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FICTION

The Story of a Ladle

  • onMarch 24, 2015
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byJo Kyung Ran
The Story of a Ladle
2004
294pp.

For years I’ve been thinking about balance. Not in the sense that both humans and animals prefer symmetrical facial features, and not about the kind of actual, rational balance that must be considered when climbing onto a balance beam and getting ready for the next move, but about people’s private lives. They look like they’re just barely able to get by, preserving life’s rhythm by keeping their day-to-day routine free of disruption. So when my maternal uncle invited me to live with him, I didn’t think about it much. I spent just twenty-four hours wondering whether it would be better to control my mind or my environment. I’ve never lived alone. The main reason is that I haven’t wanted to, but I’ve come to realize that I only feel like myself when I’m with others. It doesn’t have to be family. But I’ve lost a lot and been on my own for several months now. My uncle’s the only person around to take care of me, so I really have no options. I started thinking about balance when wondering whether people inevitably hurt each other. When I blurt something out, I feel the words turning mean. If my father has left me anything, it’s an awareness of the difficulty of speaking and a sense of responsibility for words spoken too fast. I want to vent my feelings sometimes, but whenever this happens his voice comes thundering at me like music at full blast: “Aren’t you ashamed? Don’t you feel guilty? Don’t you regret what you’ve said?” So instead of venting, I’ve taken to performing various repetitive actions like reading or taking a walk at a certain time, or picking up pieces of glass. These actions have taken hold of my life and given it a rhythm, and I’ve come to feel they’re very important, the only things of true value. They give me a sense of regularity and direction. They work like magic in helping me adapt to circumstances. The moment I start doing them, my inner tension and anxiety temporarily ease. I can’t stop. I call it balance, but people familiar with psychology would call it obsessive-compulsive disorder—although no one calls it an obsession if you can’t get a pleasant thought out of your mind. Still, I can’t stop picking up bits of glass. There are pieces scattered everywhere. I have to pick up what I can.

Once I spent the whole day lying down without moving or doing anything. My tension and anxiety grew into fear, and my body began to tingle all over. I’m scared of things like cutting my feet on pieces of glass hidden in corners of the house and getting covered in blood and ending up unable to walk or even crawl, although I know it won’t likely happen. But when I think of the possibility, I can’t help but engage in repetitive behavior. The more anxious I become, the more I feel the need. I lived with my uncle once before when I was very young. At that time, he had nowhere to turn. Maybe that’s how I look now, in his eyes. What’s more, I’ve been unemployed for so long, there’s no guarantee I’ll ever work again. Spending some time together with my eight-year-old cousin isn’t such a bad idea, all things considered.

 

I need to be with someone, but I don’t have a good reason for it. Maybe when I say this, it’s just an excuse. The idea came to me suddenly the night before I moved. No one is perfect. Although I know I have irrational thoughts, rather than deal with them directly, I can reduce my anxiety by repeating certain actions. Really, this is a way of ignoring the problem and getting by. One reason I need to be with someone is because that person can assist me. “There aren’t any pieces of glass there?” Or, “I really locked the gas valve before coming out?” It’s reassuring when someone’s around to answer these questions. I have difficulty getting by without this kind of help. But it’s possible there are other factors involved this time.

A long time ago I knew someone who couldn’t stop collecting things. With a peaceful but tired air, he would sit in the middle of the junk that filled his home, crouched in a space so small there was no room to walk. We met just often enough that we could remember each other’s faces. A few years went by and I tried going to his house. He looked as if he’d been in the same spot forever, dressed in worn-out clothes, standing in the negligible space that existed in the middle of all the junk. He announced he could no longer live there. I still haven’t forgotten the way he looked. Though the day was warm and mild, I could see the white outline of his breath as if it were very cold. Of course, I had to make allowances for him since he had he had suffered a lot. We had to dig through the piles of junk to find something he needed for a long journey. Obsessed with objects people regard as old and useless, he’d gathered mountains of things, but ultimately he was unable to find what he was looking for in them. That day he was searching for a slender, flat, dark green passport that blended in with the background. I didn’t hear any news of him after that. Maybe he’d gone. A few times I paced back and forth in front of his house. Who knows if I couldn’t have lived together with him at one time? In the end, I didn’t. Now, once more, I’m looking at a mountain of junk in front of me. Even if there’s something I want to find, it will be impossible in such a large, dark, solid mass. I feel like I’ve been struck, as if someone has clapped me on the shoulder with a bamboo fan. Perhaps I want to find out what it is I’ve really wanted all along, since well before I started obsessing about balance. Would I ever find it living alone? Opening up the environment: maybe that was my reason for deciding to move.

 

3 The atmosphere inside the house was not how I imagined. I heard my aunt left three years ago. Although I wasn’t there to see her go, I can see the scene vividly in my mind because my relatives talk about it whenever they get together. Once when I came out of a large building downtown with the white snow falling thickly and the darkness rushing in, when the bus home hadn’t come in a while, and I felt cut off from everyone, it seemed that on that Friday evening, something dramatic was called for, and I saw the silhouette of a woman walking in the storm. Was this person my aunt? When she walked out—just a short, insignificant slip of a woman—she took a comforter with her. I heard she slid her bare feet into my uncle’s rubber slippers and went tottering down the alley with the comforter balanced on her head. The neighborhood dry cleaner was the one who told us. Seeing my aunt approaching with the comforter, he threw the shop door wide and came outside, expecting she was coming to see him. But he couldn’t call to her to stop after she passed by without as much as a glance. That’s how it happened, all right. She would have been oblivious, walking along a fixed route with the concentration one generally reserves for handling knives. Local gossips said she hid her bankbook and some gold nuggets in the comforter, and some of them even said she had a lover rolled up inside it. My uncle gave up looking for her. If she’d taken the comforter, she wouldn’t be long in one place. Just as no one knows what makes the sound in an old drum, neither my uncle nor anyone else knew why my aunt had walked out. I guess she felt tired and desolate, and the family she left behind felt that way too.

My cousin had grown a lot, and I looked at him for a long time. I’d been wrong to think my uncle was asking me to help raise him. My cousin’s face was flushed and glowing warmly; his eyes were dark, and he had a gentle manner of speaking. I could tell from his face that he’d never once been in trouble. In front of this boy who’d lost his mother, but whose face intimated an unshakeable faith in a world of wonder, I felt strangely choked with emotion. Something about his expression reminded me of my own look of patient suffering. That evening while drinking rice wine, my uncle sang: “I collapsed on the beach and opened my eyes. Your black sailboat swayed in the bright light and it looked like your tired arms were fading in and out. I saw you motioning me from the side of the boat. But the waves were speaking, telling me you’d never return.”

 

4 My father said you can tell within seven seconds how a person was raised. For example, he’d say, “That guy grew up like a wild animal,” or “He was showered with praise, and his parents expected big things from him.” My father judged people along these lines, but sometimes it was those who were praised and held up to high standards that got together and drove him into a corner. My father was raised in poverty, and I was raised amidst sighs. So according to my father, my uncle and I belonged in a category: people brought up amidst sighs. Although my uncle has been working as a cook for 30 years, he’s been through a lot of hard times. Maybe it was during the Asian financial crisis that he was let go at the restaurant and started making his living by the Han River, which is where I will sit and remember him years from now. To me, this is not a peaceful land covered in primroses and river flowers, the home to kingfishers, herons, and white-cheeked ducks, but rather the place where my uncle lived in rags for a fall and winter one year. My uncle would catch more than thirty red-eared turtles a day there. This was when the easy-going domestic spotted turtle was threatened with extinction by growing numbers of red-eared turtles not native to the country. I heard that besides my uncle, there were more than ten other people who made their living catching turtles at the Han River then. They sold the turtles as pets or to be used in medicine. Although it wasn’t illegal, my uncle said he always had the feeling someone was coming after him. It’s different catching turtles, even foreign ones, than catching carp or mandarin fish. For half the day my uncle would lie on a tarp spread over the damp sand thinking about the ladle he’d left at home.

On his bookshelf is a book with a funny title: Research into the function and improvement of ladles: The capability of a superior ladle, and how it may be produced. The book is really no more than a collection of photocopied articles, and although I haven’t read them, they all deal with ladles. Ladles for scooping or stirring. I giggled to see it. When I was very young and my uncle lived with us, he hit me once with a ladle. Cooking Chinese food, the ladle is like his right arm, no different from a body part. Working ten hours a day in the kitchen, he can’t put it down for a moment. Unlike other cuisine, Chinese food is special in that it’s usually cooked instantly over a hot flame, and the ladle is used for a number of purposes, not only stir-frying but also measuring spices and mixing ingredients in a pan. So neither a kitchen scale, a beaker, or a measuring spoon is needed. A simple ladle can do it all. My uncle has used the same ladle for almost thirty years. It was passed down to him from a senior cook, and before that it had been owned by that cook’s teacher, so not even my uncle knows how old it is. Once I saw this ladle, which took my uncle from the local Chinese take-out joint to the kitchen of a fashionable hotel. I remember it as being ordinary stainless steel, with a long sleek handle and marks around the neck from where it had been soldered a number of times; the bowl was worn down so that it looked tarnished. But my uncle never dreamed of buying a new one or using an extra one lying around the kitchen. He said once he’d tried to replace it. It wasn’t long before even his regular customers began to stop coming. The taste of the food was off. He threw out the new ladle that hadn’t suited him and ever after that swore by the old one. This happened twenty years ago. When I started living at my uncle’s house, I discovered that just as there are some people who closely identify themselves with things like books, music, cars or perhaps soccer balls, there are also people who can’t imagine their lives without tools like ladles. My uncle thinks there’s nothing more important than maintaining consistency in his cooking, and without the ladle this would be impossible. I soon came to understand my uncle. One Sunday morning he was stretching, and as he moved back and forth, I discovered that his right arm resembled a ladle coming out of his body. Shining in the morning sun, it waved from his shoulder with a gentle, flexible motion. I looked in astonishment at my uncle and the ladle together. There was no other ladle like it.

Lying on the damp sand thinking about the ladle, suddenly my uncle rose. His pain had seemed unendurable, but at that moment he realized that this pain was exactly what he had to overcome, and he could hardly believe his own strength at that moment. He added shyly that I wouldn’t have believed it either. The ladle he’d been using for so long reassured him that this had really happened. Anyway, we both remembered it. One reason I could remember my uncle living by the river that season was because it was around the time my aunt had walked out. That fall, the red-eared turtles had encroached on the Han River bank. For a long time afterwards, I kept dreaming that turtles were catching and eating each other, and there was something different about this than dreaming of carp eating carp.

 

5 I had to pause for a minute taking off my shoes, I was so confused when my cousin asked what scenery I’d passed on the street. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I’d gone somewhere and come back. That had been the awkward thing about living alone. There’d been no one around to tell me about what kind of person I was. My cousin told me I’d been away for three hours and during that time it had grown dark and he’d folded the laundry. Three hours. I took off my creased black gloves and placed them on the kitchen table. They were still warm with body heat, as if to prove I’d been getting exercise. I liked walking. I believed that when I walked, I always knew ahead of time the exact point where I’d turn around and come home. I didn’t look in front of me, though; I looked back. It seemed like my cousin had been writing in his diary. Although he wanted to know about the streets outside, I hadn’t seen anything. I had nothing to tell him. I tried to remember where I’d stopped and turned back, but couldn’t remember that either. How far had I gone? Maybe there’d never been a turning point. It would be wrong to think I’d walked facing forward. To walk turned away is not to walk towards a destination at all, but to drift away from one, to get farther away from the vertex. Perhaps walking didn’t have meaning for me anymore. But I didn’t stop. I practiced looking ten meters out at the sites and the people on the street so that I could tell my cousin about them. I couldn’t bring myself to mention the glass. Sometimes I’d end up telling him, “Red things are red, and dark things dark,” because I hadn’t looked out. I’d been too busy worrying about pieces of glass. Another reason I walked was to test my willpower. In the beginning, I’d had a phobia of leaving the house. The streets were full of glass, and I couldn’t understand how other people failed to see that. Each step became harder as I went around picking up shards and putting them in a plastic bag. But this was the best way for me to adapt to circumstances. The people sauntered along obliviously, as if to show me there are times when you shouldn’t let on that you’ve stepped on glass. The child usually stared at me blankly with his mouth shut. I’d thought he had a soft and gentle speaking style, but maybe he just didn’t speak very much. And he, too, knew not to reveal that he’d been hurt. In a sad mood after drinking, my uncle rubbed my cousin’s back at night, muttering, “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” This seemed melodramatic, but my uncle didn’t usually exaggerate things. This was why I accepted the ladle story at face value. I sometimes looked down and asked my cousin, “What are you afraid of?” The question flew back at me, like an arrow a man shoots into the air while lying on his back. It was almost beyond my ability to ask, “Why don’t you ever go outside?”

My cousin and I needed to say precisely, in specific detail, what we’d seen and what we’d see. It would be our only way to commemorate my uncle and his ladle.

 

6 Although things like doing the laundry and preparing food didn’t matter much, gathering the required materials for my cousin’s first grade class was hard work. Besides supplies that I could guess the use for, such as indoor slippers, yarn, colored origami paper, dice, and party hats, there were items like needles, mirrors, dried flowers, flour, and corn silk, which would be used only God knows how. My cousin did not list them item by item for me, but I quietly gathered them. If I couldn’t find something at home, I’d take pains to get it. Reading over a list of items my cousin told me he needed in two days, I came upon the word “eyeballs.” I carefully scanned the list again. Below eyeballs were “clay,” “wooden chopsticks,” “wire” and “dye.” Of course “eyeballs” was the odd one out. But by the next day I had to have all of these things. Once I’d taken a bus to the traditional market and picked up millet, barley, and different colored beans. The list had specified only a few grains of each, but I’d made small pouches out of an old cloth and filled them up like beanbags and sent them with him. If he needed one apple, I got him three; if he needed ten colored pencil crayons, I sent twenty. Likely there were more things my cousin needed, but that was all I could do for him. A few days after that, my cousin presented me with a round clock drawn on a large sheet of construction paper. It had large-sized Arabic numerals on it, and each numeral was filled with light-yellow millet and red, black and white beans. Indecisive but perfectionist, my cousin had a horror of making mistakes, and the clock he made had a commanding presence, looking both sturdy and exquisite. I posted it up on the wall in the living room and each time I passed, I nibbled on some of the white beans pasted on the numeral three. The day three o’clock disappeared, a feeling of dizzying loneliness pervaded the house. I picked the black beans off the five and the red beans off the nine. In the place we lived, for a long time the period from three until nine p.m. didn’t exist. It was awkward to buy these supplies that would be used in an unknown capacity, but each time I did I was filled with anticipation.

In the beginning, I didn’t know how to say I wanted eyeballs, but the owner of the neighborhood stationery shop told me he was sold out before I even finished asking. I asked where I could get some. “Where do you think?” the shop owner said. He made it sound as if they were available anywhere. I walked the length of about three bus stops. With visions of cat, dog, bear, deer, eagle and dinosaur eyes, I entered a stationery store in front of a neighborhood elementary school. The store had eyeballs, but they differed from the perfectly round ping-pong ball-shaped ones I’d imagined. The plastic eyeballs had black pupils rolling around between their flat backs and bulging fronts. They came in four sizes ranging from dime to quarter-sized, and I bought the largest ones. I’d wanted menacing-looking eyeballs the size of baseballs, not something coin-sized. My cousin would have to make do with these when making his large, sturdy dinosaurs.

That evening, my cousin wrote in his diary at the kitchen table while I did the dishes. I looked back without thinking. Curiously, the scene did not seem unnatural. I put a kettle on the stove, and it whistled, spouting warm steam across the kitchen. I brewed black tea and drank it with loud sips. I hadn’t picked up any broken glass that day, but I wasn’t uneasy about the future or worried about negative consequences. Inside, the house was warm and peaceful. My uncle arrived home at midnight, about an hour late. I was scratching my cousin’s back as he slept. My uncle opened the door to my cousin’s darkened room. I saw his face, half covered in shadow. And I sensed something was wrong. I prayed it was something minor. At any rate, somewhere there was a lot of glass on the floor. I got to my feet.

My uncle said, “The ladle’s gone.”

I looked up at him again. He hadn’t said the ladle was missing. My uncle’s ladle was really gone

 

7 There was a man. He didn’t stand out in a crowd or talk much or make many mistakes. If you didn’t watch him closely, he was no different from anyone. Indeed, he looked so ordinary, no one noticed when he was absent, or when he was there. The only unusual thing about him was his obsession with symmetry and balance. He always had to arrange things symmetrically, and when he used his right hand, he was sure to use his left hand too. Even when he drank water, he held a glass in each hand and took turns drinking out of them. He didn’t know why he had to do these things, but one thing was clear: if he didn’t, he became so anxious it was as if the earth would tear in two. There were mirrors all over the house to determine from every angle whether objects were properly arranged. The mirrors could also be used to achieve a symmetrical and balanced looking body. This didn’t hurt anyone, but people hated it. Once, they formed a circle and pushed him into the middle. “Look around,” they said. “Wherever you look there’s perfect symmetry.” Sick with dread, he walked around and around in one direction, like a lab rat paralyzed on one side of the brain. “Are you feeling more comfortable now?” the people jeered. They were holding hands and closing in on him, as if they were catching a mouse. I thought he would soon cry out, or burst into tears. He stopped and stood there, and shut his eyes tight; it was the best way of coping. Anyhow, with his eyes shut, it’s possible he found the world of perfect balance he’d been seeking.

Then someone called out, “You know what? Your face isn’t symmetrical!”

At that moment, I noticed some pieces of glass under my feet. The remark had exceeded the bounds of polite humor: it was dirty and unretractable, as if they’d spit on him; it was vicious and reckless, and it looked like dangerous pieces of broken glass. The people scattered. He gathered his things and went home. I watched him from behind as he pushed open the door and left. His right hand held a bag, and his left hand—which had always held something equivalent—was tucked inside his pocket. It looked like he’d stumble and fall at any moment, like someone who’d really lost all sense of physical balance, and I suspected that if he fell then, he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He never returned there. After coming home, he locked the door and looked into a mirror. His right eyebrow was slightly higher than his left, and his beard and the hair that reached below his ears was cut crookedly. He only discovered this then. He couldn’t hide his surprise. Soon after, he was flooded with anxiety, so he had to do what he could. He took a knife and shaved off all of his hair, including his eyebrows and beard. Many vertebrates, including humans, have their heart and stomach on the left side and their liver and appendix on the right. This is because human outer appearance has evolved towards symmetry, but the internal organs have not. I still wonder whether it was lucky he never knew this. Presently he looked into the mirror with a smile of contentment. But then his lips closed into a grim, horizontal line. He’d discovered that his scalp was uneven. He hesitated for a second. And as if underscoring a sentence he wanted to remember forever, he took a knife to the side of his head that was noticeably protruding, and cut deeply into his own skull.

 

8 Perhaps my intuition was wrong. Nothing happened to me. That meant that nothing happened to my uncle either. At the time, I felt so attached to him it was as if I needed him to be complete. It went beyond a feeling of intimacy. He didn’t try to find the ladle. Just as usual, he left for work and came home at the regular hour. On weekends he spelled me off making dinner, or took my cousin to the zoo. While my cousin was at school, instead of scrubbing the floor, I did the exercises I’d learned watching my uncle. Neither of us mentioned the ladle to one another. He looked exactly the same as he had before he lost the ladle. But the fact that he looked like any ordinary man and not someone special gave me unexpected disappointment. If he could lose the ladle without losing his pride and something more, then it meant the ladle had never really been part of his body, and without it he didn’t exist, or didn’t have a special existence, which amounted to the same thing. On the other hand, even as I was disappointed, I enjoyed a pleasant feeling that I can’t describe, because the ladle had been something for him, but not for me. I began to give him chores like cleaning the kitchen sink or the toilet, or telling him to go for groceries. If he brought back stale tofu or rotten clams from the market, I would send them flying because without the ladle he was no different from me or anyone else. Ultimately he seemed to acknowledge he was nobody because he didn’t object when I treated him badly. He had the helpless look of someone who’d obey even if I told him to get down on the living room floor and lick my ear like a dog.

Not only that, but my cousin had changed too. When I’d first come to the house, I was sad to read in his face that he’d never been in trouble. But from some point, as if he could no longer hide anything, he’d reverted to being a normal eight-year-old boy who kept crying for no reason or locking himself in his room. He’d decided to remove the protective mask that had hidden anxiety behind wonder and dread behind maturity. Now I could tell by his expression that he lacked something he couldn’t have, and it was horrible. I neglected giving him snacks and gathering his school supplies. He looked sadder and sadder, and his cheeks that at one time were full to bursting like ripe cabbages were thin and tear-stained. I was called to the school to meet his teacher, but didn’t go. I didn’t tell my uncle either. I was the only one who hadn’t changed. I only realized too late that the others had, and that my uncle’s sense of helplessness had started with the loss of the ladle. My intuition hadn’t been wrong. I’d only failed to see the truth. Some people are dead even though they’re alive. I realized this about my uncle too late, when the situation was already irreversible.

 

9 I woke from my sleep overcome with pain; it seemed my body would split in two. I buried my face in my knees and cried a little, not because of the pain, but because I was terrified of witnessing something bad that I couldn’t prevent. I left my room. My uncle was sitting bolt upright on a kitchen chair in the dark. I walked up and sat facing him. We didn’t try to look at each other, and even if we had, it would have been impossible in the oppressive darkness. I thought, You’ve got to do it, and If you don’t, you’ll only regret it. But I was always a clumsy speaker, and since words never came out the way I intended, I could only keep quiet. His eyes shone with tears in the darkness. Suddenly our eyes met. He smiled. I wanted to enjoy the image for a while. One day I’d taken my uncle and cousin to the playground, and we’d eaten dinner at a restaurant nearby. A plastic serving ladle was lying next to the bowl of stew, and it caught my attention. Instead of lying on the table like an ordinary ladle, it was standing upright on a serving saucer. Playing around, my cousin poked it with his fingertips. The ladle tipped towards the floor, but like a roly-poly toy, it jerked upright again. My uncle explained that it was a roly-poly ladle. “Oh? If it gets knocked over, it gets back up!” I exclaimed, thinking to myself of the ladle that was part of my uncle’s body. My uncle laughed too, and my cousin, who’d been playing with the ladle, watching it stand up whenever it fell, laughed right out loud. We could laugh and joke about a ladle then because it was before my uncle’s had gone missing. I felt nostalgic for that time. If only we could relive it. But my uncle wouldn’t laugh at anything I said now. And I wouldn’t laugh either. We sat for a long time like people who’d never sat facing each other before. And I realized that it wasn’t only darkness that existed in the dark. Things that were hard to say, things you couldn’t usually talk about had a positive presence, and I’d never known. Suddenly, I felt the urge to tell my uncle about these things. My uncle rose first. He looked at me again vacantly. This time I didn’t have the courage to meet his eyes. He opened the door and went out. One of my tears hit the cold glass dining table. I quickly dried my eyes. Even though the door wouldn’t open again, and I’d never see him dressed in his neat white chef’s uniform with the Chinese-style buttons cooking in front of a warm flame, or using one hand to scratch his rear as he slept in loose pajamas; and even though I had the feeling I was standing naked and frozen while someone pelted me all over with pieces of ice, I couldn’t call out to my uncle to stay. He wouldn’t have wanted me to.

Right after my uncle lost the ladle, I’d remembered the man obsessed with symmetry and balance. His story had seemed to be a warning to me.

 

10 It had been a very long time since I’d rubbed my cousin’s back as he slept. I ran my hand over his desk. He didn’t know I’d been summoned to the school. For the time being, however long it turned out to be, we understood that we weren’t going to speak to one another. This wasn’t as inconvenient as I’d expected. But at night I couldn’t sleep because he was crying. It seemed like he’d forgotten how to cry quietly. Even when he went to school and I was alone in the house I’d hear crying sounds coming from his room. For all I knew, he didn’t go to school at all, but hid in the closet all day and cried. I didn’t go into his room and check though because I’d be of no help anyway. I was walking past the desks on my way out when I noticed a countertop at the back. The children’s clay animals were on display: a deer with antlers, a sharp-tusked rhino, a lion shaking his mane, a giraffe, a large bear, and dinosaurs. And stuck on their faces were the kind of factory-made eyeballs that I’d once bought. I approached. Although there weren’t any nametags and no one told me so, I could immediately tell which one was my cousin’s. Tucked away in the far corner of the table with the other clay animals that were the size of basketballs or soccer balls—even the size of live cats—was a figure hardly as big as my middle finger that looked as if it were the ear or tail of some other animal that a child had been making and accidentally dropped. I’d never seen anything so misshapen. When I was buying the eyes, I’d imagined them belonging to a large strong animal like a lion, eagle, bear or dinosaur, but here they were on this three-legged creature with a small horn dangling off its head and a stubby little tale. Glued to its tiny forehead were two quarter-sized eyeballs, overwhelmingly large for its body. The animal looked like something that couldn’t possibly exist. It couldn’t even really be called an animal. It was like a rotten egg that hadn’t hatched. I poked it. The unpleasant-looking creature had been supported on its three short, feeble legs, but just as I touched it, it fell to the floor with a thud. My dismay changed to anger. It was as if someone was spraying cold water on my face. I’m not responsible for this, I pleaded. But suddenly I felt that my life was worthless. I was like an ice sculpture that had melted at the end of a banquet. I hurried out of the classroom and made my way towards the door. I felt uneasy, as if maybe my cousin was watching me from somewhere. I didn’t want him to see how I looked after my anger had cooled, with my hand covering my mouth, trying not to cry. I was confused by the sadness that hit me after my anger had passed. I’d never worried about sadness. I’d always worried about being scarred by fear or dread, or perhaps by disappointment or betrayal. But this sadness weighed down on me more painfully than any feeling ever had. I didn’t think I could handle it. It wasn’t like pain or fear that you can temporarily overcome. It was the purest emotion you can feel.

 

11 I sat on the kitchen chair my uncle had sat on that night. I thought of the things I couldn’t say then, questions which would never be answered. But I nodded my head quietly, sitting in the dark. That night, the silence between my uncle and me had been a kind of language that could have gone anywhere and reached anyone. I waited until 3 o’clock and opened my cousin’s door. He was pretending to sleep, and I took hold of his hand. He looked blankly at me, his cheeks stained with tears. The old wonder and expectation were gone, replaced by loneliness and fatigue on a face as familiar to me as my own reflection in the mirror. I bundled him up in a warm coat and led him up to the rooftop. I wanted to tell him about the things I’d seen in the dark that night, about other things that existed in the darkness. Perhaps I wanted his understanding. Throughout the evening, beginning in the east, the seven stars closest to the North Pole would gradually emerge from where they’d been hiding below the horizon. My cousin was shivering with the cold, so I hugged him tightly from behind. He squirmed a bit, but quickly settled down. The stars were as much as eight million light years away, twinkling dimly. I pointed them out, beginning in the far north with the giraffe and dragon constellations and Cassiopeia and Cepheus, and passing over to Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, which included the North Star. Seven stars were shining faintly.

“That’s the North Star.” I whispered in my cousin’s ear. “That’s the constellation that always goes round in one spot, as if its tail were nailed there, as if it were a light spinning in a lighthouse.” My voice was so soft I didn’t know if my cousin could hear. He was pressed up against my chest, looking up. “Ships far out to sea have guided their boats by this star, airplanes have followed it, and people travelling by land have used it to keep on course.” Together, my cousin and I gazed at it. The stars started to inch eastwards and our bodies turned with them. I wanted to show him that even in the dark we could see these stars, and the ten million light years’ distance that separated us from them, and the Milky Way moving in a large spiral shape towards us. Through this, I hoped to teach him about his condition, that within every small, worthless, wretched human there is a fight raging between inner consciousness and outside forces. And close beside us, he’d see light on the roof as bright and red as yew berries, winding roads that can lead anywhere, and unpredictable ups and downs in the Earth’s vast terrain. At that moment, my cousin pointed towards the sky where the seven stars were twinkling.

He said, “Look! They’re in the shape of a ladle.”

I looked at the eastern sky again. The seven stars were really in the shape of a ladle. My cousin was laughing as he looked back and forth at me and at the ladle. I had to laugh too, as he was laughing with the pride of someone who has somehow jumped a long way after many failed attempts. In order that my cousin would remember it forever, even if no one was with him, I went over the stars of the ladle once more. “Even when you’re alone, don’t forget. First, if you find the big ladle-shaped constellation called Ursa Major, and follow the two stars opposite the handle, the star you come to is the North Star, and dangling from this star is the small ladle-shaped constellation known as Ursa Minor. And from the North Star if you go a little ways in the opposite direction of the large ladle you just spotted, there’s a constellation in the shape of a house with a roof. That’s called Cepheus, and from there if you go a little ways up from the rooftop, do you see a W shape? That’s called Cassiopeia.” But my cousin’s eyes were still fixed on Ursa Minor, and the part of the ladle extending to the North Star. Although my cousin was only a child, I thought that he understood everything. We were wrapped in each others’ arms under the stars, like two parts of a single body that had been divided. Again I felt a terrible sadness. I didn’t want my cousin to grow up amid sighs and sorrow. My cousin was precious; his father had called him flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. He was still gazing at the ladle constellation. Perhaps he’d remember it as his father’s star, and use it as a guide growing up. And who knows if the stars wouldn’t protect him, like Ajax’s seven-layered leather shield that no spear could pierce. But suddenly something occurred to me. Perhaps when he was half-chanting “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,” my uncle hadn’t been referring to my cousin, but to the ladle. “Did you know that?” I whispered. For a while I hugged him tight, my cousin who was growing like a bamboo shoot. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, stood on its four legs with its tail in the air, cradling the seven stars in its arms, and with tears in my eyes I watched it twinkling.

I’ve been thinking about my obsession with balance that I’ve been unable to shake for all these years. I follow elaborate rituals, but they only give me a temporary sense of stability, and in the past, they’ve pitted my inner consciousness against outer forces. But even as stars disappear in the morning, my obsession is passing. I’m more dependent than anyone, and I know I won’t change much in the future. Now, though, the reason I need someone is not to help me engage in repetitive behavior, but to help me find something I can believe in and depend on. With this, my life has already taken proper shape, and I can willfully invest it with meaning, and it’s all because of the value I’ve found.

Under the night sky, submerged in darkness and exposed to the cold, my cousin and I were standing together until morning like a speck invisible to the naked eye. The change in us that occurred that dawn cannot be described in words. Before, I’d never had my own ladle. 

Author's Profile

Jo Kyung Ran made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “The French Optical” won the Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She is the author of the short story collections Looking for the Elephant (2002) and The Story of a Ladle (2004)I Bought a Balloon (2008), Philosophy of Sunday (2013), and the novels Time for Baking Bread (2001), Tongue (2007), and Blowfish (2010). She is also the recipient of the Hyundae Munhak Award and the Dongin Prize, among others.