In the Morning, I Hear Singing …

by Lio Min



Yoona doesn’t scare easily. But when she spots Marisol sitting under the flickering halo of the block’s lone streetlamp, she gasps. Catches it at the last moment and coughs it out, the sounds ricocheting through the brittle evening. There are many remarkable things about this sight: Marisol’s body, curled into itself at the base of the lamp, a petal on the brink of detaching. Her shawl, blacker than the surrounding night yet pulsing with an eerie luminescence, a syncopated lightning strike in concert with the spotlight’s sputtering. The wrap oozing like oil over Marisol’s hospital gown, which glows uranium green in the half-light, even though Yoona knows for a fact it’s an overly optimistic shade of dandelion yellow.

It’s Marisol’s smile, which she aims slowly and languidly like the breeze of an oscillating fan, that catches Yoona off guard the most. The old woman’s lips split widely and warmly, and Yoona realizes for the first time that Marisol has a wide gap between her front teeth. Actually no, the part that startles Yoona the most, what tips this encounter from a pedestrian walk home into a major miracle, is that just a few hours ago, she’d watched the night nurses ease Marisol’s code-blue body out of the bed that had been her home for decades. In tribute, Yoona’s supervisor had blasted music throughout the facility’s overhead speakers, which normally only handled the monotone of official hospice business. The music that poured out from the ceiling had sounded as bewildering as a coyote’s howl in a city, or a rainbow appearing at night.

Marisol begins to stand up. Despite knowing the older woman can’t feel any pain or, at this point, anything, Yoona rushes over. These tentative motions remind her of the moment she realized her parents weren’t just aging but actually old—the white-knuckled grip her father used to pass her a basket of laundry, the slight hesitation between her mother’s steps up the church stairs. She’d always lower her eyes or look away at these confirmations of their infirmity, but as she takes a seat next to Marisol on the curb, Yoona openly gawks.

There should be no surprises between them, or at least not for Yoona. In the year she’s been living on the island—a splat of land neither far from nor near the Iberian Peninsula—the only person she’s felt close to is Marisol. Some of this is because Yoona is so obviously temporary, the only person here paler than burnished bronze, whose tight, thin lips stumble over rolled r’s and verb tenses, who doesn’t laugh quickly enough at jokes or smile about, well, anything. The other part is because after she answered the desperate ad that’d been stapled to a telephone pole, Yoona had walked into the hospice for her interview and caught sight of Marisol’s living ghost—the coma-bound body of the most influential person in Yoona’s life. Since that fateful discovery, Yoona had drawn the circumference of her days around the rise and fall of Marisol’s chest.

But Marisol is dead now. Yet here she is. And when Marisol whispers, in a voice as thin as the skin of the palm she presses against Yoona’s stockinged knee, “Nice night, yes?” Yoona shocks them both with a piercing, startled laugh. Marisol’s smile stretches further, the apples of her cheeks almost kissing her dancing, sunken eyes.

“Is strange, I know.”

“Sorry. I shouldn’t … Sor—Yes. Yes, it is. A nice night.”

Marisol pats Yoona’s knee before quickly retracting her hand, which strikes Yoona as shyness. Yoona hadn’t counted the rings on Marisol’s fingers but their abrupt flight—the glint of their gems and metals retreating into the cave of Marisol’s shawl—makes Yoona scoot down the curb a few inches.

“You scare?”

“No, I just thought … Well. You might understand. I have a lot of questions.”

“… Yes. Yes, claro.”

Yoona wonders how many more times either of them can say “Yes” without confirming anything. She clicks open her purse to pull out a pack of cigarettes. It’s hard to see the edges of the cellophane wrap in the unnatural light. Yoona skims her pinky nail, kept longer than the others in a perfect almond oval, over the package until the film catches, then tears.

Suddenly, Marisol’s hand is back on her knee, this time palm up. How has she closed the distance between them so quickly? No, Marisol is still propped against the lamp. Yet somehow the space between them has collapsed again, bringing Yoona back to Marisol’s side. Yoona blinks quickly a few times, then clumsily rips open the carton and fumbles for a cigarette, which she places in Marisol’s palm.

The hand retracts again, but this time, it comes home to Marisol’s mouth, where the cigarette now seesaws, the butt wedged in the gap between the front teeth. Yoona slowly brings her own cigarette up to her face and wraps her lips around the intrusion.

“Doctor should not smoke.”

“I work in the kitchen. And you shouldn’t, either. If you … can.”

Marisol spits the cigarette out. It flies farther than Yoona expects and rolls slowly down the slope of the street until it tumbles beyond the guard rails separating the road from the river. There’s no splash to the fall. The ambient lights of distant boats lace the black water like a sonogram. Yoona wonders how cold the water is, or how warm it could be. She spits her own cigarette out, but it lands limply on the worn off-white fabric of her uniform skirt. A small stain spreads from the end that’d been in her mouth.

“You know me. So you see me. Back there.”

“… Yes. Yes, I’ve seen you at work, on my rounds. Saw you.”

And then that thin-skinned hand props Yoona’s face up at an angle, and Marisol looms. The force of the old woman’s hold belies the way her body vibrates as though its strength is slowly leaking into their surroundings.

Yoona doesn’t know what to do with this chance—what she might have tried to literally translate into Spanish as a “corazón a corazón” for Marisol, even though that isn’t exactly right. Both of them are making earnest attempts at communication now, building a bridge of second language. So Yoona peels the frail fingers off of her face and brings the hand between her own. And waits.

Marisol looks down at the pale rust spots on Yoona’s left sleeve. Yoona had been hired for the lunch rush, but once, while washing dishes, she’d dropped a plate on the lip of the soap sink, reached for the shards beneath the bubbles, and cut her hand badly. A flower of blood had bloomed to the surface. Afterward, Yoona was reassigned to the overnight shift, leaving the hospice as the first group of day nurses waved hello. She’d tried bleach, lemon juice, toothpaste, but the stains remained.

A reminder to be careful. Careful. Marisol, alive and then suddenly not—the hospice’s speakers trumpeting her departure like angels—Yoona’s inability to distinguish between the two versions of “to be” in Spanish, one enduring and one ephemeral. Things feel precarious for Yoona here, or about as clear as the rim of a glass stamped with lip prints. She wishes the morning might never arrive.

“Why, you come here? Rock in the ocean?”

“I guess I … wanted something different. From what I had before. So I kept running, and running, and then, well … stopped.”

A whispery giggle of disbelief. Another, and then a full swell of laughter, laughter crescendoing as a racing wind through a field of chimes, rounds of clashing harmony clanging like a crate of bottles set down too swiftly.

Yoona doesn’t know why she’s laughing so hard with Marisol, whose bent head makes the black veil of hair indistinguishable from the shawl that wraps around her shaking shoulders. Her face with its deep wrinkles and big gap-toothed smile bobs in and out of silky blackness, and Yoona inexplicably feels like crying. For being unable to tell the truth—that once Yoona knew Marisol was at the hospice, she thought she’d found a permanent peace. For the younger version of herself, who never could’ve imagined the long stretches of wandering that had led Yoona here. For the first time in years, even more so than when she had to pack up everything her parents had left behind in her childhood home.

A townhouse meant for three, then two, then one, then none. She’d emptied out closets and cabinets and chests and drawers and taken down photos and paintings and crosses before leaving everything on the street and across the small yellowing mimicry of a lawn. Everything laid out in an exquisite corpse of possessions that’d never been hers and had barely been her parents’. The only thing she took from that place was a CD, which she’d hidden inside a box filled with weathered, bulky binders.

The free hand brushes a strand of black hair out of Yoona’s eye and behind her ear. One of the pointed nails clacks against a silver hoop clipped into the parabolic arch. The mouth with its carved and cratered smile doesn’t move, but Marisol’s voice keeps up the conversation on its own:

“You take care.”

“I try to. Tried. Try.”

The shadow the streetlamp makes of itself looks like a tuning fork. Marisol’s quivering finger strikes the air and hits the shadow. A fuzzy hum joins the murmuring of water, the buzzing of old-world lights, and the faraway honks and bleeps of late-night life on the river and beyond.

“I want to be a singer, before I get sick.”

“You are a singer.”

“… You say so?”

Yoona tries not to pay attention to the shivering bird in the nest of her hands. The rings press into her flesh, and she thinks about the hammer she uses to pound chicken breasts into gummy doilies. The aluminum cold lingers in her hands no matter how many gloves she wears, a cold that trails her even after she leaves the kitchen and patrols the rest of the facility.

Except when she walked past Marisol’s room. The curtains were always drawn open; the flowers set in thin glass vases on the bedside table, windowsill, and cabinet tops were usually fresh. Yoona never saw any of Marisol’s visitors but tallied them by the bouquets that arrived in reception, the cards mailed in or left outside the security gate. She collected the lorn cards on her early-morning walks home and brought them back to the small apartment she rents from one of the nurses, where she placed these offerings in a brass-bound trunk that’s almost full. On her breaks, Yoona purposely lingered by Marisol’s room, hoping to catch even a flutter of eyelashes, short and straight, signaling dormant life within Marisol’s long sleep. And her heart swelled and spilled over, overwhelmed by the adoration she had—has—for the dandelion-bright distortion confined to the bed, buried under tubes and gauzes. Yoona’s only idol, the woman who makes heat blush back into frozen hands.

*   *   *

The summer Yoona discovered the CD, the first thing she latched onto were Marisol’s eyes, sheltered under the curls of what she later realized were layers of false eyelashes captured in extreme closeup. Behind their sticky thatching: pupils like dying embers, burgundy-bronze blazes ringed by white, barely visible through the scratched sheen of the jewel case cover.

Those eyes caught hers in the basement of the church where she and the other girls pored over donations, picking out the true trash from what was simply unwanted before everything got sent to country cousins as gifts. Only Yoona tried to sort with discernment. Really, the donation heap—leftovers from GIs who had long since gone home—was a scavenger’s dream, but none of the other girls cared about cast-offs. Designer charms glinted off of skinny wrists. Glossy phones shuttered loudly after every capture. But Yoona—Yoona whose parents were older than the others in her generation by a decade, who remembered war as not just stories, and gave the most to the church, Yoona who wore her socks down to threads—looked for salvation amid the salvage.

Beneath a half-unraveled cardigan—Serafín by Marisol. According to the inky cursive text splattered across the back of the case, ten tracks total, released in 1978 but re-released in 2004. Just old enough to be a heritage find, except when Yoona cracked it open later that night, excavating under the covers with a penlight clutched between her teeth, the disc inside was as scratched as its shell. Lichtenberg figures danced across the iridescent grooves of the silver plane, and hope, as quickly as it’d flared in her chest, faded as a sigh.

But still, she snapped the CD inside the only player in the house, a chunky khaki block. Yoona plugged in the headphones she’d taken from the church and pressed play, expecting static, skittering, the echoes of music. And at first, that was all she heard. Needles of shrapnel sounds dragging through her head like the rakes the unsmiling gardeners ran through sand around the Buddhist temple on the other side of town. A call here, a cry there, sonic arrows shot by a rubber-band bow. Melodies in their own ways but not the ways Yoona needed—any songs but God’s songs, anything beyond the scraps floating from phones and cars and storefronts she passed but never entered.

And then—an angel’s cry. The light fell from Yoona’s mouth as her lips parted in awe. A fountain of music in the shape of a woman’s plaintive ballad—a lullaby, really. So simple, a single voice with sparse guitar accompaniment that followed the vocal line. But in that instant, everything changed for Yoona. Even though she didn’t understand the words being sung, she knew them. A song about longing, loving. Losing first another, then yourself.

Yoona didn’t know Spanish, but she was going to learn. Yes, she would tell her father that she was rethinking the missionary calling. Yes, she would study the holy texts, but she wouldn’t say whose. Yes, she’d learn the psalm of this song, the final song, the only song, a skyward ladder summoned by sloping, sticky umber eyes, promising her a path into something that, in her child’s eyes, could only ever have appeared as heaven.

*   *   *

There’s distance now. At some point the elastic space between them had taken a breath and pushed them apart, or maybe Yoona had made a mistake, speaking so feverishly, so desperately, these details about the nothingness of her life spilling like spittle from a rabid dog’s jaw.

Marisol puffs her cheeks out. Yoona yearns to know what she’s thinking.

“Eh …”

Yoona feels her body lean forward. Too eager. The kind of action that’d earn her a slap across the face from her mother at the dinner table. But she’s not a child anymore, even as the beast of adolescence peeks out from the dark cave of her heart.

“So … the music. That is why, floras?”

Yoona forces herself to blink. Of course, or as Marisol would say, Claro. Marisol’s body had never seen the flowers, or the cards, or the pilgrims’ breaths fogging in the cold mornings as the terse security guard asked them to make space for the cars. But now, in some sort of divine projection, Marisol can finally see the fruits of the seed she planted long, long ago.

“Yes. You’re famous, here. And around the world.”

“No … Yes?!”

“Mm-hm. Everybody knows your music. Especially ‘Arcoiris.’”

“How? Nobody … Songs for me, solo. Then, you know. Nothing.”

It feels strange to know more about someone’s legacy than they do. But then, Yoona considers, most artists don’t have the chance to examine the full impact of their work before they pass.

Only superstars and geniuses, the “specials” as her parents would say, get to see the crater they’ve carved into the planet’s crust before ascending to the gilded palaces of angels and saints and other “specials,” leaving trails of glitter and smoke from the exhaust of their ascent.

For this reason, Yoona’s parents forbade her from creative pursuits. She, like them, was simply not and could never be special. Their chance to touch the clouds would come only from careful devotion, laying their bodies like lottery tickets on the altar of God and asking, but never begging, to be scratched into winners.

“I found your CD. Serafín. It’d been given to my parents’ church as a donation. After you … After the fire, one of your sisters found your demos, in the ruins, and sent them to a record label and they released it, and it was a hit, here. And it was ‘rediscovered’ about a decade ago, and since then, everybody knows you. Your music, it’s … it’s touched people. In that place where your body’s heart taps into your soul’s. It … When I listened to your music, I felt like I’d discovered another world. Your art saved me. It made me want to live, even though my life was, it felt, at the time, unlivable.”

For the first time all night, Marisol turns away from Yoona. The night hiccups and, as though a curtain has been drawn, falls one shade darker. Yoona wishes she could swallow what she’d just said. How sad, how careless, to act as though she’d been giving Marisol a grace, something other than Yoona’s own selfish attempt at absolution. What was she thinking, pretending that by sharing her sad and unremarkable story, she was handing Marisol some kind of rose? No—Yoona has no roses, only thorns reminding her of the flowers that will never bloom for her.

But all she’d ever wanted was a rose. A flower of her own, a charm hanging off a wrist that wasn’t banded with secret scars. Yoona longed to wear her life like a neon crown, golden and fizzing like fireworks, unmistakable, unmissable, created out of some talent she didn’t have, some art she’d never make, some dream she’d never chase down like an elk at a hunt and that, unlike divine Diana, she’d never bring down with a strike to the throat. Still, she wanted strange blood running down her arms. She wanted to walk through the door and have every head turn in adulation, in fear, in disgust, in anything but the indifference that greeted her in the hallways at school, at home, in the basement where the other girls collected volunteering credits but never worked on the donations.

How much hate Yoona held in her heart for almost everyone and everything. Except Marisol, who is here, somehow, but probably not for much longer, Yoona’s only miracle, which she’d immediately poisoned with her bitterness.

“That makes me … so … so … happy.”

And then Marisol’s arms are around Yoona’s shoulders again, and the bands of Marisol’s rings press into Yoona’s back. Marisol’s voice breaks as she whispers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” over and over, as though her prayer has been answered, as though her wish has been fulfilled.

Yoona lets Marisol’s body fall into hers, and when it keeps falling through her, when dandelion begins to melt into stained snow as black hair entangles with black shawl, Yoona forces her eyes to stay open, regular brown pupils meeting what, close up now, are also regular brown pupils, and asks the one real question that she’d always had.

“How did you write your songs?”

Marisol smiles. The gap between her teeth widens as her lips split open ear to ear, and the face that Yoona has studied like scripture begins to morph, monstrous but beautiful, as it melts toward Yoona’s own.

“Oh, mi amor. Only God knows.”

Then her head plunges into Yoona’s, and Yoona holds her breath as decades of petrified memory crash and break over her. One hospital room becoming another becoming another becoming, finally, the hospice where Yoona began working a month after she’d moved here, where she couldn’t believe her cruel luck, to finally meet the woman who’d saved her so many years ago, despite her unsavable state. When Yoona does breathe, she almost retches at the avalanche of smells, of forced cleanliness and human rot, followed by ash, smoke, metal like blood and metal like fear that death was certainly on its way, taking its time but stepping loudly, confidently, leaving flowers of fire on an early grave.

But then something sweeter emerges, a note that giggles and dances. A note that plucks guitar strings belonging to a lost father and oranges from its neighbor’s garden, that shares both the fledgling songs and the ripe fruit with sisters, a mother, a grandmother, a boy who works at the bakery and slips it first pastries, then something even sweeter. A note that cries when a grave is dug for the baby that didn’t. A note that tears at its hair, claws at its thighs, then finally seeks shelter in cloistered stone and retreats from the sun. A note that looks out its curtained window at tall skies and serene seas and, one day, watches the fringe of a storm kiss the cheek of summer, rain falling invisibly save for the small spots appearing on roofs and awnings and the startled shouts of the people in the streets. And caught between the sea and the sadness, the music and the madness, the gore and the glory of life, it brushes the dust off its guitar, clears its throat, and tells a story.

I know you. I knew you, even when you didn’t know yourself. Here, you can have these rings, and this shawl, which was my mother’s, which she thought she would bury me in when they pulled my body out of the ashes. How blessed I am, that the wings of my love for the world beat fast enough to reach distant shores.

You know me. You knew me, even when I didn’t know myself. There, can you feel the hours I spent learning your song? In Spanish at first but I couldn’t get the pronunciations right, and I felt like a copycat, a fraud, so I translated it, hoping that you would’ve given me your blessing, that you’d understand the way I changed your song to still be yours, but also my own. Singing it to myself when they hurt me, when I hurt me, when I thought I was beyond saving. Your song gave me strength, and meaning, all the lessons I was supposed to learn from pain. All I’d needed was a loving teacher.

Sing it. Your style of my song.

I couldn’t—

Hurry. I go, soon.

I can’t—I barely remember—

You know it. You know.

Alright … Alright then.

In the morning
I hear singing
Like a choir
Voices ringing
Tell me O God
Has this child of mine
Made it through a-
Nother evening?
Far off crying
Rain is falling
Paint the tears in-
To the drawing
And the angels
Of God reply
It’s not my name
They are calling

*   *   *

Yoona wakes to the sound of waves, but it’s only the river sloshing up against its banks—no ocean, no sea, just murky green-black carpet rolling from one end of her vision to the other. Dirty, as always, but today, beautiful. As is the pack of ruined cigarettes, which she’d crushed in her hand. As is the crust she picks out of her eyes and the crusts scattered beneath the guardrails, which pigeons peck at with the fervor of fools. When she stands up, they turn toward her and shuffle in agitation until she walks past them, her footsteps landing so lightly into nothing. The budding light runs through the rails and sends out laddered shadows, splintering her body’s motion into illuminated frames. Dawn flares into the jewels on her fingers, streaking the pavement with tendrils of color.

How gorgeous, and strange, and gorgeous, and cold the winter day breaks. Yoona wraps the shawl around her shoulders tighter and looks directly at the sun, which finally emerges from the sleeve of the horizon. For a moment, then a longer moment, until color begins to emerge from the white disc. Cycling in circles across its projected surface like an artifact from another time. Like dry rainbows, Yoona thinks, before lowering her eyes, letting them adjust back to the light of the living, and picking up where she’d left off on her journey home.



Lio Min is a MacDowell Fellow whose culture reporting and fiction have appeared in The FADER, AAWW, Them., and elsewhere. Their debut YA novel Beating Heart Baby (Flatiron Books, 2022) traces the coming of age of two boys bound by internet friendships, first love, family, fandom, and “the violence and ecstasy of what it means to become an artist” (Chicago Review of Books). Their second YA novel (WIP, 202X) follows a group of Chinese American girls through a Dantean journey toward the cold heart of unresolved grief, within the framework of a video game.

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