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FICTION

Let Boys Cry

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.11 Spring 2011
  • byEun Heekyung
Let Boys Cry
2010
520pp.

Love is formed, deformed, and then cooled in my heart several times a day. I like it best when it wanes. That’s the stage that awakens me and allows me to write. I like it even more when the chilled heart is warmed again, because that gives me the strength to write. I wrote this novel as though it was the only book of my life. I’m relieved that my heart has since cooled. We carry on the next cycle of life with the strength drawn from our waning love. I have written about this in my novel.


From the author’s preface to Let Boys Cry


 

One late fall, I saw the whole sky go dark with a flock of birds. We were on a bridge overlooking a river. Mom parked the car on the shoulder. The birds looked like an enormous mesh curtain covering the sky. And like a curtain, they fluttered every which way as they drifted in the wind. The birds looked like something imprinted. How could they keep their place in the sky like that? Mom studied the birds with narrowed eyes and mumbled to herself, Now that’s an example of collective living. Once you’re no longer part of it, you’re dead.

I’m not sure why I was reminded of those birds. It just occurred to me the moment I was in a line of countless people, before the race kicked off. Someone would reach the finish line in an hour and a half. Someone else in three. Someone would give up along the way. What would happen to me? I wondered if I’d even be able to finish. I could feel pressure in my chest. My legs were growing heavy.

And we were off. It’s noisy for some time. Quite a few people run while carrying on a conversation. But as time goes by, the distance between people grows, and you begin to hear heavy breathing instead of words. Some people form teams and stay together for the whole race. Some pair up, forming a line and even breathing in sync. But most people run alone.

Some use their wristwatch to maintain a steady speed. Some run fast, and when they get tired, they’ll trod along for a bit until they regain their strength, and they’ll run faster, as if the thought of catching up to the others excites them. It’s like dancing without rules. For example, like Taesu, who would run as fast as he could and wait at a bench until I appeared. Then he’d stand up to run again. Maybe he was mocking Jae-wook’s training method. Jae-wook’s problem is that he knows too much and wants to share. He’s not necessarily wrong.

When you start getting tired, parts of your body become egotistical. Your legs don’t want to move any more. Your heart complains of being over-pumped. Your brain tells you not to do anything hard. If you insist on continuing, then the business of running is deferred to some other part of the body, as if to say, Why don’t you take it up with that guy? I’m out of here! At the slightest hint of an incline, your legs say, tell the arms to do the work. I can’t push much harder. This is the first stage, when you don’t want to run any more. But once your body realizes it has to keep going, it changes its mentality. It cleans out your respiratory organs by expelling phlegm, softens your muscles and repairs your body. You can feel your body optimizing. This is when your body’s “warmed up.” Even then, the body will complain every chance it gets. It’ll be fussy, like a crybaby. Can’t we stop? I’m so weak. Go easy on me…

That’s how your body is. It’ll avoid whatever it can, and listen to you only when it’s got no choice. It’s kind of human, isn’t it? No, not kind of. It is human. Anyway. I wonder at which point the body realizes it has no choice, that it must do what it doesn’t want, and goes along. Jae-wook’s answer was simple. It’s the moment when your body has to survive. That’s why life is such an amazing force. Every human being is a universe in its own right. Haven’t you heard of that saying?

Staying alive. I’m not exactly sure, because I haven’t given the matter serious thought. But every time I run, I come to an understanding about my body. It’s egotistical and fickle, but it’s also thoughtful and resolute. It might be feeble, but when it finds something it wants, it knows how to be strong. It knows itself to be imperfect, so it can give up too easily sometimes, but in the end, it will follow my lead. Since my body, perhaps more than anything else, is ultimately mine. Of course, its final objective is survival.

Once I’ve passed the half-way mark, I grab a cup from the water station and drink. I grab the banana next to it. I squeeze the wet sponge over my head to cool down and continue running.

There are three reasons why people don’t finish. One, leg pains. Two, you’re out of breath. Three—and this is a fatal one—because you don’t feel like running any more.

It’s exactly as Jae-wook says. After fifteen kilometers, you don’t want to run any more. My body can’t seem to remember anything beyond that point. After that I get the signal. The message is firm. My body doesn’t want to run any more.

I never realized how heavy a cell phone could feel. I wipe my palms dry against my shirt and pass it back and forth between my hands. I’m too tired to pump my arms. If Chae-young texts, I’m not sure I’ll have the strength to check it.

How can I describe it? Like my whole body is stiffening slowly? I know I’m putting one foot before the other, but it feels like I’m running in place. Every time my foot touches the ground, the pain in my soles shoots up to my head. My muscles bunch up and tear, and an awful dread passes through me. Yet I don’t feel like thinking about anything, so my head remains a blank sheet. It’s true. In a situation like this, even a teacher who’s taught the same thirty minute lesson a thousand times will be at a loss for words. The most devoted believer won’t be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer. There’s nothing there, that’s what I’m trying to say. Just my body. The moment a person is in pain, he is alone.

It’s like a country I’ve never been to. Like music I’ve never heard. There’s an unknown, untraveled world, even within my own body. The world I just arrived at is the world of agony. I don’t think I can take it any more. Why do I keep running? Nothing is important, except for my body. And my body wishes to rest. It says it can’t take much more of this. Okay, I am my body. I’m going to stop.

My body slows down, as if the springs inside are loosening. My feet drag. Something’s about to come to an end. But it’s strange. The next second, I open my eyes wide. It’s not like I literally open them, but that’s how it feels, like an awakening. I can feel my legs still going. What’s this? I’m still running. If I’m still running… My body. It hasn’t given up. In that short span of time, when I gathered my energy at my core, gnashing my teeth, my body had gone beyond a certain limit.

I flex my lower stomach. I raise my shoulders high, to control my heaving. Ah, I can keep running after all. This being called ‘I’. As I run, I’m carrying the whole of this universe called ‘I’. The moment I give up, it will shatter into a thousand pieces. So long as I keep going, it will move forward. I am myself. I can feel myself getting stronger and stronger…

I look off to somewhere far away. Chae-young’s limpid brown eyes stare at me. She’s about to say something. Her eyes are bright and her cheeks are flushed. The trembling! So quick! The feeling of floating, as my legs become lighter. Wind shoots sweetly into my mouth and expands my heart like a balloon, before it escapes. It feels refreshing and smooth, as if a cap of feathers has been placed on my head.

I can hear the voice of the emcee. Almost there, folks! We wish the runners a fine race to the finish line! What a gorgeous day. I placed an order, just for our runners, so they’d have a great race! Such a lame joke. I thought it was corny when he said it at the starting line ceremony, but now it pleases me to hear it. It’s something you can rely on. As if he’d been waiting for me all along to cross the finish line.

And the feeling at the end, of passing through below the arch!

I’m here now, Chae-young. The autumn sky is high and blue. The wind rushes against my skin over the cooling sweat, and my tired calves, which remember the front of your house, heavy with sweet fatigue, carry me towards the grass to savor this long awaited rest. 

 

* Translated by Jae Won E. Chung

Author's Profile

Eun Heekyung has won several literary awards such as the Munhakdongne Novel Award, the Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of My Wife’s Boxes (Les Boîtes de ma femme) was published by Zulma. Her works have appeared in German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. She also participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.