Give Me Your Body
“We believe that to speak the name of a ghost is to invite it into your life.”
I’ve never wanted to tell this story because where I come from, we believe that to speak the name of a ghost is to invite it into your life, to allow it take up residence in your mind and the minds of all who hear it. And so for all these years I’ve kept it to myself, sharing it with no one, stumbling around it as you do a piece of furniture in the middle of a dark room.
The story begins when I was a child, and an illness tore through our village. One after the other the houses in our neighborhood went dark. First my mother was sick, and then my father, and I alone was healthy inside our house branded by the mark of the plague. It took everyone around us one by one. It took the neighbor girl next door, and her brother, and then it took her parents. It took the butcher and the seamstress and then it took their families. It took the rich and it took the poor, and finally it took even my mother and father. It took everyone but me and the shaman woman who lived beyond the outskirts of town, so that I—the only son of two only children—was left in the village, alone.
A curious thing happened after my parents died. The next morning I woke in our house, alone, only to find that my breakfast had been set for me at the table, and that evening, my dinner also appeared. This happened every day for a week. I ate my food and washed my dishes and thought how strange it was, but I was a child whose entire village had been wiped out, and so my ability for awe or curiosity had been depleted and all I wanted was comfort or someone looking out for me, which I took in the form of these daily meals that I did not question too closely.
But on the seventh day, my parents’ bodies began to smell, and I dragged their bodies across the rice paddies in their wheelbarrow, digging out a space for them on higher ground using sticks and rocks. I burned their clothes on the funeral pyre. I wandered around our empty village, wailing and calling for help, almost like a spirit myself. That is how the shaman woman found me.
“Stop your crying,” the shaman said. “Stop your mourning. If the ghosts of this village realize they’ve left you behind, they will surely return for you.”
I imagined my neighbors dressed in white burial clothes, their skin cracked from death, their eyes filled with dirt, coming for me—hair loose in the wind, hands reaching for my body, and, child that I was, the thought terrified me so much that I stopped crying.
When the shaman woman, the mudang, said it was time to go, I followed her. We walked for days, for weeks, through the woods to an orphanage near the tip of a distant mountain. It was filled with children who shared the misfortune of having lost their parents. They were a wild tribe, neglected, heartbroken, and utterly free.
The monks who ran the orphanage were ancient but powerful men, wrapped in robes and prayers, who handed out tasks and beatings with an equal measure of strictness and glee. We dodged them when we could, and submitted entirely when they caught us. The shaman left me with the monks and the wild children. They dressed me in the calm gray linen of a novice and shaved my head and taught me the prayers to say for my parents and their parents and the long line of ancestors I had come from, now all dead.
One day, in my sixteenth year, the head monk sent me to spend a night in an amja—a small hut they’d built at the top of a mountain that bordered a sprawling cemetery. I had heard the amja was haunted, had heard that other novices had awoken to find their clothes rearranged or refolded at their feet. I had heard one had woken to find the spirit of woman breathing over his face. I did not like these stories and did not want to go, but wanted even less to disappoint the monks or attract the mockery of my friends, and so I packed my things.
It was night when I began my journey, the air was cold and damp. The trees creaked in the dark like a squeaky door, and the wind moaned around me. The torch I’d been given cast its tremulous light on the path ahead. When I felt a light tickle on the side of my neck, I cried out until I realized I had walked through a spider web, and what I’d felt was the silk clinging to my skin.
I was relieved when I finally reached the amja. I set a fire going with my torch and hunched down into the domed hut. I relaxed as soon as I was inside with the door shut behind me, and fell asleep immediately.
That night, I had a terrible dream. I was in the village where I had grown up. It was empty. The houses had started to cave in, and through the broken walls and windows I could see the corpses of the villagers that had never been buried, because there was no one to bury them. I wondered now if that had been my responsibility, if I had been meant to honor them.
In dread, I entered my house, and it too was rotting at its core. The door fell down when I pushed it, the walls swayed. Inside, thousands of dinners had piled up, thousands of breakfasts. Someone had been serving my meals in the many years I had been absent. While I stood, aghast, taking in the sight, I heard my mother’s voice calling me from her bedroom. I went to her, but couldn’t get the door to open. I peered through the keyhole, but couldn’t see anything but a sea of red, could hear only her voice.
“Why did you leave me?” she said. “Why have you stopped eating your meals?”
“You died.” I began to weep. “I had nowhere else to go.”
“I wasn’t dead,” she said. “You buried me, and I wasn’t dead. I had to climb out of the hole, over your father. I was washing the dirt off myself for years. Where did you go, my little boy? Why did you go so far away from me?”
“Open the door.” I pulled at the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. “Open the door and let me in.”
When it still wouldn’t open, I ran to the woodshed outside our house and grabbed the axe. I ran back inside, ready to chop the door down, but just as I began to swing, I was woken by a loud cracking sound. I opened my eyes, tangled up in my blankets, my heart pounding. There was dew all around me, the walls were wet with it, and the soft morning sunlight was streaming in through the window and the cracks around and under the door. I sat up, glad that my dream and my ordeal was over. I was anxious to return to the temple where my friends and the monks were waiting.
Outside, the morning was fresh and bright. I began my journey back. Everything was more beautiful in the sunlight, the glorious trees that had frightened me the night before were tall and robust, the wind now a cool kiss on my face, and even the spider webs glistened beautifully in the new light.
I was filled with exuberance, and wandered off the path to sit by a mountain stream and skip rocks across the water. It was rare that I had such moments to myself, and I imagined what I would tell the monks and the other novices upon my return. I knew I would not tell them about my dream. Sometimes the other boys would talk about their families, but my experience had been too extreme, too sudden, too strange. I would not trouble them with my story, or the tale of the meals served to me by invisible hands. No, I would invent something else. Something new. A tale of a fearsome beast perhaps, or some incredible feat of nature. As I sat, deep in thought, completely at peace, I heard a tap tap tapping coming from the mountain path.
“Hello?” I called out. “Who’s there?”
I stood up and caught a glimpse of a lovely young girl in a bright dress, her hair tied behind her in long black braids. She tapped a walking stick along the ground to scare any snakes away. When she saw me, her face grew frightened.
I rose from the rock I’d been sitting on and she turned and ran.
I knew I shouldn’t have, that it was cruel to chase a girl who was running away from me. But her emotions had rippled across her face as clear as weather, and her fear—I hate to admit—had lit something up inside me, something I was too innocent back then to know to call desire.
“Do not be afraid!” I called, running through the path, pushing saplings aside, loose sticks breaking under my feet. “I will not hurt you.”
She glanced back over her shoulder at me as she ran, pure alarm and terror on her perfect face. Suddenly, she tripped on a log, and fell into a pile of rocks.
When I turned her over, there was a gash on her forehead, wet with blood. I touched it with my finger. I picked her up and she was light in my arms, her stiff silk dress crumpled between us. Her body was warm and soft and limp, and I knew I should not be holding her, just as I knew I should not have chased her, but she was so small and harmless and afraid, like a baby animal, I thought, like a bunny. I could not help myself.
I took her back down to the river and tended to the cut on her head, washing it with a cloth I had packed in my rucksack. I watched her breathe, her lips slightly parted, the rise and fall of her chest. She woke at once with a startled cry, and began to struggle. I held her down gently with one hand. “It’s okay,” I said. “You hurt yourself, and you shouldn’t move too much yet, but you’re safe, I’ll take care of you.”
I thought she would keep struggling or cry out, but she opened her eyes wide at me, and went still as a rabbit, still as a deer. For a long time we stayed like that, me sitting, her lying down and gazing up at me. Perhaps hours passed, with neither of us speaking, until suddenly she said, “I feel better now. I think I can get up.”
I nodded, and helped her rise. She put her hand to her head and winced. She looked down at her ruined dress and sighed.
“I’m sorry,” I said, suddenly aware of my shaved head, my novice clothes. “I shouldn’t have chased you. It was the wrong thing to do.”
She smiled at me then, humor leaping into her eyes, and said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t have run, but now you will have to see me home.”
And so I did. Her name was Jin Hae, and she lived in an enormous house. When we arrived, servants met us at the door with slippers, and whisked her away while I wandered the grounds. There were several buildings arranged around a central courtyard, each one filled with beautiful things, lacquered wood cabinets embossed in mother of pearl, scrolls lavishly painted in gold, pavilions laid out with pillows of jade, ponds stocked with shining red and yellow and silver fish.
I was afraid to meet her parents, afraid to tell them I had injured their precious daughter, but they welcomed me with open arms. She had not told them the full story, had said I had come upon her unconscious in the woods and brought her home. They were so grateful that they gave me food and drink and insisted I stay the night, for it was already growing dark.
“We will send a messenger to tell them you were detained,” her father said, laughing and summoning a servant. But the next day the girl didn’t want me to go, and her parents asked me to stay another day. “She has been alone so much and is in need of the company of another child.” And so it went day after day until weeks had passed and then months and then years and I had forgotten all about the temple, the monks, the other novices, and even my village and family.
I wore clothes that her parents bought for me. I studied with her tutors. We fell in love. We married. We had children, three in a row, and the years passed quickly. We watched our children grow and were very blessed, and the misfortunes of my childhood seemed far away.
One day I went for a walk around the grounds of my family’s house. I heard the laughing voice of a boy, and followed it to the river’s edge, the same river where I had first seen my wife.
As I emerged from the woods, he looked up at me, startled. He was a young monk, a novice, just as I had been, and I approached him, curious to hear news of the temple, of what had happened there in the many years since I had left.
“Jun woo?” said the boy as I drew closer.
“How do you know my name?” I asked. “Who are you?”
“I’m Chulsoo,” said the boy. “Your friend Chulsoo, don’t you remember me? Jun woo, what happened to you?”
I shook my head in confusion, but indeed this boy resembled my friend Chulsoo from many years before.
I grew frightened. “Who are you,” I said. “Are you a spirit? What has happened to our temple?”
“I’m no spirit,” said the boy. “Nothing has happened to the temple, but we’ve been very worried about you. A group of us has been searching for you for days.”
“It’s been years since I left,” I said. “How is it possible you haven’t aged?”
“Where have you been?” said the boy who called himself Chulsoo, who wore my friend’s face. “Come here,” he said. “You haven’t been away for years, only days.”
There was a rustling noise in the woods, and we both turned. There was my wife, looking frightened. “My husband,” she said, “why have you missed our lunchtime meal without telling us where you were going? And who is that man beside you?”
Chulsoo drew a sharp breath and pulled a knife from his pocket.
“My husband,” my wife cried, “Protect yourself!” She retreated a few steps. I turned to Chulsoo, but before I could speak, he flung the knife straight at my wife. It plunged deep into her chest.
I leapt at Chulsoo like a wild man with my fists, with my feet, with my teeth—my rage and grief beyond anything I had ever known.
But Chulsoo yelled and suddenly bodies surrounded us, as monks and novices all in their gray robes ran toward us, and I thought they were coming to save me, but I was the one they pulled away from Chulsoo, I was the one they restrained.
Back at the temple everyone was exactly as I’d remembered them. I was the only one who’d aged. I was crazy with grief, but also fear—what was this temple, who were these people? How had I ended up here again? The monks locked me in a basement. I pounded the walls until my hands were bruised and my nails bloody.
Finally, after two days, a monk brought a bowl of water to where I was being held, and said, “Here, Jun woo—look in here.”
When I did, I gasped in horror. The face in the reflection was not my face, but the face of a starving teenager with hollowed out eyes and cuts all along his jaw and cheeks. But the body was even worse. In the reflection you didn’t see the beautiful clothes my in-laws had given me, but a sack that had been sewn together with old gray cloth and bits of fur and was now falling apart. My body was covered in dirt, and my abdomen and chest were covered in giant and strange oozing scabs.
“What is this form of sorcery?” I cried. “What have you done to me?”
“Jun woo,” the monk said, “we think you’ve been living under an enchantment for the last two weeks. There were rumors a kyushin has been haunting this area.”
“I’ve been away for years,” I said. “Not weeks. Chulsoo killed my wife.”
“Your wife was the kumiho,” the monk said. “When we searched for the body of a woman where you said it would be, all we found was the carcass of a fox.”
At this, I rose to strike the monk. I wanted to kill this man and all the boys of the temple. A plague upon them, I thought, a plague like the one that had felled my village.
But instead, I said, “If you really come in peace, let me go. I have children waiting for me whom I love dearly. I must tell my mother- and father-in-law that their daughter is dead.”
“Very well,” The monk nodded. “Go and seek out the truth.”
So that day I made the long walk back, and as I walked I wondered—why had I never returned to the temple when it was actually so close? Why did we have no friends other than Jin Hae’s parents and servants? I didn’t know what to think. But I walked and walked, and when I finally reached the estate I’d been living in for twenty years, there was nothing there but a hole in the ground, large enough for me to burrow through.
Through the hole was a den, made of dirt. There were bits and pieces of broken treasure strewn about. A tiny piece of jade. A fragment of lacquered wood. The bone of a fish. And in the corner of the den were three small fox pups, a day or two past death.
I knelt on the ground, right there in that dark dank hole, and knew that I had fallen in love with a fox woman, a kyushin that can only become human if she eats the heart and liver of a man who loves her. I thought of the wound I’d seen through the reflection in the water. She had been feasting on my body for days. She had cast me in an enchantment where I believed I was living the most ideal version of life. I had thought those fox pups were my children. I knelt on the ground of that cramped hole, until the sun set, until it grew so dark I couldn’t see the bits of trash she’d made her enchantments with, or the bodies of the starved fox pups.
Only then did I claw my way out. Only then did I return to the temple.
I stayed at the temple for only two days before I left again. I was still a young man, but within an enchantment I had lived for years with a woman who was a ghost and a fox. Chulsoo wouldn’t look at me, and the other children avoided me. Even the monks who seemed so unmoved would break their stride so as not to cross my path. I knew when I left that I would never again find a people of my own.
Since then I’ve been living utterly alone. When I meet another person, I am wary of the secrets they might hold, of the danger they might pose. I do not tell them my secrets. I do not say where I am from. I do not tell them that every night I still see my wife at the edge of the wood, her eyes frightened, her body tense and ready to run. She’d come to lure me back, but she’d been unable to run away to save herself.
I dream of her every night at the brink of her own extinction. Last night I dreamt she kissed me. She came to me, so fresh and laughing and beautiful, and she asked that I forgive her.
“No,” I said. “No.” But she was the woman I loved, fox or human, ghost or living, and when she bent forward to kiss me, I could not turn away. I kissed her back, and then in my dream, she died.
Why am I telling you this story? Because I am lonely, and have no one else to tell it to. Because there is something I wish to do but have not decided, and am hoping the telling will take me there.
I have been lonely for so long. Sometimes when I close my eyes I see my wife’s decaying body, the hollow caving of her skin against her bones. Sometimes I see the carcass of a fox, matted and dirty with age. Then I wake up disgusted and filled with a regret that penetrates to the marrow of my bones. But sometimes when I close my eyes, I see her clean and pure as the child I met beside a mountain stream. And then I hear her voice, laughing, and full of joy.
I’m the only one who can love you, she says, ruined as you are. I am sorry to have hurt you, but I was lonely for so long. We could still be so happy. Just give me your body. Give me your life. Just call me by name. Just call me your wife.
Catherine Chung is the author of the novel Forgotten Country, and the recipient of a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship as well as an Honorable Mention for the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award. Her work has been published by The New York Times, Granta, and The Rumpus, among others. She co-edits the PEN/Guernica Flash Series and teaches creative writing at Adelphi University. She is currently a Visitor in the Interdisciplinary Program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and is working on her next novel.