Garden of Childhood
- onNovember 14, 2014
- Vol.10 Winter 2010
- byOh Junghee
- Garden of Childhood
After dinner, Grandmother told Older Sister to do the dishes and went outside, carrying Little Brother on piggyback. He always cried around sunset so every night Grandmother had to carry him around on her back and returned only when their hair and clothes turned damp with night dew. That was why Little Brother always seemed to have a cold and his hands and feet were always warm with worrisome fever.
Skinny as a spider, he was constantly crying in frail, shallow whimpers, except when he was sucking on Grandmother’s dried-up breasts. Even when he finally fell asleep, faint ripples of sobs remained on his open lips, making his mouth quiver. Sometimes I gazed at Little Brother when he was sleeping as if it were an odd sight, especially his chin, the skin red and sore from constant drool.
Second Brother brought home mudfish that he caught with a fishbowl buried inside the brook and frogs that he hunted with a supple willow branch, and Grandmother boiled them down and fed it to Little Brother, but he did not seem to get any better.
In the middle of fields or on hills, we often found piles of small stones. They were graves for babies.
We knew that he was going to die. One night, he would be carried out on an A-frame, wrapped in sheets like a little bundle, listening to Grandmother and Mother crying quietly.
After fishing and swimming in the brook all day, Second Brother fell asleep on the warm spot of the room with his arms and legs spread out. Older Sister had been making noise doing dishes in the dark kitchen, but was now quiet, probably gone to town. Older Brother was long gone. Turning over in his sleep, Second Brother kicked the rice bowl placed near his foot, rolling it over until its lid came open. I reached out to close the lid, but then snatched a few grains of rice and put them into my mouth. The smooth, white boiled rice swiftly went down my throat before I even realized it. I rushed to grab some more and swallowed, then smoothed the surface of the rice in the bowl so that it wouldn’t show.
Grinding his teeth, Second Brother tossed about, then let out a laugh. I quickly put the lid back on the bowl and sat back against the wall. The dark room was scary. My hand kept crawling toward the rice bowl. I could forget my fear for as long as the sweet, rich taste of the rice grains remained in my mouth.
As I could not help reaching out my hand, again and again, the rice in the bowl was quickly disappearing. Under the thin layer of white rice on top was the usual black boiled barley that we ate. Grandmother would notice right away. I fought desperately with my hand as it kept heading toward the bowl, trying to look the other way. On the nights that she drank, Mother usually did not eat dinner. Just this once—under this condition, I negotiated with my shameless hand. I carefully lifted the lid, grabbed another handful of rice, then evened the scooped surface before lying down next to Second Brother.
I wanted to sleep. I wanted to fall asleep before Mother returned, before Older Brother came storming back from the market street and crossed the room, carelessly stepping on our arms and legs, to lie down facing the wall, all huffy, before he clasped and yanked Older Sister’s locks.
From the backyard of the main quarters, I could hear ripening persimmons falling from the tree.
Was Bu-ne sleeping, too? Lying awake in the middle of the dark night, I could picture only scary thoughts. I took as long as possible chewing the rice grain by grain, trying to forget my fear, but the fistful of rice was already gone, as if it had never been there. When I moved my toes even slightly, the rice bowl at my feet swayed and rolled.
I stood and felt my way out to the kitchen. I got on tiptoes and fumbled through the cupboard and the dishes on the shelves. The sweet potatoes were hidden inside a pot in the cupboard. Grandmother had boiled them for Little Brother, who cried every night. If she found out that the sweet potatoes were gone, Grandmother would probably shake Older Sister and Second Brother, even if it were in the middle of the night.
You ate them up, didn’t you? Didn’t you?
I dropped the pot lid to the kitchen floor to make it look as if a mouse had done it, and took a big bite of the sweet potato, which had turned slightly sour.
I heard Grandmother’s footsteps on the other side of the boarded wall of the kitchen. I hurriedly swallowed the sweet potato. My throat felt choked and my chest hurt, as if it were about to tear open, but I had no time to get a drink of water. The pot lid that I had just dropped got caught in my flurried footsteps and rumbled on the floor.
On my way into the room I bumped my foot on the threshold, which hurt horribly.
Grandmother breathed out a long sigh and lit the lamp. The smell of gasoline spread and black soot rose then the room brightened. Grandmother felt around with her hand, as if the light were not bright enough for her, then pushed me towards the wall and laid Little Brother down.
Carefully I put a hand into my pocket. The sweet potato that was mashed up inside stuck all over my hand.
You must be hungry. Get inside.
When Mother returned late, Grandmother got up from her dozing and brought in dinner for her. My heart thumped hard.
I’m fine. You don’t go hungry working at a restaurant.
But you’ll ruin your stomach. Eat up.
Mother struggled to pull off her padded beoseon socks and threw them to the floor.
Goodness, what happened to the rice?
Grandmother opened the lid of the bowl as she handed Mother her spoon.
I had to pee so bad my tummy felt as if it were being pulled taut, but I could not budge.
Now she even steals from her own mother’s food… It’s Yellow Eye. She’s like a little mouse, gets her hands on everything. The landlady says she can’t find a single fallen persimmon in the garden. What an embarrassment…
Grandmother raised her voice in exaggerated anger. There was always an air of fawning in the way Grandmother talked to Mother, as if she had something to be ashamed of, and Mother seemed to take it for granted.
She gets hungry so quick, that’s why. Barley’s no good for keeping you full. She’s at that age…has to fill her stomach with anything she sees.
The way Mother was rambling on carelessly, she sounded like she was either drunk or raving.
People might think I starve the kids, if they heard you talk. She eats even more than the older ones. Look at her. Sturdier than her sister.
Grandmother sounded as if she were about to slap me awake.
Give it a rest.
Mother pushed her dinner away without touching it. And without changing her clothes, she lied down on her side, folding her arm under her head as a pillow.
I could be punished for saying this… but I don’t feel like I really gave birth to her.
Mother seemed to be falling asleep, but mumbled, as if to herself, her voice now alert.
Grandmother had her back to Mother, rubbing her feet with perilla oil, and did not answer. The smell of gasoline and oil mingled together, filling up the room with soot-like blackness. Grandmother had burned her foot on shrapnel in the chaos of the war and every night she rubbed perilla oil and wrapped it with oil paper.
Mother did not appear to be waiting for a response as she kept on.
….Doesn’t laugh, doesn’t talk…She’s different from other kids. Seems slow and she has only food on her mind, as if she were possessed by the ghost of a pig. Maybe she’s slightly dumb…Still wetting her sleeping mat at seven…How can I send her to school next year. It can be a disease, you know, a child her age getting fat like that. People say kids can swell up when there’s too much fluid in the body.
It’s the little one I’m worried about, more than Yellow Eye.
Grandmother cut in, the paper on her foot rustling.
Doesn’t seem like he’s going to make good, just gets weaker every day… He feels like nothing more than a bunch of dry leaves on my back. What a pity, a penis good for nothing.
Mother sighed again.
It was quiet in the room. Grandmother did not speak anymore. She was probably thinking about Father. Day by day, Father was growing more distant and faint, but in the dark night, he seeped in like a phantom through the crack in the wall and pushed his way between us to lay himself down.
I could not remember Father’s face. The only memory I could conjure up was of him getting off the truck, the back of his shirt soaked and the underarms even darker with sweat. Mother had cried out, waving her arms wide.
I will get settled around here. You have to come back, promise.
Mother lifted herself up. An enormous shadow wobbled on the wall. She blew out the lamp with an audible breath.
The shadow fluttered, then in a second, was gone.
Big one’s not back yet.
Grandmother spoke cautiously.
He’ll be here.
I could not get to sleep. As I lay still and listened closely to the clear chirp and trill of the insects in the garden, my body gradually turned into a paper-thin, transparent layer of skin and I could even hear the millipedes scurrying underneath our reed mat.
Deep into the night, Older Brother returned, smelling damp like morning dew. He walked across our bodies, mumbling something foul, and lay down next to the wall.
I tore off tiny bits of the sweet potato without making a sound and sucked my sticky fingers to their very tips, melting the sweetness with my tongue.
The millipedes’ numerous little feet busily gnawed into the darkness. Because we slept without pillows under our heads, we ferociously ground our teeth.
Mother sighed in her sleep as if in pain and Grandmother murmured incomprehensible words.