By Katie Gurel
She steeps into your skin like a poultice. One teaspoon, full boil, for three to five minutes. Add aloe vera that leaves you slick and glossy.
You think she's helping. Good for you like barley tea and kimchi and ginseng. The light may burn your eyes, but the air tastes like brown sugar in milk.
Your skin glows. Luminous, glass skin with SPF50. Life blooms in your veins, creating networks of vines that grow up from your pores, and when your eyes finally adjust to the light, you hear the inhale and exhale of the budding cherry blossoms. They smell like almonds and roses and vanilla extract.
She laughs when she takes your hand and leads you around. A noise that bubbles in the air and causes goosebumps to rise. When you look over your shoulder, the sun collides with the bubbles in rainbows and crystals that flutter to the ground when the bubbles pop. But you don’t focus too long on the bubbles when the road ahead has red temples, cloudy museums, and bustling roads. Smoke may fill your lungs, but only for a moment, because she’s pulling on your hand. Time to go. Time to see something new before the smoke settles.
You feel tipsy with every step, every passing kaleidoscope of hand-drawn paintings, lush pastures, red and green dresses. The sloshing of lychee-flavoured soju mixing with makgeolli in your stomach. One wrong step and the acidic mixture will overflow, leaving a kimchi bloom on the ground, staining parchment with green-black ink.
Your hand tightens around hers. A bow is not deep enough, even if you press your forehead to the ground. There are not enough persimmons you could buy for her, nor a red envelope big enough to stuff with cash.
You want her to turn around and smile at you. Imagine the way her eyes crinkle and the laugh lines appear around her mouth. Imagine taking the lead, being the one in front, giving her a chance to rest while you guide her. Let the mask slip from her face, let her drape her body across your back, show her the view from the mountains.
But she refuses. The mask fixed to her face. Her sight locked forward. She does not stray from the path, and she never lets anyone lead her.
When she does stop, when she pauses long enough to take your face in her hand, you don’t see her face. Just feel her nails pressing into your skin. The tug on your chin if your eyes leave her. The smoke billows around you, painting everything gunmetal.
As you follow her, the others gather. People that grow magnolias, cherry trees, crabapples. She is like a child, brushing the hair of each of her dolls, giving each a kiss on the head before placing them into her pocket. A mother that rubs ointments over each scrapped knee.
Maybe she doesn't like the way you cling to her, and you do cling. You hold her hand so tightly, let the sweat jelly between your fingers, churning it into glue. You yank back when she takes detours, roams the long road, missing every stop as she continues to prattle. You urge her on when she stalls, choking back the smoke, fanning away the fumes.
She digs her nails into your hand, leaving little indents that blister and bruise. She snaps off a cherry blossom branch when you step out of line. She argues with the one with crabapples, ripping off the fruit to smash between her hands. And when crabapple leaves, she cries, wondering where she went wrong. Why does everyone abandon her?
Her tears, like her laughter, turn to crystals that stab you. You try to brush them away. Say I’m here for you.
She looks at you and frowns. She forgot you were there. Reaches out and grabs your neck, why weren’t you there for her?
The cherry blossoms wilt, leaving barren branches that disintegrate into dust. Your vision blurs and smudges. The dimmer switch begins, as you push away, run, stumble your way through. The light she emits continues to fade before winking out of existence.
By the time you regain your consciousness, your skin is gone. All that is left are broken stumps where cherry blossoms once were.
Katie Gurel is a queer mixed race Korean Canadian writer, who has a BA in English, BA in Ancient and Medieval History, and a creative writing certificate from the University of Calgary. She has been previously published in Persephone’s Daughters, and is currently working on a manuscript. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @katiegurel, where she advocates for diversity and posts photos of the family dog who puts Alberta’s rat-free status up for debate.