Burial is a novel-in-progress by Catherine Chung, and it was originally guest-edited by Alexander Chee
One of the only memories I have of my life before Hannah was born is of my mother. I’m about two years old, and my mother is holding my hand as we’re walking up a hill. I’m laughing because she is taking exaggerated steps and stomping loudly. The ground is bright with snow: it hurts to look at the light flying off it.
“Huy, huy, huy,” my mother says to the beat of her steps. I look up and her hair is waving in streamers around her face. I want to grab hold of it, but it is too far away. This is my only memory of my mother with long hair. She is laughing. I try to match her steps which are too wide for me, and she holds me up when I stumble.
The day before Hannah was born, my mother doubled over moaning. I thought she would die. Her gasps of pain silenced me, my fear a hard stone gathered in my belly.
When my father came home to get her, he hardly looked at me.
“Be good,” he said, distracted, looking down the hall to the room where my mother was. I rode down with them in the elevator pressed up against her legs, listening to her breathe. I reached up and touched her arm with my fingers. She was weeping. She didn’t pull away; she didn’t even notice me. I kept my fingers pressed into the soft flesh of my mother’s arm, all the way down.
My parents went to the hospital, and I went with my grandmother to her house. It was my first night away from home without my mother, and my room felt large and frightening. When my grandmother came in, she found me crying. I had cried so hard I had given myself a fever. She wiped my face with a wet towel and chanted the Buddha’s name over and over.
When I wouldn’t stop crying, she shook me. “Jungshin chalyuh,” she said, by which she meant pull yourself together; discipline your mind. Both the command and the impatience in her voice surprised me into pausing to look at her, my mouth still open, but no longer wailing.
“You are too old to be crying like this,” my grandmother said. “You will be an older sister, now, and you must live up to your responsibilities.” And with that, she told me the story of her own sister’s birth.
When my grandmother was five years old, her father was taken away by Japanese soldiers. My grandmother did not know what her father had done, but she knew it had to do with the day everyone yelled “Mansei.” She had wanted to go outside too, but her mother had said, “What if the baby comes,” and my grandmother had stayed indoors. Her mother would not even let her swing in the courtyard or climb a tree to look out over the gates into the streets.
“Can I say mansei?” my grandmother asked. “Can I say it from here?”
“Quiet!” her mother said. “Do you want someone to hear you?”
Everyone was shouting out in the street. My grandmother could hear the voices of other children, rising tinny above the deepness of the men’s.
“No one would hear me,” my grandmother whimpered. “It’s noisy outside.”
“If you make another sound I will send you out tonight for the tigers.”
My grandmother sulked.
“What does mansei mean?” she asked her mother.
Her mother stopped sewing, the needle arrested midair, the string stretched taut. Her mother repeated the word very quietly. “It means ten thousand years,” she said. The needle resumed. My grandmother thought her mother’s hands were trembling. “It means, long live Korea, ten thousand years.”
That night when her father came home, he was haggard and exultant. He reached under her mother’s sleeping mat and unrolled a beautiful silk sheet, pulled out a handful of papers.
My grandmother had never seen a Korean flag before, and her father let her touch the red and blue circle swirling in the center, the stark slanted strokes at the edges. He knelt beside her and touched the center of it, the deep red above and the brilliant blue below. Then he folded it up and went outside. Through the window, she watched him bury the flag and papers in their garden. She did not ask why.
The next day soldiers came into their house; they overturned everything. They took her father away. When she asked what her father had done, her mother would not answer. The streets, which had been raucous with shouts for several days, became filled with screams. My grandmother wept in a corner, but her mother sat steadfastly in the center of the room, sewing. When the air turned dark and gritty, she closed the windows and covered them with blankets. She ordered the servants to bring all their meals, quietly, into their room.
It grew ominously quiet. When my grandmother strained her ears she could hear nothing but the steady marching of soldiers up and down their street.
When her mother went into labor she ordered my grandmother to stuff her mouth with rags so that no one would hear her scream. She told my grandmother not to remove them, no matter what, until the baby was born. For one day and one night she writhed on the sheets, grabbing at the air and the rags in her mouth. She grew slick with sweat, and the sleeping mat where she lay grew heavy and wet. Her hair stuck in clumps to her face. Her skin began to cool and grow clammy. She already looked like a ghost.
In the morning my grandmother disobeyed her mother’s command and removed the rags to pour in some water. She was sure her mother was dying.
Her mother gagged and grabbed my grandmother’s wrist with cold dry hands. My grandmother poured more water in. Her mother swallowed and moaned. Her body shook with a long contraction. My grandmother hurriedly stuffed her mother’s mouth back up with rags, but it was too late.
The soldiers, always marching outside, rushed in. My grandmother crouched protectively over her mother. The men spoke to her, but she could not respond. To speak Korean to these men was forbidden, and she did not know Japanese.
The men pushed my grandmother aside and pulled the rags out of her mother’s mouth. Her mother gagged, then screamed, and the soldiers hoisted her up and took her away. My grandmother would never forget the sight of her mother’s exposed thigh, a man’s fingers digging into the flesh.
When her father returned the next day, my grandmother ran and clung to his leg. He sat down on the floor and handed my grandmother a bundle.
He did not speak for five days.
The soldiers had brought his wife’s breasts to him on the tip of a bayonet, and then released him from jail. He had brought the child, my grandmother’s sister, who had been cut out by the same blade.
My grandmother tended her little sister for two weeks, feeding her rice water bit by bit until she died.
I shouldn’t remember the things my grandmother told me; I was too young to understand. But after my grandmother told me this story, I crawled into her lap and held on to her loose nightclothes. I was dry and stiff with terror. My grandmother taught me the words to chant to the Buddha, and together we chanted and prayed: all night we prayed for a brother.
My sister was not born the following morning, but the morning after. My mother had been in labor for nearly two days. By that time we were gathered in the hospital; my father, grandmother, uncles and aunts and I stood in the waiting room wondering what was wrong.
When they hooked my mother up to new machines to see what the problem was, they saw Hannah pushing down into the birth canal and at the same point every time, bouncing back off. They guessed my mother’s hips were too narrow. My sister would not come out. When her heartbeat began to slow, they cut her out.
My grandmother sat in a chair and prayed, murmuring words I couldn’t make out, her breath one low articulated groan. When the doctor announced that Hannah had finally been born, my grandmother started to cry in relief. It sounded no different from her praying, only louder.
My father rushed into my mother’s room, and all my relatives started talking at once. It was so sudden: the burst of noise after all that silence. Everyone was relieved, but my first emotion was dread.
“In our family,” my grandmother had told me, “a sister always dies.”
When they let me see my mother, my sister had already been taken away to be cared for with the other babies in another room. My father had promised me, smiling, that he would not her out of his sight while I visited my mother.
I climbed into her bed even though my relatives told me not to. My grandmother tried to pull me off, but my mother said, “Let her come.” She wrapped her arms around me. She was limp and sweaty but I snuggled into the comfortable softness of her. They had cut her open, and she was whole. She looked very tired and sick; on her gown, blood bloomed like a slow flower.
“You have a younger sister now,” my mother said. “Her name is Haejin. I hope you will always take care of her.”
I nodded so gravely my aunts and uncles laughed.
“So serious!” they said, patting my head.
I shook my head: I didn’t want them to touch me. I only wanted my mother.
But then my mother said it again. “Haejin,” she said, cupping my face in her hand. She smelled like sweat and sickness, and when she said my sister’s name, it was as if she was calling my own.
CATHERINE CHUNG lives in Rockville, MD and has an MFA from Cornell University. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Jentel, and the MacDowell Colony, and a “waitership” from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination, and grants from the Lannan Foundation at SFAI, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation. Her work has appeared in The Journal.