Ori emerged into a wide room probably intended for meditation. The entire back wall was open to the hillside. His betrothed lay on the floor, and the young girl wrestled a hefty drum into position next to her head. Two more drums were placed at her sides, so that she was trapped between the three of them.
"Don't interfere," clipped the old woman.
Ori sat, still not entirely unconvinced that the woman wasn't a goddess in human skin. A drum obscured Jwi's face, but he could see her hand, unclenched and unmoving, and feared that her spirit had already fled her body, on its way to the kingdom of the dead. His mother had arranged this betrothal before while she was alive, and Jwi's family had pushed for it to happen three years earlier than scheduled. Perhaps they couldn't feed her. For Ori's part, he resolved to be a dutiful husband. Fulfilling his duty was the biggest ambition he could muster anymore.
If his betrothed died here, after he had done everything in his power to save her, should he feel free? He only felt alone and more helpless than ever.
Ori scarcely noticed the girl scampering over and kneeling beside him, holding a brass bell. Until she whispered, "We're
," nodding fiercely when she saw comprehension light Ori's face. Then she looked away just as fiercely.
. Women who had lost a loved one, and somehow, on the other side of grief, found themselves inextricably linked to the spirit world. Women who performed ceremonies to communicate with the gods, spirits, and ancestors. Ori found them -- or they found him. Suddenly, he felt something dangerous indeed: hope.
The bell chimed in his left ear, and the old woman stomped her foot and chanted a single syllable from deep within her throat. It lasted for longer than Ori could hold his breath and seemed to echo off of the hill behind them. Then she beat a drum. The bell chimed again. The woman resumed the chant, now dancing slow steps around Ori's betrothed.
The drum pounded and the world stopped. The bell chimed and everything shivered awake again.
And again. And again.
Gradually Ori turned his attention to the
with the bell. She was poised and straight-backed, terribly serious for one so young.
Ori hadn't even known how young his betrothed was prior to the ceremony. Not even old enough to bear children yet. He recalled her slight form approaching him, a painted fan held in front of her face. Then they were bowing to each other. Then everything went wrong.
Ori was brought back to the present as Jwi screamed. Memory overlapped reality. She kicked and rolled, knocking a drum, but the old woman chanted and beat on. The bell chimed faster and faster.
Then everything stopped. Jwi lay limp once more. The old woman uttered commands in a hoarse voice. The girl left, leaving his betrothed untended. Ori wanted to go to her, but the old woman kneeled before him, sweat beading along the folds of her brow. "Is she your sister?" she asked him.
"No, mistress," he answered, distracted.
"Yes . . . well, no."
"Merely betrothed, then? That is well. Our price is her. Find yourself another wife. I thought the tendency was to take older wives these days."
"No. You can't --"
"You don't want her anymore."
Her directness gave Ori pause. "What is wrong with her?"
"She was being dragged through the veil by a restless spirit. I've seen it once or twice in my long life. We stopped the process, but cannot reverse what has been done. She is halfway gone from us."
With that enigmatic statement the
girl reappeared and the old woman said, "I suppose you'll have to give him your bed before he keels to the ground where he's kneeling. Feed him cold noodles as well. Barley, don't waste rice."
, mistress." The girl bowed.
"You may have one night to say farewell to your betrothed," the
offered Ori. "In the morning you will thank me, and tell me you understand."
"I go where she goes," Ori insisted. He still had his duty; no one could take that away from him.
"Tell me that again tomorrow morning," was the mistress's unsettling reply.
forbid Ori from hovering over his betrothed while she slept. So it was that he fell into a fretful sleep apart from her, and then awoke to darkness and the silhouette of long, black hair hanging over him.
"My name is Kyung-mi," said the young
Ori remembered: where he was, why. "Please take me to my betrothed," he said, and the girl bowed at the waist.
Nighttime insects chirred softly on the other side of the wall as they walked. Kyung-mi stopped before a rice paper door, but made no move to open it. "I will explain," she said. "You will want an explanation."
"Let me see with my own eyes that she is okay, first." Ori slid open the door and stepped inside. His betrothed was there, standing, gazing out of a slatted window at the moon. Ori released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
"At least let me warn you," said Kyung-mi behind him.
Ori moved toward his betrothed. As usual, he didn't know what name to call her. They'd exchanged so few words in two days.
"Don't touch her!"
Ori looked back, shocked as Kyung-mi grabbed his wrist.
"Warn me, why?" he finally said. He looked again at Jwi, who still gazed silently out the window, unperturbed by the commotion. An uneasiness stirred in his gut. "Why?"
"She is deaf to this world," explained Kyung-mi without releasing his wrist. "And blind. It's as if she's stuck her head through the veil into the spirit world. She sees and hears only what is on the other side, but her body is still with us."
"The spirit world," breathed Ori.
He sensed more than saw the
nod in the dark. "She is caught between the two worlds. To her eyes, the sun gleams dully like copper, but moonlight spills into the room, bright as day, but white as death."
"You've seen such a world," Ori observed. He pulled gently out of Kyung-mi's grip. "She can feel me, though, if I touch her?"
"It would only scare her," warned Kyung-mi.
Nevertheless, Ori walked up to his betrothed. She was squinting. He could almost envision the moonlight shining onto her face, as bright as Kyung-mi described.
His skin crawled, standing so close and yet worlds apart. She couldn't see him. This discomfited him greatly, and he found his palm itching to reach out to her, to make a connection. Instead, he blew lightly on her ear. She flinched. He blew harder. She backed up, hugging herself and looking around. "
?" she whispered shakily. Older brother?
"Please," said Kyung-mi. "You're frightening her."
"Is someone there?" Jwi swallowed, composing herself. "I . . . would be grateful if you could find my brother and let him know where I am." She must have believed she was speaking to a ghost. Was her brother deceased, then? Perhaps perished during the Japanese's invasion. Clever of her to realize where she was, brave to ask a request of a ghost. Ori was reminded that he knew nothing at all about her.
Ori took another step forward. "Please!" Kyung-mi beseeched him, but he paid her no heed. He reached out and gripped his betrothed's shoulders. She sucked in her breath and went instantly stiff.
Kyung-mi rushed out of the room. Alone at last. "Jwi," Ori spoke softly, just as her brother would call her. But of course she couldn't hear him, she could only feel him. He let go and watched her slowly begin to breathe again.
How to reach her?
"Can you find my brother?" Jwi breathed, shuddering. How incredibly alone she must have felt.
Ori moved behind her. As gently as he could, he nudged the braid aside that hung thickly down her back and, with his other hand, traced a message.
, he spelled.
Are you able to read? he wondered. Did you learn
like a dutiful daughter? Or did you hide in the bamboo grove and make music for the gods instead?
, he wrote.
. Over and over, until she recognized the repetition as language. Six strokes, the last a straight line traced down her spine. Then he had an idea. Her brother's spirit was likely not in the spirit world at all. Human spirits didn't linger there unless they had an untoward connection with the living, they continued on to the kingdom of the dead instead. But Jwi needed her brother. So Ori wrote:
Jwi spun without warning and hugged him tightly around the waist. "
!" she cried. Bewildered, Ori squeezed back, keenly aware that from her perspective, she was hugging air. "I always knew you were watching over me. Why can't I see you?" But she didn't give him a chance to trace an explanation.
While Ori's betrothed was still latched around him, Kyung-mi and the elder
walked back through the door. Kyung-mi looked anxiously between them, but the mistress appeared thoughtful.
"Thank you, mistress
," said Ori, using the most honorable phrasing of the language. "I do understand now. And I have chosen to remain with my betrothed."
Jwi was still awake when Ori reluctantly gave in to exhaustion. But in the morning, he found her asleep. To her it was night, since the moon had descended in deference to the sun. At some point her face had been washed clean of mud and her ceremonial gown replaced with a more serviceable but still elegant yellow and brown
. How the
dressed her was beyond Ori, but the gift of such an expensive garment felt like a claim of ownership. Of a surety it had belonged to Kyung-mi, who was about her size.
"I think you should leave," said the elder
, sitting over Jwi like a well-regarded prize. She didn't even meet Ori's eyes, but stared into the space just beside his head.
Ori was indignant, but he swallowed it and asked, "Why do you want her?"
"One who sees the spirits behind the veil? Whose eyes and ears are full of the other side, but who can still communicate with us?"
"Very well. But what good does that do if you do not even serve a village? If you communicate with the spirits for your own amusement, or curiosity?"
did look at him then with eyes as hard as pebbles. "We pacify the spirits before their mischief ever reaches your village. We implore the gods for rain that fills
"I am sorry, I . . . my tongue raced ahead of my sense. I'm very grateful for what you have done."
"No one on this side can pull her back through."
Ori nodded. Jwi was well and truly lost, then. He didn't think this could happen to him again. When he closed his eyes, three images overlapped each other in his mind: the resigned eyes of his father as his name was called for the national army; his older sister's blood-smeared hand hanging over the side of the bed, impaled by a Japanese katana, while Ori hid in the child-sized space beneath; and his mother's fevered gaze, her lips flushed red as blood, as she told him, "Truly we are the gods' playthings."
Ori shivered deep in his gut, but he swallowed his grief and hopes alike. Oddly, for all of his anticipation of what his married life might hold, he'd only ever considered the inherent responsibilities: the husband-wife role that they would play out together, and perhaps someday father-child. He'd chafed at the idea that she might not respect him, but he'd never considered what he might think of her.
Well and good, that road was closed to him now.
When Ori opened his eyes, Jwi was awake and rubbing her own eyes. He tried to picture the room from her perspective: dark and disorienting since the moon was down, with perhaps a dull copper sheen cast by the muted sun.
The moment she took her hands away from her eyes, she shrieked.
Ori was instantly down beside her. She jumped initially at his unexpected touch, but then used his arm to pull herself up and trotted toward the middle of the room -- smiling. Apparently she had only been startled, that was all. She bowed somberly toward something unseen, and then glanced back in Ori's direction (almost right at him, purely by memory) . . . and winked.