One Big Word
from Skull Water
Heinz Insu Fenkl
The shadow of the 707 rippled below us like a giant black egret flowing across the landscape, growing steadily smaller as we neared the earth, calming into a glide as the hilly contours became the flat green expanse of the rice paddies around Kimpo Airbase. I could not imagine what power it took to keep these tons of alloy and steel in the air, to keep the airplane from simply plummeting like a stone into the fertile earth below. We were falling at more than two hundred miles an hour, and yet the landscape seemed to move lazily until the plane slowed, just before touching the runway, and then everything accelerated into a dizzying speed. The world lurched and the air grew suddenly thick with the roar of the jets, which had lulled us until that moment, and we could feel the sudden texture of the tarmac right through the landing gear, through the bottoms of our seats, as the earth ground itself into our spines. We had landed, and now the roaring jets suddenly became shrill as we lurched slightly forward in our seats and the airplane braked to a near stop. The landscape outside moved at a crawl, everything looking too large and yet oddly too small. I glanced over my little sister’s head to the aisle seat and saw my mother’s eyes brim with tears, with the joy of being back in our homeland. Korea. 1976. Early summer in the Year of the Dragon.
At first, Kisu’s house appeared exactly the same as when I had last seen it nearly a decade ago, six years before we had left for America. But during our first day I realized the house had aged just like Kisu’s grandmother, who had grown lighter and more shriveled over those years—like a dried gourd that will rattle in the wind. It was a ramshackle house nearly a century old, built a decade before the Japanese Occupation—before the turn of the century—and since then it had sheltered four generations of Changs as the tiny village by the stream grew into Pupyong. The original building was wood and whitewashed plaster, but now the roof beams were full of dry rot and the kidung posts were warped and tilted. When I walked across the wooden maru with the added weight of my years the floor creaked in spots I didn’t recall and the compacted dirt of the courtyard, which had seemed as hard as baked clay when I was a child, seemed to have become softer, oddly dust-like. The black dirt floor of the dark kitchen seemed even deeper than before, though it should rightly have seemed shallower since I had grown. People from Tatagumi had been in the habit of visiting from time to time to scoop up some of the kitchen dirt to make medicine pellets, which they would cook with foul-smelling concoctions of Chinese herbs; their visits must have been frequent, or perhaps some new epidemic had coursed through Tatagumi and they had come with shovels during one of the years we had been away in the West. Just inside the gate, the slab of stone that deflected the water from the downspouts had darkened over many monsoons; when I placed my fingers in the deep pockmarks I thought it odd that they had remained the same size over those years, but then I realized that my fingers had grown both longer and thicker, and the stone had eroded deeply and quickly under the furious torrents of the monsoon rains.
For the first several months after our return to Korea, we would live in this house in Pupyong in the old neighborhood of Tatagumi that still bore its Japanese name. We lived in the same rooms we had occupied once before; my mother, An-na, and I slept in the room where I had been born.
The first morning I stepped outside the front gate, I was startled by the red cock that guarded the tailor shop next door. It stood there, very alert, turning its head this way and that in its jerky rhythm, its cock’s comb quivering, its wattle swaying. I almost expected it to shake itself like a wet dog.
The rooster clucked deep within its throat when it saw me, and it looked at me as if it were aiming its gaze, as if its eyes could peck me as hard as its knife-sharp beak. I retreated slowly, and then suddenly I felt as if I were a little boy again because there had been a cock just like this one years ago, with the same twitchy movements, the same red, black, and orange sheen to its feathers. Perhaps this was the grandson or the great-grandson of that cock— surely, there was no way it could have survived the fights for so many years. I remembered the terror of seeing it out of the corner of my eye on those few times when I had been careless and inattentive enough for it to peck me. Those tiny, loose pieces of flesh that hung from my calf just like the rooster’s wattle, with a clear and pinkish ooze before the blood began to flow. Once my cousin Yongsu had come home with a small bag of rice from the corner store and the cock had flown at him—in a terrifying explosion of feathers—for daring to pass without feeding him. Yongsu had nearly lost an eye that time, and forever after that he and I had both remembered to toss a scrap of dried rice or a crust of old sandwich bread to distract him when we were going out. On the way home, we would call out in advance to the owner of the tailor shop, and his wife would come out, annoyed to have to leave her ironing, and hold the bird while we rushed in through the gate. Kisu’s mother had joked that they had never been burglarized since the tailor started raising his fighting cocks. Once in a while, when the tailor lost or when he was fed up with a failed champion, they would share the stringy meat with Kisu’s family.
I remembered seeing the tailor in his own dirt courtyard by the water spigot, holding his precious rooster between his legs, stroking its feathers into a beautiful scarlet sheen, sharpening its claws, fitting it with the bamboo spikes it would drive like spurs into its opponent. Hyongbu had taken us to a single cockfight, and we had watched as the two birds circled each other and then collided in a chaos of feathers and noise. It was over in a mere instant, one strutting back and the other listing forlornly before falling on its side, surprising us with the vast amount of blood it had so suddenly spewed. Hyongbu had lost his bet and never took us again, and Yongsu and I had never wanted to go after that. The smell of blood and feathers mixed with the gritty cigarette smoke and the acrid sweat of the audience. It settled into our skin and into our clothes. I could smell it in my hair all the next day, and even after I washed it out I had the queasy feeling that some tiny blood-soaked pieces of rooster fluff had gotten lodged in my scalp.
Now I simply took a few quick steps and got out of the cock’s territory. It squawked at me and then turned away, its ears picking up some small sound I couldn’t hear. I crossed the street and walked slowly towards the train station at the foot of the hill to Samnung. I had been planning to pay a visit to the old house on the hill where we had once lived, but just as I got to the road that cut through the neighborhood, I saw Kisu’s mother leading her ninety-year-old mother out of an acupuncturist’s house. The old woman was oddly dressed, probably still from the treatment, in old Japanese-style pantaloons that exposed her emaciated legs and knobby joints, a mass of veins and wrinkled flesh twisted around thin bones.
Kisu’s mother was having trouble holding her mother upright, so I rushed forward and helped them back across the street, half carrying the old woman. She was so light I might have lifted her in my arms like an infant, but she was mumbling about the indignity of being outside without her proper white clothes. When we reached the gate of the house, the tailor’s rooster gave us only a curious look and let us by without a challenge, twisting his neck around with a frenetic alertness as we entered the small blue door in the gate.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Kisu’s mother.
“Halmoni was lucid today,” she said. “She knew how sick she was, and she wanted a treatment right away.”
“I almost died,” said Halmoni. “I almost died, and you kept me in that room alone all morning. What kind of daughter-in-law are you now that my son’s dead?”
“Quiet, mother,” said Kisu’s mother. “This is Kisu’s friend who lives across the maru. He’s the little girl’s older brother.”
Halmoni squinted at me as she sat down on the granite stepping stone and let her daughter-in-law remove her rubber shoes for her. “How old are you?” she said suddenly. I was about to answer her—to tell her I was seventeen but reckoned sixteen in the American way—when she said, “Two thousand and three hundred and forty four years. That’s a long time to be an ancestor. Yaeya, how many hwangap does that make? How many times does the zodiac turn in those many years, ungh?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Kisu’s mother took her by the hands and led her back to their room, and I stood there for a while, doing the calculation in my head. Each hwangap was sixty years—five turns of the lunar zodiac, which was made of twelve animal signs. Two-thousand-three-hundred-and-forty-four divided by sixty was thirty-nine, with four years left over. Thirty-nine times five was one-hundred-and-ninety-five. Four years was one third of a turn, so the zodiac had turned one-hundred-ninety-five and a quarter times in those years. I wanted to deliver the answer to Kisu’s grandmother, but I knew that she was just lapsing back into her senility, and the number was probably meaningless.
A few days after her lucid spell, Kisu’s grandmother became very sick. She needed money for medical bills so our rent was a windfall for the Chang family. When the acupuncture treatments failed, they talked about taking her to a hospital the following month, but then, for no apparent reason, she suddenly got well again. She sat out on the maru and watched everyone in the yard as she smoked her long bamboo pipe and smacked her thin lips. All summer, through the last of the humid heat, she was healthy and lively. She even showed my little sister, An-na, the old version of the Bellflower-picking dance and she sang, with great vigor—Toraji toraji paek toraji—miming the picking and putting into the basket. Though she lisped and slurred because she had only two teeth, the song sounded beautiful in her high and scratchy voice. Kisu and I sat under the cherry tree and listened attentively to that song, which seemed to come from the borders of another world. With her few tufts of brittle, white hair and her shriveled skin, Halmoni looked as if she had already been dead for a thousand years.
When the weather began to cool, Kisu’s grandmother had a surge of appetite. At mealtimes we all took turns chewing her food for her and spitting it into a bowl in which Kisu’s mother mixed it before spooning it out a little at a time. Soon the old woman started calling Kisu by his dead father’s name and treating his mother as if she were the maid. She spent days speaking only Japanese, warning us that those who spoke Korean would get into great trouble if they were caught.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” my mother told me one night. “All of us who remember that time have the same fear and it’s just coming out in grandmother because her mind is getting young again.” Mahmi had just put An-na to bed and we were both sitting cross-legged on the floor, under the dangling bulb. Mahmi played solitaire with her small flower cards while I read a pulp novel I had shoplifted from the PX.
“What’s that you’re looking at?”
I showed her the cover of the latest installment in the Doc Savage series: the Man of Bronze in his tattered shirt and jodhpurs, his exposed torso gleaming with sweat and blood, his fists clenched, his face rugged like a slightly rough-hewn Greek god.
Mahmi looked at the illustration and turned the book over to see the back cover, holding my place open with a finger. “You’re reading this because he looks like Daeri?”
“Ungh?” I said. I took the book back, turned the cover back around to examine it more carefully. In color, Doc Savage’s white-blond skullcap of hair and the creases on his face gave him a passing resemblance to my father, which I had never noticed, but the small portrait of him on the back cover was in black-and-white, and that older face, with its certain grimness, looked uncannily like my father when he was brooding.
“How could you not notice? It must be because you’ve ruined your eyes from all that reading. Let’s get to sleep.”
“Can I read one more chapter?”
“Let’s sleep when I’ve finished this round, ungh? You should start getting up earlier.” She slapped another card down on a column; it was the rain card, a man in an umbrella under black jags of what looked like seaweed, and a small toadlike thing running in the lower corner. “That look on the man’s face,” she said, “it’s like he could stab you with his eyes.”
“He knows hypno—” I hesitated because I didn’t quite know the word in Korean.
“Hypnotism,” said Mahmi. “Some of the old Taoists could kill you with a look or pull all your life energy out through your eyes. But any look like that is frightening enough. Did I ever tell you the dream I had after you were born?”
“The one about the snake that was so big it went all the way around the palace walls?”
“No,” she said. “That was your birth dream. That was the one that said what kind of person you were going to become. I mean the other dream I had when they took me to the hospital.”
“I thought I was born at home,” I said.
“You were. But there were problems after.”
“There was a problem with the afterbirth, and I wouldn’t stop bleeding. Hyongbu had to run out and find a taxi in the middle of the night and they took me to the 121st Army hospital in ASCOM.” Mahmi smoothed the hair away from An-na’s sleeping face. “It was a big problem. I wouldn’t stop bleeding and I was all white from loss of blood. They had to give me a transfusion, but they got my blood type wrong, and when the new blood went into me it burned like fire. I started to swell and they thought I was going to die.
“I was unconscious when they drained my blood again and started with the right blood type, and that’s when I had the dream about Kisu’s father.”
“Kisu’s father?” I said. I couldn’t help but imagine that she had dreamt something sexual. Mr. Chang, from what I had seen of the family photos and the funeral portrait, was a handsome man, thin and intelligent-eyed, with that tragic and romantic look that tuberculosis victims have. “How could you dream about Kisu’s father?”
My mother just smiled. “I was younger then. In my dream I was even younger. I was wearing a black skirt and a white blouse like a high school girl and I was walking down some street in Seoul. I’m always in Seoul in my dreams, for some reason. And Kisu’s father—he was naked. Stark naked! And he had a fierce expression on his face as if he were terribly mad about something. His eyes were flashing and nostrils were flaring and his penis was dangling this way and that way. And he was coming after me! He was calling me by my first name, ‘Where is Hwasuni! Where is Hwasuni, ungh?’ and he was practically running down the street. But for some reason he didn’t see me and I ran as fast as I could. I ran and ran, and finally I stepped around a corner and pressed my back to the wall and he just ran by. He would have seen me if he had been going any slower or if he had bothered to turn around. I was breathing so hard and my heart was pounding so fiercely that I was sure he would catch me. But he just ran down the street and he was gone.”
“Why was he naked?”
“Who’s to know?” said Mahmi. “Maybe it was because he was dead and they had just washed his body, come to think of it. But that moment in the dream when he passed me, that’s when the new blood took. I had chills and the most horrible pains, as if my entire body had been asleep and I was getting that terrible pins and needles feeling—but everywhere. Inside and outside. It was the most horrible feeling in my life. But I realized when I woke up that if Kisu’s father had found me in that dream, then I would have died. All he would have had to do was touch me or even see me, and I would never have woken up.
“It’s late,” she said. “Now go to sleep.”
A glint of light; a shadow across my face awakened me and I opened my eyes, still paralyzed by lingering sleep. An old woman was crouched by the door, bent nearly double, shuffling silently forward in her white poson socks. I was confused for an instant, wondering who she might be, wondering also if I might still be dreaming; but when I moved my eyes I could see that it was Kisu’s grandmother, and she was holding a freshly-sharpened kitchen knife, mumbling to herself in a low voice. In her pure white skirt and chogori , reflecting the morning light, she looked like an apparition from a ghost story haunting our room. I tried to sit up and wake my mother, but my body would not move, and when I tried to speak only a tiny sound caught in my throat. Kisu’s grandmother seemed to be considering something; she turned her head from side to side and shuffled first this way and then that way, almost as if she were dancing or performing some ritual, and it suddenly occurred to me that she must be deciding who she would kill. She moved the blade of the knife slowly up and down in the motion she might have used with a pestle in a mortar, and she made a whistling sound as she turned toward me with a suddenly suspicious look. I wanted to shout out “Halmoni!” but my throat only lurched again and she raised her knife higher, squinting at me to get a clearer look at my face. “Gaijin?” she said. It was Japanese for “foreigner.” Before I could try to speak again, her expression fell, as if she were sorely disappointed, and she turned toward the sliding doors—they were slightly open and someone was standing just outside—I could see the shadow against the rice paper. I heard a whisper, and then Kisu’s grandmother looked back at me with a wan smile before she stepped through the door and was outside, casting her own hunched shadow against the latticed panels.
“Mahmi,” I whispered when my voice would work, “Halmoni was just in here with a kitchen knife. I think she was going to kill us.”
“What?” my mother said, still confused with sleep. “Kitchen knife?”
“I think she was going to stab us.”
My mother yawned and exhaled a sour breath. “She must have been looking for the man who killed her son.”
“I thought he died of TB.”
“Her other son. He was tortured and murdered by the Japanese for being a subversive. He was in the Language Society.”
“But why was she in our room?”
“I guess we’ll have to put on a lock, ungh? She’s getting senile, but I don’t think she’d want to kill any of us.” My mother rolled onto her other side to face An-na, and she fell back asleep as if nothing had happened.
I got up and went out onto the maru still in my underwear. The cool morning air dried the clammy sweat that covered my body and I shivered before the sun slowly warmed me.
The door to the other family room was open, and inside I could see Kisu’s mother wagging her finger at Kisu’s grandmother, who sat hunched on the floor with her legs splayed out in front of her, crying soundlessly. The old woman’s head bobbed up and down in the same way she had moved the handle of the kitchen knife, and through her sunken cheeks and puckered lips she mouthed words that even Kisu’s mother couldn’t hear. As I stepped down into the courtyard to wash, Kisu’s mother glared at me with a look sharp enough to draw blood.
When Kisu’s grandmother was a young woman, Korea was still a kingdom. After the Annexation to Japan, she had witnessed the tragedy of Queen Min’s murder, the kidnapping of the royal family, the March First Revolution in Pagoda Park, the Liberation, the civil war, the death of the first puppet president, the coup that put the former warlord, General Park Chung Hee, in power. During the second World War, one of her daughters had been taken by the Japanese to work in a munitions factory and was never seen again, the only news of her whereabouts delivered by a girlfriend who said she had been murdered in Manchuria in a military recreation camp in the spring of 1945. She was left with stories and memories and reminders. A silver hair pin from her missing daughter. A dictionary manuscript from her executed son. And a mind and heart full of stories too painful to keep to herself.
Sometimes in the early evenings just before nightfall she would sit and smoke her long bamboo pipe out on the maru, and she would lapse into long monologues in Japanese as if her old family were gathered around. It was all nonsense to me and Kisu but to his mother, to Mahmi, and to my aunt, Emo, who were all fluent in Japanese from their childhoods under the occupation, what she said often made them weep or cry out for her to stop. But she would go on until dark, sitting there invisible in the shadows, just a red speck from her pipe bowl glowing like the tail of a firefly.
“Emo,” I said one night, “What is Halmoni talking about like that?”
“She’s just remembering,” said Emo. “She’s old, and she’s talking about old things to dead people.”
“Why the Japanese all the time?”
“She thinks it’s still 1939. We weren’t allowed to speak Korean then, at least not so anyone outside could hear. There were police everywhere.”
“I want to know what she’s saying.’
“What for? You don’t need to know such things.”
“I just want to know.”
“Well, maybe she’ll speak Korean one night, ungh?”
“You won’t translate?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
A few nights later Kisu and I sat with his grandmother as she smoked her pipe, and we took turns whispering to her, “Grandmother, the Japanese are all gone. No one will hear you if you whisper in Korean.” We said this to her again and again, taking turns from each side, until either our relentlessness or a slip of the mind made her cadence suddenly change.
“Yaeya,” she said. “Go look by the gate and see if anyone’s about.”
“Nobody, Halmoni,” said Kisu.
Kisu’s grandmother said a phrase or two in Japanese, as if she were making sure, and then, she said in Korean, “Wrap him hand and foot, head and body. Put boiled eggs in his palms when you bind them. You don’t know if he might get hungry on the journey. Fill his mouth with dry rice to keep the cheeks from sinking. He can cook it in the other world.
“Wrap him tight, very tight, until you can hear his bones and gristle crunch uddu-duk, uddu-duk, and lay him snug in the lacquered coffin. Have you washed his hair? Who’s making the banners and the funeral clothes? Where are the long bamboo poles? Why can’t I smell any incense, ungh?”
The maru was thick with her pipe smoke and Kisu squinted at me in alarm and curiosity.
“Don’t burn the calligraphy. Wrap it with the bedding and hide it well. He knows the life story of each word like it was his own ancestor and we have to keep those words safe like our own family register. Did you hear what he said? ‘It’s all one single big word, mother, but we’ve forgotten what it sounds like. We have to keep looking until we find it again and then everything will be whole again.’ What a scholar! Where did he get so wise when we couldn’t even send him to a university? What do you think, Jinju? Do you think he’ll ever marry, or will he sneak off to Haeinsa and cut off all his hair like he always jokes to me? Imagine that. ‘It’s all one single big word, mother.’ One single big word. What do you suppose it could be? And what would it look like in that fancy calligraphy? More complicated than ‘dragon’ or ‘turtle,’ ungh? Or do you suppose he’ll be able to draw it with a few quick sickle shapes in hangul? What do you suppose it is? One single big word. You Christians are always saying it’s ‘God’ or ‘love’ or some nonsense. One single big word. Imagine that. Don’t forget to put the dry rice in his mouth so the cheeks don’t sink in. Smooth his palms over the eggs to give his hands a nice shape. You don’t want his fingers getting all twisted when they dry. Close his eyelids gently and don’t push down so hard on his eyes! He’s got to see when he goes to that world!”
Someone knocked at the gate then, and she stopped abruptly, her eyes going wide with fright, and she babbled in Japanese once again, her voice shrill and fearful until Kisu’s mother ran out of the kitchen to soothe her back into her usual childlike calm.
We never tried our trick again, and we didn’t need to be told what she rambled about in the evenings. She was simply calling forth the family ghosts before joining them herself, and she was fading away so that by the time the first September moon waned to a half disk she could no longer sit out on the maru. They kept her in the room lying on her bed mat and she became deathly quiet.
I never went into that dim room because I was afraid of being touched by her death, as if I might catch it like an illness. But from outside on the maru I would see how stiffly and silently she lay there, just waiting, very patiently, for some spirit to come call her away.
While my mother made arrangements to move and Kisu’s relatives—who would take over our rooms after her death—came by periodically, we all waited, too, not so much for her death, but for the funeral preparations. She had died decades ago, and only her body had been lingering on to perform the charade of life. After a while we even stopped scolding An-na when she said, “Halmoni’s dead,” because we all knew the charade would be over all too soon.