"The Seven Thirty-Two Elephant Train"
- onAugust 3, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byHwang Jungeun
- The Seven Thirty-Two Elephant Train
Passi’s uncle had a gentle voice and face, but he did cruel things when no one was watching. He was a cruel man. Passi barely moved his lips when he uttered those words.
Did he beat you? With his fist or a tool? I asked him.
Passi rocked his body back and forth. It was a more subtle form of abuse, he said. Verbal abuse that conveyed a physical form. Malicious acts. Unpleasant contact. For instance, when he was talking to you, he would always pull your upper ear. Like this. Passi pulled the top part of his ear with a thumb and an index finger. His muscles tightened, and the right side of his face flattened out subtly. A kid has a thin neck, so when you pull his ear up like this, his head tilts right away. Then you yell into his ear.
Again! Again! You, little, bastard, you spilled, your food, again! Pick it up, and eat it, before I rip that thing off!
Passi was mimicking someone. My face went cold when I heard that voice. I had never heard Passi speak in such a voice. There was something sticky to the tone. I thought of the time when I had touched a freshly painted wall. I took my palm off the wall, and a thick layer of enamel paint came off with it, like skin. I washed my hands using all kinds of cleansers, but the paint wouldn’t come off completely. I felt as if I were looking at the paint. Passi took his fingers off his ear, and rubbed his flushed ears with his hand.
My uncle said ordinary things in the same way. When he did, there was always saliva on his lips, and the lips touched my ear. Over and over. Have your ears ever been bruised?
I replied that I didn’t remember.
Ears are a little different from other body parts, and aren’t easily bruised. I once tried to bruise my own ear, but it didn’t work. But whenever my uncle touched my ear, it always got bruised.
Didn’t his wife say anything?
She didn’t say anything. I don’t think she knew. Maybe she was pretending she didn’t know. Anyway, she worked and came home late in the evening. She was nice on the surface, but she wouldn’t let us cross a certain line. And there was something about my uncle’s cruelty that couldn’t be explained to others. What he enjoyed the most was to make us stand in a room. He would make us stand there and pile verbal abuse on us, pull our ears or wave something sharp, like a pencil, before our eyes. For hours on end. He would go get a drink of water or go to the bathroom in between, and always come back to where we were and say awful things to us. We stood there. How do you explain something like that to others? Uncle makes us stand there and hurls abuse at us—like that? Listening to him say those awful things, I felt as if the structure of my body were gradually getting bent out of shape, becoming different. My head turned into an arm, an arm into a leg, an arm into my head, my back into my stomach, and my stomach into my back. I thought with a leg and with a finger. I thought it was strange and painful but I couldn’t tell anyone else about it. There was no way to explain why it felt strange and painful. Maybe I was too young.
Passi had his head kicked during his last summer at the house. His uncle’s big toe dug deep into his right eye. After the incident, Passi and his brother were sent to live with their maternal aunt. It took a long time for Passi’s right cornea to heal. He still had his vision, weak though it was, but he developed severe corneal opacity. He said that when he closed his left eye and saw the world through only his right eye, everything seemed to be steaming. Face. Faces. Street. Streets. Tree. Trees. Light. Lights. The world of my right eye grew distant. I lost my sense of depth. Not being able to see from both sides at the same time means that you lose your sense of balance. You can’t keep your distance from the cruel scenes inside you. Even after I began living with my aunt, I went to see that house several times. I stood at a corner, looking at the house, and pictured cruel things. An intruder attacking my uncle and his wife and slashing them to death. That’s me. That’s me. I thought this hundreds of times. I’ll simulate it perfectly and go in when I’m ready, I’d tell myself. It was like throwing darts. You take a dart in your hand, glare at the target, get a hold of the concentric circles of the target in your mind, and when you’re confident, you throw the dart. I would picture detailed scenes and their order over and over, then return home to my aunt’s, having worn myself out. I waited. For my thoughts to develop naturally so that I’d think that I wanted to kill him, that I had to kill him, that it was all right to kill him. But then he really died. My uncle. On a freeway. He was crushed under a dump truck. My aunt took my brother and me to the funeral. Girin was eleven, but everyone thought that he was a mute. My aunt stood with us before the portrait of my uncle and said we had to forgive him. He had gone wrong because of our grandfather, so it wasn’t entirely his fault, was what she meant. She wept. I could no longer understand what she was saying. I was looking at the dart that had fallen to the floor. Because my uncle had died suddenly, the dart had lost its target and fallen to the floor. For a long, long time, I stared at the hard, red body of the dart, which remained on the floor without disappearing, full of energy. This happened long ago.
Translated by Jung Yewon
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).