At the foot of the holy Geumgang Mountains in a wide yellow rice paddy a venerable old villager named Wan Li was bent over his crops when, in the muddy reflective water rippling in the depths of a nearby trough, he swore to god he saw—but no, it couldn’t be. He looked up at the white cloudy Korean sky, typical weather in this seasonless land, and saw, despite himself, a man’s head!, a man’s flying head silhouetted black against the bright white light!! It was easy to mistake the head for a bird, not only because the head was flying (seemingly of its own volition or perhaps as a result of some sort of complicated catapult or trebuchet or cannon-blast) but because the head possessed a glorious mane of happy black hair that was sailing, billowing, joyously behind it, like a pair of flapping wings.
This would have been strange enough to entertain generations of children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren, hundreds of times, but this was only the beginning of the strange reality of the flying severed head, because there were actually many other strange qualities to the flying severed head, as if a flying severed head were not strange enough by itself: the neck-stump, “or whatever you want to call it”—as Wan Li later explained to his wife, whose arms were crossed and whose dainty little foot was tapping and whose face bore the stamp of exasperated skepticism—the neck-stump! the neck-stump! was dripping some sort of milk, and was completely white and not red at all—a drop or two got Wan Li in the eye, and he cried out—“augh! augh! not again!”—while the face bore an expression of what can only be called bodhisattvan happiness, smirking, dimpling, its eyes bright stars.
In a very peculiar silence the flying severed head floated—quickly? slowly? how fast do these things usually move?—up to the peaks of the green-forested Geumgang Mountains. And although Wan Li stood rooted to the spot for a good solid hour, staring at the mountaintops, the world went on as if nothing strange had happened at all, as Wan Li’s home was some distance from the place of the monk Ichadon’s execution, where all sorts of odd cataclysms were taking place.
At the end of his involuntary meditation Wan Li decided to go up the mountain, right then and there, and find out what had happened to the flying severed head. And he did just that. He straightened his sunhat, cracked his back, and set off at once without a scrap of lunch in his belly: and some days later after many travails he reached the sacred temple at the top, where the flying severed head was sitting in the lap of a beautiful maiden, who was petting its hair and scratching its cheeks.
“Aahhhh,” the head said, rolling its eyes, “that feels so good. Just a little higher, aahh, oh yeah, right there. You know what? Life as a severed head could be a lot worse. I could get used to this.” The maiden giggled and also maybe even allowed a light red flush to float to her cheeks.
Another hour of frozen staring on the part of Mr. Wan Li followed, during which time he witnessed far too many things that are far too terrible to mention. But just as he snapped out of it and just as he was leaving he heard the head say—
“Okay, so I’m here, but now what do I do?”