4.2 Fall 2022,  Favorites

December 3, Haunted House

“I thought you were going to China.” Jiji, my friend’s wife, said.

“Well, when was the last time I saw you? 2019? Yeah, COVID changed a lot of things.” I replied. The last time I had seen Jiji and Kyuri was Christmas 2019. I had made play-dough food items with the kids at the party from a horizontal position on the floor. Another nasty head cold had knocked me out.

B.C. Before COVID, I thought.

Back in 2017 I started teaching Chinese students online. It had continued as my longest running side job until China squeezed the throat of private English industry and forced nearly every company bankrupt. I didn’t get to say goodbye and the plans I had made to see Mark, Tina, Elsa– students I had known for four years– went belly up as borders locked down.

I can’t think about my Chinese babies too often. It hurts. Like pressing a bruise.

“Yuwoo is taking English lessons,” Jiji said of her four-year-old who was eating his second banana. “We don’t want him to have an accent,” she added, side-eying her husband. Kyuri just laughed.

Later that night, as we were returning from a full Korean trip of sightseeing and eating until I could do neither, we stopped in front of the old 제사 jesa house. Kyuri and Jiji had moved from their apartment in Seoul down to the countryside which was full of mysteries.

The Korean countryside is so beautiful it makes my teeth ache.

Earlier that day I had tagged along while we visited their friend remodeling decrepit traditional homes deep in bamboo forests on the side of a mountain. Homes that are only held up by the ghosts that live inside them.

Originally I was going to let your mind run wild but a picture is worth a thousand words.

The four of us stopped in front of the jesa house which had eery red lights illuminating the eaves. The red lights weren’t from the single traffic signal behind us.

“Time to investigate!” I said, and made for the front gate.

I looked back. No one had followed except little Yuwoo.

“You don’t want to come?” I asked. Jiji and Kyuri shook their heads vigorously.

“It’s haunted,” Jiji only partly joked. Considering that the house was a common place for people to serve the spirits of the deceased, she was probably right.

“Well, I’m American. I don’t think Korean ghosts can get me.” If voice phishers hung up at the sound of English, I doubted even a Korean ghost would be able to haunt me.

“You coming?” I asked Yuwoo, my hand out. He took it and together, without hesitation, we marched up to the locked gate of the old house. Earlier that day, he had been spooked by the goblin statues at the temple so we held hands to walk by the strange painted men. He had no qualms about a place of ancestral rites; he probably had been energized by the long car ride where he attempted to torture me with his smelly feet

We, well just me, I was the only one tall enough between us, peered over the gate. The house was quiet but the bright red light bathing the front was a mystery.

Where was it coming from?

There was neither sound nor movement from the house with its windows locked tight. I wondered what the inside looked like. People rented it, probably like a mini clubhouse, but for ancestral ceremony. Maybe it held incense, a stack of pillows for sitting, the polished wooden table, some empty frames to hang photos of the passed.

I’ve witnessed one jesa at my friend Rachel’s uncle’s house. Her uncle and cousins prepared to bow while the women worked furiously in the kitchen preparing stacks of food for the dead to enjoy.

During the ceremony, while her uncle and cousins bowed, the cell phone of one of the non-relatives started to ring. The uncle went red with fury and spluttered at the disrespect while everyone tried not to giggle. The uncle wasn’t so angry when a few minutes later someone rang him and he rushed off to take the business call in another room.

People weren’t so quiet about their laughter then.

After the dead had been properly memorialized, the living snuffed out the incense and pulled the table loaded with food to the middle of the room for all to eat. It was soon another Korean experience of being so full I nearly had to be rolled home.

The jesa house investigation reached its end, a cold case. Yuwoo was staring at the wood of the gate as that’s all his little body could see so we turned around, no closer to the answer. The parents seemed relieved that our potential disastrous entrance into the nether world had been avoided.

We trudged back to their house and lo and behold, when we turned the corner, there was a delivery scooter idling out front. The single red brake light coated the whole street in a soft, otherworldly glow.

“Mystery solved!” We all concluded.

Only, once the delivery man had driven away, the red glow on the front of the old house remained.

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