Holes and Worms

by | Aug 8, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Four

Minji had blisters all over her body. The pediatric industry in South Korea was on the verge of collapse. There was a shortage of pediatrics. Mothers of young children had to get a number tag to get pediatric care. Mothers had to line up in front of the hospital building at 2 a.m.

Minji’s mother was one of them. At 5 a.m, the line of number tag was cut off in front of her.

When Minji tried to pop the blisters on her belly button with her thumb finger nail, she heard her mother opening the door. Mom stood in the dark without turning on the light in the living room. Water flowed from mother’s cheek and left a mark. Minji was confused whether mother was crying or sweating.

Grandma, who was sleeping in the master bedroom, came out into the living room, scratching her neck. The mother and grandmother talked in low voices, occasionally glancing down at Minji. Even in the darkness, her grandmother smiled at her with a fanciful gaze. Minji’s mother and grandmother were strange to her, like abnormally swollen blisters with transparent membranes and pink nuclei.

“Minji. You have somewhere to go.”

Grandma said.

It was 9 a.m. Outside, people on their way to work walked the streets with exclusionary expressions. Old men selling ferns and bean sprouts, wormwood and beans in the open air carried vegetables in baskets. A woman walking with a calm face with a blue bottle’s latte in one hand unintentionally hit Minji on the head with her elbow. Minji frowned and looked up at her. The woman saying sorry with a firm smile. Minji saw holes in the woman’s forehead, the bridge of her nose, lips, chin, and neck, and a long worm shaped like a cut sausage moved from holes.

Mom pulled Minji’s arm hard and said.

“Tell her it’s okay.”

“It’s okay.”

Minji said. When she turned her head to talk to her mother about the worm, she saw the hole and the worm in her face, too.

“I see something strange.”

Minji said. Mom took the bus holding Minji’s hand tightly. Minji saw holes and worms again in the faces of the women who filled the bus, and there was no way to understand. It was a sight a six-year-old couldn’t digest. Instead of saying, “Mommy, I see something strange,” Minji chose to remain silent. She checked her reflection in the bus window, smooth and free of holes and worms, and leaned her forehead against the window.

It was a shabby temple where my mother and Minji arrived by bus for an hour. The morning’s pale light fell on the roof tiles of the temple and slipped. Minji didn’t move for a while because she needed to take in the smoothness of the sun. The cold silence peculiar to the religious facility was circulating, and goosebumps rose on Minji’s arms.

A male monk walked through the door of the temple. Mother whispered something to him, he nodded. Minji followed the enigmatic monk into the temple. Mom told Minji to do whatever the monk said.

On the wall of the temple hung a altar portrait of Buddha and tigers. Buddha and tigers in a questioning pose, their bodies twisted around each other. The monk pointed to the blanket on the floor with a meaningful yet familiar gesture as if he had enlightened everything.

“Lie down. I need to take off your clothes so I can look at your sore spot.”

As Minji listened to the monk speak, she felt a pinching sensation inside her flesh. She couldn’t explain where, but her insides were tickling and she had to pee. Minji did what the monk told her to do: she lay down naked and pinched the blanket with her nails all the way through. The blanket’s thread broke and the cotton burst out.White hairs floated in the air.

The monk’s treatment lasted about three hours. When it was over, Minji stepped outside. The afternoon sun was still intense, but there was something cold and sharp about it. It smelled of sour betrayal. Minji stretched. Water pooled in puddles across the floor. Mother was looking at the statue of King Sadaecheon, turning her back from Minji beyond the puddle. Minji went to the puddle and reflected on her face.

Minji’s face looked like a lotus root. There were holes in it, and dozens of marsala-colored plump-bodied worms were crawling out of it.

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