- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byPyun Hye-Young
- Aoi Garden
Tr. Amber Hyun Jung Kim 2005
She was surprisingly adept at slicing open the stomach of the unconscious cat. Its organs were still throbbing warmly in a pool of blood. Cats have long been accused, not for nothing, of being carriers of disease. When the plague first struck Aoi Garden, the authorities couldn’t pinpoint the source of the outbreak. Only after confirmed cases began appearing in other apartments was the pathogen finally identified, with the findings reported in an international medical conference. Data was presented that traced the transmission route leading from the first host microorganisms all the way to human patients. Cats were somewhere on that route. When it came to preventions and possible treatments, there was nothing but hearsay. It was impossible to even think of developing a vaccine or any therapeutics. Doctors hesitated to come into contact with patients, as some physicians on duty had reportedly come down with the infection. People started double masking. They wore disposable gloves or surgical latex gloves to protect their hands. Still, the best course of action was to not get infected. It would take years, or even hundreds of years, for a vaccine or viable treatment to be developed. The authorities announced that the mortality rate was not that high. But because the rate of infection was so high and there were no available treatments, the fears did not quickly subside. When a person became infected, there was nothing he could do but wait for impending death or transmit the disease to someone else. Being infection-free was no better, either. In fact, people who were uninfected lived as if they were already dead, under the all-consuming fear that one day they might succumb to the sickness that hung in the air.
My sister often talked about what lay outdoors. Diseased, dying people could sometimes be seen roaming the otherwise empty streets.
“Was it the plague that killed all those people?” I asked.
“I can’t say. Some people froze to death or were stabbed by muggers. Some of them died without anyone knowing the reason why. But the thinking was that if you’re out there, you must be diseased or crazy.”
She didn’t explain why she herself had been out there. But I believe she was planning to move to a different city. The way she put it to me was that, when she realized she couldn’t leave, she decided she might as well die. Everyone in the city probably felt the same way.
There was no way Aoi Garden was safe. This building had the city’s first confirmed case. But this was the only place we could be. As long as we made sure not to touch anyone’s hands, or take off our masks and start talking, or share the same cup of water, or use the same pillow, or have the briefest of conversations even in our sleep, Aoi Garden could be relatively safe. At first, it was somewhat inconvenient to wear face masks at home. Soon, however, I became so used to the masks that I could eat my meals while still wearing one. The trick was to lift a corner of the mask, quickly shove a spoonful of food into my mouth, then snap the mask back into place while I chewed. If this got annoying, I could choose to eat less. Every time I had to drink water, the mask ended up slightly wet. When it did, it gave off a foul smell—a mix of my own breath, sweat, and the food I’d just eaten.
It wasn’t always terrible living in Aoi Garden. As someone who was born and bred in Aoi Garden, it was much more challenging to venture outside the building. The same was true of Mother. She was growing old, clinging to the walls of the apartment like the mold that grew there. The only “going out” we did was to open the front door and sit by it sometimes, looking out at the hallway. The hallway was completely empty and dark and as ominously narrow as a passageway to hell. These “outings” were always kept short. The nausea-inducing smells that infiltrated our place through the open door made it unbearable to stay out there too long.
There were all sorts of confusing rumors. One of them involved a young girl who was said to have gone around spreading the infection. According to some, the girl wore a red scarf around her neck. Nobody knew who she was. It was unclear who it was who first saw her. Everyone seemed to know what she looked like, but no one had seen her in real life. They said the girl could be seen walking along the mud walls that crisscrossed the town and past the black curtains that billowed at the windows, stopping to wave her red scarf on the way. Rumor had it that whenever she did that, the people who lived behind those windows would invariably get sick. Her style of dress became popular among the younger students. All the girls started wearing red scarves around their necks. They dressed in white to make the red color pop. My sister began dressing in the same manner. The red scarf looked as natural on her as the creases on her neck.
In the first days of the outbreak, people gathered at churches and temples. People came who weren’t infected, who knew they were infected, and who didn’t know they were infected. Some of the pastors in these churches became afraid of getting sick and refused to show up, so the faithful had no choice but to leave, their souls unappeased. Later, the places of worship banned all public gatherings. Doctors, too, were feeling helpless. They resorted to bloodletting to cure their patients. This method had not been used before the outbreak. By letting their blood flow, patients believed they would be rid of all the bad things in their bodies as well. Soon, doctors became convinced this was true. Later, when it became clear that none of the existing medicines were working, physicians began secretly prescribing drugs laced with mercury. Word spread that some people were cured after taking these pills. The prices were jacked up. This led to more crime, committed by people desperate to get their hands on the drugs. Experts pleaded with the public to stop, as these drugs were useless against the disease, but no one listened. People still paid a hefty sum to get the drugs anyway. Time passed but the disease didn’t go away. Some people’s faces turned black from the amount of mercury in their systems. This only gave more weight to the belief that there was no cure against the plague.
Finally, Mother managed to reach the cat’s abdomen. She told my sister to make the incision, to which she complained, “Shit, that means I’ll get blood all over my clothes.” I watched quietly, a bit of cat fur sitting on my head. Grudgingly, my sister reached into the abdomen and felt around among the gallbladder, stomach, and kidneys. I eyed her blood-soaked gloves with undisguised envy. If I had reached into the animal’s abdomen myself and seen its intestines surrounded by warm, pulsing blood vessels, I would have had the urge to feel and grab them. Mother yelled at her to hold the clamp steady. As my sister raised her arm to lift the clamp, a drop of blood fell from her glove and coursed down the length of her arm and into her armpit. The blood was an almost blindingly bright red color.
The operation came to an end by closing up the cat’s abdomen. Its uterus, now removed, gave off a foul stench. On the surface, it was hard to tell whether the indistinguishable lump was the cat’s uterus, its heart, a lung, or the duodenum. It was merely a bloody mess, similar to every other organ. After a pot of boiling water had cooled, Mother used the water to wash the site of the suture. Over time, the cat’s remaining organs would rearrange themselves to fill the empty space where its uterus had been. My sister glanced at the cat as it lay stretched out on the floor, then took off her bloodied gloves. I reached for them but she tossed them outside on the balcony. She wet a piece of gauze with antiseptic and slowly wiped her hands with it. Mother was especially skilled at sutures. That was a relief. If the cat hadn’t been sutured properly, its bloody intestines would have spilled out of the seams as we lifted it up. If nothing else, the operation was successful in terms of opening and stitching up the cat.
When it was all over, Mother headed into her room, which was as dark and narrow as a crypt. It had poor air circulation, and the smell of rotting meat hung in the air. Ever since her menstrual cycle came back, she seemed to have lost more of her energy; any spare time she could find, she’d lay her blackened body to rest. My sister, also spent, lay down on the floor. The cat, which had lost so much blood that it seemed as if it had lost all its organs, also looked exhausted. I stroked its stomach where the stitches were. Each time I did, the cat purred, its body gently stirring.
A while later, Mother emerged from her room and tossed a balled-up bunch of garbage towards the balcony. Some of the flying pieces peeled off the ball and landed on the living room floor. They looked to be dirty towels, damp and smelly, that were mostly black or the color of blood. Mother had already retired to her room by the time I crawled to where they lay. The color reminded me of the cat’s dark red blood. The blood had been a bright yet deep, dark red, dazzling to behold yet filthy. I picked up the towels from the floor and held them to my nose. Instantly I knew what they were. They were cloth towels Mother had kept tucked under her dead, black crotch. The stench from them was enough to blur the surface of mirrors, dull the edges of knives, crack plates, gather the worms from the mud, and send the rats in the attic into a frenzy. I thought again how strange it was that she was bleeding in that area when she was supposed to be in menopause. I woke my sister from her sleep and showed her what I’d picked up from the floor. She told me that some women started menstruating again before they became old and died.
“Before they became old and died?” I repeated. I had no idea how old Mother was. How old do you have to be to be old and dying? Was there such a thing as a “dying” age? It wasn’t just Mother’s age. I had no idea how old my sister was, or even how old I was. Sometimes I felt like a boy of seventeen, sometimes a young man of twenty-three, and sometimes a child of twelve. How old I was depended on Mother’s feelings at the time. Some days, she claimed it had been over twenty years since she’d given birth to me; other days, she screamed and accused me of being an insolent twelve-year-old kid who hit his mother. I myself had no memory of the year I was born.
Once, I asked Mother if what had happened to my legs was a result of the epidemic. She said I was born sometime before the outbreak. I couldn’t remember a time before the plague. I don’t know when it first began. As far back as I could remember, the epidemic was always there; the only difference was that it was quieter on some days, while unleashing hell during others. Somewhere along the way, I was born to this woman, who was already living in Aoi Garden by that time. And it was after the epidemic first struck that my wet dreams began. I know, because I remember being convinced that I’d been infected with the plague when I saw what looked like pus dribbling out of my penis instead of urine. It must have been several years since my first wet dream, although it could just as likely have been a few months. From the wet dreams, I gathered that I was past my puberty years, but my underdeveloped legs told me I could just as likely be twelve years old. I wasn’t sure whether Mother knew how old she was, much less how old I or my sister were.
“Yeah, before they die. They all start bleeding before they die. Maybe the uterus becomes diseased or something. When that happens, they start bleeding at random times before they die,” my sister said, as she rolled over on her side.
“How old is she to be dying already?”
“You think death knows age?” She spat, before growing quiet again. I knew that this subject lay outside her area of expertise. She once claimed I was thirty-seven years old. And that she had been born maybe three or four months earlier. Yet, her face belonged to a girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. There was no way to tell which one of us was older. We spoke casually to one another, and Mother never scolded us for doing so.
The smell of Mother’s blood mixed with her urine and vaginal discharge stained my fingers. I could smell it on my sister. The smell was worse than the stench from the abandoned streets. I imagined the smell forcing us to vomit nonstop until we become emaciated and our skin turn black, eventually rotting away our insides. I started a fire and held the bloodied towels up to the flames. This still did not get rid of the smell. My sister snatched the towels from me. She began rubbing them hard against her own crotch within its mess of thick, black hair. She said she had no choice because her crotch was burning as if it were being ripped apart. Her vagina had indeed split open, revealing the raw, red flesh inside.
“Don’t do that. If that blood gets on you, you’ll start shivering and your eyeballs will pop out of their sockets. Your organs will explode and you could die!”
I begged her to stop. I grabbed the towels from her and set fire to them. Afraid she might grab them from me if I let go, I held on to them until they turned to ash. Some of the sparks jumped and burned my hands. Two of my fingers melted down and clung to one another. But the smell that had seeped into my fingers still didn’t go away.
At the smell of burning flesh, the cat drew near. I stroked its head, then its chest, stomach, and tail. Feeling a rush of pity at the sight of the stitches sticking out of its fur, I drew the cat close and hugged it tight. I must have hugged it too tight though, as the cat ended up crawling into my stomach. I dry heaved as hard as I could to vomit out the cat. Some of its fur fell out of my mouth, heavy with saliva. I coughed up one of its eyeballs that had been stuck in my throat. My sister frowned, as if her stomach was upsetting her. Gently, she stroked her round belly. Fighting back the nausea that arose from the cat, I asked her whose child it was that was in her womb. She said she didn’t know. She had been wearing a shirt buttoned up to her neck, hadn’t regularly changed out of her thick underwear, and had stayed low on the ground among the grass while keeping her legs firmly together, but still she somehow managed to get pregnant. With my smelly fingers, I stroked her protruding stomach. Suddenly, she screamed. Somewhere in her screams, I thought I could hear a cat’s faint purring, or possibly the croaking of a toad. Mother remained in her room.
“What did you do with the dead cat? Where’s the cat?”
My sister asked, breathing heavily. Had she smelled the cat on my breath? It didn’t matter. The cat was inside my stomach, panting softly. It wasn’t dead or gone.
“It’s not dead. Don’t worry. I’m holding it close.”
Pyun Hye-Young completed her BA in creative writing and MA in Korean literature from Hanyang University. Her novel The Hole was the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award, and City of Ash and Red was an NPR Great Read. Her works in English include Evening Proposal (Dalkey Archive, 2016), The Hole (Arcade Publishing, 2017), City of Ash and Red (Arcade Publishing, 2018), and The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing, 2020). Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Words Without Borders. She currently teaches creative writing at Myongji University.