- onAugust 30, 2017
- byKim Ae-ran
- The Mouth Waters
Tr. Jamie Chang 2007
“Sillim” conjures up a green forest. A forest full of trees, a young forest. The trees in the forest are green, like the light green of Seoul Metro Line Two. Most leaves are of a darker hue, but light green seems more right for Sillim trees. When I say “Sillim,” I can almost hear leaves from a distant forest rustling and whispering, supullim, supullim. Green seeps into my tongue when I say, “Sillim,” the same way a red banner somewhere in the corner of my heart flaps wildly when I say “Gupabal” out loud. Such associations have nothing whatsoever to do with the real Gupabal or the real Sillim.
I cross the Han River hugging a pillow. I have to transfer twice to get to Seoul National University Station. I sit in the middle of the bench, heels up. The pillow is in a large plastic bag that crumples irritably and noisily at the slightest movement. The sound is so frail that I hold it closer. A forest of buildings stands across the river. The translucent skin of the buildings reflects sunlight with their entire bodies. Through the billows of clouds, I see the expression on the face of Seoul at one in the afternoon. The spark of Seoul at one. There are too many windows in the world—people grow dark in all that light.
Where are you?
The phone vibrates. It’s my sister. Her question blinks with the small numbers that indicate when the message arrived.
Eungbong, I answer. Sorry. Running late.
I take a deep breath. It always feels weird waiting for the message to be transmitted. I can’t fathom how words can find their way to the right destination. Tens of millions of people send text messages to each other every day. How is it that one person’s I’m sorry finds its way to the right cell phone without colliding into another’s That’s okay? There are perhaps as many text messages floating around as there are molecules of carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and other chemicals from exhaust fumes. We live, surrounded by messages, inhaling them. She hasn’t replied yet.
I bought the pillow at a bedding store in front of the station. I thought about buying it at Sillim, but I gave up the thought, seeing as that this was my first trip to the area. I figured it’d be best to buy it at the discount store near my place rather than wandering the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood in frigid weather. The pillow will soon be handed over to my sister.
She actually had her own pillow. In the several times she packed and unpacked since she moved out of our parent’s house, she never forgot to take that pillow with her. It was just an ordinary pillow with cotton stuffing, but according to her it was the most comfortable pillow in the world. She sincerely loved the pillow the way people love music or art. She apparently left it behind this time. Mom sounded disturbed as she explained over the phone. Mom seemed to believe that she left without the pillow because Mom all but kicked her out of the house. She was taking her time, and Mom got impatient. It was partly Uncle’s fault for arriving too soon, but Mom evidently started to follow her already panicked daughter around the house, pestering her about this and that until Mom finally lost it and yelled at her. My sister stood sulking in front of the car and Mom clumsily shoved 100,000 won into her hand. They exchanged awkward goodbyes. Perhaps they both ended up looking angry for lack of a better expression under the circumstances. The more they felt sorry, the more they felt this wasn’t a good way to part, the more rigid their faces grew. The car, its backseat full of civil service exam practice test books, pulled out of town, and Mom discovered the pillow after several minutes of sitting on the sleeping mat. The pillow had an indent the size and shape of my sister’s head, and it seemed it might still be warm from cradling her head. Mom called in the morning and spent the entire conversation grumbling about her until she finally muttered, “She left her pillow. Buy her a new one.”
The phone vibrates. I open it up to see if it’s her. It’s someone else.
Miss Suh In-yeong, this is a confirmation for the meeting this evening. I’ll see you at Hoegidong at seven.
Yes, I reply. I’m still reluctant, but I’ve already put it off three times. I only agreed to take the annoying survey because of the Cultural Gift Certificates they promised. A few days ago, I got a call from a woman who said the Ministry of Labor was doing research on “college graduate employment.” I treated her with the same weariness and indifference I showed all telemarketers. She kindly detailed the purpose of the survey and mentioned that their researcher could visit me at my residence, and I would be compensated with three Cultural Gift Certificates. I thought that three gift certificates for a survey was a pretty good deal, but I didn’t want her to think I was desperate and unemployed by sounding too eager.
Trying to sound as cultured and indifferent toward money as possible I asked, “When would be a good time?”
The question was tossed back, “When would be a good time for you?”
I knew that the “culture” I would enjoy with three gift certificates would be silly and trifling, but they would be enough to numb the guilt of an unemployed girl for a day.
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Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently It’s Summer Outside (2017). Her first novel, The Youngest Parents with the Oldest Child (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life. Her books have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. Her works have appeared in Azalea, Asia Literary Review, and Inostrannaya Literatura.