The Specters of Algeria
- onDecember 10, 2018
- Vol.42 Winter 2018
- byHwang Yeo Jung
- The Specters of Algeria
Tr. Yewon Jung 2017216pp.
It was probably late summer.
Or maybe it was late spring. It wasn’t late autumn or winter, that I know.
No, I don’t know. I remember only two things for sure: the languorous heat, and the feeling that a season was nearing its end. The heat could have been a result of the room temperature, not the seasonal temperature; what was nearing its end could have been a time, not a season.
At any rate, we were talking that day about how the mold that had been spreading out of control on the ceiling and onto a wall had disappeared somehow. To be precise, we were talking about how much we missed the mold; to be more precise, we were talking about how much we missed the conversation we’d had when the mold had been expanding its territory.
I think it was that summer, or the summer before that—I’m not sure—but anyway, the rainy season was unusually drawn out the summer of the growing mold. The heavy rain that pelted down day after day savagely crushed the flowerbed my father had so carefully cultivated, and tough weeds grew thick, spreading throughout the yard. Humidity seeped into the corners of the ceiling and the walls and wouldn’t dry even after days had passed, and then came the mold. I’d never seen mold in the house before. I said I was scared, and Jing said it was just mold. I didn’t care if it was mold, or whatever else it was. The spreading gray-black spot seemed to portend that something was rotting, and the thought of something rotting led to thoughts of frightening things. Vermin and corpses, for instance. I said this, and Jing said nothing for a long time. Jing did that sometimes. With his mouth clamped shut, he would drop his gaze on something, anything, and become lost in thought. He would knit his brows slowly. I found him charming when he did, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He always smiled as he came out of his silence. And looked at me when he did this. Smiling and looking at me as always in such moments, he said:
“Mold isn’t just mold, you know.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s the earth.”
“What do you mean, the earth?”
“Take a good look,” Jing said, pointing to the part of the mold covering up a corner of the ceiling.
“Doesn’t it look exactly like something?” he asked.
“It looks exactly like Iceland.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“On a world map, I mean.”
I couldn’t recall. I tilted my head and Jing said, “Bring me your student atlas.”
“It’s not here.”
“Did you leave it at school?”
I hesitated for a moment and said, “He burned it. There isn’t a single book left in this house now. You know that.”
“Even your textbooks?”
“They are books.”
Jing clamped his mouth shut. He dropped his gaze on something and became lost in thought. Then he smiled, and asked me to bring him some paper and a pencil.
He drew a world map in one fell swoop. I didn’t have an atlas at home or a knack for geography, so I couldn’t tell how precise Jing’s map was; but it seemed exactly like a world map, as I remembered it at least. The contours of the continents, with their fine, distinct curves, the confusing boundary lines in the interior, and more than forty country names all worked to raise his credibility. Above all, the effortless movements of his hand, as well as the confidence in his eyes, said that this really was it. Even, in fact, if Jing’s map was completely different from the real one, I would have trusted his map. Jing’s map was Jing’s, and anything that was Jing’s was absolutely right. I was stunned, however, because although I believed he was absolutely right in everything, I didn’t think that he would be good at anything and everything.
“What, are you a genius now?” I said.
“It could just be that you’re an idiot,” was Jing’s reply.
He put his index finger on a spot on the map and said, “This is Iceland. Now compare the two carefully.”
I looked from Jing’s Iceland to the mold’s Iceland. I couldn’t say they were exactly the same, but they almost were.
“Now take a look at the others,” Jing said, and with him as my guide, I discovered many countries hidden in the mold. The mold spread day by day, and I discovered more and more countries. Some countries had complicated names I could hardly pronounce. We started out by wondering how they had come to have such names, and ended up wondering who had named the countries and when; if a country needed a name; if there was a country without a name; what you should call a nameless country; if you could call it a country if you couldn’t call it by any name at all, and so on. The more we talked, the less afraid I became of the mold.
As soon as the rainy season came to an end, Father tore off all the wallpaper in the house and painted the walls. It wasn’t because of the mold. Or maybe it was. If it wasn’t for the mold, he wouldn’t have paid attention to something like wallpaper and wouldn’t have even realized that the walls had been papered.
Father was afraid of paper. At first he was afraid of books; then he was afraid of paper with words on them; in the end, he grew afraid of paper itself.
Before the rainy season began—on a day that I’m not sure was just before the rainy season, or much before—Father up and left home, then returned one day out of nowhere. I don’t remember how long he’d been gone. It was quite long—I’d waited and waited and waited, then waited some more—but I’m not sure if the time I’d waited had been long or if it was the feeling I had in my heart. Or are the two the same? At any rate, it was the first time he had done something like that. Upon returning, he just lay curled up in his room, looking ashen; then one day, he took down all the books from the bookshelves and piled them up in the yard, then poured kerosene on them and set them on fire. All my storybooks, textbooks, reference books, and workbooks were thrown into the fire as well. Father trembled all over, watching the fiercely blazing fire. I burst into tears. “Dad, what’s the matter?” I said over and over, and he finally turned around to look at me. “I’m afraid of books,” he said. I’m more afraid of you, I wanted to say, but the words became buried in my sobs.
All the paper in the house disappeared, the wallpaper being the last to go. It was after the wallpaper had been burned, and the walls painted, that I realized that even the box containing Jing’s letters was gone. Jing had fashioned the box out of blue hardboard, and more importantly, the box had held his map. I’d kept the box hidden in a corner above the kitchen cabinet. There was no telling when and how Father had discovered the box.
I chose crying over demanding to know why he’d done it. He gently patted my head. “Don’t worry, your mom will be home soon, too,” he said irrelevantly, which made me cry harder. “Do you want to go to the zoo?” he asked. “You love the zoo. The animals at Changgyeong Park moved to Grand Park, I hear. They say Grand Park is much bigger and better than Changgyeong Park, with a lot more animals, too.” I went on crying.
Jing said he could draw me any number of world maps. When he said that, I felt the letters were a greater loss. He said he would write me more letters than he ever had before.
“What about the mold, then?”
“What about the mold?”
“My dad sprayed mold cleaner on it. And that paint, it’s not just any paint. It’s mold proof. It doesn’t matter how genius you are—you can’t bring mold back to life.”
Some time passed, and one day that late summer, or late spring the next year, or maybe even late autumn or winter—which would surprise me—we calmly reflected on the process in which the mold had formed and led to the burning of the map. Then we stopped talking. We stared and stared at the wall with a faraway gaze, like old people longing for their prime which exists only in their minds. The wall looked fresh and clean, as if nothing had happened. I had goose bumps for some reason. I told Jing that and he nodded and said:
“That’s quite possible.”
I nodded in reply, though I couldn’t tell whether he was referring to the wall or the goose bumps, and whether he was saying it was a good thing or bad.
I went to the front door to see him off but stopped by the bathroom before he left. I had opened the door and was about to come out when I heard Father’s voice.
“I slept with your mom,” were the words.
I froze, my hand on the doorknob.
Father repeated the words, enunciating them slowly and clearly as if speaking to someone hard of hearing.
“I, slept, with, your, mom.”
Jing stood at the door with his shoes on, looking up at him, and Father stood in the living room with his back toward me, looking down at Jing. The bathroom faced the front door, slightly at an angle, so I could see his face; but I don’t remember the look on his face.
Jing’s eyes turned to me. Only then did Father realize that I was there, and turned his head a little to the right, then stopped and turned it to the left; then he turned around and went into his room.
I don’t remember how long Jing and I stood there like that, either.
Jing raised his arm and urged me to come to him. I opened the bathroom door all the way, went to him, and put my shoes on. He took my hand in his as we went out the door.
At the gate, Jing kissed me. It was my first time, but I was unruffled. His lips felt cold and rough. Jing had to lower his head even though I was standing a step above him, and I was a little surprised, after our lips separated, to realize how tall he was. I’d been taller than him at one time.
“When did you get so tall?” I asked.
Jing grinned, placed my right hand on his left palm, then looked down at my hand for a long time.
“It’ll be all right,” he said.
He stood at the end of the alley, waving and smiling more brightly than ever, then disappeared. I stood at the gate longer than usual. Then I darted off into the alley and turned the corner. Jing was gone.
Two years passed before I saw Jing again.
It was the first day of Mother’s funeral. The funeral was held at home, as Father wished. His theater colleagues prepared and oversaw all the proceedings.
Jing and his mother bowed to Mother’s portrait, and then we stood face to face. We bowed to each other, and Jing’s mother took Father’s hands in hers. Father dropped his head on her shoulder and wept.
Jing and I stood looking at each other without a word. I’d grown quite tall, but so had Jing.
Father calmed down, and Jing and his mother left.
Three years later, I saw Jing again. It was at his father’s funeral. Jing alone greeted Father and me. After the mutual bow, Father asked, “Where’s your mom?”
“She passed out . . . and is on an IV,” Jing said.
His voice was thick and low. It sounded unfamiliar, but it suited him.
Father squeezed his arm lightly, then let go.
Jing passed in front of me three times while Father drank a bottle of soju. Once, he glanced at me. He stopped for a brief moment and smiled at me. I wanted to smile back, but couldn’t.
Father and I left the funeral hall without seeing Jing’s mother.
Jing and I were twenty, and that was the last we saw of each other.
I imagined running into Jing. He would be there—on a subway, on a bus, in a bookstore, in a café, on the street—when I casually turned my steps or my head. What we would talk about, what we would do, where we would go, I couldn’t say; and the scene, or the scenes, would always stop at us running into each other, because I couldn’t really imagine what would happen next.
I also imagined that I would never see him again. Jing was running as far as he could. He would run so far that even if he wanted to return, his life would come to an end before he returned; and in the hour, or the hours, we wouldn’t find even a trace of each other, not anywhere.
Days continued when I didn’t imagine anything.
I didn’t go to college. I couldn’t. My head ached whenever I read a book—whether it was a textbook or a workbook, or whatever it was—for more than three minutes. I don’t remember when that started happening. After Father burned all the books, there was nothing to read at home; at school, I would sit staring off somewhere or at something all day. I was made aware of my symptoms by my homeroom teacher in my second year of high school. After I submitted my answer sheet for the monthly exam with the same numbers marked over and over for three months in a row, he summoned Father.
“She won’t make it to college at this rate,” he said.
“It’s up to her,” Father said, according to himself.
My teacher remembered differently.
“You need to take more interest in your daughter,” he said.
“I’m not interested,” was Father’s reply.
My homeroom teacher asked me if he was my biological father. I said yes, and he looked at me with great pity.
Every Saturday afternoon, my teacher held a make-up class for me and five other kids. I still stared at the desk or the blackboard, a textbook or a workbook, at my teacher’s face or his finger holding a chalk, or just off into space. He tried various methods in an attempt to get us to focus, but gave up in the end and just had us read the textbook out loud. Before I made it to the end of the second page, I had to hold my head in my hands because of the ringing in my ears and a splitting headache. My teacher said he wanted to see my father again. He was on a trip, though.
“On a trip where?” my teacher asked.
“He was in Gangwon-do three days ago. I don’t know where he is now,” I said.
“What is the world coming to?” he mumbled to himself, then declared:
“Your life is yours! You can live the life you want if you set your mind do it!”
A life of not reading anything, that was what I wanted.
“Do you understand?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head, meaning that I’d made up my mind to quit school in order to live the life I wanted, as he’d suggested.
“Will you go to college?” he asked.
I felt flustered.
“Or will you give up?”
I shut my mouth, not knowing what he wanted me to do.
“What matters is your own will. Your own will!”
“ . . .”
“Let me know when you’ve made up your mind. I’ll be waiting.”
I told Father about the conversation after he returned from his trip.
“My teacher’s a little weird,” I said.
Father nodded slowly and said, “Yes, he does seem a bit inconsistent. But . . .”
“That was a nice thing he said.”
“That he’ll be waiting.”
I gave him a blank stare and said, “What is this? Were you secretly hoping that I’d go to college, too?”
He gave me a blank stare in return and said, “I mean, I like how he said he’ll be waiting. Waiting, waiting for something, you know.”
Something fell with a flop in my heart. It wasn’t heavy. It felt as if it had gently landed somewhere.
We moved in the autumn of the year Jing’s father died. Father’s theater colleagues helped with the move. After everything had been loaded onto the truck, Father took a careful look around the house. I did the same, feeling somehow that I should. The house had been handed down to Father from my grandfather. Father had been born and raised in the house. So had I, and Mother had come to live in the house after they married and died there. Could you say that we were connected through the house? I suppose you could. But I’ll never know how each of them had spent their days there. And they would never know everything about the days I spent there. The house alone had been witness to all the moments we had spent inside. I stared at each and every corner of the house more deliberately than Father, as if I were searching for something, anything. The house remained empty and silent. The house was just a house, after all.
The new house had a unique structure. We rented the half-basement floor of a two-story building standing on the edge of a slope; seen from the bottom of the hill, where we lived was on the first floor, and the building appeared to have three stories. In other words, half the house was underground, and the other half, above. Inside, the house was in the form of a long, horizontal trapezoid. In the space aboveground was a corridor that served as a veranda, as well as a kitchen and a bathroom, and in the space below were two small rooms, one large room, and a living room. I used the large room, and Father, one of the small rooms. The other small room was filled with a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, and a number of other odds and ends, and the living room was furnished with a low sofa, a low table, and a television. The large room was bigger than the living room, so it looked empty even with a wardrobe, a bed, and a dressing table; I said I would use the small room but Father wouldn’t allow it because the large room had a window facing the corridor through which some light came through, but the small room had no windows and was always dark, he said. I insisted that I could go outside for some sun, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“When you’re awake you can be in a room a hundred floors underground, but when you’re sleeping, you need to be somewhere the sun has touched.”
“What about you, then?”
“I’ve slept in a place like that for fifty years.”
“So I have plenty of sun already in me.”
“Twenty years is a long time, too.”
“Yes, it is a long time.”
“Well, it’s long but not nearly long enough.”
“Because, that’s the way of the sun.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you don’t know, just be quiet and listen to what your father says.”
I thought the room would go on feeling empty and dreary, but to my own surprise, I got used to it in just one month. I slept an average of eight hours every day without waking once during the night.
Before the move, I always woke up a couple of times while sleeping, sometimes for no reason, and sometimes from a nightmare. The nightmares were varied: the entire house would be on fire, burning furiously; my mother would be staring at me, while standing upside down; people in uniform would march in step toward me, their pace growing faster and faster; or the world would be covered by glaciers everywhere. Sometimes I had trouble falling asleep for fear that I would have another nightmare. In those moments, I sat up and called out to Jing. Jing! Jing! Jing! Jing made no reply, but I felt relieved just calling out to him.
(Excerpt from pp. 9-25.)
Translated by Yewon Jung
Hwang Yeo Jung debuted with the novel Specters of Algeria in 2017, which won the Munhakdongne Novel Award the same year. She is the daughter of writer Hwang Sok-yong.