The Mudang and Jin Sook

5 min
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Image of Short Story

The winter’s full moon cast long tree shadows across the soybean field in front of the house. The Korean winds whistled a blistering tune through the cracks in the weather worn wooden door when the mudang, the village healer, knocked. The mudang kicked off the snow as she removed her shoes and placed them under a wooden bench by the door. “Thank you for coming,” harmeoni (grandmother) said as she wrestled the wind to close the door. The mudang placed her bag on the floor and removed her thick wool shawl. Harmeoni took it and placed it on a hook by the door. The oily scent of kerosene marched around the room with the aromas of garlic and kimchi following close behind. Harmeoni led the mudang to the corner of the room where her daughter lay on a soft pad on the floor. Her daughter wheezed through her dry whitened lips. Five-year-old Jin Sook knelt next to her oma (mother).
The mudang squatted on the floor, the hem of her green and white hangbok flared out, hiding her feet. She opened her leather bag, handed harmeoni four small votive candles, and said, “Please light these and place one candle on each side of your daughter, one at her head and one at her feet.”
Harmeoni nodded and went to a cabinet next to the wood-fired stove for some matches. Jin Sook held her hands over her mouth as she watched her grandmother walk away.
The mudang reached into her bag for her shell rattle. She turned to face Jin Sook. The mudang leaned forward to get a better look. She extended her hand. “Come here, child.”
Jin Sook’s dark brown eyes grew big as she backed up against the wall. She looked down at oma and then to harmeoni who had just finished lighting the fourth candle. The mudang stood up. “You will be in my way, child. Come and stand behind me.”
Harmeoni’s voice lashed out at Jin Sook, “Obey the mudang!”
The mudang took Jin Sook’s hand and gently guided her around her mother. The mudang bent down and peered into Jin Sook’s eyes, freezing the little girl with her stare.
Ironed winged butterflies banged against in the inside of Jin Sook’s little tummy. She tried not to look into the mudang’s eyes. She remembered the tales of how mudangs capture a person’s soul by staring into their eyes. She pulled her focus away from the mudang’s eyes and traced the wrinkles on her cheeks. She followed one that went from the left side of the mudang’s mouth toward her jaw. The wrinkle grew so large that Jin Sook found herself walking in it. Her feet mashed the soft ground as if she were stepping on a sleeping mat. She heard adults talking off in the distance. She cocked her head toward the voices. They weren’t speaking Korean. She was both drawn toward the voices and fearful of them at the same time.
“Sit here,” the mudang said, snapping Jin Sook out of her trance. Jin Sook sat down behind the mudang with her back against the wall. She listened to the mudang chant and then watched her dance around and over her mother. The mudang stopped her dance and shuffled over to harmeoni. She pointed to oma’s feet. “Sit there.” She turned around to Jin Sook. The mudang pulled her up and brought her over to her mother. “Sit there,” she said, pointing to oma’s left shoulder. The mudang shook her rattle and chanted. She closed her eyes and held both hands up as she continued chanting. She stopped, opened her eyes and turned to Jin Sook. “Put your hand on your oma’s heart,” she commanded. Jin Sook turned to get reassurance form harmeoni. She obeyed. The mudang closed her eyes and chanted again. Jin Sook’s hand shook as she held it over oma’s heart. The mudang screamed something unintelligible and then violently pulled Jin Sook’s hand away. Oma struggled to breathe. The mudang pointed to oma’s feet. “Go sit next to your harmeoni and face away from your oma.”
Jin Sook’s bottom lip trembled as she walked over and sat next to harmeoni. The mudang twirled her fingers reminding Jin Sook to turn away from her mother. The mudang lit a stick of incense and swirled it around oma. When Jin Sook turned her head to see what was happening, the mudang hit her on the head. “Do not turn around and look at your oma until I tell you to,” she said. She closed her eyes and shook her rattle nine times as she sang a song unfamiliar to Jin Sook. A velvety silence oozed into the room. Raindrops tippy tapped on the tin roof.
The mudang opened her eyes and asked Jin Sook to come and sit in front of her. She caressed Jin Sook’s face in her hands. “Oh little one, your life is going to change.” The mudang stood up and took Jin Sook’s hand. “Come with me,” she said. She motioned for harmeoni to follow. They moved as far away from oma as the little house would allow.
The mudang whispered to harmeoni, “Your daughter is going to die.”
Before she could continue, harmeoni covered her mouth and whimpered, “No. Not my daughter. You must do something. That is why I called you here.” Harmeoni cleared her throat and her voice grew louder. “I will pay you whatever you ask.”
The mudang held up her hand. “Please let me finish. Your daughter is holding someone else’s daughter.”
Harmeoni squinted. “How did you know? Jin Sook is my granddaughter. But not this daughter’s daughter.”
“She is not your granddaughter,” the mudang patted Jin Sook on the head. “She belongs to someone else.”
Harmeoni’s shoulders rose. “What are you taking about? I watched my other daughter give birth to Jin Sook. And what does this have to do with my dying daughter? I called you here to heal my daughter, not to tell me crazy stories.”
The mudang’s shoulders dropped. She shook her rattle. “The spirits have told me that your daughter will die unless you get rid of this girl who, I am telling you, truthfully, is not your granddaughter, even if you watched your other daughter give birth to her. In the time before now your daughter made a promise and now she must keep it or die.” The mudang turned to Jin Sook and placed her hand on the little girl’s face. “Your mother is very sick and she will die soon.”
Jin Sook eyes grew wide. She shook her head. “Oma, no. Oma no.”
The mudang leaned in close to Jin Sook and whispered, “You can help your oma not to die.” She held both of Jin Sook’s hands. “Do you want to help your oma?”
Jin Sook nodded her head and whispered back, “Yes.”
“Are you brave enough to do anything for your oma?”
A tear slid down Jin Sook’s face. “Yes, I will do anything for my oma. Anything.”
“Then, you must leave with harmeoni and never come back. Will you do that?”
A tear flowed down Jin Sook’s face as she nodded.
A bright flash preceded a loud thunder boom. The rain pelted the tin roof as a cold breeze slid under the door and blew out the candles.
Tears flowed down harmeoni’s cheeks as she led Jin Sook away from the hospital the following morning. They walked several blocks to an orphanage. Jin Sook cried as she watched her grandmother’s bony fingers pin a note onto the lapel of her blue woolen coat. A tailor shop’s pink neon clock, across the street, illuminated its dial at 5:40 AM. A streetlamp cast long shadows of trees and telephone poles towards her. Harmeoni crouched down low, pushing her granddaughter’s little body to the ground, against the glass entry door. Tears flowed in rivulets over harmeoni’s cheeks as she extended her hands and lifted the girl’s face. “You don’t want your oma to die, do you?” she asked.
Jin Sook’s eyes grew puffier and redder in the pink light. She feared being left alone in the dark, in a city she had never visited. “Please don’t leave me here, harmeoni,” the little girl pleaded.
“Can you be brave for your oma?” harmeoni asked. Her shoulders shook as she turned and walked away, leaving her granddaughter on the orphanage doorstep.
Jin Sook stood up and watched harmeoni walk under the pink neon clock and disappear around a corner. The dawn poked her fingers under the clouds. The rain pelted the ground. “I’ll be brave for my oma,” Jin Sook whimpered and then cried and cried.


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