Published in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 29 No. 1, Spring 2015, pages 86-99.
In the crowded walkway leading to the unfamiliar airport’s immigration gate, I suddenly stopped and looked around. That melody, which had gently enfolded the round, transparent world where snow was falling, was once again ringing in my ears. With flights delayed on account of the sudden bad weather, people whose schedules had been messed up jostled past me brusquely as I stood in their way. Through the windows could be seen the dark runways of New York’s international airport, where snow was piling up, and planes with lights glimmering faintly through every window. “It’s snowing!” I muttered quietly, as though realizing it for the first time. Just then, the melody that only my ears could hear seemed to rise one level in volume. Ever since I met Gwon Eun again, ever since I managed to recall clearly the scene I found behind the rusty, dented front door, that melody had from time to time made its way, through long intervals of time, to wherever I happened to be standing. When that happened, all I could do, with no other choice, was to peer silently into the world where the melody was resonating. There were times when that world was a tiny, cold room without a kitchen or even a bathroom; sometimes it was a snow-covered Sunday playground; and occasionally it was a sickroom redolent of chemicals. And always the only inhabitant of that world was Gwon Eun.
When I was reunited with Gwon Eun one year ago, twenty years after our first encounter, in a book café in Ilsan, I really could not remember her. Gwon Eun was living in Paju, and I had come to nearby Ilsan in order to meet her for an interview, that was all. In those days I was a journalist for a magazine, responsible for a section devoted to interviews with young achievers who seemed destined to play a leading cultural role in the future, and Gwon Eun, a young photographer noted for taking photos in the world’s hot spots, was the subject of that week’s interview. Most of what she told me that day was impressive, even moving. Her account of how she began to take photographs while learning to use a camera a friend had given her was interesting, but all the episodes she recounted, poised between life and death in troubled areas clearly reflected the intensity of her passion.
As the interview came to an end, large snowflakes could be seen falling beyond the window of the book café. “It doesn’t look like the snow will stop soon.” As I was saving the text of the interview, I murmured to myself, and Gwon Eun replied in a low voice, “When the clockwork runs down, the melody will end and the snow will stop for sure.” Her statement was not one that ordinary people would think of; it struck me as funny and I playfully asked if it was a riddle, but she merely smiled and said nothing more. Once the interview was over we left the book café and parted at the crossing light after a loose handshake. After taking a few steps I happened to look back and could see Gwon Eun in profile, as she stood with head bowed silently beneath the falling snow. The snowfall was increasing in intensity yet still she did not move. I briefly thought of going back to her and offering to share an umbrella but felt uncomfortable at the thought of the silence that would surround us while we were under the same umbrella. So I turned and headed for the subway without looking back at Gwon Eun again.
In retrospect, the things she said to me during that meeting, such as the reason why she took up photography or the mentions of clockwork and melody were all hints. Even the way she stood motionless in the cold snow might have been a sign to me. But little did I realize at that moment that what she had been trying to give me on that day was a kind of key that would open times gone by that I had all but forgotten.
Feelings vanished in the order they had come. The melody grew faint, the conversation we had shared faded from memory, the street scene with Gwon Eun standing in falling snow gradually grew remote. All that remained were the white snowflakes that had been settling on the asphalt, on Gwon Eun’s collar, and on her shoes. When I came to my senses and lifted my head, those snowflakes quickly blended into the snow falling beyond the airport windows.
By the time I emerged from the terminal, caught a bus and reached downtown Manhattan, it was past eleven at night. The snow fell against the evening neon signs, the garish billboards followed one another endlessly, but I frequently lost my sense of direction in the center of the big city, as though cast adrift in a maze with no exit. While I was on my way to the hotel where I had booked a room, the idea that this gaudy city might be part of someone’s dream grew ever stronger. The dream, that is, of a lonely girl sitting alone in a small, cold room winding up over and over again a snow globe’s clockwork, immersed in a snowbound world, who would fall asleep as the melody began, without time to shed a single tear. But why was it so cold in her dream?
After that interview in Ilsan, my next meeting with Gwon Eun might have been because of a snow globe. Before she phoned to thank me for the article based on the interview, I had visited the children’s corner in a supermart to buy my niece a Christmas present and there discovered a snow globe, which contained all the clues needed to solve Gwon Eun’s riddle. Forgetting completely that I had to choose my niece’s present, I stared fascinated at that round, transparent world where a melody played and snow fell as the clockwork turned. Gwon Eun, who stood there helplessly in the falling snow as though she had nowhere to go, was inside that world. It was only then that I realized the image of her I had glimpsed that day on the street had all the while been occupying a corner of my mind. If I suggested to Gwon Eun, when she made her courtesy phone call, that we should have a drink together, the only explanation I can offer is that it was on account of the snow globe. Never before have I met again privately with anyone I had interviewed, never felt the need to. If I had not met Gwon Eun a second time, and so not heard about Helge Hansen’s documentary “Person, People,” I would almost certainly have lived my entire life without knowing who she was.
As I stand now, I regret nothing.
It must have been a few days after Christmas. Seoul’s end-of-the-year fever was at its height; there were crowds everywhere. We met at a subway station on Eulji-ro, where my magazine’s office was located, and headed for a nearby bar. As soon as we had been served beer and something to nibble, Gwon Eun told me some unexpected news. She said that in one week’s time she was off to take photos of a visit to a refugee camp in Syria by a group of volunteers, comprised of pastors and missionaries. Now Syria was in the middle of a civil war, notorious as a place where foreigners were often taken hostage or wounded. I was worried, but I felt unable to tell her to think again, or say she ought not to go. It was entirely her affair, and I felt reluctant to change the filmography of a young photographer I scarcely knew with my interference. Besides, I could hardly try to diminish her enthusiasm when she believed that, if she held a camera, she could easily avoid every danger. Moreover, she was a professional photographer who had already been in other troubled regions.
“So what kind of photos do you intend to take?” Finding nothing else to say, I asked absently as I rapidly emptied my glass of beer. “Why, photos of people, of course,” she replied. “The tragedy of war is something you have to find, not in metal weapons or ruined buildings, but in things like the tear-filled eyes of a young woman recalling her dead lover while she applies makeup before a mirror. War is all about ordinary people who, if there had been no war, would only have cried as much as you or I.” I stared at her in some confusion as she spoke with fluid eloquence that made her words seem to have been prepared in advance. Perhaps I was looking too serious, for she suddenly laughed and explained that she had merely been quoting another person’s words. “It’s something Helge Hansen said.” “Helge Hansen? Who’s she?” “She’s my favorite photographer. You might say that it’s her influence that started me going into areas of conflict.” Therefore, on hearing that this photographer had for the first time produced a documentary and eager at all costs to view it, she spent a lot of time scanning the schedules of various indie cinemas, visiting all kinds of movie-related sites, inquiring about DVDs and video files. But that documentary had never been shown in Korea, and was nowhere to be found, in DVD or other formats. Finally she was able to watch Helge Hansen’s only documentary, “Person, People,” thanks to a friend who was studying cinema in Japan as she managed to obtain a file with difficulty and sent it to her. From that documentary, discovered because of her interest in Helge Hansen, she came to know about the woman named Alma Mayer. “It’s odd,” Gwon Eun said. To adopt Gwon Eun’s expression, she and Alma Mayer, totally unconnected like passengers embarked on ships that had left port in different ages, with different histories, shared a similar experience, as though the two totally distinct ships carrying each of them had briefly gone adrift near the selfsame island, enduring the buffeting by the very same winds and waves. Therefore, she said, from that time on, whenever she had time she used to write letters to Alma Mayer. Gwon Eun laughed as she spoke, seemingly embarrassed. That laugh struck me as somehow familiar, and I stared at her across the table, until momentarily our gazes met awkwardly. “So did you receive any replies from Alma Mayer?” I blurted out, hastily averting my gaze and pouring beer into her empty glass. “I write them in my private blog, like a diary. In Korean, of course. Anyway, Alma Mayer can’t receive my letters. She died in 2009.” I stopped pouring and looked at her. Then what does she expect to get, writing letters to a woman she had never met and who was already dead? I was naturally curious about what the experience she shared with Alma Mayer might be, but I did not want to share another person’s drama rashly. Casually, I changed the subject. Our conversation meandered into how incredibly the cost of housing was rising and other nothings such as our ages ― in the vague mid-thirties ― but in my heart, Gwon Eun’s words did not vanish but remained, congealed.
At about ten in the evening we emerged from the bar and before we went in our separate directions I spoke up once more. “By the way, I’ve solved your riddle. What you said about a place where the melody stops and the snow ends when the clockwork runs down.” Instead of asking what I meant, she simply looked at me in silence, as though waiting for me to go on talking. “But do you still like toys at your age?” I joked, but she did not laugh. Just then an empty taxi stopped in front of us. She got in while I stood by the taxi bidding her a conventional “Have a safe ride home.” “Thanks,” she said, “The camera . . .” “What?” Just then the taxi moved off so that I could not hear anything more of the additional clue she was giving me about a camera.
A small cold room, and in that room when the light comes on a snow globe with the clockwork run down, then every time I leave the room the orange light of shabby alleys that used to fill my eyes, then hurrying to that room one late autumn day, clutching a camera . . . it was only after a little more time had passed that these clues slowly came to me, step by step, like footprints on a snow-covered playground.
The next morning, New York was covered in thick fog. Seen from the ninth-floor room of the hotel, the streets of New York looked unreal, like some ancient city submerged underwater; they felt remote like an illusion perched at the tip of the see-saw known as eternity. Like a city in the childhood dreams of Gwon Eun, who had been obliged to wander about lost, on the verge of tears, with the secrets I had yet to fathom completely hidden inside.
I left the hotel and as I reached Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives I could see the sign announcing the special screening of “Person, People.” I had come to the right place. On a table set up in the lobby there was a display of photos of an attack by Israel on the Palestinians five years before and leaflets about “Person, People.” Picking up a leaflet, I walked to a seat in a corner of the lobby. The leaflet introduced Helge Hansen, the director of the documentary, as one of the survivors when a relief truck heading for Palestine was attacked in Egypt in January 2009. It described the reason why Helge Hansen made the documentary: “. . . because in Norman Mayer, who lost his life in the attack on the relief truck, and his mother Alma Mayer, who thus lost her only son, I see the value of the courage displayed by individuals who fall victim to the violence of history. I am a survivor and it is my belief that survivors must remember the victims.”
After folding the leaflet flat, taking care not to crumple it, and placing it in my bag, I went into the theater. It was early on a weekday, yet more than half the seats were taken. I had only just found an empty seat and put down my bag when the lights dimmed and I found myself filled with unanticipated tension. As the screen grew bright and the title appeared, the tension did not subside; I was trembling to the very tips of my fingers.
The documentary began without any subtitles or narration, showing photos of many people fixed to the wall of a mosque in Ramallah, the Palestinian capital. The wall of the mosque was like a gigantic album and from each tattered photo a man, a woman, an old man, a child, silently looked out at the world, each with a different expression. The camera lingered at length over a scene in which a young woman in a hijab walked falteringly up to the photo of a young man and kissed it devoutly, her eyes still moist, bidding us to imagine her weeping for her dead lover as she applied makeup before she came out to the mosque.
The opening shots were short but powerful, then we were inside the relief truck. The six passengers, including the driver, were laughing occasionally as they talked, then when the truck stopped they unfolded a map and consulted together earnestly. Perhaps because shots of the other passengers had been edited out, the main focus was on Norman.
According to one article I found, Norman’s death has become a major issue in American society and has given rise to a long-running debate. The facts of the matter are compelling: a relief vehicle was attacked, in breach of international law and practice ― relief vehicles were not attacked even in wartime; an American, a retired doctor, died in the attack; and most of the relief goods the truck was carrying had been bought by that Jewish doctor, who had used his entire savings for the purpose. The poignancy of it all sharpened the shock and outrage and many people followed the story avidly. Once interest in Norman had built up, his mother Alma Mayer became the focus of attention. All the media tried to interview her, day after day, and messages of sympathy came pouring in from all parts of society except the Jewish community. She refused every request for an interview and ignored all the expressions of sympathy. She did not go out, invited no visitors, took no phone calls. Helge Hansen was the only outsider she met with in connection with Norman’s death. And that was after she had seen the images of Norman’s last fifteen hours that Helge Hansen sent her, images that would later form the core of her documentary “Person, People.”
Three months after that second meeting, when I learned of her misfortune from newspapers and the evening news, I was not particularly troubled. I was surprised, certainly, but it was not quite a shock; I felt a mixture of emotions but they were not painful enough to make me forget ordinary life. Even if I had tried to dissuade her in that bar, she would surely still have set off. Besides, what right did I have to challenge her decision? It was easier on one’s mind to think like that. At that time I had recently moved to a new job at a movie magazine, so I had little time to keep thinking about Gwon Eun. In the new workplace there were new relationships and new kinds of writing and I was obliged to adapt to all that as quickly as possible. I gradually forgot Gwon Eun. Indeed, I unconsciously tried to forget her and I almost succeeded.
Gwon Eun’s name, which had remained faintly at the back of my memory, once again came so close I felt I was touching it when suddenly an older colleague quit the magazine and all the tasks he was in charge of were turned over to me. Among my new responsibilities was reporting on a documentary film festival to be held in New York, and among the materials about the festival he had prepared I found a mention of Helge Hansen’s “Person, People.” I learned that the documentary had been favorably received by the critics when it was first released in 2010 and was invited to several international film festivals that year. There was also an announcement from the organizers of the festival that there will be special screenings of “Person, People” to mark the fifth anniversary of the unprecedented attack on a relief truck.
From that day on, I often thought about the things that Gwon Eun told me when we met at the Ilsan book café and the bar in Eulji-ro. Late in the evening, when all the reporters had left the office, I would sit there searching the Internet, determined to find out everything about Gwon Eun. Memories did not come hitting my head in a sudden flash; instead they trickled into my awareness bit by bit from somewhere very far away. Her confession that she had come to photography thanks to a camera a friend had given her was the first clue; that moment at the streetside in Eulji-ro when, after getting into the taxi and saying thank you, she mentioned the camera, bobbed up as another clue. In any case, whenever I looked into her world in my memory, snow was always falling. That world was round and transparent, and so long as the snow was falling a familiar melody was ceaselessly ringing in my ears. And there was that unrealistic talk we had about a snow-covered school playground on a Sunday afternoon. “When you press the shutter, light flashes past inside the camera.” “Really? Where does the light come from?” “It must be hidden somewhere inconspicuous.” “Where?” “Behind a wardrobe, or in a desk drawer, or somewhere like an empty bottle . . .”
Before setting off for New York, I enquired about the hospital where Gwon Eun was and paid a visit. As I expected, she was extremely surprised to see me. As she told me the depressing news that after three operations to remove the shell fragments embedded in her legs, it was doubtful whether she would ever be able to walk again for the rest of her life, her eyes flashed oddly dark. “Do you still have that Fuji camera?” I asked after a long silence; she looked at me piercingly for a moment, then, still facing one another, we both broke into awkward laughter. In the end I was not able to say that I would come again. Before I left the hospital room, she gave me the address of her private blog on a piece of paper. She added that there was a letter she had written to me on the blog, but she too did not say anything suggesting we should meet again.
When I reached home I turned on my notebook and went into her blog. I found a letterbox that contained twelve letters written to Alma Mayer together with one for me. I sat at my desk and read straight through all the letters, after which I went to the bathroom and took a long shower. As I dried myself with a towel, I stood in front of the steamed-up mirror over the washbasin and had the illusion I was looking out through a window at a blurry world where there were no such things as right or wrong choices. It was not a bad illusion but the steam soon vanished. In a whisper I questioned the mirror, where my reflection was growing clear again: “So are you happy now?” No reply came from the blurry world but from behind my back came the grating sound of a door handle turning. I felt that I knew what it was without turning around. That door would be a rusty, dented front door and the thirteen-year-old boy who had opened the door impulsively would be blinking his eyes, unaccustomed to the dark, as he asked: “Uh, this is Gwon Eun’s home, isn’t it?”
On the screen, Alma Mayer is explaining her lengthy seclusion:
“I simply could not tolerate the way people were dressing Norman up in terms like ‘conscience of the age’ or ‘last hope of the Jews.’ Believing that if someone is hidden behind inflated terms like those, they can become witnesses to justice without ever actually doing anything, somehow, seemed to me like pure hypocrisy. It’s like pretending not to know things that you could have known if you had only tried to know, then later claiming you can’t be blamed since you did not know. I remember all those non-Jews who were appalled at the horrors of the Holocaust only after the war was over. I was not angry. Then or now, I just feel numb. A kind of lethargic disillusionment, that’s all.”
The scene changed as the documentary summarized Alma Mayer’s past. Born in Belgium in 1916, Alma Mayer overcame discrimination against her, both as a Jew and as a woman, to join the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra as a violinist in 1938. But when the order for Jews in Belgium to register was issued in 1940, she was dismissed from the orchestra and seemed doomed either to be confined in the Ghetto or deported to a concentration camp. At that point her sweetheart Jean, who played the horn in the same orchestra, prepared a hideout for her in the cellar storeroom of his cousin’s grocery store on the outskirts of Brussels.
Windowless, that cellar was dark unless the lamp was lit, whether it was early morning or midday. At times, even with open eyes, vague images seemed to hang in the air as if in a dream. Then, if she blinked once, without fail an unfamiliar street would appear, and in that street the only lights burning would be those of musical instrument shops. If she cautiously pushed open the doors of those shops and went in, members of the orchestra she had not seen for a long time would welcome her joyfully. Each one would sit down before their instrument, then they would strike up a lively dance or march, and whenever their eyes met hers they would smile warmly, as if they were whispering: “Nothing hurts; so long as we’re alive we exist so that every pain is comforted and healed.” Warmed at heart, she would remain absorbed in their performance for a while, then if she blinked again the melody, the players and their smiles all vanished. Every time the sweet illusion vanished, she would feel even more lonely, more dejected. As she dreamed she was eating her fill of food prepared by her mother, her lips would move unconsciously, then if she suddenly woke she would feel unbearably cold, as if she were out on some windswept plain, all alone. Once every two weeks, Jean would come to the cellar bringing a basket with water and bread but in those days, he was poor like everyone else, and so it was never enough to last for two weeks. The basket might be light and shabby, still Jean never forgot to spread at the bottom a sheet of music he had composed. On days when she saw the brightly lit shops, she would take out her violin and perform those pieces, keeping the bow some distance away so it did not touch the strings, on an unlit stage, devoid of any audience’s applause, in silence.
“Those pieces composed by Jean were a light that enabled me to dream of the future in that grocery store cellar, where I had every day been thinking only of death. So I can truly say those musical scores saved my life.”
After speaking at some length, Alma Mayer slowly raised her head and smiled slightly, for the first and last time during the interview. In my darkened seat, I unexpectedly found myself smiling with her.
“Uh, this is Gwon Eun’s home, isn’t it?”
Although the door was open, I did not immediately go inside but instead repeated my question several times. The rusty, dented front door led straight into a dark room, where the only source of light was a round, transparent snow globe. What brought me to that small, cold room where almost no sunlight entered was not something I had chosen. After Gwon Eun had been absent from school for four days, the homeroom teacher summoned me as class president and another student, a girl serving as vice-president, and asked us to go and see what was wrong. The moment we left the teachers’ room, the vice-president said she had a piano lesson and refused to accompany me, so I set off alone for the address written on a scrap of paper and found my way to that front door. As my eyes slowly grew accustomed to the darkness, Gwon Eun came into view, wearing a shabby overcoat and covered with a blanket. Just as Gwon Eun rose and switched on the light, the clockwork of the snow globe ran down and stopped.
It was a room without any adjoining kitchen or bathroom. A portable gas stove and a kettle, together with a plastic washbowl holding toiletries revealed the room’s multiple functions. I could not even begin to imagine what that thirteen-year-old girl ate or how she lived in that poor, unheated room. I learned that Gwon Eun’s only family, her father, used to leave home for a minimum of one or two months up to a maximum of six months at a time. “Keep that a secret.” As she spoke she held out a glass of water. “I’m not an orphan. I’m never going to go into any kind of home.” I could think of nothing to say and the water I was gulping down had the distinct metallic taste of disinfectant. Grimacing, I put down the glass, said “Okay,” and quickly left the room. The next day I reported to the homeroom teacher that Gwon Eun was sick. All said and done, there was nothing much wrong with saying that. The young homeroom teacher, who had only recently been appointed, did not seem to pay much attention to my words. After that, I often found myself imagining that Gwon Eun might die. Even just imagining that Gwon Eun died was enough to fill me with panic. There were days when I had the illusion I could hear the other children in my class whispering it was my fault that Gwon Eun died.
After that, I visited Gwon Eun’s room several times without being told to do so by anyone. It was simply that I disliked the panic and the imagined blame falling on me; I had no other plan. The only things I could take to her room were comic books I had finished reading or trifles like new batteries for the snow globe. “Off you go, now. I’m okay.” Being alone with a girl in the same room felt awkward, yet I could not leave so easily and while I stayed hovering she used to push me in the back as she spoke.
Once I left Gwon Eun’s room and walked down the narrow sloping alley that led to the road, the orange streetlights, the kids vanishing hurriedly down the alleys, the broken doors of the communal toilet and the dirty toilet bowls glimpsed through them, and worst of all the bulldozers crouched like furious wild animals on vacant lots ― all these ghostly sights used to loom vaguely like something not of this world. More than half the houses on the hillside, built roughly of cement and planks, were derelict. Like Gwon Eun, I was only thirteen. There was nothing I could do about the hunger and cold Gwon Eun had to endure in that isolated room in a ruined neighborhood. When I happened to come across a Fuji camera in the wardrobe of my parents’ bedroom, without a moment’s hesitation I went running blindly to Gwon Eun’s room clutching the camera to my chest, because it looked to me like something that could be sold second-hand for a bundle of banknotes. Contrary to my expectation, Gwon Eun did not sell the camera. That was only natural. To her, the camera was not simply a device for taking photos, it was a path leading to another world. She must have loved the magic moment when she pressed the shutter and masses of light came pouring from every corner of the world to enfold the subject. But then, once she had pressed the shutter and that light vanished from the viewfinder, surely she must have felt more lonely and depressed, like Alma Mayer? Like the landscape not included in the frame of a photograph, all of that lies now in the domain of things I cannot verify. Possibly forever.
Once she had used that camera to photograph everything inside her room, Gwon Eun gradually began to venture outside in quest of more and more scenes to capture, and she came back to school, too. Yet I did not approach her and start a conversation as soon as she came back to school. It was probably because I did not want to give anyone the impression that I was close to Gwon Eun, who always wore the same clothes. Gwon Eun likewise often acted as though she could not see me. So in the end we never became friends but each kept the other’s secret. I never revealed to anyone that Gwon Eun was pretty much an orphan, and she pretended to the very end not to know that I had stolen the camera from my father. One day a couple of weeks before the winter vacation I heard the news that Gwon Eun had gone with her family to live in some remote region. A rumor spread that her father had been found dead on a rubbish dump near a gambling den, but none of these was certain.
Very many hours have passed since then, and now Gwon Eun writes this letter to an Alma Mayer who no longer has an earthly address: In that room, to which Father rarely came home, I dreamed the same dream nearly every night, and since I did not want to dream that dream, until sleep came I would wind up the clockwork of the snow globe and immerse myself in a world where snow fell for one minute and thirty seconds, then just before the melody ended I would pull the bedding up over my head and shut my eyes quickly. In the dream I wandered through an unfamiliar town, one that I was visiting for the first time, calling my Mom until I awoke. The routine never varied. After reaching that point, Gwon Eun is silent for a moment. I likewise keep silent with her. Only a few days later does Gwon Eun open the blog again and slowly write: Sometimes I would lay my brow against the cold wall and pray fervently, asking that the clockwork driving the room stop, that I might stop breathing. Until the camera came into my hands, that was my only prayer. So . . . .” The sentence following that “So” was repeated in the single letter that Gwon Eun wrote to me. In that letter she called me “Class President.” Of course, twenty or so years had passed, she felt hurt that I had not recognized her, but on the other hand she also thought it was fortunate, she wrote in that letter. She asks me: “Class President, do you know the greatest thing a person can do?” I shake my head. “Someone once said that saving the life of another is the greatest thing, one [gift] that is given to few. So . . . . No matter what happens to me, President, you need to remember that the camera you gave me saved my life. Eun.” That letter was saved to the blog on the day she and I drank beer together at Eulji-ro. After saying thank-you, she got into the taxi and left, and inside the taxi as it made its way through the streets of Seoul, she thought that for once she must write a letter that a living person could read, a really useful letter.
It was only in 1943 that Alma Mayer was able to leave that cellar storeroom. Jean heard that someone had reported her to the German police and once again helped her to escape. She went with him to Switzerland and they parted in a Swiss border town. By that time she and Norman were already connected heart-to-heart but since she had not yet realized it, she said nothing to Jean. She first became aware of Norman’s existence after a severe bout of seasickness in a third-class cabin on a steamer bound for America. Arriving at Ellis Island, the gateway to America, in November 1943, the first thing that Alma Mayer did was sell the violin that had been like an organ in her body. With that money, she was able to get a place to live and she did not have to work until Norman was born. Five years had passed since the end of the war before she heard that, incredibly, Jean was alive. But Jean was now married and had a family, and she did not inform him of her survival or her whereabouts. To her mind, Jean had already done too much for her, risked too much for her. She did not want to give him any more trouble. Rather than a lover’s pride, it was more a matter of human courtesy.
Until Helge Hansen sent her the film, however, she had no idea that Norman had long been following the course of Jean’s life. For almost a full thirty years, Norman had frequented an unlicensed office on the outskirts of New York that secretly collected and provided personal information about individuals. Once every month or so, Norman would visit and learn about Jean’s current doings, sometimes even receive a photo. But he only took the information, he never let Jean know of his existence, never wrote a letter or phoned. He did not agree with his mother’s idea of human courtesy but he wished to respect her choice, thinking that in this world there are sometimes untruths that are close to truth. In 2007, Norman received the last information about Jean, a kind of pamphlet with a photo of Jean’s funeral and the location of his grave. “Sorry, Norman.” The office manager who had dealt with Norman’s business for so long and had grown old with him, offered him a cigarette. On finishing the cigarette, Norman left the office, went on past his parked car and walked aimlessly. Jean Berne, from French-speaking Belgium, had dreamed his whole life long of being a composer yet had never published a composition, a nameless horn player who once past forty was excluded from even a small provincial orchestra and was never invited to perform solo anywhere . . . . On that day, as he recalled the information he had been receiving for nearly thirty years, Norman made a resolution:
“I resolved that in my own life I would repeat the one great thing he did in his life, in saving the life of a worthless woman about to die in war. I believe that saving the life of another is the greatest thing, one [gift] that is given to few. As you can see, I am already old. Before I get any older, I want to commemorate his history by acting as he did.”
Once Norman had finished speaking, a somber silence filled the relief truck. The camera focused in close-up on each passenger in turn, then gradually zoomed away. The screen was slowly fading out. Just before it turned completely black, like a sudden slap on the back of the spectators’ heads, the sound of a powerful explosion filled the cinema. The lights overhead came up, the final credits were rolling on the screen, but my ears were burning as if they too had been blown apart in that blinding moment behind the sound of the explosion. At the very end of the credits came two names together with their dates of birth and death ― Norman Mayer and Alma Mayer, who died at home two months after her interview with the director. The clockwork that had made both their worlds turn had run down and stopped in 2009.
Even after the final credits had come to an end, I remained sitting there, unable to take my eyes from the screen, until someone lightly tapped my shoulder. Turning, I found a middle-aged black woman carrying cleaning materials standing behind me. Looking around, I saw all the seats were empty. Shouldering my bag, I quickly left the building. The morning fog had lifted, and unexpectedly dazzling winter sunshine was shining down, filling the street with light.
I slowly merged with the Manhattan streets that were billowing with light. After a few blocks and a corner, the place loomed into view. A place that absorbed all the street’s sunlight, unable to close its gaping mouth; I walked step by step toward the show-window of the musical instrument store. Inside, all kinds of instruments were on display, including violins and horns. If Gwon Eun had been with me, she would surely have begun to imagine Alma Mayer and Jean Berne, each holding their instrument and playing. Perhaps with an escort of light, after tightly shutting her eyes once then opening them. No wonder. What melody continues to resound in that world even after the clockwork runs down and the snow stops, and sometimes passes into other worlds and breathes life into vanished memories, too, were things I now could understand.
I looked toward my feet.
As the snow began to melt, the footprints inscribed in it were gradually fading away. A few steps in front of me I could see Gwon Eun’s little form from the back, crouching hunched. A Sunday afternoon, with nobody except us in the snow-covered school playground. Little by little, as I approached Gwon Eun, her posture grew clearer, she was pointing her camera at footprints someone had left in passing. “What are you doing?” Those were the first words I addressed to Gwon Eun after she came back to school. Tearing her eyes from the camera, Gwon Eun looked at me with a surprised expression, as I repeated my question in a gruffer voice. “Why are you at school?” “There are visitors at home, I’ve nowhere to go . . . .” “But what are you doing here?” Gwon Eun made no reply but instead gestured to me to squat down beside her. Bewildered, I squatted down at her side, then she pointed at footprints whose outlines were becoming blurred, and said, “There’s light inside those footprints. Don’t they look like little boats loaded full with light?” “Oh, really . . . ?” “And hidden in here, too.” “What?” “When I press the shutter, there’s light flashing past inside the camera.” “Is there? Where does the light come from?” As soon as I showed interest, Gwon Eun, who had never once looked at me, gazed at me with an excited face. She had still not begun to speak, but already I knew. I knew about the brief moment when the masses of light that at ordinary times lie folded thin behind a wardrobe, or in a desk drawer, or somewhere inconspicuous like an empty bottle, the moment the shutter is pressed, all come streaming out and enfold the subject, and about the rapture of visiting another world every time you take a photo; I already remembered all those things. Gwon Eun begins the tale that I already know. The sunlight reflected off the instrument store’s show-window was shining on her alone.