In the village of Yosu, there lived a man named Song, whose daughter was a great beauty. Her name was Panya, and she was known far and wide for her willowy grace and elegance. All men adored her, and she was the object of much desire. It was only natural that Song should receive offers for her hand in marriage, but Panya was so dear to him that he refused all suitors, hundreds of them, telling them that he would not permit her to marry until her sixteenth birthday.
But when Panya reached her sixteenth year, a great misfortune befell her family.
Day after day the suitors came to Song's house, and one after the other they knocked upon his door and were admitted. But none came out alive, and it was said that any man who entered Song's house desiring Panya was destined to come out a corpse. Soon the villagers said Song's house must be haunted by demons, or that he had offended the spirits of his ancestors by neglecting to make proper offerings to them.
Song and his daughter despaired, for if a man braved the rumors in order to woo Panya, he was quickly discouraged by well–meaning friends. And yet, the more people talked of the curse on Song's house, the more suitors came to challenge that curse, believing themselves to be better than the others. One after the other, young men appeared at Song's door to ask for the hand of his daughter, never to be seen again.
Late one evening in a dismal November, a tall youth knocked at the gate, calling in a thunderous voice for someone to let him in. Song himself opened the gate, receiving the young man at the entrance to the guest room. They bowed to one another. The youth introduced himself, saying he had come from Sungju to put an end to the mystery.
Song regarded the young man. His broad shoulders bespoke strength, his mouth resolution, and the brightness of his eyes a keen intellect. "I greatly appreciate your coming," Song said politely. "People once flocked to this house like moths to a flame, but now the mere mention of this place and they shudder in fear. As you can see, my house is an empty ruin. All my servants have run away and deserted me. What could you possibly do for me now?" He could not hide the dejection in his voice.
The young man was silent for a moment, and then he asked, rather bluntly, "Will you give me your daughter if I solve this problem?"
Song did not hesitate. "Of course," he replied. "You may have not only my daughter, but the whole of my property."
So the young man agreed to stay the night in Song's haunted house. It was already dark, and he was tired from his journey, but he found that he was too anxious to sleep. Time dragged on in the darkness as he lay in bed, his hand on his sword, muttering to himself to keep his courage up. "Come, you damned spirits, come and I'll cut you down." But nothing appeared, and finally, late in the night, he grew weary and fell into a deep sleep.
He dreamed that he was walking up a steep mountain pass. And suddenly, a palatial house loomed before him, ringed with crystal stone. A faint, mysterious music permeated the air, drawing at him with its sweet tone, and he followed it into a lush and fragrant garden. A bridal bed had been laid out in one corner of the garden, with a quilt and pillow of pure silk. He lay down in the soft bed, luxuriating in its comfort, and quickly fell asleep.
A dense fog formed in the perfumed air, slowly obscuring everything behind a veil of white. The young man suddenly awoke, startled, peering into the fog. For a moment he could not tell if he were still dreaming. But then a beautiful young woman appeared in the mist. As she approached, he saw that her attire was exotic and regal, of the filmiest refined silk. She moved with elegance and grace like a fairy descended from the Heavenly Kingdom, and as she sat at his side, he saw her eyes gleaming like crescent moons and her lips glistening like cherries. Her skin was so smooth and pale that he could not help reaching out to touch her.
"Your humble maid is here to serve you, my Lord," she whispered.
The young man sat up, fully awake, and yet he pretended confusion, as if he had only just noticed her. "Where am I?" he asked.
Instead of answering him, the woman led him to a table set for drinking and poured him a cup of chrysanthemum wine. She was an expert in the courtesan's arts. With her soft hands, white as ivory, she poured him cup after cup and he drank until he was happily intoxicated and aroused. Now she drew herself closer, stimulating him with the fragrance of her body, and when she finally embraced him, he nearly lost himself to the pleasures of the moment.
But in the back of his mind, the young man remembered his promise to solve the mystery. With what shreds of reason remained in his mind, he knew that many a youth must have met his end in precisely this way, succumbing to this woman's charms. He forced himself to remain lucid.
Though he was still drunk, his senses slowly returned, and he watched her ministrations upon his body. She caressed him expertly, her hands moving sinuously over him until he was nearly mad with pleasure. He could not endure it any longer, and so, with a supreme act of will, he grabbed the collar of her gown and tore it from her body. She moaned and shivered. He leaped upon her trembling form, searching for her lips in the dark, but when he felt her wet mouth and the inhuman pleasures of her kiss, his eyes grew wide in horror.
"You snake!" he cried. And before she could draw back, he sucked her tongue deep into his mouth and bit down with all his strength. When he spat out the bloody stump, her magic failed her and she died, though the tongue continued to writhe hideously on the floor.
Now, with his wits about him, he regarded the dead body. He kicked it, and LO! it changed into a six–tailed fox.
The young man collapsed onto the silk bed and lost consciousness. When he awoke there was a girl kneeling before him — she looked just like the woman he had killed.
"Demon!" he cried, leaping to his feet and drawing his sword. "How can you still be alive?"
The girl bowed her head and wept. "Please forgive me," she said. "Please hear me out. I am a fox in human form. One winter, while I was sick and moaning in pain, Master Song found me in a field. He took pity on me and brought me to this house and he took care of me until I was well again. I wanted to repay him for his kindness, and so I stayed here to be his servant. It was not long before we fell in love. Our hearts were full of passion, but my tongue was so poisonous that I would not let him kiss me — not even once. I know he thought it strange, but I dared not, because I loved him so much. It was only a matter of time before Lady Song became jealous. One day she caught us together. She burst into my chamber in a fury and dragged me by the hair out into the back courtyard. She hanged me from the willow tree, and when she saw my dead body dangling from the branch, she fainted. She grew ill and died."
The young man felt a mixture of horror and pity for the fox. The mist still lingered in the room, and now it grew thicker and thicker, obscuring her features until they grew vague. He realized he was listening to her with his eyes closed.
She continued, "I thought I would avenge myself on Lady Song when I was incarnated again as a fox. She had a daughter — Panya — and I resolved to kill her. So that is what I did, and I have hidden my true form under the guise of Song's dead daughter. That is my confession. I beg of you, Sir, have mercy on me and let me live."
"I realize now that you were cruelly murdered," said the young man. "And because of that, I feel sympathy for you. But you yourself have murdered an innocent girl as well as a great number of brave youths for whom you bore no grudge. Your punishment must be death."
"Have mercy and let me live," she begged again.
But the young man's mind was clear, and he did not waver. He had just bound her with a rope when her father thundered into the room. "What have you done to my daughter!" he shouted. "Untie her at once!"
The young man tore off what remained of the girl's dress. Song could not believe his eyes — it was not his daughter at all, but an old fox. He collapsed.
The young man carried the fox's corpse up into the mountains, where he placed it in a cave. He blocked the entrance with a large rock. "Cunning fox," he said, "let this be your resting place."
And he walked away.
Since that time, the villagers have called this place Fox's Den.
The Fox Woman a novel by Kij Johnson
When Fox is a Thousand a novel by Larissa Lai
The Dream Hunters, a graphic novel in the "Sandman" series by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano.
"The Fox Wife," a story by Ellen Steiber ( published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
About the Author: Heinz Insu Fenkl is a writer, translator, editor, and folklorist. His published works include the novels Memories of My Ghost Brother and Shadows Bend, Kori: The Beacon Anthology of Korean American Short Stories, short fiction, and articles on folklore, myth, language, Asian literature, Korean shamanism, and other subjects. He teaches creative writing at the State University of New York, New Paltz, and is the publisher of Bo–Leaf Books. Raised in Korea, Germany, and the United States, Fenkl now lives in New York with his wife and daughter.
About the Art: Photo: Movie still from "Forbidden Love." Print: "The Dancing Fox" by Ohara Koson.
Copyright © 2006 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.