Authors: Axie Oh
As I sink, the roar
of the waves abruptly cuts off, and all is silent. Over and around me, the dragon's long, sinuous body circles, swirling a great whirlpool.
Together we fall through the sea.
Strange, but the urge to breathe never rises. My descent is almostÂ â¦ calm. Peaceful.
is must be the dragon's doing. It's using its magic to keep me from drowning.
My throat tightens, and my heart pounds with reliefâall the brides before me, they lived.
Down into the darkness we sink, until the sea above me is the sky, and weâthe dragon and Iâare like falling stars.
e dragon circles closer, and through its tightening coils I catch sight of one hooded eye, opened slightly to reveal a glittering pool of midnight. Time slows.
e world stops. I reach out my hand. Droplets of blood leave the open wound to trail like gemstones across the distance between us.
e dragon blinks, once. A rift opens up below me.
I drop through it into darkness.
My grandmother often told me stories about the Spirit Realm, a place between heaven and earth filled with all kinds of wondrous beingsâgods and spirits and mythical creatures. My grandmother said it was her own grandmother who used to tell her the stories. After all, not all storytellers are grandmothers, but all grandmothers are storytellers.
My grandmother and I would make the short walk through the rice fields and down to the beach, each carrying one side of a folded bamboo mat. We'd spread the mat on the pebbled sand and link arms as we sat side by side, dipping our toes into the cool water.
I remember the way the sea looked in the early morning.
e sun peeked out from over the horizon and lit a golden pathway across the water.
e briny air misted over our faces like salty kisses. I would lean closer to my grandmother, basking in her steady warmth.
She'd always start with stories first, those with beginnings and endings, but as the orange and purple hues of the early morning settled into the bright blue of afternoon, she would begin to ramble, her voice a soothing melody.
e Spirit Realm is a vast and magical place, but the greatest of all its wonders is the Sea God's city. Some say the Sea God is a very old man. Some say he's a man in his prime, tall as a tree with a beard as black as slate. And others believe he might even be a dragon himself, made of wind and water. But whatever form the
Sea God takes, the gods and spirits of the realm obey him, for he is the god of gods, and ruler of them all.”
My whole life, I've lived surrounded by gods.
ere are thousands of themâthe god of the well at the center of our village, who sings through the croaking of the frogs; the goddess of the breeze that comes from the west as the moon rises; the god of the stream in our garden, to whom Joon and I used to leave offerings of mud cakes and lotus lily pies.
e world is filled with small gods, for each part of nature has a guardian to watch over and protect it.
A strong sea wind swept over the water. My grandmother lifted her hand to her straw hat to keep it from being ripped away into the darkening sky. Even though it was still early in the day, clouds gathered overhead, thick with rain.
“Grandmother,” I asked, “what makes the Sea God more powerful than the other gods?”
“Our sea is an embodiment of him,” she said, “and he is the sea. He is powerful because the sea is powerful. And the sea is powerfulâ¦”
“Because he is,” I finished for her. My grandmother liked to speak in circles.
A low groan of thunder rumbled across the sky.
e pebbles at our feet skittered into the water and were washed away with the tide. Beyond the horizon, a storm brewed. Clouds of eddying dust and ice crystals swirled upward in a funnel of darkness. I gasped. A feeling of anticipation swept through my soul.
“It's beginning,” my grandmother said. Quickly we stood and
rolled up the bamboo mat, then walked swiftly toward the dunes that separated the beach from the village. I slipped in the sand, but my grandmother grabbed my hand to steady me. As we reached the top, I looked back one last time.
e sea was in shadow.
e clouds above blocked the sunlight. It looked otherworldly, so unlike the sea of the morning that, though I had sat by the water only a moment before, I suddenly missed it terribly. For the next few weeks, the storms would grow worse and worse, making it impossible to travel close to the shore without being swallowed by the waves.
ey would rage uncontrollably until the morning when the clouds would part overhead, allowing for a brief ray of sunlight to peek through, a sign that the time to sacrifice a bride had come.
“What makes the Sea God so angry?” I asked my grandmother, who had stopped to gaze out across the dark water. “Is it us?”
She turned to me then, strong emotion in her brown eyes. “
e Sea God isn't angry, Mina. He's lost. He's waiting, in his palace far beyond this world, for someone brave enough to find him.”
I sit up and gasp in a lungful of air. Last I remember, I was falling through the sea. Yet I'm no longer underwater. It's as if I've woken inside the belly of a cloud. A white fog covers the world, making it difficult to see past my knees.
Standing, I wince as my dress, dried and brittle with salt,
scrapes against my skin. From the folds of my skirt topples my great-great-grandmother's knife, clattering against the wooden floorboards. As I reach to pick it up, a flutter of color catches my eye.
Wrapped around my left palm, over the wound I cut to make my vow to the Sea God, is a ribbon.
A bright red ribbon of silk. One end circles my hand, but the other blooms from the center of my palm outward, leading into the mist.
A ribbon floating on air. I've never seen anything like it, yet I know what it must be.
e Red String of Fate.
According to my grandmother's stories, the Red String of Fate ties a person to her destiny. Some even believe that it ties you to the one person your heart desires most.
Joon, ever the romantic, believed this to be true. He said he knew when he met Cheong for the first time that his life would never be the same.
at he felt, in the way his hand tugged in the direction of hers, the subtle pull of fate.
And yet, the Red String of Fate is invisible in the mortal world.
e bright red ribbon before me is decidedly
invisible, which meansÂ â¦
I am no longer in the mortal world.
As if sensing my thoughts, the ribbon gives a firm tug. Someoneâor some
âis pulling me from the other side, from within the mist.
Fear attempts to grab hold of me, and I squash it with a stubborn shake of my head.
e other brides endured this, and I
must, too, if I am to be a worthy replacement for Shim Cheong.
e dragon accepted me, but until I speak with the Sea God, I won't know whether my village is truly safe.
At least I am more prepared than most, armed as I am with my knife and my grandmother's stories.
e ribbon flutters in the air, beckoning me forward. I take a step, and the ribbon alights against my palm in a spark of stars. Tucking my knife inside my short jacket, I follow the ribbon into the white fog.
All around me the world is still and silent. I slide my bare feet against the smooth wooden slats of the floor. I reach out a hand, and my fingers brush something solidâa railing. I must be on a bridge.
e path slopes at a shallow decline, giving way to cobblestoned streets.
Here the air is thicker, warmer, filled with an aroma of mouthwatering scents. Out of the fog looms a line of carts.
e closest is stacked high with dumplings in bamboo steamers. Another cart holds salted fish, strung up by their tails. A third is spread with sweetsâcandied chestnuts and flat cakes of sugar and cinnamon. Every cart is abandoned. No peddlers in sight. I squint, trying to make out the darker shapes, but every shadow turns out to be just another cart, a chain of them, stretching onward into the mist.
Leaving the carts behind, I enter a long alleyway lined with restaurants. Smoke from cooking fires wafts through open doorways. A glimpse through the nearest one reveals a room laid out with tables spread with dishes of food ranging from small bowls of spices to large platters of roasted fowl and fish. Bright
cushions are arranged haphazardly about the tables as if revelers had been sitting comfortably, enjoying their meals, only minutes before. At the entrance, pairs of neatly placed sandals and slippers are lined up all in a row. Patrons went into the restaurant, but they didn't come out.
I back away from the doorway. Carts without owners. Cooking fires without cooks. Shoes without people.
A city of ghosts.
ere's a soft breath of laughter against my neck. I turn around abruptly, but there's no one there. Still, I feel as if there are eyes on me, unseen and watchful.
What sort of place is this? It's not like any of the stories my grandmother told of the Sea God's cityâa place where spirits and lesser gods gather in joy and celebration.
e fog covers the realm like a cloak, muffling sight and sound. I cross over short, arched bridges and down abandoned streets, everything around me colorless and dull but for the ribbon, achingly bright as it cuts through the fog.
How did the Sea God's brides feel, waking to a realm of fog with only a bright ribbon as a guide?
ere were many who came before me.
ere was Soah, who had the loveliest eyes, framed by dark lashes that looked as if they were coated in a heavy layer of soot.
ere was Wol, who stood as tall as any man, with strong, handsome features and a laughing mouth. And there was Hyeri, who could swim the span of the Great River twice over, and who broke a hundred hearts when she left to wed the Sea God.
Soah. Wol. Hyeri.
My name sounds small beside theirs, these girls who always seemed larger than life.
ey traveled from far away to marry the Sea God, from villages closer to the capitalâeven
the capital in the case of Wol.
ey were girls who would never have ventured to our backwater village in any other life than the one that forced them to give up their own.
ese girls, these young women, they were all older than me, eighteen when they left to be brides.
ey walked the same path as I walk now. I wonder if they were nervous or afraid. Or if hope made fools of them all.
After what seems like hours of walking, I turn a corner and step out onto a wide boulevard.
e fog is thinner here. For once, I can see where the ribbon leads. It flits down the length of the boulevard, floating up a grand sweep of stairs and vanishing through the open doors of a massive red-and-gold gate. With its ornate pillars and gilded roof, this can be none other than the entrance to the Sea God's palace.
I hurry forward.
e ribbon begins to sparkle and hum, as if it can sense my nearness to the end.
I reach the stairs and take one step, then another. I'm about to pass through the threshold of the gate when a sound catches my ear.
e soft chime of a bell, faint enough that if the world hadn't been blanketed in silence, I might not have heard it.
e sound came from somewhere to my left, down the stairs and back into the labyrinth of streets.
My eldest brother, Sung, thinks all wind chimes sound the same. But I think he just doesn't have the patience to listen.
e clanking of bronze baubles against seashells sounds different from
the tapping of tin against copper bells.
e wind, too, has varying degrees of temperament. When it's angry, the chimes make a sharp, shrilling sound. When it's happy, the chimes clink together in a lively dance.
is sound, though, is different. Low. Melancholy.
I step back down the stairs.
e ribbon doesn't resist but grows in length, trailing after me.
I can hear my grandmother's voice in my ear.
ere are rules to the world of spirits, Mina. Choose carefully which ones you break.
ere is a reason this city is veiled in mist.
ere is a reason I can only travel through it by way of a ribbon of fate. But the sound of the chime was close, and the truth is, I think I've
e sound leads me to the doorway of a small shop off the boulevard. I brush aside the rough curtain and step inside, gasping at the wondrous sight.
e shop is filled with hundreds upon hundreds of wind chimes.
ey cover the walls and hang from the ceiling like teardrops. Some of the charms are round and small, made of seashells, acorns, and tin stars; others are large waterfalls of golden bells.
And yet, as within the white fog, there's no wind in the shop.
But I could have sworn I heard a sound. My eyes are drawn to the far wall, where a gap at the center displays a single wind chime. A star, a moon, and a copper bell are threaded on a thin bamboo string. It's a simple construction for a chime.
I recognize it immediately.
I carved the star from a piece of driftwood and the moon from a beautiful white seashell I'd found on the beach.
I purchased from a traveling bell maker, pestering him as I rang each bell inside his cart, one after another. I wouldn't settle until I found the perfect sound.
I spent a week crafting the chime. I meant to hang it above my niece's cradle, so she could hear the wind.