Author's Note: Inspired by a photograph and a joke, this short story took a little over three months to complete. Due to its length it will be released in seven installments over the course of the next few weeks. Writing this has been a real odyssey and I hope you enjoy it.
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Nayeon: Stolen by The Wind
The first few years were a blur of happiness. She and the troupe crisscrossed Josean, from the mountains to the west to the beaches in the south. Everywhere they went they drew smiles and applause. Nayeon was still young and inexperienced in her craft, but she was a ferocious study. She was like a little sister to the older members and eagerly lapped up any advice they could offer. At first all she could do was harmonize, but soon enough she graduated to solo parts. The praise she had received as a child only grew. It inspired her like the river she longed to return to. One day she would return, she promised herself. She would sing for her family and then sit upon the bank, attuned to the meandering flow and the starlit sky reflected in its surface.
Nayeon never found time to keep it. As the years hurried by, the yearning for home had been steadily replaced by wanderlust. When JYP, the troupe leader, said they were returning to his homeland, she hardly slept that night.
Nippon wasn’t the magical land of mystery she had envisioned. The conifer forests were familiar and the architecture was similar enough. Of course the food wasn’t as spicy and she had never quite learned how to put on a kimono right, but Nayeon dedicated all her free time to learning the language. She was like a vessel gorging herself on every bit of culture she could.
They performed nearly every night. Sometimes they found themselves in crowded venues, other times in small halls before subdued audiences. She didn’t care how many watched. The way they leaned forward, shoulders tense in anticipation, were enough to make her sing with all her heart. The words frothed and seethed within her, but she released them with effortless control. She wasn’t home but she’d never felt more welcome. Even an ocean away, she was at home.
It had been a year since then. She was 21 now and the world had lost some of its luster. The world still enthralled her in private moments, but she had steadily found herself irritated and reluctant to embrace the outdoors. When she looked at a clear sky, she wished clouds would give her some relief from the overbearing sun. When the troupe visited a grove of cherry blossoms in bloom, she only remembered sniffling and sneezing from their fragrance. She still loved to sing, but the songs never changed. JYP was stern about it. Their job was to perfect what they already possessed, he insisted. She grew weary of telling the same stories over and over.
She often found her reminiscing about the Han. She had loved to spend her evenings on the shore, watching the setting sun set the water ablaze. The light seemed more vivid, more real than the flickering torches that lined the village roads at night. Even now it remained seared in her mind.
Heralded by a chorus of thunder, the rain arrived on winds worthy of MC’s ire.
Nayeon’s hair was matted to her skin from the downpour. Her mud-stained, torn clothes weighed her down. Blood flowed from abrasions on her palms, a painful reminder of the hours spent grasping for anything to hold onto. It was a miracle that she’d managed to stick to the trail.
Her world was cacophonous sound and dull, stumbling pain. The forest was ripe with the dank, loamy smell of churned soil. Raindrops pounded like the footfalls of an army as she sloshed through the dirt. When she was lucky, she staggered into patches of clear land. Other times she crawled in a constant battle to blindly reach the mountain’s base. The path she had so easily traversed hours earlier had became cascading water. She followed its flow, hoping it would lead to safety.
Night had to be approaching; the leftover warmth in the wind was almost gone. Nayeon knew she couldn’t make it to safety. Her body had passed from pain into surrender. Her breath came in ragged gasps and her forearms trembled every time she leaned on them. Her muscles had turned to stone. She couldn’t form a coherent thought. The rain was still oppressive, but it fell with less tenacity. MC must have grown bored with tormenting her.
Any remaining fight gave way as she crashed to the ground. She tried to laugh only to choke on mud. Nayeon slowly rolled onto her back, the rain pattering against her ice cold skin. She didn’t register its chilly sting or the receding thunder. One bitter thought cycled through her mind: so this was how I die. All that was left was for her to complete the story and give in.
A low cry pierced the noise.“Nayeon!” She did not respond. They said one heard familiar voices before being claimed by death. “Nayeon!” It was a man’s voice, shouting again and again. Her arms fell limply to her side. She was tired, more tired than she could ever remember, and felt the urge to sleep.
“Nayeon!” Now the voice was louder, drowning out her own breathing. A hand grasped the back of her head and another took hold of her waist. “Nayeon? Are you okay?!” She did not respond. “Nayeon! Nayeon!” The world faded as her other senses joined her vision.
Nayeon flexed her fingers and groaned. Her body ached from head to toe. Even breathing hurt. The air was thick and humid but she couldn’t stop shivering. She felt a slight breeze filtering in through an open doorway and hear the vague din of activity outside, but still she saw nothing. Someone must have carried her to the village. She had to be back in her lodgings, but she didn’t hear any of her fellow members.
She tried to rise, but her body was dumb to her commands. Nayeon’s mind briefly blanked out as she struggled to summon strength. She would never be the same, but her friends had always been there for her. They’d return soon enough. They’d tell her not to worry about missing the show. They would crowd around her and tell her how relieved they were that she was safe. She would never be able to explain why her sight was gone, but they’d remind her that she still have her voice. She would worry about it later. For now she needed to sleep.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. Sea air was pungent in a new, exciting way. Nayeon leaned over the boat’s railing and sighed, letting it tickle her nostrils. She’d never seen something as vast as the ocean separating Josean and Nippon. The water was placid, but it rippled with concealed power. She and the group would reach land soon enough but for now, she was content surveying the waves.
She stayed on the deck long after the sun descended under the water. While the other members of the troupe were asleep, she lingered with the few crew dutifully manning their posts. They paid her no mind; she was just a tourist. They had spent so many nights bobbing on the waves that they were incapable of awe. The ocean was just the ocean, a fact of existence.
Nayeon had no such sense of tranquility. She couldn't remember ever having been more excited. Her sisters had told her it wouldn’t be that different from Josean, but she needed to see everything with her own eyes. The port they’d land in, the villages and cities they’d perform in, the plains and mountains they would cross throughout their journey, the vaunted cherry blossoms and most of all the rivers. She was wearing the kimono JYP had given her before they departed Josean. She ran her fingers along one sleeve, smiling gleefully as the waves massaged the vessel bringing them to Nippon.
She had loved home but it didn’t hold what she was looking for. Maybe Nippon didn’t either, but she had to find out what awaited her there. The salt filled air was filling her throat with mucus, but that didn't stop her from inhaling it deeply. It was new and that's exactly what she needed.
Nayeon wrapped the blanket tightly around her shoulders. She was covered in layers upon layers, dressed in all the clothes she owned. The street was lined with snow and frozen to the point that Nayeon’s hips ached from sitting in the same place for too long. A gaunt hand emerged from beneath her tattered garments and dusted some of it off her knee.
The troupe had never returned for her. She’d slipped in and out of sleep for days. By the time she was coherent, her best friends were gone. It was the last thing she expected to happen. They left her with a pittance of money and the clothes on her back. The first week had been the worst. Adjusting to life without sight was tortuous. She could barely navigate the inn, let alone the village, and she often made clumsy mistakes just finding the doors. Left to pay for her own lodging and food, she burned through the money in a few days.
Slowly she gained some semblance of independence. She focused on her other senses, using them to guide her through buildings and eventually the busy streets. The cicadas droned on day after day as she relearned the basic skills required to keep her alive. There was no work to be had for someone in her condition. So she spent her days in the busiest area of the village, singing the ballads that had carried her to Nippon.
At the time she had everyone’s sympathy. A poor girl, bereft of friends and support, drew help like bees to wildflowers. She earned just enough from the villagers and visiting merchants to keep going to the next day. Life was devoid of joy but she was still alive.
Autumn arrived and their pity dried up. Once the alms dwindled Nayeon was forced to move on in order to survive. Not having enough money to obtain passage home, she was fortunate that a merchant allowed her to accompany him to one of the bigger cities in the region. When they arrived he went on his way, wishing her luck but nothing more.
She hated the city. She was lost in the crush of a new place, smothered by bodies and murmuring voices and the biting, sour odor of poverty. She continued to sing and although more people heard her voice, far fewer seemed to register it. Nayeon couldn’t see their faces but she could hear their feet, walking past at the same steady pace. When winter came, she had no choice but to sleep in the alleys with the rats. Now the cold callously cut through her worn-down garments, and she was painfully aware this could be the end. She couldn’t survive to spring like this.
Her song was now mournful and haunting. With every day, the seed of bitterness and resentment grew within her heart. It was all because of MC. It was all his fault. But how could she possibly oppose a god?