From SIGN: A collection of stories by the members of Seventeen Syllables, curated by Guest Editor, Grace Loh Prasad (introduced here)
It was spring when my uncle arrived from Korea. My mother and father went to pick him up at the airport while I waited at home with my twin brothers. When they were together, they ignored me, speaking their own made-up language as they played a game they’d fashioned out of playing cards attached to the ends of swords. One was the Joker, the other the Ace of Spades.
While they menaced each other with low, guttural sounds, I moved a few things to the basement where I would be living while my uncle visited. Whenever relatives came, I had to give up my room. Our house was small, and the twins shared a bunk bed while I slept in a double. I did not mind because there was a TV in the basement, and as much privacy as I wanted. Only sometimes when I was down there I felt scared. I knew there was nothing to be scared of, but sometimes I got an unsettling feeling that the rest of the house had disappeared, and that if I went to the top of the stairs and opened the door, I’d find that it opened out to nothingness.
My parents arrived with false happy voices and once I saw my uncle I knew why. His body was a series of knobs on which his clothes hung, and the bones in his face were too prominent, as if a sinkhole had opened up and sucked away all the soft parts of his face. He smiled and frightened me with his large teeth.
He didn’t want to lie down right away like my parents kept insisting. He said he had presents for all of us. For my father, an expensive bottle of Scotch, for my mother, a large package of seaweed from Jeju Island, toy cars for my brothers, and for me, a book of ghost stories from Korea because my parents had told him all I did was read.
I was disappointed by the stories; they weren’t ghost stories at all but about people turned into animals or animals turned into people. They talked too much and it was always about honoring ancestors or being the smartest. Except the last. The last story was about a woman who saw a mysterious sign in the sky and then threw herself down a well. As soon as she died, her spirit flew out of her body and watched as the villagers crowded the small well, hauled her body up with ropes and cursed her. Who the hell wanted to drink water that had a dead body floating in it?
She watched as they kicked her left-behind body, dragged it up into the hills and left it unburied, with not a single stone to mark it. Soon enough a tiger came sniffing around. Old, with one eye closed shut, battle scars on his nose, whiskers on only one side of his face, the coarse, briny tip of his tail gone. With astonishment she watched as he sat back and cried, real tears falling into the dirt. Where the tears fell, the ground opened; the tiger pushed his head beneath the woman’s body and flipped her into the dark hole. Afterward, he worked industriously to fill the hole with dirt, leaves, bits of bark, and leftover skeletons of small animals until it resembled the rounded stomach of a sleeping giant. Then he opened his mighty jaw and dropped a single white stone on the grave. He bowed his head and left.
Now the woman was no longer hovering weightless in the air; she was in the dark, a dark that was not oppressive, that was instead like a summer sky at midnight, filled with moist air and thousands of stars.
That night, after an elaborate dinner at which my uncle pretended to eat but didn’t, he said he was tired and shuffled wearily off to bed. Only then did I remember my diary, which I kept in the bottom drawer of my dresser, under the lesser-worn t-shirts and boxy pajamas from Korea. I had made a promise to myself three years earlier never to go to bed without writing at least one thing, usually “Nothing happening here,” and I had not broken that promise yet.
The door was opened; my uncle was sitting on the side of the bed as if he could not decide whether to lie down or stand up. He expressed in Korean his regret for my having to give up my room and I knew without his saying anything that his sickness embarrassed him. I said I was glad to sleep downstairs where I could not be bothered by my brothers, and hurriedly moved to take my diary out of the dresser drawer.
Did you read the book? my uncle asked. Then he laughed softly and said to himself, How could she have read all that in an afternoon?
I did, I told him proudly. My powers of concentration when it came to reading were unparalleled. The whole world fell away instantly, like death. It had always been like that.
The last is the best, he said.
I hesitated, then asked, But what does it mean?
It means what you want it to mean, he said. Like all stories.
He was cryptic, like the woman in the story.
I’m tired, he said. In three months, he would be dead; there was nothing the doctors — American or Korean — could do.
I went down into the damp of the basement, and slept with the light on. But when I woke in the middle of the night, it was dark and I was afraid. I gathered myself and went up the stairs, but when I opened the door, there was nothing. No, not nothing. Black air, wet and warm, stars of all different sizes within reach. I was still afraid but I took a step out into the emptiness, and Reader, it wasn’t bad.
Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea, but moved to America at a young age. Her poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in MANOA, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Green Mountains Review, Meridian, Faultline, Five on the Fifth, Pidgeonholes, Cosmonauts Avenue, Ms. Aligned 3 and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award; and her MA in Fiction from the University of Texas/Michener Center, where she was a Michener Fellow. She is a member of the Asian Pacific American writers collective Seventeen Syllables. She currently lives with her family in northern California. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.
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