A day in May.
Her mother’s hand grips a pair of scissors. Like some wind-up toy, her grandmother repeats herself over and over again: Her son left and won’t come back because his wife was frigid. The scissors are a chilling sight. Unable to bear the suspense, San thrusts her feet into her shoes and runs out the garden gate. The paved road sprawls pitifully under the sun. A dog with a low-hanging tail saunters by. Slate roofs, some red, some blue, lie flat in the background. Trees peek out through the open gates of the other houses. Unruly patches of weeds overgrow onto the main road. The branches of the persimmon tree next door stretch over the wall, brilliantly laden with white flowers. The girl called San is overcome with a compulsion to smash and shatter against something. She leans against the wall the persimmon tree reaches over. She rubs her face against it. Her forehead becomes scratched and beads with blood. Afraid, San breaks into a run. The blood from her forehead flows down her cheeks. She wants to get as far away as possible. Even better, she thinks, if she never has to come back.
The minari field is green. Summer is coming. San is drenched with sweat as she runs, her sweat mingled with blood. She goes down to the irrigation ditch and washes her face, splashing palmfuls of water. Her forehead throbs. She climbs to the top of the dyke, from where she can see the whole field, and plops down. She almost writhes with the sudden, agonizing loneliness. There is no one picking minari today. Is it because of the prickly sunlight? A sad blue sky floats over the road and the minari. She puts a hand to her forehead and checks to see if blood smears off on her palm. It doesn’t, but the scratched spot still throbs, and she blinks away the sweat in her eyes. She lies down and puts her ear against the dyke and looks down on the whole field where the minari grows. What could she hear if she listened hard enough? Could she hear the thoughts of her father, who left as soon as she was born; the feelings of her grandmother, who ripped into her mother time and again; the rage of her mother, who gripped the flashing shears in her hand? As she blinks, the green seeps into her mind like a bitter taste. She shuts her eyes. Her wound throbs and throbs in the sun.
“Both naked, they stretch out side by side like a pair of chopsticks.”
She opens her eyes because her face tickles. Namae squats before her, wearing a white shirt and blue shorts, holding a blade of foxtail. The bushy part pokes San’s face. Namae’s braided ponytail is neatly settled on her shirt front. Their eyes meet, Namae’s eyes brimming with mirth, San’s drowning in sadness. Namae looks into San’s eyes for a moment before gently cupping San’s face.
San is silent.
“Did you trip?”
Little San is too afraid to reply. How could she describe the heat she felt when she put her forehead to the wall? The desire to crash into something. A desire she still feels in her heart. Instead of responding, she grabs the foxtail from Namae’s hand and pushes it up Namae’s nose. Jerking her head back in surprise, Namae loses her balance and rolls down the dyke. There’s a splash, and the stirred-up silt turns the stream muddy and opaque. Namae gets up, her eyes and nose red from swallowing water. San is caught off-guard when Namae reaches up and pulls her in. Upon contact, the cold water fires up the wound on her forehead. One of her shoes comes off, and Namae races to save it. Placing their shoes on top of the dyke, the two girls start splashing each other. The waterweeds are dancing. The two keep slipping as they play, and soon their lips are as blue as ink. San’s wound, which she had briefly forgotten about, aches with a pain that stretches to her nose. The two scramble up the dyke, take a look at each other, and giggle, water dripping down their clothes and hair. They shake their heads to get the water off. The flying droplets hit each other’s faces. Namae hesitates as she looks down at her soaked clothes. She takes off her blue shorts, squeezes them dry, and spreads them on the dyke. San follows suit, taking off her raindrop-print skirt, squeezing it, and also laying it out in the sun. Namae’s white shirt and San’s yellow blouse are next. Then, with some reluctance, Namae takes off her underwear, shakes out the water, and lays it out as well. San takes off her own underwear, squeezes it, shakes it, and lays it out. Both naked, they stretch out side by side like a pair of chopsticks. Now that their wet clothes are off, sunlight returns warmth to their bodies. Little San thinks the dyke must be a green mirror; Namae’s bare body looks identical to her own. If she reaches out to the pink forehead in her reflection, it will ache just like hers. The black pupils of her eyes, the braid falling down her little shoulder, the small cheeks where the water has already dried, the narrow bridge of her nose. San feels reassured that Namae’s body is as skinny and pathetic as her own.
“Look there,” says Namae, pointing to the sky. “It’s watching us.”
Namae giggles as she props herself up. The move reveals her back, and San stares, dazzled. There is a green grass stain blotting Namae’s small, sloped back; the blot is softly, tenderly spread across the white. Without thinking about it, San reaches out with her fingers to touch the spot when Namae whips around.
Their eyes meet.
“You saw it!”
San is speechless.
“You saw the birthmark on my back, right?” Namae’s voice trembles. “I didn’t want anyone to see it.”
San says nothing.
“I’d forgotten about it.” Namae’s eyes fill with tears of rage. “What is it anyway, a Mongolian spot?”
But San smiles brightly. So this must be why San has never seen Namae playing in the stream with the others.
“I . . . thought it was a grass stain.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“It’s really pretty. Turn around. I want to see it.”
Namae sticks out her tongue in pointed refusal and promptly lies down on her back. Their bodies feel downy as they dry. Namae had acted as if she would never again show San her spot, lying down with her back flat against the grass, but she soon shifts her position and rolls onto her side. San follows suit. The green-blue spot that is not a grass stain flashes in San’s vision. How beautiful it is.
“You have something I don’t have.”
Little San begins to feel sad. This blot, only found on Namae’s back, threatens their being two of a kind. The two girls prop their heads up on their palms and stare out over the field, eyes filled with the vast stretch of minari. The green undulates. How could the world be so quiet? The road is empty, the irrigation ditch is empty, and the field is empty. Where has everyone gone?
The girls are lying on their stomachs, waving their feet in the air, when their anklebones painfully collide. Namae, still prone, pulls in her anklebone and rubs it. San sits up in pain and rubs her own anklebone. She looks down at Namae’s curled body. The green blot on her white back is arched and clear. San’s hand slowly reaches out and touches the soft outline of the green blot, following it with her fingers. Namae flinches but lies still, not breathing. In this unexpected silence, little San cannot fight off the melancholy that crashes into her. It travels over the minari field in waves.
“You have something no one else has.”
Namae releases her foot, and caresses San’s forehead instead.
“Does it hurt a lot?”
San doesn’t respond.
“Why did you do this?”
Namae blows soothingly on San’s wound. The urge inside to collide into something, that uncontrollable impulse San thought she’d managed to tamp down, is welling up again. The hand that traced the blot on Namae’s pale back begins to rub Namae’s neck. A passing breeze ruffles the grass on the dyke. The minari bends in the wind. San is about to cry when Namae pulls her into an embrace. When their warm bodies meet, San feels a surge of loneliness she’s sure will last for the rest of her life. Their soft lips touch, and their little fingers tangle together for a moment. Namae sits bolt upright and swats San’s back, but San pulls her down again. They awkwardly fall into an embrace, look into each other’s eyes, and settle down on the grass once more.
“Dizzy, she almost drops the knife.”
The next time San opens her eyes, it’s to the quacking of some passing ducks. She’s alone on the dyke. White ducks with yellow beaks play in the ditch where Namae had fallen earlier. San stares at the blank spaces between her raindrop-print skirt, her yellow blouse, and her white underwear. The spaces where Namae’s white shirt, blue shorts, and underwear had been.
Little San puts on her clothes and sits, staring out at the minari. Why did Namae leave without her? Suddenly, San is afraid. There’s not a single cloud in the sky. Waves of green swell. The silence is eerie. A red cloud of dust rises from the road and melts into the field. San sits there until the sound of the ducks fade and twilight descends. A villager who has come to pick minari sees her sitting stock-still and calls out her name, but San doesn’t reply. She may not have heard. Eventually, San gets up, despite her wounded forehead and aching ankle, and gets off the dyke. She heads for Namae’s house. The house has its lights on, but is quiet. Only Namae’s shoes greet her from beneath the porch. By the wall, next to the well, is the large earthen jar that Namae’s father crawls into, its mouth gaping in the dusk. San can’t bring herself to call Namae’s name. She simply stands there. Namae refuses to come out. Little San drags her feet to the jar and crawls inside. The floor and walls are ice to the touch. She crouches and listens carefully. But there’s only the cold. There’s only darkness. Overcome with dread, she lets out an Ah—. Her voice is small, but it rings within the jar. Ahhh—. Surprised by her own voice, she clamps her mouth and stops breathing. There’s the sound of an opening door, and the sound of Namae putting on her shoes. San squeezes her eyes shut in the already black interior. Come, my love. Come and raise me from this darkness. Little San listens carefully to each of Namae’s approaching footsteps.
Namae’s shadow covers the mouth of the jar.
“Get out!” Namae shouts. San is crouched, her eyes squeezed shut.
San doesn’t move.
“I said, get out!”
Finally, little San crawls out of the jar.
Namae pushes her and yells, “Go away!” Namae rushes to her house, takes off her shoes, and darts back inside where a faint glow seeps out. But where is San supposed to go? To whom? A thought sweeps across her heart: If she leaves now, she’ll never see Namae again. That must never happen.
Have you forgotten me? Already?
How warm we were by the minari. The beautiful green blot staining your white back. The gentleness of your cheek. Your small hand that caressed the wound on my forehead.
The jar stands and stares with listless shoulders. A few moments later, Namae opens the door and looks out into the yard. She sees San standing there and screams at her to leave. When San doesn’t move, she runs out of the house and thumps her on the chest with a fist.
“All right,” says Namae abruptly, and walks away.
San tries to say something as she follows Namae to the kitchen. Namae, surprised by San trailing her, leaves through a door to the backyard. The more San thinks she should say something, the more her lips freeze.
Namae comes back into the kitchen, biting her lower lip, and grabs the knife sitting on the chopping board as she orders San outside. Namae runs to the chicken coop on the other side of the yard. She throws open the coop door and grabs one of the birds by the wings, a red cock, and pulls it out. She is holding the screaming rooster with one hand and with the other she thrusts the knife at San. Not knowing what to do, San takes it from her.
“Now, follow me.”
Namae leads San to the large stone mortar next to the well and glares at her.
“Cut off its head.”
San doesn’t move.
“I said, cut off the head of this cock!”
She still doesn’t move.
“. . .”
“Then get out!”
“. . .”
“I said, get out!”
San feels like the backyard walls are closing in. Dizzy, she almost drops the knife. The white back hidden inside your white shirt, the luscious green blot spread across that back. Your soft lips, your warm body. Little San had not anticipated this situation back when she was tracing Namae’s spot with her fingers. She doesn’t know how to take in what’s happening. She feels numb. Your warm body, the ribs that protruded over the pit of your stomach, your delicately rising and falling uvula—where has this betrayal been hiding? But if it means I can be with you, San thinks. If it means you won’t leave me. She closes her eyes. She raises the knife. I can’t go back like this! She thrusts the knife into the rooster’s neck and pulls.
Their vision clouds over. The head of the rooster is rolling on the ground. There are droplets of blood splattered on the well. Namae, in shock, rolls on the ground and clutches the rooster still squirming with life. San drops the knife, and Namae tosses aside the headless cock. Red blood covers the earthen jar, the wall, the well, and the two girls. Namae stumbles away from San, then screams at her as she scrambles onto the porch with her shoes still on and falls inside the house. She locks the door shut behind her.
From Violets by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur. Published April 2022 by the Feminist Press. By arrangement with the publisher.