Pearl shifted in her seat, looking around at the silent huddled figure squatting on her haunches against the wall. The blue chambray shirt and faded denim jeans swallowed her whole. The parish jail did not jail too many children or women under five feet tall. Her arms stuck out of the voluminous short sleeves like a five-year-old child’s in her mother’s clothes. She rocked, softly bumping against the wall. Pearl imagined she heard the soft, high-pitched keening, locked inside where Joo-Eun mourned her lost life, the sound whispering across the empty space between them. Pearl started to get up.
“Leave her be. She need to get used to being here. She ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Betty clicked a domino into place.
“Do you know her?”
“Seed her kind before.” Betty took the last tile and studied her hand.
Pearl placed her last tile. “I’m going to read for a while.”
Picking up her book and shifting around in her seat so she could watch the Korean woman peripherally, Pearl saw Maureen get up and saunter towards the door. Maureen looked through the window as though expecting a visitor and sauntered toward the stairs, taking a long looping, meandering stroll past the newcomer. Ten paces down, Maureen dropped down into a lotus position and closed her eyes, leaning her head against the wall. Pearl was not fooled by Maureen’s disinterested pose. There was no way the prey would get out of sight.
I know what’s on her mind, adding another member to her court.
With an ingrained ability to sense softness and malleability, Maureen sized up everyone as soon as they came through the door, offering smiles to some, cigarettes and candy to others like some GI overseas on leave, knowing just which brand of magic to use to tempt them closer and eventually into orbit around the sun of her benevolence. Joo-Eun did not notice she was being stalked, rocking and keening sotto voce.
The round of the day continued without any other changes or new inmates. Breakfast, lunch and dinner followed without incident. The women went into and out of the food line, ate their meals, bartered their food and returned to their scheduled program of activities: talking, writing, braiding and combing hair, walking demented paths between and around the tables and into the shoals, and going to the bathroom to take a shower or relieve themselves in an unhurried swim of boredom. All except for Maureen, who waved away any offerings of food from her subjects. Going one meal without food was not unprecedented for anyone else, but not Maureen, and here she was giving up three meals to keep vigil.
Joo-Eun rocked and keened, the sound heartbreaking. Maureen got up and went to the bathroom, inching closer and closer every time she returned to sit down against the wall. She had worship of a different kind on her mind and it showed in the avid gleam of her eyes. Someone should warn Joo-Eun of Maureen’s intentions, but no one would, not even Betty.
“Leave be. What’s goin’ happen is goin’ happen. She a growed woman.”
After dinner, a guard came for Joo-Eun. She had trouble getting to her feet and stumbled, nearly falling into Pearl’s lap. Pearl steadied her and stood up, putting her arm around the woman’s slight waist. She smiled down at Joo-Eun and
offered to help her to the door, but she shook her head and patted Pearl’s hand, taking first one unsteady step and then another. The guard tapped her pen against the clipboard and watched dispassionately as Joo-Eun pulled herself along Betty’s table and to the door handle, wavering slightly before she raised her head and walked through the door as though so brittle and spent each move might be her last.
Maureen moved closer to the door waving off everyone who came to sit next to her or talk to her. The courtiers were dismissed.
As everyone settled into the usual hum of activity—showers, tidying up the cells, savoring tidbits left over from dinner trades and rinsing out coffee cups—the quad quieted. The television clicked on, groups breaking and reforming in a semi-circle around the high cart on which sat a nineteen-inch black and white TV. They were allowed a treat, one hour of television, probably something the guards wanted to see since they lined up at the console in the guard station to watch the screen.
Maureen got up and peered through the window in the door, tossing words over her shoulder. “She looked like she was in pain.”
“That new girl. She looked like she’s hurt.”
Startled that Maureen deigned to speak to her, Pearl responded. “I hope she’s all right.”
She nodded her head and hovered over Pearl. “Good thing I did not wait to kill that man or I woulda missed this.” She went over and looked through the door.
Missed what, someone in pain? Sometimes Maureen made no sense at all. Pearl decided the safest path was to nod and excuse herself.
One of the guards called, “Lights out in fifteen,” over the mike and the television clicked off.
Betty gathered her things and sauntered down the steps to her cell. Everyone took their time leaving the quad, trickling away like waves past rocks and around tide pools, slowly, inexorably moving away from the shores and into the deeps. Pearl glanced toward the quad door. Maureen stared through the window. When Pearl finished dressing and shut the cell door, Maureen ambled toward the second tier stairs, walking backward, eyes on the door until she stepped up onto the first stair, turned and disappeared from Pearl’s sight.
Sometime during the night, voices in the corridor and the metallic thud of the door to the next cell roused Pearl from a deep sleep. She rolled over to face the door, straining to hear. Boot heels thumped across the quad and a door opened and clicked shut, echoing in the darkness. The faint light glowing across the quad floor blinked out. Pearl shifted on her bunk and quickly drifted off to sleep only to wake later feeling achy and bruised.
She got up, brushed her teeth with her eyes closed and went to sleep on the toilet, catapulted into awareness when she nearly fell off. The skin of thighs and buttocks stuck to the icy seat when she tried to stand up. She plumped down and shifted from side to side, sliding her fingers beneath her thighs as she worked herself loose. Rubbing her scraped haunches, she joined the bleary-eyed line of women in the corridor. Evidently, Pearl was not the only one who had had a rough night.
She glanced to her right where Joo-Eun tottered, heels uncomfortably perched on the stiff backs of the pink sneakers. Couldn’t they find something else by now? She walked gingerly toward the stairs and up, an awkward ballerina in stiff and unfamiliar shoes, tripping and grabbing the banister to keep from falling backward. She shuffled across the quad and through the food line, settling into her usual place by the door. Blue-nailed fingers curled around a steaming bowl of grits held close to her face, eyes closed while she breathed in the steam. When the steam no longer rose from the bowl, the bowl was cradled close to her chest and she huddled around it to soak up any remaining heat. She did not eat anything. She had no spoon.
Maureen walked over to Joo Eun, leaned against the wall and slid down to sit next to her and offered her a spoon. “You should eat.”
Joo-Eun looked up at her, clutching the bowl. “Thank you.” She took the spoon and took a small bite, grimaced and put the bowl down.
“No, you should eat.” Maureen urged the bowl into her hands. “You’ll get sick if you don’t.” Her voice was soft and gentle and her eyes filled with earnest concern and so unlike the brash and brazen Amazon queen whose frown made so many others cower in fear.
She nodded and reluctantly spooned up a few more bites, bowing her head over the bowl, eating methodically and grimacing with each bite. She put down the bowl half finished, head bowed.
When Maureen picked up the bowl and spoon, motioned for someone to take it and put in on the tray, unaware when Joo-Eun got up and shuffled toward the toilets.
“Where did she go?” Maureen looked around. “Where did she go?” Her eyes darted everywhere, her body tensed to spring into action.
Betty nodded toward the toilets and Maureen stopped and dropped to the floor in a slow slide down the wall, the balloon of energy and near panic deflated.
“Someone fainted in the toilets.” One of the women, a mere shadow of a girl barely eighteen who usually sat at the picnic tables, ran to the guard station and pounded on the glass. The deputies waved her away. She ran to the quad door and pounded on the glass again. “That Japanese girl fainted. Get help.”
Maureen sprang to her feet and ran toward the showers, appearing moments later cradling Joo-Eun in her arms like a broken doll. “Bang on the door again and do not stop.” The girl blanched, milk blanching the milk chocolate sheen of her skin. “I said bang on the door and don’t stop.” The girl banged with both fists. “Kick the door.” The nappy-headed, reed-thin girl turned away from the door and drummed one heel against the metal until it thundered and she did not stop until shoved out of the way when the lieutenant threw open the door. Before she could demand an explanation, Maureen rushed past her carrying Joo-Eun.
“What the …?” The lieutenant stared open-mouthed at the pair until she realized all the inmates were gathered around watching her. She pulled the door shut and disappeared into the hallway.
Maureen did not return, neither did Joo-Eun, and Pearl could not see anyone in the room between the quad and hallway.
At lunchtime, two guards escorted Maureen through the door. She rubbed her wrists and sat down next to the door. She did not move again until lights out. By then, the whole story had made the rounds. Maureen had refused to put Joo-Eun down and demanded the guards take them both to Charity Hospital. She was finally persuaded to place Joo-Eun on a gurney and the lieutenant took Maureen to see the captain of the guards to answer for her actions.
“How is she?” Pearl asked Maureen.
“I do not know. They won’t tell me anything.”
“Do you know what happened to her? Did they tell you that much?”
“Guards don’t know anything, but I did find out her name. She told me before they took her to Charity. Her name is Joo-Eun. Jew-Yoon,” she said carefully. “Jew-Yoon. It means Silver Pearl. Such a pretty name.” Maureen rolled the words carefully over her tongue, “Joo-Eun.” She shook her head, eyes focused on the distance.
Pearl decided not to mention that she already knew Joo-Eun’s name and what it meant. Maureen would be hurt if she was not the first. “How is she?”
“She’ll be fine. A Bartholin cyst broke open. It’s painful. I don’t know how she stood the pain for so long, so much pain. I had one. Hurt like the devil’s pitchfork stuck in my cat. Cat swelled fit to burst.”
“You know. Down there.” She pointed at her crotch.
“Is that why she fainted?”
“The pain is intense, but she’ll be all right. They’ll bring her tomorrow. They promised.” Her voice faded away. “They promised.”
Maureen got up for dinner, ate very little and returned her tray. Her courtiers buzzed briefly but went away when she ignored them. They knew better than to press the issue. The afternoon and evening drifted lazily toward lights out, but that night there were no metallic clangs or muffled whispers in the corridor outside Pearl’s cell. She did not hear the snores and snorts that usually punctuated the darkness or the hushed moans. There were none, only a profound silence.
When Joo-Eun returned the next morning, she was pale and washed out, her movements jerky and slowed. Maureen rushed to her side and slipped an arm around the smaller woman’s waist. “Thank you, but I sit here.” Pearl offered her chair. Joo-Eun waved her off. “There is fine.” Maureen guided her to the chair and waited until she was comfortable before moving away, eyes fastened on Betty’s bowed head, waiting for an invitation that did not come. Joo-Eun turned around, thanked Maureen and faced Pearl. “Thank you for letting me sit at your table.”
“It’s not my table. It’s Betty’s.”
Before Joo-Eun could offer her gratitude, Betty waved her off. “Yo welcome. Do yo play cards or dominos?”
“Not really, but I am willing to learn.”
“Once yo be well, Pearl show yo how.”
“I will be most grateful.” She faced Pearl and touched her hand. Joo-Eun’s fingertips were hot and feverish.
“Are you all right, Joo-Eun? Maybe they should have kept you a couple more days. Your fingers are hot.”
Folding her hands and putting them in her lap, she nodded once. “No, I am fine. I do not like to stay in hospital. It makes me feel . . .”
“Just so. I will be all right, but I wish to beg a favor.”
“How may I help you?”
“I see many come to talk to you, tell you their stories. I wish to tell mine. Will you hear?”
“Of course.” Pearl’s fingers itched for a pen and paper, something to take notes. To keep her fingers from twitching as they had when she first learned to type and every word spoken was tapped out on tabletops and thighs, she folded her hands on the table and faced Joo-Eun. “I’d be glad to hear your story.”
“I have done nothing wrong. My brother put me here.”
“Is he with the police?”
“No. Businessman. He wants control of my shop. I have video store for adults.”
“You rent porn?”
She tilted her head and nodded once, eyes closed. “For adults. Very clean place and no sex in store. My brother lied to police to put me in here. Two nights ago, he came. Kwan Tomeo head of family. He is not head of me.” A fiery golden spark of rebellion and certainty glinted in her dark eyes. Joo-Eun’s whole demeanor changed from shy victim to determined warrior, a force to be reckoned with.