You can read the story for yourself online at ChiZine. And if you want to do that right now, before I start dropping spoilers all over the shop, then I’ll wait for you. Take as long as you need.
A bird crashes into a window. Jin-Sook, the POV character for most of this story, gets up on a chair to look outside, and sees the bird lying on a ledge. It has three legs. She is unsure if it is dead or unconscious.
The setting is a brothel in San Francisco. Jin-Sook and the other girls who make up the dramatis personae of this story are Koreans who came to the US in the expectation of carving out a better life for themselves, only to discover that the cost of this relocation involves working as prostitutes to pay off a debt that only seems to increase. Aspects of their lives – constantly on the move from one establishment to another, being handed round like property, having to hide in a cellar during police raids, forced to pay extortionate prices for every human convenience and kindness – are revealed in dispiritingly matter of fact tones to conjure up an existence that is slavery in all but name. And yet the girls seem, if not happy then resigned, taking pleasure in small victories and personal rivalries, deluding themselves with stories of another brothel further up the food chain where the punters will all be gentlemen and the tips extravagant.
Ha-Neul, one of the older girls, a mentor of sorts to Jin-Sook, tells her that the bird is a samjago – ‘”A sun bird. A magical creature. My grandmother says she saw one as a girl. They look like flames in flight. They fly straight like a sunbeam through a room.”‘ But in trying to rescue the bird, Jin-Sook accidentally pushes it off the ledge, and believes that she has killed it.
The next day the bird is missing. Ha-Neul tells Jin-Sook that it flew away, and the younger girl believes because ‘If she could believe – she would fly away in a blaze of sunlight, away from this place and this world.’
But then Ha-Neul is sent away to another brothel and Jin-Sook finds the bird’s body in a bin, placed there by Ha-Neul, who lied to protect her feelings, but whose words have exactly the opposite effect. The bird’s death crystallises Jin-Sook’s anxieties about her own life, and she goes off to kill herself.
Her death takes place offstage, bringing back to mind the story’s opening sentence – ‘The bird’s death went unwitnessed’. The bird and Jin-Sook are emblematic of each other, linked on some other plane.
And this is when the miracle occurs. The three-legged bird comes back to life and flies round the room in flames, setting light to everything it touches until one of the girls opens a door to set it free. Jin-Sook’s body has ‘a bird-shaped hole in its heart’, and so we are free to ponder if, in fact, it was her soul that gained release.
There’s a subtle, understated clash of cultures here, seen in the girls’ weary acceptance of their lot, the accommodations they have to make with their captors, and no hint of rebellion – these are not ‘freedom fighters’, but lifers who dream of parole rather than escape. Seen also in the way that a creature from their native folklore provides a shining beacon of hope in the midst of despair, a reminder of magic in the depths of the most grim reality, because magic and the hope of miracles is all that’s left to them. Ironically the failure of that hope, the attendant sense of betrayal (if Ha-Neul lied about the bird, then Jin-Sook has to wonder how much else of what she’s been told is untrue), are what carry things past the tipping point, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
For Jin-Sook death is the only escape and the only miracle.