He first met Arang when he was five.
He was a spoiled little boy who had only known the kind touch of his mother’s fingers on his cheek and the softness of her skirts when he climbed into her lap. There were always ghosts around his mother, and on this day, he wanted nothing to do with either of them. The ghosts didn’t frighten him, not while under the guidance of his mother, but still, he didn’t always want to listen to their complaints, some of which he thought were very silly.
He was running through the field where the wildflowers bloomed when he caught out of the corner of his eye, the figure of a girl about his age. As he approached her, he noticed she was quite pretty, and thinking himself a bit of a charmer (just like his father, his mother said, though when he looked at his father’s face, he couldn’t figure out what was so charming about it) he strolled over to her and introduced himself.
But the outcome was not what he expected. Instead of smiling at him, she yelled at him and then hit him, which at that point in his short life, no one had ever done. Just like the ghosts, she complained loud and long, but it was all about him and things he was supposed to have done. He didn’t understand any of it, so he quickly left, shocked and more than a little terrified of her, thinking he’d rather face his mother and the ghosts than sit here and listen to her berate him for something he didn’t understand.
When he was ten, he said something to her he would later regret.
She never gave up on all that nonsense he didn’t understand, and there was only so much he could take from her, calling him “sato” and “stupid idiot.” She also had a nasty habit of punching him when she did so, which only made it all that much worse.
Eventually she pushed too far. One day when they were helping his mother by sorting through red beans for patjuk, she asked why he came back only to forget everything about her. That was when he finally snapped, telling her he was glad he couldn’t remember, if only so that he would never have to be with such a horrible bossy girl who had a stupid name and fat cheeks.
She stared at him, her face pinched and white, eyes glossy with tears. Then she stood up, upsetting the basket of red beans and fled. The red beans rolled over the floor and out onto the porch where the ghosts scattered like chickens, terrified that they would be exorcised by the wayward beans.
Eun Oh stared at down at the upset basket without seeing it. Suddenly he was filled with shame and regret. He quietly got to his feet and began to pick them up. Even so, he was too proud to apologize, and from that day on, she never mentioned his memory again.
Then when he was fifteen, how he saw her changed.
It was the first warm day of spring, and the village girls were playing on the giant swing. He and some of the boys decided to spy on them, hoping to catch a glimpse of their underthings as their skirts flew up into the air. They hid in the bushes around them and waited for them to start.
Arang, being the brave little thing she was, went first. She grasped the ropes and lifted herself onto the swing, exposing her little slippers.
Eun Oh watched as she bent her knees and started to swing. At first he could only see her ankles, her white socks embroidered with little roses, but then, as she gained momentum and swung higher and higher, he saw the white linen sokbaji as they billowed out. They fluttered as though to escape from the confines of her slim legs, and he felt as though someone had stabbed him in the ribs. Heat blossomed within him, and he couldn’t breathe.
Her bright pink skirt whipped around her like a bird trying to take flight, and she was laughing, cheeks flushed pink. She was alive and so very pretty. It struck something within him—not a memory—but something akin to such.
Suddenly one of the boys, by the name Lee Jin Young, let out a snicker and said something perverted, and the spell she had cast over him disintegrated. Anger rushed up inside him and he turned to the boy and punched him in the nose.
His father had seen to it that he would be able to sit down for a week, and word of his punishment had spread far and wide around the village. It was after that incident, Arang began to tease him again about his forgetfulness, but he didn’t really mind as much anymore.
Now, in his twenties, he still didn’t remember what Arang insisted he must remember no matter how hard he had tried. And he really had tried. He still couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t tell him anything to give him a hint, but she would only pout at him and say it wouldn’t mean anything if he didn’t remember on his own.
His parents were no better. He would catch them watching him in exasperation when he knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, or overhear their muted conversations about what they could do to make him remember. He once heard his father call him an idiot and suggest that smacking him upside the head with the rice pot might jog the memories loose. His mother had shot that plan down quickly, saying, “It won’t do any good if you make him an actual idiot.”
So Eun Oh found himself just as ignorant as he had been years before when Arang had first yelled at him for drinking water out of some well—which of course, he didn’t remember doing.
It was all so very frustrating.
Eun Oh blinked up into the sky, his sight hazy with sunshine. All around him the late summer flowers were in bloom and the dusty smell of hot earth was in the air. Warm and relaxed, he felt himself drifting off to sleep when a shadow appeared over him, blocking the sun. His eyes snapped open and he shot up, causing the shadow to fall back with a surprised yelp. It landed on the ground letting out an “oof!” which he immediately recognized.
“Arang?” He blinked rapidly. As his vision came back from sun blindless, her scowling face came into view. She was sitting on the ground in front of him, her legs spread out in an ungainly way. “Aigoo.” He gave her a lazy grin. “Serves you right, sneaking up on me like that.”
“I didn’t sneak,” she said haughtily, wiping her hand across her cheek, leaving a smear of dirt. “You were caught off guard because you were sleeping instead of doing your job. Sato.”
She placed scathing emphasis on his title which was now relevant. He was an actual magistrate, but it was a bit different, as it was the dead he worked for, not the living.
Picking up his hat, Eun-Oh got to his feet and brushed off his robe. “What is it you want?” It came out harsher than he meant, and when hurt flashed across her face, he felt a momentary pang of shame.
“Your mother sent me to fetch you. She’s got a rather horrible ghost upsetting Jowangshin. He’s sitting on the hearth, scuffing his feet and cursing everyone that walks by.”
Eun-Oh let out a sigh. Just what he needed. Another miserable ghost upsetting his mother and making the house gods angry. They would have to prepare a large sacrifice to appease the hearth goddess, or she might make it a very miserable winter for them.
He placed his horse hair hat over his top knot, and tied it under his chin. He stared down at her. “Well, are you going to get up? Sprawled out all over the ground, no one will want to marry such an unladylike woman.”
Glaring, she jumped up. She opened her mouth, but he got there first and said teasingly, “I don’t suppose you have any offers yet?”
The fierce expression on her face dropped. “I have a few,” she muttered, looking down at her skirts, where she pulled off bits of leaves and grass stuck to them.
Eun-Oh felt his smirk collapse under the weight of her words. “What?” He felt a bit like he had been hit upside the head. “When?”
She tilted her chin up and placed her hands on her hips, looking haughty and proud. “Why? You don’t care.”
His pride wounded, anger flared within him. “That’s right. I don’t.” He stalked over to the tree where he had tides his horse and started fumbling with the knot, trying to ignore the pounding of his heart in his chest. Still, he couldn’t help asking, “Are you considering any of them?”
“I will if you don’t get your memories back soon,” she replied straight-faced. Then she turned and strode off, leaving him staring after her, confused.
He mounted his horse and watched her go, stomping through the flowers, her glossy hair tossed about in the late summer breeze. His chest ached.
He took another, longer path home to avoid overtaking Arang, which led him through the woods that overlooked the cliffs. It was a place that both filled him with a sense of familiarity and a deep sadness he could not place. He had never spent much time here, but there were places he passed, like the old house that was falling apart, that made him experience, for merely a moment, memories that he was sure he had—until he wasn’t. They were always there, and then gone, as fleeting as the stars that arced across the sky and vanished before reaching the horizon.
Even today as he passed by the house, he felt an overwhelming need to see his mother, a need that left him feel like a child and irritated at himself for it. Quickening his pace, he left the house, and the woods behind, wishing he had gone after Arang instead.
When he saw his mother, her round and cheerful face beaming, beckoning him to come into the house, he was filled with a relief that only fueled his irritation. But as soon her hands were on his arm and her familiar motherly scent surrounded him, he found the bad feelings dissipating. When he finally left, he had taken care of the cranky ghost and soothed Jowangshin’s ruffled feathers, offering her pears and chestnuts.
Later that night, he was still mulling over Arang’s words. He repeated them in his head, as though saying them would make their meaning clear. What was she trying to say? That she would consider marrying if he didn’t remember....
The familiar flush of confusion that seemed to overtake him a lot these days, rushed up inside him. He turned over onto his side and squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to remember what it was that she needed him to remember. Still, nothing came. It was all blank.
A small giggle drifted from the hearth and there was a rattling of pots that came from outside, and he was sure it was the spirits laughing at his misery.
“You aren’t being very helpful,” he called out. “See if I give you any offerings tomorrow.” The laughter suddenly ceased, and sighing, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. Eventually he drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sound of the cicadas and soft, inhuman murmurs that had always been present in his life.
Summer turned into autumn. Chuseok came and went, taking the last of the summer warmth with it. Eun Oh’s feelings of apprehension and foreboding grew worse, and so did the strain on his relationship with Arang.
She grew pale and withdrawn. Her hair was lank and her shoulders collapsed, giving her terrible posture that would have, had she seen such behavior, made her mother smack her with a stick. He almost never saw her anymore, except for when she came to aid his mother in making medicine or food for village rites, and they didn’t speak unless necessary. He didn’t know when it had become so awkward and strained, and it was painful and hard to bear. She wouldn't look him in the eye, and when he did catch her looking at him, it was with such sorrow, he wanted to shake her and make her tell him what he had done to make her so sad.
But he didn’t, and he didn’t know what else to do.
It was in the weeks after the autumn festivals that he discovered the reason for her sudden change of character and exhausted appearance.
He had gone to her house to deliver papers on village matters to her father, and was greeted by a servant. He was escorted to wait in one of the adjoining rooms, for “the Master” was busy at the moment, and would come as soon as he was able. Quickly growing bored, Eun Oh wandered out of the room, hoping to find the library, and as he passed the room opposite, he heard voices and stopped.
He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, not really, but it was here he overheard the agreement between Arang’s father and another man for the betrothal of their children. With cold dread, he recognized the other man’s voice: It was Lee Jin Young’s father.
Jin Young. She was going to marry Jin Young, the horrible boy he had punched in the nose when they were fifteen, for saying crude things about her. Of all of the men she could marry, he was possibly the worst.
In a daze, he walked outside into the courtyard, chickens scattering around him. He heard a noise behind him, and turned to see Arang staring at him, her back stiff and her expression blank.
“You’re going to marry Lee Jin Young.” The words left his mouth before he could stop them. He didn’t want to know and he didn’t want to care, but he did. Oh, he did.
“Yes,” she replied softly. “I will marry him soon, before the first snow.”
“I see.” He felt cold and numb, and there was a buzzing in his ears which turned everything fuzzy. “And this pleases you?”
There was a flash of emotion across her face that he did not understand.
“I will do what my father wishes,” she replied tonelessly.
It was not what he meant, so he asked her again: “I asked if it pleases you to marry him.”
“What pleases me does not matter.”
Her voice was now tainted by a bitterness that seeped into him and made him feel ashamed—though he did not quite understand why.
She shrugged. “I will marry whom my father wishes me to marry, and that is the end of it.”
“This is not like you, Arang,” he protested. “You are not meek—”
She then lashed out with an anger that took him by surprise. “No, I am a woman!” she spat. “And I, unlike you, have no other options. I do not have the choice to ask the man I love to marry me. So do not stand there and tell me that you know me so well, when you cannot see the truth before you. You are supposed to right injustices, but you cannot see mine.”
“You cannot marry him!” he shouted back, losing his temper. “You do not know him. He will—” he broke off, unable to say what he was going to.
She squared her shoulders and said coldly, “You have no right, Kim Eun Oh. Not when you did not ask first.”
At the very end her voice broke and her lip trembled, then she turned and fled. Eun Oh opened his mouth to say something, anything, but he was too late. He watched her disappear and then in a haze, he walked away. It was on muscle memory and instinct alone that led him out of the gate and then home.
He passed the doenjang pot ghost who waved, expecting the usual acknowledgement, but was ignored for possibly the first time in its afterlife. Pouting, the ghost looked over to Jowangshin for comfort, but she was watching Eun Oh, her chin in her hands and wearing an expression of extreme sadness. Realizing this was bigger than him and his need to be acknowledged, the little ghost mimicked her posture and sad face. When she sighed, so did he.
Eun Oh went to his room and lay down on his bedroll. He stared at the ceiling, not knowing how to examine the tumultuous emotions that whirled within him. Anger was the easiest, so he grabbed a hold of it and let it wash over him.
How could she agree to marry such person a as Jin Young? Did she even know what sort of man he was?
Of course she doesn’t, a little voice in the back of his mind told him. How could she? She hasn’t seen what you have.
No, she wouldn’t have seen the way he treated his dogs when they were out hunting. Nor would she have seen the bruises left on the women after he visited the city brothels. She would not have heard the whispers of how he received pleasure from their pain, and his cruel laughter when they cried afterwards.
She would only know after they were bound, and then it would be too late. The unbidden image of her with him on their wedding night caused revulsion to flare up so harshly, it made him sit up. Swallowing hard in the attempt to tamp down on the nausea that threatened to empty the contents of his stomach, he got up and went outside onto the veranda.
The night was cool and clear. The stars scattered across the sky, white and milky in their density made him feel empty inside. The universe all seemed so very vast, and he felt insignificant under its oppressive blanket.
Her words played over and over in his head... “You have no right. Not when you did not ask first.”
Did it mean what he thought? Had she wanted him to ask her to marry him? He grew warm at the thought, though it was the kind of warmth that began deep from within and spread outward, like sunshine emerging from shadow. It was not the warmth of shame, but of wonder and anticipation.
Confused, he groaned and flopped down onto the ground. He lay there staring up at the stars until he grew too cold. He went back to his room and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Having left Arang’s house the day before, without delivering his papers, he reluctantly returned the following day, even though he wished he did not have to.
As approached the gate, Eun Oh thought he heard low, terse voices ahead of him. He stopped in the shadows and peeked around the side of the door.
Arang and her father were outside. Arang looked miserable and her father looked furious. They were speaking in low, angry tones.
“—is no going back, Arang. The bride price has already been paid!” her father was saying. “If we break our promise now, I will lose face and you will never be able to marry. Your reputation will be shattered.”
“Father, please!” She begged grabbing ahold of his hand. “Haven’t you heard what they whisper about him behind their hands when he walks by in the marketplace?
He scowled and looked away. “People say all sorts of things. He would not treat you in such away, even if they were true…and I’m not acknowledging that they are!”
“Even when we were all children, he behaved like a monster! He used to push us girls, and steal our toys. Don’t you remember how I found my favorite doll torn apart? He never once said he was sorry for it.”
“Pah,” her father scoffed derisively. “That is what little boys do!”
No it is not, Eun Oh thought. Even if they did, they would feel sad and regretful after, and Jin Young certainly has not ever felt anything like regret.
“Kim Eun Oh is not like that,” Arang replied softly.
Eun Oh's heart thumped wildly in his chest.
“He’s never been cruel, even when he’s said and done things that were hurtful…and…” She swallowed hard. “He always apologized after.”
Eun Oh’s heart sank at hearing that. Recently he hadn’t said much anything to her at all, least of all an apology.
Her father’s face was a mixture of emotions, all struggling for dominance. There was pain, love, and anger, but it was anger that won in the end. “I’ve asked you never to mention Kim Eun Oh again”
Eun Oh felt a wave of shock go through him. She’d talked to her father about him?
“He did not ask.”
“But I want—”
“What you want has little to do with it, Arang. You are my daughter, and you will do as I say. That is the end of it.”
“I will not marry him!” Arang suddenly cried out, startling her father and even Eun Oh, who had been yelled at many times before by her. From the shock on her father’s face, it seemed this was not a common occurrence.
“I cannot! I will not!” She flung her hands to her face. “I did not come back to the memories of two lives only to have it end like this!”
Eun Oh blinked at that, but before he had time to consider its meaning, Arang’s father slapped her across the face twice, knocking her to the ground.
Anger coursing through him, Eun Oh stepped forward to intervene, but he was stopped by an iron grip on his arm.
“Do not get involved,” a voice whispered into Eun Oh’s ear, his breath bringing a him back into his mind. “It will not do you any good.”
It was his father, and though everything within him told him to do otherwise, Eun Oh nodded reluctantly. A lump in his throat, he watched as Arang’s father dragged her by the wrist inside the walls of her home, the gate slamming shut behind them.
After a moment of heavy silence, Eun Oh turned to find his father watching him solemnly, eyes sad, brows drawn together.
“Father,” Eun Oh pleaded in a soft voice full of the desperation he felt. “I do not know what to do.”
His father closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. “It is already so late, Eun Oh. Too late.”
But Eun Oh had always been something of a hot head, and when he made up his mind to do something, he did it, and he didn’t do it quietly. He did often wait until the last moment though, much to the regret and chagrin of his parents. This time was no different, though the consequences would be much larger than anything he could have forseen.
The day of the wedding dawned clear and cold, warning of the winter days to come. But as the autumn months often did, was comfortable and pleasant; cold but with the warmth of the sun not long past its equinox.
He had moped around all morning, and then to avoid his mother’s worried expression, escaped to the stables where he fed the horses pear and nutgrass. It was here he thought hard, examined his heart, and then with halting starts and stops, eventually decided that all the anger, shame, and pain he would bring to his family, and possibly Arang, would be worth preventing this awful union from taking place.
He was going to stop the wedding. It was dangerous and would ruin them, but he didn’t care. He would never forgive himself for allowing her to marry Jin Young. He couldn’t let it happen.
He was saddling his horse, his mind preoccupied with trying to figure out how exactly he was going to convince Arang to even go with him when he heard the pounding of footsteps outside the stables. Off in the distance, shouting could be heard growing closer.
He pushed open the stable doors to a flurry of red satin and a monstrous pile of hair, half finished, which ran right into his chest.
“Oof!” came the muffled grunt.
Eun Oh looked down, stunned. “Arang?”
She turned her face up to him, eyes shining, her breaths coming in shallow gasps. “Sato! I’ve run away!”
He shook his head in amazement. He gestured to the horse. “I—I was going to come for you.”
She looked at the saddled horse and then back to him. “You were?”
“Lee Jin Young…you don’t know all that he is.” He looked away from her, unable to meet her gaze as he recalled what violent and humiliating acts he had performed. “The way he treats women…” His gaze was soft as he looked down up on her. “I couldn’t let you marry him, I’d never forgive myself.”
Her face fell. “Is that the only reason?”
He hesitated. He had not thought this far ahead. But before he could, there was the beat of horse hooves outside the gate.
“We don’t have time!” Arang anxiously tugged his sleeve. “We must go!”
“Away from Lee Jin Young.” Fear flashed across her face. “And my father! He will be very angry,” she whispered.
Eun Oh frowned. “You're father—”
But he was cut off by the thud of hooves on the ground outside the stables. “Arang!” I know you are here! Come out now!” It was her father, his voice full of fury.
She shrank back, pulling on his sleeve. “We must go now! Quickly!”
This time, Eun Oh did not hesitate. He grasped Arang by the waist and, ignoring her gasp of surprise, lifted her up into the saddle. She stared down at him, her face almost the same color as the red robe she wore.
“Are you always this heavy or is it all the clothing you’re wearing?” He muttered as he swung up behind her.
When she didn’t answer as she usually did with a hotly worded retort, he remained silent, and waiting until they no longer heard hooves outside.
Eun Oh took them as quietly as he could around the corner of the stable to the gate, which was, to his relief, open. Only then did he urge his horse to gallop.
They were beyond the gate and flying down the main road out of the village when Eun Oh finally heard horses behind him. Arang looked back over his shoulder, and cried, “It’s my father and his guards!”
Eun Oh didn’t answer. He wasn’t even sure where he was to go, and then it came to him. He would take her to that abandoned house in the woods, and from there they could decide what to do.
But first, he had to lose his tail. When he reached the split in the road, one taking him north, the other south, he took the south bound road that would take him to the river. When they were momentarily out of sight from their pursuers, he turned off the road into the brush that lined the road, leading them towards the cliffs. When they were far enough off the road, he drew to a halt and quickly dismounted, dragging Arang with him. Dressed as they were, blending into the woods was not an option, so he pulled her to the ground with him, hoping the dense foliage would keep them from being seen. He gripped the reigns of his horse, who stood still, only making a soft snuffing noise once or twice before falling silent.
The ground shook beneath them as Arang’s father went by, his guard with him. They didn’t even stop, and after a time, Eun Oh felt it was safe enough to go back the way they came, and head north into the woods.
They mounted again in silence, but when they reached the crossroad, Jin Young was there waiting for them.
Eun Oh felt Arang push back into him, as though it might make her safer from the man before them. He was momentarily overcome as affection welled up inside him. She trusted him, and it made his breath hitch in his throat.
"I should have expected this," Jin Young sneered.
“Jin Young,” Eun Oh said, infusing a warning into his voice.
But Jin Young ignored him, his eyes on Arang. “You couldn’t let him go, could you.”
Eun Oh felt his brows draw together in confusion, and only then did Jin Young look at him. He laughed cruelly.
“And he doesn’t know, does he? How much you love him.”
His tone was mocking, and even as the words echoed through his mind, Eun Oh felt Arang stiffen in front of him and pull away. Acting without thought, he pulled her back, and kicking the side of his horse with his heels, let out a loud “Hyah!” and galloped past Jin Young, whose eyes widened.
They had taken him by surprise, but no matter how fast Eun Oh urged his horse to go, the reality was with two people on one beast, he was never going to out run him, and soon Jin Young appeared on his flank matching his pace.
“Arang!” His face a mask of anger, Jin Young thrust his hand out, trying to grab her, while still trying to maintain his pace beside them. “You will come with me!”
“No!” She shrank back from him, pushing against Eun Oh’s chest making it difficult to maneuver the reigns. “I don’t want to marry you!”
“The wedding will take place today! I will not be humiliated in front of the entire village!” Jin Young shouted, his voice filled with the frustration and fury of a man, who, used to getting what he wanted, could not comprehend what was happening. Bringing his beast neck and neck beside them, he reached over and seized Arang’s arm.
“Let go!” She tried to shove him away, but her foot tangled in her skirts and she almost pitched headfirst off the horse.
“Arang!” Eun Oh grabbed her around the waist just in time to prevent her from sliding down onto the ground.
He hauled her up, and in a moment of reckless decision, he pressed the reigns into her hands and whispered into her ear, “Go into the forest. There is an old house. I will find you.”
She looked back at him, and he could see in her face she knew of the place he spoke of. But there was no time for questions, and when Jin Young came for her again, Eun Oh was ready. He reached over and grabbed the front of Jin Young’s robes, surprising both the horse and the man.
“Sato!” Arang cried. Frightened, her horse whinnied and veered off to the side, leaving Eun Oh clinging to the side of Jin Young’s horse. Jin Young was trying to kick him off, but Eun Oh’s grip on his robes was to great, and he was unable to dislodge him.
Grappling with him, Eun Oh tried to pull himself up, but from his position on the horse he was at a disadvantage.
“Bastard!” Jin Young growled out. “Get off!” He suddenly pulled on the reigns and with a whinny, the horse bucked up into the air. But with Eun Oh a dead weight on his side, he was unable to catch his balance and remain upright.
“No!” He heard Arang’s terrified cry behind them, and it was with a quick rush of eventuality, Eun Oh realized he was going to be crushed beneath more than a half ton of horse flesh and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.
Closed his eyes and felt his body hit the earth with a cracking sound. There was then a pressure so great upon his chest, he couldn’t breathe. Pain ripped through his head and neck, and his blood pounded in his ears.
He lost consciousness, and out of the darkness came memories from long ago in a barrage of images and emotions that tore into his soul. He saw his first childhood and his mother as she was taken from him by the darkness; how he came to see ghosts, and how frightened he had been; and then how he met Arang, who at the time was a ghost herself. He saw how he had grown to love her, and then remembered his bittersweet sacrifice as it was all taken away. That life had disappeared in an instant, but the Jade Emperor had given him a new one, though it was not the one he had pleaded for, for he had no memory. They met that day in the field while he was hiding from his mother (how odd was it that his current father had once been his servant…), but he had not known her. But he should have.
He woke to Arang screaming his name—not his title. It was his name. The same name he had born for two lifetimes.
“Arang!” Jin Young’s furious and commanding voice rang out loudly. “Stop this!”
Eun Oh heard the thud of Jin Young’s boots as he dismounted his horse and then a scuffle as Arang was dragged from the horse. He wanted to help her, but his limbs weren’t listening to the commands his mind gave them. He managed to get up partially, but found his arms stiff and his legs unable to hold him up. He sank back down onto the earth and stared up into the sky, feeling the blood trickle from his ears.
It was a deep blue, he noticed, and so very beautiful. His vision clouded slightly and then cleared. He blinked, but his eyelids felt heavy.
“No! Let go of me! Eun Oh-ya!”
She was angry, so very angry. He had never heard her like that before and it frightened him.
“Don’t do this.” Jin Young’s voice was stern, but there was doubt in his tone as his resolve faltered.
“I said leave!” Arang ordered angrily. “Go!”
“I will not marry you!” she shouted. “You will have to drag me there and force me, for I will not go willingly!”
There was a brief moment of silence, then the pounding of footsteps and Arang’s voice above him. “No, no, no, no…”
Her outline in shadow appeared, shading him from the sun as she had that day not so very long ago…only this time, he would not be getting up. With a certainty that only came upon those who felt the cold boundary between life and death, he knew he was dying.
“You’ve made your choice,” came Jin Young’s voice at long last, hard and final. “You will have to live with the consequences of it.” Then he was gone with the sound of galloping hooves.
“Eun-Oh, look at me,” came Arang’s trembling voice. Then her face came into focus, strained with fear, eyes wide and shining—not with tears—but with a power that radiated from within. She was luminous and beautiful, all traces of the broken woman—gone. Even through the pain he felt awestruck by the sight of her.
“Arang,” he croaked, his voice rough in his throat. “Arang.” He began to lose focus and blinked, desperate to keep her in his purview.
“No, no, no, Eun Oh-ya, look at me.” She placed her hands on his cheeks, fluttering her fingers as if there were something she could do to right this terrible wrong. “You’re going to be alright. Look at me. Look into my eyes, Eun-Oh-ya.” There were tears there now, and they streamed down her cheeks. She tried to smile bravely at him, but her lower lip trembled, giving her away.
“I wanted to tell you…I—”
“Shh,” she murmured, brushing her thumb across his brow. “Don’t talk. Just stay with me.”
“I wanted to tell you…I remember.”
“What?” Her voice trembled.
“I remember you…I remember everything, now.” He tried to smile at her, but breathing was difficult now. Hot tears spilled from the corners of his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. “But it’s too late.”
“No, its not.”
She shook her head and brushed the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs, but he could barely feel them anymore. He was numb, and then pain was ebbing. He could now see a darkness that was not part of this world. It existed for him, and him alone.
“Shh…” she soothed. “It’s alright.”
But he knew it wasn’t alright, and his heart was filled with despair. He didn’t want to leave her…but the warm comforting darkness beckoned him and he could see the lamp waiting for him beyond, waiting to lead him into the shadows where the living did not tread.
“No, no, no, no! Eun Oh, stay with me!” He heard her distantly and struggled back towards her with everything he had. The darkness receded slightly.
“I’m sorry I could not give you—what you—” He broke off as he struggled to draw breath.
He saw the terror in Arang’s eyes as she clutched his hand to her breast, stroking his fingers frantically. “Don’t leave me!” she wailed. “Not again! Not after all that we have gone through to be here!”
Her voice slipped away from him, and he knew he would not be able to fight back this time.
“Why?” she wailed, rocking over him, her arms stretching out beside her. “I don’t want to be here without you! It doesn’t mean anything without you!”
Her words broke through the final slow beats of his heart with a terrible aching sadness knowing she would never know how much he loved her.
“You were supposed to remember!” she sobbed. “I loved you!”
The darkness descended fully, and it was there in the cold fog between life and death that her last words echoed on a whisper in his ears.
“…I love you…Eun Oh-ya…”
He opened his eyes and found himself in a dark forest of pine trees that looked strangely familiar. The sky was thick with thousands of stars but there was no moon. His only source of light was lamp that hung from the nearest tree. The candle within flickered, and for the second time, he knew what was to come.
Regret washed over him so forcefully, he sank to his knees. He had loved her beyond anything, enough to come back to her reborn, but he hadn’t remembered any of it. She was right. He had been an idiot, and he deserved every single punch she had ever given him.
He loved her then, and despite everything, he loved her now. But it was too late.
Feeling wretched, he slumped against the tree. He closed his eyes and pictured her large brown eyes, her pink cheeks, and the way she smiled. He recalled her voice, the inflections and tones, and how she always seemed to compel him to listen to her, even when he didn’t want to. A sort of blissful sadness washed over him as let himself drift off into his memories of her. She was calling his name…
“Kim Eun Oh.”
He opened his eyes to see a figure before him. He recognized the black robe and black hat as that of the saja, but when the man lifted his head, he realized he knew this face from his previous life.
“Hello, Kim Eun Oh,” he said, giving him a small smile. “We meet again.”
Eun Oh couldn’t return the smile. Heavy tears welled up in his eyes. “With two lives lived and nothing to show for it.”
Joo Wal tilted his head to the side, watching him curiously with dark eyes. His face was pale and he bore the weight of someone serving a penance. “Two lives, yes. But the second is not over just yet.”
Eun Oh felt his heart (for his heart still beat in this place) skip.
“You are still here…” Joo Wal gestured to the dark forest that surrounded them. “…and you have a choice.”
Joo Wal nodded. “The Jade Emperor has realized it was a mistake to send you back with no memories, and cruel to leave Arang with hers. You have a second chance to return to her, if you wish.”
“Please,” Eun Oh whispered, hope filling him.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Long ago, I made a promise.”
Joo Wal nodded. Then he was gone leaving Eun Oh alone.
He blinked, and when he opened his eyes, he no longer saw the forest with its moonless sky. There was nothing but darkness. He was afraid, but then there was a strange tug in his chest, and then the feeling that something was pulling on him, forcing him to fit through a space he was much too large for. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly as matter and space pressed in on him.
Strange that even now he could hear her so clearly, even within a memory. But instead of fading, her voice seemed to be getting louder and clearer. She was sobbing his name, over and over again.
Arang’s voice filled his ears, and then he was aware of her body pressed to his, strands of her hair tickling his face, soft as feathers.
“Eun Oh-ya,” she was whispering against his cheek, wet with her tears. “Eun Oh-ya.”
Air filled his lungs along with her intoxicating scent of cloves and nut grass from. Blood rushed through him warm and fast, chasing away the deathly cold. He opened his eyes, and the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “I always knew that.” He breathed out softly.
“Eun Oh!” Arang flung herself up in shock, and when her eyes met his, her face went pale. She collapsed, slumping to the ground, his blood on her standing out brightly against her white skin.
“Arang-ah!” He sat up and gathered her into his arms, relieved at the warm firmness of her living body beneath his cold hands. "It's alright. I'm here."
She stared up at him with wide eyes, bright and shiny with fresh tears. “But you were gone!”
“I know.” He touched her cheek. “But I’ve come back.”
“I couldn’t feel you!” She was frantically running her fingers all over his face. “I couldn’t feel you.”
“But I heard you.” He brushed her lips with his thumb. “I heard you call my name, and I came back.”
She still looked unsure, her eyes scanning is face. “But…you remember me.”
“Yes. I remember you.” He tried to smile back, but was unable to control the trembling of his lower lip or the way his fingers shook as he wrapped them around hers. “I’m so sorry, Arang-ah…so very sorry. I promised I would always know you, and I failed…” He closed his eyes, unable to look at her any longer. “I failed.”
He felt her fingertips on his cheeks, and then when her palms pressed against them, cupping his face between her hands, he opened them again. She remained silent but he could feel the physical anguish within her. It made his bones ache in wanting to make amends. But he didn’t know how.
“But you came back for me,” she said finally.
“And you remember.”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“And you love me.”
He didn’t answer right away, but stroked one of the hands that held his cheeks with his thumb, feeling the softness of her skin, knowing it would now be his to touch whenever she allowed.
“As in my last life, I love you in this one, and every life after, I will continue to love you. I will always love you. Always.”
Arang let out a sob and covered her face with her hands, still streaked red with his blood. Dismayed, Eun Oh took them away.
“Don’t cry,” he pleaded softly, feeling his own eyes prickle hotly. “Please…” His voice broke, and she only cried harder, clinging to him as though he might disappear if she let him go.
He held her. He looked up at the blue sky; it was so pale now in the dying sunlight. He breathed in the scent of the dying grass and listened to the chirping cicadas as they began what would possibly be their last nightly song before the winter snows came.
After a time, they stood, cold and stiff. Eun Oh mounted his horse, pulling Arang up behind him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and he felt almost giddy with the sensation.
“I am afraid,” Arang whispered, her cheek pressed into his back. “I have done everything a woman should not. They will say I have been compromised.”
Eun Oh reddened at the thought of it being him to blame for that. “Well, then I shall marry you as soon as we return. Then the only thing we have to worry about is the anger of our parents.”
She groaned at this. “My father will despise me!”
Eun Oh let his mouth turn up into a smile. “Not when I offer him more than double your bride price.”
Arang didn’t respond, and he was about to repeat himself when she said quietly, “He does not approve of you.”
Eun Oh brought his horse to a halt. “What? He doesn’t approve of me? Why”
Arang made a small noise of distress. “It’s your father. He knows he is not of noble birth. It is my mother who allowed me to play with you and learn from your mother, as I am able to see ghosts, just like you.”
Eun Oh thought about this a moment. “Then we will leave and find a new place to make our home.”
He felt her lift her head and turned to find her looking at him. “You would leave your parents?” she asked.
“I would do anything for you."
She gripped his waist tighter, and he was increasingly aware of her breasts as they pressed up against his back.
“They will not be too harsh,” Eun Oh soothed, hoping he knew them well enough. “And though it may be difficult to assuage your father’s fears, I believe his love for you will soften him eventually.”
“And perhaps grandchildren.” She pushed her forehead into his back, and her voice became muffled. “He has long wanted grandchildren.”
Eun Oh coughed, and cleared his throat. “Well, we can…work on that as soon as we are married.”
She didn’t say anything, but he felt her body grow warm against his, and he was filled with a joy that the fear of retribution couldn't dampen. They would be together, always.
Eun Oh entered the bridal chamber and shut the door behind him. He turned around slowly and saw Arang sitting on their bed roll, hands clasped together, eyes downcast.
“Arang,” he said softly, not wanting to frighten her.
But she didn’t respond, and he thought she might have fallen asleep. Slightly miffed at that, he drew closer and then realized she was deliberately ignoring him.
“Arang…” His voice contained a note of disapproval which made her duck her head even further, her skin flushing under the red circles on her cheeks.
“Why won’t you answer me?” he complained. “You are too quiet; it’s strange and uncomfortable.”
The silence ended when she looked up at him with an expression of indignant outrage. “Strange? Uncomfortable? How can you say such a thing to your wife?”
He wrinkled his nose at her. “Because it is unlike you! Have you been replaced by a demon or some other such creature?”
“Of course not,” she pouted, unfolding her arms and slumping down. “Women are supposed to be silent on their wedding nights. I was trying to be demure and proper.”
He let out a laugh which caused her head to snap up and her eyes to flash. “Demure? Since when have you ever been demure and silent? Proper woman, my foot! Since I have known you, all you ever do is shout at me, hit me, and tell me how stupid I am.”
“You are stupid,” she muttered, wincing as she reached up and adjusted the heavy headdress she was wearing.
Eun Oh knelt in front of her and began to take out the pins that held the mass of hair and decorations in place. She glared at him, but didn’t push his hands away.
“I was trying to be good for once,” she complained. “And you’ve gone and ruined it.”
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied in a low voice, continuing to work on her hair. “If anything, you being angry will only make tonight more interesting.”
She flushed bright pink at that, and bit her lip.
Her intense emotion and high color caused something to stir deep within him, and suddenly he wondered if the she would be flushed the same reddish pink of her mouth everywhere.
Leaning over, he placed his lips by her ear and murmured, “You forget that I didn’t fall for a demure and proper woman. I fell for you, as you are.”
She shivered, and when the last pin was removed he tossed aside the offending headdress. Taking her wrist he pulled her to him.
She squeaked out a noise of surprise.
“Arang,” he murmured. “If there was any time I would wish you to not be silent, it is now.” He stroked her cheek and let his hand drift down her neck to her collarbone and then to the swell of her breast. Even through the heavy silk robes, he could feel her press against his searching fingers.
He pulled the red wedding robe off her shoulders and slipped his fingers into the collar of her jeogori. He felt her tremble under his touch as his fingertips brushed the bare skin of her shoulders and collarbone. When she looked up at him, her eyes were bright and her brows drawn together in distress.
“Why do you say such things?”
“Because,” he murmured, pressing his thumbs against her collarbones. “How will I know you enjoy what I do to you if you do not cry out for me?”
She moaned and covered her face with her hands. “But it’s embarrassing!”
Eun Oh pulled her hands away and brushed his thumb over her lower lip. “No, Arang…not with me.”
Then he pressed his lips to hers. They were as soft as the rose that bloomed in the fields beyond the village border, and tasted sweet like anise. She smelled of clove and nutgrass, which sent pleasure through him. He pulled her flush against him, wanting her to feel what she did to him.
She let out a soft gasp, her mouth opening, softening under his. He allowed his tongue to find hers and it sent a thrill up his spine.
With one swift movement, he twisted her around so she was in his lap. Her back pressed against his chest and her head lolled on his shoulder. He was hard against her backside, which he knew she could feel.
She moaned softly, and then looked appalled that she had made such a noise.
He laughed softly at her reaction to herself. He tilted her chin up and kissed it, saying, “That is what I want. Do not be silent.”
She blushed and then looked slightly put out. “My mother did not mention anything about feeling…what I feel.”
“And what do you feel?” he asked, softly pressing kisses to her neck, delighting in the way she shivered under his touch.
“I want something…I cannot explain.”
“Something like this?” With deliberate slowness, he stroked his fingers up under her skirt, her thigh bare to him. Her skin was smooth and the little hair that was there was light and feathery. When he reached her center, he lightened his touch, caressing and stroking until she whimpered.
“Please.” She turned her head so that her mouth was against his neck and her eye lashes fluttered against his cheek. “Oh, please.”
He found her irresistible; he flipped her over onto her back and pressed himself against her. With one hand lifting her skirts, and the other on his own ties, he parted her thighs. She didn’t resist, but flung her arm over her eyes.
He untied the jeogori, and pushed it off her shoulders revealing her tightly bound breasts. Her voluminous skirt was quickly untied, and then she was left in nothing but thick wedding socks with their small rose pattern. Those he left because he thought she looked so adorable, he couldn’t bring himself to remove them.
Slipping his fingers between her legs, he felt the damp curls there, and a hint of the silky wetness of what lay beyond.
“Your scent,” he murmured pressing a kiss against her belly, which heaved up and down as her breathing became more erratic. “It’s like honey and cloves. Do you taste the same?”
“Oh, stop!” she cried, covering her face with her hands.
“No, I won’t,” he retorted without malice.
Eun Oh wasn’t at all experienced with women, having been to a brothel once in his life just after he turned nineteen, and then he only listened and watched. He had refused to participate. But that woman had taught him many things over the course of one night, one of which was that women were fully capable in feeling the same release of pleasure men did.
It usually took longer to make a woman ready for a man, she had said, especially the first time. But then she had showed him what to do, and he had been waiting ever since for the day he would marry and he could show his wife how much he cared for her pleasure. He just never expected it to be a woman he was already in love with, and that made it even more important that he not rush through it, no matter how much he wanted to.
“I’ll give you anything,” he murmured, stroking her white thigh with his finger, leaving a trail of her wetness in its path. “You will know what you are to me, and I will spend my entire life telling you, showing you…tasting you.”
She reacted too late, for by the time she tried to jerk away, he was already there. While he could not compare her to honey, he found he liked the way she tasted. He liked it even more that he was the only man who had or ever would taste her, and it made him feel protective, his animal instincts making him feel out of control.
She trembled beneath his fingers, and he was overcome with the desire to push himself into her.
No, he told himself. Not yet.
Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself. “Trust me.”
“Yes,” she sighed, reaching for him.
So instead of that part of himself he wanted to push into her, he took his finger and slipped it between her legs. He felt her pulse around him and it was magnificent. She gasped and made small noises. She clenched her toes and her fingers grasped the bedding tightly. Her hips lifted off the bedding as though there was a tension coiled within her belly, and then it finally released and she cried out, writhing beneath him until he took his hand away.
She trembled and squeezed her legs together repeatedly. He watched her in awe, and marveled that it was lasting so long. Men had one peak and then it was over, but she seemed to ripple like the small waves on a lake until they died away. He was almost jealous.
He gently kissed her and she finally opened her eyes. “I never knew it was so beautiful,” he murmured, kissing his way down until he found her breast. “To watch a woman…” He gently bit her flesh with his teeth, and the sound she made took away any patience he had left, and soon he found himself between her thighs. She was staring at him with wide eyes, flushed with intense emotions, and trembling.
He was shivering as well, both in anticipation and his own emotions.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised, taking her hand and kissing her knuckles.
He pressed into her a little at a time, feeling the silky softness of her surround him in a liquid warmth.
She didn’t speak—perhaps she couldn’t—so he kissed her and pushed the rest of himself in.
“Oh,” he breathed out. “Arang, you feel—”
“Don’t say it!” But her protestations were weak, and the small gasping noises she was making told him they were habitual at best.
He withdrew and pushed into her again, allowing the pleasure to flow over him. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted, and taking her mouth once again, he did it again…and again. She responded with more than he had ever imagined he would receive, her tongue actively searching his mouth, her fingers pulling gently on his hair, running up and down his back; occasionally she would use her nails, gently scratching him, making him cry out.
“You are heaven,” he whispered passionately into her ear. She didn’t protest in embarrassment this time, but pulled him closer, pressing her palms firmly into the flesh of his buttocks, so that he deepened his thrusts. It wasn’t much longer until he poured himself into her, his release hard and intense.
“Eun Oh!” She wrapped her arms around him, burying her face into his shoulder and he pulled her close.
The ondol had warmed the silk bedding beneath them and when he reached down to pull the coverlet over them, he glanced down to the end of the bed and saw the goddess of childbirth sitting there with a huge grin on her face. She gave him an encouraging gesture and then disappeared.
There was a giggle and the pattering of footsteps across the wooden floors. The sound of a metal bowl full of water being tipped slightly echoed metallically and then came to rest on the tile it sat upon.
Arang let out a sigh, her breath warm on his chest. “I suppose we will never have the normal silence household others have, will we?”
Eun Oh smiled into her hair. “No. But do you wish for that?”
"No," she mused. "Without them, life would be so quiet. The ghosts are always welcome to play here."
Eun Oh silently agreed, and the songs of nightly creatures—those alive and those not—chattered and sang, and lulled them into sleep.