- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byHwang Jungeun
- Being Nobody
I left Jehee long ago. I don’t remember what we said as I was leaving. Probably because we said little. Those days, if I had to meet him at his home, I would see him out in the front without going in.
Jehee’s name was Jehee. Je Hee, not Jae Hee. Every time he had to say his name, he would spell it out: J-e, not J-a-e. Jehee had four sisters. He was the youngest, but he didn’t seem to be a result of his parents’ desire for a son. I heard his mother had been so busy with work that she didn’t have time for an abortion. Growing up, Jehee didn’t receive any special treatment or privileges because he was a boy. At least from what I heard, he received his fair share of board, beatings, and belongings.
Jehee resembled his sisters. I could tell from their photographs. Though their faces were all different, in the photographs, they shared familiar contours. It could’ve been their air than their physical form. Jehee was attentive to women. Rather than behaving like that consciously, he appeared to understand how women felt. He seemed to have internalized the femininity he experienced as he watched his sisters grow. While we were dating, he often felt more like a sister or a close brother than a boyfriend, and I liked being able to feel that intimacy.
That year, Jehee’s father had surgery to remove a lung. Cancer had spread in the lung that was already damaged by a poorly-treated bout of adolescenttuberculosis. He had gone to the hospital to have his cold looked at and found out about the cancer by accident. After the cancer was detected, Jehee accompanied his father on his hospital visits, but not long after the doctors told them that while surgery was an option the prognosis was poor at best. The night they received the news, Jehee’s sisters gathered in the living room. Six people, including Jehee and his mother, sat in a circle holding hands, promising themselves and one another they’d get through this ordeal. It clearly was a prayer, and yet it wasn’t a unilateral commission but a commitment and encouragement to one another. Jehee and his sisters had no god.
I sat at a little distance and watched them. Framed pictures of different sizes hung on the wall, below a fan Jehee had refashioned. Old photos and frames.A beautiful woman. The oldest photograph was that of Jehee’s mother. A black-and-white snap probably taken in her late teens just before she married. Hair coiffed Hepburn-style and wearing a sleeveless one-piece, Jehee’s mother looked sophisticated and beautiful. She had lively eyes and an expressive face. And her children: their childhood was up on the wall. Children in overalls posing next to cosmos and crape myrtle flowers. Naked, bony children bent over their old home’s yard, getting their backs washed. The children in the photographs were gathered in that living room. They had overcome hardships together and survived. My photo would go up on that wall one day. One day I’d be seated below my photo, much older than the person in it. I didn’t doubt it. Jehee and I had been going out for a long time, and our families knew each other. The next time a hardship loomed, I’d probably be sitting there, holding hands with them. Surrounded by Jehee’s mother’s flowerpots, we would resolve to pull through and endure. It was only natural that things turn out that way.
Jehee’s father had surgery close to the end of that summer. The surgery took nearly six hours, much longer than expected. After it was over, the surgeon came and informed us of the result in a refreshing tone quite unlike his weary face. Jehee’s father’s chest was in a mess when they opened it and the surgery had taken that long because they had to clean out the pus and foreign matter. It was a complicated procedure and the surgeon said with a laugh that he'd beg off if asked to attempt something similar again. He said the surgery was successful for now.
I heard Jehee’s parents used to run a fruit store at a traditional market. The store was quite big and did brisk business, so they fell on the comfortably-off side even among the market traders. They were members of an informal traders’ rotating credit association that handled large amounts of cash, and one year, a woman they introduced to the association made off with the monthly collection. She and Jehee’s mother were close like sisters, but after she ran away, they discovered she’d borrowed money in their names from several traders at the market. Altogether, it came out to be a considerable sum. It was a lot of money. Jehee’s mother said the woman had planned her escape, so there was no way to trace her. Jehee’s sisters remembered what followed. People who’d treated Jehee’s parents like family up to the day before descended on their shop, overturning cartons, trampling fruit. They even visited the eldest daughter at her high school and told her to quit her studies and look for a way to return their money. Jehee was two years old then. His family never recovered from that fall.
We had no one we could turn to, Jehee’s mother said.
Both of us had come down here fleeing the war. We had no connections we could complain to. All we had in that situation were five dark-haired children. There were two options left to us—survive together or die together.
Jehee’s parents thought of the latter option first. But they couldn’t come up with a sure-fire way of killing themselves and the five children, so they changed their minds and decided to live. Jehee’s father suggested they put up the childrenat a facility until things got better, but she refused. What if they got adopted?
What if they never saw them again without even knowing if they were dead or alive?
What if they had to go through that all over again?
As the children slept next to them, Jehee’s parents thought things over, and this time, Jehee’s mother proposed they cut and run without paying their debts. Jehee’s father was against it. He didn’t want to flee like a common criminal for something he hadn't done, and he didn’t want to become an embarrassment for his children by turning tail. Jehee’s mother agreed. When she had recounted the story this far, her voice took on a questioning tone. So what did we do?
They decided to repay the debt while raising their children. They sold off the fruit store and their house and started over in a one-room rental. They never fully recovered, according to Jehee’s mother, but things slowly began to look up. They married off almost all their daughters. Their sons-in-law were all good men. She was proud of raising her five children amid all the adversities and not letting go of even one child, of not giving up and keeping the family intact. To Jehee’s mother, the worst kind of woman in the world was a woman who abandoned her child.
I thought it was immoral.
I had a good relationship with Jehee’s parents and respected them, but I couldn’t help but think that way about their decision. The two of them had grown old before they could repay their debt, leaving Jehee and his sisters to take on the burden. The eldest daughter had to give up her studies and sell generic-brand clothing at the train station. She used a portion of her income to pay off the debt, another to pay the interest on it, and the rest for living expenses. Once she got married, it was the second sister’s turn, then the third, the fourth, and finally Jehee. Not one of Jehee’s sisters went to college, and, including the ones who’d gotten married, their circumstances were more or less similarly straitened.
I mulled over it now and again, and every time I’d get a little upset. Why didn’t Jehee’s parents run away? Why didn’t they start over somewhere new? Did it never occur to them that trying not to lose face in front of their children was just plain selfish? Did they not realize they’d burdened their daughters by passing on their debt to them? They’d followed their own conscience and morals, but wasn’t it an immoral choice considering their daughters’ lives?
Jehee laughed helplessly when I rambled on like this. That’s just how they are. Besides, if they’d have run away, we’d have never met. He was right. If his parents had decided to flee, Jehee would never have come to live in my town, and we might never have gone to the same high school or met each other. I had to accept this even as I sighed while picturing those times.
On the day Jehee’s father was discharged, Jehee’s sisters gathered in the house again. Jehee and his sisters had pooled their money and bought an electric-adjustable bed that made it comfortable for the patient to recline and rise. Jehee’s father sat down on it, and the sisters wrapped their hands around his head one at a time. Let’s hug, Daddy. I watched his little head become buried one after the other in the arms of his daughters who were now bigger than him. I’d never hugged my parents like that. I had never seen them hug. We never had a healthy relationship, not even when I was small, and they weren’t close to each other, either. That sight at Jehee’s home was what I both coveted and begrudged as I popped in and out of there and even shed tears of envy some nights. And it was something I thought I might get to share with them one day.
Jehee’s father began to receive treatment at home. He didn’t have to undergo radiation therapy fortunately, but the surgical site kept developing problems. His chest was practically empty after his lung was taken out, and over time it filled up with other bodily matter and had to be properly cleaned to prevent infection and discharge. A hole was drilled in his side and a short tube inserted to drain the pus, but it frequently became clogged with newly forming flesh, and any blockage could have jeopardized his life. The attending physician said this was a good sign because it meant Jehee’s father’s regenerative powers were strong, but he frequently developed inflammation. The side of his body reacted sensitively to the weather, humidity, and to his mood, and he was hospitalized once every two months. He became swollen and feverish and had to be taken to the hospital for an internal checkup, and every time he was admitted he’d undergo an examination no less invasive than surgery. It was a cycle of being cut open, sewed back, and cut open again. Jehee’s father grew drained and haggard, but it was harder on Jehee’s mother who had to care for him while she herself suffered from shoulder pain and arthritis. I could see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears how tired and depressed she was. The language she used with Jehee’s father during those days was often frighteningly harsh.
Jehee proposed an outing at the end of summer.
He said we should go to the arboretum.
He was watching TV with his parents when the arboretum had appeared onscreen. His father said he wanted to picnic in such a wonderful place, and, in what was a rarity at the time, his mother concurred. Jehee said it was the first time he learned his parents had never picnicked together and the first time his father had said he wanted to go somewhere. Jehee looked up a couple of arboretums and picked a large one with pristine forest cover not too far from the metropolitan area. It was a nature reserve so you had to book tickets in advance to enter. Jehee asked if I’d like to go with them and I said yes. I’d never been to an arboretum.
It was early September.
Summer that year was warmer than in other years. It was so hot that even sitting made you sweat. Jehee’s mother bought an art silk dress for the outing and prepared a lunch box. Jehee and I were waiting for his parents in the car with the engine running when they came down with seven bags. We loaded the bags and a cart for carrying them and started for the arboretum. It was a two-hour trip even without traffic.
We had entered the freeway and picked up speed when Jehee’s father said he’d forgotten his ID. He had left it on the table at the last minute and didn’t remember picking it up. Only people whose names were on the reservation list were allowed in, so an ID check was likely. We were at a point where we couldn’t turn back. Jehee’s mother began to berate Jehee’s father for his carelessness, and his father, instead of being contrite, got angry. He tutted as if to reproach somebody else who’d forgotten the ID on the table. It’ll be fine, Jehee said. He had to keep reassuring them that the arboretum people were unlikely to send someone back who’d gone all the way there before things could cool down. He turned on the radio and tuned in to a channel that was playing old songs. There was an unseasonal heat wave warning that day. Despite the cold AC air, the dashboard grew hot under the direct sunlight. If the AC was turned down because of the noise, breathing became difficult.
Jehee and I were on edge because of his parents’ condition. His excited parents, especially his mother, felt alternately high and low. Trivial things or words set them off. Jehee’s father asked for the AC to be switched off because the noise was bothering him, and his mother snapped at him, asking if he didn’t care about the other people in the car. Jehee’s father tried to laugh it off, but she turned serious and demanded to know what was so funny and whyhe was laughing at something that wasn’t even funny. While Jehee smoothly changed the subject and kept pacifying them, I sat next to him clutching the edge of my seat. I felt like I was sitting with some hot, obstinate thing in my lap. The road unfolded in front of us treacherously, rising and falling as if riding one wave after another.
Jehee drove around the parking lot twice to find a spot in the shade, but the cars that were there first had taken up most of the shady spots. We parked in the middle of the parking lot under a cloudless sky and unloaded the bags as the sun bore down on our heads. It was noon. Jehee’s father took out a clean panama hat from the backseat and planted it on his head. His mother stood looking at the shade of the trees and a deep shadow spread under her eyes because of the curls covering her brow.
Jehee loaded the cart. Lunch box, icebox with half a watermelon, one 1.5-liter water bottle, two mats, a paper bag with sundry picnic items, and a backpack filled with snacks. The sizes and shapes of the seven bags were all different so it wasn’t easy to stack them on the cart. The lunch box was round, the icebox tapered toward the bottom, the water bottle elongated, and the mats even longer, so it wasn’t possible to balance them no matter how they were stacked. If the paper bag with the picnic items was placed at the bottom it got crushed, causing the stack to lose balance; if put on the top, it slipped out from under the rubber band keeping the stack in place and fell to the ground. It was already crumpled after going through this process a few times. Tired, I stepped back from the cart. Did Jehee mean to lug the cart into the forest? There was no proper path to take it so what was he planning to do? We’d come for a stroll but now that didn’t seem possible. I thought we could leave a couple of bags in the car, but Jehee’s mother insisted they were all needed and that we carry everything. Jehee was sweating as he stacked and unstacked the bags while kneeling on the hot cement ground. His father fanned himself and asked if the line at the entrance wasn’t too short. Jehee hurt his ankle while pulling the rubber band over the tottering stack of bags. The thick rubber band had a tie-down metal ring shaped like an eagle’s claw at its end that got stuck. When Jehee pulled it free, it swung back around and hit the inside ankle bone of his left foot. There was a sound of a small stone splitting. Jehee sank to the ground clutching his foot and couldn’t move for a while. The veins on the hand that covered his ankle swelled. I asked him if he was okay and he replied he was fine and shook his foot a couple of times and stood up. His mother gazed at him with a blank look in her eyes.
The forest was quieter and more unoccupied than I’d expected.
The people who’d left their cars in the car park were nowhere to be seen. I thought they might have snuck off to the shade. The young couple who’d been waiting for their turn behind us while we tussled over the missing ID at the entrance were now walking ahead of us, arms linked. They disappeared around the corner in the direction of the fern garden and only Jehee and I were left on the wide path flanked by Japanese cypress trees.
Jehee put the camera around my neck and told me to take pictures. Do it when father and mother are walking side by side, in a natural way. It wasn’t easy. I tried to capture Jehee’s father, who was walking and fanning himself, Jehee’s mother, who couldn’t take her eyes off the trees, and Jehee, who was lugging the cart behind them, in the same photo, but one of them would go out of frame each time, and since Jehee’s parents were walking far apart, I didn’t get many opportunities to catch them together. I made a few attempts, then trained the camera on the hibiscus blossoms, red pines, and maple trees. Jehee was limping slightly. Behind him, the cart with the odd-looking stacksomehow kept its balance. He stopped suddenly, stared into the air, and said, Look. I didn’t understand what he was asking me to look at. I couldn’t see anything. This. He pointed in the air with his index finger at this thing that I couldn’t even see.
It was a spider.
A spider was hanging by a web, swinging in the wind. It looked like it had come down from the clouds. It had transparent legs and a beautiful sky-blue pattern on its back. Jehee’s mother drew near and said she had seen such spiders in the forest while fleeing the war. She deftly placed the spider on her finger and let it crawl over her hand. A look of mischief played over her face. She used to get that look now and then and whenever that happened I would think about her childhood. The childhood of an old matron born in 1939. And when I thought about it, I felt strange and distant. She had experienced war in her childhood. The kind where you had to pack your bags and leave home for somewhere unknown, lose your family on the way, or see their bodies be blown to pieces by falling bombs. She told me what had happened during the war. At the time of the evacuation, she was carrying her youngest baby brother on her back. At some point in the journey, she lost track of her parents and never saw them again. Her brother died in the escape. She was walking through an air-raided field, carrying the blanket-wrapped baby on her back, when a spark from a dying flame ignited the blanket’s cotton lining. The baby was wailing, but unable to stop, she had kept on walking until she suddenly felt her back grow hot. She put down the bundle to check and found the baby charred to death. It had happened some fifty-odd years ago by the time I heard the story. Jehee, who was listening with me, said she must’ve felt sad, but she didn’t say if she was sad or had forgotten it and only said that such things had happened to many people at the time.
Since I heard the story, whenever I thought of her childhood I would see a girl standing in a scorched, white ash-covered field and for some reason that girl often had the face of a woman in her early sixties. The face I knew, the face of the old matron. A war orphan, a beautiful woman with a Hepburn hairdo, and now an old matron with frozen shoulders and arthritis in her legs. In between, things that I, or Jehee, or even she herself, didn’t know about, must’ve happened to her. I couldn’t imagine those in-between things. A girl among ruins, a beautiful woman who knew how to dress up fashionably, Jehee’s mother looking sour because of her swollen joints. Each felt like a different person. It was sixty years. More than half a century. The spider crawled up her forearm. The heat was getting even worse, as if it would finish everything out on the road. I clutched the camera in my sweaty hands and clicked a picture of her looking at the spider. The spider flew off somewhere in the next gust of wind.
Jehee’s father was checking his side.
I think it’s leaking. Come and have a look.
To borrow Jehee’s sisters’ words, he should have become a school principal or at least a scholar or teacher. He was diligent, did his job more meticulously than required, and was good at work that needed to be done over a stretch of time in one place. He was a long-time supporter of the conservative party and when there was an opportunity to talk politics he spoke a little excitedly using the vocabulary of conservative newspapers. He kept a journal, scrapped newspaper articles, neatly separated recyclable trash, and lay at night with an old transistor radio playing at his bedside. The radio was from his time in Japan long ago when he’d gone over to work illegally to repay at least some part of the debt. He would switch the radio on and lie on his bed with his eyes open. Nobody asked him what he was thinking as he lay like that and he never spoke about it himself so nobody knew. I once asked Jehee about his father’s time in Japan. Jehee thought over it for a second and said he didn’t know anything. I asked him if he’d ever asked his father and he said he hadn’t. I asked if he’d never been curious and he said, Come to think of it, never, and cocked his head with a look that said he found it strange. Jehee’s father stayed in Japan for a year and half and returned with the yen he had collected during that time stashed on his person. Jehee said that when he walked out of the arrivals gate at the airport, his sisters and mother were shocked at how old and gaunt he’d grown. He’d lost almost all his hair, and Jehee’s mother had to put in a lot of effort over a long period of time, like feeding him boiled chicken feet, for him to regain his former appearance. Jehee was young then and his mother often took him along to buy the chicken feet. Jehee said he remembered travelling by bus to a far-off market, because his mother didn’t want to see the traders they knew at the one in the neighborhood, and taking the bus back with a sack of chicken feet. Jehee’s father slowly recovered after eating the chicken broth Jehee’s mother prepared, but the traces of that time remained on his sparsely populated crown.
He was a small, genial old man. After losing one lung, he spent a lot of time lying motionless in his bed but he still skillfully separated recyclables, scrapped newspapers, and played with his grandchildren. He seemed to have turned hard of hearing because Jehee’s mother complained that when she asked him a question he would reply with something absurd.
Don’t be too hard on father.
Jehee spoke to his mother softly.
It’s cruel on someone who isn’t well.
Jehee, his mother, and I were seated on a bench. A huge gingko tree soared behind us and because of its shade, the surrounding area was a few degrees cooler. Jehee’s mother, who had followed her husband into the men’s restroom to change his dressing and disinfect the site, was flushed from the heat. Sweat ran down her reddish, wrinkled neck. Jehee’s father had come across a water fountain between the rocks on his way out and stopped for a sip. He put his lips to the faucet and stayed like that for a long while, then wet his handkerchief and wiped his flushed neck and forearms. Jehee’s mother stared at him vacantly.
Well, what can I do when the words come out like that?
She said he had brought it on himself.
Living alone was hard, so I married a man in a situation like mine at an early age through a matchmaker. He was hardworking, and I thought that was enough. We’ve led hectic lives till now, but I haven’t gotten anything from that man. He hasn’t given me a loaf of bread, or a rose, or an affectionate word even on my birthday. I thought that’s how everybody lived but I can see now I was wrong. I have lived without love. Only I lived like that. That wasn’t how other people lived. I’m angry because I’ve realized it only now. I get riled up every time I see that man’s face.
Jehee’s father tied the wet handkerchief to his wrist and began to go up the road.
Look at him. Jehee’s mother said, expressionless.
Look at him go alone.
Jehee’s mother wanted to visit a botanical garden to the west that had rare plants but she said we should look for a place to eat first. Jehee’s father asked if we were eating already to which she shot back where did he expect to get the energy to walk around without eating. Jehee and I looked for a place where we could sit and have lunch. The roads in the arboretum were either packed in asphalt or covered with pebbles and were wide, narrow, or winding. On eitherside of the road was an off-limits flower garden and an open-air garden. There was nowhere to spread the mats. We passed the fern and peony sections and came across a center for studying tropical plants where a few tourists lingered. Jehee’s mother wanted to have a look inside the dome-shaped greenhouse but the visiting hours were fixed. We could see broad-leafed tropical plants through the greenhouse’s transparent walls. The waterway that projected outward from the greenhouse led to a pouch-shaped pond. Lotus pips raised their heads among reeds and papyruses, and brown dragonflies flew between the water and clouds. The water looked lukewarm.
There was no place to sit, so we kept moving. It was so hot in places without shade that even walking left us breathless. The cart kept pitching to one side on the uneven road or slope and the bags would slip or fall to the ground. Jehee was sweating a lot more than before and his limp was more pronounced. He said he was okay but he didn’t look okay. There was a small, deep purple bruise on the inside ankle bone. It looked like it was caused by the claws or fangs of an animal, and he couldn’t properly place that foot on the ground. I asked whether it could be a problem with the bone and he shook his head. I offered to pull the cart but he wouldn’t let go and walked wordlessly while dripping sweat.
We came to a brick-paved crossroads and Jehee’s parents suggested that we go up a slope to our right. Tourists whose numbers had suddenly swelled were walking in that direction. The fine-clay-covered slope swerved right at its apex. The incline was quite steep. We couldn’t see what was on top. All we could see were people walking toward it and the tracks of cars that’d driven by. Jehee’s mother said something must be up there and wanted to have a look. The stack on the cart kept sliding down. Jehee knelt on the slope and restacked the bags and tightened the rubber band. The people going up and those going down walked around Jehee and me. Jehee’s parents walked ahead, mindless of the two of us who’d fallen behind.
There were small katsura trees nearby. To our right was a sheer mountain slope and to our left a low valley with flowing water. The road overlooked the valley as it went up the slope. The higher we climbed, the bigger the gap from the valley grew. The valley floor was littered with stones that seemed to have roughly split after rolling down freely, and the trees were plastered with dried soil that went quite some way up their trunks. The rains seemed to flood the valley with rigor.
Jehee’s mother suddenly stopped and said she wanted to go down to the valley. Jehee’s father agreed. They wanted to sit by the waterside and have lunch.
As soon as Jehee’s mother broached the subject, Jehee’s father headed off to the katsura trees. There was a slight drop at the first step. He gathered rocks and broke thick branches to create a place for his old wife to place her feet so she could climb down comfortably.
I was flustered.
Can we . . . do that here? Is it allowed? Agitated, I asked almost in an undertone. They said we could sit there but I couldn’t see any place where we could. The drooping trees covered in soil looked spooky and sunlight didn’t reach there. Leaves swept up by the water lay rotting on the stones.
I didn’t want to go down. A sense of propriety in a public place held me back, but most of all I felt an intuitive aversion to that place. I was sure something had died a miserable death there. There was no guarantee that it hadn’t happened. Though an arboretum now, this place was originally a forest. I was so loath to go down there that tears welled up in my eyes. I tried to stop them. I looked at Jehee hoping he’d back me up but he was leaning against the cart and staring at the valley resignedly.
The valley floor was damp and the air was filled with the smell of rottingvegetation.
Jehee spread the two mats over the wet stones and his mother opened the lunch box.
From down below, it turned out that it wasn’t a valley but a canal. The sides of the slope were covered with concrete and a couple of drainage holes as big as a person’s head were visible. The stones on the floor had yellow stripes and cold water flowed over them. Jehee’s father squatted on a rock and washed his hands, face, and neck, then took off his socks and cleaned his feet as well. He said the water was safe to drink and even rinsed his mouth. Jehee’s mother filled up the bottle with the water. Tourists stared at us as they went up the slope. A boy who looked about eight years old stepped on the support Jehee’s father had built and made as if to climb down before being scolded by a woman who appeared to be his mother and went back to the road. Jehee’s parents seemed to think I was sulking and kept offering me food as if to placate me. I sat with my back to the slope and ate a little. Rice balls stuffed with fillings like dumplings, vegetable kimbap, egg sandwich and sausage, fried shrimp, cheese, tomatoes, neatly sliced orange, watermelon, cleanly washed grapes. I could tell the lunch had been prepared since early dawn but it had no taste. My throat was dry so the food wouldn’t go down. Jehee’s parents, who’d been telling me with magnanimous looks that it was normal to have food by the waterside when you came picnicking at a place like this, said less and less. Jehee barely ate at all. He looked pale, and when his mother offered him a rice ball he nodded at her and told her to have it. He was watching his parents with a look I couldn’t describe, and it pained me to see him like that. What an odd sight it must’ve been. An elderly couple seated on a mat and having lunch in a strange place, a young man watching them mournfully, and a woman with her back to them.
We heard what sounded like a motorized bicycle approach from the bottom of the slope. A helmeted man appeared and stopped his bicycle amid the katsura trees and stared at us. He appeared to be the caretaker of this section. One of the tourists must’ve reported us. Hey, mister. He called out to Jehee’s father. This is a national park. You can’t do that here. Jehee’s father shouted back, Okay, we’ll just finish this up and leave, and smiled at him good-naturedly. The caretaker looked at us without any reaction or expression and went on his way up the slope.
No one reached for the dessert. The half-section of watermelon went back into the ice box untouched and the half-finished lunch box was hastily packed up. Wet sand stuck to the bottom of the mats that now reeked of the water. I helped Jehee fold and load them on to the cart. Jehee’s mother missed her footing while climbing up to the spot from where she had come down. The people who were watching us as they came down the slope shouted in surprise. If Jehee hadn’t been standing behind her and caught her in time, she would’ve rolled down to the craggy rocks of the valley. Jehee’s father, who’d climbed up first, guffawed and caught hold of her right hand and pulled her up. Jehee’s mother yelped and told him off for yanking at her sore arm. She laughed as she said that. Jehee’s father laughed too. That laughter sounded like it was meant to show everybody that they were good people and had no malice. Standing on the slope, I watched with a strange feeling as the laughter gradually disappeared. Jehee’s mother clasped her shoulders as if to hold in her pain.
Jehee’s parents gave up on going to the top of the slope and suggested we visit the nearby botanical garden. They looked tired and seemed to have lost their desire for the outing. We moved slowly. While coming down the slope, I noticed a signboard I hadn’t seen earlier. The signboard pointed to the top of the slope and had the words Raptor Aviary. I stood there awhile before returning to the group.
I told them there was a raptor aviary above. It’s waste water.
That water we just drank, it’s animal waste.
I left Jehee long ago. It must’ve been two years after that visit to the arboretum. I don’t remember what we said as I was leaving. I don’t even remember the reason for the breakup. But why is that? When I can remember that outing so clearly.
On the way out of the arboretum, Jehee’s parents walked even further apart than when they had gone in. Jehee’s mother plugged her ears with earphones she took out of her pocket and sang a song. Love’s got a peak season, just like a plum. Jehee looked sad. He wouldn’t respond to or look at me when I spoke to him. The road back from the arboretum was under construction. Both sides were stripped bare and at a point that led toward the mountain we found a street stall selling peaches. While Jehee and his parents picked peaches and haggled over the price, I stayed in the car, twisting my wrists. Jehee’s mother came up to the car and placed a small box in my lap. There were six ruddy figs inside. She said one summer I had eaten figs with relish and told me to have them at home.
Sometimes I ask myself.
What if I had agreed with Jehee’s parents and happily climbed down that slope and helped spread the mats on the valley floor? Wouldn’t that have been better for everyone? Wouldn’t that have been right?
I’m with another man now. He’s taller than Jehee and has a dark face and thick fingers and no brothers or sisters. His parents live in a small city two hours away by car and we visit them once every two or three months and share a meal. He’s kind to me and I’m kind to him. But at some absurd moments, for example, when we’re watching television and he laughs at a scene but I don’t, or when I’m in the passenger seat of the car he’s driving and watch the road rush toward me, I think, Why this man?
Why not Jehee?
At those times I feel lonely at the thought of having been discarded. By Jehee and his family. By people, who though gruff and somewhat tiring, were genial.
Recently, I happened to see that arboretum on TV. The man I’m with now exclaimed at its size and said he wanted to go there. I stared vacantly at the tree-lined road I’d trudged along behind Jehee and told him I’d been there. He looked at me as if asking when and with whom, but I couldn’t say anything.
I’ve always thought I had much to say about that day.
That I’m not the one who made everybody feel flustered and mournful.
Translated by Agnel Joseph
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).