Sixteen-year-old Jae Hwa Lee is a Korean-American girl with a black belt, a deadly proclivity with steel-tipped arrows, and a chip on her shoulder the size of Korea itself. When her widowed dad uproots her to Seoul from her home in L.A., Jae thinks her biggest challenges will be fitting into a new school and dealing with her dismissive Korean grandfather. Then she discovers that a Korean demi-god, Haemosu, has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next.
But that’s not Jae’s only problem. There’s also Marc. Irresistible and charming, Marc threatens to break the barriers around Jae’s heart. As the two grow closer, Jae must decide if she can trust him. But Marc has a secret of his own—one that could help Jae overturn the curse on her family for good. It turns out that Jae’s been wrong about a lot of things: her grandfather is her greatest ally, even the tough girl can fall in love, and Korea might just be the home she’s always been looking for.
Stillness fills the empty stage as I press the horn bow to my body and notch an arrow. I pull back the string. The power of it courses through me, a sizzling fire in my veins. I squint just enough so the mark crystallizes while everything around it blurs.
My dress scratches my skin, and the silk material resists as I twist my body. I shift to get comfortable, my temples pounding. I shouldn’t have let the program coordinator talk me into wearing this puffy dress. How am I supposed to shoot an arrow with this thing on?
I shake my head once and breathe in deeply. I will not miss. I’ll hit the mark while wearing this monstrosity. I draw back and—
I flinch. My arrow shoots across the stage and veers off to the side. Its steel tip clanks against the concrete wall. Unbelievable. I haven’t missed a shot since—I can’t remember. I turn to face my dad.
“I’ve been trying to reach you,” my father says. “Why didn’t you answer?”
Strands have fallen forward from Dad’s slicked-back hair, and sweat beads on his forehead as if he’s been running. He’s all dressed up in a black tux for his speech tonight. Even his shoes are polished, their sheen catching under the stage lights. None of this hides the fact that the lines across his face have grown deeper in recent years. And his brown eyes have not yet regained their spark.
My annoyance fades. I should have answered my phone, told him where I was.
Slinging my bow over my shoulder, I walk to him and tug the looped ends of his tie, straightening the bow. Mom would’ve done something like that, and for a moment it’s as if we are all together once more.
Dad clears his throat. “Your grandfather is here. He wants to see you.”
I freeze. No. Not Haraboji. As if I’m not already nervous.
“I’ll find him after the show.” I gather up my arrows, already planning a quick exit so I won’t have to talk to my grandfather. “I need more time to practice. I can’t leave until I make the shot.”
“You should talk to him now.” Dad checks his phone and then rubs his hand over his face. “You can’t keep avoiding him like this.”
“I know.” I slide an arrow across my palm. Its smoothness calms me. “It’d be easier if he wasn’t so awful.”
“I know. Do I ever know.” Dad grins. “At least he promised not to make a scene in a public place again.”
I sigh. I can’t ruin this night for him. “Fine. But you owe me, okay?”
“It’s a deal.”
But as I pack up my bow and arrows, I start to worry. Could missing this shot be an omen of tonight’s performance? No. I resolve to hit the target tonight and make Dad proud. Despite my flamingo-colored dress and eccentric grandfather.
We leave the backstage area and head into the main lobby of the museum. The crowds jostle around me, smelling of ginseng, lavender, and—I could swear—the foul Korean alcoholic drink soju. I stand on tiptoe and scan the circular lobby for Grandfather.
Thick swathes of red, black, and gold material drape from the ceiling, along with rice paper lanterns larger than me. They light the room with pale yellows that make me think I’ve stepped back into Korea’s ancient past. A wide banner with the name of the exhibit, Illumination, scripted across it in Hangul and English hangs against the far wall next to the weaponry and warrior displays. I can hear the deep tone of the six-string zither beneath the buzz of the crowd.
And beyond all that, past the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, lies downtown Seoul, the horizon lined with sparkling towers shooting up like bamboo stalks.
Dad points to a gray-haired man near the entrance of the traditional-housing exhibit. My grip tightens on my bow case. It’s Grandfather.
I’d met my grandfather for the first time only two weeks ago. Everything I knew about him came from Dad’s stories about how stubborn and traditional he was. After our formal meeting at the Shilla hotel, I learned firsthand what he had been talking about. During our short visit, Grandfather and Dad had got into such a heated fight about him bringing me to Korea that Dad and I left before they brought out the drinks.
Complete humiliation. Just remembering it makes my steps falter.
I shrug that thought away and shift my bow case to my other hand as Dad and I cut through the crowd to join Grandfather. Most of my girl friends talk about their grandfathers as being like Santa Claus, all soft and jolly. Not my haraboji. He stands tall before me with his shoulders pulled back, chin raised, and arms clasped behind him. He’s dressed in a traditional blue tunic and pants, and his gray hair is combed neatly in place. I search for a smile. Warmth, maybe. Something other than the narrowed eyes and set mouth.
Dad clears his throat.
Right. I set down my case and lean forward to bow, but I move too quickly and almost fall over. Why can’t I get anything right? I’ve bowed five million times in Tae Kwon Do and archery classes.
Grandfather scowls. “I see you still refuse to listen to me,” he tells Dad in his thick accent. “You should not have brought her tonight.”
“Abeoji,” Dad says, his face going hard. “Not now.”
“He’s right,” I say. My features are sharp and angular, and I’ve got a muscular frame. Definitely not the cute, sweet Korean granddaughter he really wants. “I shouldn’t have come.”
Grandfather’s eyebrows rise. “You misunderstand me, Jae Hwa. It is not because I do not want you here. It is for your safety.” Then he shoots Dad a tight-lipped look. “You must take her back to America.”
Safety? I resist rolling my eyes. I suppose I can’t blame him since he’s never seen me spar or attended any of my archery competitions.
Still, I like this idea of me going back to the States, even if he’s treating me like a little kid. “He’s got a point, Dad,” I say. He blinks. I have to admit, I’m shocked to be agreeing with Grandfather myself. “Maybe I should go back to L.A.”
The veins on Dad’s face bulge. “You’re staying here,” Dad says. “It’s what your mother would have wanted.”
He shouldn’t have brought Mom into this.
If only I could walk away and go back home.
Problem: home is half the world away.
Dad’s company transferred him from Los Angeles to Seoul a month ago. This move was supposed to be the best thing ever. He’d climb the business ladder; I’d connect with the relatives I’ve never met and attend a prestigious international school.
More important, all the memories of Mom would be left behind.
He never asked what I wanted. And believe me, even though I’m obsessed with Korean archery and Tae Kwon Do, moving to the actual country—away from my friends—wasn’t on my todo list.
I grab my case, turn on my heels, and stalk off in the opposite direction.
“Jae!” Dad calls, but I only pick up my pace.
I can’t take any more of Grandfather’s looks and expectations.
I can’t take Dad’s insistence that I belong here. They don’t get it. It’s easy for me to slip away and escape into the crowd, but this traditional dress makes it difficult to blend in since everyone else is dressed in black suits or cocktail dresses. I duck into a side room and lean against the wall, trying to collect my thoughts. A bronze object glints from across the aisle in one of the glass cases.
I move closer, set down my case, and trail my hand across the smooth glass. The plaque on the side reads:
Excavated at the Seopohang site
During the Koguryo period, the three-legged bird was considered more powerful than the dragon or phoenix. This amulet was believed to be the key to the Spirit World.
The sun-patterned amulet gleams as if it’s beckoning me under its spotlight. The samjoko meets the edge of the circle at eight points, and the crow looks alive, as if it could spring from its hold and fly away. I splay my fingertips against the cool glass, overwhelmed by a sudden need to touch the amulet.
“Quite the exhibit,” a male voice says from behind me.
When I swing around, I nearly choke. It’s Marc Grayson from my art class. He’s standing behind me, and I can’t help but notice how hot he looks in his white shirt and dark jeans. The thing about Marc is that his brown hair is always slightly disheveled, like tonight, and every time I see him I’m half tempted to reach up and run my fingers through it.
But I can’t think those thoughts. Guys and I have never clicked. Maybe it’s the black belt that intimidates them. Or maybe it’s that I’m completely socially incompetent in the dating department. Like when Nick Casablanca tried to kiss me, and I used a pressure-point defense on his hand. It wasn’t my fault he moved in before I was ready.
I find everything less awkward if I purposely avoid any boy who makes my pulse race.
And Marc definitely does.
“Hey,” I say, trying to maintain an aura of calm and coolness. I peer through the crowds to make sure Dad doesn’t see me talking to a non-Korean boy. He tends to freak out, as if I’m halfway down the wedding aisle. “What are you doing here?”
“Enjoying the culture, of course,” Marc says with a mischievous grin that accentuates his right dimple. “Actually, I helped with the setup. I pick up hours whenever they have their big events. It’s a pretty sweet gig. I get spending money; they get cheap labor. You?”
“My dad’s company, Netlife, is sponsoring the exhibit. I told him I’d help with the show.”
“Nice.” He shoves his hands in his jeans pockets. “Free tickets.”
“I’m surprised you’re not at some SAT prep today, or writing a college essay,” I tease.
“I’d rather see Miss Black Belt in a dress. SATs can wait.”
Oh God. The Dress. I forgot I was even wearing it, with Marc standing so close, studying me with those green eyes. Or maybe it’s the way he never buttons his top shirt button. Still, the last thing I need right now is for word to get around school that I wore a pink dress. I’ve a reputation to keep.
I decide to change tactics and move the topic off my getup. “You’re one to talk. You do know it’s black-tie tonight, right? A button-down shirt doesn’t qualify.”
“Yeah.” He shrugs and rakes his hand through his brown hair. “Ties and I don’t get along. Although that didn’t go over well with my parents since they helped organize the exhibit.”
“They organized it? I wonder if my dad knows them.”
“Well, if he didn’t before”—he jerks his head to where my dad and grandfather are standing in the lobby not far away— “he does now.”
Dad is shaking hands with a couple. The woman, who I assume is Marc’s mom, has sandy-blond hair twisted in a loose bun and a tight dark dress that trails to the floor. She is pure elegance. The man next to her looks the spitting image of Marc except he’s heavier, with gray hair. Marc’s dad leans toward Grandfather, whispers in his ear, and passes him an envelope. Grandfather nods and slips it into his suit jacket, glancing around the room. Odd.
I realize Marc hasn’t noticed the exchange. He’s still talking to me, though I haven’t the faintest clue why other than the fact that we’re the only teens at the event. Something about my grandfather and his parents’ common interest in Korean mythology. I nod, pretending I understand exactly what he’s talking about, but he loses me when he starts talking about some Namu Doreong myth.
“Well, you’re here tonight, so they must be thrilled,” I say.
“Actually, when I heard you were performing, I couldn’t say no.”
I feel a ridiculous smile start to spread across my face. Oh no, this is bad.
I can’t get involved with a guy. It was hard enough leaving all my friends back in L.A. If my grand scheme to get Dad to send me back to the States works, I can’t handle a bunch of good-byes again.
He glances at his watch. “This gig starts at eight, right?”
I nod, noticing his attention drawn to the crowds milling around us. He probably wishes he was hanging out with his buddies rather than some boring girl like me. I knew it was ridiculous to think that he’d want to have anything to do with me.
Right on cue, a gong rings through the lobby, vibrating over the clamor of voices.
Dad and two other men move to stand under a Korean gate painted in greens, browns, and reds built in front of the auditorium’s doorway. The Illumination banner stretches above their heads in the gate’s archway. Together, the three of them hold a huge pair of scissors and pose in front of the gold ribbon, symbolizing the opening of the Korean cultural exhibit.
Marc leans closer to me. He smells like soap and leather.
“Good luck tonight,” he says, his breath tickling my skin. My heart skitters. “I’ll be watching your show, Miss Black Belt.”
Cameras flash. Polite applause erupts. My stomach churns. I’ve been so distracted, I nearly forgot about needing luck for my performance. And knowing he’ll be watching sure doesn’t help. Thanks, Marc.
“Tonight marks a momentous occasion,” Dad says into a microphone. “Illumination displays ninety cultural artifacts uncovered from the Old Stone and Bronze Ages. Netlife is a proud sponsor of Illumination, which we hope will bridge the gap between the Korea of the past and the Korea of the future. I’d encourage you…”
Dad continues to speak, but it’s time for me to head to the stage. My stomach is like a spinning washing machine.
“Got to go,” I tell Marc.
I pick up my case and take off before he gets the chance to say anything else. Halfway across the lobby, I glance back—I can’t help it. He’s still standing by the pillar, watching me with his hands in his pockets and a slight smirk on his face. I lift my chin higher and toss my long hair just to show him that he can laugh at my dress. I don’t care.
But I do. I care far too much. Which makes me all squirmy inside.
I shortcut through the child-sized folk village to the backstage area. Once I pass through the first room, the noise dwindles to only the light twang of music from the house speakers and the swish of my skirt across the marble floor. Circular beams of light shoot down from the ceiling, illuminating different exhibits. I have the sudden weird realization that I actually know more about the American Civil War than about these displays from my own Korean culture.
A shimmer of blue catches my eye as I reach the back door. There, encased in glass at the other end of the room, is a hanbok. I’m not one for dresses, but I find myself padding over to the glass case. The gold plate says it is a wedding dress, supposedly worn by Princess Yuhwa. The beads on the hanbok wink at me under the lights, and the material, though aged, still has a sheen to it. There’s something about it that’s almost magical.
“There you are!” Dad huffs, his shirt untucked. “I wanted to see you before you performed. You need to stop disappearing like that. I know your grandfather can be gruff, but running off isn’t the solution. I need your help, Jae. I can’t do this on my own.”
I shake my head to clear my thoughts. Slosh, slosh spins my stomach. It’s as if he inserted a quarter and started up my washing machine again. “Way to calm the nerves, Dad.”
He pats my shoulder. “Nervous? You’ve never been before. You’re a pro.”
The lump in my throat keeps me from arguing over the differences between a professional and high school competitor.
After I check in with the show coordinator, I peer around the curtain to catch a glimpse of the auditorium. The lights are dimming, and huge spotlights roam the audience, casting long slants of reds and yellows over the crowd. I set my case on the wood floor and unsnap it. In the erratic light, I take out my horn bow and slip off its silk goong dae, notch my lucky white-feathered arrow into place, and draw back the strings to test its tension. It pulls strong and steady in my grip.
Really, I could shoot an arrow in my sleep, and tonight my target will be larger than a Chuseok moon. I close my eyes and rub my hand up and down the bow as I try to block out all memory of my earlier mishap.
The thump of a drum, followed by a succession of quicker thumps, resounds through the auditorium. The audience hushes. I slide on my thumb ring, tie my goong dae to my waist, and tuck five arrows into its sack. Then, with my bow under my arm, I ease out to the wings to watch the show.
A pan flute cuts through the pounding.
And then silence.
A flash of crimson illuminates the stage, showing two drums and two gongs lined up as straight as arrows. At practice yesterday, one of the guys told me they were called samulnori instruments. They represent thunder, wind, rain, and clouds. Now, hearing them in full action, I understand why. The sound of the drums and gongs echoes through the room, alive, energetic, and creating a beat that sends my pulse racing.
It draws me in, as if I’ve been missing out on a piece of who I am all these years. I almost forget how nervous I am.
Two banners fall from behind the stage: one a tiger, one a dragon. They face each other, and I wonder if they’re in battle or are friends. The drummers’ beat calms to a steady rhythm as dancers run out, wearing vibrant hanboks that billow like peonies as they twirl.
The program continues as the shaman, dressed in her rags, struts onto the stage next. She dances in wild abandon to the cries of the drums as if caught in the wind and thunder. My muscles tighten and my vision sharpens. During practice yesterday, the dances and music hadn’t affected me like this. Maybe it’s only the added mix of lights and costumes. And the audience.
The drums’ rhythm strengthens, as if calling to me. The drummers’ arms swing in full motion. Their heads shake to the beat.
This is my cue.
I stride out onto the stage. The spotlight catches and follows me as I step onto the dais, my back to the audience. A massive sun lowers over the back wall of the stage. My job is to shoot my arrow into the heart of the sun. The technicians will work their magic to make it seem as if I’ve burst it open so streams of “sunlight” illuminate the auditorium for the grand finale.
Simple. A no-brainer.
I don’t even have to hit a particular mark. All I need to do is get the arrow to cut through the thin canvas.
I lift my bow and set it against my body. The drums boom beneath me. The shaman wails. I notch the arrow in, tight and snug, and take my aim. A gust of wind kicks up around me. I frown. They hadn’t created wind yesterday. What are the producers thinking? Someone needs to turn off those fans.
The drummers barrel away, oblivious of my concern. My hair whips around me. Now I wish I’d listened to the show coordinator and pulled it into a traditional topknot.
I lift the bow slightly upward and bite the inside of my lip. The wind intensifies, and my skirts snap against my ankles. It’s so strong now, I can barely stand, but there’s no way I’m going to make a fool of myself and not do this.
I draw back, determined to give the special effects people a piece of my mind afterward.
The sun swirls in a rainbow before me as the arrow sinks into its center. Light scatters across the stage and spills toward the audience. But I don’t move. Because inside the heart of the sun is a man. He’s dressed in the traditional Korean style, with a black pointed beard and a topknot. His skin seems to blaze, or maybe that’s because he’s dressed in a silver hanbok.
He stands there, staring at me with russet-colored eyes. He’s got my arrow in his hand and a crooked smile on his lips. He bows slightly to me before disappearing into the golden blaze of the sun.
Who was that man? He looked so real. So alive.
Maybe he was. Maybe the special effects people assigned him to grab my arrow and didn’t tell me about it.
Behind me, I realize the audience is clapping. I squeeze my bow tight and swivel as the drummers and dancers bow below. The audience leaps to their feet, clapping vigorously in the glittery golden light. I take my bow.
Marc is to my right in the second row, clapping. I wish that smile of his didn’t make my heart soar. I spot Dad in the front row, a proud look in his eyes, and Grandfather next to him. But he isn’t standing. His arms are crossed, and his frown is even deeper than earlier. What a grouch.
The curtains close. My knees wobble as I take the steps back down. The drummers slap me high fives and shake my hand. One of the backstage guys I hung out with yesterday runs up to me.
“That was awesome,” he says.
“Thanks, but what was up with the fans? You could have told me about them beforehand. I was lucky the arrow hit at all.”
“Fans?” He stares at me like I’m crazy. “What fans?”
One of the drummers overhears us and says, “Great work on the winds, Chung So. Really cooled the stage off.”
The backstage guy rubs his forehead.
I lift my hands in the air to shrug it off. “Forget about it,” I say. “It worked out in the end.”
I leave the crew to search for the guy who took my lucky arrow. But as I scour the backstage area, I can’t find anyone even resembling him. I lightly tap my bow against my leg, trying to imagine what he’d look like without his costume.
“Where might he have gone?” I wonder out loud.
“Mine,” a voice whispers from behind me.
I spin around. No one is there. The hairs on my arms prick against my silk sleeves.
Forget the stupid arrow. I can always get another.
“Mine.” The whisper comes again from everywhere around me.
No question now. I’m overtired. I need sleep.
But as I zip my bow case closed, I see him—the man from inside the sun. He’s perched on one of the backstage stools, holding my arrow. I march over to ask for it back.
“I knew you would come back, my princess,” he says.
I stop midstride at his words. There’s something about his dark-pooled eyes that causes my breath to catch and my heart to ice over.
“Just give me back my arrow,” I say.
But I never get it back.
Because he vanishes in a trick of the light.
Gilded © Christina Farley, 2014