The Woodcutter and the Angel

Excerpt from the novel Oceans, Elsewhere
The Woodcutter and the Angel

Oceans, Elsewhere is divided into three sections from multiple perspectives. In Part One, Quentin is a passive, rather lonely Korean-American college student whose immigrant mother died in the past, leaving him with his white stepfather. He is attracted to the kindness and energy of his Korean friend Angeline Cho, who encourages him to search for a stronger sense of self.

Part Two is spoken from Angeline’s perspective, where she offers glimpses of a childhood that she has not revealed to Quentin. Behind her cheerful smile and withdrawn demeanor, she grapples with a guilt-ridden love for the family she has left behind in Korea, and the ways in which her present is continually haunted by her past. When Quentin follows Angeline to her home in South Korea in Part Three, their clashing cultures and gaps in communication create moments that illuminate the violence, homesickness, and unreachability in love.

The Woodcutter and the Angel

Last fall, in my first semester of college, I wrote a collection of poetry. It was a series of poems revolving around an ancient Korean fairytale about a woodcutter and his wife. The original story goes like this. When a poor woodcutter saves a fleeing deer from a hunter, the deer tells him a secret in return: there is a magical spring where seonnyeo (the traditional Korean equivalent for angels) come down to bathe. If you steal one of their winged robes, she will be unable to return to the heavens and therefore become your wife. The deer warned, however, that you must never give her the winged robes until she has given birth to at least three children.

Following this advice, the woodcutter takes a seonnyeo to himself, and when her belly pearls and gives birth to the bodies of two children, she begs him to let her see her robes once again. In a spirit of love, he returns it to her possession. Overwhelmed with thoughts of home, she flings the robes onto her body, seizes her children, and soars into the sky without a backward glance: the woodcutter is left wailing, horrified.

It is a beautiful, tragic, structurally melodic story with two more parts, where the woodcutter rejoins his wife in heaven, then slips off the back of his horse during a visit to earth and is doomed to separation once more. Traditionally, it’s about the idealized woman that men long after, someone who can never be grasped in reality; it’s also about the enormous differences in social status and circumstance which divide lovers from each other’s embrace. My poems took a slightly different tack. I wrote from the perspective of the seonnyeo: her anguished fear at losing her clothes, her nauseated pity at the strange, unfamiliar roughness of a woodcutter and his wild appetite for her body, her bitterly choked tears at seeing her soft skin, once as smooth as the edge of a cloud, splinter and crack with human labor. And her incomprehensible, animal agony at hearing screams explode like starbursts between the darkness of her legs. I can understand why she would flee at the first chance she was given; it was the only time she was able to make a choice in the entire story. Everyone sympathizes with the woodcutter, but what he did was basically blackmail.

That was one of the things I liked about Quentin. I didn’t show him my poems, but I told him the folktale, and he sympathized with both the woodcutter and the seonnyeo’s sadness.

“Too bad,” he said. “But that wasn’t a very nice way to start a relationship in the first place.”

“Yes,” I said, “the deer may have been showing his gratitude to the woodcutter, but it was a terrible thing for the seonnyeo.”

“Okay. Deers suck,” he agreed, amiably.

I am not terribly proud of those poems. I’ve never taken a poetry class, and I can only write down what wells up uncontrollably in me, like lapping my own tears out of a stranger’s cupped hand. I know that I am a small writer, a very young writer, and the very best I produce is still puerile, swaddled in bandages, badly dressed. I still feel like English is a borrowed language, however beautiful, and I get nervous and embarrassed because I can’t tell the difference between an iamb and a trochee, or recite Shakespeare like my American friends. All that is beyond me, and I feel cramped and ashamed trying to write accomplished poetry, the crystallized, highly distilled, technically masterful poems that find their ways into national magazines and accolades.

But I liked this collection of poetry because it came from the heart. I wasn’t trying to force the words into being. I could see the woodcutter’s wife in front of me, her sloe eyes wet with confusion and pity. I could feel the shining, diaphanous silk of her robes, trembling between my fingers. I wanted to cry because I knew that she was in terrible pain, and the folktale, beautiful as it was, had never allowed her to open her mouth and say so. So when I wrote the poems down I didn’t feel as if I was trying to be clever or fake. I just felt that she was sitting near me, whispering into my ear, begging me,

“Tell them how homesick I felt. Tell them how much it hurt.” Then, with deep tenderness:

“Tell them I loved him, even when I left. That when I left, I loved him most of all.”

When I was a child, I used to think my mother was the literal angel in the Korean fairytale: tied down to earth by her three girls, lost and bewildered in a woodcutter’s life she hadn’t asked for, but almost celestial in her beauty. She moved with the same unearthly grace, as if ready to gather her wings together and flee at the slightest rough touch. She had given birth to me when she was barely out of her teens, and so whenever there was a parents’ meeting, she was the youngest of the group. She was so different from the other Korean mothers: she was the only one who wore her glossy dark hair all the way down her back, like a curtain, instead of cut and permed to a tight frizz on her scalp. The other ajummas wore either cheap, puffy vests in neon colors or stiff coats with brand labels on them, swinging their ugly brown bags with gold tags. Mother dressed with utmost simplicity, usually in black, but her dark dresses always framed her as elegantly as a fluted vase. Her musical voice and soft tread made everyone else seem hunkering and coarse, and when I ran out to meet her after school, I felt almost hurt by her beauty. I loved burrowing into her warm flesh, her clean-smelling skirts, crying, “Mamma, Mamma, why are you so pretty?” She tensed and said sharply, “Don’t be ridiculous,” unable to believe me every time, but I could see the hint of a smile quaver over her face, and I loved her so much I could scarcely breathe.

We would never meet anyone as fiercely intelligent as her, certainly nobody as charismatic. Father noticed. As an artist, he had painted a portrait of her when they first married; it still hangs in a corner of his room. Mother refuses to look at it, but when we were children we used to creep into his room, Abby and Ariana and I, and touch the painting in awe. It was very much painted in Father’s hard, linear phase, her hair a choppy mosaic of tar, her mouth straight and rigid, her shoulders sharp and inflexible. But every line in her body spoke power; she held her cello bow like a spear. And her eyes, deep-set brushstrokes of black ink, gleamed like two bullet holes in a tank of gasoline. Frightened, yes, but a fighter.

We never went anywhere as a family, but whenever Father had an exhibition or was called out as a guest speaker to lecture somewhere, Mother barely waited for the door to lock before she leaped up as if it were a holiday, sparkling: “Where shall we go today?” She hated meeting other people, and an hour in society would make her so exhausted she would physically tremble, but with us she was energetic and free. “Hurry, darlings,” she cried, one hand in Ariana’s, one hand in mine, while Abby held onto her skirt, “hurry, hurry,” and we would struggle to keep pace as we dashed through the summer days together, a strange sight!—four girls, the mother barely older than her daughters, so that Korean street vendors often mistook her for the oldest sister. We were really very proud of her, our young mother, as sharp and dark and beautiful as the open umbrella of pine needles falling from the trees.

There was a squat library next to the Cheonggyecheon, a thin stream flowing like a vein through the wrist of the city. The library was painted an awful, sticky green, and its few books were always torn or dirty, but I always remember it fondly, for we went there every weekend through elementary school.

“You’ve always loved reading so much, Ah-jin,” Mother said, calling me by my Korean name. “I used to read English books to you all the time, when we lived in America. Do you remember?”

I nodded, even though I barely did. We had only stayed in America from age one to six, and my childhood was more colors and smells than concrete handrails of memory: sand scratching between my toes, sharp saltwater smell, cool droplets of ocean on my skin. The country where I had picked up the language, English entwining with Korean in my mouth.

We didn’t have money to buy meals outside, so Mother would bring our three matching pink lunch boxes from home, filled with her homemade sandwiches. While Father was at his studio, she would mash potatoes and eggs into soft, bright clouds, nestle them between puffs of white bread. She was whimsical, pinning little ribboned toothpicks into the buns and arranging the berries into hearts. Sometimes Father wandered past her with his ink-daubed face, curious.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To study,” she replied shortly.

“Well, can’t I come along? Family time, you know?”

“You know you would be noisy and irritable and distract them.” And after a while Father stopped asking.

Outside, Mother was like a little girl, as pleased as we were by every little thing. A passing dog made us all giggle. A tree branch, tossed in the breeze, made us sing. In the bus Ariana, the little one, always buried her head in Mother’s lap and fell asleep, as safe as if she were in her own bed, and Mother would stroke her hair.

“When will this puppy ever grow up?” she whispered. “Do you think she has anything at all in this pretty head of hers?”

She knew our whims and delighted to meet them.

“Because Abby loves plums,” she said, pausing at the open market. “A bag of plums, please. We can eat them by the river.”

“Oh, but Mamma, that’s such a luxury,” we cried happily. “Plums are so expensive.”

“One mustn’t save money on days like this,” she said, knotting up the weight of our sweet cold treasures, and we would begin running again. “Hurry, darlings, we must go to the river before the lantern festival begins.”

In November, thousands of shining floats would drift on the river, and longer lines of glowing decorations weave through the sky. Transparent, carefully crafted fish swam in radiant schools; emperors in crimson robes held out their arms in a benediction over swarms of floating paper clouds; pale horses stretched taut over flickering lights and wooden ribs cantered over the dark water. We always held hands solemnly as we watched this procession, breathing deeply into the cold night. Sometimes I looked up into Mother’s eyes and was struck by how hollow they looked: behind the chill glitter of the reflected conflagration, she looked far, far away from this blaze of festivity. But then she would catch my eye, and her face would soften slightly—a ray of fitful sunlight through a crack of porcelain. “What is it, Ah-jin?”

“Nothing,” I whispered. “Mamma...are you happy?”

“Hmm-mm,” she said faintly, staring ahead. “What is happiness, anyway?”

But neither of us knew the answer to this, so I would just pass her one of the tart, dark plums, and we would sit on the bank and munch its juicy fullness in silence.

Silence: the space Mother inhabited best. Small talk she abhorred. So when the flyers went out, in second grade, for the upcoming class president elections, she warned me away from that nonsense.

“If you become class president, I’ll be called in for everything,” she said tiredly, cupping her hands in her face. “Meetings, cafeteria discussions, cleanup sessions. Koreans! I’m sick of meeting people. So please, Angeline, don’t try out for class president.”

“Okay,” I said, hanging onto the doorknob, and watching her rub her eyes. Sometimes Mother rubbed her eyes so hard I was afraid they would pop out of her sockets, roll onto the floor like cold globes. “Okay, Mamma, I won’t.”

How simple-minded could I have been to think that a vice president would be any different? But when my friend nominated me, I accepted without a second thought, and was elected. Running home in elation, I held the gold-bordered certificate of vice presidentship in my hand, eager to tell Mother the news. When she opened the door, I jumped up and down—a rare display of excitement—and said, “Mamma, look, we had an election today! And I won!”

“Won?” Mother froze in the doorway: her eyes widened in her face.

“Yes. But don’t worry, Mamma, I didn’t become class president. I’m only vice president, because I didn’t want you to work extra.”

I clasped my hands together, basking in a prideful glow. I had always been a timid child, and it was thrilling to know that my classmates liked me enough to vote for me. I waited for Mother’s rare and beautiful smile. Mother reached out and closed the front door behind me with a thud. Then I reeled under the familiar—yet always shocking—slap across my face.

“You little monster,” Mother hissed through her teeth, shaking. “You rebellious—you horrible—how dare you disobey me?”

I stared at her silently, stunned. She seized me by the hair and dragged me to the bathroom, bringing sobs into my throat. This infuriated her, and she screamed, “Be quiet! Be quiet! What do you have to cry about?” She began beating me in earnest, dragging me by the hair into the bathroom, as blows landed on my face, head, neck, and arms. “Retard! Idiot! I’ve never met any child as stupid as you!” I cowered, shielding my eyes with my wrists, backing away. My head banged against the cold white underbelly of the sink, and I waited for the pain to stop, sobbing uncontrollably, “I’m sorry, Mamma, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” she gasped, frantic. “And do you think that will solve anything?” She seized a shampoo container from the shower stall and hurled it; it smashed against the wall and fell with a hard thump on my foot. A bar of soap went bruising across my cheek. “Do you want me to die?” she screamed. “Do you want me to meet those people day after day, every day? I told you not to! I told you! And the very next day you go out and spit in my face! At this rate you might at least have been class president—at least then you wouldn’t have been second place!”

She dashed out, slamming the door behind her. I stayed hunched on the cold bathroom tiles, shivering with terror. Outside, Mother punched numbers into the house phone. Her trembling but melodic voice, speaking to my teacher: “Yes, there’s been a mistake. Yes, Ah-jin doesn’t want to be vice president anymore. Please…”

About half an hour later Mother threw open the door, and I blinked up at her through my tears, still gulping and choking. “Perfect!” she cried shrilly. “The teacher says she can’t take you off vice president without your consent! That you have to go tell her yourself!”

“I will,” I sobbed.

“No!” She seized me by the shoulders and shook me so hard I fell down. “All you want to do is ruin my life. If you go talk to the teacher tomorrow, who knows what you will say? Just shut your mouth and don’t move! Don’t you dare say a word, do you hear?”

I don’t think Mother remembers this story. It has been a long time since she’s beaten me or raised her voice to a scream. But the beating stayed with me, and many, many, more, where the blows would rain down, over and over again, as I waited in terror for it to stop. It always did, eventually, so I learned to clench my teeth and wait. It was never about the physical pain so much as the confusion. But why? I often thought, apologizing over and over again, for a mistake I had made in a test, a time I had said “Stop worrying, Mamma,” and she thought I was being insulting. Why is she so angry, when all I’ve ever wanted is to please her? And this thought would tremble at the edge of my lips, would make me sob and sob, until I felt like I would throw up.

But this I also remember: in all her beatings, she never hated me. Eyes blazing with fear, mouth trembling, she would rip hair from my scalp and shove me against the wall, but all her loathing was for herself. For days afterward she would barely meet my eye, refuse to look in a mirror, stiffening in self-disgust when she did. Then the anger would pass, and Mother would be simply Mamma again, all warmth and softness and embrace. She would cradle me in her lap and trace my body with her fingers silently, as if I was made of everything brittle and sparkling in the world, kiss me over and over again to make up for every slap. “I’m sorry, darling,” she whispered, tears trembling under her eyelids, “do you hate me now, too?”

And in reply, I would kiss her back, every inch of her hands, every finger, every knuckle, every palm, and gasp out between my sobs, “Of course not, Mamma. Of course not.”

After every beating, an onslaught of headaches would descend on Mother. As if to punish herself, she would moan beneath the silent blows of a cruel migraine; she screwed up her eyes and shuddered. Face blanched with pain, she would crawl to the cool darkness of bed, and the three of us children would offer whatever healing we had.

“Doctors,” we said, wrapping ourselves in white blankets. “My doctors,” Mother agreed huskily, smiling.

Ariana went for her feet, massaging the rough edges of her skin; Abby for her legs; and I would brush out her long, silky hair, parting the dark strands to look for any curls of gleaming white. For Mother was fearful of growing old.

“If you see any white,” she said, breathing slowly, “please pull it out of me.”

So I did, straining my eyes in the curtain-filtered light, while Abby and Ariana kneaded flesh. For all the world as if we could press and squeeze happiness back into her body. As if with our nimble fingers, we could find the silver root of her sadness, and pluck it ever so gently out.

About the Author

Esther Ra

I am the author of 'book of untranslatable things' (Grayson Books, 2018), which received the 2018 Grayson Books Chapbook Award. My work has also received awards or publication from Rattle, Watershed Review, Exposition Review, Border Crossing, and Consequence Magazine. As a writer, I am deeply interested in the beauty of the ordinary and the space between different cultures.