- onJuly 20, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byHwang Jungeun
- Savage Alice
Tr. Jamie Chang 2017
The dog stirs in its cage. The dog is probably wet. There’s a tin roof over the cage, but it sits so close to the ground that rainwater would have flown into the cage. The dog is probably looking through the mesh floor of the cage at the rainwater below. Maybe it is thinking that the cage is drifting off somewhere in the currents. Is the dog nervous? Alisair pulls his cold blanket up to his nose and looks up at the ceiling. He listens to the sound of rain that fades and then hits the trailer hard as it sweeps past. What about the rain? Does the rain also stink? The water that evaporates from deep inside the water tank of the sewage treatment plant to become clouds and then fall over Gomo-ri will smell like filth. It will be, for instance, yellow. The rain will be yellow. It will smell yellow. The pup that comes from the dog soaked in yellow rain will also be yellow. When the time comes, the adults at Alisair’s will eat it. Their bodies will also be yellow. How yellow.
What about people who come from a yellow person?
Will they be yellow?
As yellow as the dog and as yellow as its pup?
Alisair makes plans to lure the righteous girl who ripped up his little brother’s notebook and rip her into pieces. He wants to sneak up behind her and knock her down. He could push her but that sort of thing is not so gratifying. Alisair wants that girl to never forget what happened to her. Not as an accident, but an effect brought on by a cause that she will remember very clearly and never forget. Tomorrow, Alisair will trail her. He will lure her by promising her a bowl of noodles. They will leave the school, walk past the tailor’s, the bicycle store, the fabric shop, and turn onto a narrow alley by the fire hydrant. In the alley, the girl will be ripped up. Alisair will do it himself. He will absolutely do it the very moment he can. He will be sure to do it the first chance he gets. You must be ripped up the same way. He will also lead that bastard and the other bastard and that bitch who touched his little brother to the alley and rip them all up to shreds. He will rip them to pieces so small they can’t be put back together again, and bury them all in that alley. And in the end, he’ll bury his little brother, too. Alisair hates that bastard most of all. He’s so weak it’s repulsive. He’s a retard and a shit. He once came home with shit in his pants. He wanted to take a dump during class, but he couldn’t raise his hand and ask for permission so he just shit in his pants. The smell spread across the classroom from where he sat, and the children pinched their noses as they turned to look at him, and the teacher moved his desk, his chair, and him in it to a corner of the classroom as punishment for soiling his pants. He sat in his own shit until school was over, and then came home. Alisair’s mother stripped him down in the front yard and washed the crusty shit off his ass with the hose they used to clean the dog cage. The high water pressure hurt and the boy fled to a corner of the yard where she chased him with the water hose and laughed. The retarded son of a bitch just sat there and shit in his pants, huh? You’re the only retard in the world who would do that, she jeered. She didn’t seem to mean much more by it than to make fun of him, but it started up again in the evening. Whatever was getting on her nerve had her dragging him back out into the yard to shove and yank him around and let him have it.
She is like that sometimes, and when she is like that, she does not stop. When she’s like that, she’s not so much a person as she is a state of being. Like heated metal, she becomes hot and strong, changing the temperature around her. This is fucked-up-ness. As it persists and escalates, its context evaporates and turns into a fucked-up state that can only be called fucked-up-ness. Alisair and his little brother are exposed to this fucked-up-ness. The old man and their neighbors in Gomo-ri all know this. Because they know, they don’t want to know, and because they don’t want to know, they ultimately don’t. Alisair might have an explanation for her fucked-up-ness. Based on what he’s heard from her or his old man, Alisair may be able to say this: She so very wanted to study but could not, grew up with more than her fair share of abuse from the head of the household, was sent to a restaurant kitchen when she was grown up, had her wages taken away each month by her father, and when she finally had had enough and fought to keep her wages for the first time, she was stripped, chased out of the house, and made to stand in the snow. She’s troubled because she cannot get over it.
What a load of crap.
Get lost, Alisair, who wants to put it that way.
When she does that, she does it because she wants to. In such moments, she is as transparent and simple as a drop of rain. She hits because she wants to. Because she hits, she wants to hit, and because she wants to hit, the hitting escalates. It’s not so much she can’t control herself as she just doesn’t want to. Because it takes too much sweat and shame to accumulate enough morals to understand she mustn’t hit, she gives up on the whole business and concentrates on the hitting.
She would have been cold.
The night she had to stand naked in the snow, she would have been cold.
She would have been wearing her underwear. Because she’s a girl, they would have left that on. Her skinny feet are planted in the snow. Her toes, buried in the snow, are red, and the tops of her feet are blue. Her ankles and thighs are so cold they almost feel hot. Her lips pressed against her fist are plum-colored and her black hair is wet with snow and clinging to her head. To hide herself from the passers-by, she goes around to the back of the house and leans against the chimney. She is in so much pain she interrupts all thought, clears her head, and looks up at the stars and moon embedded in the cold night sky. She does not think of anything. She sticks it out in that spot for a few hours and then sneaks into the house. Her brothers, sisters, and father are asleep. She looks down at the small head of her mother poking out from under the blanket. She takes an especially long look at her. Her father’s beatings are so frequent and common that it is no longer new or curious. He wants to be this way, and he will continue to be this way whenever he wants to until he eventually dies. But she’s curious about her mother. Why doesn’t Mother do anything about it? Why didn’t she even check on me? Why didn’t she try to bring me back inside? I was so fucking cold I wanted to die and yet she’s sleeping with a look on her face that says she’s not even curious what I’m up to. In the warm air that smells like leftover noodle soup the family had for dinner, old bedding, and humans sleeping, a fucking bitch germinates very quietly. The fucking bitch looks down at Mother so comfortably asleep next to Father. The fucking bitch’s mother is a small, quiet person. She learned sewing in Japan and returned a good seamstress, and is an obedient woman who does not say or do anything violent. She has frail white skin like the noble class and does not do bad deeds. One could say she’s as innocent and pure as an egg. If you asked, nine out of ten people would say she was a kind person. She does not steal, argue, or raise her voice. She is hardworking, and humble to the point of having little presence wherever she goes, and laughs when others do. She seems most happy and peaceful when she’s peaceful and happy. She’s most peaceful and happy when she makes soup with the beef or pheasant meat the head of the household brings home wrapped in newspaper after a day of enjoying himself with the prostitutes, and gathers his entire family for dinner. She is full and peaceful.
She’s Fucking Bitch who begot Post-fucking Bitch.
When Alisair’s Fucking Bitch hits Alisair’s little brother, Alisair summons up all the fuck he can muster and turns into a warrior. The fucking warrior charges.
He charges and charges.
Fuck, there is no defeat for him.
That’s a lie.
With no time for defeat, he waits for the moment to pass.
Because the night will be over soon.
Sleep, says Alisair.
A dog lies on the paddy ridge.
This dog does not look like the dogs that are raised in Alisair’s cage. It’s small and its legs are short. Its hair is longer, curly, and knotty. The dog has been there for some time and was not swept away in the rain last night. Soaked with rain, its stomach is a little bloated. The dog looks bored and peaceful. It’s lying on its side with its tongue sticking out a little. If it weren’t for the dark red puddle under its chin, it would look like it was taking a nap.
Alisair’s family steps over the dog as they walk along the paddy ridge. Father, Mother, Alisair, and his brother. They walk single file down the narrow, muddy path that sticks to their shoes. Alisair’s old man walks at the head of the line. Dressed snappily in a jacket and slacks, he had rushed his family since morning to get ready and head out. On his small, round head sits a hunting cap he only wears when he’s traveling far.
He doesn’t talk about himself unprompted, but when asked, he speaks excitedly. He was a war survivor. He grew up as the son of a farmer, and joined the refugees heading south from the north. Everyone was dead or lost except for an aunt, the wife of his mother’s younger brother. He walked with all his strength to not lose sight of his aunt who tried to get rid of him every chance she got. He walked on with his eyes firmly fixed on his young aunt who wouldn’t even give him enough to eat, but was separated from her in a forest fire. He scrambled up the mountain, running from the flames that kept sweeping uphill. When he reached the top, he was alone. When the flames were about to catch up with him, he swept the leaves and branches off the ground around him, and lay down in the circle of bare earth he made. The flames engulfed the leaves and branches surrounding the circle, and he survived. He walked to the south on his own and wandered, begging for food until he became a servant in Gomo-ri. This was back when there were still people living in Gomo-ri.
The Nam family who employed him as a servant no longer lived in Gomo-ri. Their old house was knocked down a long time ago. The family moved to the city and experienced all sorts of failures, and now owns a large barbecue place they bought with the money that remained. The old man periodically pays them a visit, eats barbecue there, and comes home. Periodically, he brings his family along on the visit. The old man says they are family. They are no different from family. At a time when the war made it hard for everyone to put food on the table, they fed me, gave me a place to sleep, and work to do, and so it’s the polite, right thing to visit them every now and then.
Alisair’s mother follows behind the old man, followed by Alisair and Alisair’s little brother. Alisair’s mother is wearing a green coat and lipstick. She follows her husband from the edge of the paddies to the bus stop. They wait for the bus under a tree that’s shed all its leaves. A Gomo-ri villager also waiting for the bus approaches the couple. She asks the old man how the new house is coming along, and glances at his wife who is sitting primly on the bench with her small mouth pursed. Before the first frost . . . The bus arrives before the old man gets to the end of the sentence, and the family gets on the bus. The bus is empty and they have their pick of seats. Alisair sits next to his little brother, and their parents sit in the row in front of them. Without a word, they lurch as the bus takes them away. Alisair stares at the heads of the people sitting in front of him. The back of a human head sure looks peculiar.
Hey, brother, Alisair’s brother whispers.
Are we having barbecue today?
. . .
I said, are we having barbecue today?
You like barbecue?
None for me, thanks.
Are we going to that place?
. . .
I don’t like the meat at that place.
. . .
. . .
It smells like killing cows.
. . .
I think they kill them in the kitchen right before they bring them out. It smells like blood and piss and cow shit.
. . .
Like the smell of a cow dying.
There’s no such smell.
You ever smelled it for real, brat?
They arrive at the barbecue place at around noon. It’s across the street, and that is its name. It really says “Across the Street” on the store sign. A woman in a rabbit fur vest comes out to greet them, but frowns when she sees who they are. The owner of Across the Street, she tepidly receives her old servant’s family. I trust everyone in your family is well, the old man inquires politely with his hunting cap in his hands. Alisair steps onto the sticky wooden floor of the restaurant that has been soaking up barbecue grease for years, and watches the former servant and master greet each other. The restaurant looks like an old-fashioned house with a large indoor deck and heavy floor tables. While Alisair and his family sit quietly and straighten out the cups, napkin holder, and the spoon and chopsticks box, the restaurant staff come and go without much to do and not many customers, and leave the four of them alone for a while. Finally, a sullen woman with a northern accent brings them some handwipes and takes their order. Alisair’s father asks for two orders of beef seasoned with just salt and pepper and grills them. The old man sits cross-legged on the floor, his hands grabbing his feet, and rocks back and forth as he waits for the meat to cook. Swabbing the sweat off his forehead with the same handwipe he used to wipe his face and neck, the old man turns the meat over and eats meat and rice wrapped in lettuce and sesame leaves. He eats voraciously and loudly as though it is far more delicious than any food he eats at home. When there are just a few pieces left, he raises his hand to summon the owner—Miss!—and the woman sighs. Snotty bitch, Alisair’s mother says under her breath and the old man breezily asks for more food. Barbecue, rice, and soup. He chews and swallows until his clothes and skin are saturated with the smell of grilling meat.
Translated by Jamie Chang
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).