- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byGong Ji-Young
- The Crucible (Dogani)
Jang, the section chief of Social Services at City Hall, stared off into the distance as he slurped coffee from a paper cup. He was a middle-aged man of middling height, thinnish frame, and magnificent wavy hair. He scratched his head as he heard Yujin out with a look of extreme displeasure on his face.
“This is a school matter, so you should take it up with the Education Office. Over here, we deal with children’s social welfare.”
Would it have been less infuriating if she had come here first instead of the Education Office? Yujin stepped right up to Jang. Doing her best not to show her seething fury, she spoke in a low voice.
“I went to the Education Office and was told to go to Social Services because it happened after classes at the dormitory.”
Still not deigning to look at her, Jang cocked his head and took a noisy swig of his coffee. Where had this man learned that foul habit of not looking at people when he spoke to them? But Yujin kept in her demure posture.
Jang cast a sidelong glance at her. “So you’re saying it happened at the Home of Benevolence?”
“I have a video of the victims’ statements and an affidavit, too. You’ll understand when you see the video. You see, after the children finished their classes . . .”
Yujin took a deep breath. She was explaining this for the third time already.
“After they finished their classes, they were going to the dormitory . . .”
“Right, it’s not for me to look into or understand the rest, so let’s stop right there. What I’m asking is did this happen inside the dormitory?”
“The location was the school. First, the restroom on the first floor. Then the principal’s office, then the administration office . . .”
Yujin shuddered as she remembered Yuri’s statement. Jang slurped his coffee loudy before responding.
“You need to go to the Education Office in that case. We only deal with children’s social welfare, budget allocation, stuff like that. Go to the Education Office.”
Jang took another slurp and swiveled his chair around, turning his back to her. If only she could punch that back. As she stared at it, Yujin thought that maybe violence was not always a bad thing.
“The Education Office says it happened after classes so it’s not their jurisdiction. Besides, the children were abused inside the dormitory too. How can you say it’s not under your jurisdiction?”
As if it was too noisy for his liking, an official at the next desk slowly got to his feet and walked to the window, dragging his slippers. Yujin felt like a peddler who’d barged into the office.
“Listen,” she said. “The School of Benevolence and the Home of Benevolence receive four billion won in subsidies from the government. That money comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket. Isn’t it your responsibility to ensure the disabled children are well looked after? Do you understand that children were abused at the dormitory? Children! And by the teacher who was supposed to be their guidance counselor!”
Yujin’s voice rose a pitch. Jang’s brow puckered as though offended by her tone.
“I told you, any teacher abuse comes under the Education Office’s purview. How can Social Services monitor teachers? And the City Council decides whether the budget has been used properly, so take it up with them if you want,” he shot back.
The middle-aged man next to Jang returned to his desk and spoke in an undertone.
“Jeez, all this talk about abuse first thing in the morning is upsetting. Especially coming from a young lady.”
Unable to hold it in anymore, Yujin challenged the two men.
“How can you say that? You must have kids of your own. And, besides, aren’t you all paid to keep an eye on the Home of Benevolence?”
“I told you, go to the Education Office. Just because you show up here in the morning and raise your voice doesn’t mean we can take on what’s outside our jurisdiction . . . I realize the circumstances are pitiable, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Both men swiveled their chairs around. Jang drained the rest of his coffee. His slurps rang out like thunderbolts.
As she pushed past the doors of the Social Services office on her way out, Yujin felt her knees go weak. She directed her trembling feet to the car park. Her phone rang. It was the assistant. He’d gone to lodge a complaint at the City Council, but he’d had no luck either. She weakly climbed into her car and sat there awhile, unable to start the car. She snapped her phone shut and buried her face in the steering wheel. The phone rang again. It was Inho this time.
“So I met Song Haseob. He’s hearing impaired, but he can speak. Remember I told you about him once, the guidance counselor who helped Yuri go to the cops. He was holding a one-man protest in front of the school gate, so I gave him your card. Are you listening?”
She paused a beat. “Uh-huh.”
“Can you talk to him if he comes? Yeondu and Yuri managed to sidestep the school’s questions, but there’s going to be trouble soon. What’s wrong? Are you crying?”
“Inho . . .”
Yujin spoke his name quietly. She could feel him pause on the other end of the line.
“I always knew our country wasn’t that great, but I never thought things were so bad. We have a difficult fight on our hands. The Education Office, City Hall . . . they’re all in it together . . . Mujin Girl’s High, Mujin High, the grade school, the We Love Mujin Club, the Church of Glory . . . It’s four billion won, Inho. Four billion! Those people took four billion of our taxes in a year and this is what they did. I sent an assistant to register a complaint at the City Council where they oversee the budget, but it was pointless. Some of the council members themselves have been booked on charges of sexual assault and harassment. One of them is accused of molesting an elevator operator. Inside the elevator . . . Isn’t that a hoot? Are we supposed to raise daughters here? In this country in heat?”
The fog had lifted, but the road was still covered in a milky haze. Yujin closed and opened her eyes several times but still found it hard to see the road, as if she needed to open yet another eye. A fog like a witch’s gray hair, this was Mujin’s fog that made people fervently pray for the sun and wind to cast it off. Even as she raised two kids on her own, Yujin had never felt lonely. Each day she prayed for her children to not fall sick that night, hoped to clear her apartment maintenance fee dues the next day, and was happy eating out at a pork-rib restaurant once a month. She felt she was rich if she didn’t feel a stab of fear when the children asked to order another portion of ribs. She would allow herself to feel lonely only after her children had grown up, after her second child born with a heart defect became healthy—this she’d promised herself long ago. But at this moment, the grains of the moisture-laden wind rushing in through the open window stung like countless thorns on her skin. She was so lonely her cheeks smarted.
I took Yuri to the ob-gyn yesterday. I had her examined by a doctor and had a medical report made. Her hymen is ruptured, and she has severe abrasions and lacerations on her vulva. Infection has set in, so she didn’t sleep a wink last night . . . Listen, Yujin, do you think maybe Yuri was able to live through all that happened to her because she’s intellectually impaired? Maybe it’s better for her she’s that way, right . . .?
Yujin recalled what the head of the counseling center had recounted to her over her sobs on the phone last night. Unconsciously, she pressed her foot down on the accelerator. The reeds in the bay that extended all the way to the sea seemed to have turned pale in fright after being bitten by the retreating fog. The last time she’d seen a clear sea rolling under an azure open sky was long ago.
She learned she was pregnant with Haneul when her first child, Bada, was still young and she and her husband had already separated. Her bloated belly hung on her small frame, and her face was covered in dark patches and had taken on a dull sallow color. In that sensitive state, the thought of suicide would come to her several times a day. One day, she was looking at books in a large bookstore when she felt a tap on her stomach. Thinking she must have bumped against the bookcase, she checked but that wasn’t it. It was too early for her to feel the baby moving, so she ignored the sensation and continued her browsing. She felt another tap. She stopped and felt her belly. With that soft touch, Haneul announced her presence, like a sprout breaking through the frozen ground on a spring day when the wind still had bite to it. She stood in a corner of the big bookstore and cried. It wasn’t out of sadness. Nor despair. They were tears of awe that anybody would have shed in the presence of something grander and more majestic, the moment when someone proud realized her own smallness.
She gave birth to the baby alone. With no money to go to a hospital, she called a midwife to her small apartment. More frightening than the misfortune that was upon her was the prospect of other people learning about it. She couldn’t deny this played a big part in her decision to move to Mujin with her infant baby. The baby was tiny. Its blue lips troubled her. Feeling it was all her fault for not getting proper prenatal care, she made up her mind that night as she lay the baby down to sleep beside her.
“Mommy may not be able to dress you up like a princess. She may not be able to buy you a lace bedspread. You may never get to take family pictures at the amusement park with Daddy. I’m sorry . . . I’m so sorry . . . But Mommy can promise you this: By the time my Bada and Haneul have grown up, I’ll have made this country better. I’ll make it so that you girls can walk tall. Even if it’s just a little, too little even to feel, Mommy will work her fingers to the bone to make this world a better place where people can live the way people should.”
The phone rang again. It was the office. Yujin turned on her wipers because of the fog that still rushed toward the windshield and answered the phone. The voice of the assistant came on.
“Good news! I got word from Seoul. The media is going to do a special report on our case. The producers were about to start for Mujin, so I said yes. Can you get over here quick? We have to sort through all the documents and we’re short-staffed. I also heard from the National Human Rights Commission in Seoul. They said they’ll look into our case and they want us to send them more materials . . .”
She made a sudden U-turn. Crossing the yellow line was a clear violation, but Yujin barreled toward the Mujin Human Rights Center without a second thought.
Translated by Agnel Joseph
Photo © NOH Suntag, 13Chuckies #BII0201, 2008
Gong Ji-Young has received the Amnesty International Special Media Award, Catholic Literature Award, and the Yi Sang Literary Award. Her best-known works include Our Happy Time, The Crucible, and My Sister, Bongsoon. Her books in translation include Our Happy Time (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2014), Nos Jours Heureux (Philippe Picquier, 2014), L'échelle de Jacob (Philippe Picquier, 2016), and Ma très chère grande soeur (Philippe Picquier, 2018).