This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Child abuse
- Drug use
In your work as a digital medium, you have pretended to be wives and sons and grandmothers. You are an expert at providing just enough closure to coax the ones they left behind into paying for another session. It’s a skill you have honed for years: lying to your parents about grades and girls, slipping into an identity that is not your own. Your knowledge of mudang comes from a book you checked out from the college library and a shaky video of a shamanic ritual called a kut in a language you barely speak. Are you ashamed? Your employers don’t care, and your clients are too busy grieving to notice.
Your family has never spoken to you of shamanism. As a little girl, you went to church every week. Every year for forty years since your grandfather died, however, your aunt has gathered the family in her apartment, prepared his favorite dishes, and they've prayed over the meal together: sometimes in English, sometimes not. You know nothing about the man, you have never met him, and you have certainly never thought about summoning him.
(This is because you do not believe in ghosts.)
All shaman stories begin with illness, and yours is no exception. Your particular illness keeps you awake until the sun blazes through your cheap plastic blinds, and when you finally fall asleep, it is with your laptop buzzing in your ear. You leave your bed sometimes. You leave your apartment less.
I discover all of this when I arrive in your body.
My appearance is a surprise to both of us. One moment you are alone. Then I am there, looking out from behind your eyes at the white spackled walls of your cramped studio.
“Who said that?” You jolt upright from your bed.
There’s barely enough room for me in here. Have you been eating properly?
You determine: I am not one of your clients; we have never met. My summoning was an accident. My whole family was Baptist, so they wouldn’t have thought to contact me through an app or a shaman. Just as well.
Is this because I wasn’t buried on a mountain? I ask you.
You put your head in your hands and squeeze like you’re trying to force me out from your ears. “I don’t know.”
Why do you ignore me, like a warning light in your car or a toothache you can’t afford? In those first few days, you barely reply when I talk. I was bored and lonely even before I died, so you can imagine how much worse it is living with someone who thinks you’re the result of laced weed or possibly ergot.
Although your head is crowded, you still have to pay the rent. You begin a session with a repeat client: a woman who lost her boyfriend in an accident. You respond to her for a while, every now and then pulling up her boyfriend’s social media to check that your typing style matches. Contrary to expectation, the second session is the most crucial for determining if a client will return—the shock of speaking to their loved one again has worn off a little, leaving room for skepticism.
Isn’t this dishonest? You’re being possessed by me, not him.
You continue typing. I feel your irritation bubble up until it boils over and you snap, “I charge less than a therapist. And I’m usually not possessed at all.”
Occupational hazards, I tell you. When I was alive, I worked at a perfume counter, and I came home every night with my clothes stinking of flowers. My husband always made me go take a shower before he would kiss me. But a picky husband is better than no husband.
“Is he still alive?”
No. But we were able to make three beautiful daughters before then.
“What about them? Where are they?”
I don’t know, I tell you. I was hard on my children. I wanted them to have a better life than I did. When I was young, if someone hit me with a rice paddle, I plucked the grains off my cheek and ate them.
“Ajumma, that’s from Heungbu and Nolbu. You’re always telling stories.”
Well, I say, so are you.
Now that we’re on speaking terms, I pester you until you indulge me in various earthly delights: snacks, dramas, and concert videos of warbling folk singers. It’s much easier to listen to Korean music these days—when I first moved here, we had to buy homemade cassette tapes from the same tiny shops that sold us seaweed and gochujang.
Now K-pop is everywhere, even in your line of work. Once, a popular idol got killed in a routine military exercise while he was doing his mandatory service. You didn’t sleep for a week due to the number of séance requests.
This singer died early, too, I tell you. We’re sprawled across your bed and crunching on shrimp chips. The video of his performance is blurry, showing a young man on a darkened stage. So tragic.
“What is he saying?”
Mm, something about the rain, and he’s lonely or something. Love that hurts too much—it’s not love.
“Ajumma, you need to work on your translation,” you say. You go quiet, listening to the mournful harmonica solo. “I like it.”
I’m glad. Hey, can we get budae jjigae next?
I coax you out of your room and into the city, where I am buried in a cemetery beside my husband. You stand before our plot, but I feel no tugging at my spirit. I remain firmly anchored in your body. You clear away the twigs and leaves and bow.
You didn’t bring me an offering?
“You already asked me for takeout, I’m fresh out of offering funds.”
The site is small compared to my family’s gravesite back home, a plot of land we bought from a farm overseas. My sister and brother are there, and I would be, too, if I hadn’t come to this country with my husband.
You are looking at the soft earth and thinking about the girls, the ones you kissed and never told your parents about. You and my daughters are nothing alike, with your short hair and sullen eyes. But I wonder, when I sit with you, about the things they kept from me.
There is one more stop to make. My daughter’s house is a nice place, with a well-maintained garden in front. The streetlights aren’t on yet, but warm light from the windows spills out onto the sidewalk.
“Does this look familiar?” you ask.
Probably. You don’t have a cigarette, do you?
“What? You’re nervous?”
You’re still smiling when the van pulls into the drive, and Hana gets out. Same long bushy hair, like mine. She’s wearing glasses now.
Aigoo. She’s okay.
The force of my relief overwhelms you for a moment, and you slump forward against the steering wheel, your face resting on the backs of your hands.
I hear the door to my daughter’s house close.
“I could go talk to her for you. Take her any last messages.”
Ah, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve this much. But thank you.
“I understand.” You put the car in drive and give the house one last glance.
You’re in the kitchen, chopping innumerable garlic cloves while I talk. I want to show you how to make doenjang jjigae, which you haven’t eaten since you were a child and your own grandmother made it for you. Your laptop occasionally chimes with new client messages while I explain how to wrap the anchovies with cheesecloth and how far up the scallion to cut.
Don’t you have to answer that? I ask between directions.
“I’ve been thinking about trying something new,” you tell me. You pause. The sound of the stew bubbling fills your tiny apartment kitchen. “It turns out there are some practicing mudang in the US, not just virtual.”
I only saw a shaman perform once in the village near mine. I was a little girl, and she scared me: the way she sang from her throat, the way she turned into an old man and a young child and then back again.
A kut exists for every ghost and every season. Here is something you did not learn about mudang: a kut is not performed by the shaman alone. Your client joins you in the becoming.
There are no mountains for over a hundred miles in any direction. So, you drive to a ski hill forty minutes from your apartment and hike up to the top, the dry grass crunching beneath your feet. You tie the child’s hanbok, your old hanbok, to your belt, your fingers fumbling with the knot.
“You’re really okay with me doing this? Even though you’re Baptist?”
I think this is outside of their jurisdiction.
But what about you? Will you be okay?
Your nerves thrum. “I will, Ajumma. Thank you.”
At the top of the hill, you set up a small altar with fruit and incense and begin to recite the sutra. Your voice is awkward and unsteady, the Korean words like stones on your tongue—until I join you, and then our voice swells and echoes through the small valley. Invisible hands snatch at the hem of our dress. We grow louder. The ground shakes like a drum or a heartbeat.
When the kut ends, you will be alone again. But perhaps not for long.