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  • Chinese Fireworks
  • Jeon Seong-tae (bio)
    Translated by Sora-Kim Russell (bio)

“Honey, those kids are back.”

His wife cracked open the door to his study. She was speaking quietly because of the baby asleep in the other room, but he could hear the wariness and irritation in her voice. The pastor looked up from his desk, unsure of what she was talking about.

“It’s those street kids, the ones who took the empty bottles last time.”

Now that she’d mentioned it, he could hear the sound of clumsy whistling and giggles coming from outside the front door.

“Riffraff,” his wife said coldly. “How dare they whistle at us like that?”

The pastor went to the front door and peered through the peephole. It was the same two Mongolian boys who had come to the apartment three days earlier. They were perched on the wooden railing. The skinnier of the two was whistling through the gap where one of his front teeth had fallen out, and the other boy, who looked to be about a head shorter, had dropped a grease-stained sack on the ground and was swinging his legs. They looked as carefree as children coming over to play with the neighbor’s kids.

As he reached for the doorknob, he glanced down at the recycling bin set next to the shoe cabinet. The bin was empty. His wife must have already taken the trash out. He dropped his hand [End Page 193] and stepped away from the door. There were no empty bottles or cans he could give to them today. If he didn’t respond, the kids would go away on their own.

But then they started knocking. Both boys banged on the metal door at the same time, as if to say they’d caught him. The knocking grew louder and louder, until he was sure the neighbors would notice that something was up. He felt afraid for some reason. It was clearly fear and not irritation. Like a certain sense of guilt about what he had just been doing a moment before. Several times a day, he found himself feeling that way. Each time that happened, he agonized over the fact that he, a pastor, was still coming up short.

He opened the door.

Two faces filthy with cold and poverty smiled happily at him. The pastor kept a firm grip on the doorknob as he said, “Uh oh. I’m afraid we don’t have anything for you today.”

He looked down again at the empty bin. Feeling genuinely sorry, he added, “We put it outside, but someone else must have taken it.”

All at once, the children’s faces hardened. The boy with the sack on his shoulder shoved his head in the door as if to say he’d better have a look for himself. The pastor’s grip on the doorknob grew even tighter, reflexively. The boy saw that the bin was empty, and he uttered something short in Mongolian—clearly a cussword. Though it was hard to say exactly that the word was directed at him, the pastor was momentarily offended, feeling like he’d just been spat on.

Just then, he sensed someone coming around the corner of the building into the courtyard. The pastor threw a quick glance over the children’s shoulders, but he didn’t see anyone. The sound of a metal tool, a shovel perhaps, scraping against the cement somewhere not too far away, bounced off of the apartment buildings and echoed over to where he stood. The old groundskeeper was probably scraping away the ice in the courtyard. What should have struck him as bucolic instead sounded in his ears like a warning, and the pastor cringed. [End Page 194]

“Get in, quick.”

He opened the door wider to make room for them. Alarmed, the boys took a step back.

“What’re you doing? Hurry up and get inside!” He kept his voice low as he ordered them in.

The startled children stepped into the entryway, and he closed the door.

Now that he’d brought them inside, an awful stench that he hadn’t noticed before, like the smell of...


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pp. 193-207
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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