The bird’s death went unwitnessed. It thumped into the glass once, like a knock. Jin-Sook sat up, woken from her nap on the red velvet couch. Her eyes were gummy with sleep, but she couldn’t rub them without ruining her mascara. She cracked her lips. Her scarlet lipstick had dried into paint chips. The other girls were running to the window, a grimy square high over the front door. Jin-Sook watched as Ha-Neul–the only one who told the truth in this place–dragged a wooden chair beneath the window. The older girl teetered as she tried to see over the doorframe. No men were in the parlor right now, which made the girls restless and irritable. Every slow Tuesday night meant another night stuck here.
Jin-Sook stood and went to help Ha-Neul. “May I?” she asked.
Jin-Sook was the tallest girl in the parlor, so Ha-Neul deferred to her. The older girl hopped down, using the doorframe to balance herself. “I think it was a bird,” said Ha-Neul. Her customer had just left, and her lipstick was smeared across her face like a warning. Her breath smelled like cum, a faint scent over the room’s flowered perfume. Ha-Neul had been here long enough that the scent had worked its way into her pores. Jin-Sook decided she’d die if she ever smelled like that. She slipped off her heeled shoes and climbed up, ignoring her black miniskirt.
Below her, the other eight girls gathered. Kun–the prettiest one with the most regulars–said, “A bird? How could a bird find that window? It’s so small. It’s barely bigger than the bird. And it’s dark.”
Jin-Sook stretched on tiptoe, pressing herself against the door. She peeked over the sill. The frosted glass window was streaked with bird shit. A yellowish rabbit-shaped stain covered one side. She found a lever and tugged it, wondering if the window would crack open. It did–slowly to one side, like the door to a forgotten tomb. She blinked at the streetlight shining into the dim parlor. On the ledge lay a small crumpled bird. She tried to open the window further, but a wide grate blocked the glass.
“It’s a bird,” she told the other girls.
“Ooh, is it dead?” asked Ha-Neul.
“I don’t know,” said Jin-Sook. “I think so.” As she spoke, the bird shook violently and rolled onto its back. It was a plain gray bird and she didn’t know what it was called. Its white belly shone in the streetlight. One wing twitched every few seconds, like the bird was deciding whether to live or die.
“We should care for it,” said Kun. “It needs us.”
“We can’t. If we touch it, it’ll die,” said Ha-Neul.
“If we go outside–”
“It’s too high. We can’t even reach it.”
Jin-Sook reached through the window, but her hand couldn’t stretch far enough. Her arm got wedged in the window. She tugged herself free, staring at the bird. “It’s got three legs,” she said, surprised. The third was small and deformed–hardly a leg at all, more like a webbed stub attached near the full left leg.
“A three-legged bird?” Kun laughed. “Liar.”
“It is,” Jin-Sook insisted, wondering if the streetlight had cast strange shadows.
“Three legs. Like a samjogo,” said Ha-Neul.
“What’s a samjogo, Elder Sister?” asked Jin-Sook.
“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.”
Kun snorted. “Next you’ll tell us there’s a phoenix coming to burn down our door.”
“Maybe so,” said Ha-Neul, either missing Kun’s insult or not caring.
Jin-Sook hoped it was the latter, because she liked Ha-Neul. Kun was only thirteen months younger and thought she should be Ha-Neul’s equal, though the other girls didn’t acknowledge this. Jin-Sook figured it was because they were a Tiger and a Dragon and they would never sort things out. She stretched her legs to stand as high as she could. The bird’s legs twitched regularly, like a pulse. Jin-Sook looked down at the other girls and said, “The third leg doesn’t move.”
Kun spoke in a stage whisper. “Third leg? She’s looking at its koshigi. Jin-Sook pretends she doesn’t know what those are.”
Some of the girls giggled. Ha-Neul silenced Kun with a pointed look.
Jin-Sook tried to angle her hand through the cracked window. As she curled her fingers under the glass, the bird shuddered and stopped moving. “Oh! Poor bird!” she cried out.
“There’s nothing we can do. It’ll fly, or it won’t. Come down, Jin-Sook,” said Ha-Neul.
Jin-Sook was just stepping down when the buzzer sounded. Seung came into the room and pushed the button. The door opened. It caught on Jin-Sook’s chair, and she jumped to the floor before she fell. Two young men, both drunk or high and laughing at them. The girls lined up on the couch. Jin-Sook took her place in front of the cloth wall hangings, too distracted to smile and look pretty. They chose her anyway, and Kun as well–“together,” they said. Seung nodded, and Kun and Jin-Sook led the men into the massage rooms.
“Fifty dollar massage,” Kun told them as she pushed the door open, her English much better than Jin-Sook’s. “You good men. We do good job on you, yes?”
The room smelled like sweat and sex underneath the perfume. All the flowers were fake. Jin-Sook closed her eyes, thinking of the poor dead bird and how no one would ever clean it out from there. It’d stink once summer started.
“Skip the massage,” one man told her. He pushed her towards the table.
Jin-Sook knew two things: she was in San Francisco, and she was in trouble. She’d run up huge debts in Korea by paying for her mother’s apartment. Her cousin had stolen her national ID number and gotten dozens of credit cards. She was from Dongbo Village and hadn’t had much school. Most of her childhood friends married potato farmers or fishermen.
When Jin-Sook looked for jobs in Seoul, she found plenty for the room parlors. She knew better than to take those. This job had promised work in America. “No touching,” the clean-cut man had said with a smile. Jin-Sook hated that man–all the men who had tricked her into coming here. They’d arranged all her travel. She shouldn’t have believed them. She knew when they smuggled her through Mexico that this job was illegal. But it was too late then to back out. They’d already paid her way. She already owed them money.
The first place she worked had been cleaner and busier. They drove her to new places every few months. Each time, she owed the last place more and more for her upkeep. Each time, she worked harder and earned less money. Each time, she saw her own mistakes blinding her like the sun.
After Jin-Sook cut the condoms into pieces and flushed them down the toilet, she washed herself gently with a cloth. When she returned to the front room, it smelled like warm pork and oil–like the mandu dumplings Ok-Yeon sometimes made for the girls. Ha-Neul stood on the chair, reaching her hand blindly through the high window. “What are you doing?” Jin-Sook asked as Ha-Neul stepped down.
“I gave it some dumpling.”
“But it’s dead.”
Ha-Neul shrugged. “It might die. It might fly away.”
Jin-Sook climbed on the chair and looked through the cracked window. The bird hadn’t moved. It lay on the ledge, its shriveled third leg still visible. The dumpling rested where it’d been dropped, a hand’s width away from the bird. Jin-Sook shook her head. “It’s dead, Elder Sister.”
“I saw it happen once,” Ha-Neul insisted. “A restaurant in Seoul where I worked had a giant picture window. A bird flew into it. It lay on the deck for an hour before it fluttered away.”
“It’s amazing the rats didn’t get it,” said Kun, who had freshened her make-up before coming out.
“There weren’t any rats nearby. Besides, this bird looks like the samjogo. It’s a sign.”
“That’s nonsense. You’re full of stories.”
“Jin-Sook says it has three legs.”
“Jin-Sook is from Dongbo Village.”
“Oh, and being from Suwon is better?”
Jin-Sook stared at the bird. She stepped down from the chair and got the pencil the girls kept by the telephone. Carefully she reached through the open window with the eraser and nudged the dumpling closer. If only the bird woke and turned its head–it would see the food there, and perhaps it would eat. She couldn’t believe the bird might live, but Ha-Neul knew much more of the world than she did.
It was Ha-Neul who had nourished Jin-Sook when she was first brought here, Ha-Neul who had been a big sister to the scared young girl. Ha-Neul had taught her about the American police and how they couldn’t help. They would arrest her, Ha-Neul said, and they would say it was her fault she was here. It had happened to a friend of hers in the last parlor she’d worked in. The best choice was to work hard and earn money, Ha-Neul told her. That’s how she could get out of here. The money was good here, better than a nail salon, and besides–Jin-Sook owed Seung $10,000 for working here, and she owed $24,000 to the men who had smuggled her here, on top of what she owed when she took the job. She had to work. She owed many debts.
It was Jin-Sook’s night for the phone, and she waited until midnight so her mother would be awake from her nap. She had a calling card–Seung bought each girl one per month and added it to their debts. Jin-Sook talked to her mother for twenty minutes–yes, America is wonderful, sorry I haven’t called, I’m working two jobs as a waitress–and her mother said she missed her. Jin-Sook hung up the phone and cried. Ha-Neul had told her the men who brought her here knew where her mother lived, and if Jin-Sook went to the police, they’d hurt her mother. The door was unlocked, but Jin-Sook couldn’t leave. She stared at the barred window.
Near the window, Kun was talking to Ok-Yeon. The older girl uncrossed her legs, making sure to show off the stars tattooed on her ankle. “I like it here. The money is good. And it’s better working in America than it was in Seoul. When I’m done here I’ll go back to Korea and be rich. I’ll have a huge apartment in Kangnam and get all my meals delivered.”
Ok-Yeon was a quiet girl who wore fake nails to keep from chewing them. Before Jin-Sook arrived, she’d been the youngest and had to do all the cleaning. She’d told Jin-Sook that she’d known what this job would be, but she hated it here. She had an American uncle, but she was too scared to run away and find him. Ok-Yeon told Kun, “You get the biggest tips. They come back for you.”
Kun had worked in Seoul before coming here. She shrugged. “They just want someone to listen, these men. I tell them my name is Kitty or Becky or something American. I do what their wives won’t do. It doesn’t matter.”
“Do you let them have you there?” asked Ok-Yeon, with a horrified look as the two women walked to the kitchen.
“Only if they’ve been here before. And they use a condom.”
Jin-Sook hated when Kun talked like this. She went to a room in the back and dug out a wooden massage paddle. She slapped it against her hand, feeling its sting. She pushed the chair back under the window and climbed, her feet unsteady beneath her.
“What are you doing?” Ha-Neul asked.
“It’s dead,” said Jin-Sook, her eyes wet. “I’m cleaning it up.” She turned the paddle sideways to slip it through the window, then rotated it and shoveled the bird up.
“Let it rest, Jin-Sook.”
“The samjogo likes to surprise us. You have to believe it can fly.”
“There’s no point.” She lifted the bird, hardly believing she held it–the poor thing was so light. Jin-Sook shifted the paddle in her hand, realizing she was stuck. If she tilted the paddle, the bird would fall–but she couldn’t bring it through the crack on the level. She angled it, hoping she would wiggle it through without losing the bird. The paddle edge bumped the glass. The bird fluttered its wings.
Jin-Sook shrieked and dropped the paddle. It wedged in the window. The bird slid off and fell from the ledge out of sight.
“What? What happened?” asked Ha-Neul, alarmed. Kun and Ok-Yeon ran in from the kitchen.
“If it wasn’t dead then, it is now,” said Kun with a sniff. “I told you we should have cared for it. We might have saved it.”
Jin-Sook tugged the paddle back out. “Get me something taller to stand on,” she said.
Ha-Neul and Ok-Yeon pushed a small end table towards the window. Jin-Sook stepped from the chair to the table. She balanced on tiptoe and leaned to the right, feeling like she might fall any second. She could just see the bird’s wingtip on the cement mantle above the outside doorframe. “It’s above the door.”
“Let’s get Seung. He’ll get it down,” said Ha-Neul.
The older girls sent Ok-Yeon to the back to get Seung. He showed up holding the TV remote. “Jin-Sook! Get off the furniture. You’ll ruin it.”
Wordlessly Jin-Sook stepped down. Kun told Seung, “There’s a dead bird on the ledge outside the door. It must be cleaned up.”
He stretched and yawned. “So annoying! I’ll take care of it in the morning. You girls must be bored tonight.”
Kun laughed. She was Seung’s favorite and he usually took her when he went out for groceries. Jin-Sook stared at the floor, knowing she’d killed the bird. Too impatient, leaping before she looked–and now the bird was dead.
Ha-Neul hugged her. “Don’t be so upset, Jin-Sook. You can cry if you want to, but don’t be so upset.”
Jin-Sook couldn’t cry. Ha-Neul held her tighter.
In her bunk that night–in the basement, with no windows or birds–Jin-Sook lay awake looking at the rafters in the dark. She thought of the magic samjogo and wished she had even a single feather of power.
In the morning, Jin-Sook checked that Seung was watching TV as usual, and then she climbed on the end table again. She looked over the sill. The bird was gone.
“Seung cleaned it up,” she told Ha-Neul, who was brushing her hair nearby.
“He hasn’t left all morning,” Ha-Neul said. “It flew away on its own.”
Jin-Sook looked through the window again, doubtfully. “Someone else cleaned it up.”
She shrugged and climbed down. Ha-Neul offered her a hand. The older girl said, “I told you it would fly away. It’s alive. It’s free now.”
“Seung said he would clean it up.”
“Go ask him.”
Jin-Sook went to the back lounge, where Seung was watching a car chase on TV. “Sir?” she asked.
“Did you clean up the dead bird?”
He snorted. “Aiesh… Stop nagging. I’ll get to it. Or you could do it yourself if you think it stinks so bad. By the way, I bought you another phone card.”
Ha-Neul had told her the cards only cost $75, but Seung was a businessman and had to make his profit, so he charged the girls $100. It went into their expense books, which Jin-Sook rarely saw. She said, “Thank you.”
Jin-Sook returned to the parlor, uncertain. Ha-Neul grinned at her. “Ah, it’s in your face. See, what did I tell you?”
Kun walked in, stretching her arms over her head and yawning. She wore a slinky red dress, the kind the men loved and Jin-Sook hated to wear. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“Jin-Sook’s samjogo flew free,” Ha-Neul told her. Jin-Sook heard a sharp tone in Ha-Neul’s voice and wondered if she was angry with Kun over something.
Kun looked at Ha-Neul, then at Jin-Sook. She made a face, then walked away without saying a word.
“Is it possible?” Jin-Sook asked.
Ha-Neul smiled. “Don’t you think so? It came to you. To surprise you.”
Jin-Sook touched her arm. “It’s true? It was a magic bird?”
Ha-Neul hugged her. “Why would the samjogo come to you unless you were special? I wish you had seen it fly–so straight, and so beautiful. Be strong. Work off your debt faithfully. You’ll be free again–I know it.”
Jin-Sook felt herself lifting for a moment as Ha-Neul spoke. If she could believe–she would fly away in a blaze of sunlight, away from this place and this world. “I hope you’re right, Elder Sister.”
“I know I’m right. Listen. I’m being sent to another place tonight. They want me to work somewhere else now. I’ve heard it’s good and the customers tip more. Be strong without me, little bird.”
Jin-Sook held her close. “I can’t imagine being here without you, Elder Sister. What will I do? How will I learn things?”
“Use your eyes and ears,” Ha-Neul told her. “Look and listen. Bear the suffering for now. It won’t last forever.”
Jin-Sook wanted to reply, but the alarm sounded. All the girls headed down the dark passageway into the secret basement shelter, where they hid during the police raid. Ha-Neul had told them that the police arrested the women they found and charged them money for breaking American laws. Then they released them back to the men, who charged them extra fees for the inconvenience and the lost hours of work. Jin-Sook waited, silent as death, holding Ha-Neul’s words close to her like a blazing sun in her chest. She would be the samjogo who knew her own strength. She would be patient and work her way to freedom. Once there, she would never look back. Not once.
After the police left, the parlor returned to normal. That night was busy. Jin-Sook had new men every twenty minutes, with hardly a break between. Anonymous men, some kind and some cruel. She made a great deal of money. She closed her mind away from business and focused on the center of herself: a hot fiery core, gathering strength, growing.
The next morning, Kun knocked on Jin-Sook’s bedframe to wake her. The motion shook the wire frame and thin mattress like an earthquake. “It’s your morning to clean the kitchen,” Kun told her.
Half asleep, Jin-Sook mumbled, “What? Is it Saturday already?”
“It’s Friday,” Kun said. “Ok-Yeon did your chores when you were sick last week. Your turn now.”
Now Jin-Sook remembered. Ha-Neul was gone, and Kun was the eldest now. Jin-Sook got up and stretched. She stumbled into the grimy shower and cleaned herself, soaping up with a half-used slippery bar, and dried her hair with an old towel that had come from her earlier debts. She rubbed pearl lotion into her skin. She rinsed the shower and scrubbed the toilet with the filthy brush. She swept the kitchen, gathering dust and food chunks into her dustpan. When she opened the trashcan to put the dust in, she saw it, half-buried under dirty napkins and old rice: the dead bird.
Jin-Sook set down the dustpan and leaned the broom against the wall. She took a paper towel from the roll by the sink and folded it in half. She opened the trashcan and picked up the bird. She carried it in its white shroud to the parlor, where Ok-Yeon sat writing in a book and Kun played cards with other girls at the table.
“Ok-Yeon,” she said, “who brought this bird in here?”
Ok-Yeon glanced over and winced. “Aigh! Put that back in the trash.”
“Who brought it here?” Jin-Sook kept her voice steady, even though she wanted to scream and shred the bird until nothing remained, nothing at all. She wanted to throw the feathers and bones and beak out the window–every part, even its stupid third leg. All wrong and awful and broken.
Ok-Yeon shrugged. Kun looked over and said, “I did. Seung was too busy, so I stepped out and cleaned it myself. It was the least I could do for the poor thing.”
Jin-Sook squeezed the bird gently. It felt cold and heavier than it should. “Ha-Neul wished it had flown. That’s why she told me that,” she said quietly. Something had snapped inside her–some fetters she hadn’t even known were there. There was no way out from here. Nothing remained but to embrace the fire inside her, the one that the bird ignited.
Kun shrugged. “She helped me clean up. She thought you’d be more upset if you knew.”
Jin-Sook looked at her, and Kun said, “What? She lied to you, but she meant well. That’s better than people who tell the truth just to hurt you. Haven’t you seen enough of that?”
Jin-Sook threw the bird at her. It struck her in the arm. Kun shrieked and pawed at her sleeve, trying to remove a stain that wasn’t there. “Disgusting! You’re a crazy country bitch–”
Jin-Sook ran, slamming the door behind her. It rattled in its frame. “So nasty! Clean it up, Ok-Yeon,” ordered Kun. The younger girl sighed and closed her book. She went to the kitchen for the dustpan and broom.
When Ok-Yeon returned, she cried out, “Elder Sister, the bird is smoking!”
Kun looked. All the girls looked. In that moment the bird burst into white flames so bright they hurt. Everyone shielded their eyes and watched through their fingers. The bird careened across the room, thrashing like a fish on a wire. It bashed against the wall and spun out of control against the wall hangings. The girls shrieked. The bird fluttered against the fabric, igniting the edges, before diving to the ground.
“Fire!” screamed Ok-Yeon.
Kun leaped forward. She yanked the cloth down and smothered the flames. “Open the door!” she cried. “Let it out!”
The bird skidded across the floor, melting the linoleum. It blazed up and across the table, burning the chair cushions and the card game. When Ok-Yeon got the door open, the bird burst through the door and shot into the sky. It vanished into the clouds. Ok-Yeon ran after it, barefoot, her hands outstretched like she could catch it. She kept running long after the bird was gone.
“Put the fires out!” Kun told the other girls, and Seung who had run in to see what had happened. The girls obeyed, screaming and crying and swearing to leave this place when they could.
It was an hour before anyone thought to look for Jin-Sook. Kun was Eldest Sister and responsibility fell to her. When she entered the bunkroom, she found Jin-Sook hanging from the rafters by her bedsheet, with a bird-shaped hole in her heart.