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 a 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’s fingers released one of the yellowed scrolls as a voice parted the silence. Clad in a patternless white kimono with a dull grey hem, the stranger appeared every bit the ascetic. High cheeks and welcoming eyes were cradled by ivory skin, marked by a mole on the left side of her nose and a pair just above and below her lip. She glided closer, smiling broadly with a disengaged manner. Her delicate footsteps were as melodic as her voice. She had the airy gate of one who had spent a great deal of time learning to walk.
She came to a stop before Nayeon, the smile never yielding. “Hello traveler. My name is Mina,” she introduced herself with a bow. Their stares met as she rose. For a second Nayeon froze. Mina’s eyes were soft and speculative, but something hard and unmoving flickered in them.
“Hi. My name is Nayeon,” she responded shakily.
“Nayeon.” Mina paused and looked skyward. Nayeon followed her gaze to a flock of birds coasting on strong currents. “That's an unusual name.”
“I’m not from around here.”
“Oh, that’s no problem. Fujin does not discriminate,” Mina responded hastily. She chuckled and motioned over her shoulder. “He is a caring god. It’s thanks to his generosity that the trees here grow so tall while men and animals eat well. He parted the clouds and gave the world light.”
“The villagers have a lot to thank him for, don’t they?”
“Those born of this nation owe much to Fujin. He is magnanimous, generous and sage. His ways are complex and difficult to comprehend, but his devotees understand that although his touch that chills in winter, it is also his depthless kindness that brings relief from the summer heat.”
“Well, he does sound rather important,” Nayeon remarked with a little eyeroll. She’d been to a few temples and shrines, but none of them had had a caretaker as...unique like Mina.
He is,” Mina replied with satisfaction. Without waiting for a response, she started walking back towards the shrine. Somehow she was languid and fast at the same time. Nayeon found herself dashing to match the priestess’ brisk pace. “Where are you going?” Nayeon asked. A moment ago the priestess had been talking to her, but now she acted like she was completely alone. Nayeon stuck her tongue out in Mina’s direction. Unsurprisingly, the priestess did not react.
Mina finally came to rest in front of a wooden tiered platform, stacked with rows of half-burned candles. Nayeon stopped at Mina’s side, slightly panting, tracing the priestess’ gaze to the curled and blackened wicks. The candles were covered in pollen and dirt, the wax at the top peeled back from an absent flame.
Nayeon caught her breath as they stood at each other’s side. Something important was going to happen, she knew it. She waited half-eagerly for an incantation, a ritual, a sacred act that would leave her grateful for being its witness. Mina stood before the altar, posture attentive and rigid, with an admiring stare. The energy in the room thrummed like cicadas in the evening. Suddenly Nayeon could smell the incense of past prayers wafting up into the air.
Mina raised her hand upwards. Nayeon followed the movement with the utmost focus, memorizing the entire motion up to her mouth. The priestess held his fist for a moment, murmuring under her breath. For a moment the wind outside and their breathing were subsumed by a pregnant silence. Mina paused and with a look of utter commitment, sneezed. Nayeon almost leap backwards from surprise. The high-pitched squeal echoed throughout the chamber, persisting for a few seconds until they faded away. Mina continued to look at the candles, as if caught halfway in a dream.
“Can I ask you something?” Nayeon inquired after a short period.
“Of course,” Mina said in a haze. Nayeon peeked at her from the corner of her eye. Mina seemed more relaxed now. Her eyelids were partly lowered and her mouth hung open a little bit.
“Is there anything else?”
No ritual then. Apparently it was naptime. The thought briefly fluttered through Nayeon’s mind: this whole trip was a waste of time. She had wasted her morning to get brushed off by a lazy, scatterbrained hermit.
“The villagers say that you used to be a dancer.”
“That’s correct,” Mina interjected reflexively.
“You know, I’m a singer. I do a little dancing too. I came to Nippon to perform with my friends.”
“That sounds nice.”
Nayeon’s expression soured.
“I guess I was just wondering why you stopped. I’m not trying to be rude, but I don’t understand.”
“Serving Fujin is more a reward than dancing ever was. I am so grateful that he has accepted my worship.” Mina still stared straight ahead. Nayeon could imagine wires attached to her head and limbs, all attached to an invisible hand in the sky. She was sure Mina was going to tell her that Fujin was all she needed.
Just then the rustling of leaves and chirping of birds vanished. Nayeon looked to Mina as the priestess began to speak in a hushed tone, hardly more than a whisper. “Fujin asked me what I loved and I gave it gladly. He repaid my loyalty a hundred times. He asks so little of us and gives so much in return. It is good you came here today, Nayeon. You should pray; reflect on what’s important to you. Fujin could make your world brighter, just as he has mine.”
Nayeon hesitated. She wasn’t sure how to respond. Mina probably felt she knew everything that mattered. What was it like to have all the answers?
“I don’t think I want that,” she declared.
Mina’s shoulder flinched. Nayeon almost doubted her eyes. Mina had been so still since they’d reached the altar, she didn’t believe the priestess could be rattled.
She slowly turned towards Nayeon with a pained smile. The corners of her lips twitched as she drew them back so tight her cheeks pinched her eyes.
“That’s regrettable.” Nayeon fought off the urge to frown. Talking to Mina made her sad. Everything in Nayeon’s life was simple and straightforward. Mina may be simple, but she was impossible to know. “Thank you for coming, Nayeon. You are welcome to pray as you like, but I have some things I need to tend to. Please forgive me.”
“Of course.” The words left her lips like sap trailing down bark.
“It was nice to meet you, Nayeon. Fujin’s blessing be with you.”
Mina turned, her kimono swirling like leaves in the autumn wind. She swept into the shrine, disappearing before Nayeon could draw another breath.
Nayeon took a final look at the neatly arranged candles. The light outside dimmed, making the aged cylinders look more ash than porcelain. She could hear the wind picking up and the air felt heavy. Part of her wanted to catch up to Mina, but she knew it would lead to nothing. Lips pursed, Nayeon turned and started back towards the village.
She spent much of the return trip lost in her own thoughts. She was aware of the mosquitos clouding the air, how the slope was rockier and steeper than she remembered, but she couldn’t stop thinking about her earlier encounter.
She couldn’t imagine seeing the world through Mina’s eyes. It was totally unlike anything she’d ever known. She’d always been surrounded by family, but Mina didn’t seem to need or even want one. Nayeon often stayed awake whispering with the other girls as night set in. Did Mina think about anything besides Fujin as she slept?
The rustling of leaves snapped her mind back to the present. She realized with a jolt that she was lost. She disconcertedly raised her gaze to the thrashing canopy, beyond which lay a swath of dark clouds. She couldn’t hear a single animal, but the forest was nevertheless alive with sounds. Ferns, brush and leaves sang a mournful song in tandem with the howling wind.
Sweat was already crusting on her brow. She found herself wondering why she put so much faith in her stamina. She had never visited the mountains growing up. The first time the troupe invited her on a hike, she thought it would be a pleasant jaunt. By the end it felt like her legs were going to fall off.
The wind, oddly strong, yanked at the poorly fashioned bow around her yukata. She felt disoriented all of a sudden. She needed to get back to the village, but she wasn’t even sure if she was on the right path. She set her lips and hardened her stare. She’d spent enough time worrying about someone she couldn’t do anything about. Mina was Mina and she was just going to have to accept that.
The wind went from a threatening growl to a full blown roar in an instant. It was louder than Cheju-do horses stampeding across the plain. She stumbled helplessly, barely able to keep her balance amidst the maelstrom. Powerful gusts yanked and clawed at her hair in one direction, then another. Nayeon bent forward and tried to keep her feet grounded. Everything was a blur. The only sound was the screeching of an empty voice. She curled up into herself, clenching her eyes shut.
Just as quickly as it had arrived, the wind died. It was so sudden Nayeon was afraid to move, as if the wind would start up again to punish her insolence. Slowly she rose and straightened herself, eyes still shut, hands trembling. She felt a slight breeze lapping against her skin like waves in a bay. She could hardly think. Her ears were ringing and her head throbbed in pain. What in the world was going on?