Traditional Korean folk tale adapted from translations by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Jason N. Joh.
Long ago, there lived a poor salt seller. Every day he would rise at first light and leave his house, his cart loaded with salt, and he would go from village to village peddling his salt until the day was done. Just before nightfall, he would trudge back home again, exhausted from a long day’s work. One evening, the weather grew foul while he was returning from a remote village in the mountains. Clouds obscured the setting sun, and it became so dark the salt seller could not see his way through the thicket to find the path home. He was too tired to go on in the gloom and the impending storm, and so he began to look for shelter for the night.
In the distance, he saw a pale shape rising up against the night sky—a giant boulder. He made his way to it, hoping to find an overhang or a hollow underneath, since it had begun to rain and he knew that it would soon be pouring. At the base of the giant rock, he spotted a small cave. It seemed large enough to hold him, and so he put down his cart and crawled into the opening. Using what remained of his sack of salt as a pillow, he stretched himself out for the night.
Soon his eyes grew heavy and he was on the verge of sleep. But just as he was about to drift off, he heard an eerie sound that made his hair stand on end. Suddenly wide awake with fear, he clamped his mouth shut to quiet his breath. Slowly, he looked into the darkness, poking his head out of the cave’s mouth. He could see nothing, but the sound grew more distinct—it was a woman’s soft voice.
The fact that it was a human voice gave him some comfort, but then he wondered what a woman would be doing out at night in the mountains. His curiosity got the better of him, and he crawled out of his shelter to look around. He could not see a woman or anything else in the darkness. He crawled back into the cave to sleep, and once again, as he began to drift off, he heard the voice. It was closer this time, coming from above him. Once again the salt seller crawled quietly out of his cave. He looked upward to the top of the giant boulder to find the source of the voice, and what he saw caused his breath to catch in his throat.
The rain had stopped, and the clouds had dispersed. Even by the dim light of the moon, he could see it because it was white: a vixen, her long snowy tail dangling down from the boulder. The fox held something round and white between her paws, and slowly ground the thing against the surface of the boulder while she murmured to herself in a woman’s voice. After a moment, the vixen turned the round white thing, revealing the two black holes in it, and the salt seller realized it was a human skull.
He was terrified by what he saw, and he could hardly get himself to move, but the salt seller kept his wits about him and quietly crawled behind a tree where he could watch the fox without being seen.
The white fox was grinding the skull against the boulder, turning it this way and that way until she had shaped it to her satisfaction. Then she placed the skull over her own head and muttered to herself in annoyance—it did not fit well enough. The fox took the skull off and ground it some more, and then tried it on again, then again, until she was happy with the fit and leapt into the air, pleased with herself.
Though he trembled and his spine was chilled with fear, he could not take his eyes off the fox. He watched as she flipped herself backwards, head-over-tail, once, twice, and then suddenly there was no fox. Instead, an old woman stood there, her back bent by a dowager’s hump. She licked her fingers and smoothed down her white hair. “Aigo! I’m late,” she said. “They’ll be getting impatient with me.” She leapt down from the boulder and walked on the path toward the village the salt seller had left earlier that evening.
Now the salt seller was curious, and despite his fear, he followed the old woman, often running to catch up because she walked so swiftly in the dark. When she reached the village, she went directly to the house of the Old Kim, the richest man in the valley.
“I’m here!” the old woman called from the gate, and the house was suddenly abuzz. Servants ran out to open the gate and welcome her in, asking what had detained her. They seemed to have been expecting her, because they led her to the wife’s guest room, which had obviously been prepared for her.
As soon as the commotion died down, the salt seller went to the gate and asked if he could stay the night. He was a familiar face in the village, and so the servants took him to the men’s guest room. It was near midnight when the salt seller lay on the bed mat listening to the sounds coming from the women’s room across the courtyard. He heard only low voices, which he could not distinguish, and after a while everything was quiet.
Suddenly there came the loud crashing sound of a gong, and then a voice—unmistakably that of the old woman—chanting strange incantations. The voice would die down, then stop, and then the gong would strike again to begin another round of chanting. The salt seller listened carefully, and he could make out some of the words—prayers to the Amita Buddha and the Old Man of the mountain—but they were accompanied by things he had never heard before in all his years as a traveling salt seller. Something terrible and evil was going on in that room, and he knew he must do something to stop it.
A servant came in to sleep just then, and the salt seller asked him what was going on. “Is it an exorcism?” he asked.
The servant told him that Old Kim was seriously ill. The local herbalists were useless for his mysterious condition, and so they had called on the old grandmother, a local shamaness who was known to be a good healer. “Try to get some sleep,” he said. “This is likely to go on all night.” And with that he turned over and started snoring.
It was just as the salt seller had feared. Now everything was deathly quiet except for the faint, rhythmic sound of the gong. It was an insidious sound, that low and tremulous vibration, and he could hardly keep his eyes open. Old Kim’s family had probably all fallen asleep.
The salt seller mustered his will and stepped out of the guest room. He crept across the courtyard to the women’s room, where the old crone’s chanting had died down to a low murmur. Quietly, he stepped up onto the raised wooden floor, and he sat against the sliding door with his ear pressed to the paper panel. He could hear her clearly now. Though the rhythm seemed to be a traditional invocation, the words were evil and twisted.
“Surely, they cannot sleep through this,” thought the salt seller. He wet his finger and gently poked a hole in the paper panel of the door, being careful not to make a sound. He put his eye against the hole and peeked inside.
They were all asleep—all except the old fox-woman, who sat with her eyes closed, chanting and rhythmically tapping the brass gong by the light of the single oil lamp. “Dine, dine, the feast be mine …” She licked her thin lips with her red tongue, and though she was in the body of an old woman, the salt seller could see that her teeth were unusually sharp and her tongue was the tongue of a fox.
What was he to do? The salt seller knew that he could not let the family sleep through the murder of their master. And yet, if he were to wake them now and tell them that the old woman was a fox, they would hardly believe him. Fox demons were wily and cunning and clever with their tongues, and he was a simple man of few words. The white fox had taken on the guise of a respected old shamaness, and he was only a traveling salt seller. What was he to do? He could not witness such evil and yet sit there doing nothing.
As the murmuring and the low clangs of the gong continued, a bleak and helpless feeling washed over the salt seller. “It is not my business,” he thought to himself. “Just go back to sleep. Go back to sleep.” But just as he was about to step down into the courtyard and slink back to the guest room, he realized the fox was casting her spell over him, and suddenly he was filled with blind rage.
“Awake!” cried the salt seller. “Awake!” He leapt down from the wooden floor, and as the people in the household roused themselves from their thick sleep, he ran into the storage room and emerged with a heavy two-headed pestle. The servants tried to stop him, thinking him a madman, but the salt seller pushed them aside and threw open the door to the room where the old crone sat, still chanting. She glared up at him, trying to catch his eyes in her glance. He lowered his gaze to the floor, and without a word, he smashed the head of the pestle against her skull. The people in the room rushed forward now, too late to restrain him, but then they drew back when they heard the strange barking sounds that issued from the old woman’s throat. With each bark, she spat up a mouthful of blood, splashing dark red patches onto the floor.
In a moment, what lay on the floor was no longer an old woman, but a white fox wearing a cracked human skull. Old Kim’s family looked on, dumbfounded, as the salt seller bent down and removed the grisly mask from the fox’s crushed head. And now he told them what he had seen that night on the mountain.
The next morning, Old Kim had recovered as mysteriously as he had fallen ill. Out of gratitude, he rewarded the salt seller with a generous portion of his wealth. And so the salt seller lived out the rest of his days happily, no longer having to peddle salt in the mountains.