With a lazy, lethargic hand, Yunho drew characters on the sand. To exist…inside. To exist…inside. Again and again, he drew the same characters on the sand, one below another, until he had two long rows of the same characters slithering their way throughout the whole yard. His long scarf kept slipping down his arm, restricting his movements, but he just kept pulling it back over his shoulder.
“Lovely Sulekha,” he heard Lata’s voice suddenly. The woman had come to sit by him, but in his deep concentration, he hadn’t noticed her at all.
“Lata,” he acknowledged her, raising his writing stick from the ground.
“I have heard that in faraway lands, they draw on sand as a method of meditation,” she said, peering at the characters Yunho had written. Yunho stared at the text as well, deciding he would let Lata believe what she liked. The last thing he would do was to tell the well-meaning, illiterate woman he had spent yet another day obsessing over the memory of a person that had haunted him ever since the day two years earlier when he had found himself left alone.
When he looked up from his writing, he saw Lata’s observant eyes raking over his face, studying his expressions carefully. Over the years, Yunho had grown increasingly good at concealing his emotions. He was growing up; he couldn’t let himself burst out in tears anymore, when a diminutive detail would suddenly remind him of Jaejoong. He had made his decision long ago. He would grow strong, he would change whatever way Jaejoong wanted him to change, and he would find the other. He wouldn’t give up until they were living together again, until Jaejoong had accepted him.
And yet, the fight seemed endless. Day after day, Yunho had to struggle against the same urges, and he was beginning to doubt himself.
“Losing hope, Sulekha?” Lata asked, folding her hands on her lap, looking at Yunho very seriously. As the boy grew older, he had also grown more private; it wasn’t as easy to get through to him as it had once been. “Are you regretting your old decisions? You know that it is never too late…but I still think we did the right thing.”
“It’s just,” Yunho started, stopping to sigh. “I don’t know. I feel so restless.”
“I have told you this countless times already, lovely Sulekha,” Lata said, “and I will say it another countless times if you need it. What matters is the strength of one’s mind; the state of one’s body comes next. It is not our bodily functions God wants. God wants our devotion, our love; our faith.”
Yunho looked away, knowing that he had nothing to say. He kept trying and trying, but it just didn’t seem to work. For a while already, he had wondered if he should even be living there, among the women. Even though he kept his troubles strictly to himself, he felt like he was betraying the very thing the community stood for, just with his presence there.
“God doesn’t want you to forget the one inside your heart, lovely Sulekha. God wants you to go on loving him; God wants you to be thankful to him for all the love and care he showed you before you came here. The only thing you need to do is strengthen your mind and cleanse yourself.”
Lata looked at him, trying to have the boy turn his eyes back at her, but he refused. She sighed, helpless in front of the teenager’s defiance.
“Close your eyes,” she said, arranging herself into a cross-legged position. “Let your mind rest.”
Yunho watched Lata as she emptied her mind seemingly effortlessly, slipping out of her normal, strictly attentive demeanour. He had been taught how to do it countless times, but it just did not work for him. Lata always told him not to be discouraged, as he was still only a young boy. No one was able to take control of the fleeting human mind so quickly, especially not anyone with such deep internal conflicts as Yunho.
“Lata!” Just as Yunho had decided to close his eyes and try to achieve what Lata wanted him to achieve for the thousandth time, someone came to the inner yard, running. “There’s a wedding in the eastern quarter of the town! A son of a slaver; rich folks!”
Faster than anyone could imagine, the fat woman had jumped back on her feet, already running towards the door.
“Lovely Sulekha!” she yelled. “Bring out the henna! We are going to earn some today!”
Yunho smiled at her enthusiasm as he stood up. He knew the household had been tight on money lately; during the years Yunho had lived in the town, the drought had extended. Year after year, the rainy season was shorter, and crop failures were frequent news. People hardly had money to spare for the beggars, not even for Lata and her companions.
Soon, all the women were swarming on the yard, straightening out their gowns and painting complicated patterns on their bare feet and arms with the brown dye. Yunho could hardly stay still as the others held his hands and drew on them. Over time, he had grown to love going out to beg with the others. In fact, he hardly saw it as begging anymore. They might have seemed noisy and disorganized to outsiders, but their dance and song had some elaborate inner structure that Yunho loved. Lata had been pleased with his interest in the art they practiced, and in one short year, Yunho had risen to a high position as a dancer. The others complimented him for his elegant movement and controlled hands, and Yunho was only happy to accept their praise.
The only moment when he truly felt like a part of the community was when they were outside, dancing and singing, praising their God.
With smiles on their faces, the band of women made their way through the town. It was quiet; it was a Saturday, and trade was forbidden. In the empty alleyways, the women’s singing felt even louder, bouncing off crumbling clay brick walls and filling the streets. From all the noise they were making themselves, Yunho only realised they had already reached the wedding when he saw countless flowers arranged around the house were the festivities were held.
Yunho halted his steps, staring at the decorated house with wonder. With the town experiencing severe drought and decline in business, it was rare for him to see such an extravagant sight. It was rarely that he saw flowers at all, let alone such an amount of them at the same time; all glimmering with the most bright of colours, luring any passer-by to at least sneak a peek inside the gate.
“Sulekha, come!” Someone took hold of Yunho’s arm, and he was swiftly pulled inside.
“The eunuchs are here! The eunuchs are here!” he heard someone shouting, and soon their lot was surrounded by wedding guests, some frowning with pure disgust, some eyeing them with curious contempt.
“Get out!” a man snapped, stopping right in front of Lata, waving his hands to shoo them away but careful not to touch the woman in front of him.
“Sir!” Lata shouted animatedly, directing her words at the crowd around them. “As soon as we’ll have congratulated the bride and the bridegroom and wished them utmost luck with their future together! May God bless their marriage!”
The man stared at her with reluctance, but said nothing more. Yunho knew he could not shoo them away without accepting their dance and singing first, no matter how much he wanted to. It was a tradition, a tradition older than the union of man and woman itself, Lata had told him.
It was a strange co-existence they had, their lot and the rest of the town. A synergy of a kind, but the most reluctant kind of synergy Yunho had ever witnessed. The eunuchs were tolerated, and they were given money as per old traditions required; but Yunho had never seen a single friendly smile thrown in their way.
Even now, as the women slowly begun their performance, the wedding crowd around them bustled and whispered, displeased expressions on their faces. Yunho joined the others quickly, finding his own place as they danced in circles to the rhythms of different percussions. Slowly, the crow became more and more noisy but Yunho paid them no heed; the rush of dance had swept him along as it did every time they went out. He was spinning, his speed increasing, and at that moment he felt like he might just dance like that until his very life ended. He wanted to throw his head back and laugh and keep dancing until his legs gave in underneath him.
“Alright, alright, enough!” someone shouted, and something was thrown at him. Yunho felt a few coins hit his body and clatter around the ground. One of the other women dove for them, but Yunho kept dancing. The crowd was now loud and restless, an endless shower of coins cascading around them accompanied by vulgar hollers.
Then Yunho felt something bigger hit his leg, something soft that splattered along his leg. The wedding guests had run out of money, and were now throwing different things at them, food from the overflowing tables and small rocks from the ground. Yunho even saw someone take off his sandal, but before he had a chance to see if the man actually threw it he was being pulled out of the gate.
Some of the crowd spilled onto the street after them, but the women laughed and hopped away cheerfully, their pockets heavy with money but their hearts light.
“What a feast it was!” Lata stated cheerfully, hands curled tightly around a scarf bundle, jiggling the contents. “I am waiting for the day they shall clap at our performance and ask us to sit down, ‘here old Lata, have a piece of bread for your trouble! Take a sip of wine too!’”
The woman next to them laughed, running her hand through her hair. “I was invited to have a taste indeed,” she exclaimed as her fingers came back sticky. Mockingly, she licked one, and then winked at Yunho. “Honey pastries.”
Yunho chuckled, glancing down at his leg that was covered in something red. The faint orange henna paintings decorating his ankles and instep were barely visible underneath the mess.
He looked back up towards Lata, but what rather caught his attention was the familiar figure standing in the street corner, almost hidden in the shadows of an alleyway.
Or rather, two figures. Yunho stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening as he regarded the pair. The other women seemed to notice nothing out of ordinary as they continued their light-hearted trip back home.
It was Heechul, her hair flowing open as she leaned heavily against the chest of a tall gentleman whom she had backed to a brick wall. Yunho had never seen him before, but even without the hours Heechul had spent describing her dear patron to Yunho, he would have recognised the man immediately. It was all quite obvious, with the way Heechul craned her neck and tipped her chin, lips curled into a beatific smile as she stroked her elegant hands over the man’s shoulders and upper arms. The man’s hands rested on Heechul’s lower back, thumbs caressing the naked skin of her thin waist. Yunho could see how the man’s grip tightened and how he pulled Heechul even more tightly against his body when the girl’s hands settled on his neck.
Without further ado, Heechul’s long fingers tangled in the man’s wavy hair and she pulled his face down, tilting her own face up to kiss the man. Yunho had seen kisses before, and he had even received them—Jaejoong kissed him all the time, if never on the lips—but the kiss between Heechul and her unknown patron was something quite different. Their whole bodies moved as their mouths moved together, almost as if they were trying to wrap each other around themselves, fit them over their skin and wear their lover like a tunic.
The sight had Yunho mesmerised; it went straight to his stomach and arouse the usual tickle that he had tried so hard to get rid of. Yunho tilted his head, drinking in the sight of a passionate kiss of two lowers, paying attention to the smallest detail when suddenly a hand was placed on his shoulder. He gave a start, letting out a small yelp, alerting the pair of lovers who immediately untangled their complicated knot of limbs.
It was Lata, scowling unapprovingly at the couple. Yunho stared at the woman for a split second before she turned to meet his eyes, looking slightly disappointed.
“Sulekha,” she sighed, her voice strained, “I do not approve of this. My words might be worth naught to Heechul, but you…” She sighed again, looking back to the lovers as her face twisted with disgust. “This is so unsightly. So unworthy!”
Yunho followed her gaze to the street corner, only to find Heechul staring back at them with an undecipherable look on her face. Her eyes skimmed over Lata, focusing on Yunho, and for a moment their gazes locked before Heechul suddenly smirked, winking at Yunho before she turned her face back up, smiling up at her patron.
The following kiss was even more passionate than the one Yunho had witnessed before. In fact, it was more in every single possible aspect; noisier, wetter, faster, and Yunho couldn’t tear his eyes away for the love of God.
“Sulekha!” Lata hissed into his ear, just when Yunho had completely forgotten about her presence again. His eyes snapped back, and he hung his head in shame, following the woman meekly as she led him away by his hand.
That night, Yunho could hardly sleep. The exhilarating rush that performing always brought on mixed with the stunned flush from seeing Heechul like that, made sure Yunho was still tossing and turning in his corner when everyone else was already snoring away around him. His body felt over-wired and high-strung, like he was ready to spring up at any given moment.
He couldn’t get the earlier event out of his mind. What he had seen had been so different from anything else he had ever witnessed before. There had been something between the two people, or maybe it was something in the air; something that Yunho had been able to sense all the way to the other side of the road. It had left Yunho utterly dumbfounded, but fascinated at the same time. Thirsty. Yunho had never felt such thirst before.
Even in his continuous dreams of Jaejoong, the ones that didn’t turn violent and distressing in the middle, he had never reached such heights. Yunho had a vivid imagination, but after all, his dreams were all product of his own, inexperienced mind. He didn’t have any real experience himself, nor had anyone ever showed the kind of interest he had seen Heechul lavish her patron with, towards him. Yunho couldn’t put his finger around it exactly, but he had an idea what it could have been. It was something he knew very well, but something he had never had reciprocated; want.
Yunho turned over again, frustrated with his own body that would always betray him at any moment, regardless of all the effort Yunho had made in order to have control over it. One glimpse of something new and stimulating, and he felt overwhelmed once again, exactly the same way he had after his first dreams involving Jaejoong, during the time when they had still lived on the steppe together.
Having drawn a whole circle of thoughts back to Jaejoong, Yunho groaned aloud, flipping over to lie on his stomach. It was no use; whatever trick he tried, his mind would not let go of what he had seen. He listened very carefully for a moment, but when he could detect nothing else but the gentle snores and drowsy mumbling of the women, he finally gave up, letting his imagination take him where it wanted. He imagined how it would feel if there was similar tension between him and Jaejoong; how it would feel if Jaejoong gripped his hair and pulled his face up like he had seen Heechul do to the man. How it would feel to see that glint of passion in Jaejoong’s eyes.
How it would feel to be wanted.
Yunho was starting to feel a familiar panicky guilt raise its head inside of him. He was about to start convincing himself to get a grip, that right now he was throwing away everything Lata had taught him, all the progression he had made throughout the last year.
Then suddenly there was a hand on his shoulder, and he jerked, gasping as he quickly turned over.
It was Heechul; looming right there over him, face very close to Yunho’s, an unreadable look on her face.
“Shh!” she hissed aggressively, glancing around. “Quiet Yunho, we don’t want anyone to wake up.”
Yunho nodded wordlessly, staring at Heechul who looked about the same as she always did. For some reason, Yunho had expected her come to come back different, maybe sad and disturbed, or maybe tense; but instead, she looked half-amused and kind of like she wanted to say something, which was a very normal expression for the talkative girl.
She observed the room quickly before taking her hand off Yunho’s shoulder and beckoning for the boy to follow her. Yunho had no reason not to; it wasn’t as if he would be able to fall asleep anyway. To be quite honest, he was also curious about what the other might have wanted to say to him. So, he got up quickly and quietly, trailing after Heechul as she led him out of the door.
He studied the girl’s back as he followed her. During the two years he had spent under the care of the eunuchs, he had thrived; his limbs were now strengthened by constant dancing and household chores, and his ribs no longer stuck out. He had grown taller, too, no longer looking like a starving child, but Heechul still towered over him by some inches.
He was so lost in his comparing their physiques that when Heechul finally stopped, turning around to face him, Yunho walked right into her. He stepped back, disoriented and embarrassed, but Heechul only smiled at him, steadying him with a hand on his upper arm.
Yunho looked around them, dry sand under his toes. Heechul had led them out of the house, and they were standing in the farthest corner of the inner yard.
When he looked back at Heechul, the girl was studying his face carefully, her expression as unreadable as it had been earlier that day on the street. Yunho wasn’t sure if the girl was trying to hide her thoughts, or if her thoughts were simply so numerous that she couldn’t decide which one to display on her face.
Then the familiar, constantly amused smile was back on, and Heechul’s hand travelled upwards until it was resting on the junction between Yunho’s shoulder and neck.
“So,” she started, “enjoyed the show? I saw you weren’t able to sleep tonight… Not that there’s anything new there.”
Yunho stared at her for a moment, blinking, before her words registered properly, causing a heat to rise from his chest and colour his cheeks with a rosy red.
“I-I,” he stammered, only to be cut off by Heechul’s amused chuckling.
“Don’t worry, kid,” she said, “I had wanted to show off my patron to you once anyway so it is all good. And it’s always an extra if I get the chance to properly rile up Lata.”
A tone of defiant detestation had snuck its way into her voice.
“What did she say to you?”
Yunho lowered his eyes, unable to repeat Lata’s degrading words to the girl while looking into her eyes.
“U-unsightly…” he whispered. “Unworthy.”
The grip of Heechul’s fingers on his neck tightened for a moment, before they went lack again as she released a tight, sharp laughter.
“Unworthy!” she reiterated. “And unsightly? She might benefit from a glimpse into a mirror. But let us not discuss this any more… Her opinions are well known to us both.”
Yunho nodded in silent agreement, still unable to meet Heechul’s eyes.
There was a silent moment before Heechul tilted Yunho’s chin up. Her eyes were now gentler, softer than they ever were in the presence of any other eunuchs.
“You couldn’t sleep,” she stated her observation again. Yunho shook his head, trying to lower his eyes again, but Heechul prevented him, keeping a firm hold of his chin.
“Why?” she asked simply.
Yunho hesitated only for a while before the answer rolled out of his mouth.
“Even now, even after all I’ve done,” he confessed frantically, “I cannot get him out of my mind! And when I saw you today… You—you and your patron, together, and I thought— I wondered how it would be if—I have really tried to stop it, today too, I tried! But he won’t leave me alone… He will never leave me alone—”
“I know, Yunho, I know,” Heechul smiled softly, “even Lata couldn’t beat it out of you—”
“A-and I wondered how it would be, even though I know he wouldn’t be like you and…he wouldn’t—he would hate me…” Yunho’s voice caved in, and he stared in at Heechul’s face, feeling deep urgency to make her understand how things were.
Heechul placed both of his hands on Yunho’s cheeks, gazing down at him with a slightly sorrowful expression.
“He would hate me,” Yunho started anew, “he would hate me and Lata would hate me and God would hate me and it would never be wonderful it would only be dirty, and sickening, and—and horrible, and he would hurt, I would hurt him… I wouldn’t care, I would just hurt him, I don’t want to hurt him, Heechul!”
Heechul stared at him before suddenly, her lips were against Yunho’s. The kiss was short, more of a peck than anything else. It did serve its purpose, silencing Yunho as his mouth fell open with wonder.
Someone had just kissed him. Kissed him willingly.
Yunho felt a lighting travel though his body. It was not the same long-lasting, heated sensation that teased him every night when he thought of Jaejoong; it was faster and colder, it was a plain urgency that demanded relief.
Heechul’s thumbs caressed his cheeks and ran over his lower lip, before her mouth curled into a smile.
“You are wrong,” she stated, loud and clear. “You are wrong, and Lata is wrong. There is nothing wrong with want! There is nothing wrong with want, or lust—or sex… Ah, how I hate that woman!”
Yunho stared at Heechul, but the girl just looked back at him, refusing to say anything more. When he finally reached up, curling his fingers around Heechul’s wrist, the girl’s face cracked up into a full grin.
“Let me teach you a few things, kid,” she muttered, her hands trailing lower to untangle Yunho’s long scarf. “There are many different ways go about it, you know. And something tells me that you have only known the wrong kinds before…”
Heechul tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, smiling like a conspirator before he pulled Yunho down to sit on the ground, kissing his neck.
“I believe—no, I know you will find him again one day,” she whispered. “It can be good, Yunho. It can be wonderful. No-one needs to hurt, or feel sickened.”
She placed her hand on Yunho’s clothed chest. Yunho was sure she could feel his heart thundering inside, as fast as a desert rat’s heart.
“No-one needs to hurt,” she said, staring at him, her smile now melted into grave sincerity.
For a moment that night, while they embraced each other, Yunho actually believed her.
Two years went by, and Yunho was starting to forget how rain felt like. The drought continued until the earth cracked and the steppe lost the last of its sparse southern hay, turning into a full-blown desert. At first, people started giving their dogs only old sandal leather to eat, but when the dry season stretched during the fifth consecutive year, they killed their dogs and ate the sandal leather themselves.
Even with the harshness of their surroundings, Yunho continued to prosper. He grew taller, until he was taller than any other in the house; and he grew stronger until he was as strong as Lata and Heechul combined. He grew fatter too; and all the women complimented him, how their little slip of a boy had grown into a beautiful, beautiful person.
But the drought was hard on the people’s wallets, and even weddings were rarely celebrated during those hard times. Begging resulted to nothing more than a few scraps of burnt yam most days; and no matter how much it displeased Lata, even she had to admit that their household was entirely dependant on Heechul’s income.
The aggravating thought only drove Lata to ostracise the girl even more harshly than normally, but Heechul hardly noticed, let alone cared. She was rarely home anymore at any rate, not even during daytime. They hadn’t had much interaction in years except for that one night, but it still made Yunho feel conflictedly sorry for her. He knew she was forced to take on increasingly more and more customers; and he wondered what her patron thought about it. No matter how much he pondered on the question, he could never arrive in a conclusion where both Heechul and the patron were happy and content.
The few times a week Yunho managed to catch a glimpse of the girl, she looked tired and older. Even if her eyes never lost their strong spark, she was thinner, no matter how much she ate.
One day, when Yunho was sitting on the inner yard as per usual, writing down rows of two very familiar characters, a group of women came in, fussing around. They shouted and fiddled and ran back and forth, and when Yunho got on his two feet to see what was going on, he was shocked to silence.
The women were carrying Heechul, although she was rather hard to recognise. Her face was bloody and swollen, and her arms hung down without any strength in them. When her eyes met Yunho’s, she made an effort to direct him a smile, but it seemed to hurt her face and she winced painfully. Yunho rushed forward, quickly taking Heechul from the wailing women, hoisting her up into his arms and carrying her inside.
Lata stood in the doorway, dumbfounded and silent when Yunho passed her. She looked away quickly when he reached her, gesturing Yunho to bring Heechul into her room. The group that had brought her in followed them, rushing to bring in water and clean rags, and someone yelled something about healing salve.
Yunho lowered Heechul carefully on her blankets as she coughed harshly, her ribs protruding and bruised. Quickly, the women had pushed him back, making a tight circle around her as they started to tend to her wounds.
“What happened,” Yunho whispered to no-one in particular. A woman standing next him in the doorway grimaced, sighing loudly before rubbing her face in an exhausted manner.
“Someone thought it fitting to remind her we are the scum of this community,” she said through clenched teeth. “Whores. Worthless.”
Yunho stared at Heechul with dread. She looked barely conscious, her eyes half-open and lips parted for painful inhalations. He was sure at least a few of her ribs were broken judged by the bruising, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if there were other internal wounds.
“It’s not the first time,” the woman continued. “When the times are harsh… They take it on people weaker than them. The only reason they give us money is to keep the Gods content, and yet, all they get in return is this never-ending drought.”
Yunho nodded wordlessly, still gazing at Heechul, his heart constricting in his chest. All she had done was to provide for a houseful of women, exerting herself to feed them all; but what she had been given in return was contempt from the very people she supported on her own shoulders, and abuse from her customers.
“Just great!” someone else cried out. “How are we going to eat now? She won’t be up for weeks!”
“Dancing is of no use,” another woman said, falling on her knees. “Who will help us now?”
“Lovely Sulekha,” someone said suddenly, and before Yunho had enough time to back out of the room, everyone had turned around to look at him.
“So lovely,” someone else sighed. Yunho couldn’t even open his mouth, so stunned he was, but then his eyes met Heechul’s broken form again, and tears sprang to his eyes.
When the night came, they had dressed Yunho in the best gown of the house, draped their most beautiful scarf over his shoulder and decorated his hands and feet. They had draped heavy gold-coloured chains on his neck and wrists and ankles, and they had brushed his short, dark hair.
When Yunho stepped out of the door, Lata was still standing in the doorway, but this time she met his eyes. She looked remorseful, reluctant, and angry, but just when Yunho expected her to open her mouth, she kept it shut. It was like she was challenging Yunho to speak up; but he simply couldn’t. It only took a flash of Heechul’s image inside his mind, and he was reminded of whose money he had lived on for years now.
He had no idea what he was doing, and all his determination seemed to melt into fearful confusion, but he kept walking, feeling Lata’s eyes on his back. He paid her no heed, as it was her who was betraying everything she had ever taught Yunho.
Yunho had never learnt in the first place.
As he walked the streets, he felt oddly light and empty; it was a somewhat simple task he had been given. He would need to walk to a certain place, where he would meet someone waiting for him. Desperately, he tried to not think of what would come afterwards, concentrating on the task of finding his way to the right place. Despite the lightness of his feet, his steps were slow; and the closer he got to his destination, the slower his steps became.
But no matter how slowly he walked, in the end he inevitably reached the particular dirty, dark corner of a street. As he had been told, there was someone waiting for him, standing in the shadows with a leashed mule next to him.
He was wearing a white scarf, clearly a man originating from a bigger town. For a short moment Yunho forgot all about what he was about to do, instead reminded of the capital city; who knew, maybe Jaejoong was there right at the moment?
“How lovely,” the man commented, stepping forwards. His eyes skimmed over Yunho’s sturdy form approvingly. “Perfect.”
Yunho’s palms sweated and he felt a strong urge to either run or fight; but against all his instincts, he stepped even closer when the man urged him. The man reached his hand out, feeling Yunho’s arms, squeezing his biceps.
“Seems to be my lucky day. How often might one come across such a suitable individual?” he smiled, and before Yunho knew it, he had been spun around, his wrists tightly tied together. The man dragged him towards his mule, managing to hoist Yunho’s long form to hang diagonally on top of it.
“The reward I will land!” the man rubbed his hands with joy as he led the mule out of the alleyway.
Yunho stayed put. He was still dazed of the unexpected turn of events; but besides that, he didn’t really care. There was nothing for him in this town.