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The

Infinite

Forest

Catherine Kim

“I will be bold enough to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder […] My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

Yeou didn’t learn of Nabi’s death until the Diviner spun to life from its dusty perch, the gears churning through the cobwebs it had gathered in its sleep. It cast an echo of Nabi into the room, which settled next to Yeou on the empty stretch of the bed, resplendent in image but weightless in form. It would have been easy to convince herself she was still stuck in the dregs of a dream, with how the details of the apparition slipped from her grasp the more she tried to capture the spark of its eyes in her own, to trap the familiar patterns in its shifting features in the cradle of her fingers. Yet she was certain, in the way things are in dreams, that this apparition must be Nabi, come to lay beside her one last time. Its colors fractured at Yeou’s touch, spreading like cracks in a shining prism, and as she pressed her hand against Nabi’s chest to bask in the warmth of the light at the heart of her, a tremor rippled through the illusion and shattered it entirely. For a moment longer, Yeou let herself believe she could turn back time, or step out of it completely—dissolve the walls of her bedroom into the horizon, adorn her ceiling with the constellations they charted together as children with their fortune of plastic stars, and repair the fragments of the apparition in the lacquer of these memories, slip back into the depths of her dream—but awake, only motes of dust remained, suspended in the light of the Diviner, until its shutters closed and vanished them altogether. She smoothed the sheets beside her on the bed, though they were cold to the touch. In the dark, her memory was a void. She hadn’t seen Nabi for many years. Yeou plucked the Diviner from its perch, and its wings curled into brass to better fit in her hands, though the interlocking spheres spun the eye out of her reach. She stuck the mechanisms in place with an arrangement of her fingers, but by the time she managed to slide open the aperture again, the Diviner must have reset, as her shadow cast dark streaks over a forest of winding paths, with Nabi nowhere in sight. 

Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner, round and round until the symbols etched on its twin faces shifted from their celestial bodies into more intimate forms, and the thief reached out to catch the pendulum, swinging just outside her grasp on the other side. The forest split open into a clearing, where Yeou found herself standing in a shallow stream, the water lapping at her knees. As teenagers, she and Nabi would sneak out at night to meet in a clearing just like this, where Nabi would crouch by the water and delight in how the ripples scattered her features from her reflection. Nabi had claimed the running water was a looking glass to countless other worlds and times, and they might catch glimpses of their other selves in the shimmers on the surface. Look there, she’d beckoned, and reached out to touch the water, where she said she could see Yeou as a woman, looking back at her. The details of these memories had washed out over time. Was it the moonlight that had bathed Nabi’s legs in milk? Having rinsed her face in the stream, had Yeou failed to dry the damp from her eyes? She’d seen Nabi unfurl her wings, and her circulation fill the scales with all the colors of the dawn, though this must have been another illusion in the water. Yeou stood alone in the clearing, the Diviner trembling in her grip. Nabi had long since fluttered out of Yeou’s reach, even with Yeou having learned to grasp with her hands instead of her teeth. Nabi had left behind a simple keepsake: in the moonlight, it was a butterfly’s last silk thread, from which it suspended until its wings could finally bear its weight. Under the stars, it was the crucifix that once swung from Nabi’s neck, which had often kissed the surface as she’d sifted through the stream for more beloved shapes. Only now, with the sky empty and the water dark, could Yeou feel Nabi’s phantom touch ghost against her mouth. What else might they have done, those nights in the clearing, with Yeou kneeling in the water to wash Nabi’s feet, her hands posed to slide over Nabi’s ankles and up the length of her legs? If only Yeou had surrendered to the impulse to catch in her mouth whatever she wanted to keep. Here was another failure of memory: the taste on her tongue might have been the impression of a marble, or the salt lingering from that quickly fleeting dream.

Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the heavy rain met the wooden cup, and the clearing was replaced with the interior of a house, with her seated on a couch across from Nabi’s parents, who were dressed in their church clothes. The morning peered through the window blinds, illuminating the dust that had gathered on the furniture and the polyester petals of the flower arrangements. Her child had been so willful, the mother said, though not in these words: Once, having upset herself with laughter at the pictures that had been collected of her infant form, she chewed through the photo paper like she might have the flesh of a leaf, so that the pastor’s fingers vanished into her empty head, and a ghost possessed the hanbok in the portrait of her doljanchi. His child had been a coward, the father disagreed, though not in these words: How she had whined as her mother crooned her praises of their soon-to-be country in her ear, only to cower beneath the mere shadow of his upturned hand on the wall! She’d buried herself in her blankets and refused to speak to him, only to emerge as he moved from her bedside to reach for him back. There had been no signs, the mother claimed. Her child had loved to run in the woods with another boy her age from the complex. In the mornings, she’d capture a little more of the light of the sun in her eyes, and in the evenings, she’d run home with her pockets heavy with stones and her feet painted in mud. There had been plenty of signs, the father disagreed. Once, he’d been roused from sleep to find the child had plucked the pretty trinkets from her mother’s jewelry box to adorn herself in fugitive colors. When she outgrew cocooning herself in her mother’s castoffs, she took to keeping a knife on her person and gouging names that weren’t her own into the furniture. She wore flowers in her hair to piano recitals and sent them letters from college with pictures of Nabokov’s butterflies. She would have loved her still, the mother insisted, though of course she would have worried about the futures her child might have given up. The mother drank deeply from her cup, dabbing at the fluid that had spilled from her lips with the knuckle of her thumb. The father slowly shook his head, as if bearing a great weight upon his neck. The child had been no child of his. His heart, having been exhausted of expectation, had no room left inside it for a changeling, even one with a familiar face.

 

Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the white milk deer met the peach tree, and the house was replaced with a bus terminal. Seated on a bench next to her was a lonely traveler, whose features seemed otherworldly beneath the fluorescent lights. The traveler had wondered why Nabi sometimes looked at her as if her features were haunted by a ghost. Now that the traveler and Yeou were next to each other, she could see they shared little resemblance, though time and distance might trick the light. One night, she continued, driving back from church, Nabi had taken them on a detour to the forest by her old neighborhood, on the outskirts of the city. Nabi had led her into the woods, and while the traveler picked the happiest of the wildflowers to count their petals and twist their stems into rings, Nabi had cut shapes into the bark with her knife, though they made no sense to her, and clutched at the hollow at the base of her neck, though there was nothing there. Round and round they had gone in the woods, until Nabi’s carvings in the bark repeated their shapes, and the tremors wracking her hands caused the knife to slip from her grip. Nabi had wanted to show her the stream, the traveler recalled, which once ran wide and far enough to split the woods in two, or so it seemed to Nabi when she was a child. There, they might bathe their feet in the water, and Nabi could show her the pleasure of the weight of wet stones, how they molded one’s grip into tender shapes, the way her ankles might, or the curve of her thighs. How beautiful their reflections might have looked in the running water, like shapeshifters, with their details always in motion—though the evening was falling dark, and the sky that night was empty. And in the dark, the traveler had pressed her affections on the tip of Nabi’s nose, though only in the dark had Nabi reciprocated and caught her lips in her own. The traveler had kept this memory close to her heart until it flattened in her embrace, like a sprig of hemlock pressed between the pages of a book, though Nabi had never taken her to the woods again. The flowers had been beautiful, the traveler recalled, but the funeral had been closed casket, and the memorial portrait had centered a black and white picture of a boy that must have stolen Nabi’s face.

Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the luminous sun met the slow river, and a deluge of rainwater quickly flooded the terminal. Drawn to a persistent glimmer in the water, Yeou knelt on the curb and met her reflection, which stared at the crucifix hanging from her neck, enchanted by its oscillation. Her reflection spoke to her in a register she’d long abandoned, but that she was no less familiar with for all the years that had passed. Before you snapped her last silk thread, her reflection said, you tried to replicate for yourself how the chain might have felt as a noose, or a hair from a horse’s tail, and found the weight too familiar to bear. A pendulum swings from one end to the other, the way a body or a sword might hang from the rafters, though the trick is to hold it in place by the hilt or the head and not cut your fingers on the blade. Every reflection is an inversion, every image a captive, though you might recognize yourself in another’s shape. Only on the surface do your eyes meet, though the water keeps rising. How deep does the resemblance really go? How to measure these depths without drowning? It would have been easy for you to reach her, even with your human hands, if you hadn’t been so afraid of troubling her image in the water. One night, you followed her into the forest, where she filled your head with stories and your pockets full of stones. By the stream, she cupped her hands around her mouth to shelter your ear from the woods and the water and everything under the moonlight but her voice, and exposed herself to you, naked in her whispers. An insect is most vulnerable in its metamorphosis, seduced by the promise of flight, suspended in dead skin and waiting for its wings to dry. One night, long after you left her in the night, after she left you in return, you thought to leave behind the rest of the world. It felt like the pendulum had at last come to rest, its touch as light as a butterfly's kiss on the soft flesh above your liver, and what stopped you was not your fear of loss but the shadow of her hands over yours, which was only a trick of the light. How might you measure the distance of a reflection lost in space, or a love displaced in time? It takes a thousand days’ restraint from mortal flesh for a kumiho to become a woman, but only a week for an insect to spill from its chrysalis, and not much longer for it to give up its ghost and become just a lovely color. There’s a certain kind of poetry in your parallelism, though the poet must be heartless. Will you stare into the depths even as the water overwhelms you?

 

Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the luminous sun overflowed the wooden cup, only for it to chide her with the sting of its current and ring like a gong. She found herself again in that forest of winding paths, though now she could make out the patterns cut into the bark of the trees. Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the heavy rain bloated the fruits of the peach tree, only for it to pluck the notes to a hymn like a music box. The patterns on the trees were the features of a woman scattered into pieces: a bright brown eye, the curve of an ear, the swell of her breasts, the bump of a knee, her smallest toes. Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the milk white deer drank from the slow river, only for it to spark and shock her fingers with a burst of radio static. She took the path to her left, and the eye found its twin, but lost the curve of her ear, and the bump of her knee slid up the outside of her thigh, and her smallest toes were replaced with the bones of her knuckles pressing through her golden skin. Yeou spun the two halves of the Diviner until the thief plucked the bob of the pendulum from its string, only for the Diviner to collapse in her hands. She took the path to her right, and the eyes were lost but the ear was found, along with the swell of her stomach, and all her fingers came together as they’d done over the keys of the old piano in the basement of her church. And Yeou knew if she kept following the paths through the forest for long enough, eventually the pieces would assemble before her until she beheld the completed image, and she would find Nabi there, carving her details once more into memory.

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Catherine Kim is a Korean Canadian writer studying in the United States. Her writing has appeared in Nat. Brut, Hypocrite Reader, Trinity Review, the Nameless Woman anthology, the Transcendent series, and elsewhere. Her work has been awarded the Francis Mason Harris '26 Prize, shortlisted for the Sunburst Award, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently working on a novella and completing her MFA in Fiction at Brown University's Literary Arts program.

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