sun & gam

by Joanne Lee


Omma sits on the bed, 
a pool of yellowed silk—Her hair 
dips below her shoulders; I can see 

the round scar from her small-pox vaccine,
the dark areola of her nipples, like the plums 

Hahlmuhnee peels for me and my brother 

in the afternoons when the flies slip
past the screen door. 
Will my nipples ever darken?

Two sisters lived with their mother on the top of a hill covered in ghosts’ breath.  One morning, while mother was beating ssal, a giant tiger from a neighboring hill crept up behind mother and ate her.  The sisters slept.  Not satisfied with his meal, the tiger knocked on the door to their sleeping house, dressed in their mother’s torn hanbok.  In a voice that shook the entire hill from foot to crown, the tiger bellowed, “Girls, let me in!  It’s Omma! I’ve come home with food for breakfast!”  But the sisters were too clever.  They saw through the tiger’s ruse.  They swallowed the bitter grief that sprang to life at their mother’s blood soaked clothes and escaped through the backdoor.  Still in their nightgowns, barefoot and slick with sweat, the sisters clambered up the persimmon tree that their father had planted in their backyard when they were still seeds inside mother’s belly.  Branch after branch hurtled beneath their bleeding feet, as the tiger’s voice grew distant and like a dream. 

But, in their haste, the sisters lost each other amid the branches and the silver leaves. 

Omma slips one of her bras between a pair of jeans and a t-shirt as she hands me laundry.  

I want to tell her that I am small
as the gam
she brings home from the shijang, small enough

to bathe with her, 

watch the water wend down our bellies, 

the downpour of words
she is teaching me
to hide.  

Her bra is too small for my breasts. The first
time I suck his cock,
I grow tired.  What a heavy thing 

to carry on one’s form; cutting 

into the soft spaces and injecting. His semen 

runs into me, 

a clap of thunder,
the thrown temper of an infant
bruising the insides of my mouth.  

There is something soothing 

about the keening needle 

as it stitches Omma’s name into my back.  

The flowers arrived today. White ranunculus.

I am reading a bedtime story to my brother.  Soon,
he will cry.  

Her suitcase is gone.

Daddy is sleeping.  
We must be quiet. We cannot
wake him before work.  

I don’t know what to pack for his dinner
since her suitcase disappeared.

The flowers arrived today. 

I grip the stems and they become feet,
my feet, 

my daughters’ bare feet, 

my daughters’ hair, thick
and stealing around my wrists.



Omma’s voice has disappeared.

She texts me:

“I’m still fighting with cold
yet. Dr. told me I have bad
pharyngitis and I’m on
antibiotics. I am not able
to work until Thursday
or longer.

How do you feel?”

I walk home from the grocery store, empty-

Omma sighs.

“Of all the things, why did
you get my crooked legs?
Why not my tiny waist or my small shoulders? 

Why my ugly legs?”

I follow
an endless white line
Omma traces
down the back
of a silver whale.

At the stoplight on McClurg,
I overhear:

“Mom, what does ‘clever’ mean?”

“It means smart, honey.”

“Actually,“ I want to correct,
“’clever’ connotes more than ‘smart.’ It refers
to wit, entails irony or cunning or quickness.”

The Korean word for “clever,”
ddok-ddok heh, sounds like the Korean word
for “fat,” ddoong-ddoong heh.

I never called my mother “Mom.”

Her fingertips, wrinkled from the cold,
leaves indentations in the over-ripe persimmons
she hands me after dinner.

“These will be extra sweet,” she promises,
in English. “Go ahead and eat,”
in Korean. I scrape the top of my tongue
with my teeth—the pulpy chambers
nearest the heart are sweetest, but
leave the mouth covered in splinters.

Go ahead and eat, Sunyoung-ah.”

The sun, the sun, the sun,
I think to myself, and then
I finger “S-U-N,” the first
time I learn to spell my mother’s
ddeu-guh-oon name.

My lover has sent me a bouquet of flowers,
with a handwritten note: “I can’t get you
out of my mind,” something he whispered the night
before after he rolled off of me.
I let
his semen
cut a path
down my thighs.

I said nothing;

my arms, too
tired and verbs
like “think” and “feel”
too heavy and wild;

their scent thickens.

I dream of
my daughters,
I dream of
tape scored across
their naked lips.
They will
not taste
the eclipse ensconced
in green chili,
the sun swollen
from the day’s teeth, and
the gorgeous gam their grandmother
bears from the shi-jang. They will
not speak
of hybrid summers, the duality
of American twilights
when their hair sizzles
violet with the coming
blackness, while
their tongues flap, impotent
from the roofs
of native hearts,

But they do not disappear; and
I fear
the night’s end.



Omma: Mom
ddok-ddok heh: clever, sharp, bright
ddoong-ddoong heh: fat, chubby, obese
ddeu-guh-oon: hot (to the touch)
gam: persimmon
shi-jang: store, market, mart
Hahl-muh-nee: Grandmother
ssal: rice (raw)
hanbok: traditional Korean dress

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