I hold my breath when your eyes twitch in your sleep. Though you are now a man, I still have this desire to protect you from the men who chased you in your dreams. I forbid myself to kiss the scar above your lip or to caress the beauty mark on your cheekbone. Instead, I pull a blanket around your shoulders and lean in just enough to smell your hair.
When you were little, you collected so many rocks they spilled from your desk and tumbled from your pockets. Over and over, I explained that you must decide which stones to keep and which to abandon to the river. I told you, “We can’t hold on to everything.” Remember when we used to skip stones? How once the stone makes contact with water, there is a bounce, plop, and plunk. But even after the surface of the water grows still, the ripple effect goes on. Molecules continually rearrange themselves.
These days, it’s my memories that spill like stones from overflowing pockets, so I’m choosing which to purge from my mind. I remind myself that even the truths behind our memories morph. Beneath the placid surface, the waves of the past continue to tremble, but my pockets are getting lighter.
On a train heading west from Yangsan, a young woman presses her lips to her child’s fluttering lashes. The boy relaxes against his mother’s arms as she kisses the small scar above his lip and the beauty mark beneath his left eye. He believes his mother will protect him from the demons chasing their train in the dark. He does as he was told—feigns sleep, eyes squeezed shut, until he drifts off.
The travel-weary woman watches the charcoal world whip by, her forehead pressed against the cold windowpane. The heft and warmth of her child’s body keep her in the present moment. Her face looks calms, but inside resides the fear that she may not survive. A panicked bird fills the space where, months earlier, her tumorous lung wheezed its last breath. The bird squirms and flails about in her chest, but she must be strong for her child. She distracts herself by squinting out the window, by trying to pinpoint how far they’ve skipped out.
There are obstacles holding them from their final destination—an ocean, a marriage, the possibility of death and this panic housed in her hollowed-out chest—but she smooths each obstacle into a flat stone that will skim across open water. So far, the stones have sunk because she’s miscalculated the length of time the tension will hold them afloat. With practise comes perfection.
Of course, this is our story. I wasn’t much older than you are now when I held you on that train. Sometimes it’s easier to tell the stories from my past as though they happened to somebody else. My guilt has proven to be the biggest obstacle on most of my journeys.
Years ago, you asked me about the giant men with sticks. “How could you let him tell me that?” you asked after I told you the story.
That night I pressed my face against the cool train window piecing together the puzzle of how we’d make it home again someday. I fell into a shallow doze and woke lost in the blur of pine trees and dark mountains, but the smell of boiled eggs, dried o-jing-ah and barley tea placed us back in the train, hurtling towards the unknown. I looked down at you, a sleeping cherub, in my lap and worried that your eyes moved so rapidly in your sleep because you were afraid.
Your dad, also on that train, had warned you earlier, “Be careful, Twaiji-ya! The big bad men with the sticks—the ones who were guarding the temple—are looking for little boys who aren’t asleep. Ahhh and now they are chasing the train!”
The moment to save you had passed. I’d failed to stop his story, so the demons chased you in your sleep. Just remember that your dad wasn’t much older than you back then, and he never knew what not to say. I was suffering, so, not knowing how to help, he made up that story, so I could rest. You and I had been inseparable during the months I fought not to die. And you hadn’t stopped clinging to me in the weeks since we’d been in Korea.
“Toqui-ya, I can take him.” Your dad whispered once you’d fallen asleep. But the panicked bird thudded against my ribcage. The mountains loomed overhead. I’d already lost so much. There was no choice but to keep holding on to you, so I shook my head and your dad faded further into the background. He was a stone that fell from my pocket, but I was too tired to tuck him back in.
Instead, I pressed my temple against a fresh patch of fogged glass, and watched the weathered mountains erode into hills.
Later, our feet clattered across the pebbled beach, and then you waded into the shallow river like a brilliant splash of colour. Red rubber boots and a blue knit sweater vibrant against the grey sky.
“This one, Mama?”
I shook my head, and you pushed the pebble into your pocket. “That one is too round.” I traced your dimpled fingers on the edge of a flat stone from I’d picked from the beach, “Smooth and flat like this, so it can jump.”
I attempted to skip that stone across the surface of the river, but it sank with a plop.
We spent the afternoon choosing stones until we got a few to skip. You filled your little pockets until they spilled, and, when the sun began to sink, I wrapped you up in my arms and carried you home.
Rachel Laverdiere is a language instructor and writer living on the Canadian prairies. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction pieces are published in over twenty journals, including The New Quarterly, filling Station, and FreeFall Magazine. Rachel's flash fiction story was shortlisted for the Geist 2015 Short Long-Distance Writing Contest. Find more of her writing at www.rachellaverdiere.com or on Twitter @r_laverdiere.