For October, we are excited to present prose from Sally Wen Mao, best known for her poetry. This one-of-a-kind piece is simultaneously a lyric essay, a fairytale, a piece of realist fiction and a history. Mao weaves these elements together — combining the history of foxhunting with a legend of a Korean empress with the story of a modern woman — to create a beautiful piece that speaks to the rage and sorrow of being a woman of color in a white man's world.
— Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
Foxhunting is a ceremonial sport that dates back to 15th century England, with evidence of its practice going even further back to the days of Alexander the Great around 400 B.C. In most parts of the U.K., foxes were considered vermin. Since 2004, when the British Parliament passed the Hunting Act, the sport has been banned in England and Wales.
The game goes like this: huntsmen on horseback, with the aid of foxhounds, search for the fox. The foxhounds are bred to smell their quarry and follow the scent of foxes. When found, the fox becomes quarry and runs, the hunter and his hounds in hot pursuit. The Master of Foxhounds, usually a wealthy man who finances the hunt with his private funds, is legally entitled to trespass on private lands to search for the fox.
When caught, the foxes are dismembered. The Master of the Hunt presents their tails to the hunting party.
Once upon a contemporary time, a young woman transformed into a fox. Human life in the city was punishing — the rules governing her body were like manacles, telling her what to wear, how to behave, how to move about in the city. She was an exotic dancer. Her mannerisms were graceful, but grace often betrayed a sense of ignorance, the kind that kept her head down, eyes shut. To her audience, her body at its most graceful was a conduit for apology — she mimicked sleep, though she was wide awake. So much time in the limelight drained her. She began to err on stage during her performances, scaring her fellow dancers. Shunning friends, she would wander around the city alone at night, her eyes cloudy and drugged, until one day she decided to forgo it all, quit and return to the wild. The vixen was content to live out her days luxuriating in her den, a mound of mineral and ashes, learning how to survive nocturnally, organically, without light.
But one day, she caught a glimpse of a man on horseback galloping in the distance, beyond the fields of heather. It was the season after a drought left fissures on the land, the creeks all dried out. She gasped. Was he a phantom? He looked dashing in his scarlet waistcoat, catching the evening sun’s prisms. The sheen on his horse silky like almond milk, so healthy, contrasting her own coarse, knotted fur. Surrounded by brown-eyed dogs with tongues out, tails wagging.
The fox desired, for the first time in a while, her previous life. A surge of nostalgia, like a death trap hewing the edges of her den, curled her tail, softened her fur. She suddenly remembered all the vestigial desires from her human life — desires that she never fulfilled, the narratives she once imagined that never came true: a gallant man on horseback, reaching his arms out as if to rescue her. The horseman disappeared after she saw him once, but she could not stop thinking about him.
The fantasy began to beset her day and night, the prince and his steed running across the field, bringing snow, bringing ice, bringing water, bringing warmth. The steel of his sword formidable in the sun, battling dragons and ogres just to get to her, touch her and pull her out of her solitude.
George Washington owned a pack of handsome, lean foxhounds. One of his passions was foxhound breeding and foxhunts, the gentlemen’s sport. He would conduct the fox hunts at his manor in Mount Vernon, VA. In spring, the hounds bayed, the horses leapt and raced over the open fields, and beyond, the Potomac River roared.
Before daybreak, George would eat an early breakfast, then mount his horse in a blue coat, a scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, boots, velvet cap. He carried a whip. He brought friends, many gentlemen who wanted to participate in a gentleman’s sport. Their main quarry was the red fox — a bushy, spry creature which teemed in the hills of Virginia.
George loved his horse, a slate-gray steed he named Blueskin. He loved his hounds, whom he bred himself — he named them with names like Truelove, Sweetlips, Countess, Vulcan, Singer, Dutchess, Juno, Doxey, Madame Moose. In his diaries, he described his chase, one morning after breakfast: “Found a Fox just back of Muddy hole Plantation and after a Chase of an hour and a quarter with my Dogs…we put him into a hollow tree, in which we fastened him, and in the Pincushion put up another Fox which, in an hour and 13 Minutes was killed — he was a conquered Fox we took the Dogs off, and came home to Dinner.”
The early hours had fallen, the wind dry and frigid, and the fox spent the whole night collecting food — a vole here, a dormouse there. The fox had a special ability: She could harness the earth’s magnetic field and calculate the distance and direction of her prey. The ring of shadow on her retina darkened as she gazed toward magnetic north, and when the shadow aligned with the sounds of her prey, she could find their exact location.
Now dawn was fast approaching and she heard galloping in the distance, the sound as strange as alien landings across ancient craters. The prince had a whip. His dogs were searching for her — this time their tails weren’t wagging — they snarled and their teeth sought blood. She understood finally, on a primeval level, the danger she was in — she understood that her blood was scented like pungent soil, like pollen or poisonous berries.
She turned her magnetic abilities to her predators. She raced and raced through the grasses, the fields, the fences. She raced and raced and ran out of breath and collapsed. With her hind legs buckled beneath her, she wondered whether she should surrender and give them her life because she was so ashamed. Vixens like her only knew shame because of their past lives as humans. Her every limb flooded with shame — at having been fooled, at always being the despised, hunted thing.
In the forest, she managed to find a tree with a hollow. It would be her hideout for the day, when she was weary. She climbed inside, tried to rub her fur off with the lichens and jagged bark, tried not to sweat so she wouldn’t release her scent, but her body was secreting it everywhere: the rocks, the flowers, the dried-out gullies all smelled like her. She had nowhere to escape, she climbed further and further into the tree, until at last she found the deepest pit inside the hollow, her breathing quiet and afraid. She curled into a ball and her muscles collapsed, needing rest. She let the ants crawl across her body, make their mass migrations. Soon the branches began rustling with the sound of sniffing dogs.
By nightfall, she was running again. She ran through the forest, their twigs snapping beneath her paws, now blistered with sores. Above the clouds, she was alert to the rains beginning to pour, hoping it would disorient the dogs and the hunter. She heard them ransack her den, she heard them snarl, maddened by hate and horror and lust. They were getting impatient in their pursuit — they knew she was somewhere close — they could smell her, they found evidence of her in their senses. She ran through many cities, hid in small towns, camouflaged by her own ability to shapeshift, become one with the reeds or the marsh or the pavement. Fortunately, in times of distress her body could still do this. She tried not to excrete too much and fed on insects, flying bugs. Small towns were the most dangerous; foxhunts were considered a rural art borne in the endless expanses of countryside, where there were open spaces and perfect views of stars. Nowhere to hide for a fox with a red, bushy tail.
Then one day, when she thought she had lost them, she turned around to an awesome sight: a foxhound appearing through the underbrush. He was a handsome hound, spotted with a crown of cedar fur. He was bigger than her. He could overpower her easily. His eyes were red, almost feral, his nose wet and infernal. At the sight of her he almost buckled with excitement.
“Oh boy,” he said, circling her. “Oh, boy, oh boy, I’ve caught you, my wild one, now my Master will reward me and I’ll be the bravest and the best dog in all the land.”
At first she tried to bargain with him. “I’ll give you a better reward than the master ever could,” she declared. She imagined gnawing on the dog’s mangy head, his meat for brains.
“You’re just trying to trick me, vixen.”
“Human life. I’ve been a human before, and you can too. Trust me. I’m magic. Aren’t you tired of following them all the time? They are the only species on earth who could control other species like you and me.”
“You’re stalling. My master told me never to trust a fox. I don’t have time for talk. I need your body now.” He sputtered this, drool from his jaw, lunged at her. She buckled backward and instinct made her jump vertically in the air, like when she hunted for prey buried under snow. His teeth missed her by a wide margin, and that miss was his fatality — he left himself open, his pale throat in front of her, and she bit him in the jugular, the red parts sticky, congealing as it leaked.
Red trickled on her already red fur. The hound squealed, yelped, whined and the shriek satisfied her. She clamped down, she did not let go as the dog thrashed and thrashed. Now she knew what she was, what they’d always suspected, what they’d always been afraid of. One hit in, she delivered the coup de grace. She was a victrix and a demon.
After so much starvation and running, it was only natural that she would begin biting the skin off her quarry. He was hers now.
A sudden flash reminded her of a time when she was a girl. Up until then she had not many memories of her human life, but the childhood image fluttered open like thousands of eyes. She had been reading at the library a book about the circulatory system, the pages open to a diagram of the heart. For the next week’s science exam, she was memorizing the parts of the heart: right aorta, right ventricle, left aorta, left ventricle, coronary arteries.
A boy from the same class sat down next to her. She forgot what his name was, Matt or Stan or Mick — he had been held back one or two years, and he had a sprinkle of freckles across his nose. His face was hard to read — they had never spoken before, but she knew he wasn’t doing well in the class, always mumbling, always at a loss for an answer whenever Mrs. Archer called on him.
He sat down next to her, took out his notebook. He stared at her for an uncomfortably long time, and without warning, he reached over her and tore the page out of her textbook. “I need this,” he said. “I lost my textbook.”
“It’s mine,” she said, reaching toward it.
“I heard you got all A's. I’ll give it back if you let me copy you.”
"No. And I don’t get all A's.”
"But look at you.” The sneer in his voice was suggestive, almost flirtatious. His voice had croaked recently into an ugly rasp. “No one wants you here. You have nothing better to do than study.”
She ignored him then, shut her book and slipped it into her backpack.
“Don’t you and your family eat dogs?” he sniggered, holding the sheet over her. “Even the history teacher says so. You people eat dogs.”
“My parents are white,” she said, as if this absolved her of his accusations.
He guffawed, and at this she shuddered involuntarily because he was right, in a way. The history teacher did mention in class one day, in passing, that in the summer he visited some provincial town in Asia where the local delicacy was dog meat. Sometimes this teacher, Mr. Brady, brought his own dog, a beautiful German Shepard named Lass, to school, and her classmates would take turns petting it. Shaking his head, he said, “what a shame that a man would butcher and eat his own best friend.”
For the final project that semester, Mr. Brady assigned a research paper about any period in history, so long as it occurred in the 19th century. She chose one of the most brutal assassinations in history: the deposing of Empress Myeongseong in Joseon-period Korea.
The foxhunt is a game of power and prestige. Like the British culture that birthed it, the foxhunt has its own history, tradition, customs and language. The following terms are found in the glossary of the Master of Foxhounds Association of America’s Introduction to Foxhunting:
Drain: Underground where foxes or coyotes often run to. I run and run and search for the drain where I may hide.
Full cry: When the whole pack is running hard after the quarry and throwing or giving tongue. Behind me, in pursuit, full cry — terror squad with gleaming yellow teeth.
Laid up: When a vixen fox or coyote bitch has had cubs or pups, she is said to have laid up. Once in another season, I laid up with my precious creatures.
Open bitches: Unspayed bitches that can be bred. Now, I’m an open bitch and I can be bred for vengeance.
Rat catcher: The clothing worn before the formal hunting season begins. Predawn, I watch the dashing rat catchers.
Tally ho: The halloo when anyone sees the quarry. Tally ho, the howling of an enemy.
View Halloo: A loud rebel yell or scream used when viewing the quarry. View Halloo, when I choose to be visible.
White whip: A white crop and lash (the normal color is brown) only used by huntsmen on special days. The Prince strikes at the ground with his white whip on this windy day.
Whoop: The death halloo. Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!
She spat out his blood — soon, when she had enough of the chewy, awful meat, she had to retch it out. She collapsed against the bloody loam. Now that the corpse lay before her, she was so afraid. They would have no mercy now if they caught her. She remembered the prince had a gun. A rifle that could fire multiple rounds.
She was groggy, bone-tired. The meat of the dog enervated her. But she could not just stop. One of the Master’s own prized foxhounds was missing. They could smell the hound’s blood — it was out in the open now. One of the most chilling things about composure and civility, she realized, was the murderousness hidden beneath manners. One can be dignified while tearing something into obliteration.
And just when she ran out of desire to run, she had an idea. She would shapeshift even better with a costume. She tore at the hound’s fur until she carved a new skin. Inch by inch, claw by claw, she entered the hound, made a coat out of her hunter. This new skin — this new identity — would be her hideout, for now.
The assassination plot against the last queen of Korea, Empress Myeongseong, is called Operation Fox Hunt. History calls the execution of this plot the Eulmi Incident. The 44-year-old empress opposed the Japanese occupation. At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, she collaborated with Russia and other foreign governments to retain Korean national identity.
Operation Fox Hunt was orchestrated by the Japanese viscount, Miura Goro, along with up to 50 other men. On Oct. 8, 1895, a team of male assassins stormed the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, infiltrating the courtyard where the queen’s wing was, north of the Hyangwonjeong Pavilion. They were dressed in strange gowns and armed with sabers. None of these men could recognize her or knew who she was. They forced the empress’s consorts out, stripping them and raping them, demanding information about the queen. They killed at least three women whom they mistook for the empress. According to historical accounts, the assassins found her, carried her through the hallways past her gardens, raped her, beat her, sliced her open, dismembered her, threw her onto firewood, doused her in kerosene and set her on fire. They cremated her in front of a live audience. This was the price of disobedience.
Ever since she socked Matt or Stan or Mick across the face with her textbook, knocking him to the ground and bestowing a cherry-colored bruise on his temple, she had been suspended and shunned by her classmates. Even before the “incident” she didn’t have many friends, but now even the other outcasts avoided her during lunch or after classes. Even her own foster mother, who adopted her when she was 2 years old, became distant. “You can’t get angry like that,” her mother said. “I know that boy was out of line, but darling, you have to take the high road sometimes.”
Many years later, her mother would offer this same advice to her when her boss at a chain restaurant put his hand on her ass as she was counting the cash in the register at the end of a long night and played dumb when she shouted at him, spilling all the bills on the floor at his feet, running and raging all the way home.
She stalked the streets in the skin of the hound. This kind of camouflage was too consuming; she became the dog, the hunter. The sensation disturbed her — his body didn’t just envelop hers, it was supplanting, usurping hers. She was adapting his senses into her perception as well. The keen potency of smell, the pricks on her nose opening a floodgate, overpowering all her other senses. It disoriented her walk, her vision foggy; the world turned black and white. Smells of white pines, mud, the beating organs of other animals in the forest, even the fearful sweat of skulking men. Their hunt, forestalled, waylaid by the missing hound. She heard them call for SweetTooth. They named their dog SweetTooth.
Who was she, even? Where could she go from there? When she was hunted, she felt alive with the constant threat of defilement. When she was no longer hunted, who was she, even? Invisible. At peace. Was this the feeling of those who have been possessed and colonized for so long — oh, the feeling of complicity?
Recently, a history professor, Jeong Sang-su, discovered a classified German diplomatic document stating that the empress survived her assassination plot and was alive four months after the Eulmi Incident. It was a decrypted text that the German ambassador to Russia sent to the chancellor, which stated that the Russia Consul to Seoul had received a top-secret request asking if the queen could flee to Russia.
Another document from Britain stated that the empress had escaped during the incident, discovered at the National Archives in the United Kingdom. The evidence was compelling, that Empress Myeongseong had fled Korea in disguise. She had done this before on other assassination attempts: covered her body and passed as a child, fleeing their thirsty swords.
Imagine this was real, and the empress slipped out of the pandemonium of that bloody and cloudless day incognito, escaping into the Russian Legation, where she lived out the rest of her days as an exiled widow of her nation. Eternally indoors, she raised houseplants and wrote anonymous poems. A stranger, exiled not just from her palace, from her beloved and besieged country, but also from the realm of the living. A living ghost.
If British and German intelligence were reporting the facts, then Empress Myeongseong had outfoxed the hunters. The brilliant Queen Min survived Operation Fox Hunt. Who wouldn’t want to believe this story, that the woman who attempted to guard her country’s sovereignty would live through her own brutal assassination — who wouldn’t want it to be true?
Mr. Brady circled this section of her history paper and marked in red, Questionable source and statement. The assignment is a research paper based on real history and fact, not conspiracy theories. He gave it a C+.
Despite the ugly episode with Mick or Stan or Matt, she loved libraries. In the aftermath of her suspension, she had so much time to herself. She read a lot about animals, especially foxes, because she barely knew much about her own kind, its histories, its customs, its traditions. Foxes are rather contradictory figures, both solitary and communal, primordial and contemporary. Foxes could live in every ecosystem, from the lushest to the most barren — the city, the jungle, the arctic tundra. For thousands of years they made habitats out of every continent on earth except Antarctica.
When the biological facts were exhausted, the young woman read poems. Poetry was her refuge. She loved Lucille Clifton, who wrote poems about foxes.
She memorized lines from “A Dream of Foxes”: “so many fuckless days and nights/only the solitary fox/watching my window light/barks her compassion.”
She loved all poets who wrote about foxes. Adrienne Rich: “Badly I needed/a vixen for the long time none had come near me/I needed recognition from a/triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes.”
Mary Oliver: “All night under the pines/The fox moves through the darkness/With a mouth full of teeth and a reputation/For death which it deserves.”
She wrote her own poems, too — often her topics were love and romance, which she hadn’t experienced yet in life, then when she did much later she hated romance. Early, during and late in her life, romantic love did nothing but cripple her, robbing her of her potential and clouding her senses. Heartbreak after heartbreak, disappointment after disappointment, her verses were clumsy and her metaphors heavy-handed. “Love is a skunk drunk on its own reflection/I am such a skunk/Unaware of how much I stink,” she wrote.
Instead, poetry was what convinced her she was not alone, convinced her there was salvation in living a life of unendurable alienation. Words were the only thing that incited pure delight in her. The first sentence she ever typed on a computer was The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs.
That one sentence contained every letter of the alphabet. In typing the sentence over and over again, she recognized writing as a sort of utopia where the beasts of the chase may evade the hunters. The quarry, prevailing. Moved, she typed and typed and practiced until all the words were meaningless again.
William Faulkner wrote a short story, “Fox Hunt,” published in Harper’s Magazine in September 1931. In the story, the rich protagonist, Harrison Blair, bought back his childhood family estate in South Carolina to go on foxhunts. For three years he’s been trying to catch a fox to no avail. One day, with his wife and three black servants as his witnesses, Blair runs ahead of his hunting party and eventually, his hounds, and discovers the fox in a briar patch.
He gets off his steed and wrestles with the fox, trampling it to death with his boots. The violent death of the fox occurs simultaneously with his wife leaving him for another man. In his descriptions, Faulkner conflates the wife with the fox as Blair’s quarry, uncontrollable and wild, but Blair himself is not a sympathetic character, always looking for a new game to play.
After 72 hours as a hound, she began to recognize she would rather tear herself out, rip herself out of this protection, than remain in hiding in another’s skin. The brooks lost their color. She drank from the dirty river, spat out foul water. She could no longer hunt like she used to hunt. She lost her magnetic compass, which was her only comfort besides the beautiful den she lost. What was this life for, other than solitary suffering? Other than a fruitless fight to survive? She began to molt. Shed the senses, the fur and teeth and blood. The handsome, shiny shorthair coat. The wet, vital nose that smelled everything near and far.
When she was 22, she became a dancer to pay off her tuition at Columbia, where she was studying literature and poetry. By night, she performed at clubs, dinners, dance halls, receptions. She cited the careers of prominent dancers like Jadin Wong, who danced at clubs like the Forbidden City in San Francisco, as her inspiration. By day, she wrote poems. She read novels by Kathy Acker and Clarice Lispector, poetry by Ariana Reines. Her verses were getting better. She was getting accepted to small magazines and readings.
One night four years into her dancing, she noticed a face in the crowd: that of her childhood bully, whose name she found out was neither Mick nor Stan nor Matt — it was actually Terry. He had turned into an investment banker. The venue was a newly-opened club called Den of Shadows, styled like an Old Shanghai opium den, on Mott Street. It smelled like smoke and brandy. The clientele was the kind she most detested: a certain type of young professional man, interchangeable, who wore button-downs and heavy jackets in Manhattan’s mossy summer heat. Terry was in a group of such men. They hooted at her, whistled, jeered, made obscene gestures, licked their lips. Although he made no such noises himself, she sensed something invasive in the way he looked at her. When their eyes met, the vacant, calculating lust she saw on his face was devoid of recognition.
She let him buy her a drink, to confirm this. “Do you remember me?” she asked. As he handed her a drink, he slid his hand on the small of her back.
“Trust me, if we met before, I would have remembered. Your performance was incredible. I memorized every detail.” His fingers circled her back. She stiffened.
“I’m sorry, it’s not like that.” She pulled his arm off.
“Hey, hey. Not implying anything.” His voice grew softer. “Come out with us after this. I’ll make sure you have a good time.”
“Even if I was interested, I couldn’t. I have another act in 40 minutes.”
She leaned in as if to kiss him, and he closed his eyes. “Maybe you blocked it from your memory. I don’t blame you. I gave you a black eye,” she whispered, then walked away with her whiskey Coke.
When the Master of the Hunt discovered her hideaway, every hair on her body stood and she scrambled into the brambles. A seismic panic button. A quake. The words she heard: Tally ho. He took out his whip. The sky fast dusking, turning dark, ink spreading across a bolt of cotton.
The Master’s face glowed white as phosphorus. There was nothing gentle or genteel about this gentleman and his rifle. From a distance, one would view the scene as fateful, even sexy — at the edge of the forest, the fox and her hunter. Living on her last lifeline, she finally confronted him, the subject of her fear. To the Master of the Hunt, she was the object of desire. The perfect conquest. He would relish punishing her. There would be a scuffle, branches rustling, sound of gunfire. Victory, the way gunships and industrialization determined the outcomes of 19th century wars.
In Finnish mythology, it was the fox that was responsible for the Northern Lights. The name for Aurora Borealis is “revontulet,” literally translated as “fox fires.” According to the beast fable, a magical fox swept its tail across the snow, spraying snowflakes to the sky. Thus the green fire blazed in the star-studded night. You could say that the moment that Whoop! was delivered, the fox ascended into that heavenly fire.
In the story where Empress Myeongseong was caught, the one in all the history books, she was laid to rest in a tomb in Namyangju, Gyeonggi in 1897, two years after her death. Her husband, King Gojang, arranged a mourning procession with scrolls, giant wooden horses and 4,000 lanterns honoring her memory and legacy. Korea had fallen under Japanese colonial rule, which remained in place until 1945.
In the story where Empress Myeongseong got away, the one we want to believe, she lost everything that meant something to her: her country, her husband, her identity. At first, her displacement and subterfuge would disorient her and unbury far distant memories of childhood — transported her back to when she was 8 and orphaned, and the outside world smelled rotten with garbage and that was all she thought was possible. Little did she know how sweet it could be: lilies opening in the winter gardens in February, the smell of braised octopus and winter radishes. In the world she left behind, the people mourned her, they mourned their sovereign country. In the frozen waters of her exile, the secret might bring her a little pleasure — how they didn’t know that just beyond the floe, her heart was still beating.
LOSTBOY is a queer first generation Korean American artist whose work spans identity, connections, community and desire. They have had the honor of having their drawings appear with: Lady Gaga, Samsung, Planned Parenthood, NY TImes, and many more. You can find more about their work at: www.lostboyillustrations.com Instagram @lostboyillustrations