- onSeptember 4, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byKim Ae-ran
- Knife Marks
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 200784pp.
The tip of my mother’s knife holds the indifference of a person who has spent her whole life feeding other people. My mother, to me, was not a woman who cries or woman who wears makeup or a woman who submits, but a woman who wields a knife. Who is healthy and beautiful but chomps on fish cake even when she is all dressed up. A country woman who does not realize how loudly she is chewing her food. My mother used the same knife for over twenty-five years. That’s roughly as old as I am. Through the slicing, chopping, and mincing, the knife grew paper-thin. As I chewed, swallowed, and slurped, my intestines and my liver, heart, and kidneys grew. Along with the food my mother made for me, I swallowed the knife marks that were left on the ingredients. Countless knife marks are engraved in the dark insides of my body. They travel along my veins and play on my nerves. That’s why a mother is a painful thing to me. It’s something the organs all know. I understand the word heartache physically.
My mother sharpened her knife frequently. When it was time to split open blue crabs thick with eggs in April or sever the hind legs of a butchered dog, she took the grindstone out two or three more times that week. A rancid smell rose from the drain in the bare cement floor. When she squatted on the kitchen floor sharpening her knife, she looked big and round, like the mother of all animals. T-shirt rolled up above the flab around her waist, pale tailbone showing carelessly above her underwear. I saw the shadow of a disappearing tribe in my mother’s silhouette. Maybe that was because the language she spoke was one used by a smaller country of people within the small country of Korea. The same way that Bengal tigers have their own Bengal tiger language, and Siberian tigers have their own Siberian tiger language. My mother’s language that I suddenly became aware of when I got older. I had a premonition that it would soon disappear, like a beautiful scenic spot. A mother usually dies before her cub, and the words she uses are older than her young. Oddly, this is what I thought of each time my mother sharpened her knife.
Just as I constantly had to feed, my mother always had to be making something. When I saw her soaking, salting, and storing this and that in the kitchen even when there was nothing that had to be done, I wanted to be lazy and bratty, like a baby animal. So even though I knew she was busy, I would sprawl on the floor and watch TV or lean in the door and complain. At sunset, the smell of cooking rice slowly filled the air. The house pulsed with the sound of chopping. It was a cozy and natural sound, like the faint whisper at dawn of uncooked rice being washed. I used to try holding the knife she used. For the simple reason that it was a dangerous object, I thought I was in control of it. The wooden knife handle was wrapped with yellow tape. Over the years, the handle had been replaced several times, but the blade was the same. The blade had lost its shine from being sharpened so many times, but after all that wearing down, it gave off a hardened glow from within. I wasn’t trying to see love or sacrifice in her knife. I just saw a mother in it. And at those times, I wasn’t her child but her cub.
My mother sold noodles for over twenty years. The restaurant was called Sweet ‘n’ Tasty. She had taken over someone’s failed bakery and kept the sign in place. Selling kalguksu, knife-cut noodles, is one business a woman from the countryside can start with a small amount of capital. The recipe for kalguksu is simple. You boil short-necked clams, kelp, green onions, garlic, and salt in a pot, then add the noodles halfway through and cook it until they are done. But even as a kid, I knew that the simpler a dish is, the more the flavor can differ according to skill. My mother’s kalguksu was superb. So was her kongguksu, chilled noodles served in a soymilk broth in the summer. All summer, while the noodles boiled on the stove, she chugged bowls of fresh soymilk with ice floating in it. The white milk dried and stuck to the peach fuzz around her lips. I would stare blankly at her until she fed me a bowl of sweetened soymilk. Sweet ‘n’ Tasty was booming. Farmers coming a long way to market, employees of the Community Credit Cooperative, Agricultural Cooperative, and Fisheries Cooperative, middle school teachers, and bar girls looking to sober up all ate noodles at our place. There were more than a few out-of-towners as well, and my mother could always tell what their relationship was from the way they ate. After serving the food out front, I would narrow my eyes and ask, “I bet they’re having an affair.” She would scold me first, then agree, saying, “They sure are.” My mother was proud of her own cooking. The noodles were important, but the secret to the broth was in the kimchi. She made kimchi once every four days. The image of my mother with her upper body thrust inside a large plastic basin, mixing the seasonings for the kimchi, was a familiar sight in front of our restaurant. She looked like she was squirming to avoid slipping into the underworld through the portal of the basin. I remember how small bubbles and kimchi juice would leak out from between the soft, wilted cabbage leaves whenever she took out a freshly ripened head and began slicing it. When she boiled the noodles, I stood at her side with my mouth wide open like a baby swallow. She would pluck out the freshly cooked noodles with her chopsticks. Then she would pick up a piece of kimchi with her bare hand and stuff it into my mouth any which way. The kimchi tasted sharp, like soda. The flavor of my mother’s fingers when they entered my gaping maw, her flesh, tasted tepid and plain. I loved the clear, fresh sound and the crunch of the kitchen knife slicing through a whole head of cabbage. The inside of the dusky kitchen, the bones of sunlight slanting in through the ventilator, and my mother’s profile as she stood close to that light— I loved that, too.
There were five knives in the kitchen. My mother used only one of them to slice the dough into noodles. The rest of the knives were for peeling fruit or shelling clams, or were lent to others when it was time to make kimchi to store away for the winter. My mother could slice noodles even with her eyes closed. Her right hand chopped while the two fingers of her left hand inched backwards in time with the knife. There was no fear and no hesitation in her chopping. It held the confidence of a person who has mastered a single technique over a long period of time and the reassurance that she’s putting food on the table, mixed with the weariness of doing the same simple task over and over. She used a metal spoon to scrape off the dough that clung to the knife. I put on Dad’s big sweatpants and helped out with chores. When I was a teenager, my legs shook whenever I ran into a boy I liked while I was out delivering trays of food. My feisty mother was a nagger. “With green onions, you have to wash the crotch really well,” she’d say. “I told you to mop the floor, not flood it. Why didn’t it occur to you to clean the spoon cases as well, since you were already wiping the tables? Just leave it, I’ll do it, you don’t know how.” I would tell her I could do it if she would just show me, that it couldn’t be that hard. But each time, my mother would act high and mighty. “Just leave it, I’ll do it, you don’t know how,” I chatted while helping her. And I would talk back on purpose, because I liked getting a rise out of her. If she said, “It’s hard to run a business,” I would chide her, saying, “Did you think raising a kid would be easy?” She would smile sweetly, then suddenly pretend to aim her knife at me. She didn’t hesitate to say, “I’ll gut you!” Like parents who give their kids noogies, she was theatrical in her scoldings. I was scared silly of the blade that swung my way with no warning. But behind the shock was the reassurance and immense trust that she would never ever hurt me. My mother took delight in scaring and surprising her little cub. Once when I was six years old, she pretended to fall into a fit of convulsions and die. I was supposed to weep and wail beside her fake corpse all night long. Another time, my mother stuck a kidney bean down the back of my shirt and yelled, “Pillbug!” She couldn’t stop laughing at the sight of me rolling around on the floor. Each time something like this happened, I cried loudly, then was able to fall asleep with the most peaceful look on my face.
My mother would point her knife at me, but she was the one who was often hurt by that knife. When the restaurant was busy, she would get flustered and cut herself. Once opened, the wound was slow to heal. That was because her wet hands never had chance to dry and because she sprinkled most of the seasonings into the pot with her bare hands. She did all of the cooking, serving, cashiering, cleaning, and dishwashing by herself. But she said she never felt tired because it was so exciting to see the money roll in. One day, she cut three of her fingers at once while slicing the noodles. She stanched the bleeding with a pained look on her face, and kept slicing noodles and serving them. The blood wouldn’t stop flowing. Her thumbnail had already fallen off. Before long, there was a problem with one of the orders. Blood was smeared on the side of the white plastic bowl. Luckily, it had gone to a sweet country granny. My mother kept bowing her head and saying she would bring her a new bowl. The old lady neatly wiped the side of the bowl with her hand, which was as gnarled as tree bark. Then she said calmly, “My my, there’s blood on here.” The old lady slurped the noodles into her wrinkled mouth and turned to my mother.
“Not too hurt, are you?”
My mother said, before that day, she had never felt so grateful to a customer.
One of her rules that she kept as keenly as her knife was the order in which food should be served. Of course, it would have been the same in any shop. Even when customers poured in at the same time, my mother knew whose foot had crossed the threshold first. Though part of it was that customers hated it when the order got mixed up, it was also because, a long time ago, there was a woman who took the bowl of noodles she’d just been served and went outside and poured it into the street. My mother seemed to have been wounded by that. All sorts of things happen when you run a restaurant, but she remembered even the little things like that. Even the customer she said she remembered the most vividly wasn’t that remarkable. One day, a man came in and ordered two bowls of noodles. He asked for a private room, so she set a table for him in our house, which was attached to the restaurant. The only thing on the table was noodles, hot pepper paste, and a small bowl of kimchi. The man asked for an empty bowl. She watched him closely, wondering why he needed it. He turned the bowl over and used it to cover the noodles across the table from his. It seemed he did it to keep them warm. Soon, a woman showed up. She smiled and removed the bowl, then lifted her chopsticks. The two of them ate with their heads touching in an intimate silence. My mother watched them in a daze. She saw them through the eyes of a woman who had never received that kind of small warmth, such an ordinary kindness. A good cook, a hard worker, and a great cusser, my mother felt something inscrutable. There is a time in our lives when a momentous silence passes over us, and for my mother, that would have been it.
It was twenty-five years ago when my mother came across that knife. She found it in some marketplace in Incheon where my father worked. She had gone to the market holding her pregnant belly and ran into a knife peddler at the corner of a vegetable shop. A soldier’s steel helmet was turned upside down like a bowl on top of an apple crate sitting in front of the man. He struck the helmet with the knife—thwack! thwack!—and shouted, “It’s still sharp!” The women were all abuzz. My mother marveled warily at the knife peddler through the eyes of an inexperienced newlywed. The man held the knife aloft and said it wasn’t just stainless steel but “special” stainless steel. Cast-iron knives are heavy and rust easily, and stainless steel is too flimsy, he said, but this knife was perfect, just right. The handle was round and sturdy, made from pine. My mother bought the knife for 1,500 won. She wasn’t sure if it was a rip-off, but she needed it for her new home and had fallen for the knife’s solidness—a certain dignity, perhaps. That day, as she climbed the steep path home, clutching the knife rolled up in cardboard, she said she felt her heart pound like that of a girl clutching a love letter. From then on, she clasped not the sparkle of a ring but the flash of a butcher’s knife.
(Excerpt from pp. 151-159)
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Kim Ae-ran debuted in 2003 with “No Knocking in This House,” which won the Daesan Literary Award. She has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for “I Go to the Convenience Store.” “Knife Marks,” the story excerpted here, received the 2008 Lee Hyoseok Award.