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Christine Lee Zilka

Bile

When the Korean War ended in 1953, my father became restless. Korea lay in ruins, but there were no more enemy soldiers and no more bombs to flee. My father had become addicted to war. Without battles, he had no sense of urgency, no sense of drama. He had already survived, and like the rest of the country, he tried to pick up his life where he had left off. But he was not used to peace. He could make no sense of math equations as an engineering student; it all seemed trivial.

He made journeys into the countryside where he had grown up, hoping to reconnect himself. On one of his outings, he found a trapper gutting a bear. An idea came to him. He asked the hunter for the gall bladder of the bear.

My father put his tongue to the gall bladder. It tasted like the war. He smiled grimly. He could not fail. He could not turn back, because behind him were the Japanese army, the North Korean army, poverty, and abuse. He could not rest. This bile would be his medicine. He wrapped up the gall bladder and froze it. Whenever he felt he was getting too content, sleeping an hour too much, smiling a second too long, he would hunger for the taste of it, bitter, and clinging to his tongue.

As children, we learned that Daddy would have died if he had not had the bile: the bile reminded him of the misery and bitterness of suffering.

What I now realize is that the bitterness stayed inside him and traveled from his tongue, down into his belly, where it now churns.

 

Tradition runs strong in our family. We are Korean Americans, a strong line of warriors, descended from the Mongols. We are modern Genghis Khans, quick tempered but passionate, with chronicles of suffering living in our veins. We are nomadic, settling in a country that severed our mother country in half, with a tourniquet of barbed wire, swathed in khaki green.

Suffering is so much a part of the Korean psyche that we have given it a word, Han. It is a particular suffering, a sense of helplessness against overwhelming odds, a feeling of total abandonment. This word is part of what we call ourselves and our mother country, Hankook sahrahm, Hankook nahrah; Korean people, Korean land. This Han is silent and noble. It is our code and mantra.

 

On our Sunday hikes, my father brings up the rear. My brother Eugene, the Boy Scout, bounds up the hill on light bunny feet. Safe on the hiking trails of the San Gabriel Mountains, I try to enjoy the views beyond the silt of smog, but Father barks at us, that there is an army behind us. We quicken our pace. There are sharp-toothed men who want to kill us. They have shotguns, horsehair hats. They ride bareback, puff on long pipes, smoke opium, stab each other in the back.

Eugene runs up the hill out of earshot. Father, Mother, and I drip with effort, and we push ourselves to each crest out of this ancestral fear.

“Eugene! Wait for us!” I shout. I don’t see him anymore, and he doesn’t answer. The path bends mercilessly in the chaparral heat.

“Forget about him. He never wait. Stupid boy, never cares about us,” says Father.

Mother hits Father on the arm. “Leave him alone. You are bossy, maybe he’s running away from you.”

Father glares. Mother doubles her pace so that her shoes kick dust back at us over the switchback.

Up ahead, I imagine Eugene’s already arrived at the destination, a shady plateau of pine trees. He’s taking a long sip of water from the water fountain up there, and drinking in the views of Pasadena. He may even see us, a short and irritated snake making its way.

 

We gather in the kitchen to eat an early lunch. Our bodies, sweaty with the recent Sunday excursion, stick to the vinyl kitchen seats. Father looks straight at Eugene, points his finger and bellows, “You never wait for us!”

Eugene rolls his eyes and says, “Dad, you never give us a break.”

Father takes a breath and continues. “I am going to tell you about myself, your father. I had hard life, nothing to look forward to, just running away. Eugene, you run to something, like nothing pushing. We go hiking, you go away. You don’t wait for your own family? We have to enjoy together!”

Eugene replied, “You were just slow, and I waited for you at the top. What’s the big deal?” My brother kicks me in the leg.

I chime in. “Dad, please don’t worry so much. It’s not so complicated. Eugene just is in better shape. Don’t take it so seriously. We get it!” (Please, please do not tell the story again.)

“I gave up my dreams long ago and decided to have children instead. You don’t know your father, what I do for you! You know, I have to teach you good lesson, so you will never forget.” This sends my father into a synopsis of his life. We have it memorized.

“I don’t even know if my brother is alive. He fought against the Japanese, and they took everything, burned our house. I was five years old. But our family was a hero family, so our village supported us,” says Father. “Then the Korean War came, and my brother, he joined the Communists. Everyone hated us then. We had to burn his pictures. Still, we survived.”

So it was with my mother as well. “Your mommy, her family had to leave North Korea. They took only what they could carry. They put the money and gold and jewelry inside their clothes, inside the silk linings. Rich people became poor in one night!”

Then Mother adds, “But we were smart. Instead of eating only one bowl of rice a day, we mixed it with barley, so we ate a little more often. We always ate, even though sometimes we had to sell our clothes. Your grandma’s wedding dress, someone else owns it now.”

“Eugene, you are going to learn,” says Father. He nods at my mother, points at the refrigerator. My mother takes out a recycled plastic Safeway bag. We reuse plastic bags often, and it could contain anything, a box of ice cream or a package of dried seaweed. It does not send an alarm, but Eugene raises an eyebrow and I lean forward.

“We have something for you. It will help you like it helped your father.”

Eugene nods, distracted. “Enough with the story. I get it! I have heard it all before. You had a shitty childhood …”

“Don’t say shit! I don’t think you understand. I took the gall bladder of a bear and drank the bile! It reminded me of what I was working away from. I was working so I would have a better future. So I would have a better future than my past. My past is bile! You have to learn about your father. Who you are, you know?”

“You have to be tough, too,” comments Mother.

“You will learn, too,” says Father.

Mother hands the plastic bag to me, and goes to get a plate from the cupboard. The bag hisses open. Inside is a Ziploc bag, and inside it is a piece of flesh. It looks slimy like the innards of Foster Farm chickens. But this is larger than any chicken liver I’ve ever seen. It is pear-shaped and bruised in tones of blue and gray and brown. It is dying, deflating, defecating on itself. I fully expect it to pulse, but it lies still. It smells like a goat has parked itself in our kitchen.

Father gestures to me. “Open it! Take it out! Put it on the plate!” I take out the Ziploc bag and place it gingerly on the plate. Is this some kind of sick sushi?

“Open it!” snaps Mother.

I recoil. Mother and Father are on some screwed-up Old World kick, and I duck out of view.

“I won’t make you drink it like I did. You’re not like me. You will taste it, that’s all you need to do. But you will learn.”

I can only tell you the before and the after, because I did not watch them feed Eugene the bile.

I leave the room. I hear my mother unwrap the gall bladder and snag it with chopsticks. I hear Eugene’s footsteps, my father’s commands, the rush of water from the faucet. I imagine the bile as it fills Eugene’s body with poison and drains his face of all the pink flesh, leaving it pinched and brittle.

In the hallway outside the kitchen, I am surrounded by childhood awards and family pictures: Father smokes thin white cigarettes, leaning against a white tree trunk with dark gray leaves. He is wearing black pants and a white undershirt. He is lean and tanned. His shoulders are held back at attention, and his skin is taut, his eyes open wide. His gaze rests on something soft and gentle. He is at the point of remembering…

There’s a picture of me at Disneyland, holding an ice cream cone. My father has no pictures of himself as a child, and maybe that furthers the distance between us, because we have no proof that he was ever a child. He was born a jaw-clenching, wide-eyed man who drank bile.

Eugene brushes past me in the hall. “Move,” he says.

I move. “Hey.”

He looks up and past me.

“Never mind,” I say. There are no words of healing.

In this way, we inherit suffering. But the bile does not strengthen Eugene. It flows within him, as it did within my father, but it does not give him strength and resolve. Only resentment.

 

Long after the gallbladder has become a solid rock of ice next to the ice cream, Father asks me, “Should you taste the bile, too?”

I want to shout, “No!” but I don’t. I want to tell him that I think this is sick and perverted, but I don’t. I know what I have to say. Like my father, I know how to survive.

I know the answer to this. My father coached me a million times.

“I’m a Hankook sahrahm. I understand why I need this bile, because I already have this bile.”

Father nods. He walks out of the kitchen, his feet squeaking against the linoleum.

He leaves a wake of anger in his path, and my mother and I sponge it up. We don’t want him to return and refuel; it’s easier when he does not see what he does to us, even though I think he should. I sit on the stool and stare out the windows into the cul de sac.

Mother scurries around, washing dishes. “You know your father, he really lives just for you. He really loves you, but it comes out all wrong,” she apologizes. I stare at her Han figure.

I walk into the backyard and stare at the wall, covered in honeysuckle. The scent is sweet, and the drunken bees lumber slowly through the vines. The sun beats against me, and my plastic sandals mold against my feet and stick slightly to the concrete path as they make “smuck-smuck” sounds on the patio pavers.

I’ve walked into a fireplace and I just want a little relief. I wonder what would happen if I could disappear. I wonder how mad my father would be. The neighbors’ wall looms just ahead.

I drag one of the backyard benches over to the wall, and I sit in its shade. I cannot stay sitting for long. I stand on the bench to look over the wall into the neighbors’ backyard. The Andersons are away on vacation, and we are on neighborhood watch.

Inside the house, I hear my father yelling at Eugene. Doors slam. My mother makes kitchen noises, the clattering of dishes on countertop tile and porcelain sink. All this, amidst the bees and heat. I can either go inside the cool, poisonous house or melt outside.

My legs twitch. I’ve been standing still, stretched over the wall, and I ache. I have also been holding my breath. I let out a desperate exhalation. The Andersons’ lot is on a higher elevation than ours; it would not be a long fall from the wall. I climb the wall slowly, so as not to anger the venomous bees, but I’m stung before I swing my leg over the top and fall into the Andersons’ yard.

I limp to one of the lounge chairs and sit down. There’s a welt on my leg with a stinger pulsating in the middle of it. I pull it out, but the pain is still there. A dark part of me wells up and receives that pain. Out of my numbness arises the cathartic pain of a bee sting. It loosens the knot in my belly. I can breathe a little now. If I focus on the pain enough, the knot travels a little up my throat.

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