse it for only a moment, and it looks to me like a fox. Then it disappears.
A golden glow seeps through the foliage. I follow it to find a hanok, nestled in the mountains. There’s a stone wall surrounding it, and a large wooden gate. Beside the gate is a stone lantern, an orange flame ablaze, and small statues of mythical creatures: a venerable stone turtle, classical Chinese engraved on its shell, and a grinning haechi, large and lion-like, wreathed in scales with a horn on its head.
Leading up to the gate are several miniature stone stacks: mountain rocks artfully balanced, one on top of the other, that fill me with a fleeting sense of calm.
As I survey the sight, the door creaks open and a white face appears. A young woman. Her long hair snakes over her shoulder, and she is dressed in a colourful hanbok. A dark red skirt with a green top, rainbow stripes on the sleeves.
At first she narrows her eyes, but then her face relaxes.
When she speaks, her voice is soft and low, heavy and humid, like the air before monsoon rain.
“It’s late,” she says. “Why are you out so late?” And she beckons.
Startled, I approach. Her unblemished, ivory face is like a small moon beside the stone lantern.
“You’re in a real state,” she says. “What are you doing?”
I explain myself, though I was never a good liar.
Lost, robbed, on my way down south.
“Stay here for the night,” she says.
There is an awkwardness in her voice, as if she is not used to using it.
I follow her through the gate, comforted by the soft, warm glow diffusing through the hanok’s rice paper windows. She walks ahead purposefully, and I notice how exceptional her dress is. Her hanbok is of a fine and silky material, so fine that the colours seem in no way transfixed: they quiver and ripple as if alive. She bends down to remove her shoes, and the colours flutter across her back like butterflies.
Removing our shoes and ascending the wooden platform, the woman slides open the door and we step inside.
She guides me to a silk cushion on the floor, and then fetches water. I feel humbled, sitting on such splendour; even the cup is beautiful.
As I drink thirstily, she casts an eye over my appearance.
“I’ll bring you clean clothes,” she says. “You can tidy yourself up, and tomorrow take food with you.”
Deprived of human kindness for so long, I’m at first wary of her concern. But there is a sense of loneliness about her; she looks suddenly small and slight in this large room. And in her moon-white face, her dark eyes glint at me expectantly, as if happy to have company. Perhaps there’s still some humanity among strangers. “I can’t thank you enough,” I say.
She says that she will prepare warm food, and leaves to light the hearth.
When she’s gone, I meditate on my future. Visualise my sister’s face; imagine how big she will be now. I wonder how much she will have changed.
Then I look around properly for the first time, and see that the room is elegantly furnished: exquisite calligraphy hangs on the walls, pale celadon pottery lines a table, and there is a silk screen displaying nature scenery in different seasons. The embroidery on the silk screen is so skilled and vivid that in one panel it is as though snowflakes are falling on a wintry mountain, and in another, fragile pink cherry blossoms are flowering before my eyes.
I lean closer.
There are poets sitting beneath the cherry blossoms, conversing and sipping on wine. By a trick of the light, their mouths are moving.
I frown slightly at the grandeur of the room, and glance at the woman who has reappeared at the door, a tray of food in her arms.
She lays down bowls of steaming food. My eyes widen and my stomach sings. The rice is pearly white, the kimchi is succulently crunchy, and the vegetables are fragrant and fresh. It’s the most heavenly meal I have ever eaten. I’d known that some people could live this way under the Occupation, but rumours would often circulate about them. That they maintained their wealth through treacherous collaboration.
“Do you live here alone?” I ask.
“No,” she says quickly. “My family are in Seoul. They’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”
She’s moving around the room, preparing a clean outfit for me. There’s no change in her face, but I feel that she is lying.
I begin to notice that some of her movements seem out of the ordinary, as if she, too, is a foreigner. Something about the way that she occupies space, or is it her posture? She stands straight with her shoulders back, and is assertive in her gestures, as if all the space around her belongs to her. As if she has never bowed to anyone in her life, except out of rare necessity. It seems befitting that she wears her hair loose, unconstrained. The overall impression could look like arrogance, but her manner is so benevolent and calm.
Her facial expressions also have an element of the unfamiliar, as if her mouth is more used to producing sounds for a different language, perhaps a language of older, secret words.
For all of this musing, it begins to dawn on me that she really may not be of our society.
The words come into my head that she is an outsider. And at this, a suspicion creeps in: if she isn’t one of us, then what is she? A naturalised Japanese? But no, her ways do not belong to them, either.
And I wonder about her, in this house by herself. Hiding away. Did the locals shun her?
Again that sense of loneliness that envelops her. Used to her own company, perhaps, alone on this mountain.
Now she brings me a small decorative box, which she opens to reveal ointments and healing herbs. It’s a beautiful box to be keeping such practical things: black lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Normally it would be reserved for precious jewellery.
“How did you get those marks on your wrists?” She asks.
My chest tightens. The food in my mouth turns to ash. In my hunger, I hadn’t noticed how my sleeves fell back as I ate, revealing deep welts in my flesh where the mannacles had been.
She doesn’t seem to notice my speechlessness as she kneels down and applies salves on my skin.
The smell of the lotions is strong and heady. Applying it gently, the woman asks, “how will you reach Jeju?”
My chest tightens further. Did I tell her where I was going?
“It may not be worth the journey,” she continues. “The Japanese are there too.”
My voice comes out unexpectedly bold. “I’m looking for my sister,” I say.
The woman lifts back my sleeves to reveal the scabs and bruises on my arms. Avoiding my eyes, she says, “two years is a long time. What if she doesn’t remember you?”
I don’t answer her, and she applies the cool salves to my skin in silence. I use my sleeve to wipe my eyes, and she pretends not to notice.
Outside, birds scatter into the air. The trees rustle, shaken by their wings. We hear them pass overhead, flapping and shrieking.
We both freeze, listening.
Nearby, pine leaves crackle, fallen branches crunch, and there is a sound of boots scudding bare earth. Voices, dim but growing louder, approach.
Stricken, I stare at my host. Did she betray me? But the time that she spent away from the room, it wasn’t enough.
She rises to her feet, slides open the door to the next room.
She enters the dark room, and I follow her. It’s half-empty. There’s no place to hide. A tremor runs through me. It’s only a matter of time now.
“It would be better,” I force myself to say. “If you tell them I’m here.”
She retrieves my shoes that are outside, and hands them to me.
As she slides the door shut, sealing me into the shadows, she says, “don’t come out, no matter what you hear.”
Her delicate footsteps retreat.
In the darkness I hear the officers approaching the stone wall that surrounds the hanok, the wooden gate at the front. Their boots are marching up the path, flanked on either side by the peaceful stone stacks. Their brisk voices are growing louder. My heart rate quickens.
They bang on the gate and a voice barks, “open up!”
I hear the woman saying that she is coming, but there are also dull thuds and mutterings. They are impatient and are already scaling the wall.
I hear the woman speaking to them though I cannot discern the words. I hear the creak of the front gate opening, and more voices growing louder.
They’re speaking in quick-fire Japanese. I catch a few words: “this residence is not registered,” “the sighting of an escaped convict,” and there is a line, repeated again and again with increasing authority, “where are your papers?”
I hear the sound of boots running towards me; the entrance to the hanok is roughly swept open, and bodies are crowding into the room beside my own. There is a crash as the bowls of food from which I have just eaten are smashed to the floor.
Now the boots are approaching the sliding door to my room.
My heart hammers. A flash of panic crosses my mind. Instinctively I look around, but there is no place to hide. I ready myself to run.
But there is a commotion outside. A vicious growling, rising to a snarl. The snarl is primal, unearthly, and a man cries out “kitsune!”
Gun shots riddle the night. A confusion of movement: rapid footsteps, crashing, a snarling that seems to be everywhere. The officers in the adjoining room are shrieking; the beast is entering the lodging, and I hear the snap of jaws, the crackle of bone.
The screams become so bloodcurdling that I cover my ears, cover my face, turn away and cower in my corner.
Then, as if I am all alone in the world, there is silence.
The only sound is of the pounding of my own heart in my ears.
A soft, slow movement; paws padding on the wooden floor. Then the sound of her dainty feet crossing the adjoining room, approaching the sliding door to my refuge.
Her voice is close; she is speaking through the rice paper to me.
“When I open the door,” she says. “I want you to close your eyes.”
The door slides open a fraction, and she is a shadow, her outline illuminated by the lamplight behind her.
I close my eyes.
Slowly, she guides me through the room. Once, twice, my feet brush against warm, heavy masses. Then a nocturnal breeze refreshes me. I step down onto stone, crossing the threshold back into the outer world.
She leads me to the gate and I open my eyes. Turn my face to look at her, and shudder.
It is not only the red marks that are alarming. Her hair is wild and dishevelled. Her fingernails are long and curved. And the colour of her hanbok has changed to an eerie white.
She utters words in a language that I have never heard before, whose sounds are guttural, ancient and of the earth. And for a moment, when she speaks, I notice her sharp teeth, the narrow sliver of her tongue.
A primordial dread fills me.
Now I see how her eyes reflect the light of the lantern; her pupils only slits in the brightness of the irises. She watches me, alert to my emotion.
Raising a clawed finger, she points back the way I had come, and says, “follow the jasmine.”
As if I understand her meaning, I nod immediately and back away, stumbling several times as I hurry down that path lined with balanced stone stacks.
I do not dare keep my back to her, and glance over my shoulder several times as I break into a run.
Her moon face hovers above the stone lantern, her bright eyes shine, and for a moment, when I glimpse her again, now a good distance away from me, I almost wonder if those are tears in her eyes. That sense of loneliness which I had felt surround her appears to descend and wreathe her completely. She suddenly looks fragile, small, her white skin illuminated against the wooden gate, beneath the night time sky. Only the stone statues by her feet, the scaled haechi and the venerable old turtle, keep her company.
She is out of sight now; my panic begins to subside.
I slow down my pace, and notice tiny white flowers nestled in the foliage. I stoop down, pick off a bud, and raise it to my face. The perfume of jasmine drifts up.
Ahead of me they stretch, these small, silky blooms, stretching down south, south to Jeju island.
The sight of the flowers recalls the memory of the white fox, threading its way through the trees, fur glowing in the moonlight.
Down I go, on the scented trail, a snow-white map of jasmine. But first I pause to collect five stones, and balance them, one on top of the other, until they stand together in harmony. I never thanked her, or asked her name.
I bow deeply to the stack, kneel on the ground and touch my head against earth.
I wonder about her, that there must be others like her, half-humans existing betwixt and between, suspended between the realms of the human and the beast. On the fringes of society, both ancestral and strange to the people.
I must write so that my memory will not in later age play tricks on me. The fantastical and the real are intermingled on this land; the old gods of Korea never fell dormant. They are awake and with us.
Perhaps we may rediscover them to aid our cause. Seek out our immortal compatriots: the dokkaebi troll, hidden in the hills, and the bearded dragon, deep in the rivers.
And even if we cannot enjoin them, then we may take heart from their continuance: these old, strong creatures, incapable of subjugation to any master, forever free.