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Keepers


ISSUE:  Summer 2016

Illustration by Corey BrickleyYou hate the way the goats look at you, like you’re a stranger. Even when you walk up with buckets of grain for the last meal of the day. With your mother, they would huddle close and gnaw at the grass stains on her boots. But you are an outsider to them. The old ones retreat, their black hair matted with dust. They prefer that you leave the food and go. The pregnant one stays in the shadows of the pen. All you can see are her paranoid eyes, round yellow stones. She’ll stop acting so crazy after birth, but you remind yourself you won’t stick around that long. You won’t be the one bottle-feeding the baby like a little brother, swathed in cotton blankets. Umma can do that. That’s the choice she’s made, this is where she wants to trickle out the rest of her years toward a tasteless end. You won’t stick around for that, either. By then you’ll be in Seoul, with Jun. He’ll teach you the taste of Jamaican coffee; he’ll take you shopping for fur in the middle of July. You’ll come back to visit Umma, of course, every harvest holiday and new year. But when it’s your turn to grow old and die, you’ll be wrapped in Siberian mink.

“How are they?” Umma asks when you come back from feeding. “Did they eat enough? Is everyone there?”

“They’re great,” you tell her, even though you forgot to count.

You hate the breakfast Umma makes, brown rice wrapped in perilla leaves that scratch the inside of your mouth. But you chew and chew, under the sweet spot of the ceiling fan, surrounded by pots and pans turned over on the floor to dry—next to the chili peppers spread out on newspapers to dry, which are next to the thick blades of grass laid out on more newspapers to dry. Remember to stack the pots when they finish drying. Remember to collect the hay and mix it into the feed tomorrow. Remember to count the goats next time, instead of rushing out the gate.

In the morning Umma gathers her prayer beads for her walk to temple. You hate how she spends all her time and money on the goats, on the monks, everyone but herself. More and more, she refuses to bother with the rituals of civilization. Her fingernails grow until they break off. Her toothbrush is always dry. She no longer wears underwear under her house skirt. When she grows old, really old, no one will be able to tell her apart from the goats.

Once in a while the weather forces her to stay home. Every August, the monsoon comes strong enough to knock dragonflies dead out of the air. The two of you will usually sit by the window together, watching the summer flood. Through the closed windows you can hear the goats bleating for dry land. Sometimes the rain crashes so hard it bounces off the cement path, but even then you can still hear them.


Even on those days when Jun says he can’t come, you wash your hair and wait for him. You usually see him once a week, maybe twice if his taxi business in Seoul is doing well. He sweeps the central boulevards with the windows rolled down to display his black suit and white gloves. He slows in front of every hotel and every nightclub, where domestic oligarchs and foreign investors, people who would never talk to him otherwise, clamor for his attention as they stumble out of extravagant corporate dinners, obliterated by soju and cognac. They sleep in the backseat as they’re delivered safely to their pearly wives and mistresses across the river. They never so much as stir when Jun reaches for their wallets. He loves their wallets—Italian leather, fat with cash gifts for women who tolerate their absences and power trips. 

On especially good nights, Jun will pick up a few executives, one after the other. Every night a whole new set of directors and vice presidents stumble toward him. Jun is far from a perfumed movie star, but he carries crisp new bills to share with you.

He calls your house as soon as he passes the expressway exit. “My little lizard,” he says, “I’m waiting. Bring your little tongue.”

You hate Jun’s car, a cheap Korean imitation of a European masterpiece. But you see the envelope in his front shirt pocket. The same plain white envelope he gives you every time, the one full of green 10,000-won bills folded in half. You politely keep your eyes on everything but the envelope. Instead you play with his belt, the only one he has, the one with the buckle molded into a lion’s head. You hate how the car’s fake leather is peeling away.

Jun looks out the driver’s window to inspect your mother’s farm. He points out the new transmission towers under construction in the distance, almost complete. He drags his finger across the windshield. 

“That’s going to come all the way here,” he explains. “That’s not just ugly, that’s high voltage. You know what that means? No one will want to live here. As soon as construction is done, this land will be dead.”


When he drives you into town, neither of you knows what to do. You end up circling all the usual places. At the DVD store you rent a movie for the private booth again, the big booth in the back with the deep sofa. Dinner is at the Japanese bar where you take off your shoes and sit on bamboo mats. The mats release a fresh bitter smell and dig into your skin. Jun orders crispy chicken wings and you wash them down with beer, more beer. For the rest of the evening it’s hard to move your body with any precision. All you want to do is sit in the car and fan your burning face.

“A real good woman knows how to drink,” Jun says.

“A real good woman would never ride in a shit-eating car like this.”

“That’s true. I’m sorry. Show me your little tongue.”

Jun puts his hand on your knee. He squeezes your thigh and you want him to pull over so that you can touch him back, but you’re already on the road. Crossing the rice fields, you follow the irrigation canals that snake into the horizon. He accelerates into each curve. You’ve always worried that Jun will swerve off the road and flip the car into these fields. Just fast enough to crumple the steel and trap you inside.

Sometimes Jun misses the usual turn and drives you past his old house. “I blanked out,” he’ll say. 

But you’re never quite convinced it’s a mistake. 

“Keep your eyes on the road,” you say to him. 

The green elephant, the good luck charm that you bought him, still hangs from the rearview mirror. The cord twists and spins the elephant right and then left again. 


You hate when Jun buys you gifts. 

Before he drops you off at home, he takes out a lavender dress from a cardboard box. The dress is still folded and sealed in plastic. He tells you it will help you feel better. 

He lays another small cardboard box in your lap. This box also looks new, with tape running tight along its edges. The inside is packed full with Styrofoam. When you turn the box over, a cell phone slips out. On the back of the phone is a piece of tape, where he’s handwritten your new number in blue ink. 

“Sorry I couldn’t get you the new one,” he says.

“What are these gifts for?” you ask.

“I don’t want you to forget.”

“Forget what?”

He doesn’t respond. Instead, he takes out another envelope, the same as always. “I’ve never counted,” he says. “I’ve never once counted when I knew it was for you.” 

Jun finally gives it to you, the whole lump in the envelope, the end unsealed. You fight the urge to dig your fingers into the pack immediately. You watch him drive away, backing up easy on the uneven path, the smooth moves of a professional driver. 

You had never thought about the clueless men Jun trapped with his taxi. He had always insisted he never hurt anyone, that he always took them back home to the right address when others would have left them on the side of the road, that they sauntered off not even knowing anything had been taken from them. You had always liked this idea that Jun was a clean scavenger, only taking money that wouldn’t be missed. You thought you could become one, too. 

But at home you find out the lavender dress is too sheer and too tight. In the dress you only feel dirty, and you think maybe this is what Jun doesn’t want you to forget.


Before Jun, you would fall asleep to Ummareciting chants with her prayer beads. Her ancient syllables streamed into your room. The ceiling fan moaned along. Now there’s new music: the pulsing hums of your vibrating phone. It nests in the pit of your palm. In the morning you reach for its shape under your pillow, hard and smooth like a bar of soap. 

When the screen lights up you scramble to answer. You cover the screen with the other hand, in case Umma catches the glow from under the door.

“My little lizard,” Jun says each time. “When are you coming here?” 

You hunger for conversation, for the sounds of Seoul in the background, even just the whoosh of him driving through a tunnel. Even the soft blinking notes of his turn signal.

You hate when Jun doesn’t call you or pick up at all. But it doesn’t stop you from dialing. After all, it doesn’t cost you anything. You press meaningless combinations of numbers. Usually the numbers don’t work, just a prerecorded failure message, but you listen through all of the instructions until the end. Sometimes a stranger picks up and electrifies you with a confused hello. 

Monsoons gather water for a year in the Pacific before they hit the peninsula. You feel the force of all that time when they arrive. Three minutes of light disappear every day. You have to hurry to give the goats their second meal before sunset. To bring in the chili peppers, which have finished drying after a few short days in the sun. Umma wraps them up in the same newspaper they rested on. Birds swoop over them in hard circles. Never any insects, but there are always a few birds that come for the hot peppers as if they find pleasure in them. “No,” Umma shouts, “no!” She slams her hand down like an axe, and the birds scatter for the trees.


Sometimes Jun comes back from Seoul with more than gifts: a swollen bruise on his jaw, a thick scrape running the entire side of his leg.

“They try to run after me.” He laughs. “Million-won shoes weren’t designed for running.”

Until he heals, he can’t get back in his taxi. He can’t alarm his passengers, and he can’t display any easily identifiable marks. He parks his car at the Japanese restaurant where the parking attendant knows him and waves him through. 

He rents the back booth in the DVD shop for a few days, and when you stop by the owner  checks your bag before letting you pass down the corridor. You take turns picking what to watch. If Jun is in real pain, more than balm-and-bandages pain, you let him choose. You know what lines he’ll find funny and weave into his own speech. You begin to recognize the actors hired to dub the foreign films. It’s always the same handful of voices rotating among roles.

Some days Jun insists on a moody Hong Kong drama to lull him into a long nap. You take off his belt so he can sleep better. The gaudy lion-head buckle feels much lighter than it looks. You wipe the cracker crumbs off the sofa.

For a while you sit there with him, listening to the footsteps of other customers in the narrow corridor. You can hear the movies they’re watching through the wall. 

“I need to go,” you say to Jun.

He doesn’t respond, so you reach into his shirt pocket and take the envelope out yourself.

“I’m going,” you say again. You wave the envelope in front of his closed eyes. “I’m taking this,” you say out loud. “I’m taking this, so thank you.”

He sleeps without stirring.

“Whatever,” you add. “It wasn’t yours to begin with.”

You try to leave the booth quietly. The clerk at the front desk watches you from down the corridor. When you walk by, he stops you to check for any movies in your bag.


Some days Umma shows signs of normalcy. She turns on the TV to check the weather forecast. She brushes her hair in the mirror, even puts on a bra. She joins you by the shelter in the morning. She strokes and soothes each goat, the way she used to soothe you when you begged for ice cream and pizza. 

You begin to practice leaving Umma. You check the rice cooker to make sure there’s enough rice for three days. You dust the ceiling fan. While you’re up there, you change the light bulbs. 

“What are you doing?” Umma asks. 

You expect her to smile at the orderliness, but she just turns her head to the side, like she’s about to sneeze. The sneeze doesn’t come. 


“Just leave your mother once,” Jun likes to tell you. “Just hurt her once. If you do it right one time then you don’t have to do it again.” But he never does it himself, the one big hurt. He dispenses small ones instead.

One afternoon, as he adjusts the rearview mirror, you realize that the eyeless elephant is missing. 

“Where is it?” you ask.

“The sound was making me crazy,” is all he says.

Disowning the elephant, muting your calls for a few days at a time, draping dirty dresses on your body. Each time you feel relieved. As long as the small slights keep happening, you are safe.


When the rice fields brighten from green to yellow, the meat shop arranges a visit to inspect the goats. Every year the visit follows the same arc: They promise a big order beforehand to make you nervous, then feign disappointment at the farm to slash your price. Still, you greet them politely where the paved road ends and your footpath begins.

The shopkeeper arrives in his old truck, a graying towel knotted around his neck to protect him from the sun. You lead him to the pen where you’ve prepared a clean pair of boots and gloves for him. The goats push themselves into a far corner.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” he says, but the goats keep running. He takes a look at the old females first, then the old males, and works his way to the young. He leaves the pregnant one alone. He goes in for a closer look, chasing them around until he grabs them by a hind leg. He holds their horns up close to his stomach so they can’t butt him anywhere. He pulls on their face to check their eyelids and gums.

He stops by your house because Umma insists on seeing him before he goes. “How are they?” she asks.

“They’re good,” he tells Umma. “We’re just going back to the office for paperwork.” 

He finishes his tea and accepts another glass. 

But back outside, he tells you he won’t take any of the goats this time. He shows you a young female, shows you her gums and eyelids.

“Do you see that,” he says. “That’s fever, that’s infection. Who knows what it is. But they all have it, all of them.”

“We can call the vet,” you say.

“Sure. Fix them. And then sell them
somewhere else. I don’t want to treat a delicate young lady this way but I can’t accept them.”

The shopkeeper sighs. He finds a cigarette and then puts it away. He gets up to unwrap the towel around his neck, and then sits back down with the cigarette again for a proper smoke.

“Your mother was good to them,” he says. “But most people grow the new breeds. And as you know the new breeds need a lot of land. A lot of it. They need to smell and taste different grasses. Real grass that’s still wet and rooted. They can’t be stressed. They need to stay happy. That’s how it’s done now. This is the age of ecology. Do you see what I’m saying?” 

He only stops talking when you offer your lowest price. He pretends to give in, all the while scanning your ruminants, adding up his profit in calm silence.

He selects a young female to take back with him to the shop. He chases her around for a long time until he gets a hind leg. “It’s okay, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” The goat tries to break free a couple of times. But once he fastens the collar, she lets him walk her up into the back of his truck. 


Construction companies shake out of thesummer slump. Work on the high-voltage towers resumes, but it’s not just towers and cables anymore. One of Jun’s many informants, the one in real estate, tips him off that three realestate companies are competing in the area to develop a golf course, a warehouse facility, or an outlet mall. Every morning you wake up to thunder in the distance, the sound of dynamite gouging the mountains for new projects. Thunder runs the goats into fits of anxiety. There are no more birds calling out in the middle of the night.

“Just pick,” Jun says. “Just give the farm to the highest bidder. You’ll never see rates like this again.”

“That still wouldn’t last us more than a few years,” you say.

“You were expecting more than a few years?”

Jun drives along the main road and passes the bus stop, your bus stop, where the school bus used to pick you both up for school in the next town over. You still see the bus taking other girls and boys in your place. You hate the ugly bus stop, its crooked roof and the paint fading off the bricks. You imagine girls from Seoul driving through with their boyfriends. They roll down a window to cool their skin, to discard a finished cigarette, to take in the blue spine of the mountains, just like you.

Jun carries a list of names now, of all the men he’s taken home in his taxi. He still hasn’t been in trouble, not the real kind. But he wants to be careful and avoid anyone he’s taken before. Every time you meet he says he needs a new car, just to switch it up, one that will be less recognizable. At first he keeps the names on his phone. But soon he asks to transfer the list to you, the formal bookkeeper. 

He calls out the names and you type them into your phone. The names are not really names, just whatever he recalls: Forehead mole. Droopy ears. Long legs. Studded Rolex. 

“You are officially incriminated,” he says. 

The two of you watch every movie in the DVD shop. In monsoon season it’s the only thing to do. Rent the booth, press play. Your shoes are drying on the radiator. Your left ear is pressed onto his shoulder. Voices get muffled this way, but you don’t care about the movies. You are here to listen to Jun and his fluttering pulse. You would press both ears into him if you could. But you can’t. One ear must remain open at all times, free to hear the rest of the room, the radiator pipes popping as they expand.

When you run out of feature films, you finish documentaries about the rich and famous, about the structure of the mammalian brain. You even finish one about a ballet troupe that no longer exists, dancers you’d never heard of lamenting the upheavals in an art form you never cared about. But that will be the one you remember most deeply, the film you’ll compare all others to. The filmmaker interviews the only surviving member of the troupe, an old man in exile in a plain house, all of his jewelry wrapped around his hands and neck. “We didn’t miss our time,” he says. “The time missed us.”

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