- onSeptember 25, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byJeong You Jeong
Tr. Chi-Young Kim 2013496pp.
The Bering Sea had vanished. A stark white filled its place. The wind whipped the snow around and the icy fog walled him in. It was that vicious witch of the North Pole—the whiteout. Jae-hyeong squeezed his eyes shut.
This didn’t happen often, but then again, there was nothing extraordinary about it. Not the fact that he had fallen off the speeding sled while dozing on his feet. Or that he had hit his head on the ground and his eyes had flown open to find he was all alone in the wilderness. Or that he was left dazed at the thought of the dogs galloping on without him. That was what it was like on the Iditarod. This was just another thing that happened in the race as the sleds dashed through the snowy fields around the clock. The unfortunate part was that he couldn’t expect rescue during a whiteout.
Just seconds before he opened his eyes, he had been mushing Shicha, his team of dogs, along the Bering Sea toward Nome’s Front Street—the finish line of this race of endurance. He was thinking of Maya who was probably ahead of him on the support truck with his mentor Nukon.
Maya was the champion sled dog who had groomed him—the “Idiatrod Kid”—into a competitor. For many years, she had been the lead dog of his team as they roamed the snow-covered North American terrain. She was the mother and grandmother of the sixteen dogs that comprised Shicha, and his frail old partner who taught him how to communicate with a glance. When he made it into Nome, he was going to run to her, embrace her, look into her eyes, and whisper, “Maya, your children are back.”
Now, awake and retracing his dreams, he knew he wasn’t by the Bering Sea. The compass on his watch indicated that he was somewhere north of the Yukon River. That is, if his departure from Eagle Island at dawn hadn’t been a dream. He had to choose—sit and wait for Shicha to return, or wander into the white darkness looking for them. Either way, the prospect of a reunion was nil. Shicha wouldn’t return to him. They wouldn’t stop and wait for him to stumble upon them, either. After all, they had been trained to do only one thing: run.
Jae-hyeong brushed off his stiff, frozen legs and stood up. He noticed a rope tied to his belt. What was this? He must have startled awake at one point, and, instinctively anxious that he would fall off the sled, tied one end to his belt and the other to the handlebar. He tugged on the rope, pulling it taut. The sled was ahead of him somewhere in the white. The dogs had stopped. Otherwise he would have jolted awake as he was scraped along. His relief in learning that he wasn’t lost in the wilderness was so great that he should have danced over to the sled, but he didn’t move. His instinct stilled him. Why did they stop running?
He couldn’t see anything. He knew he shouldn’t move hastily. He rummaged in the pocket of his parka and found a pocketknife and half a chocolate bar. He touched the high-frequency whistle around his neck. Only dogs could detect its sound waves. Nukon, an Athabascan musher, had given it to him as a token of his mentorship. It would summon Hook, the current lead dog. If he was within range, they could have a secret conversation. Jae-hyeong shoved the whistle between his frozen lips and blew once, then two short bursts. Hook, what’s going on?
From somewhere in front of him came low, growling barks. A warning. Something unpleasant was ahead of them.
From much farther away, the thing introduced itself—wild howling vibrated the air, chilling Jae-hyeong’s blood. It wasn’t a dog. Eight distinct howls erupted from different locations in a wide half-circle around Jae-hyeong and his sled, indicating their presence. A pack of gray wolves. When the reverberation quieted, his dogs began to growl.
The assassins of the snowy fields had barred his team from crossing, demanding a toll. Jae-hyeong had fallen off the sled because Hook had come to an abrupt halt, silencing the agitated dogs and feeling out the wolves.
Jae-hyeong felt his heart drop. A sense of foreboding chilled him. He and his dogs faced skilled hunters ready to drive their bared fangs into their victims’ necks. They were as fast as his team, if not faster, and more persistent. Most importantly, they would be starving. Having raced for ten days straight, his team would be depleted. They’d never come across a pack of wolves in the middle of nowhere. What was he to do?
An amorphous bloodlust was creeping toward them through the white. Jae-hyeong thought he could see red eyes flashing through the icy fog. He tightened his grip on his pocketknife. His gut shrank and twisted. The team’s growling pitched higher then dipped lower, gradually getting louder. They weren’t accepting battle; their voices betrayed terror, tension, and anxiety. They were lowering their tails in the loudest way possible. The standoff was over; musher and team alike had collectively waved the white flag. There was only one thing left to do—to run away as hard as they could. Jae-hyeong grabbed the rope around his waist and began to move toward the sled. Hook barked three times, loudly and urgently.
It was too late. At Hook’s order, the team sprang forward into the snowstorm, barking. Jae-hyeong flew forward.
Nobody was listening. He couldn’t reach his whistle. He rolled and tumbled as he was pulled along. He tried to sprint. It was futile. The team ran to the right, drawing an arc, going back to where they’d come from. The wolves ran up from behind Jae-hyeong and charged the middle of the arc. Their roars and panting, and the sound of their paws kicking off the snow, sailed over his head. The dogs’ screams sliced the white air. Jae-hyeong was tugged along even more jerkily. They were no longer dogs; they were a fur-covered bullet with sixteen feet. They abruptly changed direction. Long bumps jutted up in front of Jae-hyeong: two boulders embedded in the ice. For the team they were trivial objects in the scenery, but for him, sliding along the outside of their path, they were unavoidable obstacles. He wrapped his arms around his head.
His side exploded in pain. He thought he heard his leg shatter. The rope linking him to the sled was wedged between the boulders, and his body was stuck under them like a bar across a door. From the other side of the rocks the wolves roared and the dogs screamed. The dogs’ leaps and shoves were transmitted to him through the rope, which tightened around his midsection, squeezing his chest and crushing his ribs. He managed to remember his pocketknife. It was still in his hand. Thankfully his arm wasn’t broken.
Jae-hyeong cut the rope. He fell backward. He rolled until his shoulder caught something. He hadn’t gone far. He wanted to put more distance between himself and the wolves but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t feel one leg and the other dangled below the knee. His ribs jabbed his lungs. He felt paralyzed by the growls of the wolves and tormented by the screams of his dogs. He lay back and shut his eyes, hoping the dogs would run far away, taking the wolves with them, sparing him his life.
He didn’t know if they really did move away or if it seemed that way because he hoped so desperately for it to happen. The shrieks grew fainter. Quiet returned. He stared at his own breath as it frosted over his face. Was he safe? A new enemy was opening its maw inside his broken body. The unforgiving molars of pain ripped through his chest and brutal fire licked his legs and shot up his spine. He bit down but couldn’t stop screaming. He couldn’t stay awake, either. The white darkness covering the world leapt back and the deep, dense black of his subconscious swept over him.
The first things he saw nineteen hours later were Maya’s brown eyes. Maya and Nukon had found him. She looked so happy, her eyes brimming over with trust and love. Her gaze was cautiously asking, “What did you do with my children?”
“101, over.” The walkie-talkie blared. Han Gi-jun looked down at his watch. 5:59 p.m., one minute before the end of his shift. “New rescue call. Can you respond?”
For the past seven hours, the East Hwayang Fire Rescue Squad No. 3 hadn’t been able to return to the station. They’d gone around the entire east side, moving from one rescue call to another, following the dispatcher’s commands—to Baegun Tunnel, the scene of an eleven-car pile-up; to Baegun Nature Village where heavy snow had caused a bald cypress to fall on a house; to Suan Agricultural Industrial Complex to deal with collapsed greenhouses. This time they were being asked to go to Hwayang Mansion, the apartment buildings behind Baegun Library. A sick man with limited mobility was home alone, and he wasn’t answering the phone or the door. His wife had called several times and the security guard had gone up to ring the bell.
“Check it out and take action.”
The fire truck had passed Baegun Library five minutes before. They were almost back at the fire station; it was only 500 meters ahead. It was the worst time and place to turn around, but Gi-jun couldn’t refuse. “Copy that.”
Yun Mun-sik turned on the siren and swung the vehicle around. The ambulance trailing them did a U-turn, too. Gi-jun wrote down the wife’s cell phone number. He gave her a call. As soon as he said, “I’m calling from the rescue squad,” the woman’s words peppered him like a machine gun. Her husband had gone to the Hwayang Medical Center for swine flu and returned home two days ago; this morning he was running a fever and not feeling well but refused to go back; since she had to go to work, at a textile factory in the Northern Suan Industrial Complex about twenty minutes away by car, she’d already left; unfortunately she couldn’t head home because she had to work overtime. To Gi-jun’s ears, it sounded as if her priority was making money. She was sending the firefighters who were paid by her taxes to make sure her husband was fine.
“Do you have any family around here?” Gi-jun asked.
“A daughter, but she’s married and lives in Seoul. I can’t ask her to come all the way here. Even if she did, she doesn’t have a key, and even if she had a key she isn’t getting along with her dad—”
Gi-jun cut her off. “If he doesn’t open up, can we force the door?”
“Force the door?” she asked begrudgingly. “Then we need to get a new one, right?”
“Isn’t there another way? What about through our veranda?”
“If the windows aren’t locked, we might be able to come down from upstairs—”
“It isn’t locked,” she interrupted.
Gi-jun hung up.
Although it was during the afternoon rush, they didn’t encounter many cars or pedestrians. Only the blizzard careened through the silence with a haunting scream. Gi-jun put his nose to the cracked-open window and cooled his impatience. By now, he should have been sitting in a cab heading toward the bus terminal to take the last bus to Inje at 6:50 p.m.
“Jesus. What the fuck,” came a drowsy murmur from the back seat. Gi-jun glanced at the rearview mirror. Park Dong-hae, the twenty-two-year-old public service worker and assistant, was almost completely horizontal in the back. He jiggled his leg and kept clicking his pistol-shaped lighter. It was a huge commercial torch lighter with a trigger and a laser pointer scope. When he pressed the turbo button near the hammer, a strong flame and a light whooshed on at the same time. Dong-hae considered it the prize of his lighter collection, amassed over a decade.
“Cut it out,” snapped Eun-ho, who was sitting next to Gi-jun.
Dong-hae’s eyes bugged out as he pointed the lighter at Eun-ho. With a whoosh, the flame and light stretched toward Eun-ho’s face.
“Hey!” Eun-ho’s neck and ears flushed red.
Dong-hae looked down and buried his pale, delicate face into the collar of his jacket. With his small, red, parrot’s beak-like lips, he murmured, “Fuck.”
Gi-jun shook his head at Eun-ho, signaling for him to calm down.
Dong-hae was a major nuisance for the team. He didn’t have any respect for hierarchy; he had no skills to speak of; and he couldn’t even read a one-page official document in one sitting. If one of them told him to bring something over, Dong-hae would lower those long, thick lashes and ask, “Where’s that damn thing?” If they reprimanded him, they were paid back doubly, like on the first day Dong-hae reported for work.
That day, Dong-hae had done the same thing: he’d pointed his lighter at Eun-ho, clicked it, and pretended to shoot. Ever impatient, Eun-ho slapped it away. The following morning, on an online bulletin board, someone posted:
911 Rescue Squad Team Member at East Hwayang Fire Station Assaults a Public Service Worker
Eun-ho had to write an official apology. As the manager, Gi-jun had to go to headquarters and file a report. After that, especially after the squad learned of the kid’s past, nobody bothered him. The men were rarely moved by anything, but even they were shocked and appalled by Dong-hae’s history.
Dong-hae hadn’t been a public service worker from the beginning. After a mere twelve months of being enlisted in the army, he’d caused an uproar and was switched over to public service. Apparently, he had killed all the company dogs. He hadn’t lost his temper and beaten them to death, or gone nuts and killed them in a single night. Instead, he’d methodically cut out each dog’s tongue, branded a cross on their Adam’s apples, and hanged them in plain sight. The military doctor diagnosed him with a personality disorder requiring long-term treatment, which was code for the army’s inability to deal with that kind of creativity. Gi-jun’s squad was living with a dog killer the military had kicked out, and they all hoped they didn’t look like dogs to the kid.
At 6:05 p.m., the fire engine and the ambulance pulled in side by side at the entrance to Building 2 in the Hwayang Mansion complex, which consisted of thirty-eight-year-old five-story buildings. The squad members grabbed their gear. Dong-hae and Mun-sik remained in the truck.
The stairs were shrouded in darkness. Gi-jun switched on his helmet light and ran up to the second floor with the others. The medical technicians followed with a gurney and an emergency medical kit. The frail, broom-thin old manager-cum-security-guard of the building came up the rear.
The front door to #204 was locked. Nobody came out when they rang the bell. When they banged on the door, the next-door neighbor, in an undershirt and a cigarette in his mouth, poked his head out. Gi-jun led the security guard and Eun-ho up to #304. The security guard explained to the tenant that they had to use his veranda. The tenant grudgingly opened the door to let them through, grumbling that the man’s family should come and open the door downstairs, asking if the fire department would pay for any damage to the veranda railing and insisting that they hurry since he’d just turned on the heat and it would escape through the open windows.
Gi-jun tied a rope to the railing and slung one end around his midsection. He hung a hatchet on his belt. Eun-ho wrapped the other end of the rope around his waist and sat down, his feet braced against the railing. When Gi-jun went over the railing, strong winds slapped him against the wall. The snow and ice-covered windows were slippery. The snow was hurtling down at such a rate that he couldn’t see anything. He held the brake line in one hand and, with the tips of his shoes, gripped onto the windows as he went down. When he balanced on the veranda railing of #204, his underarms were damp with sweat.
Unfortunately, the veranda windows were locked. All the lights in the cave-like apartment were off. Gi-jun shoved the hatchet between the windows and twisted. The lock broke off. He slid the window open and hopped down into the veranda onto something round and soft. He flinched and moved his foot but he’d already heard something crunch. An unpleasant hunch made his thigh tense up. He looked down and shone his light on it; he had put his foot through an apple crate. On a puppy. His foot had crushed the puppy’s head. Smashed eyeballs were stuck to the bottom of his sneaker.
Gi-jun swallowed hard. It couldn’t—it couldn’t possibly have been alive. He shook his foot frantically to get the eyeballs off, not noticing that the sliding glass doors were open or that there was something lurking in the dark. He yanked his foot out of the box and looked up, belatedly seeing it. A gigantic gray animal was flying at him, into the light. Alert ears, golden eyes roiling with fire, glinting fangs, long legs outstretched like a racehorse taking off. A wolf. The animal’s tank-like shoulder slammed into Gi-jun’s face as he threw himself to the side. His hatchet clattered away. The beast vanished out the open window.
Gi-jun got to his feet and looked outside. The flashing lights of the fire truck and ambulance were illuminating the garden below. He got Mun-sik over the walkie and asked if he saw a wolf jumping from the second story. The answer crackled over—Mun-sik didn’t know if it was a wolf or a dog, but a dark shadow had just gone over the back walls of the complex. The air caught in Gi-jun’s throat leaked out. His head began to throb; he had slammed it into the floor in his attempt to get away from the animal. The afterimage of the gray animal hurtling toward him like a bomber glimmered in his sight. A wolf? It didn’t make any sense. Gi-jun wasn’t pleased with himself either, panicking and falling over like that. This would remain a scar on his pride, as he was a man who lived and died by the cool demeanor he assumed in any situation.
“What should we do?” Mun-sik asked over the radio. “If it’s really a wolf, people are going to go nuts.”
“We can’t go after it right now. Tell the dispatcher and call the police.” Gi-jun went into the living room and turned on the lights. Now it made sense. That animal was a dog. Along the walls were cages marked with nametags: Ching, Seola, Kkami. Big, small, yellow, shaggy dogs; a dog lying down with its head splayed to the side; another on the floor with stiff legs; yet another curled into a ball. The dozen or so dogs shared the same characteristic—the typical blank stare of the dead. A Husky named Ann was on her side inside a cage, teats engorged, having vomited blood. Her wide-open eyes were bloody. Blood was sprayed around the cages.
Gi-jun opened the front door to let the squad in.
“What the hell is all this?” Eun-ho murmured as he stepped into the living room.
The master bedroom was empty with the door wide open, a clothing rack on its side in the middle, and the windows to the veranda shattered. Shards of glass glittered on the bed.
Gi-jun opened the bathroom door to find a blood-filled toilet and a man in an undershirt collapsed next to it. He was gurgling, bruised hand trembling. Gi-jun grabbed the man under the arms but released him. He looked down at his hands. Blood. His fingers were wet and slippery. His fingerprints remained under the man’s armpits like bloody welts—small drops of blood had formed close to each other on the surface of the skin, approximating bruises.
Translated by Chi-Young Kim