8160 words, novelette
An Evolutionary Myth
In the fourth month of the seventh year, in the summer, the King went fishing at the Go-ahn pond, and caught a white fish with red wings.
In the tenth month of the twenty-fifth year, in the winter, the envoy of the Kingdom of Buyeo came and presented a deer with three antlers and a long-tailed rabbit.
The day of the first full moon festival of the spring of the fifty-third year, the envoy of the Kingdom of Buyeo came and presented a tiger which was one jang and two cheok long, and had white fur and no tail.
In the ninth month of the fifty-fifth year, in the autumn, the King was hunting south of Jil Mountain and caught a purple roe deer.
In the tenth month, in the winter, a local governor presented a red leopard. Its tail was nine ja long.
—From the Annals of the Reign of King Taejo, Sixth Great King of Goguryeo, as recorded in the Goguryeo Annals of the Samguk Sagi
When a protracted drought struck the kingdom, the leaves of every plant wilted down into fine, sharp needles, and their stems bulged, to conserve as much water as possible. Fat collected and grew beneath the horses’ skin, and formed into humps on their backs, and squirrels began to build their nests beneath the cool ground instead of in the trees. Dogs, unable to bear the heat, shed their fur in clumps. Even in the fall, the fields turned not golden but a drab green, because people planted potatoes and corn instead of rice.
I always worried because whenever a drought struck, an accursed storm of blood always followed. The king always laid the blame at anyone’s feet: government officials had committed some kind of error . . . or the royal samu had slacked off during his divination ceremonies . . . or the soldiers had gone lax at their guard-posts. Ever since that torrent of blood first surged out from the heart of the palace, through the front gate and out into the courtyard beyond, all manner of alarming stories had spread. It was rumored that when the king slumbered, he set his head upon a human pillow, and that when he sat, it was likewise upon a person . . . and that if either dared to move, the king would slay them with his sword.
The people call him simply Cha-Daewang, “The Next Great King.” Next, that is, in relation to his predecessor, Great King Taejo. After the previous king, Taejo, had lain ill in his royal bed for an extended period, he’d delegated authority to Cha-Daewang, who had responded with conspiracy. To claim the throne, he had quoted ancient scriptures: “Traditionally, when the senior brother grew elderly, his younger brother was to succeed to the throne . . . ” Great King Taejo, powerless to fight him off and anyway wise enough to desire no further spilling of blood, had abdicated the throne and gone off to live out his last days in seclusion in his detached palace.
Following the accession of the Cha-Daewang, I stayed home, barely going outside. Only into the dark of night, like a bat, did I escape my room, wandering around briefly while trying to avoid others’ gaze, and returning home before dawn. My skin turned indigo, matching the hue of the night, and my eyes began to gleam yellow. A physician reassured me that I shouldn’t fret over this, for it was, he said, merely a deformation of my retina, an unusual new layer to reflect the light from the back of my eyeballs; and that the development of this odd retinal layer is actually common to people who work at night. He also explained why my pupils stretch inhumanly wide at night, while narrowing during the day time, like a cat’s: it was merely to control the quantity of light to which I was exposed. When I worried about whether I might pass this trait on to my children someday, he reassured me, speaking of some theory he called yong-bul-yong, that is, use-and-disuse, according to which such traits would be unlikely to be passed down beyond a single generation. There was no evidence, he said, that such “acquired characteristics” would be passed down to later descendants this way.
One hot night, I escaped from my room and headed to one of the royal altars. By then, the samu had been performing their fire-rites, in an attempt to summon the rains, for several weeks. One of them—a samu I knew and got along with well—noticed me hiding in the darkness, and came over to greet me. We’d known one another since childhood, and were of the same age; now he was the only one remaining who wasn’t perpetually bent at the waist. (Our royal subjects had spent so long bent forward deferentially before the king, that now their bodies were warped into a permanent bow, and their faces always pointed toward the ground.)
“What has brought you here so late at night, Your Royal Highness?”
It was precisely on account of situations such as this that I avoided going out in public: despite the status of Tae-ja—the Crown Prince—having transferred from me to my cousin, many people still followed the old habit of referring to me as if it had not. Each time someone committed such an error, it felt as if my life has been palpably shortened by several years.
“I was just dropping by to check in on the rain invocations . . . ”
The samu glanced around and whispered, “How could the sky not turn dry, when the hearts of the people are so parched? True, it is when the people are fatigued that the sky ought to be kindest to them, but nature’s laws don’t work that way.”
“I remember my deceased father often used to call down the rains.”
“As you may know, my lord, to summon rain requires a change in atmospheric pressure. For example, when one’s spiritual energies are quickly extended into the sky, the water vapor in the air above condenses and falls down. It also rains when two massive spirits take form in the heavens and do battle there; or when a giant creature blocks the flow of wind, and the air strikes against its body—this, too, may produce rain. It is great movements such as these, in the air, that are necessary to produce precipitation.”
“Like . . . at the moment when a great giant moves?”
“Yes, but there aren’t so many of them alive now, and each one keeps such a vast territory for itself, because they’re so enormous, and such ravenous eaters besides. Your late father was close friends to one such giant, who lived in the Taebek mountains. He used to summon the rains through that Revered Ban-go, but it’s been ages since He stirred. They say his body is blanketed with dirt and trees, and that he is now indistinguishable from the bedrock beneath him. Rumor has it the other titans are all in a similarly torpid state, now: to seek them out would be pointless.”
The learned had urged for all the current scholars of phylogeny and embryonic recapitulation to gather and study together, for a generation or so, in order to analyze the rules governing the differentiation of living things. Even so, since all the forms of everything living will have metamorphosed within a generation, such study is pointless. Many such scholars have declared, “There exists no rule governing the differentiation of forms,” and retreated to their beds, concealing themselves beneath their blankets. But a certain tendency definitely exists. Most giants who lived during prehistory have ceased in every life-function, including breathing and movement, and chosen to become mountains, rivers, and lakes. Likewise, the tremendous lizards which once dwelled on the earth and in the heavens had also cast aside their dignity and diminished themselves to the size of one’s finger.
“Is there any sign that points to a resurgence of the giants?”
“With so little known about nature’s governance of how forms evolve . . . how should I know? Still, it seems unlikely for anything too enormous to reappear. These days, not only humans, but even smaller animals tend to hunt anything too big. That’s why lizards have became smaller: coordinated group effort pays off more than the trouble of maintaining a single, vast body.”
“So is there no other way to call the rain?”
“For now, all we can do is pray. Sure, human longings are unscientific, but . . . that doesn’t mean they have no effect.”
As I turned to leave, he added one more comment: “I noticed that the sun is due to swallow the moon on the last night of this month. Please be careful: it’s inauspicious . . . ”
As I watched him return to his place, I pondered about the meaning of his warning. It was a bizarre comment: a lunar eclipse? During the new moon? How could that happen? The moon’s face would be hidden from the sky, and anyway, wasn’t a lunar eclipse caused when the Earth’s shadow darkened the moon? If the sun were to “shade” the moon, would not the night blaze bright as day? But then, gazing up into the night sky as I pondered his words, I realized my error: even on the last night of the lunar month, the moon still hung in the sky—it was merely hidden from view. To what end might the sun swallow and shade the moon, when it is already invisible? Wouldn’t that just be mere nonsense, some sort of purposeless cruelty? The sun was the father of all time, as the king is the father of the people; therefore . . . the cruel sun must represent the cruel king . . . and . . . the invisible moon must be the prince who lost his inheritance . . .
I let out a deep sigh. There was no way to prepare myself for that, though I felt no inclination to do so anyway. Even before he’d claimed the throne from my father, my uncle had already held the reins of power. Even street-beggars have a place to lean their backs against, when they want to rest their legs. Me? I have nothing to lean against in this world . . . so how could I sustain my life, even if I did flee?
I crawled through the darkness back to my room. I usually climbed over trees and scuttled over the ground instead of walking on two feet. I first began doing so, bending my body down each time I heard footsteps, to avoid discovery, but at some point a callus had formed upon my palms, like the ones on people’s feet.
It has been said since ancient days that ontogeny repeats phylogeny. The cells of our bodies continue being born and dying at every moment, and the blood in our veins is continually being created and disappearing; when old cells die, then new ones appear to fill the gaps left behind, and soon enough, not one of the original cells of one’s body remains. In other words, one truly becomes a completely different creature not only in mind, but also in body. All creatures, whether they wish it or no, die and are reborn several times during their lives.
My late mother, bless her, emphasized repeatedly how revolting one’s appearance would be at the end of his life, if he failed to spend his whole life struggling ceaselessly to maintain his humanity. Only a rare few manage to die with a recognizably human form: many more people end their lives shaped like animals and insects. The aristocrats who pass their days comfortably in their rooms, living off taxes and stipends garnered from the people, lose their human forms the soonest. How many of them develop stubby legs and tails, and fat, reddish bellies, their faces dominated by bulging cheeks!
From my early childhood, my mother constantly repeated to me the tale of one woodcutter. This woodcutter was married to a woman from a certain winged race whom he met by chance at the shore of a lake, but after his wife flew away into the sky he went up to the roof and wept, and could neither eat nor sleep. His body diminished until it was tiny, and his legs became as thin as chopsticks, while the bottoms of his feet bent and curved, and curved claws sprouted from his toes like the hooks that hold up the bar of a clothes-rack. His fingers atrophied, and then disappeared, while white feathers sprouted all over his body. A scarlet comb grew upon his head and from his throat came the sound of a heartbroken bird, instead of the sound of a man. His longing had transformed his appearance into that of a rooster, but those wings were useless: he could not fly to where his wife had fled. If only his will and longing had been directed more sensibly, he could have developed wings capable of flight, but he had already lost his wits and sealed his fate, by letting slip his ability to control or direct his own development.
People separated from their lovers become flowers, or ossify into stones like the one in the famous story of Mangbuseok, instead of turning into birds or horses. This tendency of creatures to metamorphose into the complete opposite of that which they long to become is also fascinating. Do you realize that the widely-credited notion that sunflowers follow the sun, is actually mere fantasy? They certainly do grow large flowers out of admiration for the sun, but then they bend their faces down toward the ground. They do this because they cannot bear the weight of those flowers. I thought then that perhaps I was like these others: since I wished nothing so much as to flap my wings and fly far away, maybe I would die instead with a heavy body, its belly stuck to the ground as it crawled about.
The rains never came, but a late freeze struck the land that spring. Some birds dropped from the sky, frozen dead, while those that survived grew thick coats of feathers. When the cold snap continued, some fat, flightless birds waddled along the ground. Other birds leaped into the water, finding some slight warmth in its depths. Beast and human alike began to starve, for they couldn’t eat even the leaves of the plants, which had long since metamorphosed into thorns. People hid in the mountains and grew long, thick coats of fur, like beasts. Sometimes when people hunted bears, the bears cried out with voices that sounded less ursine than human.
On the spring day that the assassins came for me, a frost had appeared overnight in the yard outside my home. I was sitting in my room when I noticed some people hiding at a distance behind the trees and walls, quietly approaching my detached palace. Their careful, secretive movements were so furtive that to watch them and wait practically bored me. Before the assassins arrived, my eunuch entered the room and threw himself upon the floor before me.
“Your Royal Highness, the king’s assassins are approaching the palace,” he told me. “Please, you must flee quickly!”
“To where? My uncle rules this whole land,” I replied calmly, flipping the pages of my book. For some reason, the eunuch began to weep.
He sobbed for a while before raising his head, and dutifully said, “Nobody will recognize you, since your appearance has changed so drastically! Let us exchange clothes, so that the Royal Body may survive their attack!” Afterward, he pushed me toward the back door, and sat himself down upon my seat. The night was chilly, and as I crawled out into the dark courtyard, shadowy figures raced into my room. Then the slashing of swords and screaming voices assailed me from behind.
Grief-stricken, I reflected sorrowfully that my father had founded a nation, and won glory in the eyes of the world’s, but I, his foolish son, could only crawl about on four legs and stay alive by wretchedly allowing another to die in his place. Suddenly death terrified me, for how could I face my father in the next world?
At that instant came a clap of thunder, and a shower of rain commenced, extinguishing all the torches and plunging the palace into darkness. Finally, at just the right moment, the prayers of the samu had reached heaven. Although it was surely a coincidence, the palace soldiers, ignorant of the sciences, fled in terrified confusion, certain that their own misdeeds had angered the heavens. I seized that instant to go over the palace wall. A lone soldier caught sight of me, but on account of my glowing yellow eyes, he must have supposed I was just some cat upon the wall.
I couldn’t bear the thought of being around people, so made for the mountains. The rain, having broken the drought, was met by grass surging forth, each blade raising its head toward the sky, and trees unfolding their leaves, while greedily stretching out their roots. In my footsteps, patches of verdant grass sprouted and sank back down toward the soil. The drought, and the sudden rain, had provoked from the plants this animalistic behavior: since it was uncertain when it might rain again, the whole forest around me was noisily occupied spreading seed and growing fruit. I walked and walked through the downpour, until I could walk no more and dropped to the ground in exhaustion.
There I lay, for I don’t know how long, until I caught a groggy glimpse of what looked like a white birch tree moving. But when I opened my eyes more widely, and looked carefully, I realized it was no birch at all, but a white tiger. The beast was only a foot tall, slender and tailless, and all its body as white as fresh snow. The tiger crept quietly around me. I remained supine, lacking the strength to flee the creature, and with a wan smile I wondered whether it was a worthy death, to join the cycle of sustenance in the form of a predator’s meal.
“What’s so funny?”
When the tiger spoke, I was stunned. Its voice was very clear, with exacting and altogether human pronunciation. How could a tiger speak a human language with such different vocal cords? Momentarily, I let out an anxious laugh, and tears—just then inexplicable to me—fell from my eyes.
The tiger spoke again, asking, “Why do you weep?”
“I cried because I feel such pity for you,” I said, remaining where I lay.
The tiger laughed . . . human laughter. “What’s so piteous about me?”
“If you can speak human languages, it means you have a human mind; and if you have a human mind, you once were human, despite your present, animal form. I don’t how you came to take the shape of a beast, but it’s sad, isn’t it? How could it not be pitiful, to lose that original form which you inherited from your parents?”
“What does original form mean, anyway? Ought every creature to spend its whole life as a newborn infant?” the tiger quipped. “You say you were born in a human form, but your ancestors were once bears and tigers, snakes and fishes, and birds and plants. Now you fight to hang onto this human shape, but ultimately you’ll realize the effort is pointless. What’s so precious about dying in the same form you were born into? I might look like an animal, but I chose this form: I wanted to fill my belly with the work of my own two hands . . . and this form is the result.”
I had nothing to offer in reply.
“Do you know that in the old days,” it continued, “it took aeons for creatures to change from one form to another; that it took many ten-thousands of aeons for any kind of differentiation at all to develop. Things aren’t better or worse now—it’s just that a different kind of adaptation is necessary these days. Nature chooses its survivors without considering good, or evil, or superior, or inferior. Even the human form is just a single means of survival chosen by nature. Humans are frailer than rabbits, when they’re not in a group or deprived of their tools! A pathetic weakling like you . . . pitying me? How insolent!”
The tiger bared its razor-sharp fangs at me, its wrath apparent, so I shut my eyes and tensed in anticipation of the coming attack . . . but as long as I waited, it didn’t slash open my throat. When I dared to open my eyes, I found the tiger quietly watching me.
“Say it,” the creature finally said.
“What is it you want?”
“I don’t want anything,” I said. “I just don’t want to be discovered by anyone. I want to live and die without anyone finding me.”
The tiger said, “You should become a bug, then. Since you can’t get over this fixation on people, it’d be best to become a maggot or a fly. Or . . . how about a worm? Worms enrich the soil. You’d be more useful to people that way, than whatever it is you are right now.”
Though every single word he spoke dripped with insult, I couldn’t think of any suitable rejoinder to offer him.
“But those forms are rather distant from mine,” I said. “Becoming a worm would probably be really difficult. What can I do?”
“If you really, truly wanted to dig holes and eat dirt, it wouldn’t be so hard, now, would it?” the tiger retorted. Then it looked up at me, and said, “Well, I can’t eat someone I’ve had a conversation with, so you go on back, now. I saw some starving people climbing up the mountain: if you follow them, you might even learn how to survive out here . . . ”
Then he departed through the trees, blending into the background until his silhouette suddenly disappeared from view.
I rose from the ground.
After following the mountain ridge for a while, I encountered the group of climbers the tiger had described. I joined them, blending in as best I could; not a soul in the group addressed me, or even seemed to notice me—or pay attention to one another, for that matter. Nobody even commented on my indigo skin or my xanthous eyes. Among them were folk with folded spines, twisted faces, legless or armless, carapaced like sea-creatures, or crawling upon four feet.
The climbers eventually split into threes and fives and entered a series of caves. When I followed them inside, I found people lying asleep in one anothers’ arms. They seemed to have chosen to hibernate through the cold, barren years, rather than starve. Some spun cocoons, silkworm-like, and others grew thin membraneous coverings, like the diaphanous skin that bundles fishes’ eggs together. There were also people covered with coats of white fur. Those who couldn’t change so quickly, or handle such a rapid metamorphosis, died and became prey to the ants, joining the cycle of digestion and nutriment to live on in a different form within that cycle. I tried to find a spot empty of people, and finally settled between the roots at the foot of a great tree. I gathered grass around me and fashioned a bed from it, and then I rolled myself around and attempted to hibernate.
Winter came, and my starvation continued. Struggling, I attempted to subsist on soil alone, but I couldn’t do it. I tried to hibernate, but always woke; now sleeping, now waking again. Eventually, I was able to sleep for a few days in a row, then four, and finally I was able to slumber for a week to ten days at a time.
During the winter I shed my skin. My body, failing under the hardships of my new environment, seemed of its own accord to have decided that some sort of “adjustment” was necessary: radical changes occurred in my skeletal structure and the placement of my vital organs. I passed out and woke again several times more, as my skin fell from my flesh. When I finally climbed out from my moult, and looked back, the ghastly husk still looked all too horribly human. As for me, I found I had grown a smooth, serpent-like skin and a long lizard’s tail. I wept briefly for my lost humanity, but soon I regained my calm. My body had taken this reptilian form in order to best ensure my survival, I supposed: the wisdom of the flesh outweighs all the reason of the human mind. It understands that survival is more crucial than a man’s dignity or pride. I turned and devoured my abandoned human skin, a feast of precious nutriment for my new body.
When spring arrived, and edible grass began to sprout at the mouth of the cave, I woke up from my slumber and crept outside. Then, I realized that I was the only one who had survived from this long, terrible winter. A few others had perished outside, taking the form of human-shaped rocks and trees, all entangled together in a solemn tableau. Respectfully, I performed a ceremony before them: they, at least, were noble enough to prefer becoming soil to losing their human shape.
After that, I dwelled in the forest, crawling upon the ground and eating grass. My jaw soon became powerful, the better to chew on the tough grass, and I developed a sort of jutting snout, as well. My ears grew pointed, because of how I pricked them up at every swaying of the brush nearby, and my palms hardened as my limbs shortened to suit my body. When I could no longer use my fingers, horns sprouted from my skull; they began as small nubs on my head, but soon it branched out like the antlers of a male deer. These horns were invaluable in the battles I fought with other beasts over food, and for striking trees to coax them into reluctantly letting drop their ripe fruit.
In the winter of that year, I shed my skin once more. I discovered my entire body to have completely changed to the dull greenish color of the forest. I wondered whether living in a desert, or on a rocky mountain, might perhaps help me to maintain my human pigmentation, but the proposition seemed useless to me. My desire to go unseen was so great that my body would surely be inscribed with the camouflaging patterns of the pebbles, if I lived upon a rocky mountain.
I looked down at the little nub that remained, down below my belly button, and wondered whether I could even still have sex with a human being. The thought made me laugh and laugh. Even though my bestial transformation was past the point of no return, still I couldn’t abjure this strange wistfulness for my own long-lost form. But someday my brain, too, would undergo its own transformation in capacity and structure. How much longer would I retain my very consciousness, my memories and human intellect? That night, I counted the number of scales that had grown upon my body, and found them—counting both the great and the small ones together—to number eighty-one. The square of nine, I thought: That’s a lucky number.
After that thought, I began to laugh once more.
I think it was probably autumn.
While crawling through the forest as always in search of food, I heard the distant din of horseshoes and barking hounds. When I looked up in surprise, a group of hunting dogs was chasing a small group of purple roe deer toward me. I fled as swiftly as I could, amid the rushing deer, but the hunters mistook me for one of them, on account of my antlers and loosed their arrows at me. One poor deer, struck by an arrow beside me, rolled on the ground and screamed piteously. Its voice was so very human that my heart all but failed me.
Although I ran myself half-dead, I was neither so fleet nor so clever as the rest of the herd. Eventually, I ended up surrounded by hunting hounds, at the foot of a great tree and unable to move. As I stood there, buffeted by the baying and barking of the hounds, the bushes split apart and people armed with arrows and spears appeared. I stood frozen as I watched a man on horseback leading them forward.
His face had haunted me everywhere but in my dreams: it was my own uncle. But that wasn’t the reason that I couldn’t move or speak. That was because of his incredible appearance, which had changed so drastically that he was unrecognizable.
He looked like a giant hunk of meat.
His bulging pink gut shone with his gluttony, and his peaked nose signified a lifetime with his face buried in food. His almost-shut eyes reflected a near-absolute lack of moral discernment within, and the upward curve of his earlobes, covering his ears completely, reflected his desire to hear nothing at all. The spaces between his fingers had disappeared, because his hands and feet had atrophied, meaning he had attended to none of his royal tasks. Considering how my late father had retained his human appearance even during his prolonged sickness in bed, my uncle’s transformation was truly outrageous. I was simply too shocked and outraged to fear him.
My uncle directed them to lower their arrows from me, and examined me from snout to tail.
“What is this beast? Because of the antlers, I thought it was a deer, but its body is such a nasty shade of green. The thing has the tail of a lizard and is covered with scales like a snake’s . . . its arms and legs are like a human’s, but its yellow eyes look like a cat’s. What kind of an omen might this be?”
A servant hurried forth to his side. His back was bent, as if he were slumped upon on a horse’s back, and his neck bent groundward, as if we were about to topple over at any moment. His appearance had undergone a profound transformation, but I recognized him then as the samu who had once been my true friend. I sensed that he recognized me, too, though he was fighting to look away from me.
“It’s not unusual to encounter new kinds of creatures, since animals constantly change, adjusting to their environment. However, the reason lineage is so very unstable is because of the instability of this world in which the subjects of Your Majesty live. Nature presents us with monstrosities like this because it cannot communicate its earnest mind with words . . . which is to renew itself by filling the king with fear and regret. But, if the king cultivates his virtue, this unfortunate omen can be transformed to a lucky one.”
The listening king’s face quietly turned scarlet.
“If it’s unpropitious, just tell me that. Or if it is propitious, then tell me that. Telling me it’s an ill omen, but then claiming it could be a good one . . . what sort of a lie is that?”
Before anyone around could stop the king, he drew the sword at his waist. The sword swayed about, lopping off the heads of the samu and the others near him. Just then, I turned tail and fled. Behind me, innumerable arrows fell amid the barking of the hounds, and I scrambled up the mountain for dear life. When I finally reached a cliff, I looked down at the mighty, meandering river and leaped from the precipice.
When I struck the water from such a height, I found it as hard as the ground would have been. The river gulped me down whole.
I learned several facts. One cannot gain wings by jumping down from a cliff only once, and one can’t die easily when one’s body is covered with unexpectedly hard reptilian skin.
I had hoped so fervently to live without being discovered by people, but when that happened, again someone had died.
After that, I stayed in the river. My skin, after soaking in the water for so long, festered and began to grow limp, freezing in the cold of the night. This almost killed me several times, but I didn’t dare go back up and onto land. I sincerely hoped that the last strand of my human will might break. I hoped to become a fish or a water snake, and prayed that my human consciousness might be finally drawn out from me completely.
In the middle of the night, while I lay in the glacially-cold shallows, two turtles poked their heads out from the water simultaneously. When they finally surfaced, I realized they weren’t two creatures, but one turtle with two heads. It must have burrowed into the muddy bed of the river, because it was almost two cheok tall, all told. Fish with red wings flopped and scooted away from it.
“Why does this land creature shove its head into the water this cold night? It should go back to where it came from,” the turtle said, its voice seeming to echo as the two heads spoke out in unison.
I opened my frozen mouth to reply: “I have nowhere to go. If I’ve intruded on your territory, I sincerely apologize, but please don’t cast me out.”
“Every creature has its territory . . . but why would a four-legged beast try to live by breathing water?”
“If we’re arguing about origins, there are no strict boundaries in lineage. If you’ll admit that your own form and character includes setting foot in both soil and water, then you of all creatures will recognize that all land-creatures once dwelt in water. Recall: every creature derives from a single origin. If dolphins and sea lions are blameless, then how is it that I warrant criticism, even if I’m simply trying to retrace my way back to our origins?”
“Well, there might be no borders, but a weirdo like you wandering around here is sure to make my prey panic and flee . . . ”
“I didn’t mean to . . . I only sought to escape discovery by others, but that seems hopeless. But I am anxious to discuss this tendency of creatures to develop an appearance contrary to their desires . . . to share a few days’ discussion on the subject, perhaps . . . ”
“There’s no need for a few days’ discussion. It’s simple: you just don’t really want what you think you want.” The turtle thrust its two heads toward me, crossing them, and snapped, “Now, scram. If you don’t, I’ll eat you up.”
“Go ahead and eat me,” I replied. “After I die, I’ll become a water-ghost, and never walk on land again.” Then I shut my eyes.
When I opened them again a while later, the turtle was gone. Perhaps it hadn’t killed me out of sympathy, or because it wasn’t worth the effort . . . or maybe I just didn’t look very appetizing? I braced myself to bear the watery chill throughout the remainder of the night.
After some more time passed, the scales upon my skin grew affixed to their places, and my arms and legs diminished gradually, growing tiny. However, somehow they didn’t become fins, but ceased their transformation when they had assumed an avian shape. (I suspected this might have resulted from my leaping into the air from the precipice.) When my arms and legs ceased functioning, my spine and tail stretched longer. It is said that every stage you pass through leaves its indelible mark. Well, the antlers sprouting from my skull didn’t atrophy, and remained; and so did the cat’s-eyes I’d developed so early in my youth, unchanged even now. To learn to breathe water was insuperable, but I did learn to dive for extended periods. And as my arms and legs atrophied further, my beard grew longer and developed a sensitivity like that of insects’ feelers. I lived by feeding on small fish and water plants. I sank to the bottom of the river for days at a time, and lingered in the lake for several months.
One day, as I rose to the surface to breathe, I came upon a woman doing her laundry. Aside from her nine white tails, she retained a wholly human appearance. I looked at her, uncertain what to do because it had been so long since I’d seen a human being, or worn a human form myself. Seeing her gaze upon me vacantly, I waited for her to scream, to call me a monster and begin to hurl stones at me, but instead she clasped her hands together and bowed deeply before me.
“What’re you doing?” I asked her.
I realized my mistake as I opened my mouth. Just as with the tiger, this woman would realize that somewhere in my lineage, there lay hidden a human stage.
“When the Mystical One came out from the water,” she said, “I saw that It ruled these waters, so I bowed.”
“You saw wrong. I’m just a profane thing, a parasite in these waters, hiding scared of the human world. Forgive me, I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
Then I sank down again to the bottom of the lake.
Several days later, I opened my eyes and discovered some rice-cakes and fruit, water-logged in the depths before me. Little fish rose toward each sinking rice-cake, nibbling upon them. I rose to the surface once more. The nine-tailed woman I’d met before remained by the lake, but glancing about, I saw that she had set blessed water, incense, and a plate of rice-cakes upon a little wooden table, performing an earnest little ceremony while offering devout prayers. Red papers inscribed with petitions drooped from the table, and several more people, perhaps her neighbors, were gathered around her. When she saw me, she leaped up like a thief caught red-handed.
I balked, stupefied. “What’s all this shit? Didn’t I tell you with my own mouth? I’m nothing more than a mongrel! If you have nowhere to hold your ceremony, go to another lake, or a mountain instead!”
She said, “The trees are desiccated, and the drought has gone on so long; the grassroots folk have barely any way to find themselves food. Everything is growing and changing so strangely, our farms are falling apart, and our harvests no longer suit the people’s diets. And the king can’t hear us: his ears and eyes have atrophied.”
“So what do you want from me? I have no power. How can a beast get involved in human affairs?”
“There must be some reason why nature has allowed you such a sacred appearance . . . but, are you saying everything we humans have hoped for is in vain?”
I shut my mouth for a moment, before saying, “What you say is correct.”
I swung my tail, which sent a blast of wind and raised a spray of water, knocking down the incense and sending the bowl of holy water tumbling, to break upon the ground.
Then I said, “Oh, how long I have lived . . . and every time anyone discovers me, I bring trouble. It’s better I never show myself again.”
I sank down into the depths once more. When I looked back up, I saw the nine-tailed woman weeping. Cold-bloodedly, I turned my head away, nestling myself into the bottom of the lake, and began to hibernate. The frigid water began to freeze my body, its functions slowing gradually, paralyzing me, until I could feel each of my cells passing into a kind of slumber. I no longer felt the passage of time, and my thoughts slowed. I thought, if I was lucky, I might transmute into rock, or soil—like the giants of ancient days.
At first, it felt like someone knocking on a distant door, but then it became a voice, trying to stir me: “Wake up.”
I opened my eyes. It was difficult to do so: a host of water plants and marsh snails had attached themselves to my body. But then I saw the two-headed turtle, whom I’d met before, swimming before my own eyes. Somehow he looked much smaller than before.
“Leave. Soon. The king’s army is here to catch you.”
I needed a moment to comprehend his words. Then, I recalled that I’d once, long ago, been a human being . . . and a prince . . . and I recalled my blood-relation to the king then, too.
“Why would the king bother to come and catch me?”
“Even after you began to sleep, the people continued their ceremonies here. They were praying to you to expel the king and bring them a new one, so he decided to fill in the lake and dig you out from the bottom. Your mind is so slow now; your brain must have metamorphosed. Get out of here, now.”
In fact, I was surrounded by a din of noise. When I raised my head up, clod after clod of soil fell upon my head. From somewhere came the revolting stink of blood, and a murder of crows were coming and going in a chaos over the lake.
“Why the crows are squawking like that?”
“It’s really dreadful. Better you don’t see it,” the turtle said, and then he burrowed into the mud.
I rose to the surface, in an ominous mood. Even my slightest movement stirred up a whirlpool, sending fish fleeing in surprise. A multitude of water plants and marsh snails dropped from my body. Then, I realized that the turtle hadn’t become smaller; perhaps because of my long slumber, I had become bigger.
A band of soldiers were gathered near the lakeshore, dumping soil into the water. When they saw me they fell into shocked silence, and ceased shoveling. I also lost my words, and looked at the things embedded in the mud around them: the dead bodies of the villagers who’d held the ceremonies, and the woman lay in a terrible row beside the lake. The nine-tailed woman’s white underskirts flapped back and forth in the breeze, and with each flap of the fabric my reason fell away a little, until finally my mind had gone blank.
One of the soldiers came to his senses and roared at me, waving his spear: “You freakish beast, bare your neck to us tamely! All your followers are dead!”
Before he even finished his words, I sprang up from the water, and then I bit through a soldier nearby, in the front rank, with my fangs; while the men roiled in confusion, I struck their horses’ legs with my tail. I tore at the throats of the fallen with my claws, and as they groaned I crushed their hearts with my two front paws. When I heard the noise of distant soldiers, too, I fled the lake and leaped into the river. My eyes had always been sharp, and I was able to count the dead by the riverside, one by one. Then I saw the man who had once been my uncle, standing near the river. I tried to slip past him, but then I heard his voice: “Come here, you phantasm!”
The king sat straight-backed upon a horse, and spoke in such a tiny voice, though for me, having gone through so many bestial transformations, his voice was crystal clear. He said, “If you don’t come out, I’ll kill everyone in the village until I catch you. I’ll accuse them of worshipping a spirit-monster and execute them all!”
I stopped swimming. It was a bizarre threat. Even my uncle thought that I retained some shred of sacred compassion within me. What relation had I with the lives and deaths of mere human beings? Yet I emerged from the water quietly, going up to the edge of the river, and stood before the king. Of course, it was impossible for my body to stand up like a human does, but I coiled my long tail in a spiral to support my body and hold my neck upright. When I stood myself up thus, I realized how immense I’d become. The soldiers with their spears pointing up at me, and my uncle, they all looked so puny that I could sweep them away in an instant.
A thousand emotions flooded me as I regarded my uncle closely. Ah, ah . . . he’d gotten old. That transformation must be the end of any creature, even the one that resists any change at all. His once fat belly drooped with wrinkles, his creased face was blotched, and his atrophied arms and legs had dried out in their disuse, and thinned extremely.
“Now, I recognize you,” he said with very dry voice, like branches rasping in the wind. “You are the seed of the former king. The seed that should’ve dried out long before still remains . . . ”
I bowed my head, imitating his soldiers who had bent their heads, facing down, and said, “The reason this insignificant one became a beast is not to threaten Your Majesty’s rule, but only to sustain its own existence. These acts were committed by the ignorant, so I beg that you please temper your rage with your vast generosity.”
“You say it’s an act of ignorance, but you must have known what they were doing, so I have no choice but to accuse you of your crime.”
“This flesh lost its old life ages ago; why are you trying to take that life twice?”
“How dare you speak and act that way toward your king?” demanded the king with a piercing voice as thin as a eunuch, so thin I could barely hear it. “Since you are in my kingdom, your body and life are mine. I demand that you to bestow your life to me, as a dutiful subject. Obey my command.”
“What on earth do you want with the life of a worthless water snake?”
“How dare a beast converse with a man? How insolent, how disrespectful! You’re such a vile portent! I’m going to conquer you, and get rid of you.”
“This insignificant one may have become a wicked beast, but the king is no longer human either. How can you demand my life, while pretending at being the king of the humans?”
The corners of the King’s blind eyes twisted upward with his fury. As he cried out in that thin voice of his, soldiers all around ran toward me, while kicking their horses into action. I dived into the river again. The soldiers chased me along the riverbank, and I swam like the wind, so quickly that the river overflowed and the waters parted behind me.
I heard the laughter of the king suddenly from behind. I knew the reason of his laughing. A great waterfall, ten jang tall, blocked the way up ahead. However, instead of stopping I pushed myself harder. When I reached the bottom of the waterfall, I threw myself upward, stealing momentum from the whirlpool at its base, and leapt up the falls. My body ascended past the falling water, and the whirlpool that encircled my tail also swirled and rose up with me.
I realized that I had generated an ascending wind, and that my body had become so gigantic that I could direct the currents of the air. I rose up into the sky, riding that wind, and the soldiers who were chasing me stopped to watch, befuddled. As I examined my body, I found my greenish scales shimmering spectacularly in the sunlight, and my long tail swung behind me, almost as if to touch the ground. I felt wonderful, so I continued to ascend higher. The air current was practically visible to me, almost palpable, and I sensed how I could change my direction by riding the wind. I realized, then, how to shift the flowing air currents in order to produce rain. Recalling the past, I remembered hating droughts during my human days, though that had been so long ago I couldn’t quite remember quite.
I directed the air currents upward. Dark clouds formed as soon as the water vapor in the air was carried up into the troposphere. Suddenly, the world was shaken by lightning and thunder. When I shifted the pressure of the air by pressing the clouds gently and then rising up, a heavy rain began to pour toward the ground. The river flooded, the fields deluged, and in a flash the waters swept away the distracted soldiers who stood near the riverbanks, watching me overhead. Powerless to pursue me, the king watched from a distance; immediately his hair whitened and he seemed to turn a decade older in an instant. It was as if I’d evaporated away the last bit of life left in him. However, their lives and deaths interested me not at all, for I was no longer human. It was in skimming the clouds that I exulted, so I built up speed and began to rise steadily higher.
That was that winter the king died in an uprising. That was the day when I soared through an azure sky.
Originally published in Korean in HappySF, Volume 2, 2006.