- onDecember 18, 2015
- Vol.30 Winter 2015
- byOh Junghee
- The Bird
Tr. Jenny Wang Medina 2007167pp.
Grandma was shocked when she caught me drawing all over U-il’s sleeping face with red and blue markers, and she smacked me on the head.
‘You horrible girl! Don’t you know that a person’s soul floats out of their body when they’re sleeping? If you draw on someone’s face when they’re asleep, the soul won’t recognize its own body when it comes back and it has to wander around, lost forever.’
‘Is that what happened to Mummy? Did she go to find her soul?’
‘Our dreams are all the roads and the world that a wandering soul travels,’ Grandma said.
Right after Mummy left, our father took us to her mother’s house far, far away. We rode a bus for a long, long time, and then we got on a train. When we crossed the long bridge that went over the river, the deep blue water rushed darkly behind us, and the train shook like thunder.
Father sat us down on the wood floor at our grandmother’s house and he left right away, but we stayed there with Grandma for a long time.
Grandma never closed the front door – not even at night. The unbolted door creaked wide open at the slightest breeze and roused us from our sleep, and no matter how late it was, Grandma opened the bedroom door and called out softly into the darkness, ‘Is that your mother? Jung-ok, are you back?’ even though we all knew it was only the wind. Grandma would close the door again with a long sigh as she got back into bed. ‘Damned fools … they must be mad,’ she would grumble, and curse our parents under her breath. We listened with our eyes wide open and didn’t move a muscle, pretending we were asleep.
Grandma thought that wind was the scariest thing in the world. ‘If you get caught in the wind,’ she would say, ‘you catch a stroke and become paralysed. Your flesh and blood, your bones, and even your tongue turn cold and you turn stiff and die.’ The old people we saw who had been caught out in the wind were really very scary. Their arms and legs were twisted and dangled like dead tree branches, and they sat outside in the sun with mouths slack like corpses, staring at passers-by with empty eyes. We tried to hurry past them with our heads down, racing by as quickly as we could, but if you turned back to look at them, even after you thought you had gone a safe distance away, their wide vacant stares followed right behind you and swallowed you whole.
Grandma thought that the wind wouldn’t get you if you ate a duck’s egg steeped in a young boy’s urine. So every morning at daybreak she would wake U-il, make him go in a brass rice bowl, then she would dunk a big white duck egg in it. Every time Grandma pulled back the blankets to wake him, my eyes would open to the sound of U-il’s whimpering, the whine of someone who doesn’t like being woken up. She often couldn’t get him fully awake, and then I couldn’t help but stare at the incredible spectacle of U-il in that sleepy state, eyes closed, arms and legs dropping, while my grandmother soothingly prodded his small, thin thing until it responded grudgingly, opening its eyes and standing tall before the warm yellow liquid spurted out.
Grandma ate those duck eggs soaked in urine diligently, but one day while she was doing the laundry she fell down with a groan and she never got up again. Our Grandma got caught by the wind on a beautiful spring day with all the flowers in bloom.
After that, we were taken to our mother’s brother’s house, and our aunt got that disease that stops you sleeping. We chased off Auntie’s sleep. Every morning she’d wail loudly – ‘I’m going crazy, they’re making me crazy!’ with eyes bright red like a rabbit’s. Auntie went crazy all day. She went crazy when U-il wet the bed, and she went crazy when I cut out the face of a pretty actress from her calendar. ‘I’m going crazy, they’re driving me crazy,’ she complained loudly as she banged pots, pans and dishes on the kitchen table and slammed dresser drawers and doors. Her little daughter was just learning to talk, and she would follow along like a little parrot, ‘I’m going crazy, I’m going crazy,’ mimicking her mother’s words with a babyish lip.
Since our aunt went crazy every day, we left our maternal uncle’s house and went to live at our family’s main house, where Father’s eldest brother lived.
Winter passed, then spring, summer and autumn passed. Winter came, then spring, summer, and autumn came again. The snow, rain, wind and sunshine erased our mother’s face from our memories. The traces of her hollow, sunken eyes and bulging nose disappeared, together with her sighs and muttering. Even her hands – those hands that combed my hair to make it thick the way she liked, as she murmured that she would brush the seven deadly sins out of my hair – disappeared. It was distressing that Mummy’s thin, milky-white face was becoming hidden in a murky shell in my mind, and all that was left in my memory was the painting that was always on her face, those unhealed marks that left a colourful pattern behind, like flowers in bloom. When I turned suddenly at the whiff of a familiar scent wafting by, or a weak, quavering call in the wind, I thought I could almost see a thin shadow of my mother in the sunlight. Who had drawn that painting on Mum’s face? Was it a sad painting?
Winter was long and cold, the days without snow, and only winds blew on and on, strong and stinging. We were trapped inside the house. Outside in the empty lot where children used to play, an empty plastic bag and some scraps of tissue were carried round and round in a fierce whirlwind of dirt.
Auntie was so worried that the tap in the yard would freeze over and burst that she wrapped the whole pipe tightly with a yellow jacket that U-il used to wear, with just the end of the tap uncovered. But even that wasn’t enough to set her mind at ease, so she left the water running a little bit. Our cousins would point at the tap wearing U-il’s jacket and tease him, saying, ‘Look! U-il’s pissing in the yard! Look, it’s U-il the crybaby!’ Wearing that jacket, the tap really did look like a miniature U-il standing in the yard crying and crying all day and night.
A hill of ice formed next to the dribbling tap, growing a little higher every day. Water continued to drip onto the growing squarish hill, overflowing the cement area around the tap and spreading out over the yard. Overnight, it turned the entire yard into a smooth sheet of ice. We played on the ice and slid around the yard, but Auntie spread smashed coals from the brazier over it and stamped it down to break it up.
‘Doing the laundry is hard enough for me without you mucking up your clothes. Why do you always work so hard at ruining your clothes?’ Auntie asked us. Then she said, ‘It’s messy this way, but the ice is too slippery and this is better than breaking my rear end in half.’
When the pipes finally did freeze and the washing machine stopped working Auntie had to wring the laundry out by hand, and she hung the dripping clothes on the laundry line out in the yard. The hot, steaming laundry froze immediately and formed icicles. A lot of times Auntie would forget that the laundry was hanging out there even after sunset, and I thought our clothes looked ridiculous strung out on the line all night with their arms spread and their legs folded, swaying and dancing or making scary sounds like bones clacking together in complaint – ‘Ah, it’s so cold! Brrr! So cold!’ The ones that fell in the ground looked like they were dead.
We weren’t the only ones trapped inside in the winter. Our cousins were always busy going to special cram schools or to the gymnasium even though it was the long winter vacation, but not Uncle. After a late breakfast he seemed to have no intention of going out to his office, Pine Tree Real Estate, on the corner of the main road. He would cover his lap with the blanket that was always spread out on the spot of the heated ondol floor nearest the fireplace and leisurely read the newspaper or watch television. He’d say, ‘Who goes out and buys a house in the middle of the winter? The economy will get better when winter’s over and it’s time for people to dig their kimchi jars out of the frozen earth. That’s when I’ll go out and look for money.’
‘Do you think we’ll have food or clothes if you just shut yourself up in the ondol room like some sort of county magistrate? If you’re going to sit here flapping your lips, you might as well pray to the Lord Buddha for something to do. People who don’t have any money or skills should at least go out and offer whatever they can to get some sort of work. A man has to leave in the morning and come home at night if he wants to be respected by his family and be called a man, even if he only earns a measly ten won a day. That’s how it’s always been.’
In the face of Auntie’s nagging, Uncle had no choice but to hoist his body up off the warm spot on the floor, wriggle into his clothes and leave the house. It was quiet without our cousins or Uncle there, and Auntie would say, ‘Aigoo, that crazy man, those rotten kids.
It’s impossible to get a break around here, for God’s sake,’ puffing out her chest and breathing in and out vigorously, as though she really was being choked.
Then she’d fling open the doors and the flue of the ondol floor.
As soon as winter came Auntie’s life sped up a notch. In the morning, after she did the dishes from last night’s dinner, she’d put on Uncle’s goose-down jacket and wrap a thick scarf around her. Dressed to intimidate, she headed out to the market. She always came back pulling a wad of money out of her bag.
‘I can’t take this anymore. These people are so pathetic! They take huge amounts of money and only pay it back in little bits … then they act like money’s so tight that they quiver and cry when they see me coming. They say business is bad and they make a big show of scraping their wallets clean, pretending they’re all choked up. Humph! Who makes money by just standing around, digging a hole in the ground? They’re the ones who took my money, but when I go to collect it they make me feel I’m robbing them.’
She pretended to be upset every time she came back, but then she would pull out the crumpled old money – money that smelled of spicy chili powder or fish, money splattered with grease and moistened with swallowed tears – and lay it out flat, one note at a time. After she had it all carefully laid out, she bundled it up with a rubber band and stuffed it deep into a drawer in the back of the wardrobe. Everyone called Auntie Mrs. Loan-shark.
Father came to get us after the long winter break was over. He just appeared in the doorway one day, carrying a familiar overnight bag and a stained paper-wrapped bundle. Uncle, who was reading the paper, took off his reading glasses and rubbed his eyes, and Auntie slammed her money-lending ledger shut and muttered under her breath, ‘Good Lord, who could that be? Is the door open?’
U-il and I were lying on the warm floor reading comic books. We had already read them several so we were turning the pages absentmindedly, listless and bored, listening to the flapping of the vinyl stuck to the outer part of the window.
‘It’s so noisy in here I can’t even think straight. You can hear this racket all the way out in the alley.’
Father stepped into the room and switched the television off. It was only then we realized that it had even been on.
The room was suddenly quiet. He stood in the doorway clad in a dark, glossy leather jacket that gave off a sharp, metallic smell. The smell seemed to fill the room with a cold air that highlighted the daily scene of that pathetic, dismal room darkening in the late afternoon, and the smell of cigarette smoke and old kimchi left on the table from a late lunch. With the television off, the simultaneous awareness of that absence of sound was unexpected and strange, although no one had been watching it or even speaking. Auntie sat with her mouth wide open like the still, dark television screen, and Uncle froze with his glasses held in midair. It even seemed for a moment that behind us, the dim afternoon light had stopped fading away.
Uncle asked if something terrible happened that would occasion Father turning up unannounced, but his words were useless. Father had never once called or sent word to say he was coming. When we least expected it, the door would fling open and he’d be standing in front of us.
Father ruffled our hair carelessly with a big, rough hand and asked how we’d been, and didn’t we want to see our father? He laughed boisterously, but my face turned bright red. I guess it was because I didn’t know how we’d been, and I didn’t know if we wanted to see him.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I looked out through the open door from under the hair that Father had carelessly rumpled and stared across the yard at the overflowing pile of rubbish in the corner that we couldn’t put out on the street and watched the rats that had been digging it up scurrying away.
pp. 7 - 16
Reading Oh Junghee’s fiction is like seeing the colors and patterns of life and the universe engraved on a bronze mirror. For some, it has the ghastly beauty of passing through a swamp of anxiety and horror. For others, it is like looking into the existential abyss of lost souls who were born without any place to call home. The world order has become naturalized for us through routine and structure, and so we are startled by Oh’s perspicacity, breaking it apart and rendering it unfamiliar. In order to resurrect the inner spirit on a cosmic dimension, Oh envisions opening up what seems closed, and we share in this vision. We are awed by the mysterious alchemy the writer uses to kindle a new literary world, depicting the full spectrum of life and the outer universe in the abyss, in that scene of tension and disillusionment in the grotto of death where all meaning is extinguished. Her novels show a female perspective in a new light, and subversively open up new horizons for existential reflection. It is also through Oh that a new kind of narration and a new literary style can be established in Korean fiction.