responses to love
Claudia Ann Seaman Award
Duluth, Georgia, USA
Northview High School
When I am seven, they find my neighbor Paula strangled to death in her apartment. It is three in the morning and police cars circle the parking lot like beetles. Knowing the officers are here scares me. Their very presence, the footfalls and sounds of their breathing which travel through the walls, carve this night into existence.
Just two days ago, I visited Paula to exchange Christmas gifts. We sat on the floor and shared a tin of butter cookies, listening to muted jazz pour from her phonograph. Crushing salt and sugar granules between my teeth, I watched as she unwrapped the tea set Eomma had bought for her. There was a card inside, To Paula scribbled in my messy cursive. Paula put it aside because she knew I hated people reading their cards in front of me. Upon seeing the teacups with their heart-shaped roses, she laughed, her surprise reflected in the gentle widening of her eyes. Paula said she had to brew some tea immediately and grabbed two cups. While she boiled the water, I opened her gift to me: a little snowman. A maroon ski hat stitched onto his velvet head. He gazed back at me with a wobbly smile. I named him Pete the Snowman.
I do not even attempt to sleep. I cannot stop picturing her abandoned sewing needles, shards of china over white carpet, a blueing corpse. Instead, I watch blades of light-- red, blue, then red again-- cut across the bedroom walls. Folding my fingers, I create a shadow puppet of a duck and make it quack in time with the sirens. I ignore the snowman beside my pillow.
Our apartment building is sandwiched between a gas station and an empty lot. The wire fencing that separates them is fragile and riddled with openings. I used to pick at the ivy there, until Paula found me and told me not to. She once joked that the only thing guarding our homes was the ivy. Holding my hand, she showed me how the ivy patched holes in the wire with clusters of five-headed blooms, how its fat green leaves concealed cracks in the siding. I did not really understand before, but I stopped because she looked upset.
I still hear her voice. Kneeling behind the dumpster, I leave the ivy alone and draw stars in the mud.
Most nights, I dream of strangers. They stand at our door and beat their fists into the hardwood until they finally pull the knob loose, infiltrating the living room. Usually, they find me somewhere locked in the bathroom or hidden behind the dryer. Sometimes, the intruders never make it inside, but I know they are watching me, their armored bodies and loaded guns forming silhouettes at every window. Always, they are faceless.
Eomma understands, even if she pretends she does not. I know because she has the same dreams as I do, of figures like shadows on the wall, of men breaking in. When I tell her, the rims around her eyes grow red and she hugs me. Although she may not like those dreams, I am glad we can share them together and that she is there hiding with me when, during the day, the men do come. They appear like ghosts, in ones or twos, wearing hollow expressions as they wring the knob four, five, six times.
I am ten when Eomma takes me to Hal-meoni's. Immediately, I am surprised by how fancy Hal-meoni’s apartment building is. There is a pool house and everything smells like cinnamon and orange peels. Some of the walls on the lowest floor are made of glass-- are they asking for trouble? I wondered. I see Hal-meoni waiting for me by the entrance, clutching a yellow umbrella.
Eomma wants to leave me at Hal-meoni’s when she is working. She says she is going to come back in a few days. She hates leaving me at home alone. Beneath the sickly grey-green lights and the steady downpour, Hal-meoni stands thin and hunched. Seeing her, I realize I do not want to go.
As the taxi nears the entrance, I keep my head turned and pretend I am sleeping. It is mostly for Eomma, who finds open gestures of affection embarrassing. This way, with my eyes closed, she has an excuse to cradle the top of my head, press two fingers over my eyebrows. A gesture she uses to say I love you but also good-bye. I do not see Eomma again.
I still wait for her. Today, I sit by the entrance. The faint tapping of raindrops on my scalp grows relentless. My bowl-cut clumps into inky tendrils. It reminds me of the monsters in those books that Eomma liked to read me. I give a little hiss as I wrap a black coil of hair around my pinky. I squat, watching rainwater fill cracks in the asphalt.
I built a little castle of pine straw and dirt a while ago, and now it’s turning into mush. Wooden knights drowning in formation as princesses with flecks of gravel for eyes shrivel in their towers. I imagine their dying breaths taste like car exhaust. Pretend the mingled scent of my greasy hair and armpit sweat is just the stench of fear. I hear Hal-meoni’s voice. It pours from the third-floor balcony and is drowned out by the choking sounds of the rain gutter. I ignore her and sift what remains of the little castle through my fingers.
Only until my bare feet turn translucent from the cold do I listen. Skittering up the green-rusted stairs to her, I must look like a cockroach. I do not like the rain. It burns my eyes and makes my throat ache. When I get to my bedroom, I lock the door and bury myself beneath the blankets.
Two days later, I start coughing up mucus. After each heave, Hal-meoni wipes the yellowing ooze from my chapped lips. Then she retreats to some corner in the apartment, while I burn with fever, leaking sweat onto the floor mats. I reek like garlic and vinegar-soaked onions, but as my nostrils become plugged, the smell stops bothering me. I rub my nostrils so raw Hal-meoni has to coat the peeling skin with Vaseline.
For hours, I do nothing but inhale, exhale greedily through my tiny mouth. At one point, I try imagining something, anything to distract myself. All I can picture is my own body, splayed belly-up, trembling, pathetic. I want Hal-meoni to trip and bash my skull in with her bony elbow. I want one of those feral dogs across the street to barge in and rip my face off. I want to die. I hold my breath, wait for my nose and lungs to cooperate. Hand shaking, I press two fingers to my eyebrows and drag them across slowly. I want to go home.
Sounds fade. Everything is cottony silence. Occasionally, a sharp chime of glass against glass breaks through the haze. My throat feels lined with pine needles that congeal with every swallow. Sometimes, I feel Hal-meoni wipe my lips or my forehead. Each time, I try to touch her hand. I don’t know why. I attempt this several times, but Hal-meoni is always quick to leave. Eventually, I stop trying.
Two A.M. the next morning, I wake up to the sensation of my body convulsing. It is freezing in my three-layered blankets, my two sweaters and pajama pants. My chest seems to be emanating a chill that causes my teeth to chatter. I feel like an hourglass, my organs grains of sand vibrating and pouring down to my feet. A shadow materializes before me and I freeze as I always do in my dreams. But this is a shadow with the face of Hal-meoni.
As I continue to tremble, she throws herself on top of me. Pressing flaccid palms to my cheeks, she massages heat into my skin, tucks my face into her sunken shoulder. She never lets go, even when the shaking stops.
Half-asleep, I barely register the pressure-- her fingers on my eyebrow. It is an imitation: Hal-meoni pushes too hard; I feel the edges of her blunt fingernails. But it does not hurt. In the darkness, I take her hand to make her stay. Five-fingered blooms, curving towards each other. We hold on.
Fragmentation is tender, and tenderness is fragmented. Quite literally, "responses to love" is broken into sections, but we can't help but feel deeply connected with the narrator, their Eomma, and Paula across the story. The language is gut-punching and vivid, and both the narrator and writer are willing to experiment and defy convention. This story thrives in its duality, with gems still awaiting to be discovered.
Editorial Praise from Beth Kohl, CNF Judge:
The writer of responses to love creates a world in which manmade grit and Mother Nature coexist to profound effect. There is an intense physicality throughout, the literal, physical weight of others an important theme. The author is extraordinarily observant and thoughtful, sensitive to others and the world around them while also enduring physical discomfort and finding connection and beauty even in pain.
The situation is grim. Shadows, and their threat, continually invade the author’s space. All the same, they manage to maintain who they are, the moment when they fashion a duck shadow puppet to quack in time with police siren flashes on their bedroom walls an absolute triumph of creativity, writing and the ability for essential human nature to persevere even in the toughest of situations.
Christine Baek is a rising freshman at Brown University. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Blue Marble Review, elementia, and more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR