25 February, 2007
The train was busy despite the late hour.
“Where are you from?”
I looked around as I always did when I heard my native tongue, though I didn’t know if it was directed toward me or not.
The carriage was full of drunken salarymen and preening teenagers. A few ajummas, older women in neon tracksuits, scoured the world with their eyes. I was on my way home from a party on the far side of Seoul, dazed from soju and beer cocktails. It took a few moments to realize who was talking. It was a Korean girl, early 20’s, who stared straight at me.
She had boarded at Seoul National University and hovered by the train doors, toying with her phone and glancing around cautiously. She was wearing large pink headphones that covered her ears completely, and had been bobbing her head to her music. I’d pretended not to look at her, but she caught me staring more than once.
“England.” I tried to look nonchalant as I swayed.
“England? I thought you must have been American.”
“Everyone seems to think that.”
“You have a big nose.”
I stared at her. “Thanks.”
The train pulled into Sincheon. As I offered a farewell smile and stepped off the train, she whispered to me, “Only 315 days to go.” She flashed me a smile in return, showing off pointed teeth the color of pearls, and returned to her phone. The carriage doors shut and the train pulled away.
As I approached the turnstile to leave the station, I found my wallet was missing. Cursing my bad luck, I tried to explain what had happened to the subway worker at the turnstiles. He quickly grew frustrated with my miming and ushered me through the gate, complaining with jagged tones.
I walked home, bemused. Despite the pressing issue of my lost wallet, one thought returned to me time and time again; what was happening in 315 days?
15 March, 2007
I sat alone, eating cheese ramen and picking at kimchi.
Every day was the same. I would arrive at the kimbap house for my lunch break, order one of the dozen or so dishes I alternated between, and sit by the table facing out into the street. I would watch the life of Seoul ebb and flow and wonder what my friends back home were doing. I had spoken to some since I had arrived, but only fleetingly. The time difference made things difficult and we didn’t speak often.
The same woman would serve me each day.
“Good job,” she would say, watching me fumble my chopsticks.
“Thank you,” I would reply, only to be met with a confused stare. English vocabulary spent, she would then hurry back to her work. I began replying in Korean after a few weeks, which delighted the woman at first, but her enthusiastic replies were met with my own blank stares. She soon lost interest. Her plastic smiles continued daily, however.
The door of the kimbap house swung open and in walked the Korean girl with the pink headphones. I would have recognised them anywhere. She scanned the room and our eyes met. I looked down and stared at my noodles, pretending I hadn’t seen her. My face grew warm.
Footsteps. I looked up, and there she was, standing over me. My cheeks burned. She sat down opposite.
“Hello,” she said, “Remember me?”
“Uh, yeah. Hi.”
“Here.” She reached out and offered me a tightly wrapped plastic bag. I took it cautiously, trying to clean my chin of ramen broth without her noticing.
Inside was my wallet.
“You dropped it. Took me some time to find you.”
I stared at the wallet and then at her.
“Thanks. How did you find me?”
“You foreigners are easy to find.” She smiled. “You smell different.” She tapped her nose three times and laughed.
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I was grateful all the same. “Well, it’s really good of you to bring this back.”
“It’s ok”, she chimed as she stood. “We are same-same.”
And, with a smile that revealed teeth like daggers, she left.
I watched her hop onto a bus outside and disappear into the distance. Checking my wallet, I found all my money and cards still intact.
The kindness of strangers never ceased to surprise. Neither did Korean turns of phrase.
24 March, 2007
The bustling markets of Insadong welcomed me. Pushing through the masses, I searched for a gift to send home for my mother’s birthday, trying to find the right balance between authentic and interesting.
Crowds billowed and swayed and chattered. Blindfolded Taekwondo practitioners performed to inspiring music, ajummas served scorched silkworm larvae in cups, fouling my nostrils with their earthy rich scent, and candy makers entertained tourists with their ill-pronounced counting as they folded and refolded their honey and spiderweb-like sweets, chanting the numbers out with painted on enthusiasm.
“Hello, Big Nose,” she had whispered in my ear, and flashed me those pointed teeth.
She wore thick bundles of clothes and pink headphones once more. She grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alley.
“Just over 290 days to go now. So exciting!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m doing well, aren’t I? Most of the way there.”
I shook my head. “Most of the way to what? Who are you?”
She slapped her head and chimed a laugh. “Oh, name! I’m Kumiho. And you are Big Nose, I remember you.”
“My name’s Adam.”
“Adam Big Nose, of course. Thank you. How do you find the Korea?”
I was used to such questions. The incomprehensible Kumiho was not so different to the madness of my many other interviewers. Apart from those oddly pointed teeth.
“I like it. It’s beautiful here. And the people are kind.”
Kumiho’s eyes furrowed. “Not kind. You don’t know Korean people. They are not kind.”
“Really? Well, maybe I’ve been lucky but…” my voice trailed off as Kumiho thumped my arm and growled.
“Not kind. You don’t know. People here do not like things that are different.”
“Really?” I thought about this. “Everyone has always been good to me.”
“Showing a kind face is not the same as having a kind heart,” she spat. “People here do not like you. They do not like me, either.”
And with that, she marched away. I tried to ignore what she had said, but her thoughts hung over me like a cloud for days.
14 April, 2007
The cherry blossom was pink and dainty when I met her again. I had been on my way to Seocho to meet some friends. I was on the subway, eyelids drifting. One moment there was an old man, an ajosshi with caterpillar brows, staring at me with curiosity, and then Kumiho was next to him also. She grinned and sat next to me.
“You again?” I said. I had almost forgotten about her.
“Kumiho again.” She tapped the side of her nose. “Did you miss me?”
“I don’t really know you…” I tried to be polite.
“No. You don’t know me.” She reclined in her seat and sighed. “Nobody knows me.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I didn’t. I fiddled with my thumbs and looked up at the subway map. Four stations to go.
“But this is the same,” she continued, “Nobody knows you, foreigner. You are waegookin. Nobody in Korea knows you.”
“I have friends, thanks.”
“That’s not the same.”
“You are different. You think different to Korea people. So do I. We are same-same, someways, you and I.” She smiled at this. Her teeth were still sharp, though not so much as I remembered.
“You’re Korean, aren’t you? What makes us so similar?” I felt nervous talking to her. She was pretty, Kumiho. Dark eyes and cocoa hair that framed her face. She could have been on TV.
“I am Korean. But we don’t fit here. People don’t like us.” She stared pointedly at the ajosshi opposite, who muttered something in Korean. Kumiho spat a mouthful of barbed words. The ajosshi’s eyes and nostrils flared and he stood, barking at us like a guard dog. He raised his newspaper high and brought it down towards Kumiho. She caught it with ease, and shouted more incomprehensible words at him. His face turned pale. Grabbing his briefcase, he stormed off the train. Kumiho stood by the doors and watched him go.
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
Kumiho turned to me, flashing her white fangs.
“I said ‘Wanna die?’”
And with that, as the train doors were closing, she stepped off the train and waved me goodbye.
She was crazy, Kumiho.
2nd July, 2007
I still thought about Kumiho. I hadn’t seen her in some time, but her perfect features and shining smile haunted my dreams. She appeared to me in my sleep as an animal, stalking me, appearing unexpected and unannounced.
It was a typical Korean summer’s afternoon. The air felt viscous and sweat poured from my back and chest. As I sat outside a cafe, hiding from the sun and enjoying iced coffee, a familiar voice greeted me.
“Hi, Adam Big Nose.”
It was Kumiho. Dressed in a baggy white t-shirt covered in pink and yellow neon, with tight dark jeans, she still wore her oversized headphones. She always had them on.
“Kumiho! It’s good to see you.” I almost tripped as I stood. “How have you been?”
“I’m ok. So-so.” She sat down next to me. “Not so many days to go now.”
“Until I can become human,” she said, matter of factly.
She stirred the ice in her cup with her straw. Tried to pick up one of the ice cubes.
“Until I can become human. I am Kumiho, remember.”
“Oh. Right, sure.” I sipped at my drink. “Because you’re not human?”
“Exactly. 343 days to go. I’m doing well, but…” she trailed off and placed a hand on her stomach. She closed her eyes.
“So, you’re not human.” I tried to keep my hands steady. “What are you then?”
Kumiho leant back and looked around the cafe. Her eyes landed upon mine once more. She opened her mouth to reply, but as she did, a low and fierce grumble came from her. Wincing, she grabbed her stomach.
“I’m just so hungry, you know?”
“Do you want something to eat?” I pulled out my wallet and looked to the counter. “They make good bagels here.”
Her lip curled. “Bagels? No, no! I don’t want bagels. You don’t know about Kumiho, do you? I’m different, remember? Like you.”
I shook my head. “What do you mean? What is a kumiho?”
With a fierce growl, she stood up and stared at me for a full five seconds. Then, she stormed off, mumbling to herself in Korean.
I wondered what it was I had said, or hadn’t.
Pulling out my phone, I searched the internet for the meaning of kumiho. I frowned. I found images of a nine-tailed fox that could turn human. A fox that ate the hearts of humans.
I laughed, shook my head, and sipped at my drink.
1st August, 2007
Hongdae was busy. University miscreants drank and danced in the park, two separate bands vying for the crowd. Separately, there was a dance off between two groups of teenagers, playing K-Pop from an oversized stereo. Ex-pats drank too heartily and clutched at their partners.
I sat in a barbecue restaurant with my co-worker, Sangyoung, throwing back shots of soju and eating spicy pork belly and rice. He had broken up with his girlfriend not so long ago and was drinking too eagerly. We weren’t good friends, but we made the effort to eat and drink together once a week. His English was broken and conversation stalled too often. Alcohol helped. Waving panicked hand signals at me and disappearing to the toilets, Sangyoung lurched away, leaving me alone.
Alcohol didn’t always help.
I wrapped some pork belly in a lettuce leaf and popped it in my mouth. Pressed the button to call for the waitress’s attention.
“I want to talk with you,” said Kumiho, appearing in place of the teenager who had served us previously. I stared at her. She was dressed as a waitress, with an immaculate apron replete with tongs and scissors.
“Kumiho?” I looked at her incredulously.
“Please. I like you. Come see me.” And out the door she went.
I looked to the toilets, imagined the two ways my evening could go, and hurried to the door.
Kumiho stood outside, with a big grin on her face. Her teeth were perfect.
“Hello, Big Nose. I’m sorry about before.”
I shrugged. “That’s ok.”
“No, no. I was rude. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be… I was just so hungry. It was a bad day. A weak day.”
“It’s fine, honestly.” Kumiho beamed at this and hopped from foot to foot. She was more beautiful than I remembered.
“You don’t know the meaning of Kumiho, do you?” she asked.
I didn’t know how to respond to this. Instead, I looked at her and offered a weak smile.
She looked around quickly, saw nobody was in earshot, and whispered fiercely. “I am Kumiho with Nine Tails.” She looked at me expectantly.
With some effort, I offered a slightly stronger smile.
“You don’t know me, do you?”
“No. I thought we’d been through this? I don’t know you. I’d like to though.” This time my smile came naturally.
“I’m a fox.”
“Oh. Of course,” I sat down on a low brick wall, “You’re a fox.” I laughed. “I read up on what a kumiho is. Sounds interesting.”
Kumiho raised an eyebrow. She sat down next to me and took a swig from a bottle of soju.
“You don’t believe me,” she said, passing the bottle.
I didn’t know what to say, so I let the silence sit. Scratching at the label on the bottle, I watched a group of students stumble past, raucous with good humor. They glanced at me and Kumiho and giggled to one another, exchanging whispers. Kumiho glared at them.
“I can show you if you like.”
“That you’re a fox?”
“Ok.” I took another swig and placed the bottle on the wall. “Show me.”
“Not here.” Kumiho looked around. “Not tonight. Meet me at Gyeongbokgong station next week. On the 10th. 8pm, exit 3.”
“I guess it takes preparation, turning into a fox?” I chuckled. “Need to brush your tail? Get your ears straightened?”
“No. But it’s too busy here and it’s making me hungry. Still, only 126 days to go.” Kumiho snatched up the bottle of soju and downed the final third. Leaning back and cackling to herself, she almost fell off the wall. She then placed the bottle back on the pavement, and walked away.
“See you then,” I called after her.
I was glad I knew when it would be.
10th August, 2007
I stood outside Gyeongbokgong station, sweating. My hair was matted and my shirt clung to me. I had spent all too long trying to get my look right. Picked out my best clothes, styled my hair. 10 minutes after leaving my apartment I looked like I’d finished a 10km race.
Sipping at a bottle of water, I watched the evening traffic glide past.
Kumiho appeared 10 minutes late, or thereabouts, emerging from an alley close by. Her pink headphones sat atop her head, as always. She was feeling the summer heat too and her white top stuck to her body. I didn’t know where to look.
“Come on then,” she said, and walked back down the alley. I followed and found the road sharply ascended. We marched up old and cramped roads where crag faced ajosshis sat outside beaten up shops, drinking beer and watching us with suspicion, muttering to one another. I didn’t understand what they said but Kumiho spat words back at them.
“What are they saying?” I asked after the second set of grumbling men.
“Calling me names. Calling you names. They don’t think we belong here.” Kumiho picked up her pace and I tried my best to follow. For one so slender, she moved quickly.
Up and up we went until we reached stone steps that continued higher. By now my eyes were stinging from sweat and my legs were starting to ache. If anything, the hill was getting steeper. It was as if we had left Seoul far behind as we walked past quiet temples and looming trees. The evening was quiet. I saw cats prowling in the undergrowth.
“Where are we going?”
“Up the mountain. It’s a special place. It’s safe.”
I tried to keep up but Kumiho was too fast and she disappeared around a towering boulder. As the sun melted over the top of the rocky peaks above, I could hear bells chiming. Looking around, I saw a man in the distance, sat on a mat and surrounded by bottles of alcohol, singing softly and ringing the bell.
“He is shaman. It’s holy here. Touched by heaven,” came Kumiho’s voice from above me. She was on top of the boulder and looking down, smiling. I circled the boulder and the city opened up before me. Seoul, awash with red and orange, city lights twinkling as the day ebbed into night.
I sat with Kumiho and we watched the sun set. As the night was born, I felt her hand take mine. I didn’t look at her. I kept my eyes focused on the blinking light of Namsan Tower, worried that any movement would break the moment forever.
We sat for a long time.
“Don’t be afraid.” Kumiho let go of my hand and disappeared down the boulder.
I leant against the rock face and listened to the shaman’s chimes and chants. I wasn’t sure what Kumiho had planned, what kind of trick she was going to pull. I had wondered if she was mistaking fox for some other word, but I couldn’t figure out what that might be. I popped a mint in my mouth.
A heard a low growl come from down below. Crawling down the slope and peering over the edge, I saw a small fox, white as snow, with a number of tails. The tails quivered and shook as the fox stared at me.
My jaw dropped. My mint fell out and bounced down the crags.
The fox sprang up the boulder, bounding with Olympian agility, and landed in front of me. I had pushed myself backwards as it came flying towards me, but froze as it landed. It cocked its head to the side and stared at me with chocolate brown eyes. It grinned and revealed pearl white teeth, sharp as knives.
The fox froze for a moment. Then slowly nodded its head and shook its many tails once more. I counted them; there were nine.
Biting my lip, I reached out a hand. The fox, Kumiho, nuzzled it.
I laughed and sat back against the rockface once more. Kumiho jumped forward and began licking my hand as I stroked her. What magic was this? What mystery?
The night passed slowly as we played in the moonlight.
Kumiho was curled up in my lap and the hour was late. A deep rumbling came from the fox, who stirred and looked around in a daze. The rumbling continued, louder and more ferociously than before. I ran my fingers through her soft fur.
This time, as her stomach rumbled again, Kumiho leapt off me in discomfort.
“Are you ok?” I whispered.
Kumiho stared at me, her beady dark eyes showing no emotion. The rumbling continued and she looked all around. The shaman had long since left, or fallen asleep, and the night was quiet. The breeze was fierce and warm.
The nine-tailed fox fixed me with her eyes and bared her teeth. The rumbling from her stomach was growing louder. Her lips curled into a primal snarl.
I edged backwards, hands up in front of me.
Something changed in Kumiho’s eyes. Imperceptibly different, somehow, though I could not say what it was that changed. She turned away and bounded down the rocks, disappearing off and into the scrub.
Exhaling heavily, I slumped against the rock face. I wasn’t sure what had changed in Kumiho, but I had been left alone near the peak of Inwangsan Mountain. Using my phone as a torch, I scrambled down from the boulder and started to negotiate my way down the winding paths back to civilisation. Something cracked under my foot.
Kumiho’s oversized pink headphones.
I picked them up and headed home.
I kept Kumiho’s broken headphones in my satchel and carried them around with me. I was sure she would turn up unannounced, as she always had, and I wanted to have them ready for her.
After a month, I stopped carrying them. After three months, I put them in a drawer.
I tried to keep my mind off of Kumiho. I joined a running club and made friends. Went out, got drunk, ate well. Danced in Gangnam and Hongdae and Itaewon. Stewed in molten saunas and went on a trip to Japan. Gorged on sushimi and started taking Korean classes.
Still, nightly, my thoughts returned to her.
It was funny. Before I met Kumiho I’d felt so separate. So insecure. A quiet island drifting in a land of oddities. She was the greatest oddity of all, yet she was the thing that grounded me here. She was the thing that made me feel like I lived here, rather than existed.
6th December, 2007
Returning from class at Hongik University, I found Kumiho once again. She was waiting outside my apartment, sitting against the door, sipping a bottle of soju. White fox ears poked out from her dark hair.
“Kumiho!” I ran to her. She looked at me and smiled. Her teeth were sharp as knives once more.
“Can I come in?”
“Of course, of course.”
Inside my apartment, I offered Kumiho a bean bag and went to the kitchen to brew some tea.
“I’m sorry, Adam Big Nose, if I scared you.”
I waved my hand. “Don’t be silly. It was amazing. You’re amazing.”
“I ate someone.” Kumiho’s eyes fell to the floor. “I have to start again now.”
The silence sat for a long time.
“Start what again?” I’ve never been sure why I asked this first, rather than the question that was ricocheting around my mind.
“My 1000 days.” Kumiho stretched. “I am Kumiho. I must go 1000 days hungry to become human.”
I thought back the first few times we had met and the countdown she had been so enamoured by. How she had often complained of hunger, and grew irritated whenever I offered her food. To the legends, the nonsense folk stories, I had read on the internet.
“Yes, to become human. Kumiho must not eat a person for 1000 days.”
“And… you’ve eaten someone?”
“Yes.” she sighed. “I ate someone. An ajumma who shouted at me on the bus. I followed her home and ate her.”
What do you say to a fox who eats people? I sat and gawped. The pretty Korean girl who ate people. She played with her ears, running her fingers up and down them, teasing the ends.
“I have your headphones. They’re broken though.”
“I’ve been thinking, Big Nose. We are same-same, because you are not Korean person and neither am I. Not really, not yet.” She approached. “I am still very hungry, and I don’t think you count. You are not a Korean person, after all. You are very different. Not a real person at all, in many ways. Perhaps eating you would be ok?” she said, single bead of spittle rolling down her cheek.
I backed away. She couldn’t be serious. All the same, I reached behind me and my fingers wrapped around the handle of a knife.
“Yes,” she continued. “I think it would be ok, Adam Big-Nose. You are not Korean person. You are waegookin. I think you can be eaten just fine.” Those white fangs were out now, seemingly growing larger by the moment. Kumiho’s eyes were black holes of hunger.
With a snarl she leapt at me.
I swung the knife toward her, winced and shut my eyes. She howled as I cut through her and I felt nails, perhaps claws, rake down my cheek. I stumbled back, flailing blindly with the knife, and felt it connect again.
I swung again…
There was a wail, a banshee’s call, and my door slammed. Opening my eyes, I saw no splatter of red, no gore leaking to my floor. But Kumiho was gone. I breathed out for the first time in an eternity and slumped down to the kitchen tiles.
Something white shimmered on the floor.
A patch of white fur, roughly cut.
17th January, 2008.
I arrived back in England on a Tuesday. It was raining.
As I stared out of the window of my taxi and watched miserable people trudge about, I thought about what was to come. Finding a new job, a new place to live. Discovering my feet once more in the country that was my home.
It’s funny. I spent less than a year in Korea, but it’s a part of me now.
I opened my wallet to pay the taxi driver and there it was. The tuft of white fur, tucked carefully inside. The mark of that girl, Kumiho. I’ll never forget her, and she’ll be my friend always, no matter how we left things. It’s not her fault, I’m sure. I had wondered if she might return to my apartment, so I left my contact details on the side with her pink headphones. I had not seen her since that night. I can only think she changed her mind and let me live; I am sure I wasn’t strong enough to fight her off and I was her friend, after all.
Maybe she’ll become human one day.
I’d like that.