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Previously Published


Nine-Tailed Heart

By Jessica Cho | | Jessica Cho
Edited by Lian Xia Rose || Narrated by Ashley E. Oh || Produced by Katalina Watt
3500 words

I visit the city gardens at my therapist’s suggestion to break from routine, to get out of the apartment and away from the memories. He thinks it would be good to revisit the things I enjoyed before, things that would remind me of the person I had been. He doesn’t say he’s disappointed in the progress I’ve made so far, but I can hear it in his careful language. It’s not that I should be doing better, but wouldn’t it be nice, if…?

I force a smile, agree. It’s easy to agree when I’m already envisioning another day spent inside, blinds drawn, TV on and phone turned off, sitting alone amidst the tangle of loose threads that my life has become. Another day convincing myself that if I just stay still enough, keep blank enough, I can ignore the silent void that hovers over me like a shadow I can’t see. 

But when Sunday arrives, I surprise myself by getting out of bed, putting on real pants and leaving the apartment while it could still be considered morning. It’s been ages since I last visited the gardens—Dale was never fond of flowers—but my feet remember the way through the winding streets until I’m paying for my ticket at the gate and it’s too late to go anywhere but in.

It is here, among the scents of rose and wisteria, the hum of dragonflies and the chatter of birds, that the gumiho finds me.

She takes a seat across from me in the garden cafe, as graciously as if she were invited. Though she appears as a woman, fills the space of a woman, the dark yellow eyes that track my movements belong to something wholly otherwise. Her tails swish idly behind her, overflowing her seat onto the grass in a waterfall of black-tipped russet. 

“I am here for your heart.”

The words are spoken matter-of-factly and I receive them the same way, my halmoni’s voice echoing in my ears, warning me always to be wary of foxes.

“Tea?” Her voice is courteous, her claws thick and blunt against the clay pot. She pours dark liquid into two cups and passes one to me. I know before the first sip that it won’t be the same mellow brew I ordered when I first sat at the table alone. Instead, it tastes of smoke and barley, of stars and wind and something wild that I cannot name. It fills my senses, stirs something in the recess of my mind like the echo of a memory, but it’s gone before I can reach for it.

Instead, I think of my halmoni’s stories, the faded illustrations she showed me of the sharp-faced woman with teeth stained red, nine tails fanned out around both her and the dead man at her feet. They are always the same, her stories. Always a fox. Always a man.

I start to speak. “The legends say—”

“The legends are wrong.” She watches me coolly, unperturbed, and I stop, brought up short by her interruption.

How can I argue, when one sits at the table in front of me?

“I am nearing the end of my span,” she says, sipping from her own cup. “You see me as both a woman and a fox. I am neither. I am more. Without hearts to sustain me, I become… less.”

“And who wants that?” I say, thinking how much less I would be, sans heart. Her tails flick towards me, my selfishness unappreciated.

She smiles, revealing small, sharp teeth made for tearing flesh, a tongue curled for lapping blood. “Soon,” she says. “But not today. The hearts of eight men come first, then yours.”

Something must have shown on my face, for she wrinkles her nose at me as she stands, but says nothing more. Her tails swirl behind her and she gathers them up like coats, or cats, draping them over her arm in a sumptuous pile.

“Why me?” My halmoni’s stories never covered that part. “Why mine?”

She turns to cock her head at me in a gesture I find both charming and unsettling. She touches the place above my heart, and for the first time since I came home to an empty apartment with a Dale-shaped hole in it, I feel something shiver in my chest.

“Because you no longer use it.”

• • •

I encounter her the next day when walking home from work. After a day spent in the glow of office lights and computer screens, she seems otherworldly to my eyes, sitting outside a small street cafe with a pot of tea on the table. Her tails, no less perfect than before, now number only eight.

“Is this what you mean by becoming less?” I ask, taking a seat across from her, the second cup a waiting invitation. I breathe in the rising steam and again, something like memory shudders loose. A cafe much like this one, but a thousand miles away, filled with people speaking a language that wasn’t mine. I sat there once and at others like it, back when I followed my want and will.

It feels like a lifetime ago.

“I am no less than I was before,” she says. “In many ways, I am more.” Her fingers brush the corner of her mouth and she smiles, as if consuming a man’s heart is no different than enjoying a pleasant meal with friends. Perhaps it isn’t.

“Who was he?”

“A man. Nothing more, nothing less. Not like you.”

I don’t believe her, but neither do I know how to press.

“They do not suffer,” she tells me. “They do not fear. I am not the monster you think I am.”

I never thought of her as a monster, even when I was a child listening to stories in the dark, even as her tails lash with the fading vigor of the hunt and I see blood dried dark on her fingertips. I can no more think of her as evil than I would a wolf chasing down rabbits, or a tiger running down a deer.

Perhaps it will be different when I am the one in her sights.

• • •

That night as I lie in bed alone, I dream of her, or something like her. It slips through the periphery on silent feet, following me deep into restless sleep. I am younger here, a form of me both fearless and hungry for adventure. I dream that I’m standing at the edge of a cliff above the sea, arms thrown wide and ready to receive whatever the world will give me.

When Dale appears, as charming and sweet as when I first met him, I take his hand, making space for him beside me. Instead, he tugs back hard enough to pull me away from the edge and against his chest, where he wraps his arms around me, solid and strong and safe. His embrace tightens and for a moment, I feel like I’m suffocating.

The gumiho darts out of the shadows, snapping and snarling, jaws slick and eyes aglow. Startled, I pull away from Dale’s arms and suddenly I’m over the edge of the cliff and I’m falling, falling, falling. On the cliff above me, Dale is gone and only the gumiho remains, watching as I plummet through the air without a sound.

I wake back in my own bed, my heart tight in my chest like a knot I can’t unravel. I stare at the ceiling until dawn, my eyes avoiding the places where his clothes once hung, where his picture once stood before I came back to find him gone without even a note. I roll over, pressing my face into the pillow, and imagine that I can still catch the scent of him, though I stripped the bed and replaced the sheets the day he left.

The gumiho can chase away my dreams, but does nothing to the ghosts that haunt the waking world.

• • •

“How can the legends be wrong?” I ask when I see her next, seated beside a park fountain, fingers trailing in the water. She is a picture of repose, unhurried in either action or answer, as if it never occurred to her that the world might change when she isn’t looking.

“I write my own story,” she says at length. “What good is it to be legendary if I must remain within the boundaries?” She yawns, her jaws stretching wide, tongue curled. I can smell the metallic tang of blood and wonder whose heart she’s eaten this time. I wonder if he minds.

“You humans love your redemption stories,” she continues. Her seven tails dab at the water, teasing the fish within. “The demon abstains from abhorrent behaviours for long enough and she sheds her demonic aspect. Becomes fully human.” She snorts. “A simple tale for children.” Her lip curls and I catch another glimpse of teeth, sharp and slightly curved. “As if human is the elevation to which we all aspire.”

Her words fill me with a peculiar shame. I turn away, quiet for a moment as I crumble the remains of my scone into the fountain. The fish rise to the surface with mouths open in absurd astonishment at this largess. I wish I could be more like them, untethered yet content to swim in circles, bumping up against the walls that contain them and forgetting again before they reach the other side.

Finally, I speak. “But the stories—”

She shrugs, tails rippling in unison with her slender shoulders. “Sometimes we are bound by our stories. Sometimes we bind our stories to ourselves.”

Except me. I am neither bound nor binding, the tapestry of my life having come unwound and frayed, leaving me with only loose ends and tattered edges. Not for the first time, my thoughts shift to the reason she claimed drew her to me, to my placid heart with its flat, steady beats. I picture her fingers closing around it, her skin stained with liquid red to match the brilliance of her tails. I imagine the heat of her breath and the shudder of flesh as it gives way under her teeth.

“Will it hurt?” I ask as she licks the blood from her nails, now slender and smooth, no longer shaped for digging. For hunting.

“When it happens, that is up to you.” She looks at me and I notice her eyes are now brown as earth, still sharp with senses I can only guess at. “It does not have to. But it can.”

Somehow, I understand her words are not a threat, but a choice.

• • •

“How do you do it?” We sit on the lawn outside the library, watching students flow up and down the steps in a steady stream. Seeing them stirs an ache in me, a reminder of when I was young and eager, a thousand possibilities stretching out before me like gleaming strands waiting to be followed.

“Hmm?” Her nonchalance is a knife in my chest. For her to be so calm and unperturbed while planning to eat my heart, my life— it hurts as much as I imagine the piercing of my skin and the cracking of my bones would.

“When you— take their hearts.” I almost say when you kill them, but that’s not the right question. I know how men die, at least in theory. And callous though it may be, it’s not their deaths that interest me, but their last moments of living, as they will one day be mine.

She is silent for a moment, then curls closer, crushing fallen petals beneath her body. The air fills with the scent of their ruin.

“Do you want to see?”

It’s my turn to be silent as my mouth opens to say yes, but my instincts, the small, rabbit-scared parts of my brain, resist. She sighs, an almost imperceptible movement, and the veil between us drops.

She is no longer a woman sitting beside me, but neither is she a fox, for all her teeth and tails. She is more than either, more than both and much, much larger than the space she fills. She is sinew and grace, compact muscle and bone, and beneath it all, I can sense her animal hunger, her impatience.

In the space of a heartbeat, she is upon me, deceptively strong for so slight a frame. My mouth dries up as she leans in close until her lips are mere centimeters from mine and I can smell the salt-sharp scent on her breath, the earthy notes of muscle and blood. A man’s heart.

“Look.” Her voice is no longer quiet or controlled. Instead, her words come out in harsh, rasping barks. Her wildness has risen to the surface and she fills my vision, her eyes savage with the flame of the hunt. Her lips peel away from her teeth, her breath hot and panting against my cheek, my own caught in my throat.

I can feel her hunger, her need, screaming across my skin and through my veins like liquid fire until it fills me to bursting and even then I cannot look away. I know only the depths of her eyes, the heat of her blood, the chambers of her heart. I know now what those men see before they die, their senses filled with the terrible wonder of her.

Their death must come as a kindness.

Just as suddenly, it is over. She is seated once more in the grass, her visage calm and unreadable with only the lashing of her tails giving any indication of the violence that pressed me to the ground just moments ago.

I remain where I lay, head spinning, mouth dry with shock and exhilaration. The taste is strange and out of place, but not unwelcome. My hands still tremble with residual adrenaline and sympathetic energy and I realise I’m panting with—what? Anticipation? Need? All I know is that it’s not fear and that frightens me more than anything.

My heart hammers in my chest, beating against my ribs as if to escape its bone cage and deliver itself into her waiting jaws.

• • •

I lock myself in my apartment, determined to stay away from the creature who has bewitched me. I strive to overwhelm my senses, burn incense to drive out the smell of flowers, turn the television up until the neighbours are pounding at the walls. I miss my therapy appointment and let calls from work go unanswered.

For the first time since Dale left, I pull the framed picture of us from the drawer where I shoved it after finding him gone. I thought about throwing it out, wiping away every trace of him, but it still felt too raw, too close to give up.

Two sets of eyes look up at me from carefree, happy faces. Dale, looking young and confident with that easy grin I loved so much. I almost don’t recognise the woman beneath his arm as me. We’re standing on a flat-topped cliff, the endless blue of the ocean extending behind us. It was the first trip we took together, what I’d thought would be the first of many. I had thought a lot of things.

The changes seemed so reasonable, at first: upgrade to a new apartment with more space for the two of us; get a decent, if boring job with good benefits, just for a little while; build up some savings. Before I knew it, we settled into a routine. Work. Home. Dinner, maybe a movie. Sleep. We barely even went out into the city anymore, even on weekends. Dale always preferred to stay home, comfortable, easy.

By the time I realised how deeply entrenched in this life I had become, it was too late to do anything about it. Even worse, I didn’t even want to try.

I stare at the photo in the echoes of an empty home. My blood hums, racing through my veins from heart to fingertips, to the soles of my feet and back again. I feel something stir inside me, a sleeping fierceness that now begins to wake. To hunger.

Sometimes we are bound by our stories. Sometimes we bend our stories to ourselves.

I place the picture back in the drawer, sliding it carefully shut. I close my eyes to the spaces where he once was, imagine cutting away the threads that once connected us both, threads that over time became more of him and less of me, until all I could do was cling to the very ends of what was left. A woman who gave her heart away freely and carelessly, but for a small space where she kept her halmoni’s stories. A woman who once dreamed in crimson and black, with sharp edges and sharper teeth.

A woman who once went to visit gardens.

Something shivers in my chest as I gather up the loose strands of my own story and begin to weave them back into a whole. Beside me, I hear the beat of eight hearts, all out of sync with mine and I know the gumiho watches, eyes bright with hunger as she waits for me.

• • •

On the eighth day, I wake with knowing in my head and something new budding within my heart. I unlock my door and walk to the garden where this all began.

She sits, waiting for me. Her last remaining tail lies quietly across her arm, calm in a way I have never seen before. She strokes it absently and for a moment, I wonder if it misses its fellows.

“Today,” she says. “I will have your heart.”

Her emotions are harsher now and close to the surface. Though her physical form approaches human more and more each day, there is a growing fierceness to balance it out, a feral edge that cuts through her humanity. The fledgling story I have woven for myself stirs inside me, not yet strong enough to speak.

I am changing, too.

She joins me on the grass, closer than she has ever been, close enough that I can feel the warmth of blood beneath her skin. When I close my eyes, I can smell smoke and spice and, deep below it all, the scent of rain.

I know her now. I understand why she chose me. She is all the wildness that I knew but couldn’t hold. She is heat and stars and all that I yearned for as a child, everything I dreamed of before I met someone who replaced my dreams with his own. My mind forgot, but my heart remembers. And that is what she is here for.

I summon up impossible courage and lean across the space between us to press my lips to hers, heedless of the sharpness of her teeth. She feels as light as autumn leaves beneath my hand and tastes as I imagine she would, of tea and earth, of raw muscle and cracked bones and blood. Her lips part just the slightest and in that moment I feel something snap into place inside my chest, hard as marble, soft as breath, leaving an ache in my throat. The edges of our stories weave tight, warp to weft. I have pulled us both outside the legends, now.

We part, her hand resting against my breastbone, feeling the wild tempo of my heart rise to her touch.

“You have it,” I whisper, eyes shut, our lips so close I can feel the vibration of my words against her mouth. I know it could still be her magic, that I am ensorcelled, bespelled, but I no longer care. “You have my heart.” Inside my chest, I feel something unfurl after being so long constrained. It hurts, but sweetly, and I understand that this, too, is a gift.

When I open my eyes, I am alone.

• • •

When I return the next morning, I can sense the change. It is quiet, for one. The garden always sounded with the low hum of living things, the zip of dragonfly wings and the quiet drop of water as fish investigate the surface of their pond. But now, the birdsong is silenced and even the rustle of the breeze through the flowers is stilled.

Something red catches my eye and I turn, quelling hope before it has a chance to rise. It’s only a flower, fallen from its branch, red petals tinged dark at the tips, almost black. I hold it to my face, breathe in and catch the scent of something wild and sharp-toothed and shy.

She is out there, somewhere, in the garden, among the trees. Or perhaps farther still, a place outside the boundaries. I only know that she will come to me no longer and exists as a legend of her own now, no more a woman, no less a fox.

Shaped with the hearts of eight men. And mine.

Jessica Cho is a Rhysling Award winning SFF writer of short fiction and poetry. Born in Korea, they currently live in New England, where they balance their aversion to cold with the inability to live anywhere without snow. Previous works can be found at Flash Fiction Online, Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition, and elsewhere. They blog infrequently at and have slightly more frequent feelings and opinions on Twitter @wordsbycho.
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