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FICTION

The Struggles of a Girl Fated to Die Young

  • onOctober 5, 2021
  • Vol.53 Autumn 2021
  • byHyun Hojeong
The Struggles of a Girl Fated to Die Young
2021

Yian was nineteen years old like Soojung. She said she was headed north.

“What for?”

“To die.”

At Yian’s response, Soojung blushed as if she were ashamed for some reason. Thank goodness she had Tomorrow. Soojung buried and reburied her hand in the dog’s bristly coat. Yian pulled back to put as much distance as she could between herself and the dog, as if she were afraid of it.

“So what about you?” she asked.

“Me? I dunno . . .”

“You don’t know?”

“Um, do you want some tteok?”

Flustered, Soojung opened her bag and pulled out a snow-white rice cake. Tomorrow let out a small whimper.

“Oh, it’s baekseolgi.”

“Yeah. Let me know if you want more. I have a lot.”

As Soojung showed her the inside of the open bag, Yian asked her abruptly, as if throwing the question at her, “Are you headed there to live?”

“What?”

“I said, are you running away to the south because you want to live?”

Soojung carefully chewed over Yian’s question. She bit into it and chewed it thoroughly, like she did the tteok, so as not to get a stomachache. Then, little by little, like the sweetness spreading through her mouth, she felt herself get angry.

I’m not the weird one here, she is. Living is better than dying. She’s not the brave one, I am. I’m not the one who should be embarrassed . . .

Even as she sorted through those thoughts, her face began to burn. She almost thought dying would be better than nodding meekly in response to that girl asking her if she wanted to live. In any case, it wasn’t even that Soojung wanted to live in particular.

“It’s not exactly that I want to live—”

“Mm-hmm.”

“—I just don’t want to die.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I’m not anxious or scared or anything—I guess it just didn’t seem fair. I just didn’t get it.”

“You didn’t get it?”

“Yeah. I didn’t get why I had to die. You know what I mean? You’re not supposed to die at nineteen. I’m not even old. I’m not sick, either, so why the heck do I have to die . . .?”

“Did you ask?”

“What?”

“About your cause of death. Someone must’ve told you that you were going to die, right? Did you ask the psychic or monk or whoever it was why you’re going to die?”

. . . I didn’t ask.

Once again, Soojung’s face grew red. It’s not like she could go back and ask anyway.

Just as her heart was growing murky and muddled, she felt something gently bump her palm. With the lightness of a magpie swooping down with both its feet tucked close together, Yian took the baekseolgi rice cake in Soojung’s hand. Soon after, behind the long curtain of her hair, Yian’s thin cheeks started to bulge, then pucker, then bulge again on repeat. As she watched this, the heat in Soojung’s face gradually subsided.

Yian, after pondering something for a while, shook the crumbs off her hands and spoke.

“It’s fate that we met like this, so—”

That was as far as she got before she burst out laughing, unable to hold it in. She thought someone was going to yell, Cut! from somewhere. Saying lines like that was far too corny, Yian thought, and, moreover, it sounded like she was imitating an adult. She had a feeling that if she managed to get out the rest of her words, she’d really bust a gut laughing. Suddenly her skin prickled. Like a balloon ready to burst, like her whole body had become ticklish everywhere.

“Maybe we should . . . introduce ourselves?” Soojung, who had been waiting, asked carefully. She glanced at Yian’s face as she turned away from Yian. Soon after, she heard a thunk sound from somewhere. Turning around, she found Yian lying on the ground. Soojung jumped in surprise and gathered Yian’s body into her arms. There was a twisted expression on her face, as if she were in pain. Yian was gasping, clutching her stomach as she laughed. Though she tried to hold back her tears, eventually, a single teardrop coursed down the neat outer edge of her eye.

 

©Park Sanghyuk

 

They needed to find a place to spend the night before the sun went down. Soojung, who didn’t want to die, and Yian who didn’t want to die that day, decided to spend the night together. First things first, they had to find kindling nearby, as well as roots and berries they could eat. It would be a time for camping, for spending their first and last night together after crossing paths, before parting ways, commemorating their fateful meeting and exchange of names. No. In reality, it was just a game. Soojung and Yian were both well aware of that fact. But they kept it a secret from each other. They kept even their joy a secret, as they looked around the ground with serious expressions.

Eventually, Soojung uncovered a bush full of wild berries about the size of the nail on her pinky finger and, beside it, Yian discovered a decently nice house.

The lights didn’t turn on, but they had enough candles. The house was full of dust, but there were no insects, and while there was no food, there were plenty of cooking utensils. With a thud, Soojung stepped over the threshold of the door; she had been carrying wooden boards to the fireplace and then had dropped all of them at once, injuring her calf. Yian pursed her lips and, pulling out a Zippo lighter from her pocket, lit the fire.

“What are we boiling?”

“Huh?”

“We don’t have rice or anything. So why did you start a fire?”

At Soojung’s words, Yian was lost in thought for a moment. Then, as she watched the fire gradually begin to grow as tall as her frame, she said, “It means this house is ours for now.” Then she got up and dusted off her bottom.

Luckily, there were a lot of ways to use a fire; especially because there was a stream nearby. The two of them boiled some water to wash off their sweat and rinse their hair, and then, feeling refreshed, decided to make tea out of the berries and leaves Soojung had picked. When Soojung asked if they might be poisonous, Yian stared at her for a moment. Soojung stared right back into those eyes. They were dark eyes, deep like a well. What if she says, Then I guess we’ll just die together? What if she says, Let’s die together, and what if I say yes? Soojung wondered. Finally, Yian spoke.

“It’ll be fine if we boil it.”

And so, this was a tea made by boiling, not brewing. They tossed in the leaves and the red berries and boiled them in a cast-iron pot until the bubbles were nearly as big as Yian’s fist and an appetizing red glow started to swirl about.

Yian gave it a taste. She smacked her lips and tilted her head for a moment, considering it, and then her eyes began to sparkle. They drank the tart, fragrant tea like a soup; then the three of them, including Tomorrow, sat on the porch, eating three pieces of baekseolgi each. I feel like I’m playing house with my little sister, Yian said with a laugh. Little sister? Soojung pretended to scowl at her. Yian burst out laughing again. She looked nothing at all like a person heading north to die.

 

It was right as they were having a heated debate about whether to lie on top of the musty old comforter that had been in the old wardrobe for ages, or to get underneath it. A small child appeared to be poking his head through the open front gate.

“Who is it?”

As if in answer to Yian’s question, another child popped up from behind the first. Ah! Soojung shrieked and, in a frenzy, like a sandcastle collapsing in on itself, several more children tumbled forward. She counted seven children in total. The seven children, who were all of equal height, looked like they had been standing in a line and peeking into the house.

“I’m hungry,” said one of the children.

The other six all nodded. Each one was nodding at a different rhythm until, one by one, their movements began to synchronize; a short while after, all of them were nodding in unison. Wondering if Soojung too had noticed, Yian turned in her direction, but Soojung had gone back into the room and was opening her bag. She presented two pieces of tteok to each child.

The children quickly devoured the tteok. Though there were some children who ate both in one mouthful, and others who swallowed in two mouthfuls, none of the children needed three mouthfuls. Soojung hesitated, and then went back into the room and brought out a few more pieces of tteok. Ten pieces. Yian sighed.

“Soojung-ah, don’t you think that’ll make the kids fight?”

The children fought. It wasn’t even the four children who had one piece of tteok versus the three children who had two pieces, either. With their small palms, the children whacked one another’s heads and elbowed one another’s noses and bit one another’s arms and legs. Inside the wailing children’s mouths, half-chewed tteok could be seen crushed between their baby teeth.

This time, Soojung brought the whole bag with her. Yian’s eyes grew wide but as she drew in a breath, Soojung whispered, I set aside our portion, and pressed a finger to her lips. Yian looked around and saw four pieces of tteok neatly laid out on top of the wooden mokchim pillow.

“I just told you that people start fighting if you don’t get the number right. Did you forget already?”

“But you’re leaving tomorrow, aren’t you?”

At Soojung’s words, Yian was quiet. The children rushed forward. A hard fingernail scratched the back of Soojung’s hand and she cried out, dropping the bag. The children grabbed the bag and ran out the gate.

 

They decided to go with Yian’s decision and lie on top of the comforter. Lying side by side, their heads on the pillow, an emptiness stretched from Soojung’s chest through her whole body, almost as if she were nervous about sleeping naked. She turned to glance at Yian, but she appeared unperturbed. She looked like she was lost in a deep, singular thought. From her unfocused pupils to her stiffly pursed lips, to the slight furrow in the middle of her forehead, now she really did look like someone who was going to die soon.

“Hey.”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you want to die?”

At Soojung’s question, the furrow in Yian’s forehead smoothed. “I didn’t tell you?” she said with a smile and even turned toward Soojung, propping her head up with a hand. Soojung mirrored Yian, turning toward her and propping her head up with a hand.

“Someone told me they wished I would die.”

 

 

Translated by Archana Madhavan

 

The Struggles of a Girl Fated to Die Young
Sakyejul Publishing, 2021