On the first night, they talked until the moon sank underneath the waves for dawn to break; about trivial things like their favorite colors or what they like to do in the morning. Nothing too much; this is how making friends usually go, right? Small talk, getting to know each other — very unlike the way Jisoo met Sooyoung and Yeri. She can’t remember that far back, but it certainly wasn’t as civil as sitting down and chatting. It may have involved a food fight.
Jennie’s favorite color is black — much like the shade of Jisoo’s hair, she says. She likes to do Pilates in the morning. Jisoo frowns upon this fact because sleeping is much more appealing than exercise. She doesn’t say that though and continues to listen to the lilt of Jennie’s voice that hooks her attention better than the promise of food.
It’s different, but Jisoo likes all the differences. She likes everything about it — everything about Jennie. She likes the way Jennie’s hands are quick to catch the mirth that escapes her lips from something silly Jisoo had said, the way the scent of gale is mixed with the salt and pine, the way her chin dips when she smiles, the way her hair bounces right back into place when she combs over it; especially the way she looks at Jisoo like she is something lovely. It’s new — this feeling — and Jisoo may have enjoyed it a little too much because when dawn broke, leaving was hard.
“Just a little longer” until there were no more little longers and it became a “next time”. And with “next time” so far away, Jisoo learns the phases of the moon in the meantime.
“Are you into astrology now?” Joohyun jokes one twilight, writing on parchment with a quill and ink she has made from leaves and flowers this morning. The lamp’s flame is steady beside her. “You’ve been looking at the night sky a lot recently. You even borrowed a book from the library, and you don’t even study!”
Jisoo scoffs in faux offense. She stands by the windowsill, a book of astrology opened on the wooden ledge. “I do too! I just like to learn what I think is interesting.”
Joohyun chuckles and scribbles something down. “What are you learning about?”
Jisoo looks down at the pages of moon phases. Eight moons are illustrated across the paper and labeled below with their respective names. Her finger trails the drawings from left to right, the indent of the ink smooth to the touch, until it settles on the one that matches the moon above them.
“About the moon,” Jisoo answers. “It's the waning gibbous tonight.”
“What does that mean?”
Jisoo grins, finger sliding to the illustration of the next phase — a blank circle. “That means something good will happen soon.”
“Oh, is it some sort of fortune-telling thing?”
“You can say that.”
“Speaking of which, Spring’s End is arriving soon. There’s a fortune teller booth that Gong Yoo runs. Maybe that’ll interest you.”
“I’m not into fortune telling! I just want to learn about the moon.”
“Alright,” Joohyun smirks and lightly dips the tip of her quill into the inkpot. “I’m just happy that you found something to do rather than run around all day doing whatnot.”
Yes, I definitely found something really special. Jisoo returns to watching the moon, propping her chin up with her arm. She smiles. And I’ll find her again in a few more days.
The long-awaited night arrives; the night of the full moon.
As does the jingle of the wind chimes.
The tune springs Jisoo, who fidgets in anticipation, up from under her covers. With Joohyun and Rabbit deep asleep, she follows the path practiced every day with the wind as her companion, very much to her delight. And as expected, at the end of the path is Jennie at the edge of the world, her distinct and beautiful outline backed by the moon, welcoming Jisoo with the scent of the gale.
“Hello,” Jisoo chirps, bouncing down beside Jennie with a small sack strapped across her body.
“Hey,” Jennie crooks a lazy smile. “I’m glad to see you.”
Jisoo beams and plants the bag between them. “I couldn’t wait for the next full moon. I even learned the different moons to count down the nights until I can see you again.”
Jennie widens her eyes and bobs an impressed nod. She nudges her chin toward the brown bag. “What’s that?”
“This? This is some food from my tribe. I wanted you to try some.” She pauses and giggles sheepishly. “And I got a little hungry the other night, so it doesn’t hurt to have some snacks. Talking makes me hungry.”
Jennie breathes a chuckle. “You’re right. Ah, I should’ve brought some of my own.”
“It’s okay! You can bring some next time.” Jisoo unties the string and reaches into the sack. “This food reminded me of you.” She pulls out a ball of leaf and unwraps it, revealing three large red berries cupped in her palms. “They’re called strawberries.”
“Strawberries,” Jennie echoes, marveling at them close with big eyes and parted lips. “They are pretty.”
“And yummy!” Jisoo edges the berries closer. “Try one. I picked them out myself.”
Jennie grins and, after meticulously hovering over them, plucks the smallest of the bunch. She holds it up, admiring all the sides and scrutinizing all the seeds, before sinking her teeth into the juiciness for a small bite. Jisoo studies her intently: every shift in her eyes, every quirk of her eyebrow, every muscle of her jaw as she chews.
“How is it?” Jisoo asks eagerly, impatience from the lack of response further fueled by the worry that the girl may not like it.
Then, a smile stretches from ear to ear — the gummy smile, and Jisoo’s stomach flutters all over again.
“It is really yummy,” Jennie answers and takes another bite — a big one this time. Some of the juice residues stains the corners of . “I’ve never had anything like this.”
“Really? You don’t eat berries?”
“We do, but they are never this succulent. They are usually dry.”
“Have another one.”
“You should have one too. One for each of us.”
“But I eat these all the time. You should savor as much as you can since you like them so much.”
Jennie regards her dubiously. When Jisoo makes it clear she won’t be swayed with another nudge of the berries, she accepts the leaf wrap with grace. “Thank you, Jisoo.”
Jisoo smiles, her heart warm with pleasure. “Can you tell me more about how it is up there?”
“In the mountains?”
“Yes. Living as an Air member.”
Jennie picks out another strawberry after finishing the other, stem and all. “Everything is dry, as I said before. We live in temples. They’re made of quartz and have these big pillars,” she takes a bite, “that are as thick as these trees. And tall towers that are round and extravagant — we pride ourselves in our architecture — and big statues of our ancestors and bridges that connect us to our floating islands —”
“There are floating islands?” Jisoo’s jaw drops.
Jennie nods. “We don’t really use the bridges since we can fly, but it’s used to carry things over —”
“How do islands float?”
Jennie falters and furrows her eyebrows. “I’ve never thought about that. I thought it’s just how things are.”
“I’ve never seen a floating island before.”
“It looks a bit like this strawberry.” Jennie pinches the berry top and bottom. “It curves in at the bottom, and it’s all jagged there from the rocks. Then — oh great, I ate the other strawberries already — but the bridges would connect everything together and the clouds would cover the jaggedness like a thick scarf. Can you imagine it?”
Jisoo frowns and squints her eyes, scrutinizing the strawberry. The image doesn’t convey. After all, it is just a strawberry. “Not really.”
Jennie hums with mutual frustration and studies the strawberry too. Stumped, they regard the berry for a moment before her eyes light up. “I can draw it out for you.” She looks around. “I need something to draw with.”
“Oh, I know a place!” Jisoo bounces to her feet. “My friends and I play rocks there all the time. The dirt is so fertile that it marks the spot our rocks land really well. My rock is never the furthest though, but that’s beside the point.”
Jennie beams. “Alright! Show me the way.”
Surprisingly, the forest is less scary with Jennie by her side. The silence isn’t as deafening with another pair of footsteps snapping the twigs and the soft breaths of the owner of said footsteps. Their shadows jump from fragment to fragment, melding and separating and melding again in an asynchronous pace due to the way Jennie, being light on her feet, is swifter than Jisoo. But she frequently slows down, subtly looking back to make sure Jisoo isn’t too far behind. Albeit the conspicuousness of the Air trying to play the consideration off, Jisoo remains oblivious to her intentions and simply thinks they are walking the same pace.
“Here we are — oh.” Jisoo freezes in her steps upon arriving at the dreaded bump in the road — the wide river. And connecting the opposite river beds is a fallen tree whose wood adorns moss and vine that hangs over the water.
“What’s wrong?” Jennie asks, peering over her shoulder.
“Uhm.” Jisoo tugs at the leather strap of her bag. “The place is on the other side of this river.”
“Then what are we waiting for?”
Jennie steps forward, but no further when she realizes Jisoo has stayed rooted at her spot. “Jisoo?”
“I’m not very good at crossing this river,” Jisoo blurts and hides her face behind her hands. “My friends always tease me because they can walk on this log so easily and I have to crawl. I’m not very good at balancing and — and I’m scared of falling.”
Silence, save for the gentle trickling of water. Is Jennie still here? Jisoo peeks through her fingers, bracing for a look of absolute disbelief — perhaps a laugh — Jennie laughing wouldn’t be too bad — but it is only a soft and sympathetic gaze that greets her.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Jisoo,” Jennie says. “Why are you afraid to admit that?”
“Because you’re so graceful and you can fly and I trip over my own feet.”
Amusement dances in Jennie’s eyes and the way the corners of her lips tug. Humming, she examines the bridge: a few steps to the side to survey its length, poking at the swirl pattern of the base that is the height of her, and tip-toes to survey the distance again. Jisoo stands by idly, watching her curiously.
“How about this,” Jennie hums once she returns to Jisoo’s side. “I will help you walk across this river.”
“Yes. Hold my hand and I’ll fly alongside you. If you fall, I’ll be here to catch you.”
At first, Jisoo feels foolish for needing assistance — she is grown, after all, so she must be able to do things independently! Yet, in face of Jennie’s kind smile and enticing offer of her hand, maybe it doesn’t hurt to accept a little help — just a pinch. Jisoo clears and dips her chin bashfully before accepting Jennie’s hand.
Cold, rough, worn. Jisoo stiffens a gasp from the icy skin. Between the cracks of her palm are scabs and cuts that rub against Jisoo’s coarse palm as her fingers slide in-between Jennie’s fingers — each patch a different story that she’ll surely ask about in another night. Although Jennie’s hand is tinier, it fits perfectly. They fit perfectly. Confidence blooms, tenfold when Jennie squeezes her hand and gives Jisoo that ever-so-charming smile.
“Are you ready?” she asks.
Once Jisoo climbs onto the log with the help of Jennie, she faces the river. Her vision tunnels into the end of the log, a mere dot in the distance as everything else warps and twists. She swallows thickly, her heartbeat erratic. Her grip slightly tightens as she takes a deep breath. She shouldn’t be so nervous; with Jennie by her side, she can do it.
One sheep — she takes one step, the other arm extended for balance. The wood scratches the soles of her feet. Three sheep — the patches of moss are soft like a bed of feathers, contrary to the wood. Six sheep — a small wind swirls by her ankles. Cold to the touch, it tickles and her breaths shake as do her steps. Ten sheep — she pauses.
“Jisoo?” Jennie sounds far away as the water flowing becomes louder, a grave reminder of the space below them. Not like the waves of the sea, but enough to evoke anxiety. Is she still beside her? Jisoo squeezes the icy hand, fingers very much still intertwined, and a hushed giggle escapes her lips.
Jennie is here, but why is it still so petrifying to cross?
“I —” her legs are jelly against the fear rattling her heart. They weaken, knees buckling, and before they fully give out, Jennie catches her by the waist and steadies her upright.
“I’ll help you like this.” Jennie is in front of her now, easing her other hand into Jisoo’s before she can have a say, although her hand automatically opens to accept it. “Hold on and I’ll guide you across.”
With every step Jisoo takes forward, Jennie takes one step backward. One, two, three. Slowly but surely they are getting there. The trickles of the river are gone, Jennie’s breaths louder than the thuds in her chest. Albeit the coldness of the Air’s hands, there’s a weird sort of warmth to them that Jisoo can’t quite pinpoint, yet it leaves a nice buzz at the tips of her fingers equal to a hearty fire in the midst of winter. She is looking down, watching where Jisoo steps to coordinate accordingly. And with this opportunity, Jisoo notes the mole just below her left brow.
“That wasn’t so bad, right?” Jennie says once they reached the other side.
“I guess not,” Jisoo replies meekly.
Jennie flashes a small smile and, once they climb down the log, releases Jisoo’s hands. Her hands already feel exponentially arctic. “Where to now?”
“Ah,” Jisoo tears her eyes away from Jennie to scan the area, a tad too flustered to register where they are at. Upon recognizing a rock, she points to a hill. “Up there.”
Over the hill is a flat plane painted more eerie by the night. Scattered are some pebbles left from the last game played, the ghost of children’s giggles lingering in the atmosphere. Jisoo picks through a few sticks on the side, weighing and appraising them, before handing Jennie the straightest one.
“Now show me the floating islands,” Jisoo says.
Jennie rolls up the sleeves of her tunic to her elbows, kicks a few pebbles out of her canvas, and begins drawing. The earth's surface breaks into tiny pieces with each line and curve carved into it. Jisoo squats across Jennie’s work, tranced by every movement of the deft wrist and smooth motion of the stick as it connects everything and sprinkles in detail.
“Do you draw a lot?” Jisoo whispers as if talking any louder would interrupt the process of the masterpiece.
“Occasionally,” Jennie replies, sweeping some hair that fell back over her shoulder. “I like to paint.”
“Paint? That thing with all the colors?”
“Yes. Do you draw a lot?”
“No. I’m not very good at it.”
“Have you tried?”
“Once. Gong Yoo — our Elder — was teaching us art, but then this boy — his name is Jiwon, he’s my age — stole my brush and then —” She stops herself. Or that’s what she likes to think because it’s certainly not the flash and headache that comes with trying to remember what had happened with Jiwon and that brush and why it had resulted in the paralyzation of his spine.
Because of you, because of you —
“Are you okay, Jisoo? You’re kind of pale.”
“Yes. Sorry, I’m rambling.” She blinks and the red mist dissipates to reveal Jennie’s concerned gaze. Quickly, she looks around. There is no one else here but them, and she exhales in relief. “What was I saying? Oh right, I tried it once and I’m not very good at it.”
Jennie doesn’t say anything at first, eyes searching Jisoo momentarily. Propping her elbow on her knee, she rests her cheek on her palm. “Maybe you should give it another try. Art doesn’t happen all at once. It’s called practice.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t even like art.”
“Do you like studying?”
Jennie smiles. “Then give art a try like how you studied the moon phases.”
Before Jisoo can contend further, Jennie stands up and dusts off her hands. She beckons Jisoo over.
“This is what the floating islands look like.” Jennie points with the stick at the various shapes. Sculpted like triangles, there are squares and triangles and circular things on top, probably the temples and towers Jennie talked about. At the tips of the triangles are bubbles of clouds defined by wavy lines. Connected to each shape are arches that could only be the bridges. At the bottom of everything are more triangles, the apexes resembling the mountains. Quite simple, yet it gives a general idea of the life of the Air tribe. Jisoo can only imagine witnessing the real thing.
“They really do look like strawberries,” Jisoo comments.
Jennie beams. “Do you know the legend of the Tree of the Universe?”
“It doesn’t ring any bells.”
“Really? Your Elder didn’t teach you any of that?”
Jisoo scratches her head. “Maybe he did, but I might have been asleep.”
Jennie chuckles. “Across the world, there’s the Tree of the Universe. It’s big and tall and the branches are so long and thick you can see them a sea away. Like our arms, it has these veins and these veins run purple and green and blue and all sorts of colors; kind of like mixed paints. They say that if you look into them, you get a peek into the universe. Can you imagine that?”
“No. Can you draw it out for me?”
“Unfortunately, I can’t.”
“Because I can’t imagine it either.”
Jisoo’s bottom lip rests between her teeth at the sight of Jennie’s pout. “Well if it’s a tree, it would look like this, right?” She gently takes the stick from Jennie’s hand and walks to the blank patch beside the floating islands. “This is how trees usually look,” she draws the trunk long and thick and the leaves round polygons, “and you said the branches are long.” Walking along the sides, she drags the stick across the dirt while Jennie watches intrigued. She steps back and taps her chin. “It should look like that.”
“See, you can draw.”
“That’s not the point,” Jisoo utters, flustered, and points to the sketch. “I think the Tree of the Universe would look like that.”
Jennie tilts her head and observes it. “I suppose it would look like that. But there’s no color.”
“It’s a little difficult to make color with just dirt.”
“You’re right. Any tree can look like this: brown and long and big and whatnot.”
“No, there’s nothing to be sorry about. This is a great drawing. It’s just — I would like to see the colors for myself. I would like to paint them.”
In silence, they regard the sketch. Jisoo’s heart is heavy from the wistfulness in Jennie’s expression. She did something wrong, didn’t she? She made Jennie long for the tree even more. How can she lighten the mood? Quick, quick — she gasps from a revelation.
“Did you say it was across the world? The Tree of the Universe?” Jisoo says.
“Can it be across the ocean at the cliff?”
Jennie frowns. “But there’s nothing there.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I can’t see anything. Not even a shadow of another mountain and those are huge.”
Jisoo’s shoulders deflate. “Then it is really the edge of the world.”
“It’s the edge of the world?”
“What else would it be? It’s all dark and black and you can’t see anything. It must be where you fall off into the void.”
“I was taught that the world is endless.”
“Yes. If you keep going in a straight line, you’ll eventually end up at the same spot.”
“I can’t imagine that.”
“It’s like a ball.” Jennie makes a fist. “If you start here, you go around and you’ll be at this spot again.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s a little absurd if I have to be frank.”
“Then, how can you be so sure there’s nothing across that ocean?”
Jennie falters. “Well, now I’m not really sure.”
Jisoo hops on the balls of her feet. “Do you want to find out?”
“Find out what?”
“If the world is endless? To see if the Tree of the Universe is real?”
Jennie scoffs. “How on earth will we do that?”
Jisoo grins and taps the sketch with the of the stick. “If it’s endless, that means we can travel around and around until we see one of its branches. You said they’re as long as a sea, so we’re bound to see one. We choose one direction and when we end up at the same spot — we’ll mark it with something, like a little flag — we’ll choose another direction. There are only four directions to go anyway.”
“Jisoo, that can take ages!”
“Maybe we’ll be lucky and the first or second direction is the right one.”
Jennie regards her in disbelief. “Luck? Out of everything and anything, you want to rely on luck?”
“We don’t have very many options, do we? I’m not sure about you but luck is my best friend,” Jisoo chimes, crossing her arms with a smug smile. “Do you want to see the colors or not?”
“Let me get this straight: we, with the guidance of nothing but pure chance, will venture out in search of a myth that may not even exist.”
Jennie stares at Jisoo for a tad too long, long enough for Jisoo’s confident demeanor to waver. Her face is unreadable, just wide eyes and pursed lips, and fear that Jisoo has said something wrong grows until those lips curl into a smile.
“Okay. I’m in.”
“Yes. But one thing that we absolutely need,” she raises one finger, “other than luck, is a device that tells directions.”
“What is that?”
When I’m with you, I feel at peace.
We laugh, we talk, we smile.
You smile, you laugh
And I doubt myself all over again.
You give me hope for something impossible.