Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 32
Stories
The Temple's Posthole
by M.K. Hutchins
Through the Veil
by Michael T. Banker
Notes on a Page
by Barbara A. Barnett
The War of Peace - Part 2
by Trina Marie Phillips
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Through the Veil
    by Michael T. Banker

Through the Veil
Artwork by Anna Repp

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.

Ori came to a halt as two hands stuck out between stalks of bamboo, beckoning to him.

"Come," said an old woman's voice. "Set the girl down. Let me see her, let me see her."

Ori glimpsed white hair and thin lips, rheumy eyes set in deep sockets. A goddess, he wondered? He bent as if bowing and tenderly set his betrothed on the soil. He had spent his endurance long ago, but had merely lacked the presence of mind to collapse.

"Pick her up," commanded the woman a moment later. He jerked forward to comply, but a girl emerged from the bamboo and grabbed his betrothed away from him.

"Wait," Ori said. "What are you doing with her?"

The girl looked around at him, asked, "Mistress, him too?" But the old woman waved a dismissive hand at Ori.

"No, not him. Hurry, hurry."

They carried his betrothed away, the girl holding the legs and the old woman the arms, while the hem of the red and yellow dress dragged across the brush between them. Ori followed, disbelieving, not knowing what he would do anymore even if they returned her to him. They lead him down a hill where the bamboo dwindled and then failed. The young girl kept looking back at him, until they finally disappeared into a Buddhist temple.

The old woman challenged him at the doorway: "What is her name?"

"She . . . It hasn't . . ." Hasn't been decided yet, he wanted to say, for a new name would be selected upon marriage. As her future husband, it felt improper to use her childhood name. "Jwi," he admitted. Mouse. A humble name intended to avoid the gods' notice, just as his own name meant "duck."

"Better off not to watch," warned the woman, but she didn't prevent him from slipping off his shoes and entering behind her.

Inside, the temple was utterly empty. Only wooden floors worn smooth by the shuffling feet of countless monks, long gone.

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 mudang," nodding fiercely when she saw comprehension light Ori's face. Then she looked away just as fiercely.

Mudang. 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 mudang 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.

"Your wife?"

"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 mudang 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."

"Ye, mistress." The girl bowed.

"You may have one night to say farewell to your betrothed," the mudang 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.

The mudang 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 mudang girl.

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 mudang 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. "Oppa?" 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. Jwi, he spelled.

Are you able to read? he wondered. Did you learn hangul like a dutiful daughter? Or did you hide in the bamboo grove and make music for the gods instead?

Jwi, he wrote. Jwi. Jwi. 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: Oppa. Oppa. Oppa.

Jwi spun without warning and hugged him tightly around the waist. "Oppa!" 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 mudang walked back through the door. Kyung-mi looked anxiously between them, but the mistress appeared thoughtful.

"Thank you, mistress mudang," 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 hanbok. How the mudang 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 mudang, 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?"

The mudang 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 your paddies."

"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.

Ori's heart was still beating from the scream.

"Mistress Mudang," he said, "it appears we are not alone."

"We rarely are."

Jwi wandered back in his direction, so Ori brushed her shoulder just to let her know where he was. She leaned into his touch.

"Mistress Mudang," he began, voicing a thought that nagged him like a summer fly. "You phrased yourself very carefully before. Would it not be possible to push her back through from the other side?"

Her face turned thoughtful again. It was an endearing expression, one that perhaps made Ori feel closer to her than was proper. "You're willing to die for her?" she challenged him. "Even though she is quite alive now, and her contribution to the surrounding villages could be considerable. We will not house or feed her if she can no longer see through the veil, you realize. Nor can you, if you're dead."

Dying for her. He'd meant to phrase it as a question, but the mudang was right, he was offering. Perhaps foolishly.

"Simpler, then," she pressed when he hesitated. "You would die for her?"

Know her or not, Ori had nothing left besides Jwi. Perhaps he had been lying to himself that he never considered what manner of wife she would make, even now. And if there was a chance, however slim, then his duty compelled him to take it, didn't it?

While Ori considered, Jwi tried to pull him off in some direction, but he held her hand firm. Now she looked quizzically in his direction, and then back at the space where she'd bowed. "Let go of me, then," she said, turning her back to him, inviting him to write an explanation.

Ori couldn't stand to lose anyone else, not again. But that wasn't the whole of it -- for the first time in his life, he was in the position to save another person, rather than the other way around. And besides, Jwi was curious and optimistic. Life still had meaning for her. Whereas Ori was just . .  . empty.

"Yes," Ori answered the mistress.

"I doubt you can keep your feet on the other side of the veil and hope to push her through to this side," she mused. "However, if you reached her on the spirit side and pulled her back through the veil along with yourself. It could perhaps be done if you died . . . but only briefly. And if I am wrong, at least I would have succeeded in getting rid of you." The mistress smiled wryly. "Are you willing to try?"

Jwi shoved Ori playfully, since he still hadn't let her go.

"I am, yes," he answered, regaining his footing.

"I see. It is an herb I am thinking of. If I describe it to you, you can find it for me. The correct infusion will slow your heart to nearly, but not quite, stopping."

Ori bowed at the waist, pulling Jwi down with him. "Thank you, mistress. You are eternally wise."

"But consider the consequences of your decision first."

"I will consider them truly . . . while I search."

Ori didn't set out immediately. He allowed himself to sleep briefly while Jwi did the same. Then he fed her. This involved pressing the rim of a soup bowl to her mouth and encouraging her to tip it down her throat. The first time he tried this was the only time he'd seen her truly afraid. Even food was invisible to her; how does one reconcile that? Jwi chewed obediently, but then held her nose as she forced it down her throat.

After eating she requested privacy by telling him to go away and then waving her arms around to convince herself he wasn't near. (He saw as he left, but leave he did.) Ori could have simply departed to search for the herb then, but he chose to wait. By the time Jwi sought him out, the day had waxed into early evening and both the sun and the moon shared the horizon. So Ori wrote a description of the leaves onto Jwi's back, curious whether plant life bridged their opposing worlds.

So they looked together, while Jwi tirelessly commented on all of the spirits that they passed on their way. Silver dragonflies skimming the surface of a pond distracted her. A giant toad, she insisted, exhaled the breeze that Ori felt on his cheek. The spirit world was apparently an active place -- and undoubtedly a dangerous one as well.

Ori did heed the mistress's warning. He noticed how content Jwi seemed just as she was. Most importantly, she had a place in this world. Ori had spent too much of his own life feeling like a Baduk stone on a chess board. But Ori's conviction still held: spirits were not to be trusted. Wasn't it a restless spirit that had stolen Jwi in the first place, probably on nothing more than a whim? What might they do to one who peeked into their secret world? No, leaving her like this was not an option.

Perhaps Ori was too distracted by his thoughts, because it was Jwi who spotted the plant after he'd nearly stepped over it. So plants did cross through the veil. Since Ori still hadn't convinced himself that this was a bad idea, he plucked plenty of the yellow-speckled leaves. Then he yanked up the whole root, just to be sure.

The young mudang Kyung-mi knelt before Ori, cradling his steaming death in both hands. He wished she wouldn't be so formal about it. He opened his mouth to thank her, but couldn't find the words. He was going to die today. Briefly or no.

The sun had set by now. The two mudang were motionless gaps in the darkness while Jwi fidgeted with one bare foot upon the other, apt to wander off if he didn't act soon.

"Mistress," Ori addressed her straight-backed shadow, "will I be able to see Jwi from the other side of the veil?"

"I wonder."

That was, of course, if his spirit didn't simply keep drifting straight to the kingdom of the dead, where deceased humans belonged. Their plan was speculation driven by desperation; the details hardly seemed to matter. Even if he couldn't see her, she'd be able to see and hear him, and he'd call to her and pray she listened.

The mistress advised him, "The leaves would have been more potent after a rain, so I steeped them in hotter water. If you trust my judgment, then drink. If you seek my opinion, I would not trust anyone's judgment on this matter. But as it is your choice, then drink if you will."

Ori nodded and drained the tea in one gulp. It was exactly as bitter as he would expect poison to be. Some moments passed, enough to worry that it wasn't sufficient, but then gradually a fist formed in his stomach and needles pricked his fingers and toes. His body felt profoundly wrong, and he knew that this was right.

When Ori opened his eyes again, he didn't feel as if he were waking so much as slipping into a deeper trance. He knew intuitively that he had crossed through the veil. Moonlight filled the room with none of the warmth of the sun against his skin.

The spirit world. A tawny cat picked its way across the ceiling on gecko feet. An iridescent beetle landed on Ori's sleeve. He noticed that the walls of the temple itself existed on either side of the veil, perhaps because it was so ancient, but all of its inner contents were invisible to him, including the mudang.

Ori turned his head and spotted ghosts: two of them, a man and a boy, huddled together like a family. Perhaps they were who Jwi bowed to. They belonged in the kingdom of the dead, yet here they lingered, watching Ori curiously.

"Honorable ancestors," he greeted them.

As soon as he spoke, he was distracted by movement at the end of the room. The movement was Jwi, probably hearing his voice. She looked insubstantial as fog -- her body made only a faint impression against the moonlight behind her -- but nonetheless, Ori could see her. She seemed to be saying something.

"I cannot hear you," he told her. "Touch your palms together if you can hear me."

She touched her palms, but distractedly as she looked all around. This time he read her lips as she said, "Oppa."

"Your oppa isn't here. Jwi, please listen carefully to me."

After a moment's more frantic hand waving, she remembered herself and bowed to Ori. He was, after all, her betrothed.

Being dead, however temporarily, Ori had no need of breath, and this gave him the eerie impression that time stood still. Yet a tension deep in his muscles reminded him that his body yet had a claim on his spirit. He couldn't keep this up for long and hope to return.

He talked quickly. "Place your trust in me a moment. I am not truly dead, I have a chance to return to my body. Allow me to hold onto you and do your best to hold onto me, and if the gods are merciful, I will be able to pull you back through the veil."

But Jwi looked reluctant, and he instantly understood why: she didn't want to leave her oppa behind in the spirit world.

He took a step forward anyway and she took a step back, visibly agitated and talking quickly. He saw that he had no choice but to explain. "Your oppa has already passed beyond to the kingdom of the dead. Jwi, I was the one looking after you. It was always me. I'm sorry."

What more was he to say? But just then -- already -- Ori felt his living chest inflate with hot air. He panicked and lunged for Jwi lest he leave her behind, but she fell backward out of his reach. With the moonlight shining through her cheeks, Ori couldn't miss the fear and disgust smeared across her features.

Coming back to life was far more painful than leaving it. Ori's chest burned and his limbs were blanketed in thorns. Somehow, though, he resisted it. He stared into the moonlight and willed it not to fade; acknowledged his body only enough to force the breath back out of his lungs.

Time was a tricky thing to gauge when straddling death. But eventually, at some point during the same night, Ori planted his feet under him in the spirit world once more.

Jwi was gone, though.

He looked and found the two ghosts huddled there still. "Did you see which way the young girl went?" he implored them. But they both shook their heads, looking simultaneously fascinated and confused.

Ori fled outside through the open wall, into the bright night, calling Jwi's name.

He should have anticipated her reaction, he realized. He had thought himself clever, devising a method of communication and providing Jwi a sense of security at the same time. She had practically handed him the opportunity when she asked for her oppa; it was as if the spirits had whispered the solution into his ear. But in the end, by bringing her brother back to life for her, he had only managed to kill him all over again.

By the time Ori made it to the edge of the bamboo, he realized that he could feel the dew between his toes. This world was becoming more solid to him. How much longer until he lost his way back? The tension in his muscles was taut, but thin.

"Jwi!" he called. "I too lost a sibling. I don't deserve your trust, but I need it now. I followed you all the way into death. I may never have another chance to bring you back."

Ori stopped so that Jwi could follow his voice if she chose. Either she didn't understand the situation, or she was not near. It was unlike her to simply give up.

"You must come to my voice, though, I cannot hear you." And Ori began to hum a melody that his sister used to sing when she thought herself alone.

But Jwi didn't come. The more he hummed, the more certain he became that she was here, but ignoring him. He turned round and round, the bamboo's shadows cutting black slashes against the white moonlight, but never a glimpse of Jwi. Not dancing around stalks of bamboo or distracted by a spirit. She never did need Ori, did she? She knew how to navigate this world, whereas Ori floundered. She was full of life, whereas Ori was merely playing out his role until he found his family again in the kingdom of the dead. He needed someone like her. Not like her -- he needed Jwi.

She was here. There wasn't much he knew about her with certainty, but she would have gone to the bamboo. It was where she'd wanted to die, when she almost succumbed to the spirit sickness; where she used to hum and tap out music for the spirits by her home.

Did the spirits ever hear her? All of those hours spent humming to them in the bamboo. Perhaps they loved her too much, and in loving her pulled her through the veil. But Ori was just another spirit now, wasn't he? Could he hear her? No, of course not. Not even the gods heard them. No one listened to their prayers.

Unless.

Ori's ears perked up. A sound he had dismissed as the call of a spirit percolated through the bamboo. Tapping, he thought. It sounded like tapping. Tapping on the bamboo. But didn't the bamboo, like the herb that killed him, like the temple's ancient walls, exist on either side of the veil? Now Ori realized what he would find:

Jwi cried as she tapped on the bamboo, her tears seeming to melt her colorless cheeks. She glanced at Ori, disinterested in what he might do. Jwi was so spirit-like, he'd forgotten she had the capacity to grieve.

Ori stepped through her, overlaying her. Still she tapped on the bamboo, her hands seeming to emerge from out his chest.

"I'm not sure," he whispered, "maybe it's already too late. Either way, I'm sorry."

How long it took to find his way back through the veil was impossible to tell. How many times Jwi played through her simple tribute to the gods. It felt endless at the time, while all he could do was reach for his living body and encourage the breath to fill his lungs once more. But like the morning following a restless night, Ori awoke feeling as if it had all passed in an instant.

But he didn't awake well.

Sunlight stabbed Ori's eyes and burned his skin. His sleeping mat was damp with sweat. He blinked, and the light gradually resolved into a familiar face.

"Jwi."

"Drink," Jwi insisted with surprising authority. "Open your mouth. Wider." She squeezed a wet rag and a few drops of water singed Ori's parched tongue. He immediately turned his head and retched a thin trickle down his cheek.

That was all the time he spent alive before the spirit world claimed him again.

He didn't black out, although the room was dark as the moon was yet shy of the horizon. Once again he could see Jwi, but only faintly as before. She looked both frustrated and concerned, fretting over his body, which touched him more deeply than he expected.

Ori wasn't alone in the spirit world. The same two ghosts watched over him just as Jwi did on her side of the veil. The young boy squatted next to him with curious eyes.

Ori asked him, "Can you see the girl feeding me?"

The boy's face lit up at being addressed, but he vigorously shook his head no.

Ori woke fitfully, often forgetting where he was. Sometimes he panicked, convinced he was back with his family during the war. But his sister squeezing his hand would reassure him. Dimly he was aware that it was actually Jwi who was beside him.

As time went on, darkness stopped coming at all. The sun and the moon shone equally brightly for Ori. People and spirits populated the same space. A gold-striped badger brushed past Jwi and she bent down to scratch her ankle. A sparrow with an eagle's wingspan perched on the mistress's shoulder, causing her to hunch ever so slightly. The spirits were all around them, but nobody saw! Many of them, Ori knew, were too intelligent by far. Their mischief was dangerous, and their curiosity doubly so.

Jwi knelt beside Ori to replace the damp cloth on his forehead with a cooler one. His fever haze receded slightly. But then he noticed a butterfly on her shoulder -- just like the butterflies that stole her from him at the betrothal ceremony! He reached out to brush it away.

"No, please," muttered Jwi, "don't move. The mistress said you mustn't move."

"Let me talk to her." Ori needed the mistress to promise that she would take care of Jwi if he died. This was the worst possible outcome. He was only supposed to die if he failed, and then Jwi would still see spirits and be useful to the mudang.

Ori rolled his head to find both mudang in the room, but his gaze took in the two ghosts, as well. The boy ghost lay on his stomach, watching Kyung-mi intently, while the elder ghost had his eye on the mistress across the room.

Ori rolled onto his elbows, pushing against the fever haze, smothering in it. "Watch out!" he croaked. "Stay away from them!" These ghosts were no better than the rest of the spirits, lingering where they didn't belong instead of moving on to the kingdom of the dead. They eyed the mudang like predators, he thought. "They'll pull you through, too."

He crawled toward them while Jwi pleaded with him to stop. The long sleeves of his ceremonial gown dragged on the floor -- the same gown that he was betrothed in, only days ago. He'd met Jwi for the very first time. "Stay away from them. Please, don't pull them through, too."

"Hold him," instructed the mistress. Little did she know.

Jwi held his shoulders, clearly reluctant to force her betrothed, but Ori was weak as a babe in her arms. The sun and the moon shining together were so bright he had to squint. Everyone's eyes were on him now, mudang and ghosts alike. For a moment Ori forgot what the urgency was, distracted by a spirit flying like a living ribbon through the temple. His head was hot, but his core was cold as the winter god's fist. Then he remembered what he was about: "Stay away from them."

"Pardon," Kyung-mi said as she forced a cup of tea into his mouth, rubbing his neck like a dog to make him swallow. "To help you sleep," was the last thing he heard.

Sleep he did, long and deep. When next he woke, it was dark again. His head was clear. The sun glowed like burnished copper, and Ori stood firmly on his two feet.

That was it, then. His body had relinquished him for good. No more struggling.

He looked instinctively for Jwi and was relieved when he found her, once again appearing dim and insubstantial to his eyes. Only her, he could see nothing else from the other side. He walked over, put his hand through hers. Felt nothing. They were more separated now than ever before, but at least he could see her.

Jwi bowed deeply and spoke words that Ori couldn't hear. Bowing to the mistress, he imagined. Was the mudang instructing Jwi to leave, now that she was no longer useful to them? What would happen to her? Once betrothed, a woman could not do so again, even though Ori was dead.

A thought occurred to him. "Why am I still here?" he muttered aloud. Then he thought to look for the two ever-present ghosts. "Why am I still here?" he asked them. He had no more ties to this world, so why hadn't he awakened in the kingdom of the dead?

It was the oldest ghost who finally answered him, in a voice both ancient and unused. "I am not surprised. Your company is welcome, of course."

Ori was relieved to hear another's voice. "Forgive me," he said, "I wasn't in my right mind when I accused you of attacking the mudang." Now, though, his mind was unfogged. His thoughts were unrushed, which felt like a natural consequence of no longer needing to breathe. And he realized that the way the ghosts had looked at the mudang back then was anything but malicious.

These ghosts could see the mudang just as Ori could see Jwi, couldn't they? They must have been very close in life to form such a connection. A mudang was a woman who lost a loved one, and somewhere on the other side of grief found herself inextricably linked to the spirit world. Might these be those very loved ones, watching over the mudang from this side of the veil? As soon as Ori thought of it, he knew it to be true.

But why could Ori see Jwi? "She doesn't love me," he said, picking up the thread of his thoughts when his own guesses no longer sufficed.

"The girl you were looking for?" The old ghost shrugged, as if to suggest that the evidence spoke for itself.

"We barely know each other. And I betrayed her trust."

"I think it fair to conclude that you love her. Perhaps that is enough."

Thinking of Jwi, Ori checked again to discover that she was leaving the room. He started toward her, but then hesitated and looked back at the ghost. "This means that she is a mudang now, is that true? Her connection to me makes her so? And she'll know this?"

The ghost nodded.

"Then she is useful again. The mistress will no doubt want to teach her." Ori nodded, then nodded again. That was it, then. This was how it was meant to be.

Seasons passed. Jwi stayed in the temple to learn the art of the mudang, and Ori watched over her. First she took over the bell from the Kyung-mi, kneeling straight-backed and attentive. Ori felt the wood floor vibrate under the soles of his feet whenever the mistress beat her drums, and although he could not actually hear Jwi's bell, the air felt crisper every time it tolled.

The spirits truly gathered, summoned by the mudang's ceremony. Ori and the other ghosts turned away the mischievous ones, the too-intelligent ones. But the rest, he learned to accept. Even the ones that nestled against Jwi, sniffed her heels, clung to her hair. He learned that there were many aspects to the spirit world, not all of them malign.

After Ori had seen all four seasons at the temple and winter thawed into a reluctant spring, the mistress died. Her expression as she emerged into the spirit world was thoughtful. She bowed solemnly to her loved one and took his hand, as if she had always known that they would be reunited and life without him was a brief distraction.

Before they departed together for the kingdom of the dead, though, she told Ori, "She is a quick and adaptable learner, your betrothed. She asked me to thank you, when I saw you. So now I have."

In this way Ori learned that Jwi knew he was near, and thought of him still.

Jwi returned to her native village afterward. Although outcast once, it was not in her to hold it against them, and she was suddenly of inestimable value as a mudang.

Ori would have been content merely to watch her prosper and wait patiently for the day when they would meet -- properly, for the first time. But every morning, when the sun and the moon shared the sky, Jwi would wander into the bamboo grove to tap out a simple melody. And Ori tapped it back to her. Sometimes she would mouth a single, distinct word. At first he thought she said "Oppa," but then he realized that her lips did not compress into a "p", but widened into an "r". "Ori," she said, that silly childhood name of his that he would never now outgrow. No doubt she still went by Jwi, when she wasn't simply referred to as mistress mudang. Duck and Mouse, humble names intended to avoid the notice of the spirits and gods.

Jwi tapped on the bamboo, and so did Ori. And the spirits gathered around them, curious what this human and ghost were doing. Perhaps, inspired, one of them would try to pull a human through the veil, if only to play with until it got bored.

But Ori kept Jwi as safe as he could. Jwi whose heart was so in tune with the spirits, he had no doubt she would live as long as the mudang who taught her. Ori was not impatient. The day of her death would come, and then they would wed each other at last in the kingdom of the dead.



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