When I am eight years old, I am a girl who would rather hide than seek, a girl who fears bullies and teachers and loud noises and speaking in public and God. I am overweight for my age group, friendless, and known for thick glasses and dark overalls, which I wear because my mother is exasperated with my clumsiness and tendency toward spillage.
But when my mother takes me to Seoul to meet my grandmother for the first time, my grandmother tells me that I am beautiful, and for a whole summer, I am. My grandmother combs my hair and braids it across the top of my head like a crown, marveling at its strength and sheen. She clucks over my glasses, at how they are almost as thick as hers, and she tells me that I have an American nose, which she says I should be proud of. She has made me dresses that do not fit, but she just laughs and lets out the seams so that they do, and I am suddenly pretty in yellow, pink, green. My mother says to Grandmother that she will spoil me, and Grandmother tells her to hush.
I twirl in the dresses for hours in Grandmother’s backyard, among the vegetables and the little white butterflies that dance from row to row. When I get dizzy, I help her pick perilla leaves, which she will wash and marinate in soy sauce, vinegar, and slivers of garlic later for dinner. “Your mother loved these when she was your age,” she says. The three of us eat them under the flickering fluorescent light of her kitchen, which always smells of sesame oil and red peppers.
A cicada finds its way inside the house one evening, a wet slick of terror with too many legs and orange eyes, and my mother and I scream and scream while Grandmother chuckles. Finally, she traps it inside a jar and takes it outside, where it sits, stunned, on the grass, until she shoos it away.
“You have the heart of a rabbit,” she says when I tell her my fears, numbering them like favorite songs. She tells me stories of timid rabbits who have outsmarted tigers, rabbits who have dared to visit the underwater kingdom of the Dragon King and tricked sea turtles into bringing them back to shore safely. The lesson here, she tells me, is that fear is no reason not to be brave. As the summer ripens, she tells me more stories, about a snail who fell in love with a man and became a woman, a little girl who became the moon, the bear who became a woman after spending one hundred days in darkness eating only mugwort and garlic, and fox women whose heavy skirts hide their nine tails.
The air is wet and heavy in Seoul, and Grandmother’s house does not have air conditioning. I wake from nightmares in which my lungs fill with seawater, where my classmates watch me drown in a glass tank and say nothing, their blue eyes as flat as stones. On our seventh night in Seoul, when I wake up crying, Grandmother takes me to the kitchen, where she spoons strawberry ice cream into glass bowls for us, while my mother sleeps, exhausted from the heat. The ice cream melts and drips down my pajama shirt a little, but unlike my mother, my grandmother doesn’t mind my mess.
When the ice cream is finished, she slices bright persimmons for us, the fleshy segments unfolding like thick petals across her cutting board. We eat them in the backyard, listening to the cicadas buzz while Grandmother points out the pale yellow disc of the moon and shows me its grooves and shadows, which she tells me make up the silhouette of a rabbit pounding a mortar and pestle. I like the idea of a rabbit inside the moon, a small friend made of shadows and light to watch over me as I sleep.
When the summer is over, Grandmother sends me back with a sweater she knit herself, a sweater as soft as cloud-floss and as pink as strawberry ice cream. I wear it on the plane and fall asleep, and for once I do not dream that we are falling out of the sky.
Grandmother becomes a voice on the phone. “Please be healthy and live a long time,” I learn to say in Korean.
“I’ll try,” she always says.
“When are you coming to see us?” I say, and she tells me, “Soon.”
But as the years pass, Grandmother’s voice on the phone fades and becomes a dry flicker of itself, and I begin to forget my halting Korean, the words of my childhood vanishing as quietly as melting snow.
I grow older, taller, less afraid. My fear crystallizes inside me, becoming jagged. I learn to shout back at my teachers and bullies. I am often caught fighting the other girls after school and am frequently in detention. My glasses break during one of these fights, and my mother is furious with me. We raise our voices, and the house shakes with our mutual disappointment and anger. Afterwards, when I wash the tears off my face and look in the mirror, I see another girl inside me, a blurred girl filled with smoky rage.
When I am eleven, I come home from school to find my mother sobbing in the kitchen, the phone hanging off the hook. A blood vessel migrating from one hemisphere of Grandmother’s brain to the other has burst. Plane tickets are bought, bags are packed.
In the hospital, Grandmother stares, her eyes empty, dressed in a patterned gown. The nurses tell us that she cannot hear, speak, or think, but I know she is pretending, playing a joke on all of us. The food in the hospital — gluey rice and boiled vegetables — is blanched of flavor. I tell Grandmother about it, whispering to her that the food here is terrible and that she should really wake up and tell them what’s what. The machines beep in response, an electric pulse that I wonder if she can hear in her dreams.
It is our third evening in the hospital when the doctors tell us that it is time to make a decision, and my mother has to leave the room. I hear her sneakers squeak up and down the shining hallways as she cries. I reach under the covers to grab Grandmother’s hand and ask her if she’d like to come home with us, fly over the ocean and around the world. “You can stay in my room,” I tell her. “I can teach you English. You don’t have to be alone here anymore.”
Her eyes open and she turns to look at me. “Let’s get out of here,” she says, awake.
I help her put her shoes on and change out of her paper gown. I look away respectfully when she steps into her flowered house dress. We climb out of the hospital window, shimmying down with the help of sheets knotted together, and we run down the street to a nearby city park, her IV pole clattering along next to us. She is faster than I am. I imagine the look on my mother’s face when she comes back to the hospital room to find the bed empty and her mother and daughter gone.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” Grandmother says, rolling down a hill. Blades of grass cling to our legs and her gown blooms with grass stains. We wait for someone to come looking for us, to shout after us and tell us that we are not allowed to be out here, but no one does. She steals a locked bicycle, picking the lock with a bobby pin that I loosen from my hair and hand her like we’ve done this dozens of times, and I jog up and down the sidewalk next to her as she wobbles down the street. We pick wildflowers and hand them to strangers, who smile at us. I find dandelions gone to seed for my mother, who loves their gauzy architecture.
We walk past an ice cream shop, and I buy us two cones of strawberry. The pink sweetness drips down our wrists as we enjoy the cool night breeze. Above us, a rabbit moon rises, green and gold.
“We should be going in now,” she says. “Your mother will worry.”
“She always worries,” I say. “I want to stay here with you.”
“She worries for you,” she says. “That’s her job.” She finishes the rest of her ice cream, crunching the cone thoughtfully.
We walk back to the hospital. She hums a song she used to sing to me on the nights I couldn’t fall asleep. I don’t know the words anymore, but I remember it’s about a baby falling asleep alone, while its mother goes to look for oysters along the beach.
I am already counting all the things about Grandmother that I will miss. Her scratchy singing voice, her cackle, the wrinkles around her eyes that make her look as though she is smiling even when she isn’t, her smell of mothballs and sesame oil and tiger balm.
“Take care of your mother,” she says, turning towards me at the door.
“Don’t go,” I say, my mouth sour and prickly with loss.
She wraps me in her arms, and I breathe her in, one last time. She says my name, and then she vanishes completely, turning into gold crossbars of light. I walk in alone, with a fist full of dandelions. Their snowy heads nod gently as I look for my mother in the long white hallways of the hospital, to tell her that Grandmother is gone.
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