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FICTION

Whale

  • onDecember 16, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byCheon Myeong-kwan
Whale
Tr. Jae Won Edward Chung

 

 

Excerpt from Part Three:

The Factory

 

The driver brought his truck around a week later. With every passing day, Chunhee’s hope had grown. She had gone on baking more bricks with a buoyant heart. As soon as he got out of the truck, he took out a wad of bills from his shirt pocket with a beaming smile.

—See? Didn’t I tell you I could get you good money for them?

Chunhee was still disappointed that more people had not come. The driver went on chattering away and put the cash in her hands.

—Take it. You’re going to be pretty rich soon. Don’t forget about me when that happens, okay?

Chunhee shook her head. She wasn’t going to take the money.

—Hey Dummy, I don’t know what kind of guy you take me for. I’m not the kind of person who would swindle a woman just because she doesn’t understand how the world works.

He tried pushing the cash back into her hands but she shook her head again. He finally seemed to accept that he had no other choice. He put it back in his pocket.

—I’ll hold on to it for now. I’m exact with my math, so don’t worry. When it comes to credit, I’m more trustworthy than a bank.

Noticing that Chunhee was still wearing the tattered jumpsuit, he asked,

—Why don’t you wear the dress I bought for you? You don’t like the color? Of course it wasn’t very expensive but it’s not like I picked up any old dress. I get you’re stubborn, but damn, couldn’t you have at least considered my feelings?

Without even trying them on, she had put away the clothes he’d given her among her other belongings. She was afraid of even the smallest of changes. She couldn’t fathom the thought of taking off the jumpsuit she had been wearing for over ten years.

—Alright, I see. Maybe you’re saving it for a special occasion? You don’t have to do that though. That’s not what it’s for. It’s for everyday use. If it wears out, I’ll buy you a new one, okay?

The driver took off again with the trunk full of bricks. This is how their transaction began. After carting away the bricks, he would bring back rice, meat, and other foodstuffs, as well as pots and blankets and other household items. He would show up every once in a while to drop off bags of rice among other things and then take away more of her bricks. He didn’t make any further advances. He didn’t understand her delicate emotions, but he did understand she was different from most women.

Chunhee worked harder than ever before with her brick production. She would look in the direction of the access way from time to time. She began to realize that what she was waiting for now was no longer the workers who had left the factory years ago, but the driver himself. This was something that she could not quite comprehend, since her heart had been sealed off from these matters. The feeling was different from how she used to long for the twin sisters and Mun. But once a crack had opened up, all the uncontainable emotions began flooding out in a great gush. She would be kneading mud or eating alone. Sometimes she would be lying in her room and looking up at the moon through the crack in the ceiling. Suddenly, she could see nothing in her mind besides the driver’s face.

She was confused by these stirrings of the heart which she had never experienced before. Every time he came by, her confusion deepened. Pretty soon, she was finding it hard to fall asleep. If she lay on her mat, her head would be full of all kinds of squirmy thoughts. When dawn rolled around, she would have spent the whole night tossing and turning so that she would be too exhausted even to move. When the sun rose, she would bolt to her feet as if everything was fine and run outside with the anticipation that maybe this would be the day that the man was coming. This was the logic of love.

One day, Chunhee went out to the brook to do her laundry and saw herself reflected in the clear water. Her hair was like unruly weeds. Her torn jumpsuit looked like a used rag. There were hideous wounds all over her massive body… She called to mind the image of the woman whom her mother had once loved. The ivory nape of her neck and the cheeks so soft that they looked as though tenderness itself would rub off like fine powder, as well as the long slender hips… Chunhee could understand faintly why her mother had adored the woman so much. When she returned home, she finally got out of the ragged jumpsuit and tried on the yellow one-piece dress. Thankfully, it was a perfect fit, as though it had been personally tailored. A few days later, the driver was looking at her with a beaming smile.

—I definitely made the right choice picking that one. Now that you have it on, you remind me of an…adorable baby chick.

He went on to bring her all different kinds of clothes, but Chunhee always wore that one yellow one-piece. She wanted to see his beaming smile again. Then one autumn, three or four months after the driver first returned to the factory, she would experience the most dramatic and astonishing moment of her life.

Chunhee was taking a bath by the pump. She was examining the scars all over her body as she washed. She had never felt this way before, but on that day, the scars seemed very ugly to her. The scar from the fight with the bear, she thought, was especially grotesque. She wished she could erase these scars. But no matter how much she rubbed at them, they would not fade. She was filled with sadness and regret. She wanted her skin to be white, like the beautiful woman she had seen in prison. If it was only possible, she wished she could make that woman’s body her own.

She suddenly saw that the driver was standing next to her. Who knew when he had come? But the truck was parked by their side, and the man was looking at her naked body. The usual bright smile was nowhere to be found; instead, his eyes glimmered with a strange form of passion. It was an expression unfamiliar to her, different from what she was used to. Forgetting that she was naked, she continued to look back curiously at the man. She thought that perhaps she’d seen this expression somewhere before. The glint in his eyes was similar to that of the men who had, long ago on that night of the thunderstorm, stripped her mother naked before pouncing on her body. This was not a good omen.

He approached her. She stepped back, now on guard, but stumbled over a branch and wound up falling to the ground. Her naked crotch was revealed in the sunlight. The man’s gaze appeared to be swallowed by scorching flames. He jumped on top of her fallen body. The man’s body was trembling, while the sudden terror had struck her own body still. He lowered his pants and he kept rubbing something hot against her crotch. His hot breath brushed against her face, and his broad chest pressed down against hers. She felt herself suffocate as her breath grew short. She tried to detach him from her. But the moment she was about to pry his shoulders off from her, something hot was pushed between her legs. A sharp pain pierced the crown of her head and her entire body went limp. Years ago, when she had been in jail, this was the spot that man in the mask had ruthlessly stabbed with his billy club. Seeing the blood flow from the penetration, the masked man had said,

—A virgin? I guess it makes sense, because what crazy bastard would want to fuck a monster like you? Dogs or horses might make a better match in your case. What do you think?

Chunhee felt that the man was now tormenting her just as the masked man had done. The truck driver had been a bad man after all. She tried shoving him off, to wriggle herself free. The more she tried, the more desperately did he roll his hips against her. She might have been a powerful woman but she was no match for his strength. Suddenly his whole body became stiff. Afterwards, he rolled off her body like a log. Rage was welling up inside her as he lay by her side, sighing and trying to catch his breath. He had been a bad man after all, who had come to torment her. She got on her feet so that she could chew off the man’s face. But by then his expression had changed. That strange passion had disappeared, and the gentle expression that she was used to had returned. There was also a mixture of embarrassment and remorse. She was confused. She didn’t know whether she should still bite off his nose. Then the man told her, steadying his breath,

—I’m sorry, babe. I didn’t want our first time to be like this, but I couldn’t control myself.

Afterwards, similar incidents played themselves out each time he came to visit. Every time it happened, her body stiffened and the pain returned, but she could not bring herself to bite his face. She didn’t understand why he was fine one second and then acted like a bad man the next. She thought maybe it was some kind of terrible disease, like the illness that she’d gotten when the bug had gone inside her. Then she decided it was all because of that bizarre-looking thing between his legs. Just as the one-eyed lady had treated her for the bug, she decided to cure him of his illness. She got herself a knife and tried to lop off the man’s thing to help him rid himself of it. The second the blade touched the skin, the man jerked awake and snatched the knife away from her before flinging it far away. With a flabbergasted look, he said,

—Are you fucking crazy? Are you trying to turn me into a eunuch or something? Don’t you realize that you’re the person who stands to lose the most, you idiot?

Unfortunately, she would never know the pleasure of sex even till the day she died. She understood soon that what the driver was doing was not the same as what the masked man had done to torment her years ago. It was a natural reproductive behavior common among animals. Still the act always felt strange and scary to her. Even when the piercing pain through the crown of her head disappeared, she would feel her whole body go stiff when his eyes lit up with that strange passion. Whenever he was gasping for breath on top of her, she wished he would finish soon so that his usual gentle expression would return. She wished he would embrace her and with his thundering voice tell her about all the things he’d done in this world. She couldn’t understand what he was saying very well, but the nutty odor from his body and his resonant voice put her at ease. Before she knew it, she would be fast asleep.

She began cooking for him when he came by. She remembered the scene from years ago, how women from the factory would cook rice in the iron cauldron for the workers. She prepared rice and side dishes. The rice might have been undercooked and the flavoring of the side dishes was off, but he always finished every last bit. After downing a bowl of rice, he would push the empty bowl towards her shamelessly and say,

—Can I have some more? You won’t believe how hungry I am today. Your cooking’s so good, if I end up having a stomachache, oh well I guess…

The two ate side-by-side like wife and husband and fell asleep afterwards. The foliage was especially gorgeous that year. That autumn, the unfathomable desolation of Nambaran seemed so beautiful and abundant, all because of this one man.

Her life entered a new phase. After ten harsh, grueling years in the penitentiary, she had had to live isolated from the rest of the world yet again. The past few months of life with the driver had been an unexpected blessing. If the two of them could spend the rest of their days together, then perhaps this would have been something of a reward for her agonies. But the life of our Queen of Bricks did not end so easily. Her merciless fate had still yet more brutal trials to endure.

A few days after the first frost, the driver came by the factory again. In preparation for winter, he had brought thick coats for her to wear. As soon as he saw her, he tried hiking up her skirt to do his business. That’s when he realized that her belly was more swollen than usual.

She was already heavier set than most women, but he realized that this was different. She was pregnant. His expression suddenly darkened. He rolled off her belly and gently lowered her skirt backed down. She saw that something was off about his expression. He struggled to put a bright expression, but his eyes had already gone cold. He lay down to go to bed without finishing even a single bowl of rice, but he couldn’t fall asleep. He would sigh and brush the hair on Chunhee’s head as she slept.

The next morning, when she opened her eyes, he was nowhere to be found. The truck parked in the yard was gone as well. She thought it was strange that he would leave without saying his usual extended goodbyes. He had never once disappeared like this without saying goodbye. She spent the whole day gripped by an uneasy feeling. Even as she worked, she kept looking towards the direction of the access way.

At that moment, the driver was driving over a narrow mountain road far from the factory. For most lovers, naturally, creating a new life would have been a blessing, but this was not the case for him. Just as when he had left the bookkeeper of the mining company, he was afraid that the child would tie him down, and he would have to live his whole life like a beast in a pen. As he drove down the winding road, he felt it was a painful thing to part with Chunhee, but this was his fate as a wandering man, and nothing could be done about it. By the time he had turned another corner, he was even beginning to feel a sense of freedom. If you were going to be objective about it, he thought, she wasn’t actually such a charming woman. After one more turn, he thought to himself, the road is long and wherever you go, there was no shortage of women. A woman was just one of many things that a man was supposed to get from the world, and by the time he had made the final turn, his heart was full of hope that he would make it to some strange city and find a new woman and build a wonderful life with her. Finally, when the truck had entered the wide, open road, he slammed on the accelerator. This is how the driver ended up leaving the factory. It would be his last journey.

Even when the first snow had fallen, the truck driver had not returned. Chunhee’s stomach continued to swell. She knew from observing the lives of wild animals that after sexual intercourse, the stomach swelled and that offspring were born. She kept looking towards the access way for the driver to return. She could still hear the echo of the driver saying his usual farewell.

—Alright babe. Let’s meet again. I can’t promise when I’ll be back. If there’s one thing I can’t stand in this world, it’s promises.

And just as he’d said, the driver had departed without a promise and silence had fallen over the factory. It was well into winter and he still had not returned. She could feel the kicking of the child inside her belly. She could feel the anxiety as well as the overflowing sense of pride about the precious life growing inside her. Like a hen sitting on a nest of eggs, she spent the winter quietly, alone in her room.

When spring rolled around, she was so close to being due that it was hard for her to even stand up. Her stomach had swollen so big that stretchmarks formed and the veins were visible through the skin. She was afraid that her stomach might even burst. Unfortunately, this was around the time her food supply was beginning to run out. For the first time in a year, she had no choice but to venture into the wild for food. Because it was only early spring, there wasn’t much to eat in the field or in the valley. The harsh hunger she would experience until the day she gave birth to this child was too horrible and sad to convey in words. She understood instinctively that her hunger was bringing agony to the child, and this caused her even more worry and heartache. She felt all the more desperate from all the waiting, but even when the baby was finally coming, the driver had not returned.

She gave birth to a girl in late spring. She did it alone. The baby was small and had no strength even to let out a cry. The situation was as dire as when Chunhee had been born in the twin sisters’ stable. She chewed off the umbilical chord and boiled the placenta for nourishment. This was her maternal instinct. She pushed her breast into the child’s mouth, which barely managed to yield some milk, though it was watery. She could breathe a little better. She felt an overwhelming sense of pride watching a life that she had created suckling on her breast. This was the joy of motherhood. It didn’t have to be taught to her.

This joy lasted only briefly. The next day, Chunhee had to wander the fields and valleys looking for food again. The instinct that she had to feed her young had pushed her back out into the barren world. She wandered through the valley like a mad woman, but spring was fickle-hearted; while leaves were budding on tree branches and flowers were abloom everywhere, it would be a season of hunger for a woman who had just given birth. She didn’t have enough milk in her breasts, and the child kept suckling on her drained nipples weakly sobbing for more. She didn’t have much milk for the baby because the nursing mother had so little to eat. Chunhee plucked the new shoots, dug up and chewed on tree roots and caught field mice to eat. In order to protect the life of her feeble young, she desperately plunged herself into a head-to-head struggle with nature. It was the cruelest and the most basic of struggles.

When summer came, she was still going hungry, but the valley was finally providing her with enough food to produce breast milk. She became busier. She had to take care of her baby and began producing bricks again. This was because she believed that the reason the driver had left was because she had become lazy with her brick-production. She longed to see the man again. She missed his booming voice, his body’s nutty odor, even the act of sleeping with him, which she had hated so much. She wanted to tell the man that she’d had a child. She wanted to show him this thing that the two of them had made together. This yearning continued until winter’s cruel return.

Winter that year had the heaviest snowstorm since the government began keeping official meteorological records. Years later, whenever it snowed, the old timers who remembered the record snowfall would say,

—This is nothing compared to what it was like that winter. We thought the next Ice Age had come.

Chunhee was wandering through the snowstorm with the baby in her arms. This was near the valley where she had run into the one-eyed lady some time ago. The baby was burning up. As the wind sliced away at her ears, she could faintly make out the sound of her child crying. She was looking for the one-eyed lady. Chunhee believed that just as the lady had once healed her, she would be able to help the baby as well. This was the only thing she could think to do for the sick child.

Chunhee had found the child crying when she returned after checking on the animal trap she’d placed in the woods. Luckily, there had been a wild rabbit in the trap. She’d hurried home with the thought that she would boil the rabbit for some porridge, and that’s when she found the child covered all over in a millet-like red rash. The girl’s head was so hot it seemed ready to burst. She kept on coughing. Chunhee rushed to feed her some breast milk but the baby wouldn’t stop crying. Watching the child almost suffocate from a fit of coughing, she was completely at a loss as to what to do. Chunhee was finally able to regain her composure and cook up a porridge with the rabbit she’d caught, but the child threw it up instantly.

When afternoon came, the fever intensified. Drained of all strength, the baby seemed barely able to cry. Putting the child into her arms, she rushed out towards the valley. The valley extended in dozens of directions, every one of them looking identical, so that she couldn’t figure out where she’d met the one-eyed woman. The snowfall became even more fierce, and now she was buried up to her knees. By then, even the baby’s wailing had quieted down. She waded desperately through the snow but soon she’d lost her way. She was afraid. She wanted to return home before darkness fell. She turned around, but the snow had cut off the way home, and the fierce blizzard blocked her field of vision. The howling wind lashed at her ears like the wailing of ghosts. She couldn’t tell one place apart from another, and now night was falling and darkness would soon cover all of heaven and earth. The snow wouldn’t stop. No matter where she looked or where she went, the field of snow stretched everywhere. She was getting tired. Her steps began to slow. Everything was submerged in darkness. With the snow now up to her thighs and the child still in her arms, Chunhee finally collapsed. It was warmer than she’d thought, inside the snow. The wind striking her ears grew distant. She thought that she should get up any second but she couldn’t even budge. She worried about her baby’s condition, but she couldn’t even bring herself to lift her head. She was thinking about death. She could smell the odor of the stable where she’d been born wafting to her from some place. Meanwhile, the bright, splendid snowflakes were gently blanketing this exhausted woman and child.

While Chunhee was wandering the snow with her child, the driver was on a mountain road. He was returning to the brick factory. The blizzard which had begun in the afternoon continued deep into the night. No, it actually became stronger with the passing of time. He was tired. He had just been released from jail.

After leaving Chunhee, he had only been met with misfortune. He transported fruit from an orchard faraway in the countryside to the city. The pay wasn’t bad. He also met a woman. She worked as a vendor at a fruit and vegetable market. Her body was always fragrant with the odor of fresh grapes. For the first few months, they had fallen head over heels in love. They rented a room and settled down. But the fruit vendor was not a woman who was easily satisfied. She was always scraping the bucket with one complaint or another. She said the man was lazy and that he was wasteful with his money and looked down on him for not being as capable as other men. Amongst every woman he’d ever met, she was absolutely the worst. So he left.

While he was headed to a neighboring city, he was drinking and driving and got into a small accident. Nobody was hurt, but he got into a verbal argument with the other party, and in his anger, ended up throwing a punch. He was taken into custody by the police and spent days in lock-up. While he was being held at the police station, he remembered the face of Chunhee. He wondered if she’d given birth to the baby. He realized that he was getting old too. He wasn’t as strong as he used to be, and he was more frequently fatigued. The thought occurred to him that perhaps the time had come for his wandering to end. He could feel that powerful desire rising up inside him, to raise a child and live a settled life as other people did.

That morning, on his way out of lock-up, he stopped by a market and picked up some rice and meats. He also bought a yellow sweater woven out of wool. These were gifts for Chunhee. He wished to see her face as soon as possible. He wanted to see the face of the child that he had made with her. As he approached Pyungdae(평대), the blizzard grew thicker and thicker. If he drove over just one more hill, the factory would be visible in the distance. He wondered if Chunhee was still wearing that yellow one-piece. He was already preparing what he would say to her once he saw her.

—I’m sorry, my babe. I didn’t leave you because I had grown tired of you. I just wanted to be free. But that’s all over. Until now I never made any promises to anyone but I will make a promise to you for the first time, which is that I will never leave your side no matter what.

The blizzard grew stronger. He couldn’t see what was ahead so he had to push his face against the windshield as he drove. He thought it would be nice if the child was an adorable girl. As he went down the hill, he realized that he hadn’t prepared a present for the kid, and reproached himself for it.

You idiot!

He slammed the steering wheel with his fist. At that moment, the steering wheel turned and the truck swerved off the road. It was a steep declivity. He turned the steering wheel back in surprise, and this sent the truck careening over the slippery snow-covered street and smashed into the guard rail. It continued to roll down the valley. The driver thought to himself as he fell,

Son-of-a-gun, how deep does this thing go? All I want is just to die in the middle of the road.

The truck collided with a boulder lying at the bottom of the valley and shattered into hundreds of pieces. Soon, everything was blanketed by the powerful blizzard. The man who spent his whole life wandering on the road had finally concluded his life in the snow-covered valley. It would be May by the time a hiker discovered his corpse in the demolished truck, when spring had come and all the snow had melted. This spot was no more than four miles from the brick factory.

Chunhee opened her eyes which throbbed with pain. The sun was rising over the white snow that blanketed everything. There was tranquility in every direction, as though the blizzard had been but a dream, and there wasn’t a wisp of wind anywhere. She slowly got herself back on her feet. She felt like she weighed a thousand pounds. She looked down at her arms. The child wasn’t there. Shocked, she began digging through the snow like a crazy person. She found the child’s body in the snow and took her into her arms. The baby was as cold as a block of ice. Her face was pale as ash, and her limbs dangled lifelessly. The realization that her child was dead shook her to the core. She rubbed the child’s face against her own cheeks. Death was not something you could undo. She knew this fact very well. Like a doe struck by a hunter’s bullet, she felt her legs shaking until her knees finally buckled. Gently, she set the child down on the snow. The child was so small and feeble. And dead. As she stood there looking down at the child, a vast sorrow came roaring towards her like a tidal wave. Everything came rushing up from the pit of her throat. She cried. She cried in despair, with sadness, with a breathless desperation. The sun continued its climb. Chunhee remained but a dot in the white field of snow as she cried. Her wailing contained all the loneliness and agony she had endured throughout her life. 

Author's Profile

Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.