From the novel, Blossoms and Bayonets by Jana McBurney-Lin and Hi-Dong Chai
Available at Amazon.com (Kindle), BarnesandNoble.com (Nook) and Smashwords.co (iPad and others)
Brothers-in-arms! Japan has come to help us realize our ideals and aspirations and establish an economic, cultural and spiritual confederacy of Oriental nations known as the Great East Asia Co-prosperity sphere. Let us shake off the yoke of white domination forever, and find a dignified place for us among this concert of Oriental nations.
—Japanese propaganda leaflet dropped on American Commonwealth Country of Philippines
Monday, March 2, 1942—one week later
I stood at the kitchen counter, arranging cups of boiled water on a tray. I could hear my dear friends, Gong-Tae uhmony and Min-Kook uhmony out on the back porch. Their wooden stools scraped against the deck as they sat down to the table and unloaded the ingredients they had brought.
Gong-Tae uhmony had one son who was my He-Seung’s best friend. Min-Kook uhmony had three grown daughters and only one son, all of whom worked far away in the countryside. In-Young, the fourth and newest member of All Holiness Ladies, was not yet the mother—the uhmony—of any children. She was the new wife of Deacon Nam. She was a thoughtful soul always willing to stop to help an old lady with too many bags from the market, a child who’d lost his rubber ball, a stray cat who looked hungry. She could get delayed by the request of a cricket. She had not yet arrived.
We were a unique group of friends, so different in our ages and status, yet held together in the Lord’s palm. We gathered for traditional events, like kimchee-making or Christmas and Easter feast preparations. Dr. Lee’s wife, Myung-Ja uhmony, refused to join us. She had a reputation to protect. As a Christian, it was difficult enough for the doctor to find work without her joining a group which didn’t properly reflect her status. I understood, although Min-Kook uhmony bristled each time we were in need of an extra pair of hands.
I hurried to the front door to take one more look down the path. A woman with a child on her back hurried past. A group of men in their white balloon pants and long white shirts pushed and pulled a cart of radishes down the road. But there was no In-Young. I hesitated a moment, noting He-Dong had missed a spot sweeping the porch this morning. Or the spring breeze had already brought the dust back. Perhaps if I just swept up the dirt, In-Young would be here.
I grabbed the broom from the side of the house and set the bristles to the wooden porch. Dear He-Dong had been reluctant to go to school this past week. I was sure he was still disappointed about losing his job as Class Monitor, especially since the position was given to a boy only half as clever. The Japanese were afraid of clever boys like my son, like my husband. I wished I could tell him so. But I didn’t want him disrespecting the Japanese like his older brother, He-Seung, saying something that would get him or all of us in trouble. I leaned on the broom, looking out toward the front again. His brother gave us all enough trouble.
Yesterday when I walked home with the boys after church, He-Dong made the mistake of saying Dr. Lee was going to have puppies.
“Ha!” He-Seung, despite his running around, kicking stones, had heard. “Dr. Lee can’t have puppies, you fool.”
“I mean Dr. Lee’s dog,” He-Dong corrected himself. “Mee-Won is going to have puppies.” He tilted his head to the side, his eyes wide and imploring. “Can we have one of their puppies? Please, Mother?”
“Stop your whining.” He-Seung punched He-Dong in the arm.
He-Seung, as the elder, had the job to teach and discipline his younger brother. But often he just bullied He-Dong. If my eldest son, He-Chul, were at home, he would certainly giggle at He-Dong, but with that gentle laughter in his voice.
I squeezed He-Dong’s small hand. His warm fingers in mine made my heart feel lighter than butterfly wings.
“Does that mean yes?” He-Dong looked up at me. “I’d take care of the little fella so well you wouldn’t even know it was around.”
“You couldn’t take care of a bedbug.” He-Seung reached up to hit He-Dong again.
“Boys, boys.” I wrapped my arms around He-Dong to protect him.
There was some truth to He-Seung’s words. He-Dong was still young, still needed help to button his shirt properly or fold his bedding or remember his lunch. Besides, now didn’t feel like the right time to take on such a responsibility. Still, dear He-Dong. He would love a puppy.
A strong wind blew, scattering dust and leaves back on the porch. It would make no difference to keep sweeping. I gave one last look down the path. An old lady hobbled by with the aid of a walking stick. Then came two young Japanese soldiers, marching past the old woman as if she wasn’t there. She stumbled out of the way narrowly avoiding their steel-toed boots. What rudeness, treating this woman like garbage in the path.
My Dear said we were all God’s children, but when I saw things like this, I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I wished I was closer to the woman so I could help her. I wished to tell those Japanese soldiers to mind their steps. I watched the woman hobble along, hoping she could feel my encouragement. Then I put the broom back against the side of the house, closed the front door and went back through the kitchen to the back porch.
“You look worried.” Min-Kook uhmony looked up from straightening a small pile of cabbages. “Is In-Young still not here?”
“No, she’s not.” I set cups of boiled water on the table for them to drink. I sat down to join them. I didn’t want to mention the soldiers almost knocking that poor woman down. I could already hear Min-Kook uhmony railing against the Japanese. “He-Dong wants a puppy.”
“You’re thinking of puppies?” Min-Kook uhmony blew a strand of hair from her face. She gestured to the table which held a small stack of tiny cabbages, a handful of garlic cloves, a sprinkling of green onions and red peppers. “I’m worried this kimchee won’t even fill our pickling jars this year.”
“We should have enough for a good batch.” Gong-Tae uhmony folded her hands in her white cheemar. She sat hunched over, her back rounded like a hook. “The Lord will provide.”
“Yes, of course.” Min-Kook uhmony picked a worm-eaten leaf from one of the small cabbages. “But the last thing our Revered Lady needs now is another mouth to feed. I wouldn’t go getting a puppy-”
“But you have one.” Gong-Tae uhmony shifted on her stool and raised her eyebrows at Min-Kook uhmony.
“Correction.” She shook her head, still scanning the table as if she might discover more cabbage hidden somewhere. “I have a watchdog. For the protection I know my husband is incapable of giving.” She picked up the cleaver, tapping it on the side of the table. “You both have strong men in your house.”
Gong-Tae uhmony cleared her throat to signal she didn’t want to hear more. She didn’t appreciate the way Min-Kook uhmony spoke of her husband.
Min-Kook uhmony looked out in the yard, then back at the cabbages. “Shall we get started then?”
“What about In-Young?” Gong-Tae uhmony frowned.
“She said she wouldn’t be late.” Min-Kook uhmony pulled the stack of cabbages in front of her.
“She should be along.” I pushed Min-Kook uhmony’s cup of water closer to her. “Surely she just got detained.”
“For what?” Min-Kook uhmony turned to me, her brow furrowed in concern.
I regretted my choice of words. A choice that would have meant nothing last year, but which now had a sinister sound, conjuring images of policemen and torture and blood. “I just mean…well, you know In-Young.”
Gong-Tae uhmony pulled at a thread from her skirt. “Yes. In-Young has just not yet learned to be responsible.”
“Well.” Min-Kook uhmony dropped the cleaver on the first head of cabbage, her movements precise and fast. Then she tossed a handful of chopped cabbage in our direction. “She needs to learn to be.”
Gong-Tae uhmony pursed her lips. I too wanted to stop Min-Kook uhmony from chopping. We’d never started the ritual of kimchee without all the members present, without a prayer, a cup of hot water and some laughter to get us going.
I grabbed my small Bible from my skirt pocket and put it in the center of the table. Then I took hold of Min-Kook uhmony’s hand before she could pick up another head of cabbage. I reached over to hold Gong-Tae uhmony’s hand. I bowed my head. “Lord, we are humbled in Your presence. Thank You for providing us with all that You do. For bringing us together on this fine spring morning. For Your continued guidance and protection. In Your name we pray. Amen.”
“Amen,” Min-Kook uhmony and Gong-Tae uhmony echoed.
“Speaking of protection, I’ve been thinking.” Min-Kook uhmony wiped bits of cabbage from the side of her cleaver and looked over at me. “We should take a picnic to Mount Nam San.”
Gong-Tae uhmony sputtered, choking on a sip of water.
Mount Nam San was where the Japanese had erected a Shinto Shrine. Everyone was expected to pay respects to the shrine, but that was one visit our family, the followers of All Holiness, had not made.
“We could just go,” Min-Kook uhmony continued. “Just to pretend.”
“Visiting that mountain, that Shinto shrine would be a sin against all sins.” Gong-Tae uhmony said, sitting up tall.
“I’ll tell you what’s a sin against all sins,” Min-Kook uhmony leaned forward, emitting her words through gritted teeth. “The way these foreigners have turned our country into a nightmare.” She sat back and gave a quick glance around her. “Besides if we went to their foolish shrine, they’d record our royal visit at the Neighborhood Office.”
“That office is just to keep track of the number of people in a house, so they can distribute ration cards.” Gong-Tae uhmony flopped a piece of cabbage back and forth. “They only take down information like ages, professions, and so forth.”
“The so forth is what worries me.” Min-Kook uhmony tapped her finger on the table. “Like your new Japanese name. Then it was whether or not you’d planted a cherry tree. Now I understand they record and reward visits to the shrine.”
My heart drooped like the wet cabbage. Trust in God had never been easy for any of us. Most people in the city thought we were strange, and crossed the street to avoid passing us. Some even pointed and called out names. These days, though, our love for the Lord seemed even more difficult. Was that why our rice rations had been cut in half over the last month?
Min-Kook uhmony looked over at me, her brow set in a stubborn frown. I picked up a clove of garlic, peeling the fragile skin from the cloves. The pungent odor filled the air. I wasn’t the kind to get involved in these things. I wished my Dear or my eldest son, He-Chul, were here by my side. They would give me the wisdom to respond to Min-Kook uhmony’s idea. I felt as thin and useless as the skin I peeled from the garlic.
“I’m telling you they’re targeting Christians.” Min-Kook uhmony slapped her thighs. “Besides, what’s the harm in having a picnic? It’s not as if we’re going to pray to the shrine. And just by being there, we might get a good mark with the Neighborhood Office. In fact, we might be able to take the pressure off the whole congregation.”
“Be not afraid,” Gong-Tae uhmony said, sounding a lot like my Dear. “This war nonsense will soon blow over like a rotten smell from the sewer.”
“Don’t be so sure.” Min-Kook uhmony waved her hand back and forth at Gong-Tae uhmony as though shooing at a fly. “It’s getting worse. But you know that.”
I looked over at Gong-Tae uhmony. Had something happened with her?
Min-Kook uhmony chopped the bits of cabbage so small that I thought they’d disappear in the water. Then she looked up. “Is Gong-Tae going to join up?”
“What?” My mouth dropped open.
“Let me guess.” Min-Kook uhmony frowned at me as she continued chopping. “You don’t know about the visit to the high school.”
“The Military is taking our boys?” My heart beat hard.
“Don’t worry.” Min-Kook uhmony set her cleaver down long enough to reach over and rest her cool fingertips on my arm. “Your He-Seung is too young. At least for today.” Her voice was filled with sarcasm. “It’s supposed to be voluntary, although I heard the army has been harassing families whose sons do not join. That’s why I wondered about Gong-Tae.”
“Moses said to the people.” Gong-Tae uhmony dropped all the cabbage into the bowl of water at her feet, leaning down and pushing the thin green pieces under the water. “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
Min-Kook uhmony handed the remaining chopped pieces of cabbage to Gong-Tae uhmony. “Meaning?”
“We are not afraid of the authorities. Not tempted by the devil’s gifts.” Gong-Tae uhmony swished the cabbage leaves around so hard, my insides churned. “The Lord will prevail.”
My Dear had emphasized the same in his sermon yesterday. So why did my head spin? Why couldn’t I breathe? Why did I have the urge to run to He-Seung’s school and hold onto him?
Just then a loud knock sounded on the front door. Gong-Tae uhmony sat up straight, opened her mouth wide and whispered the Lord’s Prayer.
My heart stopped. Would Japanese Army Recruitment officers be standing on the porch eager to harass me or Gong-Tae uhmony?
“Surely it’s just In-Young.” Min-Kook uhmony said, but she reached up to hide my Bible beneath her skirt just the same.
I went off to answer the caller.
In-Young stood on the front porch in her wrinkled and faded cheemar, a bulky bag in her hands. I smiled, letting out a small sigh. Of course it was only her. Then I noticed her red face, her swollen eyes.
“In-Young?” I reached out and grabbed her arm. Perhaps today her delay was caused by more than a cricket. “Are you all right?”
“I meant to get here earlier.” Her eyes brimmed with tears as she bent down and slipped off her rubber gomushin, still new from her wedding.
I glanced outside for signs of a Japanese soldier who might have caused her such anguish. What was in her bag? “We wondered where you were.”
“Is that little Miss I’ll-Be-On-Time?” Min-Kook uhmony called, her voice shrill.
Surely, the two women were still standing in back, praying. I held In-Young’s hand, as we went to join the others. Her palm felt small and cold against mine.
Gong-Tae uhmony glanced up at In-Young’s swollen eyes. “What happened to—”
“I knew this would happen.” Min-Kook uhmony tapped her cleaver on the table. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I? You got detained, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” In-Young sat on the stool next to me. She lowered her head and covered her mouth.
“Aigo.” Gong-Tae uhmony patted In-Young’s arm. “Oh, dear.”
Where was Deacon Nam? Was he being questioned? What about my Dear? A shiver ran down my spine.
“Tell us.” Min-Kook uhmony stood up, looking from side to side, as if ready to dart from the porch at any moment.
In-Young took a deep breath. She stared down at her feet, her eyes pooling. “My husband commanded I stay back so he could talk to me.”
Min-Kook uhmony gave a hoot. Her knees buckled, and she fell forward, stumbling onto her stool. “Did you—did you say your husband?”
In-Young nodded. Her lower lip trembled. A tear rolled down her cheek.
Min-Kook uhmony settled her skirt around her stool. “What a relief.”
I had to agree, even if In-Young did look miserable. Compared to the violent scenarios I’d imagined, a bit of matrimonial discord was nothing. I poured her a cup of water. “Well, you’re just in time—”
“But wait.” Min-Kook uhmony pulled her stool close to In-Young, the feet scraping against the deck. “He commanded you stay back and talk about what?”
Min-Kook uhmony was so abrupt. Not allowing people the space to process their feelings, but reaching in and grabbing, like a child after a piece of candy.
In-Young fingered a hole in a cabbage leaf. “His shirt got ripped.”
“Did the Japs do it?” Min-Kook uhmony whispered.
Gong-Tae uhmony made a sound in her throat. Min-Kook uhmony was badmouthing the Japanese worse than He-Seung.
“No, no.” In-Young shook her head. “It’s just, well, he ripped his shirt—I don’t know how—and I fixed it. Or tried to. He thought I did a poor job of mending the rip. He thought I was trying to shame him on purpose.”
Deacon Nam was older than In-Young, almost twenty-seven years to her nineteen. He had patience for every churchgoer who forgot his Bible or left out a verse in a passage. Was it possible he had none for his dear wife? Dear In-Young. I knew her heart was full of sorrow.
“Were you?” Min-Kook uhmony asked, a mischievous look on her face. “Trying to shame him?”
“No.” Tears filled her eyes again. “I can’t cook like any of you. I could never get my dress as white as yours.” She fingered Gong-Tae uhmony’s skirt. “I’m not a seamstress like He-Seung uhmony. You all have so many talents.” In-Young’s voice broke. “My husband is just unlucky.”
“Nonsense,” Min-Kook uhmony said.
“Don’t say that.” I patted In-Young’s knee. I handed her a pile of cabbage to drain.
“You should be known for the beauty that comes from within,” Gong-Tae uhmony quoted the Bible. “The unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.”
In-Young nodded, offering us the flicker of a smile. She took a deep breath. Then she squeezed the water from the cabbage leaf.
“You can get more water out of there than that.” Min-Kook uhmony reached over and picked up the pile of cabbage, wringing the leaves so hard water fell back into the bucket like rain.
“You’re a gentle one.” I quickly handed In-Young a piece of ginger to chop. I wanted to take her under my wing and protect her. I’d show her how to sew her impatient husband’s shirts. That was certainly what was in the bag she’d left at the door. “Don’t worry. Marriage is not easy.”
“That’s the truth.” Min-Kook uhmony snorted.
“You know when I first married,” I said, “I was so afraid of the husband my parents promised me to, I kept my eyes closed.” I could remember my mother coaching me the day of my wedding, warning me to talk in a soft, thin voice to my husband only after I’d made my mind undisturbed. To avoid attracting attention to myself. To avoid coughing or sneezing or making other indecent noises. To keep my eyes low, head straight, hands polite and posture virtuous. “I didn’t sneak a look at my husband for five days.”
Gong-Tae uhmony chuckled as she gathered the chili peppers. I knew she had done the same, keeping her head lowered so she only saw her husband’s stocking feet when he came home, closing her eyes tight when her head hit the pillow at night.
“That’s ridiculous.” Min-Kook uhmony tapped her fingers on the table. “Not me. In fact, I defied tradition and looked right into my husband’s eyes.”
Min-Kook uhmony’s parents, elderly and ill, had married her off in a hurry to a man below her station. She reminded him of this every minute.
“In fact.” Min-Kook uhmony held a limp piece of cabbage in front of her. “I told him—”
“Wait.” I knew what she was going to say. How she had told her husband he was lucky to have someone like her. But those words certainly wouldn’t help In-Young. “Will you take a look at that?”
“What?” Min-Kook uhmony stood, glancing to the left and right.
“See? Two sparrows are circling the cherry tree.” I pointed at the first thing I could think of. “Aren’t they lovely?”
“I hate those damn cherry trees.” Min-Kook uhmony shook her head. “They look like bombs ready to explode. On us.”
The birds made the cherry buds jump up and down on the branches. I used to think these trees were so delicate, so peaceful. But with Min-Kook uhmony standing next to me, talking about the army visiting the high school, and pretend visits to the shrine and rice rations, with her so nervous about gathering for the simple ritual of making kimchee that we all raced through the motions and assumed a friend’s tears were caused by more than her husband’s anger, I could imagine what Min-Kook uhmony saw. I could almost hear the tiny cherry buds ticking.