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FICTION

Ashes and Red by Pyun Hye Young

  • onOctober 23, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byPyun Hye-Young
Ashes and Red
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell
2015

They had just stepped into the shadow of the trees when the guide, who had told them he would wait for them in the van, called them back.

     “It’s scary in there. Tons of monkeys. You understand?”

     “I can’t do this,” his wife said. “Let’s just go.”

     His wife gave him a look that said she meant it. But he avoided her eyes and said, “You don’t really think you’re going to be killed by a monkey, do you?”

     He walked back into the forest. Whether resigned or simply too angry to argue with him, his wife followed right behind.

     They had not gone far when he realized that this dense, dark forest filled with towering trees that blocked out the sky should have been called a jungle. The trees were as tightly packed as the air itself, and outnumbering the trees were the monkeys idling about from branch to branch and harassing who or whatever wandered in. There wasn’t a single other soul in sight. The guide had followed his request exactly and brought them to a quiet, secluded spot. Later, after they’d made it out of the temple, he would realize that the monkeys were the same species as those he had seen in zoos back home, but in the moment he could not properly make out the shapes of the countless bodies that confronted them as they made their way through.

     The temple sat at the center of the forest, which was shaped like a deep U; there was no way through without passing the temple. Other than the path (a mere line of trampled grass), everything else was covered in tall trees and dense undergrowth. The heavy shade of the tangled trees, the calling of unseen birds that filled the air, the queer screeching of monkeys that immediately followed as if in response to the birdcall, the creepy sound of wind rattling the leaves, and the cold, damp air wafting up from the ground made their teeth chatter.

     “Well, I guess we know their god is male. Why else would they build a temple somewhere this dark and wet? Am I right?”

He made the joke as an excuse to get them talking, but his wife walked on ahead and didn’t respond. Normally she scoffed at his failed jokes. In the silence that followed, he sensed that, since entering this dark forest that could care less about them, he and his wife had been slowly leaving the world in which their lives had overlapped. The feeling made him want to pull his wife, who was now striding several paces ahead of him, back by his side and keep her there, but he never got the chance. His wife screamed. A black something or other had wrapped itself around her face. He ran to her, but the black object suddenly vanished, as if nothing more than a shadow. His wife’s sunglasses had vanished with it. It was a monkey. Terrified, his wife clung to his side. She clutched his forearm, but he could tell it held no more meaning than an elderly person leaning on a cane. Nevertheless, he knew he would not soon forget the heat flowing from his wife’s hand to his arm.

     That was the beginning. Their path to the temple was a progression of lost items. The next monkey snatched his wife’s hat. That too happened in the blink of an eye. He chased after the monkey to try to retrieve the hat. He spotted one or two other people in the distance, but they were locals, and it wasn’t clear whether they were also just visiting or whether they lived in the forest. They watched as he chased after the monkey, their faces suggesting that this was something they saw all the time and yet was still as entertaining as ever. And they looked serene, as if they had nothing the monkeys could take from them, or perhaps nothing left to be taken.

He gave up on chasing down the monkey. It had scrambled up a tall tree and disappeared into the forest. He could have followed it into the trees, but he would have only stumbled across an entire troop or gotten lost in the dense, shady woods.

     As he was walking back to his wife, panting and trying to catch his breath, two monkeys jumped him at the same time. He threw his arms out to the sides, breathing in the foul smell, the stink of urine, and something else that reminded him of wet grass coming off of the monkey wrapped around his face. He managed to pull them off of him, but his hat and sunglasses were now gone, and he had several scratches, both deep and shallow.

     He immediately regretted the decision to come there and tried to turn around. But the way back was so dark and thick with trees that they could not locate the entrance. They had no choice but to keep going until they reached the temple. They walked and walked, but there were only more trees and no temple in sight. The path seemed to lead only to deeper jungle. The further they went, the more monkeys they encountered, and each time, they lost another of their belongings. Sometimes the monkeys appeared only to tease and anger them: one would abruptly drop from a branch right in front of them to scare them, or burst out of the forest and grab his wife’s ankle to make her fall, or smack the back of his head with its tail and then run off again into the trees, too fast to be caught.

     Just as the round roof of the temple had come faintly into view among the treetops and they were breathing a sigh of relief, two more monkeys attacked him. They bit his arms, clawed at his eyes and let out a blood-curdling shriek as they took the black bag he had been clutching to his chest as if it were his heart itself. The bag contained his passport and wallet. He had pretended not to hear his wife when she had urged him to leave them in the hotel safe. Lately, the more right she was, the less he listened. Despite his frantic efforts, the two monkeys would not get off of him. His bag was quickly stolen. He ran after the monkey with his bag around its neck and grabbed its long tail as it was about to leap into a tree. He pulled hard and sank his teeth into the wiry fur. It felt like large insects squirming inside his mouth. He clenched his jaw as hard as he could, his eyes shut tight, teeth bearing down through the tough, filthy-smelling skin and the tender bones. A crunching sound pealed inside his head. He thought he would never forget that sound for as long as he lived. The feel of those wiry hairs, the crumbling of bone, the sticky saliva trailing from his open mouth. He would not forget these things.

     The monkey’s hair stood on end and it let out a piercing scream. He held it down with one arm and fumbled with the other until his hand fell on a long, heavy, fallen branch. He jabbed the tip of the branch at the monkey’s back, but it glanced off. Nothing was ever easy. Taking a firmer grip on the tail, he stabbed the monkey over and over with the branch as it screamed and struggled to free itself. Some of the blows landed on the monkey while others struck his own forearm that held the monkey in place, and some of the blows hit nothing at all. When the stick missed the monkey and pierced his thigh instead, he thought he might drop dead from the pain, but he didn’t care. He would kill himself if that was what it took to kill the monkey. Screams—were they his wife’s screams as she finally caught up to him? The monkey’s screams? Maybe his own?—slipped under and over the dark tangle of branches overhead and echoed deep into the forest.

     He did not let go until the monkey lay slumped and weakened. But the moment he released his grip, the monkey that had seemed as good as dead suddenly sprang up and leapt into the trees without a look back. He watched as its red bottom disappeared among the branches. His body ached. His forearm and thigh were throbbing. He wasn’t sure, but he might have even broken a bone. A thorn on the branch must have opened a vein, because the wound in his thigh bled profusely and soaked his pant leg. Fat drops of rain began to splatter down from the dark sky, as if to scold him.

     His bag was gone, snatched up by the other monkey while he was busy fighting. Only after he had lost everything did he realize that what he had fought so desperately to save amounted to nothing. Other than his wife, there was nothing he wanted to save so badly as to merit biting a monkey’s tail and stabbing himself in the arm and thigh.

     He got angry at her because of that. He got angry because, here he was, all covered in blood, and still he knew he could not keep her. Just as he had failed to keep his passport and wallet, he was incapable of keeping her no matter how great the wounds he suffered. And not only that, all of this had been his choice alone. What if his wife were the one who had insisted they go to the temple? What if she had told him to chase down a thieving monkey to get her money and passport back? And what if she had persuaded him to stab the monkey over and over? Then he would not have had to take up that branch and attack the monkey until he was covered in his own blood with no idea whatsoever of what it was he was trying to hold on to.

     On their way out of the forest, the monkeys left them alone since they had nothing left to take, so he unleashed his fury on his wife instead. His wife took his baseless accusations in silence, as if he were talking about someone else, and her silence made him even angrier. He had to clamp down hard on the urge to beat her. If he hadn’t injured his arm, if he could have lifted his arm or flexed the muscle at will, he might not have been able to hold back.

     Later, when he recalled the events at the temple, he felt shocked at his own unfamiliar self. Picking up a tree branch, which he had never before regarded as a weapon, to stab a monkey to death; gladly enduring his own injuries in the process; confessing his suspicions as a way of swallowing his anger; abruptly accusing his wife of being a two-timing whore, and unleashing all of the bad words he hadn’t used since he was a teenager in order to sexually disparage her; knowing he would have hit her if he’d had any energy left—all of this kept him feeling ashamed of himself for a long time after.

     When they returned from the temple, his wife bought bandages and medicine and helped patch him up, but the next morning she took her passport from the hotel safe and left for home. Their itinerary ended, the guide left as well to lead another group of tourists. He had to go the hospital on his own without knowing a single word of the language, get his passport reissued from the embassy, and wait for his wife to wire him money for the rest of his travel expenses, hating himself all the while.

     After that trip, every time anger rose up in him, he pictured spidery limbs wrapped around his face, monkeys hanging nonchalantly from his body and blacking out his vision, giving off their odorous funk. Whenever he pictured it, his heart shivered like it was shrinking inside his chest and his head ached from the effort to bear the tremors, but what frightened him was not those horrible, marauding monkeys but rather the choices he had made when his back was to the wall.

 

 Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Author's Profile

Pyun Hye-Young is an assistant professor of creative writing at Myongji University. She has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of Aoi Garden (Dans l’antre d’Aoï Garden) was published by Decrescenzo éditeurs and Ashes and Red (Cendres et rouge) by Philippe Picquier. The Hole and Ashes and Red are forthcoming from Arcade Publishing in 2017.