The old mare stamped in her stall that was attached to the small cottage. It was the dead of night and apparently Jin was not the only one who couldn’t sleep. The mare gave a nervous neigh and shook her mane. Jin clutched his abdomen, burning in fiery pain. He wiped his brow, damp from the fever. Slowly, he rose from his mattress of hay.
Trying not to wake his mother or brother who slept on the ground beside him, Jin quietly went to the hearth. He boiled the last of the lily turf tubers into tea. Jin drank it while it was still too hot, praying it would take the pain away. He set the empty cup down and held his stomach beneath the rib. Gradually the pain lessened. The fire still burned hotly in his torso. But it was bearable.
Jin sighed deeply. He glanced at his mother, her brow still creased with worry even in sleep. His older brother Jae snored carelessly on the other end of the cottage. The mare neighed loudly, jerking Jin from his thoughts. She was restless. Her eyes were wide. Something had spooked her.
Jin took a step toward her when a cry resounded in the woods just outside their home.
His hair stood on end. The cry sounded neither animal nor human. He stared at the shutters facing the woods. The mare neighed again, tossing her head.
“What’s going on?” Jin’s mother said groggily. “Jin? Are you awake?”
He held his breath. He pushed open the shutters and leapt back. He peered into the night, but saw nothing. Then the moon caught a streak of scarlet at the tree line. A fox. It soon disappeared into the trees.
“What is the matter?” his mother said.
“Nothing,” Jin said. “Everything is fine.”
He touched the wooden amulet at his neck, wondering if his spirit guardian could protect him against skinstealers. Jin went back to his bed and tried to sleep. Jae’s snores never lost their rhythm.
Dawn came cool and grey over the eastern forest. Jin and Jae carried their small boat down the path through the rocky cliffs and pushed out into the waves. Jin looked over his shoulder as they paddled out to sea. Behind them the grey sky was darkening over the northern cliffs and deep clouds were gathering together over the mountains inland.
Jin held his stomach. The embers of pain still burned. “Jae?” he said, as they gathered the net and weights together.
“On three,” Jae said, not listening. “One, two… three.” They cast the net upon the waters. It hovered like a cloud before the weights pulled the net to the shallow ocean floor.
“You didn’t happen to hear anything last night, did you?” Jin asked, sitting down in the boat.
“Like what?” Jae said, taking a seat across from him. He was still gazing where the net fell.
“Like… a wail.”
“You were dreaming,” Jae said. He still wouldn’t look at him.
Jin said nothing. He wrung his hands.
“You think it was a skinstealer?” his brother asked, an edge of impatience in his voice. When Jin did not respond, he sighed. “You have to get all that superstitious nonsense out of your head.”
Jin just shook his head. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”
Jae only said, “I’ll dive.”
“I can do it,” Jin said, but his brother already leapt into the water. A moment later his head emerged beside the boat, foot-rope in hand.
“My health isn’t as delicate as you think it is,” Jin said, fighting to keep the edge out of his voice.
“I know,” Jae said. “It’s worse.”
Jae climbed in the boat and they hauled their catch in. It was filled mostly with anchovy, but there were some mackerel, black scrapers, and sardines as well. “It’s not much,” Jae said. “We don’t catch them like we used to. Those damn fishing vessels leave hardly anything for the rest of us.”
Jin stared at the fish. They wriggled desperately as their gills flexed open and shut, trying in vain to breathe.
He looked up at his brother, who stared at him intently. “We have to do this, Jin. To survive.”
Jin nodded. But Jae still looked at him carefully. He then glanced over Jin’s shoulder. “That’s some storm building,” he said abruptly. Jin hardly heard him.
“It doesn’t look like a typhoon,” Jae said.
When Jin finally turned, he straightened. The clouds seemed to have grown darker. Blacker. They were ebbing toward them.
“The sky didn’t look like that before,” Jin whispered. The more he stared at it, the stranger the clouds looked. More like swirling tendrils of smoke, they hovered menacingly over land and sea. Jin was disturbed and could tell Jae was, too.
His brother did not respond, but only shook his head. “Come on. Let’s get to shore.”
Once they were back in their village, all of the neighbors were speaking of the Black Cloud, as they called it. None knew what it was or what it meant. Some said it was a storm, others said it was a force of evil. Still others said it was a sign of the end times.
After it was clear that no one knew any more than them, Jae and Jin climbed the hill to their own small stone cottage. The northern edge of the woods lay a safe enough distance beyond, and no more than two stone throws away fell the sea, crashing against the rocky cliffs below.
Their mother stood outside the door, her arms laden with firewood. But she did not move. She was staring north, where the sky met the sea. The wind whipped tendrils of gray hair from the bun at her neck. Jin kissed her on the cheek.
“I don’t like the look of that horizon,” she said, gazing at the oncoming darkness.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, although the feeling in his gut told him otherwise. He relieved her from the firewood she had gathered and rounded their cottage to the woodpile in the back. The old mare lifted her head from the water trough and nickered at the sight of him.
“Think you can handle another trip to town?” Jin said, rubbing her nose. The horse’s eyes shut halfway and gave a sigh of content. Jin was stroking her mane when suddenly she gave a high, nervous neigh. Her ears snapped backward in fear.
Jin snapped his head around but saw nothing. The mare stared wide-eyed at the woods. Then movement caught his eye at the tree line. A shadow of an animal paced back and forth. He thought he glimpsed red fur. Was it another fox? It was too far away, too hidden in the shadows for him to be sure. He clutched his ribs as a flare of pain erupted then died in his abdomen, shooting up into his chest. He glanced back at the tree line and saw no sign of the animal.
The mare seemed calm once more. Jin stroked the horse for a long while, perhaps to calm himself just as much as her. He rubbed beneath his ribs. The burst of pain was gone, but some of it lingered behind.
Jae already began loading their wooden cart full of the fresh fish they caught. Jin helped his brother finish the task. As he climbed onto the bench beside Jae, his mother came up beside them.
“Don’t forget we need more bars of lye soap. And Lona needs some lamp oil. And don’t forget the bags of tea from old Peng—“
“—alright, mother, we got it,” Jae said and slapped the reins.
“Be careful!” she called behind them.
The sun continued its trek above the ocean, but it was a mere silver orb shining behind a veil of grey clouds. The cart jostled back and forth as they wound their way southward through the village toward the tree line. They were an island amidst trees and ocean. The tide crashed thunderously below them against the rocky cliffs to the west and the forest hedged them in to the north, the south, and east. But all the cottages were situated well away from the woods. The fear of what lay within them ran too deep.
The mare plodded along the path at a steady gait. Before entering the woods, it was custom to say a prayer to the gods that the Steward of the Forest would protect them. Jin murmured this silently. Jae shook his head but said nothing.
The air was close and dank as they entered the forest. Away from the cool ocean breeze, Jin felt stifled by the heat and humidity. Liana vines and the twisted limbs of laurel trees stretched overhead. Jin’s eyes strained in the darkness. Even the palest rays of the sun could not penetrate the thick canopy overhead. They had traveled a quarter of a mile before Jin understood what was amiss. No primates chattered in the branches and no birds chirped in the treetops. There was not even the drone of cicadas. All was silent. Suddenly a chill spread over him. His hair stood on end. He felt like… he was being watched.
It was at this moment that the mare stopped. She tossed her head, neighing loudly. “Come on, girl,” Jae said giving the reins a slap. But she refused to go forward.
Jin peered into the thick ferns and shrubs surrounding the path, but he saw nothing. In fact, he saw no sign of life anywhere. And yet he could not dismiss the sensation of unseen eyes upon him.
After several minutes, the mare continued. The chill had left Jin’s body, but the memory of it lingered on.
They arrived at the port town without further incident. They passed through the gates along with traders, merchants, and fellow travelers. Jin was always taken aback by how loud the city was. All around them erupted the shouts of sailors unloading vessels and artisans advertising their wares. Horses—huge horses!—nickered and neighed, donkeys brayed, and behind it all rang the steady pounding of smithy hammers.
Suddenly Jin nudged Jae. “Look—scholars!”
About a half dozen of them walked beyond their wagon in bustling robes, heading uphill towards the interior of the city. Jin stared at them wistfully. They spoke in earnest voices to one another, carrying satchels and books tucked under their arms.
“Wouldn’t it great to be a scholar?” he said, more to himself than to Jae. “Collecting knowledge and studying books to uncover ancient truths…”
Jae groaned. “That sounds boring. Besides, you need a hell of a lot more schooling to be a scholar.”
Jin hesitated. “Maybe the schoolhouse will open again.”
“I doubt it. It’s been this long. Besides,” Jae wore a smirk, “I thought you wanted to be a warrior.”
Jin’s face reddened. “That was when we were boys,” he said. “And before my illness.”
“Well, you can’t be either one with your health the way it is.”
Jin’s head dropped. Jae didn’t mean anything by it, but he had no idea how much those words hurt. Because they were true. A knot began to form in Jin’s abdomen, tied with twisted fibers of bitter sadness.
They wove through the crowds, passing the fruit and vegetable market before coming to the fish market. Eels and large fish squirmed desperately in shallow basins of water. Kept barely alive, they were to be sold as “fresh” as possible to buyers. One woman talked casually with a customer as she skinned a fish while it still wriggled. Jin turned away, but he could still hear their silent cries far clearer than even the loudest shouts of sellers in his ear. But he was a hypocrite. Was it any different hearing their cries here or in his boat just hours earlier?
They brought their cart around behind a massive stall. Green filefish, yellow croakers, mackerel, and scad lay in baskets. Jin’s eyes landed on the edible jellyfish. One had stung him when he was young, and it took no small amount of coaxing to convince him that any of them were edible.
A sour-faced man came out to greet them. He surveyed their cartload of fish. “We brought fish to sell,” Jin said carefully in the Central tongue. It had been a while since his lips formed the foreign words.
“Too many anchovy,” the man responded. “I have no need for those.”
“What of the others?” Jae said impatiently.
The man poked the fish with stubby fingers. “Seven copper pieces.”
“That is all?” Jin said.
The man turned to him. “Be glad I give you that much. It’s hardly worth even that. If you want to make money sign up with one of my ships.”
Reluctantly they accepted the meager payment and the man took all their catch. “Greedy pig,” Jae muttered in their own tongue.
They were just turning to leave when a voice called out in their own dialect from behind the stall:
The brothers turned around to see a young man their own age stride over to greet them. Jin’s stomach churned at the sight of him.
“Hello, Hung,” Jae said.
Jin was suddenly transported back to his childhood, when he and the other boys of the village created games and contests to compete with one another. One was who could lift the heaviest. Jae always won that one. They would also race to see who could run the fastest. Sometimes Hung won those, other times Jin. One day they wanted to see who could climb the highest. Hung had picked out the tree, and told Jin to go first. What he left out was that a giant hornet’s nest resided halfway up in a hollowed part of the trunk.
“Still fishing, Jin?” Hung said, a smirk playing on his lips.
“How have you been?” Jae cut in. Jin could tell Jae was less than pleased to see Hung, as well.
“Never better. I made ten silver pieces last month. You should have signed on to my fishing vessel when you had the chance,” Hung said. “I don’t regret leaving the village, that’s certain.”
“Your parents do,” Jin said.
Hung scowled at him. “My parents are fine. They can take care of themselves. And this is the way of the world now. Besides, how can you get ahead if you’re tied down to home and family?”
“Maybe life isn’t about getting ahead,” Jin said.
“You think you’re better than me, don’t you, Jin?” Hung challenged. “Maybe the reason you still live in that run down village is because you can’t stomach the work that I do.” He smirked. “I’ll never forget the first time we went fishing as boys. You went crying to Jae, ‘they’re screaming, Jae! The fish are screaming!’”
Jin bent his head and said nothing. Hung shoved him hard in the chest. “Still crying about it, Jin?”
Jae immediately stepped between the two. “That’s enough Hung! Jin’s more of a man than you’ll ever be.”
Hung laughed, loud and forced. “That’s a joke! Jin has always been more of a woman than a man!”
“He has done more for your parents than you ever have,” Jae said. “You should thank him.”
Hung merely scoffed.
“Come on,” Jae said to Jin. “We have things to do.”
They led the mare by the reins back through the market. “You shouldn’t let him talk to you like that,” Jae said to Jin.
“He’s right, though,” Jin said. “I don’t have the heart for it.”
Jae sighed. “I know.”
After his encounter with Hung, Jin found he just wanted to return home. Little did he know what the rest of the day had in store for him.