by Chloe Park
It began ages before I was born, before my father was born, before my grandmother was born. It began in the middle of another ongoing story about the world – the world being the young, small, helpless country of Korea because it was all the people knew. I don’t know how she lived. What her childhood was like and what her motherhood was like is all a mystery to me still. I have never spoken to her, even in her presence. I know nothing about her except the fact that a piece of her is sifting through my veins at this moment. I know nothing except the fact that all I did was sit and cry when I saw her for the first and last time.
I watched the crooked trees drift away into the distance as my father carried me like a potted plant into the paper house. The pinewood floors were lifted above the silt ground as if to shelter the meager ferns growing beneath them, and the roofs were ashy curled stones, ominously stacked as if to resemble the scales of fish. I clutched his collar and felt the anticipation in his words as he called out to her. And there she sat: a small mass of white cloth, cross-legged at the center of the floor.
"A year or two after that, she faded into the waters of her hometown."
Aigo! Is this your daughter? Her hoarse, aged voice cut into my ears as she craned her neck to better see me. I was a flea under the looking glass of her sagging eyes. I found myself paying attention to the lisp seething from her sunken teeth, how her lips had molded around them in a permanently distasteful expression. The skin of her cheeks hung from the sides of her face, reminding me of the jowls of the hoary nextdoor dog. She was unknown to me; her features did not fit my childish definition of “woman”. This strange uncertainty frightened me so that tears naïvely spilled from my eyes. Upon my father’s apologies, she simply laughed – shouted – that It’s all right, she’s little, I know she’s crying because I’m scary and ripe with age. A year or two after that, she faded into the waters of her hometown.
I only vaguely remember all of this. For a while, I assured myself that it had all been a surreal figment of my imagination. I was convinced that it had all been dreamed somehow, maybe because I wanted to forget. My fantasy was shattered when we found old cameras in the depths of our expired drawers, one of which contained a photo of my small, crying face with her white bundled form in the distance. I knew I hadn’t said a single word in the last chance I had, and instead wailed and wailed like a shallow fool. Whenever I was reminded of this moment, I always felt a twinge of guilt in the pit of my stomach. Why had I been so afraid? Why had she been so accepting of my obvious fear of her? Why did I want to forget? These were the questions that occupied my mind during long car rides and sleepless nights.
Though to be honest, I did know why.
For a summer, I traveled back to Korea: a chance to let myself go from my own grasp, to bleach my hair in the sun. After weeks of swimming in the neon hustle and bustle of the city, our return to America began to loom foggily over our heads. On one of our final days, we piled into the muggy car and drove through what seemed like an endless number of tunnels and bridges, and again, the questions seeped into my mind. As I watched each cloud drowsily merging into the other, I thought of how my own self was so closely fused with her’s, even though our separate lives were not. Though I did not know her, I would not have been watching those skies overlap had she not breathed. Something about her was essential to my being.
Music had been weeping through the radio, but when the trees slowly molded into vast fields, I turned it off. Listening to nothing but the whirring of the engine, we took a winding path into an overgrown hill. At the very top, between the crooked trees, a simply dressed woman was peeking out behind a temple. She waved and disappeared into the flowered mist.
As soon as we stepped into the structure, it was as if a midnight veil had fallen over our eyes. The inside was cut off from the real world; time had stopped. It was not a big room, yet at the same time, what was hidden by the shadows was infinitely spacious. Though no one else was there, the secretive atmosphere enchanted us into the occasional whisper, and every step of our socked feet and every swish of our clothes seemed to rustle in a way that was full of repressed life. A new kind of thrill stirred in my body as I watched the enigmatically omniscient expression of a golden Buddha, twinkling against the wall. Thousands of low-lit candles flickered by its sides, each with names carefully engraved at their bases. I instinctively knew that the little pinpricks of fire never went out once they had been kindled. Even if it wasn’t naturally possible anywhere else, it was possible here. One of the candles was pointed to without a word.
I watched as they crouched down and lowered their heads and hands to the floor. Without understanding why, I did the same. I copied each of their movements as they stood up, raised their hands, lowered them. As I lay with my forehead and palms to the pinewood floors, I wondered what I should be thinking. Should I pray? Should I let my thoughts go and tell her all I have felt? I was ashamed of needing to wonder at all. Instead, I listened to the hushed exhales of those crouched next to me. Even though we had never spoken, she always seemed to be a recurring face in my life. For someone I did not know, she was always somewhere in the corners of my thoughts. The way she understood my fear as natural and fully reasonable, the way she seemed to expect it…. she was so foreign, she was so much older and so much wiser that I felt awed we had once breathed the same air. It was through her that I had understood my first unforgettable notion of true guilt and regret. Someone whispered, Thank you for blessing us with life.
Thank you for blessing us with life.
Stepping out of the temple, I realized I had lost all notion of time. It felt like many nights had passed, but it also felt like our leaving was an interruption, a disruption to my thoughts of her. Without stopping to look at the scatter of dainty herbs and shallow ponds, we drove off.
I don’t even know her name.
About the Writer...
Chloe Park is a junior at Canterbury High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She leads the school’s writing club. Her writing has previously been published in the Journal Gazette. In her free time, she studies classical piano.
About the Artist...
Maria Bezverkh is a visual art student at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. She is specifically a photography major. Maria has spent this school year experimenting with different types of photography, such as film.