A breeze ruffles through the notebooks scattered across the floor, the pages fluttering like the feathers of peculiar birds. Claire watches the words dancing across the white paper: lists upon lists of recipes, community colleges, cities, names, expenses. Question marks riddle every page, each one vying for Claire’s attention. She closes her eyes, trying to block them out, but they crowd behind her eyelids until she can no longer discern one question from another.
With a sigh, Claire leans back onto the wooden railing that is the only barrier between her and a three storey drop to the garden below. The air outside is unseasonably cold for July and tickles the curls at the nape of her neck, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake. She turns, opening her eyes to watch the heavy clouds drift past, concealing the last of the evening sunlight. Maybe there will be fireflies tonight, she thinks, then at least something might make it feel like summer.
With one final shiver she pushes herself to her feet and shuts the French doors before leaning down to collect her books, their pages now lifeless and limp. She flops next to where Beans lays drowsing on the couch. He shuffles over, resting his head in her lap, a tiny warmth that she never ceases to be grateful for. Somewhere in the apartment a clock ticks, its mechanical consistency only heightening the lonely silence. Claire listens to it with an unexpected anticipation, as if it might stutter, might suddenly reveal itself as something else. A footstep perhaps. Or a heartbeat.
But the ticking does not falter and Claire’s anticipation dissolves into disappointment.
There is still more than an hour before Lucy will be home, and so Claire pats Beans’ head one last time and slips away, out of the living room, through the door, and into the hall. She crosses the landing to her old apartment door and knocks, listening for a familiar footstep that does not come. After a moment she turns, knocking on the middle door, but is unsurprised when no one answers there either.
Claire wraps her arms around herself and sighs one more time. As she inhales something ignites her senses — a rich scent both sweet and hearty, something unlike anything she’s ever smelled before. Not ready to go back to the hollow ticking of her sleepy apartment, she follows the scent down the stairs where it builds into something more complicated and robust — something nutty and with just a touch of spice. Unsure of what else to do, Claire lingers, listening and wondering from which apartment the smell originates. Suddenly, the door to her right opens and Hyun-Sook takes a cautious step forward.
“River?” She asks, her brows furrowed in uncertainty, “Wait, no.”
“It’s just me,” Claire says, noting the fragrant warmth spilling out from behind the open door.
“I heard someone and I thought… would you like tea?”
“Sure,” Claire says, eager for the company and for a chance to assuage her curiosity. She follows Hyun-Sook into her apartment, its shape near-identical to her old rooms above, but with an extra sitting room off of the kitchen. Hyun-Sook motions for her to take a seat in one of the chairs here, its bold floral pattern stunning against the minimalist grey walls. She watches as the woman places a ceramic mug under a hot water dispenser, pressing a button to fill it with steaming liquid. Claire also notes the steaming pot on the rear burner of the stove.
“Thank you,” Claire says, reaching to accept the carefully proffered cup. “What are you cooking?”
Hyun-Sook smiles and sinks into a nearby arm chair, a twin to Claire’s own. “Danpatjuk,” she answers with a chuckle, “Red bean porridge.”
“It smells delicious.”
“Oh it is,” she says, “It’s usually more of a winter treat but…” She pulls a thin cardigan close around her.
“Yeah, it doesn’t feel much like summer does it?”
“Besides,” Hyun-Sook continues, “I thought it might cheer River up.”
“River?” Claire asks over the rim of her mug.
“I thought that maybe you were him. Out in the hall.” Hyun-Sook nestles back into the chair, resting her neck so that she seems to contemplate the ceiling.
She always sits like that, Claire thinks, whenever I’m reading to her. Or she’s about to tell a story.
“I’ve been helping him with his reading,” Hyun-Sook explains, “His grandmother says the school asked him to catch up over the summer — he’s quite behind apparently. But what he lacks in letters he certainly makes up for in imagination. Quite a storyteller that one.”
“Is that why you wanted to cheer him up? Because of school?”
With a deep breath Hyun-Sook straightens herself, her mouth crinkling and her gaze almost meeting Claire’s own. “I lost my sight in a car accident.” The sudden departure from neighbourly small talk takes Claire by surprise and pulls her forward in her seat, her attention doubled.
She continues, “It was my fault; I was driving my husband home from a seminar we’d both attended. I’d already left him then, was already living here, but I still saw him regularly. Was still tethered by something, some promise I’d made myself about loyalty, some half-dreamed memory of good times. It doesn’t matter. We fought. I was distracted. I woke up in a hospital with a brain injury a few days later.”
“Hyun-Sook…” Claire whispers, recalling the man with the moles beside his eye, now lost beneath a latticework of silvery scars.
“I lost most of my sight, but there were other things too. I started becoming forgetful, just little things. I started getting headaches.”
Claire glimpses the familiar shock of silver hair as she brushes a strand behind her ear.
“I also lost most of my hearing in this ear.”
“I didn’t know…”
“Most people don’t. They assume my hearing is perfect, heightened because of my missing sense.” There is a touch of frost at the edges of Hyun-Sook’s mouth as she smiles, “They don’t realize I’m just always paying attention. It’s a habit you pick up, when you… when you live with abuse. You’re always aware, always assessing for threats. Always diffusing situations before they even arise.”
Claire waits, knowing Hyun-Sook is always careful with her words and suddenly realizing why. She’d never before thought that the woman’s rapier-wit might have grown from a desperate need to always know the right thing to say.
“River spilled some juice this morning, on the chair you’re sitting in. I don’t think he realized that I knew, but he did everything possible to clean it up while I was busy. I could hear him while I was in the kitchen. I could hear the tears in his voice before he left.”
Claire stands and inspects the chair; there, near the left arm is a tiny orange stain, blending in with the surrounding flowers and leaves. “Oh. You can hardly see it.”
Hyun-Sook nods. “I’ve tried to lend him books but he refuses to take them. He treats everything in this apartment as if its made of glass.”
“I’ve noticed that too.”
“I’m afraid he and I have far too much in common.” The words hang on the air and Claire inhales them, accepting them within her even as she wishes she could simply blow them away. The question marks she’d thought she left upstairs suddenly crowd her attention. It’s not fair, she thinks with painful determination. So many people need this place. So many people hurting with nowhere to heal. 53 Ganymede can’t be the only one.
“Don’t worry,” Hyun-Sook assures her with a chuckle, “I have every intention of spilling porridge all over this chair tonight.”
“Well I’m just upstairs if you need help cleaning up,” Claire laughs.
“Don’t worry. I think we’ll manage quite well together.”
Claire finishes her tea and stands to take the cup to the kitchen. “I’ve still got some work I need to do before Lucy gets home. Do you want me to stop and ask River to come visit before I head up?”
“No, no — I’ll get him shortly,” Hyun-Sook follows after Claire and then carefully reaches into her cupboard, feeling around until her hand stumbles onto its target. “Here, fill this from the pot and take it for you and Lucy. There’s some chestnuts on a pan there, you can put a handful on top if you’d like.”
She hands Claire a large glass container. “Thank you.”
As Claire uses a nearby ladle to pour the thick, sweet-smelling porridge into the container she can feel Hyun-Sook’s attention, if not her eyes, on her.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” she says to Claire’s back, “to help.”
“Huh?” Claire asks, carefully returning the ladle to the spoon rest where she found it.
“I told you, I pay attention,” she says, arms crossed. “Even if it’s just a recipe, or spreading the word…”
“Thank you,” Claire says, and unsure of what else to add, she repeats, “Thank you.”
“You know,” Hyun-Sook confides as she walks with Claire to the door, “I always thought I’d stay here forever. But now I’m starting to wonder if there isn’t something still waiting for me up ahead.”
“I think the only thing that waits for us is the past,” Claire answers, Ginny’s face appearing for a heartbeat as she blinks. It isn’t the first time. “Everything else we have to chase down ourselves.”
With a snort, Hyun-Sook says, “Maybe.”
Claire takes a step out the door but turns when Hyun-Sook says her name one more time. “Claire, whatever happened with the egg? When we first met, you asked about a fairytale egg. You never told me how the story ended.”
“It broke. I’m not really sure what to do with the pieces anymore.” Fragments of a half-remembered dream stir uncomfortably at the back of her mind.
“Hmm. I suppose you could always try putting it back together and trying again.”
“Maybe.” Claire says, imagining the mess of fragments still tucked away on one of her shelves. “Thanks again for the porridge.”
Upstairs Claire opens the container and pours herself a bowl of the still-steaming danpatjuk. She blows on it absently as she pores over one of her many lists, her mind swirling with fears and possibilities. Maybe this idea is just as crazy as trying to piece together a thousand tiny pieces of egg shell.
She sighs and takes a bite of the porridge; all of her senses are distracted by the flavour and texture of the dessert — sweet and earthy, laced with a hint of cinnamon. She takes another taste, this time biting into a tiny dumpling, chewy in comparison to the creamy porridge. Before she realizes it, she has eaten almost the entire bowl. The click of the lock draws her attention and a moment later Lucy enters the room. Beans leaps from the couch and jumps frantically at her legs. Lucy leans down to pet him.
“What smells so good?” She asks, lifting the lid of the container where it sits on the table in front of Claire.
After scribbling frantically in one of the journals, Claire turns to Lucy with a grin. It may be just one small piece, but it feels like progress. “You have to try this. I think Hyun-Sook may have given us a new recipe for the café.”