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Meadowsweet

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On the last day of autumn the Hiker brings her a crown of little flowers. They’re white and wild, hardy stars from a tough weed. 

“Oh hey, I was photographing these when you first met me,” Lee Da-won tells the ghost, pleased. “For some reason they’re not the flower I associate with you, though.”


She likes him. She starts to like him as early as the third time she encounters him, when she’s buttoning up after a quick but necessary pee.  She squeals when she realises he’s behind her. “Did you look?” she demands. 

From up the trail, Ranger Jung glances over his shoulder and says, “What? Why would I do that?”

“Oh,” Da-won says. “Not you. I mean, I know you didn’t. I imagined something.”

“Well done,” Ranger Jung says. “Fantastic trait in a ranger,” but his sarcasm’s really quite toothless after you get used to it. Beside her, the ghost looks as apologetic as his appearance allows. It’s something about the way he holds his towering incorporeal self, sort of hunched and turned away from her. As she trudges up the trail, he follows at her heels. He has not done this before.  

Instinct tells her not to look behind, because Ranger Jung, now in step with her, regales her with tales of horrible things that happened to people who went off-trail to relieve themselves. He’s solid and warm and familiar. The ghost is vaporous and cold and unknown. And still, Da-won senses, there’s something consonant in their presence: neither of them are unfriendly. 

He waits for them to turn the corner to the thoroughfare before he leaves, a departing patch of unnatural shadow on the dappled trail.

Her first words to the ghost who protects Jirisan are ‘did you see me go to the bathroom?’: unacceptable. She strikes it from her mental record and prepares a speech. The next time he appears, she’s photographing the Jiri meadowsweet in the humus-scented interiors of the summer forest. She looks up and recites her speech. 

“I know you’ve been helping us find the lost,” she says, boldly. “I know you won’t hurt me. How can I help you?”

But it’s the wrong thing to say. The man in the bloody suit flinches from her. After a moment, he shakes his head. An acorn from the oak tree under which Da-won’s standing falls on the crown of her head, hitting her hard. “Ow!” she says, and squeezes her eyes shut on instinct. Something like pollen gusts up her nose, and she sneezes once, violently. 

When she opens her eyes again everything is empty and bright. The jiritoripeul are blinking at her, small and pink against their bed of deep green leaves. He’s gone. 

She feels sorry for that, so the next time she goes out into the forest she brings a peace offering. He has no need for flowers or fruit, or leaves and vegetables; the mountain is more generous in those things than any human being can ever be. He got lost, she figures, in the cold season: that suit he can’t escape from is ragged, but unmistakably winter trail gear. 

The mountain can’t bring back time, whatever else it can do, and so she chooses a picture she took earlier, on the first warm day of the spring: of a baby water deer asleep in new grass. She uploads it to her Instax, prints a polaroid, and leaves it in the crevice of the next pattern she makes. Haedong Ranger Station.


He can’t take the things she gives him. Or so she thinks, until one afternoon mid-autumn when he crops up on her while she’s photographing bear paw prints. “Oh, hey, Hiker-nim,” she says, without taking her eye off her viewfinder. 

“Did you say something?” Ranger Jung asks, and turns around when she doesn't answer promptly. She smiles and taps her earpod. “Audio notes,” she says. “I’m doing a chat on Clubhouse later.” That makes him whip right back around. The seniors at Haedong are very clever, but anything beyond Instagram is indistinguishable from magic for them. 

“I’m off to the fir grove, sunbae-nim,” she tells him when she’s done. The Hiker is waiting beside her.

“Remember it’s reserved,” Ranger Jung answers, looking through his own photos. “Don’t do a TikTok or something out there.” He looks up as she scoffs. “Keep your radio on.”

“Did you know I have the afternoon off?” she tells the hiker when they're––that, she is––out of sight. I’m going back to the stream where you, er, where we met one time, I want to get some photos of the waterbed.” 

He does not or cannot talk. “I’m going to have lunch first, though,” she goes on, and by the time she tells him about how she waterproofed her camera by hand to get over the grief of having dropped the GoPro she’d gotten as a birthday present down a cliff by mistake, they’ve arrived at a little clearing that not many people know of. It’s quiet and sunny, and has a beautiful view of the grey cliffs opposite. 

“I ordered my favourite sandwich,” she tells him. “Picnic feels, you know.” She holds her breath as she opens her bag and fishes out the lunch box. She picks up half of the sweet ham and cheese she wrapped in foil and cut in two this morning. 

“There’s a fruit squeeze too,” she says, and holds it out. “For you, Hiker-nim.”


Lee Da-won has not told Ranger Seo about the Hiker. 

He’d scared the life out of her the first time he’d approached, on the afternoon she’d left the partisan message at the oak tree by Mangbawi: all darkness and silence, clad in the bloody rags of winter trail gear. 

“C-can I help you,” she’d gasped, instead. She’d seen the faint flash of something deep within the hood of the suit. They were a pair of despairing eyes.

“Ranger Lee!” Ranger Jung had called then, and the hiker vanished, with the mist before her.

Da-won does not like horror movies and is not immune to jump scares, but the Hiker hadn’t made her scream. She isn’t sure why. Once, her mother had woken up crying from a dream in which Da-won’s grandmother, who’d died a fortnight earlier, came to sit on the bed by Da-won’s mother, to hold her in her arms. 

“Eomma, are you here?” Da-won’s mother had sobbed out loud, to someone invisible. “Please stay just a while longer––just to hug me again.” 

But that had been a dream, not a visitation. A ghost might be nice if he was the spirit of someone you longed for, and he would feel safe to be around if he looked more or less human.

The man in the bloody suit is none of those things. And yet he had not bothered Da-won, except by his strangeness. 

“Did you leave the pattern?” Ranger Seo asks her in her distant waterfall of a voice when Da-won gets back from that trail, and Da-won says yes. Ranger Seo does not ask her to leave another one. So, the following week, Da-won hikes up to the highest point of the mountain, at Cheonwangbong. She picks up the trash around the place, takes some photos, and without telling anyone, gathers rocks and twigs and makes the same pattern again, all on her own.

On that day, she sits by a stream on the lower slopes to drink some water on her way down. It's glorious, clear and cool, and she's crouched like a cat to lower her whole hot face into it. When she raises her head, the hiker is there again. 

The pattern, she thinks, and the line she’s been drawing between two things, loosely, snaps taut in her consciousness: Ranger Seo’s pattern is calling him. 

“Sunbae-nim,” she squeaks, like a child saying 'mummy!' when she loses her balance, and sure enough, in a second she’s fallen, splashing forward into the shallow water. As she gazes up into the featureless and lightless hood of the bloody white suit, she perceives something else in there that belongs on a human face: a thin, not-unhappy smile. 


All through that summer, the Hiker brings Da-won things. She can’t tell how she knows it’s him, but she’s collecting the data, waiting to understand. One hot morning, at the spot on her patrol where she usually stops for a quick drink of water, she finds a cup in the fork of two branches: a perfectly shaped cone made of a single strip of bark. “Oh, thank you!” she says, and puts her hand out and pats the tree, a slim, graceful old Erman’s birch. 

She finds berries, heaped in tiny little mounds, that are no fairy’s gift: they’re both sweet and sour, raw and ripe, as if the person who picked them forgot the difference. Once she finds a trail of twigs and braided grass that lead her to a tree in a lonely reserve, where a bird from a species that hasn’t been spotted on Jirisan in thirty years has built a nest, and laid eggs. Everywhere, the meadowsweet is blooming, the jiritoripeul that only grows on this mountain. 

She tells him stories, in exchange. She’s reading a book about an astrobiologist, trying to discover life on the surface of new planets. She’s obsessed by the YouTube flame war going on between two make-up divas she follows. Her best friend is backpacking through Greece and livestreaming every minute she can spare. “She had a really rough time at work last year,” Da-won explains to the Hiker, “so we’re all just relieved for her.” She even plays him How You Like That the week of its release. (He doesn’t like it.) 

She’s tried, with the other thing: the real thing, the story that links them together. “Don’t you want to come back to Haedong Ranger Station?” she asks him, once. “Haedong. Ranger. Up there,” she points, like she’s talking to someone who doesn’t understand Korean. “That’s where I work,” she says, “you’ll like it. You like Jung sunbae-nim, don’t you, Hiker-nim?”

But it distresses him, the way finding themselves at their front door would distress someone who didn’t know that they were sleepwalkers, and he shudders away from her. She doesn’t want to distress him. He can’t even take the things he gives her, for heaven’s sake.

Or so she thinks. Then, on the afternoon in the fir grove, she gives him half her sandwich. 

It’s mostly to be polite. She holds it out with both hands, and then, as respectfully as she can, inclines her head and places the food on the rock beside her. She squeezes the fruit pulp from its plastic tube into a paper cup she’s brought with her, but before she can put it down, she’s taken aback because he’s touching her. 

It makes Da-won shiver with an unfamiliar cold. Or no, not unfamiliar––just strange and foreign to anything she’d known in the park. In her halmeoni's last days, Da-won would climb into her bed in the mornings and hold her hands, not talking, because talking had become hard for halmeoni. That’s what this cold is like; the gentle, very slightly unpleasant clutch of a limb from which life has ebbed.

“Hiker-nim,” she says, surprised. He’s never touched her before.

But she’s never held her hand out before, with an offering. 

“What is it?” she asks him, carefully. “Do you want me to go somewhere with you?” 

She’s been on an S&R after she’d met him, and there was one holiday weekend during which she and the others helped what felt like seven billion picnickers out of seven billion sticky situations, but he hadn’t turned up those times. Fair was fair; he was into protecting the fallen, but he’d be a god if he could look after everyone on the mountain, and besides, Haedong station didn’t need supernatural intervention most of the time.

Hiker-nim can’t pull her along with him, or maybe he’s too polite to try. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.” She puts the sandwich back in her bag, knocks back the fruit pulp, and takes his hand––his hand! 

He hesitates.

“I’m not all that hungry,” she coaxes him. “Let’s go.” 

The strange, unfamiliar flicker of his unseeable eyes gleam at her out of the hood in which there’s nothing and no one. Then he’s leading her away, deep into the valley, to a place she’s never been before. It’s both like having and not having a partner. He is known, and sensed, but there’s no physical rhythm to match hers; no sound of breath or footsteps, nothing but the bony clasp of a hand that isn’t. 

When he stops, she almost stumbles over herself. Huddled under a rock is an unconscious woman, a total surprise. “Oh, she’s a local, all the way around from Hadong,” the paramedic who comes with the ambulance tells Da-won. “Early-onset dementia, poor old auntie. Her neighbour filed a missing persons report, but your guys weren’t to know, of course, it went to the other station.” He shrugs. “I guess she didn’t know how long she’d been walking. This place can get you like that sometimes.”

She turns away after the ambulance leaves, and kneels against the rock by which the auntie had fainted. She cries, feeling the stress of the preceding hours, and the scolding she’s had from Ranger Jung, who’d come as soon as she’d called; and the sadness that someone had been lost, without ever knowing that they’d been separated from a place to which they belonged. 

The Hiker waits by Da-won until her tears dry. 


“I was photographing these flowers when I first met you,” she says, when he shows her the flower crown, on the last day of autumn. “I don’t know why I’ve never come across them again. The park’s been full of jiritoripeul this summer, hasn’t it? It’s been a bumper year for them, people say. Are you sure this is for me? Thank you.” It makes her smile, and takes her phone out to snap a picture. 

“I didn’t even know what their name was,” she says. “I had to ask Yi-kang sunbae. They’re her favourite, they’re on her phone wallpa––”

She loses her breath as the wind atop Bidam cliff picks up speed, and the sun snuffs out behind a cloud. The Hiker beside her turns to something like––

––He turns to something

She knows his eyes, though she’s never seen them, and she knows his smile, and the touch of his skin and bone. She knew he was tall, and she knows every speck of what he is belongs to this land. She knows there are wisps of hair that fall over his forehead, sometimes, but she doesn’t know how. She doesn’t know what he looks like, but she sees him, for the first time, like a letter in an alphabet she’s suddenly learned to read. 

She doesn’t know what he looks like, but she’s seen his likeness, at Haedong Ranger Station, in the photos and the videos, and the little cartoons that Ranger Lee Yang-soon makes and adorns her desk with: in the memories of the people who remember him. 

She doesn’t know what he looks like, but she knows his name. 

Kang Hyun-jo, she’s about to say, when the sun comes out, and he speaks first, in a voice she’s never heard before, as quiet as the fallen leaves of the season. 

He says his first words: “Seo Yi-kang?”