- 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...