Ten Thousand Sorrows
by Elizabeth Kim
Doubleday, New York, 2000, 228 pp, $22.95
An Amerasian girl loses her mother early to a brutal family murder and grows up in a dysfunctional American family. Highly recommended.
n the night Omma died, it seemed as if the Land of the Morning Calm held its breath in disbelief at the horror visited upon its children. The gusty December wind stopped blowing and the bitter cold settled down, unmoving, in our little house. The air was thin and brittle.
Omma prepared a special dinner of bean curd in chili and garlic with our usual rice and kimchi, and quince tea. She was more animated than usual, and talked to me as if I were a grown woman and an equal, not her small child. Her crumpled silk skin looked feverish, and her eyes darted to and fro as she talked.
Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace. She said nothing ever truly ended, not even life. Everything continued in a pattern of night to day, dark to light, death to rebirth. Omma said honor was found in following one's heart, not in other people's rules. She talked about power. It might be possible for a woman -- even a nonperson -- to have power, she said.
When the dinner had been cleared away and the floor swept, Omma filled the large, blackened iron pot with water and put it on top of the heating pit until it was comfortably warm. She bathed me carefully and quickly so I wouldn't get cold, then dressed me in a clean hanbok, an ankle-length cotton skirt with a short, wrapped bodice. She brushed and braided my long, curly dark hair, which usually was covered with a white scarf. She handed me a folded piece of rice paper covered in fine writing and said that before first light the next day I was to leave the village by the dirt pathway, carrying the paper, until I found someone on the main road to show it to. Bewildered but accustomed to obedience, I simply nodded.
Omma grabbed me fiercely and crushed me to her body, pouring out a torrent of love in whispers. She told me over and over how precious I was, how beautiful and perfect. She told me she valued my life more than her own. She told me I was her beloved.
Omma released me and pushed me a few inches away, then told me to step inside the large, woven bamboo basket beside our bed, which we used for storage space. "Whatever happens, be absolutely silent, and remain here until just before first light," she said. Eyes fixed on her face, I obeyed silently, crouching down in the basket. Darkness descended as she closed the lid.