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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 159-169

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One Big Word

Heinz Insu Fenkl

from Skull Water
[Ode to the Picnic Singers, 1984]
[Looking Up the Oregon Coast]

for Hwang Sun-won (1915-2000)


The shadow of the 707 rippled below us like a giant black egret, flowing across the landscape, growing steadily smaller as we neared the earth, calming into a glide as the hilly contours became the flat green expanse of the rice paddies around Kimp'o Airbase. I could not imagine what power it took to keep these tons of alloy and steel in the air, to keep the airplane from simply plummeting like a stone into the fertile earth below. We were falling at more than two hundred miles an hour, and yet the landscape seemed to move lazily until the plane slowed, just before touching the runway, and then everything accelerated into a dizzying speed. The world lurched and the air grew suddenly thick with the roar of the jets, which had lulled us until that moment, and we could feel the sudden texture of the tarmac right through the landing gear, through the bottoms of our seats, as the earth ground itself into our spines. We had landed, and now the roaring jets suddenly became shrill as we lurched slightly forward in our seats and the airplane braked to a near stop. The landscape outside moved at a crawl, everything looking too large and yet oddly too small. I glanced over my little sister's head to the aisle seat and saw my mother's eyes brim with tears with the joy of being back in our homeland. Korea. 1976. Early summer in the Year of the Dragon.


At first, Kisu's house appeared exactly the same as when I had last seen it nearly a decade ago, six years before we had left for America. But during our first day I realized the house had aged just like Kisu's grandmother, who had grown lighter and more shriveled over those years—like a dried gourd that will rattle in the wind. It was a ramshackle house nearly a century old, built a decade before the Japanese Occupation—before the turn of the century—and since then it had sheltered four generations of Changs as the tiny village by the stream grew into Pup'yong. The original building was wood and whitewashed plaster, but now the roof beams were full of dry rot and the kidung posts were warped and tilted. When I walked across the wooden maru with the added weight of my years the floor creaked in spots I didn't recall and the compacted dirt of the courtyard, which had seemed as hard as baked clay when I was a child, seemed to have become softer, oddly dustlike. The black dirt floor of the dark kitchen seemed even deeper than before, though it should rightly have seemed shallower since I had grown. People from Tatagumi had been in the habit of visiting from time to time to scoop up some of the kitchen dirt to make medicine pellets, which they would cook with foul-smelling concoctions of Chinese herbs; their visits must have been frequent, or perhaps some new epidemic had coursed through Tatagumi and they had come with [End Page 159] shovels during one of the years we had been away in the West. Just inside the gate, the slab of stone that deflected the water from the downspouts had darkened over many monsoons; when I placed my fingers in the deep pockmarks I thought it odd that they had remained the same size over those years, but then I realized that my fingers had grown both longer and thicker, and the stone had eroded deeply and quickly under the furious torrents of the monsoon rains.

For the first several months after our return to Korea, we would live in this house in Pup'yong in the old neighborhood of Tatagumi that still bore its Japanese name. We lived in the same rooms we had occupied once before; my mother, An-na, and I slept...


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