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Issue 116 |
Winter 2011-12

The Gospel of Blackbird (Emerging Fiction Writer's Contest)

As John hurried to the resident locker room after doing his rounds at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he noticed a sixtyish Korean lady in red sweats cautiously stalking him from about twenty feet away. At first, John thought the wrinkled woman might be a figment of his overworked brain, as he was always tired to the point of incoherence and often talked to himself during the second year of his surgical residency. He hated his daily demands so much he wouldn’t have been surprised if hallucinations were the next step in his unraveling.

The old woman had permed hair that resembled rusty poodle fur and a withered overpowdered face that reminded John of a kabuki performer. When John turned away from his ghastly stalker and walked down the hallway, she ran toward him and poked his shoulder.

“Don’t you bow to your elders?” she asked in Korean as he turned. Although his parents had tried to teach him Korean in his youth, John barely understood that simple sentence, as the language didn’t stick to him in the Long Island suburbs.

“I’m sorry. I don’t think I know you,” he said hesitantly in English and turned again, trying to skirt the intrusive questions Koreans often ask other Koreans.

“I’m Na-Jin’s mother. Remember? Nancy?”

John’s eyes widened, as if he’d just been injected with adrenaline. He had tried to forget Nancy many times over the years, but had not succeeded, often replaying scenes from their short time together while he lay alone in his Washington Heights studio.

The old woman smiled. “You remember her. You loved her.”

She started speaking Korean in a blistering pace. He couldn’t keep up with the woman’s verbal torrent, with only certain familiar words that his parents sometimes used jumping out at him. “Church…Cancer…God…Boy…Queens.”

He raised his palms and shrugged. Frustrated, she clutched a tarnished silver crucifix that she wore around her neck. She said slowly in English, like a toddler speaking, “Nancy will die. I need help. For Nancy. A boy talks to God. He can help her. Make her better.”

John’s insides shivered when she said “die,” but he shook his head, afraid of how Nancy might affect his life again. In broken Korean, he then explained, “A boy? God? I don’t understand you. I can’t help.”

“Your Korean is bad,” she groaned. In his parents’ minds, John more than made up for that critical flaw by going to medical school at their behest.

She shook her head, and then said, “I’ll write you a letter. For you to give to your mother. Stay here and don’t move.” Because she was twice his age and Korean, John did as he was told.

One of the hospital’s nurses, a husky blond woman who wore librarian glasses, came by and asked, “What does she want from you?”

“She’s going to write a letter to my mother.”

The nurse said with a furrowed brow, “She’s a very strange woman. Her daughter has leukemia, which looks real bad. The nurses in the cancer ward say she brings in nut jobs during visiting hours.”

“She asked me about a boy who can heal her daughter,” John said.

“Doesn’t surprise me. These people who came by with her last week did loud chants for like an hour.”

“Korean people?”

The nurse said, “They were Asian. And the way they prayed was scary. Crying and screaming with their hands in the air. I’d be careful with her.”

The nurse marched away as the Korean woman came by again holding a letter written on loose-leaf paper. John could not read Korean, so it was just a jumble of quirky symbols to him.

“Give that to your mother. She will know what it means,” Nancy’s mom said.

 

*

One December Sunday twelve years before, John was arranging folding chairs in the teen service room of the largest Korean church in suburban Long Island, where John’s father was the minister. John, though seventeen and yearning to be free of filial obligations, always had to come early to help the youth pastor set up. That day, five minutes before the service, Nancy strode in, her tiny body propped by platform heels clopping against the linoleum floor. She instantly drew stares and whispers from the other teens gathered in the windowless classroom. She was as small as an elementary school girl, but wore twice as much makeup as any church mother, and dyed her hair jet-black with purple streaks. Wearing drugstore aviator sunglasses and layers of black under a black trench coat, she looked to John like she had dressed for a vampire’s funeral.

John approached her as she stood alone in the back of the room staring blankly into the yellow plaster wall. He usually sat somewhere near the front, so he could lead youth group prayers, but he instinctively wanted to be next to the only girl at church who had ever intrigued him.

“Are you new here?” he asked. Just over six feet, he was a foot taller than she was.

“Yeah. I already know who you are though,” she smirked.

Every Korean parent in a sixty-mile radius revered and envied his gray-maned father for raising a tall soccer star with stellar grades. No one knew that John hated being a poster child for the greater New York Korean American second generation, and wanted nothing more than a momentary escape.

“You mind if I sit with you? I’m supposed to welcome the newbies.” He smiled, hoping that didn’t sound too dorky.

“Do whatever. My mom made me come here,” she said.

“Mine too. Every week since birth,” he said, making her grin just a bit.

The chubby, twenty-something youth minister stood up in front to address the forty Korean boys and girls dressed almost uniformly in white button-down tops and black slacks. “We have a new person with us today. Nancy Jung, can you please stand up?”

“Oh God,” she muttered under her breath as she rose.

“Um, I’m sorry but could you take off your sunglasses, please?” the dough-boy minister said.

She stood motionless.

“This is a place of worship. It’s just a little disrespectful.”

She shrugged and swiped off her glasses, revealing artificial ice-blue irises. The youth minister’s brown eyes bulged behind his thick glasses. He shook his head, looked at the rest of the congregation and said, “OK, let’s start with a prayer…”

After the service began, Nancy looked down at her yellow Swatch every five minutes. John glanced at her repeatedly, attracted to the cherubic, teddy-bearish features underneath all her dark camouflage.

The other teenagers in the room sang praise songs, making hand gestures in unison with the lyrics. “From the rising of the sun…” They raised their hands skyward with eyes closed, cupping an imaginary sun without even a hint of cynicism. John viewed the service with an outsider’s eyes for the first time and thought the congregation must’ve looked like a cult of lemmings to a girl as rebellious as Nancy.

“Why aren’t you doing it?” Nancy whispered as John slouched in his seat.

“Cuz it’s totally gay,” he whispered back. She chuckled with surprise, causing a few heads to turn in their direction.

“You wanna cut out?” Nancy dared.

“Yeah,” he said, trying to seem nonchalant though his heart rate accelerated, as he had never done anything more than hold a girl’s hand before.

“Say you gotta go to the bathroom. I’ll meet you outside in five minutes,” Nancy said.

After they met at the church entrance on that chilly morning, they walked a couple of blocks into the main street of brick single-story storefronts. John bought gummy worms from the 7-Eleven, which they ate as they sat on the curb, their breath visible in the winter air.

“Isn’t a minister’s son scared of hell?” she asked.

“Not any more than you are,” John said with a shrug.

Nancy explained that her daddy was a drunk who went back to Korea when she was four. She bounced around with her mom, who spoke almost no English, to wherever some Korean business was willing to hire cheap help. Her last stop was outside Dallas, where her mom worked in a nail salon while Nancy hung out in trailer parks with a druggie crowd. A few months back, her mom was laid off, but found a job at a restaurant supply store on Long Island through a family friend, and moved to a one-bedroom atop a stinky fish market in Queens.

“I thought everyone would look at me like I was trash here, but you’re kinda cool. So far, anyway.” She flashed an inviting smile.

“Cool.” John had rarely heard anyone use that word to describe him. Because his family always forced him onto the straight path, he never qualified for his suburban high school’s social elite, narcotized preppy slackers orphaned by professional parents. Korean kids respected him, but were always uncomfortably proper around him.

“Follow me,” she said, her fake eyes sparkling. She led him to a gray Honda Civic in the church parking lot, took a set of keys out of her little black leather purse, and opened the back door. John’s pulse doubled, and his hands involuntarily clenched into fists.

“Done this before?” she asked, giggling.

John paused for a moment, thinking of his father giving a sermon just yards away, but then looked at Nancy’s mischievous eyes and said, his voice an octave higher than normal, “Yeah, this is cool.”

John kissed with his mouth open for the first time as they clumsily fumbled with each other in the backseat. She was so petite that John could cover her entire ribcage with his open right hand. When he moved his hand farther upward, he felt just a palmful more than a boy’s chest, but began to breathe heavily. She unbuttoned his dress shirt and put her tiny hands inside, sending a crackling electric current over his lightly muscled chest.

She had moved her right hand into his trousers when, suddenly, the chubby youth pastor knocked on the back window. Seeing Nancy with her hand in John’s crotch, the rotund young man of God simply shook his head with disgust.

“I’m talking to your mothers,” he screamed through the closed window.

“What are you gonna do? Kick me out of Sunday School?” she mocked, delighting in defiling the minister’s son. She beamed with pride at her achievement.

After he drove the family home from church, John’s father slammed the door to the master bedroom and refused to come out. John was quite happy to not have to listen to another one of his father’s sanctimonious lectures on how Koreans were one of the most Christian people in the world, and a Korean boy’s duty was obedience to the Scriptures.

His mother walked into his room that night, looking disappointed but concerned behind her horn-rimmed spectacles. Although a perpetually harried businesswoman who only had a few hours a week for John, she always tempered his father’s wrath with rational counseling.

“Why did you do this, John?” she asked.

“Just sick of being a savior,” John said, plopping down on his bed.

His mother glared downward at him. Nearly as tall as John, she straightened herself to her full height when she wanted to make a point. “You have no idea how lucky you are, John. Nancy’s a troubled girl and I hope God saves her one day, but she can ruin you. You don’t know it now, but believe me, you need to be careful.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t mind being ruined,” John retorted.

“Think about what you’re saying, John. Think about your family,” his mom said before she left the room.

In the weeks that followed, when he encountered Koreans at the mall or supermarket, he could see them whisper to each other, “The minister’s son. Can you believe it?” He was exhilarated by his first taste of scandal.

 

*

After John completed his rounds at the hospital, he took the 1-9 downtown to the crowded sidewalks of 32nd street and, as ordered by Nancy’s mother, brought the letter to his mom in her disheveled
cubicle in a twenty-story office building near Koreatown. For the last twenty-five years, she had been a real estate agent who led the relatively well-to-do Koreans out of Queens and into well-groomed suburban zones that WASPs were abandoning. To John’s bemusement, his father preached that a woman’s role was subservience to her husband, even though his own wife could buy and sell him.

When John arrived, his mother was pulling at her bob cut as she fluttered in a wrinkled Talbot’s suit over piles of manila folders. “I don’t have much time. What is it?” she asked.

John showed her the handwritten letter, “Nancy’s mother found me at the hospital. She told me to give this to you.”

“Nancy? That girl? From when you were in high school?”

“Yes.”

His mother scanned the letter with pursed lips. “Nancy has cancer. There’s some boy that can cure her. Apparently, he’s cured a few other cancer patients. Many of the Korean churches out in Queens seem to believe he’s a miracle boy.”

“Miracle? Like a faith healer?”

“Yes, he has wounds like Jesus. He bleeds like him. His touch will make her better.”

“That’s insane.”

“I know. Someone is taking advantage of this poor woman. She’s been through enough.”

“What does she want from me?”

His mother didn’t answer until she reached the end of the letter. “She wants to know if you, a doctor, had heard of anyone being cured like this in New York. She wants to know if this is real, and if you can tell if she’s cured afterward.”

“Doesn’t she have doctors?”

“They’re probably not Korean. They wouldn’t understand something like this.”

“I don’t understand this, Mom. This is crazy.” John was raised to believe in God’s miracles, but, as a doctor, he considered faith healers nothing more than despicable predators. He wanted to suspend his skepticism for Nancy’s sake, but was not sure if he could.

“You should help her, John.” His mom focused her gaze on her confused son.

“How?”

“Go with them. Be her doctor through this. Tell her what she should believe in.”

“You told me to stay away from her, Mom.”

“I also told you about God’s grace, John. It’s been years,” his mother said.
 

*

John’s mother didn’t know how much he’d seen Nancy after the incident at church. Three days after getting caught in the car with her, he called down the list of Jungs in the church address book when his parents were away at a prayer meeting, until a heavily accented voice said “OK” when he asked for Nancy.

“I’m still not afraid of hell. You?” he said when she answered.

Nancy chuckled, “Very cool of you to call.”

In the few months he had before Yale, he would sneak out to the mall to meet Nancy before his parents got home, or steal a quick hour or two with her in one of their living rooms. The next fall, she
occasionally visited him in New Haven. She didn’t go to college, deciding instead to traverse through lower Manhattan, bouncing around random couches and beds, sometimes finding her way back home to Queens to her crying mother. Something was always missing from his dorm room when she left, a few dollar bills he had left on his dresser, change for the laundry, and, once, his digital watch. He learned to hide his wallet deep in his sweater drawer when she came by.

For the next couple of years, he eagerly awaited her two or three visits a semester, even though he sensed she was using him as a quick respite from a helter-skelter life in New York. John tried to get along with other girls at school, but he bored the ones he liked, and the ones who liked him were boring. In the end, none of them could take his mind off Nancy. She’d call a day or two in advance and show up at the Metro North station with a dumpy overnight bag, looking disheveled and sad, but always donning her fake blue eyes.

One autumn day during his junior year, she took his keys and wandered around the Gothic steeples while he studied advanced biology in his room. She carried around his backpack, telling the boys that she might transfer to Yale from a small school down in Texas. She came back with many phone numbers, which she presented to John and laughed. “Total dorkwads.”

“They’re not all so bad,” he responded.

“I don’t know how you sit cooped up in this place.” She shook her head at the hardcover science textbooks lying piled next to his bed.

“I have to if I’m gonna be a doctor,” John answered.

“Do you even want to be a doctor?”

When John paused without an answer, she laughed. “You’ve never even asked yourself that, have you? You don’t even know what you want to do.”

“Maybe not yet. Do you know what you want?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna be a singer. I even have a name. You remember that nursery rhyme?” She started to sing in a delicate but tone-deaf soprano.

Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.

 

She giggled when she was done. “That’s what I’m gonna call myself. Blackbird. Cuz they sing, stay true to themselves, even when they’re about to be cut to pieces.”

They ordered pizza, and slept together uncomfortably nestled in his concave dorm twin bed. As she slept, he tried to think of ways to get her to stay longer, perhaps offer to take her to some woodsy New England getaway, but when he awoke, she was gone.

The middle of the next week, he walked home dazed from midterms and found Nancy crumpled into a ball underneath the blue sheets of his twin bed, sweating like she had just finished a marathon. She had strewn all her clothes, including her white bra and panties, across his dusty wood floor. He shook her awake and all she said was, “I needed a place to crash.”

“How’d you get in?” John demanded.

She pointed nonchalantly to two keys linked by a flimsy chain beside his cheap clock radio. John realized she had made copies at some point while she had roamed the campus.

“That’s a Yale ID too,” she said. A clumsily laminated card sat next to the keys.

John looked into her ice-blue eyes and saw that she couldn’t focus them. “You on something?”

She shook her head.

“What happened?” John said, sitting down at his computer desk, which sat two feet from his twin bed in his sparse concrete dorm.

“My mom is threatening to put me away, all that crap. She wants to lock me up in some Jesus-freak death camp, but I’m twenty. Can do what I want now.”

“Did she cut you off?”

“Yeah. I’ll find a way though.”

She smiled luridly as she sat up and pulled the blue sheet down to reveal her bare chest. John was not enticed as her eyes veered in two different directions, “I need a little money so I can get back to the city,” she said.

“Here,” he said. He pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her, though he felt awkward, like he was paying to see her naked.

“Can I get a little more? I wanna get my nails done. I’ll pay you back, of course.” Her nails looked like they had been gnawed by rodents.

John opened his wallet to give her another twenty and said, “I read in a magazine that there’s a shampoo girls use, just for a few days, to cleanse themselves of the cooler ones they use every day. After that, the cool ones work better.”

“Yeah, so?”

“I’m like that shampoo, huh?”

She chuckled, “Come on now, we’re old friends, aren’t we?”

“I’m not stupid. How many guys you got in New York? Older, I bet. Got money.”

She didn’t answer, just looked away and smiled. “If you’re shampoo, what am I?”

John remembered his freshman Greek mythology class. “Do you know what a succubus is?”

She shook her head.

“It’s a demon girl that steals a man’s life force by sleeping with him. Sucks it in and makes herself stronger.”

“Now you’re just being stupid.”

“Why do you keep coming here?”

She looked down at the floor. “Maybe I need you.”

“I’m taking my keys back,” John said as he grabbed them off the computer desk. He took her fake ID too.

“What’s your problem? Why are you acting like you’re my dad?” she shouted as she rose in disbelief. The sheets slipped off her and fell to the floor, leaving her aquiline body, marked with inflamed bruises on her skinny arms and ribs, completely exposed.

She glowered up at him, her azure eyes, now acutely focused, piercing the darkness of the room, “You think you know me, you stupid fuck? Well, I know you. You’re just a lapdog looking for praise. I only said you were cool cuz I feel sorry for you. Who else is gonna think that of you but a bunch of old Koreans at church?”
 

*

Nancy’s mother was waiting for John the next day, in the same spot next to the resident lockers where she had first tracked him down. John said in Korean that he had practiced with his mother, “I will help you. I will go with you and Nancy to the healer. We will see together if he is real.”

The next day, two small women awaited him at that spot. As John walked down the hall, his eyes fixed on the younger one with dour natural brown eyes. Nancy now had just baby fuzz for hair, and hollow sullen cheeks. John eyeballed her terminal diagnosis and guessed that she had perhaps a few months left. Her pretty features weathered and whittled, she seemed too tired for defiance and smiled politely when she saw him. Her wool sweater and jeans drooped over her bones, so she resembled a child who had dressed herself from her mother’s closet.

“You look the same. A little older, but the same,” Nancy said. He nodded politely.

“Look, I didn’t want to bother you. I’m doing this for my mom.
Figure I put her through enough, so I should do as she says now,” she shrugged. Although Nancy was the most vivid part of his young adulthood, John believed her memories of him were probably fading photos in a rarely opened album that contained many men from her past, soon to be gone forever.

“You don’t hold a grudge?” Nancy asked.

“That was a long time ago.” Truthfully, he had resented her, wincing with hurt pride when he remembered their last night together.

Nancy’s mother led them toward the exit. John said as he walked with Nancy, “Your mom wants me to check you after this boy touches you. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. Do you believe in this boy?”

“Not really. But what have I got to lose?”

Nancy’s mother guided them to a rusty red Nissan Stanza that looked as if it could barely struggle out of the hospital parking lot, much less transport them to some miracle. She opened the back door and, as if she were a chauffeur, motioned for John and Nancy to get inside.

Nestled shoulder-to-shoulder in the back, Nancy and John rode in silence for about five minutes until Nancy finally said, “I know things didn’t end well, but I was in a really bad place then. You were my
sanctuary.”

 

*

About half an hour later, John saw that they were headed into the verdant lawns of Forest Hills. When Nancy’s mom said they were going to Queens, he assumed she meant Flushing, where Koreans lived densely massed into noisy high-rises. Instead, they pulled into a ranch-style house situated on a maple-lined block that could serve as a backdrop for a family television show.

When Nancy’s mom rang the doorbell, a bespectacled Korean man clad entirely in black appeared at the front door. Nancy’s mom handed the man a stuffed envelope. A few hundred of those envelopes bought this respectable house of God, John thought.

Seven middle-aged Korean men in black priestly robes walked into the foyer, and marched them all into an unfurnished room with hardwood floors covered only with a large bamboo mat in the center. The men lined the back wall and motioned for Nancy, her mom and John to sit on the mat. For a while, the men muttered incomprehensible prayers in a low drone, their voices meshing into a buzz like a swarm of insects. Nancy and John shared a few uncomfortable glances while they quietly knelt, waiting to see whether these men really could produce a miracle.

After a few minutes, a stick-skinny boy a head shorter than Nancy and, at most, nine years old entered the room wearing a flowing white robe and sandals. Nancy and John both gasped when they saw him, as his bones jutted out from the thin material of his robe. With long, unruly hair matted against skin as translucent as rice paper, he looked like a scrawny cadaver that would fall apart if touched.

The only lively part of him was his wondrous eyes. They were enormous dark ovals enveloped with a sadness that belied his age, like dark wells where desperate souls had whispered their last wishes.

“He’s the one who needs a healer,” John said to Nancy.

“Shhhhhhh!” One of the men warned. He motioned for all in the room to pray, but John’s eyes remained on the boy.

The boy approached Nancy. “Let him touch you,” one of the men said in halting English.

Nancy’s mother said a slew of sentences about the boy in Korean that John couldn’t understand.

On the boy’s palms, John noticed two-inch cuts covered by fresh scabs, likely puncture wounds from some sort of clumsy self-mutilation done with an object not sharp enough to penetrate deeply. The boy didn’t bleed like Jesus, John thought. He bled because these men demanded it. As much as John wanted to see a supernatural connection, he knew a true sign from God would not be so sloppy.

Nancy said in English, “You’re hurting him. Can’t you see that? He’s just a boy.”

One of the men responded in a thick accent, “He will make you better.”

“No. This is wrong. This is just a circus trick for money.” Nancy looked around the room, her eyes tearing.

Nancy focused on John, pleading, “We can report them, can’t we? We have to get him out of there.”

John shook his head, despising the men for exploiting a boy in God’s name, but knowing they were untouchable from outsiders. How many times had his father’s church kept a pregnant teen, a battered spouse, or an illegal immigrant out of sight of anyone not Korean, to be dealt with covertly within their community, invisible to any other eyes?

“He’s a scared little boy,” Nancy said to John.

“It’s no use,” John replied with gritted teeth. “We can’t help him.” A cold dead weight grew in the pit of his stomach when he saw Nancy’s eyes smolder with anger. Nancy’s mom desperately looked skyward for a divine revelation.

“He’s doing what they want him to. He’s too scared not to,” Nancy said.

John glared hatefully at all the stout, stern men standing around the room, knowing this boy would soon vanish, as if an impenetrable curtain had dropped around him.

“Leave him alone!” she screamed in Korean, rising from the mat. The boy shuffled into a corner and covered his ears with his wounded hands.

The men approached, one of them putting a bear hug around Nancy while the others pushed her as a crowd toward the front door. John and Nancy’s mom tried to push through the men to get to Nancy, but there were too many of them, and John found himself forced outside by a current of bodies.

After they were jettisoned onto the front steps, John straightened his clothes and looked at Nancy, who was knotted in a tight embrace with her mother. He cursed himself for ever believing that Nancy was some unholy poison, only important because of the danger she posed to a good Korean boy.

In the Nissan, Nancy and her mother cried with halting gasps as they held each other while John sat ignored in the back, a powerless bit player in their lives.

“I should have helped you back then,” John said to Nancy as she covered her face with her sweater. When she did not respond, his voice involuntarily retreated into a whisper, “I loved you.”

John sat in silence for several minutes until Nancy’s mom turned and said as she wiped her tears, “We are sorry. We will take you home.”

“No, no. Please take me back to the hospital,” John replied. He was not scheduled for a shift, but he wanted to relieve one of his beleaguered colleagues, as he found himself immune to the fatigue that had saddled him since he began his residency. That night, he wasn’t going to work out of any duty he owed to his family or community, but simply because he wanted to heal.