“There were once two brothers named Heungbu and Nolbu,” Hyun Sook begins, her rich voice seeping comfortably into Claire’s murky consciousness. Though Claire struggles to retain the meaning of each word as it is spoken, the effect is still soothing, the warmth of that voice spreading through her tired brain just as the warmth of the broth had eased her aching, shivering muscles.
“Their father was quite wealthy,” Hyun Sook continues, “and when he died he decreed that each brother should take his fair share of the inheritance. But this is not what happened; though Heungbu was generous and empathetic, his elder brother Nolbu was as depraved as the youngest was gentle. He took joy in the pain of others, and coveted all things for himself. And so, he claimed the entirety of the inheritance and sent his brother from their father’s land to fend for himself and his wife and children.”
Claire watches her as she tells the tale, captivated in her feverish state by the movement of her lips and the gentle rise and fall of her strong brow, mimicking the crests and falls of her voice. Her eyes stare vaguely in Claire’s direction, and her hands rest deliberately on the elegantly bound book in her lap, fingers caressing and exploring the heavily embroidered cover. The tome remains closed and written in ink, and Claire wonders what it is that Hyun Sook reads in the silky threads while she speaks.
“Heungbu, as virtuous as he was, had never been very lucky, and his family swiftly fell into poverty and starvation. Though they worked hard on their tiny scrap of land, their harvests amounted to little and misfortune seemed to greet them around every corner. Finally the day came when he ventured back to his old home to ask his brother for assistance.
Nolbu, of course, did nothing but laugh at his younger brother and kick his prostrated form into the dirt. Even Nolbu’s wife and child only stood and watched as Heungbu scrambled about in the dust, refusing even a kind word or gentle thought for him. And so, Heungbu returned home empty-handed, desperate, and downtrodden.”
Claire blinks, and it takes some time before her eyes open again. The next time she blinks she wonders how much of the story she has missed, and the third time her eyes do not open again. But as sleep overcomes her, pulling her down into the tumultuous unconsciousness of sickness and exhaustion, she continues to hear the echo of a husky voice. And she begins to see.
“As Heungbu slowly trod the dirt path up to his house, he noticed a serpent climbing a tree where he had often seen swallows nesting. He heard the flutter of wings as the mother bird departed from her nest in a panic and the high pitch cries of its young as the predator approached.”
Feathers. Black-blue and white.
“With hardly a thought, Heungbu grabbed a stick from the ground and beat off the serpent, chasing it away from the tree and the nest. But it was too late, for a tiny swallow had fallen in the panic and now lay shivering on the cold ground beneath its home. Heungbu gently lifted the creature and took it into his home where he mended its leg, which was broken, tying it with string to support it. As night fell he gently returned the swallow to its nest and hoped for the best, forgetting his own troubles while wishing away those of the tiny creature.”
Pink skin and patches of blackish feathers with white tufts escaping here and there. Red string wound about the fragile twig of a leg.
“Somehow, Heungbu’s family survived another year on borrowed rice and the little harvest they could manage. They watched the swallows depart and return in spring, and Heungbu was delighted to recognize the tiny swallow – now a healthy adult — returning to his home.”
A scrap of red string hangs from the leg, still thin but whole and strong. The beak is misshapen though, fatter than it should be. No – there is something held tight within it. It falls.
“Heungbu went outside and lifted the object from the ground – a seed. His family, seeing this as a good omen, planted it in the fields among their own meagre crops.”
Green sprouting from dry brown soil, twirling and looping with leaves popping free here and there. Tiny yellow and white flowers. Then something that reminds Claire of squash: huge, round shells larger than her head. Without touching them she can feel their smooth, green skin.
“Heungbu’s wife was so amazed by the sheer size of the gourds that she insisted he split one open right away.”
A sound like rain. Tiny white grains pour out of the green shell. Rice. It pours and pours and Claire knows there is far too much here to have ever fit in the gourd, as huge as it may be.
“They split the next gourd.”
Tinkling like a bell. Treasure. Gold coins and jewels. As plentiful as the rice, if not more so.
“And the third gourd.”
A whisper. The gentle murmur of the flowing of perfectly smooth silk, dyed every colour of the rainbow. Claire can feel it against her cheek, impossibly soft.
The softness is yanked away and Claire feels herself stumble. A man stands over her and she cowers in his dark presence. At first that same darkness seems to cloud his face, shrouding it in dreamy vagueness, but as he stoops lower towards Claire she can make out the details there. His hair is inky black and his eyes a warm brown that doesn’t suit the scowl contorting his clean-shaven face. Most notable, however, are the line of moles – five tracing the outline of his eye, like a crescent moon framing his brow.
“When Nolbu heard word that his brother was suddenly wealthy, he was jealous and suspicious. He marched to his brother’s house, banged on his door and demanded to know from where he had stolen this wealth or whom he had cheated to acquire it.”
The man’s attention is on someone else, a shorter figure in the distance, though Claire isn’t certain when exactly he turned away from her. He is several feet away, indistinct as the backdrop of any dream, when another figure stops by Claire’s side. No – two figures.
One is tall – an adult woman – and the other a child clutching tight to her hand. She watches the men speak, her mouth and brow both stern lines. Claire almost reads cruelty in this fierceness of expression, but then she sees the whiteness of her hand. It is the mother who is clutching, not the child, and in that tightness is a fear and the determination of self-preservation. The child, though closer to Claire, is ephemeral and easily forgotten. The mother on the other hand, is as clear as Nolbu had been. And familiar.
“Heungbu denied these accusations, telling his brother the true story of his wealth. Nolbu pondered on this and returned to his home, pleased to note the nest tucked away amongst the leaves of a tree on his very own property. From a window in his home he watched this tree, but there was not a snake in sight. He quickly grew impatient with his scheme.”
The man with the crescent moon by his brow watches out a window with a sneer. His feet bounce against the floorboards, and his hand taps his knee as it jogs up and down.
His wife is the familiar woman – as black-haired as the man but with eyes such a dark shade of brown they might almost be considered black. She watches from another room, her eyes flickering from her child playing on the floor to her husband’s aggravated jostling. One time, he catches her eye, and though her gaze drops immediately to the floor, he stands and approaches.
The child continues to play obliviously while the father stands over the mother, looking down on her with disgust. He snorts and says words Claire can’t understand. The woman answers, in the same language, pointing beyond him to the window and then bowing her head. The man looks as though he might strike the woman, but then considers her words and turns eagerly back the way he came, past the window and out of the door.
The woman sheds a tear on the floor, but her mouth is a hard line of determination.
“Nolbu reached into the nest, violently throwing one of the small swallows to the ground. He smiled to see the crooked bend of its leg as he lifted it, carrying it carelessly in his rough hands to his home. There he set the leg and wrapped it up with string, as his brother had described, and dumped the tiny creature back into its nest.”
The same scene – swallow, string, seed. But in the distance the sound of pacing footsteps, of impatient words, angry shouts, and a woman crying.
“Nolbu raced outside to fetch his prize, quickly planting it in his gardens.”
There is a disembodied feeling of impatience. It fills the pit of Claire’s stomach, making it tighten as the sickness had, and for a moment she floats to consciousness, as though catching a breath of fresh air, and then sinks down into disorienting unconscious once more.
“Three gourds. From outside they were identical to his brother’s, but when he broke the first one open…”
Hundreds of tiny, ugly creatures, only human enough to make them that much more appalling, spill out and attack the man, beating and biting at him. The wife tries to run with the child, but soon they fall onto them too.
“The next gourd split open…”
Somehow, from within the shell, men emerge one after another, each pointing at some document clutched in their other hand and shouting. They gesture at Nolbu’s house and back to their papers again before proceeding inside and confiscating his treasures, his furniture, and eventually even his clothes.
“And the final gourd…”
Black-brown sludge pours out, covering Nolbu and his family and flooding their home until it is nothing more than refuse-covered ruins. They run from the destruction, Nolbu ahead while his wife – why does she seem so familiar? – carries their child behind.
“They fled their home, with nothing left. Finally Nolbu felt the poverty that others had begged him to relieve them from, and he wept.”
For a brief moment there is a tear by the man’s eye, and a hand reaches from behind, hesitating for a moment before resting on his shoulder. He holds the hand and weeps. His wife, her clothes still stained and tattered, does not cry but simply stares straight ahead. There is nothing left in her face but exhaustion.
“Unsure of where else he could go, Nolbu took his family to his brother Heungbu’s, begging forgiveness and shelter. Heungbu, being the compassionate soul he was, took the family in and gave them food, clean clothes and shelter. From that time on they lived together in harmony, grateful for what they had, and kinder for each other’s company.”
Claire’s eyes flicker open, and she finds she can no longer perfectly recall the faces she had seen in her dreams. Her stomach still feels squeezed, and her body still aches, but she finds a comfort in being tucked away under her blankets with Hyun-Sook’s warm presence beside her. She takes a sip from a glass the woman offers her and carefully eases herself into the softness of her bed once more.
“Thank you,” Claire says, “I’m sorry if I dozed off…”
“I do believe that’s the point,” Hyun-Sook returns, flipping through the pages slowly while staring off into the distance.
“I think… I feel bad for Nolbu’s wife and child.” Claire’s eyes beg to close, her throat objecting against its usage — still raw from days of sickness – and yet the haunting image of the woman’s face still lingers behind her lids, even if she can no longer describe it with any clarity.
“His wife? Why?” Hyun Sook frowns and twists her lips in confusion, “She hardly offered to help poor Heungbu or his family.”
Claire recalls her impassive face when Heungbu prostrated himself in the dirt, and the coldness of her eyes when Nolbu had left to break the leg of the swallow… had she been the one to suggest it? Why did she feel bad for this woman? Simply because her dream had made the woman feel familiar?
“But Nolbu was so cruel… perhaps he was cruel to her too. Maybe, maybe she was more isolated than even poor Heungbu. At least he had his own innocence to turn to, and his family. Where did she have to go when even her own name was associated with hatred and malice?” Claire is unsure whether her words make any sense, or if her fever has left her fixated on a tiny detail no one else would even notice. Or was that the point? “Doesn’t anyone else ever ask about her?”
Hyun-Sook drops her head, inspecting the cover with her fingers once more.
Claire dips in and out of consciousness, so that she isn’t certain how much time has passed. She wakes to Hyun Sook’s voice telling yet another tale:
“The turtle volunteered to fetch a rabbit, as he was the only creature that could survive on both land and in the sea. So he swam up from the dark depths to the glittering brightness of the surface world…”
In a moment Claire begins to sink, the words becoming more distant until she can no longer hear them. Not even an echo.
This time she has strange dreams. True dreams and not the in-between hallucinations of exhaustion and illness.
Something is pounding in time with the aching of Claire’s head. The sound echoes from high above her, and Claire knows that it is coming from the moon. It makes no sense – neither the sound nor that she should know this – and yet she is convinced that it is true. With a sickening inversion she is no longer looking up at a velvety black sky and the glowing orb of the moon, but down at the pale blue hue of the Earth.
Beside her a snowy rabbit sits, pounding away with a mortar and pestle. Though it never ceases its work, it still offers Claire a small white cake. Or maybe it simply appears in her hand and she feels the intention of the gift. Either way she takes a bite which sits in her throat, filling it until she cannot breathe.
She is drowning, falling through dark waters while the sun above her slowly dwindles into oblivion. A soft velvety paw touches her hand and she turns to see the rabbit still beside her. With a swallow, she forgets the urgency to breathe and orients herself to her dim surroundings. Beneath her is a massive, mottled shell; they are not sinking so much as gliding gently downwards on the creature’s back.
The man with moles beside his right eye awaits them at the bottom, seated on a throne of coral. “I need your liver to make me well again.”
For a moment Claire is struck with dread, but then she realizes that he is speaking to the rabbit beside her. Guilty relief washes over her and she watches the rabbit closely for its answer.
“Of course, your majesty,” it says with a low bow, “I would gladly sacrifice such a thing for your grandness. But I’m afraid I have left it ashore, for safe keeping. It is such a valuable item, after all.”
The king dismisses them with a wave of his hand, and the turtle begins to rise toward the light.
“Good one,” the turtle says once they are out of ear shot of the king. As they break into the open air she adds, “Now get the hell out of here and don’t look back.”
It occurs to Claire that the turtle sounds exactly like Art, which makes perfect sense, though perhaps her waking mind might disagree.
When Claire steps from the turtle onto the wet sand of the beach, she realizes that she is naked. She glances around in a panic but the expanse of ocean that once surrounded her has diminished down to an emerald pool. Other women are with her, as naked as herself. The rabbit is there too, though how she knows this she isn’t quite sure, because the rabbit is now a woman with radiantly pale skin and hair like coal. Her face is so familiar but simultaneously unrecognizable – as though the dream is showing her someone through a distorted mirror.
As Claire becomes aware of an oppressive presence – a disembodied feeling not unlike drowning but laced with anger and impatience – and she realizes that the others have left. Only the rabbit-woman remains.
And a man. The man with the warm brown eyes. The man with the crescent moon astride his brow. Nolbu. The Sea King. But now he is humbly dressed and he approaches hesitantly. The woman shies away, as does Claire though he pays no notice to her. As she retreats, the other woman splashes around the outside of the pool looking for something, frantically glancing at the growing light in the sky.
The man waits patiently and eventually she takes his outstretched hand, dressing herself in the spare clothes that he has offered, and leaves with him.
Claire feels desperately that this is wrong, but this dream like so many other has stripped her of her voice and when she cries out it is futile.
Claire drops into the pool and waits. Though it was day only a moment ago it is already the dark of night once more, but when Claire looks up into the moon it looks wrong. Empty and smooth like a pearl.
When the woman returns, clutching tight to the hands of two children, she looks different. The moonlight picks out fine lines of silver in her once-black hair, and there is a hardness now where before there was only the gentle cunning of the rabbit. Stretching out behind her are wings, wrinkled and worn like a shirt too long without an iron, forgotten in the bottom-most drawer.
She glances behind her and, though it takes several stiff flaps, she eventually begins to ascend upwards toward the heavens.
“He’ll follow,” Art’s voice says from somewhere beside her. Claire looks down to see the turtle’s head peeking from what she had previously mistaken as a rock. “She’ll let him stay for a time and then he’ll mess it all up again. It’s a delicate dance.”
“Who is she?” Claire asks.
“The cunning rabbit. The poor manipulated fairy. The wife of the sadist. The one who ran away and came back again and again until she lost enough to find herself.”
Claire doesn’t understand, but she also knows this is the best answer she can expect from a dream-turtle, especially one that speaks like Art.
“Who is he, then?”
“He is many things. The noble Sea King, respected by his people. Nolbu the cruel. The woodcutter who stole a fairy’s wings so she would stay by his side forever and then called it love. The ungrateful tiger, given so many chances only to squander them for his own selfish gains.”
“Can I wake up now?” Claire asks, and then reconsiders, “Or you know, like actually get some proper sleep?”
The light is dim and golden when she wakes, and she realizes that the sun is just now setting. She sits up a little too quickly and winces at the pain in her head. Holding perfectly still until the ache passes, she realizes that her stomach feels much lighter and her muscles not quite as stiff as they had this morning.
“Finally,” she says to the room, noting the empty chair beside her bed. She wonders how long Hyun-Sook stayed by her side reading and prays that she doesn’t catch whatever horrible flu she picked up from the Gallagher children. When she had knocked on Claire’s door with porridge and book in hand that morning, Claire had tried to turn her away, but no one could change Hyun-Sook’s mind when it was bent on something.
Or at least Claire had always thought so.
The woman in the dream had reminded Claire of someone, but once she had seen the threads of silver hair she had begun to suspect.
It’s the eyes, she realizes now, slowly pushing herself from the bed and taking a moment for the dizziness to pass. Her eyes were so different then, her gaze so straight and clear when she was younger…
Claire wonders about the man with the moles and warm brown eyes. Nolbu. Who is he?
“It was just a dream,” she chides herself while running a warm bath to clean away the days of sickness clinging to her skin, but the memories refuse to wash away so easily.
Thankfully a knock at the door pulls her from her tired reverie just as she slips into a fresh set of cotton pyjamas. She opens the door a crack and peeks out, surprised to find Declan waiting on the other side.
“Declan, what are you doing here?” she asks, frightened to get too close and to spread the illness even further.
“You haven’t been answering your phone… so I asked Sara where you’ve been. She said you were really sick and when I heard the water running downstairs… are you okay?”
“You talked to Sara?” Claire pushes the door open a little further, hope and curiosity winning out over caution.
“Yeah,” he answers, looking a little embarrassed, “I… told her, well I told her about where I’ve been living and…”
“I’m staying, for now,” he says, his mouth twisting in confusion, “So, are you okay?”
“Yes, but you should probably stay away from me for a couple more days. Just in case.”
“I really don’t mind,” he begins but Claire interrupts.
“Oh believe me, you will if you catch it.”
“Claire,” another voice calls from behind Declan, “You still alive in there?”
Claire glances past Declan to find Marcus mounting the last step, jingling a set of keys in his hand.
“Marcus!” She shouts in return, throwing her door open and forgetting rabbits and turtles and illness in her excitement, “Did you just get back?”
“I’ve been back for days, kid. You’ve just been out of it.”
Declan glances from one to the other, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. Claire smiles reassuringly at him. “Declan, this is Marcus. And, for once, it seems you have remarkably good timing. Marcus, there’s a favour we want to ask you…”
Author’s Note (UPDATE):
Hello readers! As always, thank you for checking out 53 Ganymede and I hope you liked the latest installment. The next episode will be released a month late because… baby! Also, the series now has a listing on Web Fiction Guide. If you’d like to leave a review and help others find 53 Ganymede you can check out the listing here.
So again, I hope you enjoyed this episode… and yes, I promise we will be chasing blue lanterns soon! Thank you for your patience. Don’t forget to check out my other works including my short fiction and serialized novel. ❤