PodCastle 721: A Chestnut, A Persimmon, A Cunning Lie

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

A Chestnut, A Persimmon, A Cunning Lie

By Michelle M. Denham


If you are going to battle a tiger, my darling one, you need three things: a chestnut, a persimmon, and a cunning lie.

Haewon’s Omoni brought home the tiger-hearted girl and said, “This is your sister, Hyojin. She has been reborn to us, isn’t that wonderful?”

The tiger-hearted girl had amber eyes that burned, red stripes on her face, and long white teeth that gleamed in the dark. Omoni looked at Haewon like she expected her to do something. (A chestnut. A persimmon. A cunning lie.) So Haewon threw her arms around the tiger-hearted girl and said, “Hyojin-ah! I thought we’d never see each other again. I missed you so much.”

For her efforts, Haewon received a sharp bite into her shoulder. It was like four needles jabbed into her skin all at once. Haewon cried out, but she didn’t let go of the tiger girl.

“Hyojin-ah, how dare you bite your unni? You should show your older sister more respect.” She pulled back to stare at the tiger-hearted girl. She tapped her on the nose, once. “You were always just like this. Even reborn, you’re still the same. Come, I’ll show you our old room.”

Haewon took the tiger by her hand and Hyojin followed behind, suddenly meek.

“We got rid of your bed,” Haewon said. “So that some other child could have it. But we kept some of your things. This was your rabbit, you named him Banchan.” She held out the tattered stuffed rabbit, and half expected the tiger to rip it apart. But Hyojin sniffed the rabbit and then snatched it from Haewon’s arms like she thought the girl would take it away from her.

“It smells like you,” Hyojin said, and that was the first thing Haewon ever heard her say.

“Of course it does! Don’t you think I missed my little sister? I would hold it at night, and think about you. It has been many years since you died, so of course everything smells like me.”

Hyojin paced around the room smelling everything, like she was trying to find evidence of the girl she had been before she was reborn as a tiger. “How did I die?”

“You ask such sad questions!” Haewon said. “You got sick. So sick. The doctors and the shamans couldn’t do anything for you. Omoni made you seaweed soup, but eventually you couldn’t eat. I tried to feed you, but you would turn your head away. I brushed your hair, I sang you songs. Do you remember the songs I would sing to you?”

Hyojin shook her head.

“I made them up each time,” Haewon said, shaking her head. Tears pricked her eyes, as she thought about singing songs to her dying little sister. “Aaa, Hyojin-ah, don’t make me remember such sad things. Not now, when you’ve returned to us.”

Hyojin hung her head. “Sorry, Unni. Sorry I bit you.”

“Say sorry for making me sad!” Haewon admonished. “But now you’re back, and we’re sisters again.”

Omoni made dduk, her famous rice cake, and she would take it to the market to sell. The night she brought Hyojin home, she never made it to market and thus had no wages to bring home. “I was so excited to see my daughter again, I fed her all the dduk I had,” Omoni explained. “It’s all right, I will make more.”

“You ate all the rice cakes?” Haewon cried out.

“I was hungry,” Hyojin replied.

“But we need —”

“Haewon-ah,” Omoni said. “Be kind to your sister, after we just got her back. The two of you — in all this world, you only have each other, do you understand? The two of you can go out to play while I make more rice cakes.”

Haewon held her tiger-sister’s hand once again, and they left their mother to work in the kitchen.

“Should I not have eaten all the dduk?” Hyojin said. “Unni, will you starve now?”

Haewon shrugged because she didn’t trust herself to speak. How much do tigers eat, anyhow? Omoni’s dduk only sold enough to feed the two of them. But here was her little sister. Omoni was counting on her to love her little sister.

Even if one’s little sister is reincarnated as a tiger-hearted girl that is no reason to bring her into the market, where everyone will only see a tiger.

“You’ll have to be careful, Hyojin-ah,” Haewon said. “The other people won’t recognize you, not like Omoni and I do. They might try to capture you with their nets.”

Hyojin thought about this advice with careful consideration. “I could eat them up.”

“But then they will hunt you down,” Haewon said. “And I’ll have no little sister again.”

“I could eat them all up,” Hyojin said.

“After all that dduk you had? How big is your stomach?”

“Huge. I can eat anything. I’m always hungry.”

Haewon tried not to shiver. Hyojin’s teeth were so sharp and gleaming. It was hard to see a little sister then, when she looked so much like the tiger-hearted people who stalk the night.

“If you’re hungry, then you can eat this,” Haewon said, and she took out a dried persimmon from her pocket. Hyojin shrunk back at the sight of the gojgam, and Haewon belatedly remembered that the tiger-hearted thought the winter treats were dangerous. “You used to love them! I’m sharing because today is a special day, but I won’t share again. They’re delicious, and they’re mine.”

Hyojin’s eyes never left the dried persimmon. She said, “More dangerous than me.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Haewon said. The threat of devouring bears will not stop a baby’s cry, the threat of wolves will not stop them crying, the threat of tigers will not stop them crying. But a baby will stop crying at the sight of a persimmon, therefore persimmons must be more dangerous than tigers. Hyojin’s reaction made Haewon think that all the old folk stories about tigers must be true.

“If you don’t want it, then I’ll eat it,” she said, and she took a bite from the gojgam and chewed. It was sweet and stuck to her teeth. Hyojin swiped the gojgam from Haewon’s hands, her claws grazing the soft part of Haewon’s palm like a paper cut. Haewon didn’t cry out, because she knew it would only disturb Hyojin. The tiger-hearted girl sniffed at the persimmon before she shoved the whole thing in her mouth.

“Greedy,” Haewon admonished. “It’s good, right? Didn’t I tell you?”

Hyojin nodded. “Thank you, Unni.”

You couldn’t keep a tiger-hearted person indoors, even if she was your sister. Hyojin refused to sleep in the bedroom and disappeared into the forest around the house.

“Will she come back?” Haewon asked. She stared out into the darkness and thought about how nothing is quite so black as the forest at night. She wished the forest was as quiet as it was dark, but it creaked, chirped and croaked with everything living and growing inside.

“She is your sister,” Omoni said, her arm around Haewon’s shoulders, gripping her tight. “She will come back.”

“Omoni, what was it like?” Haewon asked, dropping her voice.

“Hush, Haewon-ah. Remember what I told you about tigers.” Omoni pulled at Haewon, steering her back inside. It was time to sleep but sleep was impossible. Haewon tossed and turned all night, thinking about her tiger-hearted little sister.

The tiger-hearted were a common sight — they had very little fear of people, and would stroll right into a village if no one stopped them. (And who would stop them?)

They were large, brutish, and hungry. Always hungry. The shopkeepers despaired when they saw a tiger wandering around, because a tiger-hearted had no problem with demanding all the food they had to sell. A tiger-hearted would eat all the dduk you had, and when there was no dduk left, they would eat you.

Sometimes they dressed in human clothes, and they did human things. Sometimes, they would eat someone’s mother, dress up in her clothes, and join the household. Everyone knew someone this had happened to — a mother, a grandmother, a friendly neighbor. The tiger-hearted would wear the clothes of the devoured and they would infiltrate the house of the grieving, and when the time was right, they’d eat the rest of the family.

People stopped trying to make sense of the tiger-hearted. You couldn’t reason with them, you couldn’t get them to empathize. They just took and took and took.

There were many ways to be devoured, and the tiger-hearted practiced them all.

Hyojin would return twice a month, and each time she brought a dead boar.

The first time, she dropped the bloody carcass on the ground, and smiled with so many teeth. Haewon thought perhaps this was some sort of threat, but Omoni instantly understood.

“Oh, what a bright girl my Hyojin is!” she said, patting Hyojin on the head. “Such a good daughter you are.”

Hyojin clearly liked being praised. She puffed up, and looked slyly at Haewon to see if Haewon would react to being displaced as the most obedient daughter. But once she understood what was happening, Haewon was too excited for the boar to feel jealous. “Omoni, we can have maeun dwaeji bulgogi for dinner. Can we?”

“Yes, Haewon-ah. Play with your sister, I will make us a feast.”

“We could eat the boar now,” Hyojin complained, as Haewon grabbed her hand.

“It’ll be better marinated and spicy. And with rice!” Haewon paused, and then added with confidence, “Maeun dwaeji bulgogi used to be your favorite food. I’m sure you’ll like it now too. Even reincarnated, you’re still the same Hyojin.”

Inevitably, the other villagers found out. They became a household with a tiger inside, just like those in the stories.

Haewon’s neighbors gave her looks as she walked by — pitying, terrified. They closed their doors on her. Children would peek through windows only to disappear from sight, most likely snatched away by an anxious parent.

“Haewon-ah,” said Mrs. Kim, who sold eggs in the market. “Don’t you know —”

“It’s not the same,” Haewon said quickly. “Hyojin is my little sister, reincarnated. She’s not wearing my sister’s face and pretending. She is my sister.”

“But, Haewon-ah —”

“She won’t hurt anyone. You’ll tell everyone, right? She won’t hurt anyone.” Haewon quickly paid for eggs and then ducked away before Mrs. Kim could point out what everyone knew.

It wasn’t the same, Haewon thought to herself. But in some ways it was the same. The presence of a tiger-hearted meant you had to be careful what you said and what you did. Attracting the attention of a tiger meant attracting the wrath of a tiger. You had to adapt. You stayed inside your house, you didn’t speak your thoughts, you spent a lot of time pretending everything was normal.

There were many ways to be devoured, and sometimes it was a violence you did to yourself. A quiet diminishing of self, until there was nothing else.

But not Hyojin, Haewon hastily thought, to reprimand her own way of thinking. Hyojin was her little sister, returned to them. And maybe she came back as a tiger-hearted, but she was still Hyojin.

Sometimes, after Hyojin brought the boar she would linger. Omoni fussed over each time. “Look at your clothes, Hyojin-ah. You’re so dirty! When was the last time you washed your face?” Omoni tilted Hyojin’s face up by her chin, which Haewon thought was very brave considering how often Hyojin still liked to bite. But Hyojin just closed her eyes and sighed.

Omoni got a wet towel and a brush, and she began the process of grooming her tiger-hearted daughter.

“What was I like before?” Hyojin asked, her eyes still closed as Omoni brushed her hair. Over her head, Omoni looked at Haewon.

“A lot like you are now — wild and unruly!” Haewon said.

“But tell me a story. What was I like in my past life?”

“You were always my kind Hyojin,” Omoni said. “Always so thoughtful.”

Haewon realized this wouldn’t be good enough. Hyojin wanted a story. “Once we went walking into the mountains,” she started. “A long time ago. I was younger than you are now, and you were practically a baby. You followed me everywhere as soon as you could walk.

“We shouldn’t have gone into the mountains, not without Omoni. Because soon it grew dark, and we were lost —”

“I would never get lost,” Hyojin said crossly.

“Not now, but you were a baby, remember? A chubby little toddler who couldn’t walk very far. I had to carry you, and you were heavy. I grew tired —”

“Because your arms are weak.”

“Fine, yes, because of my weak arms. Soon it was night, so we climbed into a tree to sleep. But I don’t think I slept at all that night! We heard ghosts and goblins talking about how they’d eat us up if we touched the ground. I held you in my arms all night long and then when the morning came, Omoni found us and took us home.”

Hyojin had opened her eyes during this recitation. She blinked slowly at Haewon. “I would eat any goblin.”

“Yes, now,” Haewon nodded. “I think that’s why you came back as a tiger-hearted. So you wouldn’t have to be scared again.”

“So you wouldn’t have to be scared again,” Hyojin said.

“I . . .” Haewon stopped and stared at her tiger-hearted sister. “Yes. That’s right. I’m not scared of anything anymore.”

You don’t make a lot of friends when you have a tiger-hearted sister, and no one really wants you as a bride or daughter-in-law. Haewon understood that, but it was something Omoni considered. “You’re sixteen now, Haewon-ah. I’m worried you won’t find another household . . .”

“I don’t need a husband,” Haewon replied.

“You aren’t without prospects,” Omoni said. Omoni was famous for her dduk, and now also for boar meat. With a steady supply of boar twice a month, Omoni cannily shared it with the neighbors when she could, so that they wouldn’t be envious. Or worse, fearful. Omoni and Haewon weren’t liked, but they were respected.

“But I don’t need one.”

It was something Haewon thought a lot about ever since the day she walked home with Eunjoo, one of the only girls who would still stand to walk with Haewon.

They took a shortcut through Hyojin’s forest, and Eunjoo clung to Haewon’s arm the entire time. “You’re sure she wo —”

“Hyojin won’t hurt anyone,” Haewon said, impatient with having to say this for the third time. But then they both heard a low growl, and Haewon yanked Eunjoo aside and started shoving her up a tree.

“You just said she wouldn’t —”

“That’s not Hyojin,” Haewon said, hurrying up the tree, pausing sometimes to help support Eunjoo. She knew Hyojin’s sounds — from the tone of her growl, to the pace of footsteps. Sure enough, a large tiger-hearted man came in view, looking up the tree and grinning.

It had been a long time since Haewon had seen any tiger-hearted person who was not her sister. The man was very large, in girth and height, and his teeth seemed ever so much longer than Hyojin’s, and much more yellow. His eyes were red, rimmed with a black circle, and the stripes on his face were jagged, making him look like he was snarling even when he wasn’t.

“Come down, little girls,” he said, and he shook the tree. A tiger-hearted will cut down a tree to get to prey, but everyone knew it was best to climb trees anyway.

“Haewon,” Eunjoo whimpered.

Haewon thought she would hate to be so useless. In her pocket she kept chestnut burrs, just like her mother told her to, and dropped them on the ground in front of the tiger-hearted man.

The tiger-hearted man startled at their sudden presence. He sniffed at them but jerked back.

“Watch out for the hedgehogs, ajusshi,” Haewon called down. The tiger stepped back, not able to tell the difference between a hedgehog that pricked the paws and a chestnut burr of lesser prickliness. He glared at the chestnuts then back up at the tree.

It was enough. Just long enough of a distraction, and then Hyojin came barreling out of the bushes, launching herself at the tiger-hearted man in her territory.

Hyojin was smaller, but fiercer, and the man took off running. Tiger-hearted ultimately like their meals to be easy, and this was proving too much trouble. He ran away, and Hyojin chased after him. Haewon began climbing down, doing her best to still her shaking body.

On the ground, she began to pick up the chestnuts.

“Why are you doing that? Leave them there,” Eunjoo said.

“I don’t want Hyojin to see them and be scared,” Haewon said, putting the chestnuts back in her pocket.

“Let her! Scare her away, before she eats —”

“She’s my little sister,” Haewon said.

“You’re crazy,” Eunjoo said, and she took off running, not willing to risk encountering any tiger-hearted that might return.

As Haewon waited for her sister to come back she decided she was better on her own. Her mother had told her everything she needed — a chestnut, a persimmon, and a cunning lie — and so that was all she would ever need.

If you could battle a tiger-hearted, you could battle anything that tried to devour.

Someone did ask Haewon for marriage. Minho’s mother came to talk to Haewon’s mother, and they discussed it for hours. The mothers had it settled between them, but Haewon thought differently. She told Minho directly that he was wasting his time.

“I’m not going to leave my family,” she said succinctly.

“And by family, you mean your mother and that tiger-hearted creature you’re pretending is a sister,” Minho said.

Haewon wanted to punch him in the face. “She is my sister.”

“All right,” Minho said, smiling in a way that only made her want to punch him all the more.

“Why do you even want to?” she demanded. “Go marry Eunjoo. She likes your face.”

“But you and I are so close. We’ve known each other since we were kids,” Minho said.

“And we’ve never liked each other all that time.”

“You aren’t scared of tigers, and you’re a good liar. I think those are traits that would make a good wife.”

“You’re crazy,” Haewon said. Inwardly, she was quite flattered. More so than if he had tried to compliment her looks or her grace.

“I won’t give up,” Minho said. He and his mother left in better cheer than she thought warranted.

“I could eat him,” Hyojin said later.

“You don’t eat people, Hyojin-ah,” Haewon reminded her.

Hyojin shifted from one foot to the other and looked pointedly away.

“Hyojin! Did you eat someone?”

“A peddler,” she muttered. “And a tiger-hearted man. They both lied and made me angry.”

Haewon didn’t know that the tiger-hearted ate each other. “What did they lie about?”

“They said I wasn’t your sister. But I am your sister. So I got mad and ate them.”

That seemed like a valid reason to eat someone, in Haewon’s opinion. “Don’t tell Omoni.”

“I won’t.”

“And don’t eat Minho.” Hyojin didn’t respond, so Haewon nudged her with her foot. “I’m not marrying him, but don’t eat him. Promise?”

“Fine. If you’re not leaving. Then fine.”

Omoni started getting sick when Haewon turned twenty-one, and they began lying to each other every day.

“Of course I will get better,” Omoni said.

“Yes, you’re looking healthier all the time,” Haewon said.

Hyojin stayed near the house. She even slept indoors sometimes, leaning against the wall underneath the window. It proved there were some lies even the foolish tiger-hearted won’t believe.

On her last day, Omoni turned to Haewon and said, “You should marry Minho.”

“Omoni! Don’t waste your energy with this!”

“Haewon, you’re going to need family.”

“I have family,” Haewon said.

But Omoni just looked at her, and then raised her hand to pat Haewon’s cheek. “A chestnut, a persimmon, a cunning lie. You listened to the stories I told you.”

“Omoni . . .”

“Sometimes, sometimes it’s not enough. The world devours anyway. Take care of your little sister.”

In the end, Haewon thought maybe even Omoni believed her own lies.

Hyojin wouldn’t stop crying. She curled herself into a ball and wailed. It was a pitiful sound, and it broke Haewon’s heart. Haewon put her arms around Hyojin’s shoulders, but Hyojin shoved her away, wailing all the more. Over the years, Hyojin had grown as tiger-hearted do — tall and broad and powerful. It was so strange to see that her little sister had outgrown her.

“I miss her,” Hyojin said. “I miss Omoni. I want her back.”

“I know, I know.” Haewon told herself she would be the stronger one, as the older sister should be. But Hyojin’s tears completely disarmed her, so she started crying as well. Only then did Hyojin throw her arms around Haewon and cry into her lap. Haewon stroked Hyojin’s hair and cried and cried.

Hyojin wasn’t eating. She didn’t go out into the forest, and she didn’t go hunting, and she wouldn’t eat or sleep. Haewon boiled rice for juk and sprinkled sesame seeds on top, just like Omoni used to. When the rice was creamy soup, she spooned out the juk and blew on it three times, like Omoni would do. She lifted it to Hyojin’s mouth and made the tiger eat. But Hyojin only allowed this for three mouthfuls before she batted Haewon’s hand away.

“Hyojin-ah, you have to eat. You have to listen to me. I’m your older sister, and you have to listen to me,” Haewon begged. She tugged on Hyojin’s arms, shaking her with all the strength she had left.

She met her sister’s eyes. There was something heavy in the way Hyojin looked at her — something ancient, weighed down by ancestral memory between predator and prey. But there was no danger there. Just a deep sadness and a tragic inevitability.

The day Haewon woke up and the house was empty, she began the process of mourning her sister.

She knew, deep in her bones, that Hyojin was dead. In that moment, she wanted grief to take her as well. With no mother or sister, what was the point in continuing?

The morning passed by in an angry daze. Without anything else to do, Haewon began cleaning the house, but she wasn’t paying attention to her actions. All her thoughts were just a litany of rage, repeated over and over again.

I loved her too, Hyojin! She was my mother before she was yours! And I still continue, because I have to continue, as you should have continued. Didn’t you love me enough? Could you have stayed for me? You were all I had left! How could you, how could you, how could you.

Until all she could do was collapse, fold into herself like a paper crane someone had stepped on, and remain on the floor for hours.

By the time she could finally sit up again, she was a hollowed-out creature and nothing could hurt her anymore. So the knock at her door was well timed, because there was nothing left it could do to her. It was unwanted nonetheless, but Haewon moved to answer it anyway, realizing that she would have to put the broken pieces of herself back together eventually.

It was Minho. He was somber, and his eyes were pitying, and before he even said anything, she knew.

“Hyojin,” she said. She looked past Minho to see a few of the villagers, and a stretcher covered by white cloth, with an undeniable shape underneath. Because she had already cried and collapsed, she did not cry and collapse now. “What happened?”

There wasn’t a question in her mind that Hyojin had run off to her forest to die, so she couldn’t understand why they would have her now, why they would have brought her back.

“A group of tiger-hearted,” Minho said succinctly. “They were destroying the town. We lost the Park family and the grocer.”

“Hyojin,” Haewon said, because at that moment she could not bring herself to care about the Park family or the grocer.

Minho spoke like he was picking up each word at the market and inspecting it before purchase. “She saved us all. No one expected her to — she never cared about the rest of us before. I think she must have been thinking only of you.”

There was a funeral, which Haewon didn’t expect, and many people attended, which made Haewon think Minho had spoken the truth. Only gratitude or guilt could bring people to a tiger-hearted funeral.

“I’m sorry,” Minho said, after it was over.

Haewon struggled with what she wanted to say. Part of her could not think about Minho and anything he said, because she was still thinking about Hyojin. Did you die to save me? Or did the villagers not trust you now that Omoni is gone? Were you looking for a way to die? If you would die for me, why couldn’t you live for me? Was your grief more important than mine? What am I to do with all this grief that I have?

“She came back to us once. Maybe she will again,” Haewon said.

Minho startled. He searched her face and then carefully said, “Do you really believe . . . ?”

She didn’t help him finish that sentence. She wanted to know if he would actually say it.

“I have known you since we were children, Haewon. We grew up together,” Minho finally said, and he sounded defiant. “I know you never had a little sister.”

Ah. So that was what it was like to hear the words out loud. It didn’t damage her nearly as much as she’d thought it would. Not like burying Omoni. Not like burning Hyojin.

“A chestnut, a persimmon, a cunning lie,” Haewon spoke, but it didn’t matter one way or another if Minho was there to hear her or not. “That’s how you battle a tiger-hearted. Omoni went out to sell her rice cakes, only she forgot to bring chestnuts or persimmons, so when the tiger attacked her, she settled for the cunning lie. ‘You are my daughter, who died recently. You have been reborn as a tiger-hearted, I am so glad to see you again.’ Tigers are so dumb, they’ll believe anything —”

Haewon’s voice cracked on that last word as she stifled a sob. She didn’t speak for a few minutes, making sure she wouldn’t break down crying again.

“You understand, then, that she was still a monster who ate people. Still one of those creatures that are devouring our land, our culture, our people.” Minho’s voice was measured and firm. He stated facts and he drew lines around them like that could keep the world contained in orderly boxes. Minho’s facts placed truth in one box and lies in another as if that meant they would never mix together.

“Yes, she was all those things,” Haewon said. “But you don’t understand. She was such a good little sister. She was such a good daughter.”

About the Author

Michelle Denham

Michelle Denham is a biracial Korean-American who lives in the desert. She earned her doctorate in English Literature and now writes letters for a living and stories in order to live. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, A Future Fire, and the print anthology, When the Ride Ends, published by Owl Canyon Press.

Find more by Michelle Denham


About the Narrator

Isabel Kim

Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. Her fiction has been published in Clarkesworld, Cast of Wonders, and khōréō, and she hosts Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture. Find her online at isabel.kim or on twitter as @isabeljkim.

Find more by Isabel Kim