Edward Choi watched through the window as his daughter dug up the hotel yard. She was obviously not thinking about her dead mother. The sun was rising on the other side of the island, and with the glow from the lamp behind him, he could refocus his eyes on his reflection in the glass. On the express ferry from Busan, he had spent several minutes staring at his drooping muscles. He felt sure he had looked better as few as three weeks ago, before Min-ji mysteriously suffered a stroke at thirty-five years old (American age) and died. He could not believe she had done that to him. Now he was left with Soo-young and this trip to Jeju-do, the Hawaii of Korea, which was supposed to be for his six-year wedding anniversary.
Soo-young was burying the bones from last night’s hotel barbecue. She had hidden them from her father in a plastic bag behind the suitcase her mother had given her. She liked to squeeze herself into the pretty pink bag whenever she thought she could get away with it, but lately the opportunities were too frequent to be appealing. That morning, she had woken up early and put her gardening plan into action. She had dug, carefully, a hole deep enough to submerge the bones but not so deep that a puppy couldn’t climb out. Tomorrow, according to her best friend’s experience, dogs would grow from the planted bones, and she might be able to convince her father to adopt one.
When she was finished, she returned to the room and sat down on the floor. Edward continued looking out the window. He was thinking of the time he and Min-ji were caught in a storm off the coast of Australia, on their honeymoon; the next day, walking around some pristine island, he couldn’t get rid of his ship legs, and she had helped him down to the beach where the water once again surrounded him, and they had snorkeled among millions of colored fish that seemed to treat them like two floating stones, and then had drifted, with the riptide, against the waves and back out to where their sailboat was anchored, finally climbing back aboard and going down to their cabin to make love for the fifth time as husband and wife.
“Appa,” Soo-young said, and he realized he had let her out of his sight—they spoke Korean because Min-ji and he had yet to get around to teaching her English. She would soon be able to outspeak her father, if they didn’t switch languages, if they didn’t move back to America.
“Yes?” he said.
Soo-young didn’t say anything. Edward watched as she trembled.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“What are we going to do today, Appa?”
He said it was a surprise. He hadn’t looked at the guidebook. Inside, Min-ji had circled attractions she had planned for them to see, and looking at the blue rings after her death seemed too recklessly sad. He decided they could drive around and his daughter could point out things to see or do along the road. She looked just like her mother as she stared back at him, tiny appendages and a triangular face that dipped, like the keel of a boat, into her chin.
Once in the car, Soo-young quickly grew bored of fiddling with the radio, adjusting the air flow, locking the doors, opening and closing the windows—waiting for her father to reprimand her, which he didn’t do. Finally she asked where the guidebook was and he gave it to her. It was in English. He told her he had bought it the last time the three of them had returned to Connecticut to visit his parents, just after she was born. She waited for him to continue but he didn’t. He didn’t look at her. She was getting used to this new silence, not the same as her father’s normal reticence. She flipped through the guidebook. Only a few words were in Korean. She studied the marks her mother had made. “My-ste-ri-ous road,” she sounded out in Konglish.
To Edward, Soo-young had seemed to become more and more his daughter as she had aged, as he caught her tapping the table or biting her nails the way he did. He remembered the tiny, red baby she had been, almost like a toy when asleep. Even in the hospital, he had admired the way his wife had held her: not afraid the baby would break, belonging to Min-ji but not belonging to her. He hadn’t known a thing about children. He continued to teach English at the university and bring home money they didn’t really need. Min-ji gave up sailing to take care of their daughter. She was the one who held Soo-young’s hand as they crossed the street, who chose her outfits. At night, Min-ji read her the stories Korean children learned. Edward would crouch outside the door, listening to his wife. Soo-young’s favorite was about a heavenly maiden and a woodcutter. Once upon a time, the story went, a woodcutter saved a young deer, and in return, the deer told him a secret: the heavenly maidens bathed at the foot of Diamond Mountain. If the woodcutter stole one of their outfits, he could make that maiden his wife—she couldn’t leave without her clothes. The woodcutter went to the lake and was married to the youngest maiden. After their third child was born, he trusted his wife with her clothes, but as soon as she put them on, she ascended, one child in each arm and the third held between her legs. The woodcutter searched for the deer again and was told to go back to the lake—into which the maidens now dropped a bucket for their water—and hold the rope when they pulled it up. The woodcutter did this and was allowed to stay. After a long time, though, he feared that his mother would die without seeing him again. His wife lent him a dragonhorse on which he could fly to earth, but he was not to touch ground or he could never return. He found his mother alive and happy to see him. She offered him a bowl of porridge, but he took it carelessly, and it burned him. He dropped it on the dragonhorse, which reared up and left him. He was transformed into the rooster, who climbs up to the highest point to crow at the heavens.
“Appa,” his daughter was saying. Daddy.
Min-ji had spoiled the kid after all, he thought. After all those fights about raising a normal, well-adjusted child, she had bought the girl everything her money could buy, changing how they lived. “What?” he asked, in English. “Wae?”
“Goonyang,” she said. Nothing. He laid his head against the headrest.
Soo-young, too, had done her share of remembering since her mother’s death. The images she saw felt close and fast, like cyclists going by, as if she could easily reach out and grab them but knew she shouldn’t. When she remembered how her family used to travel, for instance, she sensed her mother’s smile, and the shape and feel of her mother’s back, on which she was carried when she was younger, and the way a strange new place with her parents always made her feel safe even though they worried about her more than usual. When she remembered the story of the heavenly maiden, she remembered the family had been together and the father had come to them there and should not have left.
But she couldn’t express any of this. What she identified was a desire for a puppy: a white jindo with pointed ears and a black nose and eyes. She imagined picking it up and holding it in her cupped hands as if in a pocket. She looked out at the mountains with a real sense that it was somewhere in the distance, this one thing that she could actually explain to her father she wanted.
She wasn’t thinking about how her mother had been born into Korean money, and how her father had tried to prove his American love to his in-laws. She didn’t know these stories, in part. She didn’t know her father had invested his life in her mother’s life, overseas. She didn’t know what a piece of her mother, in her, could do to her father, kill him and then bring him back, only to be killed again.