Rain pitter-pattered against the bamboo rooftop of the Cho family household as a constant, ever-present reminder that winter had finally arrived for the year in Halfhill. Umbrellas sat beside the door; raincoats set out to dry over a small towel nearby, water dripping down with soft, gentle plops. For much of the year, the family were far from their humble home in Halfhill, seeking trade with vendors from all parts of Pandaria. They rarely were all in the same room together, but festival days such as today always seemed to bring the ever-busy Pandaren together again. The daylight may have been short, but the day itself was not.
In the morning, Hyeseong’s family rose early and were quickly out the door as the sun rose to visit the graves of his grandparents. The trek up to the graves was long and grueling beneath the drizzling rains, but it was a necessity. Hyeseong and his sisters held bags of freshly picked flowers bought from nearby vendors and broomsticks from their home, while their parents led the way up through the maze of graveyard in the hills nearby their village. They walked and walked, and walked a little longer, until they were face to face with large, familiar slabs of marble set aside from the main path engraved with the names of his grandparents. One. Two. Three. And now four. His mother’s parents sat together and a few paces down, his father’s parents. Leaves and debris had accumulated on the graves since their last visit, prompting the young Pandaren to begin sweeping as their parents removed sticks and twigs. The family works with few words, allowing a comfortable if somber silence to settle over them.
When the graves are cleaned, the sweet-smelling flowers are laid atop in patterns of reds, whites, and pinks. Hyeseong’s mother moves from grave to grave, cherry-picking flowers off one and moving them to another, making sure that every single grave was equal. She flits from grave to grave, for a long moment, making sure that everything was perfect. How many red flowers were on this grave? Were they the same as the other? Did they all have enough pink flowers? The pink ones were hard to come by after all. And, above all, make sure your Nainai had enough of the white flowers, those were her favorites.
Hyeseong bows politely to the graves of his grandparents, a low bow to show his respect. He stays there, bent over with head held low, for a long, long moment, before a hand finds its way to his shoulder and he straightens again. He looks up, finding the warm, brown eyes of his father twinkling with pride for his son. Hyeseong finds himself smiling in return, his heart swelling with warmth. His hand rests against one of the stones, a reminder of the grand, strong man his grandfather had once been.
“Baba, why are we at Yeye’s house when he isn’t home?” Hyeseong asked his father, his high pitched voice rife with curiosity. He grabs at his father’s hand, which rested right beside his shoulder as they walked into his grandfather’s home. “Shouldn’t we go find him, should I head into the market? He would be angry with us if he knew we were here without him.”
Hyeseong’s father was silent for a beat, moving to take a seat at the table where they had so often had tea with his grandfather – a stern goldsmith, with a small set of round glasses resting on his nose and a thin beard that trailed down his chin. He had long, clawed fingers with strong hands Where once he had been large and strong, his grandfather had become small and frail near the end of his days. Not that Hyeseong knew the difference when he was younger. Yeye always looked like Yeye.
“Koko,” his father says finally, after resting at the table with weary eyes and a voice that cracked from emotion. “Yeye is not coming.” Koko had always been the name his parents called him, the sort of dopey, childhood nickname you never outgrew. He couldn’t tell you why it stuck.
“Why not? Where is he? Does Nainai know where he is?”
“Nainai knows. Nainai thinks she will be joining him soon.”
“Joining him where?”
He’d never gotten the answer to that question. His father wrapped him up in a big, warm hug and buried his face in the young boy’s furry head. He figured out the answer on his own eventually, but not before finding his father on the ground, kneeling beside his bed and sobbing silently into his hands. His father had always tried to keep appearances, had always tried to stay smiling, but the hurt in his soul was still there.
The day of solstice, the house smelled of burning incense and the white tree oil his father swore had healing, relaxing properties but Hyeseong knew in his heart was nothing but a placebo. He loved it regardless. It was the same oil that his grandfather had always smelled of. It reminded him of home, even when he was far away.
Against the far wall of the home sat a small pedestal, holding several empty plates for food and drink. A small platter of kumquats, stacked into a perfect pyramid on the top shelf. Beneath the pedestal, Hyeseong’s mother – a slender and shrewd woman with a nose for deals – set a large, almost imposing bowl of salty, savory soup with enough dumplings to feed a small army. One for every year of your life.
Portraits of Hyeseong’s grandmothers and grandfathers sit at the very top, making it feel like they were watching over the family once more. His grandparents always looked serious for their portraits. “Portraits take a long time, Koko, it is better to keep your face neutral so as not to tire it,” he had been told. It took him many years to really understand what his father meant.