Seoul is heavy with summer, the air swollen with all the lovely sounds and scents of it. Lee Sae-jin arrives home from school, calling for his younger brothers as he kicks pebbles down the gravel path.
‘Ya! Lee Jaeha! Lee Kyonu! Let’s play!’
He is Robot Taekwon V! Young, courageous and admired by all! But it’s no fun by himself, he needs a sidekick. Perhaps he should have gone to the creek with the village boys. After all, his brothers are no longer young enough to submit to his authority without question – Jaeha is defiant, and Kyonu is becoming his echo.
You’re always Robot Taekwon V, Jaeha will probably say. How come?
Yeah, hyung? How come? (And there is Kyonu’s echo)
Because, he will tell them. I’m the oldest. And what day is it today? That’s right! Today is my eighth birthday, dummies – so you have to do whatever I say!
He races through the garden of tumbling weeds, expecting to see his brothers sprawled across the porch reading American comics. Instead four figures in starchy hemp, the colour of sun-soaked barley, sit huddled around the radio. Kyonu is asleep with his head in Sojung’s lap; Jaeha’s head is nodding.
His sisters. Oh, they are so tense. He can hear their voices under the crackle of the radio, see their shoulders hunched in some conspiracy or other. Sohee’s eyes dart towards the gate as he approaches, and the faint burble of conversation fades, but not before he catches a wisp of her last sentence – will have to be sangju, of course.
Sangju? An unfamiliar word.
It is then that he notices the bundle of coarse garments on Sojung’s lap, identical to those his siblings are already wearing. He points at it, wrinkling his nose.
‘What’s that? What’s going on.’
‘Put this on, Saejin.’
‘But,’ he gasps, pulling his head through the largest hole he can find. ‘What –’
‘Just put it on.’
So-jung, fifteen and wise beyond her years, rules the household. At times like this, when her lips are a dark plum shrivelled with tight, weary frustration, Saejin knows her word is law.
‘Mother’s coming,’ she says after a pause.
They are all tense, wishing to make a good impression on the woman who has disappeared from their lives for two, three years.
Saejin sits in silent awe. His mother, who has been a spectre in the mist of memory all these years, has all of a sudden – and with great personal shock to him – become real.
Upon careful consideration, it dawns on him that the only real grown-up in his life is his Uncle. His Uncle, the Knower of All Things:
Uncle, where is Mother?
Uncle, where is Father?
Is that near the hospital?
This accounts for Saejin’s anxiety, and for – he assumes – Sohee’s and Sojung’s. His brothers are still far too young to know anything, he thinks, not without a whiff of superiority. Uncle is frightening but familiar. Mother, on the other hand, has become a shadow of authority in his life:
What would Mother say if she could see –
Mother would never allow …
Oh, if Mother heard you say –
Still, his mother’s presence lingers about the house.
And though the thought of Mother is tinged with fear, Saejin feels comforted whenever he catches a hint of her musky perfume on the quilts.
Don’t wash the quilts, don’t wash the quilts!
But his sisters always slap him over the wrist and push him out of the house.
Go play! They scream at him. Go play, you rascal!
Mother arrives in the early afternoon. They lay her down in her old room, behind the embroidered folding screen, the pride and joy of her life. She worked on it for three whole years, until the day she had to be taken to the hospital. Its four panels are filled with painstaking detail: ripe peaches, peony blossoms, basking tortoises. Swirling clouds envelop hazy mountains, carp dance in the rushing rivers. Herons sit half-perched on the knotted boughs of pine trees, wings poised, ready to take flight. The sun, a magnificent globe of red, hangs mid-air.
She scolded him once for stroking the shell of the tortoise. But Mother is asleep. She is there now, behind the screen, an empress in her own spirit world, dreaming endlessly in that lonesome borderland. Saejin trails his fingers along the embroidered animals. This one symbolises longevity, this one fertility, this one prosperity; he remembers his mother explaining it all to him before she went away. It gives him a thrill to be this disobedient while she slumbers. He has only the shortest glimpse of her before his sisters shoo him away.
‘I’ll be back Mother!’ he calls, but she does not reply.
Soon afterwards, visitors begin to pour in, their voices wafting through the walls in a harmonic discord of laughter. The card tables are set up, the crates of soju and rice wine placed conveniently nearby. Saejin dives into a sea of linen and hemp and the occasional rustle of white silk, searching for a familiar face. He finds none.
Night falls; Mother does not greet her guests, but they hardly miss her presence.
The red-faced men, especially, do not seem to mind the negligence of their hostess. They shout at him from across the room, their faces obscured by clouds of smoke. Uncle sits among them: angry, stern, without a word.
‘You little imp, come here – bring some more soju for your uncles!’
‘Here boy, try your first cigarette –’
‘Now your first pint of soju, there’s a good lad.’
The men roar as he splutters at the bitter taste of the alcohol. The women smile and fuss over him, tugging his ears and pulling his cheeks until they sting as red as those of the shiny-faced ‘uncles’.
‘Little sangju,’ they titter, hanboks rustling like autumn leaves against his skin.
‘Now, sangju, eat well – you must wail your little heart out next week, for you will be at the head of the procession. That is the role of the eldest son, you know.’
They clap their hands, delighted at his confusion.
‘Where is that handsome, no-good father of yours?’
‘Yes, do tell him to stop playing around with his Viet mistress and come home!’
There is a clucking of tongues. ‘So it’s true! Poor woman, it’s the heartbreak that did it!’
Saejin wriggles away from it all. Leering faces, grasping fingers. Where is his mother?
Far, far from the clouds of cigarette smoke and cheap floral perfume, Saejin can feel the chill of evening biting into his flushed skin.
‘Mother?’ he whispers, poking his head into the forbidden room.
The smell of flowers lingers here too, but delicately, for it is in Mother’s room that the bouquets of the well-wishers have been placed. It is a fresh, green smell – the smell of newly cut grass, and wet soil, and fields of wildflowers.
But here amongst the aroma of chrysanthemums and mugwort leaves hangs another heavier, not so familiar, odour. He creeps closer. The forest creatures, with their glass-bead eyes, wink in the dim electric lights like bright-eyed conspirators.
Ah, she sleeps. So still, so serene.
‘Mother! It is Saejin, your son Saejin! Wake up!’
She does not stir.
He shakes her gently, and watches in horror as bruises blossom blue and purple like crushed violets on her waxen skin.
Mother is dead.