Fiction

The Hermit

Nami Mun
Illustration of a tree in snowy landscape by Laura Padilla Castellanos
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

decades from now she’d be known as the Hermit of South Mountain, the protectorate of a small seaside village, the enlightened, all-knowing mountain spirit to whom you could spill your grief. But on this winter night, she was not yet a savior. She was a desperate fifteen-year-old, hiding behind the camphor tree and preparing to mark her baby.

Her name was Sangha, but not everyone called her that. The people she was running from, for example, used only her Japanese name—three syllables that inspired in her, every time she heard them, a need to grab the nearest knife. She had to remember that this mandated name was good for one thing: it would keep track of who she was versus who she would be after tonight.

She’d tried to escape before. Each time she got caught, their anger grew, as did their appetite to punish. She looked down at her wrist. From the cuff of her sleeve, the scar peeked out. 逃 it said. Runner.

It had taken three men and a woman to hold her down while a small army of men stood in line, ready to invade. At first she screamed, kicked, and punched, but by the fourth or the fifth man, Sangha’s body simply resigned itself to just be there. Like dirt. Dirty dirt, she sang to herself. Soiled soil. “Some are born to be whores,” one of them spat into her ear. “Might as well be a good one.” Her sandal lay on its side, inches from her face, and she focused on it and began to count because words woke you up but numbers put you in a trance, and soon she remembered the counting game she’d played with her friends when she was little—ppang-il, ppang-ee, ppang-sam, ppang-sahShe got to ppang-gu, a homonym for “fart,” and remembering their old laughter made her laugh. “Oh, so you like it!” somebody said. And as the man grunted, she squeezed her eyes shut, and her mind drifted up to the ceiling, pushed through the cracks, and floated through the tin roof until everything and everyone sounded like coins clinking in water.

When they were done, they branded her. Left her in that soggy shed, naked from the waist down. Only then could she really scream. She was fourteen.

But tonight—tonight she sat under a giant camphor tree and heard nothing but the sound of her baby breathing. The night fog smelled of menthol. It stung her throat. Sangha had walked for hours with her boy slung to her back, and now her feet were chunks of ice. To her left a river slithered by, slowed by the freezing temperatures. To her right, across the main road, was the temple, where the tall wooden gates stood draped in snow. She looked down at her boy, her little squirmy ojingau. Minutes from now her life would be divided yet again: another before, another after. What was the original before? She once had parents. They once grew sprouts. She once was just a silly girl whose goal in life was to try to make her father smile.

She looked at her wrist. She looked at her boy. His face was smeared in dirt, and tiny slivers of ice collected on the tips of his lashes. Did only tragedy get to decide where to draw the line? She kissed him on his forehead, dabbed his runny nose, licked her thumb and with it wiped his cheeks. This was definitely the before—this moment when bits of life seemed clean, when her baby was still asleep in her arms, when the full moon hung like a giant white myth. The powdery snow seemed more blue than white, and it covered everything—every branch, every bit of road, every roof tile above the temple gates—so that it seemed as if this land had never, not once, received the blood of beheadings. A wooden placard hung on the door. It said Slide baby here, with an arrow pointing down at a small hatch. That hatch, made of splintered wood and two rusty hinges, that was the after.

Her boy cooed awake, wriggled around like the ojingau that he was, trying to find warmth against her bony chest. He tugged at the pink scarf she had around her neck. “Hanju-ya, go back to sleep,” she said, and pulled down his hat to cover his ears. From her satchel she pulled out the scraps of charcoal briquettes she’d stolen from the street market, as well as her father’s old name stamp—the only thing she had from her former life—and, of course, the coin, the last of her money, which she tucked into the fold of his hat. “These monks can be bought, just like everybody else,” she said. The boy mewled, as if to agree, and his voice was the only sound for miles. Sangha looked around. No crickets. No lapwings. But from a distance came a faint rumbling that eventually crescendoed to a roaring Imperial Army truck. She ducked. The baby yawped, and she covered his mouth and didn’t move until the truck passed. When the sound of its engine faded into the fog, she let go of her boy. He wailed. “I’m sorry,” she said to him, over and over, but the boy kept on. Maybe he knew what lay ahead. Or maybe he was hungry, the nearness of her breasts giving him a scent of hope.

She took off the sling, cocooned him tighter in it, and then wrapped him in the pink scarf.

How old is your baby?

Sangha smoothed the scarf and wondered about the lady from last night, why she’d walked through the darkening alley to speak to her. In high heels, no less.

“How old is your baby?” she’d asked, still half an alley away.

Black stockings. Black overcoat. Black hair slicked to a bun. The only bounce of color came from the pink scarf, tied to resemble a flower blooming from her neck.

“How old?” the lady asked again and pointed to Hanju asleep on her back.

“What’s it to you?”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy.”

“That’s too bad.” The lady lit a cigarette, stared at Sangha’s wrist for a long second before turning her gaze to the empty cans of condensed milk scattered around the dumpster. “Amazing how the young can sleep in such unfavorable conditions. Such is the primacy of their need, as well as their trust in the universe.”

Sangha only pretended to understand.

“And how old are you?” the lady asked.

Sangha lied and said she was twenty.

The woman hid a smile. “Here,” she said, and removed her leather gloves and pulled a coin purse from her coat. “One can’t care for a child from the grave.” She placed a coin into Sangha’s palm. Though the money was a surprise, it was the softness of the lady’s skin that woke something in her, something that straddled the line between desire and disgust. Sangha recoiled but the lady then slipped the scarf off her neck and draped it over her hand. “For you, when you want to feel pretty.”

Sangha had never touched silk. It felt like a sheet made of wind. She looked up to thank the woman, but she was already walking back down the alley, toward a car that had been waiting just for her.

this morning she could still smell the lady’s creamy perfume and a hint of the cigarette smoke, but now, after a day’s trek, the scarf just smelled like her own cold and tangy sweat. Hanju had eased himself back to slumber. He slept often because hunger was the softest blanket. She held him close. Who knew when she would hear his sleeping sighs again, or feel his sticky warmth against her face. She put her nose to his lips, took a breath and tried to smell only him. Then she counted—il…ee…sam…sah—so that by the time she reached ten, her baby was already lying on the snow. “Hanju-ya, this isn’t the time for thinking,” she told him. “This is a time for change. Hard work and determination only work if you have money already. Or if you’re Japanese. But when you’re poor, there’s no use in trying to be good.” Sangha kicked off her shoes and peeled off her socks. Her toes were numb, but she couldn’t think about that. She balled up her socks and pillowed her boy’s head with them. The ground wasn’t soft but not yet frozen. With the help of a few sticks and a flat stone, she began to dig a hole the size of a fist, just big enough to stack the bits of charcoal. “You have to take risks,” she went on. “You have to do things a mother would never dream of, arasau?” She kept digging, and her mind kept speaking. This boy—this boy is yours, it said. The only thing in your life that belongs to you. You will not lose him. You will find him again. Get back the flesh that came from your flesh and be together again. She grabbed the matches and told herself to focus only on her movements. Strike the match. Light the briquettes. Cover and blow, cover and blow. Do not think. Do not bend. If they could mark their hatred on her, why shouldn’t a mother mark her love onto her own son? All she needed was one thing that would unite them forever. “That’s what this is,” she told Hanju. “It’s a promise. I’ll find you with this, my little squid. And people are shallow, but you already knew that. Nobody will want to adopt a boy, not even a beautiful boy like you, who has a scar.” The coals dimmed, and on them she placed her father’s name stamp, brass tip down, the symbol signifying her father’s lineage and vocation. The Japanese had taken so much. No more, she thought, as the brass darkened. She started to count, and right at ten, she picked up the stamp and pressed it against her own wrist, onto the very spot they had branded her.

But guilt, a mother’s guilt, was immortal.

A pain shot through her arm and pierced her neck, her ear, her teeth. She wanted to scream but locked her jaws instead and hissed. She pressed harder and counted once more, but this time, as if one part of her feared that another part would bend her mind, she lifted the stamp at the count of seven and pressed it firmly against her boy’s sleeping face.

ten years went by.

And then ten more.

After this night, after the occupation, after the 6-2-5 war that kept her trudging through endless kilometers of dust to escape being shot by the North, after years of empty bowls and water lines, after living in a packing-crate slum, after seeing with her own two eyes a packing-crate home burn up in flames, making smoke out of a family of nine—after having survived all of it, Sangha felt less human and more like a small dead tree.

But she kept on. Life seemed intent on killing her, so killing herself was never an option.

She found work—scaling and washing fish at a market stand, applying strips of tape onto gomusin at a shoe factory, and eventually as a servant for a family in Seoul where she thought she could be happy. If not happy, then settled. For years, she spent her days cooking for the family, fermenting dwenjang in the backyard, seeding their garden, making earthenwares of the master’s favorite chonggak kimchi, cleaning the outhouse, cleaning the chamber pot, and raising the family’s three children, who all called her grand- mother even though she was only thirty-five.

Then one day she was sweeping the courtyard when she heard it. A voice from beneath the soil. She let the broom fall. There was no mistaking. She recognized him instantly. “I’m here, ojingau, I’m here.” She dropped to her knees and began to dig but couldn’t dig fast enough. His cries turned desperate. There was no calming him, not now and not back then, under that camphor tree those twenty years ago, where her little baby’s arms had flailed, slapping away the cause of his suffering. He’d screamed, his eyes tearing, and the whole of his cheeks reddened with rage, except for the spot where she’d branded him. No longer skin. Just flesh, in the shape of the family name, cauterized and pink. She’d lifted her shirt, held him to her naked breasts but he’d refused her, hadn’t he? Screamed even louder, his mouth too angry, even for milk. So she regripped the boy in one hand and squeezed her nipple with the other until droplets fell into his screaming mouth.

the next day, the cries came again. Within a week, he was every- where in the house. He cried from the soil where she’d planted peppers, from the hardwood floors of the madam’s bedroom, sometimes from the bottom of her own teacup when she was tired, but more often from the pillow on which Sangha lay her head every night. “Hanju-ya,” she’d mumble in her sleep, and the beads in her pillow would promptly reply, There is no creature more base than you.

There was no mistaking. She recognized him instantly.

She wondered why her son was tormenting her now, after all this time. And then she wondered why he hadn’t tormented her all along. In all of her imaginings, her son survived the war. He was not among those who died of starvation, of explosives, of infection. Once, she’d seen a picture in a newspaper of a body buried under snow. Only the handcuffed wrists could be seen, sticking up from the white. And the hole in the snow, melted by a mouth breathing its final breaths. This couldn’t be her son, she’d told herself. Her son couldn’t be dead because he was alive.

weeks passed.

Her boy kept crying.

She was pumping water when she heard him again. This time from the bottom of the water bucket, where she could see a murky image, bloated and blue. His cries followed her outside the house too. At the market, he was the beheaded chicken, the headless body running around mad in a circle before flopping to its side. In the bathhouse, he was the drain. “Are you dead now?” she asked the baby down in the pipe. “Is this why you’re coming for me?”

She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t be awake without seeing her boy, sometimes wrapped in that pink scarf, sometimes on a bed of blue snow, crying. He was always crying. Once, the young servant next door came over to investigate a strange noise and found Sangha clawing at the dividing stone wall, a few of her fingernails torn and dangling. “You’re bleeding!” the girl said and dabbed the blood with the hem of her apron. “Ahjumuni, you have to stop this, or they’ll be sure to fire you.”

one night, when sleep refused to come, Sangha stepped into the middle of the courtyard in her underwear and nightshirt and turned her face to the sky. She didn’t care about being fired. She only cared that the moon was out, and that the stars looked as though an obedient maid had buffed each one clean. Her life, of course, had not been clean. Things had been done unto her. But those horrors, she knew, could never explain away what she had done to her child. There was no one else to blame. Not the war. Not the governments. Not even the soldiers. She’d never told anyone about her baby, but the stars knew the truth. And the moon—the moon never forgave.

Time had the power to lessen grief, but guilt, a mother’s guilt, was immortal. It would never ever let go of her. And she would never let go of it. With the determination of worker ants, the guilt, for decades, had eaten away at her tacitly, steadily. She’d swatted them away as best as she could. Now they were surrounding her, crawling up her legs, up the back of her neck and into her ears, their nibbling so clear she could hear the grinding of dry teeth. In her head, she began counting to drown out the noise. Runner, they’d branded her, and she’d proved them right, but this time there was no escaping. This time, she did not want to run. She lay herself down on the soft, soggy dirt. This time, she welcomed the feast.

Nami Mun was raised in Seoul, South Korea and the Bronx, New York. She is the author of the novel Miles from Nowhere, shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and the Asian American Literary Award, and is also the recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award and a Whiting Award. She teaches creative writing at Northwestern University.
Originally published:
March 1, 2022

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