By Elizabeth Lee
“I can tell you what it is to want, but love is a phantom.”
This is what Gyeoul chose to scratch into the ice. She smiled to herself at the thought of her sad monologue being stumbled upon by innocent skaters and ice-fishermen.
With arctic fingers she quickly erased her poetry and blew icy breath over the lake surface, returning it to its mirrored glory. Gyeoul knew she had to be careful in her poetic expressions. Although she was a visible reality to the world around her, she knew that she must remain a silent one. The world was too small and incapable of understanding her desires. She could play her tricks and write her stories but they must always become invisible when witnesses were near. This must remain tradition.
She was a being trapped in the endless cycle of time, a silent observer of humanity at its finest and at its worst. She chose to mostly ignore the worst.
She spent her life traveling the globe, willing chill and watery glass on surfaces neatly dying. She would, however, always return to this lake.
If she was awarded the luxury of a home, she would choose this clearing, nestled among angry withered trees and hibernating mammals.
She had selected this lake because of him.
He had made his first appearance when he was a child, awkward and beautiful. He came to the lake that day to skate and she had watched him curiously. He had galloped through the heavy snow like a joyful rabbit, bounding in and out of drifts, occasionally disappearing into the white.
Exchanging boots for skates, he stepped tentatively out onto the surface of the lake, tiny hands tucked safely into woolen mittens and a shock of black hair sprouting from the rim of his matching woolen cap. She felt certain that he was rebelliously alone in the clearing, escaping punishment for some sin he had committed at home. Gyeoul had giggled at the sight of him, bundled and ridiculous with no ounce of bravery on display. Then, she felt the first glide of his skates.
They were smooth and agonizing, moving neatly across the ice in misshapen patterns. They cut into her flesh and left tracks of careless scars along her perfect waterscape. Gyeoul could not understand how this child, on this lake, caused her so much pain. She had experience the feel of others throughout her lifetime, but this boy was different.
He was not skilled and he stumbled often, creating pock marks in the ice, blemish after blemish haphazardly decorating the surface of the lake.
Gyeoul felt a peculiar sort of anger welling up within her. He was destroying her artistry, the perfection of her creation and her being. She felt the urge to bring icy breath down on him and cover his body with an avalanche of snow. Perhaps she would allow him the same watery grave as others in the past.
The boy stumbled again and sat silently near the edge of the frozen lake brushing off the knees of his pants and examining a tattered hole just at his ankle. She watched him.
He leaned over and using a mitten encased hand, brushed the fresh snow from the surface of the lake, peering down at the opaque ice. She felt his gentle touch smoothing away her white covering. She watched him and waited silently.
“Thank you,” he whispered to the ice. “May I come again tomorrow?”
Gyeoul began to heal of the wounds he had inflicted, and her restrained breath sent a frigid breeze across the clearing, rustling the angry trees and stirring tiny blizzards across the lake’s surface.
She willed him to stay, to skate and spend an eternity slicing away at her layers of ice. But, he left the ice and cantered clumsily into the woods. She watched him scamper over fallen trees as he made his way home and she slowly surrendered and lost sight of him.
Gyeoul returned to the lake and mournfully examined the absent ice. She ran her fingers over the patterns cut into the surface, a constellation of mistakes carefully created just for her. She pressed her cheek to the grooves and felt them transfer to her skin leaving creases across her otherwise perfect complexion. She took all the marks left by the boy’s skates into her. Each one burning like fire as her body absorbed them one by one.
Gyeoul returned to the clearing every day in anticipation of her visitor. She dreamed of him as she hibernated through the year with her brothers and sisters. As they slipped in turn in and out of their hibernating states, they pitied her. She slept fitfully through Yeoleum and envied her brother’s time on the earth. He mocked her infatuation with the human but she silently coveted the chance of the next encounter.
It would be several years before she would see him again, and even then she did not recognize him.
He walked as a man, with three foot strides across the snow. There was no tentativeness in his steps this time. The mittens were replaced with black gloves and the wild black hair had lightened and taken on a sheen, like satin.
Gyeoul did not recognize this man invading the sacredness of her lake. She hated him and plotted ways to destroy him if he touched the ice she had reserved for her wild haired boy.
The man stepped gently onto the ice and began gliding one foot in front of the other. His familiar touch overwhelmed her. She felt all of the pain she had experienced years ago from the blades on his boots. Her skin bled white and silver as his weight bore down on her long abandoned surface.
She longed to cry out in ecstasy but felt shame at her initial unfamiliarity. Tears rested on the edge of her eyelids threatening to spill onto her cheeks and run through the creases and scars left there by the boy’s skates years ago.
She hurt, a physical pain eating at her dead heart. She felt at once the urge to make him stop and ease her pain but the pain made her feel as close to humanity as she ever would.
The man had become skilled at his movements across the ice. The clumsiness of his childhood feet had disappeared and been replaced by confident strokes. Gyeoul wondered where he had spent time for so many years and felt anger toward the manmade surfaces that he surely practiced on for all the years he had been gone.
She swore to herself that she wouldn’t care because he had returned to her, and in her imagination he remembered her and loved her.
The man grew weary as the daylight faded and the sluggish moon crept to the sky. He made his way to the shore and slipped his skates off, replacing them with sturdy boots.
The man knelt on the shore of the lake and brushed the broken surface with his gloved hand. “Thank you,” he whispered, in a voice much different from the one Gyeoul fell in love with so many years ago. “May I come again tomorrow?”
He chuckled softly and Gyeoul felt a wave of panic wash over her. He had asked that same question once before and she remembered with pain her expectation of that event.
She would lose him again and be forced to linger in hibernation for years, longing for the cutting and splendid pain of his skates.
She watched as he headed for the trees, quickening his pace as the sky became dark. She followed him, hovering just behind his neck, breathing in the scent of his sweat. He smelled of her ice and she imagined that he had taken a piece of her into him.
Forgetting her proximity to his body, she let out an icy breath. The man flinched as tiny flakes of ice rippled across the back of his neck. He pulled his jacket tighter around him and Gyeoul felt her heart break at the small action.
She would never have him. She was too cold. She let him go ahead through the trees, disappearing from her sight.
Gyeoul returned to the lake and glided across the ice covering her body with the tracks the man had left. She felt each wound, a new torture to her skin.
Alone in the clearing, Gyeoul cried out. It was an intoxicated scream, and she didn’t allow herself to hold back. The trees shuddered and whipped about in the breath of her scream. She didn’t care if it was heard. She would gladly face whatever consequences were required by whatever gods existed in her universe.
Having used all of her breath, she smoothed the surface of the lake. It would be perfect for its visitor, should he return the next day. And she willed him to her.
At night she hid from her brothers and sisters, not willing to share her secret torment with them. They would chastise her and imprison her if they knew her secret. Instead, she spent the night on the lake remembering each stroke the man’s skates had made and dreaming of the possibility of more. The man did return the next day but he did not come alone. He brought with him a young woman. Gyeoul watched them from a distance, unsure of the feelings grasping at her.
The man and woman held gloved hands as they approached the lake shore. They slipped out of their boots and laced up skates helping each other secure the knots on the skates.
Gyeoul watched as the man skillfully darted forward on the ice turning circles as the woman laughed on the shore tossing long, black tresses back and purposefully whipping them about in the still air, demanding his attention. Gyeoul would not provide wind to assist in the spectacle.
Gyeoul immediately began to writhe in the pleasure the man’s skates created as he expertly commanded the ice beneath his feet. She closed her eyes and became lost in the rhythm not wishing to see the dark haired woman waiting for him. She had all but forgotten the unwanted visitor when she was jolted back to consciousness by an unfamiliar touch.
The woman had stepped onto the ice. Gyeoul could feel the unnaturalness of her strokes. Unlike the man’s pleasure filled strides, the woman’s motions were ugly and cruel. Gyeoul hated her. She hated her dark hair fluttering wildly as she crossed the ice to her partner. She hated her tinkling giggle as she stumbled into his waiting arms.
The couple skated across the ice in each other’s arms and Gyeoul felt herself dying in the ache of each of their combined steps. The man’s rapturous strokes were overwhelmed by the woman’s accursed ones.
Gyeoul’s skin bled and she held in sobs of excruciating pain. Pain mixed with heartbreak at the sight of the couple’s enjoyment of each other. She felt betrayed and angry.
Hours ticked by and Gyeoul willed them to leave her lake but they stayed, picnicking on the shore and then returning to the ice to torture her again.
Her heart broke over and over again, and when the couple finally traded their skates for boots and trudged through the snow, she felt no desire to follow them. She only watched them from a distance and after they disappeared she cautiously cleaned the surface of her lake, erasing any reminder that they had existed. The man had not spoken to her before he left and she felt glad for it. There was no unwanted probability of a future encounter. Gyeoul spent her night flying through the trees surrounding the lake. She blew ice on the branches weighing them to the earth and breaking them from their homes. The trees shivered in their nakedness. Her rage and sorrow was transformed into storms and she covered the ground in thick drifts of bitter snow. Snow covered her heartache.
The next morning, she hovered above her lake examining the surface, making sure there were no remnants of the previous day’s events.
She would erase the man from her memory and return to her routine. She would become regimented and remind herself of her position and place in the world. She would never let another human engage her affections as the man had. It was dangerous and painful.
As she finished perfecting the surface of her lake she noticed movement on the edge of the woods. The man was coming across the clearing, skates hanging from his gloved hands. His hair was uncovered, wild and free in the wind of Gyeoul’s leftover rage.
When the man reached the lake shore, he knelt by the ice and brushed a woolen hand across the surface clearing the fresh snow.
“I forgot to say thank you,” he whispered. “I hope you don’t mind if I spend time with you again today.”
Gyeoul felt her anger dissolve at the same moment as her heart broke. She remembered his first words to her as a child with wild hair and mittened hands. His steps had been tentative and weak but she had loved the new feeling of them
Now he stood as a man, whispering to her. Promising her the world. How could she entertain the thought of his skates again and remember the pain of yesterday? How could she keep this moment? The man stepped out onto the ice and sailed forward. Gyeoul held her breath. The pain she felt in that first motion as his blades cut into the perfect surface she had created was enough to entrance her again.
She followed him across the ice and blew wind against his back, pushing him quickly across the ice. She saw him smile as his speed increased and he bent his body low, letting the air ride over his head and neck. He painted designs onto the surface of the lake and held his breath when a misdirected icy gust caught his face. Gyeoul blushed silver at her mistake. She only wanted perfection for him.
He skated until the sun escaped behind the trees and the sky burned red. When the night set in, he crossed the lake and retrieved his boots. He laced them up and beat the ice off the blades of his skates.
Gyeoul watched him tenderly throughout his routine. When he had gathered his things, he began his march across the clearing toward the dark trees. Gyeoul felt sadness overwhelm her and tears threatened to spill across her scarred cheeks once more. The man stopped and turned back.
He shuffled slowly through the thick snow and reaching the surface of the lake he stepped cautiously onto the ice and walked a few steps out onto the slippery surface. He brushed the surface of the ice smooth with his hand.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “May I come again tomorrow?”
She had no choice. She could not risk the possibility of his leaving for another set of endless years. She could not bear the thought of his returning to mock her with the foolish dark haired woman. She knew she must keep him forever on her lake, retracing the patterns in her flesh that he had started so many years ago.
Her fingers reached out to the ice and like a silent sledgehammer forced the surface to divide, breaking in two like arctic plates shattering.
The man panicked and weaved erratically finally losing his footing and clambering to hold onto the glassy sheets around him. His efforts were useless and he plunged into the murderous water, sputtering and kicking wildly.
Gyeoul watched calmly as he cried out in fear and pain. She wasn’t certain what he was feeling as he began to slip below the surface. She watched as his pink skin turned blue and his eyes lost their humanity and froze in a stare, looking up at her.
As he sank into the lake, Gyeoul carefully pushed the pieces of ice together, reconnecting the patterns her boy had made. She carefully glued each piece together in a puzzle of broken glass.
Gyeoul exhaled long and violently, erasing any evidence of the tomb she had created. The lake was once again perfect and beautiful, a coffin that only she was aware of.
And she smiled at her secret.
Elizabeth Lee is an American writer living in Daegu, South Korea. Along with writing, she enjoys hiking and camping. Her husband is native Korean and regularly makes fun of her terrible southern accent. Elizabeth hopes to continue her short fictions series, “Seasons,” on the pages of Korea Lit.