Chaesa

John Patrick Bishop

Hyun-ae’s family stayed on after most of the village had fled south. They weren’t sympathizers like the other holdouts. One year before, they’d brought Father’s body home from the tuberculosis ward and orphanage run by Catholic priests in Kwangju. They washed his body in water steeped with mugwort and buried him three days afterward on account of the heat. One year later, the northern army had taken Seoul days before, but their duty was to worship him, their departed father, on his first chaesa.

Hyun-ae and her mother began cooking early that morning: carrots, radish, courgette, spinach, jeon made from flour, egg, and the garlic chive from their garden. They slaughtered one of the chickens. Hyun-ae helped her mother carry a large earthenware jar from its resting place in the shade. The jar was full of sugar, water, and wild black raspberries the children had gathered a month ago from the foot of a mountain that was really only a large hill. As the sun began to set on the day of the chaesa, she watched her mother strain the dark pulp through a thin cloth, making the bokbunja-ju that Father had enjoyed so much. Really it would have been better to let the wine ferment a week longer, but then again it would have been better if they had left a week earlier. Here they were. The wine’s color was a deep magenta, darker than what they drank at Communion, its odor richer than juice.

Mother placed the framed photo of her husband on a lacquer table next to the chee-bang bearing his name, his father’s name, his father’s father’s name, stretching back ten generations. She lit the candles and then arranged plates of cooked food alongside apples and pears in the precise order she had yet to teach her children. She lit incense. She placed a glass of wine on the table.

Hyun-ae’s brother Jae-hwa read the blessing. “Louder,” Mother scolded him. “How do you expect him to hear you with that voice?” When he was done, they all cried loudly to alert Father’s spirit, and then walked outside and stood in the yard. Hyun-ae tried to imagine her father’s soul wafting into the house, drawn by the smell of food and incense. But all she could see when she closed her eyes was his photo resting on the table.

The moon painted crisp shadows across the recently upturned earth in their garden. The occasional breeze carried notes of soil and burning wood. Their house was close enough to the main road to Kwangju that they could hear the refugees walking south even at this hour, their pots and pans rattling against wagons, the noise like a spoon swirled endlessly in a metal cup.

Later that night, while Mother was in the outhouse, Jae-hwa asked if they would leave for Pusan now that the chaesa was finished. He told his sister that the northern army was shooting Christians.

“That’s just some story,” she said.

“It’s what everyone’s saying.”

“Who’s everyone? Go to sleep.” In these matters she could still tell him what to do.

She lay awake on her sleeping pad for hours, her mind tumbling with numbers. Hyun-ae had learned basic algebra ahead of her old classmates. But over the last year she’d discovered the price of things—an egg, a bag of rice, a school uniform. She knew that most of the money from the funeral had been spent on the fifteen chickens and their pen. She had estimated what they brought in and what it cost to keep the family afloat. A number was terrible knowledge. She was eleven. Her brother was eight and wouldn’t understand.

She woke the next morning damp with sweat and heard her mother drawing water from the hand pump at the far end of the yard. She knew her responsibility, and after using the outhouse went to the chickens’ cage. The birds were moving strangely, staggering, fluttering useless wings as they attempted to right themselves. One hen lay on the dirt, its foot clawing the air as if pedaling an invisible bicycle. She saw the piece of dark cloth on the ground, speckled with only a few remaining raspberry seeds.

Her mother crossed the yard slowly so as not to upset the bucket of water she carried. “Have you checked the eggs yet? Though I don’t know where we can sell them. The market’s all but shut.” She placed the bucket on the ground next to her daughter and looked into the cage. “What’s all this noise?” she asked before peering inside and perceiving, as her daughter had, the decisions that had led to this moment.

“They’re drunk,” she said.

“I put the bokbunja seeds in the cage last night when I was cleaning up,” Hyun-ae explained. “It’s my fault,” she added when her mother didn’t respond.

Hyun-ae inspected her mother’s face for a sign of what might come; the pain from a slap was easier to bear if you were expecting it. Her mother looked into the pen and then stared at the wooden gate to their house. Over the past year her face had grown polished with grief, like the wooden beopsu totems Hyun-ae passed each morning as she left the village to sell eggs in Kwangju. On Saturdays Jae-hwa came with her into town. The other mornings, he went in the opposite direction wearing his school uniform.

“We’ll need to kill them,” her mother said. “If they die on their own they’ll be poisoned, so we don’t have much time to waste. Boil some water in the pot, the big one, and get your brother to help you.”

Hyun-ae went inside and shook Jae-hwa’s shoulder.

“We need to kill the chickens,” she said.

“Why do you need my help for that?” he asked, running a hand through his soft unkempt hair and collapsing back on the sleeping mat.

“We’re killing all of them.”

Hyun-ae set the blackened cauldron atop three large stones in the yard while her brother brought well water, kindling, and firewood. Meanwhile, their mother removed the chickens from their cage two at a time. She bent their necks and ran a knife across their throats, collecting the blood in a metal basin.

The water was just below boiling when they started to put the still-shuddering chickens into the pot. They rolled them in the water, fished them out, and began ripping feathers from the puckered skin. A stray cat, smelling blood, had begun to patrol the length of their stone wall. When they were done, a pile of devastated flesh sat atop some newspapers they’d laid on a patch of grass. Hyun-ae’s hands were waxy from handling the dead birds. A few stubborn feathers clung to the filth on her shirt and pants. Flies danced over the meat. They were sweating. It was already a very hot day.

She had long since begun to conjure those birds into bills and coins, though obstacles remained. The markets had emptied as people fled; pricing would be difficult. It would also require a wheelbarrow to move the chickens in one trip.

Her mother wiped the sweat encroaching on her eyes with the uppermost part of her sleeve. “I want the two of you to clean yourselves up and then go to the road. Tell anyone you can find that we have fresh chicken. Remember your manners.”

“What price should we tell them?” Hyun-ae asked.

“Price?” her mother asked. “Tell them no cost. That should bring them running.” Her mask broke into a smile.

Hyun-ae was unsure as she walked to the road. She lost control of her voice as she called to an elderly man dressed in a simple white shirt and loose paji. He was carrying a bicycle with its front wheel bent out of shape. “Are you hungry, Grandfather?” she asked him. She had to ask again before he heard.

“What was that?”

“We have food if you’re hungry. Chicken.”

He looked at her with his lips pursed in skepticism. A few members of his family had paused to listen. They, like the others on the road, were dressed in white cotton and hempen clothes. They carried food and hidden money, led children and prized livestock, the component pieces of a river of feet and knees trickling toward what all but the youngest children knew was only more uncertainty.

“It was my fault that the chickens got drunk and we had to kill them,” Hyun-ae said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the old man said. “You should tell your father it’s not safe here anymore. The Americans say they’re coming but who knows how long that will take?”

Jae-hwa threw up his hands. “This isn’t how you do it,” he told his sister. He stepped in front of her, puffed his chest and bellowed in a voice Hyun-ae hadn’t heard from him before, the singsong of an experienced butcher. “Free chicken, Chong family chicken, aren’t you hungry? Chong family chicken meat! It’s free, the best price, just a few minutes from here!”

When Jae-hwa decided the group surrounding them had grown large enough, he led them on the dirt path to their house. A few other refugees had followed out of curiosity and they arrived thirty-strong.

Their voices settled when mother emerged from the house in clean clothes.

“Would you believe this situation?” she asked the crowd. “Last night we made wine for Mr. Chong’s chaesa, but this foolish girl gave the seeds to the chickens. The chickens got drunk; I think they had a bigger celebration than anyone. We had to kill them. The meat’s fresh now, but it won’t stay for long in this heat.”

A few people murmured to each other before one woman asked, “How much is this going to cost?”

“How are a widow and two children going to eat all of this chicken? Maybe I’m just a country mother, but I know it’s a shame to waste good meat.”

A few women nodded and began to make inquiries. How much kochujang and kimchi did they have? What other vegetables were on hand? Was there rice and firewood? Are you sure you really want to do this?

“We can’t take everything with us. And whatever’s left will just end up being eaten by one of the armies.”

The women conversed in low tones and started to cut meat, tend fires, rinse rice. They pulled vegetables from the ground and contributed what was lacking from their own meager stores. They drained the well dry. A few of them offered Hyun-ae’s mother sympathy for a husband’s death, terrible thing. They bickered over the best way to season the food before reaching consensus. Consensus may not produce the best meal, but hunger was the tastiest sauce and everyone was hungry.

Some of the men shared pipe tobacco, knowing they should keep moving. But the air was already redolent with stewing meat, and what was another hour? Hyun-ae’s mother gave the men cups of bokbunja-ju and apologized that there wasn’t more. Afterward, she called to Hyun-ae and led her along the side of the house away from the crowd.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

Hyun-ae didn’t know how to respond at first but eventually gave voice to the sense of injustice inside of her. “You’re giving everything away!” she said. “What’s going to be left?”

Mother adjusted the fabric of Hyun-ae’s shirt so that it lay neatly over her collarbones. “It’s not sacrifice if it doesn’t cost anything. Besides, we’re going to need friends when we leave tomorrow.” She spent a moment taking in the full measure of her daughter. Sometime while she hadn’t been looking the girl’s neck had grown thin but more solid. “When the schools open again I’m going to buy you a new pen, a Western pen,” she said. “Something nice.” She saw that Hyun-ae’s happiness couldn’t be bought with promises anymore and knew that if she looked at the girl for even one more moment she would weep with pity and guilt. “If you’re going to sulk, then the best thing you can do is start arranging your things,” her mother said as she walked back to the yard.

Hyun-ae stalked inside and yanked open the chest that held the family’s clothes. The sturdiest outfit she had was her old school uniform. She unwrapped the brown paper meant to protect it from dust and then held the uniform against her body to judge its fit. She’d grown over the past year and the skirt was now short, though she would still try it on after everyone had left. Hyun-ae winced as she squeezed her feet into the black leather school shoes. She took the shoes off and tried them on again to be sure they were useless. The sound of conversation and odor of cooked food had followed her into the house, and she sat still for a while. She placed the shoes on the ground astride her feet. It was time to be sensible, but it pained her to think of leaving them behind.

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