Ashes and Red by Pyun Hye Young

 

“May I take these?” the man asked.

 

He had no idea what he was going to do with bug spray and rat poison. The rat poison might have been useful for analyzing existing products on the market when he started working at the head office, but surely someone there had already done that. As for bug spray, there was always a use for that. His apartment was probably crawling with insects from all the uncollected trash piled up outside.

 

The pharmacist eyed him suspiciously and said, “That stuff won’t help your cold. You know that, right? As long as you know that, you can have it.” She placed the bug spray and rat poison in a black plastic bag.

 

“Well,” she added. “You said you’re not a thief. Does that mean you’re going to pay me?”

 

Flustered, he fumbled in his pockets for cash but came up empty-handed.

 

“See, now you are a thief!” she said teasingly.

 

The man laughed and drew his bruised hand across his throat like a knife.

 

As he left the pharmacy with the bag of poison, he figured that most of the stores were closed because the owners were worried that what had happened to the pharmacy would happen to them. He had unwittingly found himself in a place where you could not get medicine without resorting to robbery, and wherefor all he knewcircumstances were such that not only medication but everything else as well would have to be obtained the same way.

 

He wanted to rush back to his apartment, but he couldn’t. The spray from the constantly circling trucks obscured the buildings and shops and kept the ground coated in a layer of powdery chemicals, making everything look alike. Even the piles of black garbage bags and homeless men picking through them looked identical. The more he wandered, the more the air filled with vapor, and the taller the piles of trash seemed to grow.

 

When he had exhausted himself with trying to find his way back, he flopped down onto one of the garbage bags. He knew it was trash, but it was the only thing there for him to rest against. As he breathed evenly, trying to adjust to the stench, he glimpsed a pair of legs coming towards him through a cloud of disinfectant left by a retreating truck. The legs drew closer. He stood up. He brushed the dirt off the back of his pants, but there was nothing he could do about the smell.

 

The legs belonged to a tall, thin man. His shirt and pants were neat and unwrinkled, as if they’d been recently laundered and ironed. He stopped the tall stranger and asked for help finding his address, but he could barely make out what the other man was mumbling from behind the dust mask he wore. He managed to catch a few directional words, like left, right, and across. He turned his back on the st...

Pyun Hye Young is an assistant professor of creative writing at Myongji University. She has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of Aoi Garden (Dans l’antre d’Aoï Garden) was published by Decrescenzo éditeurs and Ashes and Red (Cendres et rouge) by Philippe Picquier. The Hole and Ashes and Red are forthcoming from Arcade Publishing in 2017.