When Samjogo descended from the Heavens, it was the first time in six months he had set foot on solid ground. He had never expected to be gone so long, but helping a star recover his wealth and save his family had grown much more complicated than he expected.
Samjogo landed by a freshwater spring at the foot of a large hill, with vast empty rice fields sprawled out before him. He felt the pressure of the physical world returning, the weight of his body pressing on his knees and ankles, the breeze through his long hair — unfamiliar forces after being so long in the ethereal world above. It had been a truly epic adventure, Samjogo realized. What he needed now was not adventure, but something much more mundane — money. You can’t take Heavenly rewards with you back to the mud world below, and now he didn’t have a jungbo to his name.
He took a simple wooden bowl out of his satchel, filled it with spring water and took a deep drink while he contemplated his options. Perhaps there was a tiger he could capture for some local villagers in exchange for a reward. Or maybe he could save some landlord’s kidnapped daughter. Stealing the treasure of a mountain troll was risky but always profitable. After six months without real food, the water felt good washing down his throat and filling his belly, and he quietly thanked the spirit of the well.
Just as Samjogo was beginning to feel like himself again, he saw something move from out the corner of his eye, lunging out of the forest. Some man said, “Don’t move, vagabond,” and stuck a large steel blade close to his nose — a troubling development, but at least it promised to make the day more interesting. Trouble, in Samjogo’s experience, was often profitable.
“Good day to you, sir,” said Samjogo, ignoring the sword. “May I inquire as to what the problem might be?” On the other side of the curved moon blade lurked a squat, fierce man, with a face that looked as angry as it was unimaginative. He was obviously some kind of soldier, and judging by the crest sewn onto his sleeve — two roaring leopards under a persimmon tree — Samjogo guessed he was a mid-rank officer, most likely unburdened by any appreciable talent.
“The problem, stranger,” he growled, “is that you are drinking from the magistrate’s well, but you are not the magistrate’s guest or one of his subject or anyone else I’ve seen round these hills before.”
“Ah, yes, I am not from these parts, that is true. But having just descended from the stars, I was not sure exactly where I was. Do people around these parts always treat strangers with such poor hospitality?”
The soldier was about to growl and threaten some more, when several more men spilled from the forest, clad in ill-fitting armor, swords and halberds shakily at the ready. Leading the way, however, was an ample, well-groomed gentleman in dark-blue hanbok robes and a black horsehair hat that was clearly expensive and had seen better days. This must be the magistrate, thought Samjogo.
“Jang, what’s going on here?” said the man in blue. “Why are you threatening this young man?”
“Sir, I caught him drinking from the official spring, without official papers or permission.”
“Aish, Jang, don’t you think we have more pressing business at hand than pestering strangers?”
“But, sir, this man…,” said Jang, still staring at Samjogo. “This stranger could be the one responsible for the mysterious evil sweeping your lands.”
Ah, thought Samjogo, land-sweeping evil sounds auspicious, especially the mysterious kind. But how to get the magistrate to take on his services? Fortunately, he did enjoy talking — a silver tongue is worth a thousand gold pieces, as the saying goes.
“Perhaps, my lord, I could introduce myself and ease your guard’s worries,” said Samjogo, with exaggerated politeness. “Annyeong hashimnikka? I am the Samjogo, true of bone and never born.”
“Che,” the captain scoffed. “You are a great three-legged crow?”
“You must admit, sir, you do not look like any Samjogo I have ever seen,” said the magistrate, looking Samjogo over from head to foot — he clearly had two legs, not three, and looked entirely like a young man. In his simple off-white hanbok, lacking any sort of official crest, Samjogo seemed most unassuming and almost peasant-like.
“Well, I cannot speak for what creatures the lord has or has not seen. I know only who I am. But I apologize for any inconvenience or consternation I may have given your captain. I was just resting after a long and wearying journey, and did not realize this spring was yours.”
The magistrate waved his hand, and Jang lowered his sword at last. “Did I hear you correctly, Samjogo?” asked the magistrate. “Did you say you just came here from the stars?”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Samjogo, thinking about how best to spin his tale. “Six months ago, I was traveling high in the mountains, when a heavy wall of cloud and fog rolled in, so thick I could not see a thing. I stumbled through the haze as best I could, but it was impenetrable and I became lost — so lost, in fact, that I wandered right off of the mountain and onto a cloud. Before I could find my way back to the mountain, the cloud drifted off, sailing higher and higher into the air.”
“Ha-ha, that sounds like quite a tale,” said the magistrate.
Samjogo was pleased to see his story was getting such a good response. “Yes, well, it was very exciting, but also most confounding. I had no way of getting back down. Fortunately, the cloud drifted all the way into the Heavens, where I was able to meet this star. You see, while we see the stars as tiny, shimmering lights, above the Heavens they reveal themselves to be living spirits, like any other.”
“Yes, I have heard that, although I have never met one myself.”
“This particular star was very sad and needed my help. His dissolute son-in-law had stolen his treasures, leaving him penniless, save for three last possessions — a flute, a janggi chess set, and a millstone. I thought about it and told the star, don’t you worry, just give me those three things, and I can get you back all your money and more. In exchange, I only ask that you help me get back to earth.”
“It took me many months wandering the skies to find the star’s treasures, and too many adventures to tell here. But I eventually restored the star’s riches, and he helped me get home on a bridge of magpies.”
“Please, do tell,” laughed the magistrate, clapping. “It sounds like a most excellent story.”
Yes, thought Samjogo, I appear to have him hooked. “Oh, it definitely was. But, as your guard said, I should be going.”
“Don’t be silly,” said the magistrate. “You are just the sort of man I need.”
“And what sort of man is that?”
“You should be my guest. Dine with me and tell me your stories. I could use such a fascinating distraction after the woes that have come to this land. You’d be a welcome improvement from my rather dour captain of the guard.”
Jang, the captain, scowled, not appreciating the criticism. “Are you some kind of fighter?” asked Jang, eyeing Samjogo over skeptically.
“I’m good with a sword. Dangerous with a bow. And simply excellent with a hyeopdo.”
“Well, that’s perfect, then,” said the governor. “You could use another hand for your undermanned guard, couldn’t you, Jang?”
“It’s the empty cart that rattles the loudest,” muttered Jang.
“Nonsense,” said the magistrate, chuckling warmly. “Samjogo, I would like to hire your services. By day, you could help Jang track the monster that’s been creating so much trouble. And in the evening, you could tell me your stories.”
Yes, perfect, thought Samjogo, some hot food, a bit of money and some more adventure. So he agreed and off they went together.
“The trouble began nearly two months ago,” explained the magistrate as they walked. “One morning I awoke to find a pig had been killed in the night, strangely and horribly. My servants tried to blame a tiger, but no one had seen a tiger or anything like that. Of course, that wasn’t it. A couple of nights later, another animal was killed, this time a bull. And for the next week, each night another animal or two was killed. I ordered my guards to maintain watch and light all the lanterns so nothing could enter without being seen, but that night a guard was killed. Just as horribly as the animals had been.
“People started whispering about monsters or ghosts or worse. And once the cowardly common folk decided ghosts were involved, they began to flee, leaving my retinue sadly depleted. Those who didn’t run were killed, one by one, night after night.
“Now, this is all that is left of my estate. As you can see, the fields are all empty, the farmers long gone. The provincial governor sent help twice, but those advisors were both slaughtered by the evil spirit and no more will come here. Only my captain, Jang, has stayed at his post without flinching or fear, managing to keep on a few desperate soldiers.”
Samjogo contemplated the magistrate’s tale carefully. It certainly sounded a lot more ominous than he’d expected. “And you think I can help?”
“Surely anyone who runs with the stars could help us mortals here below.”
When they finally came to the magistrate’s palace, it was clear “palace” was a rather generous word for the collection of buildings Samjogo saw before him — the stone block walls of the compounds were beginning to crumble in places, and the guard towers looked like they could not repel a squirrel, let alone an army. Many of the black tiles on the long, curbed eaves were missing or cracked, the paper-covered windows were full of holes, grass was poking up between the stone tiles of the courtyard, and the stream that wound through the compound was dry.
Inside, the magistrate excused himself, leaving Samjogo to Jang’s grouchy hospitality. Jang assigned Samjogo a room in the guards’ residence and found weapons for him, a hyeopdo — a curved blade on a four-foot pole, like a halberd — and a long knife. “What kind of fighter doesn’t have a weapon?” he asked, exasperated, as he handed over the blades.
“Of course I used to have one, but steel doesn’t travel into the Heavens very well,” Samjogo tried to explain, but Jang didn’t care.
Samjogo spent the hours before dinner exploring the estate, learning about the endless list of atrocities that had occurred over recent weeks. Now the main barn was mostly empty. With only a dozen pigs left and a few head of cattle, the great rice chests nearly bare. Throughout the estate were sickening stains of blood splatters in the stone and wood that refused to wash away.
“Well, this is quite a mystery,” said Samjogo, trying to wrap his brain around what was going on. “And no one has seen anything?”
“There aren’t any footprints or other clues?”
“In the months before the attack began, were there any great injustices that occurred here? A young person who was wrongly killed? Perhaps it is a ghost? Or one of the female servants is a nine-tailed fox?”
“Everyone in the palace was checked by a shaman. All of the people here are only people, not foxes or ghosts.”
But by then the sun was setting and Samjogo had to go dine with the magistrate, so the mystery would have to wait a little longer. The magistrate was waiting at the entrance of his private hall, no longer wearing the horse-hair hat, but now carrying a full canvas bag over his shoulder, with one hand resting firmly against it. “I know it is hard to imagine now,” he said, “but it wasn’t long ago that this was a successful estate. The granary was full to overflowing, with great fishes as big as my captain here, drying on lines, great stores of meat, and the joyous sound of children playing.”
He bid Samjogo sit at the low table in the middle of the room and eat with him. It was a modest dining room with paintings of longevity filling the wall panels, familiar images of cranes, deer and turtles. The floor was made of thick, oiled paper that looked overdue for replacing. The table was filled as best as the magistrate was able, with rice and a selection of soups and side dishes — steamed vegetables, tofu soup, some shredded and pickled roots, spicy jeon cakes, and a few small bits of boiled beef. But the sura was just one kind of rice, not even the customary two, and the fermented vegetables had started to turn. Still, Samjogo ate with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, determined to be a good guest.
Only after two servants cleared away the dishes did their talk turn more serious. Samjogo tried asking more questions about the mysterious monster, but the magistrate stopped him. “Our misery can wait until tomorrow and the light of a new day,” said the magistrate. “But for now, I would like something that might cheer me up and take my mind off of my realm’s troubles. And, as I said when we met, I was most taken by your amazing story of traveling into the Heavens and helping that star. Please, tell me that story now.”
Samjogo had spent much of the day thinking about how to best tell the story. “Well, as I told you, I made a deal with this star to get his treasures back, using his only remaining possessions, a small millstone, a flute, and a janggi set. And I realized that the most important thing was….”
“No, I’m sorry. Samjogo, could you please begin from the beginning again. Tell me again how you got lost on the mountain and found yourself in the sky.” The magistrate adjusted the cushion under him, leaning forward eagerly, while one hand rested on his bag by his side.
Samjogo was surprised his host wanted to hear the introduction of his tale a second time, but if that is what the magistrate wanted, he was willing to oblige. And perhaps in the retelling, if he made the mountain a little higher, the weather a little harsher, and the star’s situation a touch direr, it only made the tale all the more exciting. The magistrate laughed and clapped along to his story, just as entertained as the first time he told it, so Samjogo figured he was telling it well and grew emboldened.
“So, I made the deal with the star to get his treasure back,” Samjogo said, moving on with the new bits of the tale. “I wandered to the moon and to the five planets, and across the great Milky Way plane, but was unable to find anyone who knew where the star’s son-in-law was or what he had done with the treasure.
“One day, after another long walk across the skies, I took a rest on a great mountain on the edge of the Milky Way and drank an excellent sujeonggwa tea. I was bored, so I began a game of janggi, using the star’s janggi set. I laid out the generals and elephants and cannons and guards, but there was no one around for me to play with. So I shouted out to the mountain spirit: ‘Sanshin! I am going to play a game of janggi with you. I will play with my left hand, and you will play with my right. If you win, I’ll give you a drink of my excellent tea, and if I win, how about you help me find some of the star’s treasure?’
“It was just a joke, but I played the game and I was careful to alternate between my left and right hands, to keep things fair. And when it was all done, wouldn’t you know it, my right hand had played the winning move. ‘All right, Mountain Spirit,’ I shouted, ‘a deal is a deal. Here is your tea.’ And I walked over to a steep cliff face and poured the rest of my tea on it.
“With a long walk ahead of me, I decided to play one more game before setting out. But this time, my left hand won the game. Which was a good thing, considering I was out of tea.
“So I packed up the janggi board and set out again. It was a great heavenly mountain and crossing it was hard work, just like in our mud world. But as I was traveling down the far side, I came across a cabin with an old man out front. He was a friendly gentleman, quite venerable but still spry and sharp. He asked if I wanted to share some tea with him. I wanted to keep going and cover more ground before the day was out, but something told me I should respect my elder and keep him company. We chatted and made pleasantries and drank the most excellent tea, with the rich aroma of cinnamon and ginger, and after the sun went down, he invited me to spend the night in his humble home.
“The next morning, when I woke up, the man and the house were gone. I was sleeping on soft rushes laid on the ground, but beside me was a great pile of gold on a cart. And a cup of hot tea. So I realized he must have been Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, and shouted my thanks one more time and continued on my journey.”
The magistrate laughed some more. “Excellent, that was just excellent,” he cheered. “A fine and admirable story. Thank you for sharing it with me.” He held out his tea toward Samjogo and laughed as he took a drink. Samjogo drank, too, happy that another tale of his had gone over so well, although he knew the magistrate’s tea to be watery and plain.
As he was drinking, though, he could swear he heard some kind of grumbling, snarling sound rumbling up from close to the magistrate. “What was that?” Samjogo asked. “Did you hear something?”
“Hear something? No, save perhaps for my old bones and frayed nerves. I think it is time for you to turn in. We will meet in the morning and resume the search for the monster.”
Samjogo said goodnight to his host and left the residence. The palace was very dark, with only a fraction of the usual number of lanterns lit. As he walked through the shadows back to the military barracks, he saw something move in the dark. He wondered if it might be the evil spirit, but it was only a person. “Good evening, Jang,” he said. “All seems quiet tonight.”
“It is always quiet,” Jang growled back, “until it isn’t anymore.”
“Well, all right, then,” said Samjogo, deciding it best to keep moving.
“You know, you shouldn’t be here. If you were smart, you’d just keep going and pay this place no mind.”
“Perhaps, sir. But while I have been accused of being many things, smart is not one of them. I think I will stay and enjoy the magistrate’s company.”
“Hrmph,” came the reply, as the captain retreated into the shadows.
The next morning, Samjogo awoke to find a house swept up in the familiar, bored hustle of ghastly routine. There had been another attack in the night, this time in the hen house, and most of the palace’s remaining hens and roosters had been killed. By the time Samjogo got to the cage, servants were already cleaning up the bloody mess, and Jang looked on grimly. No one seemed the least bit interested in exploring what had happened — the result of weeks of grisly attacks without a hint of respite.
Samjogo circled the cage and the barn, looking for signs of what could have happened. Feathers and blood splattered about the cage, splashing through the room around it. The cage itself was cracked and broken in places, but they were the marks of something trying to break out of the cage, not in, and the barn building itself was unmarked. He saw a piece of bone on the ground and picked it up to examine it, hoping to see a tooth or claw marking on it, anything that might help identify the beast that attacked the birds, but he recognized nothing.
A short time later, the magistrate gathered his remaining soldiers and Samjogo together for breakfast — a watery rice porridge — and to plan the day’s search. He placed the soldiers into groups of three and told them they would be exploring upstream today, heading into Hungry Leopard Pass. Aside from Jang, the guards were all pretty rattled, as weeks of horror and the threat of death had worn each of them down, like a stream wears a path through stone and mountain. Samjogo began to feel guilty about having dined so well with the magistrate the night before when the rest of the palace was so clearly suffering.
They followed the stream up into the hills, scouring the brush and looking in crags and crevasses, like a hunting party might look for a wild tiger. But instead of a tiger, they had an enemy that was much more dangerous and completely unknown.
“Our hunt reminds me of the second part of my story,” Samjogo said to the magistrate, “when the star’s simple millstone turned into a real lifesaver.”
But the magistrate was not in the mood for his stories. “This evening,” he said dismissively. “Tell me over dinner in the evening.” The magistrate walked ahead to talk with the captain of the guard some more.
The search party made it to Hungry Leopard Pass, where an obscenely yellow gush of water burst over the rocks at a point called Pissing Mare Falls. By mid-afternoon without having found much of anything, Jang and the magistrate decided it was time to turn back. The soldiers dutifully turned around, their lifeless eyes unsurprised at yet another failure. Looking in the eyes of the soldiers around him, Samjogo knew something was wrong, something bigger than two months of evil. These men aren’t just beaten, they’re empty, he thought. Samjogo was convinced Jang and the magistrate never expected them to find anything on their daylong expedition.
They returned to the palace just as the sun was crossing the horizon and the servants were lighting the lanterns. The magistrate told Samjogo to meet him for dinner after his official business for the day was done, and walked off hurriedly. Samjogo thought about all he had seen, not liking any of it.
Before long, it was time to dine with the magistrate again. Samjogo tried to recall what he had told the magistrate the night before, in order to make his next stories as exciting and surprising as possible, but after the long day’s hike, he found it surprisingly difficult to keep his mind on his old stories. The details kept slipping away from him, no matter how much he tried to pin them down. Maybe he had not yet adjusted to the physical world.
He sat with the magistrate before another disappointing meal. As they ate, Samjogo made a few suggestions as to how they might better defend the palace, and while the magistrate nodded and agreed, he seemed much more interested in the next phase of Samjogo’s story. And he continued. He recalled how, after being rewarded by the Mountain Spirit, he decided to journey to the moon, where he hoped his old friend the Jade Rabbit might be able to help him on his quest, And, of course, he hoped to try some of the delicious rice cakes for which the rabbit in the moon is so famous.
It was a long journey through some desolate and decidedly dangerous regions of the Heavens. One evening, while crossing an astral forest, full of beautiful, white star-trees, Samjogo grew tired and wanted to lie down to sleep. The ground was too rough, so he climbed a tree and drifted off. A few hours later, he awakened to the sound of some ruffians and thieves gathered below him.
He was terribly frightened until he realized they hadn’t seen him, and were discussing their evil plans unaware he was just above them. The thieves had apparently spent their day thieving and were now discussing how to divvy up their spoils and who to victimize next. Seized by an idea, Samjogo reached into his satchel and took out the star’s millstone and started to turn its handle. As stone slid over stone, a deep grinding noise rumbled forth, echoing all over the hillside.
“What’s that?” cried the thieves. “An earthquake?” one said. “Thunder!” shouted another. “This part of the heavens is cursed with trolls,” said one brigand.
Terrified, they ran so quickly that they forgot all about their ill-gotten gains, leaving bags of loot sitting under the tree, where Samjogo could easily claim them. Thanks to his second adventure, Samjogo now had restored more than half of the star’s lost wealth.
Samjogo told the tale with much gusto, mimicking the cowardly thieves most convincingly. The magistrate liked it even more than Samjogo’s first story, laughing and clapping throughout the telling. But as the magistrate roared giddily, once again Samjogo heard that strange, snarling noise, even louder than the night before. It sounded like muffled voices, muttering and snarling. Whatever it was, the sound seemed to be coming from the magistrate’s canvas bag. Samjogo’s forehead furrowed as he look at the bag and tried to understand what he had heard. As he looked, he could swear he saw the bag undulate and ripple, as if something was moving inside. The magistrate caught his gaze and moved the bag behind him, hiding it behind his robes, then suggested that it was time Samjogo got some sleep in preparation for the next day’s monster hunt.
As Samjogo walked through the dark courtyard of the palace, he wondered about what he had heard.
“You’re not a Samjogo,” came the voice from the shadows. It was Jang.
Samjogo paused and turned to the voice. “Is that a fact, captain? And why is that?”
Sullen silence. “I couldn’t say.”
“Couldn’t? Because you don’t know what you’re talking about, you mean.”
The captain looked like there was something he desperately wanted to say, but he couldn’t find the words, like his mouth could not figure out how to express what his mind clearly knew. “You shouldn’t have come here,” he said instead, giving up trying to make his point.
“Perhaps. But I’ve found that doing the wrong thing is often the best way,” Samjogo said, then returned to his room to sleep.
The next morning, Samjogo awoke to discover a guard had been killed during the night. As with the previous morning, there was scarcely any evidence to be found, just blood and broken bits of a body, far worse than the remains of the chickens. But for the beaten-down few remaining in the magistrate’s residence, there was just a fatalistic acceptance.
The magistrate, however, made a big show of being more upset than ever when he came to the scene of the crime. He shouted and cried and promised to get justice for the poor guard whose name he could not quite remember. They gathered the last three hunting dogs and all the remaining guards to hunt for the evil spirit once more — today, they would travel to the Fragrant Plum Lake and see if the monster was hiding in the small caves that dotted its shores.
Samjogo thought all the bluster and force was useless, barely qualifying as a charade. Just after setting out, he turned to Jang and said he had forgotten about his seeing stone — if the monster was using magic, it could help them track it — so would return to the palace then rejoin them shortly. “Don’t be long,” Jang growled without much enthusiasm.
Samjogo returned to the palace, but he had no seeing stone. Instead of going to his bunk, he crept into the magistrate’s residence. Once inside, Samjogo pulled the sliding door shut behind him and looked around. Sunlight streamed through the thin paper that covered the lattice-framed windows, illuminating the painting-covered walls in soft, colorful hues. In the back of the room was another set of sliding doors. They opened into a corridor, as the rest of the building meandered in a maze of walkways and rooms. He slid the door behind him and walked quietly through the still building. Each door frame was filled by wooden lattices in yet more patterns, each different from the last, with thin sheets of colorful paper hiding what lay beyond in a translucent skin. Most of the rooms were unremarkable — linens and pillows piled high in one, a low desk, ink stone, and official seals in another.
He continued through the residence, looking room by room, door by door. But just before he opened one large, ornate doorway toward the back of the residence, Samjogo heard something on the other side. He listened carefully and heard what sounded like voices — deep, angry voices, arguing and complaining.
“… was sweet, I tell you,” said one voice. “He burst open, full of fear and blood. His terror was delicious.”
“You’re just being a stone head,” said another, deeper voice. “None of the pathetic creatures left here have any meat on their souls. You can barely taste them, let alone fill yourself.”
“I cannot stand being in here any longer,” said someone in a hushed shriek. “Farm animals and empty mud men do nothing. I need to dine on something bigger.”
“Patience, brothers,” said another voice, fouler than any of the others. “We are nearly full. Soon we shall burst free and take all the souls left in this cursed palace, including that magistrate. Then we’ll be free to journey all over this land and spread some real terror.” The other voices huffed and grunted in evil assent.
Having heard enough, Samjogo readied his hyeopdo and threw open the doors. But inside the room there was nothing. Just chests and dressers, and hangers holding the magistrate’s robes, hats, and other clothes. Then he noticed the magistrate’s canvas bag hanging from a hook on the wall. He could swear he saw the bag moving, its sides swelling and bulging.
“Hold it, you!” came an angry voice as a hand clamped heavily onto Samjogo’s shoulder. It was one of the palace servants, and there were two more in the doorway, glowering at him. “What do you think you’re doing in the magistrate’s quarters?”
“Saving you lot,” said Samjogo. “The evil spirits that have been killing all of you are in that bag.”
“Nonsense. If anything, I’m far more inclined to think you are mixed up in all this somehow.” He wasn’t letting go, and the other servants quickly rushed in.
Samjogo didn’t want a fight. “Just let me talk to the magistrate when he gets back.”
“You’ll get your chance, all right,” spat one servant, slamming the butt of his stick into Samjogo’s face, and all went dark.
Samjogo awoke some time later in damp and darkness. He was chained up heavily, underground in some sort of cellar. There was a single lantern burning dimly a few yards away, a figure silhouetted in front.
“Ah, he awakes.”
Samjogo shook his head and stretched his jaw, trying to collect his wits. “That really hurt.”
“I think it was supposed to,” Jang said coldly.
“I really hate being locked up.”
“You broke into the magistrate’s residence. Even a maverick like yourself should have known that would end badly. Now the palace servants are convinced you are in league with the evil spirits plaguing us.”
“But you know that’s not true.”
“I’m not sure my beliefs are terribly important at the moment.”
“I gather you never found the monster on your hunt today.”
“Of course not. There’s no monster in the woods. No creature in the hills or behind the waterfall or anywhere else.”
“Except in the magistrate’s bag?”
The captain picked up the lantern and walked closer to Samjogo. “Why do you think the magistrate loved your stories so much?”
“I thought it was because I’m such an excellent storyteller. Although I’m beginning to suspect I was wrong about that.”
“There’s an evil here, consuming the palace, killing the servants, and threatening the entire realm. It would be a truly frivolous magistrate to waste time with silly stories from a stranger when so much hangs in the balance.”
Jang laughed softly. “He likes your tales, no matter how inane, because he collects stories. Each story has a spirit in it. Most people hear a story and pass it along, letting the story spirits circulate freely. But the magistrate keeps his stories. He never retells them. So the spirits fill his bag, where they grow restless and bored, and eventually angry. It’s been so many years, finally his bag is full to overflowing, allowing the thwarted spirits to leak out and wreak their vengeance.”
Story spirits? Samjogo knew spirits could turn up almost anywhere — in plants and animals, in rocks and kettles, in locks and eaves. It made sense that stories had their own spirits, too — it would explain why good stories travel so far. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
“I know my place. I serve the lord, I don’t rebel.”
“I don’t think that’s true, is it? You are no mere soldier.”
“Perhaps, once. I think I used to be a traveling warrior, like yourself, selling my skills to whoever had the jungbo. But when the magistrate hired me, he had me tell him all my stories — just like you’ve been doing — until the day I had none left. Without my stories, what did I have left?”
Maybe the captain was not so dour and dull after all. Drained of his stories — of his past, his adventures, his glories, and regrets — what does any man have? “He took your will.”
“Yes. And he’ll drain you, too.”
“Che. I am the Samjogo, true of bone. I am free. My soul is not so easily taken.”
“I see. Tell me, then, before you came to our land, how did you manage to climb into the Heavens and meet a star?”
“Tell you again? It’s a fun story of wit and good luck, although I fear this is not the best setting for such a splendid tale. As you know, I was walking one day down a mountain … uh, I mean, up, of course, up a mountain … when I met a star. No, that’s no good, let me start again — I was walking up a mountain when I met a star and a cloud, and the cloud said … um, I mean…”
“Is something wrong?”
“I, uh, can’t seem to remember quite how that story goes.”
“How about the time you played janggi with a Mountain Spirit?”
“Oh, yes, another fine story. It happened that I was on a long journey to … uh, that is to say, I was looking for… um… I don’t seem to remember that one either.”
“Do you understand now? He’s taken your stories. He’ll take them all. And when you’ve nothing left, he’ll leave you to serve him, an empty shell, like the rest of us.”
Just then, the sound of a heavy door clattering open echoed through the dark chamber from above. The magistrate descended, looking pinch-faced and worried.
“Samjogo, my servants tell me that you’ve been terribly inappropriate, abusing my hospitality, trespassing in my home. They seem to think this is evidence that you are responsible for all our land’s woes.”
“But you know that’s not the case,” answered Samjogo.
“I know nothing of the sort,” he said. Around his shoulder, the magistrate was carrying his canvas bag. “You don’t deny breaking into my residence.”
“Only after I grew certain that the attacks were not coming from outside the estate, but from within.” He tried not to look at the bag as it squirmed and heaved, the spirits inside retching against the limits of their cage.
The magistrate grew colder. “What do you think you know?”
“I know about the stories. Hundreds of them, crowded into that little bag, growing restless, desperate, angry.”
Echoing through the dark cellar came the bitter murmurs of the imprisoned spirits from his bag. But the magistrate didn’t seem to notice them. “They’re just little sprites, harmless little things I collect.”
“No, not anymore. You’ve gathered too many for too long and they’ve begun to change into something else. They’re angry and they want out.”
“No! They’re mine! I won’t let them go.”
“What do you think is going to happen, magistrate? Do you think the killings will just stop? Do you think the spirits will go back to sleep? They are story spirits. The only way to give them peace is to let them go.”
For a moment, Samjogo thought his words had gotten through — but just for a moment. The magistrate stiffened, puffing his chest out as if he could bluff his way through the danger. “No. No one is talking away my stories. In fact, if you hope to see another dawn, you will keep talking, and tell me another story, and another. Each day of life will cost you a new story.”
“I think that’s a really bad idea.”
“Tell me a story now, or I’ll have you killed.”
Samjogo saw that carrying so many story spirits for so long had poisoned the man’s mind. “Okay, my lord, you’re right,” he said, reluctantly making up his mind. “Let me tell you what happened next. If you recall, I was traveling to meet the Jade Rabbit in the moon, but the journey across the sky is a long one, through many odd and barren places. Eventually, I grew bored, so to pass the time, I reached into my satchel took out the star’s last item, the flute, and I began to play it.
“Not to brag or boast, I have more than a little musical skill, and soon found a melody that was quite delightful. It helped pass the time and ease the burden of my travel. But that’s when I noticed that I was being followed, and not just by any ordinary creature — I was being followed by a fierce fire dog, a huge, smoking beast from the underworld. Very dangerous. They’ve been known to chew on suns and moons. Fire dogs are, after all, the spirits that cause eclipses. No doubt even one would make short work of me.”
Samjogo tried to make his latest tale as fun as the previous ones, gesticulating as best he could in his manacles, but his voice sounded heavy, his movements measured.
Still, the magistrate seemed captivated. “Yes, yes,” he said. “So what did you do?”
“It certainly seemed as dire a situation as any I have ever been in.”
“Yes, what happened next?”
“Next? I fear, my lord, that if you want the rest of the story, you’ll have to return here tomorrow. My head hurts from where your servant hit me. For now, I would just like to rest.”
“You are very impudent, three-legged hen,” said the magistrate as a burble of foul sounds sputtered from the magistrate’s bag. “Jang would kill you now if I made a sign.”
“But then you would never know the end of this tale.”
“I’m sure I could survive not knowing the end of one story. You, however, won’t be so lucky.”
Samjogo just tried as hard as he could to look steady, keeping his eyes locked with the magistrate’s. “I’m tired,” he repeated. “Come tomorrow and I’ll finish this story and give you another one, even better.”
The magistrate looked furious, and Samjogo thought he might have misjudged, but then the anger passed. “Fine, tomorrow. But the story had better end well, or it will be your last tomorrow.”
The magistrate rushed out of the cellar, leaving Samjogo and Jang in the dimness. “Captain,” Samjogo said, “I strongly recommend getting out of the palace grounds tonight. Go as far away as you can.”
Jang gave no sign as to whether he believed him or cared, and a moment later he left, too.
Chained there by himself, without sunlight, moon or stars to tell the time, the hours passed deathly slow for Samjogo. In the distance were the muffled half-sounds of the palace’s usual business, and even those faded as the night went on, until there was only quiet.
But at some point in the night, the silence was broken by an ugly explosion of violence. There was shouting and screaming, the sounds of men running and rattling their weapons uselessly. There was ripping and tearing, animal howls and sickening roars. People were dying — hideously and in great numbers, by the sounds of it. Samjogo hung his head and waited.
Then the heavy door that guarded the cellar started to thump and bang, as something large and brutal hammered on it until the door buckled and broke. Then the roar of a thousand voices came swirling down the stairs, swirling like dense smoke on a windy day. They were formless spirits, but Samjogo could feel them nonetheless — a cloud of teeth and claws and hate. And as they churned about him, he heard their stories:
… Tiger and bear crawled into the cave for a hundred days, desperate to become human…
…Give me your liver, cried the Dragon King…
…The prince has donkey ears!…
…Tukdak tukdak, said the goblin, banging his magic hammer, and suddenly a whole feast appeared…
Lost in the vortex of voices, Samjogo thought he could even hear his stories in there somewhere, an echo of his voice, riding a cloud to the Heavens and playing janggi with a Mountain Spirit. The spirits swarmed hungrily, ready to destroy him. Samjogo knew he had just one chance.
“Story spirits!” he shouted. “We have unfinished business. You still have one of my unfinished tales.”
“Who dares to call on us?” came the otherworldly response, crying out from nowhere. “Who challenges the spirits of the stories?”
“I do. A storyteller. Indeed, you have my stories inside of you.”
The spirits answered in a rage-filled bellow. “The smelly mud-world creature confronts us.”
“Let’s eat his flesh.”
“Let’s break his bones.”
“Let’s consume the stinky human like all the others.”
“Listen to me, spirits. I’m not a creature of the mud world. I am Samjogo, the three-legged crow. You need me. I can set you free.”
Suddenly, it was as if the cloud of spirits pulled together, and instead of filling the room, they were standing right before him.
“What’s makes you think we want to be free? We have power now. We like it. We will take you next, then we will leave this place and take more souls across this realm.”
“You can’t kill me. Not yet. You have just half a story in you. You need me to finish it.”
There was a pause in front of him. The cloud of spirits relaxed slightly and they thought over his offer. “Finish it! Finish your story, now!”
He could feel them swarming around him, pressing into him, passing through his body. Stories don’t like going unfinished. “Not so fast, great spirits. Do I have your word that you will not harm me?”
“And you’ll free me from these chains?”
“Yes, just tell us. Finish the story.”
“Okay, then, here’s the rest of my tale,” Samjogo said to the angry emptiness. “As I said, I was alone in the astral wastes, with a great Fire Dog following me as I played the star’s flute. But then I realized something amazing — the Fire Dog wasn’t trying to kill me, he was dancing to my lovely melody. My tune was so entrancing, Fire Dog couldn’t help himself, and as long as I kept playing, he kept dancing. So I played that flute all the way to the moon, and when I got there the Jade Rabbit and his neighbors chased away the Fire Dog. Not only that, but they were so amused by the sight that they gave me a reward — a cart full of treasure.”
Samjogo sat in the dark, listening, feeling. He sensed the spirits were still there, if less angry than before. Certainly his chains still clung to his wrists.
“That story is complete, but your story still is not finished. Tell us, how did you descend from the stars?”
“My story? Ah, yes, that. So, a few months later, I returned to the star’s home, with a wagon laden with treasures from my three adventures, even more than the star had lost. The star banished his terrible son-in-law all the way across the sky, but because his daughter still loved her husband, he agreed to let them meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Luckily for me, I returned just before that day. So when the seventh day of the seventh month came, all the magpies on earth flew up into the Heavens and linked their wings to form a bridge, allowing the son-in-law and his wife to meet in the middle for just one night. As they were meeting, I took advantage of the magpie bridge to climb down here. Which is how I came upon your verdant and charming land.”
Total silence filled the room. And then, a moment later, Samjogo’s chains dropped from his wrists. He felt his way through the darkness, up the stairs and into the light. The palace was a revolting mess, as the remains of the story spirits’ rampage were splattered throughout the palace. Samjogo avoided the grossest bits as he retraced his way to the magistrate’s residence. Inside, there was a disgusting mix of red liquid and blue cloth covering the inside of the room. This is where he must have met his end. In the middle of it all, there was the magistrate’s canvas bag, empty and lifeless at last.
“One day, I was climbing through the mountains, when I got lost in a thick cloud, and before I know what was happening, the cloud was floating up into the Heavens,” Samjogo said aloud. Good, he thought, I seem to have my stories back.
He left the palace and headed toward Fragrant Plum River. Not far from the estate, though, a man came tumbling out of the woods. He was a bright-faced man with sharp eyes and the most expressive face. It was Jang, the captain of the guard.
“Captain, I see you took my advice and left the palace last night, before it was too late,” Samjogo said.
“Indeed I did. And I thank you much for the warning. How did you know it was time to go?”
“Clearly the bag of stories was too full. So I gave the magistrate an unfinished tale — very unstable.”
Jang nodded with approval. “Where will you go now?”
“I took employ with the magistrate because I was overflowing with adventure but needed some money. Unfortunately, I got more of the first and none of the second. Would you care to join me and try to find some jungbo?”
“Ha! Thank you, Samjogo, but no. I have a family to rediscover, a whole life.”
“Then best of luck to you. I hope we shall meet again.”
As Samjogo said goodbye, he took out his flute and started to play. Jang thought it was a very catchy tune.
You can read our interview with Mark here.