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Translations of Beauty: A Novelby Mia Yun
We are the first children and will be the only children born to our parents. Mom is a twenty-five-year-old novice teacher at a primary school. Pretty mostly from her youth and her open moon face blessed with beautiful, pale, dewy skin. Daddy is forty-four, considered too old to be a first time father or, for that matter, even a second-time father. He weeps as he holds his newborn twins in his arms. He can't help himself.
Afterward, every Saturday, Daddy hurries home for the weekend from his teaching job in the eastern city of Choonchon, Spring Stream, and spends hours sitting next to us twins, transfixed, never tiring of looking at us, lying side by side, babbling and dribbling, sleeping and dreaming, he's sure, the same dreams. Noticing things like new feathery hair sprouting all over our warm heads. Our faces filling out from Mom's breast milk. His dark lips open, and smiles leak out. He talks in whispers to us twin girls. He tells us how we will always have each other as a companion on the road of life. How lucky we are.
Time flies, leaving us with no apparent memories. A year passes. Then two, three. We know these stories because they are told to us later. In careless repetition by tired Grandma at our bedtime. We are now four years old. Wispy little things. With spindly legs and arms. People in our old neighborhood at the foot of Nam San, South Mountain, where traditional, tile-roofed Korean houses run shoulder-to- shoulder along the narrow alleys crisscrossing each other in a seemingly endless gridlock, now refer to our old Japanese house as "the twins'" instead of "the Japanese house." On the street, strangers, whom Grandma never fails to meet when she goes out with us in tow, stop and marvel and say we look as if stamped from the same mold. Laughing, they pat us on the head and ask Grandma how she could tell us apart. Every time, Grandma imperiously declares to the curious and always rapt audience, "You wouldn't guess it, but they are different." Pointing to me, she claims I am the quiet one of the two, a watcher, and then, pointing to Inah, she says, proudly, "She is the spirited one."
It's true. Already such a self-absorbed and self-involved thing, Inah is feistier and more vociferous. She leads, and I follow. Inah thinks out loud and I listen. Inah will try everything a little harder. She even talks faster, as if in a race. Almost in a stutter. In her slightly high-pitched tone. Impatiently repeating words. Stumbling and tripping over them because her mind races faster than she could string them up together and give them voice. Waving her arms. Anxious to keep the attention from slipping away. Her bright, sparkling eyes become two black rambling seas of emotion. It's as if she knows and is in a hurry to grab what fun, love and attention she can.
All the way out to the damp alley, where winter mornings always smell like soot, Inah hangs on to Mommy's coat sleeve until Grandma grabs her, firmly planting her by her side.
"Say good-bye quick to your mother and get inside," Grandma says, all bundled up like a snowman. "It's cold." Inah pushes off the scratchy sleeve of Grandma's gray wool sweater that smells like salted oily fish and turns up her bun face to Mommy and asks if she's coming home early. Mommy assures her that she is. What time? Inah asks. At four o'clock maybe? Maybe. Promise? Mommy hooks her baby finger to Inah's, but Inah still looks unsatisfied.
"Bye, Mommy," Inah says finally, looking dejected.
"Bye," Mommy says, pretending not to notice the tears brimming in Inah's eyes. She pats us on the head, first Inah and then me. Resigned, Inah watches Mommy walk down the narrow alley in her long tea-colored winter coat as the sound of her shoe heels, soft clucking tongues, drift away like melodies of a slow song. Then, just as Mommy reaches the end of the alley, Inah, stretching all of her wispy four-year- old frame, belches out one more time, "Bye, Mommy!"
"Bye, Mommy!" I repeat after her, copying even her slightly aggressive tone.
Mommy turns, smiles and waves back with her hand in a black leather glove. And then she is gone, turning the corner. Suddenly, the sunless alley, hemmed in on both sides by the stone walls of the houses, feels empty and desolate. Inah, sad-faced and looking puzzled, stares at the gray space where Mommy has just disappeared. Then, even as she is being pulled away by Grandma's cold and cracked hand, Inah looks over her shoulder just one more time, wistful.
For the rest of the day, Inah waits, and I watch her wait. When noon comes and passes and the sunlight that floods the house in the morning pulls out, leaving the old, dank Japanese house dark as a cave, time slows down, and the afternoon drags on interminably long as uneven hours and minutes accumulate and play tricks. Inah and I, confused with our still hazy sense of time and not comprehending the arbitrary nature of it, play, eat lunch and take a nap, and constantly ask Grandma how many hours before Mommy comes home and count and recount, folding and unfolding our small fingers. We never get tired of this daily repetition of waiting because of the sheer shiver of excitement that punctuates the end of it.
Then finally comes Saturday, and Daddy, a college art teacher, is back home for the weekend. How anxiously Inah and I wait for Saturdays. Sharing that aching thrill, and holding on to the memory of his warm voice and unique smell, so familiar, so recent but nonetheless fading. With none of the certainty that accompanies our daily waiting for Mommy. But with the fierce affection we reserve only for him. Every time he walks in through the door, Inah and I simply soar and fly to heaven. Ecstatic and breathless and momentarily shy and very much relieved, we rush and dive into his wide-open arms.
The next morning, even before sleep falls from our eyes, we rush to our parents' room to wake him up so unceremoniously, pulling off the cover and shaking his arms. Jostling each other, Inah and I beg him to get up and play with us. Our hearts skip when he finally opens his blurry eyes, looking a little confused and sorry at the memory of sweet sleep, and massaging his sour morning stomach through his loose pajama top. But he's ready to oblige us twins, who are climbing onto his lap, competing for his attention.
Soon, we get him on his hands and knees and climb up to his back and go on a horse ride. Out of the room, across the maroo, the slippery, varnished wooden floor, cold as ice in the winter, and then down the dank hallway splashed with morning sunlight. First in a halfhearted trot but soon in a full gallop, he goes carrying Inah and me on his back as we shout, "Iri-yah, ggil-ggil!" to get the Daddy-horse to hurry up even more. After a while, Daddy-horse gets angry and raises and tilts back his head and hisses and jumps up and down (we can see his splayed hair on the crown ripple like black waves), threatening to toss us up into the air. Inah and I shriek and scream, scared out of our wits, desperately clinging to his long, skinny back, wiggling and rolling.
Then, reaching the other end of the hallway, at the foot of the wooden staircase, Daddy-horse stops full and refuses to move. But we shrilly order him to climb up the steps and take us to the big, mildewy tatami-floored room upstairs, his painting studio, shut up for the winter. He pulls up his neck and cries for our mercy, but we shake our heads, laughing and giggling. He turns and asks us how we would like it if Daddy-horse grew wings on his shoulders and became a flying horse and carried Inah and Yunah to the sky over the river and mountains instead. No, no, no! We will be too scared! Just take us upstairs, Daddy-horse, we say. Crawling, he scales just a couple of steps before he collapses, out of breath. We scramble off his back fast, and bend down over Daddy-horse, sprawled on his back over the steps with his eyes shut tight and his long arms dangling at his sides. Terrified, we plead, "Apa! Apa!! Wake up! Open your eyes!" But he doesn't wake up or open his eyes. Inah places her sticky thumb and forefinger on one of them and tries to pry the lid open, but it closes right back when she lets it go.
Now convinced Daddy is really dead, Inah and I are ready to burst out crying. That's when he suddenly springs back to life. Opening his eyes wide, he bolts up, spreading out his arms and roaring over us, "Woo-waah!!" Inah and I jump up like two beans on a hot pan and run for our lives, screaming and squealing. Grandma looks in, loudly clucking her tongue, and says what a beautiful sight it is: an "old man" about to turn fifty in just a couple of days, horsing around with his two little girls. Fiercely protective of him, Inah hates Grandma so for that brief second, but Daddy just laughs.
By late afternoon on Sunday, though, Daddy is gone, and Inah and I start waiting and counting out loud for the next Saturday all over again. In our unerring conviction that the future holds only more fun and excitement.
Copyright © 2004 by Mia Yun
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