Seven Cat Eyes
- onNovember 11, 2014
- Vol.23 Spring 2014
- byChoi Jae-hoon
- Seven Cat Eyes
Recipe for Revenge
Schubert: String Quartet No.14 in D Minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden.” The Munch painting of the same name graces the cover of the CD. The naked maiden and the skeleton man kissing as they embrace each other. The maiden’s flesh glows pink. Red tresses cascade down the supple curves of her back and shoulders. Her demurely closed eyes seem to be fluttering. The wan skeleton man looks pitifully frail next to the buxom maiden. His bony claws can barely contain her sturdy waist. He tries to retreat, pushing his hips awkwardly backward. The maiden has thrown her sleek arms around his neck, however, and shows no sign of letting go. Her plump breasts press firmly against his bony ribcage.
The man flips the CD over to examine the back. He adds up the time of all the movements, checking each carefully with a latex-gloved fingertip. 38 minutes 28 seconds. He glances at his watch and turns to look out the window. The clouds have just parted to show the pale face of the crescent moon. That’s a bit long…The man turns around, fanning himself with the CD. Another man is lying down on the single bed pushed against the wall. His posture is as unnatural as that of a corpse on a slab, lying straight on his back facing the ceiling. A briefcase lies ajar next to the pillow, showing the portable respiratory equipment crammed inside. The tube connected to the aluminum oxygen tank coils over the man’s chest and disappears inside his open mouth. The fluorescent light glints in his pupils, drooping eyelids giving them the appearance of being sliced in half.
“You like Schubert?”
The man slides the disk inside the portable CD player on the desk without bothering to wait for an answer. He presses play and the air fills with the sound of faint static. Majestic cello strains signal the beginning of the first movement. The man stands with his hands behind his back, listening to the string quartet. He taps his left finger smartly in time with the music.
“There was also a movie called Death and the Maiden, perhaps you’ve heard of it? A Roman Polanski movie starring Sigourney Weaver. I think they called it The Truth in Korea. Supposedly it was better for the box office that way. What kind of title is that, though? …Stupid, really. No death, no maiden, just the truth.”
The man comes over and plops down on the bed next to the prone figure. The movement sends a tremor through the other man’s body like a raft rocked by the waves.
“The movie is set in some South American country that just became a democracy after years under a fascist regime. The main character used to be a student activist and she has post traumatic stress disorder now from all the torture she suffered. While blindfolded, she was raped and subjected to electric shocks over and over again by this torturer. He always put on Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” while he was doing it. They really did that in South America, you know. The victims could never bear that music afterwards, all their lives. Pavlovian reaction.”
The man fixes his eyes on the dark mildew stains in the corner where two of the walls and the ceiling met.
“The regime was finally overthrown and she gets married to another activist, a lawyer. Except she’s not over what happened to her. She’s afraid to go anywhere and lives like a recluse in this lonely house by the sea. I guess it would be surprising if she was okay after all that. Anyway. There’s this terrible storm one day, and her husband gets a ride home from this doctor because his car broke down. The husband invites him in for a drink and she’s in the bedroom, listening to them talking. You see where this is going? Yes, she’s positive this doctor is the same guy who tortured her. She never saw his face, but she recognizes his voice, the way he talks, the sound of his laugh. What really cinches it is a tape of “Death and the Maiden” in his car. Time for revenge. I never miss a movie about revenge if I can help it.”
The speakers play on, the melody of the two violins zipping across the small room as nimbly as a pond skater on water.
“She waits until he falls asleep to tie him up, and now it’s her turn to interrogate him. Holding a gun to his head. She just wants one thing: his confession. So poetic. But the doctor refuses to acknowledge he did anything. He insists that he had nothing to do with the military regime, that he was living abroad at the time. The husband doesn’t know who to believe either, because he knows his wife has a history of hysteria. So who’s telling the truth? The “trial” goes on all night, but the doctor won’t admit doing anything. She finally tells him he’s getting the death penalty anyway and drags him to this cliff on the seaside. The doctor is staring down at the waves crashing on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The sun is coming up when he finally confesses the truth. All of the atrocious things he did, the sweet taste of power in the torture chamber, how much he missed it all. Now we’re just waiting to see if she carries out the sentence. She doesn’t say anything, just…lets him go.
“I don’t like this ending at all. The truth, what does that change? I’m not saying it’s useless. I’m just saying it’s like a painting in the museum. Like the "Mona Lisa," "Starry Night," "The Kiss"…It’s a beautiful thing, for sure. You go to see it and experience the aura. Experience a little uplifting of the soul. Of course it’s going to be plunged in the gutter as soon as you exit the museum, but still. But scars are different. Scars are just for you. They’re there to remind you to never forget how you got this scar. She should have pushed the doctor off that cliff. It’s the only thing to do. The only decent thing you can do for an old friend like a scar.”
The man twists his head to look down at the other man lying in a frozen position. A reflection of his face appears in the dry pupils under half-open eyelids.
“You can’t move a muscle, can you? Or close your eyes. Don’t worry. You’ve just had an injection of a muscle relaxant. It’s used in surgery with anesthesia to cut the muscles off from the nervous system. Much easier to cut and slice and dig around the human body when the muscles are relaxed. You’re still conscious, though, aren’t you? You can hear well, too. Why don’t you just relax and enjoy the Schubert? I’m going to push you off the cliff anyway when this masterpiece is over.”
After a short pause, the second movement starts. A doleful tune oozes over the floor and wraps itself around the man’s ankles.
“Andante con moto. Slowly, but with motion. 26 minutes, 58 seconds to go. In the meantime, let me tell you about myself. I assume you want to know something about the person who’s going to kill you, am I right? Don’t worry; I shan’t waste your time with all the boring details.”
The man rolls up his left sleeve and shoves his arm in front of the captive’s face. A long, jagged scar runs across it.
“See this? I’m just going to tell you about this scar.”
He rolls his sleeve back down and buttons the cuff.
“I was nine when I had my first seizure. I was thumbing through The Brothers Karamazov at the bookstore. Dostoyevsky. I was always a precocious child. Now that I think back, that precociousness was my body setting up a defense mechanism of sorts. I had to learn how the world works earlier than others. Anyway, I was holding that book in my hand when I lost consciousness, and when I woke up I was in the emergency room. They said the ambulance crew brought me there because I suddenly collapsed and was having a seizure. I had nine stitches above my right eyebrow where I fell and banged my head on the corner of the bookcase. I was still in a daze. The confusing part was my mother’s reaction. She didn’t say a word, not when we were listening to the doctor’s explanation, not on the way home while she held me by the hand. I remember I was touching the bandage on my forehead, and I looked up and saw the sad lines around her mouth.
“I learned the reason that evening. Mother sat me and my younger sister down and explained what had happened to Father. He choked to death on his own vomit because he had an epileptic attack when he was home alone. Not because of carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal heating briquette, like she had told us before. We just nodded. It didn’t change the fact that he was dead, anyway. But we kept quiet because Mother was being so serious. There were no funny questions when she started giving first-aid instructions. Lay him on his side so the spittle doesn’t go down his throat, clear the area of any dangerous objects, loosen any buttons or belts or tight clothing, stay by his side until the seizures stop, etc., etc. And she made my sister promise to never leave my side when she wasn’t home to watch me. My sister just pouted. Mother was away almost every day because she cleaned houses.
“Actually it’s quite rare to die of an epileptic attack. That’s exactly what happened to Mother with Father, though, so it’s understandable that she was so vigilant about it. The sight of me must have been a living reminder of her husband left alone in his room, choking to death, and all the guilt she carried afterwards for that. Which became my sister’s to carry from then on. Once she came home from work early and found me alone in the house. It was bad luck that my sister had chosen that day to go play with her friends. Mother used the bamboo duster on her calves until they were black and blue and kicked her out of the house. On a snowy day, without any proper clothes. I lay on my stomach reading Notes from Underground and I heard her crying from outside the window. Mommy, I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry, Mommy…
“My sister and I are fraternal twins, born on the same day to the hour. But we were different from each other. A lot different. She was always laughing, good with people—she and Mother could be fighting one minute and she could have her laughing the next—she was passionate about the normal teenage things, like boy bands, and she would always try out new things even if she didn’t have the patience to finish them…She was born to light up a room wherever she went. It helped that she was a beauty, unlike me. Grandmother Samshin must have had a cataract in one eye when she was blessing us. She gave all the good stuff to my sister, and all the crappy stuff to me. Stuff like epilepsy.”
The man taps his foot in time with the rhythm of the music, checks the digital screen of the player for the time elapsed.
“Mother’s first-aid lesson turned out to be handy. For some reason, I was always having seizures when it was just the two of us at home. It made her quite protective of me. I could be eating dinner, watching TV, having a bath…and I’d go out like a light, just like that. Like a fuse blowing out. And when I came to my senses there she would be, looking down at me with her clear eyes. She’d smile and say, "Hi there." Those words were like a message of rebirth to me. That I had a new fuse, that it wasn’t my time yet. She looked like a saint to me, with the halo of the fluorescent lamp hanging on the ceiling above her head. She was so dazzling it hurt my eyes to look at her. I would be lying there on the ground, twitching like a bug somebody stepped on, and she would be sitting there quietly, watching her other half foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling back into his head, limbs flailing, shitting his pants when he lost control of his sphincter. I wonder what she thought of it all?
“I’m sure she must have had her share of complaints. She was just a kid who should’ve been hanging out with her friends, and she was stuck at home all day because of me. My guardian angel from the day we were born. I was thankful for her, and I felt sorry for her. But there was always something dark and sticky lurking under the surface of my human feelings. Spreading like some cancerous growth, taking over my entire body…Oh, I knew him well.
The man gazes at the cover of the CD. The maiden’s arm seems to tighten around the skeleton man’s neck, choking him. A glimpse of fear wells up in his dark, empty sockets. [……]
Choi Jae-hoon (b.1973) made his literary debut when he won the new writer’s award from Literature and Society in 2007. His works include Baron Quirval’s Castle, Seven Cat Eyes, and From the Sleep of Babes.