Jenny and Sharon listen, their eyes stretched with fear. I am ten and the big sister, but I am tense too. The mother frog is about to die.
Our own mother sits in her ruffled nightgown, the covers drawn high. She is always a little cold. Propped against a double-batch of pillows, her sharp-edged face emoting to entertain, she resembles the wolf-dressed-as-grandmother in the fairy tale. I feel guilty about the thought even though I know ideas like that come from somewhere beyond my control.
We are listening to the story of the incorrigible frogs, a Korean folktale sometimes known as The Tale of the Green Frogs. The story can be summarized in four lines: Mother frog’s disobedient children always do the opposite of what she asks. When she is old and dying from exhaustion, she asks her children to bury her by the river because she actually wants them to bury her on higher ground where her grave won’t be washed away. (You can see where this is going.) To respect their mother’s dying wish, her sorry children bury her by the river, where of course her grave gets washed away. This is why frogs cry when it rains.
The three of us have heard the story many times, but we listen as if our minds have only now been awakened to language. Through her voice, her face, the gestures of her beautiful hands, my mother spins the atmosphere in her bedroom so that we feel the cold raindrops and hear the rush of the river as the baby frogs croak and chirr, weeping for their mother. Their grief becomes our grief. Their remorse, our remorse.
Elbows propped on the slippery bedspread, my sisters lean forward. They hang on every word. I do something else. It’s something I have begun to do ever since I realized that Dad hitting me is a fact of life: I drift out of my body and look, like I am watching us on a screen. My mother hangs her head and closes her eyes. She pats her heart to quell the pain, the inexpressible sorrow, as she intones in a literary-sounding Korean, “If only those frogs had listened to their mother, they might have avoided this piteous fate.”
Jenny stands at the foot of the bed. She makes a nest with her chubby forearms and buries her face. Tiny Sharon, who is still in diapers, bursts into tears, wailing.
It dawns on me that there is a problem at the center of the story. I need an answer.
My cheek is still warm from the moment my father’s rock-hard hand struck it like lightning. He strikes like lightning every time– except with lightning, there are warning clouds. We are alone in the living room this time, and something I say smacks of disrespect. I thought I was just being me.
He turns his back afterward and goes outside. The car starts in front of the house and the sound of the engine fades as Dad drives away from the curb. He is getting some air, more cigarettes too, probably. He looks like a gentleman and thinks of himself as one. You can tell by his hair, his clothes, his posture. He smokes a brand of cigarettes that looks English.
Mindlessly, I push the flesh on my cheekbone around. I massage it because I’m fascinated with how it still hurts and how, even though it hurts even more from my manipulation, I can take it.
My question escapes my lips and breaks my mother’s spell.
“If her children always do the opposite of what she says, why doesn’t she just say the
opposite of what she means?”
My mother looks at me.
I continue, believing her question to be neutral, a pure expression of curiosity about my curiosity.
“Why didn’t the mother frog figure out earlier that she should say the opposite of what
she wants? Didn’t she understand her own children?”
Jenny shoots me a look of alarm. She senses a line– and that I have crossed it.
“You think you’re so smart,” my mother says, “but you’re smart in a way that’s bad.”
“I’m not bad!” I shout.
My mother is startled. She laces her fingers together and lays her hands on her stomach. Tilting her head, she regards me like I myself am a question to be answered.
“I’m not bad,” I say again. I attempt to reign in my rage, but I’m not very successful. Through a tense jaw, I force the words, “I’m just asking a question.” My head congests. My eyes flood. I blink, refusing to spill even one drop of myself.
My mother suddenly lunges and grabs me by the chin. Her touch is gentle, but her brow
“What happened to your eye?”
“There’s nothing there,” I say.
I had already checked the mirror for a mark or a bruise. There wasn’t one. And I made sure the redness had faded before I came in for storytime.
My mother stares into my eye while my sisters, gripped by childish morbid curiosity, clamor to see what she’s looking at. Taking my face in both palms, she smooths her hands down my cheeks in a gentle, ironing-out kind of way. Her face is set in a look I can’t read, but which my adult self will look back and recognize as resolve.
I walk to her dresser and peer into the mirror. A bright red starburst has exploded in my left eye. Its rays start in the outer corner and shoot toward the iris.
“It’s bleeding!” Jenny cries. She has followed me to the mirror.
My eye isn’t bleeding in the sense Jenny means. Nothing is seeping out, but there is red where there should not be. Broken blood vessels. My mother makes me track her finger and read a calendar on a far wall to check my vision.
A car door slams outside in the dark.
My mother rushes Jenny and Sharon off to their room. They scoot, obedient. I am about to leave too– the last person I want to see in the world is my father. But my mother holds my wrist and keeps me.
The front door opens. The terrible moments drag while Dad slips off his shoes and hangs up his jacket. Through the walls of our little house come the snarls of his throat-clearing.
He appears in the doorway. I look to the side. My mother draws me to her, encircling me
with her arms. She tells me to look at my father.
“Do you see what you did?” she says to him. “Look at her eye.”
My father inhales, then tries to protest, to justify, but my mother cuts him off.
“You think I don’t have choices, but I do,” she says. “If you hurt them, it’s the same as you hurting me. Do you understand?”
My father puts his arms akimbo, a sign that he is gathering strength, loading. He opens his mouth to speak, but something in my mother’s face makes him stop. He looks at me. I look away.
He leaves and a moment later, the sucking sounds of the refrigerator door come from the kitchen. He is getting something to eat. An apple, apparently. There is the unmistakable crunch.
My mother tucks me in, which she hasn’t done in I don’t know how long. She tells me how smart I am. How good. How pretty. She tells me I am right. The mother frog really was a silly goose. A smarter mother would have used reverse psychology and said the opposite of what she meant to keep her children on the right path.
“Those frogs were just kids,” she says. “How were they supposed to know anything?”
Her voice soothes me. The glow from the nightlight seeps through my eyelids. I had thought we four were hostage, that our father’s ability to earn money is what held it all together. I suddenly see that my mother is the actual linchpin.
My mother is a lion tamer.
I am comforted and dissolve into sleep with this thought, but am jerked awake again by the sound of my mother laughing. She rocks with mirth on the edge of my bed and claps her hands together. She has had a realization.
“But if those frogs and their mother figured it all out perfectly,” she says, “there would be no story!” She tickles my sides. I giggle, not fully understanding.
It was a long, long time before my father hit me again.
Jules Chung (she/her) writes poetry and fiction and is a member of Gen X. She is an immigrant and a parent. Jules explores American identity through the lenses of immigration, faith, race, class, gender, and sexuality. A 2021 Finalist in the One Story Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship competition and the recipient of the Icebox Residency with The Cabins as one-half of the creative collective Unattended Bags, she has been published in Quince Magazine and The Lumiere Review. She is a member of the 2021 VONA summer workshop with M. Evelina Galang.
Jules lives in New Jersey where she is at work on a novel, Lisa Bae: A Diasporational Fairytale. She can be found on Instagram @glorifyandenjoy and on Twitter @andthewordwas.