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III: Nocturne | Searchlight Song: “Variations on a Theme”

I can explain it so well. The night soft-nosed and sprawling. This air is heavy on my teeth, but I can trust it for now. I’m maybe two years old. I don’t have the words yet for first memory, but I have this summer wind. Its footprints in my head. It’s everywhere still, fading carelessly into itself, the only home I’ll ever have. Above me, the trees reach for something greater. We’re not so different when I put it like that.

My father’s voice stretches low around my face. He’s singing something slow and silver, a Korean song about missing good people once the war is over. How we never have to ask them to stay. He pushes me forward in my stroller. The earth shifts underneath me—back, forth. Careful with all that heart.

When I was born, I had my eyes wide open. I was the calmest person in the room. For the first minute, I stared straight at the ceiling. Didn’t make a sound. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever forgotten to cry. Everyone still wonders what I was looking for. That’s how my father tells it. I looked exactly like him, even then, even with my full head of hair that would curl into ringlets when it was dry.

Maybe it was coincidence that he’d given me that nose, those unblinking eyes. All of his mercy and none of his bite. The quavery note at the edge of the scale—I carry it just like he does, by which I mean I never can for long. His reed-thin voice but not his hands. Back then, we made every song a lullaby. We had the same old-fashioned taste in music that my mother still hates. We’d laugh about it someday, when my hair had straightened out at last, and I wouldn’t ask him what it was like. Having a daughter with all of your faults and never calling them yours.

The first song I ever heard is the safest place in the world. I’ve been trying to find my way back to it ever since. Nothing was ever so simple again. You’re sick of hearing it already: I wish I could just go back. To love and not needing it yet. When things could be infinite and made just for me. My father free of worry at nightfall. It all hinges on this. I have to understand.

/

I can explain it better this time. It’s been fourteen years at least; that has to mean something. How many ways can I talk about a single moment? This time, it starts with crickets. Soft breaths. It’s always night inside this song. The trees are a little shorter. I’m still as small and unforgivable as ever. The same song sinks through me like the last hand stretched through a closing door. In this one, there’s a piano, and the dark has a ceiling. Four walls. My stroller is slower than I remember, but then, most things are. In this one, my mother is waiting at home for us. The night is the emptiest room she’s ever left, but she can trust it for now.

I grew up in melody. I couldn’t tell you about that first apartment, the three days we spent in the car, but I have the tune of the last day there. After the move, we weren’t much different. My family always had something to laugh about. My father with the job he might not get to keep and the rest of us missing—what? A house we didn’t have? When we finally bought a piano, so old that the company that had built it didn’t exist anymore, the whole house sighed, took us with it. As soon as the night was half gone, my father took his place on the bench. No space for searching with his hands on those keys, his feet on that floor. That didn’t stop him. He was already there. He’d never learned to play, but the chords he could feel as well as any other man at midnight. And anyway, his voice was hope enough for all of us. When he got to the end, the note frayed across the page. We winced and smiled. Pretended the neighbors didn’t mind.

Standing by him hour after hour, tracing the paper with his eyes set close together in my face, I could see the same music that he could. The difference was that I could read it. They say you can feel it the second you outpace your parents. Maybe I’m just missing it. Listening for the wrong crickets. It wasnt like that, I say, but it doesn’t prove a thing. I was so happy then. Let me be sure of this for once in my life. We’ve never been closer than on that night and every one of its children, a generous noise threaded in my bones.

There’s a song I learned from him about a father who brings crayons home for his child. There are so many true things to be drawn, but no piece of paper is big enough to be their country. The child falls asleep. Maybe the only reason we ever do anything is to make it safe to sleep. I’m humming now and my eyes are stinging. Yesterday night, my father bought crayons, carried them home in one hand. I didn’t mean for that to happen. Do I ever?

/

I can explain it in slow motion. This first frame, with the trees and the burnt-black sky, with those faraway outlines that could be anything. The song turned down to a buzzing we can bear. It’s all downhill from here. Take the cross-section of any moment and it’ll start to bleed. You can’t cut something open and expect it to stay where you left it. You can only have so many iterations before even lullabies lose their lilting. A trick of the dark, nested in my ear like poison.

I couldn’t have been older than seven the first time I corrected my father’s pronunciation of a word. We were singing in English this time, since I’d asked him to. The day was long gone, and both of us were slow, heavy-lidded. I actually thought I was helping. Sometimes I still do. It was fine, I thought—there were just certain songs he couldn’t have. Just another family trait. He set me straight everywhere else, so I figured I could step in here. He laughed and I laughed, and I felt mighty. I can see the hurt on his face now, of course. The singer in retrospect is the strongest god I’ve ever met. The only one I can touch, slip into for a minute. We went through the motions of role reversal, true meaning mangled in the mouth.

I kept doing it, year after year. He finally snapped on a sunny day, sitting on the stairs. Have I ever teased you about your American accent when you speak Korean? I stopped, tongue dry and coppery. Do you know how smart I am in my first language? I wanted to tell him he was smart in English, too, the smartest person I’d ever met, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words. Funny that it chose that one time to stop and think. I hate the girl I was in that moment more than maybe anyone else.

This history is the sum of small songs that won’t ever be here again. Every memory has a rhythm and a tune—don’t tell me you’ve never looked. I was so convinced I’d be holding on to whatever was heaviest, or that it’d be holding on to me. But here and now, it can’t. I want to strike this from the record. Or let the evening sky fade out.

/

I can explain it more directly. It was California, 2002. Nine o’clock, or thereabouts. The trees were redwoods, probably. This is the most useful account. The cleanest and most hideous. My father doesn’t let me out of the house at night anymore. Not unless he can find me when I need him to. I bring up small facts, twist them in the gut. I promise. I was raised not to lie. What’s left? My father was in a band in college. He left because slipstream searing, because move to America, because sometimes it’s easy, the not being there, until you give it a name. He got his Ph.D., became an engineer. You’ve heard this song a couple of times. Too many. Now he only sings at home, or among friends, or alone for everyone and the dark to hear.

I’ve been leaving things out for the sake of convenience, and because they shouldn’t be set to music. I don’t decide that anywhere but here. Clearly. That’s what I’ve been staying inside this memory for. Another fact: my father and I contradict ourselves whenever we speak. He gave me that. Another thing for the sake of convenience: every misstep I’ve ever made I inherited from him. Everyone’s noticed but me. I tell him that despite all that, I am my own person. That there are days when I really do know best. That he needs to step aside unless I ask for him back. I blame him for the stillness of the trees, for the night that no longer loves us. He taught me to thank the world when it spares me, and I waste that now on myself.

Who am I pass judgment? I know barely anything about what he was like before he met my mother. Just snatches—he was skinny, stubborn, smart-and-he-knew-it. I know that he crossed the sea for a better life, because if I don’t, I’m a terrible daughter. Obvious as summer, shining in the gloom. I’m a terrible daughter anyway. Who am I to say I know best about what came before me when it’s only because I haven’t had to leave it behind? Immigrant parents are never exempt from anything. That’s the problem. Am I angry because my father’s an immigrant, or because he’s my father? Can I rightly expect him to understand? I have to let those ideas exist simultaneously, questioning themselves until morning. That’s living, by which I mean it’s the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do. I have trouble seeing which rules don’t apply, and so we break them all.

In two years, I’ll have left the house. I’ll hardly talk to my parents. My father lays it out for me like that, so lightly. I’m a growing girl. He understands. My only crime is slowing down, opening my hands in apology. This world—it tends to happen to me like that.

/

I can explain it in a poetic sense. Tell anyone who cares that the air is glowing with guilt, or it should be. If this were a real poem, if I were a real girl, I would have a plan. It would fall together like the branches of night-drenched trees, so many lifelines that human eyes can’t see.

The first song that made me cry was the one that taught me I would outlive my father. It became real to me in stages, coiling in my chest. I couldn’t read the sheet music without shaking. I know that song too well, it said, for its part of my father’s repertoire. When I sang along, it was under my breath. My father said this before he died.

The other day, he sat down at the piano. He still does it fairly often—it’s just that now, the rest of us sigh for the wrong reasons. We wince but don’t smile anymore. Our neighbors of eleven years had just moved out, and the new ones weren’t due for a few months. It was Friday night, and I had a paper due, so I told him no when he asked me to sit by him a while. I went up to my room to work. I only remembered later, as I heard him strike the opening chords of that song, that a person can only be here for so long. I was—am—crying again. I’ve been too thoughtless to thank these nights. I imagine if you asked him right then what his favorite sound was, it’d have been me, harmonizing with him upstairs. Whatever music we make when it’s quiet out and we’ve forgotten how, for no one and everyone to hurt. With the door closed, with my speakers on.

I sat down to get this on paper with the idea of making it easy. I thought it would come spilling out of me with a little effort, a few more tears. The notion that good art is an ancestry, blooming in the quiet, like midnight in your hometown—I’ve never been able to shake it. My father once counted all the hours we’d spent on music together, and while he did it, all I could think was, and yet the only great singing we ever do is over in an instant.  You’d think I’d know by now. You only become unexpected by learning what the ones who don’t matter expect. In the end, only the song stays. People die. Their favorite songs remember them best.

/

I can explain it, or try to. That doesn’t matter now. My father’s waiting for the next take, and the night is only growing braver with every second that goes by. Something tells me I should let it. When I listen to music, I’m looking for the truth. But it’s right there in front of me, spooling into my skull, leaving me yellow wherever it needs to. It’s the music, wouldn’t you know. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long. Is still taking me this long. The last and strangest of truths. Certainty on the horizon, which means that of course we won’t see it until the sun comes up. I can’t be there, but wherever I am, it’s finally dark enough to listen. I can’t know, but I can love. I can give it my best. Hope doesn’t wait for your father to catch up. It trusts that you have his hand already, and tightly enough.

These songs are all so obvious. I can write each one with my eyes shut. The girl, struck with grief at the world’s edge, realizes at last that her father is human. This changes nothing. We knew that. If these were the only songs I ever wrote, if I never came back with a single answer, would it really be so bad? We’d be right back where we began, yes, but I think that’s the right place. I can fold this universe into the shape of a lullaby. A single room. I learn over and over how human I am. I stretch towards the father who told me this until I could tell it to myself. Someday, back to him.

We go deeper into the dream, or the memory, or the scratched record, or the bruised myth, failed, failing. I peel back every layer of the night’s skin with my bare hands. My father is behind me every step of the way. Don’t I deserve room to be obvious? Don’t we both? After all these years? The song doesn’t get to turn its back this time. Don’t think for a second that I can’t hear it trying.

When I come to, all the trees have roots at last. We’re giving it one last try. The sky is about to settle. The song’s come and gone, but I feel my breath trailing behind it. My father will never see this. I’ll be keeping it that way. Instead, I’ll spend more time listening. He lets me get away with so much, and I’m grateful, and I’m sorry. All he ever asks is that I tell him good night. I won’t forget this time. A moment of silence for the girl who never forgets—

I might break it. In some other life.

/

(Searchlight Song is a column by Christina Im about the music behind identity: how it shapes us, explains us, and finds us when we are stumbling in the dark. This column, along with two others by the HM team and many more pieces by contributors, is published in Half Mystic‘s Issue III: NOCTURNE. It is available for preorder now.)

Filed under: Columns, Music

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Christina Im is Half Mystic's interview correspondent. She is 15 years old and speaks mostly in ghost noises. Her work follows love, violence, and other true things. In a pinch, you can find her tucked behind the wallpaper of a half-haunted house or sitting haphazardly at the piano.

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