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The Poppy and the Water

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When Hideko is eleven, her aunt places a knife in her hand. Hideko's fingers automatically tense around the plain handle. Her wrist, lifted to scratch her nose, carries with it the scent of brine.

Appreciation is not one of her natural talents. Nor is this on the list of things for which she has been trained to be grateful. "What good is this?"

"It's a gift from underground," her aunt says.

Their lanterns shed light she could generously call ashen. In its warping angles her aunt melts into the shadows of the library cabinets and porcelains; everything about her looks diminished, half-sketched, except the powdered pores of her skin, stretched over an expression brittle as coral. Hideko imagines her aunt summoning this steel scrap from hell, and frowns. If there's a joke here, however creeping, it's not like her aunt to keep her out.

Later she will go on her uncle's meet-the-cephalopods tour underground. By the time Hideko realizes he isn't capable of subtlety it's too late to ask her aunt what she'd intended. Warning or gift? She sees both. Here's an edge of—not against—your fear. The skin consists of three thin layers, says the library, and yields its heat besides to any man's lips. Only an amateur would cut something so shallow.

In Shanghai, she finds Sook-hee using the knife to trim her toenails.

She's lying on her back. Her skirt has sunk to her waist and indented into the carpet, revealing her long soft-haired thigh and her foot suspended, with an enviably apparent lack of strain, over a scrunched bowl of newspaper on her chest. Her eyes are half-open, as though nothing were difficult.

Hideko can backhand Sook-hee for running so cavalierly through her things, which she learned as a protective impulse back when the only ward against misery was to occupy everyone else with it, or she can freeze and let emotion wing across her face, practice for letting it be seen. What she thinks about now is silverware, and dry woods, and lightless waters, flashes like spilled beads; nothing in her memory is legible or whole.

When Sook-hee reads she smiles. Sometimes she cries, because she was never taught to read without investment. Hideko does not think she can talk to Sook-hee about fear or its inward turns until she herself has grasped the story: felt its heart and not merely its litter, like a knife that they will both eventually forget and bury beneath a heap of stovepots.

 


 

Hideko won't recall what day she notices. One marvel of being with Sook-hee is that Sook-hee touches her all the time.

Their tub can be filled with lukewarm water at best, so Hideko's feet gradually go numb while Sook-hee licks her out. It's not until Sook-hee has risen, her face glossy with slick, that Hideko tries to rearrange herself, to reciprocate. Sook-hee is resting one palm on Hideko's neck, her fingertips combed up into her hair; when her attempted kiss is interrupted by Hideko skidding down, she stops the descent by pressing her to the wall. Hideko finds herself propped up by Sook-hee's sudsy thighs and fingers dug hard into her nape. She can't move. Her knees are weak. Her body feels like a mirror, still, all-absorbing, flawless.

Sook-hee is grinning fiercely as she holds Hideko, and there's something in her eyes like an itch. "I want you, my lady," she says, excessively: but her over-committal to everything they've done together is one thing Hideko loves about her.

"Have me," Hideko says, and almost stumbles again on the slippers at the foot of their bed.

 


 

"These are the wiliest mosquitoes I've ever met," Sook-hee says. They've only been in Shanghai for one evening.

Hideko waves fruitlessly at the air, wistfully at the waterfront. She buys a flat perched above the French Concession. The club downstairs sends up the clinks of gambling at all hours, and in the evenings jazz and honeyed smoke. Hideko puts her faith in open vice. There's nothing trustworthy about clean living.

She lives in the flat with Sook-hee; two hearths, a chandelier, and eleven lamps, thanks to Sook-hee's fear of solitary lights in the dark; a housekeeper apt to curse the Nationalists for this new breed of women dressed like actors and domiciled in sin, but who'll cook their beef rare and pork dripping; a cat colony that Hideko, with unexpected empathy, prevents Sook-hee from evicting; shelves of the curios Sook-hee can't resell in her new/"antique" shop for ten times the purchase price ("I'm not treating our home as a discard dump! We just have finer taste!"); lutes Hideko plays to prove she learned one good art as a child; a baduk set Sook-hee practices at with vicious, counterproductive enthusiasm; an alcove Sook-hee fucks Hideko in if—when—Sook-hee loses, with unselfconscious and very productive hunger; cake tins stuffed with chemical reagents, hats, Sook-hee's profligately shed hair; more dresses than Hideko can ever peel off Sook-hee, were she to do nothing but cloak and bare those sumptuous shoulders for the rest of her life; and no ropes, even the clotheslines replaced with wooden bars.

"You of little faith," Hideko says, while carpenters measure the balcony.

"You shouldn't have to see them them all the time," Sook-hee says. Her chin hefts adorably high. Hideko lets it go.

She won't hang herself, anyway. She is not unreasonable, or not like that. Some days she reads about rubber stocks and zaibatsu feuds and swears, her palms grey from the newspapers, by the present value of future happiness. Other days Sook-hee fiddles with the radio until Hideko agrees to dance in the rooftop park.

How strange they must look to their ceiling of stars: Sook-hee's face buried to her forehead in Hideko's bosom while her ankles dart and dip about this axis, all coltish agility, corroborated by her little kicked clods of grass. Hideko's arms and skirt-pleats spin a wider radius like spokes on a ship's wheel. Her breath puffs up seams of loose hair, through which she catches a sliver of Sook-hee's smile at her neckline, rosy and untroubled.

Hideko is always circling—something. Evaluating, like a designer with the muse that transforms silk into allure, Sook-hee's honesty. How she generates it. How easily it flows from her to lap at Hideko, who arrests their current spin and shakes Sook-hee's shoulders. (Her hands will shake either way, but at least here they are useful.) "I was going to lock you away if you weren't such a sentimental fool," she says, and has to gesture widely into the air. What she can't articulate: how could a girl so unguarded make Hideko so raw. "Even under the cherry tree—I thought about selling us both. How can it not matter to you?"

"I care about you," Sook-hee says, which is so simple Hideko's mind fizzles on translation before Sook-hee mirrors her stance and continues. Hideko's fingers brush Sook-hee's hot cheek. "I care about what matters to you. But you can't tell me what matters to me, Hideko."

 


 

Hideko dreams. Occasionally she remembers. One cool morning she rolls left and right in the sheets until Sook-hee assumes it a kissing invitation, a smokescreen for Hideko's true aim: to oust Sook-hee by slowly capturing their quilt. Sook-hee's grumblings echo at her off the hallway to the kitchen.

In the air left warm by Sook-hee's body, Hideko inhales. There's a space inside of her Sook-hee will never fill, however cheerfully she waves the psychic white flag, but her presence reveals the perimeter of the territory: an aperture, not an abyss. To think it could one day be penetrated—be pierced—wrestled open, breached, ravished—Hideko chokes the list off. Neither her Korean nor her Japanese is truly native. This is the first language for which she drew breath.

She tries again. Encompassed, perhaps. Allowed to dissipate, like a completed contract. Governed by the queer integrity of thieves, under which all things taken can be restored.

She tries to write down what she saw in her dream.

After her third failure to avoid like a jewel/silk/song, she drops the pen. It wobbles down her sticky thighs. She would have thrown it, but these are such new, gossipy walls. Outside the birds are cawing, and the dream still churns in her head. There was power in it, and fury, and joy—none of the buttery sensuality that gilds her account.

"What were you writing about?" Sook-hee asks at breakfast.

"Bears," Hideko says, and "No, only in pictures," and spears her pickle through to the plate.

 


 

In the afternoon, she goes to Sima Road and buys a photobook.

 


 

She's examining a jewelry box when Sook-hee hits the first page, but the reaction is unmissable. Sook-hee jumps out of her armchair, seemingly buoyant with outrage. Paper crumples in her hand.

Hideko has gone past a calm watery-eyed (a physiological reaction she has no control over) twice in the last decade. Sook-hee has cried at films, at the whispers of incoming war; when they got away, and, with lesser but still some satisfaction, when she heard Fujiwara didn't. Hideko shouldn't be surprised that her tears follow well-worn tracks. She strokes Sook-hee's flyaways behind her ears. "It's all right," she says, although of course she does not expect this to be effective.

The book clatters to the table. Half the open page has been folded over the model's face, so they glance over only skin and rope. "Is someone hurting them?" Sook-hee grabs her hands, and Hideko's pulse leaps, but it's just Sook-hee's first impulse before she releases Hideko, scalded-quick, and thrusts her own hands behind her back. "I can find them—we'll destroy them—"

"Sook-hee," Hideko says. She thinks about Sook-hee sated in bed, Sook-hee alight with laughter, until tenderness should show in the color of her voice; Sook-hee is perceptive enough to disbelieve Hideko if she sounds distant. "Please read it."

Not that there are many words to read. Sook-hee's eyes rove up and down at her request, nonetheless. Hideko is caught between studying her and what she brought. Hideko was—a professional, and even told to pick up the whip herself was able to hide her grimace, like she was pleased by such sham authority; to Sook-hee there's probably little difference between how Hideko would have looked then, and the women in the book.

But now Hideko is different. Sook-hee is different. When Hideko's gaze catches on curled toes, and flipping the page, a gasping mouth, she thinks—well. It hadn't hurt once her bones and heart hardened in adolescence. She just hadn't been there, in that room, besieged by bonsai and sophisticated tastes. She had—skipped a chapter. She wants to cry for Sook-hee as easily as Sook-hee had cried for her, under the cherry tree. She points Sook-hee at a pair of images. A last knot being tied, and the flushed contours left after its removal.

Hideko says, "I was thinking about what comes in between. About being that person, between."

"You don't despise this," Sook-hee says. Her thumb curls around Hideko's on the paper.

Cut deep. "Trust me, my fair Sook-hee. Not with you."

Sook-hee's face is red from repeated scrubbing with her sleeve. It passes over one last time, so she is now only blotchy and beautiful from head to foot, and something in her is turning. Hideko soaks in her stare until she can't bear it, and kisses Sook-hee over her apprehensively adjoined brows. Hideko has been fantasizing about this—or at least she'd recognized the fantasy for what it was—since Sook-hee had pinned her up in the bath, but. The fear, the risk of driving her away, given the half of Hideko she'd seen.

Then again, what a mad risk they'd taken to leave her family estate, over river and sea.

"If you're willing to try," Hideko says, and finds her nose abruptly up against Sook-hee's as she is enveloped in her arms. Her lips feel Sook-hee smiling: all out, or all in. "I left another bag in the corner," she manages, before Sook-hee steals her tongue, and appeases her with warm lungfuls of breath.

"If I want to," Sook-hee says. She looks amazed, and almost queasily happy: like a yeoman who, digging for sustenance, unearths gold. "And I do."