She was tiny when she came to us. Jim wasn’t convinced she could keep up. Though, at that time, we didn’t have many animals. I wanted help only with cleaning and some cooking. She asked us to call her June. I can’t remember her real name. She might not have ever told us. Anyway, as I expected, she did fine, small though she was.
June had signed on with us for a nine-month home-stay, a sort of break after her first year in college. She made it seven months and then died in a field.
There was a hole in her stomach when they found her in the Johnsons’ pasture, and then it took everyone a full afternoon to find out which bull had got her. There were bloodstains and dried guts on its one horn. The sheriff had to sit us down and ask us nicely if we’d warned her about trespassing. Of course we had. But we had to admit that June had come to us to practice English. She had needed a whole lot of practice. Who knows what she retained? The sheriff took off his hat and we all let a moment or two pass.
In the weeks that followed, we had to take all the steps: contact the organization and apologize and receive apologies and get news to the parents back in Korea. The organization handled most of the logistics, like getting the body overseas and so on. You have to sign waivers and all before doing a trip like the one she did. It’s sad when things go wrong. Jim and I felt like we owed somebody something, though from a legal standpoint, we owed nothing to nobody. The Johnsons were the same.
For some reason, the police wanted the horn, so they sawed it off and took it. It seemed morbid, but authorities do what they do. Her whole body looked like when Jim got bit by a snake that one summer and it got infected. Her cheeks were rotten crabapples, I swear.
But really I suppose what got us was checking in later with Becky, whose daughter works at the organization and who originally hooked us up with this hosting thing. June’s parents hadn’t even cried on the phone. They didn’t want to come out to see where it’d happened, or how or why it had. Maybe that was a cultural difference, that silence of theirs. We don’t know. But it seemed off. Head-scratching, more like.
To be fair, Jim wasn’t interested in the how or why, either. But I was. And so I was out there in the field, despite the cold, wandering around and thinking. The Johnsons knew it and obliged me and even let me know when to come, like when the herd would be departing to graze elsewhere and even out the land. I suppose all I found in that bare dirt was a dead rattlesnake and a dead magpie, which did not strike me as related.
I’m getting to think harder about it this fall because our first granddaughter is on the way. And Ashley is telling us now that she and Henry are looking to move to the city because of it: maybe Denver, or maybe Chicago. Better schools, more jobs. We understand and we support them, and I think no one blames me for rattling on about how choices add up to a rain washing you to places you never expect. When you get to those places, near or far or wherever, you’re going to need to make sense of it. I’m not saying I have yet.
I’m just saying, June would be 30 now, or 31. I’ve learned that Koreans count age differently from how we do it here. She’d be an adult, anyway, all worldly and strong. She’d be around the age I was when Jim brought me out here.
I just want to say, there’s so much in the world for us not to know. And what we do about that fact is complicated.
I remind Jim sometimes that I feel like we should get to Korea before we’re gone, just for a trip, just to see for real the stuff June used to describe in her perfect and stuttering voice. Each time, he figures out how to dissuade me. We have more animals now, for one. And the long plane ride would be torture on our backs. Whenever I ask, he lays me down on the bed and talks again about reasons and about how all the cows in all the fields have best friends. And then he asks me who his cow is. And I say that it’s me. I’m his cow, God, I am, though I’m rail-thin and have been my entire life. We laugh quietly together and kiss each other, sometimes even make love, and I try to put myself at ease by remembering that, though I certainly don’t know them all, I have never in my life underestimated one of this world’s things, not even the wind.
A guy in a tiny van drives me from the airport to my hotel, called Sky. There’s a clerk who asks if I’m alone, which I am. He asks if I’m all right, which I am. It’s just a long flight, really. And the meds nauseate me, honestly. It’s to be expected. The clerk is wearing a suit. It’s small and he’s cute. He speaks Korean to a girl wearing a skirt and a nice blouse and then it’s me and her in the elevator. I suppose I get anxious only when we reach the room. It’s cramped and the table is very low. We take our shoes off in a small square by the door. We have to put on slippers.
On my own, I send an email to Jim, who’s surely still mad at me. I think to call Ashley, who understood me coming here better, but the time difference is confusing to me, and they’re so busy now, I know it. Haley still cries whenever they drop her off at preschool. Our girl has the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen in my life. She has the tiniest hands.
I lie on the bed and the firmness of the mattress helps my back some. I sleep with the slippers still on and don’t wake until some young guy starts pounding on the door with my complimentary breakfast: Korean style, I expect, and then it’s seeded grapes, orange juice, and two rolls.
I have two weeks and no plan, except to find the subway and wander and walk around. There’s a train from Seoul to the rural towns, but land is all I’ve seen my entire life. The first two days, I walk a lot and eat from the mini-marts and McDonald’s because the real restaurants look ridiculous and intimidating. I got a travel-book from the airport, but it’s useless. At night, I check emails and send more and lie down to rest my back. It’s getting worse from all the walking. And the seats on the subway are either full up before I can snatch one, and so I’m standing for too long, or they’re like sitting on the jagged rocks near Mirror Lake. Nothing helps and I cry at night, I guess. I’m weak. I fall asleep and wake up again to the guy with breakfast. He can’t speak English. His name is Hyun-Bin.
My third day, I find a dead cat under some trees by what looks like an elementary school. The elementary school looks like the art museum in Casper to me. It’s got a large lime-green fence around it. I’m there in the afternoon. When the kids get out, they run screaming past me and laugh at the cat lying there dead.
My fourth day, I try a restaurant and it’s easier to handle than I thought, just grilling meat at the table. They give me scissors to cut the meat and I about chuckle myself to death. I watch the others and do like they do. I eat with my hands. I wrap the meat with lettuce.
My fifth day, Hyun-Bin shows me a picture of his girlfriend after I have asked if he’s a student in college. The girl is pretty and made up a lot. I don’t ever learn if he’s a student, but I get the sense that he’s happy with his life.
On the sixth day, I cry on the subway. It’s all I do. I cry for what seems like hours, and just ride the train in circles. And I think, if I had done this in Chicago, no one would have gotten up to give me their seat. I believe it. I get back to the hotel and cry all night. I get an email from Jim, finally, and I just cry right through it. He says he loves me and I bawl. The next morning, it’s not Hyun-Bin with breakfast. It’s some small girl. She doesn’t even look like June, but I still cry in front of her. She says something and hugs me and I just cry the rest of the day. I empty out.
I wonder about it. I think I’m bored, in a way. And relieved, too. It’s hilarious and I’m so proud of myself. I find a mountain right near the city and hike on it. It’s terrible on my back and I can’t get down easily. A group of men in matching neon windbreakers help me. I cry. The men are drunk and joyous and I don’t have enough tissues. I find a restaurant that sells dumplings and I cry there, too, while everyone stares. I see Hyun-Bin in the morning and cry. It’s so loud in this country and it makes no sense to me to be crying so much, when no one else is, when I never was a crier. Halfway through the trip, I’m desperate to go home.
I don’t go, though. I write emails and let myself cry some more. I try the raw beef and the raw octopus and write to Jim about it. I eat something that doesn’t agree with me at all and I spend a night on the toilet. I vomit. I cry and I laugh. Hyun-Bin teaches me words and I butcher them. He manages to express that he wants to go to America, but only to New York City. I laugh more. I cry yet again. I tell him to see Wyoming instead, because all he sees every day is city life. I tell him that I’m dying now and he smiles like an idiot and takes a cute picture of us. He emails it to me. I email the picture to my friends and family. I write a caption for Haley that says DON’T BE SCARED.
A long time ago, I met a girl. I don’t hardly know her. She used to get sick in the summer, though, like me. I ask Hyun-Bin on my last day if June is actually a common Korean name, and the silence that follows brings me home.