“In Ribbons” by Paul McQuade

In ribbons‘It’s fox-work,’ Hiro’s grandmother says, her eyes gleaming like jaspers, her thin fingers winding a needle through thinner cloth, closing a rift in father’s shirt. Each week grandma washes the clothes so hard her knuckles redden, but still some specks of coal-dust twine themselves into the weave.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ says his mother. ‘It was just a gas leak in the shaft.’

Grandma snorts. Mother rolls her eyes.

‘When did they say the doctor’d get here?’ mother asks, this time turning toward father, prone on a floor cushion and veiled in tobacco smoke.

‘A proper medical doctor’s coming from the city tomorrow,’ he says, running a hand along his forearms in search of dirt. His fingerbeds hold the minerals of the mine: coal dust and mud ground so deep they would never be clean again. But still father washes his hands before dinner, and at night, searches his skin for scrap metal. That he will be filthy again tomorrow doesn’t seem to matter, so long as he can go to bed clean, or very close to it. ‘The pit-doctor’s done what he can for him for now, says he can’t be moved, needs special medicine, the kind they don’t keep around here.’

This elicits no response. The shack is quiet tonight, without grandpa, the shadows in the room darker. No one seems to want to talk: grandma darns, mother cleans, father smokes. An animal scratches at the outside of the wall.

When mother and father get ready for bed, grandma calls Hiro to her side.

‘Listen to grandma,’ she whispers as she runs her fingers through his hair. ‘Grandpa needs special medicine.’

‘I know,’ Hiro says. ‘Papa said the doctor will come tomorrow.’

‘Your papa is a good man, Hiro,’ she says. ‘But stupid. Modern. Grandpa needs special medicine and he needs it tonight. I would go get it, but your grandma’s too old to go out in the dark now. The things out there don’t have a taste for children, but an old lady like me, they would gobble right up.’

Hiro looks up at grandma’s face: the lines worn deep in it, the way her mouth goes wide as she speaks in pure Chikuhō-ben. His mother and father speak the dialect too, but softer. When they talk to the mine officials they use a kind of Japanese grandma never uses, one she calls ‘standard’ and punctuates with a spit. Is grandma old? He has never thought about it. To Hiro, grandma is grandma. No more, no less.

‘I need you to go see Miss Pak,’ she says, gripping his arm.

Hiro’s skin pebbles under grandma’s insistent fingers.

Miss Pak lives in a different part of the naiyō, the little mining town where Hiro lives with his family. Around Hiro’s house there are mainly Japanese from different areas of Kyushu, some from farther abroad, and one or two Koreans. Where Miss Pak lives it is mainly Koreans and some Taiwanese. He doesn’t need light to find his way there in the dark; at night the Koreans sing songs, different ones to the other miners, in a language that sounds like elastic pinging.

Miss Pak’s house is easy to find: you just need to follow the smell of tea. Hard as it is to procure in the naiyō, Miss Pak always has a supply of quality genmai cha. She often brings some when she comes to see grandma, and the two sit there, gossiping in thick Chikuhō-ben, the shack warm with the smell of toasted rice wafting from the iron kettle. Miss Pak brings tea for grandma, and a piece of candy for Hiro. It isn’t that he doesn’t like Miss Pak. But she scares him. It’s her eyes. Clouded, as if the sky moves in them, and though Miss Pak is completely blind, she gets around the naiyō with no assistance, not even a stick, as she walks past the machinery, the gambling dens, and the house near the bar where only women live. Hiro doesn’t understand why, but whenever he walks through the naiyō with his mother, her step quickens past this house. When he walks with grandma she takes her time and says hello to the women who live there, coming and going at all times of day.

He has asked grandma how Miss Pak came to be blind, but each time, grandma shook her head and said, ‘There are some things little boys shouldn’t know.’

He follows the smell of toasted rice past the women’s house and through the Korean songs. A few men stumble in the streets, but grandma has told him no one in the naiyō would ever hurt a little boy—far more dangerous to be a woman, young or old, in this day and age, she said.

He walks the dirt path of the naiyō, making sure to stick to the lighted parts, as grandma taught him. The air is warm with the smell of genmai cha, the night heavy with song. The naiyō has never felt dangerous before. But tonight. He feels as though he is not alone. Somewhere in the distance, he hears an animal scratching, as he takes the last few steps to Miss Pak’s door.

One of Miss Pak’s granddaughters greets him on the porch. Miss Pak has many granddaughters; or so, at least, it seems to Hiro. They all call her harumoni, which grandma told him meant ‘grandma’ in Korean. The young woman leads him into the house, calling out softly in that language of elastic. Harumoni is the only word he recognizes.

For a minute he thinks he is back home: the frail old woman, sitting by the fire, the iron kettle in the hearth. He mistakes her for his grandma. But his heart stops when he sees the eyes: as if someone had poured milk into tea, like the foreigners did, and now it roils there, unable to be still.

‘Hiro,’ she says. ‘Why are you here so late at night? Is your grandma okay?’

‘She’s okay, Miss Pak,’ he says. ‘It’s grandpa. There was an explosion at the mine. Grandma says he needs special medicine.’

Miss Pak narrows her eyes and looks straight at Hiro. His skin pebbles under her gaze.

‘Is that so?’ she asks. ‘Did your grandma say anything else?’

He shuffles his feet, embarrassed. His mother had told him never to listen to his grandma’s stories. His parents tried to stop her, wave the words away, tell her not to fill his head with nonsense, each time she told him about the creatures of the high mountain—the ogres, the crag-hags, the foxes. He doesn’t want to seem silly, doesn’t want to seem like a little boy in front of Miss Pak and her granddaughters.

‘Grandma says,’ he begins, but seeing three of Miss Pak’s granddaughters in the room, darning, others massaging muscles sore from working all day in the mine, stretching their jaws to loosen muscles stiff from holding lanterns in their mouths, his voice quivers and breaks.

‘Out with it, Hiro,’ Miss Pak says, admonishing the women’s laugher with a raised hand.

‘Grandma says it’s fox-work,’ he says, his cheeks burning.

The room goes still. The only sound is the crackling of the fire, the sound of something scratching, and the gentle pull of a needle in cloth, the work that will not stop for something as small as this. Miss Pak stands up, goes to a small chest of drawers, and begins to pull out various powders and liquids. These she pours into a mortar and grinds with a pestle. The paste she wraps in a banana leaf and ties with a red ribbon, the same kind, Hiro notes, she uses to tie her hair back. She tucks the package into her carry pouch. Without any assistance, as if even blind, she knows exactly where each thing should be. Hiro worries that maybe she’s made a mistake in making her medicine. For some reason he can’t explain, he thinks he would prefer a Japanese doctor.

‘Sun-Hwa,’ she calls to one of her granddaughters. ‘Fetch my coat. Hiro, take me to your grandpa.’

Walking the town with Miss Pak is a very different experience to walking it alone, or even with grandma. People call out to her, men and women, in Korean and Japanese, all of them respectfully, no matter how drunk they might be—and some of them are quite drunk tonight—or how much they are rushing to other engagements. Miss Pak, for her part, bows her head deferentially at each greeting, replies, but never lets her stride falter. One foot in the front of the other on the muddy ground of the naiyō, without so much as a stumble. Hiro is uneasy. It is as if the old blind woman is leading him, rather than him guiding her through the night.

There is something about the increased visibility of walking with Miss Pak. As if Miss Pak’s presence draws not just the respect of the residents of the naiyō, but something else. Something that lies just at the edge of lamplight, hungry and waiting.

‘You feel them out there, don’t you,’ Miss Pak says as they take the corner toward the mine’s makeshift hospital.

‘What are they?’ Hiro asks.

‘Foxes,’ she says. ‘Wild foxes. They shouldn’t be so close. Something must have disturbed them.’

‘But Miss Pak,’ Hiro says. ‘Mr Watanabe says that foxes are good. They’re the servants of the goddess Inari.’

Miss Pak snorts; it is eerily similar to the way his grandmother snorts when his mother tries to tell her one of her stories is nonsense.

‘The grocer? What would he know about anything?’ Miss Pak asks. ‘There are foxes here in Chikuhō that were never domesticated by the Japanese gods, Hiro. You remember that. There were things here long before Japan.’

The last she says in a strange tone; almost sad.

They walk the rest of the way to the hospital in silence. And the entire time, Hiro feels those eyes on him, closer as they approach the hospital. He feels something in the night. Something hard and sharp. Focused. A hunger so large it would swallow him up. But every time Miss Pak looks out into the dark, it seems to lessen. As if it too cannot bear to be under that blind gaze.

Grandpa is wrapped in bandages and laid out on the floor. The ends of the bandages have been tied up in a bow. The white linen has been soaked with blood and lymph. Parts of it are stained orange and crack when Miss Pak moves him. Grandpa stays asleep the entire time, his eyes flickering in the grip of whatever dream the pit-doctor’s medicine has put him under. Hiro thinks that maybe he should tell Miss Pak to look out for the places where the bandages are wet with excretion, but for some reason, as she runs her hands over them, not caring what her fingers touch, Hiro feels embarrassed about doing so.

‘Is he going to die?’ Hiro asks instead.

‘He might,’ Miss Pak replies. ‘But he might live, too. These things no one can tell. Not even wise old women like me and your grandmother.’

The last she says with a wink. Hiro smiles. This is the longest he has ever spent with Miss Pak, and though he still feels strange when he sees her eyes, his skin no longer pebbles. The hospital room isn’t much; a supply closet with one window, through which pale moonlight streams, the rest lit by mine lights— kantera—which look like tea kettles but are filled with oil, a lit wick in their spouts making the sickroom glow. It isn’t much. But it’s the best they can do. The doctor and nurse that treat the mineworkers have gone home for the night, but still Miss Pak urged Hiro to be quiet as a mouse as they moved through the building to get here.

Miss Pak lifts the banana-leaf package halfway from her pouch then lets it fall back. She tilts her head to the side and listens. Hiro is about to ask her what’s wrong when he hears it too: the sound of footsteps coming from outside.

‘Hide,’ Miss Pak commands. Hiro does so without thinking, only realizing, once he has crouched down between two beds at the back of the room, that there’s no reason they shouldn’t be there. He peeks out from the gap between the beds and tries to find Miss Pak, but she too has secreted herself somewhere in the storeroom cum medical bay.

A man’s shadow fills the doorway. When he steps into the light of the kantera, Hiro sees that he is a doctor: a long white coat and an armband with the Japanese imperial insignia marks him as a military doctor. The doctor from the mainland must have come earlier than expected. Hiro moves to come out of the shadow, but something stops him: an imagined compulsion from Miss Pak. Silent words she has mouthed in the dark. He stays crouched, and watches as the doctor approaches his grandfather’s prone body.

The doctor first does what Miss Pak had done: he takes each of grandpa’s limbs, examines them, runs his hands along them. Grandpa groans; the doctor’s touch is not as delicate as Miss Pak’s. The doctor leans down and whispers something in grandpa’s ear. Grandpa stills. The doctor begins to untie the bandages, unwrapping long ribbons of linen, unpeeling it from its sediment in molten skin and patchwork scab. Grandpa has no reaction. It is as if the doctor has put him into a sleep so deep not even pain can penetrate. What a deep sleep it must be, Hiro thinks. Deeper than the mineshafts of the deepest pit, where grandma says the wild foxes play, making fires in the tunnels, and eating miners who go astray. Women are safest in the mines, grandma said, because they carry their children with them, and the foxes won’t eat babies. They like to wait for it to grow big first, she said. The foxes were, first and foremost, very, very smart. How deep a sleep it must be. The sleep of the foxes in the deep caves. Do the foxes sing songs like the miners do? The mine carts’ braying—goton goton—as percussion.

The doctor is still unwinding bandages. Except now Hiro sees that the linen is in a pile on the floor, next to the doctor’s feet. But the doctor is still unwinding something from his grandpa. Something long and red. Skin. The doctor is peeling grandpa’s skin off in ribbons: long swathes of it unravelling in his hands like the peel of an apple, round and round in the doctor’s hands, denuding grandpa’s already naked flesh. The end of the strip the doctor places in his mouth and begins to chew, gulping it down even as he tears more off. The room is filled with the wet sound of skin ground in molars, and the scratch, scratch, as the doctor rips at the skin. Hiro tries to move but his limbs won’t comply. He cannot force his legs to carry him into the circle of kantera light. It is Miss Pak who steps into the circle.

The doctor turns round and stares at her, a strip of skin still in his hands and mouth. Miss Pak says nothing, just fixes him with her blind gaze.

The doctor swallows a mouthful of grandpa’s skin and places the loose end of it back on his torso. He unsteadily moves sideways, eyes trained on Miss Pak. Miss Pak’s sightless eyes follow it wherever it goes.

‘I see you,’ Miss Pak says.

The doctor lunges at her. Miss Pak grabs a kantera and brings it down over the doctor’s head, spilling lit oil out of the kettle-spout and over the man. Oil splashes down his long coat. He barks in pain, and his face, in the burning light, seems more pointed, longer, vulpine. He runs around the room, trying to find the exit he has forgotten in his pain, trying to find Miss Pak’s throat, but she has another kantera in her hand, and each time he gets close, she waves the fire in front of her and drives him back. Eventually the doctor finds the door and runs out of it, doubled over in pain, on all fours like a dog.

When he is gone, Miss Pak stands still for a moment, taking deep breaths, the kantera burning at her side. Then she moves to Hiro’s grandpa and picks up the ribbon of skin. Retrieving a pair of scissors from her pouch, she snips the length of it and lets the rest fall on the floor with the bandages. She then takes her banana leaf wrapper, cuts the ribbon, and uses her fingers to apply the paste to the areas where the skin has been burnt and peeled. Dead skins shed under her fingers, like a snake, molting. Once she has applied all of the salve, she leans on the table, suddenly exhausted.

‘All right, Hiro,’ she calls. ‘Come out, now.’

Shaking as he crawls out from his hiding space, Hiro says, ‘We owe you a thousand packets of genmai cha, Miss Pak.’

Miss Pak laughs. ‘Oh no, child. For some things, there is no price. No matter what people tell you. Remember this, even if you remember nothing else about tonight.’

Hiro doesn’t understand. Unsure what to say, he helps the blind lady rebandage his grandpa’s naked body. Hiro looks away when she covers the genitals and the areas where the skin has been peeled back to show quivering muscle. Miss Pak does not: she simply looks on, blindly, as she rewraps the old man. The entire time, he does not stir. Simply sleeps that deep sleep, a sleep deeper than pits.

The doctor—the real one, the specialist—comes from Fukuoka the next day. He wears a waxed leather trench coat that catches the mud of the naiyō as he walks through; droplets of it cling to him and slide off with each step. On his lapel he wears a pin in the shape of the Japanese flag. Once he arrives at the hospital, and after much persuasion, mostly from grandma, he permits the family to be present for the treatment. When he unwraps grandpa’s bandages to look below, he makes a small disgusted sound.

‘What is this?’ he asks. ‘Some folk remedy? You country folk. You really need to stop thinking you know anything about medicine. It doesn’t look like you’ve done any damage, but you’re damn lucky.’

Grandma says something the doctor doesn’t understand—the dialect is too strong. It is a word Hiro doesn’t know, but when he sees his parents’ faces turn scarlet, he knows it is a bad word. The doctor resumes his treatment, but seems unsettled. As if he can feel grandma’s eyes boring into his back while he works on her husband.

‘Quite remarkable,’ he says. ‘And you say the explosion was yesterday? The man is a fine example of the Japanese spirit. His skin has already started to grow back. He’ll be back in the mine in no time.’

The doctor uses the word tankō for mine, instead of the word yama everyone in the naiyō uses. For some reason, when he says it, it makes the mine seem like a different place, somewhere very far away. Hiro is surprised to find that, when the doctor speaks, his skin pebbles.

A week later, skin still in bandages, grandpa goes back into the pit.

 *        *        *

Two weeks after grandpa returns to the mine, Miss Pak dies. One of her granddaughters finds her, what is left of her.

Hiro had not seen Miss Pak since the incident; he had been trying very hard to forget it, to blur it, to consider it a bad dream or a trick of the kantera’s shifting light. And yet when he bunches his eyes, and tries very hard to forget, he feels as though Miss Pak is looking at him with those milk-tea irises.

There are whispers around the naiyō about the state in which Miss Pak was found. Some say there were chunks of her body torn out, as if by a wild animal. Others that she was murdered by a former lover from her youth, when she had been quite the beauty. Some said that when they found her body, she had been completely skinless, as if she had been spun round and peeled like an apple. This last makes a chill leak into Hiro’s bones. The same chill you find in the mine, in the deep pits, when someone cracks rock only to find a surge of ice water, filling the shaft with the kind of cold that leaves the men, and Hiro, shivering for days.

Two nights after Miss Pak’s death, grandma wakes Hiro in the middle of the night, urges him to dress, and bustles him out into the night, a kantera in her hand.

‘We’re going to repay Miss Pak for what she did for us,’ grandma says.

‘Miss Pak said not to repay her,’ Hiro says, rubbing his knuckles in his eyes. ‘Said some things have no price.’

He sees grandma’s eyes widen in the night; the light of the kantera spout glitters in them like stars.

‘Miss Pak is a smart woman,’ grandma says. ‘Was.’

Her voice threatens to break as she corrects herself.

They make their way to the mountainside, into the forest that still stands where the wood hasn’t been cleared for the naiyō or the slag heaps of the pit. The kantera light makes the shadows between the trees seem to run alongside them. Hiro clings to his grandmother’s hand. And yet tonight, she does not tell him that he will be safe, that the night has no taste for little boys. She grips his hand in turn and hoists the kantera, refusing to take her eyes off the path she is making through the woods. Hiro thinks her pace might be quickening. The shadows race faster. Closer.

It is only when the trees give way to a clearing filled with light that Hiro realizes he had been holding his breath. He is even more surprised to hear his grandmother let out her own breath next to him.

‘Well done, Hiro,’ she says, though he hasn’t done anything. ‘Now you need to do some work.’

Miss Pak’s granddaughters stand in the clearing in black hanbok dresses. Others are there too, some obviously Korean, others Japanese, though fewer by far. The women outnumber the men.

‘What is this, grandma?’

‘A funeral, Hiro.’

‘Are we going to burn Miss Pak?’

‘No, Hiro. The Koreans bury their dead. We are here to bury her, and to pay our respects. Go help the men dig the grave.’

Hiro nods and goes to a small patch of land that is being carved out by three Korean men and one Japanese. The work is familiar to all of them, though the eyes they feel on their backs, there in the shadows of the trees, are not. As Hiro works at digging up the earth and hauling away piles of it, he feels as if he is back at work in the mine. His muscles know the motions. But tonight it is different. He has seen them burn bodies many times—accidents are daily in the pits. But he has never seen them lay one in the earth. He isn’t sure what to expect. All he can think of is Miss Pak, lying there, staring up blindly at the sky. But it is not Miss Pak’s body, but a large shape wrapped in linen that they lower into the grave. On its chest lies a red ribbon, tied in a bow.

Over the grave, the granddaughters speak Korean.

‘Grandma,’ Hiro whispers.

‘Hush,’ Grandma says. ‘Listen.’

‘But I don’t understand it.’

‘You don’t need to understand it, Hiro. Just listen.’

They stand there, while one by one people eulogise in that language of elastic. The longer he listens, the more Hiro is sure he can feel something in the words, just at the edge of hearing. Something raw and naked. It makes him feel as if a part of himself has been torn away.

The last person to speak over the grave is grandma. She leaves Hiro by himself with the kantera as she goes up to speak, in her thick Chikuhō-ben, about Miss Pak. For some reason Hiro feels comforted by it. Grandma talks about how Miss Pak had been a doctor in Korea, before the army came and took her.

‘She was a strong woman,’ she said. ‘The strongest. You had to be. To survive something like that.’

Those in the circle nod. Some are crying openly.

‘What she did, I don’t think any of us will ever understand. No matter how hard we try. What it took, what it meant for her to do it. What it feels like to have nothing left. We say here in the naiyō we have nothing. But that isn’t true; Miss Pak knew that, she knew what it was like to have nothing, to be nothing. And she survived.’

Grandma opens her mouth to say something else, but stops. She looks at Hiro, surprised, as if she had forgotten he was there.

‘I am very grateful to have been able to call her my friend,’ she finishes, defeated.

When people move to cover the grave, to gather the kantera, Hiro leads his grandma to lean on a gravestone and catch her breath. They stand there in silence for a moment. Hiro thinks of the dead woman in the grave. Of her blind eyes.

‘Grandma,’ he asks. ‘Will you tell me, now, how Miss Pak went blind?’

She hesitates, looks around at the people gathered there, black hanbok shining in the night.

‘She poured nightshade in her eyes.’

‘She made herself blind? Why?’

‘Because it was the only way she could fight.’

‘I don’t understand, grandma,’ Hiro says.

The old lady twines her fingers in her grandson’s hair.

‘I hope you never do,’ she says, and smoothes the hair she has just disturbed. ‘Just remember her. That’s all you can do for Miss Pak, now.’

The troupe gathers to walk back to the naiyō. All of them clearly unsettled by the way the shadows race around them, and the strange yips they hear out there in the dark. Then another sound. The granddaughter who had shown Hiro into Miss Pak that night begins to sing: her voice clear and thin, like a warbler. Then another, and another, the men adding their low timbre. Grandma joins. Though she doesn’t know the words she sings in sound, in pitch, adding what she can to the music. Hiro adds his own voice, small as it is.

The shadows are still dark around them, rustlings still sound as they move through, strange things move in the dark. But the black does not seem so deep, filled with that song.

When they reach the naiyō, the groups go their separate ways, to separate parts, the town divided as it is. Each kantera leaves the rest darker. The shadows grow stronger. By the time Hiro and his grandma make their way alone toward the Japanese side of the naiyō, their kantera is no longer enough to keep the night at bay. The shadows shift around them, as if roused from sleep. At first they walk fast, then, unable to hold back any longer, run to the door. The shadows run with them.

Inside, at last, it is as if they have left another world behind the thick lock grandmother slams shut behind them. The small room, the moonlight on the shapeless mounds of his sleeping parents, dead to the world. How long have they been gone?

His grandma’s hands are shaking. He looks at his own and sees grave dirt buried in the fingerbeds.

‘Time for bed, Hiro,’ she says. ‘It’s been a long night.’

‘Grandma,’ he says, embarrassed. ‘I don’t think I can sleep. Will you tell me a story?’

The two climb into the bedding together, Hiro under grandma’s arm, and she tells him about the monsters in the high mountains, and how they live there, away from the naiyō, waiting. He feels safer knowing they live far away. As if the grave, Miss Pak, that night in the hospital—they all took place in another place far from here. And yet, as grandma grows sleepy, and her voice wanes, another sound threatens to overtake it. From outside, against the wall. The sound of an animal. Scratching, scratching in the night.

Paul McQuade is a Scottish writer and translator currently marooned in Upstate New York. His work has been recently featured in or is forthcoming from Pank, Sundog Lit, Gutter, and the Freight anthology Out There. He is the 2014 recipient of the Sceptre Prize for New Writing.


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