Looking for the Elephant
- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byJo Kyung Ran
- Looking for the Elephant
Tr. Heinz Insu Fenkl 2002305pp.
The Polaroid camera I have is a Spectra. It uses film about 1.5 times larger than an ordinary Polaroid, and it’s more expensive. He bought it for my birthday a few years ago. I remember how happy I was when I unwrapped the present and saw it was the camera I had wanted so much. He took the first picture. I’m looking down a little, my head slightly bowed. The lipstick smudge on my wineglass is still plainly visible. I must have asked him, Should I take one of you? He shook his head. With one pack of film you can take ten pictures—there were nine left. He didn’t want me to, but I wish I had taken one of him to keep that day. Because we suddenly broke up shortly after that. And now I can’t love him, and I can’t hate him anymore. The camera—I brought it back home and got a shot of my family gathered around the table.
I usually sleep lying straight, flat on my back. When my stomach bothers me, I roll over onto my left side and fall asleep facing the wall. But no matter what position I sleep in, one of my arms stretches out— like it’s a habit—and ends up dangling down from the bed. Suddenly, I feel the sensation of someone gently holding my hand. I wake with a start. The room is dark. The warmth lingers on my palm. I try flexing the fingers of the hand that dangles from the bed. I feel like somebody sneaked in—he’s lying on the floor sitting at the foot of the bed, not even a tremor of movement. But I don’t even consider leaping out of bed or quickly snapping on the light. For some reason I don’t think it would be right. It wasn’t easy at first. The presence terrified me—so much that I had to sleep with the light on for a long time. But now I’m quite accustomed to the presence. Slowly, I force out my breath. I mean, I’m hoping it will figure out that I’m awake. After a little while I switch on the light. There’s nobody there. Not a trace of anybody having been there. But now I know. He’s been here. At first I wondered if it might be one of the spirits of this house. Or is it my dead grandmother, or my aunt, or my uncle?
My father is from Yeosu. I’ve been there only once since I became an adult. I don’t like it, because that’s where my father was born. Too many bad things happen there. My father’s half brothers and half sisters drink way too much—they’re always fighting and crying. One of my uncles goes out onto the savage ocean for months at a time to catch the fish he sells at market. My father left his hometown when he was nine, after his mother died. She died on her birthday. For once, my grandfather, my seafaring uncles, and my aunts all gathered together in one place. My grandmother must have waited a long time for that day. She cooked a puffer fish soup and committed suicide by eating it all by herself. And not just any day—it had to be her birthday. I saw my grandmother in the one picture that’s left of her. Like my mother’s mother, who died young from breast cancer, she was dressed all in white, frowning. Both my grandmothers had thick black eyebrows. I decided I liked my father’s mother—because I think her death was dramatic. After she died, my father left home and came up to live in Seoul, and when he got married, he registered this place as his permanent address. But I know he loves Yeosu. I know that he privately dreams of going back there someday. I also know that whenever something about Yeosu comes up on TV shows like My Hometown at 6, he looks at me. Ha! Not a chance! I jerk my head and look the other way. Aunt Yonsook is the youngest of my father’s siblings. She’s especially fond of my father’s children, that is to say her nieces: my sisters and me. Every season, she would send us fish by courier—dried sole, croaker, and skate—and she called us all the time. She wanted to move up to Seoul, but after I was grown, she never came even once. Every holiday or memorial service she’d say, I should go, I should really go and see you all, and she would cry. She was the one who cried the most of all my father’s siblings. That’s why I was afraid of her. When she got married, she was prettied up in a long dress with her black hair hanging all the way down to her waist. I heard that her sailor husband (I only saw his face once) used to beat her. She had two kids with him before she got a divorce. I also heard that she was sending the money she made from her shop and her side job at the seashore to pay for the children’s education. They said she was tough. My mother liked Aunt Yonsook a lot. That young thing, she would say. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much difference in our ages even though I was her niece. Then Aunt Yonsook had a fight with her lover and jumped out of his fifth-floor apartment. A suicide. My father’s siblings berated her lover and accused him of murdering her. On the day of the autopsy, my father’s younger brother, Uncle Dosong, went to the morgue instead of him. My father was drunk—he couldn’t stop the dry heaves. Up to now, my father has given up smoking exactly three times. The first time was the day he came back after cremating my aunt. The autopsy wasn’t able to determine whether her death was a suicide or a homicide. They said that the man who had been her lover took care of the funeral. I guess that meant he paid the expenses. I heard all this from up here in Seoul. Go down to Yeosu? I shuddered. The funeral turned into utter chaos. The five surviving siblings were all drunk, and they yelled and cried, clutching one another by the collar. That was the night I first felt the strange presence in my room. After holding my breath and lying there for a long time, I floated up from my body. I looked at the foot of the bed and down at the floor. I called my dead aunt’s name in the dark room, Aunt Yonsook? I felt a coldness brush past my face. Those nights went on for a very long time. I didn’t say anything about it to my mother or my sisters. My family was afraid to talk about the dead. I just got used to it by myself. And after a while I didn’t feel the presence at all, not until the night after my uncle died. Uncle Dosong, who saw Aunt Yonsook’s autopsy with his own two eyes, was diagnosed with liver cancer at Severance Hospital two years after she died. He came and stayed in our house while he was an outpatient. My father’s siblings are all tall and well built—but Uncle Dosong became emaciated, his face grew dark. In that condition, he turned down my parents’ offer of their bedroom and slept in a fetal position on the living room sofa. When I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I couldn’t go downstairs. I was afraid my uncle might be lying there dead. It felt like my bladder would burst. My uncle went back down to Yeosu with his face black as a goat’s. He died two months later. Even then, I didn’t go to Yeosu. My father quit smoking again. I started waking up often around dawn. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that somebody was sitting at the foot of my bed or curled up on the floor where there was hardly space for a person to lie down. My palms were always clammy with sweat. I tried calling, Uncle Dosong? Nobody answered—not Aunt Yonsook, or Uncle Dosong, or my grandmother who killed herself a long time ago. Finally, I fell asleep with my Polaroid camera still in my hand.