Forgive me, grandfather

I ask what kind of tree this is, the tree of God at the halmandang, the place of grandmother spirit worship. Pengnamu –a Chinese nettle tree. Every leaf on the tree seems to have been ravaged by caterpillars so that if you look up, sunlight filters appealingly through them, sieve-like. I finger a leaf.

Mr. Jang says quickly: “Don’t touch it.”

“Why?”

“Broken.”

“I didn’t break anything.”

“Maybe you touch this tree, you sick.”

“Why?”

He and the principal both say: “Grandmother angry.”

This gives me pause because they’re serious. I mean, however much they actually believe that an angry grandmother spirit that inhabits this tree might afflict me for bending a leaf, they are serious that I shouldn’t touch it. They reacted like I’d walked up to an altar and thoughtfully fingered Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Next we go to a small folk museum run by a smiley man with a long beard who makes you uncomfortable with the intensity of his laugh at only slight provocation, and who was so stunned by my and Sarah’s beauty that he gives us free books that we can’t read.

In the outside yard, this man has collected dozens of carved deity faces.  I kneel to take a picture of the way the late afternoon sunlight contrasts appealingly with the dark rock and the brightness of the moss when I knock over God. I try frantically to right him while no one is looking, but he won’t stay up.  So I run away.

I am usually not so much a bull in the china shop when it comes to religious icons, honest.  How many Hail Danshins do you think I need to repent for that?

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