Excepts from the novel, House of the Winds
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 101 in 1998.
Click Here for Part 1
From Chapter 3 "A Man on the Road"
There is a particular evening in my memory when the purple dusk came violently. I was a child of seven. A gentleman in a fedora hat walked in through our gate, the blue gate that hadn't let in any man for a whole year. He walked in against the shifting light Of the dusk, tailed by an old man pulling a cart full of fruit. He walked without hesitation, in his double-breasted beige suit, past the flower bed along the wall where summer flowers had gone and only some chrysanthemums stood, waiting for the first frost to flower.
The stranger walked into the house of ours he had no claim on and called our names. As if touched by lightning, brother and sister rushed out and held on to the stranger's arms, calling him "apa." Father! Without a tinge of shame, they claimed the stranger as their father! I watched him squeezing them in his arms and messing up their hair with his hands. Then he finally looked at me, hanging onto mother and said, "She must be my baby girl!" I stepped behind mother's skirt. "She's now ugly seven, apa," brother said, explaining why his baby girl, a little Miss Korea, wasn't as pretty as he had remembered. Father nodded and smiled.
Mother hung back, by the kitchen door, silent and awkwardly fingering her hair, swallowing millions of words that were trying to push out of her throat. Instead, a look of reproach in her eyes replaced all the words. Here is a man, a husband of mine and father of my children. A man I didn't choose, yet a fate of mine. I will ask no questions because this man, a husband of mine, has always come and gone as he pleases. A man born in the Year of the Horse with galloping feet. A man born with a destination of his own. I, an ascending dragon, and he, a galloping horse, have as much marriage affinity as a mouse and a cat.
When he looked at mother, it was half-mumbled words father let out. Mother responded with her own half-mumbled words, while her eyes glanced at us children. Uncertain. Hesitant. They stood. Like two trees standing apart. There were no embraces or touches. If there had been some gestures or body language of affection or intimacy, a child's eyes undressed them.
I looked and looked at the stranger who was said to be my father. A gentleman with a graceful body, looking like a millionaire in his snug-fitting double-breasted suit. Handsome as an actor, a suffering hero in a black and white movie. His voice resonated low like the bass notes of a piano and his diction was that of a scholar. But he was no longer the dashing young man in the pictures I had seen in the family album. The album with a green leather cover brother often sneaked out as if extracting a secret, from the deep folds of clothes inside the chest. There, I had seen him among the piles of many yellowing black and white pictures; in immaculate suit and tie in professional studio portraits taken on brother and sister's one hundredth day birthdays. The ones with the chirpy springtime scenery of a hill in the background. Father and mother, young, skin taut and their cheeks touched up in the same shocking pink of the azaleas blooming on the hill. I had seen him standing on a rock by the seaside, in his swim trunks, with waves breaking behind him. He was laughing raucously in the picture, about to fall off the rock.
But still he stood in front of me, a mystery man. So, I stared and stared at him. He was the man in the stories sister idolized and cherished. He was the man in the arguments between grandmother and mother, dethroned and vilified. Who was he?
The day father returned as a stranger, I started keeping a secret. It was a secret because it was never to be told to anybody: father was the gentleman with a fedora hat I had seen earlier on the street playing with other children. He was the gentleman who had asked an old lady for directions. He must have asked her where so and so's house was. Father and I had been just a few feet away. He must have seen me. His own baby daughter. With his nose, eyes and high cheekbones. Yet, he had failed to recognize her. Such a long time had passed since he had last seen her. She had just started walking.
It had never occurred to me then that the gentleman could be my own father, such a rich looking man. just a little envy for the gorgeous summer fruit of primary colors piled in the cart. I wondered, only briefly, who were those lucky children who would get to devour that fruit. So later when he walked into our house, and brother and sister called him father, what I felt was shame. A child who couldn't recognize her own father. A father who couldn't recognize his own daughter. I never told this secret to anyone. I understood that a secret was a secret because a secret was shame.
• • •
Before the spring came, father was gone again. There was a strange letdown among us children but no one talked about him. We carried on as if nothing had happened. Nobody asked where father had gone. The desk plaque from his now defunct fire insurance company, the black lacquer with father's name engraved in mother-of-pearl, was pushed around from comer to corner in the house.
In the mornings after father was gone, when dawn came to the window panes in a faint silver glow, I would wake up to the sound of a tofu vendor's bell passing by outside the street and to the holler of an oyster seller, "Fresh oysters here. Fresh oysters!" and remember the fleetingly short autumn and part of the winter with father. I would remember the mornings when father used to wake us at dawn and herd us out into the dark of the morning. Remember the way streets were faintly mapped out in the blue-gray mist of early morning and the way we shuffled after father, half in slumber, each of us carrying an empty jug and a towel. And remember how we had passed the streets that had no names, sputtering white fog from our Mouths, vaguely happy and slightly disturbed by the sudden bliss of father's presence.
Everywhere there had been the same faint sounds of the dawn: brooms sweeping the streets and the tofu man's bell slicing the stillness. Every morning at the exact spot in the street, we would come across the silhouette of the tofu vendor turning the comer, slumped by the wooden tofu panels stacked high on his A-frame slung around his back. At that exact moment, he would clank the bronze bell in his hand. The 'clink clank" metallic sound was always followed by the oyster seller hollering into the quiet morning, 'Fresh oysters here. Fresh oysters!" Exactly in the same pitch. His voice would come as close as around the corner only to get fainter and fainter along with his footsteps. Now with father gone, the sound of the tofu vendor's bell and the hollering of "Fresh oysters here. Fresh oysters!" sounded inexplicably sad in the morning.
Often, lying in bed, I would close my eyes and follow those same streets again, weaving in and out of block after block, and turn to the lane lined with pine trees and bushes, clumped dark against the mauve blue space. There the road gradually climbed up all the way to the spring, tucked under clumps of rocks. Huffing and puffing, we labored up the lane after father, past old men trudging down from the spring, carrying their jugs filled with ice-cold spring water. They always came preceded by the sound of their footsteps and of spring water slopping from side to side in their jugs. I could hear all over again father's voice greeting them through the fog. I remembered how, just for a second, the old men's smiling faces had poked out from the dark as they passed us. And the way the old men had cackled pleasurably with the pride of runners who had won a race.
Warm and out of breath, we would reach the spring where the first sip of the ice cold spring water jolted our still soggy brains. One by one, the jugs were filled with trickling spring water and we did our morning exercises, perfunctorily swirling our arms, stretching our legs after father who practiced strange movements he had learned as a youngster from his own father. Then in single file, we would start down the footpath where sunlight cast dizzying smithereens after filtering through the dense pines like gold dust.
Some mornings on our way down from the spring, father would take us to a goat farm at the edge of the pine tree hill. There, the owner, a scraggly old man, would bring out his fresh goat's milk in a wooden scoop. Father, standing under the morning sun, would urge us to gulp down the goat's milk at once to the last drop. His laughter at the sight of us drinking goat's milk, holding our noses and creasing our faces, would spread through the light of the air and the goats would join in with their indiscreet cries.
Now the sad sound of the tofu man's bell and the oyster man's hollering also brought back the promises father made us children on the way home from the spring. The promises he had made us, in his morning lucidness, now echoed like bells from remote fairy tale lands. There was no guarantee, I knew now, that father would come back, like a knight on a horse, to fulfill his promises.
I could vividly picture the house father had said he would build for us one day. A garden of red peonies and bamboos and a pond with lotus flowers and stone lanterns. A garden so aesthetic, the mere view of it on a summer evening would turn an ordinary soul into an inspired poet, father had said. I could hear him all over again, not with the same excitement but with an ache, promising us an exciting future, making our wings flap and soar.
Each of us children carried his promises like jingling marbles in our pockets, always remembering and never forgetting. It mattered little if the promises were so far-fetched. For father, the future was always something realizable. Even more certain than the present. He made it so tangible. He could not see a hurdle anywhere. Reach for the stars and the moon. He believed his children were irrevocably special and gifted and all that we needed to do was to become incorrigible dreamers like him.
Father's vague promises always turned specific for sister, his favorite child, a terrific singer, the owner of a divine voice. He used to repeat to starry-eyed sister how he would one day send her to the famous Julliard Music School in New York. After Julliard, he would tell her, there would be a triumphant soprano debut in Carnegie Hall. Good logic. Why, father had asked us, can't you almost hear the cheers of the enchanted crowd at Carnegie Hall shouting, "Encore! Encore!" for sister. And the newspapers hailing sister as the next Renata Scotto or the next Anna Moffo or Maria Callas. It seemed an unspeakable sin to doubt all this. Father had never imagined that there might come a moment that his children would come crashing down, wings clipped and dreams broken. And blame him.
So we came home each morning trailing father, inspired and ready to conquer the world, and ate heartily the breakfast mother had prepared. Food melting down like sweet honey on our tongues. Mother couldn't help but smile watching us children inflated with hopes and dreams. Her children acting like cocky monkeys sure of their skills and talents. Whatever doubt mother had, she never warned us that even a cocky monkey falls from a tree once in a while or reminded us of the gullible rabbit who was lured away to the bottom of the sea by the promise of treasure. The rabbit arrived at the Dragon Palace riding on the back of a cunning turtle only to lose his organs to cure the illness of the Dragon King.