Short Story: The English Garden by Bae Suah
Translated by Janet Hong
“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.
“I think I played on the swing.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.
“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”
“I think the same will happen to you.”
“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”
Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.
Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.
Since there was no explanation, and since asking about her was forbidden, we didn’t know who she was. In fact, it was necessary we didn’t know. Still, we had a vague idea. The long, whispered phone calls. The morose, distracted look common to those harbouring secrets, which we glimpsed on the faces of our uncles and aunts. The furtive conversations lasting for hours behind closed doors to decide the fate of one woman. It wasn’t through their words but through their expressions, attitudes, and secretive, restrained behavior that we learned Kyeong-hui was related to us by blood, and that it was only right to describe her as a relative.
We knew Kyeong-hui suffered from an illness and had lived most of her life at a clinic until she’d had to leave abruptly for some unexplained reason. That’s why her relatives were now saddled with the responsibility of caring for her, each putting her up for several months at a time.
Kyeong-hui was my first secret and my first lie. To reveal her existence to anyone outside of my family was to commit an unnamed sin. For example, if anyone asked how many people lived at my house, I had to say five, not six. Even while at home, we would frame our conversations accordingly, as if no one else lived with us.
Kyeong-hui was Kyeong-hui. She possessed no family title, such as “Auntie” or “Cousin”. Not that it mattered, since we couldn’t call or mention her anyway. But one day I overheard the grownups talking about her behind a closed door…
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