Finding Spells

Tin House: Flash Fridays

I’ve been missing Korea like crazy lately, reminiscing and daydreaming and rifling through old photos, emailing long-lost friends, practicing my hangul with the nice ajuma at the grocery store down the street. She listens patiently, but then talks back so fast I just smile and nod stupidly, pretend to understand. Before I leave, she drops an extra piece of fruit in my bag. This only makes it worse.

It’s been ten years since I left, but I still fantasize about returning to Busan, the city I called home for six years. I think about returning for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year. One result of all this unchecked homesickness—or hyangsu-byung (향수병) which translates literally to perfume disease—is that Tin House, one of my favorite literary journals, recently ran a piece of flash fiction by me online. It's a story loosely based on Gwangan Beach and bridge (which I actually never saw finished—I left before they connected it). At 450 words, it’s kind of short and bittersweet:

Returned to Korea, the land that belonged once to you, owned you, lost you. And barely in my door, your luggage huddled between us like children dragged along and casting suspicion on new surroundings, you perch on my sofa and ask for the beach.

“I’ll take you,” I say.

To the beach where your skin one June burned a red to rival the fire-washed kimchi sold at the market by wizened ladies wearing flowered visors—the same old ajumas who gave you potatoes, said to cover yourself with thin slices. “It will stop the burn,” they promised, and at first it did but the strips dried hard and clung to your skin, and you winced as I peeled them away.

The beach I fled to when we fought, where a man of no English once taught me Korean. Pada, he told me, sea. Hanil, sky, and taeyang, sun. He traced the words with my finger in the sand so I let him stay and kiss me as taeyang descended before us into an empty space in the center of an unfinished bridge, between two steel arms reaching in vain across the sea for each other. Day and night he called, but by then I’d lost the names for sand and sky and stone and alone.

On your birthday that year we walked the shore bent like grandparents in search of treasures, sand-scrubbed offerings for the Buddha in the living room. You found a shell shaped like the moon and dusted with stars and tucked it away before the typhoon hit, sheets of rain so dark and horizontal they threatened to cut us. We held hands and ran but the sky poured out, you stumbled, we fell.

Later, it was gone, your moonstar shell.

“I’ll find it,” I said. “I’ll take you.”

Across the battered sand, you asked, for a shell the size of a freckle?

But I found where we’d first started running and I placed it in your palm. Your eyes, an unfinished bridge between thank you and fuck you. You asked how I did it.

“I cast a finding spell,” I said. My mother’s solution for everything lost—keys and rings and other shoes, streets, dreams, time and love. I am casting a finding spell, she would announce, and whatever was misplaced would be found.

Your eyes surrendered their thunder, fell placid as sea and sky all kissed and made up. You were mystified, converted, instant devotee to the church of the finding spell.

And I couldn’t tell you what is clear now, perched on this sofa with your luggage between us—two sides of an unfinished bridge, no longer reaching. There was no magic or sorcery that day. To find what’s lost, you have only to return to the place you let it go.

Those who do not change their minds cannot change anything.” –George Bernard Shaw