He didn’t live a long life and but he led a meaningful one, and my father’s effect on me has quietly imploded in the thirty-two years after his death. His memory has fueled, if not haunted my fiction. Not every book, not every story… but a likeness of him was a central character in my novel “When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon”, and I portrayed him just as I saw him: A man who, through no fault of his own, could not exorcise his demons yet loved his children so profoundly it hurt. He also appears in a novel I’m currently tweaking called “The Divine Jig”, or should I say he appears as I imagine him, had he lived to old age.
This short story, a vignette, was wholly imaginary; and a tribute to the only kindly figure in his youth, a grandmother, not even blood-related. A departure from my oft-contemporary work, “Song and Grass” was published nearly twenty years ago in the Hawaii Review.
“Song and Grass”
Happy, happy. He was happy as a bee in honey, strapped to Grandmama’s hunched back, that mountain-side. As she stood at the foot of the river and scrubbed white garments against a big gray rock, she sang, “Arirang, arirang, arariyo arirang…“ He loved to feel the morning sun on his face – splash! – then catch a glimpse of Grandmama’s bun, crowned to her head like a bowl of sticky rice. He would press one plump cheek against her spine and smile. Two eyes squinting happily. So warm!
What he loved most were the hymned vibrations of her voice as she sang. He would snuggle up to the hum in her back and feel the faint throb of her heart and be secure as a bundle. Stretching, yawning, wiping the sun out of his eyes. - Ooh! Grandmama! Grandmama! In a celebration of soap and water, the old woman might peekaboo and steal a kiss. Or wink like a thief! - Yee! Bubbles everywhere! Big bubbles, baby bubbles, bubbles with surprise rainbows. They burst in his eyes with the splendor of dreams come true.
Sunshine danced upon the water and Grandmama sang, “Arirang, arirang, arariyo arirang…” He bobbed. - Yee! Blame innocence – for how could he know? – that the songs in his ears were tales of mothers weeping and of doves dying; of children on their deathbeds and loved ones off to war.
As a sleepy sun rose over the river scene, Grandmama and the boy marked the landscape like a pebble on a rock. “Arirang, arirang, arariyo arirang. Arirang kogero numo kanda…” My love has gone over the mountain. I pray his legs do not carry him far.
If on a blue morning a robin’s wing should happen to brush the dewdropped leaves of a distant oak and Grandmama should then be wading in the river and the darting of minnows should cause her to dream, she would then see the face of her long buried first husband floating in the water. As if he were rising from the dead! Betrayal swims in his eyes. Poor first husband! How he dreamed of a large family huddling around a game of Yute. Keh! Kul! Yute! Ha, ha! Five sons with big browned hands. Three daughters with eyes like burnt almonds. Obedient ones, their black hair at his touch. Timid ones, peeling chestnuts in the winter, eating them slowly. Papa, papa! – he imagined a chorus of wee girls singing as snowflakes danced outside the windows – May we go ice skating today? – Yee!
Damn truth – that killer of dreams! Every day after a solemn sun set on his fields and warmed his cheeks with small open fires, he stepped inside to an empty home and his eyes went blank. Grandmama’s face paled. He blamed himself; he thought himself cursed for dreaming too hard, for imagining the sound of children; their naughty whispers, their bedtime prayers.
And so he moved about with a heavy heart, as though his blood was too thin for laughter, as if tragedy was a ghost knocking. Even before death he seemed to disappear, for he lived in silence and died in his sleep. Gone!
That there is always room for more misfortune explains her marriage to her second husband. She was swept away with charm! Yes, with the magic of the moon in his eyes and a hyena’s laugh in his throat, whispering promises as far-fetched as America, he married the lovesick widow. Yes, then he stole her savings to court another woman, on another mountain. A woman who loved the sound of money in her ear and the sound of coins jingling in her hand.
Oh, humiliation! Grandmama was haunted by her dead husband’s judgment, his face hard as a stone thrown in the water. First husband, forgive me, she would whisper, rest in peace. Rest in peace!
If on a moon-cooled morning the abandoned cry of a baby sparrow should cause her heart to stir and should the river be suddenly hushed and its deep blue evoke in her a strange calm, she would, like a forlorn lover off a cliff, fall to a weeping spell, causing the boy to rock in fear. But then he would look up to see Grandmama’s bun, every white hair twisted lovingly into place. And he would smile a baby’s smile. Happy, happy. Two eyes black as raisins. Grandmama! Grandmama!
For he was hers to dote on, cherish, though they shared nay a drop of blood. With a mother’s tenderness, she would cradle the boy, whom she called “my little angel”. And he embraced this – the slow, husky way she murmured “angel”, the lofty nest of her arms into which he so often fell, the plush smell of her bosom. - Ooh! Lilacs! Grandmama knew it was her calling to snatch him from the arms of his own mother; a mother who would trade her own flesh and blood for the promise of pork. - Sss! Wicked woman!
“Aiyoo!” Grandmama exclaimed this morning, brushing away a crown of sweat from her brow. She threw her water back into the river – ping! - and sighed. Laundry done, suds drifting leisurely about like privileged vacationers at Mount Sorak. She sighed again. The boy looked up, sensing something to be aroused about. Grandmama unstrapped him and lifted his wriggling body to the clouds. - Yee! He beamed and let the sun relax in his face. With one illustrious swoop she set her grandson on a weedy patch of grass near the river and squatted.
Watery-eyed, she squinted and tried to focus on this curious bundle. Her eyes itched. - Sss! The tiny blur did not understand when she spoke:
”When I was a small girl my mother would say, `Daughter, remember that no one can give you happiness, that sorrow waits for you at the next breath you take. Even when there is food and song, accept that you will spill a river of tears in your life, and it may be the only truth you will know.’
“Well, my little angel, do not judge her. My mother was no miser – she wore a jade ornament in her hair and she often gathered flowers, for the sweet scent made her smile – but she was in poor health, always coughing, and her face became a mask of death. To hold your face,” she kissed the tip of his nose, that rosebud, “so round, so happy, for nothing, for what? – one could never foresee such tragedy. Someday you will understand and think of me when I am long gone.”
Grandmama sighed; her bosom rose and fell. “My mother has been at peace for many years; a hundred snowfalls have covered her grave and melted in the earth. Now I am an old hag.” She paused and cried for her mother like a child lost in the woods – “Mama!” She squatted foolishly, knowing there was no sympathy. Her eyes burned and she rubbed them, dreading the blindness that would eventually take them. Then darkness, then what? She continued. “Sometimes I wonder, my little angel: Is there a God? For I have yet to see a man at peace. Even I carry a curse for which I may burn in hell. Breathe this to no one! My first husband damned his own manhood while I fell silent. Like a mute! I feared his face should he know the truth. That his wife was barren!
“For six generations, each female in my family – my mother, her mother – has produced only one child. A daughter. No sons! After our baby daughter died at birth – God, cradle her! – I lied to my husband, I fed his torment. I invented three brothers who fell to consumption; I described their sickness down to the wretched whiteness of their skin and the blackened blood in their coughs. I even gave them names: Kang, Wang, and Kwang. Like a foolish geisha to her master, I cried. Now I live with this shame and await my fate.” Her eyes were glassy.
“My little angel,” she brushed his cheek, “even though my second husband, your grandfather, deceived and deserted me…” she paused as if to pay shame for her own humiliation, “you are like my own son. So I pray for you; I pray the bad blood in your family does not run through your veins.”
She closed her eyes and clasped her hands, those tired pieces of flesh, in prayer. She bowed: “Almighty One, have mercy on this innocent child…” When at last she finished, she scooped up the boy and whispered, “Listen to me. When your mommy is angered by the growl of her own hunger, just close your eyes – close them! – and remember how much your Grandmama loves you.”
She planted a kiss on his inquisitive forehead. “Even when your mommy smacks you,” she said, shuddering at the thought, “be strong. Say to yourself, `but I am loved!’ For I am always with you, right here.” She touched his right breast and the pressure warmed him.
“Now!” she announced like a king to her subject. “Lesson time. My little angel, can you say the al-pha-bet?”
The boy perked up as if awoken from a nap. “Ah!” he said, to which he quickly added, “Ya!…Uh!…Yuh!”, now pausing for a clue.
Being a wise Grandmama, she made a perfect “o” with her wrinkled lips.
“O!” he exploded.
“Ya, ya!” she clapped excitedly as a schoolgirl until her bun unraveled as do an old woman’s dreams.
She clapped, then hushed herself. A century passed. Mountains moved. Then he uttered a doubtful “Ko?”
Grandmama shook her head no, no, no. She puckered her lips, hinting.
“E!” he triumphed with a fat, foxy grin.
“Ah, my little angel,” Grandmama murmured, kissing one plump cheek and then the other, “promise me you will have dreams. Promise me you will believe in miracles. For otherwise you will live and die for nothing. You will suffer a peasant’s fate. You will run through the streets with red beady eyes and soot on your face, feeling only the knife in your pocket and the hunger in your stomach.
“You must feel the hunger in your heart. You must dream! Promise me you will be a great scholar, my little alphabet boy. Promise me you will read wonderful stories and dream of a better life.”
Cupping one hand around his tiny head, she kissed the tip of his nose. She then produced from her pocket a wedge-shaped piece of lemon candy and let it dance before his eyes. Like magic! He bobbed. Then she whispered: “For my little angel.”
The thin rice paper wrapper melted in his mouth – yee! – and the taste of sugar and lemons on his tongue was powerfully sweet and sour and sensual. Like a puppy he lapped it up and, here, where the earth cradled the sea, he fell into a heavenly world of song and grass.
“Arirang, arirang, arariyo arirang…“, Grandmama sang. Then a breeze off the river pulled her heart in a hundred different directions and she hugged her grandson as if for the last time. And he smiled a baby’s smile. Happy, happy.