- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.20 Summer 2013
- byPyun Hye Young
- AOI Garden
* A short story from AOI Garden, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2005.
The phone call came about a month after his wife had gone missing. A body part appearing to belong to a woman had been discovered in a ravine. It was the same ravine where his wife was presumed to have drowned. He told the officer he would leave first thing in the morning and hung up. It was a five-hour drive to U City, not counting the time it would take to stop at a rest area for a bowl of udon noodles. Even if he left right away, he would not reach the police station that was handling the case until after two in the morning.
A right leg had been found. He would have to confirm his wife’s death from nothing more than a right leg. The length of the average adult leg is about half the total height of the body. His wife was 160 centimeters tall. So her leg, he mumbled while spreading his arms eighty centimeters apart, is about like that. He pictured her body in four pieces, as if sketching it, from the bottom of her feet to her kneecaps, from her kneecaps to her genitals, from her genitals to her nipples, and from her nipples to her head. The rough outline of a female body took shape in his mind. He couldn’t tell whether it was his wife’s body or the body of some prostitute that he had slept with.
He strained to remember what his wife’s right leg looked like. He recalled that she used to complain all the time that her legs were fat. But were they really that fat, and if so, how fat were they? Were they only fat in comparison to her unusually long and slender arms, or fat compared to other women her age? He couldn’t even remember whether she shaved her legs or not. He began to question whether he had ever in his life touched his wife’s right leg. He ran his hand over the air as if stroking the contours of her leg. He could not for the life of him recall whether she had thick calves or whether they were sleek and smooth, and whether the ankles hidden inside her long skirt were slim enough for him to wrap his hand around or so thick that they merged right into the calves. He lay down and tried to erase the imaginary woman But instead of disappearing, the woman raised her right leg and rested it on top of his head.
As the leg bore into his brain, he finally remembered something about his wife’s leg. She had a small skin tag on her leg. That would tell him whether the unidentified leg was his wife’s or not. It was no bigger than a grain of rice. But to his wife, it was a lump the size of a fist. She had said that she sometimes felt like her body was nothing but leg, and it was all because of that skin tag. Someone had told her that if she wrapped a strand of hair around it, it would fall off on its own. Since her own hair was too short, she had used a thin strand of black thread instead. The thread cut off the blood supply and, after a while, the tag dried up and turned black. But it did not fall off. That blackened and withered fibroma dangling from her leg would be the clue that determined what had happened to his wife.
She had gone missing and was presumed to have drowned to death. Someone had witnessed her f loundering and screaming for help in the watery ravine where she had fallen. To be precise, the witness did not see his wife but rather a woman. The witness could not recall his wife’s clothing or the length of her hair or any distinguishing facial features. He merely said that he saw a woman floundering in the ravine. The detective in charge of the case had concluded that it was most likely his wife but they could not be certain.
He pictured the imaginary leg again in order to add the skin tag to it. But then it hit him that he did not know which leg the tag was on. If he did not know that, then he could not very well tell the detective there was small, black fibroma clinging to his wife’s right leg. His uncertain speculation might leave his still-living wife for dead. Or his long-dead wife could go missing forever. The leg fell on his head with a loud thump. He felt like a detective who had let a criminal slip away right before his eyes. He felt baffled, too. He realized that what bothered him the most was the uncertainty: the police were sure she had drowned and yet, because there was no body, they were handling it as a missing persons case. She was neither alive nor dead, and that bothered him. It bothered him because her state was not so different from his own. He, too, was not so much living as dying. He was so pathetic. How could he not remember anything about his wife’s body after living together for more than a decade? He stomped out of the house and left immediately. He would see for himself the right leg that had been fished out of the ravine. Then maybe he would know whether it was his wife’s or not.
On the way to U City, rain, which had not been forecast, began to fall. He hurried to turn on the wipers. They sluggishly began to move, but the left side stopped before sweeping any of the rain away. Raindrops slid down the left wiper, while the right side thumped away slowly. He almost let go of the steering wheel in shock. Laboring along on its own, the wiper looked like a woman’s right leg. He wanted to turn them off, but the rain was coming down too hard. His wife’s right leg, which he was incapable of identifying, wiped the rain from the windshield for him.
The detective was not at his desk. The man sat on one of the chairs in the waiting room. He thought he would just take a quick nap. At at the sound of someone coming down the hallway, his eyes snapped open. A black shadow was tramping towards him, dragging heavy rain-soaked shoes. As the shadow drew closer, a raw smell filled the air. It was the same smell that came off of his wife, who had handled fish for a living. He kept his eye on the black shadow. It was his wife. She was struggling to walk towards him on one waterlogged leg. Her right leg looked like a thick wooden stump. Startled, he tried to get up, but she swung the stump at him like a club. He cowered to avoid the blow and suddenly awoke. The detective was shaking him by the shoulder. The detective did not ask why the man had come down to the station after saying he would come the next day. If he had, the man might have panicked and blurted out the story about his wife’s skin tag, even though he wasn’t sure of it yet. He might have even blurted out something about his dream, in which his onelegged wife kicked him with her stump.
The right leg was lying with the other unidentified bodies in the morgue. The detective pulled open a metal drawer. Resting in the middle of the long iron tray was the stiffened leg. It gave off a smell of formalin, solvent, and antiseptic. Even the drawer smelled metallic. The man could not hold back his nausea. But it was not the smells that made him gag. The leg was so rotten, the flesh black and blue, that he could not believe it belonged to a person. Tattered muscle tissue hung like loose threads around the exposed femur. The bone looked solid in contrast, as if it were part of an anatomical model. It glowed fluorescent within the black, rotting flesh. The kneecap that protected the knee joint looked as strong as ever, and the tibia glimmered whitely where it connected to the femur. The skin and flesh were clearly that of a rotting corpse, but the bones belonged to someone living. The toes were crushed beyond recognition, and he even thought maybe there were no toes there to begin with.
Who did this leg belong to? He tried to picture the unidentified woman from whom this leg, now dead and black as charcoal, had hung. The woman probably never imagined she would end her life in the deep waters of a ravine. Before it became rotten and disfigured, the leg might have belonged to a busy college girl who rushed from place to place on foot. It might have belonged to a saleswoman in a department store who massaged her tight calf muscles, stiff from being on her feet all day helping customers. Or it could have belonged to a track and field athlete who tensed her muscles with every jump, trying to leap higher. The leg might have been used to tread a dance floor over and over, dancing itself to exhaustion, or to bend beneath a wedding dress, bowing in deference to a new bride’s in-laws. The leg could belong to every woman, but it would never be his wife’s leg.
He stared dumbly at this thing that was nothing more than part of a dead body. The leg proved its own death by ruthlessly continuing to decay. Leeched of organic matter— moisture, protein, nucleic acid—it was but a lifeless object, a long way from anything like life or the world of the living. It gave him no consolation that he was alive. Instead, it impressed upon him the fact that the human body was just a lump of protein, easily putrefied. The urge to search his body, to examine every part of it to make sure nothing was rotting, came over him. Given the choice, he would swallow a fistful of preservatives before dying.
He trailed his eyes over the decaying flesh in search of the skin tag. The mottling was especially bad around the knee. He couldn’t tell whether he was looking at a skin tag or just torn skin. He shook his head at the detective.
This is not my wife, he stammered. She has all of her toes.
The detective shrugged and said, So does this leg.
The detective pointed at the mangled tip of the foot. Snow-white bones rose like milk teeth from between the torn lumps of flesh. The detective explained that the toes had been eaten by fish. The man countered that his wife’s legs were not that fat. The detective said the leg was not fat, just swollen with water. At that, the man vomited. The udon noodles he had eaten on the way poured out of him. The vomit was congealed and blackened from the roasted seaweed garnish. It looked like part of the rotted flesh resting on the metal pan. His stomach lurched again, as if he had eaten his wife’s toes himself. The detective silently closed the metal drawer.
The right leg had been found at the lower end of the ravine. A fisherman had reeled in a shredded leg. There was no clothing or other body parts. The detective asked the man if his wife had ever had surgery on her leg.
Only after answering did he realize that he had no idea whether she’d had surgery as a child or before they started dating. He corrected himself and said he did not know. The detective told him that suspicious marks were found on the bones, the kind that were not likely to have been caused by breaking against rocks or being bitten by fish. He said it looked like the leg had been severed. When he looked puzzled, the detective added that it could also be scars from routine surgery or a dislocation.
Bodies raise all kinds of questions, the detective said.
He nodded slowly.
His wife had gone missing during their first fishing trip. She stood on a mossy boulder. He kept telling her to stand somewhere safe, but she had refused, saying that the water where she was standing was shallow and still. She did not know the water was deeper than it looked, due to heavy rain some days before. He, too, had no idea how deep the ravine was and how fast the water was moving. When his wife fell in, the water carried her off in an instant. The witness who said he saw a woman drowning was fishing downstream, but he did not jump into the rain-swollen gorge. The man was not confident he would have jumped in either if he had been the one to see his wife drowning. The water looked as sharp as blades, like it would pierce him through to the heart at the slightest touch.
The police had interrogated him about his wife’s disappearance. He repeated over and over that he did not shove his wife into the gorge. Nobody believed him. There was no one who could testify that he left his wife alone by the water while he wandered upstream. But no evidence was found that he pushed her either. Though she was presumed to have drowned, without a body to confirm it, the detective had to treat it as a missing persons case. She might have disappeared into the water, or in some deep ravine, or been swept away to a distant city that he would never find. Only the gorge with its razor-sharp water knew his wife’s whereabouts.
Actually, they were in no position to be out fishing and enjoying themselves. It was a bad time to take a vacation. The considerable deposit they had put down to buy a new storefront had vanished into thin air. Dozens of other victims had formed a committee to try to get their money back, but he had dismissed it as a lost cause. It would have been better or him to stay and try to retrieve their lost deposit with his wife. If he had, she might still be alive.
His wife was the one who suggested U City. It was a long way from where they lived. For a couple now bankrupt, it was much too far for a weekend trip to blow off steam. It was five-hour drive just to reach the tollgate. Then they would have to drive further, along a winding cliff, to reach the ravine. But his wife said it had to be that ravine. She told him the water was deepest in U City, that waters more secretive than the ravine itself ran cold and sharp as knives through that deep gorge, and that the water was so clear you could see all the way to the bottom. The clearer the water, the deeper it might be, so deep as to be unfathomable.
They reached the ravine and drove upstream a long ways, far past where the paved road ended. Along the way, they saw parked cars and figured others were out fishing. The ravine wound on and on. It seemed they could have driven until sunset without reaching the end of it. They picked a relatively isolated spot. Though it was their first time fishing, his wife had no problem with the maggots they used for bait. She handled raw fish for a living, so there was no reason for her to shrink away from maggots. She stirred the squirming maggots around and chose an especially fat one. Suddenly he felt angry. He thought maybe it was his wife’s fault they were penniless, because, to her, nothing was too disgusting or dirty. For all he knew, she might have served their customers rotten fish, too reluctant to toss it out, or fed them fish eyes. He set down his pole and watched his wife out of the corner of his eye. She was threading a plump maggot onto a floater. It was not her fault they had to close the restaurant. He was the one who lost their deposit. But the desire to beat her with the fishing pole was overwhelming. He imagined shoving her into the deep ravine below. He clenched his fists to quell the urge. He left his wife where she was hooking the maggot and returned to the car. When he looked back, his wife was casting the floater into the water.