The Bomb Beneath My Skin


Read by A. É. Coleman

What happens when a bomb squad first approaches a pipe bomb? They cut off the cap of one end of the pipe, and dispose of all of the dangerous innards. Ideally this disposal happens in the context of a controlled environment and but for lack of one, there are other followed protocols. In a pinch, what’s important to know is that one must disconnect the wire from the trigger, or the trigger from the battery.

Bomb disposal does not encompass the remediation of soils polluted with explosive materials.

My story is a minefield, and where some bombs have been safety defused, others remain, and the ones that have been dismantled remain with me like polluted soil.

Although professional EOD personnel have expert knowledge, skills and equipment, they are not immune to misfortune because of the inherent dangers: in June 2010, construction workers in Göttingen discovered an Allied 500 kilogram bomb dating from World War II buried approximately 7 metres below the ground. German EOD experts were notified and attended the scene.

I wrote them a letter. I, an amateur EOD; them, the bomb I didn’t know I had buried. The letter—simple, direct, but steeped in hope; language that whispered of fantasy. I have a steadfast heart, quick mind, and sinewy limbs. Writing for my imagined father, a rich chaebol holder, or maybe my mother, world-weary, narrowly escaping impoverishment by selling her taut body as part of Korea’s fastest growing GDP business.

My papers read: “So bio-mother decided to refer her bay to our Yeosu branch for adoption on Mar. 7, 1991.” The careless editing to a document that I read over and over again, with longing. As if calling myself bay now erased the pain of the spelling error, of the facts of my humanity that trailed after me, like death waiting to pounce at a careless intersection crossing on a busy street, or a stray bullet on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon.

The bare minimum of accounting. Father Name: – , Age: 40. My mother, “enjoys knitting and is prudent.” When I went back to Korea in 2012, the adoption agency translated more of my story from papers they refused to let me look at, even though I could barely read Korean at the time of the visit. I strained to look. The adoption agency worker curled the manila folder away from my hungry eyes. “They met on a night train going to Seoul,” she translated, her English blocky and detached. “Belatedly bio-mother found out her pregnancy and was worried much about unborn baby’s future because bio-mother was unmarried, it was impossible for her to bring up the baby by herself.”

I thought about my mother as older version of me; waify and thin, on a night train to Seoul. Her eyes trained on the changing strings of light flashing in the reflection of the windows, confronted by a strange man. A man, 175 cm tall and handsome, from the only description of him in my adoption documents, wearing a tailored suit, sweeping in with his penetrating gaze, asking if he could sit across from my mother.

I pleaded with the agent for more about their appearances, and she smiled robotically, but said there wasn’t much else. “Sounds like mommy and daddy are handsome.” I imagined them living on the edge. A tumultuous, steamy affair. My father, forty, unavailable, my mother, hopeful, pleading. Her body in crude positions of submission in cheap love motels, just a twenty-six-year-old hairdresser from the country. My father, a businessman living in Seoul with his wife, in an upscale condo, occasionally taking “business trips” south, stealing away for a night or two of love and passion.

Did he take advantage of her? The adoption worker said he was married. Apparently it hit my mother hard. I immediately jumped to my mother’s defense. I imagined her receiving the news in a teahouse, over a bowl of plum porridge. Stopping abruptly mid-dainty bite, my mother in a thin, pink knit sweater, its fabric stretched over the tops of her hands, as she tugged at the sleeves in girlish sheepishness. His snaking convincingness, his smoothness, her mind immediately on the slight acid reflux rising in her chest, a sign of early pregnancy.

“They were troubled by the discord in character and separated soon.” He was absent, and she was sweet. He was the cold intellectual, she, the artist, working with her hands, running her hair scissors, a metal extension of her body, through her clients’ thick dark locks expertly, her belly growing larger by the day.

And so, she named me Wisdom, and sent me abroad. My lovely, smart face apparently indicators for my success in America even at a young age.

I’d defused a bomb or two in my day; how could turning over this last stone, the one opening the door to my destiny to my true self, revealed through my parent’s legacy, differ? And so it was, that after receiving a hushed call in broken English over the phone, one day before my flight back to the US, I arrived at the adoption agency, the glass around my invisible containment chamber slippery in my sweaty hands. Disconnect trigger from battery. Disconnect wire from the trigger.

Whilst residents living nearby were being evacuated and the EOD personnel were preparing to disarm the bomb, it detonated, killing three of them and injuring 6 others. The dead and injured each had over twenty years of hands-on experience, and had previously rendered safe between 600 and 700 unexploded bombs. The bomb which killed and injured the EOD personnel was of a particularly dangerous type because it was fitted with a delayed-action chemical fuze, which had become highly unstable after over sixty-five years underground.

The bomb never went off during our meeting. The containment chamber I carried with me to the Eastern Adoption agency in Gangnam remains, eternal sweat-beads moistening its heavy glass. A mistake, I should have taken it with me.

I counted heavy cracks in the ceiling, wondering if it would fall in, leaving drywall crumbs across the coffee-stained floor, in the tissues undoubtedly brought in for the occasion. I was late, and I could see him through the door, pacing. He was anxious, letting out melodic strings of curse words.

The door opened, and he stopped abruptly. Silence lengthened the short distance between us as we realized in dumb surprise that I’d inherited his cross eyes, unable to make steady contact. In a closely-fitted vintage jumper and glasses thick, nearly microscopic, he scrutinized me. Sometimes now his name escapes me, but not the expression of wonderment and pleasure that transfigured his lips as they parted mid-profanity.

I held my own hand in that dingy room. No tears, because I won’t cry in front of strangers. Apologies from strangers, from cab drivers, but none from them. They think I’m fine, I thought in my head, they even think I’m successful. My mother, pretty in her own way, features not finely-cut like crystals, but rather strong, sturdy. My father, shorter than I thought, wispy and wiry. My sister nervous, dissociated.

And who were they? My father, a worker at a manufacturing company in Yeosu, my mother, still a hairdresser. She looked me over again and again, the skin around her eyes pink from crying. My sister, an aspiring medical student. There was no affair, no separation. My parents had been high school sweethearts, but were now divorced—my mother and sister living with my stepfather somewhere in Yeosu. Their clothes, shabby; their affect towards me light, affable. I asked them what kinds of hobbies they had: football—diehard Barcelona fans, fashion. I felt distant at the first mention of sports, contempt at my sister’s mention of  fashion.

At the restaurant nearby, we ate soup. My father remarked on our similarities—he also mostly ate the broth, not the toppings. My mother fingered my earlobes and pointed towards hers—they’re the same! she insisted in Korean. They slipped 100,000 won into my hand—it would be enough to pay for the final night I would have otherwise fronted myself in Seoul. I took it.

I shook off the last of my heightened anxiety as we parted ways. Picking up pace as I walked away, I looked back, blinking in the light of the setting sun. Her face glowed in the streetlights just turning on in Itaewon, and our eyes met, searching. I cut my gaze away first, my hips swinging in false bravado before I broke into a sprint down the stairs into the subway station. On the train, Raphael took pictures of me, my face strange and contorted-looking, nostrils flaring, eyes wide.

Too focused on the memories of the reunification glow in that dingy meeting room, I caught a glimpse of my own face in a mirror—vague recollections of his nose, of her eyes, the faces of my betrayers, and not even very sexy ones. Their easy laughter at the meeting burning into my skin like a bad tattoo.

Arriving back at college in Northfield, Minnesota, the delayed bomb went off, its hot, haphazardly-constructed chemicals coursing through my psyche, entrapping.

There are a wide range of containment chambers available. The simplest are sometimes dangerous suppression vessels that merely contain some of the fragments generated by the explosion. The other end of the spectrum features top-of-the-line gas-tight chambers that can withstand multiple shots while remaining able to contain chemical, biological, or radioactive agents. Containment chambers of all types may be fitted onto towed trailers, or specialised EOD vehicles.

The human body is ill-suited as a containment chamber for the detris of spiritual shrapnel. Is my skin sacred? I asked internally as Nikki seared a pizza across my thigh. I don’t even eat pepperoni, I’m a vegetarian. I see the fires of San Bernardino behind my eyes on hour three of sitting with Joseph. I ask for an anchor on my wrist: an anchor to my own reality, and my own power, an anchor to my writing practice, an anchor to the page.

My father texts me to ask why I’ve stopped speaking so much. The way he asks feels laughably dire. The words I want to send him feel stuck, like crusty syrup in an old plastic container of honey. Our texts at this point are broken records, a product of our mutually-limited vocabulary. We correspond solely in Korean, but his questions to me are the same. He addresses me as ‘princess,’ and he wants photos. The request feels vaguely voyeuristic, and yet I relate to it. I relish every text I receive that I don’t respond to right away, that begs me for a glimpse of my face. I withhold because I can, for the first time in my life.

I consider reopening the strobe light, the lightbox, playing the fantasies of my childhood onto the ceiling, but I won’t.

The Mk4 EOD Suit, introduced into service in 1993, combines fragmentation and blast protection that is prioritised over the most vulnerable parts of the body (head, face and torso). The current system, MKV/VI, was introduced in 2004, and was a combined MOD/NP Aerospace project. The only part of the body that has no protection at all is the hands.

I lost movement in my hands, I’d forgotten how to use them. I started loaning them out to others, did they want to borrow them? An estranged partner gave me back my hands, with a strange look on their face, and I found myself in therapy, where I slowly regained movement and sensation in each digit of my fingers. I flex my fingers.

Here are my hands, extended in supplication. I sink them into the contaminated soil that still clings to me beneath my top layer of skin; I put them up to my mouth, laughing. The hands that carry the power to create. The ones that my adoptive mother so often puts her own up against: “your fingers are longer, mine are stubbly,” she’ll often say, her kind brown eyes searching mine. I smile and work on freeing another piece of shrapnel from the healed-over skin beneath a fingernail.

Anna Hovland is a multi-disciplinary writer and artist currently living in Washington DC. She is currently working on her first book, a memoir.

Image Credit: jbom411

Leave a Reply