If Jenn were a table, she’d be solid mahogany, much like the rest of the furniture in this stereotype of an open-floor-plan space. Except Dan could feel her chest heaving against him, her ribcage pressing into his flesh. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pushing her toward the door. She stood in place, steadfast, her back rooted against the wall.
“Let’s go,” Dan said. They had to leave soon. Dan had seen Jenn like this before, many times already. He knew he only had minutes before she would succumb to the pain gripping her body. She would drop on the floor, mouth foaming, trying to scream it away.
Jenn didn’t seem to hear him. She stared into the space in front of her, face pale and sweaty, arms clutching her stomach. All her strength focused on staying steady.
Dan looked around. Peter, his college friend, had invited them to a housewarming party at his new five-bedroom Edwardian with a prime view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every detail in the house signaled tasteful success, from the uninspired minimalist oil paintings to the guests comprising ambitious men dressed in checkered oxfords under quilted power vests. The space even smelled successful, clean, but not sterile. Heat filled Dan’s chest, as he thought of the rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment he shared with Jenn. Dan had chosen law school, a more stable, therefore agreeable, choice for his Korean immigrant parents, unlike Peter, who had joined a unicorn start-up ten years ago. If Dan had taken that job for himself—it was offered to him first. But Peter was still looking for work. It was the honorable choice, Dan thought, all in the past. At the moment, Dan needed to get his fiancée home.
Dan scanned for Peter in the crowd. He was nowhere in sight, which meant they could leave unnoticed if they moved now. If only Jenn would move.
“Why here?” Dan said. Why was the universe so unfair to him? “Why now?”
“Sorry,” Jenn said. She hadn’t blinked for some time.
Dan could see her wet eyelashes, framing her bloodshot eyes. He kissed the top of her head.
“Come on,” he said, gently lifting Jenn from her waist. Jenn moved her foot, stumbling forward. Dan caught her weight in his arms, cradling her shoulders with his chest.
“Hey man!” Peter, noticing their attempt at departure, shouted from across the room. “You leaving? Already?”
Eyes shot up to look at them. Several heads turned, focusing on who the esteemed host was addressing. Once they recognized the addressee was just a local lawyer, they went back to talking to the people around them. No one worth forcing an introduction to, worth talking about in their rideshares home.
“Yeah, man. Busy day tomorrow,” Dan said, flashing what he hoped was his most charming smile.
Dan would have said something about going hiking early in the morning, but Peter seemed to have lost interest. He had already turned back to his friends, who laughed loudly at what could be a joke.
“I’ll have you guys over some time,” Dan shouted at the back of Peter’s head.
“We’d love that!” Peter shouted back. Dan dragged Jenn across the living room, ignored by the hordes gathered within the painted white walls. Dan was used to this, living in boom-time San Francisco.
This story starts with a grandmother tucking her grandchildren into bed. Their parents are out working late to close up the small laundromat in the half-empty strip mall on the outskirts of Indianapolis. The grandmother only knows stories she grew up hearing in Seoul and knows it’s important that her grandchildren learn these stories. She also knows all stories in the West start with Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, deep in the mountains, a lumberjack saw a deer running away from a hunter. She begged, so the lumberjack hid her behind a stack of wood. Once the hunter was far, far away, the deer told the lumberjack she’d grant him one wish, whatever his heart desired.
“I want a wife,” the lumberjack said. A wife who would marry a man like him, with an elderly widowed mother and no inheritance from his late father.
“The Heavenly Emperor’s seven courtiers bathe in a lake, hidden behind the rocks and trees,” the deer said. “Steal one of their wing garments, and she won’t be able to go back home. She’ll have no other choice but to be your wife.”
A lumberjack, living in a straw roof hut that barely kept out winter frost, married to a courtier of Heaven’s Palace! If miracles exist, this must be one. Surely, his life would be changed forever. He could feel it, deep in his gut.
Dan first met Jenn two years ago, at another house party, one much less extravagant than Peter’s. They had both hovered around the kitchen table, where people came to them to socialize, not the other way around. They bonded over dry baby carrots and store-bought hummus, vegan cheese too salty to be real, red wine that came from a glossy black box. They joked about their Asian parents, the unusual ways they show love. They chatted about classical music, dogs or cats?, the best fried chicken in town. Jenn was born here, which made her different, since unlike Dan, she had no memories of climbing up the steep hills of Seoul with parents who were somebodies, only to discover that in Indianapolis, where there were no hills, parents became nobodies. Still, Jenn knew and loved all the stories Dan had grown up with, and to him, this felt like a miracle. The brother and sister who became the sun and the moon, only to switch over after the sister realized she didn’t like the dark. The boy who ate his food while lying down and thus became a cow. The magpies that brought you a new adult tooth if you threw your loose baby tooth on top of the roof. Stories only his mother knew, but none of his teachers or friends or girlfriends seemed to care about. Stories his halmoni told him when tucking him in bed, while his parents worked late into the night. Stories he hoped he could share with his children. A wife who would tell these stories to their children.
They left the party early, together, walked over to a park nearby. Watched the fog blanket Mount Sutro from afar. Watched other couples watching the fog together, with picnic blankets and cheap bottles of rosé. Petted the labradoodle puppies that ventured their way. Cooed at the toddlers stumbling over their baby sandals to pet these labradoodle puppies.
They watched the sky shift colors from blue to purple to pink. The façade of the painted Victorians faded from bright pastels to dull beige. In the dimming light, they kissed, huddled against each other for warmth. Dan started carrying a one-carat diamond ring in his pocket, always, waiting for another perfect moment such as this. A few months later, Jenn said yes.
Two kittens and a shared apartment lease later, Jenn’s condition appeared, like thick afternoon fog following a sunny summer morning.
The lumberjack was happy. His wife, lovelier than the most adorned gisaeng of Pyongyang, blessed with immortal beauty of the heavens, was as fair as the winter moon, even after bearing him two plump sons. She carefully attended to his mother, who no longer had to cook or clean or haul laundry down to the stream to beat the dirt out of white cotton with wooden batons. His wife never complained, took his shoes and dusted them off with her sleeve, the moment he arrived from the market selling chopped wood. She poured him cloudy rice wine in a bowl made from a hollowed dried gourd, smiled as she waited for him to finish. The lumberjack thought, See, I work hard and I can take care of you, a mere lumberjack like me can earn the love of a heaven’s maiden like you. I bring wood to make the fire that keeps us warm and coins for food that lets us live another day. I make you perfectly happy. All the times he was pushed on the streets by the yangban children who then kicked dust into his face, all the anger he had to swallow, all the indignities he faced from the people who inherited their status, all melted away when he saw his celestial wife sitting in his home, a pale peony in full bloom. He reached over to hold her hand, the only part of her body that felt human, rough and calloused from endless housework she endured silently, day after day.
“Get it out!” Jenn’s voice was hoarse from days of screaming. “Get it out of me!”
She writhed on the floor, hands clutching her chest, the edges of her mouth smothered in foam. Her long, loose hair spread out from her head like black rays of sunlight, a tangled halo. The pale kitchen tiles were a clear alpine lake, and Jenn was sinking in it.
Dan stood by her feet, having just come home from work, dazed and unsure of what to do. Their two cats had crawled out of their hiding places, looking concerned for this female person. They sat near enough to see what was going on, but too far for her arms to reach them. They looked up at Dan as if to see what he would do.
“Jenn,” Dan knelt by her face, wiping the foam off her cheeks with his palm. “Remember what the doctor said. There’s nothing inside of you.”
“She’s wrong. I can feel it! It’s right here!” Jenn pointed to her chest. “This hollow spot, here. Take it out!”
“I can’t take something out of your body,” Dan said. “Even if I could, you’d die.”
Jenn screamed as she bent her body, tucking her face in between her knees. She reminded Dan of a centipede he once saw as a boy. He had accidentally stepped on one end of the creature. It jolted itself into a ball, like a taut spring being released, its tangle of hundreds of legs shuddering underneath. So Dan did what any child would do in a situation like this. He crushed the arthropod with the ball of his tennis shoes, feeling the crunch of its body as he rubbed it into the sidewalk underneath. When he lifted his shoes, the pain was no more. All that was left were flakes of black exoskeleton smothered in guts and mush.
Dan pulled Jenn up to his chest, rocking his body back and forth, the way he wished his mother had soothed him as a wailing child, waiting for the pain to be no more. He kissed her hair, hummed their favorite song, their parents’ favorite song, the song that reminded them of being American, which ironically was “Blackbird” by the Beatles, an English band. The song still held its comforting power, and Jenn’s breathing slowed. She released her body to straighten up a little more.
From underneath Jenn’s loose tee shirt, Dan could see her chest, covered in freshly bruised blue spots the size of her fists, mingled with yellow and green skin, struggling to heal underneath. She must have beaten her chest to alleviate the pain. Dan remembered how Jenn loved to watch drummer circles on their weekend picnics at Golden Gate Park. She had tapped her chest in rhythm with the group, brushing her throat with her fingertips.
“I love you,” Jenn said, breathing deeply. She squirmed, burying her head into his shoulders. Her hair brushed against his throat. She chuckled, despite herself, and looked up at Dan. “What would I do without your health insurance?”
Dan loved this the most about Jenn, that a woman like her would find comfort in a man like him, that she could laugh, at all, in his arms.
“Could you tell me where my wing garment is?” the lumberjack’s wife said one evening. “I know you took it and hid it from me that day we first met.”
The lumberjack looked up from cleaning his axe, getting ready for another long day in the mountains. The oil lamp was almost dry, the fire dim, making it difficult for him to see her face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Please, I just want to see it. Touch it,” she said. “I’m homesick. I miss my sisters.”
“I’m your husband, why would I lie to you? Besides, what else do you need other than what I provide for you? And my mother keeps you company.”
“I want to show it to our boys, tell them where their mother came from. Tell them who they’re descended from. They should be proud of their heavenly heritage.”
The lumberjack had never thought about his boys in this way before. Now that this idea was in his head, he couldn’t erase the thought. His chest swelled with pride knowing that he had somehow fathered children who had heavenly blood. Maybe they would be destined to start a new dynasty! Sons sired from a dusty lumberjack!
The deer had warned him never to give his wife her wing garment back until they have had at least three sons together. But why would the future father of kings take advice from a cowardly herbivore, destined to flee from tigers for as long as she lived? Didn’t his wife love him, love his mother, love their sons? This life they had built so tenderly together?
“Where would I go, if not with you?” his wife said, breaking his thoughts. “How could I live without my boys?”
Before Jenn’s condition developed, Dan had loved to take her out to the latest touring Broadway show, browse the local farmer’s market, check out the new bar that just opened on the corner where the coin laundromat used to be. All the things he saw his friends’ parents enjoy, but his own had never had time for—these experiences were the things he wanted to share with Jenn. He felt Jenn loved them, too. He saw her post all their everyday escapades online, as soon as they happened.
But the intervals between the pain strikes became shorter and shorter. More days ended with Dan carrying a writhing, sweating Jenn back home. Dan always texted his friends to tell them they were sorry to have left early, they’d catch up again soon. He wondered if he was imagining them inviting him to fewer and fewer events, or whether it was just the natural course of casual friendships maturing and drifting away. Peter kept in touch for a little longer than the others, Dan being one of his oldest friends who still lived in the city, but eventually, he too stopped sending them the uninspired online invitations to group gatherings at his house. Dan had struggled for a long time to build these friendships, and it pained him to see these bonds dissipate.
Eventually, their outing budget shrank to just session after session of circuitous therapy.
Jenn had to start working from home, citing medical reasons, a request that her boss granted but which limited any chances of her being promoted that year. It wasn’t as if her job at the fledgling start-up was that meaningful to her, anyway. Jenn started taking her morning meetings later, her afternoon meetings earlier. During couples therapy, she talked about how she didn’t feel motivated at her job anymore, and how her teammates were taking credit for completing the project she took months to launch. She didn’t even like the job, she needed to make use of her MFA, maybe start painting again, find a studio space to collaborate in. Maybe that would make her feel whole again, to feel less lonely, feel less sad. Dan wasn’t sure why she’d be worried about work, and why he wasn’t good enough for her. He made enough to pay for both of them. He worked hard, harder than any of his peers, so that one day he could make enough for the life they were about to build together. With the woman who understood and completed him without much complaint other than the pain in her chest, the woman who somehow, despite his doubts, told him she loved him, wasn’t this the person he’d been looking for all this time, through law school, moving away from home, angering his parents for moving far away, angering his sister for no longer talking to their parents?
“Do you want to talk about the pain in your chest?” the therapist asked, facing Jenn. “That’s why we’re here, today. Yes?”
“No,” Jenn said.
“Not today,” Dan said.
The lumberjack would do anything to make his wife happy. That was all he wanted. But for the first time, the lumberjack realized his wife could be unhappy, even though he worked hard to provide for her, and he wondered if it really was because she did not have her wing garment.
Jenn just wanted to be happy again. She said she’d try anything and everything. Acupuncture, magical herbs. She knew of a pastor back home in Los Angeles who did exorcisms. An aunt who knew a shaman in Koreatown who might help her out. She was let go from her job and had nothing else to focus on. But she couldn’t afford to live here anymore, she said. She could barely afford happiness.
Dan was a man of science, not superstition from the fatherland. He disapproved of her silliness, both the faux treatment and her insistence on refusing to claim his money. But maybe a stay at a psychiatric hospital could make her happy, make them both happy, so she could get the care she needed and he could once more focus on all the other parts of his life?
Jenn didn’t allow Dan in bed that night. She screamed alone, leaving Dan behind the locked door, pacing, unable to console himself.
Eventually, Jenn brought Dan back in, worried about his lack of sleep while trying to power through a complicated case at work. This peace at home was important. If not for comfort, what was a home?
If it weren’t for the hunter and the deer, would the lumberjack have seen two sons of his own? Did his wife not understand the reason they could be happy together was because her wing garment was under his watchful care?
Jenn shrieked. Dan woke up. He bolted over to the front door to see if anyone had broken in. But it was Jenn, again, transformed into a banshee, bent over like an animal that had been shot in the stomach by a novice hunter who just missed her heart.
“Take it out! Take it out!”
Dan reached his hand over to hold Jenn’s shoulders, as he started the familiar ritual of rocking her. He cleared his throat. His voice had not yet woken up from sleep.
“Blackbird . . .,” he started to sing.
“No!” Jenn screamed as she tore her shoulders away from Dan’s reach, her arms crumpled against her chest. “No!”
Dan turned on the light. He saw Jenn’s twisted face. Dan had seen Jenn like this dozens of times already. It still broke something inside him, like seeing the carcass of yet another songbird near a glass skyscraper that busy commuters would step over, a bird that had crushed its head on the mirrored surface through its own joyous gift of flying.
“Jenn. Let me help you.”
Jenn lifted herself with one arm, her other arm still clutching her chest. Her mouth opened up like a scream as she moved, her eyes shut, though no sound exited her throat. Her body heaved as she moved her chest to face Dan.
Jenn looked into Dan’s eyes.
She beat her chest with her fist, the spot between her breasts, the spot she had always said was hollow. Dan looked down at her chest, then back up again at her face. He saw the determination in her chin. So he moved his head closer. For the first time, he knit his brows and listened.
Thud, thud, thud.
Jenn beat her chest in a steady rhythm.
Thud, thud, thud.
What is the sound of a fist beating a woman’s chest supposed to sound like? Dan had never given any thought to this sound. He thought the thuds could sound hollow, but not in the way a drum sounded hollow.
“Do you hear it?” Jenn said.
“It wants out. Please,” Jenn squeezed her eyes again. “Use your hand. Take it out.”
Jenn lifted the oversized tee shirt she wore to bed, revealing her heaving ribcage and the purple and yellow bruises she created in the center of her chest. She looked up at him like a young child lost in a grocery aisle, hoping for this adult to soothe her pain.
What did Jenn want him to do? Dan wanted to soothe Jenn, to take away her pain. She was asking him to do the impossible, to take whatever was tormenting her out of her body. But listen, she had said. Listen. Maybe all Jenn needed Dan to do at this moment was to listen. Not to doctors, not to experience, not to stories. To her.
So Dan reached out to touch Jenn’s chest.
To his surprise, his hand glided through her flesh, as if her body was made up of raw cake batter. Dan watched his entire hand and wrist disappear into her chest. Her flesh had felt warm and slippery, but the insides of her body felt cold and airy, like walking into an empty basement on a summer day. Dan glanced at Jenn. She nodded.
There was something else in Jenn’s body. Not slimy or squishy, like he would expect from internal organs, but slick and solid, with a protective cover. Dan felt it scuttle away from his fingers, then stab them with something that felt like a blunt point.
“That’s it.” Jenn gulped. “That’s it. Get it out.”
Dan’s eyes widened as he saw Jenn smile, her eyes still wet with tears. He looked back at Jenn’s chest, her flesh completely engulfed around his own, as the thing inside her continued to attack him. He carefully grasped around inside her. The hollow space didn’t feel that large. The thing inside didn’t have a place to hide.
Dan felt his fingers closing in on the object. He tightened his hands into a fist around it. Jenn gasped as if she was pushed into icy water. Dan jerked his arm out of her chest.
In his loosely held fist nestled a small, black songbird. The bird squeaked as it pecked his fingers, its head frantically swerving as it wrestled to move its wings. Dan stared at the bird, his mouth wide open, then looked at Jenn, half expecting her to have bled to death.
But Jenn beamed, exhausted, glowing, as if she had just delivered their first child. She pulled her shirt down, covering her damaged chest. Dan saw a glimpse of the gaping wound before she was able to cover it completely. It looked like it would leave a mark.
Jenn closed her eyes and laughed, a laugh like a songbird’s mating call, one Dan had never heard from her during the two years they had been together.
“A blackbird,” she said. “Of course.”
She leaned over to open the window next to the bed. She glanced at Dan over her shoulder, then tilted her head toward the open gap. Dan looked down at the bird, then back at Jenn, then at the black space between the white window frame and the windowsill. He reached his hand through the window and let go.
The lumberjack held up the wing garment in front of her eyes, as soft and colorful as it was the day he stole it from her.
“Will this make you happy?” he asked. “Will this make you as happy as you make me?”
The courtier didn’t say anything. She snatched the embroidered fabric from his hands, stepped into it without even taking her old clothes off. She grabbed her two sons, one in each arm, as she drifted up toward the heavens, her face lifted toward the sky. She disappeared into the sunlight, never to see the straw hut again.
This is when the grandmother asks her grandchildren, Does this story have a happy ending? Or is this ending sad? No one is certain, but we at least know this: We know the story ends with the lumberjack looking up to see the bright autumn sky, cloudless, immense, and unforgiving. It doesn’t really matter if the story is happy or sad. But we should all know the moral of the story, which obviously is, to listen to the wisdom of deer, listen closely to not just her words, but also to what she is saying, especially when she is talking to you and giving you very detailed instructions.
Dan could still feel the flutter of the bird’s wings against his palm as it had braced for its escape. They could not see anything in the dark night with the new, empty moon. He was unsure whether the bird was able to fly, and if so, where it planned to go. He left the window open a little longer, straining to make sure he didn’t hear the wings beating anymore.
Dan looked over to Jenn, wanting to ask her everything, to hear what she needed to say. But she was already back in bed, a smile gently resting on her lips. A smile like the one he’d seen the day they first met.