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
Sana had gone to bed some time ago, but Nayeon felt no urge to sleep. She kneeled before the altar, hands folded together just before her lips. Her knees ached but she held fast. Despite Sana’s words, Raijin was still a god and one did not approach a god unprepared. Nayeon gingerly ran her tongue against the inside of her mouth. It was raw from the tea, but her throat wasn’t as sore.
“Raijin,” she said at last. Her soft whisper was drowned out by the keening wind. “I know this is rude, but I need help and I don’t know where to turn.” Silence. Predictable silence. “I’ve never put much faith in gods. Maybe because I’ve never been given a reason to. Maybe because I’ve made excuses all my life. I know you’re there, though. I know you’re listening. I promise it will be worth your while.”
A crack like a farmer’s whip ruptured the silence. Nayeon jumped as thunder pealed outside. Her hair stood on end, partially from shock and partially from an unnerving chill cascading over her skin. Somewhere a faint buzzing, reminiscent of a bee hive, had started. It steadily intensified as the tingling become more and more noticeable.
Nayeon’s lips curled into a smile as she fought back laughter. Just as the buzz had built up to an unbearable pitch, it was interrupted by a thunderous crash. The noise brought Nayeon to the floor. The timbers shuddered and the ceiling groaned as silence fell upon the room. She peered up cautiously from within the folds of her robe. Despite the racket, nothing seemed to be damaged or broken. The air was rank with an odor like forged metal that bit at the back of her throat. “Raijin,” she uttered, fixing her attention directly ahead.
“Eh? Don’t call me that. I prefer sOs,” a voice grumbled. Nayeon had tensed up in anticipation, but the voice was nothing like the thunder that had announced Raijin’s arrival. It was mild and terse, the speech of an state official, and Nayeon started chuckling. She could see the god swamped in paperwork, tinkering with endless forms send from poor destitutes like herself. “Did I say something funny?”
“No.” Nayeon responded, her voice cracking. She cleared tears from her eyes. Her hands trembled as she brought them to her lap, rapidly kneading her fingers as she tried to slow her breathing. “I’m just surprised to see you. I wasn't sure if Sana was telling the truth.”
“She said you answered prayers and cared about those who called to you. I thought she was lying.”
“And why is that?” the voice inquired serenely.
Nayeon coughed as she sucked in the acrid air.
“I guess if anyone was going to believe me, it would be you.”
“Usually people are much more forthright with me. Demanding this or that, pledging themselves in return. It gets tiresome. Once and awhile i just want to shake things up.”
“I’m sure,” Nayeon answered. Her scalp itched tremendously. She paused to dig her fingers through her hair. It was rigid like an uncooked noodle. “Forgive me if I’m being disrespectful. This isn’t my first time speaking with a god.”
“I figured it was something like that,” sOs remarked with an unamused candor.
“I’ve heard enough prayers to know when guile is at work. You said all the right things to make sure I would listen. You didn’t address me like I was some mythical entity. You need something from me and you’re convinced you have something to offer. It’s a...tantalizing prospect.” There was a grating hiss like metal scratching metal. Was that his palms rubbing together? “Come, don’t waste my time. Tell me what made you so desperate to end up here.”
Nayeon cast her head towards the ground momentarily. Her expression was grim when it returned to sOs.
“My eyes.” She forced her eyelids back.
A weighty breath followed. “Of course. The handiwork of a god is unmistakable. It was cruel to leave those stones rattling around in your head.” Nayeon nodded slightly. “What do you expect me to do exactly? Restoring your vision is beyond me.”
Nayeon felt her chest weaken as if the words cut a path through her. “Why? I don’t underst...”
“I cannot mold body parts from nothingness. I could conjure a storm within your skull, but I doubt that would solve your problem.” He saw the hope drain from her face and his tone dropped into a weary bass. “I cannot do everything. I am immortal, not all-powerful.”
“What if I knew who had my eyes?”
Raijin chuckled. His laugh echoed like tumbling stones.
“What if you did? What would you do about it?”
“MC’s to blame, isn’t he? I knew he was spiteful, but I never thought he’d do something like this to an innocent mortal. Let me guess, you didn’t show him the respect he thought he deserved.” Her smile dissolved. “That’s how he is. He’d tell you the same about me if you brought my name up.”
“So can you do something?” Nayeon stammered hastily. She held her breath as she waited for a response, all the while picking at her nail beds
“Can I? Of course. Will I? Those are entirely different things.”
“But you’ve fought him before.”
“Not for a maid’s honor. We are too similar not to fight. Our natures demand it. We tussle and clash like a storm, and leave without grudges. Why we do so is beyond your understanding.”
“So you will?”
“Perhaps in 20 years. He has left me well enough alone for a long time. But he could always step on my toes.”
Nayeon swallowed hard. Her face was hot, she could feel the flush in her cheeks. “Nayeon, if you are requesting something say it.”
“MC stole something that didn’t belong to him. I want you to fight him and get my eyes back. You’re the only one that’s strong enough to do it. Anyone else is just a pest that he’d swat away. Knowing him, he’d punish them even worse than me just for the fun of it. I’ll do anything. I’ll be your priestess like Sana if that’s what you want. Just get my eyes back! Please!” She she could barely understand her own blubbering with all her crying and sniffling. “I can’t live like this. I’m losing everything. I can’t remember what anything looked liked anymore. Everything’s black. My past is gone and I don’t have a future! I need this. So please, sOs.” She jerked her head side to side and yanked her hair at the roots. “Please. I just want to see again.” Nayeon held her breath as she waited for his response.
“It’s certainly a sad story,” sOs finally answered. His words fell like an abrupt slap on the wrist. Nayeon could not tell if he was devoid of sympathy or mocking her. “It would be a nice tussle, but I would walk away with a bruised ego at worst. MC would jeer at me behind my back—and strip the hide off yours.”
“What choice do I have?”
“A life without vision,” sOs offered with gentle scorn. “Do you deserve mercy any more than the crippled and the poor who pour wine in my honor? Life is disappointment and pain, child.” He paused, suddenly struck by the cruelty of his words. “There are many joys in life apart from sight.”
“I need to see it,” she muttered.
“Excuse me?” sOs inquired.
“I need to see it again.” Louder this time. So loud it felt like coals were lodged in her throat. She coughed, fighting to her feet. “I need to get home. I need to see the river again.” No response. She took a deep breath, preparing another scream.
“Tomorrow then. When the storm begins, come to the fields east of the city. And remember, either you will be reunited with your eyes by my hand or you will have to face MC once more. Are you truly ready, Nayeon? Ready to face your fate no matter what happens?” All Nayeon could manage was a nod. “Then I hope you like the rain.”
Lightning. Thunder. And then silence. The electricity in the air fizzled until Nayeon was left by herself with only the scent of singed hair and extinguished candles. She smiled to herself. He hadn't said yes, but he hadn’t said no. For this first time since losing her vision she dared imagine what the world around her looked like. What color were the stone floors? What shade had the wooden altar been stained? What was printed on the tapestries that had clapped against the walls during sOs’ arrival. She might just find out by this time tomorrow.
She had always loved winter. It wasn’t the fresh scent of arctic air, the short days or even the snow that made her look forward to it. It was the way the world could be reshaped in an instant. How a blizzard could be so unforgiving, but turn the Han into a glistening jewel.
Coated in ice, it was larger than any diamond. During the day, it radiated a warm sheen. At night it was a second sky, giving the stars a new surface on which to shine. But at this exact time of day, with night and day warring for control, it was something else entirely.
The blanket laid out on the river’s pebbly shore did little to dampen its chill touch. Coated in a thin film of ice, the rocks jabbed at her thighs. Numb to the sensation, she kept staring west, beyond the homes on the far shore. The last moments of twilight were so serene. The air crisp like biting into an apple. With a subtle scent, softer than any flower. She’d experienced it hundreds of times, but she could never describe how it made her feel. She had sung every word that came to mind in every order imaginable. She’d eventually given up, not resigned but content.
Her parents had been upset to hear that she was joining the troupe. They’d fought her every step of the way when she left home the first time, and the years apart had only hardened their stance. She knew they just wanted their child to be safe. That didn’t mean she understood it.
She buried her head between her knees and shut her eyes. She never knew what to say. She only knew how to sing. When she sang she denied her helplessness, but on icebound evenings like this, it was staring her straight in the face. Singing didn’t solve problems. It only pushed them away.
What was wrong with that though? She looked up and opened her eyes. When the sun set it wasn’t solving anything. When the cherry blossoms bloomed they weren’t solving anything. When the birds sang and the wind whistled, no great problem was resolved. Did everything have to accomplish something? Couldn’t she just appreciate that it was all a part of the dance that was life?
All she had to do was focus on the song and her fears and worries would melt away. She planned to travel all over the country with a bunch of strangers. So what?! Her parents told her it would be dangerous. What could be more dangerous than what she’d already been through?! At least there was a chance for happiness with the troupe. She knew she was taking a risk, but that wasn’t an excuse to back down. Life at home might have been good enough for her parents, but it wasn’t for her. There was a lot to Josean beyond Seoul. There were beaches to the South, mountains to the East and so much else she’d never even heard of in between.
It was getting dark. The sun had slipped below the horizon and the Han was the gossamer second moon. She’d come back one day, but she couldn’t imagine when that would be. Not when there was so much she hadn't done. So much she hadn't seen. And so many songs she hadn’t sung.