Sister came in late spring, when summer winds blew in from the mountains. Mother said to her, If anything happens to your little brother, it’s on you. Sister gripped Brother’s hand and sat quietly on the bus to the village, her eyes fixed straight ahead.
On their ride into the village, she saw the soldiers. She saw the school. She saw small pagodas, mountains, and rivers. An old woman with a fly on her face glared from beneath an elm tree. Scared, she gripped her brother’s hand and ran to their grandmother’s house.
Grandma made meat stew for dinner. Soft hairs dotted the fat that bubbled to the soup’s surface. Brother ate the gobs of fat with his fingers and vomited all night. Sister caught in one hand the thick clumps he retched up. With the other, she pushed his head down. Throw it all up, you idiot. I want to sleep.
The next day, Grandma and Grandpa rose at dawn to work their tobacco fields. Sister went to school. Brother followed her and waited outside by Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s statue while she was in class. At the end of second period, she came out to give him some milk. He drank it and then dropped his pants, crapping on the teacher’s bike chains.
Summer winds from the northeast passed through the village. Warm, dry gusts of air drifted between the oaks. The instrument shelters’ thermometers rose, and fiery embers floated about the roofs. During their drills, soldiers with blades of grass pinned to their helmets flew through the embers like Peter Pan. Siiiiis. Brother called for Sister. Siiiiiiiiis. The sound rang through the pagodas, the schoolyard, and the elms, echoing in every corner of the village.
Though Sister doesn’t know it, the school will be closed in a few years. Soldiers will draw the letters W, X, and Y on the blackboard she once added and subtracted on, and grass by the admiral’s statue, which Brother used to run around, will grow unkempt. Many years later, Sister will find her way back to the abandoned building and cry, her arms around a large stone in the schoolyard. But for now, she knows nothing.
Idiot, I told you not to put water in your rice.
Brother tipped the kettle over his bowl. He always mixed water and gochujang into his rice. He believed this spicy water was the cold soup his mother used to make. After eating it all, he would go out to the stone pagoda and vomit the red liquid. Though he wasn’t sure whether she used kimchi juice or red chili water, it was true that the last meal their mother made for them was soup—red as blood, and served cold with cucumbers on top. At least, that was how Sister remembered it.
Mother and Father named her brother Heesu. One afternoon, as sunlight filtered in through the window, Mother put Sister’s head in her lap and scraped the wax from her ears with a pick. Heesu lay beside them, sleeping. Mother removed every last bit, then brought her lips to Sister’s ear and whispered, Little children who see what they shouldn’t will be punished. Sister’s back and legs itched, but she couldn’t move. The ear pick glinted before her eyes. Sister held her breath and blew a speech bubble in her mouth. The bubble murmured, “Little children who see what they shouldn’t will be punished.”
In the village, there were soldiers everywhere you looked. They walked in single file, down from the mountains and up to the school, and they did their drills by the temple, dropping to the ground and leaping back up. Sister woke to their bugle’s call each morning. She listened to their barked commands as she washed her face. They roamed around, never alone, their helmets camouflaged with grass and their faces painted black. Even when they stopped to drink water under the elm tree, five of them drank together and kept their formation. The soldiers, hands folded neatly in front, marched without a sound. None of the villagers spoke to them, nor did any of the soldiers speak to the villagers.
Sister and her friend lay on their stomachs, doing homework. They were writing a report on eight local landmarks. Every child in the village knew that in addition to the tall waterfall and the thousand-year elm, the soldiers were also one of the area’s main attractions. Even when pitted against Danyang’s or Namwon’s Eight Wonders, the sight of the soldiers marching back to camp at sundown was undoubtedly the region’s greatest spectacle. The teacher had said so, before adding, This area has been a strategic military location for a long time.
Heesu was calling for Sister. That idiot—can’t get anything done with him around. Sister ran outside with her notebook. Heesu sat under the pagoda, small and skinny except for his round belly full of water. Seeing her run toward him, he giggled and ran away. Ooooooh, his sister said menacingly, chasing him. They found themselves behind their grandmother’s house in a field even bigger than the one at school—so vast that Sister and Brother had never been able to run from one end to the other without stopping, even when they ran hard enough for the air to whistle out of their windpipes.
In the field was a lone pagoda surrounded by daisies as tall as Heesu. Sitting on the low stone wall at the field’s edge, you could see the entire village at a glance. It had been Father who’d said that a temple stood in this field once, long, long ago. They had visited the grandparents as a family three or four times a year.
A long time ago, they put a small bell at the end here, Father said, sitting Sister on one wing of the pagoda.
Me too, me too, Heesu clamored from below.
Father lifted Heesu up onto his shoulders. How old is this pagoda?
A thousand years old.
How old is the elm tree?
How old is Heesu?
Three, Heesu chirped, folding down two fingers.
Father lifted him even higher. He pointed across the field blooming with daisies. You know, from here to all the way over there, there used to be a lecture hall where monks studied.
Sister stamped her feet on the round stone in front of the pagoda. Dad, what about here?
Honey! Mother called out to them. Heeju, Heesu!
Soba noodles that Grandma had prepared crowded the table. Grandpa, for the first time, poured Father some pear wine. He had never before spared their father a glance. Grandma turned around and wept quietly. Mother fed Heesu a few noodles, cut into small bites, while Sister danced to a children’s tune, waving her hands and shrugging her shoulders.
Come quick, Sis, quick! Heesu, having run off, was picking and eating the daisies. Heesu called them “egg flowers” because they looked just like fried eggs. You can’t eat those, idiot. Panting, Sister shoved Heesu from behind.
Again! Again! Heesu said, standing up.
Sister pushed him again, this time more roughly.
Again, again! Heesu cried, looking at her to check if she was playing.
His eyes quivered when he wasn’t sure. Whenever Heesu looked scared or defeated like he did now, Sister found him so pitiful it drove her crazy. Just then, she caught sight of the soldiers standing in a line on the stone embankment. They stared at Sister and Heesu.
Run! Sister grabbed Heesu’s hand, and they sprinted home without stopping.
On days that Heesu ate the egg flowers, he suffered from a stomachache all night. Whenever he was in pain, gulping down water, or calling Sister, Heesu let out a nasal sound, like he had a plugged nose. Sometimes it sounded like a child whining; other times, it sounded like desperate pleading. Sister would hear it as she sat by the classroom window listening to her teacher, when she played rubber bands with friends, and even in her sleep. Siiiiiiiis. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis. It is a sound that wraps itself around the pagodas and drifts across the sky, the sound of a boy calling his sister. Sister doesn’t know it yet, but many years later, she will hear this sound as she draws her last breath. In the end she will realize that she has heard it her whole life—every morning as she put on her shoes, every night as the sun set over the street, every time she reached the height of lovemaking. She will realize this was her punishment. But for now, she knows nothing.
A group of people arrived in the village. They surveyed the temple grounds for a few days, murmuring among themselves. Afterwards, they roped off the perimeter—a straw rope meant to ward evil from sacred sites. They went around the village, examining a dog’s bowl in one house and stones in another—for the area was littered with many stones of obscure and unknowable purpose. Even fragments of roof tiles were embedded in the ground, pieces that had floated down with floodwater from the temple. Stones in farmyards were fashioned into tools and shelves, while stones under the elms served as resting chairs, and stones by the riverbank became picnic tables. The most prominent of these stones was located on the school field.
At one end of the field lay a stone slab big enough for twenty children to sit on. Long ago, when the temple had stood there, villagers had erected a steel pole to hang a flag marking the temple’s entrance. The long stone had been a danganjiju, a support for the flagpole. Teachers scolded children who climbed and jumped off the stone, but with each changing season, they also sat the students on the stone in a neat row and took pictures.
Once the rope encircled the temple, the soldiers grew agitated. They continued to train on the temple grounds. No one in the village said anything to them. The soldiers and officials would stand facing each other, the pagoda between them—each group with their arms linked, glaring at the other. Because Grandma’s house was the first house below the temple, Sister often saw this noiseless conflict. In her mind, she drew a jagged speech bubble by the soldiers’ eyes and wrote in, “Clang.”
The soldiers sang in chorus: Please do not disturb us.
The people who had drawn the barrier sang back: This site is historically significant.
The mother of Sister’s friend knew many things. She was the one who told Sister that the people who’d roped off the area would soon slash their way through the egg flowers and “excavate” the temple. She was also the one who said that Mother had ruined Father and picked him clean.
She also said things about Sister when Grandma was out of earshot.
That girl looks just like her mother. Same eyes.
Sister’s friend knew many things as well. She said that the neighboring town swarmed with a thousand times as many soldiers compared to the village. Nice-smelling women came on express buses to visit them, and the town brimmed with motels and bars. The soldiers would tuck their lovers under their sides like books and fly around the glowing town, with one arm stretched out in front like Superman.
It’s just a bus ride over that hill, said Sister’s friend.
When night came, vermin that had clung to the tobacco leaves crawled out from Grandpa’s shirt collar. They crawled to the pair of siblings his youngest daughter—a careless girl who’d romped around with money he’d made from the farm—had left behind. Heesu rolled around on the floor, then fell asleep, clinging to the wall. Sister lay down and stared up at the ceiling, listening as summer winds drifted in from the temple. The wind rustled between the daisies and Sister turned around to check that Heesu was still alive. This had become her habit after Mother left. Grandpa usually had little to say. He simply sat on the floor, staring at Sister and Heesu, then cleared his throat before turning the other way. Grandma would sit against the wall, thumping the back of her head as she moaned, How could I have given birth to someone like your mother? It’s my sin, my punishment. Sister lay awake. Even when she blew all sorts of speech bubbles up toward the ceiling, she couldn’t fall asleep.
Sister had always been a child who never slept, even when she lived with her parents. When she closed her eyes, streetlights from the alley tickled her lids. She could hear all the faraway sounds—cars passing by, sirens, dress shoes clicking across the street. Spit collected in Sister’s mouth. She was nervous to swallow it, afraid that the sound might wake her parents.
Sister may have fallen asleep once. What she saw then may have been an illusion or a dream. Father, who had been on his stomach, rolled over and lay back down. Because Sister was looking up at the ceiling, she saw only his silhouette from the corners of her eyes. Mother followed suit and pulled up her underwear. Though Sister heard every footstep in the street from where she lay, she didn’t hear a single sound from Mother and Father.
Many years later, Sister would occasionally recall that day: the silent coupling of two young parents in a cramped room, the two simple gestures of turning back over and pulling up one’s underclothes—and the strange sadness these movements left her with. Sister was a small child then and didn’t know what it was she had seen or dreamt, but that night, as she looked up at the ceiling, tears fell from her face.
It was on one of the countless nights that fell upon that small room that Heesu came into the world. Mother became pregnant with Heesu when she had planned to start working, and she acted like someone who no longer wanted to live. She refused to eat and lay around all day. If she gathered enough energy, she rolled onto her stomach and cried. If she gathered a little more, she lashed out at Sister. If Sister was slow to respond or left the door open, or forgot to remove stray hairs from the soap, Mother took out all her copper pans and stomped them flat. Then, she folded Sister into fourths and stuffed her under the sink. Once she was herself again, Mother rubbed her lips all over Sister’s cheeks. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Afterwards, even if Sister got her clothes dirty or left stray hairs on the floor, Mother followed her around, praising her. Sister learned to be watchful of how Mother would react, even when she kept her behavior consistent. She withered in situations where she went unadmired, and she came to seek endlessly the praise of others.
Mother often tried to make kimchi, since Father enjoyed having it with noodles. One day, having resolved to make some, Mother put Heesu on her back, held Sister’s hand, and went to the market for radishes. On their way back, as she waited for the streetlight to change, Heesu began to slip down her back. The radishes, too, slipped down her hand. Mother lifted Heesu back up and tightened her grip on the radishes. When the light finally changed, Sister began toddling eagerly towards the gift shop. Mother grabbed Sister and brought her back. By then, the light had turned red again. As they waited for it to change, Heesu slid down from Mother’s back, and so did the radishes.
Once home, Mother threw Heesu and the radishes into the air. Heesu cried, flapping his arms frantically. When he refused to stop crying, Mother grabbed the radishes and beat Sister with them. They were hard, and the dirt on them caked Sister’s hair. The radishes became loose and scattered on the ground, and Mother sank to the floor and cried. Sister and Heesu sat quietly, waiting for her to stop. Mother sobbed in gulping breaths. Sister blew a speech bubble up into the space where Heesu had flailed mid-air, picturing the words, “Boo hoo,” inside it. She believed she had made her mother cry.
Mother, whenever she cried violently, would curl up on the floor for a few days and refuse to get up. Father would set up their small table and work, stopping now and then to rock Heesu. When Heesu nodded off to sleep, Father would fry some rice for Sister. Mother watched Father with sharp eyes when he did this, then threw a pillow at him, screaming.
It was only when Mother and Heesu were both fast asleep that peace fell upon the house. Sister and Father would sit on the steps out front and watch the sky. Clouds dotted with stars hovered above the neighborhood’s crowded roofs, and Sister and Father made a game of looking for them. Sister always won, five stars to two.
Heeju, do you think the clouds like the stars, or don’t like them? Father asked, sitting Sister on his lap.
They like them.
They like the stars. That’s why they hide them.
Father laughed at his daughter’s bubbling voice and hugged her tight. From the crook of his arms, she caught the scent of burnt wood. She even heard a soft crackling sometimes, just like a real bonfire. Sister nestled in his arms, warming herself. These short, precarious hours, permitted only when Mother and Heesu were asleep—Sister wished they could go on forever.
Hey, kid. Someone tapped Sister’s shoulder as she sat at the edge of the stone slab. A soldier with blades of grass stuck to his helmet smiled, peering down at her. He smiled only a little, but Sister could see all his gums. Sister made sure Heesu, who sat playing at the foot of the pagoda, was safe, and then looked at the soldier.
Hi there, mister, she said, greeting him politely.
The soldier took out a bag of crackers and tossed it into the sky. He caught the falling bag with his fingers and spun it in circles before offering it to Sister. His face was full of mischief, and he seemed eager to tease her. Through the clear plastic, Sister saw some star-shaped candy.
If you ever see a soldier, never go with him, Grandma had always said.
Soldiers suck little girls’ brains and slide down little boys’ backsides.
That’s what they’ve done since the old days.
No thank you, mister, Sister said, gently pushing the crackers away.
Her eyes darted between Heesu and the candy in the bag. Heesu was picking and eating egg flowers.
You take pretty good care of your brother, don’t you? Mister Peter Pan remarked.
She watched him silently. It wasn’t just his face that was painted pitch-black—so were his neck and hands, which peeked out of his uniform.
Why do you go around all alone? Sister asked.
The soldier set down the rifle from his shoulder.
Because there’s something I need to do. Something very important, he said, suddenly lowering his voice. His dark pupils darted around their surroundings. He didn’t seem like the type to eat little girls’ brains.
How do you fly, Mister? Are you in the air force? Why do you stick bits of grass to your helmet? Why do you go around with your face painted black?
All the questions she’d been dying to ask the soldiers spilled out at once. Mister Peter Pan’s mouth broke into a wide smile, and he laughed soundlessly.
I don’t know, either.
Sister washed Heesu’s hands when they got home. Heesu, who had poured water into his dinner, was glued to the television. He was waiting for Hye-euni to come on The 100-Minute Show. Heesu called Hye-euni Mother. Hye-euni was pretty, so pretty, with angel eyes and a voice like a string of pearls. Hye-euni always smiled at Heesu. Sister poured sweet popcorn into a tray and placed it before him. She knew the small kernels would keep Heesu occupied for hours. When Heesu was busy eating his popcorn, he didn’t whine or call out for her. He sat hunched over in the same position, letting each kernel dissolve in his mouth before picking up another. As long as he had Hye-euni and popcorn, Sister felt she could pry herself away and make it as far as Seoul. On a normal day, she might have snatched a handful of Heesu’s snack and teased him. But she thought of neither Heesu nor the popcorn. What she wanted was the star candy she’d seen that day. It glimmered when she closed her eyes, and she couldn’t fall asleep.
When Mother said she was going to marry Father, Grandpa went behind the storehouse, rammed a stone into his feet, and refused to eat for three days. Father knelt beside the pagoda and begged silently, day and night. The villagers clucked their tongues and turned their faces away from him.
When Father said he was going to marry Mother, Father’s teacher had a stroke and collapsed on the spot. Father’s Buddhist order, which had spared no offering of support, including his overseas tuition, was visibly shaken. Both Father’s elders and students did everything they could to dissuade him, by turns threatening and begging him, but no one could sway Father from his will.
Father’s first disciple clutched at his robe.
Father didn’t even glance his way.
His second disciple clung to his rubber shoes.
Father walked on, barefoot.
His third disciple began reciting a nighttime devotion before him. Father shut the door on them. The disciples collapsed into deep bows, sobbing as they implored him to stay.
Father was a yulsa, a teacher of Buddhist precepts, who had devoted himself to the religion with the precepts as his guiding light. Father had mastered their teachings when he was young, and also received advanced instruction at the monastery early on. The precocious grace with which he carried himself shone all the more brightly because he had committed himself so fully to his chosen path, sharpening himself as if he were the edge of a knife. It was said that becoming a yulsa was more difficult than stitching together cracked bones with needle and thread, and Father forged ahead on a path even fellow priests shied away from. He was unlike the other monks, who had decided to become priests after working desk jobs. In fact, he had never lived beyond the temple. Having entered priesthood as a young boy, Father had lived only within the Eightfold Path; to him, the broad and steady road to enlightenment had been all there was. The monastery’s ceremonies and doctrines undergirded his daily work. With one glimpse of Father’s robe collar, thousands of students stood at attention. Novice monastics who heard him lecture even once dreamt of becoming a yulsa. The temple’s adult students looked up to Father and felt the full meaning of priesthood resonate deep in their hearts. Nine in every ten students returned to secular life, but among them one remained to walk the same path beside Father. The three students who begged and pleaded with him were among those who had stayed.
Father, who announced his decision to renounce priesthood at the general meeting of all the region’s temples, found no shame in cutting ties with his own teachings. Just as he had walked his former path without hesitation, he now turned his back on it with the same unwavering will.
You’re waving a burning torch in the wind. The flames will burn first your hands, and then your entire body, the monks clamored together in warning. Father flew above the temple’s gate and out of the monastery. He flew to Mother. He flew away to count the stars with Sister. He flew away to change Heesu’s diapers.
The people who had cordoned off the temple gathered on the school field. Together they observed the long stone slab that lay on the ground. Danganjiju, flagpole supports, were erected in pairs, which meant that the long stone had a matching half. They were searching for this missing stone.
The villagers knew they wouldn’t find it. When the temple was built, and when the thousand-year elm was just a sapling, it was said that a brother and sister with Herculean strength carried the two stones down from the mountains. The younger brother died as they crossed the terrain, however, and only the sister’s stone made it to the village. Another legend told that the brother’s stone lay somewhere in the southeast part of the mountain. And yet, no one had ever laid eyes on it.
The villagers did not allow pairs of siblings with an older sister and younger brother to go near the sister’s stone, which now lay in the schoolyard. This was because at night, the stone rasped and wailed as it stood right up, whisking one of the two children away to the mountain. It was because on days that sisters and brothers played on the stone, the villagers found their pepper seedlings snapped at the stem, their fields crawling with leeches. These were stories from long ago. But while there were brothers with younger sisters in the village, there were no sisters with younger brothers. The only siblings to match that description were Sister and Heesu, who had come down to live with Grandma.
The people who roped off the temple tirelessly scoured the village. They thought it was possible that the stone’s missing half was being used as a shelf for farming tools, or as a chair to rest on, or as a picnic table. The soldiers stayed hidden deep in the forest, watching over their hunt with the wide whites of their eyes.
It was Saturday. Heesu, who had been running around the instrument shelter, ran across the schoolyard and lay on his stomach on the stone slab. Sister was heading into the woods with her friends to catch bugs for an assignment. She opened a bag of popcorn for Heesu.
Eat it slowly, okay?
Heesu kept trying to follow her.
Sis, I wanna come. I want to catch meat, too.
We’re not catching meat, idiot, Sister said, and sat him roughly on the stone.
Hey, we gotta get going! Sister’s friends yelled.
Siiiiiiiis, I wanna go, too, Heesu whined, standing up.
Cut it out!
Heesu reached for her backpack and tumbled off the stone. His popcorn spilled into the dirt.
Sister looked back and saw Heesu crying, crouched in a ball. He picked up the popcorn, kernel by kernel, and put each piece back in the bag. He stopped now and then to look her way before resuming his task. After a while he got up again and wailed after her.
The long summer day stretched on. When Sister returned, she didn’t see Heesu by the stone. Only a few scattered bits of popcorn remained on the ground. She ran home. Heesu was nowhere to be found. In the kitchen, grains of rice were spilled on the floor, while gochujang paste stained a lonely bowl. One by one, Sister took in the chair he pulled over to the windows to open them with, the gochujang he took out and poured water into, and the rice he tipped and spilled.
Sister ran to the temple in what felt like a single breath. Heesu was squatting below the pagoda. The spicy red water he vomited flowed from the base of the pagoda into the bushes. The sour tang wafted up around the pagoda as more spicy water came up through his throat and his nose. He looked up at Sister, his lips shiny. Sister snatched away the bag of popcorn that he still clutched. There was more dirt in it than popcorn, and Heesu’s fingernails were black with soil.
I told you not to drink spicy water!
Sister kicked dirt over the red liquid and rubbed it into the ground with her shoe. Heesu wiped his mouth on his sleeve and followed suit, rubbing his shoe into the ground. More and more amused by their game, he turned one ankle too vigorously and fell back onto the ground. His pants were an instant mess of red-stained water and dirt. Sister struck him across the head. Heesu’s face grazed one of the pagoda’s corners as his head snapped back. The granite was hard and rough.
Go on, cry. Sister struck his other cheek. You retard. Cry!
Heesu didn’t cry. When it seemed like tears were starting to well up, he gulped as if to swallow them and started hiccupping.
Sister watched as Heesu collected his tears in his belly. Suddenly, she embraced him. She held him as forcefully as she had hit him. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. She rubbed her lips all over Heesu’s bloody cheek. She said the words, “Boo hoo” out loud as she sobbed in gulping breaths. The daisies that had bloomed throughout the temple leaned together in one direction. Sister didn’t see because she was busy boo-hooing, but soldiers crawled below the flowers in silence, looking as if they were bowing to the temple.
When Heesu fell asleep, Sister put a hand to his chest. She checked whether he was dead. She let out a long breath and looked up at the ceiling. Heesu rolled around on the floor. The night echoed with the sounds in his belly, which sloshed with spicy water and tears.
The next day, the people who had roped off the temple razed the entire field in one clean sweep. They started to dig. The soldiers hid on their stomachs near the temple before scattering into the mountains like smoke. Heesu hovered by the temple all day, calling after the egg flowers and crying.
Dishes emerged from the ground, as did a millstone, stones with various engravings, and countless roof tile fragments. Sister no longer woke to the soldiers’ morning bugle, but to the great yawning of stones that hadn’t seen the sun in hundreds of years.
They’ll be digging up more teeth than roof tiles, the mother of Sister’s friend whispered to Grandma.
Grandma nodded in agreement.
Long ago, when there had been a larger temple in the village, and when the offering stone at the base of the pagoda had always burned with incense, the entire village had been part of a vast monastery. Grandma began telling a story to those standing around her, a story passed down from her grandmother’s grandmother. In the old monastery, thousands of monks ate together, and the river brimmed with water that turned pearly when they rinsed their rice. The riverbank rippled brilliant white when they hung their clothes to dry, as if thousands of geese were flying into the sky. The villagers rose at dawn to the clear echo of the temple’s ceremonial drum and came back from the fields in the evening to its ringing bonshō bell. On the first day of each month, the monks lit every stone lantern and gate as they returned from collecting alms, and the lights would stretch across several peaks and valleys. Grandma’s great-great-grandmother said: Just before sundown, the sight of monks walking back with their backs turned to the setting sun was the greatest thing you could behold.
Why isn’t the big temple around anymore, Grandma? Sister asked. Where did all the monks go?
Grandma tucked back a loose strand of Sister’s hair.
One night, they all burned away.
Dry winds blew above the temple. Mister Peter Pan paced the excavated grounds, his face sooty and burnt.
Mister, why d’you still hang around by yourself? Sister asked.
He sat down beside her. Gone was his prankster demeanor, and his eyes were bloodshot.
The big day is getting close, he muttered, like someone in a trance.
Did something happen to you?
What makes you think that?
Mister, did you drop your soap or something?
Enough of that nonsense.
Sister took some pebbles out of her pocket.
Don’t worry, mister—I didn’t tell anyone about you.
He fidgeted with a roof tile he’d picked up. Sister played fivestones with her pebbles, which she had picked up nearby. The light stones clattered together and felt satisfying to throw and hold.
Lucky you, being so good at fivestones, Mister Peter Pan said listlessly as he gazed out at the mountains.
After a while, he said, I’ve lost someone important to me.
Did they walk out on you? You’ve got to hang on to them, so they can’t leave.
She saw that Mister Peter Pan couldn’t leave his hands alone for even a moment.
I did hang on, but it didn’t work. He just went without his shoes. I was so angry I couldn’t breathe—my throat felt like it was on fire.
Mister Peter Pan took out his bag of crackers and hurled it upwards. As soon as Sister saw it, she threw her pebbles aside and leaped towards the sky. She snatched the bag and ripped it open in a flash, pouring the star candy into her mouth and chomping it.
Mister, I wish that for every ten bags of crackers, there could be one with just star candy. Sister’s cheeks were bursting with pointy candy. If there were a bag that just had star candy, I’d sell my hair to get it.
Father got dressed. His clothes fit him awkwardly—his pants sagged even though they were the right size, and no matter which jacket he wore, it didn’t look right on him. During the day, he went looking for work in a short-sleeved bomber jacket and work pants. Some of the monastics would give him menial tasks around the temple behind the head priest’s back. Father annotated precept texts with standard Korean pronunciations for terms written in Chinese. He translated Sanskrit. After Mother became pregnant with Heesu, he did day labor at a company that made monk’s robes. He did a string of interviews at a taxi company.
It dawned on Mother early on that the man she loved was not the Father who scribbled margin notes in disciples’ textbooks, but the yulsa who had gone to Sri Lanka to lecture on the Dharmaguptaka. The hand she loved was not the one that opened the doorknob of their tiny bedroom, but the one that flipped open sacred texts. What Mother loved was the nape of the young priest’s neck, which rose out from the collar of his sharply ironed robe, and his body that was like a blade radiating from within its gray robe—a body that had never touched its lips to honey or anchovy broth. Mother came to see that the man who sat before her, who had come out of the monastery and shed his robes to wear his stupid jacket, had lost—like a rhino whose horn had been cut off—both his radiance and sweet scent.
Mother found it harder and harder to deal with Father. After she had Heesu, her bitterness came to a head. Before living with Father, she had pursued her Buddhist studies in ancient cities, but since marrying, she no longer read a single verse of sacred text. She was upset that he had accepted menial work at a temple. She was upset that he still offered up his prayers at dawn, and that he still refused to touch chives or garlic.
Mother thought that Father regretted leaving the monastery. If he became lost in thought for even a moment, she lashed out at him, convinced he was thinking of going back. She yelled at him even when he read Sister fairytales, or when he pushed Heesu on the swing. She screamed that he was only good to them because he was leaving.
One day, one of Father’s disciples stubbornly found his way to their front door. Mother hurled a vase into the television in her rage. Four-year-old Heesu stepped on the broken glass and his feet started to bleed.
Why don’t you go with the bastard? she shrieked.
That day, for the first time, Father came home drunk. It seemed like something that had happened long ago, but in truth it had happened only shortly before Sister and Heesu came to live with Grandma. That day, Mother also drank as she waited for Father to return. Sister bandaged Heesu’s feet and lay next to him as he slept, swallowing her spit. Mother didn’t know what Sister knew—that the crook of Father’s arm would not have been as warm if he were still the man who wore his monk’s robes. Sister knew that he would never have laughed from the belly or wrapped anyone in a tight embrace.
Sister thought she heard Father crying from the stairwell. He cried beneath the same sky whose clouds hid the stars. Sister blew a speech bubble that said, “Boo hoo,” out the window. She made a wish. She wished that Father’s disciple wouldn’t come back anymore to sway him.
Warm, dry winds blew in from the mountains. The village waterways dried up, and the ends of early summer’s plants were scorched brittle. Fields withered, and fiery embers began to float about. Industrial hoses snaked through the roads as villagers attempted to combat the drought, and out of the hoses slithered dying earthworms.
Grandma, why does the wind feel so hot? Sister asked as beads of sweat fell from her face.
Because the summer winds come in from the mountains, Grandma replied as she hung the laundry, before turning to face Sister. When they’re blowing, you must never play with fire.
Sister looked over at the temple grounds. Yes, Grandma.
In the distance, Mister Peter Pan cut through the hot wind and flew down next to Sister.
There’s going to be war soon, he said, his face curdling in the dry heat.
But Mister, we’re in a ceasefire now.
The leaves on his helmet had also become brittle enough to break.
Today’s the last day I’ll see you, he said, like a commando slinging a bomb over his shoulder, ready to jump into a tank. When war breaks out, the soldiers will burn. But I’m planning to set fire to them before the enemy does.
Mister Peter Pan etched something onto a roof tile fragment.
If you scribble on that, the people who roped off the temple will get mad at you, Sister said.
He paid her no mind. Sister played fivestones, and the small pebbles clattered beside him.
Why do you want to burn them? she asked.
You wouldn’t know—you’re still young. Sometimes, when you’ve been around long enough, a blaze starts in your mind, one that swallows even the mountains. In those moments, things catch fire even if you stay perfectly still. So imagine making up your mind to burn something—it would be enough to send a whole mountain up in flames.
Sister tossed her pebbles and caught them all on the back of her hand.
Sounds cool, Mister.
Mister Peter Pan dusted off the tile he’d been writing on. On it he’d engraved the characters “六月九曰,” June 9th—tomorrow’s date.
That person was my life. He was the reason I came here. I studied like him and disciplined my mind like he did. I can’t watch him wander namelessly in this world. I can’t bear it, Mister Peter Pan said. Holding the tile tightly against his chest, he took off toward the hills.
Sister wondered when Heesu would be punished as Mother had warned. One day Father, who came home drunk again, sat down by Mother, who was also drinking. The two drank some more. Sometimes they murmured together; sometimes they yelled. Father wasn’t used to drinking and collapsed onto the table. Sister poked her head out from under her covers at the sound. Mother gazed down at her motionless husband. Quietly, she picked up a paring knife from the table and thrust it into his back.
Father woke up when he felt the knife. As he began to lift himself up, Mother stabbed him in the chest. Wailing, she swung the knife into his stomach before finally stabbing him in the thigh. In no time, Father’s body was wet like a sponge. Heesu, who had woken up at some point, clutched Sister’s arm and began to hiccup. Father raised his drooping head and looked at Sister.
Call an ambulance. Now.
The ambulance arrived when Mother started stabbing herself with the same knife. She yelled at the paramedics as they restrained her and jerked wildly as they took her to the car. It wailed as it sped away, carrying Mother and Father. Sister scooped up Father’s blood with a dustpan and poured it into a bucket. As he went into the operating room, Father uttered his last words: he meant to kill himself. He wasn’t a Shaolin monk or martial arts master, however, and the medics and authorities found it hard to believe he had stabbed himself in the back. A detective came to question the young girl and boy.
Can you tell me what you saw?
Sister didn’t say a word. The detective came back the next day. Sister still didn’t say a word. She hadn’t seen anything. She was a child who closed her eyes against things she shouldn’t see. Starting the next day, the detective bought Heesu chocolate pastries and shrimp crackers. He praised Heesu and told him he was good at drawing. Heesu rolled around in the bedroom, his body sticky with caramel and chocolate. The detective leaned in close. Heesu whispered in his ear.
Mommy took a knife and went poke, poke, poke, poke to Daddy.
The detective knew that Father’s body had knife wounds in four places. Now, Heesu would be punished. Sister hadn’t seen it, but Heesu had. Mother, who’d made Father a bucketful of red soup, tied up her hair and went away with the detective.
Sister’s heart had been pounding since morning. It was the day she and her friend would be going to town. Sister had gotten lots of popcorn ready and left water, rice, and gochujang on the table. Making sure Heesu was glued to the TV, she slipped out. The two girls had to be quick about their trip—quick to catch a glimpse of only the soldiers and the soldiers’ lovers before rushing back by sunset. The weather forecast noted that the scorching summer winds would reach their highest levels that day. Sister and her friend bought popsicles while waiting for the bus. Sister wrote, Mother on the frost that dotted her popsicle—then lopped off the word in a single bite. Her teeth burned from the cold, and she scrunched up her face like an ogre’s.
The girls waited long enough for three buses to have passed by, but none came. Sister and her friend began to walk along the road, chatting as they went. After a while, they found themselves at the hilltop that led into the town, and from it they saw hot winds blowing back into their village. Sister could see that the village had caught fire, and that the soldiers were burning. There was no mistaking it—Mister Peter Pan had set fire to their base.
Oh, my God, it’s all gonna burn, Sister said.
Her friend looked at her. What’s going to burn?
Over there. Don’t you see the soldiers on fire?
What are you talking about? The soldiers are over in the town.
What do you mean? One of them even gave me crackers to eat.
That’s nonsense. I told you, you have to go to the town to see them.
Sister bounded back down the hill.
The hot air had spread to the village entrance. Sister followed the crackling sound of burning trees until she could see every wooden temple gate burning in the distance. She watched as their pillars and tiles came crashing down. Thousands of monks floated into the sky, escaping the flames. Father’s first and second and third disciples, with leaves stuck in their helmets, hugged the flames with their burning bodies and crumbled into themselves. Amid the inferno, the people who had roped off the temple crouched over the ground and continued to dig.
Siiiiiiiiiiiiis. Sister looked for her brother. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis. The popcorn and gochujang were just how she’d left them. Only Heesu was gone. Even after the flames died down and the fog lifted, Heesu didn’t return. Sister went into the neighbors’ toolsheds and storehouses. She knocked on the benches under the elms and scoured the picnic tables by the riverbank. She didn’t see any trace of her brother. Exhausted, she went to the schoolyard and lay on her stomach along the top of the flat danganjiju stone, calling for him.
The temple saw seasons come and go—fall’s leaves, and then snow, before it was spring once more. The people who had roped off the temple at last rose to their feet and sorted through their findings. A man with a camera arrived at the village. The group talked into the camera. They said that upon examining the excavated roof tiles and the stone pagoda, the temple could be dated as far back as the tenth century. They also speculated the temple had gone to ruin around the mid-13th-century, as this was the latest any of its artifacts dated. The group noted that there was scorched earth where the old main hall and lecture hall had been, that there were traces of charcoal in the remaining sediment, and that the village had once been in a region contested by Mongolian forces. From this, they concluded that the temple had been burned down by Mongols when they invaded.
The camera peered down at the objects dug up from the temple. Countless stone bases for wooden support beams, bits of stone lanterns, cracked boulders, and fragments of roof tiles lay sprawled on the ground. The fragments bore engravings of dates and historical periods, of the temple’s name, or of lotus flowers. Someone held up a jade lantern. On it was a date in Chinese characters: “Year of the Yin Earth Pig, Third Month of the Yang Fire Dog, Fifth Day of the Yang Water Dragon.” They then held up a single roof tile fragment that read, “Sixth Month of the Yin Metal Rabbit, Ninth Day of the Yang Earth Monkey,” adding that this day, June 9th, marked when the tiles were attached to the roof. Behind the excavated objects, egg flowers stretched on for miles with no Heesu to eat them up. Grandpa, Grandma, and Sister kept searching for him in the village. Some villagers said they had seen him sitting on the pagoda the day he disappeared. Others said they last saw him on the jungle gym. One person said they saw him fit himself inside the instrument shelter to sleep, while still another said they saw him drinking milk by Admiral Yi Sun-shin. A fire department from town came to search for Heesu in the nearby mountains, but still found no sign of him.
The mother of Sister’s friend whispered amongst the villagers, He got what was coming to him, poor thing. A monk’s ghost snatched him up.
The people who had roped off the temple looked haggard as they began preparing to vacate the site. Sister grabbed one of them by the arm and dragged him to the pagoda.
Sir, any chance you’ve seen a four-year-old boy about this big? she asked, as she had asked the group each morning.
Haven’t seen him, the man replied indifferently.
Are you going now? Sister eyed the rope barrier, then looked up at him. Are you really going away? You didn’t find the missing half of the big danganjiju stone—where are you gonna go?
When he didn’t reply, Sister tightened her grip. She lowered her voice as if sharing a secret.
I know the day the temple burned down. June 9th isn’t the day the tiles were put on the roof—it’s the day the temple burned. You didn’t know that, did you?
Sister lowered her voice into an even smaller whisper.
It wasn’t the Mongols who burned the temple. It was a monk who lived here. He couldn’t calm the bitter flames in his heart, and that’s why the temple burned.
Kid, we haven’t seen your brother. We hope you find him. The man started turning back towards his party.
Wait, Sister said, blocking his way. You’ve been working so hard—you should have these.
She held out some pebbles.
I’ve got a bunch of them. I picked them up while you were digging. Here, take them.
Someone from the group urged the man over. In his haste, he let Sister place the pebbles in his hand as he ran to rejoin the others. She didn’t tell him the small stones were human teeth.
Summer winds carry a message through the village. Sister sat on the stone wall behind her grandmother’s house and turned her ear to the breeze. The day these winds blew in from the mountains, the day the temple burned, head priests calmly reached Nirvana and turned to ash. The younger monks, who had yet to reach even the ‘E’ in ‘Enlightenment,’ however, were burned black and tethered to their places at the temple. Just as they’d always done, they continued making offerings to the Buddha, lighting incense, and roaming the village collecting alms. They stood in a line along the stone wall, looking out at the village, and drank water under the elms. With their two hands folded neatly in front of them, they walked without a sound, and at sunset they formed a line to return to their roofless temple grounds. They had stayed for so long that grass grew on their heads. When the wind blew, their sooty bodies floated about in the air.
The monks were often sighted by villagers who rose from their farmwork to stretch or stepped out for a nightly jaunt. None of the villagers spoke to them or disturbed them. The villagers believed that the lasting command of these monks who still guarded the temple grounds was the reason real soldiers found themselves unable to enter the village.
The people who had roped off the temple visited the site a few more times but left without finding the missing half of the stone danganjiju. Sister ran along the stream that weaved through the village, starting from the foot of the mountains and circling around the temple before winding up in front of the school. If she placed a single egg flower on the water’s surface, it would sometimes spin in place, sometimes drop to the bottom of a canal and flow downstream. Sister, keeping pace, ran alongside each day’s flower this way.
The years pass. Dozens of warm fronts have crossed the village sky, and countless summer winds have coursed over the fields. Sister takes the highway and finds her way back to the village. As she enters, she sees the pagoda. She sees the mountain and the river. She sees a crone who squats under the elm. The woman curls her lip when she sees Sister, but her frail body, withered by palsy, cannot swat away the fly perching on her face. Looking closely, Sister sees the woman is her friend’s mother. Sister bows politely and makes her way to the school. She sees soldiers as she enters. As always, blades of grass are pinned to their helmets and their faces are painted black. Because real soldiers came to occupy the village after the temple grounds were dug up, Sister finds it all the more difficult to tell whether the men she sees now are from the army.
Overgrown grass covers the schoolyard, now long closed. Farming tools hang on the jungle gym, while next to Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s statue a faded, empty package of crackers tumbles along the ground. Only the needle of the instrument shelter’s thermometer remains unchanged. Sister brushes her fingers along the stone danganjiju, then takes out two pieces of paper. One is a missing child poster from roughly twenty years ago, in which four-year-old Heesu is smiling. The other is a weathered photograph—in it is the same long stone along the ground, and a line of schoolchildren sitting on the stone. At the very end sits Sister. At her side clings Heesu—his face fresh with snot after crying. One of his hands clutches a bag of popcorn; the other, Sister’s arm. Sister takes in his face, smaller than a fingernail. Siiiiiiiiiiiiis. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis. Heesu’s nasal cry wraps around the pagoda and the elms before hovering over her.
Sister closes her eyes and spreads out her arms. The long stone rises and stands up. Its missing half, the whereabouts of which no one knows, flies down and plants itself beside it. An immense flag flies down between them. Lights come on at every temple gate as lotus lanterns fill the sky. Villagers begin circling the pagoda in traditional song and dance. Their circle grows wider and wider. Sister steps into it. Inside, she looks for Mother and Father and Heesu. She looks for them until her head spins. The pagoda where Mother and Father had knelt before Grandpa, the pagoda where Heesu vomited red water—Sister spreads her arms wide and circles the granite tower that has never once burned. She circles it round and round. Summer winds come in from over the mountains. Winds that blew a thousand years ago, that blew twenty years ago—they come blowing in from over the mountains.
© 최은미, 「비밀동화」, 『너무 아름다운 꿈』, 2013, 문학동네
Choi Eun-mi, A SECRET TALE, A DREAM TOO BEAUTIFUL, 2013, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp., Korea.
All rights reserved.