There were lessons even stories could not teach, and Beom knew that well. Even so, he read tales about the gods who dwelled high on the mountain’s peak, hidden behind layers of fog some called a magicked barrier, others a wretched curse. He read and read and read—runic myths, cryptic legends, and dusty history tomes alike. But he learned nothing he didn’t already know.
Sometimes, he walked around the mountain, waiting for something he could not quite name. Still, he always had an excuse for his mother.
Searching for rare herbs, he told her one day. Waiting for a friend, he said the next. His mother only scoffed. She saw through his lies. He had no friends. But preparing for the winter was a cause for greater concern. He could prance around all he wanted to—through the mountains, in the rivers, around all of Joseon and back—as long as he returned by nightfall.
Nothing could touch him in the mountains. At least, that was what his father always said, pointing to a talisman over the front door of their hut, the red runes seemingly glowing under the glare of the sun.
When his father brought home rice from the village down the mountain or, even better, a boar from hunting, he would tell Beom stories by the fire. These were tales passed through generations, immortalized as warnings whispered around campfires and funeral pyres, reminders to even the strongest of men that they must heed the law of the gods.
Beware the wrath of the mountain god, his father whispered, raising his arms above his head to mimic the height of a monster, letting out a mock roar. After hearing the tale for the hundredth time, Beom was unfazed.
There were no gods. Beom was certain. He had explored every inch of the mountain, survived the most dangerous circumstances. If there was a god, he would have seen one by now.
And he still couldn’t see one.
He was light on his feet as he passed the mound of pebbles he had stacked by a pine tree one summer when he was bored, the torn remains of his hanbok he had lost after falling off a tree, and the billowing silks and ringing bells encompassing the area he was never supposed to step foot in.
On second thought, he hadn’t explored every inch of the mountain.
The brass bells rang in the swaying breeze, warding evil spirits and warning wanderers away. But Beom wasn’t afraid. Nothing could touch him in the mountains.
The night quickly swallowed him, and the last gleams of the sun were obscured behind the mountain. He should have turned around and found his way back home, brush this little journey aside, but he felt, inexplicably, down to his bones, that someone was waiting for him.
Winds blew like a tempest, howled like wolves. Every rustle was a warning, every whir of insects a threat, every low growl a death sentence. Nothing could touch him in the mountains.
Now, standing at the mouth of a cave, listening to the drip-drip-dripping of water, it felt like a dirty lie.
He had never explored the cave—didn’t know it existed—but as he stared into it, goosebumps prickled over his neck. Something was staring back. He couldn’t discern it at first. It was a fragile creature with thin limbs twisted at awkward angles, a mask crooked on his face.
Beware the wrath of the mountain god.
Beom stepped back. The masked creature crawled closer, closer, closer—
Beom ran—down the mountain, through the trees, over the creeks and rocks and boulders. He didn’t look back, not even once. If that—that thing was chasing after him, then may the gods take pity on his stupid, stupid soul.
In the end, he never told his parents what had happened that night. It was a secret for him and him only. And if the talisman hanging over the front door mysteriously tore, if he heard whispers when he traveled through the mountains, and if he glimpsed masked shadows with twisted limbs in his peripheral vision, then that was only for him, too.
Gina Kotinek is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPOT Lit. She is interested in social issues and enjoys implementing them into her writing in hopes that her message will be heard.