Mark L. Keats | Fiction

Loud and Mute Birds

(an excerpt from the novel)

“Eule am Grab”

Seoul, Korea, 1971

Gwi knew how to find babies. It was not that hard, he thought. Just listen. It was summer and hot, one of those days when even the nighttime brought little respite. Already, he could feel a light film of sweat collecting on his forehead. He walked and listened, fingering the few coins in his pocket. They felt cool to the touch and brought a moment of distraction from what his body felt. It had been a habit of his since childhood when he had received a few won for helping out some of the GIs with their errands. The sensation of feeling the few coins always brought a smile to his face as if he could take them out, insert them in some machine, turn the handle, and receive something grand. Of course, as one grew, the cost became exponentially greater. Even one’s definition of grand, one’s pleasure in the simple joys of life could become overly complicated. One had to temper expectations. He thought about this more as he walked and listened. Despite the crowded streets of the city and the distracting nature of all that neon, he could always find them, because, for whatever reason, he was tuned into the frequency of abandoned children around Seoul.

Nothing yet. Sometimes it was like that. He would walk and walk some more and hear and feel nothing. Other times, as soon as he left his small apartment, he would have to close his eyes because of the warming sensation around his temples—the slow increasing intensity, the slow undulations within his whole body. It was as if some force was enveloping his existence at that moment, claiming his physical body to proclaim a simple message only for him: an abandoned baby is nearby. It had been his plight once upon a time, though he hadn’t been abandoned, not in the way he came to find the children around Seoul whose parents no doubt were still alive somewhere. These children were abandoned because they were oftentimes born out of wedlock, one more mouth to feed, simply the wrong gender. For Gwi, it was different.

Gwi’s misfortune had been the unluckiness to be born during the Japanese Occupation but then freed. He’d always thought that this must have done something to his generation and subsequent ones, as if Korea could simply go back to its existence without repercussions. Thirty-five years was a long time to be occupied by another country, not just physically but also linguistically and culturally. That brief respite of independence, however, was short-lived as Korea moved into its civil war just a few years later, and was then split down the center like an unripe melon. Freedom became a matter of an imaginary line drawn between the communist north and democratic south. What was the saying, he thought: When the whales sneeze, the shrimp get killed. Luck, again, he’d thought: to be on either side of the 38th parallel. Who really knew what was happening over there. He’d heard stories, read the papers. All he knew was that life would have been very different had he not been in the south in 1953.

Gwi made his way through the people, themselves lost in various trains of thought, their cadences symbolic perhaps of their personalities: swift, slow, stagnant. Some were more obvious in how they hid or exuded their concerns or desires. Some even their satisfactions. It reminded him of the country’s movements. Modernization had been swift. Though one could still see men and women wearing the traditional hanbok, more and more, this was contrasted by Koreans wearing suits and jeans, skirts and dresses. It was hard not to notice the ebb and flow of differently-styled clothing, the apparent thickness and stiffness of the material. Where the hanbok was soft, billowy even, western-style clothing seemed more concerned with revealing the body in a particular way. That clothing was tighter, more fitted, with sharper lines. He’d been particularly struck one day when he say two harabeojis wearing traditional hanboks and fedora hats. They were on a bench: talking, laughing, smoking. While their clothing said Korea, their hats and shoes said America.

It was more than clothing and accessories. Children now learned English in school.  Large busses and cars made their way down the main roads. English words, even with the Korean pronunciation, floated along sidewalks as people walked. Movie advertisements all too often showed actors and actresses he could not know contrasted with the familiar Korean language. How that unnerved him. There they were; and there were the throngs of Koreans who would sit in the dark and watch the translated English stories and be momentarily suspended from the realities outside. It was a kind of magic, he thought.

He walked through the groups of people mingling about and listened. People talked, others ate, the smell of peanuts and chestnuts strong. Still more vendors tried to command a brief moment from anyone who happened to be looking in their direction. They were selling food and clothing, really anything one might be looking for. Some of the vendors stood and smoked, some joked with one another, their laughter slowly dissipating in the night; others sat; still, a few looked as if they had fallen asleep. It was late, a little past 10:30pm. An older woman with tired eyes and a lot of makeup waved to him, offered him a pamphlet with words he couldn’t quite understand. She moved onto to another person, handed out another pamphlet. He read the Korean below: “Jesus Christ saves.”

“You there, sir,” a woman’s voice suddenly proclaimed.

Still holding the pamphlet, he looked up.

“You, sir,” the voice came again, but he couldn’t see where or whom it came from. Then “You—” and then the sound “sir” seemed to hit him with such force, he thought he might fall back. Those words; that memory. One of many: once he had blacked out and awoke near the Han River. He did not know where he was or what time or really how he had come to be there. He sat up and could see the shantytown. Some children ran by him. He couldn’t tell if they were chasing someone or being chased. Somewhere, a dog barked. He closed his eyes, hard. Then opened them again. It was not a dream.

“Where’s your mother?” a voice suddenly asked.

Though he knew the answer—“She’s gone, ma’am”—he wasn’t sure if he should tell the voice. But then he did because the question forced the memory. What did it matter now, he thought. It was clear he was an orphan. “She’s gone.” And he put his head down and tried to fight back tears of that memory, that wound.

“Have you eaten?” the voice asked, and then a woman with a soft smile and kind eyes emerged from the darkness like some familiar apparition. As if she had always been there waiting for him. It was not his mother, only a kind of familiar outline. It was not anyone he knew.

As the woman took him on her shoulders, he felt the warmth and softness of her skin, was reminded of the curvature of a mother’s body, how his arms should hold on. She took him to one of the makeshift shacks along the Han River. As they walked, she hummed a song that sounded familiar. He tried to concentrate on the melody but could not focus. He was tired, so tired, and beyond hunger to the point where the smell of food made him feel sick. He could only think of what he’d lost.

She gave him some watery soup and then put him to sleep on the floor with a small towel folded for a pillow. Then she placed a rough blanket on top. He slept for nearly twelve hours, sweating and dreaming. During those dreams, the woman’s adopted daughter, Jeong, helped her mother.

“Here, sir,” the voice said again. “I am here.”

When he heard the voice say “here” again, he closed his eyes and let go of the memory. As he opened them, a man brushed against his shoulder, causing Gwi to remember where he was.  

As if she had always been right there in front of him, he saw her sitting on the ground with an assortment of shoes: brown sandals, white sneakers, bright red heels. She looked right at him and without speaking seemed to say yet again, “I am here.”

He nodded and walked over. He thought about the people who might buy those shoes. He recalled when he’d walked barefoot for what seemed weeks after his family had been lost, how something so simple as putting on shoes could change one’s life.

“Yes, I knew it,” the woman said, as he stood before her. “I knew it the moment I saw you.” She smiled at him.

He looked at her and thought he should address her politely because it was clear she was older than he, an ajumma. But her tone suggested she did not adhere to certain cultural norms, that she considered him a close, intimate friend. Or, perhaps, he thought, this was simply part of her sales pitch.

“You knew what?” he asked, knowing full well to what she was referring.

“Shoes, of course,” she said, and smiled again. This time he saw that she was missing a front tooth, that when she smiled, she revealed creases around her mouth. That smile, though, he thought, the smile of one who has suffered a lot. He’d seen it before. Perhaps she is older, he thought. She sat behind her merchandise, as if commanding a small army of shoes or displaying her treasures. All manners of shoes: women’s, men’s, children’s. Though they were plain and a bit worn, he was glad he had a pair. He remembered walking barefoot for many kilometers before the woman by the river had found him.

He played her game. “Why, you’ve noticed. How foolish of me to think you wouldn’t,” he said and dragged his worn shoe a little in the dirt of the street. “But, here’s the problem, auntie,” he said, and he reached into his pockets, careful not to jingle the few coins there, then thrust his two fists toward her. She looked at him, nodded slightly to his left hand. He opened it slowly, as if playing a game with a child, to reveal nothing. Then he opened his right hand, smiled a little.

She let out a guffaw that turned into a coughing fit that he thought might kill her. When she recovered, she smiled again and gave a little wink.

“Sit,” she said. And she offered him some tea, which he gladly accepted with both hands. As he sipped, he couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten an actual meal; he remained standing and catalogued the things he had eaten in the last week: half a bowl of rice, some bone broth, a bite or two of kimchi, a half rotting apple he had found.

“You’re looking for someone?” the auntie asked.

“I’m always listening,” he said, unsure what she meant. “Looking—that’s another story.”

“Listening,” she repeated. “I wonder if you can hear the sounds.”

“Listening,” he repeated. He sipped his tea and looked at her closely. “I’m not sure I follow.”

She nodded, then motioned him to come closer.  

“Can you hear them?” she asked.

He looked at her, unsure if she knew, if she could know. “It’s more a feeling,” he said and sipped his tea again. “I suppose I feel a tremor and it draws me in.”

“I see,” she said, then, “You might have the gift.”

He had never thought of it that way until she said the word 재능.

“There is an abandoned child nearby,” she said, her voice a little lower.

“A child,” he repeated. “How do you know?”

“Your gift,” she said. “You will help her?”

The memory had always been fragmented, pieces emerging years later. But it never accumulated, never created a larger whole from which Gwi could wrest it from his consciousness, put it on a table, and meditate upon its veracity. It was more like each fragment was a puzzle piece, but to different puzzles. One piece was his mother or someone’s mother. Another one, wintertime. Still another: people, endless people, walking, already dead-looking. Black holes for eyes, mouths open. Children running around, children lying on the ground. Soldiers, trucks. Dogs barking. Sometimes people crying. So many people moving, so many people lying on the ground. What had his mother always said to him, he thought. Always button up, always stay warm. It had to be winter, then, he’d often thought. But wasn’t that what all mothers said to their children in the winter? “Button up, keep warm.” What made this memory his mother? And  his father. Who was his father? Why was he so often absent from the memory? He was more an amalgamation of so many Korean fathers: presence and silence, smoke, and sometimes, if he thought long about it, a soft hand atop his head, a gesture he always connected with the American GI who had found him wandering the streets of Seoul.

Gwi could still recall the American GI approaching with a wide smile and earnest blue eyes. He was tall and thin. And he had given him a piece of chocolate; how the taste of it proved too strong, the sweetness forever seared into his memory. But Gwi had smiled, and, despite not knowing any English, tried his best to thank the man by bowing to him and returning the smile. The GI said something that sounded like Korean, then knelt down and offered his hand, which Gwi accepted. A gesture. Always button up, always stay warm. What would his parents say about the Americans, he wondered. What would they say about taking the hand of a stranger? But they were gone. So many people were gone and even the people who may have held the memory of those people, even many of them were also gone. The GI took him to a building nearby where, upon opening the door, he was suddenly confronted with hundreds of other children like himself.  

He walked toward the alleyway to which the auntie had directed him; he was reminded of how Seoul was very different now than it was two decades ago when the GI had taken him to the makeshift orphanage run by American GIs and Korean volunteers. If he had not known that history, he could never imagine the stark contrast of shacks and tents along the Han River to the high rise buildings and apartments now, or the dusty roads that were now paved and full of busses and cars. This was a different kind of traffic. Korea had certainly done a lot to regain its composure. But, he thought, the history was there even if it wasn’t readily seen. Buildings could be razed and rebuilt, modernized. But no matter how much the country built and rebuilt and spread out, the land knew what had transpired and the people, this generation in particular, though they could drink to the country’s rebirth, populate the country with the next generation, even pay homage to their ancestors, could never truly forget.

The GI had helped him find a meal and then a place to call home. Of course, it was temporary, but temporary was better than the unknown, that feeling of walking through your neighborhood and not recognizing it because it had been changed during the occupation. It wasn’t dramatic, initially. Nearly four decades would allow a slow strangulation of anything and everything Korean. A small shop sign in Korean taken down and replaced with a Japanese one. And then the Japanese seemed to appear everywhere a familiar Korean had been. The soft syllables of Korean were replaced with the sharper tones of Japanese: doseogwan became toshokan.

Inside, the children acted as if they had already forgotten what had happened. So many of them were kneeling and eating at a long wooden table. Food would do that: make you forget momentarily the deep pang of hunger and dehydration, of the loss of family and friends, the war outside. The boys all had buzzed heads and the girls, especially the young ones, had their hair cut very short.

“Go on now,” the GI said. “You must be hungry.”

Gwi found comfort in resting in the mess hall, especially when everyone had finished eating. Before that, the hall was a symphony of clashing metal, boots on the ground, and hundreds of soldiers eating, masticating, swallowing.

A young Korean woman took Gwi by the hand and placed him at the table. The other children mostly ignored him because of the food in front of them. For so many, it had been days since they’d last eaten and the presence of yet another compatriot was not surprising to them. Though Gwi had not eaten in days and often searched the ground for the chance of finding something, when food was placed before him, he couldn’t eat. The smell of the familiar doengan jjigae caused him to feel sick to his stomach. He looked for the GI, but didn’t see him. He got up and went searching for him.

It went like this for some months. The GI walked with Gwi not far behind. When the man had to do some job, Gwi was always there by his side. The man would teach him a few words in English, try his best to use his limited Korean, and Gwi would nod with understanding, smile sometimes when he didn’t understand, but more often than not smile because the man had exuded a kind of parental comfort and assurance. That is, Gwi could always find the man when he went looking for him.

At lunch, the other soldiers joked, said, “Who’s the puppy dog?”

But the GI did not smile readily when they made this comparison. It was not that he didn’t see the humor. Besides, the soldiers were young: boys being boys. He knew they didn’t mean much with the comment, and he suspected the child could not understand them. It was that in calling the child a dog, even jokingly, they were insulting him deeply. He thought that the people in Korea had suffered immensely, were still suffering and that while he was there, the least he could do—what they should all do—was to show some compassion.  

Sensing they had insulted their comrade in some way, one of them apologized, said, “We were just kidding. We didn’t mean any offense to the kid. Really.” The others followed with their own apologies. One even offered the child some more food.

The GI looked at them and said, “It’s okay, it’s okay. But he is my friend.” He turned to look at the child, smiled, and said, “Chingoo?”

Yes, of course, Gwi thought. “Friend.”

That was seared into his memory. As was the hot summer day when the GI, who was usually all smiles and small gifts, finally got inside a truck and waved what would be his final goodbye. For America at least, the war was over.

Even though the man had fumbled with his Korean and despite Gwi’s inability to really comprehend English, he knew what was happening. How could he not? It was in people’s actions, what they didn’t say or do revealed a lot to him. The GI had stood before him and knelt down, put his hands on both of Gwi’s shoulders and said something in Korean like, “I’m sorry, friend. But I have to go back home now.” He had said some more things, but it only took the words “I’m sorry” for Gwi to understand fully what was happening. He didn’t really catch anything else. He had tried to hold back his tears and the young GI had given him his handkerchief before climbing into the jeep and waving.  

The GI left Gwi a small package with things that were both edible and not, and that would alter his trajectory as he would, among the many other Koreans, work his way out of the fresh rubble and into an unknown future. Freedom, he thought, had its costs. It would take some years for Gwi to fully understand what the GI had left him, what surviving might mean.   

He found the baby close to where the auntie had told him. He stood in the alleyway that was dimly lit. He turned around and looked at where he had come from. From where he stood, he could see people walking by. He bent down to touch the child, who was wrapped tightly in a small blue blanket. But then a jindo gae seemed to suddenly appear and bark, as if it were protecting this child. The auntie did not say anything about a dog, he thought. And animals were on a whole different frequency. He smiled, though, and reached into his coat pocket to make his small offering. It was not the first time he had found a child and an animal in the city.

The dog sniffed first, then accepted and allowed the man to inspect the child closer as it ate the offering. The child was perhaps only a few months old, maybe younger. The child seemed to smile at him.

The dog came up to the man’s side and sat. Always, his memories included jindo gaes.

“How about Chorim?” the man said to the dog. “And you,” he said and touched it atop its head. “You—we’ll call you Podo.”

*

Seoul, Korea, 2001

Niamh jumped into the first taxi to escape from the rain. As she looked out the window for a moment, the driver asked, “Where to?” It was not so much the sound of Korean that caused a moment of paralysis, at least not anymore. In fact, it was initially a pleasure to be assumed a native, to not be asked, “Where are you from?” Where to indeed, she thought. It was more the philosophical weight to such a simple question. Where to? But given who was asking and in what context—by a driver in a taxi—it was not a difficult question. Yet, with equal force, the questions her language classmates asked her upon their first meeting so many months before, the sheer bombardment of that collective focus, despite the questions being the most obvious when thrusting thirty or so people together in a room, mostly from around the world, to learn Korean, resonated exactly the same way. “Where are you from?” “Are you Korean, Japanese, Chinese?” “Why do you want to learn Korean?” She momentarily accepted the futility of her situation of being in a taxi with no clear destination by closing her eyes and taking a deep breath as if she were about to plunge into a dark body of water. Once I speak, she thought, the question will invariably be a continuation of the former ones: “Why don’t you speak Korean?”

  The taxi driver looked at her in the rearview and imagined he had just picked up his daughter from work. He couldn’t help her out much, not in the way that he had always envisioned things: tuition, rent, etc. But he could at least take her home, maybe buy her dinner, comfort her in a way only a father can by simply being present. But this was not his daughter and he had not spoken with her in over a year. He had her address, or her previous one. And he had a grandchild, a girl, who he’d only ever met once, when she was three or four. He couldn’t remember, these days. He repeated, “Where to?” but made sure to have an even tone. Perhaps this woman’s father had also been absent her whole life, perhaps she saw him as just another hard-drinking and smoking man who treated all of his riders the same: as a means to an end. Even though it wasn’t his daughter, he could, in this one moment, be as kind as he could be. Perhaps, he thought, she’s Korean American and her Korean is simply weak.

She found herself imagining what life would have held for her if she had remained here. She imagined herself married with perhaps two or three children, a husband who was possibly doting, though most likely, from what she gathered from her few Korean friends, a rough, silent, distant kind of man. She heard the man ask his question again: “Where to?” It was soft-sounding, as if not really a question, but a friendly suggestion, a kind of social comment given the obviousness of their situation: a taxi driver and his passenger. Of course, home, she wanted to say. You know, home. That place that has an eternally safe and familiar quality, that place or idea that satisfies one’s longing to rest, to recover, to simply be. But she could not get the word out. Even if she had said the Korean word for home, she knew the taxi driver would misunderstand. “Yes, of course, you want to go home, miss. But I’m a taxi driver, not some mind reader. I need an address, numbers, some physical destination to take you. Where is home?”

Mark L. Keats was adopted from South Korea at the age of three. He earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland and has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Joyland Magazine, Hyphen Magazine, Waxwing, The Offing, Smokelong Quarterly, and others. He is currently a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.

2018-11-03T01:17:08+00:00