Elisa L. EvertsI would say that the sky was dark, but actually it was not really present for observation, much less description; the darkness was so dense that it was more like it had simply failed to report for duty that night in the mountainous city scape between rain ravaged buildings in Buk Jeong, South Korea. It was about eight pm on a summer evening and night had already fallen with the gushing rain also falling, like a typhoon, one of those storms where the ocean seems to have climbed up into the sky with the express purpose of rushing back out of it to inundate the land in powerful, pounding vertical waves, instead of returning to its place of origin, as if wishing to assert its dominion over the land, regardless of altitude, to claim the peninsula for itself and make it part of the East Sea. Over the years I had found myself caught in rain like that in the Far East more times than I could now remember.
I staggered through the rain, crying my guts out behind my umbrella, crying at least as hard as it was raining. Such a loud, heavy rain provides one benefit for a white foreigner in Asia, which is an odd degree of much longed for privacy. In normal weather, you are watched everywhere you go, from the time you leave your home in the morning, until you return to it in the evening. You are always on stage. There I was, a tall, middle aged white woman sobbing like an abandoned child, reinforcing, deplorably, the Asian stereotypes about Americans and their excessive displays of emotion. Thus, while the deafening sound of the pounding rain muffled the raw, indelicate sounds pouring out of me, the umbrella also provided a screen behind which I could hide from any curious lookers-on who might be lurking in the darkness along my way. I was glad to be hidden beneath an umbrella, within a storm.
Under my left arm I carried a dead kitten in a shoe box, and with my right hand I awkwardly hung on to a tin cup. At the same time, I struggled to wield an umbrella against the torrents, trying to shield the kitten with it, I think, more than myself. Under those constraints, it would have been hard enough to find my way in the dark and the rushing rain without having also had to strain to see through my own constant stream of tears. It was like trying to see into the darkness through two panes of falling water. Anyone who saw me must have thought I had lost my mind. And I guess for the evening, I had. Just completely surrendered to the madness of grief.
I had been gone all day to Busan where I had bought food and dishes for that tiny little scrap of a cat I had rescued. I was tutoring the little girl who had first introduced me to the kittens a month or two before. There had been eight in the litter originally, living squalidly, wedged down between two cement walls no more than nine inches apart, no covering to shelter them from overhead, each awkwardly lying at different angles on a bed of what was almost entirely trash. At that time, they seemed still to be under the care of their mother, such as it was, though they were already growing too big for that space, which seemed to be all the privacy and shelter the area could begrudge them.
A few weeks after that when I went for our lesson, my impish eleven-year-old student dragged me out to survey the little feline colony again. There were lots of cats of various sizes around, but to the left of a set of stairs that led up to a restaurant, I came across this pathetic creature, sitting on her haunches, breathing with great difficulty, looking as if she were already draped over deathís patient lower jaw, just waiting for it to close. Though there was activity all around her, she seemed to sit completely isolated in her suffering. The sidewalk was part of a pretty busy intersection, where she was ignored by passersby as though she were a pool of vomit or a pile of feces, edited out of their visual experience like so much of the unsightly refuse which is neither pleasant nor polite to notice. The smell was sickening, as the pestilent smell of death will be.
I knew from looking at her that she couldnít have more than two weeks to live, but I could not ignore my inner Mother Theresa, and looked to see what I had that I might cart her home in. Finding nothing, I went back to my studentís mother, holding the stinky little bag of fleas in my hands, and asked for a sack or a box. I donít know if I can describe the look the mother gave me. Incredulity, disdain, horror? Disgust? I think with a mixture of confusion and pity, as though I were mentally ill, as though I were trying to save a maggot from a pile of decay and take it home with me for a pet. She gave me a shopping bag with handles and I put the kitten inside and rolled down the top of the bag a bit so I could control it better.
I called her Pia, for the text abbreviation, Pain in the Ass, because she struggled so much for the hour and a half it took to bring her home on the train in a paper sack. I found it unbelievable how much energy she had to fling herself around in there when she was already half dead. And she stank to high heaven. I stood apart from the other passengers so they wouldnít smell her and feel a need to complain. Of course, it was against the rules to carry an animal on the train. I managed to keep a straight face and everyone else kindly managed to pretend they did not notice.
When I got home I filled a bucket with warm water and plunged her into it. She was exactly as indignant and irate as I expected. I dried her off with a towel and let her stalk around as mad as she wished, complaining at the top of her tiny little lungs. The fact that she could do so was heartening. I think she may have stayed by herself the first night. But she soon took to coming over by my large warm body as I lay on my futon on the floor and shortly took to climbing up and lying on top of me. The precious little ragged bundle of skin and bones and bits of fur had come to sit on my chest just at the base of my neck purring up a storm, hour after hour, day after day. A premonition perhaps of the storm I would bury her in. She had come to love me. I would say that I had come to love her too, but I had already loved her from the moment I found her. I couldnít let her suffer and die all loveless and alone on a dirty, back street in downtown Busan.
And so on this Saturday, exactly one week after I had rescued her, I was eager to get home to her, worried about her health, eager to present the kitty accoutrements I had procured and to start the long process of fattening her up. I threw down all my bags and clothes and took off my shoes and then stood feeling sick at her stillness across the room. As I moved nearer I found her stretched out dead on the pillow where I had left her, already stiff and cold, a trail of feces on the pillow where her tiny bowels had apparently failed her at the moment of death. I was frozen. It should not have been so very unexpected; I knew she was mostly dead when I found her. Somehow I was not prepared. My stomach and face and fingers felt filled with ice. Such a tiny animal, but my apartment felt pregnant with death. And it wasnít just that death had come to her, but it had come on my watch, in my care, in my absence, in my neglect. I had left her and it was as though she had died because I was not there. She had died completely alone. She had begun to eat. I imagined I was bringing her back to health. I imagined finding a forever home for her before I left Korea.
I tried to collect my frozen thoughts. I had to bury her. I needed something to dig with. Did I need to bury her in a box? I didnít want to just put her in a shoebox without any padding. It was too cold and sterile and inhumane. I found an expensive fluffy hand towel that I had been given as a gift by the school I taught for. I gently wrapped the kitten in the towel and put her in the box. I realized I had nothing to dig with. I ransacked my kitchen. I didnít think a spoon would be adequate. I found a tin measuring cup and a sturdy butter knife I thought might suffice. I put on some kind of rain jacket and my running shoes because I thought they would weather the rain and mud the best (they did not).
I staggered down the stairs, past the sweet dog who was imprisoned there in his five-foot sphere of cement that was his entire world. I staggered down the alley getting more and more soaked as I proceeded, through the alleys and side streets, around parked cars, until I reached the mouth of the mountain path. I took the more direct route up, not the sidewalk that ambled gradually along a slighter slope. I took the steep slope where there was no real path at first, then a path with wooden boards placed horizontally as make shift steps, something between steps and a ladder pressed into the earth. It was slippery and wet and I was trying to see through my blubbering tears and the rain and the darkness and my umbrella and I had no way to balance myself with both arms full.
I fell on my knees against the cold soggy mountain again and again, but didnít drop my precious cargo. It felt that all the cumulative darkness of my life was sucking me in and what I really wanted to do was just find a deep enough recess and fall down in the mud in the trees and bury myself. I had a flash memory of being four and crossing a street without having my three-year-old baby brotherís hand, and him walking under a tractor trailer and being killed in the stroke of a heartbeat. I had also the constant presence of my dearest friend at whose bedside I stood for 60 days while she died a horrific death of stomach cancer. Yet somehow, I must have had some pinhole of light somewhere in the back of my soul that held me back from searching for a place to simply fling myself into with the kitten in my arms.
Somehow I reached the top of the first level of the mountain. I looked for a spot that would be suitable. Because it was almost certainly illegal to bury an animal here, though it occurred to me that one might die here without offending any laws. I found a place just off the path enough that it wouldnít draw attention, but open enough between the trunks of trees that I could carve a little grave. Although the ground was rain soaked, it was also clay-like and stony and almost impossible to dig in.
I fumbled through, now using the tin cup, now my bare hand and fingernails, till I had culled what might serve as a very shallow grave, nowhere near big enough for the shoe box. I wrapped her gently in the towel and laid her limp little body tenderly in the ground and covered her as best I could. I was crying too hard to really concentrate on doing this well. I was afraid it would wear away in time. Either the earth would be washed away with rain or some other combination of the elements and animals might uncover her, but it was the very most I had the strength for. And I hoped the softness of that luxury towel would somehow compensate for this otherwise cold and inadequate burial in a muddy makeshift grave. I had, at least, laid her in the earth at the foot of a mountain where ancient Korean kings and queens were buried in sepulchers of earth like giant towering breasts of soil. I buried her in the bosom of the mountain, so that she would not spend her relatively finite scrap of eternity entirely motherless.
Nobody was home in our building. My co-teachers were away on a trip. I drank several bottles of straight soju lying on my pallet on the floor in an agony of despair. One little handful of kitten opened up all the other wounds. I had only saved her for one week. I could not bring her back from the brink of death.
When I talked about it later, one of my favorite students said in consolation, ďAt least she knew love.Ē That was all I had to cling to. And isnít that all we ever have?
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