logo image a digital codex of contemporary pan-american writing

Issue 20, Prosa | April 2017

     

Hands

Auntie stands here washing buckets of vegetables under freezing water, looking at the lines in her hands. Each has a memory—a smell, a sound, a picture. Like that scar on her left pointer finger, smelling of onion, of Uncle’s favorite pot roast covered in half moons of vegetables. She is cooking, Eva watching and tasting. She is angry with Uncle for drinking too much, and leaving too often. Her fingers too tired from all the typing, practicing for weeks for that office job—the one she never got. She is too busy blaming Uncle about money, about their sadness when the knife slices into flesh, stinging with sour juices. Her nose opens wide, the blood bubbling and leaking from her finger, then burning like fire. She tries to suck the pain out. Eva screams at the streaks of red on her mouth.

Afterwards Auntie is careful about blood.

Just like she was careful about Eva’s past in Korea. About the fire. Eva’s high strung mother and always drinking father fighting too much. Eva was far too young. It never should have happened. Her father dying in the burning house. Her mother running away like that and disappearing. And now nobody remembering Eva’s birthday.

And Auntie already escaping to Chicago with Uncle, the American that Grandfather hated. Everyone still struggling in Korea twenty years after the war. Nothing but silence until the fire years later. Grandfather sending Eva into a life without memories, without reminders.

Auntie washing fruit now, Yoshi beside her. They are preparing trays of airline food. The blue rubber gloves can’t save her hands from the aching cold. They are jittery like Grandfather, doing whatever they want. Auntie’s hands before like Eva’s—all fingers and soft skin—now changing fast with work. Next to Yoshi’s how puffy and red like pomegranate!

Auntie knows Eva could massage the life back into her hands, or find better gloves at least. She wonders if Eva is safe since she went back to Korea, back to the ones who turned her away—if she might settle into her own skin. She never adjusted to life in America anyway, that head of hers never resting. She was always thinking too much, never smiling, just hiding behind her books and diaries.

Maybe it was all that sticky purple medicine on Eva’s head the first night she arrived. Her hair fading to crimson after hours of washing, Auntie’s hands stained for weeks. “Impetigo,” the doctor said. A bad case just before Grandfather sent her away. Every night screaming and pounding her head into the pillow. Auntie didn’t know a child could cry that much.

After the crying stopped, Eva’s silence so loud in Auntie’s ears, never answering when asked—her habit, her comfort. Did Eva even know what was wrong? Auntie wanted to tell her everything—the fire, her mother.

She didn’t because Grandfather said memories just get in the way.

Maybe Eva’s hands are still smooth and pale, never doing the dishes back then, refusing most of Auntie’s demands—so mad and stubborn. Instead, Eva was always putting their hands together, comparing the size, lining up the heels of their palms. Eva linking each finger into Auntie’s, squeezing tight, the squishy swollen parts like overripe persimmons. Back then, Auntie could imagine her own hands young again—when the work hadn’t piled on yet, when her nails were longer, no polish, just natural.

Eva’s nails were long, too—stretching her fingers even longer—long enough to click while she played on Yoshi’s piano. Yoshi hating that sound, but Auntie liking it anyway, thinking Eva could do something more with her life. Why waste a pretty face on the wrong boys? If Eva were here, they could line their fingers up again.

Auntie’s palms so mottled and fleshy now it’s hard to see the lines any more. She once knew how to read them, but the lifeline—she doesn’t know if it’s by the thumb or slices right through the middle. Then there’s the money line—she’s wondering where that went.

The fortune teller in Korea was silent when she saw Auntie’s child lines. Making a fist, they are on the backside of the pinky. Those lines that tell you how many kids you’ll have. She had nothing there!! But she didn’t care then, she was young. There were seven kids and barely enough food. Auntie was the oldest taking care of the others. None of them knew what father did. He was always coming and going with big bags. She followed him every day until he let her sell the bundles of hair braids and tangled seaweed at the markets.

But she should have known that her life would be childless, that she’d never have any of her own. Because where she comes from, a mixed baby is impossible. A child is one thing or the other, not a little of each. So she didn’t want kids with Uncle anyway. She had to think about the child first. How could she live with that kind of shame? Her hands said she would rather have none.

Yoshi says she’s lucky her husband already has two kids from his first wife. So they only have German Shepherds. That’s it, no kids. Yoshi ignoring Eva whenever Auntie brought her along, pretending she was busy with the dogs in her designer clothes and beauty salon hair. Auntie doesn’t know why Yoshiko still works this job; her husband makes enough money at the GM plant. But what would Auntie do without her here?

Yoshi walking away from the fruit and vegetables now, going to the boss man’s office. She keeps good relations with him. Auntie is too honest—always saying too much, not caring what he thinks. But she told Yoshiko not to say anything about her hands. He might fire her if he gets a good look. And then what will she do?

She’s not sure where Uncle is these days. He had a sales meeting a few hours outside of town, but he’s gone too long now for his words to mean anything. The bill collectors are calling so much, she can’t answer the phone any more. Last time they said they’d take money from his paycheck. Eva could explain about Uncle, or tell them to go to hell. They never understand what Auntie says.

She hates the way they talk to her. Like she won’t ever pay.

Now pulling lettuce apart, Auntie’s nails beginning to crack and peel, the ridges thick and curved like washboard. She finds bugs sleeping inside the iceberg leaves—she has to get them out quick with everyone watching. Yoshiko told her about the cameras on the ceiling. For control, she said. After the Hmong woman accused the shift leader of harassment. Auntie had no idea, even after so many trays of airline food—she doesn’t understand, taking pictures like that without telling them.

Uncle says the cameras watch on the highways too. No one trusts anyone after 9/11. But cameras won’t help—people driving even faster, and crime going higher and higher. Auntie wonders about cameras in Korea, and tells herself not to worry. She gave Eva all the talking sense she could, but what else can she do? Eva always stuck inside her head, going her own way with the pages and pages of words, then with those art boys. Even when she told Eva not to throw her away to the old home, Eva said, “I don’t know where I’ll be.” Was she always planning to leave?

Auntie knows she can’t wash and chop for another ten years. That’s how long Yoshi has been here. But they can’t survive on Uncle’s money alone. He says his company is growing and soon he’ll sell more knives. But that’s what he always says—will-sell-more, will-sell-more.

Auntie wants to tell Eva other things too. Like how she got rid of the baby that came before her. That fortuneteller was wrong about her lines. Auntie had one good egg. And it was almost too late to throw it away. She tried to stop herself from going to the doctor, but she thought about the baby, how much it would suffer being mixed. So she pushed herself into pain, into all the blood that came while the doctor worked on her. He said the bleeding would stop. Until it didn’t. She cursed the lines for betraying her.

Auntie hasn’t told anyone, not even Uncle. He always wanted his own. He loves Eva, but she looks like someone else. He’d never forgive Auntie for throwing away the one that was his.

Auntie couldn’t make any tears come after that. Her
stomach hurting like the baby was still there. At night she dreamt her swollen hands around its neck. She couldn’t do anything to stop them attacking. She couldn’t do anything to stop the dreams coming.

Until Eva arrived.

Auntie’s hands are aching now, more swollen and bloodshot, itching all the time. She can’t work as fast, Yoshi pulling her out of the line yesterday, holding everyone up. Maybe the boss wants to talk. Maybe he’s got her on videotape. She needs to do something about her hands before tomorrow. She can’t let him see.

Auntie needs to hear Eva’s voice. Then she would know what to do. Then she would know what Eva is doing too, if she has eyes hovering over her like this, if she needs money—though the economy is still bad, and Auntie doesn’t have much. She just took a pay cut to avoid the layoffs. But Eva’s travel grant can’t last forever. Is her brother helping? And what about her sister? She must have found her by now, the one who’s more like their mother. Always nervous and shouting.

She’s still counting on Eva’s money lines. Long and deep for a better life. More money and good luck!

She needs to feel Eva’s hands again. She needs to line them up next to hers.

Hands