Scotch-taped at the mirrors’ edges were photographs of birthdays, family vacations, running in the rain. Their edges had curled from sixteen years of steam from hot showers and baths.
April 14, 2017
Eunkyung sat beside Minkyung as her lifeless limbs swayed in the soft currents of bathwater like kelp caught in the tide. She sat waist-deep in the bathtub, the pockets and folds of her loose, dull skin rippled on the water’s surface. Strands of hair formed tangled webs around her. Minkyung’s heart rate had fallen to a faint rhythm, so slow she could have died in her sleep, the doctors had told them. Minkyung had been in this condition for far too long.
In the bathroom was a tri-fold mirror: three panels of identical size, shape, glass. Each with its own perspective reflected, all held together with only a few wobbly hinges. Scotch-taped at the mirrors’ edges were photographs of birthdays, family vacations, running in the rain. Their edges had curled from sixteen years of steam from hot showers and baths. The gray porcelain tiling of the floor no longer held onto its blue tint. A few tiles near the sink and mirror had cracked under years of absent-minded use. They were sharp corners to be avoided. Facing the center mirror panel, there was a crucifix hung above a sliver of paper bearing a Bible verse, handwritten in Korean:
“Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”
Though Minkyung had loudly protested it throughout her young life, their mother insisted on keeping the crucifix in its spot. Maybe she planted Christ to watch over Minkyung’s soul. His eyes fell on Minkyung each one of the thousands of times she compulsively stood naked before her mirrors to scrutinize her body. The cross hovering always just over her shoulder.
Eunkyung, Minkyung’s younger sister by only one year, cupped the murky water in her right hand and poured it over Minkyung’s shoulder. Her left hand gently massaged soap into Minkyung’s skin. Her hands moved in circular, clockwise movements, the bathroom newly alive with the scent of bar soap. Eunkyung was careful to not pull on any of the meager pieces of hair left on her sister’s scalp. She had always envied Minkyung’s incredibly soft and smooth skin, but now a thin layer of young hair had grown on her arms and legs. Minkyung sat limp, too weak to bathe herself, too weak to even lift her arms. Minkyung wept softly, but Eunkyung could not cry. Her anger prevented her.
If her sister had been healthy, Eunkyung thought, this moment would have been one to cherish, a moment of affection and love after their long separation. It had been months since Minkyung had been home from boarding school. They would have laughed and joked, telling crude stories or reminiscing about their shared childhood. When they were young, their mother used to make all four sisters bathe together. Heeyoung, the oldest by at least four years, matured late and never really minded the silly games and splashing. Minkyung and Eunkyung, the two middle girls, were so close in age they were almost like twins, although Minkyung was always a bit more sullen than the rest. And Jihae, the baby, was an immensely cute child and enjoyed the attention which comes with being the youngest. Once, at age two, she accidentally (or willfully) pooped in the bathwater and the sisters had leapt out of the tub in disgust and amusement. Jihae smiled with glee and pride: a beautiful child. Each night, they bathed each other and designed hairstyles from their soapy hair. Eunkyung wondered whether the picture of all four of them, splashing in the tub with soap-bubble-beards and bright white smiles was still hanging on the mirror behind her.
None of the pictures sloppily taped on the mirror or the hundreds of spots around the house were placed there by the sisters; their mother had a penchant for makeshift decorating. An assortment of macabre Christ figurines contrasted with the joyful family photos on each wall of each room of the house. Probably spurred by a residual Korean superstition, their mother placed emblems of their family to ward off foreign energies in their second-hand home. The superstition was incongruent with their mother’s fierce Christian faith, their mother who prayed devotedly for two hours every morning and attended their Korean Methodist church twice a week. She practiced her “gift of tongue” every day for as long as Eunkyung could remember. Eunkyung and her sisters had become immune to the humming of low bestial noises that unconsciously left their mother’s lips as she went about her days.
Eunkyung could hear her mother vacuuming Minkyung’s room a few feet away from them. Only a hollow door separated them. It was the kind of inexpensive door made of thin pieces of plywood. Most of the whirring from the vacuum caught swirled in the hollowed space between the panels, though some noise crept through the doorframe. Her mother was probably only cleaning to keep a close ear to her girls in Minkyung’s bathroom. Eunkyung imagined her petite mother vigorously shoving and pulling the vacuum cleaner through the room. Her mother always wore sundresses of bright colors and classic floral designs. Although she was religiously disciplined and strict, she still held onto her vibrant dresses; they reminded Eunkyung of the dresses her grandmother in Korea wore. Eunkyung preserved memories from when she was a young child of her mother dancing in the summer morning to radio pop songs throughout the house. She had not woken up to pop songs for several years though. Instead, as her mother grew more religious, sermons spoken in Korean by deep-voiced pastors greeted Eunkyung in the morning instead.
Actually, Eunkyung realized, if her sister had been healthy, this moment would not have happened at all. Minkyung had been sent to a prestigious boarding school almost an hour away for the past few years of their lives. She was too gifted, with an IQ of 152, to stay at their below-par, rural-suburban Ohio high school. Minkyung had barely kept in touch since she had left—well, until she started to lose control. She barely called, barely visited on the weekends, barely spoke Korean, barely spoke a word to any of her sisters. Eunkyung had grown accustomed to this change; Heeyoung had set the mold when she was sent to the same boarding school before.
Eunkyung had thought that the day she and her parents had forced Minkyung home from her boarding school was the most horrific day in Eunkyung’s life. Minkyung’s anorexia had gone from “sad” to life-threatening in a matter of months. She had shriveled to a mere 72 pounds on her 5’5” height.
They had found Minkyung asleep in her dorm room curled in a loose ball. She slept a lot during those days since she lacked the energy to even stay awake. Did she even want to stay awake, Eunkyung had wondered as they awoke Minkyung. Asleep under the covers, Minkyung simply looked like a resting child. Once she opened her eyes and lifted the blankets, Eunkyung could not help but feel nauseous. Minkyung’s eyes protruded out of her shrunken face, her wrist bones were thicker than her biceps. As their mother hurriedly packed Minkyung’s belongings, Minkyung lifted her oversized shirt as she stared in her full-length mirror, examining her bare torso. Her excess skin hung like melting flesh off her body; she had lost almost 120 lbs in less than a year. Entirely caught in her own world, Minkyung did not care that she was performing her ritual of self-examination in the presence of her family. Eunkyung and her father sat bewildered, ashamed, scared, but neither could tear their eyes off the grotesque routine Minkyung was executing. Her mother was engrossed in her habitual, soft chanting of tongue as she moved belongings into boxes. Eunkyung wondered whether she chanted to save Minkyung or to calm herself; either way, her mother exuded an eerie state of ease and grace. Minkyung moved her hip-bones from left to right to get a thorough view of her ribs. She could have fit her arms into the groove that had h0llowed between her hipbones and her stomach. She straightened her back, each vertebrae rotated. When she finally saw the tears falling from Eunkyung’s eyes, she dropped her shirt back into place. Eunkyung had thought then that her days could not get any worse. She did not know that her parents would assign her the task of bathing, of touching, her sister’s wasted body.
As Eunkyung finished and poured warm water over Minkyung’s shoulders, a forgotten memory began to prod at her.
It was also in a bathroom and in a bathtub that she first witnessed her mother overtaken by possession (by what, no one chose to speak of). Her mother had teetered between religious devotion and zealotry since her arrival in America from Korea twenty years ago. Their Methodist church at the time had evolved into a hybrid form of Pentecostalism and pagan-worshipping at the hands of their megalomaniac preacher. Just before her possession, her mother had been going through her hour long ritual of putting on makeup while chanting in tongue when a wave of heaviness fell over her.
Eunkyung had simply needed to ask her mother a question when she entered into her mother’s possession. She stood immobile, watching her mother’s body convulse violently next to the bathroom sink with her eyes rolled back and thin fingers outstretched. Small clouds of powder rose from her fallen compact. The clay smell of makeup foundation filled the room as the dust attached to her mother’s clawing hands. Her mother’s arms outstretched, perpendicular to her body. Her mother, the Christ figure, hanging and gagging on an invisible cross. With one last great seizure, her mother’s body collapsed. Eunkyung, only thirteen years old, rushed in time to catch her. They fell backwards into the bathtub behind them. Her arms tightly embraced her mother as Eunkyung’s head crashed into porcelain. Unconscious, her mother’s heart rate began to steady, her body warm against Eunkyung’s, Eunkyung’s body cold against the tub. She stayed, sobbing and clutching her mother’s body, until her mother awoke ten minutes later, entirely unaware of what had just happened.
* * *
If it were not for her shame, Eunkyung’s mother would’ve called upon their fanatical pastor years prior to exorcise the demons out of Minkyung. She would have forced Minkyung to kneel before him, and the too-charming, too-jolly pastor would have firmly pressed his thick fingers into her scalp as he prayed for God to save her soul, rocking and shoving her head with the gyrations of his heavy-set hips and undulating voice. Eunkyung had always shrunk from his thick, stumpy, rough fingers out of instinct ever since she was a child. Or maybe it was his dark eyes that she felt crawling up the back of her calves and thighs as she exited from service.
After Minkyung left for school, Eunkyung was made to sit next to her mother during every Sunday service, neat and proper, dressed in a conservative outfit of pastels and grays. She was her mother’s dutiful child, beautiful and pure. Can she come over and help me prepare for this week’s Bible study? The female churchgoers all asked her mother.
During the two hour long service, Eunkyung set her eyes on a spot on the far wall opposite, preparing to construct blinders to the events that would ensue around her. The front three pews were always packed shoulder to shoulder, backs leaned forward in anticipation. Irises and lilies adorned the steps leading up to the pulpit. A delicate glow wrapped the edges of the twenty-foot tall wooden cross suspended on the far wall of the sanctuary. Eunkyung questioned whether anyone else noticed that there were no windows in the entire sanctuary. They were all wholly alone. The ceiling arched thirty feet above their heads, and six ornate fans spun in silent unison.
The dark red velvet lining of the church pew grew itchy against her thighs and back. The lights were gradually turned low; Eunkyung did not even notice the first few times that someone had even lowered the lights at all. After the pastor’s sermon was completed, always full of brimstone and condemnations, and the praise band would begin their set, always with songs of humility and self-debasement, the congregation would rise and sway to the slow rhythm and cadences of the music. A few hands would be lifted, palms faced forward or to the heavens, and all eyes would be closed.
Then, one person, only one person was needed, began to chant in tongue, touched by their holy gift. Like dominos falling in a cascade, the whole mass of fifty Korean men and women, mostly women, began to sway faster and call out in hushed drivel and muted groans. In moments, the sanctuary erupted in cacophony and splayed limbs. Women quaked and bawled. Some wandered like the schizophrenic homeless through the pews, eyes rolling back to meet their Lord within their minds.
Eunkyung kept her eyes on that one spot. Maybe if she just focused hard enough on that spot, she could avoid seeing the fifty thrashing bodies around her. She knew her pastor’s eyes would slip to stare at her once the congregation was in full flux. She could feel him. She wondered whether he knew that she did not believe. Of course he did. But she just kept her eyes on that spot.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” her sister said quietly, bringing Eunkyung back into reality. “You shouldn’t have to do this. No one should.” Eunkyung knew Minkyung was crying, but her face was turned away. “I hate myself. Why am I alive. I only cause pain.”
“It’s just like old times—well, not exactly, but I don’t mind. You would do it for me. Remember how Jihae used to always poop in the tub? This is a piece of cake in comparison. Just don’t shit, and we’re cool, K?” Minkyung could not be reconciled.
No matter how hard she tried, Eunkyung could not come up with any light topic or joke to brighten the heavy mood. Her mind lacked thoughts; she only saw sharp bones and excess skin. She could not believe her sister had ever been two hundred pounds. When they were young and would fight, and they used to fight every day, Minkyung would simply sit on Eunkyung and torture her from above. Eunkyung was always a little underweight for her size, making it even more difficult for her to win against Minkyung. Her mother, swept up in religious fervency while pregnant with Eunkyung, had fasted during the daylight hours for forty days while pregnant, resulting in a sickly, underweight child. But her mother always praised Eunkyung for her beauty—her underweight beauty. My, you are the gorgeous daughter, she would praise her after yelling at Minkyung to study or to go outside and exercise off her fat. My, you are our gorgeous daughter, but you know you are not smart, her mother would tell her, explaining her rationalization for why Eunkyung was not sent to the prestigious boarding school her older sisters attended. We wouldn’t want to waste our money. Just marry a rich doctor, Eunkyung.
* * *
After helping Minkyung dry off and slip into clothes borrowed from Jihae, she put Minkyung into bed. It was only seven p.m., but Eunkyung knew Minkyung was too exhausted to stay up any longer. Minkyung’s bed-sheets were still the same faded covers from her childhood, pink Hawaiian flowers splashed with nail polish and food stains. Spelling bee medals and pictures from academic awards assemblies covered the walls around them.
After Minkyung had left for boarding school, Eunkyung had discovered Minkyung’s secret altar to attractive Korean and American actors on the inside of her closet doors. Eunkyung smiled as she passed the closet and went to the kitchen to make a bowl of oatmeal, the sugar-free, heart-healthy kind Minkyung would only eat. She cut small pieces of apple into it. She spoon fed Minkyung who ate the food obediently—out of respect for her younger sister. Eunkyung sat next to her until Minkyung fell asleep. Eunkyung had only look into Minkyung’s eyes to know that Minkyung did not want to be left alone ever again. She had spiraled out of control during the hours and days she had spent secluded in her dorm room at boarding school. Minkyung had never been the social type, only speaking to a few of her girlfriends she had known since she was five. She left her boarding school second in her class though, a parent’s dream.
After slipping away once Minkyung fell asleep, Eunkyung finished folding the laundry, putting in another load, cleaning her bedroom, washing the dishes in the kitchen, and preparing Jihae’s lunch for elementary school the next day. She had a tried-and-tested regime for efficiency, perfected during the years that her mother was unfit to care for the family and house, her fits of possession making it impossible for her to function. Once finished, she tapped on her parents’ bedroom door to say goodnight, knowing they were awake from the sound of their voices.
“Eunkyung? Come in.” They called.
“I just wanted to say good night. Minkyung is asleep. She ate a bowl of oatmeal and apple for me. We should make sure she eats some sort of protein tomorrow. Jihae’s lunch is set. The house is clean and all ready for tomorrow too.”
“Come in, Eunkyung. Sit down for a second.” Her mother motioned to the futon. “We need to tell you what our plans are for this family.” She paused. “From now on, you will be caring for Minkyung once you get home from school. Make sure she eats, sit with her, talk with her, bathe her. You are her sister. She trusts you. She trusts no one else. You know how she is with strangers.” Eunkyung shut her eyes and clenched her shoulders quietly.
“You have to do this. For the family. Daddy has to work to provide for us. I have to take care of this house.” Eunkyung could not mask her frustration and fear but also could not stop from nodding her head. She never accused her parents of their shame; she never reminded them that she was the one who had taken care of the house for the past three years.
She didn’t get into her bed that night. She stole into Jihae’s room, as she had so often done for the past few years, and slid into Jihae’s bed, curling her body around her youngest sister. She wrapped her arms around Jihae and hugged her close, giving her a kiss on the back of her head. Through her tears of anger and sadness, Eunkyung held Jihae and told her that she loved her, that she would protect her, that she would make sure Jihae would grow to be a healthy young girl. Her nine-year-old sister was too deep in sleep to pull her mind to full alertness, but Eunkyung hoped that her words were heard- that her words would slip into Jihae’s unconscious and become embedded in the walls of her mind.
Eunkyung finally fell asleep but did not dream. She would not have any dreams for many years to come. The eerie hymns of the Lord called out to her softly to persuade her to let herself sink into dreaming. But she made sure to only sleep. She knew that only flaying limbs and watchful eyes waited for her if she conceded. She smelled her little sister’s hair and nestled her face in Jihae’s shoulder, her mind an undisturbed blackness.