On her seventh birthday, Park Yunhee received her mask and her magpie. Both, she was told, would grow as she did.
“One you must wear so no one will know who you are,” her mother said. “And the other you must carry so everyone will know who you are.”
The mask was just a thin black line over the eyes and hid nothing. When she met with her fellow students, she had no difficulty recognizing each one behind that thin line. At the same time, they were uniform in a way they hadn’t been before. From now on, if someone saw her, they wouldn’t be looking at Park Yunhee, but one of the Star’s Magpies.
The magpie bit her thumb.
It only took one glance to instantly recognize the lady. No one else could have possessed such jade-like beauty. No one else would have her sadness.
Yunhee and her magpie both lowered their heads when they saw the lady and only dared to glance up when a cool hand was placed on Yunhee’s head.
“You are one of our Magpies,” the lady said. Yunhee could only gape. The daughter of a heavenly king, the most unparalleled beauty in all of heaven and Earth, had placed her hand on Yunhee’s head. Skin like white jade, ink-black hair, slender and delicate features. But her fingers—her fingers, while slender, were calloused. The hands of a weaver.
Belatedly, Yunhee remembered to respond. “Yes, my lady. I hope to be, someday.” Her magpie shifted his feet on her shoulder, scolding her for her delay.
It was only then that Yunhee saw the lady’s sadness. Before then, Yunhee had always thought of grief as something private. Something to hide and experience when no one else was around. She hadn’t realized that sorrow was something you could see. Tears that remained unshed haunted the lady’s face nonetheless. The Heavenly King’s daughter wore her mourning openly, proudly, and defiantly.
“I thank you,” she said, “for the service you will provide.”
After the lady left, Yunhee spent a long time still crouched in half obeisance, touching the place where the lady’s hand had been. She stayed that way until her magpie pecked her ear to scold her.
Some people bonded instantly with their magpies. Yunhee did not.
Later, she would think it was because she already loved her magpie before she even had a magpie. For as long as she could remember, she had seen her mother with a magpie on her shoulder, and she would dream of the day when she would have her own. She made endless lists of possible names, and she would draw and then re-draw her imagined magpie. When her mother placed the young magpie—not quite a naked chick, but not quite a grown bird—in her hands, Yunhee loved the creature because she always knew she would love him.
The magpie wanted to be loved distinctly and uniquely and refused all previously thought-up names.
“Remember, this magpie will carry your soul across the stars,” her mother said after the third time she walked in on Yunhee crying because her bird was ignoring her. “You cannot think of the magpie as a separate creature. He is not your pet or your friend. You are the magpie; the magpie is you.”
At night, Yunhee whispered it like a mantra. You are the magpie. The magpie is you. You are the magpie. The magpie is you. The magpie sat on her chest, a comforting weight, and Yunhee stroked his feathers gently with one finger. Remember this magpie will carry your soul across the stars.
The lore of their profession was that they would be able to merge with their magpies as soon as they fell in love. Some instructors still liked to reinforce that idea.
“You have an important job to do,” Instructor Yu said. “An important job that only you can do. It is not easy. And you will never understand why you must do this until you can understand Lady Jiknyeo. When you first know love—then you will truly know the lady.”
Consequently, many of the students wanted to fall in love as soon as possible and set about to do just that.
Yunhee waited for the same palpitations and blushes and giggling to strike her when she met that particular person who would make her understand the lady. Many of her fellow students seemed to find an expedient solution by falling in love with each other, and Yunhee walked in on a pair of her classmates kissing passionately on more than one occasion. During one tense week, it wasn’t safe to open any closet doors for fear of stumbling upon half-naked girls in wild exploration of each other. Other classmates dedicated their love to Lady Jiknyeo as the purest form of love. Their love of her would help them understand the job they must do.
“That’s bullshit,” Instructor Kim said. “It’s not love you have to understand, but responsibility. You have a job. You must do your job. You must take pride in what you can do. That pride will sustain you.”
Instructor Kim wasn’t as well-liked as Instructor Yu, but Yunhee appreciated this advice, which became all the more valuable when the expected heart palpitations never came. She never felt interested in diving into a closet with anyone, but she took a great deal of pride in what she could do.
“You must be angry,” said Yunhee’s mother after Yunhee asked her if it was love or responsibility that drove her. “You are sending your soul across the stars. You are flying between heaven and earth, and you will never be able to do it unless your anger can drive you.”
“Angry?” Yunhee asked. “But I’m not angry about anything.”
“You’re young. You don’t understand all there is to be angry about in this world. One day, that will be all you see.”
Yunhee looked at her magpie. Her magpie tilted his head in the same way a human would shrug.
She didn’t think her mother would explain more. Her mother surprised her by saying “Two people love each other very much. It has been thousands of years, and they still love each other. It is not right that they should be kept apart. Think about what it would be like if you could not be with the one you love.”
“It would be very tragic,” Yunhee said. Then, remembering that for Lady Jiknyeo the scenario wasn’t hypothetical, she added, “It is the saddest thing I have ever heard.”
Her mother looked at her for a very long time before saying “As you get older, you will learn that many things you find tragic are the same things you should be angry about.”
It wasn’t fair that the Star’s Magpies could travel to earth so easily when Lady Jiknyeo could not, and sometimes, out of respect to her, the Magpies chose to stay in heaven at all times except for that one day a year. But the instructors thought it important for the Magpies to know their counterparts on Earth, so they regularly scheduled trips.
Yunhee’s first surprise was to learn that Earth’s Crows were of all genders. Immersed with her classmates, Yunhee often forgot men existed, although she had once thought that the Earth’s Crows would all be male to provide balance.
Her second surprise was that the Earth’s Crows were loud. There was none of that dignified grace found in heaven. They laughed and jumped around suddenly and enjoyed tugging at the green and blue ribbons the Magpies put in their hair.
“Little one, will you reach for me on the day we cross the stars?” one boy said while trying to snatch at Yunhee’s ribbon.
“Go away!” Yunhee snapped, swatting at his hand. Yunhee’s magpie scolded the boy and puffed out his wings as if he might attack. His crow only cackled back. Yunhee wished she could think of something more eloquent to say, or failing that, remain calm like so many of her seonbae. She envied the older students their composure, and she hoped it would come to her with age.
“Don’t be like that,” the boy said teasingly as if they shared a joke. Although Yunhee had no trouble distinguishing her classmates behind their masks, each of the Crows seemed identical. With their black hanboks, black masks, black hats, black birds, they might as well have been replicas of each other.
“Go away, Kwangsun,” a new voice said. “This Magpie isn’t interested. Find a different one.”
The boy grinned at Yunhee, shrugged, then sauntered away as if that had been his plan all along.
“Sorry,” the new Crow said. “Every Crow wants to fall in love with a Magpie girl, and we’re romantics at heart. Some of us are a little too eager to find true love.”
“Of course,” Yunhee said, relaxing slightly. “I mean, we want to fall in love too.” She would have left it at that but this new Crow seemed much nicer than the others, so she awkwardly added, “Not me, though. I mean, I love love. Just for other people.”
“Gotcha,” the new Crow said. Maybe it was just because this Crow wasn’t bothering her, but Yunhee found it easier to find this one distinctive. Tall, angular, and removed from gender, this Crow felt like they could be a friend. “I’m Jinae.”
“Yunhee. Thank you.”
“Kwangsun is annoying but harmless,” Jinae said. They might have said more, but a loud sound interrupted them both and Yunhee jumped in panic.
“What is that?” Yunhee said, subconsciously gripping Jinae’s arm and preparing to run. Her heart beat faster, and she thought about all the dangers on Earth that she heard all about. The loud sound must be a tiger, that villain in so many stories.
“You’ve never heard thunder before?” Jinae said, the amusement in their voice softening some of Yunhee’s terror. “Wow, it never occurred to me that you don’t get thunder in heaven. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I assumed you would. Here, you have to feel this.” Jinae guided Yunhee from out of the pavilion’s awning.
Yunhee didn’t know what she was supposed to be feeling and was about to ask when something heavy and wet dropped right on her face. Both she and her magpie squawked indignantly, suspecting some terrible trick had been played on them. More and more wetness descended in uneven pats growing fiercer by the second. Yunhee dived back to the pavilion’s shelter just as a river fell from the sky.
“Sorry,” Jinae said, ducking back under the awning. “Monsoons come suddenly. You didn’t like it?”
Yunhee wanted to glare, but just as the expression would have crossed her face she remembered about monsoons. Instead, she turned to face the rain. She put her hand out so that the water could fall on her palm. She whispered, “Lady Jiknyeo.”
“And Lord Gyeonu,” Jinae said, coming up from behind her. “Their tears always begin the monsoon season. I love the rain, but every season breaks my heart. Do you know, before the first magpies and crows flew across the stars, Earth was flooding with their grief? I heard a long time ago the other animals begged the birds to do something to stop the water that would have drowned them all because they were the only ones who could.”
You must take pride in what you can do. There was never a time when Yunhee didn’t want to become one of the Star’s Magpies. She loved the hanbok—black and white with that hint of green and blue in the sleeves. She loved the birds, she loved the responsibility. But at that moment, the rain still striking her palm, she understood pride in a way she hadn’t before.
And she understood anger.
“It isn’t right. They love each other so much. Thousands of years have passed, and they still cry every year.”
“It isn’t right,” Jinae agreed. The rain began to peter out, over almost as rapidly as it came, leaving small pools scattered across the ground.
They stood in silence, watching the rain die away. The uneven pat pat pat of the rain hitting various surfaces in different melodies was punctuated by the occasional drumming of thunder. Yunhee’s magpie shook his feathers to chase out lingering droplets.
“Have you met Lord Gyeonu yet?”
“No. Can I?” Yunhee hadn’t dared to think she could.
“Yeah, of course. He’s very kind. But you haven’t met a cow yet either, I’m guessing?” Yunhee shook her head. Jinae grinned enthusiastically. “You absolutely have to meet a cow. I’ll show you one of Lord Gyeonu’s herds, and then I’ll take you to meet him.”
As it turned out, as much as she was glad to meet the beautiful man who her lady loved so much, Yunhee always remembered the cows as the best part of her first trip to Earth.
When it was time to practice merging with her magpie, it wasn’t love or pride that helped Yunhee succeed, but anger, just as her mother said.
She’d been sitting with her magpie for about ten minutes, unsuccessfully meditating. At first, she concentrated on pride. When the pride didn’t immediately work, she started worrying that maybe it was because she didn’t love the way she was supposed to, not the way Lady Jiknyeo and Lord Gyeonu did. But she loved her mother and her magpie and she loved her friend Jinae, even if they saw each other rarely, and she loved some of her classmates, and shouldn’t that be enough love, even if it wasn’t the love of poetry? This got her thinking about poetry and the poems she had read about Lady Jiknyeo and Lord Gyeonu, particularly that line about how their eternal love was so deep that they don’t need to be together.
Even if their love was so strong, why should they be kept apart? Yunhee thought. They love each other, but they can’t be together. They love each other, and they loved each other too much, so they were forced to separate. How stupid! They didn’t do anything wrong! It was the heavenly king who was wrong.
The anger knocked her out of her body and into her magpie. For one dizzying moment, she was seventeen inches tall and had wings. Then she fell back into her body. She was so excited that she forgot her anger and jumped up, startling her magpie. She held him up and kissed his head.
There were no illusions that the job would be easy. Sometimes Magpies weren’t strong enough to keep their soul in the magpie the whole distance. Their soul would drop out of the magpie, the bird would fall from the sky, and both would perish. Yunhee had grown up watching her mother come home after the launch, stumbling and broken. Her mother would sleep for days, and Yunhee would sometimes curl up beside her just to make sure she was still breathing. She’d brush her mother’s hair as she slept and prayed to the gods that her mother would open her eyes again.
Yunhee caught Instructor Kim standing in the blistering heat while smoking a cigarette one day behind the academy’s classrooms, and Instructor Kim swore viciously, then said, “Shit, you didn’t hear that. You don’t see this either.”
“I don’t see or hear anything at all,” Yunhee said promptly. “Do you want me to fan you?”
“Sure. You’re a good kid, Yunhee-ya.”
“I know what it’s like. After launch, I mean. My mom—”
“Yeah. Ms. Park sleeps a lot, right? I wish that were me. I just get bitchy.”
Since that didn’t seem all that different from Instructor Kim’s default nature, Yunhee kept quiet.
“Bitchier,” Instructor Kim amended. “I really hate this job sometimes.”
“You do?” Yunhee said, wide-eyed and so shocked she stopped fanning Instructor Kim. “But you’re the one who said to take pride—”
“Of course I’m proud,” Instructor Kim interrupted. “I can be proud of my work and hate it too.”
“But—” Yunhee didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “Then why do it?”
Instructor Kim took a long drag of her cigarette, staring hard at Yunhee. “Because it is our responsibility. Lady Jiknyeo and Lord Gyeonu only get one day. We are the only ones who can give them that day.”
“They shouldn’t be kept apart. Then we wouldn’t have to do this job.”
Instructor Kim shook her head. “You know what they did. It is their punishment.”
“But it isn’t fair—”
“You don’t think so? They had jobs to do. Lady Jiknyeo and Lord Gyeonu had a responsibility. Her to her weaving, him to his cows. They loved each other so much that they forgot everything else.
“That’s why I think it’s so stupid Instructor Yu keeps prattling on about love. Of course, they loved each other. But was that a reason to forget their job?”
Yunhee had never heard anyone talk about Lady Jiknyeo like this. “But they didn’t hurt anyone—”
“Think about it. You asked me why I do this job. Well, what if I didn’t? What if I, you, and all of the Star’s Magpies decided one day that we would not launch into the sky on the seventh day of the seventh month? Then what would happen? Lady Jiknyeo and Lord Gyeonu would not have even one day together. And they wouldn’t stand on a bridge and cry, so the monsoon season would never begin, and the mortals would have no rain. Love is important, but it is not the most important. Love without responsibility is just thoughtlessness.”
On the sixth night of the seventh month of the year, the night before her first launch, Yunhee had dinner with her classmates and then retired early in the evening to spend some time alone. She thought she might want any last-minute advice her mother might have, but found instead that the only company she wanted was her magpie.
Love, responsibility, anger. Did it matter which sustained her? In the end, they were all facets of the same thing—different ways of connection. Two people loved each other, but they were separated. They could only meet one day out of the year. The magpies and the crows would form a bridge to give them that one day. What else could that bridge be, but love and responsibility and anger stretching across the stars to connect? Tomorrow, Yunhee would journey across the milky way. She would fly, and she would not fly alone. En masse, the flock would launch into the sky and together their bodies would form a bridge, for two lovers to step on their backs and heads to get one day in each other’s arms.