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FICTION

What You Never Know

  • onNovember 11, 2014
  • Vol.16 Summer 2012
  • byJeong Yi Hyun
What You Never Know
2009
496pp.

The body was discovered on the last Sunday in May. It was the time of day choir members, cloaked in pigeon-gray sack-like gowns, sit in rows in the back yard of the church under the glare of the sun and practice hymns they would sing during second service; the time of day men and women, who met for the first time the previous night, have another round of hot, awkward sex, ignoring throbbing temples caused by their hangovers; the time of day egocentric husbands and fathers, wearing their neighborhood soccer league uniforms, run across middle school playfields, the muscles of their thighs and calves tensing and relaxing.

It was a typical day in early summer, with mostly sunny and clear skies above the Korean peninsula. Feathery clouds drifted by and a gentle wind was blowing from the northeast. The temperature in the greater Seoul area was 24.3 degrees Celsius, with the humidity at 57 percent—a markedly higher temperature than the month’s average. Most people in the world accepted that the temperature of the Earth’s surface was rising at a precipitous speed. Although the forecast for rain over the weekend turned out to be inaccurate, the Korea Meteorological Administration didn’t receive many calls of complaint, perhaps because it was Sunday, when office workers didn’t have to wonder whether to put their folding umbrellas in their work bags.

At ten in the morning on a Sunday, people sleep in and the religious pray and lovers whisper their mutual adoration and some kick around a soccer ball. It wasn’t too surprising that several boys, at an age when they’d just begun having wet dreams, were hanging around the riverbank for no reason, or that a corpse that had been at the bottom of the river, pushed along by the current, happened to float up to the surface.

One of those boys was the first person to discover the drifting body—he stated that, at first, he didn’t realize it was a person. When the police arrived at the scene, the boy and his two friends, all in the sixth grade, were in a very excited state. The boys, who lived in a nearby apartment complex from which they could see Y Bridge, often hung out under the bridge.

“Something big was floating over there, far away. I have really good eyesight—almost 20/20. But these guys said it was just a garbage bag somebody must have dumped. They said it was nothing. But I kept thinking it was weird. So I went home and came back ‘cause I’m not the kind that gets scared easily, you know.”

His family owned a small set of eight-power binoculars. It took him a little over fifteen minutes on his bike to return. He stood in the same place as before, but he didn’t need to bring the binoculars to his eyes, as that suspicious object had been pushed closer to land while he had been gone. With his excellent eyesight, he could clearly discern with his naked eye what the object was. The boy unconsciously straightened his shoulders and raised himself up on tiptoes. He was a brave boy, but at that moment he didn’t have the presence of mind to remember that he had the binoculars in his hands. He stood there as though he was fixed to the ground until his friends came back a short while later and called his name.

“We biked all the way to the end of the bridge and came back, and he was just standing here like that. I looked to see what he was staring at and it—it—that person’s body—”

Only one of them had a cell phone. His parents had bought him the phone when he was about to start the sixth grade. At the time, everyone was worried because an elementary school student had gone missing in Anyang. The boys had a small argument over whether they should call 119, the emergency response number, or 112, to reach the police. The owner of the cell phone suggested that he call his parents first but his friends shot down that idea. The officers from the local division arrived about ten minutes after they called 112. The team of detectives on duty at Y Police Station also mobilized, and the crime scene technicians with their black identification kits appeared last.

The corpse in the water was that of a man. He was completely naked. As are most corpses discovered in water, his death mark wasn’t visible and his skin was quite distended because of hydrogen sulfide and osmosis. The skin, undergoing saponification, had turned pearly gray, and felt slippery, as if it had been lathered with soap. His palms and the bottoms of his feet were wrinkled, like mulberry paper drenched in rain, and red bloody fluid drooled out of his nose and mouth. All of this hinted at the long time the man had spent underwater. His eyes were firmly closed and his expression was inscrutable.

***

[···]

Yu-ji was born in the middle of summer, in the kind of heat that made you drip with sweat even when you sat still. Eleven-year-old Hye-seong had been shorter than Yu-ji was now, disliked beans in his rice or tofu in his bean paste stew, and lived in Hwagok-dong with his maternal grandmother, her identical twin sister, and his older sister Eun-seong. Their house, one of many look-alike two-story houses built by the same developer, was nestled in an old alley. His mom came once a week and his father visited once a month to see the children.

That day, Sang-ho drove his car all the way into the alley and parked it right in front of the house. He’d never done that before. Usually he called five minutes before his arrival so that Hye-seong and his sister could walk out to meet him on the main road. But that day, when Hye-seong, who had been lying on the floor doing his summer vacation assignments, opened the door, Sang-ho was standing on the other side. Hye-seong bowed at a ninety degree angle at his father, whom he was seeing in only two weeks. As if in a television drama, Sang-ho awkwardly stroked his head. He was wearing a jacket even though it was an extremely hot day. Hye-seong’s grandmother was flustered at the sudden visit by her former son-in-law, now unrelated to her. Instead of Grandmother, who couldn’t hide her uneasy expression, Great Aunt brought out sweet iced coffee for the guest. Sang-ho sat on the far end of the sofa with his knees pressed together and downed his glass. He didn’t take off his jacket. Great Aunt aimed the fan at the guest’s waist level and made it immobile.

“Eun-seong, your father’s here.”

There was no way she couldn’t have known, but Eun-seong remained burrowed in her room, not making a noise.

“Oh, goodness, she must have fallen asleep. She was yawning earlier,” Great Aunt said, making excuses.

“Oh, it’s okay.” Sang-ho waved his hands. He turned his gaze to the open books on the floor and asked Hye-seong, “How’s school?”

“It’s summer vacation…” Hye-seong’s voice was small, despite his intention otherwise.

Sang-ho said, like a sigh, “Oh, right.”

The person who broke the short but long silence was Grandmother, who was sitting on the floor near the perimeter of the room. “So. Has she delivered?”

“Yes, yesterday.”

The unfamiliar expression of “has she delivered” tickled Hye-seong’s ears like an ill omen. Grandmother wasn’t warm and tended to be terse, but she was also pathologically afraid of being seen as not doing the right thing. Grandmother ordered Hye-seong to go and change his clothes. Nobody told him where he would be going with a new set of clothes on.

He followed his father into his silvery-gray Sonata. It was the first time that he sat in the passenger seat instead of the back seat of that car, and it was the first time he was going somewhere with his father, just the two of them, without his sister. His parents separated around his fourth birthday and completed official divorce proceedings the following year. After that, father and son had seen each other at best a dozen times a year. Hye-seong felt ill at ease around this large man named Father but also worshipped him, and he worshipped him while he felt ill at ease around him.

[···]

The car crossed the Han River at a speed that was just below dangerous. They were now in a neighborhood that Hye-seong had never been to. A single obstetrics practice was housed in an entire seven-story building. Sang-ho strode across the lobby and Hye-seong followed briskly not to get left behind.


[···]

A white blanket was covering the woman. She was in an awkward position, as if she had been lying down but had raised her upper body halfway. As he waited outside the door, Hye-seong had summoned a faint image of her—the woman who had joined them for dinner one night a year earlier, around this time. She wasn’t the kind of beauty that turned heads but her unflashy features gave off a feminine sweetness. The woman’s demeanor that day was as plain and simple as the Pyeongyang-style cold noodles they were eating. She hadn’t bent over backward to get on the siblings’ good side, neither had she gone out of her way to act aloof. It was his father who kept making exaggerated gestures and downing multiple glasses of soju, and it was his sister who became more and more standoffish and didn’t touch a morsel of meat on the grill even as it began to burn. Instead of his father, who got drunk before he could reveal his relationship with the woman, she was the one who had driven them home. As they parted, she said, “Bye, see you soon,” like a friendly flight attendant.

But the woman in front of him now, whose eyebrows, now that they weren’t made up, seemed to stop in the middle of her brow, showed no hint of the vitality of that first meeting. She was pale and swollen in an ugly way, like overproofed dough. A mere twenty hours before, she had fought labor pains that threatened to shatter her pelvis and had survived; her lower half had been torn apart in her effort to bring into the world a bucket of amniotic fluid and blood and a baby weighing over three kilograms. It was the only time Hye-seong had been that close to a new mother.

“Thanks for coming,” the woman said with a wan smile. He hadn’t noticed it before but when she smiled, two slanted lines appeared on either side of the bridge of her nose. Hye-seong smiled back, not knowing what to say. His father smiled along. Hye-seong sat in the center of the room on his knees, suffering a surreal dizziness as his toes sweated. The woman asked Sang-ho to bring her some mouthwash. She rinsed her mouth and spat in a shallow basin. Sang-ho told Hye-seong that she couldn’t brush her teeth because her gums were swollen.

“You must be hot, especially since we can’t turn on the air conditioner. You know, new mothers have to be kept warm. Show him the baby,” she said slowly. Father and son left the room and went downstairs using the emergency stairwell. Behind a large glass window, newborns were lying side by side in several rows. Sang-ho stopped at the middle of the window. There was Yu-ji, before she was given the name Yu-ji. The swaddled baby was unbelievably small and wrinkly and red. Only a face that had lived a thousand years would look like that. Father tapped the glass lightly with his fist. “Look, it’s your brother. Say hello,” he said, addressing the baby.

The baby didn’t bat an eyelash. Hye-seong awkwardly raised his palm before quickly lowering it. He felt winded, as though a strong force had given him a wallop. The baby wrinkled her nose and burst into tears. A nurse picked her up to soothe her. Hye-seong didn’t cry.

He never wondered why his father brought him there that day. As he grew older, he began to understand that Sang-ho had a mercilessly simple side to him, living his life nonchalantly and doing things that even he himself would be hard pressed to understand. There had been times in the past when Hye-seong wondered how life came to be formed, but he naturally discovered the answer not too long after Yu-ji’s birth. The day he discovered that a baby was conceived as a result of a man putting his penis inside a woman and releasing semen, he quietly went to the bathroom to vomit. 

 

* Translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Author's Profile

Jeong Yi Hyun has authored four novels, four short story collections, and three essay collections. Her first novel, Sweet City of Mine (2006) was adapted into the TV series My Sweet Seoul. Her novel Foundation of Love: A Couple’s Story (2013) was part of a two-volume series exploring issues of love, marriage, and family, with Alain de Botton writing the second part.