Chapter One 장 하나

In my mind, not only was I a late bloomer, I was also a failure. A year after I entered the world of the imugi, I still had not learned to control my powers. Lesson after lesson, exercise after exercise, I still had yet to use my powers at will. By the age of eleven, most imugi children already knew what their spirit guardians were while I was growing disheartened with each passing day that I couldn’t summon the form my powers would take.

I didn’t understand how my instructor had not given up on me during that first fruitless year. I was a disappointment and, as her first student, she must have been embarrassed at my slow progress. However, she continued her way of teaching, choosing instead to console me and tell me that I would learn in time. She told me that she believed it was because of my lack of concentration that I couldn’t conjure my spirit guardian, and so she had me practice jultagi.

My instructor was a younger teacher, the youngest at the time and probably in all of imugi history, and so her methods of teaching were different from the other instructors’. Of course, however, with a late bloomer like me whose control of her powers was beyond nothing, most of the other instructors turned a blind eye to her almost unorthodox methods. Having me learn jultagi, Korea’s art form of tightrope-walking and story-telling, when I didn’t even know how my powers worked almost seemed to me as her way of telling me to quit. However, her way of just shrugging off my doubts had me regretting thinking so badly of her.

And thus, I went to work on the concentration exercise she assigned me. And since this was to boost my concentration level, instead of making me tell a story while walking on a rope in air…

Kan-jang-kong-jang kong-jang-jang!”

…She assigned Jeong Hosae to annoy me.

“Stop that!” I had yelled. Despite being only three meters up in the air, my fear of heights had forbidden me from looking down at the far away ground.

“Stop what?” His voice came from behind me, and I had to go to the trouble of maneuvering my feet so that I could face him. Tightrope-walking came easy to Jeong Hosae. His spirit guardian was the monkey, a fitting guardian for a prankster like him…

“Playing around,” I answered. Just because he was my brother’s friend did not mean that I could tolerate him all the time.

“Sorry, kiddo,”—he had not looked remorseful at all; in fact, he was enjoying my misery—“Injung said that I had to keep bothering you or this concentration exercise wouldn’t work.”

“Since when did you listen to anyone?”

“Since she went and said, ‘Jerk, aren’t you the one always pretending to be the substitute teacher?’ And then she went and glared coldly at me.”

I could imagine that conversation, laughing at the awkward situation Hosae had been put in. It served him right for always messing around. Laughing was my mistake. As my body shook with the laughter, so did the rope I stood on. It took a lot of effort before I was able to steady myself once again. As the rope shook, my legs felt like the wobbling limbs of a newborn fawn. It was a miracle that I did not fall.

Hosae had his weird smile on again. “It’s a good thing you were able to balance yourself again,” he teased me, “because if you fell off then not only would you have failed this exercise but you’d also have cracked your head opened.”

“That’s not funny,” I retorted, puffing out my cheeks.

“You’re right…”

I found it hard to believe that he agreed with me so easily.

“It would have been funny if you did crack your head open.”

Seonbae!” I made my second mistake when I reached over to punch him. My half-lunge threw me completely off balance and, had I not grabbed the rope with my hands, I would have been laying injured on the ground below. Because I was short, I was less than half as tall as the distance between the rope and ground, so letting go of the rope would have been a problem.

“Tsk, tsk, trying to hit your elders is very disrespectful, you know…” Hosae wasn’t eye level with me. Instead, he was eye level with my stomach as he swung upside down, his bent legs holding onto the rope. “But even though I’m older than you, I don’t like being called seonbae at all… Why don’t you call me oppa?”

“Because…” I didn’t understand why he was ignoring my struggle. I had barely any upper body strength, and so just holding onto the rope was taxing for me. Even as I spoke, it was easy to hear that my breathing was labored. “Calling you oppa would mean one of two things: one, that we’re siblings which we’re not or, two, that we’re close friends which we are also not.” And we would stay being just acquaintances if he did not help me up!

“Oh, I’m so hurt…” He did not try to feign hurt as he pulled himself back onto the rope. “Aigu, aigu, what ever shall I do now?” he sang, acting as if he were a lonely old man. He pounded his chest with his fist. “Ah, you’ve hurt me so badly…” He sniffed loudly and dramatically before lowering his head as if he were going to cry.

I was rolling my eyes at his antics. If I wasn’t dangling like a freshly caught fish then I would have slapped him.

The rope shook.

That jerk! As if not helping me wasn’t enough! He was also trying to get me to fall!

“What are you doing?” I cried. I was only eleven then, and so his actions scared me.

He paused. “Well, you look like you’re in a bit of a predicament, so I thought of helping you.” And then his hands were at it again, shaking the rope once again as hard as he could.

The rope shook and shook. Its fibers burned against my tight grip.

“Stop it! Please!”

But he did not stop, and the rope continued its movements. My tears must have been leaking out of my closed eyes, my face turning wet as I screamed for him to stop. I did not know if he was laughing or not, but if he was then he stopped because I heard nothing when my grip loosened and my body fell. I know I must have screamed—I screamed even when I slid off the stairs, so how could I not scream when falling from so high up? But my ears couldn’t hear as my heart plunged. I wasn’t going to die, but just falling scared me to death. And the pain…

The pain didn’t come. The fall should have been short, and yet I was still in the air after a whole minute. How was that possible? My eyes, having been forcibly shut, took a while to open but, when they did open, I saw that I was floating in air. My eyes widened in shock. Had I finally found my ability?

“Hosae, can you stop trying to scare her?”

“Yeah, if Jihoon finds out about this, you’ll be as good as dead.”

That second voice had dashed my hopes. It was Hong Kwangseok, another one of my older brother’s friends. His presence made me realize how stupid I was to believe that my powers finally blessed me.

“Kwangseok-oppa, can you put me down now?”

“Oh, right… Sorry.”

I was on the ground within seconds. It felt nice to be back on solid concrete again. Though there were no trees and just dirt and sand on each side of the pathway, Changdeokgung’s courtyard looked so much better from the ground than from the air. Heights were never something great for me, and so I hoped that my ability would not have anything to do with flying.

“Well,”—there was a small thumping noise as Hosae jumped down from the rope—“I can’t say that you’ve passed. In fact, you did horrible.”

Ya!” I screamed at him, slapping his shoulder as hard as I could. “You kept shaking the rope! I fell off because of you!”

“Yea, but it was my job, Jisu. I was supposed to keep doing things to distract you, but you were supposed to keep focusing on making it to the other side of the rope.” He added a pained “ouch” at the end as he rubbed his throbbing arm.

“But . . . but you didn’t have to go so far…” I felt my cheeks reddening. When my hands were slipping off the rope, I had been so scared. The thought that it was just a concentration exercise had slipped my mind. In fact, I had completely forgotten that it was even an exercise.

“If Sangjun and Kwangseok hadn’t come and saved you, I wouldn’t have actually let you hit the ground,” Hosae protested, almost as if he were insulted. “If I did then your brother and Injung would kill me.”

I chewed the insides of my mouth. I was ashamed of myself. Even if Hosae was a troublemaker most of the time, he was still a nice guy, and he was my older brother’s friend. He wouldn’t have allowed me to get hurt.

“By the way, why are you guys here?” Hosae asked the two who entered the courtyard during my false crisis.

“Why isn’t my brother with you two?” I just realized that it was only the two of them. My brother, Sangjun, and Kwangseok usually stuck together like the three musketeers, so it was odd that my brother wasn’t with them. “Is Injung back?” My teacher would be the only reason why Jihoon would be separated from his two friends. She had been gone for two weeks already. It was about time for her to return.

“No, she’s not.” Sangjun answered, clearing his throat. “You know that, whenever she disappears, she’s gone for maybe weeks at a time. It’s very hard to predict when she’ll be back. Your brother is in his room sulking about it.”

Again.” Kwangseok added.

I laughed because it was true. My brother never liked it when Injung disappeared. At the time, I had thought it was because he missed her company. Never did I realize it was because he worried for her safety.

“Well, Injung does have Jihoon wrapped around her fingers,” Hosae said. “It’s natural that, when she’s not around, he suffers from withdrawal.”

I slapped him again. “Don’t talk about my brother like that.”

“What? You know it’s true!”

“Hosae, maybe it’s best if you kept quiet,” Kwangseok suggested. Unlike Hosae, Kwangseok was quiet and usually did not fool around. I did not know why Injung hadn’t chosen him to be her substitute. He would have been so much better than Jeong Hosae. “Jisu’s almost a mini version of her brother when she’s hyped up.”

“Good thing she doesn’t look like him or she’d be an ugly girl.” Sangjun, on the other hand, was almost as bad as Hosae. “What?” he asked when he saw me glaring at him. “It’s true, though. Jihoon may appeal to some girls, but I don’t think, if you looked like him, that you’d appeal to guys.”

“But I’m his sister,” I said, crossing my arms. “I’m supposed to look like him.”

“Not exactly, though,” Hosae added, pinching my cheek, “Or you’d be a boy. Good thing you inherited your mother’s looks.”

“Minus the fear that comes along with her mom,” Sangjun added. “That woman’s scary.”

The mention of my mother put an obvious frown on my face, obvious because Kwangseok immediately cleared his throat and led the conversation back to my earlier question.

“And speaking of her,” he said, “your mother’s handmaiden is here. We came to get you because she was asking for you.”

That wasn’t good. If Sukja was here then my mother wasn’t far behind. And if I knew my mother then Sukja wasn’t sent to just check up on me.

 

When I had first entered the imugi mirror world, I felt as though I had entered a historical drama. There were no cities or houses. All imugi children lived in one of four palaces: Changdeok, Changgyeong, Gyeongbok, and Gyeonghui. Each palace was a complex, each having its own large halls, temples, and other buildings. And each palace seemed like an ancient city, big enough to house hundreds or even thousands of imugi children. I had been placed in Changdeokgung only because of my mother’s insistence. Even though my brother had residence in Changdeok, imugi children were sorted into the different palaces based on their abilities and, had I gone through this process, I would have ended up in Gyeonghuigung with all the other imugi children who had yet to master their powers and abilities.

I did not know why my mother’s insistence was taken into heavy consideration—I had not known what being a state chancellor meant and had not known how high of a position my mother held—but I knew it had something to do with the rumors that flew around about her. She was a scary woman, always being called a gamble between a lady and a tiger. She was often compared to Medusa, the Greek Gorgon who could turn her victims into stone with one glance—I had been unaware at the time of how true this claim really was.

As I stood before my mother’s right hand lady, I wondered why my mother sent Sukja.

“It’s been a while,” she said. She greeted me with her hands together and bowed her head. Her greeting reflected her position. Sukja was a gungnyeo, a maid that worked in the palaces. The imugi world was not exactly a true mirrored image of the human world. Unlike the human world, the imugi world was stuck in the past where people like the gungnyeo still existed, where people still wore the traditional hanbok, and where there were no such things as electricity or technology.

“Have you been well?” she asked me.

I forgot how I answered or if I did answer her question—usually I told her that I was fine or that I have been well. But my mind was in turmoil. I had failed the concentration exercise Injung had assigned me and failed once again in trying to control my powers. Now I had to deal with whatever my mother had instructed Sukja to do.

“If my mother wants me to do something then she should come here herself.” I had said, jumping straight into the subject. There was no use beating around the bush. I felt bad about not properly greeting Sukja, but I was more angered at the fact that my mother had not visited me herself. I had not seen her since she left me in Injung’s care, and that had been more than a year ago.

Agassi…”—had she been addressing my mother, she would have used the honorific of manim, but my brother and I were not her masters and, as such, she addressed us as doryeonnim and agassi respectively—“Please understand,” she implored. “Your mother is a busy woman.” She was desperate because, two months ago, her last visit had not gone well. That time, I had not been in the best of moods just like now.

“Busy?” I asked in disbelief. “A mother should still be able to make time to visit her children!”

Agassi…”

I sighed. There was no use in arguing with Sukja. She was only the messenger. And I didn’t feel like attacking her when she had no choice but to do whatever my mother told her to. “What is it my mother wants?”

Sukja seemed grateful that I had given up my angry charade. “Your mother wants you to run an errand for her.”

I wanted to ask why my mother couldn’t have done it herself, but I held my tongue when Sukja handed me a piece of paper probably with instructions in case I forgot and a subway pass—this second item had me confused for a minute.

Although imugi children were removed from the human world once their powers awakened, many still passed through the portals that separated the two worlds. For some, it was because of duty—I would not know what these duties entailed for quite some time and, when I did find out, the world seemed more complicated to understand—while for many others, it was because of an attachment to the world they used to live in. For me, it was the latter. I could not bring myself to forget the world I was born and raised in, and thus I could recognize what the pass was for. However, I did not understand why my mother would want me to venture into the human world when she was so opposed to me doing so—the last time I had returned to the human world was a bit over half a year ago after which my mother had forbidden me to return.

“Her instructions are for you to take the subway to Gimpo International Airport and to wait.”

“To wait?” I asked. Those sure were vague instructions…

“Your mother did not say why. She said you will know when you see that person.”

So I was to pick someone up… What was my mother thinking? Sending an eleven year old to an airport as her lapdog… I didn’t understand whatever it was that she wanted me to do, but I was sure that whoever I was to meet would not like the fact that their welcoming party consisted of only a child. Yet, there was nothing for me to do but accept the chore. Besides, I wasn’t going to let this chance go. It may be the only time my mother would allow me to journey into the human world.

 

Living in the imugi mirror world greatly heightened my appreciation of the human world’s technology. Had humans stayed in the past like the imugi then reaching destinations would have taken up maybe a day’s worth of time, depending on the distance between start and end points. With an invention like the rapid transit, traveling great distances took only hours and maybe even less. But still, as I sat there riding to the airport, I found myself missing the beauty of nature. The subway, like many human inventions, was closed off from the natural world, and thus I would not have even noticed that I had crossed under the Han River.

Of course, during that ride to Gimpo Airport, I had been more preoccupied with the Choco Pies I had been stuffing in my mouth. Sweets held a great value to me and were of great temptation, and so anything with chocolate on it called my full attention. For imugi, most of the foods eaten were traditional foods that had roots in Korea for generations. Foods like chocolate or gimbap, a Korean version of sushi, were not eaten in the imugi world. Naturally, if I saw anything covered in chocolate anytime I ventured into the human world, I bought it in bulk. It’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but I never kept track of how many sweets I ate each trip. I never got fat, so it didn’t occur to me to ever count my intake of calories. I was lucky that Injung had given me a large silk bag or I would have gone around Seoul with chocolate-covered biscuits in my hands.

By the time that there were only a few more minutes to Gimpo International Airport, I already had eaten two Choco Pies. With a bit more than five minutes left, I decided to reach into my bag for the box of Peppero I bought. Next to Choco Pies, these chocolate cookie sticks were my favorite snacks.

As I put one in my mouth, I had a strange feeling to look up. And when I did, straight across from me sat a creepy, old man. There was no other way to describe him. He was a short old man, possibly only as tall as me, with wrinkles that seemed to fold in on themselves and liver-spotted skin that stuck dangerously to his bones, making him appear mummified. His gray hair was like wires streaked with white. And there were times when he opened his mouth to wet his cracked and dry lips. During those times, I could see spaces where teeth had once been, and the yellow teeth that were still intact were pointed and sharp. He didn’t smile, but his lips curled at the end, splitting open some of the dried cracks on his lips. And he just stared at me with his beady little eyes that seemed black and watched me intently like I was his prey. He gave me goose bumps—if he had been an imugi then his spirit guardian may have been a snake of some sorts.

And he just sat there, staring at me. Just staring…

Last call for Gimpo International Airport. The doors will close in a minute.

I had not realized that I had arrived at the airport station, but I was glad to be able to shoot out of my seat without insulting the old man. Even if he was creepy, it would have been rude of me to just move my seat because of him. But as the doors to the transit closed, I could not help but look back to where he sat.

The old man wasn’t there.

As the glass doors between the station and transit closed, I looked around for him. If he had gotten off then I must have missed him in the crowd of people bustling to get to their designated terminals, but if he had stayed on the transit then he must have moved seats. That second thought calmed me, for that old man had given off a bad vibe. The thought that he was still watching me from somewhere in the crowd frightened me, and so I put another Peppero cookie stick in my mouth to comfort myself and ran off with the rest of the crowd.

I forced myself not to think of the old man as my sneakers squeaked through the halls of the airport, one of my hands on my bobble hat so that it wouldn’t fall off my head and the other hand holding my purse so that it wouldn’t slip off my shoulder. My scarf was supposed to keep the cold air from entering my mouth when I breathed, but my movements while rushing to the terminal rendered the scarf useless as cold air from the station entered my lungs. The large glasses I was forced to wear didn’t help either since they kept fogging up. If I had a choice then I wouldn’t have worn those glasses, but I had to mask my identity.

Because imugi seldom returned to the human world, imugi children were required to disguise themselves whenever they ventured into Seoul. It was a law that the yangban, the ruling class of imugi, had created only recently in order to guard against suspicious eyes. Usually imugi children were suddenly taken out of the human world, and so excuses had to be given for their sudden disappearances. There were other excuses, but the three main ones were boarding school, studying abroad, or even just gone missing. As a result, imugi children couldn’t just wander around. They had to be sure no one could recognize them or lie after lie would have be told and soon those lies would unravel. Disguising our identities was a precaution to protect the existence of the imugi and our mirror world. Other precautions included never going out during school hours and never using credit cards.

By the time I had reached the pick-up terminal, I was tired—I never did have great stamina, so even just a little run exhausted me. There were other people there waiting for their beloved ones to arrive, and I had yet to know who I was to meet, but I knew I would meet the person soon. The arrivals from the incoming plane were coming in, and so I waited for anyone whom I might recognize.

I stood on my toes, trying to see past the people in front of me, but, as more and more people began to arrive, more and more people obscured my view. I gave up after a few minutes, frustrated at the people standing in front of me. I wasn’t going to be able to find the person my mother wanted me to escort. I tried once more, going onto my tippy toes, but I could barely see past someone’s shoulder.

I was beginning to worry that I had missed my charge. There weren’t many people coming through the terminal gates anymore, and I was certain at this point that my mother sent me on a wild goose-chase because I could not recognize any of them. And if I couldn’t recognize the person then I doubt they would be able to recognize me either.

There was only one person who caught my attention. It wasn’t because I recognized her but because of the way she looked. She was a petite lady—maybe she was still just a girl, judging from how small she was. I would have missed her if it had not been for the fact that she only carried with her a black leather purse and nothing else, not even a luggage bag. Pretty was the word that went through my head when I saw her. Though a large black crochet beanie concealed the top portion of her face, her clear skin contrasted with her grey trench coat and matching black pashmina and hat. She was elegant-looking, but I wondered if she was cold. It was easy to tell that she had a black-and-grey-checkered dress underneath her coat, and she didn’t even wear long-length boots to help her black stockings protect her legs from the winter air.

In one fluid movement, her head turned my way—she was wearing sunglasses, and so I was disappointed I could not see her whole face—and her smile dropped. Her hand that had held her purse strap on her shoulder went limp, and her purse fell to her side with her hand, her knuckles becoming evident as her grip on her purse strap tightened.

What could have made her react that way? I turned around to find out, and I wished I hadn’t. I almost jumped when I saw the old man from the subway again.

In the airport’s bright lights, he looked even more ghastly, almost wraithlike. In comparison to the pulchritude I saw just now, the old man was the epitome of foul appearances. And he was still staring at me. I felt like I was in a horror movie. There was no doubt that he had followed me from the subway, but how? I had gotten off the transit just only a moment before the doors closed. Maybe he was a ghost… Maybe that’s how he got off the transit so quickly.

His beady black eyes were still fixated on me. He was only a bit taller than me, but the way he looked at me sent chills down my spine. I couldn’t tell if he was smiling, but his lips were pulled back, showing off his few remaining sharp yellow teeth—his already taut skin seemed as though it would rip at the mere motion, his wrinkles being pulled even tighter than before.

He took a step forward.

I took a step back.

He took another step forward, and I took another step back. I didn’t want to even be near him. It wasn’t because of his appearance but because of the bad feeling he gave me. He was about to take another step forward, but he stopped midway, returning to just standing still. He didn’t stare at me anymore—rather, he stared past me.

I was so focused on the old man in front of me that I jumped when a hand came to rest on my shoulder.

“Oh, maknaeya, have you come to pick me up?”

It was the girl from before. I was confused because of the way she addressed me. Only those living at Changdeok called me their maknae, the youngest of their group, so I wondered who she was. Up close, she looked familiar…

“You don’t recognize me, Jisu?” she asked with a chuckle. “Maybe it’s because of these sunglasses…” The moment she took them off, I felt so stupid for not knowing who she was.

Seonsaengnim!”

It was Injung.

“Jisu-ya, how many times have I told you not to call me your teacher when I’m not teaching you anything? It makes me sound so old…”

“Injung-eonni…” I corrected the honorific to her name. Eonni was the female form to oppa, either an older sister or a very close older female friend. Injung was both to me, a friend and a sister, but, even though I was glad to see her again after so long, my attention returned to the old man. My eyes shifted to look in front of me, but it was just like before on the subway. The old man had disappeared! My surprise had me turning my whole head around to make sure that he was gone this time and not hidden in the crowd.

“Have you lost something?”

“Oh, no, I was just…” I didn’t know if I should tell Injung or not. “It’s nothing…” And in the end, I decided not to. I didn’t want Injung to worry and, even if the old man was still there, I felt safer because Injung was with me. “Where have you been, eonni? Everyone’s been worrying about where you’ve gone off to this time.”

“Well . . . with all the clues my arrival has given you, you can probably answer that question yourself,” she averted my question, giving me a tap on my nose with her finger.

While she smiled, my smile quickly turned into a pout. “Eonni!” I whined. Even if this was our first meeting in two weeks, she still acted like a teacher, not giving me a straight answer and trying to evaluate my deduction skills.

She laughed at my antics. “You’re still so cute, Jisu, even with glasses.” She had a hand on my back, leading me away from the terminal. “Come on, let’s get going… By the time we return, it’ll almost be dinner time.”

Her words confused me. It was barely past twelve, and going back to Jongno District would not take very long. But I didn’t question her about it. Even if I hadn’t gotten an answer for my earlier question, I was glad to be going home. I didn’t feel like meeting up with that old man for a third time that day. How unlucky I would have been if I had…

 

We had gotten back on the subway, but we weren’t returning to Jongno District, already passing that stop. And yet, I just sat there quietly. I had already told Injung about my failure at mastering jultagi, so maybe she was going to take me somewhere to cheer me up. Injung always did that for me—every time I failed an exercise, she’d bring me a treat from the human world. When I look back, I realize that Injung spoiled me more than my brother and mother ever did, but I didn’t complain about it. Injung was as stubborn as she was spontaneous. There was no changing her mind once she set it to something. I had not realized it then, but her stubbornness would be a trait that I would inherit from her.

The ride with Injung had been more eventful than my ride to the airport. I guess I had looked much younger than I actually was because, when Injung had me recite a few classic Korean poems, a few older women sitting across from us began to gossip. I heard them call Injung a teen mom, but if Injung had heard then she ignored it. I had wanted to yell at them, but Injung stood up before I could say anything.

I quickly followed her out before the subway station’s doors closed and, to my surprise, we were at Yeongdeungpo Market Station. It took me a while to realize where we were—the last time I had been here was when my family had first moved to Seoul—but there was barely any time for reminiscing. Injung was going quickly, up exit three and onto street level. I wondered how she could walk so quickly even with heels on…

“What would you like for dinner, Jisu?”

“Dinner?” I asked in surprise. “Are you going to cook?”

She nodded once. “Why?” Amusement rang in her voice. “Did you think that I couldn’t cook? When you first arrived at Changdeok, I cooked all of your meals, you know. Breakfast too.”

Really?” This was the first I was hearing of it. Looking back, I had wondered how my brother ended up successfully cooking all of my favorite dishes. This explained it. Then again, had my brother prepared the food then it would have looked somewhat like a mess of stuff rather than almost restaurant quality…

“How about some kimchi jjigae for soup today?” she suggested, her finger tapping her chin. She was facing forward, but her eyes weren’t paying full attention to what was in front of her. “And maybe we’ll have omurice? Or do you want bibimbap? It doesn’t matter which you choose because I don’t have to make any side dishes with them.”

“Um, either is fine…” I stuttered a little, not knowing what to say. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful to her, but I liked both dishes, so it was hard for me to choose.

Bibimbap then. It’ll be a bit more nutritious. What do you think?”

Her bubbly personality overawed me like always and, like always, I could barely find the words to speak. I tried to nod instead, but my scarf immobilized part of the motion, and so my head just bobbed up and down.

“Great! Now, let’s see… We don’t want to be carrying eggs or rice around,”—she took out her cellphone and started texting—“so I’ll get Yuri to buy those… And we’ll have to tell her to get already prepared kimchi too…” She had already sent the text by the time she finished her sentence. “Hm… We’ll have to get the meat, vegetables, and seafood then…” Her phone was back in her purse, and her fingers were back to tapping her chin, Injung trying to figure out what else we needed to buy.

It wasn’t long before we reached the market, and it took even less time for Injung to find something that caught her eye.

“I want to have some beansprouts today,” she said as she surveyed the batch, making sure that the beansprouts at one of the stalls were really fresh. As she did this, she had begun to negotiate the price with the vendor.

I had hoped the price wouldn’t be lowered, just so I didn’t have to eat them later that night. Without my knowledge, my face had already contorted into something odd because Injung began to laugh when she looked towards me.

“Oh, come now, beansprouts aren’t that bad.”

My nose wrinkled even more. “But . . . I don’t like them.” I knew there was no point in arguing with Injung, so my response came out weak like a quiet whisper.

Her laughter stopped, but her smile remained. “My sisters didn’t like them either…” She hadn’t whispered this. Instead, it was a low murmur that I would have missed in the bustle of the market crowd if I hadn’t been paying attention. “Ajumma!” she said to the vendor. “Give me a quarter kilo. Make sure you give me the best ones. I need to convince this little one here that beansprouts aren’t so bad.”

But even as she smiled and joked around with the vendor, her eyes told a different story. It’s been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Back then, Injung’s eyes were always so sad. The trip to the market place would not have been the first time I actually realized how sad her eyes seemed but, until then, I had never really noticed the depth of her sadness—it would take me a while longer to discover the reason behind her sorrow. Imugi eyes were always strange, always changing, but Injung’s eyes . . . they were different. They were beautiful. They only added to the mystery that was her. Certainly, there were girls prettier than her, but something drew me to her. Maybe it was the same thing that attracted my brother to her or maybe it was not. All I knew was that I wanted to help mend her soul, to give her something to smile about, and to see her eyes change.

Seon Injung was probably the most important person to me…

 

Once we were done at the market, Injung had hailed a taxi, and it had begun to snow. The streets were already beginning to turn a powdery white. Unlike the ride on the subway, we sat in silence, Injung giving me a small box of Pocky—it was a Japanese product similar to Peppero, but I loved both snacks equally and had begun eating the Pocky as soon as I opened the box. However, when I looked at the box, I realized the words weren’t in Korean.

Eonni, did you go to Japan?” I asked her once I finished swallowing my third Pocky. It would have made sense… Her long absence, her presence at the airport, and the unfamiliar wording on the Pocky box . . . it all pointed to her being in Japan.

“You’ve gotten better at guessing,” she said. It wasn’t an answer, but she didn’t deny it. “Hm… I better reinforce the strap on your bag or it’ll rip soon…” Her attention was suddenly turned to my silk purse. She leaned towards me, her fingers rubbing against where the strap beginning to pull away from the bag.

“Why did you go to Japan?” Though it was not unusual for imugi to return to the human world, I had never heard of any imugi leaving the country. I was pretty sure it wasn’t allowed, but I didn’t ask to get her in trouble—it was my curiosity that had me asking. I wondered why she would suddenly change the topic. The question was simple, so I didn’t understand why she didn’t want to answer.

Her hand was still on my bag, but her fingers froze in their place. She stared at me, probably wondering how serious I was. After a while, she sighed, realizing that I wouldn’t drop the topic so easily, and her hand left my bag, resting on her lap. “I’m part-Chinese, part-Japanese,” she explained.

I had no problem about what she said, but I had not known that. My surprise must have shown on my face because her smile returned, but it was smaller than before.

“Your brother never told you, huh? I guess he wanted to wait until I was comfortable telling you. How considerate of him…” She sat straight, her hands folded and her fingers fidgeted on her lap. “My mother was half-Japanese, one of only two daughters in her household, so her family cherished her. I visit them from time to time to pay my respects.”

“So . . . is that where you always disappear off to?”

Her fingers stopped fidgeting. “Not always…” She looked straight ahead when she answered, her face unreadable.

Her odd way of answering gave more fuel to my curiosity. I had thought she would tell me more on her own but, in the end, I had to prompt her to tell me even just a bit more. “Then do you visit family in China sometimes?”

She bit the inside of her mouth as if she were debating on how to word her response. “No.” It took her a while to answer, and the answer came out strained as if just thinking about that side of her family pained her. “We don’t get along.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a lot more to the story than a simple family fallout. But before I could ask her any more questions, the ride had ended, and the taxi had parked itself in front of a gated house. I got out of the taxi as Injung paid the driver.

My warm breath turned into white mist as I breathed, my body shivering as snowflakes kissed my face. Because Sangjun could make a snowstorm at will, I had forgotten exactly just how cold snow could really be when brought by the winter winds. Yet, despite the cold, I loved watching as the snow began to pile up and turn the black asphalt into white fleece. The snow was light, but there seemed to be no end to it. The sky was so black that it was hard to tell if the snowflakes came from the sky itself or from hidden clouds. The stars must have been buried behind those dark clouds because the sky was starless that night. Cold, dark, and starless . . . that’s how I remembered my first night back in the human world.

“Oh, maknaeya,” Injung’s call had awakened me from my daze. I hadn’t noticed the taxi had driven away. “I thought you had gone in already.” She must have realized her words only confused me—I made a note to myself to try and break the habit of tilting my head to the side; it just made me too easy to read—because she walked towards me and gestured to the house in front of us, asking me, “Don’t you recognize this place?”

I blinked once. Recognize this place? I wanted to ask what she meant. The neighborhood seemed like any other, each property being surrounded by a brick, stone, or concrete wall. Nothing really stood out, and the snow made it harder to find anything that did. The house itself didn’t have any outstanding features either—or at least, none that I could see unless it was behind the wall.

“Maybe, in addition to concentration, we should work on your memory, too.” Injung teased me as she walked towards the gate, all the grocery bags in one hand and the other hand nudging me forward. She pressed the doorbell, waiting for someone to answer through the intercom.

“Yes?” The answer came a few seconds later in a lackadaisical singsong voice. “Who is it?”

Injung clicked her tongue. “This girl still has to ask? Everyone else has already arrived…” She wasn’t exasperated, though—in fact, she was smiling, amused by her reception. She pressed the intercom. “Who else could it be?” she asked. “Open the door, Yuri!”

“I’ll only open the door if you have the food! You’ve been gone for two weeks. Don’t think I’d let you back with nothing in hand!”

It was just like Yuri to say that. Now it was no wonder why she was the one who had answered the door—she was only willing to ditch her laziness for either gifts or food, more usually for food—but I still wondered why she was there in the first place. Was it her family’s home?

I took a few steps backwards, trying to see the plate on the front side of the wall. It was customary for Korean families to put their surnames in front of their homes to indicate whose home it was, so I was sure I would be able to tell whose home it was from the plate. The name on it surprised me more than it should have. The character was written with the letters ieung, eu, and nieun. It was read Eun. It was my surname… After reading the name, I could only stare at the roof and what little of the house peeked out from behind the wall. Was it really my house?

Maknaeya!”

Again, Injung had to call me out of my daze. Yuri had finally opened the gate.

“Let’s go in before we catch a cold!”

I followed her in, closing the gate behind me. It was starting to come back to me now as I walked up the stone steps to the front door. I remembered running around the yard and pulling out the flowers the housekeeper had planted. I remembered slipping on ice on those exact stairs whenever a frost came after the snow had melted. The house—well, at least the yard—was exactly the same as I remembered. Except for some yard work, nothing had changed. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten. It really was the same house my mother, brother, and I lived in after we moved to Seoul. I felt stupid for forgetting.

When we had reached the front door, Yuri stood there, refusing to take the groceries. “It’s too much effort,” she said, staring at the four large bags in Injung’s hand. “Besides, I got the rice, eggs, and kimchi. I’ve done my fair share for the day.”

Injung rolled her eyes, placing the groceries on the floor and taking off her grey coat. “Yeah, right.” She already knew Yuri was half-telling the truth. “You mean, you got either Sangjun-ie or Kwangseok-oppa to do it for you.”

“Of course I did!” Yuri didn’t even try to deny it—in fact, she boasted about her exploit. “You know me. I’m definitely too lazy to get the groceries. Plus, it was hard enough to convince Sangjun-ie and Kwangseok to do it.”

“Yuri-ya, it’s fine if you belittle Sangjun, but Kwangseok is the oldest out of all of us. You should address him as such.” Injung said this while she helped me take off my winter apparel. Helping me with something as simple as clothes was one of the ways Injung pampered me, not that I minded—it was like being five years old again and playing a fun game of pretend. I twirled in place as Injung held one end of my fuzzy scarf, unwrapping it from my neck.

Yuri made a huffing noise as if what Injung said was beyond reason. “Oh, hush. I’m not ‘belittling’ anyone—I added a very informal honorific to his name. And you should speak for yourself. I’m older than you, and you don’t address me as such.” It was easy to tell she was mocking Injung because Yuri didn’t usually use words like address or as such.

“That’s because you don’t act like it.”

I didn’t realize Sangjun was in the room. His sudden appearance made me jump out of my unzipped jacket, my fake glasses falling from my face—I had hoped those glasses broke; I hated wearing them because they always blurred my vision when they fogged up.

Yuri stuck her tongue out at him. “And speaking of ‘belittling,’ if anyone’s doing that then it’s you,” she said to Injung. “Jisu is eleven years old, but you still treat her like she’s five.”

If anyone could bring out a childish side in Injung, it was Yuri. “Oh, like that matters…” Injung continued their banter as she picked up two of the four grocery bags and handed it to Yuri. “I’m her teacher, after all. I can treat her in any way I see fit.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say…” Yuri’s hand moved in a waving motion, signaling her desire to end the conversation. She took hold of the groceries, one bag in each hand, but then seemed to weigh each bag by moving her hands up and down. In the end, she handed the heavier bag to Sangjun. “Just get cooking, woman! I’m starving!”

“When are you not?” Injung just laughed. “Jisu-ya, why don’t you go upstairs and tell your brother you’re here?” she suggested, her eyes lingering on the stairs. “Knowing him, since he’s not down here to greet me then he’s with Kwangseok and Hosae playing that computer game again.”

“And don’t you wish you were playing with them?” Sangjun teased her, a coy smile on his face.

I didn’t pay attention to whether or not Injung retorted—I was gathering my outing attire, trying to decide which way was the better way to hold my large winter jacket, my inner sweater, and my long scarf without dropping them down the stairs. As I shifted the weight, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. It was a soft tap, much too soft to be the tap of a finger. And when I turned my head, I saw one of Yuri’s fox tails. It pointed in front of me, and another one of her tails appeared, my fake glasses in its grasp—they hadn’t broken when I had dropped them to my displeasure. I thanked her, and her tail placed my glasses on the top of my load of clothing.

The sudden appearance of Yuri’s tails didn’t surprise me. Her spirit guardian was the gumiho, a nine-tailed fox, who was almost just as lazy as Yuri because it didn’t appear completely; only its tails would appear behind Yuri, making it easy to forget that these tails belonged to Yuri’s spirit guardian and not to Yuri herself. At most times, Yuri would summon those tails to do menial chores for her, but I never had seen her use all nine tails at once—there would be only one event long after this peaceful calm that had demanded for Yuri to call upon all nine of her spirit guardian’s furry appendages.

I began my trek up the stairs with a sigh. Seeing the gumiho’s tails, I began to remember how my day had started—with failure. How long would it be until I discovered the identity of my spirit guardian? And how long afterwards would it be until I could control my powers? It seemed as though those questions would remain unanswered for quite some time, and I was growing more and more disappointed in myself with each passing day.

“Jisu-ssi!”

As soon as I reached the top of the staircase, I was knocked to the floor, my clothes scattered about—there was a slight cracking sound, so I knew that my glasses had broken this time. I couldn’t say I was surprised by the tackle, but I wished I had seen it coming. In fact, I should’ve known it was coming. After all, being oblivious to one’s own strength and being enthusiastic was a formula for creating unexpected situations, and Sowol had both aspects.

“You’re back!” she cheered after she released me from her hug. “How was your trip? What did your mother have you do? Did you like being back in the human world? What took you so long? I missed you! Did—”

I lost track of her questions after that.

Kim Sowol was Injung’s second student. She had entered the imugi world later than me, but she had already found her spirit guardian and had full control of her abilities. I tried to tell myself that her mastery of her imugi powers was because she was a couple of months older than me, but I felt ashamed of myself whenever I was near her. I just didn’t understand why I couldn’t discover my spirit guardian when all other imugi children my age had already done so. More so, I was ashamed for tarnishing Injung’s reputation. I was her first student. Why couldn’t I excel like Sowol?

“Jisu-ssi?” She was staring at me now, her cascade of questions having stopped. Sowol was the same height as me, so she had a habit of putting her face close to mine. “Is something the matter?” Her cerulean eyes bore into mine, trying to find an answer on their own.

“No, it’s nothing…” I told her. There had been times when jealousy got the better of me and when I would lash out at Sowol but, whenever I stared into her large blue eyes, my malicious sentiments would disappear. “I’m just tired…” I was lucky Sowol always took my excuses because I didn’t want to find out how much more shame I would feel if she ever discovered how I actually felt about her.

Looking back, there was a lot of things I never realized. Injung herself was a mystery, and most of my focus had been on either trying to find my spirit guardian or trying to find out more about my mentor. Yet, it would be Sowol that I would never really know. My jealousy had alienated her from me since I had first met her, and I never gave any thought as to why a Korean girl like her would have blue eyes. I took her for granted, but if I had known it would have been my last winter with her then I would have tried harder to be her friend.

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