Excerpt from Whale
Part 3: The Factory
She can't breathe. Her eyes sting. Flames. Acrid smoke sears her nostrils. Spine-chilling screams. Black clouds blind her. Columns, the ceiling collapsing. Sparks flying, flames attacking her. A moment later, she opens her eyes. Her body is cool. The shadow cast against the wall by the grating is like a solid net. Someone sobs softly in the dark. She can hear the prison guard's boots echoing in the distance. She can hear someone shouting at the person crying. She curls up. The sobbing dies down. She closes her eyes. The footsteps recede. Tomb-like silence falls. Soon Chunhee is fast asleep again.
The conflagration was indeed horrific. Over eight hundred people perished in the fire, and even more in the market where it eventually spread. The damage was massive. It was no exaggeration to say that half of Pyungdae burned to the ground. It was the greatest tragedy since the war.
A few days after the fire, government investigators arrived. They were reminded of the horrendous scenes in the war's immediate aftermath, when entire cities vanished in flames. Pyungdae, once flourishing, was now a city of death. Smoke still rose from ruined heaps of former buildings, and though it had not completely collapsed, the ashen exterior of the theater [End Page 11] showed just how horrifyingly intense the fire had been. Pungent smoke blanketed the town and the air quivered with the smell of burnt flesh and rotting corpses. Wails emanated from every house and scorched, unburied bodies were strewn in the streets, each attracting swarms of flies. The investigators covered their eyes and ears, confronted with the most hideous scene they had ever witnessed.
When Chunhee returned to Nambaran, the factory was completely empty. After not being paid for months, and after learning of the fire, all the workers had dispersed. She felt abandoned. Though she lived in her own world, she was used to the bustle of people, and it was hard for her to endure such solitude. And she was hungry. Not a grain of rice remained. The situation was no different from before. She still couldn't understand what was going on. She recalled those who had disappeared, one by one. Geumbok and Mun, Jumbo and the twin sisters, the fishmonger and the one-eyed woman, and the workers at the factory. …
Chunhee eventually realized she was the only one left. She flinched at the whistle of a train rattling past. That was how she had gotten to Pyungdae. Only then did she remember that there was another world out there. There was the stable where she was born, and the place where the twin sisters had run the bar. Maybe the vanished twin sisters were still running the bar. She thought the train would take her somewhere, eventually.
Chunhee was pegged as the suspected arsonist by the police. She was the sole survivor of the fire. Many eyewitnesses saw her escape the raging flames. She had motive in abundance. The police guessed that after being left behind in the deserted factory, she burned the theater down to avenge being abandoned by her mother. Police were dispatched to the brick factory to arrest Chunhee, but she wasn't there. The factory had already shut its doors, and half-made bricks were scattered about. [End Page 12]
Around that time, Chunhee went to the train station, but she hadn't a single coin in her pocket. Even if she had money, she wouldn't have known how to buy a ticket. The train arrived while she stood there trying to figure out what to do. The passengers rushed toward the turnstile. Chunhee followed them. The station attendant noticed and stopped her. She was confused, and looked dumbfounded. When the whistle announced the train's departure, Chunhee shoved aside the attendant blocking her path and ran toward the train. As she passed through the turnstile, the train was already well on its way. But she kept running. Soon she tripped over a stone and fell. The train was heading out of the valley and disappearing. When she got back up, dozens of policemen had surrounded her with their guns drawn.
The police were surprised that Chunhee was the daughter of the theater owner and that she was fat and ugly, unlike her mother. They had no idea what to do when they realized that not only could this arsonist not speak, she seemed to lack reason, and was kind of a halfwit. That she couldn't speak made it difficult for the investigation to continue. During the interrogation, no matter how hard the police grilled her and how much they threatened her, their prime suspect only stared off into space.
They considered teaching Chunhee how to speak. But back then, anything that took too long was considered stupid, so they abandoned the idea. But they couldn't release their prime suspect just because she couldn't speak. So they persisted with their questioning. Somebody had to pay the price for this horrendous tragedy. It came to light, eventually, that Chunhee had once set fire to the dabang. This was enough proof for the police, who indicted her.
They drew up a several-hundred-page report and demanded that Chunhee sign it. But she didn't know how to use a pencil, so enormous effort went into getting her to hold it properly. Then, pointing to the signature box, they said she should write something there. As they waited with their last bit of patience, Chunhee looked back and forth between the pencil and the white paper and [End Page 13] finally began to draw something. After some time, she returned the document to the police, having drawn this:
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The officer examined it for a while, cocking his head, and said,
—Isn't it strange? How can someone who committed such a heinous crime make such a pretty drawing?
Another officer who looked at the drawing said,
—. Don't you know? They say that murderers actually tend to be good-natured.
—. What kind of flower is this?
—. Isn't it a sunflower?
—. Isn't it a little small for that?
—. Yeah, you're right.
It wasn't a sunflower. What she drew on the paper with such care was an erigeron. We don't know why she drew this flower in the signature box, but from the moment it captivated her when she first arrived at Pyungdae by train, the erigeron had been imprinted on her mind as the most intimate and familiar image, so maybe it wasn't so strange that she drew it on the document. As for the police, it didn't matter what it looked like, or what it was; as long as they'd gotten an actual "signature" from the suspect they were satisfied, and could finally end the lengthy interrogation.
The police put Chunhee on a train and sent her to a big city for trial. As she looked out the window, she recalled when she had taken the train with her mother to Pyungdae. She saw the vast sky and red clay furrows and the erigeron blooming by the railroad tracks; she remembered the landscape from that day in great detail. This is how Chunhee ended up leaving Pyungdae, a place she [End Page 14] hadn't left since she arrived holding her mother's hand. But now she was bound with rope like a criminal.
How aware was Chunhee of the tragedy of her own life? What was the nature of her soul, trapped in that enormous body? How much of the discrimination, indifference, hostility, and hatred shown to her by others did she really understand? If some of you are curious about these questions, then you are definitely more than qualified to become storytellers. Because narrative is an inquiry into the absurdity of existence. Providing an explanation is no simple matter. Only those who have an ulterior motive try to explain the world in the simplest possible way. They try to define it in a few lines, like the following phrase:
Everyone is equal before the law
Chunhee was not treated equally. The presiding judge, who happened to be one of the first women to hold such a position, decided as soon as she laid eyes on Chunhee,
—There's no way a woman can look like that. That's not a human being. That's a monster.
The moment she saw Chunhee, she was overwhelmed by a sense of shame and self-loathing at being a woman. She couldn't put her finger on the source of this hostility. Even before learning the exact crime Chunhee had been indicted for, she decided she could not try a monster and stormed out of the courtroom.
The daughter of a multi-millionaire, this lady had gone abroad to Japan to study. She became a judge and the envy of countless women, but because of her husband's philandering, she was always seething inside. Her anger and desire for revenge were sometimes directed against defendants in her courtroom, and Chunhee's arson trial was just such a case. Though the judge was clever, she had about as much sex appeal as an ordinary pebble in a streambed. Beneath the solemn garb of her judicial robe she concealed a secret. Mad with jealousy of the young, sensuous [End Page 15] women her husband ran around with, she regularly cut herself in the middle of the night. These ghastly, self-inflicted knife wounds were at the same time judgments against the women and penance for their crimes. As a result, her rulings were often harsh, especially if the defendant was a young woman. She once handed down a life sentence to a woman who stole a scarf from a department store, and the death penalty to a woman who committed adultery. How could there be such irrational sentencing, you might ask? Chunhee was locked up in the house of detention for over a dozen years without trial. Such sentences were not at all unusual during those years. The courtroom was merely a place for a defendant to try his or her luck. It had nothing to do with justice. That's just how things were during the era of The General.
It was a different world behind those crimson walls and barbed-wire fence. You worked on your muscles and learned how to use a knife. It was a school for criminals. It turned frightened boys into hardened savages and arrogant young men into old men gentle as lambs. It was where you could murder for a single cigarette, where you shat into paint cans and learned the finer art of buggery; it was a rectangular patch of land where time stood still: the penitentiary.
When Chunhee got off the escort van with the other convicts, these words were written on the façade of the penitentiary building:
We are not punishing you.
We are delivering you to virtue.
At first Chunhee felt like she'd been taken to another factory. The red bricks surrounding her were not unfamiliar. Needless to say, she had no concept of what a penitentiary was. That's why she thought it strange that she couldn't see a chimney, or a kiln for baking bricks. And another strange thing: the factory, which bustled with the activity of rugged men, was now filled to the brim with women. When she was placed in a cell with eight other female [End Page 16] convicts, she realized this place was different from the brick factory. Once the inmates saw Chunhee's enormous girth and menacing complexion, they cowered. They couldn't tell if she was male or female, and gave her a wide berth. But the chief inmate, who'd been a madam, was different. As a prostitute she got into a fight with a drunk customer. She shoved him, he cracked his head against a wall, and died. That was why she was incarcerated. Very fitting for a madam who'd made it on sheer tenacity and guts. As soon as she saw Chunhee, she tried to psych her out by yelling in her face:
—Hey bitch, all newcomers need to introduce themselves. Get your ass over here, now.
Of course Chunhee didn't respond, which scared her a little. Based on experience, it was always the silent ones, not the talkative ones, who were more frightening. But since the other inmates were watching, she couldn't back down.
—You have a hearing problem or something? Can't you understand what I'm saying?
She slapped Chunhee in the face, cursing like a drunken sailor. But she was about half her size. Chunhee showed no sign of distress, and just stared, dumbfounded, at the woman, confused as to why this person just hit her. Chunhee was puzzled, but her glaring eyes were frightening. The madam felt her knees wobble. Most women would have covered their face and burst into tears, but Chunhee just stared with indifference; she was definitely a force to be reckoned with. It was the madam who blinked.
—Alright, it's the first day so I'll stop there. If you get fresh from now on, you'll get what's coming to you.
Then she turned to the other inmates and said,
—From now on, this one's second in line after me, you understand?
The other inmates rushed to clear a space next to the madam. Chunhee stood there in a daze for a few moments before realizing [End Page 17] she should sit down in the space they'd made for her. This is how Chunhee became second in command.
The cell held all kinds of criminals: a nurse who used a scalpel to sever the carotid artery of her lover who was about to leave her, the young unwed mother who gave birth in a toilet and left her baby there to die, the housewife who poisoned her two daughters and husband by feeding them potassium cyanide, the shameless adulteress who lived in two households for twenty years and gave birth to eight children fathered by her paramours, and the gold-digger who scammed lonely widowers. As a result, though the cell was just three to four pyeong, it was always raucous. Every night, the unmarried mother pulled the covers over her head and sobbed, waking the other inmates and depressing the hell out of them. That's when the nurse would holler,
—If you cry like that one more time I'm going to cut your head off. I know dozens of ways to kill someone without a single weapon. As a nurse, I've acquired a ton of professional knowledge.
Now the unmarried mother was frightened that, at any moment, she could be offed by the nurse. The nurse liked to say a human body was so weak that from a medical perspective, it was just a giant balloon filled with blood. She would caress the unmarried mother's neck and whisper,
—So bursting that balloon takes no more than a long fingernail, you understand me, cry-baby?
Whenever this happened, it was the tenacious madam who took the unmarried mother's side. She would try to recruit prostitutes for her eventual release, and the unmarried mother was one of her targets. She told the inmates that being a prostitute was glamorous. You could make a lot of money and indulge yourself to your heart's content. Inmates who had led desperate lives perked up.
—If you're a woman, you're a prostitute anyway. You let your man use your snatch in exchange for some food and a place to live. The only difference from a prostitute is that she's lending her hole [End Page 18] to a lot of guys. But if you become a prostitute, you don't have to be tied down with one guy and can live freely.
She said if you wanted to leave the profession, all you had to do was change your mind. But she always reeked from the venereal diseases she had picked up from sleeping with so many men. Her secret notebook was filled with the names of women who promised to become prostitutes, about half of those in the penitentiary. If she had left the prison and set up a red-light district she would have been a huge success, but her life didn't turn out that way. That fall, before she ever got to use this secret notebook, she was executed by hanging. In response to the executioner's request for any last words, she mumbled the following:
—You sons-of-bitches, now all of you are shit out of luck when you're looking for somewhere to stick it.
Cyanide was always sweeping and mopping the cell floor. And she'd mutter something philosophical, like a verbal tic: "Life is nothing more than sweeping and mopping," confusing the hell out of the simple-minded inmates around her. She never talked about why she'd poisoned her two daughters and her husband. Then, a few days before she disappeared, she said, as if whispering to herself,
—What happened to them wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
The gold-digger and the adulteress would quarrel about whose crime had been worse. At the slightest provocation, things would devolve into hair-pulling and swearing that they would kill each other. It was true that both had exploited men, but the gold-digger attacked the adulteress by saying that at least she had the decency not to get pregnant, while the adulteress responded by saying she had the baby because she genuinely loved the man, that it wasn't to extract money from him, as had been the case with the gold-digger. Whenever the two seemed on the verge of killing each other, the madam stepped in and patched things up. She concluded that they were equally despicable. Meanwhile, people began to understand [End Page 19] that Chunhee was a simpleton who couldn't speak and, pretty soon, she fell to the bottom rank.
That was the logic of prison life.
—If there's someone among us who most deserves hanging, it's that mute bitch over there. Because she's the one who committed a horrifying mass murder.
The nurse said that one day, and pointed out Chunhee to the rest of the inmates. She'd heard somewhere that Chunhee was why thousands of people had died. The nurse knew this because one of her distant relatives burned to death in the Pyungdae fire. Probably more crucial was that Chunhee made the mistake of sitting on the nurse's prison meal, squashing it under the weight of her immense ass. Chunhee seemed sorry, and tried to unstick the clumps of rice from her butt, but the nurse wagged her finger and said,
—Yeah, it's a bit late for that honey. You're as good as dead.
From that point on, the nurse's strange hostility switched from the Unmarried Mom to Chunhee. She declared in front of the other inmates that she would kill Chunhee one day, using the most vicious method among the dozens of ways of killing at her disposal, but she never revealed what this would be. Instead, she told the other inmates that if they woke up one morning and found Chunhee dead, they shouldn't be too surprised.
Though Chunhee sank to the bottom of the totem pole, prison life wasn't all that bad for her. Once she became used to the strict regimen of waking, eating, and sleeping (including daily hard labor), she became a model inmate. At first, because of her enormous size, she attracted the attention of many other inmates, but their interest eventually drifted elsewhere. Because she was mute, she had nothing interesting to say, and she had no other remarkable attributes besides being unusually fat. What ended up attracting their attention again was her monstrous strength.
A few days after she'd been threatened by the nurse, Chunhee and the other inmates were taken outside for hard-labor duty. [End Page 20]
The original policy was that anyone awaiting judgment was exempt from hard labor, but according to the warden, "If they don't work, they don't eat," so they were all deployed for the road-expansion project. The work was difficult for female inmates, but the penitentiary believed in the credo that Men and women are physically equal. They were taken to the workhouse and issued spades and pickaxes. Sweat dripped like rain from the female inmates in the scorching mid-summer sun; most had never even touched a work tool before.
While they worked, armed male prison guards watched over them. They would ogle the women's curves, which became visible under their sweat-drenched clothes, and make casual jokes.
At one point in the day a big stone was found in the middle of the road, and the women began digging around to get rid of it, but discovered it was the top of a giant boulder. About fifteen inmates clung to it, attempting to shove it to the side, but it wouldn't budge. The situation felt hopeless; they couldn't build the road around it, or blast the boulder to bits without special equipment.
Then Chunhee, who'd been observing all this—who knows what was going on in her head?—squatted next to the boulder and placed her shoulders beneath it. People watched without really understanding what she was trying to do. Then her shoulders trembled and she really threw her back into it. The boulder, which hadn't budged for so long, began to rock from side to side. The inmates shouted. Chunhee used her legs and pushed the boulder, shifting it up and away, off to the side of the road. Jaws dropped as the inmates witnessed Chunhee's gargantuan strength, but she didn't stop there.
While everyone stood around Chunhee, clapping and praising her, a truck parked at the top of the hill began rolling toward them. The handbrake must not have been set. The inmates screamed and scattered. Who knew what Chunhee was thinking? Like her father, who once stood his ground when logs came tumbling toward him, she planted her legs. When the truck came [End Page 21] roaring face to face with Chunhee, the other women screeched and turned their heads, anticipating the most horrific scene. But the moment the truck collided with Chunhee, it stopped dead in its tracks with a loud crunch, without leaving a single scratch on her body. The inmates cheered again, praising her freakish strength, and making her the heroine of the women's penitentiary. But nobody could have known this event would turn her prison life into a living nightmare.
The warden of the prison was a complicated character. He was a pioneer of penology and an authority in correctional medicine, a physical anthropologist as well as a perverse lecher, not to mention a devout Christian elder. But, first and foremost, he was a follower of eugenics. He firmly believed that every criminal had a specific, characteristic gene, and committed crimes not due to his or her environment, but because he or she bore the seeds of downfall since birth. His term for them? "Garbage." To arrest them was "cleaning up" the garbage and "sorting" through it, and the penitentiary where the convicts were incarcerated was none other than the "dumping ground." After spending years in the army under The General, he thought he had found his God-given calling: cleaning up the garbage unleashed into society by The General himself.
From a secret location under the execution stand, he made sure to personally observe the "incineration" of the garbage, which, for him, was a moment of sheer ecstasy. He forbade the executioner from putting a hood over the condemned person's head, and when the noose was placed around the criminal's neck, the warden grew so excited he thought his erection would rip through the fabric of his trousers. He would lower his pants and masturbate as the criminal neared the moment of death. When the foothold was removed and the condemned dropped violently, writhing and dangling, the warden would climax, his whole body trembling with delight.
In order to fulfill God's calling and improve the overall quality of humanity's gene pool, the warden began carrying out a [End Page 22] policy that extended beyond his rightful dominion. That is to say, he began to implement sterilization procedures for his inmates. He forcibly subjected male inmates to vasectomy and tied the tubes of the female inmates to destroy their ability to reproduce. He called this "reclamation." Of course these operations were illegal procedures that violated the rights of the inmates, but they were an open secret within the penitentiary. The operations occurred on the last Sunday of every month following the church service, and involved the newest of the processed inmates, including those who had yet to receive a final judgment, regardless of their age. Because his belief in himself and his calling was so strong, he felt not one iota of guilt. This was the logic of zealotry.
Chunhee arrived at the penitentiary a month before such a sterilization session was to be carried out. After church, only the newly incarcerated inmates remained in the middle of the prison yard, and were moved to a storage facility used for surgery. The inmates who knew what was about to happen caused a commotion and refused to enter. What they got in return was baptism by billy club. Chunhee, who did not understand what was happening, followed the prison officer into the warehouse. The surgical station was filthy, causing inmates to become infected, or even die. Chunhee removed her clothes, along with the other unsuspecting women, and waited her turn in the corridor, listening to the screams from those being operated on without anesthesia.
Finally it was Chunhee's turn, but her enormous body made the officers gasp in shock. They had her lie down on the operating table, and though she didn't know what this procedure meant, she felt an instinctive fear and repulsion. The officer in charge of the surgery lifted the scalpel smeared with the blood of the previous patient and was about to make an incision in Chunhee's abdomen when the warden came in to observe. For some reason he decided to stop the surgery, and made her get up. He examined Chunhee as she stood there naked, scrutinizing with interest her enormous body and bone structure. [End Page 23]
—How bizarre. This girl bears no trace of the last several hundred years of evolution. Look at her chin. Types born with this kind of jaw disappeared three hundred years ago. And as for a cranium like this, you can only find it in a mummy.
He kept smacking his lips as though he'd discovered something marvelous.
—It would be wonderful if we could just preserve her whole body. This kind of specimen is rare. A girl like this—she's a priceless antique.
The warden looked again at Chunhee's giant naked body before continuing:
—It's going to have to be a big glass jar. A very big one. Thanks to the discerning anthropological eye of the warden, Chunhee avoided the procedure. It's impossible to know, however, what this meant to Chunhee. In the end, she wouldn't leave behind any of her genetic material.
Before the warden left, he gave Chunhee one last look and said,
—This girl's a Berkshire.
"Berkshire" referred to a region in England, as well as the kind of pig raised there.
From this point on, she was referred to as Berkshire. Years later, when the warden's flagrant violation of human rights became known to the rest of the world, it was reported to The General. He responded by chuckling with satisfaction, and said,
—The problem with that fella is that whatever he does, he always gives 110%. It's not a bad thing, you know. Whatever you do, you have to give 110%.
The warden continued his process of "reclamation" until his retirement. And every month after that, he went on receiving his government pension until he died at eighty-two. [End Page 24]
The women's penitentiary was separated from the men's prison by a wall. The prison officers could regularly gaze at the naked bodies of the female inmates. They became bored by the spectacle, but if the mood struck them, they would pick out an inmate to have their fun. The situation in the men's prison, by contrast, was bleak for the guards. But even then, the guards managed to create some source of amusement by way of a martial arts tournament held in the men's prison every Saturday night.
After dinner, the officers would flock to the specially prepared arena. The roughest, toughest prisoners were handpicked for the occasion, each "fighter" being selected and trained by an officer, thereafter known as his master. Special treatment would follow: the contestants were exempt from hard labor and received much higher quality food than other inmates. Some masters would invest in pricey herbal supplements to enhance their fighters' physical strength and spirit, such as hormonal pills used to breed pigs.
They lavished such attention on the fighters because of the huge cash prize equivalent to many years' salary, that whenever a potentially suitable inmate was processed, the guards fought amongst themselves to make him their own.
The only rule in the match was that there were no rules. There was no set game time. As long as you didn't use a weapon, it didn't matter if a fighter bit his opponent's neck or scooped out his eyeballs or broke his arm and maimed him or choked him to death. The more intense and horrific the match, the more enthusiastic the audience. In actuality, every match involved some bloodshed, broken bones, and ripped flesh. Many lost their lives or were permanently maimed. Still, to become a fighter was a coveted position. In addition to being excused from hard labor and receiving better food, the victor was allowed to nap in his prison cell and smoke, but above all, he was given access to a young, beautiful, female inmate. [End Page 25]
Before the match, the guards would take their fighters to the wall, allowing them a glimpse of the female inmates walking in the prison yard. Many of these criminals hadn't touched a woman in years and they would snort like an excited ox. The guard would then provoke the inmate:
—Why don't you pick a girl you like?'
The game was very inhuman and absolutely illegal, but nobody put a stop to the electrifying night of gambling. The warden knew full well that such a match was going on but, for the sake of morale, he was willing to turn a blind eye. So unless there was some special occasion, this mad game of death continued.
When Chunhee pushed the boulder to the side of the road and stopped the careening truck dead in its tracks, the feat was seen by a guard nicknamed Ladybird, because of the large moles on his face and his small physique. Because his appearance seemed to inspire hatred in others, his boyhood and puberty had been spent in a desolate shadow of confusion. He grew into a man cold as dry ice. His outward timidity, like a camouflaged ladybird, kept him under the radar. But he had a festering desire for power and a nature that took pleasure from inflicting agony.
One day, he let his true nature show when he beat a female inmate for pickpocketing. Until then he'd seemed relatively mild-mannered. The inmate lost all but two teeth. Her nose was flattened, and her jaw so shattered that nerves were damaged deep inside her head. After four days of excruciating agony, she hung herself. The incident, as usual, was overlooked, and didn't result in an investigation or disciplinary action. Ladybird would sometimes tell his colleagues,
—I like it when people are afraid of me.
When he saw Chunhee demonstrate her monstrous strength, he decided to have her participate in the martial arts match. While the guards from the men's prison envied the privileges of their peers guarding the women, they also mocked them. In other words, they were considered dandies fit only to wipe the [End Page 26] bottoms of gisaeng girls. Ladybird wanted to teach those guards a lesson they wouldn't forget. When he declared over lunch that he was going to put a female inmate in battle, they looked at each other, dumbstruck, and exploded in laughter. Then they mocked Ladybird, saying, "Maybe you've been smelling too much pussy lately and you've lost your goddamn mind."
He remained composed.
—Keep laughing. Laugh as much as you like. But if you want to prove that I'm crazy, you're going to have to put your money where your mouth is.
The rumor that Chunhee had been entered into the martial arts match spread like wildfire. The stubborn madam seemed thrilled by the news. She made a fist and said,
—Alright, just bite their dicks off is what you should do. This is your chance to show him what you're made of.
But the response of the nurse who'd been threatening to kill Chunhee was different.
—You might as well just die in the match. Because even if you make it back alive, I'm going to kill you. And it's going to be much more painful than getting beaten to death in the ring.
Saturday arrived without Chunhee knowing she had been entered into the match. That morning, Ladybird quietly escorted Chunhee into the bathroom and told her,
—All the money I made over the years wiping the asses of good-for-nothing bitches like you, I put into this fight. If you're defeated, then I lose everything, and I'll kill you. Neither of us wants that, do we now? You hear me?
Of course, Chunhee hadn't understood a thing. Despite being worried about her defective intellect, he tried to teach her one technique.
—Listen, Berkshire. You're not very bright and you're as slow as an elephant, but you're stronger than anybody out there. Once you get your hands on your opponent, you're going to be able to defeat him. So the moment you get the chance, you have to finish him. [End Page 27]
—Now, look at me carefully. Once you've got him in your grasp, turn his head to the side and smash your fist against his temple. I don't care how strong he is, he's going to lose consciousness. Then, before he wakes up, you just take his face in your hands and start chewing it off. Why? Because I don't care who you are, what your face looks like is fucking important to you. Even if he wakes up, when he realizes that his nose is gone, the fighting won't matter any more. He's just going to lose his damn mind. You get that, Berkshire?
Ladybird showed her the technique with great enthusiasm. For some reason, Chunhee nodded this time, with an idiotic smile, and appeared to have understood what he said. Ladybird smiled with satisfaction and squeezed Chunhee's shoulders.
—Alright, Berkshire. You're going to win me a lot of money. If you succeed, you'll get to fuck so many men your pussy will fall off.
The guards gathered early at the warehouse upon hearing it would be the first fight of man versus woman. The amount of money at stake was astronomical. Except for the few guards who'd seen Chunhee stop the truck dead in its tracks, everyone else bet on the male fighter. Most guards felt the battle of the sexes would end anti-climactically but, even before the fight began, the crowd in the warehouse was already heating up. This was because Chunhee's opponent was none other than the fearsome murderer called "Plasterman."
Years ago, this serial killer, who'd terrified the world, earned the nickname "Plasterman" with his grotesque antics of shoving his murder victim in a closet and sealing him into the wall. When he was arrested, they tore apart his entire house, finding the bodies of twenty-five women and children. Because of the bloodthirsty killer's bearlike strength and tremendous physique, he had to be gagged and thick metal chains used to restrain his arms, on top of other devices to bind him. When he emerged in the arena alongside a squadron of armed guards, the audience began to cheer. He'd [End Page 28] already displayed his viciousness in previous matches, and had never once disappointed. Soon nobody was willing to fight him, so for months he hadn't been able to participate. But Ladybird had selected Plasterman as Chunhee's opponent. The audience was swept away by the excitement and sadistic wonder of how viciously he would violate this female inmate. Their heads were swimming with all sorts of horrifying and erotic projections.
At last, Chunhee appeared in the arena with Ladybird, disappointing the audience by the image she presented. It wasn't quite the female form they had in mind, but some howled at her extraordinary size and began to think that maybe the match might actually be close enough to be exciting. The two fighters sat on the chairs set on opposite sides of the arena and looked at each other. That's when Plasterman realized his opponent was a woman. He turned, dumbfounded, toward his master and said sullenly,
—Shiiit, are you telling me to fight her or fuck her?
The audience exploded in laughter. The only ones who didn't laugh were Chunhee and Ladybird, who leaned close to Chunhee's ear and whispered,
—Get a good look at that nose, Berkshire. That's what you're going to bite off.
When the signal announced the start, Plasterman charged at her like a brown bear that had spotted a salmon in the water.
—Alright, why don't I kill her first. I can always fuck her afterward.
Chunhee looked confounded by the countless men who'd suddenly appeared around her. Plasterman let out a bestial scream and pounced, toppling her backward. He climbed on to her stomach and lifted his boulder-like fist to pound her face (his legendary punches were said to be powerful enough to completely flatten a skull). Chunhee barely managed to roll out of the way, causing his fist to strike the concrete floor, which caved in and cracked. She didn't quite understand why Plasterman was attacking her. The murderous glint in his eyes frightened her. [End Page 29]
He became more irritated and began swinging his fists again. Though confused, she managed to seize his arm. He tried freeing himself, but with his arm still in her grasp, she got back on her feet. The audience groaned in disbelief at her strength.
Though she'd managed to subdue Plasterman, she didn't know what to do next. His face flushed, and the more he tried to wrench away his arm, the more scared Chunhee became and gripped him more tightly. But that was all she was capable of doing.
Ladybird, watching from the side, kept yelling, "Bite it off!" The audience kept cheering her on to fight, but frozen by fear she couldn't hear anything. She kept Plasterman's arm held tightly and yelled at him in her mind:
Stop! You're scaring me!
At that moment, with a loud crunch, Plasterman's arm broke like a dry branch, the bone piercing skin, blood spurting through the wound. He cried out in agony. The audience exclaimed, shocked by Chunhee's monstrous feat. But the sight of blood frightened Chunhee even more, causing her to release her grip and run toward the exit, shoving away the guards stationed there to make her escape. Ladybird yelled for her to come back, but she wouldn't stop.
She ran through the darkness till she was breathless, trailed by the sounds of men chasing after her. She was afraid of their rough barks, and Plasterman's scary face. She ran even faster. This certainly wasn't the brick factory she'd been thinking of. She couldn't understand how she'd ended up in such a strange and horrifying place, and wanted to run far, far away. At that moment, she tripped over a rock and fell. When she stood back up, she saw a red-brick wall stretching from left to right in front of her, as far as her eye could see. She walked toward the wall, and touched the red bricks with her hands. She was trapped.
Her keen senses told her these were not just ordinary bricks. They were the very bricks she and Mun had made together at the factory. She remembered Mun's face and the feel of the clay. [End Page 30]
She remembered Geumbok and Jumbo, as well as the faces of the twin sisters. The moment she touched the bricks, she realized that everything, and everyone, had disappeared and that they would not be coming back. Tears streamed down her face, the first tears she'd shed after arriving at the penitentiary.
That's when she found an erigeron blooming at the foot of the wall. This was the flower that had bloomed not just around the factory grounds but also along the train tracks when she'd arrived at Pyungdae for the first time, holding Geumbok's hand. Delighted, she reached down to touch the flower, but at that moment, her surroundings lit up bright as day. From a distance, the observation tower was training its searchlight on her.
Chunhee had been defeated. Though she'd broken Plasterman's arm, she had fled the arena, thereby forfeiting her victory. Ladybird lost everything. Later, Chunhee was led to the guard room to meet Ladybird, sitting there alongside other guards. He was ready to burst into tears.
—Listen, Berkshire. The worst thing you can do in this world is steal someone's dream. It's worse than taking that person's life. But, Berkshire, you turned all my hopes and dreams to ashes. You've probably been planning to destroy my life from the start. A bitch like you has to die.
Then, unable to hold back his fury, he leapt up and began trampling all over her with his boots.
—You fucking pig! I've seen some terrible bitches in my day but you're the worst. How can you act like that while pretending to be a human being, huh? Die, bitch! Die!
She crouched to take cover, but Ladybird just beat her mercilessly with his billy club. The other guards, who were playing poker, watched, amused by the spectacle. The beating went on, breaking her fingers, drawing blood that streamed from her head, which had been split open. At last, Chunhee began to [End Page 31] feel angry. When her nose was shattered along with some of her teeth, and when she tasted the salt of her blood, she exploded, reaching out to grab the billy club. She looked at Ladybird's flushed face and recalled a scene from her memory. She punched Ladybird in the temple and he lurched backward. Then she rushed toward him, took hold of his head and like an animal began tearing away at his face with her teeth. The other guards tried to separate them. But it was not easy to subdue the strongest person in the penitentiary. They also drew their billy clubs to beat her to no avail. Ladybird's face soon became a bloody mess, his nose and ear now torn off.
Chunhee let out a loud howl. Her revenge was savage, brutal. She had been beaten so severely that she was close to death. Finally, they were able to restrain her and locked her in solitary confinement in a windowless room as black as coal. She was scared. She tried to move her body but was strapped down. She could only lie where she was, listening to the squirming legs of insects crawling across the floor.
Her mind took her back to the scene of the theater on fire, what seemed like a long time ago. She saw the column of flames surge from the ground and heard people screaming. Smoke filled her eyes and the images changed. Now she could see the night when her mother was raped. A flash of lightning revealed Geumbok's white thigh. The scene changed again, this time to Plasterman's broken arm, the bone jutting through torn flesh. Her body was now soaking wet, and she believed herself to be oozing blood from every pore. Yes, there was blood, but also sweat. She wanted to scream from fear, but she could barely draw another breath. Then, with a loud clang, light poured into the room, nearly blinding her. A metal tray of food fell to the floor. The door slammed shut again, bringing the darkness back.
Ladybird didn't die. After ten hours of surgery they managed to save his life. Torn flesh dangled like rags from his face, and bone was exposed where Chunhee had chewed away with her sharp [End Page 32] teeth. Doctors spent the whole night trying to wire his demolished face back together.
A month later the bandages were removed. He examined his face in the mirror. What he found in the reflection was the image of a hideous monster. The molar was still visible through the hole in his cheek, and his nose holes where his nostrils used to be were predominant. Red scars from the crude stitches were vividly grotesque. He punched the mirror with his fist and stopped eating and drinking. He spent days under a blanket, his fury boiling.
The doctors eventually made him an aluminum mask, and the moment he put it on, looking at himself again in the mirror, it strangely brought him peace. He realized that through this mask he could conceal the fear and shame he'd felt, and which had driven him into hiding. Even the spots that had been the inspiration for his nickname were hidden. He looked in the mirror again and nodded.
—Alright. This isn't so bad.
As he nodded, someone's face came to mind. It was none other than the face of Berkshire—or Chunhee.
By the time Ladybird was discharged and returned to the penitentiary Chunhee had also been returned to prison. Her cellmates had only one thought in mind when they heard of Ladybird's imminent return: That mute bitch is good as dead.
That morning, Chunhee lay in bed, dreaming she was back in the grass thicket near the brick factory. The whole world was caressed by the light of a full moon. She was naked and the warmth of the summer air caressed her bare flesh. Then, suddenly, the moonlight was bright as daylight. In a flash, the whole world became bleached with white light that stabbed her eyes. She closed her eyes tightly, but the penetrating rays pierced her lids and needled her retina. She covered her eyes with her hands and screamed, falling to the floor, writhing. The agony gradually abated, and she removed her hands. The light was still sharp, but it [End Page 33] was bearable, and she could make out the shape of a man standing before her. Was he real? Or a figment of her dream? She looked up at him, squinting for a better look. He was wearing a mask that glinted in silver. Through the two holes around the eye area, two pupils glinted menacingly. He brought his masked face close to Chunhee's, and with a dark, damp voice that seemed to echo from a deep cavern, he said,
—I see you're still alive, Berkshire.
Chunhee realized whose voice it was. It was Ladybird. He seemed so deeply moved as he pulled her close to him for an embrace. Then he said with a trembling voice,
—You don't know how afraid I was that you might die. But you didn't disappoint me this time, Berkshire. I'm so relieved. You can't die so easily, oh no, you can't.
Standing before Chunhee, Ladybird removed his aluminum mask, revealing the image of a monster, more disfigured than anything imaginable.
—Take a good look, Berkshire. This is the face you created. You can't really call something like this human, could you?
Chunhee was frightened at the sight and looked away.
Ladybird put his mask back on and said,
—Don't worry, Berkshire. I'm not going to kill you, and I'm not going to let anyone else kill you, either. Because that will bring you unimaginable happiness.
Mask, formerly Ladybird, now saw his life reorganized to focus on one clear objective: vengeance. After losing everything, revenge became his sole reason for existence, and the object of this vengeance—Chunhee—was the only thing that held any meaning in his life.
What he did to Chunhee is unthinkable in terms of what one human being can do to another. First he stripped her completely naked and moved her again to solitary confinement, to another dark room, this one no bigger than thirty-five square feet. She had to shit and piss and eat her meals in the same spot where she had [End Page 34] shat and sleep there as well. Once in a while, the guards would open the door and prod her body with a stick to see if she was dead. She reeked; her body was covered in her own excrement.
At some point, the cramped room began to teem with maggots, on the ceiling and the walls and covering everything, so that when she woke, maggots would be stuck to her face, crawling over her lips and her eyelids.
But this was just the beginning. Soon Mask began his full-scale torture campaign against her. Dear reader, I hope you will understand that what Chunhee had to endure as a woman is so atrocious and terrible that I cannot bear to convey it in writing, except that every time Chunhee screamed from wretched agony, he would whisper to her,
—Berkshire, you still don't know what real agony is. It still hasn't begun. So please don't disappoint me by being such a crybaby, okay?
He also took pleasure in sharing his plans with Chunhee.
—Do you want me to tell you one thing I have in mind? I'm going to skin you alive, from head to toe. But I'm not going to kill you. You're going to look at your own flayed body with your own two eyes. What do you think, Berkshire? Don't you think it'll be fun?
Like an anatomist, he would calmly and rationally seek out Chunhee's most sensitive nerve to torture her so that her screams could be heard throughout the prison. The nurse who heard these sounds from the distance would grab the iron bars of her cell and whisper to herself,
—That asshole's going to end up killing that dumbass bitch before I can get my hands on her.
But Chunhee wouldn't—couldn't—die. Mask fed her stimulants so that she wouldn't pass out and even prepared a dose of adrenalin in case her heart stopped. He gave her injections of a nutritional supplement, and like a rare animal kept for a clinical experiment, Chunhee was thoroughly taken care of. [End Page 35]
The torture continued every day without fail. So that she would not become immune to her agony, he always sought out a fresh nerve to work on. In all this wretched pain, she could feel her physical body being slowly erased. Instead, her peculiarly keen senses remained and began groping around the darkness. Time stopped completely and, in the cramped cell, the darkness expanded into the infinite vastness of space. Then the entire world was filled with darkness. And in that darkness, new light and images began to emerge. For Chunhee this was a new experience. She saw more and more illusions. Past scenes of her life were opened like time machines before her.
Just like Mun who had gone blind, she could step back and forth between the past and present, at times reuniting with all the people around her who had vanished. Geumbok and Mun, the twin sisters and the fishmonger. … And from the distant darkness, Jumbo the elephant began walking toward her. Jumbo was much bigger than he'd been before, as big as a mountain, and wrapped in a mysterious splendor. Chunhee's eyes were blinded by the light pouring from Jumbo's body so that she had to shield her eyes.
—. Where are you?
Chunhee asked Jumbo.
—. I'm not anywhere. I disappeared a long time ago.
Jumbo answered brightly.
—. Then what is this that I'm seeing now?
—. Haha, my little lady. It's just what's in your memory.
—. How's that possible if you've disappeared?
—. That's why memories are mysterious.
—. Then how come I'm not disappearing?
—. That's simple. It's because you're not dead yet.
—. But I want to disappear. It's too hard here. I'm so lonely. …
—. My little lady. Don't be such a cry-baby. It's still a blessed thing, to be alive.
—. Do you think it's this painful for other people?
—. I'm not sure but things were tough for me once too. But there's no life that's worse than death. [End Page 36]
There was no end to Chunhee and Jumbo's questions and answers. And in this dark expanse, she found a ray of light. She was able to transcend her circumstances by embarking on a journey of her memories.
—It's a huge mistake for you to think you're lucky just because you're still alive. Even when I get out, I can still kill your mute ass. I can get the other inmates to kill you, or I can slip some poison into your meals.
The nurse had received the order of discharge and was collecting her things. Five years had passed since Chunhee had been incarcerated. She looked at Chunhee, who just stared back at her blankly, and sighed deeply:
—To be honest, I'm not sure if you're someone who's really worth killing. It's meaningless to kill a bitch who doesn't even deserve to be killed. But don't think you're in the clear. I can always change my mind.
Before she left, she whispered her last words:
—Let me tell you a secret since you're a mute. I was the one who killed Mask—that asshole. So you might say that I'm your savior, but you don't need to thank me. I just didn't like the idea that he'd be killing you instead of me.
This was the moment when the mystery of Mask's death—which had been the biggest mystery in the history of the penitentiary—was solved. But the nurse never revealed how she killed him. Nobody would ever know for certain, except for her.
After the nurse was released she set up a whorehouse. This was possible because she happened to get her hands on the secret notebook left behind by the madam, who'd been executed. The notebook had a list of names of women who'd been contracted to work as prostitutes. The business did well and she said to the men who came to her seeking consolation for their loneliness: [End Page 37]
—Please be careful. These girls are like sacks of water balloons. They can pop just like that.
Mask's revenge came to an end with his own abrupt death. While on his nightly patrol, he collapsed on the floor of the corridor, grabbed his throat, and started gagging. Blood began spurting from all over his body and he died. The incident had been entirely unexpected. It was true that his face had been devastated by Chunhee, but his health had been fine; the guards thought his death strange. The order came down from the warden to conduct an in-house investigation, but there was no evidence of homicide. In the end, it was ruled a death from an unknown cause.
Berkshire was returned to the cell with the other inmates. Years went by and Chunhee grew older and past her prime. When she was in the penitentiary, inmates and guards would come and go. Stories about Mask, Plasterman, the nurse, and the madam—she'd long ago forgotten about them. The story about Chunhee's monstrous strength as well as how she'd chewed off Mask's face was also forgotten. The jail cell filled with new stories about new inmates. This was the logic of the penitentiary. Berkshire became the most senior inmate, but nobody paid any attention to her. Even the warden who once showed a great interest in her in terms of physical anthropology had also completely forgotten about her. Chunhee's life of incarceration was filled with silence and forgetting. She was afraid of people, and was always looking for a corner to hide in. Her sensibility, tender and pure as a budding shoot, had been deeply wounded. But if there was a trick to turn this wound into distorted hatred or conniving vengeance, she didn't know anything about it. Pain was simply pain; it was never converted into something else. The wound never healed and agony settled in the middle of her heart like a solidified fossil. This was the way it was with Chunhee.
Every time Chunhee lay down and closed her eyes, she dreamed she would disappear without a trace like the people in her [End Page 38] previous life. But when she opened her eyes, all she could see was the prison. So she would take trips into the past in her memory, recalling the method she'd learned when subjected to Mask's ruthless torture.
She met with Jumbo the elephant and the twin sisters. Their faces were always radiant. The brick factory with the countless blossoming erigerons was also another of her favorite destinations. But the moment she liked best was when she'd been inside her mother's belly. This was what she desired most. While she remained in the realm of fantasy, days went by uncounted, and a new situation emerged. [End Page 39]
Cheon Myeong-gwan is a novelist and screenwriter. He debuted as a writer in 2003 with the short story "Frank and I," which received the Munhakdongne New Writer Award, and received the 10th Munhakdongne Novel Award in the following year with Whale. He also received the Ku Sang Literary Award in 2015 for his short story "Homecoming." He has also written Modern Family, My Uncle Bruce Lee, and This Is a Man's World.
Jae Won Chung was born in Seoul, grew up in Philadelphia, received his graduate training in New York, and currently resides in Boulder, where he teaches Korean literature, film, and popular culture. His translations have appeared in Azalea, Washington Square Review, and Asia Literary Review. His fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal.