At Least We Can Apologize

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.17 Autumn 2012
  • byLee Kiho
At Least We Can Apologize

Part One: Finding Wrong

1. The Pillars of the Institution

Si-bong and I first met in the institution. I was there first, and Si-bong entered a week later. From then on we shared the same room. Neither Si-bong nor I know how many years we spent there together. That’s because we can’t remember. I know that there, I grew six centimeters taller. Si-bong gained eight kilograms. Some time ago Si-bong had reached 84 kilograms. He was the only person in the institution who gained weight. The caretakers always told him to thank them for that. They would add that our growing taller, or our growing heavier, was because of the pills they gave us. Si-bong and I religiously took the pills we were given: four a day, in the morning and at night. When we first started taking the pills we felt sick and dizzy, as if teetering on a seesaw. Now, when we don’t take the pills we feel dizzy. That’s why Si-bong and I were always waiting for pill time. When the caretakers would stomp over to our room, pills in hand, and stand at our door, we would rush over, our heels barely grazing the floor, and kneel down with both hands outstretched. We never had a problem swallowing those pills; they slid perfectly down our throats and disappeared into our bodies.

When we weren’t taking our pills, we worked, either packaging socks or labeling soap. On the sock crates we would attach a group picture of all of the institution’s residents. When we took the photo, Si-bong and I were in the back row on either side, standing at perfect attention. We both liked that picture. That was on account of our looking like perfect pillars of the institution. Every time we weren’t feeling well, Si-bong and I would take out that picture and look at it. Then we would go back to packing the socks in their plastic. Perhaps it was thanks to the picture, but the socks sold well.

The point when trouble started at the institution came when a new, older man with long sideburns moved into our room. The man would put his pills into his mouth and, after the caretakers left, spit them out again. One time the man said he wasn’t ill. He said that he’d done nothing but fall asleep in the square at the train station, and woke up in the institution. Si-bong, too, said that he had gotten into a van at the square in front of the train station, and that when he got out he was at the institution. I didn’t say anything.

The man with the sideburns lowered his voice and spoke. “Look at you! You guys are fine and you’re locked up in here! We have to get out of here as soon as we can—and I’m telling you: That’s not gonna happen by taking those pills!”

Si-bong and I looked at each other for a moment. The man looked at us as well.

“But, sir… it’s like we’re the pillars of the institution.” Si-bong followed the man’s tone, speaking in a low voice. All I did was nod silently. The man just stared at us without a word. Then he rolled over toward the wall. After that, the man stopped speaking to us.

Every day the man with sideburns took pieces of paper from the sock crates in the workroom and, back in our room, wrote on them:

We are being held captive. If you find this note, please report this to the police. You will be generously rewarded.

The man would always sign his name at the end of the note. He would stick a grain of cooked rice on the back of the paper to glue it to a stone. Then, every morning during cleaning time, he would throw the messages over the fence.

The image of the man staying up late each night to write these notes was so pitiful that Si-bong and I decided to help him. Before loading each box of socks into the crates, we would write a note inside:

We are being held captive. If you find this note, please report this to the police. The man in our room said that you will be generously rewarded.

We wrote these notes inside the sock crates. We would always end the note by signing, The Pillars of the Institution. We didn’t want to cause the man with sideburns any trouble, so we always wrote the notes quickly so that no one else would see. The socks sold well.

One morning, exactly one month after we started writing the notes, the institution was swarmed with police officers, government workers, and TV news reporters. We greeted them like true pillars of the institution, standing at perfect attention.

2. The Home We Knew

The first person to come out of the institution was the superintendent. He got into a black car along with two police officers. Before getting in, he turned around for a moment to look at the main building. Si-bong and I remained standing at attention in front of the building. The superintendent’s eyes met ours for a moment. As always, Si-bong and I greeted him politely with a bow.

The two caretakers, the director general, and the cafeteria woman were also taken by a police van. As the cafeteria woman was being taken away at the hands of the police officers, she yelled, “I’m a patient, too! A patient! I’m not normal!” The police said nothing.

Some of the reporters came up to us and asked, “Could you please tell us who ‘the Pillars of the Institution’ are?”

Si-bong and I answered politely that it was us. As soon as we did, even more reporters and other people gathered in front of us. They asked questions in quick voices.

“How were you brought to the institution?”

“Have you suffered any abuse here?”

“What exactly does ‘Pillars of the Institution’ mean?”

Just as Si-bong and I were about to answer the questions one-by-one, the man with the sideburns cut through the crowd and came up to us. The man took our hands and shook them vigorously. He was beaming. We were not. The man answered the reporters’ questions for us: We were all taken from the train station, we were all beaten daily by the superintendent and the two male caretakers, we heard every kind of insult from the cafeteria woman, but, despite all that, we were able to hide our plan, win the confidence of the superintendent, and were entrusted with the sock packaging operation. And “Pillars of the Institution” … that was our code name, our mission: to tear down the pillars of the institution. The entire time the man spoke he kept hold of Si-bong’s hand and mine. Sweat was collecting in our palms.

After the reporters left, the government officials brought in a doctor. Guardians of some of the residents began to show up as well. The government workers stood by the doctor, asking the residents questions.

“Would you like to go to another facility? Or would you like to go home?”

The doctor sat there, tapping his pen on the table as he stared at the residents. From time to time he even yawned and drew pictures of trees on his paper. He smelled of alcohol. The government workers did not ask me and Si-bong questions. Instead, they pointed to us and whispered in low voices, “There, the whistle-blowers.”

When everyone was done being questioned, one of the government workers came up to us and handed us envelopes.

“You two can go home now.”

Inside the envelopes was money for us to get home. The man with sideburns came up to us as well.

“Get home safe, Mr. Pillars. Maybe we’ll see each other again. If you ever wanna see me, just come on over to the square in front of the train station in the town over there.”

We walked out of the main gate of the institution. Spread out in front of us were low-lying hills, pine trees and firs, all coated sparsely with the final remnants of snow. Si-bong and I looked at the clouds above the firs for a while. The trees looked like pillars, holding up the clouds.

Si-bong asked me, “So, you’re gonna go back home now?”

I answered honestly, “I don’t know where my house is.”

Si-bong continued to look at the clouds, then said, “Really? I know where my house is…”

I said nothing as I looked at the dirt road that led up to the highway. The crisscrossing tire tracks in the dirt looked like the metal bars on our windows at the institution.

Si-bong brushed off his pant legs and spoke. “So, you wanna just start by going to the house we know, first?”

Si-bong brushed off his pant legs. I nodded silently. Only then did we slowly start walking. After walking for a while, Si-bong and I turned around for a moment to look back at the institution. With all the people gone from inside, the institution looked somehow in danger, as if it might come tumbling down at any moment. I felt queasy. The institution was the place where we had lived for a number of years, a place that had taught us so much. That was certainly something to be thankful for. Now, Si-bong and I were leaving that place.

3. The Caretakers

When I first entered the institution I was beaten almost daily. I was beaten in the morning, beaten at lunchtime, and beaten before bed. Sometimes I wasn’t beaten in the morning and then beaten twice at night, and I was even beaten twice at lunch and three times at night before. I was beaten with a pointer, beaten with a steel pipe, slapped, punched, kicked with a booted foot, and even beaten with a thick book. I was beaten with a chair, beaten with a trash can, beaten with socks, and beaten with a shovel. After being beaten like this for some time, one day I looked over and there was Si-bong. He had both arms wrapped around his head as he was being beaten. That was the first time that Si-bong and I met. After that, we were beaten together every day. We were beaten together under our beds, beaten together in the hallway, beaten together after being called into the office, beaten together in the workroom, beaten together on the hill behind the institution, and beaten together in front of the main gate. Being beaten together like that for so long, we became friends.

The ones beating us were the two male caretakers. They were the same age, cousins, and also nephews of the superintendent. One of them was shorter and the other was taller. The shorter one always went around in one of those white gowns that doctors wear, and the taller one went around wearing jeans and army boots. The shorter one went around with his own fork, spoon, and toothbrush in the left pocket of his white doctor’s gown and, in the right pocket, his own latex gloves. Whenever he beat us, or gave us our medicine, he would always wear his gloves. The taller one barely had any hair on the top of his head. Every morning he would wash his hair for a long time and, after combing all the hair on the back of his head forward, would spray it down with hairspray. In the back pocket of his jeans he always carried a convenient can of hairspray and comb and, after beating us, would take great care to fix his hair. Every time we smelled the scent of his freesia hairspray, we thought to ourselves, “Ah-ha, guess the beating’s over.”

The two men lived on the second f loor of the main building, in the room across the hall from ours. Unlike our room, theirs had wooden flooring and there was a large TV and a refrigerator. They would have the television on until all hours of the night, but the movies they watched tended to have more moaning sounds than talking. Sometimes after the movies were over the caretakers would make phone calls somewhere. They took turns asking questions like, “Might this be the home of that big-tittied gal I had sex with a year ago?” or “By any chance, are you wearing nothing but pantyhose right now?” and hang up right away. After that, all we would hear was giggling. Even after hearing all that, Si-bong and I never laughed a single time. That was on account of the two male caretakers not being particularly fond of us laughing.

Sometimes the superintendent would come around to the two male caretakers’ room, looking for them. This was usually when the caretakers overslept and weren’t able to give us our pills on time. When this happened, the superintendent would call them “worthless pieces of garbage.” He would also call them “useless, good-for-nothing vermin,” and “crazy fucking street rats.” On days like that, the two would beat us even before breakfast, repeating exactly what the superintendent had said to them.

“Worthless pieces of garbage!”

“Useless, good-for-nothing vermin!”

“Crazy fucking street rats!”

Once, the shorter one had the flu and spent four days straight lying in bed. The taller one wasn’t able to sleep a wink, as he spent the whole night running back and forth in the hallway, using a wash bin to wet a facecloth. Both Si-bong and I were awake, but he didn’t order us to do anything. He brought plain white rice porridge directly from the cafeteria woman himself, washed the shorter one’s white gown himself, and waited outside the bathroom with toilet paper in his hand. When the superintendent came to their room to yell at them, calling them “worthless pieces of garbage,” the taller one stood up and yelled back, “Jesus Christ, Uncle! Don’t you think this is a little much?! I told you, the kid’s sick!” The superintendent glared at them for a long moment and, without saying a word, slammed the door shut and left.

When the shorter one finally got out of bed, the first thing he did was beat us. In order to make it easier for the shorter one to hit us, the taller one stood behind us and held our shoulders.

“Don’t overdo it. You still have to take it easy for a few days,” the taller one said, concern in his voice.

“Yeah, okay.” The shorter one put on his plastic gloves and showed a faint smile.

He didn’t overdo it, punching us only a few times in the chest with his fists. His fists were the same as they had been before. And that was how Si-bong and I knew that he was all better, and we thought about how it was all thanks to the taller caretaker.

4. The Institution

All together, the institution had three buildings. With the main gate to your back, the first building seen straight ahead was the main dormitory building, where we and the other residents lived. It was a white, two-story building, and on the first floor were the administrative office and the superintendent’s office, a staff lounge, a washroom, and the laundry room. On the second floor were the residents’ and caretakers’ rooms. All of the windows of the dormitory building were covered by thick, interlocking metal bars and in the halls the fluorescent lights were kept on day and night.

All of the residents’ rooms had the same set-up: six steel beds and a sink on one wall. All of the residents used this sink to wash their faces, shampoo their hair, brush their teeth, wash their clothes, and get drinking water. In the laundry room, there were two washing machines that had been donated, but we never once washed our clothes there. Usually the only thing we did in that room was get beaten with a thick hose.

To the lef t of the ma in bui lding wa s the superintendent’s residence. It was a small house with three rooms, a storehouse, and a red tile roof. The superintendent lived there by himself. He was a man far older than even the director general, with the hair all around his ears turned completely white, but he said that he had never once been married. He had no children or anyone.

Sometimes the caretakers would say things to us— whether we were listening or not—so that the director general could hear, like, “And that’s exactly why we’re here. If Uncle makes a wrong move, what would happen? We have to take care of the family business.”

But, when it was just the two of them, they would say things like, “Man... When that old fart croaks the first thing I’m gonna do is put in a driving range.”

“Didn’t you say last time you were going to put in a motel?”

“Did I? Heh… anyway, next year all this is getting torn down and we’ll get it started.”

To the right of the dormitory was a long building, half of which was the cafeteria and half of which was the workshop. Someone told us it was originally the building where the milk cows would sleep or just stand around, but they’d all been sold off long before we entered the institution. Even though all the cows were gone, the slate roofing they used to face, the cement floor with its cracks here and there, and the drainage system were all the same. Along one wall there was the same long, horizontal piping and a half-wall of perfectly lain brick. We would hang the socks to be packaged all the way down along the steel piping, or stack the boxes against it. Sometimes, when we had time, we would sit on top of the brick wall with our lunch trays and eat there. On days when we had too much soup left over, we would pour it down the drain. That was on account of the cafeteria woman not liking it when we left food uneaten. The first time we left food, she threw our lunch trays in our faces. She did the same to all of the residents. Whether old or young, whether having left a lot, or a little, no exceptions, no discriminating.

Behind the main building there was a low-lying hill. On the hill there were many pine and fir trees, thickets and weeds, as well as large boulders here and there. One snowy winter day, two rabbits came down from the hill, all the way to the backyard of the institution. The director general and the two male caretakers caught them with vegetables as bait and turned them into a soccer ball. From time to time they would kick the soccer ball around in the backyard, often sending it up the hill. Every time Si-bong and I saw that we nodded our heads. Having come down from the hill, it was only a matter of course that they would want to go back up.

Halfway up the hill there was a cylindrical barbed wire hedge that connected to the fence of the institution. Si-bong and I went all the way up to that barbed wire a total of two times. Each time was to bury a resident who had died. As there was no place on the grounds of the institution suitable to bury a person, we went all the way up there. Of course, each of those times we went with the caretakers, but the only ones digging into the earth with those shovels were Si-bong and I. The earth was hard and there were lots of rocks, so the tips of our shovels clanked and clanked. Meanwhile the caretakers rubbed their hands together, repeating with annoyance: “Man, I’m freezing to death out here.”

5. Our Wrongs

Every time the caretakers beat us they would ask us: “Do you know what you did wrong?”

“I said: ‘Do you know what you did wrong?!’”

For a while in the beginning I couldn’t answer. That was on account of not knowing what it was I’d done wrong. So, as the caretakers beat me they would yell, “We beat you like this every day because you don’t even know what you did wrong!” as they kicked me in the behind, or slapped me in the face.

Si-bong, on the other hand, answered the caretakers’ question from the first day.

“Yes, I know what I did wrong!”

For a moment, the caretakers opened their clenched fists and looked at him with surprise. I looked at him as well, through the corner of my eye. Si-bong looked at the caretakers directly in the eye and spoke.

“My wrong is that… Even if you hit me, there’s no knocking sense into me!”

That day, Si-bong was beaten so hard that there was no way he could have made sense of anything. The caretakers even threw a trash can at him, his face covered by both of his arms. Thanks to that, I was barely beaten at all. To this day, I still feel thankful to Si-bong for that. It was certainly something to be thankful for.

Even Si-bong’s first words to me were all on account of wrongs. One dark evening, Si-bong lay in his bed and asked me, “Did we do something wrong?”

Our beds were dressed with a thin layer of industrial plastic. On days when government workers would come from their offices, white sheets were spread out on top. As I fingered the crinkling plastic, I thought about what it was I could have done wrong. It seemed as though I’d clearly done something wrong, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of what it was. So I continued to say nothing.

Si-bong turned in bed to face me and said, “I don’t like getting beaten.”

The fluorescent light of the hallway shone slightly on his eye, which was swollen so badly he looked as though he were squinting.

“Really, as much as they hit me, I can’t seem to come to my senses.”

When he said that, I thought about how he was really going to get it the next day. So I continued to say nothing. That was on account of figuring that, in any case, I’d be thanking him again.

The next day Si-bong was only slapped a few times on the cheek, and wasn’t beaten at all anywhere else. I was hit in the chest, on my thighs, in my ribs, and in the face. When the caretakers asked Si-bong once more what he had done wrong, he answered in a loud voice, “Actually… I—I cursed!”

The shorter one put on his plastic gloves and looked Si-bong in the eyes. “Cursed? Cursed who?”

“The caretakers, sir!”

The two male caretakers looked at each other, and then asked Si-bong again. “What did you say when you cursed?”

“Well… I said… um… ‘Motherfuckers!’”

I stood there, looking straight ahead. At any moment I expected a scream to leap out of Si-bong’s mouth. First, though, I heard the male caretakers laughing.

“Yeah, that’s right, you little shit. That’s exactly what you did wrong. Why would you go and do something like that, now, huh?”

The taller one slapped Si-bong in the face three times as he spoke those words. The shorter one just kept on laughing.

The taller one looked at me and asked, “What about you? Did you curse us?”

Rather than answer, I shook my head. I hadn’t cursed them. That is an undoubted, per fec t recollection. Just then, the shorter one’s fist came flying at me. As soon as I’d fallen over, the taller one stomped down on my ribs.

“You’re even worse, you piece of shit!”

The shorter one took a few steps back toward the wall, then charged forward again, kicking me hard in the butt. As it happened, Si-bong stood there at attention, looking down at me, not saying a word.

After the caretakers had gone down to the first floor office, I asked Si-bong, “When did you curse them?”

I was feeling my ribs with one hand and, each time I did so, the pain shot all the way to the other side of my body.

“I didn’t,” he said, taking a step closer to me.

“Then why did you say you did?”

“I don’t know… it’s what I’m gonna do now.” Si-bong brushed the dirt off my pant leg, saying quietly, “Motherfuckers…”

He looked back up at my face and gave a slight smile.

“’Cause, you know, last night I was thinking about it, and I didn’t know if it was a wrong or not.”

After he said that to me, he repeated the words.


6. The Wrongs That Follow the Confessions

From the next day on, we lived creating wrongs. As we didn’t know what it was that we had done wrong, we always started with the confessions. That was on account of our being beaten less for confessing than for not confessing. Si-bong admitted to cursing the caretakers again and was beaten repeatedly in the thighs with a steel pipe. The caretakers said that committing the same wrong again was an even greater wrong. So we had to come up with new wrongs every day. Some of them became “wrongs,” while others became “greater wrongs.” On days we committed wrongs, we were beaten less, on days we committed “greater wrongs,” we were beaten a lot, and on days we admitted to nothing, we were beaten repeatedly all day long.

“Actually… I didn’t take all of my medicine! I threw it away!”

This was a wrong. At this point, the shorter one stood up on his toes, yanked on our hair bit by bit, and took out more medicine from the pocket of his gown.

“Actually… Behind your back I made like I was going to choke you, sir!”

This was a “greater wrong.” The caretakers knocked us down, jumped on our chests, and repeatedly punched us. For a long while they said nothing, only panting heavily, sending their fists flying.

“We were listening the whole time to the moaning sounds coming out of your room, sirs!”

This was yet another wrong. The caretakers looked at each other and gave a chuckle, then ordered us to give it a try and make our own moaning noises. Si-bong and I stood there at attention and, staring up at the ceiling, made our own moaning noises for some time. The caretakers laughed as they listened to us. Then they slapped us lightly on the cheek a few times. Just as they were about to leave, Si-bong made a voice imitating those of the caretakers.

“By any chance, are you wearing nothing but pantyhose now?”

As soon as he said that, the caretakers took to our throats once more. That was on account of it having turned into a “greater wrong.”

Once, after a full week of constantly thinking of new wrongs to confess, neither Si-bong nor I could come up with anything more and had nothing left to say. That day, all day long, the caretakers dragged us around, beating us with belts in the chest and on our shoulders, in the back and in our sides. They said that it was because we had committed “an even greater, much greater wrong,” and that that must have been why we weren’t talking. They yelled at us to tell them what it was right away, but we truly couldn’t think of anything else. As the caretakers continued to whip us with belts, it became even more difficult to think of anything. And for that, the beating continued.

After we confessed a wrong, we always made sure to commit it. That was on account of our feeling unsettled after having the confession in our heads all day long. So, on days we said we didn’t take our medicine, we really threw it away instead of taking it. On days we said we’d cursed the superintendent in the bathroom, we really cursed him. We made sure to commit exactly the wrongs we confessed, and only those wrongs. Only that way could we ease our minds and sleep soundly. Sometimes, on days when we forgot to commit the wrongs we’d confessed, we would get out of bed and pound on the door to wake the caretakers. Generally they would start off by kicking us as soon as they opened the door, still, Si-bong and I would endure it until we had fully committed our wrongs. Once Si-bong motioned as if to strangle one of the caretakers who had turned his back, and when the other caretaker saw this, he strangled Si-bong. Through choked gasps Si-bong pounded the floor with one hand. At that moment I watched Si-bong with envy. That night, he snored loudly in a deep, peaceful sleep.

7. Medical History

Si-bong and I continued walking. The frozen earth was starting to melt and the mud stuck to our shoes. Waves of warmth were emanating from a bundle of straw in the middle of a deserted field. Crows made small circles overhead as they came down to settle in the crown of a poplar by the road. Si-bong and I walked along with our hands stuffed into the pockets of the work clothes given to us at the institution. We didn’t speak at all. The day’s sun was warm, but the wind was strong.

The unpaved road led to an industrial highway of four lanes. As we walked, we stayed close to a sound barrier that shot up out of the ground like the blade of a giant saw. Passing semis sounded off their air horns and, when they did so, Si-bong would stop, cover both ears with his hands, and stand there for a long while. Each time, I waited for him.

Once we’d arrived at a bus stop, we sat down on the bench for a minute to catch our breath. Si-bong’s forehead was glistening with sweat.

He asked me, “Are you gonna take the bus?”

Staring at the other side of the road, I answered. “It’s too far to walk to your house.”

“But… I probably can’t take the bus.”

Only then did I look Si-bong directly in the eyes. The sweat continued to collect on his forehead. The collar of his shirt had become dark with moisture.

“You can’t take the bus?”

“Yeah, ’cause there’s no bathroom.”

I didn’t quite understand what he meant.

“A long time ago I was in a taxi and I had to go to the bathroom.” He was scratching his head as he spoke. “So the taxi pulled over and I squatted down right in the ditch by the side of the road to take care of my business, but when I got up, the taxi was gone.”

“Wow… it just left you there and drove off?”

“No. It ended up underneath a semi. It was a pitch black night.”

I let out a long sigh. “Was there anyone else in the taxi?”

“My father, my mom.” He let out a short laugh. “Ever since then, every time I get into a car I have to do a number two. That’s why my little sister used to hit me all the time… Never really got better.”

When Si-bong first came to the institution in the director general’s van, his pants were heavily soiled. The director general kept cursing him, and the male caretakers snickered and said, “Sir, what are we gonna do with a guy this messed up?”

That day, under the orders of the male caretakers, I spent a long time trying to clean Si-bong’s pants. The smell didn’t go away easily. Only now did I understand why that was.

Si-bong and I started to walk again. We were headed toward the train station. Since trains have bathrooms, we could ride without worry. We’d been walking for a while without speaking when Si-bong asked me.

“So… how did you end up in the institution?”

I stopped and stood for a while, trying to recall the memory from long ago. It wouldn’t come to me. I told him what I could remember.

“I… I walked in.”

“You walked in? By yourself?”

“No, my father walked me to the superintendent’s office.”

My father had spoken with the superintendent for a long time. The whole time all I could do was stand outside the door. From inside I could hear my father’s voice in bits and pieces.

“So he’s really not normal… He’s just not normal!”

My father came out of the superintendent’s office and looked me in the eyes without saying anything. He gave me a stroke on the head and disappeared down the other end of the hall. I was left to the male caretakers right away. From that day on, I really had become someone who wasn’t normal, a resident of the institution who couldn’t remember his father’s face, his mother’s, his home, his age, nothing. I told Si-bong the whole story. All that I knew, all that I remembered, that was it. 



* Translated by Christopher Dykas.

Author's Profile

Lee Kiho (b. 1972) is the author of two novels, At Least We Can Apologize (2009) and A World History of Second Sons (2014), and six short story collections, including Choi Sun-duk: Filled with the Holy Spirit (2004) and Who’s Doctor Kim? (2013). At Least We Can Apologize was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013 and in Romanian by Editura Univers in 2017. Lee teaches creative writing at Gwangju University.