Eden’s End: Illusionary Birth
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Keuvei departed and followed his phone’s directions to the address on the list. Past a small business district with mom and pop stores lining both sides of the paved street, he arrived at a residential neighborhood with old cookie-cutter boxy houses, likely a product of post-civil war reconstruction decades back.
“462.” Keuvei checked the family name plaque. “Ou family.” He rang the doorbell next to the gate.
“Who is it?” a man’s voice came over the intercom.
“I’m here regarding the matter of Gùnwu.”
“Mrs. Ou said she saw Suni. I’d like to speak with her.”
“Haven’t you people torn his life apart enough already? Do you need to chase him beyond life as well?”
“I’m not one of ‘you people’. I came here to help get justice for your son.”
A man with greying hair and square glasses opened the door to the house. His wife, still in an apron, dashed out to the gate and unlocked it. “Can you really help us?”
Keuvei faked a confident smile. “I’m a professional exorcist. This is what I was hired to do.”
“Come in,” she said.
The man still looked somewhat skeptical but kept his lips sealed, likely not wanting to throw water over his wife’s desperate hopes.
Inside, they sat at the table in the cramped living room, and the wife brought Keuvei a cup of tea.
The couple sat down across the table from him. “I’m Nakju Ou,” she said. She pointed to her husband. “This is Gyùngto Ou.”
Keuvei asked, “I’d like to start with Suni. When and where exactly did you see her?”
“I remember clearly. It was February 15, a Friday. The school had called and said Gùnwu had played hooky. I was waiting for him to come home at night so I could give him a scolding, but when he wasn’t home after dark, I went to look for him. I asked the neighbors, and they said they had seen him heading toward the lake. I went there, and past the forest, at the edge of the lake, I saw her. A girl with pale white skin, glowing as she sank into the water. I saw my son standing by the lake and dragged him home. But when I woke up the next morning, he was gone.”
Spirits were usually invisible and the times they weren’t, they tended to blend in, not glow. Yet a goddess wouldn’t resort to petty tricks like spiriting away. Just what was the being she had seen? “Did you see this girl interact with Gùnwu in any way?”
“No, but she must have said something to him. He said he hadn’t seen anything at the lake. He was staring at her the whole time and wouldn’t say a word to me about her. I don’t understand it.”
“Why did you think this girl was Suni?”
“Who else could it have been? She’s the goddess that made the lake and drowned herself in it. I don’t know of any human that can glow like that.”
Mrs. Ou didn’t have any experience in exorcisms, so it made sense she couldn’t envision any other possibilities. In that case, Keuvei needed information about the victims instead to get a sense of the motive. “If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of person was your son?”
“He used to be a sweet kid, but Gùnwu has been acting up recently.” Mrs. Ou shook her head. “His grades were dropping, and he had started skipping school.”
“Do you have any idea what caused this?”
“Bullies at school. I’m certain of it. He wouldn’t tell me a thing, but I was once a student, too, so I know.”
“I was told that he was hated by the village. If he were only a victim of bullying, then he would garner sympathy, not hatred. Something more must have happened,” Keuvei said.
“I received a call from the school one day. They told me to come over for a parent-teacher conference immediately. I went, and the principal said that Gùnwu had tried to sexually assault a girl while under the influence of drugs. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I know Gùnwu would never do anything like that.” Mrs. Ou seethed.
Parents weren’t always the best judge of their children’s character, but he wanted to believe her, or at least, he thought something else was at the heart of this, something that would provide a link to Gùnwu’s disappearance. “Do you know what actually happened? What evidence did the principal have?”
“A tiny bag of cocaine was found in his backpack. And the girl testified against him. But I’d seen that girl before, sometimes at our house. I thought she was his friend. But the day after Gùnwu was suspended, I saw her laughing and having fun with another group of students. I asked around and confirmed what I thought. They were the local bullies, probably the same ones who’d been bullying Gùnwu. They must have planted the drugs, and she befriended him just so she could pull this stunt they’d been planning.”
A betrayal. The goddess had warned against betrayal, but the punishment had gone in reverse. Was Mrs. Ou wearing rose-colored glasses about her son, or had the goddess punished the wrong person, and if so, why? “How long ago was this before the night at the lake?”
“A few weeks before. They gave him a month of suspension, and he was allowed back to school on Thursday. The next day, I saw him and Suni at the lake.”
“Throughout all this, did he ever tell you anything?”
“No. He said he didn’t do it, but he wouldn’t elaborate. I just don’t understand. I’m his mother. How could he not talk to me?”
A child always had things they couldn’t talk about with their parents. It was truly fortunate when a family could overcome that barrier. Many times, not talking would lead to regret. Five years ago, if his own teenage self had mustered the courage to tell his mother about his stepfather’s abuse, perhaps his little sister wouldn’t have committed suicide. He sure had learned his lesson, at the steep cost of his regrets. No one would understand unless one said something.
Keuvei looked down. He couldn’t understand the depth of the pain that Gùnwu had gone through, but he knew that it must have been hard. “Did you do anything to help your son during that time?”
“I tried everything I could. I was calling the neighbors and the school, but no one would believe me or him. My husband tried to help, but he was getting stares from his coworkers after the word spread that he was trying to cover for his ‘rapist’ son. That’s not even what the school had accused him of. But that job is the only thing keeping us afloat, so he had to stop.
“I felt the pressure, too, as his wife, but if I didn’t support my son, who would? But Gùnwu himself asked me to stop, saying he didn’t want to bring any further shame to this house. He had such a pained look on his face when he asked me that. I’m ashamed of myself that I did stop.”
“It’s not your fault. It may not be much consolation hearing that from me, but I’m telling the truth.” That was all Keuvei could do for the Ou family. Well, that and uncover the truth behind his disappearance.
Tears in her eyes, Mrs. Ou said, “I’ll gladly accept divine punishment from Suni if it means getting my son back.”
“Don’t say such things,” Mr. Ou said.
“He’s right. Neither you nor your son have done anything meriting punishment. I promise to find the truth.” Of course, people often didn’t like the truth, but Keuvei wanted to spare her feelings while he could.
Mr. Ou, patting Mrs. Ou on the back, looked up at Keuvei and said, “I don’t know if a goddess or a person is behind all this, but whoever it is, please punish them.”
Keuvei stood up. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
Mr. Ou saw Keuvei to the front gate, and they parted. Keuvei walked around the village to the other houses for the interviews.
* * *
The other four interviews had similar themes. Rather than the victims betraying the village, it seemed more as though the village had betrayed them. A student framed for drugs and assault. A high school girl blamed for driving a wedge between a dating couple despite the boy’s two-timing. A middle schooler isolated by his peers when they discovered his schizophrenia medications. A swimming club treasurer who had taken the fall for the other club members’ misuse of funds for alcohol parties. A boy who was caught posting crossdressing pictures online.
Another commonality: they were all students. It wasn’t likely that they had all committed suicide without leaving behind any note, and even if they had, the police would have found at least one body by now. Why did this goddess or spirit target students?
Keuvei sipped his coffee and placed the cup on the saucer. One of the few things he appreciated about small towns was that he could think in peace at a café. The empty tables outnumbered the customers. Despite the popularity of studying at a café in the city, or perhaps ironically, because of it, the crowds made concentrating impossible. He tapped on his phone and looked up the goddess Suni.
Amongst the images, one showed a high school girl at the shrine. She was alone, unlike the people in the other images praying. He tapped the image, and it linked to a forum comment about a local girl praying daily for a suicide victim. Suni, students, and depression. All the links were there. If she prayed at this shrine daily, maybe he could find her there, and perhaps learn something about this case. The map app marked the location of Suni’s shrine with a red pin. The shrine and hopefully the girl would hold clues about Suni’s origins and influences. He made his way there.
The sun had almost set by the time he arrived. The shrine was tiny, the size of a shack. Red columns supported a trapezoidal, black shingled roof. The walls were green, covered in colorful geometric patterns at the top. The doors were open, and inside, there was a large painting of Suni on the back wall.
Suni had long black hair tied in a bun, and she wore a long, majestic blue robe with golden patterns snaking around the sleeves and waist. She was crying, and she stood atop a lake. An incense candle on the brown lacquered offering table lit the scene ominously.
Footsteps clacked behind Keuvei. He turned around. A girl in school uniform, Somira High’s green jacket and grey skirt, just like he had seen in the picture, was standing behind him holding a pink rose.
“Who are you? I’ve never seen you around before,” she asked.
“I’m Keuvei Lansforun. I’m here at the request of Mayor Gim to investigate the spiriting away phenomenon. And who would you be?”
“That flower... I wasn’t aware this shrine hosted cremated ashes.” She wasn’t praying merely for the suicide victim.
Keuvei raised an eyebrow.
“Are you curious?” Ūnje flipped her long black hair behind her shoulders.
“Yes. The rumor going around has it that the goddess enshrined here is responsible for spiriting people away. I’d like to know more about her.”
“Suni isn’t that kind of goddess. She never once used violence against humans, not even when they betrayed her. I think her threat about spiriting people away was just her trying to scare the villagers so that they would get along without her.”
True. That explanation did fit with her other actions more. “I see. And the flower?”
“It’s for a friend.”
Ūnje looked down. “She was a silly girl. She thought she was the reincarnation of Suni.”
Keuvei was taken aback. “Reincarnation? Your friend believed that a goddess’s Essence was associated with her body? I’ve heard that it is possible for gods to be reborn as humans, but I’ve never seen it happen in my lifetime.”
“Well, for starters, there’s no way to confirm if her claim was even true.”
This friend of hers was becoming more and more interesting. “Why bring the flower here then, and not to her grave?”
“She wasn’t just saying it for attention. I think she really believed it, to the very end.”
“I’m sorry to hear that...” Keuvei examined Ūnje closely to gauge her mood. “If I may ask, how did she die?”
“She committed suicide by drowning herself in the lake, just like Suni,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, as if it was all in the distant and immutable past.
“Given the rumor going around, how are you certain it was suicide?”
“She left a suicide note, and they found her body in the lake. She wasn’t spirited away.”
“When was this?”
“It was in December.”
Six or seven months ago then, which matched the timeline of the spiriting away, but what was the connection, if any? Ūnje was being surprisingly generous with information, so he decided to press further. “Why did she commit suicide?”
Ūnje scoffed. “Why, you ask? Why does anyone commit suicide? She couldn’t take it anymore. She finally got an internship, and her boss did things to her. She told her parents about it, but they couldn’t do anything, and no one in the village would lift a finger.”
“Why not? Is one boss in a company that powerful of a person?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there aren’t a lot of jobs around here. If you look over there...” Ūnje led him outside and pointed to a large grey, flat building in the distance. Solemnly, she said, “That’s a factory. Half the town works there. My friend’s... Hana’s parents are no different. Her boss was their boss. And he’s also the son of the mayor. Everyone else was too afraid of going against the boss and the mayor. She had no escape, and so she ended her life.”
A tragic yet familiar story of those with power abusing those without. Mayor Gim had neglected to mention this incident to him. Was it on purpose to protect his son? Or did he truly believe that this suicide had nothing to do with the case? “Why did you tell me all this? You and everyone have been so open with a foreigner. I’m thankful but surprised.”
“It’s precisely because you’re a foreigner. You don’t have any ties, obligations, or prejudices in this village. We have no one who would help us or listen in Somira. That’s why a foreigner saying they’ll help gives them hope.”
Bearing this whole village’s burdens on his shoulders was above his pay grade, but he couldn’t help wanting to help them. Keuvei walked down the white stone courtyard of the shrine, passing by Ūnje.
“Please clear Suni’s name. I don’t know whether Hana was actually her reincarnation, but I don’t want the village to associate her with a vengeful spirit. I want her to be at peace, at least in death.”
Without looking back at her, he said, “I’ll uncover the truth, no matter what it is. Anything else is up to her and the village.”
He looked at his map and headed to the lake. Keuvei wanted to see what kind of being this “Suni” was with his own eyes, if she would show up at all.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by J. H. Zech