Authors: Axie Oh
A painful hope blooms within me.
“Just your soul.”
Wrapping his hand around my wrist, he twists.
e knife clatters to the floor. With his other hand, he raises his sword and plunges it downward. I scream.
e piercing sound abruptly cuts off as his sword connects withÂ â¦
He slices clean through the Red String of Fate.
I gape, watching the slow fall of the severed ribbon like two halves of a broken feather. How is this possible? For a brief second, all is silent and still.
en my scream rushes back, but the
desperate sound bursts not from my mouth but from
my body, in the air above.
e scream swirls and coalesces, a mass of bright colors whirling together.
e ribbon slips from my hand, rising, followed closely by the Sea God's half of the ribbon. Together they wrap around the scream, forming a dazzling sphere of light.
Shin steps forward, his hand outstretched.
ere's a brilliant flash of color. In the aftermath, I blink away stars. And my ears pick up a wondrous sound, unexpected in this desolate hallâa bird's cheerful warbling.
Cradled in the center of Shin's palm, its wings folded snugly against its sides, is a beautiful magpie with red wing tips.
The magpie coos in the
palm of Shin's hand. Unlike the black-and-white magpies that flit about my village, this magpie's wing tips shimmer a vibrant shade of redâthe exact color of the Red String of Fate.
e magpie flutters its wings, and I feel a strange ache in my chest.
Kirin approaches, his long strides eating up the short distance. He lifts the wooden birdcage, and Shin gently places the magpie inside.
e bird doesn't seem to mind its imprisonment, content to hop up and down the cylinder perch that spans the width of the small cage. As Kirin ties closed the door with a piece of bamboo string, Shin turns away, sliding his sword back into its scabbard.
I point to the birdcage.
“Where did that magpie come from?”
No sound comes from my mouth.
“Where did thatâ”
Nothing. No sound. No
I press my fingers to my throat; my pulse beats strong.
“What's going on?”
the words, the familiar vibrations.
“Why can't I hear myself?”
“Your soul is a magpie.”
I look to where Namgi grins at me on the bottommost step, having pulled the mask down from his face.
“What do you mean?”
He doesn't have to hear my words to read my expression. Sauntering over to Kirin, he bends down to peer into the cage. “When Shin severed the Red String of Fate, it took your soul. For you, your soul is tied to your voice. It's not unexpected with singers and storytellers.”
MyÂ â¦ soul?
He raps a knuckle against the wooden bars, causing the magpie inside to ruffle its red-tipped wings. “A temporary state of being. Nothing too serious. Imagine it like missing every third heartbeat.”
I blanch, that in fact sounding
Kirin tugs the cage out of Namgi's grasp. “At the end of the month, come to the south gate of Lotus House.” His voice is dull, as if he's said these same words many times before. “A servant will deliver your soul to you. We will not be responsible for what might happen should you fail to appear.”
I struggle to understand. How different it is to believe in myths than it is to live inside one. If I
to trust their words, my soul is a magpie and somehow
my body. Yet I feel no different than when I first woke to this world. Perhaps a bit salt
stained and bone weary, but nothing compared to what I'd imagine losing a soul might feel likeâone less heartbeat a minute, a chasm as wide as the world inside you.
“Lord Shin,” Kirin calls out, “with your permission, Namgi and I will return to Lotus House.”
Shin straightens from where he's been leaning to pick something up off the floor. “You have my thanks, Kirin. I'll join you shortly.”
Kirin bows, followed closely by Namgi.
ey turn to leave.
e magpie shrills a warning.
I shout, but as before, I make no sound.
ey sprint from the hall, taking with them the magpie,
. Soon, they're gone.
“Tell them to come back!”
I rush up the steps and grab on to Shin's arm.
rough the thin fabric of his shirt, I can feel the warmth of his body, the jump of his muscle flexing in response. He turns, the glint of a blade in his right hand. I stumble back and lift my arm. When no attack follows, I look up. He watches me with one brow raised, proffering my knife out to me, handle first.
“After the trouble I went through to take your soul,” he says mockingly, “you think I'd kill you now?”
His sardonic tone makes me bristle with anger.
“I didn't think it would matter. To someone like you, what is a body without a soul?”
His eyes immediately move downward, and I grit my teeth to keep from blushing. After a few excruciating seconds, they move back to my face, apparently having found nothing of interest.
Once more, he extends the knife, and this time I grab it and
step to the edge of the small dais, putting as much distance between us as possible.
“Keep that with you,” he says. “A weapon forged in the human realm cuts sharp in the realm of the gods.”
His advice is unnecessary. I would have kept the knife regardless, the only item I have left from my own world other than the dress I wear.
e only connection I have to my family and loved ones.
Shin claims to have stolen my soul, but why then do I feel like thisâa sharp ache deep inside at thoughts of my family? Where does the pain come from, if not my soul?
“My grandmother gave me this knife.”
I slide my thumb against the rough etching of a moon carved into the bone handle.
“It belonged to her own grandmother, whom she said I reminded her of.”
I roll the knife to the side, revealing the scar underneath, where I bled to make an oath to the Sea God.
e song from earlierÂ â¦ was it your grandmother who taught you the words?”
I slip the knife back into my short jacket.
“She taught me many songs, as well as folktales and myths. She said that through songs and stories I could learn about the world, and about the people who live in it.”
And about my own heart, but I don't tell him this.
en a thought occurs. How are we having this conversation? As I've been speaking, I've made no sound. I narrow my eyes. Can he read my mind? I wait. His face remains decidedly blank.
“You can read lips.”
“Why did you cut the Red String of Fate?”
“To protect the Sea God.”
I ask incredulously.
Shin's gaze moves to the boy-god on his throne, where throughout the commotion he's remained asleep. “
e Spirit Realm cannot sustain a human bride. Your kind are weak, your bodies more susceptible to the dangers of this world. Anything could effectively kill you, if it so wanted.
e Red String of Fate binds your soul to the Sea God. If you were to die, the Sea God might also suffer the same fate. To protect him, I severed your ties.”
I try to make sense of his words.
“Before, what did Kirin mean when he said I could retrieve my soul at the end of the month?”
Shin doesn't respond, and I realize he doesn't know I've spoken, his gaze still upon the Sea God. I tug at his sleeve, and when he looks at me, I repeat my question.
“In a month's time, you'll have spent thirty days in the Spirit Realm. You will become a spirit then. As I said, human bodies are weak: Without a stronger tie to keep them grounded in this world, theyâ”
“You mean I'll die?”
“You'd have died anyway,” he says, “in time.”
“I'm sixteen years old. I'm supposed to have all the time in the world!”
He scowls. “
en you should have stayed where you belong.”
“My world, the place where I belong, is being destroyed because of your world. If you won't be bothered to fix it, then I will!”
e Sea Godâ”
His eyes flash. “What about him? Oh right, your precious myth. You believe only a human bride can save him, that he will fall in love with her.
at he will save her people because of his love for her.”
I grit my teeth.
“I wouldn't be so naive.”
“It's what your people believe. It's what every bride before you has believed.”
“You can't possibly know thatâevery bride has her reasons. Maybe some are not as grand as you'd like them to be. To know because of their sacrifice, their family will be taken care of when they're gone, fed and clothed. To know they've done everything in their power to protect those whom they love most. To know that they tried when no one else could or even would!”
Shin's brow furrows; he's clearly frustrated. “Slow down. I can't catch everything you're saying.”
“Who are you to judge their hopes? At least they have them. What do
have? A sword that cuts. Words filled with hate.”
We're both breathing heavily. His gaze moves upward, from my mouth to my eyes. “For someone who can't speak,” he says slowly, “you have a lot to say.”
ere's a hint of something in his voiceârespect? He looks as if he means to say more, but he turns away. “But it doesn't matter. In another life, you might have found a more welcome shore than this. As it is, the sea is dark and the Sea God sleeps, and the shore is too far to reach.”
I've heard the cadence of these words before.
ey're a farewell.
I shout, but of course no sound comes out. I reach for him, only to grab empty air.
He sprints from the room, his steps soundless across the wooden floors. In the space of a breath, he's gone.
What just happened?
e level-headed part of me
that I can survive without my soul. After all, I'm living and breathing at this very moment. But a larger part
that without the magpie, I am not wholly myself. I feel lighter without it, and not in a pleasant way. I feel as if a breeze could set me adrift, as insubstantial as a leaf on the wind.
e silence that felt thick before now feels empty without the familiar sound of my own breathing. Shivering, I wrap my arms around my body and turn to face the Sea God.
He's just as he was before, but for one difference.
e hand that held the ribbon is bare, nothing to evidence that he and I were once connected.
ere is no color in the air between us, no Red String of Fate. If he were to wake now, would he even recognize me as his bride?
e Sea God lets out a soft sigh.
I take a step forward.
ere's a thunderous crack of sound, and I'm flung backward. Digging my heels into the floor, I grapple for purchase, but it's as if solid wind has taken hold of me.
e Sea God becomes a distant blur as an invisible force drags me from the hall, through one empty courtyard after another. Doors slam shut as I pass through each gateway, the sound of great planks of wood sliding into place behind me.
I'm released outside the Sea God's palace. Stumbling, I almost fall down the grand stairs. A loud groan signals the
closing of the main gate. I scramble to my feet and throw my body against the doors as they shut with a resounding boom.
I pound my fists against thick wood. All I get for my efforts are bruised hands and a terrible ache in my chest. I slump to the ground, exhausted. My pulse throbs erratically, and I have to count my breaths to calm the wild beating of my heart.
I remain on the ground, dazed, for several minutes before I notice something has changed.
e air is clear.
And then I hear it, a sound like laughter drifting through the wind. Slowly I get to my feet and turn.
e mysterious fog has lifted, revealing the night.
Behind me, spread out like a painter's canvas, is the Sea God's city.
It's like nothing I've ever seen beforeâa labyrinth of buildings with curved rooftops and bowed bridges, scattered throughout like solid arcs of rainbow. Gold light shines from lanterns hung from three-story-high poles, like sails of ships caught on fire.
ere are more lanterns floating in the water, on the canal streets piercing through the city like branches of a magnificent, glowing tree.
Brightly colored fish swim along the breeze, as if the sky were an ocean. Whales like clouds float lazily overhead. And in the distance, the dragon slips through the air like a kite freed of the earth.
I've never seen anything more beautiful. I've never seen anything more terrifying.
e wonders of this city reveal an undeniable truth: I have entered a new worldâa world of dragons, of gods with unfathomable powers, of assassins who move unseen through the shadows, where your voice can be transformed into a bird and then stolen, and where no one I love can ever reach me.
I'm too visible outside the
palace where anyoneâany
âcan see me. However much I might dislike Shin, his words were a warning: Humans are vulnerable in a world of gods.
I stumble down the steps, body sore from the rough sea tossing and the perhaps even rougher wind tossing. I slip into the nearest alley and hunker down in the recess of a doorway. A paper lantern creaks atop the cracked wooden frame, the small candle inside casting baleful shadows on the walls. I'm behind a fish shop; the smell of day-old catch is unmistakable. If there are people about, I see no sign of them, and soon it's impossible to see at all as tears begin to blur my vision.
I cry without sound, racking sobs that spread tremors throughout my body.
I know I need to be strong, like the heroines in my grandmother's stories. But I am frustrated. I am exhausted. And, if Shin's words are true, I am soulless. Strange, but it was easier to be brave when he was in front of me, when I was bolstered by
him. It's harder to be brave when by myself, cold and alone.
What am I supposed to do now?
I pull my legs to my chest and press my face to my knees. Desperately, I try to think of one of my grandmother's many sayings, something wise to give me comfort and strength. But despair has its grip on me now, and it won't let go. Only once before have I felt like this, as if the world had jumped ahead and left me behind.
It was the night of the paper boat festival. I was excited because Joon said we would sail our boats down the river together, as we had every year since I was old enough to go. I was kneeling on the riverbank, writing the final flourish of my wish onto the paper when I heard Joon's voice.
“Shim Cheong might be the most beautiful girl in the village, but her face is a curse.”
It was the beginning of their story, a story I would play no part in, at least not for a while.
I stood at one end of the bridge as Joon followed Shim Cheong over to the other side. I remember staring at my brother as he walked away, willing him to look backâjust one small wave to prove that I was still in his thoughts, that he hadn't forgotten me. And when he didn't, it felt like a premonition that things would never be the same again.
I was twelve years old, and I could feel the hours of our childhood slipping through my fingers like sand in the sea.
Later that night, my grandfather found me crying beside
the pond in our garden. He settled himself on the grassy bank, his eyes on the blurry reflection of the moon on the water.
e ducks appeared as if they were swimming across its pearly face. Neither of us said a word for a time. My grandfather understood the comfort there is in shared silence.
When I was ready to listen, he said, “In all my lifetime, I've never seen more wonderful creatures than ducks.” He paused to chuckle at the baffled expression on my face. “When ducks are born, they imprint on the first thing they see, usually their mother, and they will follow her quite determinedly until adulthood. Did you know this?”
I shook my head, unable to speak.
ere were still tears in my throat.
“You were born into this world an orphan.” His eyes were on the water, and I knew he was thinking of his daughterâmy mother. “You were crying and crying, and your eyes were closed tight, and nothing seemed to comfort you. I was afraid you'd drown in your own tears. Even your grandmother was lost as to how to help you. But then Joon, who had been waiting in the garden, came quietly into the house. He was so little himself, not yet three summers old. He insisted on holding you. Your grandmother placed you gently in his arms, and when you opened your eyes and looked into his for the first time, the smile that lit your face was the most wondrous thing I'd ever seen. Like sunlight after a storm.”
“Grandfather,” I said, tilting my head to look up at him, “are you saying I'm a duck?”
Grandfather brought his rough hands to my eyes, wiping the tears from my face. “I'm saying, Mina, that Joon has loved you your entire life. Since the day you were born. He will always love you. It is his forever gift to you.”
I shook my head. “
en why did he leave me behind?”
“Because he knows that you love him enough to let him go.”
In the damp, cold alley of the Sea God's city, I squeeze my eyes shut.
He always knew the right words to say to make everything better.
He's been gone for so long.
Grandfather, I miss you. More than anything, I wish you were here now.
“Lookit!” a young boy's anxious voice shouts from close by. “
ere's a girl crying behind the fish shop. What should we do, Mask?”
A girl's voice answersâmuch calmer than the boy's and slightly muffled. “Wait for her to use up all her tears, of course. Once she's finished crying for herself, she won't start again.
is one has a strong spirit.”
I lift my face from my knees, gasping, when I'm met with the most peculiar of sights.
A girl around my height stands before me, her head tilted to the side, the whole of her face covered by a wooden mask. Grooves in the wood show wrinkles, while the cheeks and forehead are painted with red circles. It's the face of a grandmother, the mouth etched in a downward grimace.
“How can you tell, Mask? She doesn't look like she's going to stop anytime soon.”
I turn and almost touch noses with a small boy crouched beside me. Perhaps eight or nine, he wears loose hemp trousers and a thin jacket with wooden buttons. He has unruly hair, one long cowlick popping up at the side of his head like a flower. On his back, he carries what appears to be a cloth knapsack.
“Not even Miki cries nearly as much as she does,” he says, his brow puckering.
is statement is followed by a noise like bubbles rising out of the ocean.
e boy's fingers fly to his shoulder, loosening the strings of his knapsack. He shuffles the bag around to reveal an infant tucked inside.
“Ay, Miki,” the boy laughs, lifting the tiny girl out of the knapsack. “Smile for the baby.”
He holds the infant out before me. She can't be more than a year old. She has rosy cheeks and a short haircut very much like the boy's, except hers is neatly combed to the side. From the way she's dressed in a soft cotton dress, sewn with small pink flowers, I know she's very much loved. Miki and I blink at each other. Whether it's magic, or whether it's Miki's infectious smile, my tears stop flowing altogether. Miki giggles, reaching her small hands out toward me.
“No, no, Miki,” the boy scolds, pushing the knapsack wide and tucking the baby gently back inside. “You stay with me, now.” He pats Miki on her head before moving the knapsack to his back once more.
I look to the masked girl.
e expression carved onto the
wood of her mask has changed, from a frowning grandmother to a smiling grandmother. “
at's better,” she says. “Tears are fine every now and then, but it's never a good thing to waste water.”
“Whoâwho are you?”
I say. Or try to say. Like before, I make no sound.
She surprises me by answering. “We are spirits.” Her voice has a soft muffled quality to it, coming as it does from behind her covered face. “I'm Mask,” she says, pointing to herself, “and this is Dai and Miki.” She waves to them offhandedly, and Dai gives me a wide grin. “We saw you in the alley making a silent racket, and we came to investigate.”
Dai looks from Mask to me. “How is it that you know what she's saying, Mask? Can you hear her?”
“Of course I can't hear her!” Mask says, exasperated. “Her voice is a magpie, after all. I'm just using my wits. What do you think a human girl like her, caught alone in an alley in the middle of the Sea God's city, would ask? Who are you? What are you? Why are you here? What do you want? I've answered all of these questions. Nod, girl, if I'm right in answering at least the one you asked.”
Dai claps his hands. “Ask the girl her name, Mask! She's very pretty.”
“How would you know if she's pretty or not? You're just a little boy!”
I ignore their bickering and latch onto Mask's words.
Her voice is a magpie.
I wave my hands in the air to grab their attention. Placing my thumbs together, I move my fingers up and down, mimicking the flight of a bird's wings.
“I've got it!” Dai snaps his fingers. “I know what she's trying to say.”
I nod my encouragement.
“She wants to fly. Like a bird. Should we take her to the highest waterfall, Mask? We could push her off.
en she could fly!”
“No, that's not what she's saying!” Mask cackles. “I knew your bloodline was inferior!”
“Take it back, Mask! Say you're sorry.”
I lean upward on my knees and wave my hands, trying to keep the two of them focused.
“How did you know my voice is a magpie? Did you see what happened to me? Do you know where they've taken my voice?”
Mask and Dai give me blank looks. Or at least Dai looks at me blankly. Mask's grandmother mask remains showing its beatific smile.
“Uh,” Dai says, scratching the bridge of his nose. “Do you know what she said just then?”
Mask shakes her head. “We're not mind readers,” she says kindly. “Neither are we skilled lip readers. Treat us as if we couldn't hear you even if you were able to speak.”
I say, mouthing the word. Again, I lift my hands, making the shape of the bird, this time bringing it down in a
dramatic swoop through the air. It's more like the flight of a falcon than a magpie, but at this point, I'm past worrying over the details.
Dai points to my hands. “
at looks like a falcon.”
“Ah!” Mask exclaims. “I see now. Magpie, right? We saw Lord Kirin and that wily thief Namgi got your soul, trapped as a magpie in a cage. You need it back, otherwise the Sea God won't recognize you as his bride.”
My eyes widen.
“You know I'm his bride?”
She must gather an impression of what I'm asking, because she answers, “What else could you be?
e only humans allowed to enter the Spirit Realm are the Sea God's bridesâthe only humans that are
humans, not the
of humans.” She points between herself and Miki and Dai. “Like us.”
She tilts her head to the side. “You're not dead, are you?”
Even if I had a voice, I'd be speechless.
“Every human has a soul,” she explains. “When they die, they leave their bodies in the world above, while their souls travel down the river. Spirits are the souls of humans who've pulled themselves from the river, too stubborn to move on to another life. We linger here in the Spirit Realm, wreaking havoc and growing fat on ancestral rites.” She pats her belly, and Miki giggles.
I stare wide-eyed at them. If what Mask says is true, then
they are dead
“Let's help her, Mask,” Dai says, wincing as Miki bites down
on his shoulder. “I can get her into Lotus House.
at's where Kirin and Namgi will be heading. We'll just tell whoever's in charge that she's looking for a job.” He pats my head gently. “You're so quiet.
ey'd be sure to hire you.”
“Unless they find out you're a human and not a spirit.” Mask laughs. “
en they'd want to eat you!”
I blanch. She must be jesting.
Mask holds out her hand, and I take it. She pulls me to my feet, turning me so that she can brush the dirt off the back of my dress. We are of the same height, she and I.
With her profile to me, I study her freely.
e mask she wears ties around the back of her head with thick strings. Her warm brown hair is styled in a long braid, signifying her status as an unmarried maiden.
at and the youthful curve of her neck suggest she's around my age.
“Let's go!” Dai says, Miki giggling from her place on his back. Mask straightens to join him. I hesitate. I am not usually a mistrustful person, but my run-in with Shin and the others has made me wary. Still, I feel a strange affinity to these spirits, so friendly and filled with lifeâeven if they
My eldest brother, Sung, says trust is earned, that to give someone your trust is to give them the knife to wound you. But Joon would counter that trust is faith, that to trust someone is to believe in the goodness of people and in the world that shapes them.
I'm too raw to believe in anyone right now, but I do believe in myself, in my heart that tells me they are good, in my mind
that tells me they are the help I need to find the magpie and take back my soul.
“Are you coming?” Dai shouts from over his shoulder. I hurry to catch up, following Mask, Dai, and Miki out of the alley and into the heart of the Sea God's city.