The sound of the bell for the closing of the temple gate reaches my ears. I am on my way to bring in the horses, as I can’t leave them outside to sleep during the old moon. The sky is cloudy and dark, and the wind blows harder the further uphill I go. The last rays of the setting sun still cling to the western ridge. I don’t know if it’s the weather or the events of the day, but I can’t shake a sense of foreboding. I get off my horse at the top of the hill. No matter how much of a hurry I am in, I can’t ride past the ovoo without stopping. I’m bent over, plucking a stone from the grass, when my daughter comes riding up on horseback. A cold breeze blows across her forehead as she tells me the hunters have arrived. Sure enough, there is a jeep parked in front of the ger camp below.
I let go of the reins, add the stone to the top of the ovoo, and walk slowly around it in prayer. The hunters are early. I thought they would wait until after the old moon had passed. But outsiders have no respect for our customs and laugh at such things as heavenly omens.
My daughter sits slumped in the saddle. Her eyes are blank, like her mind is somewhere else. She’s been quiet lately and spends most of her time lying around. I’ve caught her talking in her sleep a few times and had to slap her awake. Now that it’s winter and there’s less work to do, she’ll get lazier and lazier. Or maybe she’s just at that age. She’s sixteen now, and I can tell from the way she turns clumsy and stupid whenever we have young guests staying at the camp that she’s started noticing boys. I feel excluded as a father, or like I don’t exist to her anymore. A long time ago, I had a mare that followed a wild horse into the steppes and disappeared. That mare meant a lot to me; I feel the same way now as I did back then. The hurt deepened, and at length it turned into a kind of hatred. I wonder sometimes if I should have sent my daughter to the city with the other children instead of forcing her to stay with me under the excuse of needing her help with the guests.
Serve them suutei tsai, I tell her and continue on my way. Herds of horses and sheep are clustered together like two clouds on the snowless southern side of the highlands, and darkness is descending over the snow-covered northern slope. I’m in a hurry, but my legs feel like they’re clad in irons. I urge the horse on like a runaway soldier returning from a distant battlefield. Night has already fallen on the pale shade of the birch trees down in the valley.
When a Kazakh shepherd moved here in search of winter grazing land, I gave him five mares to care for. They were extra horses that we loan to guests. It is a custom for the people of the camp to share the horses. In my younger days, I was a nomad who roamed the steppes and herded livestock. I mounted a horse at the age of four and my fate was set. After that, I never worried about what I would be in the future. As a young man I sometimes got the urge to race my horse as far as I could go, in any direction, just to see the ocean. But that longing faded. Living out here means giving in, as gazing at some far-off place only makes it harder. After I turned twenty and returned from the Chinese border where I had served my time in the military for over a year, I never left home again. That one glimpse of the outside world was enough for me to endure life on the steppes.
Ten autumns ago, I heard rumours that the world was changing. The People’s Committee had decided to abandon the socialist system and introduce a market economy. Before long, a government worker from the district party showed up. He counted the heads of livestock just as he did every year during the annual census. After recording the 150 cows, 200 goats and 200 sheep, 33 horses and 12 camels, he said, This is your property. I didn’t know what he meant. Until then, I had never thought of the livestock as not belonging to me. I knew all there was to know about them, from how they looked to how they behaved. We’d been through thick and thin together. I cared for them, milked them, helped birth their young, the same as always.
My wife died of a disease that made her body swell up. I had four children by her, but the only one who survived was my daughter Chimuge who was ten when her mother died. When Chimuge was born, I called the black shaman. He used a wolf’s tendon to tie the umbilical cord. He saved her by hanging the anklebone of a wolf from her neck and wrapping her in a wolf skin. I wanted to have as many children with my wife as there were stars in the sky. Left on my own, I was still young and had no desire to roam anymore. I could live without smelling grass and horse droppings, but I couldn’t live without the smell of a woman. So I sold the horses. I was surprised at how easy it was to sell them, and at my own discretion. That was my first sense of the market economy. But during those five days that I spent loading the animals onto trucks and sending them away, I felt inexplicably guilty. Unable to bring myself to look at either earth or sky, I finished removing the bits from the horses’ mouths and holed up in the ger, kept the vodka bottle close. Each time a truck left with another horse, my daughter chased it, crying, all the way up the hill. After five difficult days, we had a great deal of money on our hands. We could do anything we wanted to with that money. I built six permanent ger in the valley of the temple village where I used to winter and settled down there. My boarders were hunters, temple visitors, and city people looking for the fresh air of the steppes.
I calculated the cost of a cup of tsai and a night’s sleep in a ger. Chopping firewood and chasing wolves became my income. The twinkling stars, the moonlight seeping through the roof of the ger, the passing breeze, the falling snow—they were like the flickering shadow of money, they drew customers in. Everything I needed, including the occasional woman, had to be bought in the city. Living on that barren land I realised that everything good in my life had come to an end.
During that time, the land changed. A road was paved across the steppes and fences enclosed the earth where the horses and sheep should have run. The camp grew by scores of ger, and a western-style hotel appeared less than a dozen miles away. I climb the hill from time to time to look down at the asphalt road that cuts across the land. That black tongue looks like capital itself. That’s what money is. It brings in things you could never imagine. Our tradition of asking the stars where to go vanished. Now shepherds follow that road the way they used to drive cattle in search of springs and pastures. They’ve stopped searching the sky. They turn to the radio and television for the weather forecast instead. The nomadic life where people and livestock lived together as friends, depending on each other for bare survival, is gone. Shepherds sell off their livestock to increase their fortunes, and rare is the shepherd who doesn’t know the going price of his animals. How could people have made all of these changes if not for that terrible black tongue?
As I grew older, I naturally became the camp chief. I have a friend I drink with who lives nearby and keeps me supplied with firewood. Whenever we get together, we get drunk and talk about returning to the steppes before we get any older. But both he and I know we can never go back. Even if our luck turns and that day comes, it will be for our burials.
The old hunter who arrived at the camp is a Solongo—a Korean—who runs a famous circus in the city. I call him The Hunter. He likes it. He comes to the camp at least once every ten days. A Mongolian hunter would never go off in search of a mad dog during the old moon. Plus, the first of the nine-day cold spells that follows the winter solstice had begun; this morning, the soju was frozen. It won’t melt for some time. Now the true cold has begun. Spring will not return until the nine-day cycle of cold has repeated itself nine times.
The old man is obsessed with wolves. He’s squandering his money and all of the passion he has left in his old bones on the steppes. He travels with a driver and a younger hunter, and even has a mute girl—hooker? concubine?—by his side. If he’s not possessed by the evil spirit of a wolf, then there’s no explaining him. He gives off the allure of capital. I can’t shake the dark obsession that he emanates. It’s as if I were destined to give in to his power. But it’s not just the money. His obsession is destructive and disturbing, like he’s trying to ruin himself and fly in the face of the sacred sky and earth and gods. Thick as I am, what I sense in him is honesty. The sincerity of his desire. Yes, the life I’ve lived is truly a simple one and even my most trivial thoughts come down to either good or bad. But there has always been some doubt left in a corner of my heart. An unextinguished desire, a sense of inferiority that says life is worthless. He suffers because of doubters like me, and yet his ruined soul still manages to shine. Why is it so hard to resist him? Maybe it’s the capitalism that came to our steppes with a single document.
Since meeting him I haven’t spent a single day without my gun at my side. I can feel my soul slowly falling apart. The soul reveals itself in the vagueness of guilt rather than the clarity of crime. Because the soul is not the partner of sin, but of the body. Our souls look back at us from inside nightmares that refuse to fade away after we have waken, from the anxiety that thrums inside of us like hoof beats in the fog. I’ll catch the mad dog he wants. And I’ll cut the eight tendons that join its limbs. But, ah! I am afraid. Where outsiders trust in money, we once put our trust in good omens. Even while coming and going on that unwavering land, we made no move until we had read the day’s fortune. Though that’s all old history now, like the sound of that temple bell slipping across the steppe.
The boy monk who rang the bell leads the man into my quarters. It’s Hassan, the camp chief. The boy stands in front of him and grumbles that the chief would not listen when he tried to tell him the temple was closed for the night. I invite the elderly chief to sit down. Ever since the wolves began lurking, the people of the village below have been coming to us more frequently. The untimely appearance of the wolves in this intense cold is fattening our pockets. At noon, a young shepherd from the camp came to the temple, his eyes bloodshot. He said four of his sheep got away in the middle of the night and were eaten by wolves. When I looked out the door, I saw a hunting rifle strapped to the back of his horse. I told him it was forbidden to slaughter an animal during the old moon and sent him on his way. That was tantamount to giving him permission to kill. It meant he was allowed to kill a wolf as long as he avoided the old moon. He probably understood. In any case, people who bang on our gate to ask if it is permissible to slaughter wolves are here because they want to do just that. They do not come to us to search their souls and change their hearts. I have realised that the dharma is a compromise between the sacred and the secular.
Master, what does my fortune say today? The camp chief finally opens his mouth. The candle flame bends towards me under his rough breath. He reeks of the sickly sweet smell of vodka. His trigram reading for the old moon smells of blood. I close the Book of Changes and reluctantly start to speak. Does anyone ever have a good reading during the old moon? He swallows, his throat dry, like a thirsty man. Dispiritedly, he tells me that wolf hunters are staying with him. Just as I thought, that big-mouthed beast is the problem. It is impossible to forbid people who live out here from killing animals for their livelihood, or from hunting in general. Out on this unenlightened land they have a taboo against taking a life during the old moon. They say a soul that is killed during the old moon wanders forever in darkness. I see this more as an expression of the fear of taking a life, and a means of killing an animal in a dignified way. Even in the temple, we permit a small amount of killing.
But this big-mouthed beast is different. For the people of the steppe it must be killed the moment it appears. They do not do it for the meat or for the fur. Lately, there are more hunters who chase wolves for their fur, but for a long time the animal was hunted solely for the purpose of elimination. Perhaps wolves are breathed into life by demons. It would be one thing if wolves only filled their hungry bellies and retreated like other predators, but that is not in the wolf’s nature. Wolves will slaughter hundreds of sheep in one night. They must come into this world bearing teeth that relish the kill. There is no other explanation. Wolves increase their negative karma with every breath they take. But there is no way to get rid of them, even through the dharma. This big-mouthed beast is a contradiction of karma and the embodiment of chaos itself. Indeed, in their quest for the dharma, countless lamas have wrestled with the question of the wolf’s karma since time immemorial. I, a mere mortal, will not soon be wiping the sweat off of the rosary beads in this cold. No less than the Red Army of the Bolsheviks who said that Buddhism was a drug and lamas the enemy of the revolution, this animal might well be the biggest threat to our ways. I merely recite the teachings of Buddhist priests of old to the wolf hunters, and they do not demand any other answers.
Wretched are the sheep, and wretched are the wolves. Sheep are food for wolves, and this, too, is a wretched thing. Wretched, too, are hungry wolves. How can a wolf be blamed for eating a sheep? Does it not increase its sins with its own life? It is a predator born to prove the end of negative karma through its own body. Can there be any greater suffering? Wretched are the wolves.
I tell the elderly chief: It is wrong to kill a wolf. But it is also wrong not to kill a wolf. Talk in the temple is always like this. We do not ask questions in order to hear the answer or talk so that others will listen. People confess their sins and priests atone on their behalf. Looking distressed, the old chief takes some bills out of his sleeve and raises them to his forehead in offering, then leaves. I add a final thought, as if I am reciting some solemn sutra. A slaughter that cannot be avoided even during the old moon—what kind of reasoning is that?
That old man’s not coming back. His young, apple-cheeked daughter told me he left on horseback. But it’s already getting dark; the electric lights are on in the camp. The chief’s daughter lit the stove for me, and already the whole tent is warm. Huwa went to help the girl make dinner. Huwa’s been making all kinds of excuses to get away from me. I practically had to drag her here when she tried to get out of joining me on this hunt by saying her period had started. If the real reason were her period, I would never have brought her here. Would I have made such a scene of pulling off her pants to check otherwise? I’ve half a mind to find out who she’s been fooling around with. I can’t tell yet whether it’s Bairak the driver or Chollong the animal trainer.
Bairak keeps hanging around outside with an electric lantern, saying he’s inspecting the jeep. He says there’s a problem with the right headlamp, but who knows. Compared to Chollong, he’s just a dumb kid with no manners who can’t hide what he’s thinking. And yet, I can’t be sure. There’s a legend that says Mongolian women have a third eye, the eye of wisdom, planted in their foreheads. It views the soul on some strange dimension that men can’t even begin to guess at. But I doubt that a dumb kid like Bairak has a soul that the rest of us can’t see. He may be able to overpower a woman, but he doesn’t have the kind of soul that can open her heart.
Chollong sits on a chair by the stove with his back hunched and takes apart a gun and cleans it. There’s something pious about the way he wipes the bolt carrier with a hemp cloth. It’s scary to watch someone clean a gun. Much scarier than when they’re aiming it. Maybe it’s because of the inner strength, shrouded in loneliness, that he gives off. But then again, he could be eating a roasted potato and he would still look the same. He has a slim waist that he can’t disguise even with his long hair tied and hanging down his back. His long spine exudes wildness. His fresh, young face is covered in a hide of silence. He seems docile sometimes, but I sense an undercurrent of subterfuge and hostility.
He inserts a metal rod into the barrel. The carbine rifle is so old that the label with the manufacturing date has worn off. The stock and butt plate are made of wood, and the bolt carrier is exposed. It’s an early model semi-automatic single-loader that I got from a powerful Mongolian politician. A perk for supporting his campaign. He said it was a family keepsake. Though old-fashioned, it’s an attractive gun. I like the Mongolian way of hunting. Their rule is that you have to kill the animal in one shot by aiming at the temple. You’re not allowed to wound it. Their way of taking life without causing pain has a certain reverence to it. But it’s not the type of hunt I’m here for. It’s not that I’m obsessed with hunting. I’m only interested in wolves, and not any other type of game. I don’t fear or hate the wolves like the nomads do. What I feel is closer to love or awe. Wolves add another dimension to the steppe. Why should they deserve karmic retribution for their greed? Why should desire and power be sinful? That’s why I don’t want my hunt to be just a hunt. I don’t want the vulgarity or frivolity of sport to intrude. I want to square off with the wolf like we’re fated rivals. I want to stand face to face with him alone in an absolute space free of compassion or guilt or the law of nature that says the strong prey on the weak. I want it to be as if I am hunting myself. Maybe what I want is a hunt that is most worthy of being called a hunt.
In my younger days, I ran a casino and became a legend in the industry. I built a successful business with my bare hands. A society in chaos is a land of opportunity. It’s the same for any country, not just Korea. But the more money I made and the more society evened out, the more bored I became. A certain dynamism—the booms and busts—disappeared. I mean, of course, that the person-to-person relationship disappeared from business. People were replaced by systems. It became impossible to create something from nothing. The fun of fumbling your way towards a goal vanished. I would preside over my office like a king only to leave the office and feel miserable. I once tried poking my nose into politics. I paid for that with two years behind bars. Now I know political power only slows you down. More than once I’ve thought about how nice it would be if there were no governments. Who the hell gave them that kind of authority, anyway? If national borders disappeared and the world turned by the will of capital alone, I would be ecstatic. Anyway, I lost all interest in business. I just wanted to disappear quietly from the frontline.
I recovered my lost passion in Mongolia. The circus was the most brilliant legacy left by the ruined socialist system. For some reason, that kind of classic enterprise appealed to me. The allure of the bodily arts has a certain nostalgia about it. What is a circus but a flower that blooms and pushes the limits of the flesh? The desire for freedom packaged and sold as a commodity. I couldn’t shake off the longing to tour the world with a circus troupe in tow. I wrapped up all of my other business, disappeared, and was reborn.
The wolf I am chasing is a black male. The hunters say he was born from a fissure in the black rocks on the banks of the Chuluut River on the northern side of the Khangai Mountains. There must be a lot of basalt there. At any rate, the colour of his fur is a captivating black, like a beast that lives in the shade. I don’t know if it’s a big deal to have a black wolf, but since I already have thirty grey, brown, red, and white wolves in my circus, I have to have him. It’s the same principle as a butterfly collector wanting to possess a specimen of a swallowtail butterfly.
I came across him in a marshy area called Namarja, about two hundred kilometres away from here to the south. I came to the steppe as usual in October, in time for the wolves’ mating season. It’s easy to track them out here. By snooping around the shepherds who’ve lost their sheep, you can track down a wolf pack in just two days.
Around evening-time, we came upon a male wolf roaming around in the snow. We stood still and waited. Before long, more males showed up and formed a pack. They say ten or so male wolves will gang up and chase a single female to mate with her. We held our breath and waited. All of a sudden, Chollong shouted: That’s no wolf! It was close to a scream. Moments of wonder are always expressed in the language of surprise. A language seemingly devoid of context, yet it is the most immediate and truest to life. Neither the language of imagination nor the language of reason even come close. Screaming might just be the most honest language there is. I picked up the binoculars. Brown wolves were racing across the snow in pursuit of the female. There looked to be about twelve in total. I soon understood why Chollong had shouted. One black wolf was mixed in with the brown wolves. For a while, I wondered whether it wasn’t actually a black bear. It was larger than the others, and it had a patch of white fur on the front of its chest. I stood there, dumb, barely breathing. As Chollong took aim with the gun, I quietly pressed the barrel down. I want him alive, I said.
We gathered hunters from the steppes. They know how to catch wolves with lassos. Five hunters showed up with their lassos made from horsehair braided onto short staffs. I told them several times, with Chollong interpreting, that they had to capture the black wolf alive. At sunset we tracked the wolves again. The hunters knew what they were doing. They lured the wolves out into the open by mimicking the sound of their howls.
The hunt began. Two hunters rode close on each side of the female wolf. They were guiding her escape. The rest of the hunters followed the pack of males. We rode in the jeep, staying at the rear of the chase. I was surprised at the single-minded blindness of the males as they chased after the female. Even with the hunters in pursuit, not a single male varied from the female’s path. The faster they ran, the faster we ran, until I couldn’t tell whether we were chasing them or they were chasing us; at that point, the hunters in the rear began to make their move. One hunter approached the wolves with the noose and tried to lasso a male running on the edge of the pack by the snout. You can never just rush into a wolf pack. But the veteran hunter’s lasso missed each time. When a hunter who failed dropped back, another hunter would switch places with him and move forward. After a few turns like that, they finally caught a wolf. But it wasn’t the one I wanted. The black wolf never came to the edge of the pack. We caught one brown wolf and stopped there since the day was growing dark.
When we returned to our lodgings they said they couldn’t hunt with the lassos anymore. Was the money not enough, I asked, and offered to pay more. They said it wasn’t because of the money but because the wolves were heading into a forested area, which made it difficult to capture them alive with a lasso. They suggested using guns instead.
All night long, the black wolf flashed before my eyes. I thought he would vanish forever at dawn, like a phantom in a dream. On the morning of the second day, I grudgingly accepted the hunters’ suggestion but with one small change. I told them to shoot the female instead. Male wolves will never abandon a female in heat. I had heard that wolf hunters sometimes used that to their advantage. But it can be dangerous. When a male wolf loses its purpose, it can become ferocious and attack a hunter. As I suspected, the hunters refused and said they would have nothing to do with it. They said hunting that way would be the same as going to their deaths. They haggled over what their lives were worth. In the end, money was the only way to drive them back out onto the hunting ground.
That day, we moved eighty kilometres to the north without finding the wolves. We found several tracks from where they had hunted prey, but we had no idea where they were. The hunters threatened to back out. I threatened them with breach of contract. Now that they knew my weak spot, of course they would attack me for every last penny I had. There had to be some way to convince them. I decided to throw in a bonus and, that night, we camped on the steppe.
The next day we barely managed to find the paw prints that were left in the snow and launched into pursuit again. Around three in the afternoon we came upon Hassan’s ger camp. We received a tip from a young shepherd at the camp that the wolf pack had entered a forest of white birch. The birch forest was dimly lit; the trees cast white shadows. The wolves were gathered in the shade of the trees. The black wolf’s shadow was so massive it looked like it could cover the whole valley. They must have been tired from running for so long. It was break-time for both wolves and hunters. I looked at the trees and muttered that we should just end it there. I discussed it with the hunters. We decided that one of them would kill the female after luring the wolves out into the open.
But an unforeseen problem arose. We were too close to a temple and were forbidden from hunting. I looked for the chief of the camp. Hassan was only fifty but looked over seventy. I spoke cautiously, first asking him the name of the mountain where the wolves were located. He played dumb at first and didn’t answer, just stared at me quietly. He looked like he was trying to figure me out. After a while, he opened his mouth and said, The Big One. That was by no means the name of the mountain, but it was against their customs to say the name of a sacred mountain when it was right in front of you. He was hobbled with superstition, typical of an old man from a backwater village. I told him frankly what I wanted. He blinked and nodded at the important points, but he was so slow that we didn’t get any closer to a decision. He kept repeating that we were not allowed to hunt near the temple and would have to wait until the wolves left on their own. It was frustrating. I had no other choice. I took out a roll of bills and asked, What would happen if they attacked the livestock? He responded circumspectly: If that happens, we will go to the temple and ask for permission to shoot the wolves. With a sober look on my face, I asked him if that could be arranged. You mean, could we lead the sheep out in front of the wolves ourselves and offer them up? He was not so dumb after all. Since it was out in the open now, I told him he would be sufficiently rewarded and asked him to make it happen. He stood there with his mouth hanging open and didn’t answer. Finally, he said to give him some time. Then he raised a bottle of vodka to his mouth and took a long swig. When we have to take a life, he said, we ask permission three times. We ask permission from the eternal sky, from Mother Earth, and from the soul that will die at our hands. I interrupted him: The wolves will be gone by then. He shook his head slowly and said, Then we have to accept that. I told him, I’m not subject to your rules. But if you chased the wolves for three days, he said, you’re no longer on their turf. You either have to go back or find another wolf pack to hunt. But don’t worry, he added. They’ll stay as long as they have food. They know it’s safe here. I smiled at the chief’s answer. He added, Now that I’ve sold my soul, I have a favour to ask. Please don’t involve anyone else in this.
That was ten days ago. I go outside. The cold air rakes my face; it feels like I’ve bumped into it in the darkness. Smoke pours out of the chimney of the ger in front of me, and I can hear the rattling of pot lids. Huwa and the chief’s daughter are probably steaming those Mongolian dumplings they call buuz. I look at the snow-covered mountain where it stands out pale against the darkness. I strain my ears, listening for the howl of a wolf.
I hear hoof beats approaching through the darkness, so I step out of the ger and tie up the dogs. The chief appears. I tell him I left the horses out in the field, and he nods. As he dismounts, he tells me the hunter is back. During the old moon? I keep my voice as low as possible. My wife and children are asleep inside, so we walk a few steps away from the ger to talk. When did you take the sheep to the dogs? he asks. Yesterday. We lost four. I can hear myself stuttering. I wait for him to respond. I’m shaking a little because there is something I haven’t told him. I took the sheep to graze in the valley below once every three days, just as he told me to do, to fill the wolves’ bellies. I tell him we lost four sheep, but it was actually two. That’s not why I’m nervous, though. I’m not worried about what he’ll say if I tell him the truth. I broke a taboo and have blood on my hands.
The chief asks, Are they showing any signs of leaving? As luck would have it, we hear the faint sound of a wolf howl just then. It’s coming from north of the valley, past the temple. The chief and I lift our heads and look up at the sky in fear. It’s pitch black, not a single star. It will snow sometime in the night. He hands me a bottle of alcohol. I touch my lips to the bottle and hand it back. He finishes off the rest, and I take the empty bottle from him. It’ll all be over tomorrow, and I’ll pay you back for the sheep we lost to the dogs, he says and stands up. I’ll get our horses on the way back.
Chief! I call out to stop him. He turns his horse around and pauses. His ruddy cheeks look gloomy in the dim light of the ger. I offended the soul of a wolf, I tell him. When? He sounds surprised, reviving the fear that has been plaguing me all day and sending a chill through me. I answer quickly in a shaking voice, like a child being questioned by his parents. At dawn today. I took two sheep to graze in the valley at daybreak and was stopping by on my way back. I had tied the sheep to a birch tree, as he had asked me to do, and wanted to retrieve the leather cords. The snow beneath the birch tree was wet and red from the blood that flowed as the sacrificial lambs were torn to pieces; crows and eagles circled. I stopped halfway up the valley. I sensed a beast of prey beneath the tree. A jet-black wolf was chewing on the lamb’s corpse. Acting on instinct, I took out my hunting rifle and aimed it at the beast.
What happened to the wolf? The chief asks. I tell him I left it there and came back home. Frightened, I spent the morning drinking and went to the monastery at noon. The chief mutters, Any chance it was a female? Male, I say. Black.
The buuz are done. I back away from the stove as Chimuge brings out the plates. During the hour or so that it took to prepare dinner we did not speak. When people are around a mute like me they usually react one of two ways. Some talk at me continuously while others don’t say a word, as if my silence is contagious. If the boss is the type to talk without stopping for air, Chollong is the opposite. But that doesn’t mean the boss and I converse more. A great deal can be shared through the eyes and face. When you are with someone else who doesn’t talk, the tension soon lifts, and comfort surrounds you like air. You breath it all in and feel everything deeply. A person’s hands as they touch an object speak for them and their hearts can be read in the curve of their backs. Chimuge never once looks my way, but I can feel her innocent thirst for love in the prim line of her closed lips. I feel her in the air that she stirs as she moves around busily. Now and then, I even think I can hear her soft heartbeats. When that happens, my own heart grows warm. While rolling out flour dough, chopping mutton, and stuffing a hundred buuz, we don’t say a single word to each other, but it feels like we’ve shared countless stories. Every time our hands cross paths and brush against each other’s when we tear off pieces of dough or place finished buuz on the tray, it feels like she is touching some place deep inside of me.
Chimuge carefully arranges the buuz on four plates. When she’s preparing the second plate, I notice that she takes particular care with them. She even makes a point of aligning the seams. So when she prepares the third and fourth plate, I watch very closely. They are not as neat as the second. Who will the second plate go to? I take the plates from her and set them on a tray. Chimuge leaves her and her father’s share of the buuz in the steamer. Who would believe she is only sixteen years old?
I was barely seven when socialism ended. At the age of three, I was left in the care of a circus troupe. Whether I was raised by parents or living in an orphanage before that, I do not remember. I started my circus training when I turned four. I sometimes helped out with the older kids’ acts, climbing up on their shoulders and dancing, but mostly I climbed ropes. Chollong, the son of the animal trainer, was one year older than me. We grew up together. I remember running around with him between the elephant and bear pens.
When socialism ended, the circus shut down for a while. The performers scattered far and wide. I lived with Chollong’s family on the outskirts of the city for just over a year. During that year, I went to school briefly. Before long, the boss appeared and took over the circus. He may be a foreigner, but he knows what he’s doing. He got the acrobats back together and our troupe became more famous than it was during socialism. We travelled to several countries in Europe and Asia to perform. I began performing at the age of ten. My act was the corde lisse. I climbed a rope that hung from the ceiling of the circus tent with my bare hands and performed a routine set to music. It was closer to dancing than acrobatics. If the other acts were dynamic, noisy, and distracting, my act was quiet. It was very popular. Children marvelled at the way I slid like a spider up and down the rope without any safety equipment. Adults were enchanted by the ornate lines formed by my body. I liked my act because it needed no words. The audience was not watching me, I was watching them. I knew they were mesmerised by the sight of my practically nude body. But I didn’t care. Sometimes I even enjoyed it. After many performances my mind and my body became two separate things. My body was flexible and free, even when my heart was not. Even now, that sense of rapture is so vivid.
When I turned eighteen I began performing alone without a partner. I thought I could climb ropes forever. But one day, during a performance in Moscow, I fell thirty feet headfirst. The rope had come undone. It shouldn’t have happened. I was badly injured and spent three years in a neck brace. I couldn’t perform anymore. That’s when the boss collected me. I became his property. It happened as naturally as water running downhill. Now he is both my father and my lover. He’s in love with my body. When he gazes down at my naked body in bed, he looks spellbound. His gaze burns hotter than any audience’s. Sometimes I even wonder if he cut the rope on purpose so he could have my body all to himself. He loves me more than anyone else in the world. But every time his gaze stops on me, I freeze. Not my heart—my body freezes. It’s confusing. Now that the rope is gone, I want my mind and my body to be one. It pains me to think of myself as divided.
I wondered if I was only like that with the boss, so I slept with Chollong once. Of course, I didn’t do it to learn about my body or anything like that, and now, sadly, Chollong is in love with me. I used to dream about marrying him when we were children. He felt the same way. But my body did not open for him. The only thing that awakened in me was the pain from the day of the accident. That’s why I fear nights with the boss. I share his bed without joy. How can he not know that, being the boss? He gets rough with me, and when I still don’t respond the way he wants, he can’t take it and turns to drinking instead. I’ve come to hate my body.
When I carry the buuz to our ger with Chimuge, everyone is there except for the elderly chief. The light from the stove gives their eyes a soft glow. Only the boss looks irritated, either because of his anxiety over the hunt or because of his anger towards me. But I don’t have any energy left to worry about him. I watch closely as Chimuge passes the plates around in the dim lamplight. Who will get the second plate? I think it will go to Chollong. My heart aches for some reason. But it doesn’t happen. A different plate is passed to Chollong. The second plate is the last one left. It’s mine! My eyes well with tears from surprise and excitement, but no one notices. All through dinner, I keep my head down. I eat maybe two pieces of buuz. The boss asks curtly why I’m not eating more. I know he’s angry with me. He knows my body better than anyone else.
When everyone finishes eating, I collect the empty plates and go to Chimuge’s ger. I’m afraid to open the door and face her. I pace around outside, and after a while, her father emerges from the darkness. He’s bringing in the horses.
I am trailing an old hunter. I will snap his throat and take his life. Just as he longs for me, I long for him. I cast my hot eyes down and lay flat beneath the white birch. It has been a long and tiring journey. My den is lonely. Dry snow whispers down through the bare branches of the birch tree. I bury my muzzle in the snow and take a bite of the soft inner snow. Everything is hot tonight. It is time. Everything has happened the way it should. Now I will travel freely through a dark place. I sense the souls of the humans asleep by the fire. I may be wretched, but they, too, are wretched. They hunger, always, like me. That is how we were born. I can now turn my temple to the muzzles of their guns. I will gladly offer up my anklebone to the one who reaps my soul.
I hear someone come out from behind the ger. I open my eyes in my bed beside the stove and strain my ears to the sound of footsteps in the dark. Is it the elderly hunter? Or is it Huwa, the acrobat? Father tossed and turned before finally falling into a deep, drunken sleep. The footsteps on the snow come to a stop. It sounds like Huwa is standing still out there. Is she looking at the sky? Maybe she’s looking at our ger. I can feel her longing and her anxiety. I quietly sit up. The footsteps move away again. Is it time? I want to go to her. I turn down the blanket and feel around for my shoes without making a sound. There is no warmth coming from the stove. It must be three in the morning.
The clouds have lifted from the sky, and the stars are out. At the sound of footsteps approaching over the snow, I brush off my skirt and stand up. Chimuge! I call out to her mutely. She is standing there. I take that warm child into my arms. My soul is on the verge of burning up and fading away. It is time. I decide to accept my fate. When Chimuge’s lips grope for mine, I meet them with everything I have. Soon, we are rolling in the snow like one body. I welcome with pathetic flailing this heat that comes to lovers only once. The kind of passion that only comes when your body is entirely strange to you. When the moment ends, that perfect strangeness vanishes. It vanishes no matter how you crave it. It wanes from your body like the moon past its fullness. The moon will return but, like a new love, it will be a completely different moon. Chimuge trembles and sobs. I caresse her damp eyes and lips and neck with shaking hands. Huwa! Just then, I hear a voice in the dark calling my name.
I go mad. I’m doused in rage. I see Huwa’s empty bed and grab my gun and go after her. The valley is filled with the sounds of lovemaking. The time has finally come. That bitch and her stud are rolling around naked in the snow. I don’t care if it’s Bairak or Chollong. There’s no time to waste. I shudder at their nakedness. No anger that I have ever carried can compare to this moment. Huwa! I point the gun and pull the trigger.
The sound of the old gun wakes the sleeping valley.
The chief wakes in his bed. Chollong bolts upright. Bairak rolls beneath the cot. Chimuge wails. The hunter collapses. A wolf howls from beyond the western mountain. Huwa lies face-up in the snow. The old moon hangs drowsily in the sky. She quietly bides her time.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Shin Kyung-sook's I'll Be Right There (Other Press, 2014), Gong Ji-young's Our Happy Time (Short Books, 2014), Bae Suah's Nowhere to Be Found (AmazonCrossings, 2015), and Hwang Sok-yong's Princess Bari (Periscope, 2015). She teaches at Ewha Woman’s University and at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.