Waning Crescent, or the Way You Remember the World
- onApril 4, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byChang Kang-myoung
- Waning Crescent, or the Way You Remember the World
Tr. Slin Jung 2015188pp.
“Do it, he told me,” the man said.
Do it. What’s the matter? I dare you. Kids gathered around like fruit flies swarming around a filthy summer pond. What a retard. From behind, someone kicked the boy holding the knife. Little shit. Screwing around like one fucking knife makes him all that.
The boy swung the knife. First he slashed, then he thrust. When the onlookers realized what was happening and rushed in to kick him, he swung the little balled hand holding the knife sideways. The flies scattered. The boy he stabbed died with a look that said, ‘Wait, this wasn’t supposed to happen.’ When the homeroom teacher arrived, the bullied boy was staggering ragged, broken knife in hand. He left several wounds on his own hands because he didn’t know how to properly wield a knife. The strands of hair on his head were soaked in his sweat and someone else’s blood.
The woman closed her eyes as she listened to the man’s story. She didn’t want to make the connection between the crying boy swinging the knife and the man.
The more she thought that way, the clearer the connection became.
“They didn’t hurt? Your hands, I mean,” she asked.
“Not really,” the man said, then added, “I wanted to cut them off. Both of them.”
“What happened afterwards?”
“A police station, a juvenile detention center, a regular detention center, then a hospital,” the man replied. “You get moved to a regular detention center once you get to a certain age.”
The doctors gave him medication that clouded his consciousness. But the boy erased his patterns more of his own will than the drugs.
“Ultimately, people are patterns,” the man explained. “Imagine a birdcage, and a fan with a picture of a bird on it behind the cage. If you spin the fan by the handle, you get a caged bird. That’s basically how the consciousness emerges over your neural circuits. Electrical signals are passing really quickly through the circuits, and suddenly float up like a ghost. Like neon signs blinking on and off in the city at night—they suddenly all light up, then they go dark at once.”
The drugs made by the human doctors did not erase his patterns; they merely slowed the electrical signals that went to and fro within them. They assumed that if a river flowed slowly, it would never swell over the banks. With the instinct of someone who had committed murder, the boy erased the patterns within him one by one.
By the time he was down to only two or three patterns, the boy was a man who showed about the same reaction to all external stimuli. The nurses liked him because he was easy to handle. Twice a year they took the patients to the mountains, the sea, or local art galleries. His reactions to the humid winds rising to the peaks, the glow of the stars from many lightyears away, and the desperate messages of short-lived artists were identical. Just the way he treated the nurses and his fellow patients.
The “cosmic egg” was attracted to the simplicity of the patterns that composed him. As it dwelled in the waves, it spoke to the man.
I like your patterns.
Yeah, the man replied.
May I go inside them? asked the cosmic egg.
Yeah, the man replied.
Once the cosmic egg entered him, the man was able to talk to people.
Yet the boy who’d killed still remained in the man. He could even relive his memories exactly as they’d happened. His past and the cosmic egg dwelled in one body.
“It’s like an arm or a leg. It’s still a part of me,” the man explained. “And there’s something like a burn or a big scar on it. I know where that scar comes from, and how I felt when I first got it.”
Do it. I dare you, pussy, the kids had said.
“Tell me about the cosmic egg,” the woman asked, not wanting to hear about the scar. “Where did it come from? How was it made?”
“It didn’t come from anywhere. It always was.”
“From the beginning?” asked the woman. “From when the universe began?”
“You have to forget the idea of beginnings,” the man replied. “Beginnings and endings are very human concepts.”
“But the universe does have a beginning.”
“The universe doesn’t have a beginning,” the man replied. “The universe is like a ballpoint pen. It’s just a mass. People say a pen has two ends because it has a long shape. But technically, every part of the pen that touches the air is the end of the pen. The ballpoint pen begins and ends at each of these contact points. It’s like that with the universe. The universe ends and begins at contact points between the space-time continuum and the void. The cosmic egg is inside it, but not outside it.”
“I’m talking about beginnings in the temporal sense, not the spatial sense,” the woman argued.
“For us,” the man said, “time and space can’t be separated like that. There’s no time outside the space-time continuum—only inside, that’s all. For most intelligent life in the universe, time has no front or back, just like space. If they have to pick, whatever they see first is the front and whatever they see later is the back. It’s a relative concept, since if you look at it from the opposite perspective, everything becomes reversed. Humans are the only ones who experience time in one direction. And they can’t even control the speed of their experiences. It’s really dramatic, since they experience all events in one direction, and only once. But it’s foolish too. I don’t know why humans are the only ones who experience time this way. Maybe there’s an evolutionary explanation?”
“Isn’t there something like a big bang? The beginning of everything,” the woman suggested, tugging at her memories for something she had read in a science textbook.
“That’s one of the contact points between the space-time continuum and the void. It might seem like the beginning of something to human eyes, since there’s no time outside that point.” The man sighed. “The big bang, the big crunch, black holes, white holes, the edge of the universe hundreds of millions of lightyears away—they’re all contact points.”
“Tell me about the cosmic egg.” The woman changed the subject. “How did it get to Earth? How did it end up inside you? Put it in order, in human time so I can understand.”
“In the ‘beginning,’ I was just scattered in space. That was when I saw a comet wandering the universe. I heard it sing a funny song. It was an unusual melody with semi-tones erratically scattered throughout, but it had a simple rhythm. All songs are patterns. So I’m familiar with all songs. I climbed on the comet.
“When the comet was between Earth and the moon, I descended into Earth. The moon was a waning crescent. I saw the pattern of the sea surging and singing along the light of the moon. In the sea, sometimes I stayed in the waves, and sometimes in other animals.”
“Like octopi or jellyfish, usually. That kind of stuff.”
“Octopi are really intelligent. And I’ve even been inside mackerel and tuna.”
“Now I’m craving fish.”
“You know, the sea is full of patterns. It’s just like the Internet. Whales sing in low frequencies. You can hear those songs from thousands of kilometers away. So it’s like every whale in the world is connected to their own Internet. It’s been raining for days here in the Indian Ocean. The plankton here is really good. That’s the kind of stuff they sing about. A whale in the Arctic can have a debate with a whale in Antarctica. Sometimes their own songs circle all the way back around the world and reach them again. Then they can create chords.”
“Do you come up with these things as you go? Or do you have all this written down somewhere?”
“This is all stuff I’ve experienced.”
“Sometimes it sounds so real it’s like you really did go through it.”
“I did. This is all real.”
The man stroked the woman’s face. “The patterns in your heart are trembling. They’re anxious. You enjoy my stories, but you’re scared they might be real. But at the same time, you’re hoping they’re real. Because it would feel so futile if they weren’t.”
“You’ve got a way with words, I’ll give you that.”
“I could technically prove it to you right now, but I won’t.” The man shrugged.
“The other kids talked about you,” said the woman. “There were so many rumors going around school. Some kids said you got out of prison and came back home, and some kids said they saw you in an alley. Some kids said they saw how your face was so changed you couldn’t meet people’s eyes. You came up sometimes, when we talked about idols or college or old classmates. And I thought about you. I wondered how your face had changed. I worried about you, and I thought about seeing you.”
“And here we are,” said the man. “I heard you calling out to me. So I wrote ‘The Cosmic Egg’ and sent it to your company.”
“You should have just called me. Or called the company and asked for me.”
“You’d changed your name. I couldn’t find you through the company even if I tried.”
“This is how we were supposed to meet,” said the man. “You had to have read ‘The Cosmic Egg’ first.”
“But now she knows your contact information,” the woman said.
“I know,” the man replied. “That can’t be helped.”
Do it. I dare you, pussy, the kids had said.
“Is this _____ Publishers?”
There was no sheen in the voice. The woman found herself tensing as she replied, “Yes.” The only calls that came to the educational comics team were ones she wanted to avoid. Some callers complained about how their child’s letter to the author wasn’t published, and some admonished them for typos from years-old publications. One lonely child spent over an hour asking when the next volume of The Time Traveler and the History Thief would be published, and suggested a plan for how the time traveler could catch the history thief.
“Hi. I recently read the judges’ comments for the YA Literature Awards.”
“About ‘The Cosmic Egg.’ You know, one of the finalists.”
The woman was about to transfer the call to the YA lit team, but stopped at the mention of “The Cosmic Egg.”
“Could I have the author’s contact information?”
“I’m a big fan of the author. I . . . I’d really like to meet him in person. Get his autograph.”
“You know who wrote this story?”
“How? The author’s name wasn’t published in the judges’ comments. Entries that didn’t win only had their titles published.”
“That’s, well . . . it was being serialized on a web novel site. ‘The Cosmic Egg,’ I mean. But the author didn’t finish the story, so I really wanted to know the ending.”
The voice on the line seemed to belong to a fifty-something woman. A middle-aged woman, an ardent fan of a novel like this being serialized on the Internet?
“Maybe they just have the same titles,” the woman suggested.
“No. It’s about how the cosmic egg comes down to Earth and goes inside a man, right? The egg goes into a comet, then rides the moonlight into the sea, and then goes inside a man . . .”
“I’m afraid we can’t disclose entrants’ personal information,” the woman said.
“Couldn’t you make an exception? Please. I’ve wanted to know the ending for so long.”
“I could give you the author’s email.”
“I have his email. But he just won’t reply, that author.”
“I . . . I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Another call came in about an hour later, from a supposed publishing house.
“We’re calling about the judges’ comments. We’re currently scouting e-book authors for YA genre fiction. We look at finalists of young adult literature awards, mainly. Could we get the contact information of the author of ‘The Cosmic Egg’?”
“Aren’t you the person who called earlier? About an hour ago?”
After hanging up, the woman went to the web novel site the caller had mentioned. When she looked up “The Cosmic Egg” on the message boards, she found a post titled, “Is it true the guy who wrote ‘The Cosmic Egg’ killed somebody?” She did not find any excerpts from the story itself.
A younger co-worker from the young adult literature team picked up the next call. When the woman finished an author meeting and stepped outside, the co-worker began to make a fuss.
“We really dodged a bullet there. It’s a good thing ‘The Cosmic Egg’ didn’t win.”
“Apparently it was plagiarized.”
“Someone called in just now, saying she found out after reading the judges’ comments. Said she wrote ‘The Cosmic Egg’ and posted it online, but someone took the outline and submitted it to us. She gave me the summary, and it all matched up. So I gave her the author’s phone number and told her to settle it with him.”
“Say, did this woman sound like she was in her fifties?”
“If I had to compare, it’s like someone with a really good memory rereading a book. I know everything that’s going to happen, and I can’t change anything. But I still might come away from important sections with new impressions and emotions every time I read them. I can get sad even though I know the protagonist becomes happy later, and I can control the pacing of the story because I can read as quickly or as slowly as I want to. I could stop in the middle, skip to a later page, or go back to an earlier page. Time is like an open book in front of me.”
“Then for normal people, life would be like watching a movie for the very first time?” the woman suggested. “We don’t know what’s going to happen later, we can’t control the pacing, and we can’t stop in the middle.”
“That’s a great comparison.” The man clapped.
“Why are you clapping? You must have known I’d say that,” the woman pointed out.
“Oh . . . it’s because that was what I was supposed to do there.”
“Hmph. Not buying it.”
“Some jokes and metaphors still work even if you’ve heard them before.”
“Yeah. Not buying it.”
“Or how about this imagery,” the man added a moment later. “You’re reading a book, but imagine you do this—before you start, you cut the bindings with a paper cutter or something. The book would fall apart into hundreds of pages, right? Then you mix them up like a deck of cards, bind the pages together again in whatever order you have, and read the book. So at the start the guy and the girl are dating, but suddenly the story cuts off, and in the next page they haven’t even met yet. The guy dies in the middle, and in the next page you get the girl’s past. Each time you reread the book, you mix up the pages and rebind them into a new book.”
“So you never get to read it in proper order? Not even for the first read?” asked the woman.
“There is no ‘proper order.’ There’s no beginning or end. In reality, the pages are always being mixed up. There’s a finite number of pages, but within that one book you can always have a new read.”
“Hey, so if that’s true—if you really are living everywhen at once,” said the woman.
“Then you know how you die, right?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“How do you die?”
“At peace,” the man said after a moment’s thought.
“Must be nice to die at peace.”
“I think that must have been exactly the way I wanted to die.”
“How do I die?”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see.”
“Do we break up?” asked the woman.
“No,” the man replied. “You live longer than me.”
“In the first year of high school, there were three girls named Lee Bo-ram in our class. Big Bo-ram, Little Bo-ram, and Medium Bo-ram. I was Medium Bo-ram. What the heck was ‘Medium Bo-ram’ supposed to be, ‘medium fulfillment’? Big Bo-ram sounds like ‘great fulfillment,’ and Little Bo-ram sounds like ‘humble fulfillment.’ But Medium Bo-ram just sounds half-baked, like you were aiming big but you couldn’t quite get that far and settled for less. That was when I decided that I’d change my name after I finished high school.”
“Why after high school? You could have just changed it then,” the man said.
“My parents wouldn’t let me. ‘It’s such a pretty name, why change it?’ They just didn’t want to admit it was their fault. They said it was nice to have a Korean name without Chinese characters, and that it was nice that it matched my sister’s name. Her name’s Seul-gi—wisdom. Lee Seul-gi, Lee Bo-ram. How lazy can you get? It’s the most common Korean name. I didn’t like having a name without Chinese characters for it, I didn’t like having a common name, and I didn’t like being a set with my sister.
“Imagine getting a job title once I get older. Lee Bo-ram, President. Sounds like the president of a toy company. Lee Bo-ram, Author. A children’s novelist. It just screams, ‘born in the ’80s when college students did pungmul demonstrations and grade schoolers recited the National Charter of Education, and the parents spent all of twenty minutes thinking up the name.’ It wasn’t some expensive one from a naming center, and it wasn’t some pretty name an old man in the countryside came up with for me. They just heard it somewhere—Hey, that’s a pretty name!—and gave it to me without too much thought. And you know girls with Korean names like Seul-gi, Bo-ram, U-ri, and Na-ri? A lot of their brothers have names with Chinese characters. What a joke. You know what they call Bo-rams in elementary school?”
“Rambo,” the man replied with a laugh.
“Yeah. Rambo. I was Lee Bo-ram, so I got to be Rambo II since Lee sounds like ‘two’ in Korean. Remember how everyone used to play Rambo? Rushing out the subway doors or sliding open the classroom doors with guns blazing? Boys always used to do that to me in elementary school.”
“Was it really that bad?”
“You have no idea, do you? Kids can be really cruel when they try. They’re scary good at figuring out what buttons to push and—” the woman stopped. “Anyway. Changing my name was the most fulfilling thing I did with the name Bo-ram. Maybe that’s why I’ve never felt fulfilled afterwards? What about you? Did anything change after you changed your name?”
“Not really. Is anything supposed to change?”
“A lot of people change names to change their fortunes. I read stuff on an Internet community about how someone got sick for days after changing their name, or how someone got healthy afterwards. There’s quite a few of those.”
“That was just auto-suggestion, I bet. Like the placebo effect.”
“Anyway, I did it all myself. I filed the papers at the family court, notified the district office, got my health insurance reissued and stuff. I even made the changes with the bank, the school, and my cell phone company. Apparently people have a hard time getting used to their new names for a while, but I took to mine instantly. ‘Bo-ram’ actually felt foreign to me really quickly. Did you file your own name change, too?”
“No. It took me a while to get mine changed. At first they wouldn’t let me.”
“It’s kind of complicated when you have a criminal record.”
“Hello. Is that you, _____?”
The man hung up. The phone soon rang again. It vibrated stubbornly in his hand. When the words ‘Seven missed calls’ appeared on the screen, he picked up.
“Hello. Is that you, _____?”
“I told you to call me Mom, sweetheart.”
“How are you?”
“I’m all right. What about you, dear? It’s not too drafty where you live?”
“No, it’s all right.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Make sure to keep warm. And use a humidifier. Do you have one? Should I order one and send it to you?”
“I have a humidifier,” the man lied.
“You changed your phone number.”
“Why would you? Why did you change it?”
“There was a new model I wanted to get. A guy I know hooked me up with it, but I had to change numbers for it.”
“You should have told me, sweetheart.”
“He he. It slipped my mind.”
“And you didn’t pick up for a while earlier.”
“I’m living in a half-basement room. Sometimes I just don’t get a signal.”
“A half-basement? Is that really all right? Where are you?”
“Where near Hongdae?”
“Just near Hongdae.”
“I sent ‘The Cosmic Egg’ to some critics and writers I know. They all loved it. They said it was really original, that you’d be a great author. The sentences are tidy, and you don’t see that kind of thinking in Korean writers, they said. There’s a publisher I know, sweetheart. What do you say to submitting something to them? I’m very close with the president. Why don’t we go together?”
“Umm . . . I’m all right, ma’am.”
“Thank you, but I’d like to try and make it on my own for now.”
“Am I being too nosy?”
“I’m just trying to help you.”
“You know I forgive you for everything, dear. I think of you like a son.”
Translated by Slin Jung
Chang Kang-myoung has published eight novels, one short story collection, and one essay collection. He has received the Surim Literary Award, Jeju 4•3 Peace Prize, and Munhakdongne Writer Award. Before turning to writing, he worked as a journalist for over a decade and received the Journalist of the Month Award from the Journalists Association of Korea, Kwanhun Club Press Award, and Dong-A Ilbo Press Award.