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  • The Dreaming Beast
  • Lee Chang-dong (bio)
    Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl (bio)

The mule is gone, thought Taegi. I'll never see him again. His fingers shook as he unbuttoned his pants, and he leaked a few drops before he was quite ready. Facing the tall smokestack of the Slurpy Bar factory across the open sewer, he spewed his piss, his body trembling all the while.

Twilight stretched itself across the sky above the factory. Taegi closed his eyes. That scarlet light—the same glossy sheen of the mule's back when it was brushed, scrubbed, and combed—would vanish without a trace if he opened his eyes to look.

Slowly the scarlet changed into a deep purple, the color of the dried and clotted blood trailing from the mule's dead body. The city was swallowing everything up into its dark abyss once again—the smoke shooting out of the factory smokestack was spreading like ink in water, blotting out the sunset.

Taegi didn't even think of buttoning his pants. He stared vacantly up at the smokestack that rose high into the sky. It stood tall and firm whenever he happened to see it. Taegi looked down at his penis, as if to compare, but it must have been insecure from the start, buried there in his pubic hair, so small and stubby it was nearly invisible. It just lay there inert, shriveled like the remnants of a plucked pepper. [End Page 317]

But the smokestack—if not for the building that stretched out beneath it—would have been hard to imagine as a mere factory chimney. It loomed too high, like a giant tower, a monument, or the pillar of the world holding up the sky.

Taegi spat, still holding his wilted penis in his hand. He straightened and tucked it back into his pants, lifted up his bag, and looked back for a moment at the levy road he had walked along. He could hear the whirring of the factory and see the mule-colored twilight descending. Along the open sewer a low, flat housing project lay wrapped in a silent funk.

The open sewer was thick with the factory's wastewater. It got the runoff from the dye factory at Sangryo and sometimes it flowed a brilliant yellow, or as red as a virgin's period. The water was black and murky now. Last summer a six-year-old kid had drowned in it. The people in the projects spent all night searching, but the child was never found.

The projects—that was what they called the houses that stretched along the bank of the sewer. After a major manufacturing plant moved in on the other side of town, the civic authorities had relocated the people who lived there and put them here in houses made of cement brick. Low and flat, following the sewer—at first glance they looked like a species of long beetle, and if you looked closer, they looked like dead, crumbling shells; and the people—every possible species of them—lived in the projects in hordes, like ants marching in and out to consume the beetles' dessicated remains, and Taegi, a part-timer in the city sanitation department, was one of them.

Across the open sewer, an enormous industrial site was being constructed. Each day, garbage trucks would speed down the roadway along the sewer bank, relay after relay, dumping their loads in the vacant lot not yet occupied by the factory. The garbage covered the fields and paddies with shocking speed. The city was like an obese animal that shed its fur each day, or an old man with intestinal problems puking up everything he had eaten. Taegi [End Page 318] worked for the city, loading and hauling that garbage. Twice a day, he led the mule from one side of the city to the other, sweeping and collecting. From where he happened to be—at the garbage dump, or in one of the many partitioned units in the projects—Taegi watched the tall buildings raise their shining heads high above the pale dust at dawn. He saw the fantastic explosions of dust at midday, and at night...