He doesn’t think making changes is a plausible thing in the realm of the dead.
The servants that cater to the kings flutter to and fro in clothes that never change and hairstyles that never fade. The skies never change color unless someone feels as if it should. It doesn’t rain like it did below. The flowers remain the same along with their scent unless one of the kings has the kindly urge to destroy some or create new ones. There’s a heavy aroma of jasmine in the air mingling in with their, but it sometimes likes to overpower all the other scents. Joo Wal likes to think that it’s because the kings want it that way.
Just like the others, Joo Wal doesn’t change much the first couple of hundred years either. The days turn into weeks, into years, into centuries, and then Joo Wal finally returns to his realm one day to find that there’s a new uniform policy intact. He turns in his robes and his hat for a pair of slacks and a button-up shirt, but his long hair remains long and he gets a customary ribbon to tie it as he pleases as he returns to work below.
And just like the servants- both housemaids and reapers alike- the kings never change except their choice in uniform. The lord of the dead turns in his beard and hair for something more hip, more stylish. He wears a dark blue suit now, and his palatial seat is now a tall seat made of leather and scented with rose oil. Ocassionally, he tells his brother to let him borrow his body, but the latter refuses as per usual. They bicker; the lord of the dead sulks. Joo Wal likes to think that the suit looks sharp on the old man, and wants to tell him that he doesn’t need to caper about for his brother’s body because of his self-conciousness. Joo Wal sometimes regrets not being able to live longer. He’s been young for too long. He likes to think that if he had the guts, he’d tell the lord of the dead that he should be thankful he was able to live the live of the graceful old one.
And like himself, the other servants, and the lord of the dead- the emperor of the living and dead alike didn’t change much either. Joo Wal sees the man mingle and tamper with lives from this person to the next. He sees him gaze upon flowers with warmth and kindness before he kills them and replaces them with a fresh batch. He sees him trade in his robes and his crown for a capris and a t-shirt. He sees him chop his tresses down to mere locks, and he sees him get rid of the white streak and the black hair, only to replace it with a deep, almond color. Joo Wal likes to think that only appearances are meant to change while the rest is business as usual, and he’s right. For a few centuries, he’s absolutely correct. Things only change in name and in face, but the truth of the matter remains the same.
Joo Wal knows because the guilt still gnaws at him whenever he sees another descendent of Seo Rim. Seo Rim, the arang. Seo Rim with her pale skin and dark hair as fine as silk. Seo Rim with her arm . locked with Eun Ho’s in 1845 in robes just slightly different, but in a land as far away as the Japanese islands. Seo Rim married to a different man in 1931, whose face is nowhere near as pinched as Eun Ho’s. Seo Rim in 2009, married to a man with pale blue eyes and hair darker than coal. Seo Rim with her smile. Seo Rim with her love.
Joo Wal knows because every time he sees her, he wants to tell her he’s sorry. He wants to go up to her, even though she can’t see him, and tell her that he’s sorry and that he remembers even if she doesn’t. He wants to tell her that he still hasn’t dared to love her, because even as a reaper, he’s not worth a damn next to her. Joo Wal knows because she’s always there to remind him. Things don’t change. Not in this life, and certainly not the next.
Names change; faces change; the uniforms change. The dates change and the rain gets just a little heavier. Down below, of course. In the skies and in the pits, there are still gardens and the sky and the little palazzo where the kings play their Go or their Shogi. Sure, the palazzo soon becomes a throne room, and the palatial seats become leather chairs with iron handles with heads of lions carved into the wood. The floors become marble and the maids start to wear modest dresses while the male servants begin to flutter about in tailcoats and vests with their handkerchiefs tucked neatly into their breast pockets.
Things change in the front, but in the core they do not. The kings are still kings, while the reapers are still reapers. The woman who brought the tea to the kings three hundred years ago does the same in 1968. And ‘69. And 2000. Joo Wal still collects souls with the red string of fate, and his hair is tied neatly back with his red ribbon, and he’s reminded every few decades that Seo Rim was his salvation and that he still had a long way to go. Same old, same old.
Yet things do change. When they do, Joo Wal starts to descend into madness again. He thinks it’s impossible that this should occur. He doesn’t like to think that there’s room for change, because there shouldn’t be. His hair is still long. He still collects souls. He looks the same as he did three or four hundreds years before when he jumped to his death.
Yet things begin to break. It breaks when the Jade Emperor demands his presence one day when the birds are singing their usual tune and the Shogi board has only one movement of progression. It breaks when he feels fingertips as warm as honeyed milk tread softly down his cheeks and caress the cold buds of flesh. Everything changes when he feels fingers lace around his cold ones and lead him towards an old and worn duvet adorned with pillows and a blanket as soft as silk.
Joo Wal likes to think that Fate is much stronger than the kings, because that can be the only reason why he begins to break right after their first union.
It has to be Fate, because nothing can be as destructive as this. He doesn’t know how much times passes, but he awakens and goes to catch more runaway souls, and loses three in the process of catching only seven. He seems like a newbie all over again, but instead of jeers and catcalls like in the world of the living, the other reapers begin to sulk and shake their heads and even they know Joo Wal is losing his mind.
He’s dead and he’s losing his mind again.
The second time, Joo Wal finds himself being led into a garden with white and blue flowers, and those blue flowers end up being ice tulips. The Jade King gives him one to caress, and he ends up crushing it. He’s mad, he knows, because things shouldn’t be changing like this. It should be him as the reaper and the latter as the king, and that’s how things should progress because that’s how it had always been.
But instead, Joo Wal finds that his hair is splayed against the grass and that there’s something moving earnestly into him, and he’s clutching to skin so warm and healthy and alive that he can’t seem to help but pray it never ends. When they’re done, the king treads a white flower down the base of his throat.
And he knows he’s lost it.
His hair falls short, Joo Wal notices. His skin isn’t as deathly white as it used to be. When he puts his hand over his chest sometimes, he swears he can feel something beating. When he captures souls and leads them to their designated areas, he can see that they’re enamored with his newly colored flesh.
And he’s falling further.
It becomes a routine- a habit, to say the least. The warm skin that smells of raw jasmine and lips that taste like ginseng always find their way to him. He could be running and the hands as pale as the sky would reach out to him and he’d be caught. And he’d accept it.
Things begin to change.
And then, one day, he stops moving. He stops moving, and he begin to feel his uniform dissipate and his skin begin to glow and his heart to beat. And then he understands that when things begin to change deep down, then so do circumstances. Lips that taste of the particular ginseng with skin as healthy and fragrant as jasmine- they begin to disappear, and Joo Wal begins to forget.
He begins to forget the little things first. Like, he can’t remember where his red yarn is one day. The next he forgets that he has an audience with three other reapers. Then he forgets to bow to one of the maids. Then he forgets the king needs him in his chambers one day.
Then some arang disappears from his memories. Then some magistrate. The king’s fingers press languidly against his skin, and when he’s at the height of his pleasure, he gives into the smaller man’s kisses. After that, he begins to forget who the beautiful man with the perpetual smile is.
When it finally ends and he fades away, he understands why things don’t change in the realm of the dead.
His name isn’t Joo Wal now; it’s Sun Woo. He’s not a former yangban or a reaper; he’s a transfer student in a medical college somewhere south of Okinawa. He doesn’t remember who Seo Rim is, but he does know of a pretty girl with an exceptionally pretty smile and who’s always finding ways to make trouble. He doesn’t know of any magistrate, but he knows of a man with pink lips and a penchant for tantrums and general broodiness.
He doesn’t know any emperors, but he does know of a skinny boy who’s his senior and likes to flounce around with flowers in his hair everywhere except the operating room.
“Things have changed,” Woon tells him one day.
Sun Woo blinks. “What’s changed? The equation?”
Woon shakes his head and kisses him on the nose. Sun Woo gasps.
“Since the last time we kissed, silly,” the older man teases before dashing off.
Sun Woo finds himself blushing and a tad bit confused. He’s sure they’ve never kissed before. But then again, the older man is a bit of a loony, so Sun Woo doesn’t take it to heart.
“Did Woonie just kiss you!?” Mi Ho gasps right afterwards.
Sun Woo deftly scurries away. He hears Mi Ho threatening to castrate the older man if he tries anything with him. Sun Woo is oddly pleased.
“Don’t you remember a thing? Don’t you remember how things changed?”
Sun Woo blinks. It’s been a year since they’ve moved in with each other, and Woon is still a bit of a loony. Mi Ho’s in love with her brooding idiot of a boyfriend and lives a block down. She still sometimes threatens to castrate Woon and calls him an old man for the heck of it. Sun Woo doesn’t know why.
“Remember what?” He asks, shutting his book.
“The gardens?” The loony asks.
“The building manager doesn’t like veranda gardens,” he sulks.
“The Go board?” The older man tries again.
“You can play Go?” Sun Woo asks.
That’s the end of it for that night, because minutes later, Sun Woo is writhing underneath thin limbs and flushed skin. He’s clutching at sheets and dark hair and sweaty skin and words he can’t quite form.
“You remember nothing?” Woon asks again.
Sun Woo shakes his head. “You’re crazy.”
And Woon doesn’t say a thing.