Authors: Axie Oh
I take his hand and step into the boat, settling on one of the seats. He sits opposite me, reaching for the oars.
“But the Sea God wasn't in the throne room or the garden,” I say.
“He has to be somewhere. We'll go every day if we must.”
Hope is a heady feeling. I sense it billowing up inside me, as if the magpie were unfurling its wings. In this moment with Shin, the Red String of Fate bright like a flame between us, anything feels possible.
We leave the boat in
the canal outside the palace and enter the Sea God's garden through the door in the painting.
Even abandoned as it is, the garden is beautiful. Flower petals flitter across the pebbled pathway, catching in the billowy pleats of my skirt. A slight drizzle permeates the air, and I wonder if a storm might be brewing somewhere to the east.
At the pond a small wind has blown all the paper boats to the far shore, leaving the waters closest noticeably bare. While Shin inspects the pavilion, I wander down to the bank and bend to pick up a stone.
My grandfather used to skip pebbles across the surface of the pond in our garden. When we were younger, Joon and I would count the times the pebbles would hit the water before they disappeared.
Turning my hand just so, I fling the stone across the water.
ere's a loud plopping sound as it sinks. I glance over my shoulder to see Shin come around the side of the pavilion. He looks unimpressed.
As I reach down to pick up another pebble, my fingers brush against something rough.
is one is different from the rest, etched with a drawing of a lotus flower.
e lines are too neat for the carving to have been a natural occurrence. Someone must have painstakingly taken a knife and chiseled the eight oval-shaped petals and the star-colored heart. It reminds me of the lotus Shin left beside the paper boat, still floating in its shallow bowl. I pocket the pebble.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Shin take up position beneath a tree at the far side of the pavilion, keeping a watchful lookout. We agreed that no amount of searching would result in us finding the god, that our best course of action was to wait.
For the next half hour, I sink rocks up and down the shoreline, giving up when the clouds fill the sky. I plop down beside the pond. My grandfather always said the times he felt most at peace were while sitting by the pond in our garden, watching the ducks as they swam leisurely by. Except there are no ducks in this pond. Just paper boats. Like a school of unruly minnows, they crowd the northern shore.
One boat has escaped the cluster, drifting toward the center of the pond.
As it comes closer, I see that it's not like the other boats. It's lopsided with clumsy, uneven folds, half submerged in the water. A rough red thread runs down the center of the boat, as if it was ripped in half and then stitched back together again.
A chill sweeps through me. I know this boat.
I was the one who found the paper for it, pressing it against
my lips as I whispered my prayer into the cool sheet. I was the one who folded it with trembling hands.
boat, the one with my wish. Not any of the childish wishes I made at the paper boat festival, but another one. One I never set upon the river.
I rush forward, wading into the pond.
“Mina!” Shin shouts from behind me.
I don't listen, too intent on reaching the boat. I make a grab for it. My foot snags on an upturned tree root. Flailing, I go under.
I come out a half second later, spewing water, looking around, only to find an empty pond.
e boat is gone. Did I imagine it? My guilt dredging up the memory of a prayer?
Soaked, I slog my way back to shore. I'm prepared to get an earful from Shin, who in all likelihood is furious with me for doing something even I can admit was reckless. But when I look up, I almost fall back into the water.
Lying on the grass before me is the dragon, and beside the dragon is the Sea God.
e dragon curls its body protectively around the sleeping god, resting its enormous horned head beside the boy's. Its large whiskers tangle with the Sea God's soft hair, and when the dragon lets out a huff of breath, the boy's hair rises, caught in the warm breeze.
e dragon's eyes are open, watching me, sea dark and bright with intelligence. I take a tentative step out of the water, warily anticipating any sudden movements made by the dragon, but like
a giant cat, it seems content to just lie there. I approach slowly, waiting for the moment when the dragon decides to devour me whole.
I must be hesitating too long, because the dragon begins to growl low in its throat.
e pebbles tremble beneath my feet.
e dragon's eyes flit between me and the Sea God, impatient. Demanding. If anything, the dragon seems to be urging me
the Sea God. I take the last few steps, and with one quick glance at the dragon, I lay my hand on the boy-god's. As before, I'm drawn into a blinding light.
e first thing I notice is that I'm still in the garden, though now it's shrouded in mist, as when I first woke in the Spirit Realm.
“Shin!” He's lying, facedown and unmoving, at the edge of the pond. I scramble forward, falling to my knees beside him. I turn him over and trail my fingers over his lips. Relief washes over me when I feel the warmth of his breath.
ough, had I taken a moment, I'd have seen the Red String of Fate, bright in the mist, and known he was unharmed. As long as the string remains intact, both of us are safe, our lives tethered to each other.
Easing his body off the ground, I cradle him in my lap.
“He's all right, you know. He's only sleeping.”
I look up. Before me stands the Sea God.
e luxurious folds
of his robes soak up the water in the muddied bank. He doesn't seem to notice. Behind him the mist has thinned, and I can make out the shadow of the dragon within.
e Sea God's gaze shifts from Shin to me. “My soul tells me you are my bride.”
I blink in surprise.
“You are suitable.” He tilts his head to the side, dark hair falling across deep-lashed eyes. “I like the way you look. Your hair is like the warm bark of trees, and your eyes are like the sea at night. I can see the moon in them. Two moons. Two seas at night.”
I swallow thickly, unsure what to say.
is is the first time we've spoken. “You are very romantic, Sea God.”
“Not really,” he says. Turning from me, he walks to the edge of the pond. He places one slender finger into the pond, and ripples splinter across the water. “Just lonely.”
I don't know where to begin. Just as in the throne room, I'm struck with an overwhelming feeling of protectiveness for this boy, caught in nightmares and shrouded in sorrow. It doesn't seem right to start making demands of him. Save my people. End the storms. Wake up and be as you once were, whole and happy.
In my lap, Shin groans, though his eyes remain closed. Gently I sweep his hair to the side from where it's plastered to his brow.
“He's fighting it,” the Sea God says. “He wants to wake.”
I look to the boy-god, torn between staying in this moment
with him and helping Shin. Somehow I know even now time is running out, and soon the boy and the dragon will disappear, and I'll be forced out of the dream.
“You could tell him a story,” the boy-god says.
My heart stills. A story? Convincing a god to wake after a hundred years seems impossible, but a story I can tell. I've told hundreds of stories to my brothers and the village children. A story for the Sea God, and for Shin. But which one should I choose?
Shin shifts in my lap. My eyes drift from him to the Sea God and back, lingering on Shin.
Shin, who protects the Sea God from those who would harm him, even as he resents the god for abandoning him, and the story comes to me, as if it were waiting all along.
Taking a deep breath, I begin. “Once upon a time, there were two brothers.
e younger brother was poor and lived in a shack, but he was kindhearted and good, while the older brother lived in a large house and was rich, but he was cruel and filled with greed.
“One morning, the younger brother heard a pitiful sound echoing through the wood. He followed the sound, finding a baby swallow that had fallen from its nest, crying out in pain from its wounded wing. Taking the swallow back to his home, the younger brother rubbed medicine into the swallow's joints and made a little cast from sticks and string to keep the wing from bending. He then placed the swallow back into its nest, and when winter came, it flew away to the south.
e following spring, the swallow returned and dropped a seed into the younger brother's garden, where it grew into five large gourds. When the younger brother cracked open the first gourd, mountains of rice spilled out, more rice than he could eat in his entire lifetime.
e second gourd held gold and jewels.
e third held a water goddess, who then cracked open the last two, one which held small carpenters and the other timber. In a day, they built the younger brother a magnificent mansion.
e older brother, having heard of his younger brother's fortune, came to his brother's mansion and asked him how he could become so wealthy in such a short amount of time. To which the younger brother explained about the swallow.
e older brother, thinking himself very clever, built a nest and waited until a swallow came to lay her eggs. He then proceeded to push one baby swallow out of the nest, where it broke its wing. Like his younger brother, the older brother put ointment on the wing and stitched a cast. In the winter, when the swallow flew to the south, he waited eagerly for its return. Just as he'd predicted, the swallow flew back in the spring and dropped a seed into the older brother's garden. As before, five gourds grew from the seed.
e older brother, joyous, cracked open the first gourd, only for an army of demons to issue forth.
ey beat him with sticks, berating him for his greed and cruelty. Still, the older brother thought there might be treasures in store for him, so he cracked open the second gourd, only for it to be filled with debt collectors who took all his money.
e third gourd
opened to a rush of filthy water that flooded and destroyed his house and swept the other two gourds away. He was left with nothing.
“Realizing his terrible mistake, the older brother ran to his younger brother, begging for help. Now, never has the older brother been good or kind to the younger brother. In fact, he had gone out of his way to be openly cruel and vindictive. But when he arrived at his younger brother's homeâexpecting to be turned away, as he himself would have turned away his brother had their circumstances been switchedâthe younger invited the older into his home, saying, âYou are my brother, and what is mine is yours.' He split half of his wealth with his brother, and the older brother, realizing the depth of his brother's love, knew for the first time true remorse and shame. He became a humble and good man, and together, the brothers grew old and happy, surrounded by their families and loved ones.”
As I was speaking, the Sea God remained by the pond.
His voice is quiet. “What is the meaning of this story?”
I gaze at his back, the tremble of his slight shoulders. “
ere is no meaning, just aÂ â¦ feeling, maybe.”
“And what is that?”
at there is no place you can go so far away from forgiveness. Not from someone who loves you.”
At least, that's what I always thought when I heard this particular story. I wanted to believe that even if one of us should make a mistake, my brother would forgive me, and that I would forgive him.
“Forgiveness,” the Sea God says. “I will never be forgiven for what I have done.”
He lifts his hand from the water, placing his fingers on his forehead. Droplets trickle down his face, moving over and under his closed eyes like tears. “I have a headache. Leave me.”
“Wait,” I say. “
ere's something you need to know. My peopleâ”
e dragon raises its head from within the mist and blows a cool breath across my face.
I collapse unconscious, only to wake to an empty garden with Shin beside me.
“Mina.” Shin struggles to sit up, fighting off the last vestiges of sleep. His voice is laced with concern. “Are you all right?”
“IâI'm fine,” I say, startled by his presence. When he was asleep, he was vulnerable, and I felt protective of him. But now I'm the one who feels oddly exposed.
Like that morning I discovered he'd gone back for the paper boat, an odd feeling lodges in my chest, as if my heart were full. Something changed between us that day, or maybe it was the night before, when we brought the wish to the goddess.
ough I'm not ready to put a name to the feeling just yet.
I turn away. “
e Sea God was just here, Shin. I was in his dream.”
Shin says nothing, though his brow is furrowed.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“I don't know,” he says.
en, hesitating, he adds, “
e Sea God has never shown himself to a bride before.”
All around us the fog has dissipated.
“Let's go back, Mina. We've lingered here long enough.”
He reaches for my hand, and it feels natural to slide my palm against his, taking comfort in his steady strength. When we hold hands like this, the Red String of Fate disappears altogether. It's how it would seem if we were in the mortal realm, where fate is hidden from the eye.