- onSeptember 1, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byKim Soom
Tr. Emily Yae Won 2014309pp.
The dough’s finally coming together, though it still feels a bit too dry. I think of how you’d sit to one corner of the floor, hunched over the bowl of flour as if to take up as little space as possible, as if you were a guest in this house. You’d work the dough with such force, punching and stretching and folding, I worried you’d wear out your palm lines. Now I wonder what it was you were secretly burying in the dough.
Has it really been twenty-nine years? Yes, since you were exactly the age I am now when you came to live with us. I was fourteen, you were forty-three; now I’m forty-three, and you’re seventy-two. When you arrived that day, to my young eyes you seemed as cowed and despondent as a new maid, possibly because of the hushed remarks I’d overheard earlier. The adults had called you sok-nyeo, stone-barren woman, and whispered of how you’d been forced into divorce for not being able to bear children . . . Father brought you home before disappearing off to Central Market, where he had a tool shop at the time. When the relatives left, you disappeared into the kitchen and reemerged carrying a brass bowl, which we used to put steamed sweet potatoes or heads of kimchi in, or to wash rice. There was a heap of flour in the bowl. You sat down on the sunny maru floor and stuck your hands in, punching and pressing until sunlight gave way to shade. The smooth dough was rolled out, cut, and pulled into ribbons, which were then cooked in a pot of boiling water to make fresh kalguksu noodles. You served these bare, without so much as a handful of zucchini, potato, or green onion, let alone the usual garnish of thin omelet strips. You ladled out the unseasoned noodles into bowls, then set these down in front of me and my younger siblings. That first time, I don’t know why I was so angry and resentful, but in a surge of pique I took my spoon and cut into those noodles, chopping each and every strand you’d labored over . . .
My wrists are tired already. How long before the dough starts to feel sufficiently tacky and elastic? How harder must I punch and knead . . .? Engrossed in the work, I feel age creep upon me. At this rate, by the time I dust the dough with flour and roll it out, I’ll be as resignedly, listlessly aged as you. Alone here after the death of a husband who was about as welcoming as an unheated floor, left on your own to guard the home from which every single one of your stepchildren had departed, how many hours would you have spent doing exactly this? You’d occasionally call me to say, I was about to make some noodles and I thought of you . . . and I’d think: Noodles? Didn’t you know that when it came to food I was just like my father and not partial to floury foods like kalguksu? And wasn’t I, being the eldest daughter, the one child who’d taken after his hardhearted nature? Nonetheless, you would regret each lost opportunity to feed me a bowl of your homemade noodle soup.
My fingers feel strangely unfamiliar. It’s as if I’ve sneaked them off from someone else and am casually manipulating them to knead this dough. That first bowl of noodles you made for us, I wonder if I could have been so ruthless with my spoon if there had been even a handful of toppings, the barest hint of omelet . . . the merest sprinkling of laver . . .
I hear your voice in my ear.
My tongue . . ., you had said.
What about your tongue?
It . . . it’s scalded and hurts so much, I couldn’t even finish my noodles.
I hadn’t known what to say.
Every time the noodles brush against my tongue it feels like someone’s planing my tongue . . ., you’d trailed off.
They told me I should go to the big hospital and have it seen to, you’d said finally.
I have an abrupt change of heart. I feel like hurling the dough. I can find noodles at any shop, softer and chewier noodles than any I could ever make, so why this wretched slaving over the dough? I ask myself in irritation. Barely restraining the impulse to throw the dough and the bowl along with it, I go on punching, stretching, tamping. It occurs to me that what’s pushing me through my own hours of kneading work may well be a sense of paying my dues . . . For the longest time I’ve felt as if I’ve been running from you and from what I owe you, knowing that a lifetime of repayment would never be enough to clear the debt.
My tongue . . . Please cut it off. At two in the morning you’d called to say this, and I had been gripped with fear. Not out of concern for you or the excruciating pain that must have prompted you to dream up such a drastic solution . . . No, hardly out of any fear for your well-being, since it took another two months before I finally called you up to Seoul for a check-up. Blood work, urine, ultrasound, and a gamut of tests besides. After three hours of this, we were exhausted. I suppose what wore you down wasn’t the tests, but the waiting and the weaving from one exam room to the next. The waiting areas outside each exam room were as packed and busy as any station, as if, you said, everybody under the skies was ill. Afterwards I took you to a noodle shop. You’d had to starve since the night before, and it was the only decent restaurant I could find. We ordered and were served in ten minutes. The noodles and broth were served in big stainless-steel bowls, and entirely unlike the noodle soups you made. The same dish, and yet worlds apart: thin, flat noodles in a whitish bone broth, no zucchini or meat pieces to speak of. You put your spoon down after a couple of sips of the broth.
Whereas your noodles . . . There have been two moments in my life when I specifically craved them. One of those times was while I was living in a cramped studio, not long after I came up to Seoul for my job. One night after work, I picked up some flour from the shop on my way home and attempted to make dough. Having no metal bowl, I poured the entire pack of flour directly into a pot, adding a trickle of water now and then. Then I sat down on the floor in front of the television and beat the sticky, floury mass about until my fingers were coated in dough. I had a kitchenette at best and owned no rolling pin. I wrapped the scraggly dough I’d managed to lump together in a plastic bag and threw the bag in the veggie drawer of my fridge. By the time I dug it out of there while cleaning the fridge, the dough was as hard as rock and covered in blue mold. I dumped it in the trash. Occasionally I’ll imagine the dough’s out there, though, rolling about like an actual stone . . . tumbling this way and that, gradually being worn down into pebbles, and eventually into grit and sand and dust . . . I remember reading something about how dust can sometimes reach as far as Mars, traveling well beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Now that I think about it, that dough did look a bit like Mars, that fiery planet known for its occasional dust storms. And if I’m being honest, that same day I’d been let go from what had been my first job, after barely five months. That could have prompted it, I suppose, but somehow the only thought in my head after being notified—while standing in front of the instant coffee vending machine—was how I would like a bowl of noodles, your noodles. I wanted to roll a mouthful of those strands up with my chopsticks, and chew and chew like a gentle, lazy, ruminating cow . . . It would take another nine months before I found a job again, but I never spoke a word of this to you.
It’s so silent now—you dozing while I grapple with the dough—I feel as if we are the two sole survivors. How much longer before the dough’s ready to be cut into noodles? As I continue kneading a thought occurs: the thing you labored over through all those years, not forgetting to add the occasional dribble of salted water—was that not dough so much as time? And who could have imagined that I’d be sitting here, in your kitchen, kneading dough as I am now, punching, folding, rolling . . .
Just a little longer, just a few more rounds of tamping, burying.
You visited my home just once. Eight years into my marriage and after many attempts through artificial insemination, I’d finally gotten pregnant, only to have a miscarriage. My husband called you before leaving for Busan on a business trip, and the very next day you’d taken the first bus up at dawn to see me. The first thing you did was head into the kitchen, saying you felt like having some noodles. You sat down on the floor of my sparse, unfamiliar kitchen, next to the table, to knead and cut and boil, bent over the bowl like that first day you’d come to us. Noodles in a rich broth made from a whole chicken, topped with the tenderest meat you’d pulled by hand, then dressed with sesame oil and perilla seeds. If ever there was a tonic, this hearty chicken kalguksu was surely it. The table was set with a generous portion of white radish kimchi you’d brought with you instead of the usual spicy soy sauce.
Be patient with yourself, give it time and the baby will come . . ., you told me.
After you left I flushed the fat swollen noodles down the toilet, even before the elevator carrying you would have made it down the fifteen floors. Cursing your fate and mine, pressing the flush handle repeatedly until every single strand of noodle had vanished from sight, blaming you for my body’s incapacity to hold life— when you and I didn’t share blood, flesh, or bone. Did I want to believe that your fate ruled my own? Maybe. Maybe I thought our fortunes had become as entwined as the floury noodles that stick together as they boil . . .
Give it time?
But early on I had learned that some things never materialize, no matter how much time one gives it. My mother who’d briefly gone to visit her brother at the laundry and dry cleaners, she’d said she wouldn’t be long. Back before dinnertime, she’d told us, but no amount of waiting brought her back. Not when evening ripened into night and burst black and dark, not when day bloomed from the burst crevices like white blossoms of mold . . . Looking back to that day when you came to us, I realize I must have been waiting the whole time for my mother to appear. Given time I thought she would return, would live again if I waited fervently enough . . . Even as you stepped in to take care of us in her stead, in reality I probably never stopped waiting for my mother. Which may be why I never called you by that name. I’d gone out of my way to reject and distance you, and yet here I was believing your noodle soup would get me on my feet again after the devastating loss of my baby. From clam to red bean to potato to dumpling, the variations on kalguksu are numerous, but it was your kalguksu, humble and nondescript, impoverished even, that I wanted . . . As for the rolling pin you’d brought with you that day, I eventually left it behind when the time came to move to a different house.
I’ve no idea how I should deliver the news: the doctor told me that the cancer on your tongue has spread to such an extent that they have no alternative but to remove it. Shall I wait until you’ve at least had a few bites of the noodles? Or shall I punch it all down . . .?
Now that it’s become more pliable, the dough feels more like a ball in my hands. Like I’m massaging a knot, or wrestling a supple, elastic lump, even feeling a competitive edge creep in as I do, wanting to see which one of us will win out . . . But the more I provoke myself and doggedly throw myself into the task, the more resilient the darned thing seems to become. And yet . . . I can also feel a loosening inside me. Something not unlike the tangle that’s been buried deep down—really there’s no other word for it—this knot is gradually, smoothly, unraveling . . . and I find myself wondering whether those hours of kneading were for you as much about working out the knot in your heart as they were about making noodles.
(Excerpt from pp. 53-61)
Translated by Emily Yae Won
Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story "Divorce" is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)