Mia was born the night the President was shot. It was the night of betrayals, her stepmother was accustomed to saying, and strange things had happened all over the city of Seoul, as though the day had signed its name in red ink. The President was shot by his own right- hand man, the Director of Intelligence. It had been the end of a long dictatorship, but that was never the point.
‘What happened to the President, it’s like what your father did to me,’ her stepmother said, pausing as she ran a blade across the chestnut shell in her fingers.
Her stepmother spoke of this betrayal sitting cross-legged on the hardwood floors, peeling persimmons or preparing root vegetables. Mia watched as the knife’s edge sank into her stepmother’s thumb but no blood seeped out. Later Mia mimicked the very same motion alone in the kitchen, to the detriment of her fingers, and came to believe her stepmother possessed powers of black magic.
Her stepmother would blink hard when describing Mia’s delivery – of how she was passed from doctor to nurse – as though the story’s passage hurt her throat. Mia was a tiny thing, pink and raw. They examined the flatness of her nose, the thin, narrow lines of her sunken eyes. These things they had come to expect from a newborn.
‘But it was your green eyes,’ she would add. ‘It was a reminder of the line crossed. Borders disobeyed.’
Bad luck befell everyone present in the delivery room at the time of her birth. The attending nurse lost her only son during a routine military exercise. The doctor contracted a rare heart disease from a patient. Her Appa had a stroke that left him paralysed and unable to speak. And Mia’s mother disappeared.
Or so the story went.
This was the version of her arrival to the world that she was spoon- fed when she first came to live with her stepmother at the age of five. Over the years, other variations of that fateful night in 1979 were told. Her stepmother preached about her charity in bringing Mia home – a baby left in a sack of pebbles by the Han River, the Christian life they led in taking in a child turned away from the orphanage. In other versions, she was described as a disposable rag doll of yellow hair and grey eyes, left at the bottom of Hooker Hill.
During these stories her Appa, who had not spoken for as long as Mia could remember, sat on the stone step leading to the courtyard, while his wife salted and rubbed chilli flakes into the cabbage to prepare the kimchi. He would gaze for hours at the dying Ginkgo tree in the garden. Mia knew he was listening from the way he turned scraps of newspaper between the fingers of his good hand, crumpling them at certain parts of her stepmother’s stories and then smoothing them out again over his knee at others. When they were alone, he would try to speak to her and nothing but a raspy croak would come out of his throat. He ripped out colorful propaganda campaigns from old magazines and put them in Mia’s hands. In his later years, when he found solace in painting, he would produce ghostly figurines moving across vast landscapes.
But this never gave Mia any clues about her mother, who was never mentioned in the house, and, out of sympathy for her father, she had refused to speak until her uncle had coaxed her out of her silence. She clutched at snippets of memory – the whiff of nutmeg in her mother’s hair, her heavy sighs when she held Mia to her chest – small fragile memories which Mia pitted against the lies she was told. She became deft at sticking herself to walls, eavesdropping on her stepmother and uncle as they talked about her father’s condition. If there was one thing she learned, it was that truth was changeable, and Mia could not pierce their stories in quite the same way that she pierced the sliding rice-paper doors of her stepmother’s room.
Mia sat by the window with her back turned to the reports she had brought home from the Embassy, work she knew she would be hard pressed to finish before the end of the week. She could hear the neighbour’s dog moving about in the yard, his metal lead dragging across the gravel. He was prone to long fits of barking which almost everyone had learned to ignore. The approaching monsoon announced itself in the thickness of her damp T-shirt. She lit a cigarette and switched on the small fan by her desk; exhaled through the mosquito net covering her window.
Always there was this reluctance to begin her work. A fear that she would get it wrong. Every translation was a test. Proof that she too could be one of them. She absent-mindedly circled the word ‘Yongguk’. England, she wrote. Literal translation: ‘Great Nation’. Country of tea, gentlemen with top hats, Big Ben, ‘Dah-ling’ and ‘Dear’ and English women at Embassy parties who turned their backs to her when she approached them.
This anxiety for perfection had been heightened by the arrival of the new political counsellor, Thomas Dalton-Ellis, who replaced old Willis after he had retired early some months before, on account of his emphysema. Dalton-Ellis was taller and younger than any of his predecessors, often came to the office without a tie and with his shirt sleeves rolled back. An Embassy darling, it was rumoured that diplomacy had trickled down through several generations of his family. In contrast to the American soldiers, whose bodies Mia had come to know so well, Thomas seemed long-limbed and lanky, but since his arrival, there had been a noticeable increase in the attendance of Embassy wives at official events. Dresses became more extravagant. His presence provoked an aspiration of some sort in everyone. Mia thought of Mrs Christie who had fluttered from one person to the next at the Ambassador’s birthday drinks, touching her husband’s guests on the arm with practised affect. Mia had watched her, mimicking the movement of her lips, practising her enunciation, trying to feel the crisp ‘T’s on the tip of her teeth, just as she heard them on the BBC. Mrs Christie had spoken at length with Thomas, gazing up at him in a sparkling way that she had held back from the other guests. Mrs Christie had laughed at something Thomas said and her body shook. Then she had checked herself, and smoothed the back of her hair, the nape of her neck.
Thomas’s arrival had resurrected an old uneasiness, a self- consciousness in Mia. A sense that she teetered on a tightrope, on the verge of being banished from a world that could be her birthright. Suddenly precision in her work became of the utmost importance. She took another drag of her cigarette and wrote: ‘The Korean chamber of commerce and industry, the largest and most influential business federation in Korea, representing…’ and stopped. Her translations occasionally provoked a twitch on the side of Thomas’s mouth. He would make an offhand comment about Americanisms, and then her tea-stained reports would appear at the bottom of his wastebasket. When she tried to confront him her tongue swelled to twice its size. He was never direct. There was something in his restraint that she wanted to unravel. His eyes and mouth were in constant opposition. His mischievous lips were perpetually on the verge of either a pout or a lopsided ironic smile. She could never tell whether he was joking or serious.
Through the thin, yellowing floors she could hear her stepmother, Kyung-ha, moving around in the kitchen downstairs. She extinguished the cigarette in her fingers and resented the adolescent impulse to do so. She was an adult of almost thirty, but the unearthly pitch of Kyung-ha’s voice still had the power to freeze her blood.
She returned her attention to the translations. Was there an entire world held back behind the stiff upper lip of the English? Did they feel the same emotions as the Koreans? Was it merely that they lacked the words to express them? There were endless adjectives for sadness in Korean. She imagined her English translations of these words as thieves with holes at the bottom of their already undersized sacks. Mia tapped her pen against her desk. Did this make Koreans more articulate or more emotional? Her stepmother never held back in expressing herself. The sting of her stepmother’s hand on her face could bring her back to focus.
The dog across the road began to bark again. She wished it could be put out of its misery. She lit another cigarette. Relief seemed more important than any consequent retribution. After all, there was little Mia could do to inspire her stepmother to hit her these days. And strangely, she felt this as a growing lack of interest. After Mia’s hospitalization, her stepmother had grown distant. The reason for the absence of beatings did not seem to be Mia’s vulnerability. In fact, her stepmother had hardly acknowledged that she had almost died. She had begun her translations in hospital. In converting one word to another, all was not lost. Meanings could be salvaged and carried across borders.
What about words like jeong? How could she explain that? Affection, she wrote. She scratched at the word with the pencil. Affection had a ring of choice about the matter. Affection alone would not cover it. Jeong was more a-deep-attachment-rooted-in-shared-history-regardless-of-whether-you-like-it-or-not.
Mia stopped writing at the sound of her uncle Han-su’s voice from the kitchen below. There was something heavy and urgent in the way he spoke. Over the years, she had grown accustomed to the visits where her uncle would announce a political arrest or the interrogation of one of his students at the school he ran for North Korean defectors. Since they had stopped speaking, Mia had tried to acquire a deafness to the turn in his voice, but the anguish in it today was hard to ignore. She had once adored him after all.
‘Aigoo, you can’t carry that burden as your own. You gave him every opportunity. You gave him an education, you helped him get on his feet,’ she said.
The unfamiliar consolation in her stepmother’s voice was particularly alarming. She was not normally like that with her brother-in-law. Mia rose from her chair and drew closer to the edge of the room, where the floorboards were thinner. She picked at the linoleum in the corner and rolled it back, exposing a narrow crack through to the kitchen. She saw her uncle wipe his face with a handkerchief.
‘It wasn’t enough,’ he was saying. ‘They say Myung-chul was hanging from the shower railing for hours before he was found. Think of his parents. Still in the North. Imagining that their son is alive and well. That hope alone must keep them alive. And they don’t even know . . .’
‘You have to think of all the kids who are in a better place because of your school.’
She let go and the linoleum rolled itself flat with a slap. She had heard enough. Over the years she had been tormented by these stories of her uncle’s students. Those who had broken free and risked their lives: ripping their hands on barbed wire, swimming through frozen rivers, past snipers and brokers and people who would trade them for a copper pipe or scrap metal. They survived to kiss the gravel of their dream land. And yet they suffered, still. She had concealed her fear of these stories from her uncle. He didn’t know why she had refused to work with him and had been outraged when she had announced that she wanted to work at the British Embassy. He had spent his whole life resisting government bodies, participating in movements against the dictatorship. There had been almost a decade when he had had no permanent address and had survived on the charity of friends who had concealed him in their homes. The idea that his own niece, whom he had come to see as a daughter, would work for a government institution was taken as a personal affront.
She retreated down the ladder outside of the washroom and crossed the courtyard, past the blue gate leading to the street, to her father’s room, kicking off her shoes as she slid open the door.
Her Appa was leaning over a painting in the corner of the room. He gave her a crooked smile. His low table was cluttered with opened paint pots and dirty brushes of different sizes.
‘What is this?’
He was painting what looked like a skeleton walking across a desert plain.
‘Well, that’s pretty creepy.’
Her father’s face seemed to fall a little with disappointment. He groaned in reply.
‘I wish I knew what was going on in your head.’
He smelled gingery, the tips of his fingers stained with paint. The rush of affection she felt for him was always accompanied by fear of his frailty. She examined the yellow pallor of his skin, the soft whistle of his nostrils when he exhaled. Yet for all the anxiety she felt in his presence, there was something comforting about her father’s silence.
When she was younger, her ears had been filled with the cacophony of her stepmother’s contradictory stories. Kyung-ha rarely told the same story twice and had a selective deafness to her questions. She spoke of girls who were sold by their mothers. Of girls whose spirits left their bodies and inhabited foxes who would live for a thousand years. Or fireflies that clung to dokkaebi she had seen in the mountains as a child. Sometimes she would talk about the city that had been wiped out by the dictator in a single day, but when Mia asked her about this, she would say that to be interested in politics was a dangerous thing. Kyung-ha did not comment on her brother-in-law’s activities. As Mia grew older she realized the absence of intimacy in these stories. Her stepmother never spoke of her own childhood. Or of Mia as a child. Or what had happened to her father. And he would never be able to fill the holes left in these plots of her life.
‘I wish you could tell me more about my mother,’ she said to her Appa. She stroked the top of his head as though he were a pet. ‘How did you manage? How did you explain words like jeong?’
The morning her brother-in-law, Han-su, arrived on her doorstep unannounced, Kyung-ha had had a premonition of death while she was slicing a lotus root in her kitchen.
She was preparing a side dish for lunch, something simple to eat in the stifling heat, when she saw a glimmer of movement in the living room and was faced with the image of her dead son, Jong- ho. She dropped her knife onto the cutting board. Over the years she had often sensed her son’s presence, but had rarely seen him. She followed him as he passed through the living room, descended into the courtyard and unlatched the rusting blue gate, where Han-su stood sweating in a thick black suit.
Kyung-ha blinked several times, unsure of what she’d seen, her body as cold as stone, unsure of what she was inviting in as Han-su crossed the threshhold into the house.
He stood in the kitchen, holding a cup of barley water in his hands for several moments before saying, ‘I lost a boy.’
‘He might come back,’ she said, though she had an inkling of what he meant.
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s my fault. I pushed him too hard.’
‘Aigoo, you can’t carry that burden as your own. You gave him every opportunity. You gave him an education, you helped him get on his feet.’
‘It wasn’t enough,’ he said. His hand shook slightly as he wiped his face with a handkerchief. ‘I don’t understand. He wasn’t…broken. They say Myung-chul was hanging from the shower railing for hours before he was found. Think of his parents. Still in the North. Imagining that their son is alive and well. That hope alone must keep them alive. And they don’t even know…’
‘You have to think of all the kids who are in a better place because of your school,’ she said, but she had to turn away. Not because she knew the boy, but because she knew there was nothing for grief but time. With time there was forgetting and even then, the grief did not fade, but hid in strange corners, ready to be uncovered at unexpected moments – at the appearance of the first autumn sunlight, under the relief of the shade of a tree. They sat for a while in silence, listening to the occasional studio laughter that came from the TV in Jun-su’s room, the groaning of wood in the heat upstairs.
‘It’s not your fault,’ she said, but the words lacked conviction. She had not been able to absolve herself of guilt when it had been her son.
She sensed that her brother-in-law was about to ask for something. It was rare for him to pay her a visit unannounced. To confide in her. His presence solicited a deep-rooted sense of guilt. Han-su’s work made her own at the church look like a hobby. After years of hiding he had returned from his missions in China and had started a school for North Korean teenagers who had defected across the border. He had held his first classes in his own single-room apartment and then had managed to build a school through charitable donations. She looked after a cripple and her wayward stepdaughter, but he looked after so many more at his school. The children were often troubled and struggled to adapt. They often disappeared. Some left for Scandinavia, she had even heard of others who had gone back to the North. But suicide was a rare occurrence.
‘I have to ask you for a favour,’ he said finally. His hand trembled as he reached for the drink in front of him. His eyes shifted uneasily. ‘It’s a lot, I know you have more than you can carry already.’
Kyung-ha said nothing, afraid of encouraging him.
‘There’s a boy, Hyun-min. He lived with Myung-chul. Take him for me. He’s eighteen. I’m worried about him. I don’t want him to be alone.’
‘You think this is a house of charity?’ she snapped. ‘We don’t have anywhere for him to stay.’
‘Give him a futon. He can sleep in the living room.’ He sighed. ‘I would take him but the others might ask questions about why he’s special. I can’t take them all.’
He looked at her as though she were a saint. That was the lie between them. This man who had dedicated his life to broken children saw her taking care of his brother and thought they were the same. She knew she couldn’t say no. And it felt like another challenge. Another burden to atone for her sins. She had taken Jun-su back despite his many women. Taken his child. But it wasn’t enough. She still lived with that haunting spirit, the guilt that crouched on her sleeping shadow every night. She didn’t want to get involved in these politics. After everything that had happened after Jun-su’s arrest, she had vowed to steer clear of it all.
‘I know things are tight with money. I can help. Not much. But just so you don’t have to dig too deep in your pockets to feed him.’
A reminder. Of how long she had been in Han-su’s debt. Over the decades he had often helped her by handing over envelopes of money.
She glanced at the envelope he stretched out to her.
‘Hyun-min was the one who found Myung-chul hanging. Think about it. As if it wasn’t enough already. To find your roommate, your friend, like that. What that would do to a boy,’ Han-su said. ‘He won’t say it, but I know it’s shaken him up. It will only be for a short while. Till he finds his feet.’
Kyung-ha stared into her palm. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh. She thought of the parable of the Prodigal Son and agreed to take the boy.
Later that evening, Kyung-ha filled a bucket with water from the taps and prepared her husband’s bath. The sorrow that coursed through her blood, the persistent ache in her gut – the han – it was her inheritance; she had been born to a nation of people who were destined for hardship and sorrow, who toiled for others until their backs broke. They were not like Westerners, who flitted from one choice to another based on what they desired most in the moment. Squatting on the cold tiles of the toilet, she undressed her husband and dipped her hand into the bucket to check the temperature. The paralysis was not so severe that he could not bathe himself, and touching him was not without discomfort, but she bathed him every day nonetheless. Pinprick-like pains travelled inside her veins as she washed him. The water was a little too warm, but she dipped the ladle into the bucket and poured the water over his head. He let out a cry of protest but she had already begun scrubbing his thin, patchy hair with shampoo, gently at first, and then vigorously. She remembered the morning’s sermon. It had begun with the passage from Matthew. ‘If ye forgive men their trespasses . . .’ She eased the pressure of her hands and instead stroked the oily soap over his bony chest. How many women had touched him there? Their eyes met. Though his left eyelid drooped, his good eye was startlingly lucid. Kyung-ha looked away for a moment before turning back and scrubbing him hard, leaving red marks on his skin. Outside a vendor was calling for unwanted cats and dogs on the streets. A mother chided a child. The evening chill was beginning to set in.
She poured water over her husband’s shoulders. ‘All that talk and here we are, old man.’ She paused as she refilled the bucket, then poured the water over his shoulders and turned him around. They had known each other all of their lives. They had grown up in the same village and had swum in the lake by the rice paddies on their way home from school. In the summer, they sat outside their houses sharing watermelons while batting away mosquitoes and spotting fireflies before being called inside by their parents. He knew everything there was to know about fireflies, about anything. He read all the time. Everyone knew that he was bright. When he left to attend Seoul National University, she thought she would never see him again. Kyung-ha held the ladle in her hand for a moment, lost in the memory.
Her mother had passed away a year later. People had begun leaving the countryside and when a neighbour told her she would find work in a factory in Seoul, she packed her belongings, hoping that she might see Jun-su again.
Seoul was not at all what she had expected. The city seemed to expand forever. She had been overwhelmed by the noise and lights, the dusty streets cluttered with signs and advertisements, the sight of the roads filled with cars and buses. In her village they had been lucky if they saw a truck once a month.
She could not say how much time had passed when she saw him among a crowd of students outside the university gates. She had blinked several times; her eyesight could not be trusted after the many hours she spent under the harsh lights of the factory. And he had changed. He was paler. His clothes were neat. He led her to the darkened cafes where students whispered about democracy and Marxism during the curfew. She had been ashamed that she knew so little about such things. He had become a fantastic speaker. He could make her believe she wasn’t breathing when she was. But the same old awkward silences came between them as they went to the local bakery. They had exchanged stilted conversation over a slice of Castella cake. She had mistaken his sudden shyness for something else. Now she saw that she had been handed a lifetime of servitude in exchange for confectionery and a glass of milk.
She wondered what might have happened if she had never seen him again. If she had pushed away that plate. If she hadn’t followed him to those darkened alleys. If she hadn’t made the phone call that changed their lives for decades to come.
‘I forgive you,’ she said, but she left him shivering on the cold tiled floor.
Excerpted from The Defections by Hannah Michell. Copyright © 2014 by Hannah Michell.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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