Traces of Summer
- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byJung Young Su
Our lives just happen by chance. In fact, I wonder if words like “fate” or “destiny” are pretty useless. Everything that’s happened since the Big Bang just happened by chance. Need I elaborate on such a simple and clear truism? But it really was strange that I would meet Sunyoung on that day, in that place. That goes beyond chance. It’s destiny playing a prank. To meet Sunyoung in Kinokuniya Books. And not at the Ueno or Akihabara branch, but at the Ikebukuro branch!
All that afternoon I’d been looking for a book on that enormous, monstrous, and mysterious thing that I’d stumbled upon at the natural history museum. But the Ueno branch, which was closest to where I lived, was closed for remodeling, and the Akihabara branch, which I’d sought out as sweat trailed down my face like snails, wasn’t open on that day. (It was late spring but I hadn’t adjusted my wardrobe yet and was wearing a wool coat that day.) Kinokuniya, from what I knew, had scores of branches across Tokyo, and there were a few that were actually closer to where I lived than the Ikebukuro one. Ginza, Ojanomisu, Nihonbashi . . . Those were just off the top of my head. But I had decided to go to the one in Ikebukuro. It was the largest branch that I could reach using the last ounce of my strength.
Once I gathered my wits about me after my devastating disappointment over the Akihabara branch, I embarked on the half-hour trip by subway, switching lines twice, to Ikebukuro. I stood waiting for the train on an outdoor platform that had no shade. The sweat rolling down my back disgusted me and I tried tothink of the last time I had felt so determined. Judging by how I came up empty, it was clear this was a first, at least in the past decade. I could’ve done something else. I was tired, I could’ve just gone to the bookstore on another day. I could’ve gone home, showered, and come back out. But I didn’t. I was drawn by a mysterious and powerful determination, urging me on to find the information that I needed. I was thinking all I needed was to endure this hardship for a little longer and I could return home, shower, and immerse myself in the depths of the Real that I had met within the natural history museum. I hung my coat over my shoulder and headed for Ikebukuro. If any one of those things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have run into Sunyoung.
I don’t really recognize people well. Not to mention the fact that it had been more than a decade since I’d seen her last, but it took only a glance to realize it was her. But maybe it was inevitable that I recognized her. We did live together for almost a year, ate breakfast and dinner across from each other every day and thought that this would be the way our lives would be forever. Even when we had gone to divorce court to stamp our seals on the paperwork, annulling all responsibility towards each other, we had shared the same bed that night. I packed my things the next morning and moved out. That was it. We had never even called each other since.
Maybe the best thing to have done was to turn my head and pretend not to have seen her. But we had already locked gazes. I didn’t know what face I was supposed to put on when bumping into an ex-wife after ten years (who does?). She would’ve felt the same. We hesitated for a long moment before I asked her how she was, and she replied that she was well. Then she asked a bit awkwardly if I was doing all right. I said I was well, too. I wasn’t sure if I should mention my breaking up with my long-term girlfriend last year, living with no savings in a Daehangno apartment, getting into an argument over nothing with another adjunct at the university I’d been teaching at, and consequently fleeing Seoul for Tokyo. Or if I should mention the one Korean-language class I was teaching and how the students didn’t like me, but at least one seemed to and that was a relief. That she was a girl with a cute face and we went to Odaiba once. I couldn’t say any of that. So I said I was well.
We had, more or less, obtained the right long ago to part company after such banal pleasantries. There wasn’t much more to say, anyway. Asking what her life was like now, whether she had married (I suppose “remarried” would’ve been more accurate, but maybe not the best word to use in that situation) . . . that just would’ve been weird. But I suggested we go for a coffee, to satisfy the gods of fate that brought us together in that moment. Would I have asked her if we’d bumped into each other in Seoul? Likely not. But something about the fact that we had met overseas altered the currents flowing between us. We stepped out of the bookstore together.
I ended up taking the lead. Walking five minutes with her felt like at least half an hour, and in my eagerness to find someplace to sit, I just pushed into the first café that caught my eye, without asking if she was ok with it. It was only when I’d stepped inside that I realized it was a Doutor. Not a Starbucks, not a Tully’s, not a Hoshino’s, but Doutor. I was a little taken aback and it was really a funny situation. Young people, even college students didn’t go to Doutor. It was a franchise that had a fresh image at one time, but now it had long been relegated to a hangout for high school students just joining the dating world. The dizzying array of cake slices on display, the countless drinks with their unimaginable flavors . . . for a moment I thought we might try somewhere else, but my ex ordered her drink like it was no big deal so I ordered a drink myself and we found a table to sit. She chose a warm caffè latte and I an iced Americano. I’d forgotten about the heat because of her, but a sip of the ice-filled drink brought my fatigue back to me.
We sat at the bar seats right in front of the large glass window overlooking thestreet outside. The air was cool and it wasn’t a bad place to be. My conversation with Sunyoung went better than I thought it would; it was almost enjoyable. I think it helped that we weren’t sitting across from each other but side by side. We talked like college friends who had bumped into each other while traveling. She must’ve felt a little awkward herself and some part of her must’ve wanted to run from the scene, but we both pretended this wasn’t the case and kept the conversation going. The view outside the window was of a not-too-busy two-lane road covered in cherry blossom petals, with the petals flickering upwards whenever an occasional bicycle ran past. It was a lovely scene.
I looked out at the late spring scene as I listened to Sunyoung talk about her life. She worked at a publishing house and had come to Tokyo on a business trip. When we were married, she had been a high-earning administrative assistant at Korea’s largest law firm so this was a big change for her. She hadn’t studied Korean literature or any literature at all in college; she’d majored in statistics, a department quite different from the humanities. Sunyoung told me there were more people at publishing houses who hadn’t majored in Korean literature than those who had.
“There are even editors who studied biology or geography.”
I knew she was telling the truth but it was still odd to me. All of my Korean literature friends in college had entered publishing. From what I knew, it was one of the few things you could do with a literary degree. If you were very lucky you could work for a public corporation or become a journalist, otherwise you were unemployed. Or, like me, you ended up in grad school after delaying graduation number of times because you are afraid of being unemployed, stuck between coursework and your thesis.
She said the high-paying work she was doing at the law firm had made her feel like her life was meaningless. She wanted to do something productive and cultural and that was why she became a publisher. But once she began suffering through the low pay and long hours, she started having second thoughts about meaning and culture. Corporate life was all the same, only now her salary had been halved. She had been assigned to a team that dealt with obtaining foreign rights so she was often sent overseas, but that had gotten old quickly. And now that she was of a certain age, she couldn’t just pick herself up and change careers again like before.
“We’re forty now. Forty! But still too young to open a fried-chicken place.”
She went on and on like we’d been best friends in elementary school. Had she been such a chatterbox before? I couldn’t remember. Maybe she had been, or maybe not. Maybe she was just rambling on to overcome the awkwardness of that moment. She was right in that we were now of a certain age. We couldn’t go looking for new careers, nor could we start selling fried chicken like retirees. In any case, she treated me like nothing had happened between us. She didn’t even mention marriage or divorce or anything of the sort. We hadn’t really been together long enough for it to feel like a real marriage, and the time we’d been apart after that had been so long. I decided to follow her lead. Decide is probably too strong a word; I basically fell into following her. We would probably talk for a bit like two people who would definitely see each other again soon, and then proceed to never see each other ever again.
She then stopped talking about herself and asked me what I had been up to. Had I become a professor? What was I doing in Tokyo? Wasn’t the semester still on? I didn’t know what to say to her. I’d been a student when I married her and a student when I divorced her. A master’s student, but I had promised her I’d be a professor soon. But becoming a professor was harder than I’d thought. It was impossible, in the first place, to meet a thesis advisor who had the right temperament or personality. Even if you did meet someone totally compatible with you, becoming a professor involved years of putting out research and trying not to step on anyone’s toes, neither of which came easy for me. I didn’twant to get too much into it. I’d finished my degree requirements except for the all-important thesis, but I dressed up my situation as being a “PhD-ABD” and said I was on a fellowship at Waseda University (more like on an exchange program) where I was teaching. You’re a visiting professor, she said, and I answered, Well . . . something like that. She was impressed. I didn’t lie to her, exactly, but I didn’t want to go down that road anymore, either.
To change the subject, I recommended she visit the natural history museum in Ueno. I only told her that there was something “amazing” there that she had to see, that it was too amazing for me to put into words, but it had changed my entire worldview. That she absolutely had to make time for it while she was in Tokyo. Sunyoung didn’t seem too keen on it. She said she did have a few more days in Tokyo but wasn’t sure she could make the time; still, she would drop by if she could. Something about the way she said it made the fateful events of that morning feel less fateful. That the thing that happened to me in the museum was just something in a dream, that even this moment of my talking to her was just a dream. Things that should’ve been kept at a distance seemed close by because of a warp in time and space.
Our conversation came to a halt and we both stared out at the cherry blossoms floating outside the window. Then she asked out of the blue whether there were any students who were particularly good at speaking Korean. She needed an interpreter. I wasn’t sure if she really needed an interpreter or was just fishing for a conversation topic. I kept asking her if she really meant it and she insisted she did. She had been in a meeting this morning and thought of how easier it would’ve gone if she’d had an interpreter, but she hadn’t really made an effort to get one. But what a coincidence that she should bump into me. I should think about recommending someone. I already had someone in mind: Yamada Miyuki. She was a junior, just turned twenty-one, and spoke Korean almost perfectly. She was also the only one who would banter with me in class. I lived in Meguro when I first came to Tokyo and when I was thinking of moving, she’d been the one to recommend Ueno. I gave Sunyoung Miyuki’s number.
Miyuki told me about Ueno while we were on the train from Odaiba to Tokyo. There wasn’t any real reason why we had ended up going to Odaiba together. Like everything else, events flowed from one thing to another.
We would chat from time to time after class but that wasn’t because she was interested in me other than the fact that I was Korean, in particular a Korean who’d received a higher education in Korea. She said her mother was Korean. Her Korean was near perfect so I asked her why she was taking a beginner’s Korean course. She said taking a foreign language course was a graduation requirement. She’d put it off for so long that she had got to it only as a junior. Miyuki lived alone around school so normally we took the elevator down together and parted ways in the lobby. But one day, she had said she wanted to go somewhere in the same direction so we got on the train together. When the train had almost reached Meguro she asked me if I’d ever been to Odaiba. I said no, and then she asked me if I’d be interested in going there with her. There was a giant Gundam there and a Ferris wheel. I wasn’t really interested in Gundam or the fake Statue of Liberty but it wasn’t like I had anything else to do that afternoon and the weather was nice enough so I said, Why not. It did bother me a little that she was my student and there was almost twenty years of age difference between us, which could lead to misunderstandings, but it wasn’t like I was in Korea, and so I decided to just go with the flow.
She told me why we were going there when we changed to the Yurikamome Line from Shinbashi Station. She had broken up with her boyfriend recently but he was unwilling to accept this fact. So she said she was going to return all his gifts to him and make it clear that they were over. But she didn’t know what would happen once she got there, and figured she would have an excuse not to drag it out for too long if she knew I was waiting for her somewhere. In otherwords, she wanted to use me, in that shameless way that young people do. It was a little surprising but I wasn’t too upset.
The Yurikamome was a monorail line. It crossed a bridge built over seawater and headed toward Odaiba. Outside the window I could see the blue ocean, a tram that moved so slowly that you had to keep your eyes on it to make sure it wasn’t standing still, trees rich in green leaves, modern glass towers, and the Statue of Liberty (although much smaller and pitiful compared to the one in New York). The sky was unbelievably blue and looking down at everything made me feel like the train were running toward a well-designed city of the future. Yes, I’m running toward the future. A future so far away that I’ll never return to the present! I’m here on this train with Miyuki so we can live in this city of the future together . . . My daydream was interrupted by the announcement that we were arriving in Odaiba and my vision of the city scattered and simply settled into a nice, clean tourist attraction.
Miyuki told me to take a walk on the beach and she would be right back. I did as she said and looked out at the bridge we had just crossed over to get here. It shone white in the sun, a suspension bridge like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was a weekday so there weren’t many people on the beach but there were a few children playing and two young women, probably the children’s mothers, sitting and chatting on a bench. I felt the cool breeze on my face and listened to the almost inaudible chatter of the two women, feeling that the world was a peaceful place and that I didn’t have a care in the world.
Miyuki came back after half an hour and seemed a little flushed. Masahiro (her ex-boyfriend) was at his part-time job with the Ferris wheel, a little far away, and she had rushed back to me because she hadn’t wanted to keep me waiting. She said she had given him the things, said what she needed to say, turned around, and came back. She was giddy that it was all over and offered to buy me ice cream to celebrate. We each ate a soft-serve as we walked the beach, had eel over rice at a famous place she knew (but it tasted pretty ordinary to me), and took the Yurikamome Line back to Tokyo.
On the way back she went on a spiel about what a childish and insensitive man Masahiro had been and I played the part of a sympathetic listener (although to me, his flaws seemed to be just the typical characteristics of any young man). He was politically incorrect and scoffed at her proclamation that whale hunting should be banned. Whales aren’t the only animals going extinct, whales going extinct is actually a natural phenomenon. She replied that Japan was the biggest whale-hunting country in the world and they ought to be ashamed of this fact. That anyone with an intellect should be for the preservation of biodiversity. Miyuki at this point was getting louder, saying that at some point, the only place to see whales would be in a museum. She said that she had liked Masahiro for his politeness but all he had was his politeness and that their values were too different for them to stay together. She had broken up with him many times but he had always refused to accept it. But today she made things clear and got him to promise her that he would stop bothering her. Apparently, this was all thanks to me. I didn’t know if that really was thanks to me but I chalked it up as Japanese considerateness and thought no more of it.
Because she had been so personal, I also started talking about personal things. I told her that Meguro had too many young people, that I felt like an outsider among them. Miyuki then said, Ueno, you should live in Ueno. She lived near the university now but she had grown up in Ueno and her parents still lived there. It was a little far from the university but perfectly fine if you only had to come to school once or twice a week. There was a park nearby, as well as a museum and an art gallery, so I wouldn’t be bored. There also weren’t that many young people and there were many ojisan, in other words, middle-aged men like me. I was a little miffed at the categorization but she wasn’t entirely wrong and it did seem like exactly what I was looking for.
I visited Ueno few days later and I hadn’t walked five minutes beyond the station before falling for it. The station was large and complicated but just a few steps beyond was the quiet, lovely neighborhood of alleys that Miyuki had described. The flowers had begun to bloom in beautiful Ueno Park. I quickly got a room and moved my belongings. The house was a typical Japanese two-story and my room was on the second floor. There was a courtyard, so I had a bit of a nice view. Since moving there, I went on walks on days I didn’t have to teach, which meant every day of the week except one. I’d leave the house, walk down the quiet alleys into Ueno Park, and take a turn there. The park was pretty large, so two hours would pass by the time I got back. There was a museum and art gallery in the park, even a zoo. I would walk to the natural history museum and sit on a bench there to rest for a moment. I would gaze at the huge model of a whale out front. It was made to look like it was swimming in the ocean. I thought about what Miyuki had said about the whales. If she was right, and Japan continued to kill the whales, we would see such animals only as models in natural history museums. I wasn’t sure but the whale looked like a blue whale, made to scale or perhaps a little bigger than life. It was so large it looked as big as the museum itself.
I would walk that course every day, gazing at the whale and whatnot, but I never stepped into the museum. I suppose I wasn’t that interested in “natural history.” I could guess what was inside: stuff children liked, like giant dinosaur bones, taxidermy, amphibians in formaldehyde, ammonite fossils you needed to squint at to make out . . . maybe a diorama of early humans, or even one of Japanese life in the middle ages. I had never been to a natural history museum in Korea (did we even have one?) but I must have visited one somewhere. My specialty in grad school was the exploration of the history of language. If natural history was the history of the world as it was, the history I studied was that of abstractions. The sum of the things that were intangible and invisible, things that disappeared unless someone had spoken it or recorded it. I thought such things were more interesting, and compared to which the world of material reality was a let-down. Wasn’t there so much evidence of natural history? There didn’t seem to be any opportunity for the imagination. The only mysteries seemed to be things like what color was the T-Rex’s skin and whether dinosaurs had feathers. Which was why I only stared at the grand façade of the natural history museum but never thought to go in.
Until one day. No special reason. The semester was over and I was sitting on a bench, thinking of the things I would have to go through once I returned to Seoul. So I decided to distract myself and pretend to be a little kid on a field trip. It was just a sudden whim, decided with a light heart.
The museum offered the things that I thought it would, but then again . . . something more. The building was much grander than I thought it would be, and at the same time had many subtle details. The vast and yet somehow cozy darkness was dotted with the soft yellow illumination from the displays, a mood totally different from the blue light of Ueno Park. I felt almost cheated, thinking of the many times I had sat outside while other people were experiencing this other world within.
I saw the things I’d expected: T-Rex bones, a stuffed mammoth, a coelacanth in formaldehyde. But there were also things completely unexpected: the innards of a whale that took up a whole wall (grotesquely folded and arranged, kilometer after kilometer, inside a frame), countless parasites such as tapeworms, threadworms, and heartworms, tens of thousands of preserved insects, germs you had to look through a microscope to see . . . and then, that skeleton.
I thought it was a dinosaur fossil. It was so large that I assumed it was the skeleton of a brontosaurus or something. But then, as I gazed at it, I realized these were the bones of a mammal. Even someone with as little anatomical knowledge as me could tell that the bones comprising the neck, back, and tailwere not the smooth curve of a dinosaur’s. What surprised me was the sheer size. It seemed simply too large to be a mammal. The skeleton seemed to be that of a horse, only magnified by a factor of ten. The thigh bone was as thick as my body and its height seemed about five times that of mine. I had to tilt my head back to see the skull, like I was looking up at a chandelier. I had never even dreamed, until that moment, that such a large land-dwelling mammal could ever have existed. It was mythical in scope. According to the caption, this was a large mammal called Indricotherium, and had lived in herds during the Cenozoic era. I looked down at the artist’s rendering. It wasn’t a horse, or a deer, or a giraffe . . . the head resembled that of a rhinoceros but with no horn . . . I had never seen such a strange animal before. To think they used to roam in herds . . .
I stared at the bones for a long time. My heart began beating fast. My mind was putting flesh and skin on those bones, even feathers. I imagined it taking a breath, taking a small and ponderous step. Truly an awe-inspiring sight. I was almost hallucinating a herd of these animals walking on a grass prairie, felt the vibrations of their feet on the ground, and heard their cries. It was a very unfamiliar sight. Nothing to do with the world I lived in. More than any dinosaur that I saw in movies or animation, the mere thought of this animal having existed was indescribably moving to me. I felt like I was facing an incredible mystery, that everything I’d known before then was shaken to its foundations. I was overcome with a desire to know everything about this animal and this world that I had known nothing about. I wrote down the name of the animal, Indricotherium, left the museum, and went searching for an open bookstore.
That afternoon, after parting from Sunyoung, I went back to the bookstore and bought a few books on the Cenozoic era, went straight home, and immediately began reading. But the books were in Japanese and there weren’t many illustrations, giving me a hard time. I also lacked enough knowledge in biology and geology to understand the concepts. I barely managed to glean from them that the Indricotherium had been one of the largest land-dwelling mammals to have ever existed, and that they had lived in Cenozoic Asia. The book had more tables than illustrations. The Earth’s geological eras were divided into the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic according to layers in the crust, and the Cenozoic was further divided into the Pliocene, Oligocene, and Eocene ages, with Indricotheriumflourishing in the late Eocene. I’d heard of the Cretaceous or Jurassic, but words like Oligocene and Eocene were completely new to me. In any case, there didn’t seem to be much understood about the strange animal aside from the fact that it lived off of new leaves sprouting on the tops of trees that grew in hot climates. I was a little disappointed. I wanted to know more about it. How it got to be so big, how it moved such a large body, how the individuals communicated in the herd, how it disappeared . . .
I must have picked the wrong books because they were more interested in the techniques of unearthing fossils than in the ancient animals themselves. This was something I often did in my own research; when I failed to find anything interesting, I would simply go on and on about my process. But the thing was, in this case, the process was actually interesting. I had never thought about how archeologists went about getting their fossils. Apparently, they very carefully walk through the geological layer they are interested in, keeping a sharp eye out for a hint of fossils. If you wanted Indricotherium, you would walk the Eocene layer. If you were lucky you found a shard of a bone. Even luckier, a larger shard of bone. Only the luckiest of archeologists found bones that were “complete enough” to reconstitute it into something whole. It was near impossible to find every bone of a given animal; you needed to fill in a lot of blanks. The books I had bought described this process. I thought it was a surprisingly similar process to examining the history of a language, really not so different from what I would do when looking at extinct languages. The methodology of language historiansinvolved looking for word fragments in different and similar languages, sometimes non-contemporary ones, piecing them together, and trying to fill in the blanks. I was preparing a thesis on how Korean evolved from the Altaic language group, the filling-in-the-blanks part to be precise. I wondered if the process of finding lost things all inevitably resembled each other.
A few days later, I got a call from Miyuki. She thanked me for introducing her to work. Sunyoung was apparently a lovely, fun person, and very impressive to watch as she went about her publishing work. Miyuki enjoyed interpreting and marveled that she had met Hitomi Kanehara and Toshiyuki Horie. “And guess who else? Genichiro Takahashi!” I had no idea who these writers were, but she was so enthused that I answered her with, Amazing.
Miyuki and Sunyoung had also befriended each other and decided to go to the natural history museum on the morning before Sunyoung was to fly out. She said she hadn’t been there since her elementary school days and she couldn’t wait to go. And since it had been my idea, why didn’t I come along? She would bring her boyfriend, too. Boyfriend?At my prompt, she shyly said, I’ve decided . . . to see Masahiro again. He had come looking for her and admitted he had been insensitive to her needs, and that he would learn her values and how to think properly about political matters. Miyuki admitted that she bore some of the responsibility for their miscommunication . . . Anyway, that’s how things stood between them now. I didn’t like her decision and even felt a little bereft, but this was her life. We were just teacher and student, nothing more. I wasn’t too keen on the company but couldn’t say no to her proposal. There’s something about being in a foreign country that makes it hard to say no to social outings. I have no idea why.
The day we all met at Ueno Park was the day summer suddenly decided to come. It was technically early in the season but it was hot and humid like it was high summer. We had all failed to dress appropriately, and by the time we arrived at the park, we were all sweating profusely. Sunyoung had neglected to bring any proper summer clothes on this trip and had just had an early meeting, so she had it the worst in her business suit. Miyuki asked her, Is Seoul as hot as Tokyo? Does Korea have the same order of seasons? and Masahiro kept saying, Ha, atsui, atsui, without end. Sunyoung said Seoul summers were also hot but not as hot and humid as this in May. I didn’t say anything.
I kept my distance from Sunyoung. It was somehow different from when we had bumped into each other at Kinokuniya. I didn’t know whether it was because we were there with other people or because the unexpectedness of our first meeting had been a buffer. I had to endure that awkwardness along with the heat. I was irritated by Masahiro going Atsui, atsui. But once we got into the museum, the mood changed. Before we did, Sunyoung had let out a sigh of admiration at the life-size model of the blue whale out front, and even Masahiro repeatedly exclaimed, Tsuge, tsuge. Masahiro did not forget to exclaim Tsugeat the sight of practically every exhibit, something that Miyuki seemed to approve of. The two of them reminded me of how Sunyoung and I used to be years ago.
There was a time when the whole world had seemed fascinating to us. We once went to Wolmi Island and tossed shrimp crackers at the seagulls, marveling at how they never missed a piece. But for some reason, they didn’t even touch the onion crackers we threw at them.
“Maybe they’re just used to seafood?”
We got fish and crab crackers and tossed it at them, which they snatched up, but they still refused the onion crackers. We laughed so hard we almost passed out. We loved telling our friends that if they ever went to Wolmi Island that they should never take onion crackers with them. It was one of our favorite stories.
When Sunyoung and I married, we were only in our twenties, and we didn’t think about the future. Not thinking about the future was a privilege of theyoung. We got married because of the simple fact that we just wanted to be together. We were the same age and the first among our friends to get married. There was nothing special about marriage. We didn’t make passionate love like we imagined we would, nor did we fight a lot like some couples do. We would just have a light argument every now and then. And not a year later, we agreed to a divorce.
I don’t quite remember how things turned out that way. Maybe it was because our lives weren’t turning out the way we thought they would. I don’t remember who brought it up first. I think, just like we decided to get married because we wanted to be together, we got divorced because we no longer felt that way. Compared to what we had to go through convincing our families that this was the right thing to do, the actual legal process was very simple. We planned it out and executed it like any other common goal. I don’t really remember why we got divorced. In any case, convincing our families became the last project we did together. Then, we split. We continued living our lives as if nothing had happened. I only remember it as a season in my past. Which made me think this situation where we were hanging out at a natural history museum together in Japan was a pretty hilarious. We weren’t supposed to ever see each other again; why were we looking at whale intestines together?
We passed through the Space Hall, Environment Hall, Evolution Hall, Contemporary Animals Hall, Micro-organisms Hall, and reached the Prehistoric Lifeforms Hall in the center. I was feeling nervous. I was afraid that the Indricotheriumwould not be as impressive to the present company (especially to Sunyoung) as it had been for me. What if they just see it as large deer bones? This part of the museum featured the oviraptor, stegosaur, tyrannosaur, and brontosaur, dinosaurs of every size from smaller than human to reaching the ceiling. And in a spot that was hard to miss, dramatically lit from every direction, was the Indricotherium. Thankfully, it was even more impressive than what I’d remembered, and completely overwhelming. We inched towards it, glancing at the other dinosaur bones, finally standing before the Indricotheriumwith our gaze up to its head. Tsuge. . . Masahiro’s exclamation this time was entirely sincere. He did not repeat the word, instead letting it underlie the awe we were all feeling in that moment.
Miyuki was the first to break the silence. “I know this one. We learned about it in school. It’s the largest mammal to have ever lived, aside from the whales.”
She said this in Korean and (for Masahiro’s benefit) Japanese. I was a little shocked at her words. I see. In Japanese schools, they learn about Indricotherium . . .
“Really?” said Masahiro. “You learned about this in school?”
Miyuki teased him, saying that if he had paid more attention in school, he would know about it, too.
The two moved on from the Indricotherium, leaving Sunyoung and I standing wordlessly before it.
Then, Sunyoung spoke in a low voice. “I had . . . no idea such a thing could exist.”
This was the first thing she had said to me that day in Ueno, aside from hello. I said nothing as I stood by her, giving her ample time to stare at this grand creature, to imagine a distant past where it had lived and moved about, to feel its breath. She stared at the Indricotheriumfor a long time. I didn’t know whether it had affected her as much as it did me.
Then, in a low voice, she mumbled, “Those things . . . they probably thought they would be around forever, too.”
I never saw Sunyoung again after returning to Seoul. Miyuki and I exchanged a few emails but that was it. I moved out of the Ueno apartment and returned to my studio apartment in Daehangno, dealt with the awkwardness concerning theother adjunct, and got my job back. I had no idea how long I could keep teaching like this, or whether I could finish writing my thesis. The year in Tokyo did nothing for my CV but it helped with the social aspects of my life a lot. Saying I taught at Waseda was enough to inspire sighs of admiration from my students.
Often when I think back on my year in Tokyo, I think of that funny time that the four of us went to the natural history museum. I remember almost nothing else about my time in Japan. What did Sunyoung mean then? Not that it meant anything now. But the strange thing about that memory of the museum and the Indricotheriumis that it doesn’t make me think of the past; it makes me imagine a far-off future. A very, very far-off future.A future where Sunyoung, Miyuki, Masahiro, and I have all vanished, where anyone who might remember us has also vanished. A future where there is no museum of natural history, no bones of the Indricotherium, and not even a trace of language itself.
Translated by Anton Hur
Jung Young Su obtained an MFA in playwriting at the Korea National University of Arts School of Drama. In 2014, his short story “Nights in Lebanon” won him the Changbi Prize for New Figures in Literature. Another story, “Aficionados,” was nominated for the Moonji Literary Award in 2015. He won the Munhakdongne Young Writers Award in 2018 for the story “More Humane Words.” He published his first collection of short stories, Aficionados, in 2017.