- onJanuary 5, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- byYun I-Hyeong
The baby was beautiful. Pretty, lovely, and brilliant. How could this beautiful thing have sprouted from the last branch of my bloodline? I was unbelievably grateful and deeply moved. The baby was like a fluttering cherry blossom, like the year’s first snow piled up overnight. Like a precious, gem-studded bowl with each gem carefully, individually chosen.
Drinking up the hot black herbal tea that filled that shining bowl everyday was my job.
One day, when I said I bought kimchi at the church bazaar in front of my house, my daughter immediately asked: Mom, how heavy is that kimchi? Ten kilograms? You mean to say you can carry ten kilograms without collapsing? Then, Mom, I think you can take care of my Minu. I need to start working again to pay off my debts. I can’t breathe living like this. I think I’m really dying.
I did not want to quit the job I had gotten through the senior citizens’ welfare center. Although it was simple work, like cataloguing and stuffing envelopes with fliers in the neighborhood library, and though it didn’t pay much, it wasn’t trivial work to me. I also didn’t want to give up my freedom of leisurely strolling in the marketplace, or taking solitary walks when I felt like getting some fresh air. But my bruised, tired knees weren’t excuses enough to refuse my daughter’s request. Compared to the old people who lay in intensive care units, with coxitis or sclerosis, or walked with their toes turned out and only with the help of canes, you might consider me really healthy. My son-in-law grew up alone after losing both his parents overnight from an accident when he was a high school student. So my daughter had only me to fall back on.
Six months after giving birth, my daughter went back to work, and I began taking care of Minu. I bought powdered milk and diapers, and prepared meat and vegetable soup with an allowance of less than a million won a month. My daughter came to me tearfully every weekend to pick up Minu, but she didn’t turn back even once after dropping him off every Monday morning.
From six in the morning until midnight, I was on my feet. If I didn’t think at all and simply responded, I could barely fulfill half of the baby’s demands. Minu ate well and didn’t get sick often, but he wasn’t an easy baby. He cried incessantly, piping and squealing like a dolphin. When he wanted something, he would throw a tantrum until he got it, stamping his feet and throwing things until I relented.
I’m not a machine.
I would mutter this while sipping on some soju I bought from a neighborhood store when I was finally alone on weekends. Those times, I really did wish I were a machine. The body is a strange thing. It puts on airs, claiming that it can work only when it’s regularly provided with alone time for itself, just like food. Although I might be just a heap of old bones covered with a few drops of oil and several patches of skin, I felt as if I had recovered my higher being as a human being when I sat alone in my quiet room and slowly passed soju from my cup to my throat. Sometimes I thought of the deep blue of the Han River. An elderly woman whose only pastime and recreation was the angelic task of raising her grandson—that was the role assigned to me. Nobody knew it was so hard for me that I couldn’t help crying sometimes.
Raising a baby alone was a mountain I had already climbed when I was young. I belatedly realized that I could stand straight without falling down on that unpredictable, warlike journey only because I filled every minute of it with the youthful ability to recover, the helplessly persistent, idiotic expectations of a better day, and an ironclad resolution to follow through with what I had chosen to do in my life. I didn’t have these things any more. I wasn’t sure whether a life like that could be called life, not just subsistence or survival. I had become a sort of utensil, like a spoon. I loaded the baby precariously onto my swaying body and carried it day and night, from one day to the next.
I remember the mirror attached to the dairy shelf. My thinning gray hair was so disheveled that I would fit the phrase “a half-dead person.” Dressed in my usual loose-fitting trousers and crimson spandex T-shirt, I realized I was sweating like a pig. It was then that I exchanged glances with him. He was looking at me in the mirror from a little distance.
I had lived without paying attention to a mirror since the age of forty. I wouldn’t have been much surprised to find the inside of a mirror I happened to look into empty. The fact that I could no longer control my aging body according to my will justified my shabbiness to me. I ate whatever fell into my lap and wore whatever clothes I could lay my hands on. But the mirror that reflected my image back to me surprised me that day. It let me know that my form and shape was no phantom, but a real flesh-and-blood human being that could be reflected into someone else’s pupils, and that I had to be responsible for my appearance.
Give it to me, ma’am. I’ll help you.
No, that’s okay.
Please, let me help you.
Well, why, why are you doing this?
Are you a student? Do I know you?
Oh, we met… in the playground the other day.
So I told you I’m fine, okay? I’m carrying my stuff myself, okay?
In the end, I had to yell at him in the middle of the road. My voice came out mixed with shards of glass. I was carrying a few dried pollack, leaks, scallions, and tofu in one hand and a pack of diapers in the other. They weren’t too heavy.
His smile whenever we ran into each other at the playground was harmless. Given that my financial situation was as plain to see as underwear that had ridden up one’s pants, I didn’t think he would harm the baby or me. He didn’t look like a pervert or psycho either. A bored young man who liked to smile and took to people easily. But, that day, he followed me like a puppy from the supermarket.
I didn’t know why I was so irritated. I couldn’t stand his affectionate offer, something that probably originated from kindness and good will. I didn’t realize at the moment that my irritation was in fact directed at those who had never shown me any sort of kindness or good will.
Are you… uncomfortable? I’m sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable, ma’am.
He glanced at me, and then murmured, as he looked down at Minu asleep in the carrier, I don’t mean to harm your baby, or you.
I know you don’t, but…
You should try to read other people’s feelings better.
He bowed silently. Minu opened his eyes a little. A raindrop fell onto his forehead. Dark spots were spreading on the gray sidewalk. I was looking around to find an overhang to take shelter when the young man opened an umbrella he’d been carrying all along. It was a very large umbrella.
Minu must have found the downpour fun. After finishing his milk, he giggled loudly and stared out the window.
I decided to stay in the tearoom until the rain let up. The man didn’t order anything. I ordered Chinese quince tea. My previously explosive sentiment was automatically and ridiculously deflated after a cup of tea. I felt embarrassed for having unnecessarily scolded that young man, a mere child. Looking at Minu, I wished that I could go home and call it a day without doing laundry or cooking.
Uh, do you know by any chance, ma’am?
After sitting silently for a while, he brought up the unexpected subject of the kindergarten disaster that had occurred in the neighboring city. Although it wasn’t necessarily an appropriate subject for a rainy afternoon, I’d known about that incident. Such Cases of child abuse, violence toward children, and the death of innocent children were common; but that particular incident from five years ago stood out because of its scale and premeditated nature. Three kindergarten teachers who belonged to the same club set fire to their respective workplaces one after another. Forty-two children younger than five, and eight kindergarten teachers died.
Although the perpetrators were all arrested, it took a while for the shock to subside. A considerable number of daycare centers nationwide had to close their doors. People viewed leaving their babies in the hands of strangers as taboo. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was because of that incident that Minu’s care fell into my hands.
He spoke slowly, when he said: The poor working condition and fatigue that the three kindergarten teachers might have experienced during their work couldn’t have justified their horrific crimes. Still, after that incident, the government formed a committee to find a solution and people began to think more seriously about the relationship between child safety and caretakers’ wellbeing.
I was just listening, thinking what he said seemed to make sense, when he said,
That’s why I was born. Strange to say, but I originated from that disaster.
I didn’t understand.
No matter how bothersome a child is, I don’t feel any pain. I don’t get angry, irritated, tired, or depressed. I’m not programmed that way. So, don’t worry. I won’t do anything bad. He smiled.
We couldn’t go out often because of the rainy season, and Minu stuck to my legs and threw tantrums from the morning until evening. As I tried to appease Minu, who was making twice as much trouble as usual, I thought of him.
Danny. That was his name. According to a news article, he was first made in the US and distributed among fifty Korean families for a trial run after being modified a bit to fit the Korean culture. I pictured fifty Dannys with identical faces, patting diapered babies cradled in their arms, singing lullabies, or gently shaking a toy. The scene seemed otherworldly.
There could be reasons other than the child’s inherent nature for their tantrum, ma’am. Everyone has some insecurity in his or her heart, and babies perceive it with surprising sensitivity. Did you say his name was Minu?
Minu was sitting in his booster seat, playing with a paper napkin, tearing it to pieces. When I thought it was about time for him to begin to grow annoyed on realizing there were no more napkins to tear, he indeed began to cry, his lips quivering and pouting. He slapped at my hand, pounded the table, and began to wail. All eyes in the tearoom were on us. I began to sweat. I stood up to take the baby outside.
May I hold him for a moment, ma’am?
Danny looked at me.
I’ll hold him until you finish your tea, ma’am.
Whenever Minu cried, I remembered my own daughter’s cries. As my daughter received only half of her parents’ love, she was, to me, always like my painful finger. I sat down reluctantly. So you’re a machine, that’s fine. But how could a machine take care of a baby? A baby needs love, and isn’t love a resource we cannot get anywhere else but from a human being? Doubtful thoughts like these made me sneer inside and allowed me to challenge him with Minu, as if to say: Okay, then, why don’t you give it a try?
When Danny picked up Minu, the baby seemed a little perplexed.
Then four or five seconds later, Minu smiled. He smiled brilliantly. He leaned his head against the stranger’s chest. His smile was extremely comfortable.
Look! He doesn’t feel insecure, right? I don’t feel any emotional insecurity, Danny said. I can help you when it’s too hard for you.
That day, Minu fell asleep in Danny’s arms. He didn’t wake up while Danny carried him home and laid him down. And he continued to sleep soundly until the next morning.
The sound of rain hadn’t stopped all day. I wanted to wash my hair in warm water and take a deep breath. I felt like taking out and putting on clothes I hadn’t worn for a long time. I hesitated a little and then picked up the phone.
Translated by Jeon Seung-Hee
Edited and reprinted with permission from Asia Publishers, Seoul, Korea.
Yun I-Hyeong debuted with the short story “Black Starfish” in 2005 and has since published three short story collections, one novella, and a YA novel. She has received the Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award and the Moonji Literary Award. English editions of her work include “Danny” and “Bloody Sunday.”