Passi’s uncle had a gentle voice and face, but he did cruel things when no one was watching. He was a cruel man. Passi barely moved his lips when he uttered those words.
Did he beat you? With his fist or a tool? I asked him.
Passi rocked his body back and forth. It was a more subtle form of abuse, he said. Verbal abuse that conveyed a physical form. Malicious acts. Unpleasant contact. For instance, when he was talking to you, he would always pull your upper ear. Like this. Passi pulled the top part of his ear with a thumb and an index finger. His muscles tightened, and the right side of his face flattened out subtly. A kid has a thin neck, so when you pull his ear up like this, his head tilts right away. Then you yell into his ear.
Again! Again! You, little, bastard, you spilled, your food, again! Pick it up, and eat it, before I rip that thing off!
Passi was mimicking someone. My face went cold when I heard that voice. I had never heard Passi speak in such a voice. There was something sticky to the tone. I thought of the time when I had touched a freshly painted wall. I took my palm off the wall, and a thick layer of enamel paint came off with it, like skin. I washed my hands using all kinds of cleansers, but the paint wouldn’t come off completely. I felt as if I were looking at the paint. Passi took his fingers off his ear, and rubbed his flushed ears with his hand.
My uncle said ordinary things in the same way. When he did, there was always saliva on his lips, and the lips touched my ear. Over and over. Have your ears ever been bruised?
I replied that I didn’t remember.
Ears are a little different from other body parts, and aren’t easily bruised. I once tried to bruise my own ear, but it didn’t work. But whenever my uncle touched my ear, it always got bruised.
Didn’t his wife say anything?
She didn’t say anything. I don’t think she knew. Maybe she was pretending she didn’t know. Anyway, she worked and came home late in the evening. She was nice on the surface, but she wouldn’t let us cross a certain line. And there was something about my uncle’s cruelty that couldn’t be explained to others. What he enjoyed the most was to make us stand in a room. He would make us stand there and pile verbal abuse on us, pull our ears or wave something sharp, like a pencil, before our eyes. For hours on end. He would go get a drink of water or go to the bathroom in between, and always come back to where we were and say awful things to us. We stood there. How do you explain something like that to others? Uncle makes us stand there and hurls abuse at us—like that? Listening to hi...
Hwang Jungeun has written three novels and two short story collections. She has won several literary awards such as the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award. Her novel One Hundred Shadows is set to be published by Tilted Axis this October.