Author's Note: Inspired by a photograph and a joke, this short story took a little over three months to complete. Due to its length it will be released in seven installments over the course of the next few weeks. Writing this has been a real odyssey and I hope you enjoy it.
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Nayeon: Stolen by The Wind
Nayeon rested her head against the trunk of the cherry tree and stared at the stars. In one hand she held a cup filled with sake. The grass rustled as she absentmindedly grazed the blades with her other hand. They were thick like the pelt of some beast, maybe one of the kamis that were said to inhabit Nippon. She had spent many nights like this, gazing up at them, wondering if others saw them in such a glorious light. She wasn’t sure if the stars in Nippon were any different than in Joseon, but part of her swore they were a little bit brighter.
The mood in the tea house had been lively. The moon had only just crested the horizon when her troupe took their place in the center of the pagoda. All of them were clad in vibrant kimonos. Her’s was cherry red with inlaid thread, dark like the fruit’s stem. The words and melody came to her effortlessly; she had long since committed them to memory. Nayeon still had to bite back the urge to resort to her native tongue, but the warm gazes around them relaxed the itch in her throat. The burnished tables at which the audience sat, with their rounded edges and stout legs, surrounded them like the railings of a crib.
She glanced back at the house. She could make out the muted glow of paper globes, within which orange candles burned ignorant to the outside wind. It was just as still and quiet after she uttered the last note and the dancers came to a stop. Despite the ease of her task, she still found herself blushing upon hearing their approval. Their passage across the sea might just have been worth it.
The urge came with time like a slowly kindling fire. She stoked it on lonely walks or hours spent alone in the house. There was only one way to release it. Every chance she got, she sang.
Her favorite spot was a patch of rocky shore along the Han, on the eastern edge of the village. A place just far enough away from her neighborhood that the Han felt like it were speaking to her alone. Whenever she sat there there and began to sing, it felt like the warm embrace of her mother’s arms. But every time people called it beautiful or wonderful, it diminished the feeling in her heart. The words sounded too banal. There was a poignancy in watching the ripples autumn leaves sent as they alighted the water’s surface. She loved to see them carried away by the current. Her neighbors saw no magic in glistening snow banks and ignored the frost feathered cranes that frequented their small harbor.
Nayeon chuckled at the memory of her parents and friends’ flattery. Their faces glowed just the same as they lauded her. They once boasted that her voice rivaled the river in its majesty. Even though she was still a child, she knew her admirers were embellishing the truth. She could only create a reflection. She sang about sunsets that would never be, about deeds that had already come to pass.
As time passed she began to appreciate their kind words. People had asked her to sing at parties and festivals for years, but she hadn’t sang to please others. But she was still young and she couldn’t keep disappointing people. She finally gave in.
Her chest had felt tight during the first performance. It was a Lunar New Year's party and everyone from the neighborhood was in attendance. She strained to summon words she had sung a hundred times. Eventually they came; a little stiff, but still robust. The eager stares around her. The way their fingers lay still and mouth slackened was intoxicating. Each time she took the stage afterwards was the like the first thaw of spring. Anxiety, sadness, it all sloughed off her like the winter’s chill.
She was fifteen and suddenly the river was too small. Singing was her path and it led beyond the shores of the Han.
Nayeon sighed as she stepped into the sun. Her yukata was a luscious plum, lustrous like the skin of a kyoho. It was speckled with pinpoints of pink, an artist’s pale homage to the cherry trees of the region. She had visited a glade of them once. They had been in full bloom and her eyes caressed every petal. Words to an unwritten song flowed through her head as fallen petals danced on the wind.
Twirling a matching oil-paper umbrella by the reed colored handle, she started towards the edge of town, jet black hair done up in a bun. There was a shrine up in the mountains that somehow, despite having spent nearly a month in the village, she’d never visited.
Hanishina was one of the larger ones in the area and the stone paved paths were as busy as the mouth of the Han around this time of year. Instead of boats loaded with fish there were wagons stocked with crops. Even in Josean she’d never seen so much rice. Sprinkled amid baskets brimming with pearly grains were orangish tones of peaches and ume.
The sun had only just risen, but tanned brows glistened all around her. Though unaccustomed to long days in the fields, Nayeon strode comfortably in the shade of her umbrella. A few villagers shot looks her way as she passed them by, but she kept a brisk pace as the path inclined and crowds thinned. A chipped weather-beaten sign marked the trail she was looking for. She spared a final glance back at the village before starting uphill.
Wooden walls and scalloped shingles gave way to fraying birch bark. The villagers had neglected to tend the path leading up to the shrine, and it had badly degraded in several spots. The fitted ashen blocks gave way to root-ridden dirt. Mossy rocks littered a sun dappled path that meandered into the forest. Here Nayeon slowed down and gingerly stepped around the loose stones.
Somewhere deep in the woods, Fujin’s shrine remained on its lonely perch with its enigmatic caretaker. People in the village took mournful tones when they spoke of her. Once, she was a talented young girl who had caught the eye of the nobility. She didn’t move up to the capital though. Instead, she traded her future away for a lonesome existence on the mountain.
Eventually the path leveled off. The rough terrain gave way to a stone walkway from which grass burst out obstinately. The wind was stronger here. It whistled through the trees and she found herself doing the same as the shrine came into view.
The sight stirred within her pity and disappointment. It was a rather sickly structure. The roof scraped against overhanging boughs. It wore years of negligence like a gaudy piece of jewelry. The shingles were in disarray; more of them were white rather than their original musky grey. Patches of the wooden walls were bleached a jaundiced white. The wild forest had already claimed the orchard and was making inroads towards the windows and doors. Only the yawning gateway gave any impression of strength. Nayeon walked beneath it, peering towards the summer sky where clouds stood still. The twin stone pillars, adorned with tattered scrolls, were certainly ancient but not unsound.
She knew there was more to singing than performing in one small village, but had no idea how to make that dream a reality.
She followed the Han towards the more populous parts of Seoul. If she could make a life of singing, it would have to be in the bustling streets. She skated in with only the clothes on her back, buoyed by dreams of performing in crowded restaurants or larger halls.
The euphoria quickly faded. The opportunities she assumed would come never did. She did the best she could to keep a roof over her head, singing in markets, squares or crowded streets. Finding a place to live was a constant challenge. She sang and she sang, but her wallet kept getting lighter. By the time fall settled over Seoul, she was thinner than she ever remembered. She could see her ribs when she dressed and her hair was frayed and dry. She missed home. She missed her mother’s cooking and how she used to spin tops with her dad. The wind grew more brittle, the cold biting and her morale waned. It was on the day of the first snowfall, with uncertainty firmly taking hold, that the next chapter of her life began.
Nayeon had heard about the Kyotanabe Troupe while lingering outside the taverns at which performers gathered. She’d even seen bits and pieces of their weekly outdoor performances in a nearby park They were very good.
Eight members strong, they way they danced and sang filled her with thoughts of her own private stretch of the Han. No rhythm was too challenging for them, no note too high or low. It was as if man had been given voice specifically for them. Their choreographed movements were sweeping, graceful and precise. They were mournful like autumn, haunting, refreshing and vibrant all at once. They could bring an audience to tears or double over in laughter. They were better than she could ever be, so she always shied away from them. But on this day, with the snow ankle-deep and the setting sun casting the empty streets in a rose colored hue, she took the plunge.
They were performing in an out of the way Jumak in one of the older portions of the city. It didn’t seem possible given how cramped the space was, but the owners had managed to slide the clusters back enough to form a stage. The troupe were only 30 feet away, but as Nayeon stood on her tiptoes, she could barely catch glimpses of their colorful costumes through the forest of heads and shoulders. In the gloom of the dim oil lamps, the dancers weaved in and out of sight like phantoms. She barely noticed the scratched wood floor and the low ceiling pressing down on the crowd.
The audience was already spellbound halfway through their act. When the final applause came, it was like an avalanche. She too clapped as the troupe bowed and gathered their belongings. She watched them as they started towards the exit, suddenly unsure of herself. As the leader, a tall man with greying hair and a contemplative demeanor brushed past her, the words slipped past her lips.