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Kong’s Garden by Hwang Jungeun

  • onMarch 11, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byHwang Jungeun

It was at the bookstore where I saw the girl.

     It was spring, a season that always seemed to drive us crazy with its beginning-of-the-semester frenzy. I was just standing around absentmindedly before the store closed and after I had sent away most of the customers who had rushed in at the same time. We sold cigarettes then. We displayed the cigarettes on locked shelves behind little glass doors by the counter. There were rules about selling cigarettes, and I always followed them. Since students frequented the bookstore, we only sold cigarettes to customers who presented their IDs, except for those customers we knew well.

     That night, a girl came to the store and stood in front of counter and asked for two packs of cigarettes. She was wearing a school uniform with a ribbon around her neck and was holding paper money in her right hand. She was pretty and looked at me as if she was challenging me, although she also looked a little anxious. When I told her that I couldn’t sell cigarettes to a minor, she said that she was on an errand. The adults were outside, she told me, and gestured outside. I turned my head and looked out to see two men standing near the phone booth. One of them was wearing a hat and looking in our direction.

     Now, can you sell them to me? She asked me a little more forcefully.

     When I told her, Tell them to come down and buy them themselves, she hesitated for a moment and then went out. I saw her walk up the stairs, approach the men, and talk to them. It seemed that she had told them what I’d said. Now the man wearing a hat was slowly walking down the stairs.

     The man looked smaller and thicker at the counter than outside. He was solidly built, wore a darkbrimmed hat, and smelled of smoke. Didn’t that young girl ask for cigarettes just now? He asked politely: I asked her for me. Why didn’t you sell her the cigarettes when you saw me outside?

     His eyes were blank. They were shaded by the brim of his hat, although I could see that they were blood-shot and yellow-white. When I said that he had to show me his ID if he wanted to buy cigarettes, he seemed to grin, rummaged through his pockets, and took out his wallet. It was worn-out leather. He took out a card that looked like his ID but didn’t hand it to me. He held it in his hand and stared at me. And why should I show you my personal information just to buy a few packs of cigarettes? Why should I do that, a full-grown man? How can I trust you and show you my ID? Please, try to be a better cashier next time, he said.

     He thrust his ID back into his pocket and then strolled out of the bookstore. The other man and the girl were waiting for him at the top of the stairs. They stood next to the phone booth and discussed something. When the men said something, the girl either nodded or shook her head. The men took their hands out of their pockets and touched the girl’s head and the sides of her slender body. Every time they did this, the girl shrank back a little, and laughed. Above the girl’s head, flowers were falling like solid, dry snow.

     What should I do?

     It really was a strange scene. It was very strange, even though there weren’t that many things that made it immediately odd. They were just standing together and talking. The men and the girl looked so unrelated. I thought that they couldn’t possibly know each other very well and felt very uncomfortable thinking this. I tapped the counter with the tip of my finger and hesitated. Should I step outside now and ask her what her relationship was with them? Where and when had she met them? Did I have the right to ask her that? Should I just call the police? If so, what should I tell them? A girl was talking with some men? Was that criminal enough to report to the police? Was that a crime? Even if it was a crime, was it my duty to report it? What should I do if my actions later put me in danger? What if I became the target of some plot to get back at me for my suspicions? After all, the bookstore would always be here and I would always work here.

     I finally decided that I probably shouldn’t get involved in their affairs. It was too troublesome and the situation too ambiguous. It was much easier to just think that they were acquaintances. Who really knew? I wasn’t casually nosy enough to meddle in other people’s business. I finished thinking about it even before I had time to reflect on my decision. I turned around and began to close the store, checking that day’s sales data on the computer. When I looked up and outside at some point, they were already gone.

 

     After that incident, everyone kept asking me questions.

     I had never been such an important figure in my life. All kinds of people asked me again and again what I had seen. What were they wearing, what did they look like, what were they doing, what was their manner of speaking, which direction did they go in? I answered what questions I could and said that I didn’t know to the questions I couldn’t. The more important the questions were, the more often I told them that I didn’t know. What the men looked like, which direction they had gone in. I was summoned to the police station and shown a lot of photos, but I couldn’t clearly identify them.

     Who were they? Even now, when I think about that question, I can only remember the man wearing the hat and looking in my direction under the streetlamp. His face under the brim of his hat, even more shaded because of the streetlamp that poured light just above him, looked so different from—ut, at the same time, so similar to—he photos I was shown. After sweating over the photos again and again, I pushed a photo over to the policemen. They asked if I was sure, and I thought it over, and said that he looked the most similar, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I really didn’t know much about the incident. I learned from the police later that the disappeared girl’s name was Jinju.

     She disappeared after she had purchased a ticket to her favorite pop singer’s concert.

     A bag was found hidden deep inside the bookstore’s garden at the entrance of the apartment complex. One pair of underwear, smeared with bodily fluids, was found at a construction site near the apartment complex. It was women’s underwear, rolled up in a ball and stuck between some bricks. Her classmate, who was the last person to see her before she disappeared, pointed to a bench under a wisteria 150 meters away from the bookstore as the place where they had parted. The police who came to search the area had eventually come to me. Since the incident involved a resident who had disappeared in an apartment complex, the news traveled fast. People visited the bookstore to check the location of the incident, or to ask whatever questions came to them. There were days when even random people yelled at me.

     The girl disappeared here. You were the last person who had seen her.

     The heartless eyewitness.

     An adult who did nothing to protect a child who needed protection.

     That was who I became.

pp. 47 - 59

 

     (…)

     Aunt, what do you want?

     Do you know how busy I am? Do you know how much work I do here? I can’t ever come out and see the sun on beautiful days like this. I spend the entire day underground, never getting any sun, okay. So, why do you have to do this here? Why on earth here? Are you trying to put a curse on this store? Please just don’t ask me what I was doing. When nobody cares about me, why should I care about others? Jinju, your daughter, who is she? Nobody. She’s nobody to me.

pp. 69

    

     (…)

     I’m still doing the same sort of things. I still work and experience things that embarrass me, although not to the degree that they would bother me too much. If I feel too embarrassed to stand it any longer, then I quit and never come back. Of course, this doesn’t happen very often. I hope that if I have to move to another neighborhood there’ll be a lot of acacia trees there too. Still, even if I end up in a neighborhood without a single acacia tree, I’m sure I’ll end up adjusting to it all pretty well.

     How am I? I’m doing the same.

     Occasionally, very rarely, when the night gets too quiet, I search for articles about Jinju. An article saying that she’d finally been found somewhere. Even an article saying her remains had been found. I search for that article using all possible keywords I can think of.

     I have told this story to no one.

pp. 73 - 75