Wednesday, March 9, 2011

2011 R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest -- Second Prize in Fiction

뺐어: Stolen 
by Paige Warren, Norman North

Mid-west North America

Her eyes were amber. That was the first thing I remembered after waking. Sun’s deep, screaming eyes—once so proud but timid now—woke me from dreams and brought me back here to this place called reality—or whatever it was. The fear and uncertainty hardly hidden amongst her crying eyes and the far away expression painted in every feature of her face was what shook me awake from the darkness of inexorable sleep. The moment our eyes met, Sun’s disheveled appearance confirmed what my subconscious had been trying to tell me all along: we had been lost—or worse—stolen.

“Where are they taking us?” Sun looked at me with such dignity in her glossy eyes, amidst all the tears. My thoughts flickered to the clouded scenes of home: the perfect coastal town of Haenam was barely held together in my mind—I could remember the pristine ocean waves and the mix and match of traditional and modern Korean homes but all the faces of the many I loved were scarred by my inability to remember the last time I saw all of them.

Sun’s fingers prodding into my arm brought me back to the present. “Gwenchan-ah —are you okay, Jin-Sung— gwenchan-ah?”

“Just think of a far away place,” I whispered to her. There was a slight pause in my voice before I muttered, “think of home.” I felt her head collapse onto my shoulder as her grip on my arm tightened.

“I’m too afraid. What if we never… what if—” a girl sitting across from us kicked at Sun’s bare foot.

“Don’t even mention it.” The girl’s stern eyes were hard to make out in the darkness of the trailer. But we could all hear the hardness in her voice, the bitterness. Everyone hushed up after what she had said. It was on all of our minds: the warm, fading memories of our jip—home, the great, almost painful desire for kimchi and rice, and a soft yo to sleep on. My eyes sought out the twenty or so girl faces, some with prepubescent features. Others—like me and Sun—had the hint of what a mature woman’s features could look like. All faces of Korea: all faces, regardless of their beauty or childish smugness, wearing from this new reality of ours.

I glimpsed the glow of pale faces, scarred with dirt and oil. Others were of a more olive skin tone, like that of Sun and me. Some girls had almond-shaped eyes, others shone with the color of chocolate. Despite the fact that I didn’t possess desirable eyes or pale skin, or the fact that some girls were more chesty than others—despite all our differences—we all had one thing in common: we were all dragged from our homes with only the clothes on our backs and nothing protecting the soles of our feet. 

Haenam, South Korea해남, 한국

Each child, kneeling in a row, rested their hands against the windowsill, their heads on each other’s shoulder. I took joy in the fact that each one of them found entertainment purely in watching the happenings of every day life in Haenam: passersby coming and going, weary travelers on the way to the local hostel, farmers hauling an abundance of their crops—anything ranging from sweet potatoes to cabbage. I also took joy in the fact that today was Saturday: no field work, no school, and time to study—quietly today, thanks to my siblings’ sudden interest in what must be the fascinating routines of farmers and shop owners.

I had been peacefully working out some figures in my head when from one of my younger sisters, Jin-Kyong, a squeaky “unnie!” cut the silence. I turned to her, in the middle of solving a perfectly confusing equation, frustrated at her interruption. I gave her a stern look, hushed her, and finished my figuring. “Unnie, unnie!” She squealed again, tugging at my sleeve. “Look out the window!”

“I’m sure that whatever is out there isn’t much more fascinating than these math figures—” It was Jin-Kyong’s turn to give me a stern eye, pulling me to the window more forcefully this time.

“Really, unnie, look!” I looked out the screen window, joining my siblings on their knees, trying to find out exactly what was so mind-boggling to observe outside of this window.

“Uh-dee—where?” I scanned my eyes across the foreground of our front garden. Nothing.

“There.” My sister said sternly, prodding her finger out towards what seemed to be a girl my age dressed up as fashionably as I had ever seen in this part of Korea. Her dark hair was tucked back into a neat roll atop her head, the sun revealing glints of red shimmering strands blending in with the rest of the darkness. Her outfit wasn’t merely made up of a school uniform—the hems of her skirt dawned white lace against the darkness of the navy cotton. Her suit jacket was fit perfectly to her form, hugging every inch of her body where it needed to. This was unlike most school girls—unlike the way that the oversized jackets enveloped their small bodies, making them seem even tinier than they actually were. And the darkness of her jacket didn’t make her appear somber and bored like it did on me. This girl was either wealthy or she knew how to dress well—considering she came to Haenam, I inferred the latter.

The sudden laughing of the party surrounding the girl lit up my siblings’ eyes—and I would judge mine as well. We were drawn into this world outside our window. We were fascinated by any kind of newcomer who stayed more than a minute in our humble town. As the laughing continued, the curves of the girl’s cheeks had a charming effect when she smiled, the petals of them becoming rosy as she spoke with a certain, high-pitched voice. Everyone around her kept an easy aura, touching her shoulder as if they had known her forever when it was obvious that she had only just arrived. She really was charming.

“Noo-goo-ya?—Who is she?” I heard myself ask, unaware of the words falling out of my lips.

“From what we’ve heard, she is a student and her parents are coming here to set her up with a match-maker. She is quite pretty, isn’t she?” Jin-Kyong questioned. I simply nodded, staring at this foreign beauty far from my windowsill, where I knelt, merely a head taller than my siblings, joining in their amusement. “Her name is Sun,” my sister said.

I nodded to myself again.

“Yeh-peu-dah,” I whispered. Beautiful.

Mid-west North America

The doors burst open to the trailer, yet still with the absence of light. The same two Korean men who had dragged me and Sun away from Haenam were standing outside the doors of the trailer now, their ugly, dark faces pockmarked and grimacing. Their eyes were just as lifeless as they had been when they took us. All of us girls had the same reaction to the men: we all flinched at the mere sight of them, each one of us reliving the nightmare of being stolen from everything we had known. I felt Sun’s body close to mine, her fear audible in the quivering of her shallow breaths. As much as I felt the need—the obligation—to protect Sun, I couldn’t take my eyes off of those men, fearing that they would pounce on me as soon as I did.

They didn’t say a word at first. Rather, one of the men kept staring us down with his threatening eyes and just by the look of him, I knew something horrific would happen if we tried to escape. I’m sure the thought passed through each of us, our souls hungry for the chance of hope waiting outside this trailer. But all of us knew better; none of our starved bodies could take this large Korean man—big enough to easily pin at least four of us down at a time. The other man, smaller but his body still just as cruel, was motioning forward someone else who remained out of sight. “Come, please come,” he said in Korean, the frustration in his voice apparent. Or perhaps that was just the way he talked.

“Noogoo?” Sun’s broken voice managed to whisper. I merely shook my head, unable to see much more than she could. But after the word slipped out of Sun’s mouth and the large man moved his boorish eyes towards us, a white man appeared beside him. Dark, scruffy hair covered him in what seemed to be every place possible. He tried to look civilized by dressing in a charcoal suit with sharp shoulders and suspenders hidden underneath the jacket. Topped off with a battered, drab hat, his outfit reminded me of an overcast day—everything was gray, as if he had jumped right out of a black and white TV. Everything about this man caught me off guard—I had only seen a few white people at home in Haenam, mostly tourists. This man was a completely different story. This man was here either to barter our way out of this mess—or much, much worse: get us deeper into the mess he had possibly been the one to make for us. Judging on his appearance, I could only assume it would be for the worse.

The man nodded at the two Korean men, speaking words in English that merely sounded like gibberish to me. “He is speaking English..?” What was intended as a statement took the form of a question as the words stammered from Sun’s mouth.

“Can you understand him?” I questioned her, her lips tightening as she pulled her hair behind her ears.

“I didn’t get that far in English lessons at school… You know I was behind since we moved to Haenam.” She seemed determined though, as attentive as I had seen her since we had been taken. Although her eyes scanned the faces of these men with scrutiny, she appeared to me as an extremely wilted flower—still so beautiful with her wide eyes and thick, black-red hair, but weathered from the elements that had been forced upon her.

“Sun, you know English—” She cut me off with a tap of her hand on my head, hushing me.

“Shshh, let me try to hear what they’re saying.”

I obeyed, hearing only gibberish from the man’s foreign voice, one hand rubbing against his wristwatch, the other against his fat belly. He nodded to the small Korean man, addressing him as “Mr. Noh.” Mr. Noh was obviously stumbling while he tried to speak English, his voice fumbling over words and tones. While he tried to work out the words in his head, the white man rolled his eyes over to us, the blackness of them passing over every single girl, as if he were judging us in some kind of competition. His gaze was ominous and dreadful. Mr. Noh whipped around to him, finally having gathered his words. He merely nodded until Mr. Noh had finished speaking. Then, with a hint of power, the white man pointed at one girl after the next, prodding with not only his fingers but also his words.

“What is he saying, Sun? What is he saying?” The man’s menacing power worried me sick. The fact that I couldn’t understand what his intentions were was even more agonizing. Sun looked at me with a nauseas look on her face, her olive cheeks flushing red.

“The white man says… almost every one of us will do. Perhaps not the pair of five year olds, he says. They look too sick. The white man says…” Sun hesitated, her head shaking in horror. I grasped her hands, trying to comfort her with what warmth I could give.

“Sun, Sun, Sun,” I whispered, tracing the tears escaping on her cheeks with my finger. “Sun?”

“The white man says… the men will love us.” 

Haenam, South Korea해남, 한국

Sun had always been with me, wherever I went. Whether it was to feed the blazing flames of our competition against one another or because we both knew, underneath the façade of striving to overachieve and to appear perfect to everyone around us, we had something special. There was no denying this anyhow. During the years of our competition, Sun always kept her eyes diligently on whatever prize was before her: success in her studies, impressing the teachers, winning against me, even. She seemed so perfect with her success and beauty, yet she harbored this intense desire to overachieve, to gain and devour everything in her sight, even if that meant losing everything she loved.

Today was dark in Haenam, with clouds covering the sky. Yet patches of sun flitted down across the ocean, shining on the waves so pristinely. That’s what Haenam always thrived upon—the water. It rained every once in a while, refreshing the crops and the field workers from the blazing mid-day sun. The rain restored all kinds of life here.

As I walked across the edge of the water after school had let out, I admired the trees that scanned the line of the beach. The trees provided the kids too young to work a place to daydream, a castle in the sky to climb. They provided the cleansing sound of fresh leaves tangling together in the wind. I could feel the crisp wind nipping at my face, but a sudden spray from the ocean caught me off guard. As I reached to my face to wipe away the saline drops of water, I took my attention off the ocean long enough to notice Sun walking barefooted across the shore in her school uniform, her lacey blue skirt rippling in the wind, her shoes dangling by her fingers. She stared out towards the water, a deep look of melancholy painted across her face. Neither of us had realized it but we had both been gradually taking steps toward each other, our minds and eyes too busy focusing on the violent motions of the waves in the wind.

I was hesitant to say anything, although I wanted to. Would she even know who I was? But the pulsing articulation of my heart was too overpowering to ignore. I had to go with my heart on this one—I had to say something.

“Sun?” I called out, unsure of anything. Her eyes caught mine and for a second, I could have sworn I saw a hint of recognition in them.

“Yes?” She called back, an awkward smile spreading across her mouth. She seemed just as uncertain as my voice felt.

“My siblings—I—well, you see,” I took a subconscious step forward as I searched out for the words. The confusion in her eyes was clear yet she held her façade, her smile still wound tightly into her features, her amber eyes light with the reflection of what was left of the setting sun. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” My voice shook, finally managing to come up with the right words, never mind that they were as awkward as could be.

“Yes, I am,” she responded slowly. “We attend the same school, yes?” I merely nodded back. “Jin-Sung, isn’t it?” I nodded again, staring at my bare feet. After a few seconds of silence, I looked up to find Sun standing much closer to me. “You want to know all the gossip about me.” What should have been a question came out as an abrupt statement. “You want to know why I’m here of all places. I get that, I do. I’m surprised you don’t know already. Gossip in towns like this get around fast. I guess I should tell you, shouldn’t I?” She smirked, a wild look of mischief trying to cover the look of sorrow that clearly came through her body language.

“No, no, it’s not that—” I protested, but Sun persisted.

“I might as well. You’re the last person in practically all of Haenam to not know.” Her insistence confused me. The fact that this girl before me, whom I was dying to know about, was willing to come straight out with the truth about her life was stunning to me—I had never met someone like this. Sun was something else; she was someone rare.

“You really don’t have to tell me,” I exclaimed, hoping the genuineness of my voice would come through to her, across the wind that separated us. Sun’s hair whipped away in the breeze, concealing her eyes if only for a few seconds. She looked up from beneath the sweep of her dark bangs, and nodded. Before I could say anything else, she sat down on the sand, looking up at me expectantly. There was something about the vulnerability in her eyes that made me feel obligated to sit with her. At the start of that moment, I felt the urge to protect her from the wind. At times she looked so fragile that the wind could pick her up and sweep her away at any moment’s notice. I sat beside her, resting my elbows on top of my knees as I dug my toes into the sand.

“My appa—my father—his parents died a year ago, leaving him with a hefty inheritance. We used only a little of it to come here to Haenam. And my appa, well he came here to set me up with a match-maker. It’s a bit traditional, I know,” she said, scrunching her nose. “But I’m set to marry a ‘fine young man,’ a man who ‘will provide for our family.’” Sun sighed, her fingers scratching at her legs, the true hue of them hidden beneath her dark tights. “The mayor’s son.”

I knew whom she was talking of. I’d never met him in person but he was supposed to be brilliant—an excellent chemist as well as a virtuoso violinist. He was four years our senior. “Well, that’s good, right?” I tried to keep the tone of my voice light.

“Sure, I guess. I just wanted to marry for… well, love.” Sun’s voice broke on the word, her head bobbing with the wind. “It’s just unfair, you know?” As Sun stared across the ocean once more, I nodded to myself in agreement knowing perhaps exactly how she felt.

Mid-west North America

After Sun had explained to all of the girls what exactly those men had forced us into, silent tears poured down each of our cheeks. Perhaps the darkness in each one of us came out that night, the sorrow of the whole situation overwhelming us. Sun’s hand didn’t leave mine all night, her sweaty grip getting tighter as the cries persisted. If there were living hells in each of us, this was it. The only hope I could find in this was the fact that Sun was by my side through it all.

Sun turned towards me, her eyes blazing with something other than tears.

“I’m glad I have you, Jin-Sung. I’m glad you called out to me that day on the beach. I’m glad you became my friend that day.”

I didn’t understand her logic whatsoever. Wherefore would she choose me?—this sad, haunted whelp of a girl. Why did she choose me for competition? How was it that we found each other in the midst of all this chaos? I was unable to speak through my tears, the weight of them taking a hold of me. Sun sank into me and as I held her in my arms, I pondered all this, simply asking the gods wherefore they had planned our coming together. If I believed this was our fate, then who was to say that our fate wouldn’t turn out grim? Who was to say we would ever get back to Haenam? If this was our destiny, our fate, I decided that every moment I had left with Sun I would live as if it were my last because the truth of the matter was that it very well could be and I might never see those beautiful amber eyes again.

* * *

A violent pounding at the trailer door woke me from a light sleep. Sun bounded up at the sound of it, her fingers still tight around mine. A muffled, drunken voice echoed through the cracks of the door.

“Open up, you whores!” The doors were thunderously barged open, the light of the stars giving us vision if only for a second. The drunken man was Mr. Noh, stumbling as he jumped up and into the trailer. A gold pad lock was gripped tightly in his hands as he banged shut the door behind him. He shoved the pad lock across the door handles and locked it, stuffing the key into his dirty pants. As Mr. Noh turned to face us, there was a great unison yelp from each one of us as he fell over onto the piles of skinny girl legs overlapping one another, just barely missing my own pair of legs. I jumped at the sight of Mr. Noh’s face inches away from me, his bloodshot eyes staring up at me chillingly. He got to his knees, and frantically began unbuttoning his pants. As if on instinct, my eyes brewed with tears and there was no hesitance for them to spill out. I pushed Sun out of the way with all the strength I could muster as the man yanked my wrists towards him. As soon as Mr. Noh’s pants were off, he forced my shoulders down against the floor of the trailer, the cold metal jutting into my back. I shook my head violently, as if to ward off the truth of what was about to happen to me. I heard Sun give out a cry of agony. The man merely flung his pants at her.

Mr. Noh ripped off what little clothing I had on, and pressed his body down on mine anxiously. I wanted to scream but my voice felt completely dry from all the tears that were flooding my cheeks.

“Jin-Sung.” I heard my name and tried to shift my head so that I could see where the sound was coming from. The man was so absorbed in what he was doing that he didn’t notice. I was almost blind from the tears that I couldn’t see Sun’s terrified eyes staring down at me. “Jin-Sung.” She said again. This time her lips matched what I was hearing. She held up the man’s pair of pants in one hand, a gold metal key in the other. My eyes immediately widened, both to fight off the tears and to see more clearly what Sun held in her hand. My mouth opened as if to cry out to her but no words came out. Mr. Noh smothered his face on mine. I couldn’t breathe. I felt a part of me was dying. And there was nothing I could do.

After the man lifted his face from mine, he closed his eyes. I had never felt such greater pain in my life. I tried to look around the man to partly see that the trailer door was slightly open, Sun kneeling near it with the key clutched tightly in her hand. The youngest girls of the bunch were crawling out of the trailer as quickly and quietly as they could. The man was breathing so heavily that I don’t think he could have heard even if he were sober. After two more girls climbed out, Sun looked up to see me watching her. She was sobbing silently, her chest heaving up and down heavily.

“Gah—go.” I mouthed silently, the tears inescapable as Mr. Noh’s weight still pinned me down. Sun shook her head violently. “Gah!” I mouthed again, knowing I would beg if I could. Suddenly, the man had finished and was lifting his weight off of me. There was no time.

Sun looked at the key and searched around the faces near her that were retreating to their original spots, knowing the man would turn around any second. Sun handed the key to the first pair of hands she could find, not saying a word, but looking the girl sternly in the eyes. As the man was fumbling around for his pants, Sun leapt out of the trailer and closed the door behind her.

Haenam, South Korea해남, 한국

“Jin-Sung!” Sun was running at me, her eyes flowing with tears. Her cries were inaudible as the waves picked up with the violence of the wind. I caught her in my arms as she flung herself toward me. “Jin-Sung!” She sobbed, her lacy skirt flying up in the wind.

“Gwenchan-ah? Slow down, Sun.” The waves subsided if only for a second. I pulled her down to the sand, sitting her down by the water. That’s when she began pouring it all out.

“Appa—his money ran out.”

Not quite catching the drift of what she was saying, I took her hands and patted her soft skin. “It’s only normal, Sun. Plenty of families don’t keep track of their inheritance and start overspending—”

“No,” she said, her eyes wider than ever. “His money ran out before we even came to Haenam. Umma told me today.” This was news to me. But I kept my mouth shut, knowing surely this was going somewhere else…

“We came here because we had no money left. Because appa knew that word hadn’t got out yet and there would still be hope for our family’s reputation here. And that hope was lying in the chance that he could marry me off to some rich boy.” Sun sputtered out coughs as I realized the tide had caught up with us. We moved back a few strides, safe from the current that could soak our school clothes.

When Sun caught her breath, she continued, “And the mayor finally found out. So the whole thing’s off. My family’s reputation is ruined and we won’t have any more money. And I won’t have to marry the mayor’s son.” Remembering our first meeting when Sun shared her dream of love with me, I was perplexed.

“Then why are you crying?” I asked. She looked up at me, her face dampened with tears and the saline of the ocean spray. There was deep confusion in her eyes.

“What are you saying—what—” She shook her head vehemently.

“Don’t you remember, Sun? We were here, merely a year ago, when you told me that you wanted to marry for love?” There was light in her eyes now but as soon as it appeared, it quickly faded away as the waves roared louder and closer to us.

“But I’ll have to quit school—my family… they won’t have any money to put me through the rest of the term.”

“But you’ll have your dream. You’ll find love. Isn’t that what mattered to you a year ago? Does it matter to you now?” My questioning left her speechless. A minute later, I felt her hands grip tightly to mine. Her amber eyes shone with that light that made my heart beat faster.

“You’re right,” she nodded. “Love is what matters.” A gradual smile tugged at her pale lips. “It’s what has mattered all along.”

Mid-west North America

Mr. Noh hadn’t even noticed there were five of us missing. He hadn’t even gotten his pants all the way on before he had passed out, asleep and drooling in the corner of the trailer. All at once, the girls came towards me, their stunned eyes not daring to meet mine. They helped me put on my clothing as fast they could as a few others moved towards the girl who had the key. No one said anything, not wanting to risk waking the man. Once the girl had drawn out the key that Sun had bestowed her, we all made our way to the door in haste. The girl looked around at each one of us, with the key in hand, each girl taking a humble step toward me. The girl with the key was the first one to bow as she held the shiny metal out to me. Each girl, in turn, slowly bended their feeble bodies as their bows graced my feet. I took the key, nodding at the girls, my hands shaking as my fingers fumbled to keep my grasp on they key’s metal binding. My lungs breathed in what air I could manage as the girls thanked me silently with their humbled eyes, making way for me to get to the door.

I fumbled several times to get the pad lock open. I was as frightened as could be at the possibility of the man waking up again, ready to pounce on one of the girls, or me again. My hands were shaking as I stumbled to get the key in the lock. Once it was finally in, I turned it, a nervous sweat dripping across my brow. As soon as the lock was opened, I tore it off and pushed one door open, my jaw dropping at what I saw outside the trailer. Each girl gave a gasp as I saw the light of amber eyes once more.

Haenam, South Korea해남, 한국

Sun’s arms were pulled tightly around my neck as the wind brushed her black-red hair against my face, her damp cheek pressing against mine. We didn’t say anything more as we watched the tide climb higher toward us, threatening to take us out to sea. The waves burst to life as the wind pushed harder and the ocean’s water tingled at our faces. There was a storm coming.

The clouds grew darker above the water, the smell of fresh rain lingering heavily on the air around us. The life of Haenam thrived on rain, just as the rest of civilization has and will. The many inches of rain that the gods have brought to Haenam have refreshed the crops and encouraged them to grow time and time again, in turn providing food for all of us—so that no one would ever go hungry. The rain has refreshed those who work in the fields, the farms, the sea—the ones who bring us that food, and has brought them relief from an otherwise merciless sun. The rain has restored every one of us and has allowed new life to grow. Sun and I will be no different—we will be restored from every drop of rain, just as each one before us has come to grow.

As the waves crash mightily before us, I hold on to Sun’s hands, feeling the warmth flow from each of us. Sun blinks suddenly, surprised by something wet dropping onto her eyelash. Her fingers brush her face, wiping the wetness away. She looks to me and smiles, with that light in her amber eyes. I feel my heart sing. The first drop of rain has come.


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