Ashes and Red
- onOctober 18, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- byPyun Hye Young
“May I take these?” the man asked.
He had no idea what he was going to do with bug spray and rat poison. The rat poison might have been useful for analyzing existing products on the market when he started working at the head office, but surely someone there had already done that. As for bug spray, there was always a use for that. His apartment was probably crawling with insects from all the uncollected trash piled up outside.
The pharmacist eyed him suspiciously and said, “That stuff won’t help your cold. You know that, right? As long as you know that, you can have it.” She placed the bug spray and rat poison in a black plastic bag.
“Well,” she added. “You said you’re not a thief. Does that mean you’re going to pay me?”
Flustered, he fumbled in his pockets for cash but came up empty-handed.
“See, now you are a thief!” she said teasingly.
The man laughed and drew his bruised hand across his throat like a knife.
As he left the pharmacy with the bag of poison, he figured that most of the stores were closed because the owners were worried that what had happened to the pharmacy would happen to them. He had unwittingly found himself in a place where you could not get medicine without resorting to robbery, and where—for all he knew—circumstances were such that not only medication but everything else as well would have to be obtained the same way.
He wanted to rush back to his apartment, but he couldn’t. The spray from the constantly circling trucks obscured the buildings and shops and kept the ground coated in a layer of powdery chemicals, making everything look alike. Even the piles of black garbage bags and homeless men picking through them looked identical. The more he wandered, the more the air filled with vapor, and the taller the piles of trash seemed to grow.
When he had exhausted himself with trying to find his way back, he flopped down onto one of the garbage bags. He knew it was trash, but it was the only thing there for him to rest against. As he breathed evenly, trying to adjust to the stench, he glimpsed a pair of legs coming towards him through a cloud of disinfectant left by a retreating truck. The legs drew closer. He stood up. He brushed the dirt off the back of his pants, but there was nothing he could do about the smell.
The legs belonged to a tall, thin man. His shirt and pants were neat and unwrinkled, as if they’d been recently laundered and ironed. He stopped the tall stranger and asked for help finding his address, but he could barely make out what the other man was mumbling from behind the dust mask he wore. He managed to catch a few directional words, like left, right, and across. He turned his back on the stranger, staring worriedly down the street he was being told to take, the street that was indistinguishable from all the other streets behind their veil of litter and disinfectant, when something hit him over the head.
It wasn’t enough to knock him out, but it was enough to knock him over and into the garbage. His head felt like it was on fire. He gingerly touched the back of his skull: the flesh there felt swollen and strange from the impact, like a helmet had been slipped over him. His fingers were sticky, he had no idea if it was from blood or from something seeping out of the trash. Lying in the pile of garbage, he watched as the stranger who had struck him tore open the black plastic shopping bag that had fallen on the ground. The items in the bag couldn’t possibly be of any use to the stranger. Had it been food or much-needed medicine, he would have fought back, bleeding head or not. The stranger examined the bug spray and rat poison then tossed them away. As he hurriedly retreated, the stranger glanced back once at the man. There was no trace of guilt in his eyes, only worry that the man might regain his strength, right himself, and come after him.
The man lay still among the garbage bags until the stranger’s long, thin legs had vanished back into the chemical fog. If he could have stood up, he would have hit the stranger on the back of the head just to get even, but pain kept him from rising.
After a while, he checked again to see if the bleeding had stopped, then he picked himself up. Pain flared up his spine and his body ached like an old woman’s. A heady mix of rotting garbage and acrid disinfectant filled his nose; he couldn’t tell if it was coming from him or from the street. The smell was worse than before. It was coming from him. The smell had started wafting off of his bruised and battered body as he lay in the pile of garbage. While lying there, enduring the pain, he had become part of that smell. It was no longer a fetid world but a world in which everything turned fetid. He swallowed his nausea, as if to side with this part of him that had assimilated so quickly into the smell, and slowly walked away. There was no need to rush, he had nothing more to lose. The blow to the back of the head had told him clearly: in this world, problems were solved differently than where he came from. This was not a world of morals, order, education, and kindness; it was a world of plunder, pillage, violence, and garbage. To survive here, he would have to be like that tall stranger. And if plundering and pillaging were a means of livelihood, then the only true asset was to own nothing.
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Printed with permission from Skyhorse Publishing, New York, US.