Every girl in the village is suddenly a suspect. Behind closed doors, no one dares to glance at the shadows that cooking fires spit onto the walls. Livestock are picked off one by one. Panicked young men call off weddings and stop looking their sisters in the eye. It is easy, nowadays, to imagine the whisper of a red tail in the gloom, like a long-held deception. And the thinner a girl’s wrists, the paler her skin, or the darker her hair, the less she is spoken to, and the more she is spoken about.
Mi-yeong, of course, has the thinnest wrists any of them has ever seen. In the winters, her face grows almost ghostly, even more so than fog. On her birthday, her cousin tells her in a trembling voice to confess, for all their sakes. She’s seen her, the other girl insists, shy away from hunting dogs and narrow her eyes to cunning, vulpine slits.
Mi-yeong purses her lips, says quietly that they’ll know a kumiho when they see one. Her hands and heart are clenched, clammy. She is no stranger to being backed into a corner and pressed for a lie, any lie, to give the village’s fear a name.
“How do you know?” her cousin asks with a sneer.
In response, a mirror is held to Mi-yeong’s face, and a reflection as plain as a ripple in water stares defiantly out at them. The kumiho ought to have nothing of herself trapped inside the glass.
“But if you’d like,” Mi-yeong the not-fox mutters, “I’ll barter with her for your soul when the time comes.” Only the worst of the villagers doesn’t know how to turn a deal this way and that. They have all been taught to negotiate in preparation for a creature like the one that is haunting their borders.
The kumiho drives a hard bargain. This they all understand.
“Oh,” the cousin says, but she still manages to fill the word with a dual meaning that plagues the house for the rest of the night.
The fox is forced, slowly, to learn the language of branches snapping on the forest floor. Days burrow into each other. Evenings go deeper.
A brittle leaf crumbles a little ways off.
She is sprinting in moments, wind crowing its delight through her hair. Her reddish-ochre pelt hurtles towards the traces of a scent faster than a myth. Nine tails streak behind her. The closest thing she has to real power now is the sudden flight of hunger when prey comes too near. Her mind conjures the smell of blood to tease her, but she throws her head back and waits for it to slither down into her gut.
Reedy, almost-frantic pants carry over to her, a tuneless siren-song. The fox’s ears spike at the noise, so close to civilized. It is the kind of breath that is only a step away from being a word, the kind that screams human. Too quick to be much older than eighteen, she decides, and too neatly folded in its inhale-exhales to be male.
A stroke of luck, then, like an axe for the rotting trees. Girls never stray this far from the houses where they keep their wits and their weapons.
The long-awaited silhouette materializes from under a thick branch, a basket in hand, and the fox confirms her guesses one by one. Already the girl’s joints are locking with fright. The angles in her stiffening limbs accuse more than anything else. Kumiho. Kumiho. The fox’s heart seizes on how startlingly similar it is to a spell. Her tongue flicks over her teeth.
It’s too late to shift, to draw in the meal and hunt as she prefers to, but a mere slash and bite should suffice this time.
“Wait. My name is Mi-yeong,” the girl says shakily, “and I have an offer for you.” The curve of the sentence says she has been trained for this.
Against her better judgment, the fox deigns to reply, “You have nothing to offer me,” but misgivings have curled around her heart before she can dismiss them. Villagers know that a kumiho would never step back from a deal.
“But surely... surely you have always wanted to be human.”
Mi-yeong does not expect to hear the fox curse, a sound that lacerates the air around it, a sound that reeks of death. Her knuckles whiten around her basket of roots, and she realizes exactly how far she is from home. She counts the steps, how long it would take her to run back.
Of course, she thinks, I would be caught. Like dragging a fish-hook out of the mud, the mustering of her strength is deliberate and certain.
A few strides away, the fox decides, I could catch her. A predator’s resolve is more straightforwardly summoned. It is crafted to be held up and given to the dark. Her pulse ratchets up in anticipation.
“It is true,” she admits.
“There are certain men in my village who will be missed by no one,” Mi-yeong continues carefully, unsettled by how level her voice is. “You need only five of them, yes?” She lays out the death sentences as if they are seeds to be scattered over a field. Five pairs of lungs that need to be stilled. Five souls that need to be severed from their homes.
“Five is a lofty number.”
“It’s closer to you when I am alive rather than a mouthful of paltry scraps.” Her aim is keen and honed as she motions to her frame, which is so thin as to be bordering skeletal. “And trust me, I’ll be a mouthful and nothing more.”
The fox flattens herself into a nearby shadow, quivering with want. She eyes Mi-yeong cautiously and thinks, this girl loves life a little too much. But so would she, in that position, with such a fluttering consciousness that can be felled with one thoughtless stroke. “How might this be negotiated?”
“I can bring them as far as the edge of the forest, where you’ll be waiting. Just after sundown every day. In return, you don’t touch me for as long as I live.”
It certainly wouldn’t be a loss. Every bone that juts out from Mi-yeong’s body is one more point towards saving her life. She seems to realize it just as the fox does, and she hunches over as subtly as she can to bring them out more.
“Very well,” the fox says, but before Mi-yeong can sigh in relief, she adds, “on one condition.”
“Once I am human, your lips are sealed.”
Mi-yeong releases the breath she’s been holding in a quavery, dismissive laugh. “The men are all yours.”
Unbeknownst to each other, the two lick their lips at the same time, hungrily, desolately.
Sunset comes none too swiftly for Mi-yeong. Setting the snare is child’s play - a beckoning finger and a girlish, high laugh is all it takes for a boy to come running after her with a self-assured grin. She’s refused him before, but he is arrogant enough to think she might change her heart in an instant. He hasn’t bothered to even ask her name, in the foolhardy notion that he won’t ever be needing it. He will, she has thought for the past few moments. The last of the day is fleeing over the treetops when, at last, Mi-yeong picks her way to the grove, with a log in its center marked by two claw-slashes. A heap of fur, draped over the thick wood, obscures the wounds of torn-up game. The boy catches up to her, panting sheepishly, and slings an arm around her waist to avoid admitting that he has been bested by a girl. Mi-yeong leans into him, but only to cut off any conversation, any chance he might have to winnow out her intentions and bolt.
The fox saunters towards them, masked by a fine streak of shadow. In a trice she is just short of slavering at the sight of her catch, bound to be filling, if somewhat chewy; Mi-yeong has kept her word even into the next day. That part was pre-ordained, the fox chastises herself. It is so much more freeing to run away than to run towards, and what more does a girl need to run away from than you?
The boy notes something from the deadly quiet around him, and his gaze slowly turns alarmed. Mi-yeong feels him tense in the nick of time and strains to hold him. The sheen of the fox’s eyes sours. The wind stands on the cusp of the struggle with bated breath.
The fox lunges in one clean line and disposes of the boy. Even the end of his scream is neat as his vocal cords are snipped all at once. Mi-yeong does nothing to hide her flinch when his skin is unspooled and his innards are picked apart, though the fox, out of some twisted courtesy, does it delicately. Before the meal is finished, Mi-yeong turns her back on the scene, heart quaking.
The fox growls. “Do stay, Mi-yeong.” She sneaks in a bite or two before continuing. “You make such a lovely decoration. Such a beautiful centerpiece for my table.” Mi-yeong’s skin crawls - the words beautiful and lovely somehow twist to form you’re next in her mind. She curses giving her name to the fox. What power have I handed to her? Guilt, stringy and bitter, rolls on her tongue.
“What is your name?” she whispers. The fox has heard her, no doubt, and the gasp she pinches from the air is more of a hiss.
“I don’t -” The fox falters, and the beginning of a pounce works its way into her legs.
Mi-yeong takes one step after another, salty panic rising like a wave. She breaks into a run as soon as the ragged pants of the fox fade out of her hearing. She holds out until she reaches the village, and without any opposition, a sob swallows her up like an early tomb.
The kumiho was once named Hyae-jin, and no one alive knows it. The earth is a master of secret-keeping. It leaves the barest muddle of phantoms in its wake.
Everyone pretends not to notice that day when Mi-yeong blockades her room. Food is left on the floor outside, and occasionally a slender hand cracks the door ajar to snatch it. If one were to put an ear to the wall - although no one does - they would hear a language like a nightmare. From outside, the smoldering edges of her window ward off bystanders. The most daring villagers slip whispers into each other’s houses when they visit each other.
Look, says one.
I know, says the other.
They are thinking of autumn leaves being crushed like so many skulls under padded paws. They are thinking of lives ended in an instant so short that even their spirits were snuffed. A few of them are thinking of Mi-yeong leading the boy towards the forest hours before his body was found at its border.
Within the walls of Mi-yeong’s room, they are thinking, must be a fox.
The next morning, even the birds are weeping. Rain, descending on the village in torrents, makes a mockery of the best-laid plans in every household. Three boys drag their father’s tattered corpse over the soil. Two deaths, the villagers murmur. Two deaths in two days. They joke that they could catch one of the kumiho’s tails in the breeze, because the alternative is unthinkable even for them. They are too close to being right for anyone’s liking. First the boy and then this, they tell each other. I’d check my locks if I were you.
Their eyes grab at Mi-yeong, who has emerged from her room for the first time in hours. Her mother is the most surprised to see her so placid. The dead man is well-known to them all, burly and jovial. This body is the kind that could have taken three others in a fight. And yet Mi-yeong’s demeanor doesn’t bear even the slightest sign of struggle. No bruises, no scratches. No dents in her voice or in the demure tilt of her head. When the man’s wife accosts her with a pinched expression and a barbed question, Mi-yeong replies that she was in her room at the time of the second killing, oh, and that she is so sorry for their loss.
She musters a tear for the suspicious gazes that ricochet off of her, though her hands work themselves into knots behind her back.
The fox prods at her subconscious, hot panic spreading in her stomach. Her memory is a piece of paper held to a fire, curling into black fists at the corners. How many days, how many nights? She scrabbles for a piece of something, anything at all, to ground her, but after the night of the first kill, her recollections seem to have fallen over the edge of a cliff.
Inconvenient, she grumbles to herself, but really, it is to stop the looming fear that shadows her steps like the watchful trees. The metallic, wild aftertaste of blood on her back teeth is fresher than it should be. But it is a careful sort of a wild, the wild of a man, and no small man at that. She chokes down the last of it thoughtfully and tries not to be bothered by the acrid sting it brings down on every corner of her mouth.
A curse has stricken every house.
Three more people, one for each trek of the sun across their sky, picked off and returned to the earth. The bravest of the village men stay out after dark, scrutinizing the night air for any hint of why. Their wives huddle next to hearths, blowing out their lives into the sparks.
Mi-yeong has not left her room. Scritch-scratch, the walls say. Her fingernails have been worn to brittle stubs, but whether that is from the biting or the scraping, she doesn’t care to know.
At some point, Mi-yeong’s mother bolts her daughter’s door from the outside. She wraps her arms around herself, worn, weary. Her soft shiver is a protest, both at the toothy draft sailing into her house and Mi-yeong’s etchings into her room. Her voice has been rubbed out by the constant attack of the living tethered to the fox’s victims.
She suggests, once, that they could have been killed by any fox. Not a kumiho - who has seen one of those, she asks, in these parts?
She is shushed.
When she knits together the faces of those targeted in her mind, she traces a pattern as clear as one shaped into fabric. First, a brash youth. She never spoke directly with him, but his laugh has been branded into her, just as his unwelcome advances towards Mi-yeong have. What kind of boy, she remembers thinking, pursues a girl without even securing her name? Then an older man, a father. His features in her mind’s eye are inscrutable, stolid. His shoulders are squared, and she is reminded of it all too swiftly - rage more patient than a river behind a dam. A blow to Mi-yeong’s cheek at the mention of using his land for development. Another boy around her age, fond of telling Mi-yeong how ugly, how flawed she was in life. A last, middle-aged, severe cousin. Even she dreaded his tirades on Mi-yeong’s supposed lack of intelligence, of ambition.
If her daughter has been replaced, she thinks warily, the not-Mi-yeong is not altogether senseless.
Twilight stumbles over the village clumsily. It clogs each hearth with gloom, stealing brightness from the things it touches. From the first corner to dim, a man hobbles out, indignation congealing inside him. He is bent from years of stooping down to face his enemies, and his hands, pockmarked and soiled, have seen better days. Squinting, he barely makes out a footpath into the forest.
“Don’t,” a voice calls behind him. “She’ll get you.”
Nowadays it seems as if there’s only one she in the world, one with nine tails and what is rumored to be a wicked, beautiful smile. Although perhaps - perhaps not anymore.
“And why would she? She already has her five.”
They have all counted over and over until even their fingers feel weighted. If the oldest tales are right, somewhere nearby a young woman wanders. She should shrink back from the howls of dogs and have a stilted walk from slowly getting used to lacking tails. The kumiho should be human, if the mostly-forgotten myths are true.
“Common sense, Min-seok. Keep away from the trees.”
Min-seok’s hands beg for the snap of a bone between them. He flexes them pensively, straining for something to break.
“Burn the fox,” he mutters. “Light it, burn it.” He rubs his arms against each other as if they are sticks of tinder. Beneath his matted hair, his eyes twitch.
“Min-seok, what - ?”
“Wouldn’t that be nice? Rid us of the fox.”
“Is this about what has been happening lately?”
“Here, here,” Min-seok goes on. “I have kindling, bait, rope. I have a ripe moon.” He scrambles towards one of the hunting dogs.
“Can you smell her?”
“He was my son,” Min-seok snarls. “He was my son, the first one who died, and that girl Mi-yeong did it, I’m sure, but there is nothing I can say against her.”
A stunned pause. “Mi-yeong was in her room all the while - and the boy was an orphan.”
“No,” he says raggedly. “Never.”
Min-seok bites back his words as the other voice steps out from the shade. Her mother, he notes. His thoughts stagger, and an apology dies in his throat. The resemblance is clear, even with the separation of time. Cheekbones that were once like lances and proud, graceful lips that could release murder just as quickly as a sigh. He should have discerned it - now, in full sight, it is obvious.
“Calm yourself, Min-seok. We grew up close to each other, you know that. I wouldn’t lift a fist at you.”
Min-seok turns away roughly instead, rushing past her and closer to the trees. Mi-yeong’s mother pins a long stare onto his receding form.
He crashes through undergrowth, frantic. Find the fox, burn her, he tells himself. Fire will cleanse you. He tears at scraggly bushes and pays no mind when thorns sink gently into his skin. He was my son.
“H-hello?” someone stammers, feminine and shaky. The taste of cinders overtaking Min-seok’s mind dissipates. “What are you looking for?”
A cursory glimpse in the girl’s direction shows that though she is delicate, flower-like, there is a hard slant to the lines her figure fills. And that nose - Min-seok pauses in his feverish train of thought. Could it have been a snout, in another life? No, no, no. He shakes his head. What am I doing? He sidles off, frightened at his own eagerness. A hunting dog bays at nothing in particular.
Even locked in his harried state, Min-seok does not miss the girl’s rattling gasp of alarm. Foxes fear the dogs. A kumiho would run. He beckons to the nearest hound.
Before he quite knows where they are fleeing to, his limbs are scattering into frenzied action. A flame, a flame, his arms say excitedly, and his feet call back, yes. Dry twigs seem to leap up at him, and he cradles them, because they are the last things that will let him do it.
Min-seok chases the girl in a cruel imitation of a sprint, half-limping, half-loping. A ribbon of trailing smoke comes alive as he coaxes it out of the sticks he carries.
Ahead of him, the kumiho - he is convinced now that this is her - bounds into a clearing. He sends a piece of wood in a spitting arc towards her head. It nips her shoulder, and fire blooms over her as she yelps.
A cry pierces the forest’s canopy, distanced and chilling, but Min-seok’s quarry remains tight-lipped. Suddenly the fox’s body goes slack, and her left arm jerks in protest. Min-seok shudders in puzzlement, looking again. Sure enough the kumiho is shifting, bending, as if an unseen master is pulling her this way and that. Unconvinced, he throws more twigs and stokes the blaze with a grim resignation. It must be a ploy.
Three more shrieks, each one nearer than the last. None of them come from the fox.
More fire, more fire, Min-seok thinks. She’ll find an escape.
Mi-yeong collapses into the clearing. Her fingers are splayed out wider and at stranger angles than they should be, but as Min-seok’s vision sharpens, he sees a parallel between them and the flailing frame of the fox. Mi-yeong grits her teeth and snaps her hands back to attention, and the kumiho follows suit. Burns sprout onto her skin, though the flare only ravages the fox, a kind of double possession.
In a language Min-seok doesn’t recognize, Mi-yeong murmurs and gestures, sweeping and sifting through the air. Both she and the kumiho bat at the fire-scars that are multiplying on them. A shimmering link seems to materialize between them, although between blinks, it flickers. Two birds with one stone, Min-seok realizes, but the thought gives him no glee.
The fox careens into Mi-yeong, and both of them are set alight.
He sprints to a safer vantage point, unable to take his eyes off the spectacle. The girls are twin pyres, moving wildly back and forth. They are obscured by a red-orange curtain, and he cannot tell one from the other. Girl? Fox? Predator? Prey? He tosses the last small, flaming branch in his hand at them as if it is the mark of a crime.
Two screeches of liquid pain stab straight through him from the inferno, and in that moment all three of them are inhuman.
Min-seok dashes out of the woods, trampling foliage to ruins. His soul, too, is being reduced to rubble somewhere. From here the scorching glow seems almost welcoming, but he knows better. He knows what is crumpling to its knees there.
Girl? he asks again. Fox?
No matter, he decides. They are both vixens.
The earth records their falls to the ground, softer than they should be. It remembers them for another too-shadowy night.