This story is by Jung Park and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I heard the familiar voice of one of my beloved girls, Jung Ock. The sun was setting and it was this time, every day this week, when the Father, the Mother and Jung Ock would return home. The Mother had tied me to a tree in the courtyard before they left so I couldn’t dig another hole under the gate to follow them. At least today there was no snow on the ground so my paws weren’t slipping on wet slush.
Jung Ock ran over to me as I barked and wagged my tail in excitement. I jumped up and licked her face. She quickly untied the rope. She hugged me, and I stood still except for my tail wagging as I basked in the sound of her sweet voice.
I looked over at the open gate and waited for my other beloved girl, Kyung Ock, the twin sister, to come over to hug me too, but only the Father and the Mother came in through the open gate. Their faces looked tired, and they smelled like strong disinfectant smells that I didn’t recognize. I would clean it off of them to help them smell better.
“Heppee, down!” the Mother said as I jumped on her and licked her face. I was used to her harsh tones and sat down obediently. But then, I jumped on the Father, and he smiled as I licked his face. He patted my head, but his eyes looked sad. They walked to the main door of the house, and I followed. I waited at the open doorway, wanting to go in but knowing I was not allowed to by the Mother. I paced back and forth near the door.
Jung Ock came over and beckoned me in. “Quiet, Heppee,” she whispered. She and Kyung Ock often snuck me into the house so we could sit by the warm fire. They would use me as a pillow as they told stories and sang. If the Mother saw me, she’d chase me out of the house, saying I smelled and was dirty. I whimpered thinking about the last time I was in the house.
“Please, Umma, let Heppee stay here! His paws are clean today!”
Jung Ock hugged my neck as she begged the Mother. The Mother saw me, and I lay down submissively. I was surprised when she said, “All right.”
“Can Heppee come with us to the hospital tomorrow to see Kyung Ock? asked Jung Ock.
At the sound of her name, I couldn’t hold it in and barked my agreement.
The Father looked at me with his kind eyes. “Ah, Heppee, you miss Kyung Ock too, my big Fire Dog?” My ears perked up. The Father hadn’t used my nickname in a long time. He called me that because of my reddish coat and fire-amber eyes.
I remembered three years ago, the first time I was allowed in the house when I was a puppy–so young that I still dreamed of my own mother. I was snuggled in the Father’s lap as he told Jung Ock and Kyung Ock the legend of the Fire Dogs, or Bulgae, as we all sat in front of the fire.
“A long time ago–”
“–Before Jung Ock and I were born!” Kyung Ock said.
The Father smiled. “Yes, a very long time ago. Some say thousands of years ago before Korea even became a country, the legend of the Bulgae, or the Fire Dogs, was created. During that time, the King ruled a world of darkness. There was no light and it was so cold.”
“Oh, like last winter!” Jung Ock chimed in.
“Fire dogs like Heppee!” added Kyung Ock.
“Yes, they had fire-colored fur and amber eyes, just like Heppee.”
I wagged my tail at the sound of my name.
“And it was as cold as last winter–maybe even much, much colder,” said the Father. My eyes started to droop with sleepiness. His calm, soothing voice and his warm hand petting my head were too relaxing.
“So cold and dark that the King sent his own Bulgae, or Fire Dogs, on a very special mission. A mission to capture a piece of the sun and bring it back to bring warmth and light to the kingdom and capture a piece of the moon to cool it back down.” I was almost asleep but this part of the story made me cock my ears with interest.
“The Bulgae traveled far and then waited for the perfect moment to jump into the sky to bite off a piece of the sun and waited for a perfect night to jump up and bite off a piece of the full moon. And that’s why sometimes the sun or the moon have dark shadows on them–it’s the Bulgae trying to bite them.”
“Eclipses!” shouted Jung Ock.
“That’s right,” replied the Father.
“Did the Bulgae bring the sun and moon pieces back to the king?” asked Kyung Ock.
The Father paused, then said, “Well, the legend says they ended up getting burned or frozen every time they tried.” He thought for a second, then said, “But, you know what? I think the legend is wrong. I think they did succeed because how else do we have sunshine and moonlight, right?” I wagged my tail in agreement as the Father said, “And now we have our own little Fire Dog, or Fire Puppy, right?” As I drifted into sleep, I heard my beloved girls say, “Oh, Heppee, I’m so proud of your great-great-great-great–great…” and then they descended into a fit of giggles as they tried to say great as many times as they could.
But, now, looking at the Father tonight, he didn’t smile or tell the girls’ favorite story after calling me by my nickname. Instead, he bowed his head, and tears were coming down his face. The Mother turned away and also said nothing. I whimpered. There was sadness in the air like the heaviness of the first summer rain.
“Appa, why are you crying?” Jung Ock asked, fear in her voice. I saw moonlight from the full moon reflected on her face and realized the door was still open.
“Jung Ock, come here.” The Mother’s voice was quiet, and then she leaned down and hugged Jung Ock.
“We’re not going to the hospital tomorrow. We’re not going there any more.”
Jung Ock wiggled out of the Mother’s arms, excited!
“Kyung Ock’s coming home?”
The Mother shook her head.
“No, the burns were too bad. You saw how she screamed and cried? Well, today, when you saw her . . . sleeping . . . she doesn’t hurt any more.”
“What do you mean?”
I heard the pain and sadness in the Mother’s voice, in the quiet sobs of the Father and the fear in Jung Ock’s voice. I walked to the door and howled at the moon. The sounds were like that night when just Kyung Ock and Jung Ock were sitting near the fire, using me as a backrest and telling their own stories and songs. Kyung Ock said she was cold, and Jung Ock told her to fan the fire. I remember Kyung Ock standing up and fanning her blue shirt and then suddenly, suddenly, there was fire and screams and the Father rolling Kyung Ock and patting her with his own hands. Then, more screams and no fire and they ran outside and shut the door and left me in the house which the Mother never allowed. I smelled something burning I’d never smelled before and I cried and whimpered but that long night, then long day, with the fire out, no one came back and even when they did came back, the Mother didn’t hit me for what I left in a pile in the corner or the puddles I’d made. And since that night, all this week, the Father, the Mother and Jung Ock left every morning and came back every evening when the sun was setting.
When my last howl was done, I ran out into the courtyard with the sounds of the Father’s crying, the Mother’s voice and Jung Ock’s screaming behind me. I looked up at the full moon and jumped. I jumped and jumped. If only I could just bite a piece of its cold, frozen surface, maybe, just maybe, I could cool Kyung Ock’s burned body and she would finally come back home.