Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana:
Korean Culture & Arts (The
Korea Foundation) Vol. 32, No. 4 Winter, 2018.
Pages 92 - 102.
Published in Koreana:
Korean Culture & Arts (The
Korea Foundation) Vol. 32, No. 4 Winter, 2018.
Pages 92 - 102.
I was seventeen and my mother was thirty-nine when my stepfather suddenly fell over backward as he was jumping up and down, uttering great shouts of anger, dead drunk at midday. Nine out of ten people of the kind who enjoy commenting on other folks’ business based on the slightest acquaintance all said the same thing — that a woman from nowhere had driven a nail into the coffin of a healthy man. The two of us were pitifully weak before our merciless destiny. Although my mother could not be expected to make her way through the thorn bushes of life hugging me as if pushing through a curtain, still there was nothing I could identify to which I could assign the blame and so feel better.
My mom and my stepfather had lived together for about two years and eight months. I only wish I could say it was a period like a gentle song. Actually, those thirty-two months were a period of alternation between twisted hopes and barely lulled despair. When my stepfather suddenly dropped dead, the substance of the hopes and despair evaporated and I was left with weird traces of an unfamiliar life which I had awkwardly tried to patch together with fragments of myself. My mom, my stepbrother, and the dry cleaning shop my stepfather had run. Could this odd combination form the axis of a seventeen-year-old girl’s life? It could. My stepbrother, whose only pride was to walk around the living room stripped to the waist, showing off his physical beauty, would take a chair out in front of the house and sit there idly, exchanging greetings with passers-by. “Ah, you must be grieving so much?” they would say. Then he would give a completely irrelevant answer: “The sunshine’s nice.” “Spring is spring.”
The age difference between my mom and my stepbrother was eleven years, and that between me and my stepbrother was also eleven years. His appearance at twenty-eight as he stood erect midway between mom and myself, showing off his broad shoulders and back muscles, was strange; the strangeness felt slightly hair-raising. There were a lot of interesting possibilities in people’s speculation that the women such a vigorous man was most interested in might be his stepmother and stepsister. As if intent on living up to that, when anyone came to the house or dry cleaning shop, he would pour out more words than they might have wanted to hear: “I’m a man, so it’s okay, but women are different. My stepmother has a trench coat like this, but loose clothes don’t really suit her. Father was inclined to make her wear clothes like straw sacks. But I’m different. That prim young girl, Jae-ok? Well, she’ll listen to what I say some day, for sure. Now she just stands there far off with arms folded, eyes to the ground, but someday she’ll learn to bow and be grateful.” Maybe this young man, who had suddenly lost his father and been obliged to lead the funeral procession, had cried alone in some secluded corner, but mother and I never saw him shed a tear. His habit of going on about women being so-and-so, men being so-and-so, did not suit a twenty-something man; in one way it felt foolish and pitiful, but still I did not get hysterical and tell him to shut up. Thirty-two months was an unreasonably short time for all of us to practice and embody being a new family. We could not explain to ourselves what was now over.
Several uncles started to hang around. My mother seemed to be trying to overcome the situation making use of all the people she knew. While calling various men “uncle,” though they were not my true uncles, I held back and calmly tried to find out a bit more about the methods of grief and consolation that a man and a woman can share, and their application.
I used to place my face against the crack of the door of my room and watch my mother with an uncle as they lingered in the living room, then quietly step back toward the window. When I looked out from there, I could see my brother lifting barbells. Though he had gone outside to give them some privacy, he had not gone far but hung around close by. With a lifted barbell, he would stand on one foot, then change feet, trying to keep his balance as he grunted to gather his strength.
Lives ticking over at the end of spring. Days when I could move neither forward nor backward, that offered no kind of end or beginning. I had aches and pains all over for no reason, as if my blood vessels and nerves had become tangled, and even the simplest problem felt bewilderingly complicated. I began to be dizzy with an odd feeling that I did not know which hand I might stretch out right at the moment, but while I stood there blankly with problems I could not diagnose by myself, unable to cross the threshold of my room, I gradually recovered my sense of reality. Then the gloomy conversations, sighs and improbable laughter arising around me began to hurt like the tip of a needle, and I felt anxiously that I should do something, only there was nothing I could do. Just as I began to reckon I should try to enjoy my school life, the summer vacation started. My mother wrote a letter and left home; my stepbrother and I, with no common blood between us, were left like a newlywed couple in the old warehouse-like house. Mom’s letter was as follows.
Dear Gwi-seong and Jae-ok,
Everything is just too painful. I reckon you can take care of each other while I’m away. I just need some time, time to think. I’ve been living in such a rush without anything like that, and so often found myself at a point of no return. Summer is a cruel season for me. Everything started in the summer. I’m doing this because I don’t want to start anything new this summer. Maybe all of us will have gotten better by the autumn.
Mom wrote the letter in awkward, looped handwriting. I thought she might have left a separate message for me, so I looked under the bed sheets, in every corner of the vanity table’s drawers, in the pockets of the coats and pants hanging in the wardrobe. Then, as I read aloud three times that letter that started with my brother’s and my name side by side, I began to think differently and finally summoned up the courage to call my brother and read it with him.
“Your name’s written first.”
“Just a minute.”
“Mother doesn’t talk to me like this.”
My brother rubbed his palms together then placed them over his eyes.
“She says she needs time to think, and that means she’s not going to stay here quietly staring at the ceiling or the wallpaper.”
“I can read too, so why don’t you shut up?”
“Mom did what she does best. She made a family without thinking.”
My brother took his hands from his face and turned his head toward me.
“Didn’t I say to wait a bit?”
“I know what you’re thinking. You want to say bugger off, all of you.”
“Can’t you think of just one thing at a time? Your words aren’t words. They’re shit. It’s all just as it’s written here. Don’t think any further. The rest is just shit.”
For a while my brother pretended to tidy up the inside of the dry cleaning shop, then he put up a sign saying it was closed and went roaming around. Anyway, I had to wait as if nothing had happened until mother came back, as if I always did the same thing in summer, like waiting for rain in a heatwave. Whether good news or bad, until it became words and appeared clearly before me I could not talk with anyone, with any kind of destiny. Torn off and scattered like the crumpled and disfigured pages of a calendar, we were like unfathomable days peering at one another like photographs of different seasons rising one above another.
“People say that things get done better with me at their side.”
My stepbrother knocked on my door in the middle of the night and started talking. Even though he had no obligation to consider my condition and mood, he exposed eight of his top teeth in his attempt at a natural smile.
“I only have to dress up in a suit and stand beside them and everything works out just fine!”
He shook an envelope containing money, blinked, then stood up and went out. When he came back, having taken off his jacket and tie and left them somewhere, he was wearing a white shirt with one side hanging out of his pants, which had creases sharp as knife blades. He was holding a half-full bottle of whiskey in one hand. I was perched at the end of the bed.
“Have a drink?”
My brother first swallowed a mouthful then offered me the bottle.
“I don’t enjoy it. And I don’t like seeing people drunk, either.”
My brother stood unsteadily, leaning against the wardrobe door, and asked,
“Were you happy before?”
“If you’re thinking something pointless, you needn’t bother.”
“What do you mean, pointless? There’s bound to be a reason for everything.”
“What you’re thinking is not in my mind, so don’t worry.”
My brother took a few more sips from the whiskey bottle before he spoke again.
“Who was it that said a good son is born? I don’t think so. It’s something you decide. I don’t like decisions. I haven’t changed.”
He shook his head, then after a while he spoke again.
“All his life, my father was never able to be really angry; he must have felt relieved.”
He vanished from my sight and his footsteps gradually faded away. He was neither my real brother nor my father, but he was someone who stood facing me in the dark which I was unable to share with a combination of both. That idea, the expansion of that idea, my own opacity, frightened me. I tried to protect myself and him at the same time from those awkwardly kind people who kept ringing our doorbell and asking how we were doing. I lied to acquaintances, who were trying to start conversations with anxious expressions, that my mother was run down and had been admitted to hospital. And that sometimes my brother would go and look after her.
“So it’s just you and your brother living here?”
I was able to answer that question smoothly and naturally. It seemed that my unconscious was much deeper and darker than their curiosity.
“Sometimes my brother’s girlfriend stays with us. She’s like a good sister to me.”
Mother never phoned me. So I did not call her. I packed away the identical T-shirts that my stepfather had bought for me and my mother in a box with other spring clothes and put it in a corner. After we had moved into his house, we all went out together just once and that day we had a picture taken. No one had great expectations that everything would turn out all right. I reckon only those who have tasted such things can imagine the taste. Anyway, I used to cry whenever I wanted to while watching touching human documentaries that were served up at 6:00 p.m. like tidy meal tables. Since I did not know what I ought to be missing, I imitated the longings of other people. Yet I suppose I cried for myself. After a good cry, I felt strong enough to do the laundry by hand for an hour. Then my wrists felt as though they were growing stronger and, since I wanted my legs to be just as strong, I used to dance around waving my arms and legs energetically. Two or three friends used to phone to share news. Only I had no news to share. So the calls gradually grew less frequent.
Then one evening, a nail artist some two years older than my brother visited our home and introduced herself as his girlfriend. I was amazed to find that something I had chattered away glibly had become a reality, and for a moment I almost deluded myself into believing that the words I had made up to avoid embarrassment had worked like a prayer.
“Didn’t my brother tell you how delicious the pickles in our house are?”
I glanced at our junky fridge affectionately as if it were a butler with tales to tell.
“Gwi-seong doesn’t talk about side dishes. He barely talks about rice, either.”
“Then try some.”
So the nail artist and I ate together in the dim light. She said that the soup I cooked was more delicious than the pickles. I did not believe her, but still I pretended to be very pleased with the compliment.
“What’s your mother like?” she asked.
She came to the house of a man who never talked about rice, about side dishes, or about mother, and smacked her lips as if we’d known each other a long time and without any ulterior motives seemed to take a liking to me.
“Oh, she’s just ordinary.”
I replied briefly, and could find nothing more to say. My brother came in while we were doing the dishes after the meal. He covered one of his eyes with the palm of his hand and explained that he had to have six stitches in the skin under his eye, muttering, “It can’t always be the same today as yesterday.” He opened the bathroom door wide, went in and began rinsing his mouth with an orange mouthwash. My brother was proud of his healthy teeth, as of his hard muscles. If he had been born a horse, he would have lived in luxury.
His girlfriend went after him, stood in front of the bathroom and kept asking what had happened. Then, perhaps losing interest on hearing him reply that it was nothing, she went on talking about herself. She pawed the air with her right hand, saying she would go crazy if she was always the same as yesterday. She explained it was because of a crazy woman she had met the day before. The insane woman didn’t like this, didn’t like that, and finally left without paying, and although her hair had been done, the soles of her feet were dirty. She went on to say that if ever she got a shop in a good location she would put washbasins by the window and distribute numbered tickets, making everyone wash their hands and feet on entering. The color of the tickets would be purple, she said, because the shop’s signboard would be purple, then she threw back her head and laughed loudly. As I watched her laughing so loudly, I decided that I was not the only person in the world who was going mad and felt somewhat relieved. Perhaps my brother felt the same.
My brother’s girlfriend visited our house five or six times more. Once she slept in his room for four days. She cooked for me a few times. It was mostly deep-fried food. She also bought me cooking oil and frying powder, as well as a fan with a mauve propeller. A vulgar laugh and a gaudy frilled blouse, endless nonsense, and thin ears that readily fluttered at anyone’s words. In a short time I felt as if I had befriended a lot of things that would remind me of her. I had a vague but urgent feeling that I would remember them for a long time. Perhaps out of the urgency itself, I had been drawing in a lot of things. Her smell was especially good. Let’s say that it was a sweet, bitter, spicy scent resembling sorrow.
“Right, when is it your mom’s coming back?”
“She’ll soon be back, I guess.”
“You’ll speak up and support me, won’t you? We’ll sell the dry cleaner’s and set up a nail shop. We’ll combine it with a hairdresser’s, and later we’ll open a branch. We’ll spray nice perfume about morning and evening, play music. If we feel down, we’ll employ other people and go out for a drive. It’ll be good for everyone, especially your mother.”
“Yes, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
There was nothing funny about the way she talked as if Mom and I had the final say in any decision. So I responded sincerely. As if every big and small dry cleaning shop in the world would worship us. As if people’s foreheads would light up like well-wiped ovens under the hot sun, and we would stamp numbers on them. Then she said that my brother and I really looked alike, cheerfully pointing out that when we were not talking, by the way we pouted and wrinkled our noses, anyone would have known we were brother and sister born of the same mother, we were as alike as loaves of bread baked in the same mold. She also praised the stamina of our dead father, saying that having a child so late in life showed he was someone truly competent. Perhaps she was just being polite, but she went on to say that although she was sorry for what had happened to our father, we had to wash away sorrow with joy. I replied that if he had met her they would have had a lot to talk about, it was a shame. Moreover, her soaring, high-toned laughter, sharp and stabbing, reminded me of my stepfather’s sudden fit of passion, when he stamped on the floor, the veins of his throat suddenly swelling, unable to control his fury. Her words were not completely unfounded. If all of that had a color, it was probably a blend of blue and red, which gives purple. Purple that drives people mad; purple that makes the veins swell; purple that makes people laugh full-throatedly. For her I was ready to lay a purple carpet from the front door to the entrance of my room. For me who had nowhere to go, this place had to be capable of being a different place. However, such an anesthetic relationship soon opened its eyes to reality. It eventually did. One summer’s night, she called at an unexpected hour, the phone ringing loudly and persistently.
“I’m drinking with Gwi-seong and he keeps saying weird things.”
“What do you mean?” I asked slowly, blinking in the darkness.
“He says his real mother’s in the grave now.”
“It’s because he’s drunk, surely?” I responded calmly.
“He says if he sells the dry cleaning shop and pays off his debts, there’ll be nothing left.”
That was the first time I’d heard of it.
“And he keeps spouting senseless philosophy.”
“He says that not having children is good fortune.”
She started to cry.
“He’s talking rubbish because he wants to get rid of me, right?”
“Are you pregnant, by any chance?”
I could not be an aunt, for sure, but at least I could just imagine myself as one for a moment. Then I heard her answer:
“No, it’s worse than that. Gwi-seong started to babble on about his rubbishy philosophy when I told him a lie as a test. He seems to think I got to thirty for nothing. Fucking bastard.”
I heard the sound of a purple signboard being switched off.
I have heard that when they are in a no-win situation people make familiar choices. It was on a late-night radio program. All the crazy things happening around me were struggles to live, but also a kind of escape. Mom believed that her life turned tough because she had met the wrong man at the start and set out on the wrong foot in life, so she brought in a new man for every problem. My deceased stepfather frequently said that in his life he had been obliged to struggle in order to gain his fair share even in very small matters. He couldn’t bear my mother’s youthfulness, the flush of life that had not yet faded, having brought her into his home without any great struggle. He was suspicious and kept trying to start fights until his mental and physical energy was exhausted. As for my stepbrother, he was someone who had for a moment occupied a position in my life as though we shared the same flesh and blood; he was a no-good muscleman, who often talked nonsense, but he could not help it. That was how he was. Someone without a lot of questions, someone who deferred answers. Someone who placed importance on the health of the body, the energy of the organs, and stressed the working order of the metabolism. Someone who could not be a good son. Someone who disliked making decisions. In my nightmares he was the only one who did not want salvation. So when I heard that he had been stabbed beneath a bar’s half-extinguished neon sign one winter’s night at the age of thirty-three on behalf of the people who had betrayed him, I merely found myself thinking it was typical of him. The most reliable darkness along the edges of my unpredictable life.
“Are you superstitious?”
“Then do you believe in jinxes?”
“I do. Shall I tell you about them?”
I do not think my brother made any effort on my behalf. Placed in a time where making an effort was not the answer, we only knew how to consume each other’s feelings and points of view casually, in a way that was not going to be an answer. When we sat with knees drawn up on the spot where the man who had been his father for a good while and briefly my father, too, used to sit, we looked like an as yet unborn brother and sister. Shadows mingled and spread across the walls and the floor, wavering in a cluster.
“Do as you like then, listen or not. When the weather changes and I first put on my winter coat, if I find a banknote in the pocket I have to meet someone new.”
“I have to spend the money on that new person. Then I feel as though I’m wearing a new coat.”
“That doesn’t interest me.”
“You’ll always live a good new life wherever you go. While I’m off to somewhere good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing can always be the same as yesterday.”
“What are you talking about? Where’s this good place you’re off to on your own?”
“Girls! They really make you tired!”
I knew there was the kind of comfort that only such a person could give. Someone who was simply nothing, a simple person who was nothing, someone who was always the same to me. Someone who was nothing yet something.
I waited for Mom to come home. At first, I just waited for her to come back. She was the person who had built a bridge between me and the strange world. Someone whose life had become what lies between what she had gained and what she had lost through having me. Then I waited for Mom in another way. When she came back, we would start off differently. My brother might be just a brother or more than a brother or less than a brother. In any case, even if he was not a person but a thoughtless creature living in a world of horses galloping ahead wearing blinders to block the sides, it seemed I might be willing to go further with him. Passing through sadness can reproduce the energy of life only by such an effort to be able to handle even many other sorrows. I am someone in need of resolve, of reckless resolve. Someone wanting to put her heart and determination together here and there. Someone wanting to swear a blood oath. Someone whose age never felt right.
I found my mom’s dress in the closet, my brother’s sunglasses in a chest of drawers, dressed up and went out alone into the streets where I had once hung out with my fun-loving friends. There I met someone. It was a man who did not know me and did not want to know about me. He was a skinny man in his forties who knew how to show his curiosity about a girl like me and was good with words. Until I became aware of his gaze, I had been sitting idly on a bench watching people go by as if it was the last sight I would ever see in this world. So when I realized I was the object of someone’s gaze, I was flustered and dropped my purse on the ground. As I bowed my head to pick up my purse, the tip of my hair touched the ground, and the oversized sunglasses that I had perched on the tip of my nose fell off.
“Are you all right?”
Finally the man spoke, approaching with gentle gestures. He had a document envelope hanging on his right side and was wearing cowhide sandals. It was a hot day, but he was wearing a light-blue long-sleeved linen jacket. On the front of the white T-shirt he was wearing underneath, there were holes scattered like drops of water and every time he moved, his ankles were slightly exposed under the narrow hems of light gray pants. His nose was sharply pointed and his eyes slightly tilted upward. He asked again:
“You don’t look all right, I’ve been watching you. Can I sit here?”
I drew my legs together, adjusted my dress and expression, but did not walk away when he sat down beside me. I wanted to look like an experienced woman. Besides, I no longer wanted to become lost in any place, any relationship.
“What do you do?”
“Oh, this and that. Aren’t you hungry?”
I let him chatter away to his heart’s content. Back in his twenties, he had been a local radio DJ. Now, he was running an online shopping mall with some partners, trying to expand it to cover three or four different items. He was about to enter the Chinese market. He had many hobbies. He was good at bowling, expert at billiards, learning golf hard, and most of all he enjoyed speed. There was a dry wind blowing over the world he inhabited. Like a desert. But whenever a girl like me cried moist tears it would turn into a garden, a secret garden with flowers blooming that could be beautiful enough, even if it was only the size of a palm. If someone opened the door to that, a new window on life would open.
“Yes, I have a vacation coming up soon.”
“Your lovely smile makes my heart beat fast.”
The ability to spot the risk of losing one’s way amidst many people walking about as though they’re fine under a scorching sun and the complex maze of multiple circuits and forests of buildings connecting the busily spinning affairs of the world. That strange, wonderful ability to detect the signal risk lights up. I wanted to give him a reward.
“Give me your phone number.”
He smiled faintly as he bowed his head, groped about in his document envelope, ripped out a sheet of paper, and wrote down his phone number. Timidly small figures standing in a slanting line on a scrap of graph paper with small wrinkles on the ripped-off part.
“You’ll have to wait. I’m no easy girl.”
I spoke in a cool voice, but as if holding back tears. As if saying, I’ll cry for you, just wait. It seemed that what was acquired and what was innate in me, my movements and the sound of my words were finally synchronized, so that the blood in my body was circulating rapidly. I walked as if I was out of my mind. I walked back home at the cost of blistered feet. My brother had not been home for several days. Nothing happened, like my brother’s new girlfriend ringing the doorbell. I poured cooking oil into a frying pan and fried everything that could be fried. Fried, then threw it away; fried, then threw it away, fried, then threw it away.
People say, people are always saying, that life is bitter and sweet, long and short, that doors close and open in unexpected places, that there is darkness even in places where there is light, there is laughter even in places where there are tears, and so they go on colliding, things happen, happen, happen, they say. A season’s breathing has a common feel just like a season’s radio comments, so sometimes I focused my whole being as I ranged to and fro between one frequency and another, and endlessly, as if night were day and day were night, I laid down everything inside me such as painful confessions, the sound of others laughing, complaining, telling tales and criticizing; I swam in them, sometimes trying to get swept away, while a day or two or other time-spans expanded and contracted, while I endured the unbearable feelings that knocked on my heart. I starved until I felt utterly numb. Guessing at the farewell to be spoken by somebody who would show up and press the doorbell, or imagining the feelings of being well or not well which I could not even guess at and then giving up, such were the things I conjured up and erased. I thought that people distant or nearby might all be some kind of optical illusion. As if I had decided to stay alone at home as an alibi for a life that I could not liquidate easily and that could not be liquidated, I often thought of going home once I went outside. To the house that was not my house. Then, growing angry as if realizing afresh that all this frequent endurance was not worth pursuing, I phoned my brother. The man who was not my true brother.
“You and Mom took my place.”
“What’s up? I’ve been sick as a dog.”
“You took my place. I’m the one who should be sick as a dog and able to leave home. Everyone’s going too far.”
I cried, wiping my nose over and over again. “All the women able to cry come to me and cry,” he said, “Women!”
“How are you sick?”
I worried about the sickness of this guy who had taken my place. I worried as if I was admitting that I had no place to start with. It’s sad seeing a muscleman who’s sick. It’s sad seeing a sturdy racehorse fall. It reminds you of some kind of execution. A gunshot. Yet, no sound of moaning comes to mind. It is more wretched than sorrow to imagine that in a place where you cannot check it. Asking “Are you okay?” while shaking your head in fear.
“No news is good news.” I pictured my brother smiling. The teeth and cheekbones all glistening.
“I didn’t know anyone was worried about me like that. That’s why.”
“Is that odd? Is that really so odd?”
Then I hung up the phone.
I felt sick as if my throat was blocked. Had the hunger moved up to my neck? Did I only have any sensation left in my throat, so that my pain was clamoring and pleading there? I brewed some barley tea and drank it. I crouched among the things I had tidied up, wiped clean, and rolled around there. I focused on the concrete feeling of my body touching something and moving away from it. My hair scattered over the floor, wrapped round my neck, covered my face.
Autumn’s too far off. I will not give autumn a chance. I will not forgive, nor will I ask for forgiveness. I rose and looked for my bag. I pulled out my wallet and found the graph paper I had stuffed into the loose change pocket. I spread out the tightly wadded piece of paper, laboriously went over the tiny figures, then dialed the number.
The man took my call in a very small voice after five rings. “Who is this?” A voice that cracked slightly at the end. I did not know his name. So my words had to swing back and forth between us like wind blowing from a distance, like a smell borne on the wind, as if swirling about among strangers getting off together at a bus stop. The bench on which our eyes first met, the light that afternoon — swaying furtively as if we needed to correlate all the hints life had given us.
The man paused briefly before he replied, as if reading from a script, that anyway he had been waiting. I liked that obvious lie.
“Shall we meet?”
It seems that there is always a slightly ominous undercurrent to any feeling that things are going well. I repeated my address twice, then had him read it back once, checking how clear it sounded. All the while accepting how strange my life’s home or people’s place names are.
“But today’s tricky.”
He added the condition as if taking one step back. A man holding my address in one hand and taking one step back.
“Today’s my mother’s birthday.”
He spoke as if he was swaying.
“She’s in a nursing home now.”
“My mother is in hospital, too.”
“Yeah. I’m alone for a while. A while’s not a very long time, though. Is it?”
“Do you think I’m lying?”
“Why would you lie?”
“Right? It’s my birthday, too. Twenty-two.”
“A good age.”
“There’s no need to ruin a good time because of a nursing home, right? I feel good now.”
“Don’t bother with a cake, bring some flowers when you come, purple ones.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
The man made me wait. I washed, dressed, combed my hair, and waited patiently for the doorbell to ring. It was the easiest, most light-hearted wait compared with all my other waits. The man brought a purple flower. Just one vaguely purple one bent over among some white flowers. I was not satisfied but I accepted it merrily. The skinny man and I slept together, but it was not such a great experience as people claim. He seemed to be having a hard time, and I fell asleep worrying it might result in a baby. In that night’s dream our house burned to ashes. They say dreaming of a fire is a good dream. I thought that while I was still dreaming, and opened my eyes. I greeted the dawn with opened eyes then shut them again for a while, until I heard the man scuffling around, and woke again.
“You didn’t make it to the nursing home.”
The man pulled the curtains apart, daylight came pouring in, revealing his skinny back. The bone stretching the whole length of his skinny back.
“You’ve got a snake on your back.”
“It’s a star.”
“It’s not. It’s just a bone.”
“It’s a constellation.”
He turned his back this way and that, making me laugh briefly. We didn’t see each other for very long. Still, he somehow managed to sit down with me and my brother for a meal at our house. He displayed remarkable agility in coping with the situation; the role he quickly adopted was that of my homeroom teacher.
At my brother’s careless question we all laughed, it seems.
It was midday by that time, but in my memory the daylight always disappears at that point. All is quiet and peaceful.
Mom came back home and I transferred to a school with a dormitory attached. I assume that between my stepbrother and my mom there was nothing to blush or raise their voices about. Ten months later Mom married a new man, while I graduated from high school and got a job at a beauty salon. I worked earnestly beyond my abilities, and was given short vacations; I used to think I had lived through all those days for the sake of those vacations, but people saw it quite differently. They seemed to think: “There must be some reason why she works so hard.” So I was embarrassed, like someone who’d been found out at some awkward moment, and thought that nobody, myself included, knew me well. When I had any free time, I would make short trips, emptying my purse in the process. Thoughtlessly, as someone who counts for nothing, I went flying off into another life then returned to my previous life.
From time to time I talked with my brother over the phone. Sometimes he would call first, sometimes I would call first. The conversations never lasted long. When we lost touch I thought: “No news is good news.” Then one day I saw the nail artist who liked purple by chance on the street. Unlike in the old days, she was wearing no makeup and was simply dressed. She was holding a child’s hand while crossing the road, but when the child started to whine she shouted something at it and went marching ahead on her own. The child sank down on the ground and began to cry loudly and persistently. Some other person, unable to bear the sight, picked up the child instead and comforted it, then handed it back to her. I reflected that the things I had once felt desperate about were somehow going on endlessly somewhere, dressed in the clothes of ordinary life, but it was not a new enlightenment.
I was at Incheon airport when my mom told me about my brother’s surgery. The call came from my mother just when I had finished the departure procedures on my way to spend three days in Beijing. Mom was depressed because the first time she saw my brother in several years had to be an occasion like this.
“They said I was at the top of the list of his recent calls. Did he know this would happen? He just suddenly called, said a few words about you, then hung up. But at the time I didn’t think anything of it, since that’s how he always was ...”
Mom told me that he had lost a lot of blood and had been in a critical condition, but fortunately the worst was over, his blood type did not match with hers, but he could receive blood from his new father. As I boarded the plane, for the first time in my life I clung to the uncertain assurance that there might be a god. It wasn’t because I was overcome with emotion as I anticipated his recovery or as I imagined my new father lying beside my stepbrother and being able to share his blood. It was because a picture I had found when I was packing the previous night was in my bag.
That day, at that moment, my brother looked at me, I looked at him, and the man who was pretending to be my teacher looked at us alternately.
“Yes. Now sit there together, the two of you, facing each other.”
“Like this?” My brother asked.
“Yes, that’s it.” He answered.
“Are you going to draw us now?”
“Yeah. I want to draw you, now.”
“Is it going to be hung up somewhere once it’s finished?”
“Would you like it as a present? But I’ll take it home first, work on it a bit more, and give it to you next time.”
He probably made me and my brother pose to avoid further conversation. I meekly did as I was told. Later, he really did give me the picture as a present, and it was surprisingly skillful, even though it was meant as a joke.
In the picture, my brother and I are sitting facing each other. On one side there is a half-open door, and outside it is very bright. We are in the dark, me naked and my brother dressed in his everyday clothes. In real life, my brother liked to walk around without his clothes on, utterly unconcerned. But the person who drew the picture was able to depict only my naked body. With both hands I am gathering my hair on the top of my head while my brother, slightly leaning forward, has one arm stretched out on the table. The palm is facing upwards. What’s the next scene, I wonder. If I drop my hands my hair will fall. I will then calmly rest one cheek in my brother’s upturned palm. The pictures that have not been drawn will be placed next to the picture that has been.
“Does it look perverted?”
The man who was neither an artist nor a teacher asked me, and I, who was as much myself as I could be, answered in a husky voice.
“No. I like it.”
The day I first saw the picture, I cried, but now I no longer cry as I did that day. I really cried my fill during those days when I lied the most. That may be why. In the darkness that I once passed through, I was naked, dangerous, and beautiful. In the lies and pain of occluded days there may be something more truthful than truth, but time past does not return. And sometimes, even when I was far away, it was only in that abyss that I felt a sense of total emancipation.