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.
In the kitchen, a hungry mouse was searching the empty bowls, rattling and clattering.
I opened my eyes, clear and wide, and spoke in a low voice.
Go back to where you live, there’s nothing to eat here.
I knew what was keeping me awake, this unsettling anxiety. The bump on my foot had long stopped hurting. But I curled up to wrap my hands around the foot and scowled fiercely. I scowled again and again in the darkness.
In the midst of the noise of our teeth gnashing and grinding, all the smells of our living selves was boiling up fiendishly—the smell of our sweat, of the dry flakes of our skin, of the gas that we kept squeezing out, of our naïve, bloody lust.
I stretched out my arm quietly and reached toward Mother’s head. Even when she was drunk, Mother always went to sleep with her wallet stashed underneath the sleeping mat. I took out a bill from the wallet and put it back under the mat. Mother never seemed to notice that the money was missing, being so drunk. But I kept thinking that she just pretended not to notice, when actually she knew. That was why, although I knew that I would eventually end up taking the money, I was always sick with anxiety until I pulled the bill out of the wallet, until the sweet, sweet candy finished melting in my mouth.
I pushed the money deep into my pocket, still sticky, then lay on my back and finally, hazily, fell asleep.
I could still hear the sound of persimmons falling, intermittently, in the backyard. The insects sounded much closer now.
Bu-ne was crying. Without making a sound. This was what I thought as I sank far and deep into sleep. Was it a dream?
The late summer heat would not retreat. The morning sunlight poured down so intensely that the zinc roof was about to melt.
Yellow Eye, carry the little one on your back.
Grandmother put Little Brother on my back and tied him on with a band, then, with a groan, lifted up the wooden laundry basin to carry on her head.
She kept on walking against the current, past the shallow waters where children were swimming naked, past the women doing laundry or rinsing vegetables.
On the upper reach of the brook, Grandmother found a quiet, clean spot and soaked the laundry in the water. I put Little Brother down in the meager shade of a cornel tree by the brook and chased away the flies on his head and on the flaccid skin around his chin.
Little Brother, skinny as a spider, kept frowning and blinking his eyes at the sunlight shining through the leaves. He was covered with prickly heat all summer long, which turned red then festered with pus, but when you pulled off his long-sleeved underwear, in no time goose bumps popped up on his dull skin.
Quickly bored, I began picking purslane to make grass dolls and floated them down the brook, soaking my feet in the water.
When she was done with the washing, Grandmother spread out the laundry to dry on a flat rock, heated hot and white by the sun. My skirt got wet from the swift current, so I took off my clothes and got in the water. Down at the bottom of the brook, my feet looked so white and clean amidst the round, eroded pebbles, as if they had just sprouted into being.
Grandmother raked the flowing water with her fingers to push the dry grass and leaves downstream, then pulled out the pin from her hair, held up in a bun. In an instant, the skein of thin, tight braids fell down on her back. Then she pulled loose the ribbon, tied tight around the tip of the braids. The violet ribbon was so worn and oily that it looked glossy and black.
Wretched old habit…She used to sing and dance and pour drinks for men.
Mother would say in a rather condescending tone, pointing at Grandmother’s flower-patterned ribbon.
She was so pretty people called her a bag of flowers, Bongji, Flower Bongji.
Mother said that her father took Bongji in as his concubine and built her a tile-roofed house with ninety-nine rooms, huge as a whale’s back.
Grandmother bathed often. Even in the middle of winter, she sat inside the wooden tub, set up inside the kitchen with the milky steam rising, and washed herself, splatter, splash. Of course, she locked the door tight so no one could peek inside. When Mother heard Grandmother bathing from the room, this is what she said.
That old habit… Pitiful, I’d say. Keeping that up when she has no husband to attend to in bed…
The scene from three years ago, of the day Grandmother came to our house for the first time, still remained as vivid as a painting in my memory.
The events that came before and after that day were blurry in my mind, except for the fact that things were chaotic.
Father had been digging up a corner of the garden. Next to him were piles of porcelain and glass ware. He said he was going to bury them deep in the ground to keep them from breaking. Then we would be leaving for some place. Father bent down and kept on hoeing, wiping the sweat off his forehead, but could not dig into the frozen earth. Instead, the edge of the hoe broke and bounced off.
Bitter cold snow fell in the wind. A truck was parked outside our gate and Mother, in her last month of pregnancy, waddled back and forth like a duck, carrying our bundles to the truck.
That was when someone stepped in softly through the open gate. She was like a flower petal that had bloomed out of season, blowing in with the white snow.
Grandmother walked in carefully, taking tiny steps like a breeding hen, wearing a violet silk overcoat and a pretty black traditional hat with earflaps and a five-color tassel draping on her forehead. (It was only sometime later, when we got to our first shelter and Grandmother took over as caretaker for Mother after she gave birth, that I learned that Grandmother’s tiny steps were a desperate attempt to hide the limp caused by the burn on her foot.)
Suddenly disoriented by Grandmother’s appearance, for a while we stared blankly at the gate. Even Mother.
The way she was standing there bashfully in the falling snow with such a clear, innocent look on her face—her body had turned into a bundle of clothing to lighten the load and to keep warm from the cold—was somehow a tremendous shock to us, so much that for a moment we forgot why we were leaving in such a scurry.
Until she showed up at our house at our parent’s insistence that she flee the war with us, we had never met Grandmother, not even known that we had a grandmother. Mother told us only later that after Grandfather lost all his riches (Mother used the term “sucked up by concubines”) and died, Grandmother, who had not been able to bear children as was often the case with these women, had been living by herself.
Father also seemed dumbfounded at the sight of Grandmother, then he threw the broken hoe in his hand to the ground. He said gruffly and with disdain, to no one in particular. Come on, let’s get going.
Grandmother got up on the back of the truck, wrapping her coat tight around her, wearing an awkward, abashed look. I was handed over to Grandmother right away but I was so scared of that hat on her head. Because of my terrible, petrified crying, Grandmother had to take off her hat and sit all night with her white head freezing naked in the winter wind.
Inside the small bundle that Grandmother had brought with her, there was a red silk sack with a blue and red tassel. There were two phoenixes leaning their heads against each other, embroidered in gorgeous gold and silver. She kept two silver spoon and chopstick sets in the sack, which belonged to her and her late husband.
Grandmother soaked her hair, rough and yellowish white like hemp yarn, and washed it for a long, long time. When she was done, she braided the wet hair, tied her violet ribbon, and put the hair up in a neat bun. Then she pulled my naked body and held me under her arms, pushing my head into the water.
As my head entered the water, it felt cool and light, as if my head had suddenly opened up and begun emptying itself out.
It was summer but the first dip in the water always felt cold. The sky and the clouds and the trees flipped over, as if in a headlong fall, and turned upside down. I kicked and struggled with fear and displeasure whenever I got pushed in the water upside down, but soon I got used to the feeling of water flowing beneath my head.
I let my arms hang and quietly watched the upside-down scenery. The sky and the smooth mountain ridges holding it up, and the trees and the small forests, all shook in a blur in my vision. Tiny minnows swiftly swam past right above my eyelashes. Strands of loose hair wobbled like water plants and sunk in between the rocks at the bottom of the water.
Look, look at all this dirt inside your hair.
Grandmother rubbed and scratched my hair mercilessly.
There was nothing but the mid-day sunlight boiling up quietly; even the sound of the water flowing seemed to be sinking into languid sleep. I pulled slightly away from Grandmother’s loosened grip and dipped my head deeper into the water. I could see green moss, soft as velvet, growing in the hidden corners of the rocks at the bottom of the brook. Seen through my eyes from underwater, the upside down scenery seemed very familiar, as if I had seen it somewhere before.
Grandmother’s naked underarms smelled sour with sweat and her abundant, sweaty armpit hair tickled my shoulders each time she rubbed my hair.
Finished with washing my hair, Grandmother turned around and took off her skirt. And she stepped precariously on the slippery rocks, losing her balance a little, and entered the water.
It was my first time to see Grandmother naked. Unlike her dry, withering arms and legs, covered with black and brown spots, the skin under her clothes was shiny white—her belly, without the ugly wrinkles that many births had left behind on Mother, was especially lush and round. The water that had been bubbling through Grandmother’s dark crotch flowed downstream and curled around my waist before moving on.
Looking at Grandmother standing in the middle of the brook as if in a daze, I suddenly recalled my astonishment from that first day when Grandmother entered our house in the snow, like a flower petal blowing in the wind.
Grandmother was beautiful. Noticing my gaze on her, she smiled wide, showing her gums. Laughing in the sun like that, her mouth agape, Grandmother looked like a dry petal. Bongji, Bongji, Flower Bongji, Grandmother was really like a sack filled up with seeds, black and ripe.
Sand carried down by the current gradually buried Grandmother’s pink burnt foot, which shed a layer of skin every night.
Grandmother stood tall in the middle of the water, then dissolved like watercolor, light and slow, and passed through my ugly wrinkled crotch, bubbling and flowing on down.
Little Brother began to cry in faint whimpers. Perhaps an ant was crawling on his face. Mixed with the sound of the water, his crying sounded almost natural, like nothing out of the ordinary, like the sound of insects in the bushes or sand piling up on the bottom of the brook, and it did not occur to me that I should rush over to him. Grandmother seemed to be thinking the same thing. When the sleek serpent, thick as my arm, appeared from the woods where Little Brother lay and dipped its head in the water and slowly swam with the current, she stared blankly then mumbled, as if the thought had just occurred to her.
He must have been scared out of his wits.
Mother slept late. Older Sister and Second Brother had long ago left for school. When sunlight landed on her make-up-smeared face, puffy and swollen from a hangover, Mother turned over, blocking it with the back of her hand.
Older Brother turned his back to us and as always, began to read the English book in a loud voice and I walked around Mother’s head and got out of the room.
The corner store was at the entrance of the village, on the other side of the road that led into town.
The young woman would be fanning herself with her skirt hiked above her knees, or catching flies with a flyswatter when I got to the door and looked around inside, and without saying anything, she would open the flower-shaped tin lid of the wide-mouthed glass jar and take out two pieces of candy. Sometimes she would scoop up an extra handful of coarse sugar from the bottom of the jar and hand it to me with a blank face. There were also times when she just glanced out the tiny window on her door and yawned lazily, apparently not wanting to bother coming out, as she told me to leave the money and take the candy myself. She knew that I always had money for exactly two pieces, never more, and I had never bought anything but candy.
On days like this, after taking out the two pieces, I would linger before closing the lid. If she did not seem to be watching, I quickly grabbed another piece and ran out, yelling, Here’s the money. When I put the candy, as big as a cow’s eye, inside my mouth, my cheek stuck out as if it were about to burst. I knew how to make the two pieces of candy last until way after lunch time. I could not go home anyway, until they were all melted and gone.
I walked aimlessly along the newly paved road. Along the side of the road, the leaves on the corn stalks hung low, covered with dust, and the silk holding the full, ripe ears was turning yellow.
As I walked down the dusty road, I sucked the candy as slowly as I could, to make the sweetness last longer. Boom, boom. I heard cannons in the distance. People said the sound came from beyond the many layers of far-away mountain ridges. I stopped many times to remove the candy from my mouth and hold it up to see how small it got, then put it in my pocket. After taking about ten steps, only after the sweetness in my mouth was completely gone, I put the candy back in my mouth. The sticky sweetness of the candy made my fingers glue together like a duck foot.
At the end of the paved road was Older Sister’s school. It was a squat single-story wooden building. Next to the gate, right outside the fence of hardy orange trees along the edge of the school yard, a vendor spun cloud-like blossoms of cotton candy. He poured a fistful of white powder into a large funnel-shaped tin container and stuck a thin wooden stick inside, then stepped on the foot pedal. Layer by layer, the cotton candy wrapped around the stick and bloomed into a shiny white flower, just like a cotton blossom. I never got tired of watching. As I stood staring at the sticks of cotton candy, multiplying into five, then ten, the vendor said, You want one, then go get some money, and put down the eleventh cotton candy with a boastful clang. I could hear clear, shrill singing from the open windows of the old wooden building, painted black with tar.
Halfway up the hill behind the school was an orphanage, fenced with barbed wire. On the other side of the barbed wire stood a shack with high windows that looked like a warehouse and a couple of military tents. There were piles of square wooden bars and bricks here and there, probably for construction. The sun was so bright but there was no shade, so the girls sat head to head in the sliver of space under the wooden bars leaning against the wall, taking turns picking lice for one another, while the shirtless boys fetched water in pails.
Second Brother always envied these kids. He said they made sharp knives out of nails, could lick off the blood from their wounds with their tongues, ran away in groups of three or four every night, and every time, the same number of children would be caught and brought in from somewhere. This kind of talk made Older Sister shudder with fear. Second Brother said there was no one in his class who did not get scared when one of these kids spit out between his teeth, I’ll see you after school. And without fail, the gang would be waiting in one of the dark back alleys on the way home. Picking you up and throwing you upside down into a toilet was as easy for them as eating porridge.
A girl who was licking milk powder off her hand approached the barbed wire fence.
You want some?
I stuck out my hand. She held up her hand then blew the tiny pinch of remaining powder into my eye.
Get lost, you fatso.
Someone banged the oxygen tank outside the shack, clang clang clang clang.
We’re hungry, clang clang clang.
Come and eat, clang clang clang.
The children all got up and ran, their hair bouncing, and disappeared inside.
I put the remaining candy in my mouth and walked back the way I came, then past the village and into town.
There was no market today so the mid-day streets were quiet, only the hammering from the blacksmith’s shop echoing clear and loud.
I walked slowly to the end of the street, chasing the local bus that had just dropped off two passengers, peering inside the dead quiet alleys, the hair salon, the pub, the inn.
Whenever I passed these streets, I always thought of Father. How far was it from here, the spot where Father was pulled off the truck by men in military uniforms. Even in my faint memory, I somehow felt that we were not too far from where Father got off the truck.
The blacksmith heated a piece of metal on sizzling oak charcoal and forged the blade with heavy hammering. Every time he pounded with the hammer, the flesh under his arm swelled up, bubbling and trembling. As I walked past the farmers who had come to get their tools repaired lying asleep in front of the shop with ruddy faces, I came to a sudden stop. There among the men was the one-eyed carpenter, curled up on his side with the familiar tool sack tucked under his head.
I returned home long after sunset. It was time for Mother to leave for town.
Older Sister was pacing around the vegetable patch with Little Brother on her back. She tried hard to hide a smile as she pouted at me. It was a sign that there was good news.
You wretched little girl, where have you been?
Grandmother snapped at me as she washed the stone mortar at the well. Older Brother was reading his book in the room, but rushed to carry the mortar into the kitchen as soon as Grandmother was done, as if he had been watching intently all along.
Inside the kitchen, it was hot and dark like the inside of a steamer, with the cooking stove already lit and water boiling. Now I knew exactly what was going on. Grandmother thumped her knuckles on my head when I kept going back and forth from the kitchen to the backyard, wearing a huge grin on my face. Then she spoke suggestively to Mother who was leaving, her face all made up.
Make sure you come home for dinner tonight.
Grandmother had brought home a lost chicken again. Grandmother’s laundry basin was huge compared to the amount of laundry we usually had. Sometimes inside that basin was a big old chicken sitting with its legs folded as if it were dead, glaring at us. Grandmother found them poking around the vegetable fields outside the village. She always insisted that they did not belong to anyone.
When Grandmother shoved the chicken’s head under its wing, placed it inside the mortar and pounded down with a pestle, the chicken died instantly, without a squawk.
The weather was so hot that our clothes stuck to our skin, but Grandmother shut the kitchen door and pulled out the feathers, blinking her eyes as sweat rolled down her face.
We closed our door tight and gulped down the hot chicken stock, dripping sweat.
Grandmother placed the drumstick and intestines on Older Brother’s rice before we could get our hands on them.
The clean-up was handled just as quickly and efficiently. Older Brother mixed the feathers with ashes so that they would not fly away, and buried them deep in a corner of our garden. The black clots of blood on the kitchen floor disappeared without a trace when we swept it with a sprinkle of soil.
Grandmother placed the bones, stripped of any trace of meat, behind the kitchen cupboard where no one could see. She was going to lure centipedes with them, to use as medicine.
We opened the door and sat out on the wooden verandah, wiping our oily mouths with the backs of our hands.
When we first moved here, there were rumors in the village that chickens were disappearing and owners would come around our place, looking for their missing chicken. People whispered that it must the refugees from outside the village who were doing it. But it was only after a year had passed that Grandmother actually started to go out with the huge laundry basin on her head. No matter what the circumstances, the truth was that we were wandering refugees, no better than beggars.
At first Older Brother would not even touch the chicken. We were aghast when he poured his share of the soup into the rice rinsing bowl, as if he had something to prove. But he could not deny his vigorous adolescent appetite for long.
Grandmother fed me a fistful of coarse salt, and baking soda to Little Brother. She said we might get our stomachs horribly upset from food that we weren’t used to eating. The salt was bitter and strong, stinging and burning my throat as it went down.
In the middle of the night, I woke up with a bad thirst. I felt my way across the sleeping bodies and opened the door.
You eat salt, you need water.
Mother was still awake and she let out a laugh, smelling of alcohol, and Grandmother threatened, If you pee in your sleep, I’m going to send you all around the village with the straw basket on your head.
The well was deep. Inside, the sky sat dark and round, endlessly sucking in the rope on the well-bucket, then in one unguarded second, it cracked with a splash and scattered into a thousand pieces.
Mist was falling, wet and shiny like fine shards of glass. I pulled up the bucket and drank, then poured the rest of the water on my feet and released the rope on the bucket again, endlessly, gazing into the well. There, it was silent and at the same time full of unknowable sounds. It seemed like I could hear someone’s breathing, much like a sigh of lament, mixed in with those sounds.
A mouse scurried out from under the verandah of Bu-ne’s room. Moonlight penetrated deep into the cracks on the wooden flooring. I got closer and looked under the verandah. There was a pair of shoes, one standing up and one fallen on its side, as if the mouse had just been playing with them. I pulled them out. They were a pair of high heels, the toe and heel sharp as blades, filled with dust and dirt inside. I shook out the dirt and rubbed the shoes to give them a shine, then gently pushed in my wet feet. I swung forward, feeling like my ankles were about to give. I took the shoes off neatly on the terrace stone and put my eye on the door. It was dark inside so I could not see anything between the dense wooden frames. But strangely, I did not feel afraid like before.
The persimmons had just started to turn red and one by one they fell, sporadically, as if they had just been reminded.
Sitting outside in the middle of the night and staring at Bu-ne’s room like this, everything so quiet, the events that went on during the day felt as hazy and distant as a dream. Mother coming home drunk every night, the times I spent sucking my thumb like a mouse under the dirty blankets, all seemed like a long, weary dream. Could it be possible that the real me had been left behind as bits and pieces of sensations in the folds of faraway memories, revisited with longing. Just as it was with Father. Father was very tall. Or maybe this was something I simply associated with Father, because of Grandmother’s remarks that Older Brother, who was well-built, looked just like Father.
After dinner when the winds cooled down, Father used to carry me outside on his shoulders. It was so high up there on Father’s shoulders that I felt dizzy and shaky, as if I were about to float into the air like a balloon.
A little one will be born soon. Father spoke as if he were singing, squeezing my thighs tightly. There is a baby inside Mommy’s tummy.
Hold on tight. And when I held on to his hair, as he told me to, I got his sticky and greasy hair tonic all over my hands.
Father stayed with me as the grip on my frail thighs and ankles, as something vaguely warm and soft, as something large, as a back drenched in sweat. But could it be that all these memories were merely a distant dream, a fabrication of my imagination?
Father will return when the war is over. We hadn’t heard from him in two years but Grandmother was persistent. But despite the affectionate memories and the hopeless waiting, Father’s possible return also worried and scared us. Even Older Brother seemed to feel this way, coldly threatening Mother upon her late return, What will Father say when he comes back?
Just as we grew accustomed to the taste of lost chicken, just as my hands reaching for Mother’s wallet got bolder and the amount they grabbed got larger, just as Grandmother got more skilled in the art of secret and silent butchering, just as the chickens eventually learned to yield at a mere glance, burying their heads under their wings and surrendering, Father would also have changed. This vague, fog-like unfamiliarity that now filled every fold of the time that Father spent away from us would likely come back to us as a new war. Could it be that perhaps this hopeless waiting and affectionate reminiscing was our way of trying to cover up and to ask for forgiveness, for not wanting Father to ever come back, for choosing to believe that Father was never coming back?
The sound of cannons that traveled from the other side of the mountain ridge would suddenly remind this quiet, sunken village of the war, and the refugees that arrived every now and then said that outside, there was still a war going on.
* Translated by Jung Hayun.
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.