I noticed that something was eerie the moment I got off the train. The air within the brick walls of the station felt a bit too brisk, although it was late May and warm outside but not warm enough for the staff to have turned on the air-conditioning inside. The floor also looked remarkably clean, as if just polished or even newly laid. I knew that Gupabal was a relatively recently developed suburb of Seoul, but the mountains surrounding it were not and the station had been there for a long time, catering to the constant flow of mountain climbers.
But what startled me the most was that the platform was empty. I clearly remember the train being packed, yet nobody else got off at Gupabal. Very strange at this time of the evening, when salarymen usually horde out en masse, half dead from their day at the office and perhaps a little tipsy from after-work drinking, with just enough energy to stumble inside their homes and eat the dinner their wives have prepared. But today no one was in sight, not even the platform personnel that sometimes direct traffic with their yellow coats and black batons.
I located my exit and started walking up the stairs, the star-lit sky approaching me with each step, when I finally saw someone. It was the silhouette of a woman, standing at the top of the stairs and looking away from me. She didn’t turn around even as I walked up right behind her, trying to judge her age from the skin on her neck and the firmness of her features. She looked quite athletic but not too skinny, possessing the shapes most women would kill for.
“It’s a beautiful night,” the woman said without looking back at me.
I almost fell backwards, shocked that she – clearly Korean – had addressed me in English. How could she possibly know who I was? Was she holding a mirror and saw me coming up, or had she seen me step out of the train and was waiting for me here? I was at a loss at what to believe, let alone how to reply. I remained speechless.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”
The woman turned around and smiled. The expectations the backside of her body had promised did not disappoint. She was stunningly attractive, her face as beautiful as a pop star’s but without the plastic surgery and TV smile. Her eyes had a natural glow and possessed some kind of cajoling energy. She looked to be around 23, and I had definitely never seen her before. Yet she looked somehow familiar.
“I know who you are, but you might not know who I am. My name is Mijin. I’ve been waiting for you for quite some time now.”
The woman stretched out her hand toward me. Still not knowing what to say, I gave her mine. She pressed it hard and pulled me closer, smiling as she did so. I could feel my heart beat faster, not because of her attractiveness and the sudden nature of the situation, but because something inside of her sent a pulse through my body. I tried to pull away, but my muscles wouldn’t respond. Instead the woman started walking, still holding my hand.
“There is something I want to show you. Just follow me.”
Still not knowing what to say, I walked with Mijin through the deserted sidewalks. I tried to open my mouth several times, but the brisk air outside pushed back any words that were about to slip out of my tongue. The longer we walked, the less inclined I felt to speak. I couldn’t make much of the situation anyway, and decided to go with the flow.
We passed several blocks of apartment buildings, including my own. The lights inside the windows were all turned off, not only at my place but at everyone else’s as well. I found this remarkably strange considering it was only 10 pm, but at this point nothing surprised me anymore. The area felt as if evacuated from a looming typhoon.
Then I saw light. First one, then another, then a whole row – colorful little paper lanterns lining up the path to a small hill. They stood out remarkably distinctive from the rest of the landscape, almost as much as the color of the woman’s eyes when she first turned around. I looked up the hill and saw the lanterns squirm all the way to the top. Even though I had lived here for almost a month, I did not know about this hill and had never seen the lanterns before.
The woman looked at her watch.
“Let’s climb up the hill. The view from the top is amazing. You might be a little surprised by it.”
Puzzled by Mijin’s words, I looked up and around. What could be behind that hill other than more apartment buildings, perhaps still under construction as the area was rapidly expanding. Nevertheless, I decided to follow. Mijin stroked her thumb across my hand and gave it a soft pull. Her skin was remarkably soft, almost creepily so.
We walked up a soggy, narrow path, slowly meandering up the hill. The lanterns were right above us and I was able to get a good look at them. They had Chinese characters written on them and the paper was strikingly old and torn, yet somehow able to emit a powerfully bright light. I had to look down not to get blinded by it.
After a five minute hike we reached the top, and I was shocked to see what lay behind it.
Nothing but more hills, as far as the eye could see, with lanterns in a long path all the way to the horizon. I gasped, losing balance as Mijin pushed me toward her and stroked my back with her fingers. I looked at her face, half smiling, then back at the landscape of endless green hills and rainbow-colored paper lanterns.
“It should start anytime now.”
Mijin looked determined, something alive and vibrant in her eyes. Finally I was able to break free of my muteness.
“What will start? What is this place? What the hell happened to-“
Mijin put her hand over my mouth. My cold lips stung with her touch. I shivered.
Suddenly, the lanterns at the far end of the hills started to go out, one by one in a synchronized manner.
“What’s going on?” I managed to muster as Mijin had removed her hand.
“My journey? My journey where? Could you try to be a little more specific here, because I-”
Suddenly, Mijin disappeared. I looked around but all I could see was blackness behind me and a looming blackness in front of me as the lanterns continued to go out, one by one. Below, something seemed to glisten at the bottom of the hill. I stepped to the edge and looked down, shocked at my discovery. Some kind of lake was there, or river, and I was staring down at myself.
“Don’t do that!”
I looked back and saw Mijin standing behind me, there again but somehow different. Something about her appearance had changed, but just the fact the she was back startled me enough not to try and find out what it was.
“Where did you go? You just-“
“Disappeared, yes. Just like the lights in those lanterns in front of us.”
I looked out over the hills again and now only forty or so lanterns were lit, decreasing by the second. The blown-out lanterns had left a huge, black void, as if nothing had been there in the first place. Below me, I could still feel the presence of the lake or river, whatever it was. Ignoring Mijin’s warning, I looked down at it again.
Giant ripples appeared in the water and from them something emerged, shot up in the air and down onto the hill where I was standing. It was a faceless man, the exact height and body shape as my own.
Mijin stepped in front of me and gave him a giant shove, sending him splashing back into the water.
“I told you not to do that! You must never look into the water!”
I was at a loss at what to say, my lips trembling and muscles going numb. I couldn’t even turn my head toward Mijin, instead seeing the last ten or so lanterns go out in front of me.
“It’s too late anyway,” Mijin said. “I must go now. And so do you.”
I mustered to move my head one last time, but Mijin was gone. And in the corner of my eye the last lantern went black.
Drowned in darkness, I felt the ground disappear below my feet and ice-cold water fill the voids around my lifeless body.
Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2010.