A Triptych Tale …

 

The Family Business

A Triptych Tale

 

Once upon a time, on a little island off the coast of the Korean city of Busan, there lived an old hunter in a house at the bottom of a mountain. Now, taken piece by piece, nothing about this arrangement seemed terribly unusual, but then, in the eyes of the hunter’s young American nephew, nothing about this arrangement seemed terribly appealing either.

“Plenty of kids your age spend summers between school getting to know their relatives overseas,” the boy’s mother said sensibly. “Uncle Heechul knows more about our family traditions than anyone still alive. Besides, he’s a lonely old man living by himself on an obscure island full of nothing but fishermen. It would do his heart good to see some family.”

“This is like the beginning of one of those terrifying and incredibly child-inappropriate parables where everyone dies in the woods at the end,” observed the hunter’s nephew, with limited enthusiasm.

The boy’s mother, who was depressingly used to teenage histrionics at this late stage of parenthood, rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise Uncle Heechul won’t let you die in the woods, Danny.”

“I don’t know. How’s the Wi-Fi access on this obscure Korean fishermen’s island?”

“Oh, child.” At last, a question easily answerable. “We live in the twenty-first century, and this is South Korea. You’ll have the best internet access any teenager could ever fritter their youth away on.”

So it was settled that young Danny Kim, an American teenager with no particular knowledge of Korea, his uncle, or how to hunt game, was packed off to a little island in the Pacific — latest model of a Samsung smartphone in hand — to spend the summer familiarizing himself with all three.

All may yet have gone quite well. Unfortunately, no one bothered telling Danny exactly what sort of game Uncle Heechul hunted.

#

Let us rewind for a moment. In order to understand Uncle Heechul’s hunting preferences, we must first understand something about the island where Uncle Heechul and his family had lived for generations. The first Kim to live in the little house at the bottom of the mountain had been Great-Great-Grandfather Heejoon. Heejoon had been a mainlander, a real city man of Busan, until he’d heard of some mysterious trouble plaguing the tiny fishing village on the island off the city’s coast. And because Great-Great-Grandfather, while an urbanite and businessman, was also a compulsive thrill-seeker, he packed up his belongings and took a little boat across the harbor to see what on earth could be the matter in such a small village.

As it turned out, the mountain was the matter. It loomed up over the center of the island like a god surveying its domain. According to legend, near the mountain’s peak lay a cave unfindable and untouchable to the feet of mortal men of Korea. In that cave, the villagers whispered, there slumbered a kumiho — a great, nine-tailed demon fox of legend.

Unfortunately, no one bothered telling Danny exactly what sort of game Uncle Heechul hunted.

For years, the fox — evidently content to snore his days away — had left the villagers in peace. But even the laziest of demons wakes eventually, and when this one did, he caused no end of ruckus for the human inhabitants of the island. Kumiho, you see, were thought to be a very particular sort of predator: one that craves human flesh above all else.

So, Great-Great-Grandfather Heejoon came to the island, and in a fit of rather foolish heroics, he built himself a little house at the base of the kumiho’s mountain, so he could stake out his prey. Now, some may consider building one’s home into the known habitat of a man-eating monster to be a death sentence. Luckily for Great-Great-Grandfather, the kumiho seemed a good deal less interested in this young urbanite turned aspiring rogue-demon hunter, and a good deal more interested in kidnapping villagers in the dead of night, presumably to snack on.

Still, Great-Great-Grandfather dreamed of being a hero, so every night without fail, he ventured out of the little house at the base of the mountain to search for the kumiho. But foxes are clever creatures — cleverer by far, it would seem, than Great-Great-Grandfather. And so the proud young urbanite, in his eternal stubborn masculinity, lived and died on that little island fishing village, in his little house at the base of the kumiho’s great mountain. But even a man like Great-Great-Grandfather can’t spend all his days chasing kumiho. There was, at some point, a wife, and a son, and as a result, two generations later, Danny’s Uncle Heechul, the latest inheritor of the house, the mountain, and his ancestor’s great, unfulfilled quest.

#

Of course, in present day, a young American like Danny knew nothing of his family’s strange inheritance. Which was why, perhaps, his first weekend in Korea came as such a shock. Going hiking with Uncle Heechul hadn’t actually seemed like such a terrible idea — and indeed, had been surprisingly scenic and pleasant, for the first four hours. But with the sun beginning to sink behind the great crest of the mountain, Danny wasn’t so sure he was having a good time anymore. Besides, his feet hurt, and he had a perfectly good Starcraft game waiting for him back at the house. There was a time and a place for the outdoors, and four hours was bordering on the limit of that time.

But even the laziest of demons wakes eventually, and when this one did, he caused no end of ruckus for the human inhabitants of the island.

“Um,” he panted, trotting after Uncle Heechul, who was surprisingly spry for such a wizened little old Korean man, “it’s getting dark out.”

“Yes,” agreed Uncle Heechul, who sounded disturbingly delighted by this observation. “Perfect, isn’t it?”

“Um,” repeated Danny who, with the limited Korean fluency of a second-generation American, was getting rather used to saying that word. “Perfect for what?”

“Why, for the hunt, of course! Why else would we be out here?”

“To get some exercise?” Danny ventured, tripping over clumsy syllables. One eye on the vanishing light of the skyline, he switched briefly to English: “Or like, to take in some sun, which is rapidly disappearing? Don’t you need daylight to hunt?”

Uncle Heechul emitted a tiny sound of disdain that translated across multiple languages. “Of course not,” he continued, in unrelenting Korean. “You can’t really expect quarry like this to come out before nightfall, hmm? What on earth has your mother told you about hunting?”

“Uh, nothing?”

For the first time, Uncle Heechul looked surprised. “Nothing?”

“Well, she said you lived on an island off the coast of a Korean city, and uh, that I should get in touch with my roots? Um, she also taught me how to haggle fruit prices with those old ahjumma shopkeepers, but I don’t think —”

Aishhh.” Uncle Heechul looked truly stricken now. “Nothing about hunting? About this mountain? About the family business?”

“Um, well,” said Danny. “I thought you maybe sold animal pelts and utility knives to fishermen or something?”

The last of the sun had disappeared in earnest at this point, but Danny could still make out the vague expression of panic creeping across his uncle’s face. “We must turn around,” said Uncle Heechul, shifting his backpack over one shoulder and snapping out his walking stick like a blade. “I’ll explain when we’re home. But if you don’t know anything, anything at all, I can’t risk —”

“You can’t really expect quarry like this to come out before nightfall, hmm?”

What Uncle Heechul was afraid of risking, Danny never did find out. In that moment something — like human hands, but far too large and many-jointed — snapped around his shoulders and pulled him backward into the brush. He tried opening his mouth — to scream, or swear, or protest this very unpleasant turn of events, he wasn’t sure — but his muscles had gone strangely slack, his mind a cloud.

Like wisdom tooth removal, Danny thought, dazed, and promptly passed out.

#

When Danny woke up, he noticed two things immediately: first, he was lying in a cave next to what looked to be a campfire, not back in his uncle’s guest room near his computer, which was less than ideal. Second, he was face to face with the single hottest guy he’d ever seen. Too bad that, given circumstantial evidence, the guy had probably been the one who’d knocked Danny out and dragged him into this strange creepy cave like a serial killer.

Well, at the very least, he could try asking questions before his imminent murder. Danny fixed Hot Potential Serial Killer with his sternest look. “You! Mister!” he managed in his very best Korean. “What the hell is going on?”

Hot Potential Killer tilted his head, looking coy and curious. Possibly, he was judging Danny’s terrible American-accented Korean, which was just the icing on top of this certain-imminent-murder cake. “You were trespassing on my territory,” he said in crisp, fluent English, without any particularly territorial heat.

Danny blinked. The guy looked like a Korean pop star, with his sharp-cut cheekbones and sharper-cut hairstyle, but maybe he was American-born, like Danny. Great. A Korean-American serial killer who’d carried Danny off to be murdered in a cave with no Wi-Fi.

“Excuse me,” said Danny, switching into English. “Your territory?”

“I should think so,” said Hot Potential Serial Killer, clearly a little affronted. “It’s been such for a thousand years now.”

“Please, you’re like, eighteen.”

The guy’s eyes flashed. “I beg your pardon?”

Danny noticed for the first time that the guy’s eyes weren’t brown, but an odd, deep shade of gold. He swallowed, unsure whether to be turned on or vaguely terrified. “You, uh, don’t look a thousand years old.”

Great. A Korean-American serial killer who’d carried Danny off to be murdered in a cave with no Wi-Fi.

“Well, of course not! A kumiho wouldn’t.”

“A ku — what?”

The guy stared. “Your family really doesn’t tell you anything.”

“I’m getting that impression.”

He sighed heavily, rolling his golden eyes. “All right then, I suppose it falls to me. You won’t take my word, of course, so to start …” He waved a hand, the gesture carelessly graceful. The shape of him blurred before Danny’s eyes, running together like a watercolor gone awry, shifting and writhing and finally reforming … reforming until a pale golden fox sat before Danny in place of Hot Potential Serial Killer, nine tails fanning out like nine points of candle flame in the dark, brighter by far than the campfire.

The fox had the same golden eyes.

“Holy shit,” said Danny, scrambling backward on the heels of his hands, and wondered briefly if he was going to faint again.

The fox blurred once more, and Hot Potential Serial Killer was back. “I am a ku-mi-ho,” said the guy, emphasizing all the syllables of the word in its prim Korean accents. “What English-speaking folk might call a fox-demon. Your family has been hunting me for three generations now.”

“Oh.” Danny scratched the back of his neck. “Er, sorry about that?”

Fox-Demon Guy waved a hand, as if to say no worries, dude. It seemed a remarkably human gesture for an alleged fox-demon. “What interests me is how you managed to trespass on to my territory, when the rest of your family had failed for the past century and more. No mortal man of Korea should be able to find my den, yet you managed to lead your hapless uncle straight to the mouth of my cave.”

“Well, if we’re going on specifics,” said Danny, “I’m technically a mortal man of the United States.”

The fox-demon gave another little head tilt. “What a fascinating loophole. Amazing how even the spirits that govern millennia-old magic manage to be so hung up on technicalities.” He chuckled and repeated, almost pleased: “Fascinating.”

“Says the thousand-year-old Korean fox-demon who speaks English like a BBC News anchor.”

The demon snorted. “Please. I may be a demon, but I am not unworldly. One must acquire an education over a lifespan of a thousand years.”

“So my family’s been trying to hunt down a demonic paragon of highbrow culture, is that it?”

A fey, toothy smile emerged, catching the light of the campfire. A shiver ran down Danny’s spine, and he wondered how he managed to mistake the guy for human in the first place. “Allow me to tell you the tale of your foolish ancestor Heejoon …”

#

The fox was, as one might expect of a creature with a thousand years of life experience, a very good storyteller. A pregnant pause descended upon the cave as the fox finished his tale. Danny frowned. “And none of my ancestors considered, you know, moving?”

The fox shrugged. “The demands of a family tradition, I suppose.”

“Awful lot of trouble for tradition’s sake, that’s all.”

The fox looked nonplussed. “Have you met your Uncle Heechul?”

“Oh.” Danny scratched the back of his neck, feeling sheepish. “Good point. But what happened to all those people who disappeared and started this whole witch hunt in the first place?”

The fox was, as one might expect of a creature with a thousand years of life experience, a very good storyteller.

The kumiho looked confused. “Witch hunt?”

“Demon hunt. Fox hunt. Whatever.”

“Ah, yes, the missing villagers. Now, there your guess is as good as mine.”

“What?” Danny was incredulous. “You mean you never had anything to do with them going missing?”

“Of course not!” The fox seemed affronted at the very notion. “Really, all these nonsense rumors about flesh-eating kumiho. Humans have the most preposterous imaginations.”

“Well then, you were framed!” Danny exclaimed. “How can you just sit up here on this mountain, letting humans think the worst of you?”

The fox sniffed, looking down his perfect nose at Danny. “Someone must look after the mountain.”

“But —”

“You wouldn’t understand. How could you? An American boy with Korean ancestors, flipping back and forth as you please between this country and that —”

“Hey!” Danny protested. “I’ll have you know, it’s my first time in Korea, and I’ve been having a terrible time so far, thanks to you!”

“Whatever,” sniffed the kumiho. “The point is, you don’t know what it’s like to be me. I have never known any home besides this mountain. It has always been mine to protect. I cannot simply up and leave as I please, you know.”

“Then what about the people who went missing under your watch?” Danny queried, waspish. “If your purpose in life is to look out for the mountain, then what about those island villagers, huh?”

“Being inhabitants of this island does not make them inhabitants of my mountain. Therefore, hardly my concern.”

Danny scowled, irritation climbing. This was even worse than arguing with his mother. “It doesn’t bother you at all that you’re being falsely accused of something you didn’t do?”

“No,” said the fox, but he looked annoyed, and just a little less certain of himself now. “I don’t see that I should care about what a bunch of mortals —”

“Oh, for hell’s sake!” Danny exclaimed. “Dude, you speak our languages, you know my creepy family history — a human family history, ha! — better than I do, and you really expect me to buy this whole ‘Ooh la la, I am so above mere mortals and their silly, petty affairs’ tagline?”

The fox’s golden eyes flashed at Danny as he glared, baring teeth. “You are such an American.”

“Yeah, well.” Danny struggled briefly for an appropriate rejoinder. “You — you live in a cave!”

Not his finest zinger, but the kumiho kept glaring anyway. They stayed like that for a moment, eyes locked, the boy and the beast. It was the most ridiculous argument Danny had ever gotten into, and a terrible reason to be missing out on Starcraft.

“Look,” he told the fox at last, firmly resisting the urge to smack the demon upside his stupid, beautiful, immortal head. “You’re not actually going to keep me stuck in this little campout cave forever, are you?”

It was the most ridiculous argument Danny had ever gotten into, and a terrible reason to be missing out on Starcraft.

“I could,” threatened the fox, probably just to be as obnoxious as demonically possible.

“I don’t doubt you could, but you probably don’t want to,” Danny pointed out. “I’m very irritating when I don’t get my internet time in — just ask my mother. Why don’t you send me home to my uncle? I’ll explain your whole deal to him, we can figure out who actually ate all those villagers or whatever, and then you can go back to napping in your scary demonic cave in peace, nary a murderous self-proclaimed demon-hunter in sight to disrupt your beauty rest. Doesn’t that sound much better than keeping me here forever to annoy you?”

The fox appeared to chew this over for a moment, looking grudging. “I suppose. You’ll return, of course?” he added gruffly. “To, ah, report your findings, of course. Since no other mortals on the island can actually set forth in my territory.”

Danny gave the kumiho a considering look. For the first time, he entertained the possibility that even stunningly beautiful immortal demons probably got lonely being stuck alone in a creepy magical cave all the time. “Sure, buddy,” he said. “I’ll come back. It’s a date.”

He could almost swear that the kumiho — ancient fox-demon, terror of the island, and unexpected hottie — blushed.

#

Uncle Heechul — once he got past the relief that his only nephew was alive and well and not demon food after all — took Danny’s discovery about as well as one might expect.

“Absolutely not!” he thundered. “Our family has been trying to hunt down that infernal creature for generations! Foxes are notorious tricksters, Danny. How could you even begin to trust him?”

“Well,” said Danny. “To start, he didn’t immediately kill and eat me. Which he totally could have. Since you dragged me on this horrible hike without warning me about demons in the mountains or allegedly human-eating foxes at all, so he kind of had the element of surprise on his side. And yet, here I am.”

“No doubt because he feared our family’s retaliation!” exclaimed Uncle Heechul, blatantly ignoring Danny’s attempt at passive-aggressive guilt tripping.

“Er, no,” said Danny. “No, Uncle Heechul, I really don’t think he does.”

“What if there’s another demon out there? One that’s even worse?”

The argument persisted for nearly an hour longer, Uncle Heechul going redder and redder in the face. Right when Danny was afraid the man might explode on the spot, inspiration struck. “Uncle Heechul,” he said slowly, “let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the fox is innocent — I said, just for argument’s sake! Hear me out. What if there’s another demon out there? One that’s even worse? What if that one ate the villagers?”

Uncle Heechul paused mid-tantrum, chest heaving.

Danny pressed his advantage. “Who better to investigate the possibility of other demons than a demon-hunting family, right? You’ve said it yourself, Uncle — it’s a tradition.” He flashed what he hoped was a winning smile. “The family business.”

Angry color receded slowly from Uncle Heechul’s face. “I suppose you have a point,” he conceded a little reluctantly, then added, brightening, “You can join me for a new hunt! Family bonding!”

“Um,” said Danny.

#

Danny hadn’t harbored strong feelings against nature before coming to Korea for the summer. He’d preferred the indoors, certainly, which contained basic civilized amenities like internet access and climate control and a general lack of enormous insects in one’s vicinity, but he hadn’t, precisely, actively hated the outdoors either.

“I hate the outdoors with the passion of a thousand burning suns,” Danny announced now, with feeling, plucking a giant beetle off his arm. Really, giant beetles?

One must note: Danny’s previous attitude of neutrality toward Mother Nature had existed prior to being dragged on a four-hour hike in the dead, humid heat of a Korean summer, kidnapped by an ancient fox-demon, and last but not least, volunteered against his will (voluntold?) for this ridiculous stakeout.

“I still don’t understand why I had to come,” Danny continued, keeping a wary eye out for additional beetle activity.

Uncle Heechul, crouched beside him in the cover of a tree, said, “You must grow to understand the legacy you have inherited.” Then he cleared his throat and added, without quite meeting Danny’s eyes, “Besides, if what that — that fox told you is correct, you may be the only member of this family capable of seeking out supernatural activity. You walk between two worlds, my nephew.”

“I’m not like, a dual citizen or anything,” Danny protested. “Seriously, plenty of American kids have immigrant parents.” But he quit complaining about the beetles.

Which, honestly, was pretty big of him, in his opinion, because there were an awful lot of beetles in this clearing. In fact, their numbers seemed to be multiplying: little hard-shelled black insects clambering through branches and over tree trunks, their exoskeletons gleaming under the moonlight.

“Uh, Uncle Heechul?” Danny’s voice had gone small. “Is this,” he gestured vaguely at the growing army of beetles, trying not to look too panicked, “you know, normal for the woods in Korea?”

Uncle Heechul’s eyes widened on the insects, then narrowed as he drew an alarmingly large knife from his belt.

“Right then, I’m going to take that as a no,” said Danny faintly, just in time for a gust of movement to burst into life at the center of the clearing.

Uncle Heechul shouted something in Korean, and dragged Danny behind the tree, hauling him roughly by the elbow. Still, Danny saw the figure taking shape before their eyes, rising from the grass as thousand of beetles swarmed and towered together, building and building, becoming something else.

“It’s a woman,” Danny croaked. And it was. Now that the beetles had finished their work, the figure hovering before the tree was as plain as day: her long black hair flowing stark against her long white dress.

Uncle Heechul shouted something in Korean, and dragged Danny behind the tree, hauling him roughly by the elbow.

“It’s a ghost,” said Uncle Heechul in a grim tone.

“Who disturbs my territory?” shrieked the beetle-woman.

“Seriously, again?” Danny whispered loudly. His Korean wasn’t perfect, but he was going to remember the words for my land and property and how dare you for the rest of his life. Assuming he survived this summer. “What’s with supernatural Korean monsters and being so damn territorial?” Uncle Heechul whacked him on the shoulder with the butt of the knife. “Ow!”

“What have you done with the villagers?” demanded Uncle Heechul in Korean. He strode out into the open, brandishing the knife.

The beetle-woman — the ghost — flinched away from the blade. “What on earth did you bring that here for?”

Uncle Heechul looked confused. “I — my nephew and I are here to hunt the monster who ate the villagers of this island generations ago! Danny, come out, boy.”

Coming out to meet an angry ghost that had previously been a giant tower of incredibly unsavory-looking insects didn’t sound tactically smart to Danny, but he found himself obeying, his mother’s forcibly ingrained lessons on filial piety overcoming his better instincts. “Uh, hi.” He gave a little bow. “I’m Danny.”

The woman wrinkled her ghostly, translucent nose at his accent. “Your nephew is an American? What does he care about some missing Korean villagers?”

Danny sighed. “It’s —”

“ — the family business,” he and Uncle Heechul said together.

“Hmph.” The ghost flicked her long black tresses back from her supernaturally pale face. “Well, you do have a better knack for stumbling into paranormal activity than the rest of your family, I suppose. The others can’t even get the facts straight.”

Danny frowned, ignoring Uncle Heechul’s indignant grumble of protest. “The facts?”

The ghost rolled her eyes then smiled a strange, whimsical smile. “No one ate your villagers.” She waved both hands, once, as though flicking water off the tips of her fingers.

Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then Uncle Heechul inhaled sharply. Danny followed his uncle’s stricken gaze to the slope of the mountainside, beyond the crest of the trees.

People. A parade of people, in garb that looked like it had been stolen straight out of that Korean period soap Danny’s mother liked so much. They marched — no, floated, really, because now that they were coming closer, Danny could see the people were as oddly translucent as the ghost who’d summoned them here — over the hill and into the clearing.

Danny bowed his head, uncertain what else to do, but understanding one thing, at least: “You were the villagers of this island, weren’t you? The ones who disappeared into the mountain all those years ago.”

“The ones this ghost consumed!” insisted Uncle Heechul, who had found his bearings at last. Apparently, the fox-demon was innocent now.

The man at the head of the ghostly ensemble of villagers tilted his head, looking remarkably like the fox for a moment. “No one consumed us. We left.”

“You left?” Danny echoed.

An old woman beside the man heaved a blustery sigh. “The village was becoming a place of fear and nonsense. People insisted the mountain was haunted, that the supernatural creatures who inhabited it would descend upon us some day and wreak havoc, so a few of us decided to explore.” She snorted. “We found supernatural creatures, all right, but hardly havoc wreakers in the making. Have you even met that lazy old fox who lives at the top of the mountain? He spends half his days sleeping. I don’t think he’s even noticed that we’ve been living here for the better part of a century.” She glanced down at her ghostly, floating body. “Well, in a manner of speaking.”

Danny bowed his head, uncertain what else to do, but understanding one thing, at least …

“We stayed,” said another villager, a young girl. “We came to the mountain to seek out horrors, and found peace instead. The ghosts here, the spirits, even the demons — they welcomed us. There was no anger, no rumors, no fear. So we stayed. We’ve been here ever since.” She looked at Danny and Uncle Heechul, assessment in her big, pale eyes. “Are you here to join us?”

“Er, no, no we’re not,” said Danny, backing hastily away.

Uncle Heechul was still frowning. “But my ancestor — Great-Great-Grandfather Heejoon, he moved here in the first place because of that fox!”

The girl shrugged, her expression prim. “Well, you’ve learned a valuable lesson on the dangers of misinformation, haven’t you?”

Uncle Heechul had the good grace to look chastened.

“Will you leave us now?” the beetle-woman asked. “We don’t mind visitors, not really — assuming they, like your nephew, can even find us — but that knife is making everyone nervous.”

Uncle Heechul lowered the knife, looking around at the little crowd of ghosts. The missing villagers. The spark of a family tradition, gathered now in this one clearing. “You’re sure you’re all happy?” he asked. “You’re at peace?”

“We are,” said the first man.

What could a demon hunter say to that? Uncle Heechul sheathed the knife and bowed — a true, full insa, ninety degrees from the hip. “We are honored to have made your acquaintance, then. We thank you for your presence, and wish you peace for … well, for the rest of your days, I suppose. Danny, bow!”

Danny bowed hastily. One by one, the villagers bowed back in turn. Then, just as swiftly and silently as they’d come, they were gone. Danny glanced at Uncle Heechul, who hadn’t moved, his gaze fixed in quiet contemplation on his feet.

Awkwardly, he draped a hand over his uncle’s back. The older man shuddered back to life with a long sigh. “The family business,” he said softly, sounding forlorn.

Danny smiled despite himself. “You took care of it.”

“No.” Uncle Heechul shook his head, straightened, and matched Danny’s smile. “We did, together. Come then, nephew. Let’s go home.”

#

Danny took only one more trip up the mountain that summer, but by himself. He had a feeling Uncle Heechul didn’t need to be there for this one.

Dusk was falling by the time he reached the mountain’s peak. Half hidden by the growth of moss was a cave. Danny cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey! Are you still here for our date, or what?”

The wind whistled high through the trees. A moment later, the golden-eyed young man appeared at the mouth of the cave, color faint on his high cheekbones. “You came after all. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Yeah, well.” Danny shrugged. “Summer’s almost over. And I said I’d see you again.” Then he recounted the story of that last hunt on the mountain: the beetle-woman, the ghostly villagers, the truth of what had come to pass generations ago.

“Humans, living right under my nose,” said the fox, and sighed. “Typical.”

“Ha! Your own fault for being such a recluse.”

“Hmph.” The fox looked away, his mouth a thin line. “I suppose this is farewell, then.”

“Actually.” Danny bit his lip. “I was thinking about visiting my uncle again next summer. I’d like to see more of Korea, now that the family business is handled, after a fashion. Get to know the country a bit better. Maybe quit spending all my time in front of a computer, you know?”

The fox raised his head. “Oh?”

“And I’d like to see more of you.” Danny stared fixedly at the sun setting over the horizon. “Um, if that’s okay, I mean. If you really don’t mind humans on your mountain.”

The demon huffed a little laugh. “I don’t mind you.”

Relief colored Danny’s answering laugh. “Yeah, well. I guess I don’t mind you so much either.”

They sat down at the lip of the cave, heels knocking together, heads bent close, and Danny began telling his companion about his home across the sea in America, about his mother’s fondness for soap opera on the Korean TV networks, and how to play Starcraft. He didn’t have a thousand years’ worth of stories to tell, but the ones he told were his own, strange and bright and human, and they made the fox-demon laugh. It was, thought Danny, a nice sound.

It wasn’t, perhaps, what one might have expected from an American boy’s trip to his Korean uncle’s remote island home. It certainly wasn’t what one might have expected from a late-night hunt, or a kidnapping gone awry. But as their fingers brushed, the boy’s and the fox-demon’s, something warm and vital clung to that summer mountain air. Boundaries could be crossed. Peace could be found.

Danny held the kumiho’s hand, shared his stories, and planned for future summers.

Andrea Tang is a DC-based writer, international affairs wonk, and former student of English & East Asian literature. She previously lived in Busan, South Korea on a Fulbright grant, though she did not, to her knowledge, encounter any ghosts or demons there.