Awls pierced through her body.
Like the waters of a distant valley, Ji-an’s vision and senses were engulfed in darkness for a moment, and all she could feel was pain and terror.
Despite it being spring, the waters of the deep mountain stream in March were as cold as ice. Every cell in her body screamed, but Ji-an couldn’t let out a single scream as she helplessly got sucked into the water. The gushing water created a tumultuous turmoil, and amidst it, Ji-an felt as if she heard the rumble of thunder.
No, was it just the sound of life coming to an end?
The endless valley water dragged Ji-an like a black thorn bush. Shapeless, stinging thorns were lodged all over the body, and invisible hands in the water pulled her hands, feet, and hair.
Ji-an screamed. But it’s a deep night in the mountains, where there’s no human being. No one heard Ji-an’s cry.
Unable to swim, Ji-an desperately floundered her arms, gasping for air, and cried out for salvation while struggling to keep from being swallowed by the rushing waters. It was around the time when the scream, which had repeatedly risen and subsided on the surface of the water, gradually thinned.
Miraculously, someone grabbed Jian’s hand.
With that one thought alone, Ji-an clung to a hand she didn’t even know belonged to anyone. She hung on for a while, resisting the rushing water with all her strength, and before she knew it, Ji-an found herself leaning against a large rock by the water’s edge.
Her ears beat with the sound of her heart beat. A thumping pulse went up through her mind. The sound was so loud that she thought her heart was attached to her ears, not her chest.
As her chest heaved and she breathed frantically, the first thing Ji-an’s eyes saw was a foot. Enormous feet. Those feet, which didn’t even wear shoes, were strangely large and smooth, with not a single scar.
Following those peculiar feet, she saw a blue-tinted robe, and the wind blowing revealed hair that reached down to the knees. What a ridiculous outfit, Ji-an thought, and with all her strength, she lifted her head as high as possible.
And then, she saw a man.
“…Who are you?”
Ji-an responded to the man who casually greeted her with a voice filled with caution. The man was tall, and to see his face, Ji-an had to tilt her head back so much that it hurt. The man, who had suddenly appeared, was smiling as he looked down at Ji-an with his burden in tow.
“Can I help you?”
You pushed me.
Ji-an swallowed her words that had risen to the tip of her tongue along with the remaining creek water in her mouth. It was a quiet night with no sign of existence. Suddenly pushed, Ji-an fell into the icy valley water without knowing why. And an unidentified man who appeared. The whole situation was shouting that the man was the criminal who pushed J-ian.
“Can I help you?”
The man asked once again. His tone and voice were no different from just a moment ago. Ji-an couldn’t help but shiver slightly. It could have been because of the icy creek water and the gust of wind blowing at that moment. Well…?
All of Ji-an’s senses were screaming. The man in front of her was definitely dangerous.
“Yeah, if you could…… I would appreciate it.”
Ji-an replied, trying to hide her teeth, which were now beginning to grind together. Whether the man in front of her was the one who had pushed her or someone dangerous, this one fact remained unchanged.
She must never offend him.
There was no one else in this situation who could save her. Conversely, in this dark night, in this desolate and silent place, there was no one who could push her into this icy valley water without a sound.
Only this man, just one person.
Thinking this way, the fear and cold that enveloped her entire body became even more intense. It felt as if the blood flowing through her body had turned icy. Ji-an, whose lips had now stiffened, spoke slowly.
“I-I’m sorry, but… could you please lift me up?”
Contrary to expectations, the man in front of her responded calmly. It was at that moment that the man’s voice settled over Ji-an’s forehead, as if he had been relieved and had let out a secret sigh.
“In that case, can you give it back?”
“……What do you mean, what do you want back?”
There were two, no, three men in front of her…….
Ji-an asked, desperately clinging to her fading consciousness, her lips quivering as a sudden wave of drowsiness washed over her. It was bitterly cold, and her veins were constricting rapidly, while her muscles were throbbing in the water, screaming silently.
“My… teeth and… eyebrows that you took…”
“Teeth… and… eyebrows…?”
Hardened lips have already failed to function. The stuttering words were squashed here and there, hung in Ji-an’s mouth like a small murmur. But the man nodded as if he understood everything. The smile, a habit that had long vanished, was nowhere to be seen.
The man’s face was cold without the smile. As cold as the water in this valley. The weight of his eyelashes, soaked in the cold stream, was as heavy as a thousand pounds.
“Human child, I’ve come to reclaim my eyebrows and teeth that you took.”
The man released his hand that folding in his back and held it out toward Ji-an. Ji-an grasped the hand with the last of her strength.
“I… don’t… know… about… that…”
A deafening clap of thunder roared in the sky. Deep within the mountains, amid the silent, tranquil moonlit night, where a blinding white lightning pierced through the air, Ji-an saw it.
The golden shimmering eyes of the man. His eyes filled with anger, screaming with fury.
And then, the man released Ji-an’s hand.
‘Grandma, why do I always have to go to the temple on my birthday and apologize to the Buddha, saying I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t do anything wrong, my mom and grandma are both good people, why? Why do I have to apologize?’
“Well, you see, Ji-an, there’s a mistake in our family. It’s not Ji-an’s fault, but your great grandmother’s fault, and once upon a time, a long time ago, more than 500 years ago, one of our ancestors was hated by a very scary tiger.
‘Hated? By a tiger?
‘Yes, a very deep hatred. That person committed a very grave wrongdoing. That’s why we, as descendants, have to apologize on that person’s behalf.’
‘The tiger got very angry? Very, very angry?’
‘Yes, very, very angry, so we have to apologize even more diligently.’
It was just a coincidence that she thought a childhood conversation she’d had with her grandmother, one she could barely remember. But it was only for a moment, and then the creek’s waters swallowed Ji-an once more like a crocodile’s gills.
Amid the rushing water pulling her in and the fading consciousness, Ji-an thought that she would never forget this moment. The thunder roaring and the world flashing white. In the midst of it all, the eyes shimmering like bright golden suns.
And that was Ji-an’s last memory in the mountains.
Ji-an hated her birthday.
The day before her birthday, she always had to climb a high mountain with her mom. Just before midnight. Throughout the late night and into the early morning hours. Young Ji-an was forced to bow down to the golden Buddha over and over again, even though she was terribly sleepy.
She begged until her fern-like hands ached, and bowed until her white knees buckled. She prayed and prayed without knowing what she had done wrong. Only when the dawn broke did the ceremony end, and at that moment, her body relaxed, and she fell asleep as if she had fainted. That was her birthday.
So, Ji-an didn’t like her birthday. She really, really, really didn’t like it.
But Ji-an’s friends didn’t understand her. In fact, they found it strange.
‘Huh? Ji-an doesn’t like her birthday? Why?’
‘….Just hate it.’
‘It’s weird. Ji-An freak.’
‘It’s not weird. I’m not freak…….’
‘it’s weird~ It’s weird~ Ji-an doesn’t like her birthday~ Lalala, she hates her birthday~’
Wearing a colorful party hat, putting candles on a cream cake, making wishes, and receiving presents—how could anyone dislike such a birthday? They laughed at Ji-an, unable to comprehend. And on that day, Ji-an learned for the first time that a birthday was supposed to be a day like that. A day to eat delicious things, have fun, and be happy.
I’m the only one who’s different.
So, she asked her mom.
“I want to have cake and blow out candles on my birthday, just like the other kids. I want to receive presents. I want to stop going to that temple. Mom, okay? I want to do that too.”
What did her mother say back then? In truth, she couldn’t quite remember what happened next. It was a huge argument, and all Ji-an could recall was crying louder than she had ever cried in her entire life on that day.
She couldn’t remember what her mother said or what she was scolded for, regardless of how sad and unfair the memory was. Only the fact that she cried until her tear-soaked face felt sore remained deeply ingrained in her mind.
The next day, just like any other day, Ji-an climbed the mountain with her mother. They went to the temple again, and she bowed once more. She stood in front of the golden, compassionate face of Buddha statue, praying and praying again. And then, exhausted from crying, she fell asleep.
That was probably when she was eight years old, on her birthday in the year she had just started elementary school. And when she turned 20, Ji-an’s birthday, a freshman who just entered college. Now, Ji-an was engulfed in the deep mountains, devoured by the distant valley water.
Oh, Ji-an truly hated her birthday.