Life of Myo, or a Cat Life
- onDecember 4, 2019
- Vol.46 Winter 2019
- byHwang Jungeun
- Into the World of Passi
Tr. Emily Yae Won 2012232pp.
And if I, whose human-given name is Body, were to respectfully ask, What else is worth your time then, if as you say a hand-to-mouth existence is not all there is to life, would they even retort with a what would a cat know? would they even stoop to engage a cat, if only to upbraid me, demanding What does a begging street cat know of the vicissitudes of human life, the daily grind just to get by that leaves a person with barely time for anything else? No, one can hardly expect an answer from a beast bent on holding up survival as a shield, refusing to spare a thought as to how it might live alongside a smaller creature such as Body.
Being a body, I cried as loneliness hit and ate as hunger struck.
Fucking cat, blasted cat, bitch of a cat: these were the words humans hurled at me, this body they rendered an enemy. It’s tough enough having to struggle for food and roof, now I gotta deal with a cat? they’d exclaim as they threw scalding water on my little skull, even as it throbbed with their insults, or they’d strike my mouth with a stick as I picked through the food they’d thrown out. Not for fun or for a laugh, but in a serious effort to find something to feed on, too, so how could I not resent being hit on the mouth while doing earnest work? Crying is as routine for humans as it is for myos, and considering how humans are the noisiest life-form in this domain, the injustice would make me boil. Is it not the lot of this animal body, this Body who is no less beast than any other, to also prioritize food and survival, and is it not true that determining whose subsistence ranks uppermost among all the beasts of subsistence is hardly a black‒and‒white matter? And still humans glare and growl as if they alone deserve to live, and not only that, they dominate. But I say a world in which humans end up winning, where all is uproar and chaos, is one that is best obliterated.
Upon finishing his lunch, Old Man Gok would find a nice shady spot from which to gaze out at the sun-lit street. He would sit with his back to the flower bed littered with beverage cans and ground-out cigarette butts, and watch the road with its constant stream of humans and cars and such. The man who sold things from behind a spotlessly clean glass wall tended to keep a close eye on him. One day this man slid the glass wall open and walked out to where the old man was seated. He proceeded to tell him not to sit in that spot. The gist of the argument was that his presence there was bad for business and could unsettle passing customers. I watched with interest as this scene of what amounted to human territoriality unfolded before me, but all Old Man Gok did was get to his feet and dust off his pants. Maybe it’s inevitable, I thought to myself. Maybe the rule that says it’s a rule that those who are unfit are disposable applies as equally to humans as it did to us myos. But Old Man Gok went on sitting in his usual spot. If the shop person made as if to approach him, Old Man Gok would rise, dust off his pants, and move on. Once he left, I would take up his place. Then I’d sit and gaze at the shop man until he threw a flat object at me. He would furrow his brows as if he were annoyed and this tickled me, so from time to time I would play this game with him.
Those were relatively laid-back days. Once I’d filled my stomach with rats or leftovers or whatever else, I’d find a comfortable spot to lick my paws, then head to Old Man Gok’s room. I would call toward the round door-pull that resembled a skull until Old Man Gok opened up. I’d gingerly step over the wooden case and shelves to reach the window. Granted, it was rather an odd thing to be called a window. The room itself was windowless; there was a technically rectangular, somewhat jagged opening that Old Man Gok had made near the ceiling for the sake of ventilation. Old Man Gok always kept that hole open, except on the coldest days of winter. Outside, the outer wall plummeted sharply down to the ground. From that high and narrow vantage point I would look down at the city, at the ribbons of light that traced the movements of humans. The twinkling lights never failed to fascinate me and I’d stare out for a long time, my eyes aglow. I knew danger and violence lurked in those lights, but from that distance and from that small space it felt relatively safe to observe the sights and sounds of the city. Outside, there were plenty of wide-open spaces where I might enjoy more or less the same view, but here was the spot I preferred. There were many nights when I would return to that room after dusk to sleep. Sitting on the windowsill I would flick my tail back and forth along the wall before dozing off. Sometimes the old man would stir in his slumber and wake me, and when I’d open my eyes the small room would be sunk in a darkness that was as swart and heavy and old as an ancient body of stagnating water.
You fucking dog, you fucking cur, were the words tumbling out of the unannounced visitor’s mouth as he kicked through the old man’s door that muggy afternoon. It was the shopkeeper from downstairs. The man with the little array of locks and tools from which he sold things or who cut keys for cash. One time he gave me the skin and head off a croaker, leftovers he’d picked off his plate and thrown in my direction. Then he’d watched me eat, his face gloomy, so I recognized him straight away. He wasn’t as hoary as Old Man Gok but there were wild streaks of gray in his hair and his shoulders were broad.
Blocking the door he demanded to know what Old Man Gok had done with the money. The money my money my fucking money what have you done with it, he shouted. Where is it, where has it all gone, he yelled and hammered the door with his fists. Flexing the same hands he used to cut keys with excruciating care, he glowered at Old Man Gok as though debating whether to jump him. The old man stood motionless. Did I or did I not give you the rent money for my shop, did you or did you not get it? the man insisted and still the old man didn’t answer. He merely stared at his toes. The man’s face was flush with anger and after a moment he picked up the old man’s radio and hurled it to the ground. The radio shattered, its parts scattering. Roaches that had holed up inside scuttled out, saw the light was on, and scurried back inside the contraption. Answer me, the man demanded. Answer me, tell me what you’ve done with it, with the money, five months’ worth it was so how come the shop owner says he’s not seen sight of it, answer me that, tell me right now what fucking hole that money’s vanished off to, right the fuck now, he said, then he grabbed a nearby chair and smashed it against the wall. The chair slammed into the wall, bounced, and dropped straight down onto the cot. When the old man still didn’t answer the man put his hands on his hips. He gazed up at the ceiling as if to catch his breath, looked down at his feet, then shook his head as if defeated. Then he stepped toward the old man, kicking or tossing aside whatever stood in his way. Grabbing him by the shoulders, he started to shake Old Man Gok’s entire body back and forth, back and forth with considerable force, saying, You call yourself a person?
What do I do with you?
Can’t even beat you up.
You sorry excuse for a person.
Finally the old man staggered to the ground, and as he fell his old-man arm swept the magnifying glass the buttons the wooden tray for writing instruments and other such things off the desk and onto his frail old-man belly. The shopkeeper stepped back, looked down at Old Man Gok and said, Fix it. Sell, steal, whatever, just get it fixed. But even as he said these words his face was full of gloom. He glanced around the room as though in despair, then left.
I came out from where I’d been hiding with my hair raised. I took my time moving about the overturned room, sniffing out everything the man had touched. Then I sat and faced the old man. He moved very slowly. He removed the magnifying glass from his stomach, gathered up the scattered buttons the pens the pencils and the wooden tray from the floor, set them on the desk and carefully checked to see what was broken. With the radio he took extra care to gather all the fragments down to the smallest piece into a plastic bag. He righted the chair, swept the rest of the broken stuff to one side, straightened the blanket, rummaged around in a drawer to find a filthy bandage that was who knew how old, and put this over the cut he’d gotten on his elbow as he fell. Lastly he took his jacket from the wall, dusted it down, replaced it, then sat himself down on the cot to rest. The sun was fading. The old man remained on the cot, rubbing his knees with his fingers, and then he raised himself off the cot and headed over to the fridge. After opening the fridge door and peering inside, he came back with a tray. The plastic container of food was on the tray. He placed the tray on his knee and started to eat. I stepped closer to his feet and said, Myo. Oho there, the man said.
What’s your name then and what sort of beast might you be? Is it nice to live without a name? How about I give you a name, one body to another? Body body. How’s that for a name? The irrevocable body. Yes. See here, Body, well now that I look at you what a sorry sight you are, a mangy miserable thing, well I’m no different in fact, you could say my entire life is miserable, there’s nothing to show for it, the food I eat is miserable, the life I live is miserable, no money no background no aspirations to make something of myself to make it out of here and no regrets either if I keel over tomorrow, I have got a son though, living out there somewhere if he’s living at all, living his life of aspiration unlike his old man, eating all the fine things all the delicious fine food I’ve never even tasted.
He paused to take a few more bites of the cold food. Using his chopsticks he ate a strange radish thing that had a funny taste and smell, and then with liquid glistening on his chin he continued:
What a miserable life eh, can’t even plead with your son as he packs up to leave, saying there’s no future as long as he’s by his old man, but d’you know what, that son of mine may have gotten out, fled to live a different life from mine but he’s probably stuck living his own meager life now, in the end his won’t be any different, he’s likely to be just as miserable as his old man, he said, laughing. His cheeks, which were filled with food, jutted out. With my hair standing on end, I looked at the old man’s human face: not laughing crying sorrowful or triumphant, but curiously contorted. It occurred to me that here might be a life worse off than a cat life, that perhaps his human life was even more terrible than the life of a myo such as myself. Was it worse off for being a human life? In any case he grabbed hold of the little container and drank from it as if he was choked up. He took his time gulping down the sour-smelling liquid, laughed again as if to say, All better, then went back to eating his cold dish of scrounged food as though nothing had happened.
I would be remiss not to mention Old Man Gok’s fire.
Those blue flames that flared up from the flat, shimmering silver object. All gummed-up when the old man found it in a rubbish heap, it had gotten a new lease of life after he’d set to diligently fixing it up. He’d scrubbed at it with steel wool, checked the condition of the igniter, used a blunt brush to clear away the filth between its crevices, then he’d set it on the floor and spent an entire day fiddling around inside it to remove all the parts. Later he’d had to puzzle out how to put together all the parts he’d removed to make something else out of it, and when he was done had connected this new contrivance to a tube that hung from the wall, then turned the knob on its side. A short strong flame had leaped up. As a myo, I lack the means to describe just how immense the old man’s pride in this fire was. He called the object “bah-nah,” and used and treasured it well. Even in summer he’d place a kettle over the fire and boil water to make tea, and sometimes in the middle of the night he might light it up with a click for no particular reason.
Days after I’d witnessed the old man’s uncanny— that is to say his human—face, some people showed up and began removing the old man’s things. Desk cot chair kettle heater radio fridge wooden case shelves a single blanket and various other objects were carted out of the room and piled along the corridor. Old Man Gok didn’t react much. He shuffled in and out of the room a few times or stood at a distance and watched as they reluctantly laid their hands on his things. Once most of the stuff in the room had been unloaded outside, he spent half the day climbing up and down the stairs and moving everything to some other place. When that was done he’d come back to the room he no longer lived in. The people who were newly moving in had their broom out by then, and they grimaced at the smell seeping from the walls and the floor. Old Man Gok stood at the door and looked around the room, then pointed to his bah-nah. He’d refitted and remodeled it himself, he told them, but seeing as he had no use for it anymore he would leave it with them. It had a good strong flame and was very useful, he said, turning the knob to show them, and he gazed at the bright flame with a mix of pride and regret. The people who were to move into the room answered, Yes, yes, that’s great, then went ahead and cut the gas tube and put the burner out in the street. Later in the evening the old man passed by and found his burner left out in the middle of the busy street. Without the slightest hesitation he picked it up and carried it back to his new lodging.
I followed on the heels of the old man up to the top floor. In an acrid-smelling dead-end room I found the old man’s things. Otherwise the room contained none of the essentials for human life like electricity or gas. It was also windowless. The space between the four walls was very close and the ceiling so absurdly high that when I tilted my head back to peer at the latter from a corner of the room, it seemed to rise and rise while my body seemed to sink and sink into some bottomless box until I was overcome with vertigo. Paint flaked off the damp discolored walls and onto the floor. I was unhappy with this room and made my feelings known by walking over the old man’s things and crying out, Yow- wl. The old man took no heed of what I had to say; he switched on a round light bulb that was connected to something and began sweeping the floor. He left the door open a crack since there was no window, but the door kept closing by itself, so he found a piece of wood and wedged it under the hinge. One desk one cot one backless chair one kettle one heater the broken radio one fridge one wooden case filled with clothing and books two boards that had served as shelving one blanket—not a single thing disposed of, he’d brought everything with him. Carefully, he set these about the room, and when he was done he shook his jacket out and made to hang it on the wall, realized there was no nail, and draped it over the wooden case.
In this room Old Man Gok whiled away the time, mostly sitting on his cot; the burner was tucked away into a corner since there wasn’t anything to connect it to. The days grew colder and then colder still, but he kept the piece of wood wedged in the door and I was able to come and go through the crack as needed.
One day when I returned with a wet belly the door was closed.
I have not seen the old man since.
As a drifter I lived in suspicion of humans.
There were kind humans too, but in the end, even kind or threatening came down to chance and so as a mere myo being with no means of predicting what chance had in store for me, I couldn’t afford to be sanguine. I made it my priority to be wary of humans.
Being a body I cried when I felt pain. The humans shooed me away, said my crying was unnatural because all cats were sly tricksters, but who were they to call me unnatural? When humans were hands down the creatures with the most unnatural cries, or so it seemed to me, so how could I not resent being chased away, it made no sense. Night and day I could hear them crying out. Each cry was different, each cry made my blood run cold, each cry fading away with a short, blunt sound. At nights especially the streets would fall abruptly silent or explode with the din of their cries.
One day I was chewing on an overly salty and skinny fish bone under a forsythia shrub, when a human approached, crying out at the top of its voice. In one hand it held a plastic bag while the other hand which held nothing was clasped into a fist, and it was staggering forward looking at the other humans with a murderous glint in its eyes and crying, WHACHA LOOKIN AT I’LL FUCK YOU UP.
My cat life ended when this human kicked me in the gut.
I hightailed it so fast I didn’t even feel the pain, but I didn’t get very far. Then, I couldn’t move at all. For days I could neither eat nor drink, I was just spitting up blood—until I died, there beneath a yew bush. I was flattened by morning, by afternoon my leg lifted thanks to my rotting belly, and by night I was alive again. I was somewhat stunned by this turn of events, but reminded myself that this has always been the nature of cats. One night not long after, I saw a fellow myo get mauled by a car. It was a young spotted one who’d just started following me around for no apparent reason—well, for some myo reason—and I’d reluctantly let it. I’d just crossed the road and it was following a step behind, but the next moment its body splattered everywhere, purple muscles plastered on the ground throbbing thrashing then growing still.
It’ll come back, any time now, I told myself and watched and waited, but it never did.
Is it good to have another life waiting after this one and the one after that?
What if it’s just new breath and the life remains the same?
All Body has ever known is badness and cruelty.
If anyone were to exclaim, Surely not all of it was bad, I will say this:
Yes, all of it was bad.
Bad, bad, and more badness, nothing but badness, never an end to it, to the point I have lost all sense of what is and isn’t bad and what does and doesn’t count as bad, let alone the ability to distinguish between degrees of badness. Even the possibilities afforded by new breath have become narrow beyond measure. What followed after the life that was ended by being kicked in the gut was more deaths: I was thrown to my death or hit on the head, dead from disease, dead from eating what was not meant to be eaten and wasting away. Getting to breathe again after yet another death didn’t mean the body became whole again, was healed, or made new. The bruises and the pain remained, and I would spend my new life lying prone in some corner. I was constantly hungry and thirsty. Irritated by the sensation in my back or chest I would lick myself and nearly choke on the mouthful of dead hair. My bones jutted out at strange angles, even my skull became rough and uneven. The more I lived and died and lived again the uglier, skinnier, more alarming my appearance became.
There’s definitely been an uptick in the number of these foul, ominous creatures and they’re really doing damage to our neighborhood, smearing our image and we can’t have that now can we, was the reasoning behind the humans actively seeking to harm me. It was beyond exhausting to constantly be on the run from them. I dreamed of having enough fresh water to drink, and maybe being allowed an entire day of blissful sleep, free from all wariness, fear, anxiety—but that day never seemed to come.
One night I traveled a bit farther than usual to find food. I managed to feed on some eggshells and a dried-up apple core, then continued on toward the moon under the shadows. I was thirsty. I stopped to sniff a pool of water on the side of the street when there was a rustling behind me. Before I realized what was happening, I was thrown into a sack. Then I was transported somewhere in a car that smelled of rain- soaked fur. I could hear the cries of all the other beasts who had been captured when they’d briefly let their guard down. This body was placed in a cage smeared with the excreta of a dozen beasts, from fuzzy young ones whose ears hadn’t even properly folded yet to the ancients. There was an unpleasant smell, like something boiling at low temperature. Two humans with ashen complexions stared at us in the dim light.
Is this it, That’s it for tonight, Well it’s a hundred per head so let’s see now one, two, and a three, so how much is that in total, Hey, hey, are you sure this is okay, what happens if we’re caught, Come on man, there’s no way they’ll find out, d’you know how much it costs to actually slice them open and cut out the ovary and testicles and shit? How much time and effort too? So we just cut them, just for show, and then we’ll let them go and no one’s the wiser, I mean, what are they gonna do? Open each of ’em up to see if they’ve still got the parts inside or not? You think anyone from the district office would even think to do that? And it’s not like these ones here are going around saying look I’ve still got ’em, and telling on us, are they? So shut your mouth and start snapping, we need the photos as proof, and besides even if we don’t someone else will, ’cause at the end of the day it’s all about getting that money, how else are we going to eat and get a roof over our heads, eh? And as he spoke he lifted us one by one and plopped us down on a plank next to a short knife with a narrow blade and a bloody metal bowl. They treated my body with some kind of chemical so I couldn’t move. Left me flipped over so I lay with my belly exposed, then cut into me with a crude hand. Then they sewed me right back up again with stiff black string, announced me officially sterilized, and then clipped off the tip of my ear with a pair of scissors.
I couldn’t even close my eyelids because of how they’d paralyzed me.
I had to suffer through the entire ordeal with dry eyes.
After which I was stuffed in a sack, thrown back into the car, and dumped in an unfamiliar alley.
Translated by Emily Yae Won
Hwang Jungeun debuted in 2005 with “Mother,” which won the Kyunghyang Shinmun New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels One Hundred Shadows, Savage Alice, and I’ll Go On, the short story collections Into the World of Passi, The Seven Thirty- Two Elephant Train, and Being Nobody. This year, she published the serial novel Didi’s Umbrella. Her books in translation include One Hundred Shadows (Tilted Axis, 2016), I’ll Go On (Tilted Axis, 2018), and “Kong’s Garden” (Strangers Press, 2019).