Posted on: July 8, 2014

An introduction to the Anna stories ( 1 • 2  • 3  • 4 5 ).

Eun-ju was sixteen years old when the spirit sickness came. Grandmother called for Haneul, the town priestess, to confirm her fear. Grandmother sat in the corner of the room with legs folded beneath her and fists clenched in her lap as Haneul’s hands passed over Eun-ju’s feverish body like reeds in the wind.

“She is chosen,” the priestess said with finality.

Grandmother took the weight of her words on her shoulders and dropped her chin to her chest, brows knit in thought.

“The sickness will end only if she chooses the spirits in return,” Haneul continued.

Eun-ju whimpered beneath the sheet, eyes peering into eternity through slits, lashes wet with sweat and tears. She would have to choose between a life riddled with sickness and misfortune, or that of a priestess living on the fringes of society, doomed to answer every beck and call of the spirit world.

Grandmother moved to her side, running her hand over Eun-ju’s forehead, the same hand that lit the incense of their home altar each morning and night, the hand that traced the palms of curious neighbors who hoped for good readings. Though Grandmother had recited the Heart Sutra thousands of times over the course of her life, her piety would not help now. The spirits demanded her granddaughter’s allegiance for the sake of the town, at the cost of her autonomy.

Eun-ju was only thirteen months old when Father’s mistress left her in Grandmother’s care, never to be seen again. Father would not accept Eun-ju into his household, for she was illegitimate, and would betray his honor. And so his own mother took Eun-ju into her home on the island, raising her in the way of Buddha, offering rice and flowers in the temple in exchange for her granddaughter’s health and success.

From age four, Grandmother would watch Eun-ju sit on her heels in the garden outside, speaking to no one underneath the trees. Her granddaughter would look up into some imaginary face, nodding as she listened to some discourse that Grandmother could not perceive. She knew even then that the spirits needed Eun-ju to complete their unfinished business, to communicate with their loved ones who remained in the living realm. The hungry ghosts sailed through samsara, pulling at the tails of living souls, never meeting nirvana’s shore.

A few days before the sickness came, Eun-ju came home with flushed cheeks and an aura of shame. Grandmother glanced up from her vat of salt-soaked cabbage, listening to her granddaughter stomp about the house.

“Who is he?” Grandmother asked.

“A man! A stupid man, Grandma! He spoke to me as if he had some power over me! As if he could tell me what I can and cannot do!”

Grandmother hid her amusement well, wiping her hands on the front of her apron and walking into the main living space. Eun-ju sat on the floor, picking at pilling balls of lint on her socks.

“Why was he ordering you around?”

“How should I know?”


Grandmother only addressed Eun-ju by “granddaughter” when she was being unruly.

“It was the baker. He caught me telling fortunes.”

“Eun-ju, you must not,” Grandmother began.

“I don’t care. Mi-young was being a bitch, so I just told her what was coming to her.”

The back of Eun-ju’s calves stung from Grandmother’s beating with a rice paddle, but were imperceivable as the fever and tremors settled upon her sleep over the course of the next few days.

“Grandmother,” the priestess said. “She must choose now what her path will be.”

“No,” Eun-ju whispered.

Grandmother peered down into her granddaughter’s face, proud that she would not submit to the demands of the spirit realm, but fearful of the consequences she would suffer.

“Eun-ju,” Haneul began. “You do not understand how special the spirits see you. You offend them.”

Eun-ju sat up, matching Haneul’s glare and said, “I don’t give a shit. I don’t take orders from anyone, man or ghost.”

“Then the sickness will creep into your heart and you will never find rest. The spirits will prey upon your children for your disobedience. They, too, will feel the sickness and be forced to choose,” Haneul stated.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasemgate bodhi-svaha,” Eun-ju chanted. “So be it.”

The priestess pursed her lips, turning to Grandmother who remained quiet, but physically matched her granddaughter’s ferocity.

“Thank you, priestess, for your trouble,” Grandmother said.

Haneul left with disdain, slamming the door shut and stomping down the front steps. Eun-ju leaned back against the couch, inspecting part of the sheet with her fingertips as she chewed on her bottom lip. The color seeped back into her cheeks, but they both knew her heart would struggle now. Her blood was laced with death and would pulse with the groans of angry spectres.

“Eun-ju, you have made a very serious decision.”

“I saw her, Grandma,” Eun-ju whispered.

“Saw who?”

“My daughter. I saw her behind my eyes, but ahead of me.”

Grandmother pulled her words into her heart, placing her hands over Eun-ju’s.

“She was far away from here, and so was I. She was alone, though I was with her. Grandma, I had to say no. If I didn’t, the spirits would not be able to find her where she will be. The path of my betrayal will guide them to her.”

“Why have you done this? Why would you wish this on her?”

Eun-ju met her Grandmother’s eyes and sighed.

“Because she will be kinder than me. She will help where I cannot.”

Grandmother took Eun-ju into her arms, cradling her head against her chest. She stroked and kissed her hair, feeling the sutra ebb and flow through her veins in petition for her granddaughter, and now her great granddaughter whom she will not know. Gate, gate, paragate, parasemgate bodhi-svaha. Gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond, awakened. Eun-ju used it as a retort, but now it must be armor.

“Did she tell you her name?” Grandmother asked.

“Anna. Her name is Anna.”

Written by: Natasha Akery
Photograph by: Erin Notarthomas

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