The detective in charge of the investigation had turned over every last detail to me, so the town coming into view through the bus windshield didn’t seem all that unfamiliar. According to him, wherever people lived was pretty much the same. But what struck me immediately were the specialty restaurants lining the small street outside the bus terminal, with enormous pressure cookers out front. If the hunting grounds were in operation, those pressure cookers spewed sticky steam all day long. The grounds were open this year. But it was past midnight, and the restaurants were dark.
“Turn left where the specialty restaurants come to an end. You’ll see a mailbox right away. Then inquire at the rice shop across the street.”
The detective’s information tended to be accurate, and sure enough, I saw the mailbox as soon as I turned left at the end of the street with the specialty restaurants. Across the street, the rice shop was dark, but through the frosted glass I saw a gleam of light coming from the living quarters at the back. I could even hear the drone of the television.
A man looking as if he’d just crawled out of bed helped me find a truck that would take me to my final destination. There was no regular transportation between this place and where I was headed, which meant people had to rely on delivery trucks that weren’t in use at the moment.
Since all the cab seats were already occupied by other passengers, I had to ride in the back of one such truck, but I was in no position to complain. “Forget about traveling comfortably in the passenger seat. Just count it a blessing if you don’t have to squeeze into the cargo bed with a bunch of the village women,” the detective had added.
When we left the town behind and had been speeding along for about twenty minutes, the occasional streetlight disappeared altogether. So did the glow of distant houses, glimmering in the darkness like clusters of stars. The asphalt road came to an end and was replaced by a narrow, unpaved road just wide enough for one car to pass. Mountain shadows pressed in from all sides.Outside the cones of light was total darkness, and for someone like me, who was traveling this way for the first time, it was like stepping through a black curtain into an unknown world.
“If you can’t get yourself a jeep, forget about taking your own car,” the detective had said, shaking his head. He’d made the mistake of driving his new sedan to the scene of the accident. “Trust me, it won’t make things any easier. You’ll just end up with a big hole in your gas tank.”
Just as he’d warned, the truck bounced nearly half a foot off the gravel road. Even after the driver turned on his high beams, you could see only a meter or two ahead. Outside the cones of light was total darkness, and for someone like me, who was traveling this way for the first time, it was like stepping through a black curtain into an unknown world. The truck, carrying five people including the driver, raced through the woods for about an hour. Human beings are a strange bunch. They laid railroad tracks across Niagara Falls, or transported materials up a steep mountainside just to build a snack stand, or they built a village deep in the woods, like this, when there weren’t any proper roads.
Although it was early November, the temperature in the mountains fell below zero at night. I had on the jacket I usually carried around in Seoul, but it didn’t help. I had to clasp the side of the truck bed to keep from falling out, and my hand stuck to the metal like to ice. Goddamn. The previous detective, who had described every tedious detail, like the exact location of a tearoom, for example, had forgotten to mention the most important thing: the fickle mountain temperature. There’d been another thing; he’d also stayed quiet about his reasons for suddenly quitting a case he was so close to cracking.
Maybe it was because of the cold, but I had to take a piss. The truck’s bouncing and rattling made it worse. In the end, I had to tap on the rear window. The driver stopped the truck, but didn’t get out. I hopped out from the back and walked up to his side. He stuck his head out the half-open window and threw a nervous glance toward the woods. I heard a stream flowing somewhere in the darkness.
I was crossing the road to find some privacy behind a tree when the driver leaned out the window and shouted, “Where you going? Just do it there, right there!”
He was pointing to a spot right in front of the headlights. Among the passengers was a young woman. No matter how desperate the situation, I couldn’t pull my pants down in front of her. Though I couldn’t see inside because of the lights, it was the opposite case if you were looking out. I couldn’t urinate on a lit-up stage. But the driver didn’t give me a chance to protest.
“Don’t you understand Korean? I told you not to go in the woods.”
I didn’t blame him for acting this way; it was understandable after an accident like that. These people were going to be afraid of the woods for a long time. I turned my back to the truck and urinated toward the middle of the road. The detective had said it was a peaceful village, not at all the kind of place where you’d expect an accident like that to happen. Still, something told me I shouldn’t blindly trust everything he said.
When my tailbone was throbbing and the hand gripping the side panel had gone numb, the truck’s headlights swept over the jangseung totem poles marking the village boundaries. It seemed we were finally at our destination. The driver, who had taken the detective to this village numerous times, dropped me off at the house of Mr. Kim, the head of the Kim clan, and sped off into the dark.
“It’d probably be best to stay with them. They’re not so uptight because they’re used to taking in lodgers from out of town. It’s just him and his wife, and they’ll stay out of your hair. He limps a bit. He’s the cousin of the deceased—their mothers were sisters. Make sure you prepay, and slip them a few thousand won more than what they ask for. Might be a little late in the season, but if you’re lucky, you’ll get some pine-mushroom skewers for breakfast.”
His words would have made anyone curious about this place.
Maybe it was because I’d called before leaving Seoul, but the front gate was halfway open and the light bulb in the yard was burning hot, as if it had been left on for a long time. The dog barked at my footsteps. A door opened and Mr. Kim stuck out his head.
Except for the size of the doors themselves, the layout of the house was similar to any house in the country. The furniture was an odd assortment of new and old, some from the time of the Saemaeul Movement when homes in rural communities had been revamped. The doors to the rooms were more like pet doors, barely big enough for a grown person to pass through.
“It’s probably because of the cold. The bigger the door, the more it lets in the cold. Or maybe those rooms were used by women before and people wanted to prevent easy access inside? Anyhow, make sure you watch your head.”
Despite the small door, the room was spacious. Near the corner where the floor wasn’t heated, recently harvested rice in burlap sacks was stacked up all the way to the ceiling. A low desk was the only furniture in the room, and above that was a tiny window the size of a sheet of paper. The room smelled faintly of old grain. The woman brought me a freshly basted sleeping mat and blanket. The starched sheet chafed my skin.
The house of Park Gicheol, whom everyone had called The Deer, was located outside the village. On a mountain path where trucks and jeeps were useless, it was best to travel on foot. I backtracked the way I’d come the night before, and saw the totem poles once more. The colors were faded as if they’d been standing there for a long time, and the noses and eyes had become a pale clump.
Even the detective had trouble describing the exact location of Park Gicheol’s house. All he’d said was to get Mr. Kim’s help. Since there weren’t any signposts, I had to simply eyeball the distance and fumble along. When I walked through a carpet of leaves, I left behind footprints filled with water. I climbed until I was out of breath, until the larch trees had disappeared and were replaced by pines. In the shadows of the trees, I became cold as my sweat dried. I continued between the pines on what looked like remnants of a path. Finally, the woods opened up and I saw a wide field. Park Gicheol’s house was situated at the edge of the field a little ways up the hill. I was lucky it was winter. If it had been summer, his house would have been completely hidden by all the bushes and the deciduous trees. The long, narrow house seemed to be clinging to the ground.
It was early morning, but the house was empty. There were two small rooms and a large kitchen all on one side. It seemed an animal pen had once stood across from the blackened wood-burning stove where the lid of a cast iron pot hung, covered with a thick layer of dust. I pushed open one of the bedroom doors. In the middle of the room was a low aluminum table; on it was a porcelain bowl of water with grains of rice floating in it, along with a dish containing several pieces of pickled radish.
I went out through the kitchen to the back yard. An unpicked squash lay rotting in the soil. Dust covered the edge of the porch. Perhaps because the house sat a little up the hill, I could see past the yard, far into the distance. Two jeeps were driving into the village along the road I’d taken last night. Hunting season was in full swing. Hunters from all over the country will flock here, and shots will ring out non-stop until the season ends next February.
“Park Gicheol’s elderly mother picks pine mushrooms. Folks from the village collect a nice profit from picking them in the fall. She usually eats lunch up in the woods, a rice ball seasoned with some salt and pepper, and then she makes her way back down in the evening.”
But it was November and the season for picking pine mushrooms was over, so where was she? Even if there were any mushrooms left in the woods, they would have frozen by now, since the temperature had dropped below zero for the past several days. And frozen mushrooms weren’t worth much. But the villagers wouldn’t have missed any, would they?
A frame hung between the door and the eaves. It wasn’t difficult to find the man I assumed was Park Gicheol. True to his nickname, his large, droopy eyes, not to mention his long neck and pointed chin, resembled those of a deer.
But there was another reason Park was called The Deer. No one in the village knew the woods as well as he had. He’d even moved like one, leaping through the woods and valleys with his strong, nimble legs. The detective shared some of the stories he’d heard from the villagers. “A hunter saw Park in front of a shop in town. He said the shadow cast on the wall behind Park wasn’t that of a human! What else could this mean except that Park is more deer than human?” The detective knew how to mix just the right amount of hyperbole with facts; he had a certain flair for storytelling.
I wandered around the house, killing time. I waited for more than an hour, but Park’s mother didn’t come. Under the narrow porch I saw a pair of rubber boots I assumed had belonged to Park. The black boots were caked with mud up to the ankles. I hadn’t seen a single spot on my way over here where you would get that much mud on your shoes. Judging by the boot size, he seemed to have been rather small.
Last month around mid-October, Park Gicheol was discovered by a villager who had gone into the woods to pick pine mushrooms. He’d already stopped breathing by that point. His body was covered in dew, and his pants were soaked with blood from a wound in his right thigh. Flies, their wings still wet with dew, swarmed over his body. The cause of death had been ruled as blood loss due to a hunting accident. Since the accident had occurred before the start of the hunting season, it meant the bullet that had killed Park had been fired from an unregistered firearm. It was, no doubt, the work of a poacher.
Poachers had been causing a lot of trouble. Usually in groups of three, they prowled the deserted trails in jeeps. While the driver circled the base of the mountain, the second person shone a powerful searchlight into the woods, and if an animal was spotted, the third person fired.
Those overhunted creatures were then sold off to specialty restaurants. Perhaps Park Gicheol, bounding through the woods in the dark, had looked like a deer. Hunting accidents like this happened sometimes. Though he had been shot in his right leg, he should have been able to make it home on his one good leg. So why, then, had he been discovered at the edge of the hunting grounds, in the opposite direction of his house? Park, who knew the entire area like the back of his hand, would never get lost, even in the dark. Then was it a suicide disguised as an accident? Park had left his mother, his only beneficiary, with a tidy sum when he died.
I didn’t head down to the village. Instead, I walked through the woods. The deer farm where Park had worked wasn’t very far from his house. Two months before his death, the farm had burned to the ground when an electrical short circuit sparked a flame in the middle of the night. Park saw the fire and rushed to the farm, but all the deer pens were already engulfed in flames. The previous detective seemed to have believed that there was a connection between Park’s death and the fire. The detective had met Ahn Seongman, the owner of the deer farm, numerous times. Ahn lived in town. He may have been the owner, but all he’d done was drop by the farm occasionally. It was Park who’d managed everything.
The yard was scorched in places. When Park had opened the gate, flaming deer had dashed around the yard, spreading the fire. Now, the charred wreckage of the pens were all that remained of the farm.
After waiting nearly an hour for a car to drive by on its way into town, I was finally able to hitch a ride with a truck. Unlike the previous night, I saw many jeeps entering the village from all parts of town, headed for the hunting grounds. The truck driver was another Kim, and owned a corner store back in the village. He sometimes took supplies into town. He didn’t open his mouth unless he was asked a question. We ran across many jeeps heading in the opposite direction on the narrow road. Each time, the truck driver backed up and moved out of the way. Besides the fact that both men were quiet and reserved, Mr. Kim, the head of the Kim clan, and Kim, the truck driver, had something else in common. Even the young truck driver who’d first driven me to the village had been the same. They all had an unhurried way about them, with sharp jawlines and large, serene mouths, big eyes that drooped at the corners. How could I put it? They resembled gentle herbivores, animals that would chew cud, moving their jaws slowly.
Unlike the village, the town was bustling. Elementary school students were heading home after school, illegally parked jeeps were everywhere, their drivers honking their horns, and the pressure cookers set out in front of specialty restaurants hissed their sticky steam. Music blasted from every store. In the city it would have sounded like white noise, but here, the commotion added to the gaiety. I didn’t need to search the whole town to find Ahn Seongman. According to the detective’s notes, Ahn would be at Mother Earth Tearoom at this hour.
Ahn had smooth skin for someone his age. In fact, he’d make the perfect Santa Claus, if he’d had a white beard and a red costume. But unlike Santa, his eyes were bloodshot and veiled. Though he had lost all his deer, the girls at the tearoom still referred to him as the owner of the farm. He glanced up at my face and spoke informally right away, saying I was young enough to be his son. Even so, he was far from grandfatherly to the girls at the tearoom, who were young enough to be his grandchildren. A girl who’d been bantering with him moved to another table to give us some privacy. Though she was wearing false lashes and heavy makeup, she looked barely twenty. Ahn smacked his lips.
“How many times do I have to say the same thing? If I’d had all that time, I would have found the perpetrator by now.”
“This is all so that we can find the shooter. Help us out just one more time, won’t you, boss?”
People are the same. If you humble yourself, they relent. The thing is, we couldn’t care less who the perpetrator was. That was another department’s responsibility. All I had to do was determine the manner of death, if it was a suicide, homicide, or accident.
“What does a fire on a deer farm have to do with a shooting accident?” Ahn said, picking up his cup and sipping his now-cold tea.
Though I could read greed in his eyes, he was still choosing to adopt the role of Santa Claus. He had picked up the teacup to avoid my eyes. At times like this, I just had to be straightforward.
“I believe you were raising deer not for their antlers, but for a different reason.”
Ahn called over a girl and ordered another cup of tea. He thrust his flushed face up to mine. I caught a whiff of stale breath and medicinal herbs. He admonished me, as he would a son.
“Look here, poachers have killed off nearly all the wild boars and rabbits out there. Have you even gone into the woods? You got to be careful because of all the illegal traps they’ve set up. You know Mr. Kim, don’t you? He stepped on one, too. And those poachers don’t even collect the animals they’ve trapped. The woods are full of carcasses. Game reserves raise animals like pheasants and release them during hunting season. Even here, they just released two thousand pheasants. So what’s the big deal? I’m releasing deer already paid for so that people can hunt them. I’m not breaking any laws. Plus, this offsets overhunting by half.”
Ahn let slip more information than he realized. He rinsed his mouth with the tea the girl brought and smacked his lips again. I’d seen the wound on Kim’s leg. Though it had since healed, the scar was distinct enough to count the spikes from the trap. Ahn had revealed Park Gicheol hadn’t only been in charge of looking after the deer. During hunting season, he would have accompanied the hunters. After all, no one knew the area better than him. Plus, Park was nimble. Someone like Mr. Kim with his limp wouldn’t have been able to do what Park had. The hunters may have been the ones to give Park his nickname, not the villagers.
“By the way, do you happen to know a Kim Jinseong?” I blurted.
I’d only remembered the name as I was walking out. It had been included in the information the detective had transferred over to me, and for some reason, it occurred to me just then that Ahn might know who he was. Though he was sitting with his back to the entrance, I saw his shoulders go stiff.
“Hmm, doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.
The girl, who had been sitting next to Ahn with her legs crossed, cut in. “Boss, maybe he means Mr. Kim from Seoul?”
“W-w-well, maybe,” Ahn stammered. “How can anyone keep track of so many Kims?”
The name Kim Jinseong had been written at the very end of the detective’s report. But unlike the other names, there was no other information about him. And then just as he was starting to investigate Kim Jinseong, he’d resigned from the case.
Since I was in town, I went into a store and bought a padded parka. I even bought a pair of hiking boots. At the stationery store, I picked up some instant heat packs and a flashlight. If I wanted to move ahead with the investigation, I had to go in the woods in the middle of the night, just as Park had. What exactly happened there at night?
It was easy to find my way back into the village. I just hitched a ride with one of the jeeps heading into the hunting grounds. My companions were two middle-aged men and a third man probably twenty years younger.
“So how’s it looking out there?” asked the young man, who was driving. He seemed to have mistaken me for a local. “Lots of game around? It’s our first time here.”
“They just released two thousand pheasants into the woods.” I simply repeated what I’d gotten from Ahn Seongman.
“Since they have wings, you can’t guarantee they’ll all stay in the woods,” said one of the middle-aged men in the back, who’d been stroking the stock of his double shotgun. “I much prefer land animals. Like deer and wild boar.”
The other middle-aged man snorted. “Hey, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Double shotguns are the best for hunting pheasants. Don’t take a bad shot at the wrong animal and make it suffer for nothing. Forget everything and just set your sights on a pheasant.”
The two men snickered like boys and jostled each other. Park Gicheol had roamed the woods all night, a gunshot wound to the thigh. It seemed Ahn had made quite a profit off his farm until now, since his seemed to be the only one near the hunting grounds. Park had accompanied the hunters. If a deer got shot and disappeared into the woods, he would have tracked its prints to find it. Or if a hound found it instead, maybe Park would have slung the deer over his shoulders and taken it back to the hunters. He may have even skinned the deer himself, and connected the hunters to the restaurants in town that would cook the venison. But two months before Park’s death, the deer farm had gone up in flames. The hunters coming to hunt this season would have to be satisfied with pheasants and ducks, and possibly wild boar, if they’re lucky.
Back at Park’s house, his elderly mother barely managed to sit up and drink the water by her bed.
“Since he died, I’ve been going into the woods every day. I think it’s going to rain. My whole body’s sore . . . The gods must be crazy. They leave the person who’s supposed to go and take the one who’s supposed to stay.”
It was difficult to understand her. Her words tumbled past her few remaining teeth. It seemed she’d run out of tears to shed. Time had sucked all the moisture from her body and left her with wrinkles.
“I’ve combed through every corner of the woods, but I can’t find it. There’s a pine mushroom patch only he knew about. When the mushrooms were in season, he’d take me there and we’d bring them back by the bagful. I keep thinking about that spot. Just one more time, I want to see it before I die. I know these woods pretty well myself, but I can’t find it . . . Now he’s gone, and somewhere out there, there’s a place filled with pine mushrooms.”
Her cloudy eyes skimmed the yard, as if she were seeing the mushrooms. The fireplace was damp, as though it hadn’t been lit for a long time. As I started up the fire, smoke filled the kitchen. I slipped my hand under the mat where she lay and felt the floor starting to grow warm.
“Do you know a Kim Jinseong by any chance? Have you heard of him?”
Weakly, she shook her small head. “. . . I didn’t think he would die. I should have put a stop to it when he started bounding through the woods like a deer. Now he’s died like one, too.”
I was left with no choice now but to start where the other detective had left off. Who was this Kim Jinseong?
I arrived at Mr. Kim’s house to find the yard filled with people. They were from various parts of the village, all members of the Kim clan. In other words, they were also related to Park. They asked how big of a settlement Park’s mother was going to receive. They also wanted to know who would be next in line if, for some reason, she was unable to receive it. The other detective had mentioned experiencing something similar, and that it had made him think again about human nature. Maybe it was a good thing he had quit the investigation. On the other hand, there’s a category of people who remain unfazed by these types of situations, not because they’ve grown numb, but because they tend to be more objective. And those kinds of people respond this way: “Please wait until the investigation is complete.”
The real ugliness will begin after Park’s elderly mother gets the insurance money. I pushed my way through the crowd and climbed onto the stoop. It wasn’t easy to remove my boots. While in the middle of untying my laces, I happened to look down and see the faces in the yard. With a start, I realized they resembled a herd of deer. As soon as I saw their fearful gazes, full of suspicion, I swallowed the question I’d been about to ask. Just as Ahn Seongman hadn’t, I knew they wouldn’t tell me about Kim Jinseong. Though I didn’t know who Kim Jinseong was, I could tell they were all afraid of him.
I sat on the bench in front of the pharmacy, waiting for the girl from Mother Earth Tearoom to come back from her delivery. Buses constantly pulled into the terminal and left. Even more jeeps had taken over the sides of the road than when I had come to town several days earlier. I called to the girl as she pulled up on her scooter. She was wearing long boots over a short skirt.
“What brings you back here?” she asked, recognizing me right away.
Though she wasn’t even chewing gum, it sounded as if she was.
“You know Kim Jinseong well, don’t you?”
“You expect me to share that kind of information for free?”
Each time she blinked, her false lashes folded and opened like a fan.
“You know what? I like you, so I’ll tell you, but I don’t actually know him that well. All I know is that he lives in Seoul and owns a small business. He’s got all kinds of connections, though. Who cares if none of that’s true? The important thing is, he’s generous to everyone here.”
Opening day of the season was November 1. The hunting areas rotated every year, but according to the girl, Kim Jinseong came to this place even when the grounds weren’t open. Why would he come here in the off-season, when hunting was illegal? The girl grinned. Each time she grinned, a dimple formed in her left cheek.
“Are you asking because you really don’t know, or because you’re naïve? They came here last year around this time. Closed season? Who actually follows those rules? You think I actually have a motorcycle license to drive this scooter? Every time they come here, they drop a lot of dough, so people just keep their mouths shut and pretend not to notice anything.”
Young or old, it didn’t matter—everyone was always trying to teach me something. Her cell phone rang, and she answered it.
“I gotta go. I’m behind on my deliveries. They’re all Seoul customers. Can you believe all the motels and hotels around here are full? Stop by the tearoom later. Don’t just order a coffee and take off, okay?”
Her scooter puttered across the road. A jeep trailed her from behind and honked its horn, pulling up next to her. She leaned in close to the open window on the passenger side and exchanged a few words with the driver. Shortly after, the jeep pulled into the left-turn lane to wait for the signal. The girl looked back at me and pointed toward the jeep. It wasn’t hard to read what she mouthed: Kim Jinseong.
Kim Jinseong’s party, which consisted of three jeeps, went in and out of the woods ceaselessly. He looked different from the other hunters. Though in his late-forties, he was fit and lean. He’d registered at the local police station as soon as he arrived, and was also using registered firearms. His was a pump shotgun. The other members in his group used double-barreled shotguns, either the side-by-side or the over-under. Even with a more classic gun, where he had to pump the gun to reload after each shot, he easily caught five pheasants, which was the daily catch limit. As per the law, he stopped hunting at sunset, and stored his guns at the police station. He abided by every law. He seemed to be doing nothing wrong.
I put on a sweater underneath my parka and slipped out of my room for a quick stroll. I had intended to head back before the night grew deeper, but I changed my mind midway. After all, I had my flashlight. A large disk of light lit the darkness ahead. It was slow-going, since I could only see what was directly ahead of me. I passed the totem poles and walked up the mountain path that led to Park’s house. Though I had traveled this path many times now, the trees looked bizarre and even grotesque in the dark. I walked quickly. I started to sweat.
It seemed Park’s mother was still awake. Light spilled from her window. She’ll receive the insurance money soon, and she will see a fortune she has never known. Her peaceful life will come to an end. The fog surged in from the edge of the hunting grounds, across the river and past the field of reeds.
When I was between Park’s house and the deer farm, it started to rain. I needed to get back to Mr. Kim’s house before the rain got worse. The wet leaves became as slippery as ice. After I slipped and fell twice, I took my hand out of my pocket. In the beam of my flashlight, the rain pierced the forest like silver arrows. The woods started to grow pungent.
It was when I’d finally reached the road leading to the hunting grounds: the headlights of a jeep flashed through the trees. Gravel popped out under its tires. Its headlights swept across the woods, exposing more than what daylight revealed. The rain was coming down hard. Gun shots rang out.
On this night, another kind of hunt was underway. Even from where I stood, I could see the jeep lights. I turned off my flashlight, ducked, and made for the lights. The rain streamed into my eyes, blurring my vision. I moved quietly under tall trees. Another shot rang out. This time, it came from a different direction. The rain covered the echo of the shots, but I could tell they weren’t using pump or double-barreled shotguns. It occurred to me that if I went down to the road, I could very well get shot. I had no choice but to walk through the woods toward Mr. Kim’s house. I just wanted to get back to my warm room.
Two jeeps were stopped on a narrow, deserted trail. The interior lights were on, but I couldn’t see inside because the windows were fogged up. The door of one of the cars flew open and a girl in high heels and an ankle-length parka scrambled out and made a run for the woods; she didn’t get far. She slipped and fell backward. Even in the dim taillights, I could tell who she was. Though her eye makeup had smeared down her cheeks, it was the girl from Mother Earth Tearoom. Someone inside the car swiped at the fogged-up window. Through the small opening that formed, a face appeared. It was Kim Jinseong.
He climbed out of the jeep, zipping himself up, and then with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, he went after the girl. Judging from the way he staggered, he was very drunk. Even the girl, who’d fallen on her rear-end and was now backing away, was just as drunk. He aimed the shotgun at her face. “Bang!” he cried.
The door of the second jeep opened and a middle-aged man snickered at them. He was drunk, too. The girl meekly climbed back into Kim Jinseong’s jeep. She was like a bird caught in a snare. All of a sudden, the headlights of the jeep flashed on and off. I blocked the blinding light with my hand and quickly ducked. Kim Jinseong, who had been climbing into his jeep, turned and looked in my direction. He yelled to the other jeep, “Hurry! The searchlight!”
“You crazy? What if we get caught?”
“Do what I say. I just saw a deer!”
“The Deer? What’s the matter with you? He’s dead. Are you that wasted?”
“No, a real deer! I just saw the scared-shitless eyes of a deer! I told you to turn on the searchlight!”
The drunk Kim Jinseong was reckless. Even before the searchlight came on, he fired a round in my direction. I hid in the ditch. The bullet tore through a branch right above me. Water seeped through my clothes and soaked my chest. The searchlight was blinding.
“Shit, I lost him! Lee, turn it that way! There!”
I army-crawled along the ditch. My face became covered with mud. I tasted mud. I couldn’t move quickly. My body had grown sluggish since completing my army service eight years ago. I wanted to shout for help, but I knew no one would hear me. The houses were too far away. I recalled the faces of all those who had gathered in Mr. Kim’s yard. Their angular jaws, large eyes, and thick lips—spooked deer, every one of them. In moments of danger, deer duck their heads. All of a sudden, I thought of something. The man who’d first given me a ride to the village in his truck, he’d been terrified of the woods at night. His reaction had been almost exaggerated. Even Mr. Kim had told me many times not to go walking around at night. They all knew. They all knew how The Deer had died. Another gunshot rang out. Gravel exploded. I knew those guns weren’t registered. So even if there were another hunting accident, they wouldn’t be able to trace the crime back to them. The girl from the tearoom was there, but she was drunk and scared. The searchlight whipped across the woods.
“There! It’s a wild boar! It had yellow eyes!” shouted Kim Jinseong.
They were experts. But they weren’t just any experts. They could tell what kind of animal it was just by looking at the eyes. They went the other way into the woods to chase after the boar. I had to flee to where the jeeps couldn’t go. Park’s body had been found in the opposite direction from the village. He must have thought the same thing and fled deep into the forest where the jeeps couldn’t follow him. And while he’d run further away, his life had drained out through the small wound in his thigh.
The cotton padding of my parka sagged with rain. Walking became more difficult under its weight. But I couldn’t just discard it here. They would roam through the forest all night, and if they learned that someone had seen their faces, they wouldn’t stop until they caught me. I broke out into a cold sweat under my drenched underclothes.
In the rain and the dark, I lost my bearings. I had no choice but to press even deeper into the dark. Maybe I was hearing things, but there seemed to be footsteps coming after me. I tripped and rolled down a knoll. I hit my head on the base of a tree and cut my forehead open. The blood from the gash mixed with the rain and trickled into my mouth. It tasted salty and fishy.
I seemed to be stumbling around in circles. Another shot rang out behind me. I had to keep moving to avoid getting hit or dying of exposure.
It was only when I tried to lift my foot that I realized it was stuck. The miry mud clung to my ankle and wouldn’t let go. When I tried to pull my boot free, my foot slipped out of the boot instead. I’d lost all feeling in my wet feet a long time ago.
After barely managing to cross the muddy field, I started to climb a low hill, but stepped on something slick and slipped again. I tried to get up, but my palm, which I’d thrust out, slipped as well, and I fell back. When I lifted my hand, something soft and mushy came away between my fingers. Though it was dark, I could tell what they were. I groped the ground. Everywhere I touched was covered with pine mushrooms. I recalled the muddy boots that had been sitting under Park’s porch. Park, who knew these woods like the back of his hand, could have avoided the mud. But the only way to get to the mushroom patch was to cross the mud field. I had stumbled upon the mushroom patch that had eluded even his mother. The mushrooms were so big that some of them were fifteen centimeters long. I started laughing. I couldn’t stop laughing.
It was around dawn when I finally made it to Park’s house. The rain had stopped, too. Far below, several jeeps were slipping out of the village along the lower road. Sensing my presence, Park’s elderly mother opened the door to her room and peered out. I could tell from her expression how frightful I must have looked. She told me later that she’d thought I was a rebel fighter. My legs gave out and I collapsed onto her living room floor, saying the same words over and over again. “I found it, I found it!”
Early in the morning, two days later, I was sitting in the back of a truck heading to town. I would be back in Seoul by evening. I liked nights in Seoul, because they weren’t pitch black. Jeeps were heading into the hunting grounds in single file. A heavy fog half-shrouded the woods I’d blindly roamed two nights ago. Had it really been a hunting accident? Two months before Park’s death, the deer farm had burned to the ground. There wasn’t a single deer left to hunt. Park was helping the hunters. When they became drunk out of their minds, they had probably started to go after a human deer. The police will uncover the full story. That night when I was fleeing through the woods, it wasn’t the boar, bear, or tiger that I most feared. I’d only wished that I wouldn’t come across another human being.
Never go for a walk in the woods at night. Especially when it rains. An accident could happen at any moment. A creature spewing double barrels of fire could come and set off a deafening roar. Rabbits, raccoons, boars, roes, and deer are slaughtered all through the night. But an entirely different animal could end up dead.
The truck bounced up as if it had rolled over a big rock. I bounced up, too. My tailbone started to ache. The gash ran through my eyebrow and stopped just above my eye. The other detective had known everything. He’d quit after he’d gotten spooked in the middle of the investigation. He’d known exactly what went on in the woods during those rainy winter nights. That sneaky motherfucker. He’d given me every detail about the case, except the most important thing.
From “Night Poaching” from the collection Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan. Used with the permission of the publisher, Open Letter. Copyright © 2020 by Ha Seong-nan.