Notes from the Attic
It’s time to talk about my life at Yeo’s house. I had never been there before. It was through a chance meeting that I ended up moving into her house. On the fifth day after I ran away from the shanty at Chonggeychon, I was at the entrance of a street market, staring at the piles of seasoned noodles that middle-aged female street vendors were displaying on the table, when an old woman tapped my shoulder. She introduced herself as the grandmother at Yeo’s house and said, “This is exactly my son’s face. How similar you are to my son!” She told me that I looked exactly like her only son, Seungnam Yeo, who was killed during the Korean War.
Basket in hand, the old lady was staring at me in surprise, clucking her tongue. I saw an opportunity to ask her to buy me some food—the glistening noodles that were steaming just out of the water.
She accepted my request without hesitation and even took me to her house to treat me to a real dinner with side dishes. I sat on the ground and quickly satisfied my hunger with the noodles, and then I went to her house and ate another meal so fast that she was surprised by my appetite. Seated there on the shiny floor, I tasted the seaweed soup and ripe kimchi and got so emotional that I almost cried. I hadn’t had a home-cooked dinner in a long time. After learning that I didn’t have a job or home to go to, the old lady asked me to stay at her house from that day on. I thought that I would never get hungry again and could have dinner at Yeo’s house every day. I came to have dinner, but fortunately I ended up living there.
But when I look back on my life at Yeo’s house, I can’t really say I was fortunate to live there. Even though I was well fed, I didn’t have any freedom. It was the opposite of my life in the shanty by the open ditch. The old lady, who had no authority in the house, decided to keep it a secret from other family members that I was living there, which forced me to keep hidden from their sight.
The old lady’s only son, Seungnam Yeo, was killed many years ago, and his widow became the sole breadwinner for the family. She worked as a bar girl in a U.S. camptown. She lived in the camptown on weekdays and came home with her GI boyfriend during the weekend; so on weekdays the old lady watched her grandson and granddaughter and during the weekend she kept an eye on her daughter-in-law. She knew she should be more careful when her daughter-in-law was in the house. She told me once that if she found out, she would kick me out right away.
So I followed her instructions not to get caught. On the first day she asked me to climb up to the attic above the main room and told me I was not allowed to come out unless she said so. The attic was dark even during the day. It was directly below the roof. Its ceiling was so low I couldn’t stand but could only sit up straight on the floor. At the beginning of my stay I was afraid and also upset that I had to be confined all day in the small attic, but I thought about the excellent food and decided to put up with it. The good meals were more important than my freedom.
I was like an animal in a cage. The old lady brought my meals on time. After the meal, I crawled around the attic and then lay on the floor like a corpse, feeling my knees and back grow numb. It was dark all day in the attic, so there was no difference between day and night. As time went on, my sleep became irregular. I slept during the day and was up all night, constantly fidgeting. I couldn’t tell what time of day it was, but I couldn’t get out and ask the grandchildren. The old lady and her grandchildren lived in the main room below the attic. She only brought meals when she was alone in the house; that is, when the two kids were at school or played outside with other kids.
While lying on the floor of the attic, I could hear the kids whispering or laughing out loud. I could hear their grandmother scold them, or the kids complain about something. I could hear everything through the thin sliding door. Whenever I heard them, I had the illusion that I was reliving the days I spent with my family, and as time went on, I felt like they were my family. We lived in the same house, ate the same meals, and every day I listened to them talk about their daily lives. I felt close to the old lady and her grandchildren, and this feeling helped to ease my loneliness even though it was just my imagination. The grandchildren, Shinmyung and Mirae, didn’t know for almost a year that I had been living in the attic, and I had never seen them even though I knew a lot about them from the conversations I overheard.
Whenever the old lady brought meals, she slid the door open without knocking, catching me by surprise as I was lying on the floor, with my legs straight out. I would sit up quickly, feeling like a thief who had sneaked into an attic and had been hiding there, waiting for an opportunity to get out and steal, but was now caught by surprise. As soon as the door would slide open, I would wake from my dream and realize that the closeness I thought I shared with the old lady was just my imagination. I was afraid of the outside world. It got worse as time went by. I became afraid when she opened the door and the bright room appeared in my view. My heart raced, as if I had committed a crime just by looking at the room. Frightened, I stared out from the dark attic at the neat, tidy, well-organized room with a wardrobe, desk, and dresser. Only after the old lady left the meal and closed the door would I feel comfortable again in the darkness. It was paradise once again. Though I was confined in the small space, I was free in my imaginary world. . . .