Excepts from the novel, House of the Winds
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 100 in 1998.
From Chapter One, "House of the Winds"
Preserve your memories. Once you start unraveling them, there is no stopping. They become living things. Out of your control. With the careless way your mind works, you add one new detail after another, imagined or freshly remembered. You see the same simple afternoon light that long ago shone on your mother's hand and give it a ghostly soul. Here and there, you stumble onto secrets although they were not secrets at the time. You were a child. You saw but didn't understand. Your visions were narrow. You understood a pear to be an apple.
It is enough that you were once your mother's child who sucked out the last drop of milk from her breasts, already depleted by your sister and brother before you. Don't question why you were your mother's child, not any other woman's. Why your father was who and what he was. It matters little if he was a shameful swindler or a notorious womanizer. It matters only to the ancestors who remember everything clearly even in their graves.
When mother died, I buried my memories with her. But dreams came. There is no controlling dreams. Night after night, I plowed through dreams. Dreams became memories. Memories became dreams. They fed on my fear and grew powerful and dark, breathing and heaving inside me. I was like a frightened young girl carrying a secret life inside her body. I took a swath of long cloth and tightened it around my swollen belly so that the thing inside would die, asphyxiated. But night after night, memories burst upon the scenes in my dreams. The dreams shifted inside me each night, a full moon waning and a crescent expanding back to a full circle.
One night, they became so full and living inside me, they broke loose uncontrollably, as the water breaks in the uterus ready to give birth. I let it go and memories gushed out, to my surprise, as songs and poetry, unleashing little truths hidden so far from me. The pear that I once took foran apple. I am glad mother didn't try to explain then what I saw was an apple not a pear. She said, Here, everything's in front of you and it is up to you how you see and remember. She trusted my eyes.
I was standing with mother in the middle of the sunny cabbage patch behind our little house in Seoul. I had just been bathed and dressed ina white ruffled dress, starched and ironed as stiffly as cardboard. Over the spring cabbages in white bloom, a butterfly came fluttering its wings, transparent pieces of white silk in the sunlight. Mother pointed at the white butterfly and said that it was the soul of a little girl in an afternoon nap. Whenever a child takes a nap, his or her soul flies out for an outing as a butterfly.
The next day, the white butterfly returned. Mother said the butterfly was the lost soul of a girl who never came back from her afternoon nap. While the butterfly was out fluttering over our cabbage patch, the child's mother put make-up on the child's face. When the butterfly flew back to slip into the girl's body, it couldn't recognize the child's face any longer. The butterfly saw the red lips and dark eyebrows and pink rouged cheeks and thought it had come to the wrong child. It circled around the child for a while before it flapped its wings and flew away forever. The child's mother cried and wailed in vain. Afterwards, the white butterfly forever hovered on a spring day over our cabbage patch.
This story of the butterfly stayed with me the whole spring. I became a child who was afraid of taking an afternoon nap. While all the children napped away afternoons, their souls out to flower beds, I would think of the white butterfly, the lost soul of the unfortunate child, forever lingering over the cabbage patch.
When the summer rolled in, the white cabbage flowers were long gone. So was the white butterfly. All around us, the summer burst with colors and perfume. In our flower bed bloomed marvels-of-Peru, rose mosses, yellow ox eyes, cockscombs, touch-me-nots and roses. The steaming brown soil in the flower bed choked the air and earthworms turned constantly beneath the rotting balsam roots.
It was the most beautiful hue of blue. Almost lavender. The color of morning glories that opened up every morning outside the window. We called them "trumpet flowers." All summer, their vines twisted up and up the rusting wrought iron grill toward the rain gutter.
Mother's favorite, though, was the moonflower. Moonflowers bloomed at the end of a long, heat-hushed afternoon, when dusk came softly and swiftly, steadily dripping persimmon red and azalea pink over the tiled rooftops. They were as big as Korean bronze gongs and lush as white satin. But later, when the sky turned into a huge dark blue dome, they became pale, blue-tinged porcelain. It was the loneliest flower in the world. Floating alone into the night mist. It was always then, when moonflowers stretched their petals out widest, that the muffled sounds of dusk -- children running and shouting, doors opening and closing -- were replaced by the noisy chirping of crickets and long-horned grasshoppers.
Brother and I often stretched out on the veranda floor like two starfish and picked out Scorpion and Orion and the Big Dipper from the night sky, densely pricked with chipped pieces of diamond. If we fixed our eyes on the sky long enough, we felt as though it were churning. It became a huge spinning silver disk on the top of an acrobat's bamboo pole. One of the stories mother told us that summer was about a farmer who suffered from a constant fear that the sky might collapse on him. Howdid the story go? Just like all the stories mother told us, it began with "Once upon a time when the tigers smoked pipes, there lived ..." and went from there.
Often in dreams, the stories were reincarnated. I became a part of the animated epics. I was the dweller of the huts and caves. I was the lonely roamer who crossed mountains and wood, rivers and sea and flew to heaven. I was a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a child, a hare, a bird and a heavenly creature. It was through special luck, it seemed, that I had been returned to wake up in my own bed every morning. I would have hated mother to become the sad, wailing woman who lost her child.
It was that summer, through the blue rain of an evening, that mother rushed through the baby-blue gate of ours, its paint flaking off here and there. She must have been coming from the market. She was holding a red, meshed nylon bag through which pushed summer vegetables: cucumbers, scallions and purple eggplants. I still see her standing under the eaves, shaking off the rain from her wet hair, glistening black henna. And hear her voice that echoed through the blue rainy evening. Her voice was that of a laughing cuckoo's -- if a cuckoo could laugh. I realize now how young she was. How vibrant her voice was. How softly and luminously her skin glowed. But what I saw then with my child eyes was not her youth but her white summer blouse running with red colors from the embroidered flowers on her chest. The flowers she embroidered with deep red, mango-red and azalea-pink threads. It looked as though she was bleeding from her heart and for the first time my heart felt for her. I do not know from where this sudden sadness sprouted.
from Chapter Two, "House of the Women"
The Independence Day fireworks began over the top of the peak against the night sky. We sat on the veranda floor and watched big sparkling umbrellas, a drizzling colored rain of yellow, red, pink and purple explode in successive thunderous bangs and fizzle down over the mountain slopes. Then, it was quiet all over again. Sister and brother sneaked away to their beds. I lay on mother's lap. Silent, grandmother and mother sat shapeless, swallowed by the darkness. I could hear the murmuring of their unhappy past, quieted by the thumping sounds of explosions, come alive again. Boiling and whispering in their hearts. Their unfulfilled past, resurrected by each other's presence, hovering like a ghost unwilling to go away to the Western Paradise. Too much regret, too many unfinished relations and too much attachment to the living.
They each stared out at the insect-gurgling garden, shadowed by the mountain, in search of answers. They watched the old trees, those nameless hundred-year-old trees, drip purple over the moonlit ground, poisoned blood from broken hearts, continually shifting like restless ghosts and knew there were no answers but reflections.
"Aiigo!" grandmother broke the silence in the dark. "Just think how one lives so long in this world! It could be hundreds of years ago when I lived with my family before I got married," she whispered in a nostalgic tone. "Life is no one spring day's dream as they say. It goes on and on and on.
Grandmother's whispering voice flew by me into the dark night and mother's caressing hand on my head gently carried me away to the deep valleys of dream. In my journey, I became a summer star. I traveled back over four thousand years when bears and tigers roamed on Mount Sublime Perfume in the mountainous north of Korea. The time when the mountain was carpeted with virgin forest and whirling majestic clouds enveloped the summit in silvery veils. The time when the son of the king of heaven alighted on the majestic mountain and went in search of his bride.
One day, the son of the heavenly king came upon a she-bear and a tigress. He gave each twenty pieces of garlic and some mugwort and sent them into a cave where they were to stay one hundred nights. Inside the dark cave, nights and days passed ever so slowly. A few nights later, the tigress got restless and bored and left the cave for her enchanted forest. But the she-bear endured those dark one hundred nights and emerged as a beautiful woman to marry the son of the king of heaven. I had seen the beginning of the Korean people.
Those thousands of years shifted restlessly and tumultuously as I slept. I saw how Korean women, the descendants of the she-bear woman and the son of the king of heaven, lived in the folds of history, laughing and wailing, as spirit-cajoling shamans, wise queens, poetry-writing entertainers, tear-hiding wives, bosom-bracing mothers, dutiful daughters, scheming concubines, ill-treated daughters-in-law and fire-breathing mothers-in-law. Their lives sweeping through, season after season, flowers after snow, rain after drought.
Finally, there I was standing in front of mother. I had become her sorcerer. I had seen mother's history. Her very own history, a legacy of a river full of the hopes and dreams and despair of women before her. I tell her it is her turn now to continue the journey on her own. I will stand by her until there is no more time to write it and I will be the next carrier of her hopes and dreams when I become a woman one day.