Looking for the Elephant

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byJo Kyung Ran
Looking for the Elephant
Tr. Heinz Insu Fenkl

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.

Every Polaroid picture has a serial number printed on it. The first picture he took—the one of me on my birthday, sitting in a local café with my head bowed—has the number 0318 4149 printed on the back. If I had gotten a shot of his face after that, it would have the number 0318 4150. But number 0318 4150 is the picture of my family. They had just returned home after their evenings out and were all gathered around the table with a small cake on it. All right, everyone, look this way! I had just broken up with him when I clicked the shutter. I took up to the tenth picture in the pack, number 0318 4158, a portrait of my friend on her birthday—and when my youngest sister’s boyfriend came over, I got a shot of the two of them posed in the living room. I shot a magnolia just beginning to bloom, and I shot my old sneakers. While I used up 4152, 4155, and up to 4157—having already shot number 0318 4151—winter passed, spring came, and summer went. I never got another chance to get a picture of his face. I was down to the last shot, number 0318 4158. I slept holding my Polaroid. I woke up. I held my breath and—click—I pressed the shutter as if I were on an ambush. The film popped out like I had snatched it from the camera. I quickly turned on the light, pressed the film hard against my hot, sweaty palm to make it develop faster. Slowly, faint forms started to emerge. The joy of Polaroids is the short time you wait while they develop, being able to see your pictures right away, right there. It’s like the anxious waiting at the door, and each time it opens, you think it might be the person you’ve been watching for. But I couldn’t feel that kind of excitement that night. Excitement! I was scared, like someone was clutching the nape of my neck with both hands. I look quietly at the picture, at the colors and the shape so vivid in those 9 x 7.3 centimeters. It isn’t my dead grandmother, or Aunt Yonsook, or Uncle Dosong, and it isn’t some spirit of the house. There it is—a great big elephant.

I started living in this house eleven years ago. It’s multifamily housing now, but eleven years ago it was a small single-story home with a narrow yard. My father bought that house. He tore it down and built one based on his own sketches. While the new house was under construction, our family of five all lived in a single room nearby. When they had to raise their voices to argue about something, my mother and father would go to a local inn. My father built one more room on top of the roof. That’s the rooftop room where I’ve lived until now, where I am writing this. This was supposed to be my youngest sister’s room. I used to write downstairs, squatting on the floor. I wanted to have a huge desk. When my youngest sister went away for a while, I called some of my other sister’s male friends and they helped me empty my room downstairs and move up here. That night I wrote my youngest sister a letter. Her reply: Well done, sis. The rooftop room had no space to put a desk, so I bought a shiny little table. Now the lacquer is peeling from the edges in spots and the legs wobble, but it’s still usable. Even if I get a bigger room, I don’t feel like changing my desk anymore. But I still do dream of a big desk with lots of drawers and compartments. People have to learn to be satisfied with less than enough, my mother always said. In my rooftop room I would read, write, and make phone calls in the middle of the night. Years passed in the blink of an eye. When I couldn’t write, or every time I had a bad fight with someone in the family, I felt like leaving this house. When I went downstairs at night to use the bathroom, I would accidentally step on the legs or stomachs of my family members sleeping in the dark on the floor of the living room. We’d startle each other in the dark and scream, Who’s there! Who are you? I banged the wall of my room with both fists. It didn’t crumble. The house my father built was more solid than I thought.

Sunday afternoon I went to the Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon. It was a few days after I saw the elephant. A very windy day, and it was jam-packed with people. In the zoo, a chrysanthemum festival was opening. People were taking pictures in front of the multicolored chrysanthemums in full bloom, and in the flamingo cage next door, the flock of long-legged flamingos were flapping their wings. I went straight to the front of the elephant pen. An African elephant, with its long trunk swaying, slowly walked around inside the broad S-shaped enclosure. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The distance between the elephant and me was farther than I had expected. It was too far—it wasn’t worth taking a picture. I got closer to the elephant. When it went left I ran that way; when it turned its body around, I quickly ran back to the right. The elephant is really popular. Every gap in the long, curving fence was jammed with children and adults. I guessed the elephant in that pen was an old bull. Old males live alone. In the early morning and evening they forage for plants, and they rest in the shade of trees during the day. They sleep standing up—though there are times when they sleep lying on their side. The elephant that came to my room lay on that cramped floor and slept with its massive body curled up tight around its trunk. As if I might try to steal it or something. I couldn’t tell whether it had big tusks, so there was no way to know whether it was a male or a female. The elephant had been walking back and forth on the same path through its pen; once in a while it seemed lost in thought and paused with its thick legs bent, gazing out at us. Then, as if to say that it was nothing after all, it went clomping back again, retracing its steps. Each time the elephant flapped its ears, it sent a cold breeze through the front of my clothes. I took the Polaroid camera out of my shoulder bag. I put in a new pack of film. If there had been a Polaroid better than the Spectra, he probably would have bought it for me. But it wasn’t easy to find film for it. I ordered it specially from the owner at the photo shop. When I went to pick up the film, the owner told me that the Spectra wasn’t widely distributed, so it would always be hard to get film for it. He said if I took it back to the place of purchase, they would exchange it for a regular Polaroid. Like a refund. I ordered three packs of film at once. It was his last present to me. Suddenly, the elephant stopped walking and—with a thump—put its front feet up on the inner rail on our side of the pen. There was another pen two or three meters away, and the gap in between was dug out like a ditch. It looked as if the elephant could jump right across. I was tense. I couldn’t be sure if the elephant would come flying up at me like a bird. I pressed the shutter just as it raised its long trunk. The print popped out. The elephant took its front feet down and turned its body around. Clever beast. 



Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Author's Profile

Jo Kyung Ran made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “The French Optical” won the Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She is the author of the short story collections Looking for the Elephant (2002) and The Story of a Ladle (2004)I Bought a Balloon (2008), Philosophy of Sunday (2013), and the novels Time for Baking Bread (2001), Tongue (2007), and Blowfish (2010). She is also the recipient of the Hyundae Munhak Award and the Dongin Prize, among others.