This excerpt of my travel memoir Ginseng Tango originally appeared in This Land on August 25, 2015. You can learn more about Ginseng Tango on its book page.
I check my email before going to bed and find a message from my ex-husband with “Sad News” in the subject line. I know immediately what it’s about: Java, my cat. I left her in his care prior to my move to Daegu, South Korea.
Ever since I met Java’s eyes in her cage at a vet’s and I took her home, we’ve communicated through words, meows, and telepathy. Yes, I said telepathy. Regardless of the distance between us, a few blocks or a continent, I can hear her frightened meows along with her wanting to know the time of my return. “Soon,” I would say silently, assuredly while imagining myself stroking her long black fur and thick tail, stopping only upon hearing her melodious purr. In the last few days, our connection deteriorated into static.
When anyone entered the house back in the States, she would bolt upstairs for one of her hideaways, under the bed or beneath the futon in my office. No one was to be trusted, not even my ex who offered the truce of a stuffed mouse, a rubber ball, a feather dangling from a pole, none of which she deemed acceptable. I received altogether different treatment. Upon my return from teaching or dropping off a package at the post office, she’d run to the door to greet me with lengthy meows and then follow me into the kitchen as I grabbed an orange and napkin and made for the living room or back porch.
Every night we performed a ritual. “I’m headed to bed,” I’d announce. She’d hop onto the mattress as I left for the bathroom to brush my teeth, place my earrings on the dresser, and pull on my night gown. Once I slipped beneath the blanket, she’d sit like a sentinel solely charged with watching my lids lower. Right before sleep took over, as if convinced I was safely tucked in, she would amble to the bottom of the bed and curl up for feline shuteye. The ritual repeated if in the middle of the night I left the bedroom to pee.
I regularly defended her from the second cat, Zuni, who joined our household a few years after Java’s arrival. Found abandoned in a field when he fit into the palm of a hand, he grew into a sizeable tomcat who delighted in swatting, scratching, and using any and every opportunity to shove Java around. The spot on the couch where she slept he wanted. The second floor window sill where she watched squirrels he wanted. He bullied his way to her food bowl, her chair, her tree, her table, all territory eventually his.
Leaving her behind was my hardest farewell. Days before boarding the plane for Korea, I sat on the stairwell and pet her nonstop. I explained the purpose of my move as her fur matted from my constant strokes and tears. I promised to return. “I promise,” I said repeatedly. She was my home, my family, my beloved, the reason I would return to the house. Which is why when the email arrived announcing her sudden, unexpected death, the searing pain of loss and guilt from my failure to protect her ripped through my torso with box-cutter precision, the final loving tie to my house, my home, my country, gone.
I read the email to the end. The words blur. The hum of the computer fan quiets. The chair that moments ago seated me now holds only a wisp of a weight. My heart hollowed from a husband’s betrayal now feels like molting skin, but without the hope of new skin. The wisp of weight walks to the sliding door, then the bathroom sink, the bed, the door, the bed again, each traversal further peeling off the decomposable skin.
I grab the phone to call Daria, a Russian I met in a phone store who lives in the apartment building next door. I tell her about the email and then ask, “Can you come over.”
“Of course,” she replies.
We sit on the bed. She puts out her hand for mine to rest in. It’s about 11 p.m., yet we talk for hours, the dark summoning tales about pets, lost loves, and the homelessness we feel living thousands of miles away from family and friends.
“Do you want juice or tea,” I offer, unsure if my shaking body has strength enough to reach the refrigerator.
“I’ll get it,” Daria says.
My hosting skills are somewhat shaky this night, but completely absent when it comes to hosting relatives—dead relatives, that is—a common Korean custom. As to the afterlife, my spiritual cynicism swells. A body buried or cremated turns to dust. End of story. Yet here, many understand that a part of the body gets absorbed back into the earth upon death and another part hangs around unbodied. Depending on the quality of one’s life and manner of death, the spirit of the departed either stays around to help or to hex. Failing an exam may be the work of an ancestor with a vendetta. A chance meeting with a stranger at the market that leads to marriage might be the doings of a happy ancestor. To help the deceased find a peaceful resting place and not raise their ire against those still alive, Koreans perform elaborate funerary rites and frequent rituals throughout the year with offerings of fruit, rice cakes, and money intended to appease whatever bad feelings may remain.
Weeks earlier, I witnessed ancestor communication firsthand when Kim Keum-hwa, the country’s better known shaman, invited me and a dozen of her apprentices to assist in a ceremony, a kut. In a tall hat and colorful silk robe, she, a slender 79-year-old woman with her hair pulled back into a bun, summoned an entourage of the disembodied through much hopping, bell clanging, the throwing of a dagger, dragging the limbs of a sacrificed pig, dancing in a light trance, and then later with an apprentice balancing barefoot atop knife blades. These dramatic actions rattled my Western sensibility, as did an impromptu bid that I perform a solo dance and Ms. Kim’s periodic pauses in the commotion to convey messages from the deceased to those of us whose ears remained closed to ancestral speak.
After several hours of swishing fans and flags, shrill music, and the wiping up of pig blood, one of the apprentices tells me that my yung dae, an area on the back that acts as a door to spiritual experience, is blocked. A month earlier, an acupuncturist pointed out the same spot, but as the site to insert metal needles to stir my lagging qi and reduce the discomfort from the scoliosis I’ve suffered from since my teens.
During those hours when Daria and I should be dreaming in the solace of our own beds, it occurs to me that I may be wrong about neglecting to protect Java. “Perhaps,” I propose, “she worried about me and death enabled her to cross the Pacific.”
Daria leaves soon after. I brush my teeth and hope for restful sleep. I slip under the blanket. It’s then my ears detect dainty paws leap onto the bed and approach my pillow. It seems that if I could focus my eyes better, I could see her green eyes and pink nose poking out from within the fluff of her black fur. Putting my cynicism aside for the moment, I let the fuzzy vision of her on the bed continue and watch as she curls her warm body belly-up, eager for my petting. Then, as Kim Keum-hwa did with the spirits who visited her during the ceremony at her retreat center, I ask questions, namely, why Java is here with me in Korea?
Java’s reply stuns me. In our usual silent way, she tells me I have to embrace my Jewish background. Were I any more awake, I may have ignored her response as little more than molting gone awry or a misfired neuron.
I might have discounted the incident with Java as total hooey, a late night grief-inspired vision, if it weren’t for the email that arrived the following morning from a colleague in Oklahoma. Apply for a university position as a creative-writing professor, he urged. A Tulsa Jewish foundation funds the position with the stipulation that the applicant be Jewish. The job involves teaching at University of Tulsa and working with the Jewish community. It’s rare to be solicited for a job, rarer yet a Judaic post.
In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Gimpel the Fool,” a simple bread-maker becomes the butt of the townspeople’s jokes. He believes whatever lies they tell: that a cow flew over the roof and laid brass eggs, a rabbi gave birth to a calf, the Messiah arrived. He seeks the truth and goodness in each tale and repeatedly says, “Everything is possible, as it is written in the Wisdom of the Father. I’ve just forgotten how.” Gimpel marries a wife who cheats on him and he unknowingly raises the other man’s children as his own. Yet by the story’s end, he realizes that there are no lies; what doesn’t happen by day takes place in dreams. Perhaps I’d forgotten the words or never read the Wisdom Book, but when a synchronicity like this strikes, only the chronically and fatally foolish ignore it. Were my ancestors in cahoots with my cat and a few key Koreans? Had they met in one of the many spirit houses built on the side of Daegu’s mountains to nibble rice cakes and discuss my fate? Regardless of the answers, I knew I had to apply for the job.
A few days later, a friend drops by my apartment. Before sitting down, he sneezes.
“A cold?” I ask, offering a tissue.
“I don’t think so. Feels more like an allergy. Like I have with dogs. Cats, too.”
When he leaves, I check my bedding and the shirt draped on the chair for signs of fur. Nothing. Dander is, of course, not easily visible.
As are spirits.
Several months letter, acceptance letter packed in my luggage, I move to Oklahoma.