Note: The narrator and her family have fled the Korean War and arrived at a small village where they are renting a room from a one-eyed carpenter whose daughter Bu-ne is rumored to have gone mad and died. The narrator’s father was taken away while they were fleeing, and the family has not heard from him since. Her mother has taken up a job working nights at a restaurant in town.
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 textbook in a loud voice. 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, for I always stole the same amount from Mother’s purse, and I never bought anything else but candy.
On such days, after taking out the two pieces, I would linger before closing the lid. If she didn’t 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 many layers of faraway 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 catching 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 work.
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 patches 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 bowl of 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 use them to lure centipedes, to use as medicine.
We opened the door and sat out on the wooden verandah, wiping our oily lips with the backs of our hands.
When we first moved here, there were rumors in the village that chickens were disappearing and the 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 trashed 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 a 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, foglike 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 brought word that outside, there was still a war going on.
© Oh Jung-hee. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2005 by Ha-yun Jung. All rights reserved.