I was a curious child, and I wanted to find out what made what how it worked. We had a beautiful grandfather clock hanging on the living room wall facing the window. It was about the size and shape of a guitar case made of dark maple. Black Roman numerals from one through twelve were placed around the face with gold colored minute and hour arms pointing outward from the center. Below its face was a gold-colored pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth. Ticktack. Ticktack. When Father came home from an exhausting day, he often sat in his favorite rocking chair humming Arirang, a popular Korean folk song, with his eyes closed and his hands on his lap. He hummed in tune with the ticking of the clock, clapping his hands in step with the ticking.
I had often wondered what made this clock tick day and night with the swinging of the pendulum. I tied a string around a stone in one end and swung it back and forth, but I didn’t hear the ticktack sound. Why doesn’t the stone make any sound while the pendulum does? I wanted to find out.
One day while Mother was ironing Father’s trousers in the kitchen, I went to the living room, and moved Father’s rocking chair by the clock. As I stepped on the chair, it rocked back and forth like the clock’s pendulum. With one hand on the wall, I reached up for the clock, but I couldn’t take it down with one hand. So I returned the rocking chair and took a stool that was taller. I stepped on the stool, reached up, and tried to lift the clock off the hook with both of my hands, but it wouldn’t come off. I wiggled the clock up and down, and left and right. After a few tries, I heard something dropping on the floor with a click sound. I looked down, and it was the hook. I felt the weight of the clock in my hands, and it was very heavy. I pressed it against the wall, but it was sliding down. I was scared of dropping the clock on the floor and seeing it breaking into pieces.
“Mother,” I yelled. “Hurry up.”
“What are you doing?” I heard Mother’s voice.
“It’s too heavy.”
“What’s too heavy?”
“The clock,” I yelled.
“O my God.” I heard Mother shouting. “Stay calm.”
This was the first time I’d ever heard Mother saying, O my God, except the times when she prayed. Mother rushed in and saw my stiffened arms pushing the clock against the wall to keep it from sliding.
“O my God,” she said again. “Don’t move.”
As Mother reached up to take the clock, the stool slid, and I lost my balance. I let go of the clock and jumped down on the floor. The clock crashed down to the floor with a loud bang. Broken pieces of the maple housing, metal gears of different sizes, the minute and hour arms, and the golden pendulum were scattered all over the floor. I didn’t know there were so many parts in the grandfather clock.
“Mother.” I turned to her in amazement. “So many parts.”
She ignored me. Her eyes were round like the golden pendulum. Her usual smile was absent. She looked down at the floor with her hands on her chest. She looked sick.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
“Hi-Dong,” Mother said. “You ruined your father’s treasure.”
“What’s a treasure?” I asked.
“A thing you like,” Mother said. “Like your tricycle.”
“Does Father like the clock?” I said.
“Hi-Dong,” Mother said. “You know Father sings with that clock every evening.”
I looked at all the parts. It would take a long time to put them back together, and the wooden frame was splintered. I was getting nervous.
“Is Father going to whip me?” I asked. “With the leather belt, like he does to Brother Hi-Seung?”
“I don’t know,” Mother said collecting herself. “Go to Seung-Jeung’s house.”
“Yes, right now,” Mother said. “Go and play with him until I come to get you.”
I never saw Mother looking so scared. I ran out of the living room without even helping Mother collect the scattered parts. I put my shoes on and ran to Seung-Jeung’s house. The house of my neighborhood playmate, whose mother loved me like her son. When I got there, she was washing clothes crouched by the well.
“Who do I have here?” Seung-Jeung’s mother said looking up.
“Is Seung-Jeung home?” I asked, my voice tense.
“Seung-Jeung has gone to the market with his father,” she said. “They should be back in an hour.”
What am I going to do now? I wondered. Go back home? I am scared to go back home. I felt tense, and I stood straight with my arms down at my sides as if I were standing before a policeman.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Did you do something wrong?”
“Yes,” I said.
She looked up and studied me for a while.
“Sit there,” she said pointing to a cement block next to her. “And we’ll talk. Alright?”
She went into the kitchen and came out with a big red apple.
“Here, take it,” she said handing me the apple. “What did you do?”
“I broke Father’s grandfather clock,” I said.
I saw the apple shake in my hand.
“Is that what happened?” She smiled. “Don’t worry. Your mother is a diplomat, and she knows how to melt your father’s heart.”
“But Mother’s scared too,” I said. “When she told me to come here, her eyes were wide and her voice sounded scared.”
“Well, I know he whips your brother often,” she said, “but you are his mangnei – last child – his favorite. He will scold you, but not whip you.”
When Seung Jeung’s mother used the word, whip, I got more scared. I saw the whip on his desk. I pictured him asking me to stand sideways so that he would smack my calf muscles until they turned red like he had done to Hi-Seung.
“Thank you,” I said. “But I am still scared.”
“Eat the apple,” she said. “It’ll calm you down.”
I sat by her chewing the apple and listening to her talk. About an hour later, I heard a knock.
“Seung-Jeung’s mother,” Mother called.
“Please come in,” she said. “Your boy is waiting.”
Mother came in.
She said, “Did Hi-Dong tell you what happened?”
“Yes, your curious son told me all about it,” she said. “He is afraid to go home and see his father.”
“His father came home about half an hour ago,” she said. “He asked where the clock was.”
Did Mother tell Father that I broke his clock? I wondered. Or did she make up a story? No, Mother wouldn’t tell a lie.
“Did you tell him,” Seung-Jeung’s mother asked, “That Hi-Dong broke the clock?”
“Yes,” Mother said.
“I thought he would be very upset,” Mother smiled, “but he wasn’t. He simply said, It’s one of those things that happens to a family with a curious child. We will get another one.”
“When we go home,” Mother continued, turning to me, “You go to him and apologize. Alright?”
I heard what Mother had said, but I was still scared.
“Let’s hurry home,” Mother said. “Thank you, Mrs. Park for taking care of him.”
I followed behind Mother home with my head bowed and my shoulders feeling stiff. I was scared to see Father’s face.
Back home Mother said, “Hi-Dong, Father is in his office. Go and say, I am very sorry. I will not do such a thing again.”
I tried to take my first step up the stairway, but I couldn’t. I was too scared to move.
“Let’s go together,” Mother said.
“Thank you, Mother,” I said following behind her.
We went to upstairs, and Mother knocked and opened his office door. Father was at his desk writing.
“Hi-Dong is here to say something to you,” Mother said standing by the door.
Father turned around. On his desk lay the whip. Hi-Seung’s punishment. Now it’s my turn. I froze.
“Hi-Dong,” Father said, “come over.”
Feeling stiff as an icicle, I walked over to him. A step at a time. I could hear Hi-Seung’s voice pleading with Father. Will I sound as desperate as my brother?
He stared at me without a smile. He looked at the whip. He stared at me again. Then he picked up the whip. Oh, oh, Father’s going to whip me. Should I run away? No. He is faster than I am. He will catch me and whip me harder. Just take a deep breath as Hi-Seung told me to do when I was scared. I took a deep breath with my head bowed – waiting his whip to strike my calves at any moment. Seconds passed. But I felt no jolt on my calves. A few more seconds passed. Still no jolt. I slowly lifted my head to see Father. He stared at me, but he didn’t look angry. I could see a hint of smile on his face. I put my head back down – still feeling scared.
“Next time,” he said, “when you want to know how things work, ask your mother or me.”
Isn’t Father not going to whip me? I felt my shoulders relax.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I will. I’m very, very sorry.”
I bowed my head low as close to the floor as I could so that Father would know I was really sorry. But I knew that Father was a no-nonsense person. Wrong was wrong, and right was right. When my brothers did something wrong, they always got whipped. Now it was my turn. I closed my eyes and waited for the first blow.
“You can go,” Father said.
“What?” I gasped opening my eyes in disbelief.
“You may go,” he said.
I saw a smile on his face.
“Thank you. Thank you.” I said running toward the door.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I rubbed my backside and rushed past Mother out of his office.