4. by Annie Johnson

i. war

Jeungjo Halmoni is blessing the rain, opening her palms to graying skies and whispering as if the clouds can answer her. She kneels like a child on the ground, returning to youth in a sense of helplessness. Her words are glass swords. Please, protect him, deliver him, release him. They shatter in the air like smoke; no, not smoke. Smoke leaves traces (traces on the ground, on the walls, on their faces, on his face, still so young). Instead, her crumpled sentences vanish like steam. Silent as breath. Swallowed by the sky without a trace.

Every day she holds her daughter’s hand the entire journey to the well, clutches her to her side as the dog-faced American GIs tramp by. Their boots are like thunder, but every once in a while one of them smiles, says some gibberish in a kind voice, hands a chocolate or piece of gum to her daughter. Sometimes Jeungjo Halmoni fills their canteens. Sometimes she tries to speak to them. Any news of Pak Ji-Hoon? They usually just stare at her, faces empty, or cough up confused sounds before turning away. She knows it’s because they can’t understand her but part of her wants to believe it is a good omen. 

They don’t know his name. Good. Sometimes being known is the cruelest thing that can happen to a person.

ii. famine

Halmoni says a wish on every penny she counts, clutches them between index and thumb as if they will disappear as soon as she lets go.  This copper is holy, these fingers divine and aureate for handling it. Every cent born of hours of bleeding knuckles and chemical fumes as she scrubs floors and learns to stay invisible.

This country is big, too big to fit under her tongue. She cannot form her mouth around the harsh syllables, the letters sharp and breaking in her mouth. Every word carries a taste. Gasoline, tobacco, grease, salt. Patriotism. Someone driving by screams the word Chink at her from a car window, voice whipping like the wind. She doesn’t know what it means but it tastes like metal. Shreds her gums and grinds against her molars. Metal in her teeth. Metal in her spine. Metal in the coins. Palm your heart and worship it like a good immigrant should.

Every night she says a prayer, kisses the burning square of skin on her daughter’s forehead and sends an envelope of wishes back to her fool mother who still sits waiting on a ghost. Still, maybe Halmoni is no smarter. These streets were supposed to be paved with gold but instead she can only crawl across the asphalt. Feet bleeding like a dog’s.

iii. pestilence

Eomma is living her life in cycles of four. Four years in school, four weeks in a month, four children in her house. Four, meaning death. Four, meaning misfortune. Four, like the letters in the word lost, the emptiness in the Os. She is a good citizen. She has forgotten the land she was born of; the earth that shaped her has drifted from her mind like the mist over the mountains at dawn. Now she only dreams of concrete.

Four is the number of degrees lining her wall; count them if you’re brave enough. Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D, Law. The shining sheets of paper she snapped her vertebrae over and over and over for. There are silver hairs for each one, wisps of steam in a sea of smoke. She hopes to dye them black again, but her mother urges her not to. “They show your wisdom,” she insists, squeezing her hand. “Don’t be ashamed of your age.” Fool old woman. Doesn’t understand that this country values only things you cannot hold onto. 

She pays a salon for a full color treatment. As the stylist runs her hands through her hair Eomma thinks about the santoki and how they shed their summer coats. Do they know what’s happening? How different they’re becoming? Maybe by the time they feel themselves slipping it’s already too late. 

iv. death

Daughter has forgotten herself. So beautiful the way memory slips, the totality of time. She visits Grandma every other summer, but she never liked the smell of her house, like incense and something fermenting. The names of her foremothers are foreign on her tongue. Mom assures her it’s for the best — those were the hard times, the struggling times. No use in holding onto nothing.

Still, sometimes when she looks at her reflection she can pluck them out of her. Dark hair, narrow eyes, tanned skin. This insatiable hunger she nurses in her ribcage. This endless and empty appetite for more. This is the same yearning that devoured the women before her, this same wanting licking at her throat like pale flame. 

There is a quiet knowledge tucked beneath her knuckles that she will never be satisfied. She will keep this fire fed and alive long enough to pass to her daughter, and keep her daughter fed and alive long enough to pass onto hers. And on and on and on. Endless as anything.

Generations like the cycles of the moon.

A wheel that will never stop spinning.

Stretch your fingers straight as matchsticks and feel it.

The will of those who fought with teeth for you to stand here.

Beautiful and blooming.

Annie Johnson is an emerging teen writer from the Columbus area, and a member of The Adroit Journal’s 2022 Summer Mentorship class. Annie’s work has been published in The New York Times, Teen Ink Magazine, Flip The Page, the Power of the Pen Winners Book, as well as recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards (2021 and 2022), YoungArts and the Interlochen Virginia B. Ball scholarship.