Pusan morning, 1958
Before his daughter’s appearance, he was already old. He had long lived in the sprawling ancestral home his grandfather raised. Even when the American soldiers arrived, when the streets echoed with their untested boots, the forty-eight stars of their flag rising, he remained in this house with its several wings. For the courtyard and its single persimmon tree, the translucent pleasure of a fishpond. Before her arrival, he stood before the gates in a long buttoned coat. Alone, unsmiling. Her father.
Before her, he was already in tatters, the father of one son murdered inside his wife’s womb. Afterwards, he awoke at dawn and wandered for a decade through the fog-veiled courtyard. In his right hand, he carried a walking stick cut from the persimmon tree. He used this to check the stone-laid path, tapping the smooth granite with the worn end. At the fishpond’s shore, he talked to the glistening carp, addressed them by their one hundred patches of scale and fin. He scattered rice across the slack water and watched the carp jostle among themselves to drink the sweetest grains.
It was during such a morning that he came upon her as she lay swaddled in a brown nest of rags at the gateway. He lifted her tired body and carried her across the courtyard to the fishpond. She clung to sleep as he revealed her face to the silver air, her eyes tight in the tail of a dream. He was unconcerned that she was an infant, indeed a stranger. He nodded toward the lens, and the shutter snapped, the moment froze. Overhead, the sky was held by an undisturbed gray. A light wind blew against the treetop, and everywhere was the soft rustle of awakening things.
It is this photograph of them she will return to, years later, at the edge of all his living. She places it in his hands while she bathes his last fever with cool water. In another wing, a piano plays on the radio, and she hums quietly over the slight swells, the single notes hovering in the air momentarily as if astonished, only to melt into the memory of the piano’s taut cords. She breathes in deeply and hums again, bringing him closer to the music he can now barely hear, back to the childhood that has become drowsy in their minds. A wavering progression suspended in her voice. One octave in a range of ivory keys.
Only smudges of her first hours with him now remain, rendered faintly in her careful script on the back of the picture. Each memory has slowly worn away with each handling. Fingerprints frame the edges. Sentences disappear and reemerge, the words floating aimlessly, suspended from her pencil by string.
She has written that she can hear them again, the fish, singing of lost treasure from beyond the shore. She has lain noiselessly on the pale bedding in her room while the notes bear their insistence as if measured by moonlight. In the weakened night sky, there is a familiar coldness filled with salt, and she has pulled the thin blankets up to her chin. It is a night without end, and yet their words cradle her, singing of lost treasure. In this far corner of her mind, the day still ends with song.
When she sleeps, finally, she dreams of the courtyard, and its fishpond, how can she tell him? She is an infant again, just a small, small girl, and she rests her knotted fist against his lapel as he stands underneath the persimmon tree. The air is warm in its slumber, it smells of fruit, and there is a mist from the mountain resting atop the stones, so thick she can barely see the carp drink the water top with their white mouths. Rings expand on the surface, flatten until they disappear. And though it is silent, her lips move, and she is certain, yes, she is speaking to him.
Ahpa, she says, Remain with me. The wind has ceased, and all around us, it is still.
–Art by Marina Ćorić