[Excerpt] Straight Lines and Poison Gas—At the Hospital Wards
- onJune 17, 2020
- Vol.48 Summer 2020
- byLim Chulwoo
- Straight Lines and Poison Gas—At the Hospital Wards
Tr. Chris Choi 2013
I was sitting at my desk at work one morning when the managing editor called me.
I think he was coming from an editorial conference. Without warning, he glared at me, asking if I was out of my mind. The sheet with the four-panel strip I’d handed in the day before was on his desk, and we had already pressed and distributed the day’s paper a few hours earlier. The editor was jabbing at it with his bent finger with a scowl on his face. I intuitively knew something had happened, but I wasn’t really surprised. Perhaps I had been anticipating it all along. “Look here, do you want to do me in again? Are you in your right mind, or what? Are you Picasso? Or at least a top dog in contemporary Korea? What are you doing? Do you want to screw me up and totally ruin my life? How can you, at a time like this, put this in and call it a comic strip, huh?” Unable to control his temper, the editor picked up the sheet and threw it at me, and oddly enough the paper suddenly changed to a thin and sharp razor blade and flew straight at me, hitting me squarely on the nose. The people in the office started to chuckle at once, and I couldn’t help but just stand there for a while, confined by their laughter. (The sound of laughter. In the middle of their chuckling laughter, I felt as though I were listening to guns going off. Laughter, gunshots, laughs . . . the sound of countless guns going off indiscriminately and without interruption. Then the laughs, again.)
“If there’s trouble because of this, you take care of it yourself from now on. I’ve got nothing to do with it. Please, stop acting like you’re the only person with a conscience.” I was hearing his grousing faintly as in a dream. I didn’t even feel enraged or denigrated. All I kept thinking was how I wanted to break through the window and leap out onto the ground five stories below. Actually, how, instead of plummeting toward the earth the moment I took my feet off the ledge, my body might float up in the air, get out of the urban sky, and eternally float away like a balloon.
The next morning two strange men came to see me. As I tidied up what I was doing and got going with them, all my coworkers kept glancing at me with a look of apprehension in their eyes. A black car was waiting by the door. I smoked continuously during the ride. Once, when the guy sitting next to me held up his lighter, I bent forward and found that my fingers were shaking so much it was downright embarrassing. “Sir, don’t be nervous, it’s nothing serious,” said the guy, almost in a whisper and with a grin. And he actually had a pretty honest face.
The first room I went into was pretty spacious, with high ceilings. Peculiarly, the four walls were plastered white without any posters or other decorations on them, so it kind of felt like walking into emptiness. They left me alone in the room. The only things I could look at in that totally soundless room were a blinding light bulb on the ceiling and the four walls completely plastered white. Figuring someone would show up soon, I sat in a little wooden chair in the center of the room. But no one came in for some reason. Time went by, my lips felt dried and scorched, and all I could do was crouch down in that wooden chair, its edges worn out and shiny, while being tormented by all kinds of terrible imagination and delusions. Finally, a man showed up with a tray of rice in soup and yellow radish kimchi. When he was about to turn around after putting it on the desk, I asked him what was going on. “Wait here. The person in charge isn’t back yet. You’ll get done soon.” He replied casually and left the room. I checked my watch and it was past lunchtime. I picked up the spoon but put it down after a couple of bites because I felt as though I had sand in my mouth. I waited for several more hours once the soup got cold and white lumps of fat gathered on its cooled surface, but there was no news.
I realized it was dinnertime only when they brought in my second meal. This time I couldn’t even pick up the spoon. My lips were chapped white and my tongue was burning like it had been pickled in salt. For no reason, I felt nauseated to the point where I wanted to throw up all the filth in my stomach, and my head was swimming from dizziness. More time passed, and still nobody. I was barely managing to drape myself over the chair so that I wouldn’t keel over, and trying my hardest not to lose consciousness, when the door opened as in a dream and a man entered. I was already so exhausted that I was not even able to stand up when I saw him. The man was short with a stocky build. He grinned deviously to himself. “Oh, I apologize for making you wait so long. There must have been a mix-up. It’s nothing serious. I sincerely apologize but I’m sure you’ll understand. You may go home now. Haha.” I almost let go of the chair and fell over. His senselessly loud and lively laugh was ringing in my head with its sharp metallic sound. When he saw me going blank and staying down for a while, he took out a cigarette, put it in my mouth, and kindly lit it as well. “You must be tired. That’s why we wanted you to eat. I take it you’re like the other artists; you people don’t look after your bodies. I’d say you’re not good at impulse control. I mean fervor and spiritedness are all good, but isn’t living in this world kind of like crossing a broad street with heavy traffic? If you don’t look left and right, front and back, you can get into an accident before you know it. Am I right? Hahah.” Breaking into laughter, he put down on the desk what he had been holding in his hand inconspicuously, as if to say he had almost forgotten about it. At first glance it looked like an ordinary notebook, but I realized as the man started to turn its pages that it was a scrapbook of my work. “Count me as one of your fans who’s long been reading your works with interest. They’re fun and, how should I put it, I love the places that show a sharp wit. I’ve always wanted to meet you, and now that I’m seeing you in person, you look much quieter and gentler than I imagined. Except that you don’t look too . . . healthy. Hahah.”
I stood up with him. I reeled from the feeling of futility, with my legs shaky and my entire body sluggish. As I was walking out of that empty, white, square-shaped room, the man turned around, gave my shoulder a friendly grab, and looked straight into my eyes. “By the way, sir, you might want to think a bit more as you draw from now on. Hahah. Please don’t get the wrong idea or anything . . . Oh, is Heo Seong-su your father’s brother?” His eyes, now focused menacingly at my face, were thin and small like fishhooks, their irises barely showing. Yet I couldn’t look away, caught on the sharp points of the fishhooks. Hearing my uncle’s full name sprung from the lips of that man was such an unexpected shock that I could hardly breathe for a while. I had long forgotten that name. It was a name that everyone in my extended family refrained from mentioning, one that had long passed into oblivion like a forgotten nightmare. The moment the man uttered the name of my uncle who had caused the deaths of many villagers and whose whereabouts were still unknown since he’d fled overnight to some place in Jiri Mountain, it was all I could do to keep myself from falling to my knees. He quickly held up my arm. “You have a delicate constitution. You’d better go home early and get some rest.” The man whispered with a curious smile. Outside the white room was a hallway, where I left him. The man didn’t say one more word. I staggered along the long hallway by myself. Clip, clip, clip . . . Startled by the sound of my own footsteps, I kept looking back. An indiscernible fear caused by all kinds of suspicions kept clutching at my neck. That I was not alone now; that I wasn’t the only one walking the hallway; that I might never again be alone and free; that someone was secretly tailing me . . .
It was raining outside. I was amazed that it was already nighttime. I checked my watch to find it was after ten. Yes, twelve hours. I had spent half of a full day in that white room, staring at those four white walls, nothing but white like funeral clothing. You know the old tale of how this one guy took a deep nap in the middle of chopping wood in the mountains, and when he woke up, decades had passed? That’s how I felt at first. Like a prisoner who had been released after a long confinement within brick walls, things that had just happened seemed far, far away and thoroughly unreal. Even after I was well out of that building, I was dumbfounded and everything felt unfamiliar.
I started to walk in the rain. It was truly pouring down, the kind you don’t get often. The wind would gust, making it rain sideways. I only took a few steps before I was soaked through, with water dripping from my underwear. But I kept tottering on, getting pounded by thick raindrops like a demented man, without thinking to buy an umbrella. I didn’t even know where I was headed. The cold streaks of rain were rather refreshing. I wished that I could just disappear somewhere right then, that I could evaporate from this world like steam, without leaving a trace. With severe rain late in the evening, most stores were closed, and there were few passersby on the streets. If you take a left at the end of Chungjang-ro 1-ga, you get to the square in front of the governor’s office. With my body completely drenched, I began to walk along the path around the square. For some reason, I just kept roaming around Geumnam-ro, even as I knew I should hail a cab and go home before anything. I crouched down on the front steps of the NFFC (National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative) building to get out of the rain for a bit. I checked my pockets for a cigarette, but everything was soggy so I just threw them out. Stretched in front of me was the desolate square, save for an occasional automobile scooting around the water fountain, and eerily without anyone on foot.
I don’t know how long I stayed put, crouched on the steps. I may even have dozed off a couple of times looking like a mouse doused in rain. The electronic clock above the governor’s office across the street was nearing midnight, and the rain kept blurring the light from the working half of the lamppost in front of the Military Training Facility across the street. It was right then that I had a whiff of that odor for the first time. It was a weird smell. It was as if an unidentifiable stench were rising up from somewhere close by. Honest. Trust me. You have got to believe me. There really was this odd and suspicious smell. You know what? Since whenever, that smell is always blended like syrup in any rain that falls on this city like the memory of a gigantic, long-concealed scheme and blood-red sin that gives you shudders. That’s what gives the black tinge to the nasty and gloomy rain that falls on the roofs of this city all the time. Black rain. That’s the rain of death. That cursed rain of sin that’s as toxic as the yellow rain coming down densely on the jungles of Vietnam. You don’t know? Really? That the rain darker than dark ink is pummeling us every single day of the year on our heads, faces, and bodies, everywhere, as we go about our lives? One contact with a drop of that rain, and there’s a black hole on that spot right away. Hands, feet, chest, forehead, eyes, nose, neck, back, shoulders, thighs, calves, head, belly, skull . . . wherever, the indiscriminate and disorderly raindrops pelt down on our physical body, making big and little holes, bam, bam, bam, or sometimes leaving numerous deep and blackish tattoos on the fair skin of maidens. I’m pretty sure you know. Right? Hahahaa. Those countless holes that are deeply engraved in the minds of many people, including you and me, who are going about our lives casual on the outside, pretending not to know anything, and those various tattoos that are beautiful (yes, the more beautiful the more they are vile), blue-blackish like an animal carcass that’s just begun to decompose, or reddish and blackish . . .
At first I thought that foul and atrocious smell had to be coming from somewhere nearby, so I stuck out my neck to look around in the darkness, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything. Meanwhile that unidentifiable smell was only intensifying, rather than going away. It came to a point where I had to hold my nose, and though I tried my hardest to ascertain its source, twitching my nose, all I saw was the torrential rain and the pitch-black darkness. How shall I put it—at any rate, it was truly a disgusting and odious smell. It instantly made your throat sore and swollen and your lungs feel suffocated like they were going to burst. Then, suddenly, I knew its identity just like that. Poison gas. Yes, it was poison gas. When I was doing my military duty, we had ranger training once every year, and I remembered breathing in poison gas very similar to it. After putting gas masks on dozens of us and having us squat and wobble into a tent that had been sealed off everywhere, the drill instructors would close the door behind us and order us to take off the masks immediately. Of course they kept their masks on. You couldn’t help taking off your mask if you didn’t want to get beat up, and it was pure hell from there on. Merely a couple of minutes of exposure to the poison gas would keep your eyes watery and nose runny, making you suffer even after you darted outside. But curiously enough, I smelled that poison gas from the past again at that moment, when I was waiting out the rain on the front steps of the NFFC. Yes, I was right. It was poison gas, frightening and cruel, making you faint after tearing your nose apart and choking your throat. Sometimes it smells like heavily rusted metal, and other times it smells like blood from the fresh carcass of an animal, still somewhat warm . . . perhaps it is the scent of immense sin, or that of an ugly betrayal, passed down through generations of the human race since the beginning of time, hidden deep inside our blood.
I was short of breath from the smell that threatened to take my nose off. Meanwhile, the rain kept pouring down, and once in a while there was the skewed light from passing cars. I must have dozed off a bit, sitting against the closed shutter. When I woke up after I don’t know how long, the rain streaks were blowing into where I was sitting. By then, the wind was blowing pretty hard as well. The square was totally vacant, and I could see by the light of the street lamps that the gingko trees on the sidewalks were toppling over at an angle, all disheveled, and then barely managing to stand up again. The electronic clock on the rooftop of the governor’s office read a quarter past one. Right then, I felt a spell of fear, and chills ran through my body from the cold and hunger, my jaw trembling. I tried to get up by holding on to the wall, but my body would not cooperate. I stayed put, trying to get my bearings, while the rain kept coming down raucously and the disheveling wind was sweeping the streets insanely. Every time the rain and the wind were rolling around, entwined in each other’s arms, dismal and terrifying shrieks buzzed from roofs of houses, from the tips of utility poles, from power lines and the streets, and from roofs of buildings and the tops of the flag poles outside government offices. Those were cries. The disconsolate wails, the shouts, and the death cries of numerous people screaming with their mouths wide open, and the sounds of chaotic footsteps of those being chased breathlessly, the sounds, the sounds . . . oh, it was such a nightmare. Who could imagine such a horrifying scene?
And that was the moment that I saw it. I really did see it with my own two eyes. So far, everyone I’ve told this to has said I was lying, that I must have hallucinated, no matter how adamant I was. But shit, it was real. I really saw it. With these two eyeballs. Clearly. Will you please believe me, Doctor . . .? Or, maybe those people were right. Maybe it was a mirage that I saw. Hahaha . . . But, you know, I just cannot believe that it was only a mirage. Because I really did see it. Honest.
It was people. I began to see countless kids and young folks, and then men and women who looked older. Right there in the middle of the square, in the pitch-black darkness. It had been a good while since the last bus of the night, yet out from the darkness where the rain and the wind were rolling around all entwined, something was wiggling and straightening up its body. At first it looked like a flickering shadow, then the shape became more definite bit by bit. With hushed breath and wide-open eyes, I watched those countless people rise from the asphalt one by one and stand up, straightening out their slumped bodies. From beginning to end. Tap tap tap . . . The rain pounded down furiously on the pavement of the square, taking off dark stains on the asphalt, old grime caught in the tiny nooks on the surface, and layers of soot from smog. After a little white, somewhere along the thick streets, it was disclosing one by one the clots of red-black stains and the countless footsteps and screams, even the final breaths of those in their waning moments, all tangled together one late spring day of that year. One, two, four, five, ten, twelve . . . Before I knew it, the square was being filled with thousands of shadows, and they all had a red flower petal in their mouth, every single one of them. Those petals, as big and wide as those of a lily magnolia and of a much finer and brighter shade of red, were stuck to their lips, cheeks, necks, chests, ribs and thighs. Appearing all red from the petals covering their faces, they then began to move slowly as one. With every slow step they took, stretched in a line and roped together like a package of dried yellow croakers, I could almost hear the clanks of fetters and the metal chains dragging on the ground. I urgently yelled toward them as they were headed away from me, with their backs to me, into the darkness. “Hey there. Where are you going? Hello?” But my tongue got paralyzed and I ended up not being able to utter a sound. In the meantime, they kept walking away, and soon they completely disappeared. I must have lost consciousness at that moment. When I opened my eyes next, I was in an emergency room of a university hospital, and my wife was weeping and sniffling by my bed. I was found by passing patrolmen who carried me all the way there, she said.
After that nightmarish night, I was suddenly afraid of picking up a pen. Going to the office every morning and finishing the strip to be handed over for the day felt more and more strenuous and wearying. The act of making the first mark on a blank space of white paper now struck me as being greatly significant, and every time I faced an empty sheet, the memory of the four white walls agonized me, along with that awful smell of poison gas. I could not breathe. I’d lose my voice just like that and my chest would feel tight as though somebody were forcefully choking my throat. Every day, my head would be swimming with the gross taste of the fatty soup, my uncle, and the frightening memories from the long and narrow hallway that went on forever with no end in sight and from the city square. More than anything, Doctor, I could not draw straight lines. Straight lines. The powerful and decisive lines which sharply and wholly separate all the things in this world in half without one iota of doubt. My hand would shake so hard holding a pen, I was unable to draw even a simple straight line without a ruler. As a result, we had to print a few issues of the newspaper without the comic strip. It is all because of the poison gas. I could never get away from that foul thing—at the office, at home, on the street, or in bed. I tried wearing a surgical mask in the middle of summer, and spent a whole day covering my nose with a handkerchief, all in vain. Once, when I pleaded at a clinic, they recommended that I should have therapy with a psychiatrist. I was speechless. I mean, think about it. Why should I be the only one to suffer like this from poison gas in my life, when others are apparently unaware of it entirely? How come others don’t smell its foul odor? Why is that, Doctor?
I ended up quitting my job at the newspaper. No, that’s incorrect. They kicked me out. One day, without warning. “Mr. Heo, you seem to be in very bad health. I’m afraid you won’t be able to handle your work here anymore, so don’t hate me too much, but I think you’d better recuperate at home for a while.” That’s what the editor said, but that’s all garbage. You think I wouldn’t know his black intention? Fired. Yes, I became an unemployed person. Still, when it happened, I could not make sense of it all, and I did not know how to take the fact that I’d gotten the ax. But taking the space away from a cartoonist is similar to removing the vocal cords from an opera singer. Come to think of it, that small corner of the newspaper that was my domain might have been the absolutely necessary breathing hole of my own, connecting me with the world. I realized only later that I’d started to die a little every day once that hole got clogged.
Lim Chulwoo (b. 1954) debuted in 1981 when he won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest for “The Dog Thief.” He has authored numerous books, including the novels I Want to Go to That Island, Spring Day Vols. 1–5, The Lighthouse, Parting Valley, and the short story collections Father’s Land and Longing for the South among others. He has received several awards, including the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, Danjae Literature Prize, Yosan Literary Award, and Daesan Literary Award. I Want to Go to That Island was published as The Island (Stallion Press, 2011) in English and as Je veux aller dans cette île (L’Asiathèque, 2013) in French. The Lighthouse was published as Le Phare (L’Asiathèque, 2016) in French and as Das Viertel der Clowns (Iudicium, 2018) in German. Parting Valley was published as Abschiedstal (Iudicium, 2015) in German and as Wakare no tani (San-Ichi Shobo, 2018) in Japanese. I Want to Go to That Island was adapted into the film To the Starry Island (1993).