Ruminations on October 19
by Rina Olsen (Guam)
Audio: "Ruminations on October 19," read by Rina Olsen
The word fell from my motherʼs lips onto mine as I repeated it to myself. Clicked my teeth together and stretched my mouth wide to make the sae. Puckered my lips to make the oo. Touched my tongue to the roof of my mouth, forced air through my clenched teeth to form the juh. Tongue jumped from the roof of my mouth and my teeth caught it, making the final n. Shrimp pancakes.
My mother guided the glinting blade down the back of a limp, cold, dead shrimp to draw out a single thread of indigo. The vein. “Donʼt slice it in two. Make the shrimp an open book.” She splayed the shrimp out on the wet cutting board, exposing the white meat. “Your grandfather liked books. He also liked saeujeon.”
She passed the floppy shrimp to me and I dunked it into the beaten egg yolks, swishing it around so it was completely soaked, then quickly transferred it to the pan of flour. I buried it in a white mound, then pulled it out and shook off the excess. My fingers were now sticky with eggs and flour.
Slick gray flesh. Slippery yellow flesh. Powdery white flesh. Three generations, one shrimp.
“Maybe your grandfather liked it because he grew up on Koreaʼs eastern coast, near the sea,” my mother mused.
Korea, a country in between two different seas that gleefully joined hands to dance around its three sides. Guam, an island wrapped completely in the Pacificʼs warm embrace, the mother that would never totally let go of her children.
We are not so different, then, I thought. Even if Grandfather must have seen a different sea with different shrimp.
The dried pollock, or hwangtae, was loaded onto a platter. It gaped somewhere to the distant east with its bony back towards the south. It was right side up in the northern direction, where the ceremonial table faced, where the ancestors are. Chopsticks rested on the bed of faded silver scales.
According to my mother, fishing had been a family business a long time ago. My grandfather’s father had been a wealthy man with a fishing ship and a large crew. My grandfather had also sailed, but in a different ship, and only once, when he had left home at fifteen to pursue an education in Japan.
I hadnʼt known before that my grandfather had gone westwards. But he must be in the east again because that was where the fish faced. The thin skeleton stabbed up from the dun-colored meat, as if the fishʼs health had been sucked from it by sharp sunlight the moment it had flopped onto a fishermanʼs deck. It gaped at me, eyes bulging, O-shaped mouth trying to say a thousand things that would never take shape.
Three crimson orbs formed a poised pyramid. 'Apple' in Korean is sagwa, but so is 'apology'.
Fruits were lined up at the very front of the ceremonial table. Red fruit went on the eastern side, white fruit on the western. Violet grapes spilled from their dish like amethysts. A lone Korean pear stood next to the candle whose wick slumped in longing for a flame. The apples sat nearer the center because they were a little bit of both. Red outside, white inside. Half eastern, half western. Just like me.
“It’s a shame,” lamented my mother as she carved away a piece of apple, allowing my grandfather’s soul to enter the fruit and savor it. “He had so many stories of his childhood. You would have loved them.”
I looked up from carving away a hunk of tangerine. “Did you?”
“I was never very interested. Poor Papa.”
Ultimately I would learn that unsown stories were what cleaved family trees apart, silence deepening the gorge between the branches bearing different colored fruit.
The rice cooker sang happily, announcing that the rice was all done. I carefully scooped pearly grains into a ceramic bowl and patted them into a neat mound that rose above the lip of the bowl. I stabbed a spoon through the top, something not done at usual meals because that made it look like an incense burner, which was associated with funerals.
Rice, the symbol of prosperity. A measure of wealth; life’s currency. They glistened like nacre beads, weaving hot silken clouds that rose to warm my cheeks.
There are different words for “rice”. There is bap, meaning cooked rice, and ssal, meaning uncooked rice. There is also sticky purple rice, or heukmi bap; barley rice, or bori bap; bean rice, or kong bap. Bap can also mean “meal”.
“Bap meogeosseo? ‘Have you eaten today?’. That was what your grandfather’s brother’s wife always asked your grandfather when he came home from day school.” My mother reached for the blue lighter. “Apparently she was a good cook, and a warm-hearted sister-in-law. She could make whatever your grandfather wanted after a long school day.”
There was a click as a flame sprang to life at the end of the blue lighter’s big black barrel, to be gifted to the candles.
The preparations for jesa, or ancestral worship, were finally over. A red ring of ink encircled the number nineteen on the calendar. Today. October 19, the day my grandfather had passed away, many years before I was born.
Outside the sun was dying. Purple bruises were scattered across the evening sky. Some enormous beast had raked its talons down the cerulean hide and left gaping scarlet wounds bleeding along the horizon.
I stood alone before the table while my mother called the rest of the family down for the ceremony. The fish kept staring at me, trying desperately to tell me something. A story, maybe. The fragrance of food wafted towards me, urging me to bow to my ancestors with my hands outstretched. How else could I catch their tales and cook them in the simmering pot of family history, to be eaten by future generations?
Rina Olsen, age 16, is a Korean-American high school sophomore. Her writing is often inspired by her passion for culture and history.
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11/24/23, 4:42 PM
I'm amazed by your deep perception towards little things of life! Keep glowing dear Taieba.
10/4/23, 10:28 AM
I'll like to see more of your writing
10/4/23, 10:26 AM
Gsk I love it!
10/3/23, 7:58 PM
9/29/23, 2:03 AM
9/29/23, 2:03 AM
Wow..just wow. Ridiculous words I know. I just stumbled across your poem as this is my first time on the website and I landed this masterpiece. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to several aspects of this. Your use of imagery, symbolism, and allusion is outstanding
9/17/23, 8:43 AM
Powerful. Spreading the truth some don't think about, some don't have to worry about. A great and strong piece.
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
9/16/23, 2:41 AM
8/25/23, 10:35 PM
Excellent and amazing
8/17/23, 7:00 AM
Absolutely beautiful poem! The words were picked meaningfully and used it a descriptive way. Very relatable.