School Nurse Ahn Eun-young
- onJune 23, 2019
- Vol.44 Summer 2019
- byChung Serang
- School Nurse Ahn Eun-young
Tr. Kari Schenk 2015280pp.
There’s something in this school. From her first day at work, she could sense it. Sadly, Eun-young was not your ordinary school nurse. She always carried in her handbag a BB gun and a rainbow-colored toy knife that extended from a funnel-shaped sheath. Why does a mentally sound woman in her thirties have to carry these things around? It upsets me to have to do it, but there’s no other way. Actually, I do it because I’m not mentally sound. Ahn Eun-young, laidback school nurse at M— private high school, teasingly called “A-neun hyeong” (the “knowledgeable type”) by her friends, had the power to see and fight invisible things.
When did it all start—should we say right from the beginning? Eun-young knew her world was different from others’ early on. She began to clearly recognize it when she was ten. Her mother had bought a house for much lower than market price and was excited to tear down a kitchen wall for remodeling, but Eun-young had strongly objected. The structure is nice as it is. If you put up new wallpaper or worse, create a lot of bother tearing things down here and there and remodeling, I’ll go and live with Dad, she threatened. There was a woman in the walls whose face was a little careworn but kind. It was better if her mom didn’t know anything about these things. When ten-year-old Eun-young sat at the table eating her cereal and milk, the woman in the walls would look down at her, quietly smiling, which was fine because there was no hostility in her gaze. People like Eun-young have to develop a sense of whether something is hostile or not from an early age.
It wasn’t just dead people she saw. Living people made things, and they looked even creepier. For example, the naked figures that floated around the school, filling the air. Oh, how I hate teenage kids. When no one was looking, swish, swish, she swung her knife at the students’ erotic fantasies and drove them away. They’re so young, and their predilections are already so diverse. So what she was really seeing was a kind of ectoplasm, the cohesive form taken by tiny undiscovered particles emitted from dead and living things. The pale, jelly-like blobs differed in viscosity according to type and life stage. Surprisingly, dead things did not cohere well. Living things were the problem—the onset of secondary sexual characteristics was nasty and repulsive.
Animated by Eun-young’s spirit alone, the toy knife and gun could fight the jelly-like blobs. The BB gun was good for twenty-two rounds a day and the plastic knife for fifteen minutes of use. In addition, if she had an Egyptian Ankh cross and Turkish Evil Eye, a rosary from the Vatican and prayer beads from Buseoksa Temple, and an amulet from a Shinto shrine in Kyoto, then these could be extended to twenty-eight rounds and nineteen minutes. The school nurse’s life revolved around totems like these.
She’d been at a university hospital until a few years ago. She wasn’t a professional exorcist, and she had to make a living somehow. Even though she hadn’t made the cutoff, she was admitted to nursing college and had stayed with the hospital continuously. Hospital or school, it was the same: They all teemed with spirits. Why did I choose to become a nurse? No, no. People don’t really choose their jobs—their jobs choose them. I believe this more as the years go by. She disliked terms such as “vocation” at their essence, so she didn’t think of herself as accepting or taking on a job. Rather, she thought of herself as having given up on living an easy life from the outset. She’d only worked the tough units at the hospital, and she’d been even more worn down than she was now. After a few years, she could no longer handle the long dragged-out fights in the corridor at daybreak. She then decided to make use of the school nurse certification she’d attained at university. If the choice was between horror and porn, naturally she’d take porn.
But at this school, quite apart from the porn jelly blobs, there is something bad pricking into the students’ necks. And I felt a strange dampness the moment I set foot here. I guess I’m bound to this destiny.
With the BB gun and toy knife tucked behind her back under her coat, Eun-young left the health room.
“Wait a second. That kind of stone always has something on the underside.”
She didn’t have time to stop him. With a heave-ho, In-pyo turned over the stone that had the Chinese characters apjiseok engraved on it. The next second, the two fell down as if hit by an invisible car. The flashlight fell and the batteries came flying out. The sound echoed around the basement.
Students in the hallway screamed and fell to the floor. Something was pricking into their bare skin. Not all of the students were under attack. Many fell, but not all. The ones who had fallen got up again and started to head for the rooftop. Even when someone nearby called out to them, they didn’t hear. The students who had not been attacked were surprised at the extraordinary turn of events. Their friends had started blindly climbing the stairs, and they followed, trying to stop them.
Seung-gwon was already on the roof, starting to climb over the chain link fence. Students watching from the grounds below screamed. Hye-hyeon wasn’t even able to scream.
In all the chaos, no one paid any attention to Eun-young, who threw off her heels and ran down the hallway in stocking feet.
In-pyo lost sight of Eun-young. She’d sped off like an arrow. He headed directly to the teachers’ room. They’d lost control of the school, and things were escalating towards a worst-case scenario. Now that the screams of the students were outside normal hearing range, he thought he might glean some information from them, but it was impossible. The teachers had all run out into the hallway only to find that the situation was unmanageable. He’d made a mistake in the basement. Was he wrong to have turned over the stone? The mysterious school nurse should have warned him in advance. At any rate, he had to de-escalate the situation. Someday the school would be his; he already shouldered a lot of responsibility. He calmed his nerves as he approached the fax machine. He lacked inspiration, but his education in the Eastern classics meant he could counter strange phenomena more flexibly than anyone would expect. Even as he wondered whether he should call and bother him again, a fax was already coming in from his father’s oldest brother, a very punctilious man. The slow pace of the fax machine drove In-pyo crazy. After this situation was dealt with, he’d start by replacing it.
According to his uncle’s explanation, written concisely in longhand, the document was an eighteenth-century regional record. The section about the school’s location was only a few lines long, but in the old-style writing there were no full stops. What’s more, the fax became blurry coming through the machine, so he wasn’t sure if he could read it correctly.\
Since ancient times, young people who lost their lovers have thrown themselves into this pond.
Recently, we have been unable to stop the numbers from increasing,
And evil practices have been in evidence, as the corpses of murder victims disguised as suicides have been thrown in.
In addition, the fish, toads, and lizards who feed on the corpses are growing fat to the point of becoming a menace.
For this reason, the government has issued orders to fill in the pond.
Thank goodness he taught Chinese characters. His peers who taught other subjects wouldn’t be able to read it at all, except maybe the history teachers. He indulged in some retrospective gloating over his choice of major before setting out to look for the school nurse again. She was running around using enigmatic means to combat the situation, and he didn’t know if this information would help her.
“Seung-gwon, don’t do it! Seung-gwon! Seung-gwon!” Hye-hyeon started to scream, but Seung-gwon didn’t seem to hear. She didn’t have a direct view of his face, but he didn’t even seem to glance in her direction.
“I’m coming. Stay there. Please stay there until I get there!”
But Seung-gwon had already passed over the lower part of the chain link fence onto the part with barbed wire. If he had been of sound mind, he wouldn’t have been able to hold on with bare hands; it was clear something was very wrong. She hesitated, not knowing whether to continue calling from the school grounds or run up to the rooftop.
Then the earth rumbled a second time. The heart of candles on the grounds collapsed and sank all at once. Part of the sports field, the area of the grounds closest to the school, sank right into the earth. As the other kids ran here and there in search of solid ground, Hye-hyeon looked up at Seung-gwon. He’d hoisted his upper body above the fence, his hands gripping the barbed wire. She was about to close her eyes, thinking it was too late.
Then a club appeared out of nowhere and whacked him on the back of the head. He fell backwards. The newly assigned school nurse appeared on the edge of the rooftop. Other students were starting to climb the wire, and with great zeal, she whacked them unconscious, too. True, it was better than letting them plunge off the roof, but the sight made her uncomfortable. Eun-young wondered if she should have knocked them unconscious like this.
Hye-hyeon immediately started running up to the rooftop.
Feeling tragic and miserable, Eun-young looked down on the school grounds.
The mud was shifting, and a head was emerging.
But she couldn’t tell what kind of head it was. It was like a fish, but also like a frog and a snake, too. The object wedged in the boy’s neck could have been a scale. It was like a very ugly creature that parboiling had made uglier; in particular, it had the discolored eyes of a cooked fish. What? This is no human ghost. It’s something larger and much more sinister . . .
She calculated the amount of time she had left to use the knife. Not even seven minutes. There were ten rounds left in the gun, and that was all. It wouldn’t be possible to extract a gunky scale from each student. She had to attack the problem at the source.
“Hold onto them. The kids trying to climb over the wall. Keep hold of them!” Eun-young admonished the students who’d followed their friends up. They were scared but did all they could to hold their friends down.
She aimed the BB gun through the fence. She’d led a somewhat exhausting life because of her innate ability—an ability she’d never wished upon herself. Now, perhaps, it was all coming to an end. She’d never fought with anything so massive and ancient.
The huge head opened its mouth as if to receive students falling from the rooftop.
Eun-young fired her first shot. Even though the BB gun was light, her shoulder jerked with the force of it. She aimed for the creature’s left eye, but the shot went wide, grazing the tip of its gills.
In-pyo grabbed Hye-hyeon as she was running up the stairs.
“Where are you going? What’s happening?”
“To the rooftop. Some of the students were going to jump off the roof together.”
“By any chance have you seen the school nurse?”
“She’s up there. She stopped them from jumping.”
Even if his steps were shaky, In-pyo started to run up the stairs after Hye-hyeon. It had been a while and a shock went through his spine. When was the last time he’d run? He had a strange premonition that his days of walking slow and dignified like a gentleman were over.
The rooftop was more chaotic than the other floors. Students lay knocked out. Some students regained consciousness and started to move towards the fence again, and others pinned them down and stopped them. It took three or four students to hold down a single student.
And the school nurse stood against the fence, shooting her toy gun at something with great intensity. In-pyo rushed to look down, but he couldn’t see anything. Only the sound of the shot did not match the appearance of a BB gun.
“Um, I don’t know if this will help you, but I read there used to be a pond here and people would throw themselves into it and drown.”
In-pyo was a little taken aback by her offhandedness.
“Are you shooting ghosts?”
“No. We can’t know what kind of creature this head belongs to. But, I’m sorry, would you mind please holding my hand?”
“I’m out of bullets.”
Eun-young’s lips had almost turned blue, and she looked like she was about to fall over. In-pyo couldn’t fathom the situation, but he placed his hand over her two hands that were clutching the gun.
“Both hands, please.”
Without any unnecessary words, he put his other hand on top. She could feel powerful energy coming out. I thought so. Now I can shoot another fifty rounds.
Or, if not fifty rounds, I can take one big shot.
I should have bought a toy canon. But I hate things that won’t fit in my handbag. Well, gun or cannon, the principle is the same.
“Die, you ugly bastard, die!”
All of the kids, both those of sound and unsound mind alike, covered their ears instinctually. Something invisible to the naked eye set off a blast. The entire school grounds blew up, and wet earth went flying outside the gates.
According to the news, a gas pipe under the school grounds had exploded. The report said fortunately no one had been wounded. When “the head” died, the gas pipe had exploded too, so it wasn’t strictly a lie.
The students attending summer session that day, especially the ones on the rooftop, knew that something unforgettable had happened, but no one said a word about it. It seemed that they shouldn’t. If parents had come to complain, In-pyo would have given the excuse that a hallucinatory substance from the industrial complex across the river had blown over. Luckily, the students fell for this. They were high schoolers, so were already grown, but they trusted adults in an extraordinary situation. They tended to even trust adults who shouldn’t be trusted. Their as yet pure expressions and open hearts gave their teachers the energy they needed to endure.
After the situation had been dealt with, Eun-young and In-pyo quietly investigated why the strange phenomena had affected only some of the students. Through this, they determined that the affected students had all recently experienced heartbreak, whether it was public knowledge or not.
Seung-gwon became Hye-hyeon’s boyfriend when the summer break was over. Even though he hadn’t formally asked her, Hye-hyeon rested her head on his shoulder on the bus going home on the last day of summer session. It’s true she may have just been drowsy, but the gashes on his hands from the barbed wire stopped hurting after this.
School nurse Ahn Eun-young went on to do many more eccentric things, but it was only after the students from the rooftop graduated that nasty gossip began to circulate about her. It was said that she was a little bit crazy, but she got a pass since she was romantically attached to a powerful man—the Chinese characters teacher. It was bad gossip, but since no one else could see the sinister blobs that she ran around fighting and capturing, it was understandable. From time to time she even got confused as to whether the gossip might be true. Whenever she had to capture something big, she somehow needed In-pyo to lend a hand—in the most literal sense. After some time passed after such an event and she had almost forgotten about it, she would require his hands again, so it was no wonder she felt confused.
As for In-pyo, he became even more notorious than Eun-young after filling up the basement with concrete and closing it off. He claimed he did it because the building was old and the foundation had to be reinforced, but the students said he took this drastic step because he didn’t want the bother of maintaining their free space. Word was, a new dictator had come to power, and In-pyo couldn’t stop them from saying so. Some days he understood why his grandfather had handed over the school to him, but on most days he was as puzzled as before. He asked around to find out if his grandfather had known someone who’d drowned in the pond, but he didn’t learn anything new. Whatever the reason, it was clear that his grandfather had been a good watchkeeper, and In-pyo still had a lot to learn.
In-pyo and Eun-young sometimes went up to the rooftop together even if they didn’t have any fixed appointment.
“Do you think he built the school on this terrible site in order to hold back the evil underneath?” In-pyo asked seriously.
“Because erotic energy is more powerful than we think,” Eun-young said casually.
And the two of them held hands from force of habit.
(Excerpt from pp. 12–15; 30–40.)
Translated by Kari Schenk
Chung Serang debuted in 2010 with the short story “Dream, Dream, Dream” in the sci-fi fantasy magazine Fantastique. She has published six novels: Show Me Your Snaggletooth, Hana from Earth, As Close as This, Jae-in, Jae-uk and Jae-hun, School Nurse Ahn Eun-young, and Fifty People, and a collection of stories titled See You on the Rooftop. She has received the Changbi Prize in Fiction and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award.