- The Crucible
At the same time that Kang In-ho was packing his meager belongings and setting out in his car from Seoul, the maritime fog began its creep into the city of Mujin. Rising from the sea like a huge pale beast, it advanced onto the mainland, a damp, dense landfall moving forward, ever forward. The objects in its path, like soldiers sensing imminent defeat, surrendered their shapes to the vapor, which absorbed them, now amorphous, into its bosom. Among the structures swallowed by the mist was a four-story building of stone perched on a bluff overlooking the sea—the Home of Benevolence. And as the mist engulfed the building, the light escaping through the window of the dining hall on the first floor turned the color of mayonnaise. A church bell began to toll, calling the faithful to the Sabbath worship. The tolling reverberated into the distance, the only sound to penetrate the fog.
Along the railroad tracks near the Home of Benevolence walked a boy. And as he walked, the fog lowered like the fine mesh of a net, gradually eradicating everything it met. Beside the tracks were beds of cosmos that had blossomed early for the season; they paled and trembled as the fog trapped them in its fine weave.
The boy was twelve, but if you were to stand him next to other boys his age, you could see how absurdly short he was, how [End Page 41] withered and bony he looked. The boy's striped T-shirt, the color of pale sky, was wet with mist.
Something wasn't right with the boy—he walked with a limp—but you couldn't have made out his expression, which was masked by the advancing fog. And soon the rest of him had been sucked in. But his feet on the crossties could feel the faint tremor, its measured pulsations.
The Sunday worship at the First Church of God's Glory, in the Mujin city center, commenced at 10 A.M. The church parking lot was shrouded in fog, and you might have heard an occasional muffled bump as latecomers attempted to squeeze in, high beams helpless to prevent the nudge of fender against fender. The fog continued to swallow everything in its path, and as the scripture was read in the sanctuary, car headlights were blanketed in the lot. The church custodian, helping to park the cars, dropped his key ring. He bent over and only with difficulty did he locate it.
"Damn thick," he muttered in amazement. His voice was lost in the swell of the organ accompanying the choir.
The tracks began to rattle. The boy looked back to where the railroad made a wide bend. The train was coming. He held out his arms as if to embrace it. Was that a smile on his face—or a grimace? The next moment his lips had rounded in an outcry. But the sound he produced was eerie and inarticulate: no vowel or consonant could have been distinguished. The locomotive screeched and then tossed the boy aside like a kernel of popped corn. His blood streamed along the ground. The fog descended over the blood, the train continued on its way, and the surroundings grew still—underwater still. The boy's eyelids fluttered one last time before his eyes came to rest on the milky void of the billowing fog. [End Page 42]
No sooner had Kang pulled into the service area than his cell phone beeped. His wife. Not an hour had passed since he had left home. Her voice when he answered was tinged with regret, even though she was the one who had urged him off to Mujin, leaving her and their daughter in Seoul, the one who had decided he should go to Mujin alone.
"Where are you?"
"I just pulled into a service area."
Kang wondered if she had called for a specific reason. Was she only now aware of the emptiness he had left behind? For a brief moment he felt for her, but the next instant he...