Through the Veil
by Michael T. Banker
Every year in Korea spring felt like an accident, a stutter-breath in nature's rhythm. Between the
winter gods blowing dry frigid air down from the mountains and the summer gods fanning
sweltering currents off the southern seas, for a brief period the land was still. Spring was when
the greater gods rested and the mischievous spirits played.
Ori was not fooled by the tranquility of the season. When the spirits jested, it was humans who
came to harm. When the spirits crossed through the veil that separated their worlds to touch
them directly, sometimes people took ill, called it spirit sickness.
So it was for Ori's betrothed.
They walked alone, the two of them. Helplessly Ori watched her waver between the bamboo
walling them to their left and the muddy rice paddy to their right. Her breath came in sharp
gasps and her bare feet slapped the grass irregularly.
Always Ori reached for her, then hesitated. What comfort was he, who didn't even know her?
They had met for the very first time at their betrothal ceremony, two days ago. He had bowed
formally once and she twice, but on the second time she failed to rise; she arched her back and
kicked out her feet and screamed like a woman in labor. That was when a cluster of blue-winged
butterflies converged on her exposed skin -- her face, her hands, and her ankles. Ori saw it
clearly, just for a moment, before they fluttered off in a shimmering cloud toward the west. It
was a sure sign, she was spirit-touched.
Her own family cast her out; spirit sickness was unlucky at best and believed to be catching. Ori
didn't know her yet, but she was his responsibility now. That's what he told himself as together
they threw themselves upon the mercy of the gods and hoped for a revelation. Until then, they
followed the butterflies.
They would spend the rest of their lives together, be it seven decades or seven days.
"Hot," panted his betrothed -- and then she folded to the ground. "Too hot," she breathed,
holding her forehead. Her yellow and red ceremonial dress pooled around her like fire. She was
very young, more like a little sister than a soon-to-be wife. Ori was uncertain how to behave
around her. He fumbled for the water gourd, but she sucked in air through her teeth and lunged
for the rice paddy instead. Scooping up fistfuls of mud, she smeared it all over her forehead and
cheeks, dripping globs onto her dress.
She sighed contentedly. "Did you know that bamboo is a living instrument?" Her head weaved
from side to side and her eyes held the same uncanny depth as Ori's mother's eyes just before
she succumbed to fever. "I used to tap, tap, tap. Tap on fat and thin bamboo. Then I'd hum to
the spirits, just like . . ." She hummed a tremulous note and smiled. "I'd like to die in the
bamboo, if possible."
She stood up, still smiling, and took two steps toward the bamboo before her knees failed her.
Ori caught her and sank with her, his blue and purple gown drifting against her red and yellow.
Her eyes were closed, but her breath was smooth and untroubled.
Ori scooped her slight form in his arms and plunged into the bamboo forest as she had requested.
He had no thoughts left. What was thought, anyway? The whisperings of the gods into their
ears? Whenever Ori found a rhythm to his life, the earth seemed to open up beneath his feet.
Whenever he carved out a purpose, the rest of the world shifted, rendering it meaningless. His
sister was murdered at the hands of the Japanese. His father conscripted into the army, never to
return. His mother perished of fever, perhaps touched by the spirits herself. At least the bamboo
formed a comfortable green blanket surrounding him. One step looked the same as the next;
either his feet carried him or he stood in place while the bamboo flowed around him.