The first thing you need to know is this: he loved his mother, and not in the way you think.
I married him because he was tall and strong, and had clean white teeth that shone in his mouth like pearls when he smiled. He courted me in the evenings when he passed by my home from the fields; first with bouquets of wildflowers, then new clothes, exquisitely embroidered. The final gift was a blue dress the colour of the sky. He told me I could wear it at our wedding. He promised he would care for me for all my life, so long as I cared for his mother while he was out in the fields.
That should have been my first warning.
The second warning was on our wedding night, when he came into bed with me stinking of takju. When he couldn’t get it up, I put it to the alcohol. The third came when he told me that he preferred to stay in his mother’s room to better care for her. We never shared beds after that.
When he came back from the fields, he sat between us at the table, but directed his words and smiles to her. At night, they would retire to the same room and I would lie alone in mine.
In the day I washed and cleaned and tended to our small garden, while she stitched his clothes and prepared his meals. She would sing sometimes, and tell me stories of his childhood and his older brothers, how he was a good boy for not forgetting her. I would tell her of my family, the silent servitude in the kitchens and at the loom, and she would nod in understanding, one woman to another. At least she had the grace to never comfort me with talk of a son who would care for me when I grew old and bent.
When she lay dying, I thought – perhaps now he will come to me. Loneliness was a pill I thought I could resign myself to swallow, but it stuck in my throat and made its home there like a constant ache. I wanted a husband who would smile and praise my cooking. I wanted a child in my arms.
Of course, that was when he sold everything he owned to buy her new medicines and bring in doctors; first the physicians in our town, then the ones from the next one over, and then the travelling quacks. They rubbed their foul smelling unguents on her skin, and had me brew all manner of soups and teas, but all of them left saying the same thing: to prepare for her funeral clothes. When he ran out of his own things to sell to pay them, he started to take mine; first my winter clothing so I did not notice, but then my summer wardrobe began to grow suspiciously thin. When I found out that he had pawned my mother’s gold necklace I shouted at him and he shouted back, longer and louder, and then he stopped shouting.
He left after that, leaving me alone to tend to his coughing mother. I would hear her cry for him in her sleep. Some nights I wondered about putting a pillow to her face as she slept.
Still, I changed her soiled clothes and sheets, cooked her soups with whatever herbs I could grow, thought about the words I could fling at him when he came back.
The bruises on my face had almost healed when he returned from his retreat in the mountains. His clothes hung off like a loose skin on his thin body. He was no longer the strong man I had married. The words I had thought over to shout at him dried in my mouth, and I only pursed my lips and took his clothes, preparing to mend their many rips and tears. Obedience is a chain we wear from birth, and is one of the hardest to break.
“A hundred dogs,” he said hoarsely. It was the first thing he said to me since ur last fight and was so different from the apology I expected.
“What nonsense are you talking about now?” I asked sharply. What remained of my spare clothing were now used as her blankets. I spent the days doing sewing for others for meagre sums of money. When she coughed, she left bright red blooms on her sleeves and blankets. I wondered how much longer she had left, and whether I would die of frustration first. There was anger in me, bottled up black and thick, which only seemed to grow every time he spoke to me about her.
“A spirit told me that I need a hundred dogs to cook into medicine to cure her,” he said. He turned to me, his face wild with hope. It was funny how I no longer thought of him as handsome. “Do you have anything left that I can sell?”
“Not anymore.” My voice could have poisoned rats.
He fled the house and its heavy sickness to the mountains again. That was the night I started to cough.
He came back after a few days and disappeared into her room without saying a word to me. I slept, wracked by chills and a fever that night. The next morning, there was the corpse of a dog laid out at the front door, its head bashed in and its brains leaking out over our shoes.
“The spirit told me there would be one every morning,” he said. “Prepare the medicine.” He went to their room and left me alone.
Shivering, I cut it open and boiled down its bones for the entire day, spooning it into her mouth when I was done. I was careful to take my own portion after that. I made the rest of the meat into stew, then sold it up and down the streets. I bought us new shoes.
The next day there was another dog. And then another. I wondered what spirit he had invoked, and whether they were moved to pity or amusement at his love.
Each day, the dogs were killed a little more cleanly. It seemed that this spirit favoured biting down the throat with its sharp teeth, after some messy failures with its claws.
In the day, I cooked and cleaned, made the medicine for us both. He never asked about my health, and kept himself in the room with her. Each night, she continued to cry for him in her fevered dreams.
When I grew strong enough, I stayed up to keep watch. While she slept, I heard his voice, chanting, and then his voice changing into a low growl. I saw the orange stripes of the tiger slip away from the back door of the house. When I entered their room, I saw his clothes, and the scroll on the floor next to her. I sat there for a long time, and pondered.
He came out of the room that morning, and shouted at me for not yet preparing the medicine. I asked him what he gave to the spirits for their blessings. He puffed his chest and replied that they were only moved by his piety and I could only laugh.
It is now the hundredth night. I used some of the money I made from the stew sales to buy a dog earlier and have spent the night brewing it, and took my own portion. I will wait for him at the back door of the house. He will smell the ash as he comes home, and he will know what I did. Knowing him, he would not have bothered memorising the spell, even though he has done it twice over for the last ninety-nine days.
But I have.
His mother will wake the next morning, and she might find us both whole, waiting to feed her the medicine. But if he shouts again – or growls, as he would as a tiger – then she will find us both gone.
I think I will wear the blue dress that I wore on our wedding – the only piece he had given me that he did not sell. I wonder if he will recognise it. If it will make a difference. If it will only be left as scraps on the floor.
When I am a tiger I will no longer need a man to be fast or strong. I will be able to catch my own food with my own legs and claws. Mother tigers care for their children by themselves. And I will never, ever, let anyone take anything of mine again.
From the Korean tale “The Filial Tiger”. This Livejournal is the only reference I’ve managed to find of the story though, and specifically names Hong Do-ryong, which I will look out for when I research Korean folklore more deeply since they have so many tiger and filial piety stories.
This is my first time touching Korean mythology. It’s really fascinating to see how many stories of tigers they have.
Prompt: Write a poem about a disease or affliction.
#SickBedBonus: it is a disease you have had, or witnessed firsthand. (unfulfilled)
#HypochondriacBonus: It is a fictional disease.
Does Oedipus Complex count as fictional affliction?