Sook-hee steals her way across Asia, pickpocketing in Shanghai, conning in Kobe, cat burgling in Hong Kong. There’s no dialect of theft that she isn’t fluent in, her fingers nimble as they are on Hideko’s body. “My mother was hanged for less than this,” she says after picking a safe in the finest hotel in Bombay. She dangles the sapphires of the necklace in the air between them back in the safety of their own room. The jewels flash bright against the tan of her skin, and theft, Sook-hee says, is an art, one her mother was the master of. “This is what real sapphires look like.”
Hideko protests that there’s no need to steal now: they have enough to live on for ten lifetimes. She remembers the description of hanging victims she read as a child, tongue protruding, skin going dark, bowels loosening, the way it hadn’t been for her aunt, the way it hadn’t been for her. She doesn’t like to think of Sook-hee’s mother like that, much less of it happening to Sook-hee herself. And Sook-hee flirts with arrest like it’s a pretty girl. There’s no need to put herself in such danger.
But Sook-hee shakes her head, vowels broad with the street accent that had given her away to the other maids back at Uncle’s house and prompted them to persecute her and then, after Hideko’s warning, to ignore her completely. “My mother was a legend,” she says, her forehead furrowing, “the greatest thief for ten generations.”
Hideko doesn’t really understand, but then, she’s never known her own mother. Her incomprehension must show on her face because Sook-hee pouts in thought for a moment, then starts again. “It’s how I remember her,” she says. “But Aunt Bok-soon says the one thing my mother never learned was how to stop when you’re about to get caught. Auntie made sure I learned that first. And if you think I get too close, tell me to stop.”
Reassured, Hideko lets Sook-hee teach her how to distinguish sapphire from spinel and obediently bites the gold Sook-hee brings back to her.
At night, in bed—and sometimes during daylight, and sometimes nowhere near a bed—Sook-hee and Hideko play. Sook-hee likes to think she’s street-smart, that Hideko is the one who’s naive, but there are times when Hideko tries out something she learned in one of Uncle’s books, and Sook-hee’s eyes go wide. (Every once in a while, Hideko even makes her blush. She’s especially proud of those times.)
The count-who-wasn’t-a-count had called Hideko every variation on “cold fish” available in Korean and Japanese, and Hideko had thought he was right. When she read, watching the men shift on their seats and smelling the oppressive musk of their sweat in the air, she had escaped to a place inside her that was colder than ice. Her voice was reading, modulated and perfect, her graceful hands turning the pages, but inside she was lying in a snow bank, and the flakes didn’t melt when they fell on her marble cheeks. She had wanted nothing more than for the cold white water to wipe the books and their memories away.
There was an ember inside her though, one she couldn’t extinguish, one she couldn’t acknowledge. It was kindled to a flame when Sook-hee came, and Hideko began to fantasize about burning the books to ashes.
Now the books really are torn, or sliced, or water-logged, covered in ink, ripped in half. But the words and the pictures are seared into Hideko’s brain. She catalogues them impassively, considering each one for a long time before making a decision. Somehow, in the distance between remembering them and acting them out, all the poison is drained away. The images, the techniques become completely neutral, and it’s up to Hideko what to do with them. (There’s no more need for ice, only for fire, and it’s hers.)
“The difference,” Hideko whispers against the skin of Sook-hee’s ankle, “is context.”
With Sook-hee, she finds that the blaze of fire can feel just as clean as snow. Perhaps cleaner.
Sook-hee comes back to the hotel one day with a pack of cards and spends the next month teaching Hideko every possible way to cheat at every single card game Sook-hee can think of. Hideko doesn’t know which of them is more delighted that she proves to be such a quick study.
Sook-hee wants to see every city, examine every building, look into every face she passes. She travels voraciously, as artless and wide-eyed as when she first came to Uncle’s house. She insists on trying every foreign food they come across, and even the ones she hates make her laugh as she screws up her face in disgust. She doesn’t speak any languages but Korean and Japanese, but that doesn’t keep her from trying to communicate with shopkeepers and flower vendors and hotel bellhops. Hideko, with her book-taught language skills, hurries to translate, but most of the time it’s unnecessary: Sook-hee’s stumbling gestures and ready smile bridge the gap.
Hideko’s hunger for novelty is less insistent, and everything she experiences is new in ways that she can’t articulate for Sook-hee. The roar of a train, the shade of blue only the ocean knows, the foreign architecture of each city they visit: there’s so much. She’s read, she’s been told, but it’s different to see. Most of the time, she enjoys it, her gloved hand clasped tight in Sook-hee’s, but it’s different for her.
“I could be content here, if you were with me,” she’d told Sook-hee back in Uncle’s house, and it had been true. She wanted freedom from her uncle, to never have to read to leering men again, to have someone to love her, but beyond that she didn’t demand much. She’d dreamed of escape from, but never escape to the rest of the world. She hadn’t properly understood how big it would be.
There are moments when her breath starts coming fast, her ribs hitching and aching like her corset’s been pulled too tight, and after Sook-hee drags her back to their hotel, she doesn’t leave the room for a week to recover. It’s the smells, mostly, so many she can’t name, and the noise, and the sheer human heat of bodies packed in tight. Sometimes it’s just too much. In every city, the smells and sights are different, but the sound of traffic beneath her window is the same, and she would give much for the cool silence of Uncle’s house, the comfort of knowing there are whole empty rooms between her and the nearest person who isn’t Sook-hee.
When men get a little too friendly, Sook-hee lights into them, all coarse words (tone is understandable in any language) and indignant anger, her face screwed up in fury, and Hideko drops her head to hide her smile. She still hasn’t learned to feel anger herself, the place where it should flare is just a void inside of her, but that’s all right—Sook-hee can feel it for her. (She burns, and it keeps Hideko warm.)
There’s a rock garden outside Peking that reminds Hideko so much of the grounds around Uncle’s house that her mind goes blank. It’s all green and stone, ferns bursting from cracks in the walls, moss growing thick on the stone sculptures, so humid that even when it’s not raining it might as well be. It comes back to her: the endless dripping all through the rooms of the house even on rare occasions when the sun was shining; the way all her fine dresses had to be aired daily so they wouldn’t mold; how even her sheets were always damp, no matter the time of year. Suddenly she’s there, mildew and book dust in her lungs, and the next moment she could swear she smells ink on a human breath. She comes back to herself in a train car, Sook-hee’s warm hands pressed against her cheeks.
They avoid libraries and bookstores.
(Eventually, Hideko does start reading again. But she has the books delivered, and the titles she picks are bloodless: horticulture, economics, theology. Slowly, she’ll learn how to love reading again.)
Sook-hee steals jewels from highborn ladies, thick wallets from businessmen, pocket watches from government officials, but her favorite thing to steal is gloves. Hideko could swear Sook-hee has stolen from every glove shop in five countries, dove-colored kid, pale pink lace, black velvet. She presents them to Hideko with all the satisfaction of a cat leaving a mouse on its owner’s doorstep. Hideko protests that she doesn’t need any more, but Sook-hee swears, “You’ll have a pair for every day of the year.” Sook-hee lugs the carpetbag stuffed with gloves from city to city, grumbling all the way and faking a scowl when Hideko—hiding a smile—reminds her that the burden is her own fault.
(One night Sook-hee pulls on a pair made of buttery leather and slides them all over Hideko’s skin. It feels completely different and utterly familiar, and Hideko is sure that the fire inside her will burst through her skin.)
Sook-hee still draws her baths, and Hideko does all the packing. They dress each other like dolls: hanbok, kimono, Western clothes. Tying corsets and brushing each others’ hair. Sometimes one is the maid, then next time she’s the mistress. It’s a game they play. (Hideko never had a playmate. It feels like taking something back, and sometimes she thinks she understands why Sook-hee can’t give up her stealing.)
Sook-hee wants to adopt every baby they see, and even though the sight of her holding an infant—singing under her breath as she presses her cheek against a downy head—makes Hideko’s mouth curve into a smile, she talks Sook-hee out of it.
Someday, when they settle down, she’ll let Sook-hee adopt as many babies as she likes. Hideko had never considered children; she could not have dreamed that she would ever know how to love anyone when she never learned how. To her, childhood is lonely rooms and fears she can’t understand. But now she’s beginning to see that it doesn’t have to be that way, and as she grows more confident each day in her love for Sook-hee, she’s beginning to think that she could learn to love someone else too, especially if that someone really needed her. Hideko’s never held a baby in her life, and just the thought is a little terrifying. But if Sook-hee is half as good at taking care of children as she is at taking care of Hideko, they’ll grow up well.
But that’s in the future. For now, she yearns for the comfort of familiarity even as she fears that staying in one place for too long would feel like a return to Uncle’s house. But maybe if the place was different—full of light, a radio pouring out music, all the comforting thumps and mutters Sook-hee makes as she moves from room to room. A place that smells bright with citrus and is full of furniture that is more comfortable than elegant. Perhaps she could be content, in a place like that.
She doesn’t know where they’ll end up, but surely they’ll stop wandering someday, and when they do, Sook-hee can open her own orphanage if she wishes.
“There are always little ones with no one in the world to look after them,” Sook-hee says, but Hideko doesn’t need to be told.
“Do you paint?” an English duchess asks Hideko on the verandah of a hotel in Delhi.
“No,” Hideko says, and takes a sip of tea.
In a street market in Singapore, they round a corner and there’s a tank of tangled tentacles, live octopi waiting for the dinner table.
It takes hours for Hideko to stop shaking, and after that, they steer clear of fish markets.
Through a dozen cities, connected by trains and ferries, a procession of unfamiliar languages and unfamiliar foods sold by street vendors wearing unfamiliar clothes, the constant is Sook-hee’s light fingers, Sook-hee’s blunt words whispered in Korean, Sook-hee’s back pressed warm against hers all night long, Sook-hee’s milky scent, Sook-hee’s lips and skin and hair, Sook-hee.
In the end, they settle in Macau. The mixture of East and West feels familiar to Hideko, but different enough from Uncle’s house that it doesn’t oppress. They buy a snug flat overlooking a park, small enough that there are no echoes and they're never out of each others’ hearing but large enough that Hideko can sit alone in the silence sometimes. The windows reach from the ceiling almost to the floor and it never smells musty. Hideko buys a hideous second-hand chair that’s more comfortable than a feather bed, and Sook-hee helps her wrestle it up the stairs to their apartment, a comedic production of shouted curses and bruised elbows and gouges in the door jambs. Hideko sits by the window for hours, sometimes reading or looking out at the street traffic below, other times closing her eyes and lifting her face to the sun as it streams in around her.
Hideko’s never even boiled water for tea and Sook-hee’s cooking skills are limited to rice and the simplest Korean side dishes, but Hideko discovers that books have more to teach her. Within a few months, the shelf above the stove is stuffed full of cookbooks from a dozen culinary traditions, and the cupboard is neatly lined with rows of spice bottles labeled in Hideko’s careful script. She spends hours in the kitchen, cheeks flushed with heat and hair limp from bending over steaming pots. Some of her attempts end in disaster, but in this life, failure doesn’t mean punishment: she scrapes the soupy batters and burnt messes into the waste bin and tries again. Sook-hee licks the spoons, begs for bites, praises even the least appetizing of the dishes. She sings along to the radio with it in a loud, off-key voice that sends Hideko into fits of giggles. There are moments in the sunny kitchen when Hideko suddenly gets dizzy with how this life doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same world as the one she lived back at Uncle’s, but the warmth of this one is real in ways that one never was.
Hideko picks up Cantonese quickly and Portuguese quicker still thanks to her education in Romance languages. They pose as sisters, which makes them laugh, especially when they look at their faces, side by side in the mirror, and see how they look nothing alike. But their neighbors are too genteel to ask questions and not genteel enough to do their own investigating, so no one disturbs them. After a while, they’ll be as much a part of the neighborhood as the streetlamp on the corner, and the neighbors will forget they ever had questions at all.
(Sook-hee still swipes spices from the market and brings home bright earrings and soft scarves. And every few months, she’ll present Hideko with a new pair of gloves. Hideko never has to ask her to stop, and she never gets caught.)
There are babies, of course—Sook-hee is almost as good at finding abandoned babies as stealing, and Hideko jokes that she isn’t sure that Sook-hee hasn’t stolen the babies like she would a pair of gloves. “How can I know you haven’t taken any of them away from their mothers?”
And Sook-hee laughs her inelegant laugh, head thrown back and eyes turned to half moons, and Hideko smiles.
There are babies, books about dry topics, a dresser full of drawers of gloves, bath salts and the silver ben wa balls. And if there are still nightmares and memories staining her mind like ink, there’s always Sook-hee. And Hideko is content.