Seven Years of Darkness

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byJeong You Jeong
Seven Years of Darkness

The new manager didn’t show up even after Seung-hwan finished making the depth gauge. He calmed his nerves with beer he bought at the rest area. Only after he downed two cans did he realize what he’d drunk could kill him. He waited until nine, doing push-ups, trying to clear the alcohol from his system. He had to go to the lake that night. He had to enter the lake without the people from the lowlands and the company housing finding out, and seek Atlantis between today and tomorrow, when he was alone and off duty, to complete his mission of taking detailed pictures of the scene below.

Once he was on the other side of the fence, Seung-hwan turned on his headlamp. He made it as bright as he could but he still couldn’t see very well. The fog was too heavy. It was the peculiar fog of the lake that came at you like a snowstorm. It began to rain. He had to turn off the lamp when the path ended, as there was a CCTV camera under the first entrance to the lake. Darkness descended.

He arrived at the dock ten minutes after he began walking by feeling the fence around the lake. The dock was the one point of entry to the lake that was guarded by a steel door. The door was about as tall as the fence and there was an air gap of about thirty centimeters between the ground and the door. A thick chain was coiled around the handle and fastened by a padlock. He turned on the lamp at the lowest setting. He needed light to unlock the padlock. Once inside, he slung the chain and the padlock on the inside and locked it, to ward off anyone who might possibly disrupt him.

The concrete ramp down to the docks was about twenty meters long. On either side were the banks of the lake, tangled with branches and vines. The floating bridge was at the end of the ramp; tied to it was a boat by the name Joseong, a barge used for regular cleanings by the trash service company for the dam.

Seung-hwan put his backpack down in front of the Joseong’s cabin. He took out the fishing line, tied it to the pier, and prepared to enter the water. When he tugged on the pin strap and slid the breathing apparatus in his mouth, his watch said 9:30. He entered feet first. He turned his lamp as bright as he could and descended, carefully unraveling the fishing line so it wouldn’t get tangled. When he passed the first thermocline, he spotted the yellow center dividing line of the two-lane road. A long time ago, when cars, people, and cultivators used the road, this place was called Ssangryeong Peak. The undercurrent was fairly strong but visibility wasn’t bad, considering he was underwater. He wasn’t sure but he could tell there was a long valley beneath the road. Seung-hwan wrapped the fishing line loosely around a tree so the current wouldn’t wash it away and continued his descent. He slid along the undercurrent as though he were skiing downhill.

Seung-hwan stopped descending when the water became cold enough to give him a headache. His feet were on the bottom of the valley. It was dark and quiet. The objects were colorless and only the concrete road reflected by his underwater lamp glistened in silver. On the other side of the darkness, the phantom of the vanished old village flickered. He felt conflicted: afraid, excited, and overwhelmed. He swam into the darkness along the road.

Welcome to Seryeong Village, the sign engraved on a rock at the entrance of the village greeted him. A bus stop was next to it. He looped the fishing line around the rusted sign. He wrapped it around the bus stop; its glass was gone and only the frame was standing. He wound it around a large tree trunk. Aquatic plants had grown thick on the ruins of a rice mill; fish swam through its walls. A telephone pole lay in the street and the red rusted body of a cultivator was stuck in the link canal. He wound the fishing line around them all and went into the village. A rock wall had crumbled, a shingle dangled on one end, a wall’s steel beam skeleton lay exposed, a doorframe was broken, roof tiles were scattered about, fallen trees were rotting away, a stroller was missing a wheel, and a well was covered with a steel lid. Was this what the world would look like after humans went extinct? His Atlantis was desolate but beautiful, melancholic but charming. With this single encounter, he’d become bewitched and given over his entire soul.

Seung-hwan flitted around like a fish among the roads and bridges and stone walls. He watched an elderly couple enjoying a relaxed evening meal in a lot where only the walls remained. He sat at the bus stop bench and listened to people talking as they waited for the bus. He heard the story of how a young mother met her husband as she pushed a stroller. Pieces of his imagination were stored one by one in his camera. He felt he could put the pieces together and create an amazing story. He felt he could write it really well.

Time underwater flowed as capriciously as the current. Sometimes it was as slow as a threeyear-old’s tricycle and other times it sped by like the motorcycles of a biker gang. Atlantis’ time was like the hand of a magician. In the brief moment he waved his hand once, an entire hour vanished into his sleeve. Seung-hwan’s body heat fell dangerously low and he had little feeling left in his skin. His vision shook, and not because of the current. The village scene, which should have looked washed out, became overlaid with vivid colors. He was feeling ecstatic, to the degree that it was getting dangerous—warning signs that he was starting to feel nitrogen narcosis.

This is the last one, he told himself, as he pointed his camera at the nameplate hanging on a house. That house stood at the highest point of the village. He pressed the button and the flash popped over the dark letters of the nameplate. The nameplate disappeared under the flash and the letters floated up like they were embossed. Oh Yeong-je.

10:45, 120-bar remaining. Seung-hwan hurried out of the village. He started to take the air out of the buoyancy compensator and ascend. He didn’t have time to take the same route out so he ascended directly above the house. He looked down at the village as he ascended at nine meters per minute. Everything was starting to return to black and white. His mind stopped at the nameplate of that one house. He recalled a man and a frighteningly pretty girl.

It had happened the first weekend night after he moved to Seryeong Lake. The manager had gone home to Seoul for a visit and Seung-hwan was alone at the house. Around midnight, at the moment he started to nod off, Seung-hwan heard a sharp scream. His eyes flew open but everything was quiet. He closed his eyes again, thinking he’d heard it in his dream. A moment later, he heard a quiet weeping and woke up fully. It was faint but he could tell where it was coming from—outside his window. He picked up his underwater lamp and opened the window. Outside there was a cypress tree whose trunk was divided in two with each half curved across the other. A girl was hiding in its shadow. His light revealed the girl in her underwear, her arms crossed in front of her chest. She crouched into a ball and cried, “Don’t look, don’t look!” her voice dripping with a deep shame.

Seung-hwan decided to listen to her. He didn’t know what was going on but he thought it would be better to pretend not to have noticed. If she hadn’t fainted right then, he wouldn’t have changed his mind and climbed out of his window. She looked as though she had met a mugger in the woods. Her nose was swollen and phlegm rattled in her throat each time she drew in a breath. Her body was covered in whip marks. Her skin had broken in some places. He wrapped her in a blanket and ran to the main entrance, carrying her in his arms. He’d remembered there was a clinic in the commercial area. Figuring out whose kid she was and who’d beaten her up was a secondary concern.

The doctor was present even though it was a weekend night. The young doctor, whose head was buzzed like that of a soldier, took an X-ray and told him that her nose was broken. He asked Seung-hwan something he couldn’t answer. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. She was in front of my bedroom window and just fainted.”

The policeman who arrived after Seung-hwan’s call knew the girl. The daughter of the owner of the arboretum, her name was Se-ryeong and she was twelve years old. He also knew how to reach her father; he took out his cell and made a call. Soon, a man wearing a navy suit and shiny shoes appeared.

“You must not be coming from home,” the policeman observed. “I got your call on my way home,” the man said, not bothering to glance at his daughter. He stood as though he meant to block the door and looked at Seung-hwan. His dark pupils were wide open. It was as though his eyes were all pupils, no whites. “Who are you?”

Seung-hwan coughed. “I live in 102.”

“Since when? I’ve never seen you.”

Seung-hwan could feel his breath getting shallow, which was what happened when he became nervous. It was because he’d glimpsed something unpleasant in the man’s eyes, something people usually called a challenge. “It’s been a couple of days,” he said slowly, to regulate his breathing. “I didn’t know she’s your daughter.”

“Tell me why you brought my daughter here.”

“I want to ask you something too. Why did your daughter faint outside my window?”

The man addressed the doctor. “Is there evidence of assault?”

The doctor repeated what he’d told Seung-hwan. “Her nose is broken. There are abrasions that look like whip marks…”

“Is that all you can see? What I see is my daughter lying naked in the clinic, and this man who supposedly brought her here in the middle of the night.”

Seung-hwan stared at the man. His words felt like a punch.

The doctor clacked the chart closed, displeasure spreading across his round face.

“So doctor,” the man continued unpleasantly. “Are you saying you don’t see the police who’s here because of a report?”

The policeman was looking down at the girl. Se-ryeong was now awake, glancing sideways at her father. The man realized that she was listening. “What did this man do to you?” he asked, pointing at Seung-hwan. “Did he hit you? Did he touch you?”

Seung-hwan drew in a breath.

Se-ryeong whispered, “No.”

The policeman took over. “So how did you get hurt?”

Se-ryeong’s gaze scanned over the policeman and the doctor and paused at Seung-hwan before returning to the policeman. She seemed to be trying her best not to meet her dad’s gaze. Her large cat-like eyes glistened with moisture. It looked like tears but it wasn’t. Seung-hwan would bet an entire month’s worth of his salary that it was fear.

“Mr. An Seung-hwan, did you say? Please step outside for a moment,” the policeman said.

Seung-hwan couldn’t do that. Step out? The girl had his life dangling between her small teeth.

“You too, Director Oh.”

The man didn’t move, his gaze fixed on his daughter.

“Didn’t you hear me?” the policeman pressed.

The man and Seung-hwan glanced at each other before turning toward the door at the same time.

“Don’t go far. I’ll just be a minute,” the policeman said.

The man sat in a chair outside the doors. He leaned on the armrest, threw his head back, and looked down over his cheekbones at Seung-hwan without expression. His black, dilated pupils, his tense, coiled shoulders—the man looked like a wild animal about to pounce. Seung-hwan sat down across from him. He tried his best to look calm. He tried to relax and maintain a poker face. It was hard. All rational thought flew out of his head. Rage, humiliation, and nervousness filled its spot. His breathing became rougher and rougher. He craved a cigarette but couldn’t leave because he couldn’t tell what these people would do in his absence. There was no sound coming from the examination room. Twenty minutes slogged by as though they were twenty hours. Seung-hwan was about to pass out by the time the policeman came out.

“She says she was playing tag with a cat she met in the forest and crashed into a tree,” the policeman reported, standing between the two men. “So she tried to go home but she got confused with the house next door because it was dark. She felt dizzy because her nose was bleeding and she fainted. She wanted me to tell her dad that she’s grateful to the next-door neighbor who brought her to the clinic even though he doesn’t know her, and that he never hit or touched her.”

Seung-hwan stood up. Rage was coursing down his throat like hot water. “So you’re saying that a twelve-year-old girl was playing tag with a cat? In the middle of the night? In her underwear? You actually believe that?”

“What did she say the cat’s name was?” the policeman muttered to himself. “Anyway, she said it was his favorite game.”

“How did she explain the lash marks on her body? Her shoulder is all cut up.”

“She said the cat scratched her. I guess they played pretty rough. Anyway, the doctor says he can’t determine whether there was sexual assault, and according to the X-rays her nose is definitely broken.”

The girl’s father stood up. “So are you saying that we need to go to a gynecologist to determine that?”

“If it were me, I’d take her to an ear nose and throat doctor first. The doctor says that pretty nose is broken. It’s not too late to pursue an official investigation after that.”

The girl’s father went inside and carried her out wrapped in a blanket. He didn’t say anything. He looked at Seung-hwan as though he were pummeling him with his gaze and left. The policeman grabbed Seung-hwan’s elbow. “Come with me to the station.”

Seung-hwan shook him off. This was unfair treatment. He didn’t know anything about the law, but he knew enough that bringing an injured child to a clinic wasn’t something that required a visit to the police station. And the child had stated his innocence.

“Come with me. Since you reported this, you should file an official report.” The policeman strode out of the clinic. Seunghwan followed him to the station and wrote down the events of the night. He suppressed his urge to throw the pen; his fingers cramped. His head was whirring busily as he tried to understand the puzzling words and actions of the girl, her socalled father, and the policeman. Why was she lying? Why was her father trying to make him out to be the criminal? Why was the policeman uninterested in getting the person who abused her? The actions of the three shared a silent premise that he and the doctor weren’t privy to. They knew who the perpetrator of the violence was. The girl’s father hadn’t gotten the call on his way home, and the policeman seemed to know this. Seung-hwan mulled over the situation in his head.

For some reason, Se-ryeong was beaten in the nude by her father. She ran away but she was unable to do anything. She was too scared to go into the forest, and she couldn’t go to the main road because she was naked, so she hid under the tree near her neighbor’s window. Her father looked around for her. At that moment, the nosy neighbor butted in. The father watched as the neighbor brought his daughter into the house and then took off running toward the clinic. A little later, he received a call from the police. The policeman knew that the girl was beaten on a regular basis and that the neighbor was caught in a dicey situation. But he still pretended not to know and defused the situation.

To Seung-hwan, the truth was simple. The girl’s father used him as a smokescreen to hide the assault on his daughter. But that didn’t make any sense. Korea wasn’t the kind of society where they sent the parents to prison because they hit their child. The parents’ reputation might suffer a little, but that was about all. The dad’s defense went overboard compared to the penalty. It was as though he’d swung a chain saw to remove some cobwebs. It was as overreaching as it was risky, since he could be liable of making a false accusation. Why would he do that?

Park, who was well informed on the history of the area, gave him a clue. The man was in the middle of divorce proceedings and a custody battle was brewing. Oh wasn’t a “director” due to his status as the owner of the arboretum. He was a dentist by trade and he had a medical building in S city that housed eleven private practices, including his own dental practice. Not only that, he was the only son of a large landowner who lorded over the entire Seryeong River area, amounting to 100 li before the dam was built, and he owned the Seryeong fields on which the people of the lowlands depended for their livelihoods.

Seung-hwan could understand the policeman’s attitude. Director Oh versus a dam security guard; a native versus an outsider. In both power and fame, there was a marked difference. He could read Director Oh’s message, too: Stay out of my family life.

Even as August came to a close, no investigation was initiated at the police headquarters. Seung-hwan heard Se-ryeong’s screams a few more times. He also heard her desperately cry, “Dad!” through her open window.

On that house, on the nameplate of 101, was that name. Oh Yeong-je. 


Translated by Chi-Young Kim

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Author's Profile

Jeong You Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness sold more than 500,000 copies in South Korea alone, and its German edition ranked ninth on the Zeit and Nordwestradio “Best Crime Fiction of December 2015” list. Her most recent work, The Good Son, climbed to the top of the bestseller list even before it was published, through pre-orders on South Korea’s major online bookstores. It was also voted first by readers on Kyobo Book Centre’s “Best Fiction of 2016” list. The English edition of the book is set to be published in 2018 by Little, Brown in the UK and Penguin Random House in the US. The thriller is also being adapted into a movie and plans are underway to turn it into a webtoon. Jeong’s novel 28, featured in this issue, plays out over twenty-eight days in a city caught up in the turmoil of a zoonotic epidemic that causes people’s eyes to turn red.