The Legacy of Camilla Nunnery
- onSeptember 25, 2020
- Vol.49 Autumn 2020
- byCheon Heerahn
- Only the Women Disappear
Tr. Stella Kim 2020
Laura thought she could live in the mansion forever. She wasn’t the only one who thought this, as many of the women there believed and wanted the same. The mansion felt like a city, a county, or an even bigger world. The people at the mansion lacked nothing; the mansion was safe, free, and bountiful. Surprisingly, no one shifted their responsibilities to others, and no one refused to perform even the difficult physical labor. Occasionally, adults and children alike got divided into two sides or into trivial conflicts, but that was nothing compared to what they’d experienced before they came to the mansion. And Madam Kitty, who was something of a caretaker for the mansion, was an excellent mediator. Perhaps that was why those who came to live at the mansion rarely left the grounds even though there were no rules preventing them from going out to town, and why only a few of the mansion residents went into the town for work. In this way, their small community was self-sufficient, albeit a bit limited.
But Madame Kitty’s resourcefulness wasn’t the only reason the mansion’s residents rarely left the grounds. The residents of the small town knew everything about one another, down to who had eaten what kind of dessert the night before. As such, women from the mansion were bound to attract attention in the town. Whenever they had a chance, the townspeople asked them about their lives in the mansion, tried to confirm the rumors about the woman called Camilla, and questioned them about their pasts. The mansion’s residents feared the latter two questions more than the former, and they knew exactly what kind of presumptions such questions stemmed from. Before they came to live at the mansion, each had a complicated past, and they knew that the world did not readily understand or accept women with complicated pasts. Some of the women at the mansion moved into the town after finding jobs there, and some girls enrolled at the town school to make more friends, but many ended up returning to the mansion not long afterward and remained there.
Still, not everyone wanted to stay in the mansion forever. Some felt suffocated, and several of them ultimately settled down in the town upon leaving the mansion and became members of the town community. These women either found jobs and lived alone, or lived with other women who had also left the mansion, or married men from the town and started new families. Laura’s mother dreamed of being in the last group.
It wasn’t difficult for Laura to realize that her mother was getting tired of her life at the mansion. Laura knew the end of her time in heaven was approaching ever so close. She could tell from her mother’s eyes, as she stood by the dust-stained window at night, looking out toward the town. Laura detected a subtle hint of unbearable curiosity and loneliness in even the slightest of her mother’s motions, gestures, and speech, like perfume from the day before. Perhaps her mother didn’t even realize it herself, but Laura knew, which wasn’t surprising considering that she had been tethered to her mother’s passions and whims since birth.
Her mother soon told Laura that she was going to go and look for work outside the mansion.
“Laura, it’s not right to live dependent on other people. You have to learn to survive on your own. And if we can survive on our own, we help those who are in more desperate need of everything we receive here. That’s the right way to repay the kindness that Camilla and the mansion have shown us.”
Those words left her mother’s lips one summer day when Laura, who had been sick with a very bad cold, asked her mother to stay with her. It sounded perfectly logical. Laura couldn’t argue with that.
But she also knew that her mother’s words were just words. Her mother was not the type of person who could survive on her own. And her last few words, in particular, heightened Laura’s fear. “Oh Laura, but of course you should rely on me always. You’re just a child who needs her mother’s care. And that’s what being a mother and daughter is all about. It’s about sharing the same fate. You’re the only one I truly love and trust in this world. Don’t you worry about me abandoning you and leaving you all alone.”
She never realized what Laura feared most. Laura was terrified, not of her mother’s abandonment but that her mother would not let her go, not even to the very end. The day she would become an adult seemed much too far away, and the thought that she might get dragged into her mother’s misfortunes agitated and troubled Laura. And she knew that not a single one of her instincts was wrong when it came to her mother.
Had they not come to Camilla’s mansion, Laura would never have imagined a future where she and her mother weren’t together. Had it not been for the incidents in her mother’s past, Laura might have grown into a woman who was full of curiosity and who dreamed of a world outside the mansion. Laura was not an exceptional student, but she had an innate ability to read the situation and handle matters efficiently. She was sharp-witted and clever. But her relationship with her mother pared down her desires. Her desires were simple, almost too simple: to be free of her mother, to not be part of her mother’s misery, and to stay at the mansion no matter what.
The portents of tragedy quickly multiplied. Laura’s mother began to work at coffee shops and restaurants in town. She always talked about becoming independent, but her idea of independence was different from the kind Laura wanted. Her mother wanted a family. The community at the mansion wasn’t a family to her. She wanted a real family that would cherish and look after her and Laura. As soon as she started working at a restaurant in town, she became popular. Men saw right through her—a woman with a painful past, a woman trying hard to escape from her past, a woman who became resourceful as a result but was barely strong enough to support herself and was therefore ready to be swayed at any time, a woman who was a brittle façade that would topple over in the gentlest breeze. Men saw the kind of woman she was and enjoyed bringing down the façade. They would knock down the façade that was designed to be knocked down, pretend as if they hadn’t known, and become drunk with their own power. These men approached Laura’s young and vivacious mother, and she spent time with them, leaving Laura neglected.
Laura was embarrassed by her mother, but her mother wasn’t ashamed at all. In fact, she was always very sure of herself.
“He might be a good father to you. He’s different from all those other men. His marriage is a mess. He says he wishes that woman would just kill him.”
But later on, she would say, “He’s the same as the others. I thought he was different. All men want the same thing. You’re the only one for me. I have no one else but you. And you’re enough for me.”
Laura thought her own body always smelled faintly of alcohol. When her mother would shake her awake in the middle of the night with a plaintive voice, she always noticed the smell. When Laura had a nightmare or suddenly awoke at night, without fail she heard her mother’s voice and noticed the smell.
Laura’s concern that her mother might take her and leave the mansion had her feeling something like separation anxiety toward Camilla. She constantly reiterated her resolve not to live like her mother. And in her teenage years, she grew more violent and precarious. Laura went to the school in town from the age of fourteen to sixteen. She made numerous boys fall in love with her only to mercilessly break their hearts, as if to sneer at her mother and punish all those men who had toyed with her. She didn’t feel any tingle of excitement for boys. She knew they were trying to win her over with sweet words of devotion, but once she gave in they would talk about her behind her back, bragging that since she was living in a nunnery it was like they’d popped a nun’s cherry. And there really were boys who said such things.
When she began to attend the school in town, Laura’s life took a nose-dive. She drank, smoked, and hung out with boys. Rumors about her spread throughout the small community, and people pointed fingers at her and her mother, saying “Like mother, like daughter.” Laura rather hoped everyone would come to hate the two of them—then, maybe they wouldn’t have to leave the mansion after all. But her wish didn’t come true. Her mother was busy scolding her and ultimately decided that Laura’s bad behavior and actions must stem from her lack of a proper family. That thought pained her mother and made her feel guilty. And she would once again say, “Don’t worry, Laura. I’ll never leave you.”
The man who started coming to the town was about ten years younger than Laura’s mother. Laura knew her mother was seeing him exclusively as the seasons changed from winter to spring to summer. She heard rumors about how her mother and the man who delivered food to the restaurant and store in the town twice a week occasionally hugged or kissed in front of the mansion. He also delivered processed food to the mansion, and there was nothing about the man she could find fault with. He was handsome, diligent, and polite, and from what she heard he had no wife or children. He seemed almost perfect. Aside from the fact that he looked too young to be Laura’s father, he didn’t have any flaws in his character or qualities preventing him from becoming one. In fact, he was the most mature adult man Laura’s mother had met so far.
Laura was turning sixteen in three months, and summer was in full swing. She didn’t like summer. She was a bit repulsed by the green life that did not die or wilt under the scorching sunlight and heat, even when left to rot. She’d dragged a chair over to the side of the cloister where there was shade and sat there, watching the children play with the water hose by the flowerbed to cool off.
That was when she saw her mother, slowly walking from the direction of the main gate. Laura had been sharing a room with other girls her age for two years now, but she knew her mother hadn’t returned to the mansion last night. She knew her mother spent nights with the delivery man on the days he came to the town. She also knew that unlike her mother’s relationships with other men, this one was generally peaceful and stable.
“This mansion is making you sick. It’s true we owe a great debt to the mansion that we’ll never be able to repay, but I can’t have you stay here for the rest of your life.”
Every time Laura thought of that time, Johann Strauss the Younger’s polka played in her head. Her mother had hummed the melody as she gave away old clothes and unnecessary possessions to other residents of the mansion. Her eyes looked as if she were holding the delivery man’s hands and dancing across the green verdure under the moonlight.
“He’s entirely different from those lowlifes, the ones who get drunk and hum trashy songs.”
Laura could also see that things were different this time, but one thing hadn’t changed: her happy mother did not take care of her, just as her unhappy mother hadn’t. Laura finally realized her desire to stay at the mansion wasn’t just because of the misfortune that could befall them at any time. Even if they left the mansion and her mother formed a happy new family, she would not be part of that happiness. When she thought back on everything, Laura was only part of her mother’s miserable life.
It happened on one of those rare stormy nights with thunder and lightning and pouring rain. Earlier that day, Laura instinctively knew her time at the mansion was nearly up, despite her fervent wishes. Her mother had put her valuables in her old Boston bag, and a much bigger and newer bag was nearly full as well. That evening, Laura had a few drinks and then stole her mother’s Boston bag from under her bed and ran away. Under the dark and heavy storm clouds that even the moonlight couldn’t penetrate, Laura’s mother chased after her. Laura threatened to burn everything.
“I’m going to set everything on fire! You’re not going to abandon me? You already have! Over and over again! And you’re going to do it again. I’m going to stay here. If you’re not going to leave me here, then just kill me. You’re not even a mother. You only come to me when you’re lonely. I’m not going to be a pawn in your life anymore!”
Right about then, it started to rain. Laura tried to set the bag on fire, and her mother rushed at her. Pleas and sobs turned into screams and a struggle. Thunder roared everywhere, covering their harsh words and shouts. Laura realized then a powerful impulse that had been cooped up inside her for a long time.
“I wish you weren’t my mother! I wish you would just disappear!”
But even on her deathbed, Laura wasn’t certain whether she’d actually wanted her mother dead at that moment. Her mother used to tell Laura, “The thunder is the voice of God calling for you, ‘Where are you, Laura?’ And the lightning is a sign that he found you. ‘There you are, Laura.’”
On that uncommonly stormy night, Laura strangled her mother to death.
There you are, Laura. Laura thought she could never be forgiven. But she also didn’t believe in God. Even if there was God, she wasn’t going to pray to him. To Laura, God wasn’t good. He was cruel and vile.