(Love in The Time Between Dog and Wolf is a bittersweet, supernatural romance from Seoul Shorts: “Disturbing yet riveting, these short stories will take you to a place you’ve never been before.”)
Love in The Time Between Dog and Wolf
The scent of autumn filled the air.
The spinning of a car’s wheels suddenly awakened dying leaves from their slumber and spun them around weakly one last time. Wheels curved back and forth in a dizzying spiral as the mountain road stretched on narrowly. It was a road that was shadowed by tall trees on both sides– a road that wound its way towards the sky.
Min Hyo Rin carved a path into the clouds without looking back. She had already spent too much time looking back. It was time to look forward, time to forget the past.
At the top of the mountain was a decaying wooden house. She passed through a broken metal gate and parked in a wide gravel driveway. She left the engine running as she sat in her car. Finally, she turned the key– killing the engine– killing the part of herself that longed to go back. She stayed in the silence that had fallen and whispered as she stared ahead, “Is this it? Is this the house he left me? I don’t remember it this way…
She rested her head against the car’s steering wheel and sighed softly. Even though the sun was still hanging in the sky, she didn’t feel the warmth of autumn. The leaves were falling in love with one another, tangling themselves into piles, and the wind was a soft whisper that brushed against the window of her car.
She drowned in her memories, a slow descent as she sank to the bottom.
The faces of a man and woman in a faded photograph that she had tried to call mother and father, the face of an old man that she had tried to love, the faces of strangers that she had tried to call friends, the face of a boy that she had loved…
She stepped out of the car as she pulled herself to the surface and struggled to breathe through memories that were thick and suffocating. She gulped the autumn air in and slammed the door of her car, leaning against its cold, metal frame as her knees buckled under the heavy weight of her memories.
Coming to the house the old man had left her after he had died only reminded her that he was gone. She remembered his face: dark, wrinkled from smiles, and with eyes that had gleamed with too much wisdom. He had given her a home after the accident, but she had never been able to forget her real home, her dead family.
She had always been alone since then.
She remembered their backs, not their faces: the backs of her parents as they had lain on blood-stained concrete, the back of the old man as he had turned away to hide his illness, the backs of her friends as they had walked away without looking back, the back of a boy…
They had all left her, or moved past her and towards some future that she couldn’t see.
She stumbled towards the mountain’s edge. There was an aching stretch of blue sea that led to a sun that had slowly begun its descent. The horizon stretched on and on, and she wanted to stretch on and on until she had traveled the whole world, until she had found a place to call home.
The sun set as she cried silently. Her heart was turned upside down and emptied as the wind blew hollowly over the mountain. Night fell, and the stars shined softly between gaps in crystal white clouds. The moon was half-full, or maybe half-empty. She shivered from the cold and suddenly felt sleep pressing against her eyes. She walked to her car on shaky legs, opened the trunk, and took out her suitcase. She wondered what she had packed. It was so heavy. She stared at the run-down wooden house before going inside.
It looked back at her for a long, long time.
The house was small and cramped, cracked and stained with age. One wall was a huge window that gave way to the view of the mountain’s edge and the sea. She had shared this small space with the old man years ago, but now she shook out blankets that had gathered dust and got ready to sleep alone. The room felt empty even after she laid the blankets on the floor, so she started unpacking. The silence was deafening. The floor had finally warmed, though, so she sat down and poured herself a drink. She finished one, then two, and then three bottles of soju. She drank quickly– out of loneliness, and the room transformed into another world. The view from the window swallowed her whole. She got lost in a sky, then fell and drowned in a calm sea that reflected an expanse of stars thrown carelessly into the sky, the sky that hadn’t held her. There had been no room for her amongst the stars.
She spread her limbs out on the floor gracelessly. Her thoughts wandered towards barren places, towards bitter memories, but when her mind was as empty as the starless sky outside her window, she passed out on the cold wooden floor.
The sun streamed into the room through the window. Hyo Rin was awake, and she sat with her knees curled up to her chin and her arms wrapped around her skinny legs. Dark circles rested underneath her eyes, and her black hair was a tangled mess. Her skin was paler than usual, and she looked starved.
Forcing herself to do something– anything, she took a shower and got ready for the day. She put on a long black dress that hung loosely on her body and fell heavily to the floor. She made breakfast, but barely ate. Later, the feel of sunlight through the window as she washed dirty dishes made her feel dead inside. She felt dead inside with so many unspoken words stealing the life and light from her body. They pushed at the edges of her mouth but never fell out. She had no one to give them to, because everyone she knew was already gone.
Outside, birds chirped loudly, and more leaves fell to the ground. The trees stood against the wind, bare and naked. At the mountain’s edge, rocks tumbled down into the sea, and autumn came to an end.
Hyo Rin woke up to falling snow and ice on her window. She started the day with soft shadows on her face and walked outside wrapped tightly in a blanket. The old man’s memory was as harsh as the sting of the cold on her cheeks. He had built the house before his family had died. They had lived together– something more than strangers, but nothing more than that. She didn’t know that he had died until a phone call came, and it had awakened her from the dream she had been living.
She sat down by the mountain’s edge. She thought it would be nice to tumble over the edge and fall like the rocks that crashed into the sea. Something about being alone in the midst of silent memories and snow made her feel old and dead. Too many years had passed, and she hadn’t held onto them tightly enough. Love had passed, and she hadn’t held onto it tightly enough. It was as if she had already tumbled down…
She watched the snow fall softly before reaching into her pocket and dialing a number on her cell phone.
“Yes, who is this?
“Min Hyo Rin.”
An awkward silence fell after she spoke while Mrs. Kim struggled to remember who she was.
“Oh, Hyo Rin! I had heard you returned home, but I haven’t seen you in town so I didn’t believe it.”
“Do you have any positions available?”
The abrupt change in conversation threw Mrs. Kim off balance, but she replied quickly.
“I have some time today. Would you like to get some tea in the village square? We can talk more then. I haven’t seen you in for-”
”Is noon alright with you?”
She cut Mrs. Kim off before she could finish speaking. She was already tired of talking– already tired of listening– already tired of living.
“Yes, of course. I’ll see you then, dear. And your… grandfather… Mr. Lee… we all felt the loss of his passing.”
She waited until Mrs. Kim hung up the phone, then let it drop from her hand. It hit the frozen ground with a dull thud, and she shivered, feeling even colder than she had before. The morning faded as she stared over the edge and into the water. She felt herself hanging in the sky– would she fall– would she die– would she ever feel alive?
She knew the sky wouldn’t hold her, but what– no, who would?
Her room filled with blinding light as she got dressed, but it passed quickly as rain clouds covered the sun. She picked out a knee-length black dress with a sweetheart neckline. She draped a long gray sweater over her shoulders. It hung over her thin frame loosely. She ate breakfast, distracted herself with a book, and when noon approached she was in her car and driving down the old mountain road.
She would never be a child again, but like winters that had passed the sky was gray with puffs of white clouds that it breathed out with a heavy sigh. The grass was faded, just tufts of dull brown life. The earth was wet from melted snow. The trees were pale twists of white.
She followed the directions and road signs amidst the shadows from the tall trees until she reached the village square. She parked next to a tea shop called Cha Jjang. The town square was full of strange places and the faces of strangers. She went inside the small building and walked up a flight of steps. She could see most of the town square from the roof where tables had been set in a careless, cozy manner. She sat at an empty table near the balcony. Her mind wandered as she waited for Mrs. Kim to arrive. She thought of the time she had been with the old man. They would get ice cream and sweets at Woo’s. She looked for it– her head turning and twisting to find it, but it was gone. It had been replaced by a new ice cream shop with a bright neon sign…
Suddenly, a cold wind blew heavily through the town. It moaned and ached as it traveled alone through streets filled with couples and children, friends and families. If only she could live like the wind, invisible. She watched people walk by without seeing their faces and got lost in moments she hadn’t known how to treasure until there had been no more moments to treasure.
Mrs. Kim thought Hyo Rin was a beautiful young woman in clothes she would wear if she was thinner. Hyo Rin managed to stretch a smile across her cheeks as she agreed to work at the high-school as an English teacher. She had lived in America for years now, but her English wasn’t as good as she told Mrs. Kim it was. She felt bad for lying. They spoke about this and that, and Hyo Rin recited her lines with shaking hands, but kept the truth buried somewhere deep in her damaged heart.
For some reason I didn’t die when my parents did.
I wish I had, because I have never felt alive. I had nightmares for weeks about blood and cracked glass and screams. An old man found me in an orphanage where I had been taken after the accident. He raised me, but from the first day I had to move into that old, wooden house I knew something was wrong, something was gone that I would never get back.
The new house smelled like my dead dad, but I couldn’t remember his face unless I looked at the picture the old man gave to me. I cried myself to sleep for days, but one day I woke up, and I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I didn’t feel like remembering anymore. I grew up and began to realize what it all meant. My memories would creep into every waking and dreaming moment, and it was hard to pretend that I was like everyone else.
The picture I used to have of my parents was too sharp. They were always smiling. I wish they could have cried with me, laughed with me, but their faces were always the same and nothing in them ever changed. I was always smiling in that picture, but I have changed. Now, that picture is lost, and I seem to have forgotten how to stretch my lips into a smile. Does it look like a grimace?
Do I look like I’ve ever been loved?
Hyo Rin pretended to be a character in a play, because the story was better if it was told in a different way, with a different ending starring a girl who was able to forgive and forget the world for taking so much from her and leaving her with so little.
Her cup of coffee turned cold as Mrs. Kim smiled.
Papers were messily strewn all about as Hyo Rin looked over the schedule and workbooks Mrs. Kim had given her a few weeks ago.
“Miss Hyo Rin.”
It didn’t fit, but she put it on anyway. She had a degree in business management. It seemed useless now.
Night fell with a hush as day was slaughtered once more. If she could, she would be fine in a while. She had lived her whole life wanting to be fine in a while. She had lived her whole life with the hollow echo of loneliness that had always sunk in when she thought she had finally escaped from it. She had lived with the deep ache of frustration as days had blurred into years, and she had never really escaped from it. It seemed as if she had always been lost in the space between the earth and the sky– the beginning and the end– the dusk and the dawn. She could only fall asleep after telling herself that everything would be different in the morning.
The alarm clock rang, waking her from a nightmare. The sheets were twisted and tangled around her body. Shadows rested like caves beneath her eyes– sunken in eyes, and it was sinking in: The futility in searching for something different.
It was impossible to recognize the girl with dark circles beneath her eyes and a sweeping sense of despair beneath her feet when she finally dragged herself to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. It began not to matter, though, because she kept seeing and kept walking even though there was nothing in sight and nowhere to go.
A month had passed.
Hyo Rin was no longer nervous as she tied the brown belt around the waist of her navy uniform. Her black hair was loose about her head but chin length. She threw on a gray cardigan and grabbed her black bag. She had to be at the high school in 30 minutes, so she made a quick breakfast and headed out the door, went back in to get some papers she had forgotten, and left again.
The morning air was still and quiet. It always felt strange to wake up before the sun managed to spill across the sky. Shadows boxed their way across the earth as clouds gave way to shine, and soon the day would begin, and in a while the day would end. She drove down the same road and wondered if she would ever reach an alternate destination.
The students were silent. Her English class was small, only about thirteen, third year students, and most of them were boys. They came to her classroom every day with the same tired expressions on their faces. One boy she had never noticed before was staring out the window, but she couldn’t remember his name. When the bell rang, her students left in groups, but he left alone.
She stood at the front of the room and watched her students as they studied. Some slept. One student stared out the window the same way he always did, and she wondered what he saw. A student asked a question. She had difficulty pronouncing certain letters. They laughed when she made a mistake.
“Lice cake? No, rice cake is deokbokki.”
Her students went back to their books once their laughter had died down. A peaceful silence fell, and sunshine poured in through the window and onto his desk. She still didn’t know his name. He wasn’t doing anything, and she wondered if he had finished all of his work already. When class finally ended, her students left in a rush while she stayed, lingering in the silence.
She was left with too much time on her hands again. Later, she made her way to the cafeteria and returned to the classroom to eat. The room was always empty after her English class had ended. Today was different.
The boy was there, the one who always sat by the window. He was asleep. She hesitated, then walked towards him and tapped him lightly on his shoulder. He slowly lifted his head and rubbed eyes that were framed by the longest lashes she had ever seen on a boy. She read his name-tag: Song Hae Jin. He looked at her without speaking, and an awkward silence fell between them. She spoke first.
“Have you eaten?”
He didn’t reply, but she handed him her silver bowl of rice, then put some kimchi and gogi on top. She went to her desk at the front of the room and sat down, eating what was left on her tray. He stared at her without smiling or speaking.
“Lunch is already over. You should eat…
Before it gets cold.”
She spoke softly, and she wasn’t sure her voice would reach him. He seemed so far away. He hesitated but finally ate. When he finished his meal, he rose and placed the empty silver bowl on her tray before returning to his desk. When she had finished eating, he rose again, took the tray, and returned it to the cafeteria. She watched him leave and waited for him to come back.
She sat in the still silence of the room for what seemed like hours before packing her things and going home. He was absent from class the next day, and she found herself staring at his empty desk when the bell finally rang.
She began to notice him when he came to class, and she watched him when he wasn’t looking. He was beautiful. She didn’t want to go back to the mountain, back to that empty house. She wanted to stay near him, to stay lost in dreams that were still golden even though they had faded a long time ago.
He left when class ended, and she wondered if he would ever fall asleep in her classroom again, or eat with her again. Suddenly, she couldn’t remember where she was supposed to go or who she was supposed to be.
A knock sounded on the door. When she didn’t answer– lost in thought, the door opened.
It was him.
She trailed off, suddenly turning away embarrassed. She found herself staring out the window awkwardly and unable to speak. She wondered if he had a home and a family that missed him. He walked towards her with his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his broad shoulders slouched. He sat in the seat next to the window and blocked her view. He didn’t look at her or speak to her. She watched him from her desk and wanted to tell him to move– to leave– to go home, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. She felt plain in her simple navy dress and low, worn-down brown heels that she wore everyday. She looked at him carefully, trying to memorize him completely.
His legs were too long, his body too muscled, and his jaw too sharp but still smooth like a boy’s. He finally looked away from the window. There was something in his eyes, as if he was really looking at her for the first time, but he turned away again.
She felt embarrassed. He wasn’t here for her. She grabbed her things and left. She was walking down the hallway when someone grabbed her from behind.
Hae Jin wrapped his arms around her before she could speak or move, and something about being in his arms made her never want to speak or move again. Who was she? What was she? Her thoughts faded, and blinding, numbing sensation emerged from her nerves and limbs.
Was this happiness?
Hae Jin handed her a folder that she had left on the desk before she could speak or move, and something about the way he walked away made her want to speak and move until she was by his side again. Who was he? What was he? Her thoughts spun– round and round, and she fell until she tumbled into a world full of bright, vivid dreams.
Was this real?
Hae Jin smelled like the sea. There was the pale perfection of his skin, the deep brown of his eyes that were framed by long, black lashes, the soft curve of his mouth, the broad spread of his shoulders and long reach of his arms and legs…
Then, he was gone.
Hyo Rin woke up in the middle of the night with his face etched into her mind. The lingering traces of her dream made her feel too warm, so she walked into the cold night in her white slip and saw him.
He ran away before she could call out, before she could say the words pushing against her cracked, dry lips, “Don’t go… Stay.”
The next day he walked in late. She forgot the lesson as she turned around to see him. She forgot her students. She forgot herself. She smelled the sea, and watched its waves curl towards her shore as he came closer. As he walked past her, retreating, the sun cast soft light onto his pale skin. He went to his seat and stared out the window. He wrote something in the frost-covered glass.
“Did you sleep well?”
He paused after writing and let his fingers fall slowly until they curled tightly into fists on top of his desk. He turned and stared at her with a sad, hollow look in his eyes, almost as if he wasn’t sure that she would see him or what he had written.
She smiled a rusty smile that stretched the corners of her eyes and revealed yellowed teeth. She had always lived her life with carefully sewn-in-seams. They had burst– one by one, until she was no longer held together by anything but a thread. He was pulling her last one. He smiled, a slow stretch of soft, pink lips across white teeth as he pulled her last thread. She was no longer held together by anything but his eyes and his smile.
Suddenly, the bell rang, and class ended.
Her students left– one by one, until just one remained.
She said his name for the first time, but he pretended not to hear and stared out the window.
“The bell rang…”
He got up suddenly and left without looking back. The door slammed shut behind him, the writing melted off the window, the memory of his smile faded, and she was no longer sure she had seen anything at all.
Hae Jin was absent again.
Hyo Rin looked for him during lunch, but she didn’t see him sitting with the other students from his class. She walked through the cafeteria line and sat quietly with the other teachers. She barely touched her food but listened as they gossiped. She wondered what it would be like to sit with Hae Jin in the quiet of the classroom again.
A slow, steady ache settled into her chest as she forced herself to eat. It spread as she walked to her empty classroom– as she sat in the silence– as she drove home– as she slept. The familiar ache was still there when she woke up in the morning: disappointment. She stared at the ceiling as she lay on the floor of her small room and tried to breathe in and out softly as disappointment swept through her flesh and bones. Still, her first thoughts were of him. She struggled to wake from a dream.
She got up, stripped, and stepped into the shower.
He was brushing his teeth in the mirror.
She stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a soft towel and brushed her teeth.
When she looked up, he was staring at her from behind. She could see his face and form in the mirror. He smiled.
She turned around, but he was gone. He was never there. She pressed her forehead against the mirror and wanted to slam her head against the glass until she finally came to her senses. She was alone. He was not with her. He was always on her mind, though. From that moment on she decided to forget everything about herself.
She smiled suddenly, because she could only remember him.
Everyone she had ever loved had left her, but she told herself that he would stay, that the moment when he became like all the others would never come. She got dressed, carefully put on makeup, and drove to school with a practiced smile on her face.
“I don’t feel good.”
He was holding onto her tightly, and suddenly she felt better.
Hae Jin walked into the classroom and sat by the window. He was the last to arrive. Class ended, and he was the last to leave, but he left without looking at her, and she watched his back as he walked farther and farther away from her.
If he had stayed, she would have told him. She would have told him everything. How she felt like she was nothing. How she felt like she was invisible, slowly fading into the chalkboard or the cafeteria table or the wooden floors or the star-filled sky. How she wanted him to see her and smile at her. It meant everything to her, his smile. She slipped away, and she felt herself slipping away, but he was walking away, and there was no one to catch her as she fell.
The door finally shut with a loud click. She breathed heavily, and the feelings that she had held inside rose to the surface. She closed her eyes and covered her mouth, because she did not want to let them out, not the tears that pressed at her eyes or the words that pressed at her lips. In that moment she knew she was destined to live and die alone.
He rushed in, swinging the door open with a loud crash. He saw her crying, ran to her, and wiped away her tears with soft hands.
She finally left the empty room.
There was someone singing softly in her ear. The deep, rusty voice woke Hyo Rin from her dreams. Her feet took her outside to the mountain’s edge in a daze.
Hae Jin was standing quietly by the sea with his back to her. She wrapped her arms around her chest and finally felt the cold of the wind. He turned around, and he looked haunted, as if he had been waiting for her to come and she had taken too long. She didn’t move, couldn’t speak.
He walked to her slowly and wrapped his arms around her tightly. She pushed him away, then took his hand. She pulled him into her room, onto her blankets. They moved but didn’t speak. His hands ran down her body, and his lips pressed desperately against hers. They became the rocks that fell down the mountainside and into the sea– crashing, destined to sink to the bottom.
She fell asleep in his arms.
He was gone when she woke up, but something lingered, and she felt as if he was by her side. She slept all day.
Night fell, and when he returned she looked into his deep, long-lashed eyes as he came inside of her. If they were in love, it was only because they had met in the time between dog and wolf: The time when day blended into night as dusk fell and dreams became one with reality.
Hyo Rin wanted to hear his voice again, but the night was quiet. Days and nights passed, and even though she waited for him by the edge of the mountain, she never saw him again.
A month passed, and Hyo-rin finally asked Mrs. Kim where her student, Song Hae Jin, had gone in a soft, hesitant voice. What she heard broke something inside of her, something he had held together.
“He died. He went to the mountain top and threw himself into the sea. No one knows why it happened. Thankfully, they found his body a few days before you moved into your father’s home. It would have been…”
She blinked as Mrs. Kim’s words blurred together, and the words that had been pressing against her mouth finally found their way out.
“I don’t feel good.”
Mrs. Kim smiled. It pulled at the corners of her eyes and made her face wrinkle the same way the old man’s face had as he lay in his coffin.
“Why don’t you take a few days off. The year is almost over and the students are busy studying for their college entrance exams. It’ll be okay for them to have a study hall instead of going to English class. Have you seen the nurse? I had a cold last week, but I’m fine now. They gave me some awful tasting medic-”
Hyo Rin walked away while Mrs. Kim was still speaking, her head nodding as she spoke to herself.
“Yes, the nurse. I just need to see the nurse or even a doctor. I’m fine. It’s just a cold. I must have caught a cold…”
She walked into the classroom and saw him again. He was sitting in his seat by the window, and she was sure he would finally say something to her, but when their eyes finally met he looked at her– looked through her, and then she watched as he slowly faded away.
She sat down in his seat and looked out the window. She wanted to see what he had seen. The view outside stretched on and on. It was filled with light but somehow empty. She had been filled with dreams but somehow empty for a long, long time.
Hyo Rin walked up the steps and knocked on the door of a small, unfamiliar house on the poor side of town. A frail, sickly man answered the door.
“Who are you?”
“Miss Hyo Rin, I’m Hae Jin’s teacher.”
He stared at her as tears fell down his face. They were tears that he did not bother to hide.
“Hae Jin is dead!”
He slammed the door in her face, and she heard the sound of the lock sliding. She looked up and stared hard into the sun. She walked backwards and finally turned and walked away on unsteady feet. The faces that passed by her blurred together. She heard voices, then nothing.
Spring passed by quickly, and suddenly it was summer.
Hyo Rin could not remember herself, but she could not forget Hae Jin. She wanted to forget the moments she spent waking up alone, the moments she spent drinking alone, the moments she spent looking into the faces of strangers wondering if she would wake up with one of them or alone…
She was tired of those moments.
Strangers stayed strangers. Dreams stayed dreams. Hope finally died, and she decided to give up. Too much time had passed, and everyone she had ever met remained the same. Maybe, she was just incapable of seeing them differently.
She couldn’t stop herself from remembering the darting glances and the soft whispers, the cold stares and the loud screams, the hands that had pushed her away and the hands that had held her even though she had wanted to leave, the words that had torn her apart and the words that had never put her back together. She had lived too much of her life pretending that she was someone else– that she was fine, and suddenly she realized she had never been fine.
She was tired of pretending.
A summer rain fell. She ran outside and raced towards the horizon. At the edge of the mountain she screamed Hae Jin’s name. Finally, with a voice as raw and tired as she was, she told him that she loved him.
He was drifting in the sea, a dead body she could never reach.
It was the first day of school, and autumn leaves fell as Hyo Rin stood outside and waited for her students by the gate. She could see them in the distance as they walked down the road, their faded clothes and bright smiles. Mrs. Kim was staring at her.
Hyo Rin had put on makeup and grown out her hair.
“You look so pretty. Are you seeing someone?”
She waited for Mrs. Kim to finish speaking before answering.
Hyo Rin smiled, looking up through the bright red trees and into the golden sky. The wind swirled the falling leaves into a dizzying spiral, and then carried them far, far away. Hae Jin, like a leaf he had been carried somewhere far, far away by the wind after swirling around her in a dizzying spiral, but she smiled, because she remembered his voice, could still hear his soft singing…