by Johnny Kang

This is to my mother and others who cared for children alike.

Whenever I was sick, I would let out feeble coughs and nestle within the blankets – afraid of the air. You would sit by me, knowing all my tells. Knowing that I wanted to stay home and how you would be late for work. Even so, you would place your hand on my stomach and sing a wish song.

Mumma’s hand is a healing hand,

When she touches your tummy

It is all better now.

Mumma’s words are good words,

They wish away the pain.

Through your life you have distilled the virtues of this world and poured it out onto me. You always told me they would be endless. For so long – even still – I have acted unmoved. But those words fed a generous stream over stone. Only now do the cracks begin to show beneath a smooth polish. So, I tell you of my trip away from home, how I had intended to “find myself”. But each moment led me back to you.

***

1

Having planned nothing, I find myself on the way to an aquarium. The thought of fish makes me nervous, but it seems difficult to say exactly why. Even before I had arrived in Osaka it was clear that there would be some time unaccounted for: get off the shinkansen at 11am, check-in from 5pm onwards. It is now 12. My tour map had been the one to suggest I go to the aquarium, conjuring within me a hazy memory that I might have had as a young child.

Walking down a dark glass corridor, lit up only by the blue light spilling in through a filter of fish and water. Either side of you, glass monoliths smudged by sweaty palms like your own. You look through the windows into the vastness of a huge tank, that darkens and fades the further in you stare. Suddenly you trip over and get a terrible sensation that you may fall into the endless water that surrounds you. But a firm hand holds your arm tight and you never reach the ground.

I buy an adult pass and walk up a flight of stairs. In through the entrance – the giant oval mouth of a manta ray. Next to me are a few grandparents with a pack of little kids running up and down. It is difficult to say who is leading the way.

***

2

You see a huge window ahead and from a distance only the shadow spilling down on the floor in front is visible. It seems to move in waves, constant and immense. You see it is a huge school of fish swimming as if in a gentle cyclone, the top reaching the surface of the water, the bottom disappears into a deep gorge below. A chandelier of sorts whose beauty overwhelms the brief shock brought on by its scale. You watch for a long time as the column of silver works back and forth, each fish filled with celebration that they all share.

In the corner of the window a young couple squats down to take pictures of their young girl. She can barely stand on her own and supports herself against the glass. On the other side is the huge gaping mouth of a sunfish, that stretches upwards twice her height. It remains perfectly still as if waiting for the child to fall into its mouth before it shuts tight to her parents’ horror. But of course, this is far from the truth. The baby alternates between posing for the camera and tracing the mouth of the terrifying creature. It stays frozen in morbid isolation. A brief spectacle for the few who care to take a look in the corner.

It is like that story she read to you the night it was just the two of you at home. About the city Omelas, where all were happy but one. She said afterwards how it was about the way many people believe they need some to suffer for the rest. How that was wrong. And that she would never let that happen to you. The way she would stroke your head and kiss your cheek made you know for certain that was true. And maybe if she had asked, you would have told her the same. But you never did.

***

Those who walk away from Omelas

Streamers fall from the windows,
Smiling in the breeze,
Bringing light to the bright faces and
A sign of life to please.

The laughter crowds the streets,
Jostling amongst the bodies.
The grins stretch for ages in
The festivities of ease.

For none are needy,
There are no rich or poor,
All cry a unified melody.
All speak the good words.

But under the tapping feet –
The gleaming brass horns,
The world –
Lies the boy.

They know of his bareness,
That he is bald and worn.
They smell the excrement he leaves and
Hold their breath.

See, but none do speak.
For the slightest warmth may melt the ice,
The faintest touch
Crumble the foundation stone.

That they are more caring of their own,
That they may be grateful, if he suffers.
That they are loved.
It is all enough. More than.

Though there are some who walk away –
Where to precisely, we do not know.
They walk, as he may dream,
Towards the bearable pain.

***

3

There is a local park nearby, famous for its green tea houses that sit on the water. After the aquarium, I decide to pay them a visit. Perhaps some of the strange anxiety I had felt at the start of the day persists in the vacant thoughts that strike me as I walk. I think about going back home, catching up with people and the ongoing game of trying to fit in. I single out people in my life with whom I have left many things unspoken. Others who have tried hard to let me in – she always tried to get me to speak. An honest story, she would tell me, cures better than the strongest medicine.

I sit in the tea house and look out of the glass sliding windows at a peaceful lake. I notice when the water is completely still the world is doubled in a perfect instant. For a moment, it seems as though there were another life to be lived just beneath the mirror then tiny clear fish break the surface. They jump out in patches and make it look as though rain were falling from the other side. Coming from a place where water makes no noise. I sip on my green tea, feeling the vapour on my nose. I realise it is quite bitter and I wonder how life would be in that other world. If everything would be reversed and unlike. Or if only the things that mattered would change.

***

Through the looking glass

Tell me a story of when you were young.

Games you played,

The friends that lied, and

About new toys that you wanted.

Tell me when you climbed onto the ledge,

And broke a bone,

How you found a new

Memory to cherish.


If you were ever breathless

Deep in the ocean,

Were you thrilled by

The strength in your legs?


Let me know from

Which books you emerged

And how you kept your hands

So smooth.


Now as you reach a

Sunset in your life

Tell me how I can

Make it last longer.


Let me tell you a story

That you can remember,

Or else let me tell it

Over and over.


Let me hold your hand,

Catch you from

Falling,

Keep you off the floor.


Let me take

Your indigestion and

Dizziness and pain, to

Pat your stomach gently.


Everything becomes from a

Wish, and so

In me I will heal you

Endlessly.


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