My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.
I was told that she was a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake. Though she was very small, two months premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her two black eyes and turned them towards my face.
At the time, my parents were living in an isolated house in the countryside, near the primary school where my father taught. My mother’s due date was still far off, so she was completely unprepared when, one morning, her waters broke. There was no one around. The village’s sole telephone was in a tiny shop by the bus stop – twenty minutes away. My father wasn’t due back from work for another six hours.
It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My 22-year-old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors. Fumbling in her sewing box, she found some white cloth that would do for a newborn’s gown. Gripped by contractions and terribly afraid, tears started down as she plied her needle. She finished the tiny gown, found a thin quilt to use as swaddling bands, and gritted her teeth as the pain returned, quicker and more intense each time.
Eventually, she gave birth. Still alone, she cut the umbilical cord. She dressed the bloodied little body in the gown she’d just made, and held the whimpering scrap in her arms. For god’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes encountered those of her child, her lips twitched again. For god’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually leach into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.
Moon-shaped rice cake
Last spring, someone asked me whether I’d had ‘a particular experience, when you were young, which brought you close to sadness?’ during a radio interview.
Faced with that question, it was this death which came to me. I had grown up inside this story. The most helpless of all young animals. Pretty little baby, white as a moon-shaped rice cake. How I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.
‘White as a moon-shaped rice cake’ never made much sense until, at six, I was old enough to help out with making the rice cakes for Chuseok, forming the dough into small crescent moons. Before being steamed, those bright white shapes of rice dough are a thing so lovely they do not seem of this world. Only afterwards, dished up on a plate with a pine-needle garnish, did they become disappointingly matter-of-fact. Glistening with roasted sesame oil, their colour and texture transformed by heat and steam, they were tasty, of course, but utterly unlike that former loveliness.
So when my mother said ‘white as rice cake’, I realised, she meant a rice cake before it is steamed. A face as startlingly pristine as that. These thoughts made my chest grow tight, as though compressed with an iron weight.
Last spring, in the recording studio, I didn’t mention any of this. Instead, I spoke of my pet dog, who died when I was five years old. He was an unusually intelligent dog, I said, a mongrel, but descended in part from the famous Jindo breed. I still have a black-and-white photo of the two of us, a candid shot of an intimate moment, but, strangely enough, I cannot remember him alive. My one vivid memory is of the morning when he died. White fur, black eyes, still-damp nose. From then on I developed an aversion to dogs, which has persisted to this day. Rather than reaching out to tousle soft fur, my arm stays clamped to my side.
This is an excerpt from Han Kang’s latest book, The White Book. To read more from the book, please visit hankangwhitebook.com