story by Ye Eun (Lily) Cho
Jaemin was six, a gangly boy of unnatural yellow, with a sour expression that never seemed to fade. Very few were spared from his constant contempt. His parents chose not to mind, however. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Much to their relief, Jaemin was wary of human contact and was therefore always out of sight. What with another pregnancy, they simply had no time to tend to their other offspring. His sister, Yeon, a chubby pale bundle of flesh, was barely three when Jaemin noticed his mother’s once again ballooning belly.
The house was a mess with baby stuff strewn across the floor in permanent display. In the dull living room, the television blabbered on among piles of paper and half-consumed mugs of bitter black liquid. Jaemin found little comfort here, where the life of adults and matters of urgency reigned supreme. He hurried to a dark corner in his wardrobe which stood facing the window, and sat amidst the rugged folds of clothes. It was a tiny compartment, soon to be outgrown by any other boy of Jaemin’s age. Luckily, Jaemin was blessed with stunted growth, which his mother blamed primarily on his fussy diet. However limited, the space posed no hindrance to his thriving populace of imagined beings. Once seated, he cautiously opened one of the doors, ever so slightly to let in the light. At just the right angle, this corner of the wardrobe provided the perfect vantage point for catching a glimpse of Kakanuri the Calamitous. With his eyes transfixed on the window sill, Jaemin was overwhelmed by the aura of the little goldfish. The tank seemed to glow magnanimously, with mysterious powers emanating from its waters. With Kakanuri’s blessings, Jaemin filled the musky space with heroes and villains by means of his conjuring. This was his place of refuge and sanctity. This was his secret haven. This was the holy temple dedicated to Kakanuri.
Once Kakanuri swam away under the rock, Jaemin reached for his collection of colorful cards. Each tattered card featured a scene from a story – far away tales of giant beanstalks and familiar stories of terrifying tigers. He summoned his closest companion, Mummum, the majestic Megalosaurus, and his trusted aide Antillious the Third, and proceeded to carry out the solemn ceremony of storytelling. Jaemin’s favorite was the story of the Sun and the Moon. In a quiet and somber voice, he began telling the tale of a brother and sister. A long, long time ago, in a little mountain village, a tiger had devoured the mother of a little boy and girl, and disguised in her clothes before calling on them to come closer. Jaemin’s voice became tense as he described how they narrowly escaped by climbing two ropes sent down from the heavens. Once they reached the heavens, they each become the Sun and the Moon, forever wandering the skies mourning the death of their mother. He stole a glance at the window seeking approval, as his plastic friends silently watched. Mummum wanted to know whether the brother had become the sun or the moon. “You’re missing the point,” Jaemin hissed, but then paused with a worrying sigh as the faint cry of his younger sister transported him back to the humdrum of reality.
Satisfied with the solemnity of his story, he rummaged through a pile of knick knacks until he found more of his colorful cards. He carefully placed them one by one, before putting them all back in his lego box and grabbed a black crayon to mark a number on the inner wall of the wardrobe. It was the 89th mark since the day he started collecting, so close to the 100th card. He gave his giant sized ant toy a little squeeze, and waited in breathless excitement for the bell to ring. His father had promised him to bring him a new set of cards tonight. Not a pinky-promise, but at least he had nodded.
What his father brought home instead was a set of new baby clothes he received from his colleague at work. Jaemin said nothing; he should have known. He returned to his room went up the stairs, banging Mummum against the wall as he made his way. He knew his parents glared at him, but also knew they were soon to resume their conversation about whether to purchase a new stroller this weekend, or whether to use the one they had. Jaemin quietly opened the door of Yeon’s room. She was asleep on the floor without a blanket, curled up to keep warm. Jaemin ran back out and called his mother. After all, Yeon might have caught a cold. “Just put her in bed,” was the dismissive response, then “what about the baby’s room,” chirped his father. Then there was silence. A brilliant idea had captured their imagination.
The following morning marked the beginning of complete carnage. Jaemin’s room was to be evacuated for the arrival of the new baby. The wardrobe stood wide open, with a pool of clothing and toys spewed in front of it, as if the wooden structure could not bear the colossal weight of the little boy’s imaginary world it had harbored for so long. Jaemin’s cards were also scattered across the floor, trampled by adult feet that marched in and out of the room under the excuse of re-decoration. Mummum and Antillious the Third were sent away as they were too old, perhaps a little dirty, but definitely too childish. “I’m only six,” Jaemin mumbled, but nobody seemed to listen. His citadel was in pieces, his subjects executed. He stood with his back against the wall, brooding but confident. He looked up at his aquatic deity. The time had come.
Kakanuri, the Almighty had guarded Jaemin through more than one upheaval. It had found its way into Jaemin’s cluttered household one summer when Jaemin’s father figured the child needed a distraction. It was promptly moved into Jaemin’s room one evening. “That’s your responsibility now,” she reminded him, just as she did when Yeon began to walk. From then on, Kakanuri became Jaemin’s friend, foe, part-time protector and god. When Yeon cried, Jaemin blamed Kakanuri and punished it by skipping its meal. When new toys arrived, he held rituals for Kakanuri, praying for his blessing. Most importantly, he left an offering of wishbones whenever he could and prayed for Kakanuri’s protection. “Not for me, but for Yeon.” Kakanuri, the Merciful would keep her safe.
And so the worship continued but Jaemin’s prayers were in vain. On most days, the goldfish swam in leisurely circles creating a bubble or two every now and then. But on the sixth day of carnage, Kakanuri commenced his final prophecy. Just as the wardrobe was being moved out of the room, the fishtank came crashing to the floor. The feeble god gasped for life as it flopped ferociously in the pool of water at the feet of the unbelievers. With its mouth stretched open and eyes bulging, Kakanuri, the goldfish stared ahead in determination to muster one last jerk of its tail. Sharp fragments of glass clawed at its smooth scales, and after what seemed an eternity, it finally let out its last breath. “Oops!” muttered the clumsy adult reaching for a dirty mop. “Oh well. I’ll get you a new one. OK?” Jaemin watched silently as his father gathered up what remained of his golden idol into a rag. The god had spoken.
The new baby was born in the auspicious Year of the Tiger, which Jaemin’s parents somehow considered a personal feat. They found a stylized rendition of a traditional tiger, framed it, and placed it on the wall where the cradle was placed. Jaemin thought of the old story he found on his cards and the tiger lurking around in human disguise.
One cold winter night, two young children were found to have jumped to their deaths from the 12th floor of an apartment building. According to reports, there was no sign of forced entry or foul play – only a neighbor’s curious claim that the little boy held his sister tight as he seemed to reach for a rope.
Ye Eun (Lily) Cho is 18 and a recent graduate of Global Vision Christian School in Guri, South Korea. She has been writing fiction in English since middle school, “despite language barriers.”
Cover artwork is “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” by Henri Rousseau, 1891.