Frances Park

I Am Not Afraid

Washing a tomato, Honey smiled. What a prize! Gnarled and mottled purple-green – gloriously ugly – it was probably grown by an heirloom farmer who caught his breath as he plucked it from the vine. How could he give this away? And now it’s mine, all mine…   She felt the weight of it, its seeds and sweetness, heavy on her wrists. She felt the life it had, its journey from the earth to the crate to her kitchen. How honored, humbled and hungry I am – she turned off the faucet with a little hiccup of a laugh – I must slice you up for lunch right away.

Because all seasons end.

Next month she was leaving her stately Arlington home of forty-five years to fly across the Atlantic and live with her daughter Sherry in the Tuscan town of Lucca. A charming place, the walls and churches and markets – who wouldn’t love it? Besides, everyone here was gone now; her old neighbors, one by one, in homes or cemeteries. Even her husband, a rock of a man, died in his sleep last year. Whenever she thought of him, her heart hurt.

“I miss you,” she whispered.

Her heart hurt a lot.

Out of nowhere, without warning, the sensation of going down in a plane made her lose her footing. Oma! Things shifted and rattled – her spices, her tea cups, her heart. Some fell, some shattered. She clung to the kitchen counter for dear life, unable to process what was happening. Think straight.

Was this an earthquake?

In Virginia?

With no one to ask, her heart hurt more than ever. She held it, pressed it. She began to pray but her prayer was a wilted thing; a woman her age shouldn’t ask for too much, not when Life had been so good to her. I am not afraid, she told the universe.

 

Its epicenter near Richmond, the earthquake had rumbled up and down the East Coast, shaking up millions of people in its path, the newscasters were saying. Early reports indicated that – surprisingly – there were no injuries or damage to speak of. And while aftershocks were common, the worst was likely over. Hearing that, Honey suddenly got very, very sleepy and lay down on the couch.

Soon she rippled off to a light, airy sleep and dreamt of a little black-haired girl eating blue-tinted rice from a copper bowl with copper chopsticks. When the telephone woke her, she had a memory of how the mineral water at her family’s summer home in the mountains was so blue it cooked the rice blue.

And the sound of her real name.

“Hanhee.”

So, who was that little girl eating blue rice, so long ago?

It was me.

Not Honey. Hanhee.

 

In five minutes, every corner of the globe had heard about the freak earthquake that rocked Virginia. Including Sherry.

“Mom! Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, sweet girl. A little groggy.”

“You didn’t fall, did you? Oh, God!”

“No, no, I was just napping.”

“After an earthquake??”

Pause.

“Mom, I’m begging you, please hop on the next plane here. You don’t have to be home when the packers and movers come. I can take care of everything.”

What Honey didn’t tell her daughter was that she’d already purchased flat boxes and tape and started packing up, the light stuff anyway. Just because your husband gave you the world didn’t mean you were a lady of leisure, not now, not ever. Besides, the idea of strangers touching her things made her flinch. If she could lift it, she could pack it.

“Mom… are you there?”

She didn’t expect Sherry to understand that she wanted to live out this end to a long fabled dream. That she would stay in her house until the very last minute – cab honking, time ticking – and give it a proper farewell.

“Yes, I am here.”

 

Saturday morning she opened the sliding glass door to the deck and took a peek. In her heavily-wooded backyard, the air was hot and tropical enough to sprout pineapples, mangoes, coconuts – yes, in Virginia! The sky above swaying trees was a strange if not beautiful shade of lilac. Goose bumpy, she shivered in the heat.

Hurricane Irene was coming.

For the past two days, the public had been warned, so like any prepared citizen she had: food, check, water, check, candles, check, flashlights, check, batteries – check, check! Still, you never really believe the worst will happen, not even when you’ve lived through war and stepped over dying babies like cow pies.

Hour after hour, Honey carried on with her day, aware of every window she passed as the skies turned dark and the winds nasty and the rains vicious. In all her years in this country, she’d never witnessed a single hurricane sighting, so why now? Leave an old woman alone. Go, go! After packing up the linen closet, she moved on into the guest bedroom. Her own bedroom, full of husband-wife things all central to her heart be they jewelry or junk, would have to wait until the last minute as if in the back of her mind she’d been gathering all her strength for this task for months now, maybe all her life, to feel everything you feel in a lifetime in one big heartbreaking fall-to-the-ground swoosh.

Speaking of swoosh, Hurricane Irene was in full force now, terrorizing everything in its path. You could hear the poor trees thrashing about, crying for this night to end but neither God nor angels could stop the gust of winds and rains that just blew through with an evil, earth-shattering swoosh!

Out went the power.

“Oma.”

When a man holds you in bed every night for nearly half a century, you don’t ever picture a moment like this: inching your way like a blind, stooped monk from the guest room to your bedroom. Tiny steps, fraught with danger. Feeling for the flashlight on the dresser, she grabbed it – click! – then lit the candle next to it.

Salvation.

Led by candlelight, Honey found her way to her sitting chair. I am not afraid, she repeated, just in case the universe wasn’t listening the first time.

*

Previously published in MORIA Journal.

 


Frances Park is the author or co-author of ten books – novels, memoirs and children’s books – published in seven languages and praised by The Times Literary Supplement, USA Today, NPR, Radio Free Asia, and Voice of America. Her widely published short fiction and personal essays are mostly inspired by her Korean American heritage.

 

 


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