Familiar Strangers by Sena Moon
This opening excerpt of Sena Moon’s Familiar Strangers is the second-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, guest judged by Masie Cochran of Tin House.
Familiar Strangers follows the life of Jang Mi-in from her birth alongside her twin brother, marked by her Grandpa Choi with the Golden String. Named Mi-in—beauty-person (美人)—she has struggled against the weight and implications of a name she feels she hasn’t, and can’t, live up to. These first chapters chart her course, jumping to adulthood, where she tutors and takes care of a now-ailing Grandpa Choi. The author has a wonderful eye for the smallest details that build the lives of the main players, and I won’t spoil anything here, but the turn at the end of the second chapter gave me chills and sets up a premise full of intrigue and mystery. —Masie Cochran
Grandpa Choi once sat me down and said, you’ve got a face that begs to study.
“Jang Mi-in, you’ve got a face that needs education.”
Needs. There wasn’t wiggle room in his vernacular. I knew what he meant; I wasn’t beautiful enough to be a fool. So it was with great irony that he’d named me at birth, Mi-in, beauty-person (美人)—a beauty. He bore no ill will. At the time, it was expected that I, too, would follow in the footsteps of my grandmother and mother in becoming a bona fide mi-in. That is, until time negated this reasoning. Eventually the name became a nuisance, its repercussions clinging to me like low hanging fruit. Many fell about laughing when they made the connection. You? Mi-in?
When I was younger, I used to wonder why, why Mi-in, why such a nonconventional eye-catcher of a name, and hoped there was more to it, a buried purpose, something deeply moving. I wondered no longer. My twin brother was named first and I happened to inherit the ‘Mi.’ When Mir and I were born, Grandpa Choi hung peppers outside the gates. In the dead of winter, the vegetables froze stiff on straw ropes and ripened into smooth, crimson icicles. The Golden String an outdated custom in Korea by the time we made it into the world, but Grandpa Choi paid no mind. He twisted wisps of yellow straw to the left, knotting coal, paper, pine needles, red peppers, and what little love he had left into a makeshift rope, heart lifting at the prospects of redemption. His daughter may have failed him, but here was progeny his ancestors could be proud of. The geumjul hung outside the gates for twenty-one days in honor of sam-chil-il, informing everyone who passed it the birth of Choi’s grandson, Mir Jang, and me, Mi-in Jang, the addendum.
Twenty-one days later, when non-families were allowed entry to see the mother and baby, village elders dropped by to congratulate the Chois on an auspicious ending to an especially hard year and wondered why there were two babies wailing.
“I said, we didn’t realize you had a granddaughter.”
The single golden string only held peppers.
“This is Mi-in. She is Mir’s sister.”
The ladies from one town over cooed over my scrunched-up face, embarrassed they’d only brought one baby bootie for the one baby boy. Thus, the 1990 census saw the addition of one boy and his sister.
We grew up hearing about the rope. It was a symbol of Grandpa’s love. I regarded its lingering presence with vehemence, especially the way it cemented my relationship with the two closest men in my life. Pale and glowing, like stalks of wheat before a harvest. Nailed to the gates, it was the first thing any visitor saw. People took note. The entrance of a building spoke volumes about its inner workings.
The entrance of my one bedroom apartment is grimy, with magnets and takeout menus adorning its surface. The door is metal and hefty, crusty at the bottom. Puke-gray. My husband Duksu and I are by no means religious, but three of the magnets—two churches and one pyramid scheme in the shape of a cross—claim us as their own. At times, they compete with one another, placing flyers directly atop their rivaling counterparts in a fashion most aggressive. This goes on for weeks. No matter. When thickened, I use them as trivets.
Inside is no better. Located four subway stations away from Grandpa Choi’s cottage, our apartment is small, filled to brim with necessities but never space. Every inch taken and accounted for. Our method of order means each broken rack holds multiple roles, only perceptible to those who drape bananas and garlic on a coat hanger. I have my reasons. It may look chaotic, but I’m certain of every nook and cranny. At least, I think I am.
On the day the key disappears, I pace the apartment. Five steps to the right and seven steps forward, retreat, resume. The air is especially stale. Every step brings dry coughs as I keel over, hands patting the insides of the knickknack cabinet in vain. No key. The house key with the bit of loose tape marking its use is gone and with it the sense of normalcy. Panic rises like bile. My steps grow in volume. Drawers open and close, only to be reopened seconds later. For the millionth time, I recall Duksu contemplating aloud the electronic keypad everyone has installed on their front doors—but this is before he fell silent.
See, I never lost things. Keys, wallets, and cellphones had a way of finding me, as did bad luck and dirty laundry. I never needed to ask for help in these matters, like Aunt Eunhui who lost her phone, and in turn, temper every other day. This is a small but sure source of pride, and I depend on minute victories. How could I lose a key? In this manner, the day makes itself unique.
Around two, I pry open the fireplug on all fours. Duksu pasted an extra key when we moved in, but we haven’t had a reason to use it until now. My fingers strike dust, gravel, and more dust, but finally something metallic, flat, and rusty-grainy tears off the inner walls with more violence than need be. Already, the watch reads 2:10. Kicking the door shut, I hurry along. But the single elevator is stuck on floor ten, a whole minute wasted willing it to move. Evangelists pat one another around floor seven, which takes some smart maneuvering to circumvent. The sun is hot on my back. Bus, crowded. Upon reaching the main intersection we hit heavy traffic—construction workers, potholes, commuting students from nearby universities. Thus, I’m impossibly late to my session with Sua Shim.
“Your eggs are dying. Did you know?” Sua greets me.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, I tutor. Sua is in the second grade of her international middle school and favors mint chocolate chip over cherry jubilee. Her teeth, while strong, are crooked, but the dentist said she’d have to wait another year until braces could be set, ugh. She aspires to be the friend of a beauty guru. Friends of beauty gurus get freebies all the time— without having to put in, you know, the work. Her mother doesn’t believe in makeup. Says it’s a cheap trick for people who can’t afford dermatologists.
When she isn’t detailing every facet of her life, Sua parrots her mother and father, echoing adult sentiments with no malice. To most, her attitude might be off-putting, but I’m fascinated—delighted even—by her lack of intention.
“Mom says we only get four hundred working ones. Y’know, ones that, like, drop? So by the time you’re thirty, you’ve got about a hundred-something left. How old are you again?”
She asks questions but doesn’t expect answers. Twelve-year-olds are wired this way. To prove my point, I behold Sua in her baby pudge and disheveled blouse. Her cheeks couldn’t yet fathom time wasted, worried on frivolous matters such as chiseling fat from cheekbone. My cheeks are hollowed gourds. They have always been it seems, though pictures say otherwise. I tap the hems of Sua’s seersucker skirt.
“That’s not important,” I say. “Are you ready to tackle question four?”
“Just a moment, Ssem,” she singsongs, spraying crumbs everywhere. Macarons. She calls me Ssem, a cheeky, friendly abbreviation of the Korean word sunsengnim— teacher. She snacks. Her sugary treats sell for a whopping ninety-thousand won per box of twelve, frightfully expensive for a morsel of almond powder and sugar. French confectionaries are the norm here. Packaged in pastel excess, everything screams faux-European and froufrou. Some dub the area Petit France after the titular theme-park in Ga-Pyeong, and Sua takes the moniker to heart. She French-braids her hair daily, despite her mother’s bemoaning that the hairstyle drew focus to her face, very unbecoming.
As it happens, the formidable Mrs. Lim sends a tray of petit fours every hour my way, just for me, with a single fork the size of a toothpick. I haven’t had the heart to tell Sua, French braids were not French.
“Nearly done,” she mumbles. “Swear to God.”
When she isn’t talking, she is eating. This is Sua’s MO. The macarons she swallows whole and chews with her insides, her mandibles going click, click, click against the paper box. Her nails change every week. Today, they are black with rhinestones and a dragon motif. Nestled in clear gel, the dragon winds itself into a tight coil. Korean schools don’t allow such grooming but Sua attends a private school, and knowing her, she would have found a way to flaunt herself even in public school.
In these moments, we are unmarred by circumstances. Sua is obnoxiously endearing and I relish her quirks. The pages of her life are open to scrutiny, told in delightful segments to anyone who cares to listen. I listen. I pride myself on being meticulous. I regard Sua the way scientists pore over slides of specimen, where the world is seen through not a microscope but a filter of one’s own devising. Despite having sought her out for personal reasons, she’s grown on me, even the way her mouth constantly works the sugar, the way her tongue, devilishly pink, chases crumbs and whisks them back. Constantly in motion, Sua’s plump hands probe as if they glean tactile wisdom from the pages of Principles of Mathematics. Every two minutes or so, she reapplies lip balm and sighs—haah. Then again, haaaah—haaaah! I envy her self-absorption.
“You can eat and solve. Multi-task. How would you apply the law of cosine here?” The clock reads 5:50. I blame the missing key and maybe the evangelists. Not much has been gained in terms of knowledge on both parties, and I loathe leaving this spacious room, so sterile and messy and cozy, but at 5:54, Sua pipes up, “I heard you’re named Mi-in. Who named you?”
I remind myself, lack of intention.
Outside the sun lowers and fades. In its dying light, the property takes on an uncanny quality of a postcard or vacation pamphlet. Sua’s condominium is nestled within a park of its own, filled with vending machines, playgrounds, fitness centers, pools, and a resident-only cafe that sells breakfast paninis. No ropes or magnets in sight. To the right of the lobby is a black
fountain with not a single leaf or debris marring it. To the left, an open area where toddlers ride tricycles, baby hair furling against the roundness of their skulls. Sitters watch nearby, texting. Up ahead lie stone steps cut in irregular chunks, leading to a curated garden with a color scheme attached to every season. Spring is pink and beige, delicately festive. At dusk, the scene is overcast in shades of gold. I needle my way through the geranium bushes where a young, muscular security guard stands watch in his booth by the main entrance. He bows without moving from his spot. The gates are operated by a button unless one is in a moving vehicle with sensors attached to the windshield, and the whole effect is one of a modern castle, snug in a cocoon of its own stellar community. I would never live here; this, I know.
As I step onto the sidewalk, I notice my bag is lighter than usual. An odd sensation, barely perceptible. My reading glasses are still in Sua’s room, the ones carried everywhere but rarely used. They are a gift from a former friend who married a handsome but frail optometrist—a good luck charm, of sorts. I march back but the iron-black gates are solid. An intercom is located at the lobby of every building, but to access it, visitors have to call the guard, and furthermore, my identity needs to be verified all over by contacting the formidable Mrs. Lim. To head back is to give in, to this strange feeling clouding the day. First the keys, now the glasses. There it is again, a dry cough, offset by the steady heartbeat in my throat, not chest. A premonition? An itch, stuck on a ghost limb I never had. The further I walk from Sua’s, the louder it speaks, my nails catching neck in hopes of landing on a patch of skin that holds the itch—but nothing. So it has to be psychosomatic. All the way to the Express Bus Terminal, I tick off my mental checklist. Did I leave the gas on? Forget to lock the door? As I pass a newspaper stand by the egg muffin vendor—forget to check the papers? A missed dentist appointment? Scheduled phone call? All, possibilities, too benign to be the root cause. Something vital is missing and not to place the source drives me crazy.
The terminal is noisy with the evening crowd. Men and women in business wear devour reruns of talk shows on their smartphones. Teens sport blood red lips and gather by road shops, beauty stores with pocket-friendly prices and life-size cutouts of idol brand models whose laminates are so pearly white, they never cease to amaze. Convenience stores. Bite-sized bakeries. Bargain shops selling oddities and cheap clothing have sweaty, middle-aged men yelling over the din about the shocking, ninety-percent sale that lasts one week before they go out of business. Their closing week lasts years. Wide-brimmed summer hats and golf shirts, fake handbags and sunglasses, glittery accessories—I pass them by in succession. Beyond the station, the lights blink on, one by one. Seoul City comes to life in its most primal state, obscenely incandescent as a co-worker once said. By the dust-flecked windows, it is possible to take a sweep of the landscape and wonder how I’ve stayed an atheist for so long. Church, church, how many churches? Thousands. The neon-red crosses are stars in the sky, more forest than individual trees. They pepper the scene, vying to be seen among twenty-four hour convenience stores and chain cafes. I digest this scene. For five minutes daily I do this by any window, searching for a place to belong. Then it’s the escalators, the ticket booth, and the single ticket back to Daejeon, to Grandpa Choi.
“One regular ticket for one adult,” the lady in gray says. “Six-thirty. Platform twelve.”
“Twelve? Isn’t it usually eleven?”
“Well, it’s twelve today,” she replies, a bit curtly. “Have a nice day.”
The bus is nearly empty. To the back, an elderly man peels tangerines, filling the space with a dank and citrusy scent. I sit by a window next to a young woman engrossed in a self-help book. For the first quarter of the trip, a lukewarm wind blasts from above us, drying out our eyes. My seat-mate whips out an eye-drop container and squeezes amply. Blink, and twin rivulets divide her cheeks. Blink, and a droplet or two lands on her book, which she swipes against her blouse absentmindedly. Squeeze, drop, swipe. Squeeze, drop, swipe. Eventually, I reach above and twist the dial shut.
Suddenly, the radio is on. Has it been on from the beginning? I don’t know. The radio fills the bus with excess noise that, for once, isn’t an advertisement for a crash TOEIC course but the news. A familiar name, Cho Yeolryong. A string of words follows without much fanfare: is, currently, presently—the newscaster speaks of him using present tense. A curious buzz overtakes my hearing and I understand. There and then, my itch and ghost limb realized. The news is abuzz with the impending release of the infamous child molester who did twelve years in prison, and there I am, thrown off by the number more than the deed. Twelve years, it has already been twelve. This is what my mind has been hinting at all day.
I twist the fan back on. My seat-mate shifts, visibly annoyed. Orange lights reflect the dry streaks on her cheek as she turns to face the window, too tired or polite to do otherwise. The wind soothes this rising heat, deflating my head from the enormous pressure building around it, as strong as Sun Wukong’s head vise. The infamous Cho Yeolryong hasn’t much to do with me, but by some disturbed tangent, has become relevant, as many things just do. For twelve years he’s been relevant but thankfully hidden away. Now, with my lost key and glasses, he is, currently, presently. So I sink into my seat, close my eyes, and pray for deliverance.
Eyes unseeing, the body remembered. The green and white road signs. A cluster of buildings folded upon itself in tones of grey, beige, and slate blue. Street lamps bear down the highway like overgrown soybean sprouts as Seoul City rushes by in a blink, skyscrapers turning to sprawling apartments, fields, and more apartments. A brief stretch of nothing. Then, a small city. An hour later, I am back in Daejeon, where another bus whisks me further away from civilization, and eventually, to Young-chun, to Grandpa Choi’s dilapidated cottage caught in the cross-section of nowhere and somewhere.
The world spins upon my arrival. A migraine. Vision blurred and straining, I stand. Observe. There is no method to the madness of this land. Here, the streets are a mesh of different particles—granite, mud, sand, and concrete—until they reach the threshold of asphalt and uniform lines. Each material has been placed haphazardly to suit the needs of the time. Someone strolling by the main road might think it neat, how a single road splits the scene in two: the developed and underdeveloped. Across the main road is a large stretch of land being renovated with a mess of newly built apartments and soon-to-be apartments rising. A tunnel has been dug just years before, connecting the village to the highway. This brought change upon the stagnant land.
To the other side of the road is yet another path, cutting almost perpendicular to one another. It runs deep, the black asphalt turning dirt-brown three-quarters down its length and tapering off into a gentle hill. The road is flanked by villas and patches of farmland barely large enough to support an extended family. Rice and barley grow in the fields. Unhidden by nature, is a village. This is Young-chun. The residents have lived here forever, grown with the rice and waned with its many cycles. Here, dogs are never walked, only tethered. Roosters crow in lieu of alarm clocks, though everyone has smartphones and Wi-Fi. There is the corner store patronized by the elderly, run by a man in his forties whose mother, the previous owner, who has recently passed away. He suffers from gout and never lets any customer forget its horrors. Teens head downtown for fast food and coffee. Outsiders expect to pay their way into the inner circle while insiders are subjected to neighbors dropping by unannounced with baskets of fruit and homemade gochujang. My grandfather once had some pull in this small village. He lost the privilege when civilization drew near, undercutting the patterns of the olden ways.
Many years have passed since our isolation from even this small community. Grandpa Choi refuses to move. I’ve mastered the art of walking without seeing. Fourteen steps from the bus stop you cut right, following a couple hundred more down the asphalt-dirt avenue. A hard left, mind the pole. Keep walking, one foot ahead of the other. Ignore other pairs of feet. Out leap the green gates dulled with age. Through its pickets, the empty doghouse with the rusted roof is visible, from which rainwater pools and rots. On its rails, a ghost of a rope. A neighbor’s tree grows over the eastern wall and spills branches into our lawn. I imagine it waving, bidding me good day.
By the time I reach the fringes of Grandpa’s cottage, the world is pitch black, fragrant with the scent of grass. The sun sets as early as seven. I reel. In part from the shock of the news, but most of all, negligence. How did I let daily routine blind me so? No, I wasn’t a schoolgirl counting D-days on calendar apps, but perhaps that’s what I should have done. Making a mental note, I push open the front door.
Inside, the house swallows me whole, leaving no room for personal space or mind. There is a stark imbalance between light and dark. Overall the interior is shaded, but the few bright spots blaze, overly saturated with fluorescent lights missing covers. Even then they have a short throw, making it impossible to see much beyond its scope of existence. Somewhere in the void lies Grandpa Choi.
“I tried to reach you,” the hallways moan. Shoes removed promptly, my entrance is made known with creaks. Tip-toes ever culpable in their discretion.
Grandpa Choi is dying. This is more of a recent development, yet the signs were telling for years. Four winters ago, the second stroke that didn’t claim him gave way to a weakness he didn’t think possible. A nick in his cane became a reason to stay in bed. He gave up poetry, and on that day, started to wither. The wooden bookcase that held troves of leather-bound notes, fountain pens, and other fancies now remains firmly locked, its key swimming in the bottom of a china vase. In sickness, I am his cook and nurse. Every day, I visit the cottage to administer shots and serve food, but more so, provide a steady human presence.
“Grandpa, I was in Seoul,” I explain. “You know that. You could’ve called.”
I say this knowing he has stopped reaching for the phone. No one calls. Our family has grown nuclear with key members leaving the nest in succession; my brother Mir was the first. Our parents, aunts, and uncles eventually followed suit. The dog died some time in 2002.
“You left without cooking again,” Grandpa huffs.
Sound carries weight in the empty space. The old-fashioned cottage has gotten to be a nuisance to manage, already crumbling apart when it was bestowed upon me. Grand-filial duties came with the house. When Grandpa lost control of his bowels, Mother and Father cut ties and left for the city, leaving me to assume the roles of the parent, the daughter, the son-in-law, the maid. Twenty years into their marriage, they finally got their honeymoon. I stayed behind because no one else would.
In the sick room, I find the rice congee exactly as I’d prepared it, down to the garnish of mushrooms and pepper perched to mask the blandness. The heap of cotton blanket sheds itself to reveal the likeness of Grandpa Choi, whose baldness is the only trait recognizable of his past self. His head used to hold some fascination for me. It amazes me that someone could have such a reflective surface on his body without ever seeing himself clear.
“I cooked porridge,” I mumble, pointing at the untouched meal.
“Breakfast requires fresh rice, stew, and five separate small dishes in the manner of an o-chup-ban-sang. Porridge, cannot be breakfast. Porridge is a poor man’s meal.” Why Koreans placed such importance on food, I’ll never know. I lift the tray and pitter-patter down the hall.
The kitchen is furthest from the sick room. Connecting the two are a small bathroom, a guest room leading to the attic and a living room with boxes and boxes of outdated LPs belonging to Mother. The narrow walls of the hallway serve as a dead timeline, portraits stretching linear until they reach the living room where they branch out messily from a centerfold. I take down these branches and update them periodically to my liking. Family photos come and go, but Mir’s remains very much alive, rooted at the center of the wall. The world has aged around him, Grandpa most of all.
Over the years, Grandpa Choi has cultivated a sense of displeasure that borders on neurotic compulsion. His anger has increased in volume and frequency. I can’t believe how easily words come to him. Once, he sat for days in search of the word, festering in an otherworldly pleasure only he could perceive. He lived off poetry and morning dew. Other times, real dew— the Cham Iseul—his go-to soju brand. Each word held tremendous weight when he used them sparingly; but now, he opens his mouth and mediocracy pours out. No magic in words when you have bedsores.
I prepare rice in the kitchen. A vat of instant-beef stock is reheated. Three cold dishes are pulled together with whatever is wilting in the fridge. Balanced atop a wooden bansanggi, the new meal consists of only the biggest plates with the smallest portions, as seen in a cooking show I enjoy. Grandpa eats painstakingly slow and makes faces with every bite. I serve him tea. Much too cold, he spurts. I’m trying to catch him the death of cold. Paper towels? Three squares! I am wasteful. The namul is too salty, too little of too much. He can season potfuls of spinach with the salt I’m wasting.
In these moments, I yearn for God. Not a specific god but any higher being that would reshape and contradict my views of the world. A mother or father would be ideal, but not everyone is that privileged. A religion would do.
At 7:40, I finish my chores and behold the sick room once more. “It’s time, Grandpa.”
Vials of clear liquid gleam from the pantry. Wrapped in prints of minuscule words, they are twenty-thousand won each and promise borrowed time. Aside from that, I care not to know. I wasn’t the one paying for it anyhow. Everyday around this hour, a single vial and one time use syringe are placed on a wooden tray, to steady convulsions and battle joint pain. The syringe is precarious in my stubby hands, too delicate to be anything but aesthetically pleasing. The vials might as well hold water. Fed into paper-thin veins, blood spurts from the entry wound, wet flower-like.
Drawing a deep breath, I enter the sick room. One quick stride across the threshold and another to the window where I fiddle with the latch to let in the night. Once open, the window moans. The stagnant air stirs.
“Close it,” Grandpa barks. “It’s too cold for that.”
“Turn over, Grandpa.”
He refuses. From the back he is the shrunken meat of a walnut. Without my glasses, it’s hard to locate the injection site and Grandpa lies there like a sack of rice. Eventually, I buckle down and get on my knees, heaving. As if to rise to my challenge, Grandpa holds fast, digging his joints into the mattress. We struggle. From the window, we must be a virtuous sight—a granddaughter massaging her invalid grandfather. I hear the neighbors walking home, singing about a bird caught in a drift. Right before the climax, they forget the lyrics. Laughter. A gasp of something useless escapes me and he gives way.
Flushed with victory, I briskly go about my task. The hardest part is over. But when I tap the syringe for air bubbles, a bony hand lands on the crux of my arm. Lowering my eyes I find Grandpa reaching out, his mouth forming words with no sound. Again, and again. This is confusing. I don’t understand familiarity anymore, even with my husband. No pleasure in touch. If there ever is to be an intimate physical moment between blood-relations, it has to be before puberty so as to set a precedent. Any future attempts bring focus to lost time, late gestures that cannot gap what should’ve been.
I meet his eyes. In their depths lie a world of regret. Gripped by the blow of twelve years, I misinterpret this regret as remorse.
“You are trying to kill me,” Grandpa Choi says. “like you killed your brother.”
His voice falters and slips back into the folds of cotton. I excuse myself and wander into the night, syringe in my hand.
The crickets are out. I imagine beady eyes and violin limbs, singing with gusto. A dog barks once, twice, but not thrice. Somewhere in the distance is the sound of a television, accompanied by mouths chewing fruit and homemade dessert. Our neighbors dining, gossiping. Mugs of barley water wetting engorged bellies. Family time. The bubbling migraine from the bus explodes into a single white band of pain. It coifs itself around me.
SENA MOON is the recipient of the 2020 Pen/Robert J. Das Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2019 Boulevard Short Fiction Award for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Boulevard, and The Fiddlehead. She obtained her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2018 and hails from Seoul, South Korea.