The room was rolling with contractions to send her out to the next world. It made her dizzy, reality rolling in and out with the unknown. She knew her spirit was to leave her body soon. One second she was in her bed in a land without His portraits on the walls then she saw Chol Tae flashing his grin at her and Appa trying to tell them so many things. It never would be until she couldn’t ask Appa then she wondered what he had to say. Decades had passed since she was the girl that was one half of a whole but the memories were as clear as day, and it didn’t make them any less true than the present. This morning Esther arrived with spicy tofu stew to check in with her, she knew she was in Seoul; she could see the familiar buildings from her window. An hour later she was at the farm the way she always remembered her home, the yellow stalks of corn swaying in the wind before the floods destroyed everything. She and Chol Tae were carrying a heavy bucket of water back to the animals. The buckets were so heavy it took both of them to carry one. Then Esther’s face would come back in focus. Seoul came back in focus, and she yearned to be back to where she really was.

The film of her life was being extinguished before her eyes before nothing else would hold her back from moving on. The small bedroom she lived in for sixty years was what set her free but now the walls were simply holding her back from those she loved. It had been a long wait. She was sure they would not recognize her but then, spirits too had a way of recognizing each other when they were free. That was what Umma taught her children, and she never forgot. Only now as a withered woman she began to see the truth in her mother’s words.


Is the storm over?

And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” — Haruki Murakami
No, it is not. But I am not done with the storm just yet.

The Misunderstood Name

A white envelope rested on Mary’s desk and she stared at it all day long. On its front, ‘Marieke Augusta’ was written. She would have to ask her mother if they were related to anyone named Marieke. Mary knew her mother’s name was Maxine. There was no one in the house with that name, and yet there was the envelope addressed to her, from her teacher Ms. Hillis. Briefly she considered returning the envelope to Ms. Hillis, saying she gave it to the wrong student but was overcome by the curiosity of what the envelope contained. Maybe she’d ask Lily about it, she always had the answers their parents couldn’t express in the sign language they tried to learn. Lily would tell her who Marieke Augusta was. The name sounded nice with their family surname. Maybe Marieke Augusta was a nice woman related to them who lived in a land far away, and Ms. Hillis had been teaching for years, she could have had Marieke as a student a long time ago. With too many questions to simply leave unanswered, Mary stuffed the envelope into her backpack and hoped Ms. Hillis would not realize it was a mistake and ask for it back.

The rest of the day, Mary’s image of this Marieke Augusta became bigger as she added details, features, and stories of far away adventures to the name neatly printed on the envelope just out of sight in her backpack. The day stretched on, of course, and time seemed unable to pass by any slower. She couldn’t wait to know this woman. Maybe Marieke was an aunt, or sister, that was exiled from the family, or she left them for bigger adventures than the desert that surrounded them. She could understand why anyone would want to leave the desert before they were swallowed up, like Julien Arden who got caught outside during a sand storm. What she couldn’t understand was why Ms. Hillis would be writing to this mysterious woman. Now Mary wanted to meet the worldly woman who ran away from the desert and their family.

Finally, it was time to go home. Mary stood at the front, searching for Lily before heading home. Her older sister always took her time, chattering with peers so she stood patiently in the air conditioned hallway. Still the name burned, she had to know who Marieke was. Was she the oldest sister, instead of Lily, or their father’s sister? Crazier conclusions popped up until she eventually fabricated a story that Marieke was a secret lover of their father, that met only when he was out driving his truck through borders. However, there was only one way to know. Lily’s jet black hair appeared in Mary’s perphecial vision and they were ready to face the desert heat. Mary didn’t want to wait until they were home so she asked Lily, spelling out the name instead of showing the envelope, she was afraid she would drop it or the temptation to open the envelope became too irresistible. Lily stared at her with an unbelieving expression and she did what Mary least expected. She laughed, the kind of laugh that left her breathless, but still unable to stop. The laughter continued everytime Lily looked over at her younger sister. What is so funny? Mary wanted to slap Lily and demand to know why she was laughing as if Mary was a moron. She sulked the rest of the way home, next to her laughing sister and said nothing more, staring ahead of her towards the horizon. She would ask Mother instead.

Too her mother stared at her when Mary showed the envelope and asked who Marieke Augusta was. She did not laugh like Lily, but still Mary felt patronized. She pointed at Mary. I’m Marieke? Dumbfounded, Mary tried to remember if she saw the name before. She didn’t, but Mother took out a formal looking paper and showed her it was her birth certificate, with her birthday and the names of her parents. She was indeed Marieke Augusta, she was not some woman who escaped the desert a long time ago. Now she saw why Lily laughed so at her, she bitterly bit her lip. Never had she felt so stupid, no one ever told her, always calling her Mary. Why would she not know her own real name? Why would they not tell her? The more she thought about it, the more she hated being deaf in a hearing family. She wasn’t important enough to be told her true identity. But it didn’t matter. She was Mary Augusta, the girl who would escape the desert.

Laura told me having a dead mother was better than a nonexistent mother. My mother’s depression made me look at mothers more closely. Whenever Laura came home with her hair unbraided, I wondered why her mother did not braid her hair; my mother had insisted upon that, but my hair too was no longer braided.

            One day after I saw Laura come to school with the same clothes for the fourth time in a row, I decided to ask her where her mother was.

            I don’t know, Laura stared at me and then at her drawing. I don’t remember her that much anymore. She simply stared at me, but she was not seeing me because her eyes were empty. I thought she was seeing what she did remember of her mother, as I sometimes did when I stared in a mirror. I would have the same look in my eyes as well. For a brief moment, I thought I saw her eyes fill up with tears, but before I could be sure, she turned around. Her hair tickled my arm while she showed her drawing to our teacher with the smile of a girl that had forgotten to smile.

Forever Falling

When I was probably seven or eight, Lily and I, under the supervision of our parents, swam in this small pond that had a swing right off a small hill. We’d take turns swinging and letting go, falling into the cool water. I was afraid the first time, expecting the rope to snap before I reached the deep part, landing instead on the rocks. But my mother gently swayed me, still on the hill and, as I clutched the rough rope even tighter, told me it would be the closest I got to flying without becoming an angel, without changing. At that, I let her arms envelope me and she let me go. A few months later, Delaney was born and our mother completely changed a few days afterwards, forever falling and failing her arms instead of safely landing in the water like she was supposed to.

            My mother nearly committed suicide, I do not have that many happy memories of her anymore, and I was so young. It happened a few days after Delaney was born, when I was at camp, where no one told me. Even when I came back, all I knew was that my mother went to visit her mother. A few days passed, and I started to wonder when she would come back, but no one said anything so I took it as a silent warning to never ask. I did hope that when she came back, she would smile more like she used to when I was very young. Lily once told me she remembered a time before I was born, when she always smiled. She did come back, but she no longer smiled.

            Is it possible to love and hate a person at the same time? Such extreme opposites, you might say but, as multi-layered people are, I believe it’s entirely possible. We love the outer layers, what people show us, what we think we know. But once we start peeling away the layers we see, we start to shed tears at what we see, just as an onion makes us weep. How easy it is to love and hate is such a frightening thing. Just as I love my mother for bringing me into this world, and as I hate her for leaving me alone in this world before I was truly old enough to know her. Why would I hate my mother for leaving me? That was what forced me away from the life I had only known. My father used to tell me she was visiting her parents when she had one of her bad days. I always patiently waited for her to come back, but she didn’t. Maybe it was because she did not want me.

Culture Shock

The car rolled to a stand in front of a shopping center and three stepped out of the car, Hye Tae among them. Breathe. She looked up the wall covered with colorful signs. Deodorant and Kimchi at cheap prices! The advertisements bombarded her eyes and she thought of the plain walls on the outer walls of their home. The paint on the lower portion only changed once a year or so while the screened advertisements changed every few seconds. Again, she reminded herself to breathe, focusing on the cloud exiting her agape mouth. A figure, a man or woman she couldn’t identify, crashed into her and left in a hurry but not without muttering something she caught on his or her lips but didn’t understand.

                Smells of grilled chicken and soup made her mouth water but her pockets were empty. Hye Tae reasoned she could grab one chicken skewer without anyone noticing. Like back home. She eyed the meat pile on the vendor table and the customers. Before a step towards the vendor table was taken Madame Ga took the girl’s hand and walked towards the building talking about debit cards but she didn’t understand how paying with a card worked. The revolving doors spun around with the constant stream of people entering and exiting. No one but Hye Tae approached the doors with trepidation; Madame Ga sensed her hesitation. It’s fine, she told her, go with the flow. She smiled at the younger girl and pulled her inside. She was nicer than Mr. Ga, her husband. In a second she was past the revolving doors and she began to see what was inside the mall.

                Maybe it was the flashing lights or all the smells at once, but Hye Tae began to feel nausea crawl up her stomach, it wasn’t fear nor hunger, both of which she knew well. She kept her eyes trained on the walls for the sign that meant bathroom as they taught in class when she first arrived. Madame Ga let go of her hand but kept an eye on Hye Tae, saying she needed new shoes and began listing the items they needed. The bathroom sign was the only thing Hye Tae was looking for now, she was starting to feel dizzy. The nausea moved lower and she was afraid to embarrass Madame Ga in such a public place, lest some of them knew who she was.

                Finally the bathroom door came in sight, she told Madame Ga she had to go, she nodded. Inside it was dark but when Hye Tae walked across the white tiles the lights blinked on momentarily blinding her. She fumbled with the lock before sitting down and moving to her pants. They were nice, she supposed, even if the zipper was intimidating. She waited for the trickle to cease by counting the tile squares beneath the toilet. Her stomach turned once yet again, and she felt something warm drip down. She would have to ask Madame Ga to pick up some aspirin. The door rattled then a set of shoes disappeared. Someone knew she was inside, probably was calling for her and thinking she was purposefully ignoring the caller. Was it him? A long moment passed where everything stood still to Hye Tae, as if time momentarily froze. Finally she let out a breath. It couldn’t be him, how could it be?

                There were blood stains on her underwear. Hye Tae gulped, she didn’t know what this was but it must have been bad. There weren’t any wounds but she was still bleeding. With spinning thoughts she exited the stall and threw up in one of the sinks, triggering the motion sensor on the faucet. Blood had that effect on her now. She returned to the stall with a fistful of paper towels. With paper towels tucked into her underwear Hye Tae wondered how long it would take for her to bleed to death. She recalled reaching the leaves of the tree with her barefoot while swinging on the swing their Appa made. I’m coming back soon.

                It had been long enough for Hye Tae to allow herself to retreat into her memories. Away from the sinks with no handles and her stained underwear. Towards standing in the dark feeling his hand in hers watching the lit end of Appa’s cigarette and then through the telescope into the universe. The stars were brighter then, and the moon illuminated the features of the people she knew since birth. They faded away and she opened her eyes, feeling even more distant from them, especially Chol Tae. Every day there were more things she knew that he never would learn. How long has it been? The days now blurred together in a frenzy of activity and a week seemed like a month. Hye Tae faced the mirror for the first time in weeks and was shocked she looked the same, only with more weight. Madame Ga stuck her head through the bathroom entrance, her look of concern reminding her of Umma more than anything before she could tell herself not to go there. That memory was forbidden.

                Madame Ga relaxed when she told the lady about the underwear bleeding. Hye Tae was expecting her to panic, but felt better she didn’t. She put a finger up, telling Hye Tae she would be back. But she was not going to bleed to death; Madame Ga would have been worried if she was. Relieved, Hye Tae sat at the stall again until she returned with a box of sanitary pads and explained to Hye Tae she was now a woman. I haven’t been a girl in a long time.

Hye Tae didn’t have a first memory of Chol Tae, one she could remember at least. They had always been together, always would be. Their memories often blended with each other, from the very beginning. There was the nursery school, Hye Tae’s first memories, walking there with hyong Hyeol Seop leading them. Even then she held Chol Tae’s hand in hers. When their hyong sat between them Hye Tae did not know. There was the story Umma told of the bond between twins, the bond they knew would never shatter, because of that it never occurred to her she would have a last memory of her twin brother. Until then, sitting on a cold seat among other defectors in the Hanawon center in Seoul, she thought they would find each other again. The hope shattered. Hye Tae was the only one there her age that was by herself. The faces in the room blurred together.

It took me longer than most of the students in the same class but I memorized the alphabet hand shapes, the American one. And the numbers, they were easier than the alphabet. I mix the signs up with the Korean ones, less often the signs from back home that I shared with Chol Tae, twenty years after I left my home. When other defectors reminisce about the only place we ever knew at one time, our fatherland, they say it will never leave us. I nod my head in agreement to avoid disrespect for the elders but I know I’ve left it just as it left me because, as far as I am concerned, the village farmer’s daughter called Jang Hye Tae no longer exists. Never one without the other.