This story by Justine H. Cho is the first place winner of the 5th Anniversary Writing Contest. Justine is a dreamer, a writer, and an avid reader who loves Tolkien, Hesse and John Donne with equal fervor. She aspires to write a literary fantasy that can excite the young and stimulate the wise. You can find more of her writing on her website.
“Red beans ward off evil,” I was told since I was little. Rice cakes stuffed or covered in sweetened red beans were part of every auspicious occasions from birthdays to weddings. Sometimes, people sprinkled red beans around their houses to keep out bad luck, sickness and demons.
Like any other kid in the village, I loved sweetened red beans in all its many forms, over shaved ice in summer and stuffed inside warm buns in winter. But, my favorite was red bean porridge made during Winter Solstice. When the longest night in the year came around, the entire village would smell sweet and nutty, full of aroma of red bean porridge.
“Sunny, do your homework,” grandma said pointing to my abandoned books. “Then, you can go play by the stream.” She put on her shoes.
“Where are you going, grandma?”
“Mayor’s house. We are preparing for his daughter’s wedding next week. I should be back before it gets too dark. Remember, don’t go into the woods.”
Weddings were a village affair. It was also one of those happy occasions when piles of rice cakes covered in mashed red beans will be aplenty. I drooled thinking about them.
As soon as grandma turned a corner, I ran outside to soak in the sun. Before long, I was in the middle of the cool stream near my house, my feet bare. Sounds of water whooshing mingled with singing of insects as I listened to winds whistle through the leaves that promised to turn brilliant red.
I walked upstream near the boundary of the woods where thick cluster of maple trees stood. A stream of sunlight danced on the clear water and I stood there wide eyed and enchanted. I didn’t realize I was not alone until he spoke.
I looked up startled, but smiled broadly when I saw that it was Uncle.
He was not my real uncle, but everyone in the village called him ‘Uncle’ because he was older. He worked for everyone in the village including my grandmother. If there was something that needed fixing or doing, he was there. Everyone in the village knew him, especially the kids. During summer when too much rain made a small river that separated our village from the main town swell up like angry demons, it was Uncle who carried us across on his back so that we could go to school.
Unlike other adults and elders, Uncle played with us, helped boys catch fish and taught the girls to swim. And he was our favorite storyteller.
I know I was his favorite. Uncle always saved the biggest red bean buns for me. I thought he was the greatest, even better than my dad and mom who lived in the city and came to see me only few times a year.
“What are you doing all alone, Sunny?”
He crouched down on a boulder at the edge of the stream when I smelled something foul. I looked up. Uncle’s face was red and so were his eyes.
“Why are your eyes red, Uncle?” I asked.
“To see how pretty you’ve become, Sunny,” Uncle laughed, then he staggered where he crouched. “You’ve gotten so big,” he said. He straightened and looked at me as if for the first time.
“Of course I am,” I raised my chin. “I’m going to be thirteen soon. I’m all grown up.”
Uncle moved over next to me. He staggered slightly as he took a handful of my long hair. Although I had grown taller since last year, he still towered above me.
“And prettier, too,” he said. The odor from his mouth was sour and strong. I wrinkled my nose.
“Why do you smell bad, Uncle?”
“Because I drank some wine at the mayor’s house,” Uncle laughed again. “You want some?” he held out a small brown jug he held in his hand.
“I don’t think I’m allowed,” I said.
“Why not? Didn’t you just say that you are all grown up?” he raised his eyebrows.
“But, you are still a baby. You can’t even take a sip of rice wine.”
“I’m not a baby!”
The sun was going down now and already the woods behind him filled with dark shadows.
Uncle held out the brown jug.
I knew I shouldn’t, but I wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t a baby. I took the jug and took a small sip. The first mouthful burned and I coughed.
“Baby,” he shook his head.
I took a second longer swallow of the liquid. It didn’t burn as the first sip. I took a third even longer mouthful. Uncle’s eyebrows went up.
“There!” I handed the jug back and grinned, feeling like a grownup.
A smile crept up Uncle’s lips, pulling them back, showing his teeth. One of them looked long and sharp like a fang. I shrank back. It was brief, but for a moment, he looked menacing.
“You know what goes well with rice wine? Red bean cakes,” Uncle said. “In fact, I got some from the mayor’s house. I saved a big piece for you, Sunny.”
I looked at the darkened woods behind him.
“But, I have to go home. It’s getting late,” I said feeling woozy. My body felt heavy and strange as if it didn’t belong to me.
“It’s on the way. We’ll stop by just to pick up the cakes,” he said and held out his hand. I didn’t hesitate to give him my hand. But His hand was hot and sticky and for the first time, I felt an urge to take my hand back.
But, I didn’t. This was Uncle. I knew him all my life.
Uncle pulled me into a shadow of the forest instead of taking the usual path around the woods. I stopped.
“Grandma said never to go into the woods.” I bit into my thumb. “She said there are wolves in there.”
“Wolves?” Uncle laughed. “Maybe years ago, but there are no wolves in the woods, Sunny. I practically live in the woods. There is nothing there except trees.”
“But grandma said…” I hesitated, but Uncle pulled me along.
“You are a big girl, aren’t you, Sunny? You are not afraid of woods, are you? Here,” Uncle pulled out a handful of red beans from his pocket. “You know what they say about red beans,” he said as he pressed little red beans onto my hand. Then, he pulled me into the woods.
When the Winter Solstice came, the entire village was enveloped in the smell of red beans, sickly sweet and nutty. My stomach roiled. It was hard to breathe.
Grandma walked in with a branch of pine tree dipped in red bean porridge. Like all the villagers, she had been smudging the red porridge all over our front door to ward off evil things from entering our home.
My mom, who had come for a brief visit, brought out a large earthen bowl.
I turned away with a grimace.
“What’s wrong? It’s only porridge,” my mom frowned as she held out the bowl filled with sweetened red bean porridge. “This is for your Uncle,” my mom said.
“He’s not my uncle!”
“What’s this? Isn’t he your favorite person in the whole world?” mom said, pushing the bowl into my arms. “I don’t want to hear you whine later how I didn’t make any for him.”
“She’s going through puberty,” grandmother said without looking up from sprinkling the red beans around the house. “They are all like that at that age. They like you one day, then can’t stand you the next.”
“Puberty? She’s barely twelve,” mom frowned.
“I turned thirteen,” I said. My chest tightened and my eyes stung. “You don’t know anything about me!”
Snow made it difficult for me to run, but slipping and sliding, I ran past the stream where I used to play. I no longer cared how the light played over the water.
I stopped at the border of the woods. With fresh snow covering the ground and sunlight coming through the bare branches, the forest almost looked safe, but I stopped and backed away. I shuddered, unconsciously holding tighter to the bowl. It was then that I realized that I still clutched the bowl of red bean porridge.
The red porridge had spilled over my coat and the stench lurched my stomach. I hurled the bowl. It smashed against a tree and a red splotch dripped down the tree trunk and splattered all over the white floor. Instantly, the snow, so clean and untouched just a moment ago, melted, spattered with the red porridge which ate away at the whiteness, leaving a red, ugly scar.
“Red beans ward off evil,” I was told since I was a child. But I believe it no longer.