It was Halloween and I was hiking in the mountains alone. It all started because I hate costumes. My friends were all dressing up and having a party or something but I couldn’t make myself get into the right spirit. So I went hiking.
I hadn’t intended on being out late, but that is one of the hazards of hiking unfamiliar trails in Korea. The sun was going down and the light was just turning golden when I came to a pile of rocks by the side of the trail.
At first, I thought it was natural, but then I saw the thin pieces of shale positioned up and down, like knives, behind a flat stone that looked like a small altar. There was a smaller stone lying on top of it. I picked it up without thinking but then dropped it immediately when I felt a sharp pain in my fingers. I saw blood seeping out of thin, red lines in my fingertips. I thought that the edges of the rock were just sharp until I flipped it over with a stick and saw that someone had attached razor blades to the sides of it. I clenched my bleeding fingers into my fist and tried to quell the fear that had suddenly sprung into my heart. Someone had purposefully put the blades there as a trap.
In the middle of the small rock, between the glued-on razor blades was a red circle with four Chinese characters in it. Normally, I would be fascinated by such a thing, but at that moment, I just wanted to get off the mountain. I took a picture of stones, then carefully pried the blades off the small stone and took it with me. Night fell before I could make it back to a main road, and for the first time while hiking in Korea, I walked fearfully, looking around me and starting at every night noise.
The next day, I showed the stone to a co-worker of mine, Mr. Soh. He looked at it with a frown, then asked, “Did you make this?”
“Of course not! I found it on a mountain,” I said. “Can you read the characters?”
“Yes,” he said, as if it were obvious. “It is like a name seal. The first three characters are someone’s name: Park Jong-In. The last one though—usually it is the character for “seal”. But this one is the character for “murder”. Is this is a joke?”
Not a very good joke, I thought. Neither did he, after I showed him my bandaged fingers and told him about the razor blades and the mound. “I will do some research,” he said.
It took him two weeks. I didn’t want to press him, so I didn’t mention it again. My fingers healed and the strange stones were pushed to the back of my mind. Then, late on Friday, Mr. Soh came to my classroom and put some photos on my desk.
“Do you know why Koreans build stone piles?” he asked.
“I thought it was something women did if they wanted a son,” I said.
“Sometimes. It is for any wish, or to have a prayer answered.” He showed me a picture of a short tower of stone, shaped like a beehive. I had seen many like that.
“But the one I saw—”
“I found that too. I talked to a very old mudang, a shaman who had heard of such a thing. They are not used now at all.”
“What is it, though?”
“It is a curse mound,” Mr. Soh said. “For cursing or killing someone you hate. It is the closest we have to black magic.”
I thought of the razor blades cutting my fingers and a shiver went down my back. “Do you think I’ll be okay?”
He laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “You scared? I think it will okay. The mudang said that they used to sacrifice an animal on the curse mound before putting the name stone on it. Maybe this person wanted to use human blood instead. Don’t worry, it’s a very old custom.” As if that made it any better.
When Mr. Soh left, I searched for the name Park Jong-In for almost an hour. There were hundreds of them. Just before five o’clock, I came across one article and my breath caught as I saw the words “Park Jong-In” and “body”. I could have read it in Korean, but I was impatient and I dragged the whole thing into Google Translate. As I read the clunky machine translation, my fear grew until my heart was pounding. The article read:
Last night, the body of Park Jong-In was discovered in the mountains east of the Wonju. He apparently alone path for hiking and slipped. His family on October 31, he is missing and search efforts continue after that was announced. Police unsure of the cause of the wound, but the cause of death was loss of blood due to several large wounds on hands and arms. Dominated the incident an accident.