Reese Okyong Kwon
1. Another god, another artist
According to Chinese mythology, the goddess Nugua formed the first mortals from yellow mud. An artist, she carefully sculpted each limb, pressed closed each fingertip, contoured each nose, creating individuals. But at some point she became impatient with the demands of craftsmanship and dipped a vine in darker soil, flung it every which way. Lumps of mud fell from the skies, and became human.
And so the land was divided into two races: the hand-formed pale-skinned nobles, and the darker commoners who had never known the goddess’s touch.
Chinese people, Annabel’s mother said, shaking her head. Such snobs. But in the lamplight, her mother’s face shone paler than the moon.
Annabel Lin was born Korean, not Chinese, but Nugua was a powerful goddess and had spread her mud far beyond the borders of present-day China. As she grew up, Annabel was forbidden from playing in the sun. Since fate and the vagaries of her father’s medical career had placed her and her family in a sunlit town in California, its every street flashing the spokes of children’s bicycles, this was no small feat of parenting on her mother’s part.
But everyone agreed that her mother, Haemi Lin née Haemi Sung, was a remarkable woman. In Seoul, her family had flourished for centuries, its men governors and ferocious generals, its women famous for their high-nosed aristocratic beauty. Now her mother stayed at home and directed all her energy at Annabel’s upbringing. She sang to her, she told her stories of shape-changers and heroes, centaurs and gods, she schooled her in musical instruments and other necessary disciplines, she taught her everything. Against the enchantments of her mother, the sun stood no chance.
As a matter of course, her mother also shunned the sun. Every morning, she applied sunscreen. If it rained, she put on more. To retrieve letters from the mailbox, ten steps from the house, she wore a vast white hat. Though her husband purchased only convertible sports cars, she never once put down the top. She drove with gloves on. Even when she filled her car with gas, gloves whitened her hands. In the house, she kept the shades down. The other Korean women of the town marveled at her mother’s consistency, envied the even white of her complexion.
3. Of shibboleths and thieves
When Annabel’s father ran off one day with a Chinese nurse, the fact that most tormented her mother was the shade of the other woman’s skin. Her mother had met the nurse once, years ago. There had been a barbecue at the house of the chief surgeon and when Annabel’s father introduced the young nurse to his wife Haemi had felt, as if with a sixth sense passed down by generations of wronged Sung women, a shiver of anger.
From behind her sunglasses, Haemi looked closely at the nurse, who gazed at the ground. With a loose braid that snaked down her back and a broad, dark face, her nose slick with oil, the nurse looked like a farmer. Her analphabetic ancestors would have worked the ground; this would be an unwanted daughter shipped to America who still sent money back to her peasant parents. She was no competitor to a Sung woman. Almost imperceptibly, Haemi shrugged her thin, elegant shoulders. Then she smiled and said in her perfectly enunciated college English that it was a pleasure.
But she looked like a peasant, Annabel’s mother said, afterward, her hands over her face. Tears splashed through the cracks between her long, white fingers.
4. Milk for gall
Had they still been in Seoul, had the times been different, the governors and generals of the fierce Sung family would have hired a gangster to shoot Annabel’s father like the animal he had proven himself to be. Not because of the infidelity, of course, but because of the desertion. Korean men of honor did not abandon their wives. And for such a woman. A Chinese woman, not even a Korean. A presumably low-class Chinese woman.
But moving to America, crossing the wide sea, had turned the six Sung brothers’ blood to water. They knew no gangsters here. They knew no judges, either, and no governors to issue pardons if they were found guilty of bloodshed. Unprotected themselves, they could not protect their Haemi. Besides, Annabel’s father promised to pay a sizable alimony. And she had her daughter, already almost a young woman, for companionship.
They knew, though. If they weren’t acting dishonorably, they weren’t acting honorably, either. So during their meeting they avoided looking at the eyes of their sister, and they drove away fast in their expensive cars, painted red as if to flash their altered rage.
5. Our Lady of America
Both of the dominant mythologies of the Western world, the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian, warn of the perils of looking.
In the Bible, no one can see the face of God and live. When Moses asked as an especial favor to be allowed to see the Lord, He only showed him His holy backside. The prophets of Apollo, less mollycoddled, might look at their Lord as they liked, but as a consequence their eyeballs would be burned away. Semele, another of the women chased by amorous Zeus, insisted on seeing him in his true and glorious form and was incinerated by the sight.
Nevertheless, thousands of people gather every year in Rome City, Indiana, expecting to see the face of the Madonna. The sun burns their eyes so that, each year, people damage their vision, but still they turn their faces up to the sun, hoping for her.
6. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away
A week after her husband left, Annabel’s mother shut herself in her car and drove. She left the house as the sun was rising and returned hours after the sun had fallen. She opened the door and found Annabel sitting panic-stricken on the kitchen floor, the phone cradled in her lap. Her mother looked back at her. Her hair was windblown and the parts of her body exposed by her nightgown—her face, her throat, her hands—shone so brightly red that, at first, Annabel thought her mother had daubed herself with paint.
But then she understood. Did you drive without . . . did you drive with the top of your car down? Annabel asked.
Annabel’s mother nodded. I wanted to see, she said. She drifted out to their garden. Annabel followed her out. Silently, her mother broke off aloe vera stalks and smeared the gel over her sunburns.
A stripe of dark skin: that was how her mother discovered the sickness. She had been applying her usual libations to her body, the creams with which she softened her white skin. And maybe because she was alone without her husband in the large and empty bedroom, that morning she looked more closely at herself than she had done in years, and in the course of her looking she found, hiding near her hairline at the base of her neck, a blackish mark she had never known was there. Its borders were irregular, an enemy growing in the night.
A week later, she went to a doctor, a new one, as for years she had gone to her husband with her medical concerns. She asked the new doctor to take a look.
8. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
She died in six days.
From the diagnosis of melanoma to brain death, the decline was swift.
As she sat by her mother’s body, Annabel could not stop thinking that if her mother had been properly loved, if her father had been the kind of husband who occasionally lifted his wife’s hair and kissed her neck, then surely the sickness would have been discovered in time.
9. What the children thought
At the funeral, nobody said what everyone but Annabel was thinking: that her mother, pale with death, was still more beautiful than she had ever been. Her beauty had always seemed misfit, otherworldly; now that she was no longer of this world, it was as if she had found her rightful place.
Annabel sat stiff-backed in the front row, staring ahead. Her father sat next to her, though out of deference to community opinion he left his Chinese girlfriend home. The Sung men were there, their broad shoulders squared, their black heads bowed. Their wives sat next to them and cried silently, decorously. All the Koreans of the town attended, as did her father’s doctor colleagues. Some of the wives wore black veils to hide the satisfaction in their eyes. That pure face, that haunting skin would soon be cast into the ground. The death of Annabel’s mother had left every wife safer.
As they watched the white figure in the coffin, some of the children permanently lost their ability to believe in God. What sort of a fiend would create something so beautiful, only to destroy it? Even they, the children, knew better.
10. The girl who became a tree
Though in almost all known stories of Attic mythos it was perilous for a human to be loved by a god, such love tending to end in death or persecution, it’s possible that of all the amorous Greek deities, Apollo in his lust was the most dangerous. Daphne, Acantha, Castalia, Coronis, Leucothea, Hyacinth, Cassandra: transformed into a tree, a shrub, a fountain, shot dead, buried alive, killed by a discus, made to tell prophecies whose catastrophic truth no one ever believed. It should have been the kind of curse to spit at a mortal enemy: may you be loved by the sun god.
In the Villa Borghese of Rome, there stands a life-sized marble statue of Apollo and Daphne. According to the Ovidian myth, Daphne was a nymph determined to run free in the forest all her life, recognizing allegiance to no one but herself. Men begged for her hand and she said, Absolutely not. Peneus, her river-god father, asked for children and she said, Forgive me, but no. Then one afternoon Apollo looked upon her and, desiring her, ran after her. Daphne fled but she was only a nymph and he was the god of the sun. Soon, he was gaining on her. She felt his breath on her hair and she prayed to her father. Open the earth to enclose me, she cried. Or, father, change my form!
Bernini captures her at her moment of transformation. As Apollo tries to drag her to him, her feet become roots. Her arms, branches. Her skin, rough bark. Loose hair splits and flattens into laurel leaves. Her mouth opens in anguish and she twists away from him. Even the tree bark shrinks from his touch, but it’s no use, he presses her close. Annabel’s mother had seen tourists put aside their cameras and start to bawl. They turned their heads from shape-changing Daphne, frozen in her fear. Couples groped for each other’s hands, but gently, wishing to force nothing. One day, you’ll see this, her mother had said. One day, I’ll take you there.
11. The necessity of following the proprieties
Annabel set her lips once more on her mother’s forehead and it was as cold as stone. She saw how large the coffin was for the body and understood that her mother needed company. She could climb in with her. She could hide herself until the end of the world from the killing glare of the sun.
But as soon as the thought came to mind, she was swept into the arms of the Sung men and their gently weeping wives. Immediately afterward, her father pulled her to his side so that she could thank people for having come to say goodbye.
Thank you for coming, she said, obediently. Thank you for coming, she said. Thank you for coming, she said. Thank you for coming, she said. Thank you for coming, she said. Thank you for coming, she said.
12. Like mother, like daughter
After the reception at her father’s house, as soon as the last guest had left, Annabel went out the door and got into one of her father’s convertible cars. The Sung impulses ran hot in her blood. And so, like her mother, like her uncles, she drove.
She steered blindly, not caring where she went. It seemed that if she could drive fast and far enough then she could outrun herself. But it was too quiet, she could still hear her thoughts, so she opened the roof to the sky. For the first time in her life she raised her face to the sun, the wind screamed in her ears. She was fifteen years old and had never before driven alone. The sun wheeled to the edge of the world and she drove through the night.
In the morning, a white-lettered sign told her she had come to Death Valley. She lurched left onto a side road, parked, stripped, laid her body on the open desert floor, and spread her arms and legs.
13. The revelations of the sun
She lay in the stillness a day and a night. She watched the sun she had been taught all her life to fear. She held her hand in front of her to see the steady movement of her blood, the skin shot through with light. The sun rolled from east to west. Her body brightened, turned red. Blisters rose like revelations. Constellations shivered and spun to the rhythm of her blood. She expected at any time to burst into flames.
But in the end, it was not the blaze of the sun but the burning inside her that urged Annabel up and into the car. At the first gas station she poured water down her throat until she spat up, laughed, then fell unconscious to the ground.
14. The art of storytelling
Because Koreans have an old proverb that says it is better to leave your child a book than a fortune, and because Korea, like other frequently invaded small countries, invests its proverbs with an almost oracular significance, each visitor who came to see Annabel during her extended convalescence brought her yet another book. The selections varied by the visitor. A Sung uncle brought her a volume on the breeding of the Jindo dog and the importance of the purity of the bloodline. A second uncle, whose father had been a governor, brought her books on Korean folklore. A third uncle, a Protestant, brought the King James Bible. A fourth uncle, a Catholic, brought Butler’s Lives of the Saints. A fifth uncle, who read Latin, brought Ovid and Virgil. Her sixth uncle and the youngest, the one who had loved her mother most, never came to visit.
She was badly and dangerously burned. Her uncles jollied her, asking if this was what white people called a suntan, but her father sat in silence and stared at her as if he was trying to read her bandages. But Annabel, how on earth did you end up in the desert? her father said. I got lost, she repeated, and turned away, back to her book.
As she read, she recognized some of the stories as tales her scheherazadian mother had told her. Tales of the founding of the universe. Tales of people who tried to save the world. She read and she looked for her mother.
15. The disadvantages of being underage
When the doctors told her that thick scars would mark her skin, Annabel was glad. Now her outside would match her inside. But her father went red and huffed out of the room, holding his small phone up, and within hours one of his doctor colleagues had come to see her.
Can you give my daughter a new skin? her father asked his colleague.
I can, the colleague said, and both men disregarded Annabel’s screams about wanting to keep her scars. The sun, they thought, must have gotten to her head.
16. For Daphne, in memoriam
But her father’s colleague turned out to be wrong. His new skin covered much of her face, her arms, and her legs, but the rest of her body was more difficult to repair. Some parts looked like standard fifteen-year-old skin, smooth and undemanding, but there were as many parts of her that declared themselves as scar tissue, stripes shining in recognition of her past injury.
As Annabel grew older, she gave herself to men who held the sun in their hair. In bed, they told her she was beautiful, then fingered the damaged skin on the cradle of her hip, in the crook of her neck. They always asked the same, shocked question. What happened?
Then she could tell some piece of the story. To a few of the men, she said her mother had carried her out of a burning house and had died while saving her. To others, she explained that a careless hired nurse had splashed her with boiling water. To the one or two men who most gently asked the question, she leaned in and whispered that she once had been loved by the sun god and had lived to tell the tale.
17. The stations of the sun
At the height of the summer equinox, Annabel became pregnant. When she was close to giving birth she went home to visit her father, who still lived with the Chinese nurse. They were married now, with three braided children who shouted in the sun.
In the afternoons Annabel went out to her father’s garden, sometimes wearing a hat, sometimes not. She was so heavy with her child that she had trouble walking, so she sat under a laurel tree and sang, and told her baby elaborate stories she made up as she went along. Her father’s wife, a woman so kind she could not be hated—Annabel knew, she’d tried—often joined her and asked if she could offer a glass of iced ginseng tea.
Out in the garden on a hot day, Annabel gasped. What is it? asked her father’s wife. Nothing, Annabel said, the baby kicked. You know what they say about a baby moving, said her father’s wife. No, what? Annabel said. Well, said her father’s wife, her broad, appealing face opening into a smile, they say that some infants in the womb turn their faces away from sunlight, and you can tell how dark or pale the baby will be based on just how quickly he turns. Annabel’s expression must have changed, because her father’s wife looked alarmed. It’s only a story, she said. Again Annabel gasped, and put her hand against her stomach. See? her father’s wife said. Maybe the baby is turning again, this time toward the sun.