Ashes and Red

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byPyun Hye Young
Ashes and Red

My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead. My ex-wife is dead.

He kept muttering the words to himself, but no matter how many times he repeated them, the truth would not sink in. Yujin was just playing a mean joke on him. Yujin knew that he had slept with his ex-wife after she divorced him and married Yujin, and now he had obviously spent the last few days coming up with ways to hurt him.

He slid open the door to the balcony. The smell of trash and disinfectant seeped into the room ; at the same time, a stunned sorrow spread out from the center of his body. It was not the sorrow of realizing his ex-wife was dead. The emotion he felt was similar to what he had experienced as a child, when he stood before the dark funeral portrait of his deceased mother. They had not let him see his mother’s body. No one in his family wanted him, just a boy at the time, to see what she looked like when she died, her body mangled from the traffic accident. Though he was just a boy, he knew what death was, but he did not yet understand what it meant that his “mother” had died.

The reason he had felt sad was his father. His father, dressed in a black suit cut from fabric too heavy for the season, dripped with sweat in the funeral home. He kept glancing at his father in that suit. The suit had been purchased for their wedding, nine years ago. A furniture wholesaler, his father wore jeans and a windbreaker to work everyday. Other than when he attended other people’s weddings, he almost never had reason to wear a suit. The jacket sleeves were too tight on his father, who had grown portly after marriage. The black fabric was wrinkled from bowing to the floor each time another mourner stepped up to the funeral portrait, then from sitting like a stone with his back slumped. The sleeves, which tightened like sausages each time he leaned forward to bow to someone who had come to pay their condolences, looked like they were going to burst. By the afternoon of the second day, the seam in the armpit finally gave way and the white shirt popped out. It looked like a white tongue. Everyone was too sad to care or to laugh. The sorrow of mourning enabled them to overlook the ridiculous. He kept glancing at the white fabric. It looked like his mother was sticking her tongue out at him to keep him from crying.

Later that night, after he had fallen asleep in the reception hall where several guests were still quietly tilting back glasses of alcohol, he was awakened by the sound of stifled sobs. His father was alone, crying, in front of the funeral portrait. He burst into tears. He cried because of the quiet funeral hall, the smell of spicy brisket soup that had thickened and condensed from boiling too long, the dark faces of the tired people, and the sight of his father bawling his eyes out. He cried from the sorrow of a son looking at his humble father dressed in a torn suit, teary face contorted and clownish, bald head beaded with sweat, and not out of mourning for a deceased mother.

The funeral ended, and a month passed. His father called a cleaning lady to help straighten up their neglected house. When she opened the refrigerator, she made a face, took out the containers of side dishes one by one, and set them on the table. They were the last dishes his mother had made. They were moldy and sour with rot. He had been hiding in his room, peeking through the door as she cleaned, but when he saw this, he jumped out and grabbed one of the containers before she could pour it down the sink. It was stir-fried dried shrimp. He hated dried shrimp. Each time he ate it, the shells stuck in his teeth. He stood there, glowering at the hateful cleaning lady, and stuffed his mouth full of moldy shrimp.

His stomach ached for days. With no one to take care of him, he had to suffer through it alone, the diarrhea wearing away at his bottom. At last, he understood that his mother was gone. Pain spread through his body and his heart, rising up and down his esophagus with each nauseating whiff of the moldy, mushy shrimp. He had lain awake in bed, late into the night, sick and alone, coming to terms with the fact that he would have to nurse himself back from sickness without his mother.

The death of his ex-wife would sink in the same way. Only after his entire body ached because of her, only after all of the words he wanted to say and needed to say had backed up inside of him and overturned his stomach, only after his tongue stiffened with the pain of being unable to speak even a single word since she was not there to hear it would her death finally become real. He was not sad because she was dead. What he felt was just the bewilderment of finding out while in a foreign country, by someone who was little more than a stranger to him and who had informed him unilaterally and in a voice dripping with suspicion, that the person he had felt closest to in this world was gone.

Now more than ever he longed to talk to her. He kept repeating the words she's dead to himself to try to shake off that desire. Even if he could not make himself believe it, she was obviously not there in the apartment with him. So he could not talk to her anyway.

Back before their divorce, he had strayed once. The girl was friendly and laughed easily, and she liked him. For a while, he was secretly tormented, wondering whether he really loved the girl and trying to figure out whether she loved him. He would think he was madly in love one day, but the very next day he would think to himself that if this flimsy thing he felt was called love, then he may as well say he loved a dog in the street. While hovering in indecision, he slept with the girl several times.

What had bothered him then was not the sense of moral failing or guilt he felt about sleeping with someone else while legally married. It also wasn’t because he felt bad towards his wife. Nor was it because he felt bad towards the girl he had slept with despite not knowing for sure whether he loved her or not. It was the loneliness he felt from being unable to discuss the problem openly with his wife. It was the loneliness of one who harbors a secret he would prefer not to carry. When it came to the waves of feeling that washed over him, the thrill he felt each time he saw the girl, the insecurity of not knowing if she was going to leave him, the anxiety of wanting to be loved by her, the loneliness of having to guess what she was feeling through a single trivial word as she did not let him in completely, and the fact that he wanted to get away from her despite all of that, the only person he wanted to confide in was his wife. His wife was the only person who could have listened to the whole story and told him whether or not the girl really loved him, whether or not he really loved the girl, and just how hard that love would make things for him in the end. But he had known it was precisely for that reason that, of all people, he could never say a word about it to his wife.

He was as lonely now as he was back then. He longed to talk to someone about his ex-wife's death and about the disappointment he felt because she had fled to a world that he was not a part of. But the person he wanted to talk to about her death was, more than anyone else, was his ex-wife herself. She would have wanted to tell him how afraid she was the moment she realized she was about to die, how much it hurt when the knife blade—as he pictured it, he started to cry for the first time—slashed into her flesh, how agonizing it was to realize she was still alive after repeated stabbings, and how frightening it was to expel her final breath as she used the last of her strength to open her eyes and look upon her killer. As lonely as it made him to not be able to tell her about his loneliness, it must have made her just as lonely to not be able to tell anyone about her own death.

His tears fell, yet her death still did not feel real. Even if her body were there now, right before his eyes, he would feel the same. But since he was no longer a child, he had to accept her death, whether or not it had sunk in yet, and it pained him to imagine her in pain. He would never see her again, would never share a conversation with her again. The opportunity to talk about the loneliness of keeping secrets they could not share with each other, about the profound loneliness that arose from bearing only the things they were expected to know, was gone forever. 


* Translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

Author's Profile

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.