When I was a child, Korea was like an island. A society with a thick wall of taboos, oppression, secrets, irrationality. From as far back as I can remember, I was like a child trapped inside a mirror. There was another world, a real world, on the far side of the mirror’s transparent wall, and though my gaze could reach beyond that wall, and though I could imagine all that lay there, it wasn’t something I could touch with my own two hands. I think it was probably due to growing up in such an environment that the very first thing I mastered was nothing other than “dreaming,” which is another word for what I have just described. That dream was the story of another world. I realized that stories where written letters do the work of description are ultimately describing the world beyond such a mirror. And so, as soon as I’d learned the Korean script, the world of reading drew me in. This time I spent inside books was my happiest.
But I never thought of becoming a professional writer. Stories and dreams were a natural part of the very fabric of my life, so much so that it never occurred to me to tell others of these imaginary constructions. Besides, I doubted whether I had the necessary talent. So when one day, learning how to use a word processor, I typed a sentence which had just happened to pop into my head, and that first sentence was followed by a second, the second by a third, and so on, until they eventually came together as the full story of a dream with a plot, never imagining that such a thing could be classed as a “short story,” I simply put it away in a drawer, where it remained for almost a year.
That, my debut work as a writer, the very first piece I ever wrote, happened unconsciously.
And my decision to become a writer came after the lucky chance of that piece being published in a magazine.
I was like a child who ends up passing beyond the door, beyond the mirror, unprepared for this sudden happening. Up until then, the only work I’d done in the field of literature was to dream, to read, and to conjure up stories. As for things like elaborate plots, sentences that are elegant and concise, balanced structure, themes presented in such a way that the reader will easily grasp them—I was utterly ignorant. Even now, I know that these aspects of literature are not my strength as a writer.
There is a memory from my childhood that I still haven’t forgotten. I was born in Seoul, but until I started kindergarten, I was raised at the home of my maternal grandparents, in a port town in the same region. Their house had a big yard packed full of flowerbeds; there were even some plants that towered over me. Enormous red dahlias and cockscomb bloomed there, and I remember a sunflower so tall I had to crane my neck to look into its face. My grandmother loved flowers, and tended hers devotedly. To the child I was back then, the yard and the flowerbeds seemed incredibly huge, almost as though they were the entire world. The gate at the far end of the yard was almost never opened, the only exceptions being the occasional times when a wagon was wheeled in bearing fish from the wharves, or the mornings when my grandfather took me out for a stroll. My relatives considered the world beyond the gate a dangerous and frightening place, and as the only child in the household, forbidden to pass beyond it by myself, it weighed constantly on my mind.
I was in the yard one day, alone among the flowerbeds. But strangely enough, on that day the gate was standing open just a little. Perhaps the need to close it had slipped their mind, either the maid who had gone to market or my uncle who had gone to school. There was no one else in the yard, and in the house too, the eyes that would usually be watching me were absent. It was as though they were all momentarily preoccupied, and my existence had been forgotten. Unable to suppress my curiosity and excitement, I slipped out through the open gate. And when I did, I was confronted by a shocking sight.
My grandparents’ house faced the largest road in the town. But since this was still a time when there were almost no cars, I don’t recall any sounds from the road. It was a period in which not only the road, but all objects would be astir within perfect silence. Just as they were that day. As I passed through the gate, my eyes saw a white boat big as a mountain, approaching very slowly. I was stunned, overwhelmed, to see a boat as huge as that, moving not even on the sea but on the road. It probably would have been the first real shock of my life. The body of the boat was adorned with white paper flowers, and something like wheels seemed to be hidden beneath its bulk. The truly bizarre thing was that with such a stupendous event going on, there wasn’t a single other person in sight. No crowds lining the roadside, no scrum of students heaving the enormous boat forwards, no nymph of the Palace of the Dragon King waving demurely from her perch atop the boat, no young maids with their mouths hanging open at this stupefying spectacle, no boys going around selling popsicles. There were no sounds. This world was stilled like the world under water, and the clattering of wheels over the bumpily paved road, exclamations of surprise, the barking of dogs, the crying of children, was nowhere to be heard.
In reality, though, there surely must have been both crowd and din. Thinking back on it some time later, I guessed that it had probably been some special holiday, a local festival. But my child-self’s sensibility was such that my memory hadn’t retained this information. The only other thing visible that day, seen together with the huge white boat, had been a girl who looked a couple of years older than me, a girl dressed all in black.
Popping up from behind the boat and discovering me standing there, the girl approached me with a smile, took my hand and tugged me along after her.
“I’m your big sis, let’s go to our house.”
I was surprised; the girl spoke in a dialect thicker than any I’d previously encountered. And the clothes she was wearing, clothes I’d never seen before, entirely black, no pattern or decoration whatsoever, or even so much as a button, black broadcloth faded with age, a sleeveless smock of the most basic cut. On top of that, the girl had her hair cut strangely short, a yellow bucktooth and swarthy skin, all sights I’d never seen, and used crude expressions I’d never heard. And more than anything else, the girl was the first stranger child I’d ever met.
The girl’s appearance and attitude had me feeling a little frightened. But I let her lead me along, her hand clasping my wrist, and when we turned a corner standing there was a thatched cottage I’d never seen before. On the roof dazzlingly golden straw was laid in full, heavy layers, and the interior was pitch-black like the inside of a cave.
“I’m your big sis, wait here for me a tick.”
And the girl disappeared into the house.
My fear grew a little, and I turned away, and headed back to my grandparents’ house. How I managed to find the way, I don’t remember.
How I was able to steal out of the house alone that day, who the girl in black was and why she took me to her house, where the white boat came from and where it disappeared to, why there was nothing to be seen or heard aside from the white boat and the black-clad girl, I have no idea.
What is vivid in my memory even now is the bright smile the girl gave me in front of the golden thatched house, as the hem of her stiff black cloth smock swooped and swirled. “I’m your big sis.”
The girl in black was the very first black mirror I ever experienced. And perhaps, what I am writing now might be down to her. Because, the more time goes by, it strikes me that the girl may well have been my very first muse.
by Bae Suah