Han Jung-joo balances on one foot, lifts the other up to the hose, under the running water. It is ice cold—clear mountain water—but she does not flinch, does not cry out. She runs her other hand, the one that is not holding the hose, over her foot, smoothing away dirt and grass. She does this in slow, even motions, rubbing her pale, thinly-veined feet with a small thumb, spreading toes apart with fingers, careful not to soil or wet her long wool skirt. She holds this position with ease and calm, like a yogi demonstrating stillness and balance.

Her blue rubber slippers—Adidas brand, which her son bought for her in Seoul—are also filthy. She sprays the slippers clean, then switches feet, switches hands, repeats the motions. By the time she is done, both hands and feet are shiny and slick, bluish-white, throbbing in slow hard pulses from the cold. It is not an unpleasant feeling. She inhales once deeply, gathering the crisp mountain air—metallic in its sharpness—into her lungs, and holds it. Feels the cold moving through her blood, heading for her heart. Three solid beats in her chest, a slight pain at the top of her head; she exhales. The morning gray begins to burn off as the sun weighs in. Familiar big sky, their very own heavens. Blue mountains, heavy-set and blunt like stern old Korean men, rise wide and formidable above Hyun Sook Lake, where she and her husband have built their two-story Western-style home.

Re-entering the house through the back door into the laundry room, she now finds a small pink towel, fringed on the edges (a hand towel should reflect a feminine delicacy as opposed to the thick mannish plush of a bath towel) and takes a moment to dry and warm her extremities. Cho Jin-sook, the dark-skinned woman from the village to the south, whom she has recently hired as housekeeper, is in the kitchen and hasn’t heard her come in. Han Jung-joo brushes loose strands of bobbed hair—intolerably frizzy this morning and in need of a refresher perm (this afternoon’s appointment)—away from her face and takes a moment to think. The woman must be reprimanded for forgetting to latch the dog pen again. Han Jung-joo spent a good part of the morning coaxing Bear, the German Shepherd, back into the pen, making a mess of her feet and slippers in the process. Last night’s rains left the yard a muddy mess—good for the vegetable garden and grass seedlings which have sprouted, but even more important to keep the dog in the pen. With the cool weather settling in, it will be hard to get him to stand still under the hose for a wash. But this will be Cho Jin-sook’s problem—the inevitable consequence of her lapse, circling back, as error is wont to do.

Han Jung-joo pauses one moment longer before returning to the main activity of the house. The cat—a timid, scrawny calico when they found her, now fat and presumptuous—has entered the laundry room, tail high, purring and rubbing against the bit of bare leg below the hem of her skirt, warming her cold ankles. The morning’s trouble finished, she receives this bit of sweetness and returns it with a gentle scratch behind the cat’s ear. All the animals content and in their places; time to tend to the humans.

Cho Jin-sook is a woman in her mid 40’s, married to a poor rice farmer who only recently acquired a small paddy of his own. She married late, by country standards; they have three children under the age of 12. She is not a pretty woman—broad shoulders and flat bust, eyes narrow and spread far apart, dark leathery skin, a mouth full of crowded crooked teeth—and so her father had a difficult time finding a match for her. But she is strong, hard-working, loyal. Luckily, the man who agreed to have her recognized her qualities and has treated her kindly – no small bit of luck for a woman whose life could easily have gone the route of brutality at the hands of a more common man. Her previous situation, as housekeeper to a wealthy businessman’s family in Taegu, had become untenable—two-hours commuting time by bus each way, a drain on both time and money. Now, from her village it was a 40-minute walk to the Han residence; and when her husband had time to drop her off, it was 15 minutes by scooter.

Unfortunately, Cho Jin-sook does not like dogs. She tried not to let on during her interview a month before, but it has become increasingly obvious over time. It is the worst part of her day when she walks out to the yard, enters that pen, lays down food and water; then flees back to the house. This is the third time she has neglected to stop and secure the latch behind her.

Han Jung-joo smooths down her skirt and slips her feet into a pair of satin house slippers. She must make up for lost time now. Her husband will be down for breakfast soon. Cho Jin-sook must serve him first, she and her daughter will have their breakfast separately, after he has left for work.

The kitchen is warm and filled with the pleasant smell of stewed seaweed and garlic. Han Jung-joo enters calmly but swiftly, begins wiping down the breakfast table and setting her husband’s place. “Auntie Cho, you must get the rice and soup ready for Dr. Han first. Miss Min-yung and I will eat later.” Her voice is terse, and serious. “You must remember to lock the gate, Auntie Cho.” She says this while keeping her eyes and motions focused on setting the table. Cho Jin-sook, who stands over the stove stirring the guk, pauses. Ay! she thinks to herself. Idiot, not again! She has gotten the message: Mrs. Han has spent the morning taking care of her work and is not pleased. She wants to apologize, explain herself— the dog was barking at her again, bearing teeth, she was afraid—but she knows this will only irritate Mrs. Han further. Mrs. Han hates whining and excuses, she knows this. And she likes Mrs. Han very much. She wants to keep this position.

Cho Jin-sook respects the moment of silence, confirming that she has understood Han Jung-joo’s reprimand. Then: “Miss Han is not feeling well this morning. I will bring breakfast to her room later on. She is still sleeping now.” Han Jung-joo nods her head. She suspected that her daughter might not make an appearance this morning. Four months pregnant, she has been staying in bed later and later in the mornings, uninterested in eating and sickened by the smells.

“All right, then. We’ll get ready for my husband, he will be down any minute.”

The morning ritual is much simpler than it once was. When the three children were young, there was much more activity: lunches to pack, books and papers to gather, coats and hats and shoes to button and tie. And they lived in a smaller house, the old Han family house, where they were crowded and had to coordinate so that each member of the family could use the one bathroom, eat breakfast, and go off to school and work. Han Jung-joo had become quite masterful at managing everyone’s needs and schedules, her husband and each child invariably organized and ready for the day. She took a great deal of satisfaction in this, in a well-run household. Even now, with just her daughter at home, she maintains many of the same rituals and makes sure everyone is on schedule. Possibly she does not need the help of Cho Jin-sook, but she does not like the idea of just one set of hands running the household. She has always felt that a supervisor and a helper is the best way. And with extra help, she is always available to her husband, for social occasions and assistance at his office when needed—extensions of the household for which she feels equally responsible.

And, they have just moved to their new home, not three months ago. It is more than twice the size of their previous home, and requires more care and cleaning, as they built it using more expensive and sensitive materials. For example, the floors are made of soft fir, which dents easily, and so she is careful to make sure that the many area rugs are clean and in place and that the legs of all the furniture are securely adhered to thick felt pads. In the living room and dining room they installed track lighting, which makes the house bright and cheerful, but also reveals more dust, and so the dusting must be done daily now as opposed to twice a week. They also now have more modern appliances, so while Cho Jin-sook tends to the yard and garden, Han Jung-joo often deals with repair and maintenance people who drive in from town to assist with problems that arise.

Han Jae-kyu now descends the stairs. Han Jung-joo is still getting used to the sound of footsteps on a stairway—they have never lived in a two-story home before—and likes the warning aspect of it, which helps her prepare in the mornings. She can now tell the difference between her husband’s steps (clop clop clop clop – even and unrushed) and her daughter’s (CLOP clop… CLOP clop – one foot heavy, the other following, increasingly reluctant and obligatory these days). It has not occurred to her until just now to think whether either of them can tell her own footsteps; or what they might sound like.

“Good morning,” Han Jae-kyu says as he sits at table.

“Good morning.” Han Jung-joo brings his soup and rice and coffee. Coffee is a new element in the ritual, since they’ve moved into the new house. She was surprised when he brought it home one day—a bag of Starbucks whole beans and an elaborate machine which ground the beans and brewed the coffee all at the touch of one button. It was a gift from a patient who had just returned from a trip to Seoul. People often brought things to her husband from their travels—specialty foods and smart clothing and accessories from big cities—and most of the time, he accepted them graciously but either stored them away or gave them to his sons. This time, he showed an enthusiasm for the gift and asked her to put it to use right away. Han Jung-joo herself liked the smell and taste of coffee but did not like the jarring noise the machine made when grinding the beans. But he was so pleased when she served him his first cup, held it up to his nose and inhaled deeply before drinking. He even brought home a box-full of new beans when the first one ran out, which he ordered from the city for delivery. “Put these in the freezer,” he had said. “They will keep longer.”

She does not sit down at the table, but returns to the pot and ladles a small bowl of soup for herself, which she sips slowly, lifting the bowl to her mouth and standing over the counter. Cho Jin-sook has gone to start on the laundry.

“Min-yung is sick again?”

“Yes, she is still sleeping.”

“Too bad. It will get a little worse before it gets better. Make sure she has some guk later. She has to gain weight.”

“She has lost three kilograms.” He considers this, but moves over it quickly.

“It’s all right for now, but she has to gain soon. You should take her to the on-cheon, it may do her some good.”

“But they say…”

“Yes, they say that, but it is not true. Pregnant women have been going to the hot springs for centuries. There is no reason to think anything has changed. She can stay in the cooler pools.”

“Yes, well… maybe it will make her feel better. She is very unhappy. She is upset with Woo-sung.”

“Why should she be upset?”

“He has been in Taegu three weeks now.” Han Jung-joo says all this matter-of-factly. She is careful not to express opinion, but to simply let her husband know the facts.

“A man has to work, make a living. He is doing as he should be doing.”

“Well… you were never away when I was pregnant.” She is speaking affectionately now, not making argument. Always careful-careful with her tone.

“Those days were simpler, we lived and worked in the same place. I worked long hours but I could come home during the day because it was so close.” His tone is playful. He seems in a good mood.

“Min-yung does not want to move to the city.”

“It is not a matter of ‘want.’ She has to go where her husband finds work. These days, there is no work here in the country.”

“Too bad he is not a doctor.”

“Why should he be a doctor? A business advisor is a good occupation. A stable company, very respectable.”

“If he was a doctor, then he could work for you, here in town.” She is flattering her husband now. He is the most successful and well-known physician for several towns and villages around. People come from long distances to see him. Han Jung-joo takes pride in this. And she makes sure to find ways of expressing this regularly.

“That is true. I have too much work. I am getting old.”

“You are still young,” she says teasingly. She finds her husband not exactly handsome—he has large ears and coal-round eyes spaced close together, is medium-tall, short-legged and bony in build—but has always admired his competent, decisive temperament. “Only 57. Look, your older brother in America is 64 and still working.”

“In America it is different. People live to work instead of working to live. I do not think my brother is happy working so hard all these years. I think sometimes we should feel sorry for him.”

Han Jung-joo is silent. She is surprised by her husband’s words, which is unusual. There are very few surprises in their life now, after 30 years of marriage and three children raised and grown. He is also silent for a moment. Then: “The air is turning cold. Night is coming earlier. Make sure Min-yung wears a sweater, even in the house. And thick socks. She should sleep on a bed, not on the floor. What will you do today?” Dr. Han asks this question each and every morning. Han Jung-joo’s answer is more or less the same each day, with a few varying details.

“We will go to the market in town this morning, then tend to the garden and yard this afternoon. Hae-sik and Hae-joo will be here Friday afternoon for the birthday celebration, so I must prepare their rooms and do extra shopping, special treats for the children. I will have to keep an eye on Min-yung. If, as you say, she gets worse, she will need me throughout the day.” Her voice trails off, imperceptibly, even to herself. Her thoughts in relation to her daughter have lately begun drifting away from her, like a strange music drawing her into dark shadows; but she does not follow their lead, her will to focus is strong and instinctual.

Dr. Han nods his head, brings his soup bowl to his mouth to slurp noisily the last of the guk. Han Jung-joo has intentionally neglected to mention her hair appointment. He will notice her fresh perm later, but better not to discuss it. It pleases him that she minds her appearance, but in a way that does not draw attention or make a fuss.

“All right, then. I’ll be off.”

***

Han Jung-joo ascends the stairs, pausing in front of Min-yung’s door. She sees that it is open just a crack and peers in to see if her daughter is awake. She sees that Min-yung is sitting up in bed, reading.

“Is there something you wanted?” Min-yung’s voice is monotone; she does not look up from her book.

“We’re going into town now.”

“All right.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“No, nothing.” Han Jung-joo taps the door open, steps into the darkened room.

“You need more light. If you open the curtain behind you…”

“All right.”

Min-yung-ah…” Min-yung looks up, eyes only. Such a look, Han Jung-joo thinks. Why does she look at me so, what have I done… She catches herself, smiles at her daughter. Min-yung’s expression softens as well, a kind of truce—a faint sadness—opens up between them.

“What are you reading?”

“Nothing. I mean…it’s an old one. Baby Uncle gave it to me, long time ago.”

“A novel?”

“Stories. Strange ones, but also funny. From Russia. Na-bo-kuv.”

“Well, I am sure they have some good meaning. Baby Uncle always sends you nice things, from his heart.”

“Yes.” A half-smile, then Min-yung’s eyes are back to her book. She pulls her knees to her chest, still under the blankets.

Han Jung-joo looks around the room, takes stock of her daughter’s things—so many girlhood treasures, now crammed onto shelves—neat and orderly enough, but three layers deep and not an inch of empty space. She cannot imagine what the closets look like, or under the bed. When Min-yung was younger, they enjoyed showering her with dolls and figurines and other pretty things, she was the only girl after all. But the girl’s attachment to them, the way she packed them away and refused to part with them over the years—even this time, this move to their new house, now as a married woman, soon to be on her own—troubled her. “What’s to worry about,” Han Jae-kyu said. “She is a girl, and she loves her toys, they keep her company. At least nothing goes to waste, most girls tire of things so quickly.” It seemed to Han Jung-joo that he was always defending their daughter, and she was always worrying.

Mostly, this gave her comfort. Her husband’s unconditional love and approval of the girl, their closeness. He, too, always fed her reading habit, with everything from old folk tale stories to the new fantasy adventures. Together they had read the first two Narnia Chronicles, but then he became busy with his work and was too tired when he came home, so Min-yung would read on her own, on the couch next to her father while he watched the news on TV or napped in his chair. Han Jung-joo would sometimes find them there in the late evening, her husband snoring lightly, mouth open, and Min-yung asleep also, book on her chest, legs up over the back of the couch (she liked to read lying upside down). She was always happy to find them there like that; her daughter in those moments seemed so much at peace, so perfectly herself—not the nervous, inward girl she was in every other setting.

“You haven’t eaten.”

“I will go down later. I will fix something.”

Ku-reh. All right, then. I will have my cell phone.” Han Jung-joo steps back and closes the door. She thinks to open it again, to ask if maybe Min-yung would like to go to the on-cheon tomorrow, maybe she would enjoy it. Instead, she continues on to her bedroom—changes her clothes, fixes her face. Sets herself to the day’s tasks. She moves quickly down the stairs and calls to Cho Jin-sook: “Ajjummah, let’s hurry. It is time to go.”

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