by Tari Gwaemir
"Who would take us to be women?"
On an unnamed mountain in old Joseon, there was an old paulownia tree that blossomed once every ten years. To this tree, a young monk made a pilgrimage, with nothing but his bare feet, the robe on his back and a lotus seed he carried in his palm. He had heard from a traveling mendicant that Gwaneumbosal had manifested there as a beautiful maiden a hundred years ago, when the tree had first burst into flower. He set out on his journey in the summer, that season of heavy storms and hot, humid days, journeyed through flame-colored forests in autumn, and climbed the snowy slopes of the mountain with red, blistering feet. Cold, hungry, exhausted, he did not find the tree until the ice melted.
To his drooping eyes, the tree's branches seemed to arch and sway as if to embrace him. He stumbled forward and sank to his knees on the muddy ground. When he looked up, he was startled to see a beautiful woman, her face white like sea-foam, her earlobes long like the Buddha, standing before him. She seemed to shimmer, like the air above burning incense. He prostrated himself.
She smiled, and if he had raised his eyes to her, he would have seen that the smile was long and cruel.
"Oh Goddess of Mercy," he began.
"Foolish little monk," she said and lifted his head with the toes of her left foot.
He scrambled to his feet in astonishment. She smiled once more, and her face shifted more subtly into an alien design, sensual yet sinister, a face which seemed neither male nor female, only desirable.
"Are you a fox-spirit, come to tempt me from my vows?"
"Don't be stupid," she--or was it he--said sharply. "You deal with the master, not the servants."
He stared at her helplessly, his eyes dazed. The creature changed shape again, into a young boy, with a scholar's forehead and long eloquent eyes. It leaned forward, grasped his trembling chin, and kissed him slowly, savagely. He could not stop shaking.
The next morning, he woke up, half-frozen beneath a blanket of fallen flowers--the tree above him bare and blackened. He did not need to touch it to know that it no longer lived.