Close
FICTION

Evening Proposal

  • onMarch 24, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byPyun Hye Young
Evening Proposal
Tr. Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith
2011
257pp.

Kim’s friend ordered the funeral wreath. It had been more than ten years since Kim had seen this friend, who now recognized his voice on the phone. Perhaps he was an inconsiderate person, or merely acting like one, as he completely neglected the formality of greeting Kim or inquiring about his well-being. Without introduction, he simply described the condition of an ill, bedridden man. Only after listening for a few moments did Kim realize that the person on the phone was a friend from long ago and that the ill, bedridden person was an elderly man whom Kim had often visited during the period when he used to correspond with this friend.

Kim paid little attention to the friend’s incessant chattering on the phone. Instead, he wondered how the man had obtained his new phone number, since Kim had taken over the florist shop only quite recently. He was also struggling to determine just how old the elderly dying man would be now. He would have been surprised to hear that he had already died, but hearing that he was still alive was also quite surprising. He did not mention this to his friend, not wishing to seem unsympathetic especially at this moment when they were talking to each other again after such a long time. Kim could not remember exactly, but he felt the elderly man must have reached an age at which no one would be surprised at his passing.

“He’s unconscious, breathing with the aid of a respirator as unconscious people do, and exhaling slowly,” the friend reported. “Every time he exhales, I nod my head cheering him on, but then I look at the clock.”

Kim was unable to tell whether his friend’s voice was expressing grief or disappointment. “The doctor said it was unlikely that he would still be alive this afternoon.” The friend paused for a moment. It seemed as though he was waiting for Kim to say something, possibly to ask the location of the hospital so he could visit, to express sympathy, or perhaps to provide some words of comfort. But Kim said nothing. The friend sighed.

“Please do me a favor with the wreath,” he said. Kim agreed somewhat reluctantly, as though he had no choice. He was thinking that doing this friend a favor quite likely meant he would receive no payment, and it was not as if they were really friends. Their relationship was so tenuous that they could easily be considered to be strangers. However, it seemed mercenary to be dickering about money when the elderly man was dying.

Without mentioning anything about payment, the friend then asked for Kim’s mobile number and gave him the name of the funeral home, which was located in a town Kim was not familiar with. Merely to continue the conversation, Kim was about to ask why the mortuary was located in that town, but he changed his mind. In a telephone conversation such as this, suddenly taking place after more than ten years, there was really only one thing Kim wanted to know: How had this person obtained his phone number? Their only connection was that they had worked for the same company for a short time. It would even be difficult for them to recognize each other in a photo that had been taken at a company event. In any such photo, they would have been standing quite far apart, and their relationship had definitely not changed over these past ten years.

“You are coming to the funeral, aren’t you?” the friend asked. Kim hesitated and before he could answer, the friend added, “Of course, you are. In any event, who else should we contact?” His tone of voice indicated that the matter was not open for discussion, nor was he talking to himself. Kim was about to explain that he was out of touch with all of their acquaintances from ten years ago, when this friend, not waiting for a response, and as though he was thoroughly displeased with Kim’s reluctance, suddenly raised his voice.

“Never mind, I’ll do it!” he said. He then gave Kim the name of the organization that was sending the wreath. It was an organization Kim had never heard of. Feeling that it would be rude not to inquire, Kim forced himself to ask what this organization did. But the friend abruptly hung up on him, saying that he had to return to the hospital. There were no goodbyes just as there had been no greetings at the beginning of their conversation.

Kim wondered if he was somehow responsible for this friend’s cold and rude behavior or if it was merely his personality. He reflected on long past events until he was eventually reminded of some letters his friend had written. It was during the period when Kim decided to resign from their company, which was under legal management as a result of severe financial pressure caused by the company’s inadequate expansion. The employees had voluntarily accepted a wage reduction in order to stabilize the company’s situation, when Kim was recommended for a position in another company in another city. The person who recommended him was the same elderly man who was now dying, and this friend had criticized him for taking the new position. He claimed that Kim had no sense of comradery and accused him of being selfish and calculating.

Kim was told about this criticism by another person with whom he’d now had no contact for a long time. Criticizing a person for being selfish makes no sense, Kim thought. Everyone is selfish. If his friend had been recommended for the position, he wouldn’t have hesitated to take it. But his friend was hurt by what he felt was Kim’s uncaring attitude. He sent letters to Kim’s new company citing several mistakes Kim had made. The result was that Kim was talked about behind his back for a time, until the whole matter gradually blew over. As a result of this experience, Kim concluded that friendship had nothing to do with a degree of affection, but was a feeling that was valid only when it was dedicated to, and reaped benefits for, one of the persons involved. He calmly recalled the event and the scars it had inflicted, but the process of remembering did leave him sad and resentful about his long forgotten past.

He wrote the name of the funeral home on the upper part of a memo where orders for items and their places of delivery were haphazardly scribbled. He would have remembered these without looking at them, but seeing them now reminded him that he also had other orders to attend to. Not that they had to be attended to before doing anything else, but certainly they did have to be taken care of. Also other urgent events might arise at any time if not today, then tomorrow, or even in the next five minutes. It was impossible to predict. That is what self-employment is like.

He tried to find someone who could deliver the wreath and the condolence money that he would donate for the funeral expense. Considering the elderly man’s age, even though Kim didn’t know exactly what it was, his funeral could take place at any moment. So it was appropriate to be prepared for mourning. According to the friend, the elderly man had been unconscious and not recognizing anyone for a long while. Even if Kim hurried to get to the hospital, he might not be able to arrive before the man died. Realizing this filled him with compassion for dying humanity in general, but his feelings were not at all personal. After transferring to the other company, Kim had felt an obligation to the elderly man and expressed his gratitude with greetings and gifts. One year, it was a box of apples for the Harvest Moon holiday, and for the Lunar New Year holiday, a basket of dry shiitake mushrooms. Another year, he gave a box of pears of superior quality for Lunar New Year’s and a box of Hallabong oranges for Harvest Moon. And now, now there would be the wreath for which he would surely not collect any remuneration. His gratitude had been great, but not great enough to remember after all this time.

The funeral home was located in a town three hundred and eighty kilometers to the south. Kim was annoyed.

“The news of someone’s death should not be sent out to those who have been out of touch for over ten years,” he proclaimed frowning. He tried hard to think of someone to call, but everyone he phoned was occupied with other matters. They had important appointments or responsibilities that couldn’t be postponed.

“No, the news of a person’s death should be sent out far and wide to everyone,” said the man who ran the florist shop next door to Kim’s, “because it too often happens that someone who has not heard of a friend’s death will come up to you and ask about him as though he is still alive. This happens you know. I lost my high school buddy of thirty years. He was physically the strongest among us. Some friends still don’t know he’s gone, and they ask after him. When I tell them he is dead, I realize all over again that he’s gone.” He swallowed his words as he remembered his dead friend. “I wore this to his funeral,” he added sorrowfully as he handed the black jacket to Kim. Kim nodded.

He did not really understand the man’s sorrow, but after hearing this story about his having had this buddy for thirty years, he was able to fairly precisely guess the florist’s age. Previously he had thought of him as being much older than he actually was because of his graying hair.

“But this jacket is too big for you and too old,” the man said to Kim.

“It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter with this kind of jacket,” Kim replied despite the fact that the long sleeves completely covered the back of his hands.

“You’re right. It’s not as if you are going for an interview,” the man said, nodding his head, but he advised Kim to fold the sleeves back twice.

Kim was about fifteen centimeters shorter than the average man. He recalled that he had stopped growing when he turned fourteen. His father had passed away then, and for some time, Kim believed that he stopped growing because of the emotional shock of his father’s death. It wasn’t until years later that he realized he was wrong. One day as a grown man, he went to see a traditional doctor about unbearable pain he had in his shoulder. In the doctor’s office, he happened to see a poster on the wall that read: “How to Estimate the Maximum Possible Height of One’s Growth.” The method involved using the heights of both parents and going through several steps of simple calculations. He used his father’s height based on his mother’s dim memory of his being one hand-span taller than she was. Although it wasn’t supposed to be exact, the result of his calculation showed Kim’s maximum possible height as only four centimeters taller than his present height. Kim smiled sadly remembering this.

He recalled his childhood when his father’s sudden death forced his mother to work three shifts at a nearby factory leaving him home alone. His friends teased him about being short, and he often got into trouble because he had too much time to kill. He also blamed his father’s death for the disorderly path his life had taken and mercilessly accused his father of abandoning his family and leaving him with nothing but this meager height. He realized now how wrong he was about all of this.

As he started his car and was about to leave, Kim remembered his dinner date with the woman. He could postpone the date for one or two hours, but even then he still wouldn’t be likely to get back on time. He had already broken this date with her twice. He apologized to her for his carelessness, and she, as usual, said she understood his situation. Kim sensed that she was concealing her disappointment behind her carefully articulated response, and this displeased him. Instead of being angry she expressed curiosity about what he had for lunch and how he had spent his weekend. She often wanted to talk about incidents in her daily life and to discuss matters that required choices.

Each time she attempted such conversations however, Kim suddenly had a customer to take care of and would have to immediately hang up. A few days later when she called again, it seemed as though she had hesitated before picking up the phone to ask how he was. Then she became embarrassed at Kim’s unfriendly response. At a loss, she began to spew out words that were far from courteous. When he had a customer and needed to hang up, she hurriedly bid him goodbye in an ambiguous tone of voice that expressed both relief and sorrow for his having to hang up and her not having time to make amends for what she had said. Later when he was busy or even in his free time after hanging up like that, he would be reminded of her face. It was expressionless, her mouth remaining closed as she sat among a group of people on social occasions. She was a quiet woman who would now and then suddenly make some inane comment which elicited ridicule. She would inappropriately tell jokes relating to topics that people had already stopped discussing, jokes which confused everyone and at which no one laughed. Then she would put on a serious face, as though she had never meant them as jokes at all. Observing all this, Kim would be initially nervous. Then gradually he became displeased, but he felt totally helpless. This was the behavior he often manifested when he felt embarrassed, when he lacked confidence because of being conscious of his short stature.

She also frequently gave him gifts. It was obvious that she had spent considerable time carefully selecting each of those ordinary, inexpensive items, so they would not feel burdensome to him. There were books he had mentioned in passing that he wanted to read, a handy suitable wallet or some useful item for his florist shop. She carefully wrapped each of these gifts for him. But this attention that she paid to his needs was lost on Kim who consistently unwrapped and received her gifts with utter indifference. He even gradually grew to dislike her smell. It likely came from her perfume, or shampoo or possibly the conditioner that she used. Whatever it was, it spread like the odor of mixed flowers. The fragrance that Kim did like could hardly be called a fragrance at all. It was a complete lack of smell. It wasn’t until after he took over the florist shop that he realized that even the best fragrance could easily become an unpleasant odor when flowers mingled their fragrances.

*

He had an easy drive traveling south for about a hundred and twenty kilometers when he suddenly approached a congested area where he was forced to stop. Unlike most drivers, Kim seldom listened to traffic reports on the radio and often found himself in situations like this. He had not heard the news flash, but when the person ahead of him stepped out of his car to smoke a cigarette, he informed him that the road was blocked off for several hours because of a marathon. Absolutely nothing was moving in the closed off area. There were no runners in sight. It appeared that they had either already passed the area or dropped far behind. Kim stared blankly at the road. He remembered a sports announcer whom he’d listened to during one of these marathons. The announcer explained that marathoners usually breathe in twice when inhaling and breathe out twice when exhaling. Kim consciously tried to breathe in and out this way. The air coursed through his body and returned to the atmosphere. He had never before taken notice of this delicate and ordinary phenomenon that regularly took place in his body, as though it was irrelevant.

When the road reopened, he continued driving south. After some time, the cell phone in his pocket rang. It was an unfamiliar number. He suspected it was the friend, who had ordered the wreath he was delivering, and that being anxious, he was calling to urge him to hurry. Perhaps the elderly man had just died and the mortuary looked empty without the wreath that had not yet arrived. Kim did not bother to answer the phone.

Customers were forever calling to complain about deliveries being late and insisting that their orders be delivered more quickly. So when a customer demanded to know when his order would arrive, Kim would respond, “It will certainly be there in about 10 minutes.” He assumed that the customer would understand that traffic and road conditions could change within that time period. If the customer called again, Kim would say he was in the vicinity and pretend he had a wrong address. The customer would then hurriedly give him the correct one.

Providing a wrong address for an invoice was actually a mistake that occasionally did occur. Fortunately, however, there were also times when a delayed delivery did not matter. Those were times when unexpected events occurred for either the customer or the recipient of the flowers. It might happen, for example, that a person would receive a message from a departing lover while waiting for the arrival of a bouquet that was meant to accompany a marriage proposal. The opening ceremony of a new business might suddenly be disrupted by criminals appearing on the scene. A mother might faint after delivering a stillborn baby. These were the fortunate occasions when it was of no consequence if flowers arrived late.

Driving past a tollgate as he was exiting the highway, Kim was abruptly confronted by the huge signboard of the funeral home. Below the signboard, tossing and turning in the wind, was a banner announcing its opening. The stark, square building stood in the middle of a farming area. The harvest season was over. The fields lay fallow. Kim was late, but considering the distance he’d had to travel from another city, he considered his arrival time quite acceptable. The mourners would not come in flocks until late evening. As for the wreath, it was not the time of its arrival that was important. It was the sender’s name.

Just as Kim was about to enter the funeral home’s curved driveway, his phone rang again. Without slowing down, he reached for it and almost hit the guardrail. His tires squealed as he barely managed to pull onto the shoulder. His heart pounded, and the phone continued ringing as though it were cheering for him. It was the friend who had ordered the wreath.

“Where are you?”

“Almost there.”

“At the funeral home, you mean? Come to the hospital first.”

“Why?”

“He’s not dead yet.”

“. . . . . .?”

“He’s still alive.”

“What do you mean he’s still alive?” he asked then immediately realized this was an improper response. He should have responded as if it was fortunate that the man was still alive. However, that response would have been just as inappropriate as the other. When confronted with death, the wisest thing is to avoid lighthearted language and say nothing.

“I’ve asked you, you mean he’s still alive?”

It sounded as though the friend was sighing or searching for words with which to reply. Perhaps he was restraining himself from saying anything, because telling the truth would make him appear to be unsympathetic. Then to Kim’s bewilderment, his friend continued to speak as though he was answering his own question even though it was the same question Kim had asked.

“He is not going to last long. Let’s go to the hospital and watch his passing together.”

But instead of going to the hospital, Kim headed downtown. He was not hungry, but he felt the need to kill time so he entered the first noodle shop he saw. He was determined not to go to the hospital. He had no desire to observe the man’s death. Similarly he had never wanted to watch the moment of a bloody birth. As far as he was concerned, birth was an event in his past, and death existed only in his distant future. He wanted nothing to do with either of them at this point in his life. When the funeral started, he would deliver the wreath as any delivery person would be expected to do and return to his own city. On returning he would have to save face by compensating for lost hours and failing to fulfill his other obligations.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was leisurely since it was not a regular mealtime. Nevertheless, they were extremely slow coming to take his order, bringing water, and preparing and serving his food. He didn’t try to hurry the owner, though. It was only forty minutes ago that he had received the call from his friend. Time was moving so slowly. Perhaps it was also moving slowly for the elderly patient as he awaited his death. Kim considered those forty minutes. He had never before waited forty minutes for someone to die. He wondered what it meant to have one’s life prolonged by forty minutes. As the death watch continued, his feeling of sadness lessened. He spent most of the time blankly staring out the window. If he had had several other deliveries to make in this general area, as he usually did in most places, he could have gone on to deliver those flowers and spent his time more efficiently while waiting for the funeral to start. He might have attended an opening ceremony of a new business delivering a standing wreath of orchid blossoms and even been given some of their red bean rice cake. He could have gone to a maternity ward to deliver a basket of flowers sent by her husband’s coworkers to a mother holding her newborn whose eyes were not yet opened. He could have delivered a boxed bouquet of red roses to a man who was about to propose marriage. He could have delivered a wreath to the mortuary for someone who had died earlier. But there was nothing else for him to do in this town except to keep this deathwatch. He went outside after having slowly eaten his noodles. Fifty eight minutes had passed since receiving the call from his friend. He had still more time on his hands as he waited for the man’s death.

He drove along through the small downtown and stopped in front of a grocery store that reminded him of the canned fish cakes someone had brought him from this town some time ago. Canned noodles and canned fish cakes were the specialties of this town. The person who had given them to Kim thought of them as humorous gifts, and had not known that they were in fact emergency provisions to be used in case of a disaster.

According to old records, the town was located in the vicinity of two geological faults, and some long time ago it had experienced a notable earthquake. This happened shortly after Kim was born, and the residents were reminded of it every time there was a need to warn them of any kind of danger. Unreinforced electric lines, water pipes and gas lines had been destroyed. There were sporadic fires. Old wooden houses were badly shaken before completely collapsing. When the earth trembled, buildings with more solid walls quickly collapsed. Cars and people were crushed among piles of debris. Roads and bridges were damaged. Following the earthquake, strict construction regulations were enforced. All kinds of buildings were constructed to endure a certain level of earthquake. A quake-proof tunnel was built to protect all the pipes that went through the town so that delivery of electricity and water could be quickly resumed after a possible future quake. Evacuation drills were conducted for students, and to this very day, maps designating safe routes out of town still sold like hot cakes. A pessimistic scientist appeared on television.

“Although we have suffered great losses, this earthquake cannot be compared to the one yet to come. The real fear indeed is that we cannot predict when or where the next one will occur,” he stated. His opinion differed from that of most scientists who believed that earthquakes could be predicted by measuring certain features of the earth’s movement. But this bearer of ill tidings stared directly out from the television screen and warned, “At this very moment the earth on which you are standing could split wide open.”

Despite this specialist’s warnings, Kim was not afraid. For him, the possibility of an earthquake was the same as stories of wars ceaselessly occurring in faraway places. It was like a tsunami story that brought disaster to some other country or the story of global warming that melted some glacier. No, for him, the real disasters, disasters far worse than earthquakes or tsunamis, were the occasions when the flowers in his shop faded before he could sell them or when some miscreant threw a stone and ran away after smashing his florist shop window. He felt no fear of an earthquake or a tsunami that might at any moment devastate thousands. The misfortune he feared was the misfortune which affected only him while the rest of the world was safe and well.

The cans of fish cake that Kim had received had eight years to go until their expiration date. Out of curiosity he had tasted one of them and discovered the liquid was salty and the fish cake was swollen to the shape of a tennis ball. It tasted so awful that one would never be tempted to eat it except in an emergency. These days it was said that after an emergency, food could be supplied to isolated areas within two days. So this leather-like fish cake was what people would have to survive on for two days.

Kim asked the owner of this grocery store for canned fish cakes or canned noodles. The owner, whose eyes were focused on a television program, responded briefly that he didn’t have any such a thing in the store. Kim explained that somebody brought him a gift of them from this town. The owner firmly replied that he had never seen such canned goods in his sixteen years of business. But seeing that Kim was unconvinced, the owner told him to look through the stock in the back of the store where several types of canned foods were kept. Kim wanted to see what sort of canned food was sold there. He went back to look. Passing by several shelves he came to the stock of cans, a variety from different regions. There were cans of whelk, tuna, jack mackerel, mackerel, chrysalis and some fruit, cans that were commonly seen everywhere. The owner came and stood beside him and told him that they didn’t have fish cake or noodles in cans, but they did have a variety of fast food packages that he could purchase. Kim did not respond. He returned to his car. On the way to the funeral home, he stopped at a few more stores, but no one sold the cans of emergency provisions he sought.

*

He entered the dark underground parking lot of the funeral home and carefully parked his truck, precisely parallel to the line drawn on the ground, exactly the way a casket would be placed. He decided to take a nap in the driver’s seat, but then remembered that the cargo bed was almost empty. Only the wreath was back there now, shimmering in the dark like a daytime moon, exuding the faint scent of chrysanthemums. Kim climbed into the cargo bed and lay down next to the floral tributes. The cold quickly penetrated his body, and lying there in the dark he felt as though he was a corpse waiting to be shrouded.

If the elderly patient’s life continued to drag on like this, Kim would not be able to keep his date with the woman tonight at all. The man’s death presented itself to Kim as a problem of stagnant and prolonged time that was far removed from a serious and sad world. He hesitated and then decided to call the woman. Without even asking him what had happened, she assured him that she understood. She seemed too disappointed to talk. Kim explained that he was about four hundred kilometers away and not yet done with his work. In a hesitant voice she asked when he would be done.

“I wish I knew, but it is not for me to decide,” Kim replied. The woman said nothing. She was perhaps hurt by his curt reply, and Kim was annoyed that he always had to be so cautious about his responses to her trivial questions. Nevertheless, he repeated that his work was not yet finished, and he did not know when it would be. The woman began to talk about other matters as if she hadn’t been affected at all. As their conversation continued, Kim became anxious about possibly receiving a call from his friend announcing the elderly man’s death.

“Are you listening?” the woman asked.

“Yes, I am,” he halfheartedly answered. She continued to talk, and he started to listen. She was upset about the untidy attire of a customer who visited the Customer Relations Office. It seemed she had been telling this story all along. She complained with angry sighs that the customer had demanded a refund for underwear which had been worn several times. She sounded fatigued. Her sighs made Kim remember how she had helped him through difficult times, but for whatever reason he suddenly felt he could no longer endure this. Although he still received comfort and warmth from her, he was convinced these feelings would not last much longer, that they would quickly dissipate. He felt foolish for not having acted on the decision he had already made. For some time he had only been maintaining a distance, but now listening to her complaints he felt edgy and wanted to be even further removed from her. She stopped talking. Or perhaps she had been silent all this time while Kim’s thoughts had traveled elsewhere.

“Did you hear me?” she asked again. This time Kim honestly answered no, he had not. She sighed again, another long sigh. Merely wanting to end the conversation, Kim promised that he would come to her home when he returned to the city. He made this promise only to comfort her because she had been left downcast on other such occasions. He knew if he hung up on her without this promise, she would be sad once more, hesitant and confused for some long time before phoning him again. Delighted with his response, she asked what time he would come. He responded that it would be about four hours after a certain person died. Then for the first time during their conversation she burst out laughing. Obviously she thought this was a joke.

 After concluding their phone conversation, Kim made his way upstairs into the funeral home. There were thirteen parlors spread out on four floors. All but one of them was empty. In this first floor parlor the portrait of a deceased person had been placed on a marble altar. Without a chief mourner, guest mourners, fruits, flowers or incense, the lone portrait looked strangely out of place. It was as though an impetuous bereaved person had set the portrait there before the man had passed away. The man in the portrait had neatly combed gray hair, but even though a long time had passed, Kim could tell that this was not the elderly man with whom he had been acquainted. The man portrayed here had beaming, playful eyes and was smiling slightly as if he thought it mildly interesting to be early for his own funeral and waiting to greet the mourners even before he passed away. This lone person in the portrait, in this otherwise empty funeral parlor, reminded Kim of himself. Yet he was alive, and the person in the portrait was dead or about to die. Kim realized that he had never thought seriously about death. He was living. He did not want to think about death. Not yet. Not until the time came, far, far off in the future.

Darkness was slowly descending. The elderly man’s life was slowly ebbing away. Kim stood in front of the funeral home looking at the desolate farm field as it gradually dissolved into the shadow of darkness. A man in a black suit approached him and asked for a light for his cigarette. Since the funeral home was empty, Kim guessed that this man was also dutifully waiting for someone’s death. He didn’t know that this man who was wearing a badly creased black suit, black tie and a shirt spotted with red food stains, had come to the same conclusion about him.

“My uniform got stained again. I had to work today before coming here. They gave me spicy beef stew despite my strong objections. You know, I have been fed that stew day after day, over and over again,” he explained conscious of Kim’s staring at the stains on his shirt. A slight smile appeared on Kim’s face when he heard the word ‘uniform’ but it disappeared as he vaguely remembered seeing a car from the Mutual Aid Company in the parking lot.

“Where are you from?” the man asked and Kim replied that he was from the florist. The man asked if the person was not dead yet. Bewildered, Kim nodded his head. The man in the black suit smiled. He understood Kim’s situation.

“I am in the same predicament,” he said. “Could it be the same person we’re waiting for?”

Wishing to avoid any further conversation with the man from the Mutual Aid Company, or, more to the point, wishing to avoid any further conversation about waiting for someone to die, Kim decided to take a walk. But he took a longer walk than he intended and had come all the way from the funeral home to the state highway. Still he had not received a call from his friend. Now standing by the state highway, he looked back toward the funeral home. Mindlessly staring at the huge, lit-up sign board, he heard himself murmur, “It seems he hasn’t died yet.” Surprised by his own unfeeling words, he fell silent.

At that instant his phone rang. If it had been his friend calling just then, Kim would have felt responsible for causing the elderly man’s death.

“You’re still not finished?” It was the woman’s voice. Kim felt both relieved and anxious. His anxiety made him once more realize how much distance there was between them. He knew that from now on there would be fewer conversations. Their times together, which were even now so infrequent, would become more and more boring. The tone of their voices would become less friendly, and they would find fewer and fewer things to laugh about. As all of this happened the woman would call more often trying to understand Kim’s negligence and indifference. There would come a time when she would explode with anger, and then be overwhelmed with regret and loneliness. Soon after that she would apologize for having been angry. After more time had passed, and she had repeated this scenario several times, she would start to regret not winning his heart in return. She would continue to waste her time wallowing in resentment and hatred. Finally, she would realize that she didn’t love Kim enough to continue any longer, or perhaps she would decide that she hadn’t really loved him to begin with. Then she would feel empty and relieved. Kim could think of nothing to do except to wait for that moment. Then at last, he might feel something like a deep affection for her.

He lowered his voice and said, “If you push me, I will have to pray for the elderly man to die quickly.” She laughed, and that made Kim nervous again. He feared it would take too long for her to sense the truth in his heart. He blurted out the word, “Enough!,” interrupting her laughter.

Not hearing this clearly, the woman asked, “What do you mean?” Kim’s first inclination was to say, “That’s enough joking.” But it didn’t feel right to him to say goodbye in that dark field where the only light was coming from the sign board of a funeral home. Besides, although he had been thinking of it for some time, he still wasn’t sure if he was now being impulsive and superficial. He feared he might be in his current state of mind because he was exhausted from his long, four hundred kilometer drive to the south and this interminable waiting.

“What do you mean by enough?” the woman asked again. “Us. Us being together,” he replied to her persistent pressure. She paused for a moment. Then she said, “My team manager is looking for me, I must go. Please drive carefully on your way back. I will pray for the man to die quickly.” She hung up. His heart felt suddenly heavy and not at all liberated as he had thought it would.

The end of the state highway disappeared into the darkness. Kim squatted there at the side of the road with a cigarette in his mouth. A large car passed by, shaking the surface of the earth, creating a gust of wind, and exuding black smoke. Then the road was calm again. Having chain-smoked three cigarettes, Kim was about to stand up, when he noticed something in the distance. A small white dot was approaching him and growing larger. As it drew closer it assumed the form of white sportswear. It was a marathon runner with numbers on his shirt. As he passed by, Kim clearly heard the sound of his breathing. It was a ‘hu hu ha ha,’ inhaling and exhaling in even intervals through his mouth and nose. Kim watched as he gradually entered the hidden highway of darkness. The shifting white dot grew smaller and smaller until it completely vanished from sight. Ironically, its extinction brought about an awakening in Kim’s mind. It occurred to him that the road continued beyond the dark place where it became invisible. As though in a trance, he moved toward the darkness that had so completely enveloped the white dot.

Walking on a short way, he heard the low sound of a whistle behind him. He stopped. A truck appeared out of the darkness, the same type of truck as his own. Strangely there was no sound of wind or wheels, no rattling of anything in the cargo bed. He thought he might have somehow missed hearing these sounds, but then once more he heard the passing truck give off the clear whistle. It seemed that the driver, hidden in the darkness, was whistling. Kim stared vacantly at the truck. Then as though it was startled by Kim’s gaze, the truck accelerated, turned into a curve in the road and slid along the surface. In the next instant, it hit the guardrail and overturned. Before he had time to react or express his shock, the truck burst into flames that instantly enshrouded it. The driver was nowhere to be seen. It was impossible to tell whether he had been fortunate enough to escape or if the flames had already devoured him. The flames engulfed the truck. They lit up the state highway.

Kim stood there transfixed. Then he reached for his mobile phone. But instead of calling the police, the emergency rescue team or the emergency center of a hospital, he called the woman. She didn’t answer. She might have been busy listening to a customer’s complaints or perhaps she was angry. Kim stared at the flames. He let the phone continue ringing. After some time, the woman picked up the phone but remained silent. The sound of her shallow breathing reached his ears. It was a calm, rhythmic sound that calmed him. He imitated it, inhaling and exhaling, and breathing faster than usual to keep up with her.

Then after several attempts and still finding it difficult, he abruptly confessed his love for her. The woman remained silent. He feared this silence of hers, but he also feared what she might say if she spoke. He continued talking, frantically thinking of things to say so as not to give her a chance to respond. He spoke of the joy he experienced when looking at her for a long while, the strange, unreal feeling he had when he held her hand for the first time, her soft breathing that was so calming for him. He spoke of his fear of not winning her love and the thrilling moment he experienced when he realized she loved him. He was saying things to her that he had never thought about before. He was hearing his own words, but he felt as though they were words he had heard someone else speak or words that he had read somewhere. They were too conventional, too banal for him to believe they were true, but then again that was exactly why they did sound true.

He didn’t understand why he was talking this way. Perhaps it was because he was standing there alone on the state highway with only the funeral home signboard and the flames illuminating the area around him. The signboard was so brightly lit up it was visible from a long distance, as though it was a sign shining in the dark for the whole town to see. It might be because it was located in this town where the students had regular drills in preparation for an earthquake, and the residents kept maps like amulets which would help them return safely to their homes after an earthquake. It might be because it was a town where canned noodles and fish cakes were sold at stores unbeknownst even to store keepers who had been running their businesses there for so long. Or it might be because of some elderly man on the verge of death who was not dying. If Kim had been in his home city, with no such problems or fears, he would have continued to treat this woman in an unfriendly manner. If he had occasionally been warm to her, he would have panicked in fear of her misunderstanding him.

Now the woman spoke. She asked him what had happened. It was such an ordinary question that Kim had no idea if his confession of love had made her happy, excited, displeased or angry. Kim was like a stranger to himself while speaking these words to her. Yet, because he had these feelings, he thought his confession might have some truth in it.

Regardless of the truth, regardless of her feelings, Kim obviously knew that he was soon going to be ashamed of the confession that heaven-sent fear had forced him to make. He would be angry because nothing he had said could now be taken back. He could not change the situation or the feelings his confession had caused. Nor could he fathom what was at the core of the emotions that arose inside of him. He became lost in the midst of these thoughts and simply hung up the phone. He thought she might call back. If she did, he wondered if he should answer. She did not call. The truck continued to burn fiercely, and Kim stood motionless, silently watching the brilliant conflagration burn like a bright lantern light for the funeral parlor. 

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.