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  • Lizard
  • Kim Yŏngha (bio)
    Translated by Dafna Zur (bio)

If you press your lips to the tongue of a snake and show fear, the snake will swallow you up. If not, it will guide you to the entrance of another world. The snake is a reptile of transcendence.

Jim Morrison, in the movie The Doors

"Want to hear the one about the smoke woman?" he asks me.

"Sure, go ahead."

He's smoking a cigarette, watching the smoke seep out of his mouth, twist, coil, and drift off. "OK. One day a man's body turns up. The officer at the scene finds the place littered with cigarette butts. The place reeks of cigarette smoke—so strong it covers up the smell of decomposition."

"So...?" I look at him wide-eyed, urging him on.

"So how'd he die? That's a good question. The officer investigates different possibilities. First, he schedules an autopsy—which is more involved than the usual exam. In an autopsy, you actually cut into the body as well as examine it for clues. And then the officer discovers something very interesting."

"What's that?"

"In addition to being naked from the waist down, there was a large quantity of semen."

"That's because men ejaculate when they die," I say with a shiver.

He shakes his head. "That's if you're strangled. But there were no signs of strangulation on this guy. If you're strangled, your neck is all black and blue. None of that on him, though."


"So the officer suspects there's a woman involved."

"He could have been masturbating, you know."

"No, he couldn't. Not with the semen spread around like it was, strange as it all seems."

He is so confident in his reply that I have to give in. He's always like that—no doubts about anything. Words seem to come so easily to him. No hesitating, no beating around the bush. Talking to him is like watching a movie or reading a novel. And then he suddenly becomes distant. How [End Page 131] long has it been since he started coming to my room? How long since he spread himself so naturally over the far corner of my bed? It's all because of the lizard. I turn to look at my walls. They're white and bare, except for the looming lizard.

"What are you thinking about?" He's noticed I've turned my head away.

I take my eyes off the lizard. "Nothing."

Men are always asking women what they're thinking, but women don't think the way men do. Men think with their heads; women think with their bodies. It can't be explained. All I can feel are the traces of lizard on my body. That's why "Nothing" is the only answer I can come up with.

"Go on with the story," I tell him.

But he just offers me a weak smile and shakes his head. "Later."

He dresses and goes out, leaving me with a lizard, a dead man, and a large quantity of semen. I have no idea where he's going.

I first met him in the fall of 1995. It was cold for that time of year, and extremely windy. I remember reading about a street sign getting blown off a pole and hitting someone's head. I had a job teaching English to junior-high-school students at a cram school in Kangnam and was about to photocopy some handouts when he walked in.

"Are you still looking for teachers?" he asked.

The funny thing was that I'd seen him get out of the elevator and plod up to the door, but he still took me by surprise. Maybe it's because he didn't look like he had any reason to be at a cram school. What was it about him? He did, after all, have the cram-school outfit: a navy-blue shirt and black pants. So what was it that threw me off?

I guess you might say there was something otherworldly about him. There are people like this. People that you bump into on the street...