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On the night Omma died, it seemed as if the Land of Morning Calm held its breath in disbelief at the horror visited upon its children. The gusty December wind stopped blowing and the bitter cold settled down, unmoving, in our little house. The air was thin and brittle.
Omma prepared a special dinner of bean curd in chili and garlic with our usual rice and kimchi, and quince tea. She was more animated than usual, and talked to me as if I were a grown woman and an equal, not her small child. Her crumpled silk skin looked feverish, and her eyes darted to and fro as she talked.
Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace. She said nothing ever truly ended, not even life. Everything continued in a pattern of night to day, dark to light, death to rebirth. Omma said honor was found in following one's heart, not in other people's rules. She talked about power. It might be possible for a woman--even a nonperson--to have power, she said.
When dinner had been cleared away and the floor swept, Omma filled the large, blackened iron pot with water and put it on top of the heating pit until it was comfortably warm. She bathed me carefully and quickly so I wouldn't get cold, then dressed me in a clean hanbok, an ankle-length cotton skirt with a short, wrapped bodice. She brushed and braided my long, curly dark hair, which usually was covered with a white scarf. She handed me a folded piece of rice paper covered in fine writing and said that before first light the next day I was to leave the village by the dirt pathway, carrying the paper, until I found someone on the main road to show it to. Bewildered but accustomed to obedience, I simply nodded.
Omma grabbed me fiercely and crushed me to her body, pouring out a torrent of love in whispers. She told me over and over how precious I was, how beautiful and perfect. She told me she valued my life more than her own. She told me I was her beloved.
Omma released me and pushed me a few inches away, then told me to step inside the large, woven bamboo basket beside our bed, which we used for storage space. "Whatever happens, be absolutely silent, and remain here until just before first light," she said. Eyes fixed on her face, I obeyed silently, crouching down in the basket. Darkness descended as she closed the lid.
As the next hour or so wore on I sat cross-legged in the basket, watching the candle flame flickering through the slats of bamboo and seeing slivers of Omma as she sat motionless in front of the little wooden Buddha. Her sonorous chanting filled the room, the pure sound rising and falling. I waited, wide awake, tense and afraid.
The candle had burned low and the room was in twilight darkness when hurried steps outside sliced through the quiet, and voices filled the room. I was aware of a confused tangle of noise and movement and I pushed my face toward the slats, adjusting my view through the half-inch-wide gaps so I could better understand what was happening.
I recognized the voice of Omma's stern-faced father, a village elder who had never once spoken directly to me. I recognized the voice of Omma's elder brother, a loud young man who was an important village leader.
Both had done an unprecedented thing that afternoon: They walked up to Omma as she was working in the rice field and spoke to her. We were working quickly, trying to keep ourselves as warm as possible. I straightened up for a moment, aware that someone was coming, and was amazed to see my grandfather and uncle walking toward us. Since they were elders in the village, I knew this was a momentous occasion. Omma stood up, rubbed her tired back, then bowed and waited silently for them. The men did not bow but began speaking immediately in clipped tones. All three kept their voices low, so I didn't know what was being said, but I watched from a distance as they talked. All looked angry; my mother looked at the men with contempt. None of them bowed when the conversation was finished.
And now these men were crowded into our tiny home. With them was the young wife of Omma's brother. She didn't speak, and her head remained bowed. The men were wearing the high net hats that marked their importance as village leaders. Omma's father was a swarthy, barrel-chested man with a stern slit of a mouth and deeply etched lines down his cheeks. Her brother was taller and lighter-skinned. Omma's sister-in-law was wearing a stiffly starched white hanbok.
Omma's brother did all the talking. He told her the family had discussed the matter again since presenting demands to her that afternoon in the field, and he, his father, and his wife were there to carry out the plan. A family had offered to take the honhyol--me--into their home as a servant. They had seen me at work in the rice fields and decided I was now old enough to be useful around the house and also to be betrothed. The people making the offer planned to fill two needs at once: Add a servant to their home and find a future wife for a young man in their employ.
From the impassioned demands of Omma's brother, it appeared a sum of money had also been promised. Though they held respectable positions, our relatives were poor, as was everyone in the village, and the chance of reaping a financial windfall and ridding themselves of the family's shame--all in one move--must have seemed like an incredible piece of luck.
Omma remained kneeling before the altar. She didn't move a muscle, but her voice was steel.
She told the men that her feelings hadn't changed since the conversation in the fields, and that she would never sell her daughter into slavery.
From the Hardcover edition.