AN INTRODUCTION BY YUKA IGARASHI
“Solee” by Crystal Hana Kim is told from the point of view of a young girl in rural Korea, who develops a crush on her parents’ friend when he comes to visit the family.
What I love about this story is that it’s built from details and sensations. It seems so true to the way we actually experience life. I, at least, very rarely can see myself from outside myself, as a character progressing along a plot. Instead, I’m usually consumed inside an accumulation of moments, a collection of noticings and imaginings and impulses and emotions, the way Solee is: getting hugged by the man her parents call Uncle and thinking his cheek is softer than her father’s and that his breath smells like tea; wishing she had longer hair because she saw him watching her mother twirl a loose strand; wanting to interrupt when she is woken at night by the sound of her parents fighting. “There are louder yells, a thud,” she says. “Mommy’s high pitch, though now Daddy is silent . . . I run into the hall to yell at them. How embarrassing! I will say.”
The pleasure of stories with young narrators often rests on the difference between what readers understand and what the child telling the story understands. Crystal Hana Kim expertly crafts and harnesses this difference, and then she goes further. Solee is innocent, insofar as she doesn’t yet have the words to describe her intense attraction to Uncle, and can’t put a name to what’s happening between Uncle and her mother. But in fact she knows a lot. She misses nothing. This story, I think, suggests that she knows more now than she will once she’s older, when the “right” words and names for things begin to cloud what she feels and sees.
“Solee” is Crystal Hana Kim’s first published story; it appeared last year in The Southern Review. It was one of over a hundred and fifty fiction debuts that editors of literary magazines submitted to PEN America’s new Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and it was one of the twelve chosen as a winner by judges Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley. Their selections have been collected in PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017.
This story suggests that Solee knows more now than she will once she’s older, when the “right” words and names for things begin to cloud what she feels and sees.
To me, the story perfectly represents the sense of discovery and possibility that infuses the whole anthology. It’s a book that took me places. I mean this in a basic geographical way: the stories are set in Jordan and the woods of New Hampshire and postwar Serbia and eighteenth-century Nantucket and in a nuclear exclusion zone in Ukraine. I mean it in a deeper, experiential way too. Through their careful choices, I can feel the judges — and, before them, the editors who originally published each piece as well as the writers who wrote them — unmaking and remaking my notions of what a short story is, and, in much the same way that Solee does, unmaking and remaking my perception of the world.
Series Editor, PEN America Best Debut Short Stories
A Child’s Story About a Love Triangle
by Crystal Hana Kim
I count the stray dog’s ribs on my way to school. Five bones protrude, like the rounded claw of a Dokkaebi clutching his club. Last month, there were six showing through the skin of his belly. I am happy. I am fattening him up after all.
He walks alongside me every day, and at the school yard entrance I give him a treat. He is so hungry he leaves a puddle of drool in my palm. But today he is frightened by a thunderclap rumbling through the air.
A man on a motorcycle. Wheels licking up bursts of dust. He waves and smiles. I am the only one on the road.
As he disappears, I wave back.
I hear laughter before I take off my shoes. Daddy and Mommy in the kitchen, singing with the girls.
“Why is everyone so happy?” I ask.
“Come say hello to your uncle.” Daddy hugs me with his good arm. He is in a rare light mood; alcohol already swims in his mouth.
With Jieun and Mila and Mommy is the man from the morning. There is dust on his face and his skin is dark, like the farmers in the fields.
“Kyunghwan, meet Solee. She’s my oldest and smartest, like a boy.”
I tug down my short hair. I hate it when Daddy calls me a boy. “You’re the man on the motorcycle,” I say.
“You’re the girl who feeds the starving dog.” He laughs. Everyone laughs.
Daddy tells me to go bow to him properly, but I stick my head into Mommy’s soft stomach. She holds me, brushing my hair and letting my embarrassment drain out.
“Say hello like this!” Jieun stands on her chair, leans over Mila, and kisses the man on the cheek. Everyone laughs again.
He hugs me as though we know each other. His cheek is softer than Daddy’s, and his breath smells like tea, even though they are all drinking makgeolli. “Hello, Miss Solee,” he says.
They get drunk as if we girls are invisible. It’s nice. Once, on Jieun’s third birthday, Mommy and Daddy drank so much at dinner they stumbled out of the restaurant. They left us at the table, our hands sticky from rice cakes and sugar tea. In the doorway, they kissed. I hope they will do that again.
It’s early when I wake up. I lie still, letting the cool of the floor collect inside me. It’s my job to make tea in the morning. Jieun and Mila sleep with open mouths. I imagine dropping seeds down their throats, so the kernels will settle in their bellies and grow. Pear blossoms flowing out between their lips, crawling up the walls of the room. I could puppet them around by their stalks, have them get the tea.
I’m not the only one awake. Uncle is seated at the table with a book. Washed and brushed, he doesn’t look like a farmer anymore. I stare at my feet. I am wearing my nightclothes decorated with small frogs. They are too short in the sleeves and at the ankles.
“That makes me feel old. Do I look like an old man to you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Call me Kyunghwan.” He points to the tea he has already made. The napkins are folded into flowers and tucked underneath each cup.
“I need to bring these to my parents,” I say.
“They’ll wake up soon. They can get their own tea. Come, sit.” He nods at the seat across from him. He gives me an American cookie. It is rectangular and beige and patterned with small, square indents. The sweetness makes the back of my ears hurt. I decide he is a nice man after all.
“What are your plans for today, Miss Solee?”
“I have school, and then I come home and help Mommy.”
“Jisoo says you could go to college. What subjects do you like?”
“Math is easy. Composition, because we get to write stories. Science, because we learn about animals and plants.”
Kyunghwan quizzes me with addition and subtraction problems. I start to boast that I even know multiplication, but I stop. Mommy says girls should show their smarts, but no one likes a bragger. That’s the reason the other school kids are not nice to me.
“What’s your dog’s name?”
I want to say something clever. “Dokkaebi.”
Kyunghwan smiles. “Those gremlins gave me nightmares when I was your age.” He tells me stories of Dokkaebis playing pranks on children and old men. He is a good storyteller, using his hands and baring his teeth in suspenseful moments. Soon it is seven o’clock. “I have to get dressed for school,” I say.
“I’m going hiking this afternoon. Do you want to come along?” He nods, as if I have already said yes. “We’ll buy you some sturdy shoes.”
“Bye, Kyunghwan,” I say, waving and bowing at the same time.
I’m glad Jieun and Mila are still too young to make tea.
Teacher Han raps my knuckles twice during mathematics. He tells me to pay attention. This afternoon, I will walk up a mountain with Kyunghwan. I play with my hair, brushing it down with my fingers. I wish Mommy hadn’t cut it short. Kyunghwan likes long hair. Last night during dinner, his eyes spiraled as Mommy twirled a long, loose strand.
After school, I play gonggi stones with my classmates and wait. Chunja is the best, throwing and catching quickly. She has her own set of stones, and they are smooth from all her hours of practice. I’m in the middle of catching the stones with the back of my hand when the talking starts.
“Who is he?”
“He looks like a movie star.”
“He’s handsome,” Chunja says.
The boys stare, too, pointing at his hairy legs and the big lump at his throat.
He calls my name, waving brown shoes. I drop the gonggi stones into Chunja’s hand, smiling at her surprise.
We arrive at Gasan. Even before we start climbing, there are large stains underneath Kyunghwan’s arms and around his neck. When the boys at school sweat, we make fun of them. But on him, it looks different.
“Movie star,” I whisper, hoping he will hear me.
He names flowers and trees. I try to remember them all, but the words bleed together.
“You see this?” Kyunghwan points to a strange little plant with nubs that curl inward, like a ram’s horns. “It’s Haemi’s favorite side dish. Gosari. Wouldn’t it be nice if we picked some for her?” He sets his hand on my head.
“My favorite side dish is fried eggs rolled up,” I say.
“Well, if you help me with this, I’ll make my most delicious eggs especially for you. All right?”
I nod. He opens his canvas bag, making room in the middle. We search for Mommy’s favorite plant. I pluck one and stare. It looks as if a fuzzy caterpillar is curling up on my palm, ready for sleep. I will not eat any of them, I decide.
As we collect, he explains that these are babies, that when they mature the leaves uncurl and bloom. When we have a big enough pile, we take a break. He lies down with his hands clasped behind his head, maybe drying his armpits. I copy him. He explains how we will dry the baby plants in the sun, dust them lightly with salt and oil, and then fry them over a fire.
“How did you know it was her favorite?”
“Haemi and I were friends. A long time ago. I introduced her to my cousin, Jisoo. And that’s how you and your sisters got to be here.”
It’s funny how he calls them by their first names. I roll over. I pick a dandelion and blow white fluff at him. “Do you have any children?”
“I wish I could have daughters as lovely as you girls. I missed my chance. Now I’m old and ugly.”
“I think you’re handsome,” I say. I turn my head to his chest, so he can’t see my face.
We head to the backyard and Kyunghwan finds the right spot for the gosari. Out of reach of the roof’s and the tree’s shadows, where the sun heats the ground all day. The back of my neck prickles, and I don’t want to watch these plants shrivel up any longer. I kick at a mud clump while Kyunghwan works. He is spreading them out to make sure they dry evenly.
“I’m tired,” I say. Dokkaebi is circling the tree and I whistle him over.
“We’re almost done.”
Dokkaebi snuffles his head into my hands.
“No food for you,” I say. I break a dirt clump over his back, mixing brown into his yellow fur. “I’m tired,” I say again. I know I’m whining, but I can’t help it.
Kyunghwan looks up. “I’m sorry. I should have brought you home earlier.” He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket. It is the color of boiled spinach. He dips it in a bucket of water and washes my face. From forehead to nose to chin. He is not tickling me, but it feels like he is.
He wraps the kerchief around my neck, and a trickle of water drips down to my belly. I follow the stain with my finger. “I want my special eggs now.”
“Go inside and let Haemi know we’re home. I’ll finish here, then I’ll cook you up something delicious. You can keep the handkerchief for being such a good partner today.”
I run into the house with my head raised, so everyone can see what Kyunghwan has given me to keep. “Look!”
“My wood nymph.” Mommy kisses me. “How was your hike with Uncle?”
“He picked some baby plants for you. He said they’re your favorite and that you like to eat them with your mouth wide open. Like this.” I copy Kyunghwan’s chewing, smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
Before I can start describing the peak and my new brown shoes and the eggs that I will get to eat, her eyes close.
“Mommy?” I shake her, trying to bring her back to me. She does this sometimes. “Kyunghwan is waiting for you.”
She smiles slowly, like a goddess returning to her human body. She squeezes my hand. “Watch the girls while I talk to your uncle.” Raking her fingers through her curls, she walks out.
It has become a game between the two of us. I get up earlier each day, but Kyunghwan always wins. He sits in the kitchen with the hot tea ready. As we wait for the others to wake up, we talk.
Jieun and Mila come next, always running to him with their orange blanket dragging behind them, like an open dress. He pulls them onto his lap and feeds them spoonfuls of tea. I want him to feed me too, but he winks and I straighten up. He thinks of me as a grown-up.
At night, though, when everyone has gone to bed, I imagine him hugging me. I want to see him, and when I sneak into the hallway no one stops me. No three-legged crow guarding the door from intruders, as Mommy tells us on nights full of shouts and stomps.
At his door I bend down, dusting my ear against the crack to listen for his breathing. I have to lie as still as possible, but then I hear it. The in and out of Kyunghwan asleep.
It is Kyunghwan’s ninth day here and Daddy is in a good mood again. It is a Saturday, a no-school day for me, and Daddy is eating breakfast with us.
“Listen,” he says. “When Kyunghwan and I were boys, he found a secret pond.”
“Where the air tastes sweet and the water is clear!” Kyunghwan sings.
Daddy grins, gulps down his tea as if it is makgeolli. “We said we’d never show the pond to any women. But today we’ll go!”
Jieun is already jumping and swinging Mila around. Mommy shakes her head, not at the girls but at Daddy and Kyunghwan, singing a song we do not know.
At the pond, my sisters and I pull off shirts and skirts, and run into the water in our panties. Mine are covered in apples, Jieun’s in cucumbers, and Mila’s in orange pumpkins.
When Kyunghwan sees, he sings, “My face like an apple, how pretty I am, with eyes bright, nose bright, lips bright. My face like a cucumber — ”
“No more! Don’t sing the next part!” Jieun sprays water at Kyunghwan, but it doesn’t reach him. She doesn’t like her long face, even though we tell her it’s just a song. As we play, the adults bake themselves on boulders, squid laid out to dry.
Mommy wears a real bathing suit. It is black and shiny, with white trim. You can see the roundness of her breasts where the fabric stretches tight. I look down. I have two little nipples but no roundness. Little soybeans no one would want to look at.
“I’m going to catch a great big fish and fry it over a fire!” Daddy yells before jumping off his rock. One arm glued to his side and the good arm in an arch, pointing at the water. He makes a huge splash, and we whistle and whoop. Our voices echo off the rocks.
“Don’t forget who won the diving contest every year!” Kyunghwan starts with his back against a tree and runs straight off his boulder. As he falls, he flails around like a panicked animal.
He sinks, screaming.
Mommy shrieks his name.
A silence stretches out in ripples.
“Kyunghwan?” Daddy yells. “Stop it!”
Kyunghwan’s head bobs up with a howl. He winks at me.
“He’s a Dokkaebi!” I yell.
He fills the pond with a laughter that floats. It is contagious, and soon we are all laughing, holding our stomachs and chucking our heads above the water to stop ourselves from drowning.
“That wasn’t funny.” Mommy stands above us all, her arms across her chest.
“Oh, come on,” Kyunghwan says.
She turns, and Daddy leaves the water to comfort her. Kyunghwan shrugs, gulps air, and goes under.
When everyone is happy again, we cavalry fight. Jieun on Daddy’s shoulders, Mila on Mommy’s, and me on Kyunghwan’s. His hands push against my butt, nestling me until I am sitting with my legs draping his chest. His body is slick and I’m worried I’ll fall off. He lifts my arms, flaps them up and down until I feel it — I am high and soaring.
When the water weighs heavy in our bones and it becomes harder to float, we head to the hills above. Boulders crumble into pebbles. My skin smells like water and sun.
“This is where we’d fry fish,” Daddy whispers. He is so calm and peaceful, carrying sleepy Mila on his back. There is no fire pit anymore, but he describes one until I can almost see it: the logs burning and the fish skin crisping in the heat.
“Let’s get some wood,” Kyunghwan says. He and Daddy leave, their bodies hulking together into the forest.
We lie down around Mommy. She sings the apple-cucumber-pumpkin song, squeezing our noses at our parts. Jieun doesn’t mind so much now, and we hum along, rubbing Mila’s cheeks as Mommy sings, “Our funny round pumpkin.”
When Daddy and Kyunghwan come back, Mommy leaves us to sit with them. It is dark now, and Jieun draws a picture of our family into the sky, using the night’s stars to trace our crooked elbows and noses. Mila drools onto my shoulder. I try to stay awake.
On the first evening of Kyunghwan’s visit, the adults told stories when they thought we were asleep. Of the war that split our Korea, of a president who controls us, and of people who are dead. But they are quieter tonight. When Daddy goes to pee in the woods, Kyunghwan sits closer to Mommy. She looks over at me. I want to hear what they are saying, but their whispers twist together into streams.
The next day, Daddy is sick. I bring him his tea and he grumbles that his head is wound too tight.
“Come eat with us,” I say.
He wasn’t in the kitchen to see it, how Kyunghwan and Mommy smiled at each other. But Daddy gulps his tea and pushes the drained cup into my hand.
He leaves the house without saying good morning or goodbye. When he’s gone, Kyunghwan turns to me. “Solee, can you do your uncle a favor? Can you watch Jieun and Mila?”
“Where are you going?”
Mommy stares out the window, but there’s nothing there.
“Gasan. Haemi wants to collect more of those plants she loves. Can you be the lady of the house, Solee?”
“Can we go hiking tomorrow, just us?”
“Of course.” Kyunghwan squeezes my shoulder.
I smile at Mommy but she doesn’t see me. She touches my head, glances at the room where Jieun and Mila are still sleeping.
“Are you really going to Gasan?” I ask.
She bends down to me. She is pretty, with big eyes and pale, freckleless skin. “Where do you think I’d be going?”
I don’t know, but I know she’s lying.
“Don’t worry so much.” She smiles. “I’ll be back soon with an armful of plants for us.”
They don’t come home for dinner. Mila whines because I burn the rice, and Jieun says she wants oxtail soup, not dumplings. I give them two rice cakes and tell them they are brats, smacking my spoon against the table the way Mommy does when we misbehave. They cry, and everything is worse.
I don’t know where Daddy is. I want to tell him everything. How Kyunghwan and Mommy have gone to Gasan. How I am supposed to be the only one hiking with Kyunghwan.
“I miss Mommy,” Jieun says.
In bed, she asks for the goddess story. Even little Mila sighs happily when I begin.
“One day,” I say, “when the world was new, a goddess came down from the heavens. A man found her and fell in love with her beauty. Knees mucky from kneeling in the dirt before her, he asked her for her name. ‘Haemi,’ she said. The man snatched the name from the air and swallowed it. He wrapped her in a piece of silk, scooped her up, and brought her home. Mommy is truly a goddess from the heavens, and sometimes when she thinks of the sky, she fades away.”
“Again,” they mumble together. I stroke their heads and tell them the story again.
I fall asleep in the hallway, against Kyunghwan’s door. When I wake up, though, I am floating. “And who do I love?” I hear. It is Kyunghwan. He is holding me in his arms.
Mommy laughs. “Go to bed.”
I nestle my face farther into his shoulder so she can’t see my gloating. He loves me.
“Good night, Haemi.”
In the room, when he pulls the blanket over me, I open my eyes. “I love you, Kyunghwan.”
His laughter washes me with the sweet smell of alcohol. There has been so much laughing since he’s come, no shouting and stomping. He puts his mouth on my nose, just once and too quickly, and leaves.
I’m not sure what’s woken me up again. At first I think it is Kyunghwan coming back to me. But then I hear fighting, the deep snarl in Daddy’s voice. I try to go back to sleep.
This time it doesn’t end the normal way. There are louder yells, a thud. Mommy’s high pitch, though now Daddy is silent. It is shameful. Kyunghwan will hear.
I run into the hall to yell at them. How embarrassing! I will say. The way Teacher Han does when we get a question wrong in front of the principal. You are embarrassing yourselves!
What I see stops me. Mommy walking into Kyunghwan’s room, her face smudgy in the shadows. Glancing around like a thief. She closes the door behind her.
I check on Daddy. He lies on his back, his stomach bulging. One hand between his legs and the other clasping a stick he uses against our calves and palms. How embarrassing! I want to yell. He doesn’t wake when I shove his shoulder.
“Mother is in Kyunghwan’s room,” I say loudly. I prod him again. He grunts, a mess of noise erupting out of his mouth. “Did you hear me? Wake up!”
The dead-asleep look on his face doesn’t change.
I sit cross-legged outside Kyunghwan’s door. I think I can hear them. It sounds like she is crying. It sounds so painful that I clutch my stomach. I want her to stop. They whisper each other’s names. I imagine they are kissing. That they are naked, with her round breasts and his hairy, musty armpits.
I clutch Kyunghwan’s handkerchief, still tied around my neck. I put it to my face. I kiss it. When I stick my tongue out, it tastes dirty, not like what I imagined.
I am wearing my best shorts, light blue with pink stitching. He will hike with me today, and I will tell him again that I love him. I set two cups of tea across from each other and place the kettle in the middle, just the way he does. I try to fold the napkin into a flower, but I give up. A simple square will have to do.
But instead of coming into the kitchen, he is leaving. I see him out the kitchen window.
I rush into the yard. “Where are you going? Aren’t we hiking?” I grab at him. He is petting Dokkaebi’s nose.
“I have something to do today. Sorry, Miss Solee.” He squeezes my hand. His eyes are doing what Mommy’s do. She has infected him. “I have to go.”
He is carrying his bag. He is heading to his motorcycle.
He shakes his head.
“Are you mad at me?”
Kyunghwan unties the handkerchief from my neck and I think he’s going to take it back, that he is angry.
He only wipes my face.
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I’ll try to come back soon, Miss Solee.”
“You don’t love me,” I say.
When he hugs me, I thrust my face to him so he will kiss me, at least this once, but he shifts and pulls a white envelope out of his pocket instead. “Can you give this to Haemi? When Jisoo leaves for work?”
He shoves it into my closed hand.
He doesn’t kiss me goodbye.
Dokkaebi walks with him as he pushes his motorcycle all the way to the end of the road. He turns, a little speck waving. A dog thief. A bad man. I don’t wave back this time.