by Alice Stephens
What do I have of yours?
Of what you have touched:
1. A piece of tissue-thin onion-skin paper to which you pressed your vermilion-inked seal, and so sealed my fate. Belying the fragility of the parchment, it is an iron-clad document that “releases” me—as if I were a prisoner or a caged animal—from the mother who wanted me and the motherland that did not, to cross the great, roiling ocean to call another, “Mother.”
2. Three photos hidden in the attic of my birth father’s recently deceased half-sister, sent to me by a half-brother I have only just met. You must have taken the photos after you relinquished me at two weeks old, for in them I am not a scaly, blind-eyed newborn but a real human being who could look at the camera, and into the future, with startled and wary eyes. You sent these photos to my birth father hoping that he would come back to claim me, to claim us, slipping them into a tear-stained (this is an embellishment that I cannot help, as I am a writer—did you make me a writer?) envelope which has long ago been discarded.
a. One photograph I had seen already, affixed to the emigration travel document issued by the Republic of Korea. It has always been my equivalent of baby’s first photo, the one that usually gets taken in the hospital ward, a swaddled baby in a hospital-issue cap being cradled in a proud parent’s arms. I am bare-headed, my hair already wild and unruly, and lying in no one’s arms.
b. In the next one, I am in someone’s extended arms (yours?), just a glimpse of bare skin between rolled-up sleeves and the pillow of cloth on which I lay like Cinderella’s glass slipper. Do I fit you? Or you? Who will take me home? I look strange in this photo, like a Kabuki baby with two dots for lips and a patch of white around my mouth. Lolling back on my litter, I look at the camera with an air of pampered ennui. Time has degraded all the photos, but this one the most, the black fading into a reflective silvery sheen, ghostly and haunted.
c. The third one is my favorite. Same roly-poly baby, same bedding, but in tighter focus and better lighting. The condition of the photo, now an ancient artifact, is good as well, the black still a black that absorbs and not a black that reflects. The light plays off the intricate folds of my loose clothing with the gleaming richness of a Vermeer or the luster of a Velázquez. But it is not the image that makes me value this photo above the others, it is what appears on the back in a scrawl of blue ink. Maybe it’s not your handwriting, but they are your words. The only words of yours I’ve ever known. Words as intangible as love. Words that mean nothing and everything. Words that simultaneously break and heal my heart: “When daughter lay down picture cheeks. I thought that daughter is a biggest baby and face is also like your face. Korea 67”
3. Finally: my body. When I touch myself, I am touching you. But the skin that you once stroked has long ago been sloughed off; those “picture cheeks” are time-stippled and withered. I used to look at my face, my body, and wonder what is mine, what is yours, what is ours? Now I look and I wonder, Are you still alive?