“A Time of Goodbyes: Part 1” by Lee Hong
May, 1996: 19 year-old me is slowly slipping further away from home.
The backs of a few buildings have already begun to blur by the time I arrive at the bus stop, bra strap adjusted and straight hair undone. A light pink cardigan tied around the waist of my Levis, and over my right shoulder, a faded, bulging yellow bag. In my hand, I hold my folded letter tighter. This night in May is one for mistakes. I crane my neck to stare down a road whose end I cannot see as if I could push back the already receding shadows. From the silence of the road, police lights twinkle in the darkness. Tiny lights overcome by the red of flames. The sound of sirens grows closer.
“Huh, what’s that?”
Hearing the voice, I turn around and see great, white smoke ascending from between the low buildings at the end of the adjacent block just past the hill. Somewhere a fire is raging, but from beside the bus stop, I can’t quite see the flames. Jet-black soot carried on the wind cuts through the smoke like a withered tree writhing as it sprouts up and out into the night sky. In the grey light, smoke continues rising, seeping into the clouds. People who had been walking past the bus stop begin to slow, merchants who had been in their stores begin to empty out of them, and everything becomes still.
A giant fire truck barrels by, leaving the stench of burning tires as it passes. The sound of sirens becomes more clear. With my hair in tossed in the wind, I cup my hands over my ears and stare at the billows of smoke still blossoming. In front of the Alpamungu bus stop, homeowners too now emerge from their houses carrying kids in sky blue slings at their hips and on their backs. The kids and parents point at the rising smoke.
“Look at that! Amazing, isn’t it?,” they say, as if they were watching elephants for the first time at a zoo.
They continue talking—and as the numbers drawn to watch the flames grows, so does their steady hum.
“What do you think started it?”
“There’s never been a fire in the neighborhood before.”
“No, there’s just never been a fire in all the time you’ve been here.”
“Such a shame… Where are they saying it started?”
The bus arrives, but I remain still to watch the rising plumes. I receive a push from behind by other passengers, and so I get onto the bus and head to the back where stand holding onto the rail. As the bus climbs the low hill, each passenger grows somber, every eye attempts to pierce the grey smoke hanging in the windows. From the other side of the hill, the flames come into view, and the atmosphere inside the bus becomes heavier. The blaze is but a distant speck, but as its orange light grows it quickly devours the eyes of everyone present.
The faint smell of smoke sticks to the pink cardigan around my waist and seems to be working its way between my tangled hairs. I quietly untie the knot around my waist, and in the middle of raising the cardigan to my nose, the beeper in its pocket begins to vibrate. I check the number on the black Motorola beeper. A pinky-nail sized rubber cat dangles at the side. When I lift my eyes from the beeper, I see that though we’ve moved away from the fire, the flames aren’t any further in the distance. I stiffen as I see the fire from the bottom of the hill we’ve passed.
“Please, stop the bus! Hurry, please!”
I slip out into the street below through the half-open door and run with all my might.
December, 1993: As soon as 16 year-old you wakes up, you rub your eyes and dash off to the garden. Standing on your tiptoes, you take down the white shirt of your school uniform from its place on the clothesline. Beneath the faint sunlight, it looks dazzlingly white. Click, click. As soon as you undo the last clothespin, you turn towards the noise. On a wooden bench sit your giggling twin brothers, 4-years old and playing with a lighter. Click, click. A flame emerges, go into hiding, then re-emerges.
You hurry over to those brothers of yours and snatch away the lighter like they might soon set themselves on fire. Fearing that their much older sister will unfairly snatch them by the ears, the two rush off. Still holding the lighter, you lie down on the bench a few moments and in the strengthening daylight you watch the growing blueness of a small patch of sky. A gentle breeze runs over your carefree forehead and chubby cheeks, your short eyelashes swaying softly in its push and pull. You lift the lighter close to your face. Click, click. While you begin wondering if this spark could ever reach the low-hanging sun, you let yourself get lost in the absurdity of the thought.
In a full length mirror, you fasten the buttons of your uniform starting from the bottom. Your breasts have grown a bit. You swivel your hips, stick out your chest, pucker your lips. As you enter the room of your short-haired sister who is younger by two years yet slightly taller, she tosses something flat in your direction. Picking it up, you see that it’s the unopened wrapping of a bandage. She silently closes the door and roles over in bed before pulling down the pants of her pajamas. Down, too, come the white sports panties—the ones with a pattern on them. Looking at your sister’s thighs and butt, you’re shocked. Nearly every inch is covered in dark blue and purple bruises.
“What the hell?! What happened?”
“It’s just something that happens when I practice.”
“I’ve gotta tell mom.” She stands up in anger and you lay hold of her.
“You crazy? For three months she didn’t even wanna give me any money for the fees! If she sees this, she’ll make a big fuss, then make me quit.”
You can’t help but sigh at the sight of her horrible, multi-colored bruises. You were always quick to cover dead mice with newspapers because you hated looking at them. And now, just like then, you turn away as you apply bandages to her bruises.
You put on the magenta jacket of your school uniform as you make your way out to the kitchen. Your mother is busy preparing breakfast for six after, having already made lunches for each of her high school-aged daughters. On the blue gas range there rests a pot of simple, homemade soup. Without fail, you’ve woken every morning to the smell of burning food and an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.
When your mother was your age, she couldn’t walk because of polio, so her only way to get to school was for grandfather to take her by bike. And when the unexpected came, those were days she couldn’t go at all. Those days, she says, were always the longest. When she felt the most powerless. When she gained the use of her legs, and even after she married, her upper body and her skinny, uneven legs continued affecting her balance. Among her four kids, the weight of all her fears of some genetic defect rested on you, because it was always your legs which were shot through with pain. Out of that concern, every morning she left a pot boiling on the stove for you. Seeing it, you want to bury your head into her chest and cry.
In the living room, music is playing, a song your father has listened to every morning for the past few days. He must be spending time lying stretched out in the fading brightness of the morning because it’s still not time for him to leave for work. He follows the persistent, muddy beat flowing from the cassette, while you open the door of the fridge and pour a glass of cold water.
Your mother who had placed the once warm bowl on the table stands looking at you. Looking like she remembered something, she pulls out a can from very top of the shelf of the cupboard and opens it. From the cupboard also out come two phoenixes, a pair of monogrammed gloves, and a simple, understated wallet. Plunging her hand into the wallet’s open pouch, she fumbles around inside before pulling out something in her clenched fist. As she slowly begins to reveal what she is holding, you try to peer through her fingers to see what it could be. In the burning lines of her palm, there’s a personal seal made of blue jade, long and round. Cupping the seal in her hand, she caresses the softness of it affectionately like the bald head of a newborn baby delivered through painful labor.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“You just had it made, right?”
“Yeah, because I opened a new bank account.”
“You had a new seal made just for that?”
“Of course! It’s my first time having an account in my own name.”
Until now, she’s only had bank accounts in the name of her husband. Now, at having one to call her own, she walks around with excitement. It’s an account at the bank closest to home, Jeil Bank. Just then you think, am I shrinking? Your father’s favorite singer Kim Soo-Hee spreads her vocal cords, and as her singing reaches its climax, your mother, with her newly opened account, blushes and proudly holds out the checkbook to you. A good omen. She got a bank account in her name, so what? That doesn’t seem like a big deal.
“But just because someone graduates from SNU, that doesn’t mean anything? Maybe I shouldn’t come to expect so much.”
A few months ago while watching the 7th president, a trusted one, praising the start of civilian governance in a speech, your mother had thought that you could never know what evil might be hiding in someone. Your mother had been displeased then, but here she is now holding a checkbook with her name on it; she’s a new a supporter. Pretending it’s nothing special, you fold back the see-through plastic cover, then toss it onto the dinner table.
Pushing yourself away from table, the chair lets out a screech beneath you while you call out to your sister who is still in her room. “Hyeon-Seon, Hyeon-Seon!” Looking at the radish and a quail egg pickled in soy sauce in front of you, you pick at the chopped green onion with your chopsticks. Mom is still looking disapprovingly in the direction of your sister who still hasn’t come out of her room. It’s the same look of disapproval your family would give to your father when there were rumors of him visiting a wrestling ring.
“When will she give up judo,” your mother wonders aloud.
Unsure if your sister heard your mother’s whispering, she comes out of her room calmly. Your mother doesn’t notice her limp.
“Can’t we eat something else!” you grumble. As hard as you try, you can’t manage to get any more of your mother’s oily soup down your throat. And it’s not just you, your sister feels the same.
“Yeah, let us eat something different for once!”
“You’re only saying that because both of you don’t know how important your legs are in this world. If you don’t take care of yourself when you’re healthy, life is bound to bust your nose.”
Your mother finishes her nagging, and her persistence continues as she takes a warm bowl of soup from the pot on the stove. At the same time, you, the student of traditional Korean dance, and your sister, the judo athlete, open your mouths in protest. Your mother has sprinkled the soup with green onions, and in the spaces between them, clumps of oil spills out stubbornly. You and your sister exchange unhappy glances. While making quick circles with your spoons through the grease, you silently wonder whether to rush away from the table and pretend to leave with your sister, you catch sight of your mother’s skinny legs beneath her pale yellow shorts. Seeing your visible indecision, your sister, still seated beside you, jabs you with the handle of her spoon.
“A Time of Goodbyes” (이별의 시대) appeared first in Webzine Moonji, a free, online Korean-language literary journal. The serialized story was removed from the archives, but the Korean text for the first installment of the story is available here.