The Impossible Fairy Tale

  • onDecember 20, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byHan Yujoo
The Impossible Fairy Tale
Tr. Janet Hong

Surprisingly, the key inside the Child’s pocket might remain undetected. If she is interrogated as to why she is in possession of an unfamiliar key, she has rehearsed several answers: her homeroom teacher sent her to make an extra copy of the classroom key; the class monitor must keep the extra key; she found the key on the street. But the Child must first provide an excuse for something else. An excuse for why her spoon and chopsticks haven’t been used when the lunch containers are completely empty; licked clean. And she does. She manages to invent an excuse on the spot. An excuse that is quite plausible. When she relays her few words, as clearly as she can, she is let off more easily than she expected. Nothing happens today. Not yet. When evening comes, she will be left alone at home. Then she will be able to breathe easy. But until then she must hide. She goes into her room, with her head bowed. But she must not bow her head too much, or raise her head too much. She must not tread too heavily, or too lightly. She must not draw too much attention; she must draw a moderate amount of attention. From the opposite room, she hears the ticking of the wall clock.

A wall clock also hangs in the Child’s room. Next to her bed is an alarm clock. She can distinguish the busy ticking of the second hand of all the different clocks. Time is passing. She hopes that time will pass quickly, that time will burn out at the fastest possible speed. She is twelve years old; she stopped growing before she turned twelve. She has never gone hungry. But the grains of rice that she has forced down have not become blood and bone, no one knows where they went. The Child will grow no more. Probably. Her face has already fallen. To the bottom, to the pit. Her face sinks and falls, over and over again. The top corners of most of her books and notebooks are torn. She habitually eats paper. Without being aware of it, she tears the paper into little pieces and puts them in her mouth. Paper tastes like paper. She can’t sense the taste of paper. Even though paper simply tastes like paper and only paper, she doesn’t know how much of the tasteless paper scraps she has swallowed. All that is certain is that she has grown up on paper, and that she has already finished growing. The torn corners that are perilously missing give evidence to that end. That is probably why she sometimes looks like a paper doll. Like a paper doll, though she is half-plant or half-animal, with the face of an herbivore. But she isn’t seen. No one sees her. The children don’t know her name or they don’t care to know it. She is crumpled up like a piece of paper. Her fingernails and toenails grow very slowly, but even before these slow-growing nails have a chance to grow out, they are cut short, so short the flesh underneath becomes exposed. She sometimes wishes that mice or ants would eat her nail clippings, just like in the old stories, and transform into her image, and then appear before her. The Child hopes that many children, many who look like her, will become her and take her place. She hopes that these children who appear in the old stories, in fairy tales, will wear her clothes for her. Then she would be able to hide herself. She would not have to grow darker. She would be able to disappear forever. She never cries. If she cries, crying becomes the reason she can’t disappear, and if she doesn’t cry, not crying becomes the reason she can’t disappear. The reason why one scar buds on top of another. The Child, who had grown up floundering between these two states, ultimately forgets how to cry. She waits for the mice, for the ants. After setting aside everything that is beautiful, she waits for the mice and ants. Things that are beautiful are useless. You can’t forget anything with them. You can’t heal anything. The Child has never seen anything beautiful. She has never understood what people call “beautiful.” While her nails are being painfully clipped, she opens her eyes wide and wordlessly accepts this punishment. The mice and ants flee and disappear before they can even come to her, as though the Child’s hands are a trap. Her fingertips hurt so much that she can’t write. In any case, she records nothing about herself. No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window, a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on the green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child’s journal is filled with the most beautiful words; the mice and ants have been erased and are nowhere to be found. Nothing has been transformed and nothing looks familiar.

I looked up into the sky on my way home from the after-school academy and saw many stars. I could even identify some constellations. The moon was very large and very round. But it appeared more red than yellow. Because the sky was black, the stars were more visible. The constellations were scattered everywhere. I learned how to find the Big Dipper.

Every time the Child gets her journal back, there is the same comment. No concrete story. But she doesn’t know how to write a concrete story. No, even if she knows how, she must not write that kind of story. Although there is no concreteness in her story, she herself is concrete. But most of all, what is concrete is her sense of pain.

I saw a white butterfly. Butterflies don’t leave any footprints. It seems that spring is here.

The Child could not write anything, but still, she must write something. Her inability to speak, her inability to write, paint her redder and bluer and yellower and darker.

The Child sticks her hand in her pocket and checks that the key is there. She hears the thud of the front door opening and shutting. She’s been left alone. She slips out of her room and begins to inspect the apartment. As though checking to see if someone who’s been watching her has really left, as though she couldn’t be certain unless she checked. She opens the kitchen window and peers down at the parking lot. Soon a car with its headlights on pulls out of the parking lot. She whistles. No one is home. She is able to accept the fact only after she’s checked every corner of the apartment, again and again. She must hurry. She doesn’t have much time. She quickly puts on her jacket and running shoes, and steps out of the house with a flashlight. It is about a fifteen-minute walk to school. She runs. Her breathing grows heavy. She reaches the school gate and takes a minute to catch her breath. The flush fades from her face. She passes through the gate, wearing a dark face. She knows where the open window is. Before heading home that afternoon, she had carefully and unobtrusively left a hallway window open on the ground floor. She walks quietly toward the back of the building. In the distance, the field is sunk in twilight. All of a sudden, she is curious whether the coffee milk she left on the stands in the afternoon is still there. Also the food she had left in front of the cat—is it gone? She must hurry. She walks toward the window she had left open. She opens it. She hears metal slide over metal. She grabs the ledge with both hands and lifts herself up. She crawls over the windowsill. Her hands smell of metal. When she gets home, the first thing she must do is wash her hands. After climbing through the window, she lands softly on the floor. She tiptoes down the hall toward the stairs. She walks up. No one is there. On an ordinary evening in March, no one expects someone to sneak into the school. The teacher on duty is probably watching television in the warm night-duty room. The Child passes the second and third floor and continues up to the fourth. Her classroom is located in the middle of the fourth floor. She stands in front of the door to Grade 5, Section 3. She puts her hand in her pocket and touches the key. It’s safe. She takes the key out of her pocket and before she pushes it into the keyhole, she scans the hallway once more. No one. It’s dark. Even though the shaking of the thin wooden door echoes louder than the turning of the key, no one hears. She carefully opens the door. She slips into the classroom. She carefully closes the door.

The desks inside the classroom glare at her. The clock hanging on the wall glares at her. The organ placed at the front of the classroom glares at her. The chalkboard eraser placed on the ledge of the chalkboard glares at her. Kim Injung’s desk, set at a different angle from the other desks, glares at her. The bell on the teacher’s desk glares at her. The children who are not present glare at her. The teacher who isn’t present glares at her. The timetable hanging beside the chalkboard glares at her. The Child looks blankly at the objects glaring at her. She approaches the teacher’s desk. The attendance book, documents, and textbooks are piled neatly on top. The students’ journals are stacked on the floor under the desk. The Child snatches a pencil sticking out from the teacher’s pencil container, crawls under the desk, and turns on the flashlight. Her face becomes dappled from the light. Beyond the light is shadow. Her ears are turned toward the hall outside the door. Because her hearing was as good as an animal’s, even if a mouse or ant should pass in the hall, she would probably be able to hear it. She picks up the journal on the top of the pile. With eyes that resemble the eyes of a fish, she spreads open the notebook. The flashlight shines on the child’s bad handwriting.

I went to the market with Mom. I wanted to eat spicy rice cakes, so I asked her to buy me some, but she didn’t. But she made them for me at home. I hope spring will come soon. I realized today that a sudden frost is harsh. (Spring doesn’t come. Spring that doesn’t come is passing. Spring is blue, yellow, red, black, white, and murky.)

I practiced the violin all day. The sheet music looked really easy at first, but it’s much harder than I thought. The competition is coming up. My violin teacher said that my right hand is too tense. I have to practice again tomorrow right after school. (I don’t want to play the violin. I want to throw it away. I don’t like my violin teacher. I hate her. The bow is long. The body of the violin is hard.)

It rained a lot. All the other moms were waiting behind the school gate, but only my mom wasn’t there. But I still waited for her at the gate. I was really cold. She didn’t come, so I just walked home. Then I realized my mom has never come to meet me with an umbrella. I’ll always carry my umbrella with me now. (It didn’t rain yesterday. My mom will never come to meet me. An umbrella is hard. A broken umbrella is useless.)

I kicked a ball without realizing my shoelaces were untied and tripped. The field was hard, so I skinned my knees. My mom saw my ripped pants and got angry. She sewed up the holes. She said she wouldn’t buy me new pants, because I was going to rip them again anyway. (The field isn’t thawing. Mom will get angry again. Shoelaces hurt. A needle is pointy.)

A boy who sits in the next row bought a chick. I didn’t buy one, because Mom doesn’t like animals. I don’t know the boy’s name. I want a puppy. (The boy’s name is Park Yeongwu. Park Yeongwu killed the chick.)

I want to kill a chick, too. (I want to kill, too.)

The Child uses the flashlight to read the children’s journals and adds a few sentences to the end of their entries by imitating their bad handwriting. Most children don’t have secrets. Or perhaps, most children don’t know how to properly reveal or hide secrets. Or perhaps, the Child doesn’t consider the things that children consider to be secrets as secrets. She puts the journals back in their proper place and crawls out from under the desk. She pictures the expressions on the children’s faces when the journals are returned. She could have been a little more daring. She could have written sentences that were a little worse with her bad writing. But she doesn’t have much time. The wall clock that is half-submerged in darkness indicates it is 8:15 p.m. Her pulse isn’t used to running this fiercely. Her shadow, which objects have gobbled up, jolts fiercely, but without sound. She heaves a low breath. She doesn’t have to rush. She has about five minutes to spare. No sound comes from beyond the classroom, but she must be careful. If she is found and the news reaches all the way home, she will probably have to endure pain that is incomparable to anything she has experienced until now. She might not be allowed to go to school. She already had many experiences of being locked up, and each time, her shadow seized her throat. Without thinking, she covers her throat with her hand.

Before switching off the flashlight, the Child inspects the classroom once more, and wipes the pencil she had been holding with the hem of her shirt. No trace must be left. In the future, the Child will remember nothing. The sound of the pipe will not reach her ears. The mouse will not appear. Even if it were to appear, it will not appear in the image of the Child. Nothing can take her place. The Child will simply, just as she always has, disappear without a word, without a sound, without a trace. She must wait for that time. That time. Time’s grime. The Child goes back home, retracing in reverse the steps that had brought her to the school. There is no one at the gate. The streetlights that dot the alley leading to the distant main road are lit. All of a sudden, she wonders if the cat ate her lunch for her, but she thinks it’s better to hurry home, rather than waste time on something like that. It probably ate her lunch for her, and would have grown for her by a corresponding amount. The coffee milk would have now turned to ice in the shape of a pyramid. Except for that, nothing has happened. Not yet. The Child will cause more things to happen. More things than what has happened to her so far. And yet, she probably won’t catch anyone’s eye. She must believe that. She must not catch anyone’s eye. Her dark face slips out of the alley. Her shadow urges her on. She begins to run. Toward home. 

pp. 34-41

Translated by Janet Hong
Excerpt from The Impossible Fairy Tale.
Copyright © 2013 by Han Yujoo. English translation copyright © 2017 by Janet Hong.
Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, Minnesota,
and Tilted Axis Press (United Kingdom,

Author's Profile

Han Yujoo debuted in 2003 by winning the Literature and Society’s New Writers Award for the short story “To the Moon.” She won the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009. She has authored the short story collections To the Moon, Book of Ice, and My Left Hand the King and My Right Hand the King’s Scribe, and the novel The Impossible Fairy Tale, which has been translated into English and French. She is also a noted translator, whose works include translations of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Ongoing Moment, among others, into Korean. She is an active member of an experimental group called Rue and also runs Oulipopress, an independent publisher.