The following is from Kristopher Jansma's novel, Why We Came To The City. Jansma is the author of Why We Came to the City and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. He is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at SUNY New Paltz and a graduate lecturer in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Jansma has written for the New York Times, The Believer, The Millions, BOMB, and Electric Literature, among others.
Inside, they took off their coats and laid them on top of an old washer and dryer, atop a heap of others. Irene shook Mrs. Cho’s hand, which was covered in large rings. As the woman turned to address her son in stern Korean, Irene was delighted to see that the woman’s black fall of hair was dotted with more of these tiny rings, glinting like silver salmon backs leaping upstream.
“Igeos-eun nae chingu, ailin Irene,” William said to his mother.
Mrs. Cho looked up at her. “We are so glad you could come. It’s always good when William has a friend.”
“I love your hair,” Irene said to Mrs. Cho.
Mrs. Cho blushed, a slighter shade than her son, and gripped Irene’s hands between her own pair, giving them a shake. She seemed about to explain her strange hairstyle when she pulled away, her eyes filling with curiosity and worry. “Not feeling well?” she asked.
Irene tried to smile. “I’ve never felt better, Mrs. Cho. Honestly.”
But Mrs. Cho stood there, lips pursed, inspecting Irene as if she were a thin crack in a wall that might get larger. William hissed something at her in Korean, which she ignored, and then he hissed again, and she sharply spoke back to him without taking her eyes off Irene. Something about it made Irene feel as if she were back at the hospital, being scanned in the echo chamber of the MRI machine. She felt a quick dizziness, as if the tiles beneath their feet had lurched an inch upward, and then it was gone.
Mrs. Cho reached up with one ringed hand and seemed about to clap Irene on the shoulder, when her thumb flicked higher, passing directly below her left eye. Irene’s hand jumped up nervously and brushed Mrs. Cho’s hand away. Awkwardly, Irene pretended to be picking at an errant eyelash, as William barked at his mother, and she finally stepped back.
“I hope we haven’t missed dinner, Mrs. Cho? It smells incredible.”
Something about the look in Mrs. Cho’s spectacled eyes continued to make Irene uncomfortable as she said, “We are just sitting down!” and graciously led them into the house.
Irene tried to settle herself, cooing over a hung portrait in the family room of young William and his brother, dressed in some sort of ceremonial garb, but the deeper into the home that she got, the harder she felt it was to draw in a proper breath. Following the glinting rings in Mrs. Cho’s hair, Irene had the oddest sensation of descent, as if the room were on a slight slope, and they were all leaning a bit against it in order to stay upright.
They paused at an open double door, through which Irene saw a great library filled with books, and a Christmas tree in the far corner surrounded by presents. Mrs. Cho stepped inside to leave the presents that William had brought, while they both spoke more amiably, in their private singsong language. Irene closed her eyes a moment and tried to pierce through the spicy, strange scents that were coming from the dining room and breathe in the pinesap smell of the evergreen. But all she could make out was the dry sawdust of the chopped wood that sat neatly stacked beside the fireplace.
In the dining room they found the rest of the Cho family, and Irene was quickly introduced to Mr. Cho (who gave a warm grunt but spoke not at all) and William’s older brother, Charles, who sat with his wife, Kyung-Soon, and their daughters, Charlotte and Emily. The girls chirped to each other as Irene was seated beside them. Emily seemed not quite able to look at her without immediately looking back down at her coloring book, whereas Charlotte couldn’t seem to look at anything else. Irene shook everyone’s hands, and there was jubilation as William and his brother began to catch up on something or other.
Spread out on the table was a colorful and strange feast. Irene had ordered Korean takeout food before—kimchi and bibimbap and rice cakes—but she had never seen any of these dishes. Crispy brown pieces of grilled pork, cucumbers stuffed with something crimson, and a plate of spongy-looking squid caked in sesame seeds. In the center of the table was an enormous snapper, its red scales seared brown from careful grilling, but its head still on and staring slack-jawed at Irene as she tried to get comfortable.
Ordinarily, Irene loved trying new foods, and everything smelled mysteriously delicious, but the uneasiness grew inside her gut as she sat there at the table. Before she could quite get talking to anyone, Mr. Cho looked backward and began addressing a painting of Christ on the cross that hung on the wall above his chair. Irene wasn’t quite sure what was happening until she saw everyone lowering their heads, and the shy hand of little Emily gripping the edge of hers. Mr. Cho began to pray in a croaky tongue. Irene closed her eyes and tried to feel grateful—for the food, for the company, for the dress even, but somehow these thoughts were hard in coming. She never felt comfortable praying. She always felt like a liar, afterward.
Once Mr. Cho was finished, they all continued to chatter in singsong Korean. Irene could barely detect the tone, let alone the meaning. It made her a little dizzy at first—and then a lot. Just minutes ago she’d never been happier; she tried to trace her steps back to it, but the way was lost. The crook of her elbow stung where the IV tube had been. There were still little black smudges outlining the places where the tape had held it down. She picked at the sticky edges. The lump beneath her eye was sore, and it made her wonder if the cisplatin and the doxorubicin were already binding with the tiniest and most intimate fibers of her being. It was surely in there and in everywhere, from the roots of her hair to the soles of her feet. The nurses had warned her of dizziness, irritability, and nausea. She tried to look delighted as she was at last introduced to Charles and Kyung-Soon.
“Charles is my older brother, and of course, he’s a doctor, so my parents like him best,” William explained.
“It’s true,” Mrs. Cho shrugged mischievously
Charles tried to wave this away. “William’s the one who got into Yale.”
“You went to medical school!” Kyung-Soon squeaked, as she passed Irene a bowl of a magenta soup filled with clams, shrimp, and tofu delicately carved in the shape of small fish.
“In Rochester,” Charles teased. “Irene, if you ever want to see a fish out of water, find a Korean in Rochester.”
She politely stirred her soup, watching the fish swirl around in their lava sea. “I spent a little time near Rochester, actually. On this farm just outside New Hope?”
“New Hope! Christ, what were you doing out there?”
There was a quick volley of Korean as, Irene gathered, Mrs. Cho reprimanded her oldest son for taking her Lord’s name in vain. Mr. Cho said nothing but gestured emphatically to a painting of Jesus on the cross that hung above him at the head of the table. Charles raised his hands again in defense against the barrage of strange words, fired at him like pleasant bullets.
“My stars,” Charles corrected himself in a genteel falsetto, “whatever were you doing on a farm outside of New Hope?”
“Farming?” Irene grinned, despite the faint but blinding halo that was forming around the chandelier above the table.
“William said you were an artist of some sort?” Kyung-Soon piped sharply.
William explained, “Irene’s a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades.”
“A Jane-of-all-trades,” she offered, and was met with a rapid-fire exchange in Korean.
Irene couldn’t tell what they were saying, but brotherly teasing was the same in any language. Mrs. Cho’s mouth opened, and she began to smack her fork in the direction of her two sons, trying to get them to behave.
“What’s going on?” Irene whispered to Emily, who was scribbling with crayons.
Charlotte whispered, “Daddy says you are Uncle William’s girlfriend.”
Irene raised her hand to her mouth playfully. “Uh-oh!”
Emily began to giggle but still wouldn’t look at Irene directly. In her coloring book was a blue Santa with a golden hat. The rest of the family was still arguing, and Irene was trying to remain composed as best she could. Outside, the wind was picking up, and the girls watched eagerly as fresh snow began to fall. A few flakes at first, and then great, curtains of white.
“Have you been good? Have you asked Santa Claus for anything?”
Charlotte immediately began to tick off a grand list of the things she’d requested of Harabeoji Santa in exchange for her sterling behavior: several dolls of very specific brand and style, nail polish like her mother’s, a big-girl bicycle, skis, an elephant (of what size, she didn’t explain), and a dress like Jill in her homeroom had. The list went on and on, and Irene pretended to be very interested as she ate her soup and watched Emily shading delicately in her coloring book. She sang softly to the crayons as she plucked them from the flimsy box and inserted lilac trees and ghosts into a sleepy, snowy town of Bethlehem.
“Could I?” Irene said slowly, taking a red crayon out of the box. Emily studied her with eyes like her grandmother’s, penetrating and large. Then she allowed Irene to shade in a small barn on the edge of town. It was only when she looked up and noticed William staring at her that Irene began to feel dizzy again.
“Are you okay?” he mouthed, not subtly.
She waved, even as she felt the room lurch a few degrees clockwise and back again.
“I call a cheek!” Charles shouted eagerly.
Irene looked over in time to see that Mr. Cho was carving up the gigantic snapper and passing portions out to his sons.
William protested. “The cheek’s the best part! Irene should get one—she’s a guest!”
“She’s your girlfriend. Give her yours.”
They began to bicker again in Korean, and Irene graciously accepted the delicate cheek meat that Mr. Cho placed on her plate.
It was only then that Irene noticed Mrs. Cho was leaning over the carved fish, rolling her ringed fingers lightly over the bony carcass, and singing something. “What is she doing?” she asked Emily breathlessly.
“She’s a witch,” Emily whispered, the first words she’d spoken aloud all night.
Irene was about to say that it wasn’t nice to say such things about one’s grandmother, when Mrs. Cho ran the tip of her knife along the scaled, pink face of the fish and, with a gasping sound, plunged her fingertip into the small gap behind its eyeball and popped it out.
Irene lost her balance, just for an instant, but that was all it took. She felt her whole stomach heave inside her, a ship tossed in a tempest of bile. The pink, glassy fisheye rolled an inch or two like a wobbling marble, leaving a translucent trail behind it. Irene tried to clamp her mouth shut. She felt something rising inside her, boiling against gravity, up her esophagus. She grabbed her napkin and held it to her lips, her throat flexing and seizing.
Charlotte shrieked, “Groooooossssssss!”
Irene was able to keep herself from vomiting all over the table, catching a little with the napkin and choking the rest hotly back. William was shouting at his mother, who was still singing and going for the other eye now. Charles and Kyung-Soon were shouting at Charlotte. Even Mr. Cho was barking something, apparently back at the sympathetic Christ above his head. Irene felt Emily’s small hand squeezing on her wrist, not in panic but in comfort. She had a look, as if Irene were her doll and Emily meant to drag her to the other room to safety. But Irene couldn’t keep her eyes off the fish, from Mrs. Cho’s knife as it fumbled at the edge of the other pink eye. The tip of the knife again slipped into the space between ball and fish skull, and with a squishy pop, the second eye was loose and everyone was silent.
From WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY. Used with permission of Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Kristopher Jansma.