Three years. That’s for how long I didn’t go back. I don’t have an elaborate excuse for it, to be honest. I had a decent job in the city and going back to that damned village was the last thing on my mind. So I stayed, and never thought about it much. Not many people would know of Bukcheon. I’d be surprised if anyone except the two hundred families who used to live there knew of it. The youngsters like me who were good enough to escape it try not to think of it. But was there anything worth remembering at all?
The picture is not really hard to paint.
Down south of Daegu. Harsh winds that howled with the screams of ghosts. Waves that leapt on the shores with a maddeningly constant desperation. The skies that were always a murky blue. ‘Are a murky blue,’ I think. It has been some time. Not a lot but enough to count.
The bus I’m traveling by doesn’t go as far as Bukcheon. This week it even skips the nearest stop due to hurricane warnings. I shake off thoughts of that place and take to staring outside the window. The bus slithers along the empty road. As we near the village, the skies seem to turn into a palette of colours titled ‘Bukcheon’. The closer we get to it, the more the shade of blue dulls and the more the clouds dampen.
“What’s your name?” A voice comes from beside me. It belongs to a lady who’s probably a good decade older than me.
“Na Hyuk,” I say.
“Kang YenAh,” comes the reply.
We silence fill the space between us. Conversation, I note, isn’t something we both seem particularly good at. I end up asking the predictable question next. “Where are you stopping at?”
She tells me that she is going to Gyeong-Ju. ‘Was I mad?’ , I think. That’s the only stop we’re left with. But she asks me the same question. Her voice is a little rough, not the sort you get from a cold, but the way some voices just are.
“Gyeong-Ju,” I say - a second too late. It’s not really a lie. I would be getting off there anyway.
“Not your stop. Your destination. Where are you going, Hyuk?”
I was taken aback. Not by her insistence on pressing the question; rather of her ability to think of it in the first place. I scanned her likeness, perhaps in a subconscious attempt to find something uncanny about it. She wore a plain white t-shirt with gray trousers and had a bright blue satin scarf on her lap. Her face wasn’t anything short of average either. What did I think could be weird about this woman anyway? She was just a passenger along with five others. Perhaps some voodoo locket or a bundle of peacock feathers? I catch her smiling at me and I feel colour rush into my cheeks. Embarrassed, I sink into my seat.
She doesn’t bother asking again for some time. She knows when to talk to someone and when to leave them alone.
“So… where?” she asks.
“Yeah. Okay. I can’t exactly tell a random boy on the bus to change his destination. I’d rather look outside. The weather is too pretty to ignore, isn’t it? I’ll give anyone a hundred bucks to have that weather in Seoul for a day.”
I look outside. The sky is darker and more humid. It’s eerie and mournful. It’s everything that marks Bukcheon.
I give her a puzzled look. She replies with a smile.
Smile to fill the silence - I make a mental note.
I wake up to two things: the driver telling us that we have reached our stop and the sky precisely eight shades lighter than that back in the village.
YenAh is already off the bus and the rest of the passengers are in the process of getting their luggage. I yawn and start doing the same as I spot a scarf lying on her seat. Is it hers? It’s blue all right but I’m not sure about the tiny daisies printed on it. Nonetheless, I grab it.
When I ask her, she says it’s hers.
“Hyuk-ah?” she says.
I go back to where my luggage is until a faint voice - her voice - compels me to look behind. The voice echoes “All the best, Hyuk-ah!”
But YenAh is nowhere to be seen.
I travel by foot for an hour, stopping occasionally to have a sandwich or to simply catch my breath. I’m fast on my feet, but it’s not as if that place could have been farther, or just not there at all! But there is something dragging me towards Bukcheon all over again. Pulling me towards it in this nameless and indefinite way; guiding my feet to where they stood three years ago.
When I eventually spot the village from a couple of meters away, it looks shackled and abandoned. It looks exactly like what you’d expect Bukcheon to look like after a hurricane wipes the whole place out. A handful of boats lie wrecked and overflowing with seaweed. Thatched huts lie smashed and torn. The small fields look flooded and the half-ripe crop lies scattered over them. But there’s something off about the whole thing. Something I just can’t put my finger on.
I reach the barbed fence that marks the entrance and there I see a particular piece of cloth.
Blue. Daisy Patterns. Satin.
Damn. I’d love to believe that it was the downpour that caused a shiver to run down my spine; but I have to admit I was scared.
No. No. No. Not scared. Anxious. Anxious of remembering something I very well knew, but somehow forgot.
“That would be mine!”
The girl stood on the other side of the fence; on the ‘inside’ of Bukcheon.
It was her face that caught me off guard, rather than her sudden appearance. She was beautiful, whoever she was. Not the sort of beautiful you can see, but the kind that is felt - ethereal and fascinating. She had something about her that seemed mystical. In her white dress she looked like something out of a story. Something beautiful and compelling and maybe dangerous; but the kind of dangerous that’s even more inviting… Who the hell was she?
“YenAh,” she says as if having read my thoughts. This couldn’t be happening. Oddly, anxiety failed to rise within me.
“Here.” I hold out the scarf. Her hands brush mine as she takes it.
The effect was dizzying, but I submitted myself to it. Beyond this little space we’d created, the waves seemed to hit harder on the shore.
She takes my hand and I let her. My heart skips a beat as I finally step inside the village.
“I know you never liked it but this place is pretty.” she says as her eyes sparkle.
“Yeah. I never really appreciated it enough. One day it suddenly called me back. The day of the hurricane.” I feel my blood pulse harder inside my veins. I feel better. No. Not that. I feel younger. Three years younger.
“You like stories, Hyuk?”
“You know, when people forget a story over time they don’t just forget its events, they forget everything! The characters. The places. Everything is wiped out.”
“Hm. But they’re just stories. The real events stay.”
“Even the ‘real’ stuff is a story. Everyone lives in stories. Stories are reality. So it’s just cruel to discriminate between what we see and what we don’t.” Her soft voice tingles every bone in my body. She takes my other hand as well and rubs the back of it aimlessly.
“What if Bukcheon was real, Hyuk?” Her voice wavers.
“You mean a place not-so-remote and sunny and normal?”
Her eyes are watery and her face breaks into a sad smile.
“What if it was real?”
She steps backwards, never really letting go of the slight hold on my hand. She moves towards the lapping ocean waves. But, she isn’t just taking slow steps backwards. She’s going back. Back into the remains of Bukcheon. She is not the middle-aged woman I met on the bus anymore. She’s the girl who used to live here. And now that Bukcheon was gone, forgotten, lost in time, and it ceased to exist, she had to go back to it. Everyone lives in stories. This was her story and she had to die with it. It was mine too, so she had to take me with her.
And I had go.