Read an Excerpt From Folklorn

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Angela Mi Young Hur’s Folklorn, a genre-defying, continents-spanning saga of Korean myth, scientific discovery, and the abiding love that binds even the most broken of families—publishing April 27th with Erewhon Books.

Elsa Park is a particle physicist at the top of her game, stationed at a neutrino observatory in the Antarctic, confident she’s put enough distance between her ambitions and the family ghosts she’s run from all her life. But it isn’t long before her childhood imaginary friend—an achingly familiar, spectral woman in the snow—comes to claim her at last.

Years ago, Elsa’s now-catatonic mother had warned her that the women of their line were doomed to repeat the narrative lives of their ancestors from Korean myth and legend. But beyond these ghosts, Elsa also faces a more earthly fate: the mental illness and generational trauma that run in her immigrant family, a sickness no less ravenous than the ancestral curse hunting her.

When her mother breaks her decade-long silence and tragedy strikes, Elsa must return to her childhood home in California. There, among family wrestling with their own demons, she unravels the secrets hidden in the handwritten pages of her mother’s dark stories: of women’s desire and fury; of magic suppressed, stolen, or punished; of the hunger for vengeance.


 

 

 

 

Then

“Long ago—not in this land, but our own—the monks created giant bells so large they could only be rung by wooden beams made of tree trunks, suspended by rope and swung against the bronze like battering rams. These bells hung in temples in the mountains, looming over us all.”

My mother always spoke Korean to me, but when telling her stories, she didn’t sound like herself. No rich amber tones, weighted with regret—instead, her voice hollowed like a will-o’-the-wisp untethered. Still, I preferred this to her looped medley of sighs, lectures, and rebukes. And while story-telling, she wasn’t so tense and bristled, expecting danger to burst through the door. Maybe not the commie or Yankee soldiers she feared in her childhood, but more likely a screaming husband raging over some slight or misstep. The back door wasn’t secure either, not when thieves had broken in twice while we were sleeping and once while we were on a semi-triumphant emigrant’s visit to Seoul. Tragedy could also intrude through the phone. Maybe my father had another accident at his auto body shop while wielding his blowtorch, or maybe he’d been assaulted again, not to survive this time. Or perhaps a relative we rarely heard from died across the Pacific, leaving my mother more alone than before.

But even in times of relative calm, my mother anticipated danger. With a childhood forged in war, her default mode was to always be on high alert. As an immigrant, she had to double down on her fight for survival. Thus, her anxiety had become a constant, vindicated and put to action in times of emergency. Never subsiding, even when the threat had been diminished.

My brother Chris said our parents were stuck in a war mentality. Hoarders and preppers, with cash and gold ready to smuggle across borders, and kitchen drawers stuffed with embossed napkins and ketchup packets from bounteous fast-food restaurants. It didn’t help that most of my father’s friends were also refugees like him from what was now North Korea. Some had even served together in the 502nd, a US military battalion. They were cooks, errand boys, and interpreters back then, working for the GIs. But in my childhood, these middle-aged men and their wives convened monthly as members of the 502 Club to dance and party, pooling their resources to help each other establish dry cleaners, liquor stores, and bodegas. So how could my parents accept the war was finally over when their immigrant village kept the specter of it alive in their drunken reminiscences, business dealings, and paranoia over hidden enemies—from both within and without—those foreign, and those resembling kin?

But when my mother spoke of ancient times—long before the squabbling between men and their maps and their new gods of ideology—when she revealed to me women of divine magic and elemental power, I could relax with my head in her lap, her fingers combing my hair. She wasn’t really with me anyhow, wasn’t even in her own body. She was warm and forgiving instead. With a stranger’s voice she told stories, inevitable and unalterable, that had been retold by countless others before her. This kept her still long enough for me to simply be with her.

That is, until her stories became something else—half-remembered dreams and recovered memories, testimonies conveyed through her as vessel, maybe the voice of an ancestress demanding vengeance.

“These giant bells were rung as calls to prayer, as prayers in themselves. But one monk made a bell that would not sing. He asked the villagers for money to recast it. One woman joked she was so poor she had nothing to give except her daughter. ‘Why not take her—I’ve got nothing else.’ Later that night, the monk dreamt that the bell needed the voice of a little girl, so the next morning, he went back for the one who’d been offered.

“He melted the silent bell and tossed the girl into the vat of molten bronze, glowing like liquid fire. Screaming flesh bubbled and swirled with metal. The recast bell was struck again, and the sound released was so beautiful, everyone paused to hear it and weep. The echoes in the valley crested like waves through the villagers, their hearts shuddering with each passing vibration. Every time the bell was struck, it sang ‘Eh-meh-leh, Eh-meh-leh.’ And that was how the child called to her mother, to everyone’s mother perhaps.”

I asked why the girl was singing her own name because I thought “Emmileh” was “Emily” in a Korean accent. My mother sighed, her disappointment in me making her familiar once more. She explained that “Emmileh” meant “Mommy” in an old-fashioned dialect. Then she sang the bell’s cry again, low and mournful, burrowing deep into my chest.

“Whenever I hear her sing,” she said, “there’s only sadness, but she must be holding back a terrible, fearsome anger.”

“When did you hear the bell?”

“Long ago, before I came here, before I was married. On a school field trip, when I was just another teenage girl with a dead mother and dead sister, both lost to war. It’s a national treasure, so nobody’s allowed to strike it anymore. But I hear her voice—the girl in the bell—and sometimes I hear the others too.” The softest smile caressed her lips. “But you’ll never hear them—I’ve made sure of it.”

 

1
Now

I’ve been awake for forty-fucking hours. Sure, it’s easy when the sun lingers above for six months long, stretching time like taffy. Night won’t come for another two. Before then, twilight will bruise the sky for several weeks. The sun will lap the horizon, circling until it drops, leaving those remaining with a half year of darkness. But this was never my intention, to jitter around all tweaked up and nerve-jangly, so painfully alert I can feel my brain crammed against my skull.

For most of my summer, I’ve adhered to my schedule—eating and sleeping the same time every twenty-four hours, regulating my circadian rhythms so I can carve days and nights out of the interminable brightness. Only the reckless and cocky forego their regimens, like the outdoorsy white boys from Colorado, who accessorize with carabiners and stay up seventy-two hours straight only to collapse into sun-drenched mania and get forcibly tranqued in sick bay.

But I’m on my third tour. I’m a postdoc physicist with a private berth inside the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. I know how to suppress giddiness while exploiting the ever-light—like a fine dusting of cocaine in espresso, shot through the veins. With scientists committing to their shifts, the Antarctic experiments can run round-the-clock, but we must remain disciplined to preserve our physical and mental health. I’m the one who lectures the rookies about this. But lately, I’m letting things slide—sneaking a second scotch nightcap, joyriding snowmobiles beyond our project perimeter.

Maybe I just want to soak up every minute of this geeky Shangri-la on planet Hoth before returning to Stockholm. Why else have I stayed awake the last two nights? Certainly not because of too-vivid dreams. Definitely not because I’ll soon be leaving Jesper, my colleague and seasonal Swedish lover, who’s staying behind all winter long.

So, with excess solar-charged energy to burn, I volunteer to help Jesper’s team with their last task. They’re on the graveyard shift, according to the New Zealand time zone we all follow. Strangers, bodies sharing the same space, but in seemingly different dimensions. Works for me though, Jesper crawling into my bed when I’m rested but drowsy, perfect for sex or whatever else before my allotted two-minute shower. After dinner, when I return, someone’s picked my clothes off the floor, cleared my dirty dishes. The best phantom roommate ever.

But right now, I’m the interloper. Out of time and out of body—levitating with caffeine and boundless sunlight.

***

Neutrinos, one of the building blocks of all matter in the universe, are elemental particles, born from cataclysmic violence like supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, supermassive black holes, and the Big Bang. Electrically neutral and practically massless, the neutrino doesn’t deign to interact with much else. Trillions pass through the tips of our noses every second. From time’s beginning, they’ve traveled the longest and farthest. Drifters across galaxies, survivors, they keep on keeping on, the lone wolves of particle physics.

Really, I’m not projecting.

But no one’s ever seen these elusive neutrinos. They’re called “ghost particles.” Catchy, but dead wrong. Ghosts hang around; they loiter. Like uninvited guests, they crash on your couch and use up all your toilet paper. They stain you with their sorrows.

***

Jesper invites me to a team breakfast. I’d rather meet his students at the worksite, where I know my place and everyone else’s in relation, so I lie, claiming I’ve scheduled a G-Chat with my brother. Truth is, I’ve postponed that as well. Chris will just bitch about Dad anyhow.

So, avoiding both the social meal and family catch-up, I head out onto the ice instead. Dressed in my US Antarctic Program “Extreme Cold Weather” gear—thermal underwear, fleece, snow pants, bright red parka with fur-lined hood—I push through the six-inch-thick door and step outside to greet the midnight sun—well, the 3:00 a.m. sun, to be precise.

No hills and valleys. No jagged mountains for visual relief or orientation. The land is so flat, stretching to the horizon in every direction, it induces vertigo. I fight the urge to tip over and cling to the surface. When the sky is clear, the expanse is crushing. We should be cowering, but there’s nowhere to hide except in our meager temples to science.

A mile away from the station, we’ve got seventy-eight holes drilled into the ice, each hole two kilometers deep and embedded with detectors. A total of 5,000 detectors are spread out in a cubic kilometer of ice. The world’s largest neutrino observatory, known as IceCube. I’ve been part of this international collaboration for the last five years, first at Princeton, now at Stockholm University. A quarter-billion-dollar endeavor involving hundreds of scientists from around the world and lifetimes of hours. The data we’ve collected already surpasses what humans know about neutrinos. When we’re done, we’ll have enough data to study for decades.

No wonder I get teary. When installation’s complete, I’ll no longer get to swagger around like the explorers of yore, commandeering teams to drill through the Antarctic. Instead, I’ll be strapped to my laptop, peering across galaxies and back into time through algorithms, plots, and point source analyses. So here’s to one last hurrah, standing on the edge of rabbit wormholes, before we close them up and bury our heads in cyber-sand instead.

Of course, I’ll miss station life the most, surrounded by scientists, not having to justify or explain. Recently, my brother asked again, “You curing cancer, Elsa? Fixing climate change?”

“I told you, this is fundamental physics. There’s no application, not yet. It’s more about understanding our existence, unlocking the past, maybe even our future.”

“With my tax dollars?”

“Since when have you paid taxes?

“Dad’s money is my money. Should be anyhow.”

I hitch a ride with a bearded engineer in his Sno-Cat, with its steel-belt tracks that can claw over the ice. We leave the station, built on hydraulic-jack columns that raise the building when the snowdrift gets too high. We pass the old retired station—a geodesic dome half-buried in snow like a postapocalyptic Epcot—now used for storage. But when we cut through “Summer Camp,” where the grad students sleep, I can’t help but shudder. Clustered here are authentic vintage Korean War–era Jamesways, half-cylinder army-green shelters that can house dozens with their radiators, cots, and canvas partitions.

My first two stints, I slept here, and hated that everyone had a pee bucket under the cot—easier than using the outhouses in the middle of sleep. But more pungent and pervasive were memories conjured by this historic period setting.

While others made jokes about M.A.S.H., I envisioned my father’s old war stories—how he’d worked as a houseboy for the GIs and got bullied and beaten by them because the soldiers were bored, scared, and suspected him a thief; how he retaliated by pissing in the stew he cooked for them; how he actually was stealing their cigarettes and lighters to sell on the black market; how an old white man lieutenant colonel offered to adopt him and take him to Connecticut; how my father refused because he already had a rich father whom he was running from; how my mother interrupted his reveries with, “Connecticut’s real fancy, where the rich white people live. You should’ve gone. Least then, I would’ve never married you.”

Why didn’t this merit a slap from my father, when he doled out punishment for much milder offenses and for no reason in particular? Probably because he was driving and she was seated in the back, though the only time he’d hit me was also from that position when my five-year-old self wouldn’t stop wailing on an endless drive to the Grand Canyon. My brother always snorted when I brought this up, as it was the one time, nothing to crow about, nothing like what he and Mom got. Set apart in my own family, no wonder I’m used to being the outsider, why I prefer it.

“They’re digging deeper this year,” says the engineer. Takes me a moment to remember where and when I am. He points to snowplows in the distance, readying the site for the end-of-season festivities. “I only care about the music though. Preferably psych funk.”

“Oh, the party,” I say. “Never been.”

“Never been to a party?”

“Never to that one. Don’t enjoy water sports, especially when the water’s warm.”

He laughs. I wasn’t trying to be funny.

Finally, we reach the tower—skeletal steel, three stories high. At the top, a giant reel unspools insulated hose, dangling its connected drill over the ice. Engineers blast boiling water through the hose at a hundred kilometers per hour to gouge two-kilometer-deep holes. Another tube siphons the melted ice back into the tank, with a holding capacity of 5,000 gallons, to be heated again and fed back through. Elegant and efficient.

But I’m struck by what’s standing beside this tower—a person dressed like me, red against the snow. Her long, dark hair, escaped from her hood, wind-slashes across her face. Most unnerving—ice-frosted lashes and brows. How long has she been out here?

The engineer parks the Sno-Cat. “Looks like another one of yous is already here.”

“What do you mean?” ’Cause she’s also Asian?

“She’s a beaker like you, right? Scientist? Or is that offensive, coming from a nailhead?”

“Right, a beaker like me.”

She’s still staring. Jesper’s side piece? But he’s not organized nor ambitious enough to juggle two women, let alone two Asian scientists, both likely smarter than he. But why am I even playing myself into this narrative when I know Jesper isn’t like that? As if the assumptions of others—when seeing a white guy and Asian girl (or two!) together—can override what I know to be true. Am I letting others dictate my reality, or is racialized sexual jealousy a symptom of sleep deprivation?

No, this woman puts me on edge for other reasons than the usual when two of our kind exist in a white male setting, thus making us interchangeable or defined in relation to each other—who’s the hot one, who’s more Americanized, which one’s the bitch? Beyond these banal socio-workplace considerations, the woman on the ice unsettles me because she’s somehow familiar—intimately, but from a distance—as if from another lifetime.

The engineer lumbers off to the tower. Next to it is the deployment shelter, a refashioned metal shipping container. I was headed there, but instead I approach the woman. She’s taller, with wide cheekbones and cinnamon eyes. Silk Road beauty? My brother once dreamily wondered if Kazakhstan was full of Phoebe Cates clones, the Fast Times Eurasian goddess of his youth. She blinks and snowflakes drift from her eyelashes. “Dr. Park,” she says in an unplaceable accent. “I’m honored to be working with you.”

So she’s just an eager grad student. Not American. I’d feel more secure though if I knew which Asian pedigree—easier to handle when categorized. “Call me Elsa.” I smile awkwardly because my gums sting from the chill. “How long you been out here?” I ask, squinting from the freeze and the brightness reflected off the ice all around.

She laughs, shedding more frost. “I am Mongolian. This feels like home.”

I picture her with a bow and arrow on a horse, galloping across the steppes. Is this less racist of me to think this, since I’m not white?

“Your surname,” she says, “you are originally from Korea? But you are Swedish now?”

“I’m doing a postdoc in Stockholm, but I’m from the US. My parents are from Korea.”

“Ah, Korea was part of the Mongol Empire. A long time ago.”

“Korea was a vassal state, but only for like eighty years. Who are you?”

“You may call me Sasha. Easier to pronounce. My English name and my professional name. Your paper on gamma rays and collapsing binary stars was excellent. I wonder—”

Jesper and his students arrive on snowmobiles. He looks like a snow-dusted faun, with Sailor Moon eyes of blue and a nut-brown beard. So sweet and fey, I can’t take him seriously.

“Hey!” he shouts. “Been meaning to introduce you to each other!”

Undoubtedly, when the Vikings sailed off to pillage and plunder, his petite ancestors were the doe-eyed boys who stayed home, looking after the cattle and all the lonely women. (And thank you, Jesper, for dispelling the uncanny and rooting us safely in the mundane. Rivalry, whether sexual or academic, I could understand and deal with.)

“Is it true,” I ask Sasha, “that the Mongols were afraid of the sea? I heard that during one invasion, Korea moved its entire royal court to an island off the coast. So the Mongols were, like, charging toward the ocean, but totally freaked out when the waves hit their toes. Makes sense, being a desert people and all.”

Sasha looks bewildered and hurt. I wasn’t trying to be mean.

Inside the deployment shelter, Jesper introduces me with: “Dr. Park will be leading installation while I monitor the computers . . .”

Sasha stands much too close. Bad enough we’re all wearing the same “Big Red” parkas. There are three others, all white guys. I’ve only met one of them before—PhDick, who’d applied for the position I have now, who doesn’t remember me from inter-prep-school science comps back in the day, and who wears a Deerfield lacrosse cap, even under his helmet. He’s the only one who looks annoyed that I’m speaking, but I’m no longer the mute Asian scholarship kid who’d assumed invisibility, felt safer anonymous, sneaking to first place out of nowhere.

My fear of whites was near pathological then, but I wasn’t just bussed in across city lines. Instead, at age fourteen, I’d been flown in cross-country to a New England boarding school. Before this, the only white people I’d seen in my neighborhood were teachers, cops, and my dad’s business associates with whom he’d be ingratiating, tossing in an accented “bullshit!” with an impish grin to elicit their laughter and hearty shoulder pats. He might curse these same men in Korean if they crossed him, but I always cringed. Academia requires performance too, but since the arena is still mostly white, streaked with gold, the politics are more gendered.

My women physicist friends, for example, keep their voices calm and low during discussions lest they come across shrill, even if the men scream at the whiteboard. My voice is already husky and loud, but since only 20 percent of physics PhDs are women, I claim aural space for five. So for PhDick’s benefit, when he tries to talk over me, I become a goddamn Greek chorus.

After sufficiently asserting dominance, I lead the students in prepping the Digital Optical Modules—DOMs, for short. Each DOM, the size and shape of a fortune-teller’s crystal ball, contains a computer along with a photomultiplier tube and a recalibration LED flasher. Strong enough to withstand decades in the ice, sensitive enough to record subatomic interactions, time-stamped to the nanosecond. Into each of the previous holes, we’ve installed sixty DOMs, connected by a cable like a strand of giant pearls.

Meanwhile, the engineers drill into the ice. When they finish, they drive the 5,000-gallon water tank back to the camp for the party. That means go-time for us. We’ve got sixty DOMs to secure to the cable and lower one by one before the water freezes them in place.

But despite the time crunch, the costly consequences if we fail, and the ocean of coffee surging through my body, my tension melts away because I’m back in my element. This is why I sought refuge on the ice instead of lying helplessly awake in my berth. Achievement redeems me; excellence makes me whole. Moreover, the tactility and hardware manipulation of this specific work grounds me. It’s why I became an experimental physicist instead of a theorist.

The general public doesn’t even know that we do the heavy lifting in physics. They prefer reading about that other kind—those dreamers and speculators who scribble and spin implications that translate well to best-selling books, their lives transmuted on-screen as mad geniuses chatting with their hallucinations. But theorists don’t have to consider if and how their theories are testable. We the experimentalists must understand the theory and create the experiment to test it. We do the real work—disproving theories to narrow uncertainty, ruling out possibilities, becoming a little less ignorant. We can never prove anything is true; we can only prove something is not true—for now at least. We are the real knowledge seekers, even if we come across as naysayers. Or, as Ernest Rutherford put it, “They play games with their symbols, but we turn out the real facts of Nature.”

Besides, consider how fucking wondrous it is to stand at the edge of a hole wide enough to fall through, almost reaching bedrock! A tunnel of ice in jagged, luminous blue. Hypnotic and thrilling—the temptation of diving, becoming both footnote and fossil, preserved until the end.

However, for the first time in all my Antarctic summers, it occurs to me that I might be staring into the grooved gullet of an ancient frozen beast. This state of mind is distressing, as I haven’t been whimsical since puberty. Then it happens again as I stare dumbly into the ice, wondering if some thawed creature has clawed its way out, leaving angry gashes in its wake.

Right now, I’m supposed to be sleeping. Maybe part of my brain is dreaming, wires crossing. Rather not join in on the conversation around me, but I welcome its insipid distraction.

“The NSF does know about the party,” says PhDick. “No biggie. Lot worse been done round here. Who knows what the Chinese or Russians are up to at their stations?” He glances at Sasha and me. “No offense—you two are different. Like one of us.”

I’d gotten this comment before by much less smarmy people, friends and strangers, who really did think they were being complimentary by making this distinction on my behalf, as if I could almost belong to them by virtue of not really belonging elsewhere.

“Under the Antarctic Treaty,” says Florian the Bavarian, “anyone may visit and inspect the other stations. No colonies or national jurisdictions here.”

“This station and McMurdo are American outposts,” replies PhDick. “This thing that we’re building, all our salaries—half-funded by American taxes.”

“Typisch,” mutters Florian. German, I’m guessing, meaning “typical,” similar to its Swedish counterpart. I’ve gotten it a few times in Stockholm, once for laughing too loudly in a hipster bar. At least, the “typiskt” insult was for me being an obnoxious American, not for being Asian. Progressive in its own way.

 

Excerpted from Forlorn, copyright © 2021 by Angela Mi Young Hur

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