By Kang Young-sook
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts
(The Korea Foundation) Vol. 32, No. 2 Summer, 2018.
Pages 94 - 103.
in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts
(The Korea Foundation) Vol. 32, No. 2 Summer, 2018.
Pages 94 - 103.
Jin-uk was living a life in which there seemed to be almost no possibility of anything bad ever happening. Then one day he had his palm read during a perfectly ordinary evening get-together. The person who read his palm was a woman living with a friend who happened to be present that day. He had a feeling that he was being dominated by the woman’s gently rounded shoulders and her somehow over-relaxed attitude. She did not seem a good match for his skinny friend, yet in some way they were well matched. As the wine glasses circulated, each person in turn held out a palm to the woman. None of them was without a job, they were all earning a good enough living, so he wondered what they would want to know, and although they were friends he met frequently, they seemed unfamiliar. Anyway, since Jin-uk had never believed in that kind of stuff, his only concern was not to disturb the mood of the evening. His turn came. The woman examined Jin-uk’s right hand and left hand alternately for a long time. She took so long that the other friends began to lose interest. Then the woman said something; so far as Jin-uk could remember, it was something close to a definition of the lines on the palm. The lines on the palm, she said, are lines left by things happening to friends that have no relation to a person’s life, and by things happening to family members. But why would things happening to other people remain in his palm?
Jin-uk tried to pull his hand back. He wanted her to stop. If the farce was only going to end when someone put a stop to it, that person would have to be he himself, he reckoned. He told her, let’s stop it now. Actually, Jin-uk wanted to address the friend, not the palm-reading woman. Hey, take her away, tell her to bugger off. What’s all this palm-reading junk? The wine glasses, which had served to set the mood, were now standing unused in the middle of the table, while everyone was pouring a mix of beer and soju. Then the woman spoke again. “Why can’t I see anything? There’s nothing there. It’s blank.” He could not say for sure that it was because of those words, but he found he could neither drink, nor eat the snacks, but neither could he be the first to leave. He tried to stay seated there, nonchalantly, as if he had heard nothing. Later, he had a feeling that blood was about to come bursting from his ears. It was because the woman had said that she could not see his future. The sounds of laughter, of food being chewed, the footsteps of waiters bringing drinks, the music that verged on being a ruckus, people replying to ringing cell phones, he could not stand any of it. And more difficult than anything else was his own confusion. At that moment, Jin-uk was engulfed in a feeling that he was being crushed, buried in something infinitely vast and atrocious. Anyway, Jin-uk finally left the restaurant first, after taking the woman’s business card and stuffing it into his bag like the others.
For quite a while Jin-uk had been working at H Bank. He was not an ordinary bank clerk who just sat there quietly, looking after his health. He always worked aggressively so as to be a model for others. He was full of confidence and comforted himself with the thought that he had absolutely no problems.
It had happened one day a few years ago, just a couple of days after the New Year, when tires could be heard skidding in the snow-covered parking lot in front of the bank. Whenever a person left the bank, two others came in. The tellers were busy serving the increasing number of customers. Then a woman in a black coat walked in. People wearing black coats were common enough. But that particular black seemed strangely intense, like pitch, and it sparkled. Jin-uk had been sitting at his desk behind the tellers at the counter, but the moment his eyes met those of the customer, he stood up without thinking and went out into the public area. There he escorted her to an unoccupied position. The woman sat down on the chair but did not speak for a while, simply staring down at her hands. Although her hands were folded, the nails with their transparent varnish looked neat and modest. Then the woman began to speak, and strangely, he found himself concentrating more and more on the sound of her voice. The woman said she was soon going abroad and asked him to raise her overdraft as much as possible. “I need some money. I’ll be out of the country for a long time. But I’m busy right now so I’ll come back later. Please take care of it.” She got up and laid the passbook and her personal seal on the counter. Hers was an overdignified attitude, as if she was collecting money she had deposited. Jin-uk briefly called up her credit status on the terminal screen. It was as bad as could be. There was no money coming in regularly, and almost no savings. There was no knowing what money she was using to go abroad, and he grew more curious. The woman had already stood up and was on her way out when he called to her in a loud voice. “There’s a part you have to write for yourself. Please wait a moment and sign before you go.” More and more customers were coming into the bank. The woman made several phone calls, saying goodbye to people, as she was leaving Seoul. Jin-uk looked at the woman again, but she was sitting there quietly with almost no movement. He waited patiently while the appointed teller dealt with a previous client. As he did so, he began to detect a strange scent tickling his nostrils. Since the odd scent lingered in his nose he began to explore it. It was a scent that gave the feeling that the shadow of a tiger was lurking behind the modest-looking face, one that did not match the image he had of her at all. He only discovered later that the smell was a special kind of perfume that the woman liked. The scent, like someone very experienced and crafty, was quite overpowering. Up to that moment, he had no idea what would come along together with the perfume. As soon as the previous customer’s business was dealt with, he told the clerk to hurry up. And the clerk, a fairly new employee, showed plainly that he was embarrassed by the way his superior was suddenly interfering in his work. As the woman was getting up to leave, he quickly pulled his name card out of his jacket pocket and gave it to her. It was a business card with his cell phone number on it, one he did not give to just anyone. That kind of encounter was a very common thing, and Jin-uk knew very well that people did not become lovers just because of that. Nevertheless, Jin-uk did not break up with that customer, Su-yeon, for a very long time.
Su-yeon sat eating noodles at a stall in the middle of a market. It was something recent for her, this roaming around alone to eat. A magazine had made a survey asking people what dish they wanted to eat before they died and she read that a famous elderly celebrity had replied noodles boiled in red-bean broth. She imagined to herself red-bean broth spreading over white cloth, and for some reason the image remained in her head for a long time. Su-yeon recalled how, whenever she asked questions about her childhood, her mother used to talk about noodles ad nauseam. “When you were a kid, we had nothing but noodles to eat. Not the nice long ones hanging from the wooden plank. Once the best part had been cut off, I boiled the ends that were left over and we ate them mixed with soy sauce and crushed sesame seeds. There was nothing else. I was afraid that you would die, eating nothing but noodles. I thought that my children would die of eating noodles.” Strangely, Su-yeon felt saliva pooling in her mouth when she recalled her mother’s words.
The apartment where Su-yeon lived lay a ten-minute walk up a slightly sloping hill past a market alley. Whenever she went out, Su-yeon did not return straight home but lingered at the market entrance. Even when she was returning home after shopping for a designer handbag or luxury cosmetics, she did not immediately go back to the apartment, but walked round the market. A hunger that could not be satisfied even by shopping at a department store could be dealt with simply by eating tempura or stir-fried rice cakes. When she put some cut-price sweet potatoes or lettuce in a black plastic bag and stuffed that into her shopping bag, she looked up at her home as if it belonged to someone else. One apartment building was being built next to another, one town next to another. All the houses seemed to have been flattened, except for the high-rise apartments in the new town development. The owner of the tiny hole-in-the-wall store was always sitting in front of his TV, looking down at the newspaper, then pushing up his glasses.
He was always sitting in the same position, but when she entered the store, he would stand up, offer to shake hands, and start to chatter. Once he began, he would always boast that he had worked hard and sent all his children to college. This time, as usual, as soon as Su-yeon came in, after a handshake, without asking, he took out a bottle of water, opened it, pushed it into her hand, then looked down at the newspaper again. Su-yeon sat down on a round wooden stool, brought the bottle to her lips and drank. Why am I sitting like this on a round wooden stool in a dark, smelly store full of metal shelving? Su-yeon thought, as she chewed on the water in her mouth with her teeth. The old man picked at his nose, rolled the pickings between his fingers, then dropped them on the newspaper. Customers pushed open the glass door:
“Do you have any sugar substitute?”
“Do you have any Andong Soju?”
“Why don’t you have any brown sugar? You had it before.”
“I want to buy some glass noodles.”
Whenever someone came in and began to say something, the old man would start pouring out words like a flowing tap. “With this little store I’ve put three kids through college. One went to study in America and still lives there.” “Well, well.” Su-yeon nodded. “Grandpa, you told me about your children last time. Please stop talking.” Su-yeon shouted loudly and the old man stared at her. Talking about running a hole-in-the-wall store, raising children and educating them was a whole life: Su-yeon was just someone sitting briefly in the store on the round, yellow stool. Su-yeon looked down at the large paper bag holding a designer handbag as it stood on the black cement floor. Then the old man spoke again. “Those ignorant people don’t realize that Seoul’s population is shrinking. I don’t know why they keep building apartments when nobody’s having any babies. Oh, it’s all here in the newspaper, isn’t it?” The noise of digging could be heard coming from the apartment construction site. There was a lot of noise, it being rocky ground. Su-yeon was about to say something, then gave up. Instead, she gave another wry smile. In actual fact, Su-yeon thought of nothing but Jin-uk, twenty-four hours a day. Abuse, abuse, violent, abusive words. The sense of unity that they once had with each other had vanished in continuous verbal abuse. Her face was distorted and her body unspeakably weary. She wished Jin-uk was dead. “Since he knows all my evil deeds, I wish he’d die and disappear.” Sitting on the round, yellow stool she talked to herself like an actress. Above the store owner’s head, a news report emerged about a man who had thrown away a ten-month-old baby while arguing with his wife about the cost of living. The announcer explained that in a fit of temporary madness, he had taken the baby for a doll. The baby was born not knowing that its parents didn’t have any money. Even if it had known, it could not have avoided being born, being pushed forcefully down its mother’s vagina, ceaselessly like a screw. Su-yeon could understand the baby’s position. But she could not understand Jin-uk. Su-yeon had been attracted to Jin-uk because he worked at a bank. As a banker, she had wanted him to control her compulsive overspending and return everything to normal, be it her bank account or her debts. That was all.
“You’re good drinkers!”
The four people sitting at the next table were eating meat. The remark was made by a woman who seemed to be the mother of the children. Jin-uk and his high-school friend were also drinking soju at the next table to wash down the meat. The friend turned over the meat using the chopsticks he had been eating with, then piled it onto Jin-uk’s plate.
“So what are you doing now you’ve quit the bank? You’re crazy, quitting at your age; you think you’re in your thirties?”
Jin-uk was uncomfortable with the air in D city. People knew the exact number of spoons in each other’s houses, and the air all seemed to have the same color and weight. He always hated coming back to his hometown.
“Don’t let it worry you. Look, you dickhead, stop turning the meat over with your chopsticks. It’s disgusting.”
Jin-uk scolded his friend sullenly, but his eyes kept being drawn to the table next to theirs.
“A woman should act like a woman; a woman should not drink too much.”
The woman who seemed to be the mother had spoken to the girl who seemed to be her daughter. The young girl, whose hair was tied in a tight ponytail, emptied her soju glass in a single gulp, then received another glassful from the man sitting directly in front of her. There was something odd about what looked at first to be an ordinary family of four. His friend continued to turn over the meat with his chopsticks, whether Jin-uk liked it or not.
“It’s good to be a strong drinker. A woman’s no less a woman for drinking well, is she?”
The man spoke the distinctive dialect of D city, with a strong accent.
“Stop eating meat and eat some rice.” The woman who seemed to be the mother told the children.
“What are you talking about? Order some more meat.” The man spoke again.
“That’s enough meat, let’s just eat rice.” The woman who seemed to be the mother, refusing to give up, went on insisting.
“Let’s have more meat.” The man was persistent. His friend briefly glanced at the table next to them, then continued turning over the meat with his chopsticks.
“Dear, let’s stop. The kids are full, they can’t eat any more.” When the woman who seemed to be the mother spoke again, frowning fiercely, the man shouted at her.
“What are you talking about? Here, give us four more servings of rib fingers. Let’s have some more meat. Eat up.”
While the two were arguing, the girl quickly drank the soju in her glass.
Jin-uk went outside to smoke a cigarette. The temperature, which during the day had risen above freezing, had grown cold as stone with nightfall. Jin-uk stood at the edge of the sidewalk, smoking, then looked round on hearing a phone ring. The girl who had been sitting at the next table had opened the door, come out and walked around the corner of the restaurant, and was standing in front of the wall. There she lit a cigarette, then took out her phone. Jin-uk went on smoking as though he had not seen her.
“Rib fingers are the cheapest meat you can get. Even if you eat till you burst, it costs less than 100,000 won. It’s mean and crappy to make a thing of paying the bill. Pisses me off!”
Across the road, behind the forest of high-rise apartments, he saw a collection of lights that seemed to have been tossed up onto the top of the hill. Although the whole neighborhood had been designated for redevelopment, some small houses still remained up there on top of the hill. All the brothers used to eat breakfast rapidly, grab their lunch boxes, then go racing down the alley as if they had popped out of a small barrel. Jin-uk had tried hard to erase the small room, which used to seem as if it was about to burst, and the narrow alley from his head. Because his goal was to get a job at a bank and to rise as far as he could, he repeated every day: “I want to be a banker! I want to be an international banker!”
“Woody Allen? That guy? A film star, or is he a movie director? Don’t worry, he’s not like that. What do you mean, Woody Allen! He’s just a local guy who’s frickin’ ancient.”
The girl spoke as she stubbed out the cigarette on the ground with the toe of her sneakers.
“I’d better be getting back.”
The girl took out a breath freshener from her pocket and sprayed her mouth with it. She glanced at Jin-uk, who had drawn closer and was standing at the door. Her eyes were full of revolt.
As soon as he returned to his seat, his friend snapped at him.
“Are you crazy? You’re already over forty and you’ve taken early retirement?”
The woman who seemed to be the mother at the next table likewise could not keep quiet.
“Where’s that smell of cigarettes coming from?”
The girl was still looking down and in a flash, without thinking, Jin-uk addressed the woman who seemed to be the mother.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just came in from smoking a cigarette.”
The woman who seemed to be the mother immediately gave Jin-uk a dazzling smile.
Every time the voice of the friend scolding Jin-uk grew louder, the high-school girl at the other table turned her head briefly and looked at their table. Then, when Jin-uk stared at her she looked back at her own table.
“Lonely! Lonely? You dickhead! The other guys’ kids are already grown up and at university while you’re still not married. Dickhead! Shall I call someone for you to sleep with? Lonely? You’re lonely, aren’t you? You idiot. Stupid idiot.” They had walked from the restaurant to the hotel, which was less than five minutes away, and as they entered the lobby, his friend grabbed Jin-uk and blabbered. He went so far as to rub his mouth, from which a strong garlic smell was issuing, against his cheek. Holding each other by the shoulders, they hugged for a good while. Jin-uk pushed back the curtain in his hotel room and lay down on the bed. Judging by the noise of the cars, the high-rise buildings and the brightness of the lights, the town was now a mammoth city. Jin-uk’s brothers had all left and settled down in other cities. When their father died, the brothers and their children gathered. The brothers showed no sign of sorrow, like people with no birth-parents, no roots. Even when they viewed their father’s body, their expressions seemed to suggest they had left everything important at home. Of course, he had not cried either. He heard the door of the room next to his open, then the wardrobe door. He could hear the sound of footsteps, the door creaking. Jin-uk did not feel like sleeping so he slipped on his coat and went out. He walked once around the empty hotel lobby, the coffee shop with no customers, then went down to the basement sauna floor. The sauna was already closed. On the way back to his room, he pushed open the front door of the hotel and went outside. He bought cigarettes, then looked back into the convenience store. Some kids were eating cup noodles.
Jin-uk had come out of the convenience store and was pushing open the front door of the hotel. It was the girl who had smoked a cigarette at the restaurant.
“Can you give me some money?”
He smiled when he heard the girl speak.
He had to say something, but he had nothing to say, so without thinking he said that. The girl did not give up and tried to follow him into the hotel lobby. He pulled out his wallet and handed all the cash in it to the girl. She looked delighted and vanished, opening her cell phone as she went.
He took off his shoes and sat down on the sofa beside the table. Then he took a white envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket. Inside there was a sheet of white paper with the lines of a palm in blue. He imitated the woman who had read his fortune, first wiping both palms with wet wipes and then blowing on them. It seemed important to dry them well without leaving any moisture. Next, he took out of his bag an ink-pad he had bought at a stationery store and used a sponge to smear the ink over his palms. He lifted both hands and shook them, then looked for a sheet of paper. He could find none. He saw the smooth white sheet spread over the bed and pressed both hands gently onto that. Then he looked down at the sheet, hoping that thin lines would appear on the white surface.
Everything was covered in snow. Once the car was on the highway, Jin-uk pulled out the pack of soju he had bought at the convenience store, inserted the straw, and drank it as if it were a health tonic. Over the barbed wire fence below the road rose things like gimlets, twigs, and thorns, piercing the white snow-covered landscape. Birds gathered on them. A red truck waited at the traffic lights. It was a Coca-Cola truck with only the logo in black. He sped along behind the Coca-Cola truck for a while. Soon after, his navigation system stopped working. Jin-uk parked in an empty space beside a traffic light. The truck with the Coca-Cola logo could be seen disappearing into the snowy white landscape. Jin-uk started to walk aimlessly.
A group of women in navy sweaters were standing in front of a dried-up puddle. With their identical dresses and platform sandals, they looked like nurses. The women glanced at Jin-uk who was standing on the other side of the street, smoking a cigarette, as they stripped away the vinyl wrappings from plastic buckets. Then, as they poured the contents of the purple plastic pails into the puddle, each held her nose. Jin-uk took out a new cigarette and lit it. The nurses sat down in a line in front of the pit with their thighs exposed. They were trying to free their shoes from the muddy ground. Jin-uk staggered toward the nurses. The hair over their brows was lifted skyward as a flurry of wind mixed with snow passed. “I’m going to withdraw my installment savings next month.” One nurse spoke as she brushed back her hair with her hand. “Buy us a pizza!” The nurses were exchanging that kind of small talk. “Tell the director to freeze this more. Look at that wriggling. It’s disgusting!” A nurse spoke as she pointed at the puddle.
“Hey! You! You’re not allowed in here. Get out. This is the hospital’s waste treatment plant.” A man wearing a mask appeared and waved his arms as he shouted at Jin-uk. He seemed to be an employee of the disinfection company, full of a sense of duty as he stood alone in the field. It was a vacant lot of unspecified use surrounded by a gray wall. There were two trucks standing at the far end of the wall, where plastic pails and cardboard boxes were piled neatly on one side. Jin-uk slowly went outside of the walled area and walked past the nurses gathered in front of the truck. He wanted to say something to the nurses, but felt too awkward. “Do you have to be good at math to become a nurse?” Jin-uk asked suddenly. The nurses laughed loudly, tilting backward.
His friend’s house stood on its own right by the roadside. Jin-uk was supposed to meet his friend’s mother. She was so old that she could no longer hear or smell anything. Oddly enough, though she could understand nothing else, she immediately recognized the name of her son. But that was all. Jin-uk soon gave up trying to communicate and lay down on the warm floor of the room. He dozed off and when he awoke, the old woman was sitting there, looking down at him. Try as he might, he could find nothing about her that resembled his friend. Perhaps the side profile as she sat quietly with her head slightly bent was the only aspect that resembled his friend. His whole body was soaked with sweat, his throat was dry, his lips felt as though they were cracking. The old woman was still sitting beside him, not saying a word, darning socks, trimming worm-like, dried greens, coughing slightly as she smoked a cigarette. Jin-uk went back to sleep again. Suddenly, he had the feeling that Su-yeon had come and was lying beside him, pressing her lips to his, touching his stomach with her cold hands. He felt warm just imagining it. But no matter how he tried to reach her lips, he could not touch her or hold her face with his hands. At some point, Su-yeon was gone and he had the feeling that the old woman was touching his groin, at which he opened his eyes abruptly. Somehow, his body felt light, like a sheet of paper.
When he next woke up with his shirt clammy, one other person was sitting in the room. Jin-uk immediately rose to a sitting position. “I’m the kid’s younger uncle. My brother passed away early. I wish the kid were here.” He seemed to be talking about K, while K’s mother remained silent. While K’s uncle and mother smoked, Jin-uk pushed open the rattling door and went outside. The street, the hills, everything in front of him were all so dark that he felt he could not breathe. “Sis, just go to bed now. I’m going home.” After a while, the uncle emerged, put on his shoes and walked away into the darkness, speaking as he went. “Tomorrow I’ll bring a bottle of liquor. Let’s have a drink. Don’t go, stay one more day.” K’s uncle disappeared into the darkness, while his tottering footsteps continued to be heard. Jin-uk took out the envelope containing the money K had asked him to deliver and placed it on the floor by the wall.
Su-yeon was standing at the entrance of the subway station. It had started to rain just as she was coming out of the station so she couldn’t start out right away. The woman she had spoken with on the phone said she was from China. Nowadays everything came from China and she reckoned it would be all right; she was planning to take the potion with strong Chinese liquor, nearly 50 degrees proof.
“It’ll soon be over. All the people who used it have said the same.”
Su-yeon could not believe what the woman from China said. “Do you mean dead people really come back to life and say that?” “No, of course not,” she replied and added, “they’d already performed experiments on animals in China. Thorough experiments. It’s guaranteed.” Anyway, Su-yeon decided to meet the Chinese woman. Saying she was going to buy the potion did not mean she was going to take it right away. She did not know what she would do if Jin-uk said something extreme, so she just wanted to have it with her. “I only know Jongno. I’ll wait outside the subway station.” The Chinese woman was resolute.
Su-yeon was standing beneath the awning of a cell phone store beside some workers from a subway construction site. The cigarette smoke they were exhaling came straight toward her. The workers’ hands, clothes and shoes were all covered with gray dust, and they were smoking hard. “How about ashy brown? I think that color would suit you.” Suddenly, she was hearing things. It was something the hairdresser always said when she went to have her hair dyed, though she did not even know what ashy meant. But now the word suddenly made sense to her in isolation, even without explanation. The workmen grumbling beside her did not have dyed hair, but because they were all the time covered in dust their hair was automatically ashy brown. “And this month’s card bill is no joke.” A not so tall worker spoke up, still smoking. “We spend all day digging and the card company gets all the benefit.”
A fairly tall worker with curly hair standing next to her chimed in. “I wish I were buried down there, dead. Suppose we blow up the card company?” The smaller one said, motioning with his jaw toward the construction site for the subway station expansion. The smell of dust, of clay, and oil mixed with subterranean moisture emitted by the bodies of the workers filled her nostrils. “It’s too difficult, I can’t go on living like this.” There was no knowing who had spoken. Su-yeon hurried over to a streetside kiosk, bought a bottle of water and drank from it. As she swallowed the lukewarm water she gazed blankly at the construction site. The site, its rebars and wooden beams surrounded by gray containers, shuddered tremulously. Su-yeon dropped the bottle she was holding and sank to the ground. There came the sound of an explosion and from the construction site the sound of people screaming. The men standing under the awning all squeezed their way across the sunken street and went running toward the construction site. Su-yeon fell forward, covering her head with her arms. She was unable to meet the woman from China.
“You really should dye your hair an ash brown color.” The hairdresser twisted her hair with her fingers as she spoke. Su-yeon told her to do whatever she wanted. She surrendered her head and shoulders to the hairdresser and sat there quietly. She closed her eyes and dozed off briefly, then came to her senses with a startle, her knees trembling. She was once again surprised on seeing the person in front of her in the mirror. She was glad that she could always change her appearance in this way and so manage to get away from herself. In the space between the face she knew and the face she wanted, she was able to breathe. Su-yeon went back home and sat leaning against the three-meter-wide wardrobe decorated with mother-of-pearl. The wardrobe seemed like a giant waterfall that would soon be falling over her back. She slowly pressed harder against it, but she was troubled by the feeling of a weight that seemed about to come pouring down. Su-yeon relaxed her body and propped her legs against the wardrobe, lying flat on the floor and spreading her arms wide. Liquid came flowing from her eyes as if she had used eye drops.
She went out into the living room and turned on the TV. The screen lit up, showing bobsled athletes preparing to compete. One of the athletes said, “You wouldn’t know how painful it is to resist the pull of gravity racing at nearly 150 kilometers per hour. But once the season is over, I soon miss that terrible pain.” Su-yeon closed her eyes without realizing it. The crowd at the bobsled track stood watching how fast a two-man or a four-man team lying flat could go speeding down a track of ice enclosed in ice walls. The camera fixed to the helmet of the team member who had been interviewed went speeding headlong down the icy track.
The construction site for the new town apartment complex was so close that the sound of piles being driven into the ground could be heard all day long. The noise seemed to be spreading via Su-yeon’s body to the whole apartment, so whenever it grew louder she would cover her ears with her hands. She dreamed that she fell into a river, and when she got out of the water, she could not find Jin-uk. She sat down by the river and cried bitterly. In the dream she walked out of the water alone, while Jin-uk had disappeared. There could be no worse nightmare than that. Su-yeon continued to cry. Because she was only crying in her dreams, she did not feel sick or sore as when she cried in reality.
Su-yeon took the business card of the woman who had read Jin-uk’s palm and boarded Subway Line 4. She had been to Gwacheon Grand Park and the Racecourse before, but once the train headed toward Ansan, she could hardly remember the geography of its route. The palm-reading woman’s office was located in the center of Gwacheon city. In the small officetel room there were two desks, and next to the entrance where slippers were set out for visitors, there was a water purifier with a business card holder on it. Colored threads decorating the ceiling produced a rather mysterious, yet cheery atmosphere. She did not want to say she was someone’s girlfriend or anything like that. The woman offered her a cup of tea, then wiped her palms and smeared them with blue ink, as she had done to Jin-uk and the others. She took a few prints on clean sheets of white paper, put the best on the desk, and began to examine it closely. After studying the lines for a while she picked up a magic marker. Lines marked in red and lines in blue; soon the lines formed a single image.
“If you think something is bad, it is bad, but if you know beforehand that something is bad, you can take care and try to avoid it.” The woman stroked a vase of roses set on the table as she spoke. “There are some people where I can see nothing. That means death. People with no future. I have to talk to that kind of client for a very long time. Then, in some cases, the problem becomes clear. If the problem can be fixed things will be all right.” Su-yeon asked various questions, but the woman only said one thing. “When you go home, do not turn on the TV, do not listen to music, or turn on your cell phone. It’s best when there’s no one else in the house. If there is someone else, do it in the middle of the night. Sit quietly alone in the house without anyone else around and see what response emerges in your body. No matter what the response is, it is something emerging in your body, it is your mind responding, so just let it be. Do not feel guilty.” Su-yeon received from the woman a copy of a book in English analyzing psychic influences that had nothing to do with her. On being asked if she would be able to read the book, she replied that obviously all books were readable and took it.
As she was waiting for the elevator she met a Yakult saleswoman, who for some reason seemed familiar. In that short period of time the woman counted the number of Yakult packs in her wheeled cart. Su-yeon plucked up her courage. “Excuse me. How do I look?” The answer came quickly. “What? What did you say?” Su-yeon merely laughed. “No, what I mean is, don’t I look a bit strange?” The saleswoman laughed, as if to say there certainly were some strange people around and held out a Yakult. “Drink this.” “I didn’t realize that Yakult carts were powered by electricity. It must make it easier.” “Strange. Today everyone is saying strange things. How do you look? You look fine. I can see fine!” Su-yeon took the escalator down to the subway station to catch the train. A large number of shoulders were being borne down beneath the ground. For some reason, those many shoulders seemed to be visible from afar. Su-yeon had not been able to ask or hear anything about Jin-uk’s fortune.
Su-yeon sat down on the couch in the middle of the living room after brushing her teeth and washing her face. As the woman had told her, she turned off every device capable of making a sound. She had told her to relax but she couldn’t. Where should she put her hands? Should she fold her arms, or put her hands gently on her knees? She tried this, then that. She felt time passing outside the window. Su-yeon did not know what to do, like someone standing in front of a table of offerings commemorating people with no names. She wanted to know where her heart was. Her heart had fallen onto the floor of the living room and was rolling about. There was no feeling that she wanted to see Jin-uk or that she felt sad about parting from him. Everything was just frightening. She was always sensitive to noises outside the window, but now she could not hear anything. Somehow even the noise from the construction site had faded away. Then a sound reached Su-yeon’s ears. She thought for a moment that she was hearing the voice of her heart. It was similar to the scat of a jazz singer she had once liked. She had followed every performance of that singer who had been about her own age, so she thought she was hearing her voice as a hallucination. She glanced toward her mother’s room. She soon realized that it was not a jazz singer’s scat. She stood up from the sofa and opened her mother’s door. The window was slightly ajar, although it was not midsummer, and her mother was sitting with hunched shoulders emitting groans that recalled a jazz singer’s scat. It was a sound produced by the uvula vibrating as if expressing horror. It was a sad sound, one that she was hearing for the first time in her life. Su-yeon closed the window, lowered the curtains, and stood gazing at her mother’s back. Her 76-year-old mother’s back was trembling. Su-yeon stood transfixed, staring at the mother-of-pearl wardrobe rising behind her mother, like someone realizing after several centuries that their mother is alive. “Su-yeon, I want to eat some noodles,” her mother said.