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FICTION

The Last 4.5 Seconds of My Life

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • bySong Sokze
The Last 4.5 Seconds of My Life
1998
268pp.

He heard the sound of a small bomb exploding. A BOOM—no, a BANG—no, it was like a gang of safe crackers tunneling into the earth finally demolishing a reinforced steel wall. It was like a plane breaking the sound barrier. Is it important—the sound? No. This is just the way it is. There is no sound when there’s no one to hear; and since there is no one there to hear it, its nature cannot be established.

A car is falling. It is beginning to accelerate. Just before it began its fall, it violently transferred its energy to the guardrail of a bridge, and the front end is smashed. Smoke is puffing from the hood, which is crumpled on one side like a folded umbrella. The engine is still running. The energy created by the 6-liter engine of the 4-9-seat SUV still turns the wheels with great force. The tires are only spinning in the air, not speeding the car along a city street by creating friction against the pavement; they can no longer propel the car. Nor can they stop it. Floating through the air, the car looks like a long jumper demonstrating a nightmarish hurdle jump. No. No one is looking, and thus there is nothing to see. This is just the way it appears.

0.5 seconds have elapsed since the tires lifted into the air. The man inside the car regains consciousness. He had been speeding around a curve just before the fall. The road connecting to the west side of the bridge has a sharp curve and a slope. A speed limit sign is posted there, a warning sign, even a danger sign. But the man did not reduce his speed; he wasn’t careful. He had been angry. The woman in the passenger seat sat with her body hunched the whole time the man was angry. That was before the crash. She is unconscious now. When the car collided with the guardrail she hit her forehead against the windshield. The man also hit his head. That’s why he was momentarily unconscious. Isn’t it good news at a bad time to regain consciousness within one second? Good news?

As soon as he’s conscious, the man is angry. There are babies that cry when they first wake from sleep, and among adults there are those who wake up angry. It’s a habitual thing. Like for the man—habitual anger. He realizes something is wrong. He sees what it is. From perception to comprehension, it takes him a total of 0.2 seconds. He realizes he is inside a car plunging off a bridge. Is it good for him to know this? Is it good that he regained consciousness? He doesn’t know how to fly, let alone what to do if he were flying. So it’s not possible for him to calculate how much time it will take for his expensive car to fall. Couldn’t someone just put on a pair of wings, like an angel, and explain from outside the windshield? We don’t know if angels really exist, nor do we know if there are truly angelic people, but let’s say for a moment that there are angelic people and that they have white wings and have no reservations about flying through the air in broad daylight—but then, even if they did have wings, why would they be flying by a car that happens to be falling from a bridge, just so they can say, to the man who is falling, “You have X number of seconds before you plunge to your death.”1 There’s absolutely no reason for it.

Let’s say there was a car that fell from a height of 80 meters. It would take about four seconds to hit the ground. But what good would it do the person inside the car to be able to calculate that? If an angel or an angelic person were to convey that information, and if the falling man were to listen, wouldn’t it be a shame then to have to hit the ground? Knowledge is power? Well, it’s not the angel who’s falling. Never, in his life, had the man encountered an angel. But now the man who is falling is falling and knows he is falling.

He—the party in question—also knows something else. That there is no parachute in the car, and that no matter how expensive this SUV happens to be, it is not an airplane, not an airborne unit, not an armored car, not an amphibious assault vehicle. A whole airborne regiment, 5,000 armored cars, 10,000,000 amphibious assault vehicles—what use are they now when he’s falling with no intervention? There’s no point in making such calculations. Those are just thoughts that come floating up in his head. But he also has a realization. That he will not live through this fall. It’s his sixth sense, which has never been wrong. Let’s respect that. He’s escaped mortal danger many times because of it. But will this unique, precious sixth sense save him this time? Will his sixth sense—clanging like a school bell, whimpering like a puppy—get him out of this predicament? No.

So he could scream like a man in despair. There are many types of screams. Waaaaa, ack, ooooh, ggghk, What am I gonna do, huh, huh? If he picked one, opened his mouth, commanded his breath and let it resonate in his chest, belly, and larynx, the car would hit bottom before he could even make a sound. There’s a question whether such a calculus exists somewhere in the world, and he decides not to scream. Because another thought floats up—that if he is going to die he will die like a man.

If he were dangling from a pine tree on a precipice, he would do the right thing and let go if he were a brave man. Who was it that originally said that? There is no way to find out now, there’s nothing to know. He used to repeat it to himself whenever he had a chance. There were countless people who heard those words. 100? 200? 50,000? He even spoke those words to the guests and well-wishers at his wedding. Perhaps he had the wedding ceremony just so he could say those words. That’s right. It was because of that speech.

He had invited his coworkers and his senior and junior colleagues to his wedding. There were more than 200 people there. At the entrance to the wedding hall, the large congratulatory wreaths sent by Mr. D’s “Big Brother” and Mr. O prominently displayed their good taste. Mr. D’s Big Brother was his direct boss. Mr. O had gotten his own organization started when he built a hotel near a recently-developed hot spring. Naturally, he was modeling himself on Mr. D and Mr. O. But there was no hotel in this area. Not even an amusement park or a hot spring. Mr. D’s Big Brother didn’t understand how a competent leader like him would want to be some back alley boss in a small town, but if it was something he really wanted, Mr. D’s Big Brother was willing to let him have it. Perhaps he’d held the wedding ceremony just so he could make that one request of Mr. D’s Big Brother.

The bride was unimportant. As were the parents, the relatives, the friends, the well-wishers. Mr. D’s Big Brother sent 20 family members along with his wreath. They all wore black suits with black socks and black shoes, with blinding white shirts and black bow ties; they were all lined up beside the wreaths. Each time a guest arrived, these ushers would bow 90 degrees at the waist, and with voices resonating, they would shout, “Welcome!” When a guest presented gift money, the wedding hall would echo with the lively energy of a rehearsed “Thank you!” from the ushers. It was all Mr. O’s idea.

Not a single guest was permitted to leave before the end of the ceremony. If someone tried, the ushers would bar the way with their arms outstretched and whisper, “Where are you going?” If a guest asked, “Where is the dining hall?” the ushers would glare, putting their hands beside their mouths as if to tell a big secret, and say, “There isn’t one. Please wait till the ceremony is over.” He didn’t have formal pictures taken after the wedding ceremony. He didn’t even bother with the usual greetings and gifts for the guests, the parents of the two families, the relatives. Instead, he made that remarkable speech. Standing before the assembly, from which the officiator had sneaked out, he said, emphatically, “Dangling from the branch of a pine tree on a precipice, I am prepared to let go, to sacrifice myself for the sake of developing this region for my associates, for solidarity.” And that is how he started his organization.

Now the fall transitions into a parabolic phase. Having broken through the guardrail and flown into the air, the car initially follows a straight trajectory due to inertia. But soon, slowed by the gradual, tenacious power of gravity, the direction of movement changes from a straight line to a parabolic curve. If the car had continued in a straight line, it might have safely reached the east embankment on the opposite side of the bridge. If it continued in a straight line, its speed would gradually diminish due to air resistance. If it continued in a straight line, and the angle of its trajectory remained parallel to the ground, it would orbit the earth like a satellite for dozens of years before finally descending someday.2 But if, regardless of its initial velocity, the car’s speed gradually slowed, it would descend to the Earth like a round trip into space, a helicopter, a flying superboard. But that is not possible. Gravity, as pervasive as air, water, or man; gravity, capable of enduring days, months, years, a lifetime—regardless of whether such intervals actually exist; gravity will not permit the car, which has broken through the guardrail, to fly however long it desires. Hours? Minutes? No. Gravity drags it down—10 meters in the space of a tick, 20 meters in a tick-tick.

The bridge spanning the river, which runs north-south, connects the east and west banks. It took four years for the 450-meter stretch of road, with a total passenger throughput of approximately 20,000 per day, to be completed. It’s been a month since the construction was finished. In attendance at the inauguration ceremony were the district’s chief engineer, the regional assemblymen, the provincial governor, and local community leaders with all of their friends, acquaintances, and junior and senior colleagues; there were also people associated with the construction and even the mobile satellite teams from the local networks. Since the construction was an event of no small proportions, there was a huge media circus to match its stature. In the first car to fall from the bridge, he is thinking, Why did it have to be me? Why am I here? Without warning, without comprehension, without reason, without intention, without hope. A precious instant of time, the span of a single thought, passes away.

 

* Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl.

 


1. “And yet it still moves!” (“E pur si muove!”) is what Galileo Galilei said when he was forced to recant by the Inquisition. It is thanks to Galileo that we can calculate how long it takes for the car to fall through the air. Ignoring atmospheric resistance, the velocity of an object falling to the Earth is free fall. Free fall velocity, when the distance between the falling body and the Earth is relatively small compared to the Earth’s radius, follows gravitational acceleration g (9.8m/sec2).
      If we say the object begins its fall from a height of h meters, then, after t seconds, the distance of descent would be s meters. If, in that span, we say the velocity is v meters/second, the distance of descent would be half of the square root of the speed multiplied by the time. This can be represented by the following formula: s = 1/2gt2, v = gt.
      So let’s say a bald eagle had a heart attack and fell from a height of 100 meters. The time it would take to hit the ground would be 100 = ½ x 9.8 x t2 with t = 4.5175394. Also, the peak velocity of the eagle, as it hits the ground, with v = 9.8 x 4.5175394 would work out to 159.37878 km/hr. Poor eagle. How could its bald head ever survive?

2. If a rock is thrown at a velocity of 7.9 km/sec it will not fall back to the ground. It will circle around and around the Earth. If it is thrown a bit harder, say at a velocity of 11.2 km/sec, it will leave Earth’s orbit. At above 16.7 km/sec it will leave the solar system. The problem is whether an arm exists that would be strong enough to throw a rock at such a velocity. Also, since the object in question is a car and not a rock, it would be more efficient to use a rocket launch system instead of a strong throwing arm—as if there were ever an occasion when a car was launched in such a fashion.

3. A thought moment: a Buddhist unit of time. According to the system outlined in the Abhidharmakosha, 1 ahorata (24 hours) is equal to 6 kala or 30 muhurta. A muhurta is 30 lava in duration, the lava being a long interval 7,200 times the length of a ksana, which is the smallest unit of time. Is a thought moment the amount of time it takes to have a single thought? The Abhidharmakosha says that there are 90 ksana in a single thought moment, but that seems rather slow, since that would make a thought moment just short of 1 second. “Thought moment to thought moment” is generally equated with “ksana to ksana.” Here is a chart to help simplify things:
      1 ahorata = 6 kala = 30 muhurta = 900 lava = 54,000 tatksana = 6,480,000 ksana
      1 thought moment = 1 ksana = 1/75 second
      They say that in Journey to the West, the Monkey King riding his magic cloud could travel 108,000 li in a single breath. Those interested in the history of mathematics and measurement can calculate the relative difference between “a single breath” and a thought moment. In my estimation, it would take about 75 ksanas for a 7-year-old child in front of an ice cream parlor to call, “Mommy!” “Daddy!” would take about 100.

Author's Profile

Song Sokze is a poet and novelist. His short story collection The Amusing Life is set to be published by Dalkey Archive Press at the end of 2016. His works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, and German. He has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Dongin Literary Award, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. His short story “The Man Who Writes Stories” was adapted into a Korean movie titled Dance with the Wind.