The world I saw first was like a stage: a white paper cutout sun glittering on a pale two-dimensional sky, the wobbly silhouette of a tall poplar tree as if a child had drawn it, thick clouds of dust in the distance, and the colossal white ship moving slowly down the middle of a road.
White flowers and a long white sheet covered the ship. Each time it moved forward, the sheet billowed like laundry drying on a line. At first, I thought there were huge white birds covering the ship, flapping their wings at once. The ship was so enormous you couldn't see what was on top, but there were wheels hidden at the bottom, rolling laboriously over the asphalt. What pulled that ship forward were countless people, every one of them dressed in white. Their sweating faces were red as lumps of raw meat. The sun bore down; no shade could be found. An old veteran trailed after them, violently swinging his lone remaining arm. Slung sash-style over a shoulder was a large tin box, which flashed in the light. He spewed unintelligible words, spat loudly, and then cackled. A puppy was half-submerged in the black water of the stinking ditch. The world was white and red at once. Everything glinted, both bright and dark. [End Page 215]
It must have been the puppy I'd lost. Two nights ago when I woke suddenly, the frosted glass door was open, and I saw through the mosquito screen the fuzzy outline of murky shadows huddled under the dim porch light. I heard the night's secretive, ominous whispers. They said a thief had climbed the wall and stolen eggs and clothes from the laundry basket. As he was running away, he had dropped the chipped wrought iron mirror hanging on the porch post, the one my mother had brought from Japan. He had left sandy footprints all over the blue-tile floor.
And the puppy's gone, a voice had said.
The thief must have stolen the puppy.
As I fell back asleep, I remembered how I had lengthened the leash too much that afternoon and the puppy had fallen into the ditch. It didn't have a name. Someone had given it to me recently for my birthday. I didn't know where I'd come from, or where the puppy had come from. A hand pulled out the filthy puppy. Disoriented, it tottered drunkenly. It's going to die soon, a voice said. I was scared it would die. Like the way a paper boat floating in a washtub will eventually sink. Someone took the dirty puppy from me and grabbed hold of my hand.
The thief must have stolen the puppy.
When I woke the next morning, I was told it had all been a dream, that a thief hadn't come, that he hadn't stolen anything, that he hadn't dropped the chipped wrought iron mirror my mother had brought from Japan, that he hadn't left behind sandy footprints, that I hadn't woken in the middle of the night, that the frosted glass door leading to the porch hadn't been open, that I hadn't seen the murky shadows through the mosquito screen or heard the whispers about the thief, that the mirror had fallen and cracked on its own, that, yes, the puppy had disappeared on its own, because nothing bad actually happens after a mirror breaks, because what a mirror once reflected is never again reflected to the world, and the things guaranteed to happen remain simply promises; there is no thief, and thus no puppy, and the puppy lives [End Page 216] forever inside a mirror; therefore we will stay here and get on a bus someday, and words once spoken will come true.
I needed to fish out the puppy. Countless people, the countless people wearing identical white clothes and white towels on their heads, with red sweating faces, were using ropes to pull the ship. The one-armed soldier beat his tin box and sold ice pops made from cherry-red syrup. The ship moved slowly over the bumpy asphalt, its wheels clattering ever so slowly, slow enough to make my chest hurt. The puppy was in the ditch. The leash I had lengthened. I stepped past the front gate. I planned to stop at the ditch. It was just a few steps away. Any farther scared me. I had never gone beyond the gate on my own. That instant, the ship blocked my view and panted like a dying white whale, the clatter of its wheels piercing my young ears. A giant millstone seemed to be turning mercilessly in my eardrums. Was it the shouts of the people I heard? Or the boom of cannons coming from the port? Or the singing of the marines, coming from the train? Or the cursing of the one-armed soldier? Or the one-armed soldier slamming shut the lid of his tin box? Or the ship's white flowers and white sheet cracking, flapping in the wind?
The puppy was half-submerged in the black water. I stretched out my hand, but couldn't reach it. I couldn't tell if it was my puppy. Its body was black and I didn't know whether the thin cord around its neck was my pink ribbon, which we'd used as a leash, or the umbilical cord of a dead rat that had been tossed into the ditch. It was then that she appeared. The girl who looked about ten years old stood in front of the white ship. It was as if she had flown off the ship. She wore a sleeveless smock dress of black muslin with black rubber shoes. When our gazes met, she smiled brightly at me, flashing buckteeth bigger than I'd ever seen. Sleek greyhounds streaked into a cloud of dust. Similar-looking boys with similar expressions and movements followed. They were from the orphanage, silent boys with shaved heads and skin darkened by the sun, who marched in line with bowed heads, who carried shovels [End Page 217] over their shoulders, who dug graves in silence, these secret soldiers belonging to an unknown regiment.
The girl laughed and trotted toward me. She was the first stranger I'd ever met. She soon became me and my entire world. I forgot about the puppy. The white ship moved past at an unbelievably slow speed.
She took hold of my hand and we started to walk. She wasn't a goddess who had soared off the ship, and neither was she following the ship. She was just a girl with buckteeth in an old black muslin dress and torn rubber shoes, a girl standing along dusty railroad tracks; she had nothing to do with the rumbling ship. Not once did she stop smiling at me. She sat down on the side of the road, removed her shoes, and shook the dirt out of them, and then out of mine as well. She drew water from a well and drank, and then held the bucket to my lips and made me drink. She lingered in front of the pointed arch gate of the orphanage and peeked at the boys who resembled the hounds. Behind a green lattice gate stretched a wide sandy field, and beyond that, the orphanage with its pale green roof, which made me think of a castle from a fairy tale. When the boys and dogs disappeared into the building, all that remained were the tracks they had left behind. The girl's dark sunburned face turned a little red. But not once did she let go of my hand, and not once did she stop smiling at me. The unpaved dirt road was thick with midsummer dust, the grass on the side of the road was withered, and green frogs were gobbling up fat flies in a dried-up creek. The girl laughed at the sight. A train sped by, filled with marines. We removed our shoes and hopped across the rails in our bare feet.
"They'll be hot as a furnace," the girl said.
When the direction of the wind changed, the stench of the river drifted faintly in the air. The poor lived at the mouth of the river, where it met the ocean. The girl lifted her skirt and showed me a scab on her upper thigh, where a dog had bitten her.
"I rubbed spit on it for ten days and it got better," she said.
She opened her mouth, coated a finger with saliva, and [End Page 218] spread it over the wound. She offered to do the same for me, but I had no such wound.
My legs were hurting and I was tired. I had never traveled so far.
"I'm your sister," she said, noticing my fatigue.
I didn't know what that meant, but she said it again.
"I'm your big sister."
It sounded like a pledge, as if she were saying I had to follow her for the rest of my life. As if I now belonged to her worn black dress, her dirty arms and legs, her torn rubber shoes, the wound on her thigh, and more than anything, her huge buckteeth. As if all these things would become mine someday. I found the words wonderful, but they scared me too. Still, I liked the way she laughed, bright as a carnival in the daytime, blue as the tiles by the front door, dark as a wrought iron mirror.
We arrived at a shabby hut in the valley, close to the river mouth. Though the hut was dark, its golden thatched roof shimmered brilliantly in the sun, as if it would catch fire any second. We stepped into a small desolate yard. There was no dog, no garden blooming with cockscomb, no child's bike, no blue-tiled entrance where a chipped wrought iron mirror hung, no grape or pomegranate trees, no fragrant wooden floor, no chickens or pigs. In the corner was a stone water jar with a cracked wooden bowl. The girl removed my shoes and helped me onto the narrow raised floor, and headed to a room as dark as a cave. She waved her hand to shoo away the whining flies.
When she leaned toward the darkness, her black hair fell across her cheeks, like the shadow of a willow tree shaking in the wind.
"Mother, we thought she was gone, but I found her!" she whispered loudly.
The woman, who was lying on the floor like a rotten log, slowly raised her head and looked at me. When the girl gave me a gentle push, the woman stretched out a bony black arm and groped for me, madly clutching at my hand, my clothes, my hair. [End Page 219]
"Oh, my baby, my puppy! I thought you'd drowned in the ditch, but you're alive!"
"I told you she didn't die. Look, she's alive. She's right here," the girl said.
"I was sure you were dead. But you've been alive all this time! Look how much my puppy's grown! I thought you'd died as a little baby when I dropped you in a ditch. Oh, you don't know how sorry I've been."
The woman's hand smelled bad. Not just her hand, but her whole body reeked of rotting fish. I didn't want her to touch me. I shrank back.
"You won't die now, right?" the girl said.
"Who said I was dying? I'm not going anywhere," the woman said, but nothing changed—not her ashen face, her arm as frighteningly thin as a dead tree branch, her yellow pupils, or the horrible stench of her body.
She collapsed back onto the floor. She panted for a while and then fell asleep, as though fainting. Thinking she had died, I fell into a strange despair. I felt like crying and thought my heart would burst. The girl took me into the next room and hugged me tightly. I could feel our ribs, thin and supple like squid cartilage, rising and falling against each other's chests, and our small young hearts pounding like pestles in a mortar. The small room was used for storage; strewn about were empty grain sacks, cracked bowls, a wicker trunk missing its brass handle, and dirty blankets. When night fell, the girl struck a match to light a kerosene lamp and adjusted the wick. She cleared a space on the floor and managed to find the least dirty blanket, a green-and-red silk quilt. Again she swatted away the mosquitoes that darkened our vision, and stood on tiptoe to let down the mosquito net. The net dropped over my head. The inside became a small cocoon just for us. Soon the stench of the river seeped inside, and the smell of rotten fish grew stronger. From every crumbling crack in the wall, vermin began to whine. The train [End Page 220] rumbled past. The singing of young marines, together with the noise of the train, beat relentlessly at the mosquito net, the walls, the night sky, our ribs, as though to smash everything to pieces. The girl helped me out of my clothes and said once again: "I'm your big sister."
I had never traveled so far.
The next day people flocked to the hut where the dying woman and the girl with the buckteeth lived, where spiders nested in the cupboard instead of things to eat, where grey soot was heaped in the firepot instead of embers, where wicked rats occupied the storeroom instead of rice. The neighboring women had pleaded with the doctor to examine the woman before he went to the clinic.
With skin as clear and fair as milk and no sign of facial hair, the plump doctor in the white gown looked young—twenty-two at most—and inexperienced, as though he had never even touched a dead mouse. From the moment he entered the room, he was overcome by the stench and his face drained of all color, as if he would faint. He fumbled open the woman's shirt, his hands trembling, and when he saw her dirty bandage soiled with blood and pus he became flustered, not knowing whether he should place the bell of the stethoscope on top of the bandage or remove the bandage to place the stethoscope directly on the sore. After flailing his hands uselessly, he pretended to listen to her heart, cast about an anxious, bewildered gaze, wiped sweat from the nape of his neck, coughed, and tried to look as if he were pondering the woman's illness while the other women cleaned away the blood and pus. He then packed his bag, rubbed his damp socked feet on the floor, and hurriedly slipped his feet into his shoes, which had been placed before him. Ashen, as if he had become the patient, he murmured to one of the women. A wail erupted, like waves crashing inside a cave. Then he fled. [End Page 221]
"It's breast cancer," the crying woman said.
"Didn't the other doctor say that?" said an older woman. "What else did he say?"
"He said she needs to go to a hospital," said the first woman.
"The other doctor said that too. There's nothing new?"
"At this rate, she'll rot before she dies."
"The other doctor said the same thing."
"He said not to call again. There's no point in him coming."
"Why do doctors always say the same thing?"
"I don't know. That was all."
When the people left, the girl took from the woman's room a dented galvanized pot that was used as a chamber pot, emptied it in the outhouse, and washed it in the ditch in front of the hut. With a small trowel, she even scooped up my poo from the corner of the yard and threw it away. I'd assumed the disease had turned the woman's face dark, but when I looked closely, I saw she was blotchy with burns. The girl said it was from napalm dropped by the Americans during the war. Flies clung ceaselessly to her dark face. The girl told me to shoo them away, but I couldn't enter the room, let alone sit beside the woman, because of the smell. Even worse, placed beside her head was a chipped china bowl containing two rotten eggs—a cure prescribed by the shaman.
Every time I looked at the woman, I thought she had died, and I would fall into a strange despair; I felt like crying and thought my heart would burst, but to my shock the woman sat bolt upright each time and let out an unintelligible shriek.
The girl and I headed for the well, she holding a rusted can in one hand and my hand in the other. On the way, she peered through the gate at the orphanage. In the middle of the sandy field shimmering with sunlight, a tall lean boy in a white undershirt and black shorts dangled upside down from an exercise bar. He was hushed and completely still, with hands drawn to his chest and his shadow a blemish on the sand. As if he were an angel being punished.
The girl drew water from the well and filled the can. We washed [End Page 222] our faces and drank. She wet her hand to comb my hair with her fingers and also smoothed her own hair. We walked hand in hand down the long and wide main road, high wooden boards running endlessly along each side. We saw utility poles plastered with red posters, smoke shops, wheelbarrows loaded with sand, and poplar trees. We followed women toting baskets on their heads and babies strapped to their backs; we followed old people, and child servants carrying wooden bowls. At last, we arrived at a market. It was my first time at a market. Throngs of people, clamorous shouts, a freight bicycle with a high-backed seat and a bell that went ting-a-ling, the soggy ground, and the young pig merchant who dragged around a stubborn piglet he called Pretty that dug in its heels, leaving long grooves in the dirt. There were stalls selling fish, headless chickens, ham hocks, sides of hogs, red bean buns, boiled candy, Japanese monaka, and needles and thread. The girl mostly wandered the alley where they sold snacks on braziers. A few people put rice, noodles, dumplings, and dried fish in her empty can. We shared the food, eating with our hands. When our legs began to hurt, we rested in a corner, watching the people walking by. The pig merchant returned, wearing a wide grin, with a warm donut in each hand. Donuts just fried and sprinkled with coarse sugar. We ate them frantically, licking our fingers, as he ogled between the squatting girl's legs. "Hey, Pretty," he said, "Where do you live? Pretty, where do you live?"
The old egg vendor, who had lost all but her two front teeth, cackled as she watched. It was then that I saw a picture of myself on a utility pole, squeezed between the red posters. It had been taken recently, on my birthday in front of the wrought iron mirror. I was smiling, holding the puppy before it had drowned. I could only recognize my name and a few letters. I hadn't yet learned to read. I sensed the meaning behind certain vowels and consonants, but at that instant everything dashed into pieces, floated into the air, and scattered. [End Page 223]
The next morning when we went again to the market, we found uniformed policemen standing at the entrance of the alley with the snack stalls. People were acting differently from the way they had the day before. The girl squeezed my wrist and froze.
We were filled with inexplicable dread. The pig merchant saw us from a distance and motioned for us to not come any closer. We turned around without understanding and started to walk. We sat on the side of the street and peered through the arch gate at the orphanage. We plucked flower petals and ate them, rubbed our bare feet in the sand, and chased bees with our eyes. When the girl saw a white butterfly, her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open. But then it vanished too quickly. It was the start of a long day without any donuts. The higher the sun rose, the deeper the world sank into a stifling hush. A kind of hush as if the hounds had fallen into a ditch and drowned.
A jeep passed by, stirring up clouds of dust. It stopped, even though we hadn't waved.
A nice-looking young man stuck his head out the window. "You want a ride?" he asked.
He had smooth, gleaming hair. We nodded. When he motioned to us to get in, we climbed happily into the backseat. He was dressed in a suit and had a pipe in his mouth. He smelled like new suits, pomade, and fragrant tobacco.
"Where to?" he asked with a smile.
"The sea," said the girl.
We were soon there. Under the hot sun on the vast stretch of shore, the boys from the orphanage were frolicking amidst the waves. The hounds, their tongues dangling limply from the heat, bounded in and out of the water after them. The boys were quick and nimble, but moved as if dictated by a strict code. No one laughed, talked, chattered, or hollered; none of the dogs barked. No one was happy or unhappy. They were mere shadows, the only things staining the shore. They were directed by the mood and movement of the waves, which they mimicked until they grew tired. [End Page 224]
The man in the jeep let us out and waved goodbye, and the girl and I stood in the shade of the pine trees, watching the boys with their dogs. Greyhound. The word crossed my mind and vanished. I couldn't help thinking that someone had once whispered that word into my ear after seeing those dogs.
To live means to remain forever inside a mirror; therefore we will stay here and get on a Greyhound someday.
But the girl was watching the boys, not the greyhounds. In the shade of the pine trees, she sat hugging her knees, her gaze fixed on the silhouettes wavering in the hot, dazzling light.
The sea lulled us with a long, monotonously mysterious song. Gradually we fell under its spell and into a trance, becoming a part of the song itself. The song carried us to a distant world, and we forgot our hunger, thirst, and the heat. The waves' white foam put to death our childhood. As we watched the sea, we grew old, we were torched by napalm, we were stricken with breast cancer, we were gobbled by green frogs. These things we accepted without resentment or fear. No one was happy or unhappy. The sun, which had been blazing above our heads, shifted a little. Somewhere we could hear the rattle of the one-armed soldier's tin box and even smell the cherry syrup of the melting ice pops. It seemed the pig merchant was approaching with his wide grin, to give us donuts sprinkled with coarse sugar. We could smell the sugar and hot grease when we closed our eyes, but when we opened them, there was nothing. The only things surrounding us were the scent of pine trees in the dead of summer, the sticky amber-colored resin weeping slowly from the depths of the trees' inner rings, the indecipherable language of the waves, the salty smell of the sea, the dead starfish scattered on the shore, the boys' shadows moving in the distance, the pink tongues of the greyhounds, silently panting.
We closed our eyes. That way, we could gaze at the sugary donuts a little longer. When we opened our eyes again, it seemed a very long time had passed. The girl was squatting at the base of a tree, relieving herself. The beach was deserted. There were grooves [End Page 225] in the sand between the pine trees, as if a piglet had been dragged along, and the faintest smell of pig lingered in the air.
"Let's go," the girl said, standing up. She was naked under her skirt.
Where did the dogs go? Where did the boys go?
I couldn't help feeling abandoned. My limbs were slack, drained of strength, and my chest heavy and my eyes wet, as though I'd been weeping. I felt as if I'd woken on a different yet identical-looking beach. As if I had woken as a different yet identical-looking girl. Perhaps because I had changed, the girl looked different too. To be precise, she seemed to have grown older, taller, her shoulders and chest broader, her hair a little longer, her hands and feet larger. And now that she was taller, her dress seemed shorter. She saw me and smiled, revealing her big buckteeth. But even her buckteeth, which had seemed funny and unsightly, made her seem now more mature, even enigmatic. When she bent over to peer at the spot where she had relieved herself, her black hair fell across her cheeks, like the shadow of a willow tree shaking in the wind.
Under the last rays of the setting sun, we started out on the journey home. We passed the stone building of the police station, imposing as the city hall, and I found the same picture of myself, posted beside a flyer for a beauty pageant. When I pointed to it, the girl looked up. But she didn't know how to read either. She couldn't tell that the child holding the puppy in the blurry picture was me. On the pageant poster were the faces of girls who had been crowned, but the girl couldn't take her eyes off one in particular, a Miss Marine as lovely as a peach blossom, her skin as smooth and fair as milk. The girl removed the torn shoe that kept slipping off, chewing pine needles that smelled of the sea to forget her hunger. She took my hand and began to walk once more. A student from a technical school passed us and brushed sand off the girl's back. She was covered with sand.
The shoes are gone, now who's the thief?
The puppy is gone, now who's the thief? [End Page 226]
Girls who had finished school for the day were singing as they played elastics in the alley, their mouths opening and closing like baby chicks. They were about the same age as the girl. A group of elderly people, who looked as if they didn't have many days left, sat in the shade of a tree and talked about a couple that had flown back to Korea from Japan recently with their young daughter. The father—a handsome, strapping man—had been recruited to work as an engineer for the city's new steel mill, and his wife—as beautiful as a peach blossom—was pregnant with their second child. People couldn't help but smile whenever they saw the young family, blooming with health, the embodiment of hope and happiness, symbols of the straight wide road that will soon be paved, the grand brass monument that will be erected in the plaza, the imposing steel mill that will be built by the seaside.
We ambled past, the girl shaking my arm from time to time, almost unaware of her actions, as if she had just remembered I was with her. We were thirsty and tired. Evening drew on, but the sun was still warm enough to scorch our spines. We trudged along, staying in tree shade as much as possible. Irons seemed to be clamped around our ankles.
That day the well was unusually deep and black and the bucket so heavy it seemed the girl's arm would snap.
When we entered the hut, the girl whispered toward the room, "Mother."
Since there was no answer, we assumed the woman had died. The girl leaned toward the darkness, and her black hair fell across her cheeks, like the shadow of a willow tree shaking in the wind.
She whispered, "Mother, I found her, didn't I? Then why'd you have to die?"
The woman's face was scorched leather, and I could see her black tongue and gums past her parched, sore-crusted lips that were wide open. The girl shooed away the flies sitting around the woman's mouth, licked her own hand to wipe the woman's face, and then pulled the blanket over her head. She said the woman [End Page 227] had told her to do these things if she died. We sat side by side on the narrow raised floor, hugging our knees and watching the sun disappear behind the mountains.
That day the setting sun came closest to Earth, and with its crimson tongue, gobbled up the hut, the mouth of the river, the train tracks, and finally, us. Within that redness, the thatched roof blazed coldly. The glass cover of the kerosene lamp fell off, the matches spilled, and hot wax dripped from the white candle, saved for a precious day. Inside the dim house heaved flames and soot, hunger and a subtle stench. The train rumbled past and the marines sang at the top of their lungs as always. It was time. Ashes and twilight shrouded us.
I knew the woman would soon throw back the blanket and sit bolt upright, that she would let out an unintelligible shriek as always. Then the girl would fetch a bowl of water from the jar in the corner of the yard and tip the bowl into the woman's mouth. There was nothing else to eat or drink.
Someday the girl will wait for the next Miss Marine beauty pageant, but there will never be another Miss Marine, since the pageant was held only once. Unable to wait, the girl might enter the preliminary round of the citywide Miss Pohang pageant. Of course, because of her big buckteeth, she could not expect much, and it's most certain she would not advance beyond the preliminary round, but if we could, for a moment, describe her that day as she stood before the judges, we would see that no one noticed her buckteeth when her mouth was closed, that if her mouth were slightly open and her lips set in a small pout, her big buckteeth protruding a little between her red lips, together with her unusually large eyes, dark brows, and black eyes, would have made her seem only mature and enigmatic, and if so, the unusual pout of her lips may have produced a morbidly sensual effect that the other girls, who were like peach blossoms, would have found impossible to emulate.
That dim evening of that long day, a boy from the orphanage, the one most resembling a greyhound, entered our yard. We sat [End Page 228] in the dark, watching him as though he were a ghost, and gave no thought to lighting the lamp. He came with several other boys, each of them carrying shovels over their shoulders. Close behind were the neighboring women who had summoned the young doctor before. There were also several men, who appeared to be the women's husbands. Even the young doctor was present. With his mouth set in a sullen frown, he looked awkward and uncomfortable as usual, like a reluctant guest at a wedding. The women were neatly dressed in white, with clean cotton towels on their heads. The men were wearing mostly black or dark suits, but with the exception of the doctor, their suits were so worn the elbows were threadbare and the black fabric had faded to grey. The men lifted the dead woman, mat and all, lowered her into a crude pine coffin, and hurriedly nailed the lid shut. The boys, with shovels over their shoulders, led the way up the mountain, followed by the men bearing the coffin, then the women. At the tail end of the procession went the young doctor, mopping his neck with a handkerchief.
Leaving a slight gap, we followed. We were dazed and didn't know what exactly was happening, and though no one had told us to come along, we hadn't wanted to stay all alone in the empty house. We lagged behind. Being so young, I couldn't walk as quickly. In the mountains, the darkness grew deeper at an alarming rate; we were afraid we would lose sight of the procession and get left behind. We kept glancing back to make sure there were no yellow eyes of a tiger or wolf pursuing us. No one said a word; no one wailed or wept or sighed, no one whispered. All was silent. The leaves didn't rustle, the birds had returned to their nests. Several women kept glancing about uneasily. Were they scared too? They were like thieves who had come to steal the body of the dead woman. When someone pointed at a flat, secluded spot, the men and boys began to dig. Because the boys from the orphanage were summoned whenever a secret grave needed to be dug and received no compensation for their work, they were especially skilled, despite their small size. Plus the soil was damp and soft. The coffin, bound [End Page 229] with a coarse straw rope instead of the customary white silk cloth, was lowered into the hastily dug hole. When a jagged, protruding stone scraped loudly against its side, people jumped at the noise and became even more hurried, frantically dumping—practically hurling—dirt back into the hole, as if something were chasing them. They breathed a collective sigh of relief once the grave was filled, and each person took a sip from a drink that was passed around.
They didn't bother to heap more dirt on the grave to make a mound. In the light of the hazy moon, an owl hooted. The women covered their faces with their towels. The men sprinkled what remained of the drink on the grave; the women scattered leaves and twigs on top. Footprints marked the soft fresh dirt. As the people prepared to head back down the mountain, the boys lifted the heavy shovels onto their scrawny shoulders once more. We heard the women say that the pig merchant had been arrested.
"How sad," one woman said, heaving a sigh.
"What's so sad about that?" asked another woman, as though she meant to pick a fight.
"Now that they've got him, they'll beat him to death or worse. He won't come out the same."
"It's not like he was all there to begin with. He wasn't right in the head."
"Sure, but that's because he's too nice."
"Maybe. Still, they said he kidnapped a little girl."
"What? A gentle soul like him? That's impossible! He must have been framed."
"Why would anyone want to frame that idiot? He's already confessed. He even admitted he killed her and buried her in the mountains."
"That can't be right! I swear, the world will take advantage of you if you're too nice."
"If you're too stupid, you mean."
"They'll beat him to death now. Poor thing. His only crime was being too nice." [End Page 230]
"What an idiot. He should have kept his head down and stayed out of the way. I knew he'd get himself in trouble sooner or later."
The women went ahead. Once again, the girl and I were at the very end of the procession. The people, a pale blur moving down the mountain, grew distant. It was much more difficult to make our way at night. Even with the light of the moon, all was black underfoot, and the earth was damp. Long writhing tree roots grabbed our ankles. Cold branches stretched out their gaunt arms and stroked the napes of our necks. With every step, snail shells crunched under our feet and black frogs leapt up from the bushes. Bats flapped their wings. The girl shooed away the relentless mosquitoes, but our calves and necks were already covered with bites. Desperately I scratched myself, tripping and toppling over.
I could not get up again, and laid my head against a rock. I didn't cry. I was too distracted by the sky full of stars. A big rat came sniffing and the girl, who crouched next to me, shooed it away. She shooed away the bats. She shooed away the mosquitoes pouncing at my face. And then she licked her hand to wipe my face.
When it's time, you have to shoo away the flies and mosquitoes and make your face clean as a baby's, she said.
I asked her if I had died.
When a star dies, it becomes a starfish and falls to the shore, she said.
I asked her again if I had died.
Maybe, she said. Mother threw you in the ditch and I fished you out, but it might have been too late.
She said, Someday when I die, you have to do this for me, because I'm your sister. Because I'm your big sister.
As a sign of promise, I nodded again.
She said, The last thing you have to do is to cover my face like this. And then it's over.
With that, she lifted the hem of her black muslin dress and covered my face. [End Page 231]
Soon the silent boys will come, with shovels over their shoulders, and leave sandy footprints all over the blue-tiled entrance.
The owl hooted nearby. I heard it from under the black muslin dress. After this I loved the hooting of the owl all my life.
The afternoon rays were blinding. In the middle of the white colossal sky, the sun looked like a burst of light, frozen at the moment of explosion. The girl was holding my hand. We were standing inside the arch gate, on the orphanage field we had never set foot on. Because the world was too bright, we could hardly see anything, apart from the hazy orphanage building, the dazzling sand, and the exercise bar. There were no boys and no hounds. Had they gone back to the sea? The stifling smell of resin. The boys, who had bounded in and out of the water with the dogs, these boys both Greyhound and greyhound. They lived according to the mood of the waves. No one was happy or unhappy. The girl approached the exercise bar and grabbed the red-hot metal that had been heated by the sun. She hung calmly, hands wrapped around the bar as hot as metal melted in a steel mill's furnace, and then hooked her legs over it, dangling upside down. She was hushed and completely still. As her dress flipped down, her nakedness flashed in the blinding light. She hung from the bar inert, as if dead. With hands drawn to her chest, her shadow was a motionless blemish on the sand. As if she were an angel being punished. On the sand were grooves, as if a piglet had been dragged along, and the faintest smell of pig lingered in the air. The girl's voice came to me from within the sunlight. Shoo away the flies and mosquitoes from my face. Cover my face that's clean as a baby's. I'm your big sister. [End Page 232]
Early morning the next day, a shaman on her way to draw water from the stream found me toppled over on the mountain path and tried to shake me awake. If I had woken then, I would have been raised as her adopted daughter. But when I didn't open my eyes, the shaman had no choice but to continue on her way. Right then, it was more urgent to offer up the day's prayers with water drawn from the stream before dawn. An elementary school teacher from the city found me next. Dressed in a pale green hat and thin white trousers, she had a wooden box for catching insects slung over a shoulder. She had come out in the early hours to find sample specimens for the insect collection she intended to display at the back of her classroom. The young teacher, a recent graduate of a two-year college, was short and petite and often mistaken for a high school student. The reason she worked so hard was not out of devotion to Pohang Elementary, the school she worked for, but because she wanted to transfer to a school in Daegu.
She had read in the newspaper about a kidnapping, and as soon as she saw me, she thought I fit the description of the girl the pig merchant had said he'd taken to the mountains and killed. But hadn't he confessed he'd kidnapped her on the day the city celebrated the opening of the port, and used a club he used for slaughtering pigs to clobber her on the head, and then buried the body somewhere, in a spot he could no longer remember? The teacher hesitated. But reporters aren't always a hundred percent right, and mistakes inevitably happen as a story is relayed. After the pig merchant's arrest and confession, the missing child posters that had been plastered all over the city were deemed no longer valid, and there were differing opinions on whether the reward would still be offered.
Because the pig merchant hung himself in his prison cell, it never came to light why he had thought to make a horrific false confession. And there was nothing else I could have said [End Page 233] about him, besides the fact that he had given me a warm donut covered in sugar.
Greyhound, a voice said. There is no thief, and thus no puppy, and life means to live and die inside a mirror; therefore we will stay here and get on a Greyhound someday.
One distant day, I will walk out of a house with a bag in hand, wearing a faded black muslin dress. I'll go far, far away, past the spot where the old ditch used to be. I'll say goodbye to the blue-tiled entrance where a mirror once hung. I'll say an eternal goodbye to the grave I have never visited, where my mother had been buried like a thief. I'll say an eternal goodbye to the chipped wrought iron mirror, which had been my childhood.
If possible, I'd like to be transferred to a Daegu school.
A few years later, the petite teacher wrote a long letter in unusually neat, careful handwriting to the school inspector. Despite the hopes of those around her, she did not—nor would she ever—have any interest in the men who rode their bicycles to the steel mill, dressed in identical brown coveralls as thousands of other men. She hated iron dust. She hated the men's stifling heat and bloodshot eyes. Just as she had always dreamed, she wanted to marry a tall fair man who would stride out past the gate, his suit as white as a crane, fluttering across the sky. She would be able to find such a man in Daegu, the city where she had attended college. Back home by the clamorous sea, there were only laborers in brown coveralls the color of starfish. The only man who caught her eye here was the pale young clinic doctor, but he had left one day without a word.
After the pig merchant's arrest, the piglet he had dragged around was no longer seen in the market.
For a long time after this, whenever child servants toting wooden bowls on their heads or girls with their schoolbags walked along the dusty road, the young man with the pomade in his hair stopped his jeep and asked, "You want a ride?"
Now who's the thief? [End Page 234]
Girls who had finished school for the day were singing as they played elastics in the alley, their mouths opening and closing like baby chicks.
I hooked my legs over the exercise bar and dangled upside down. I was hushed and completely still. On the sand were grooves, as if the boys had gone by with the hounds, as if a piglet had been dragged along. I peered at the tracks. Shoo away the flies and mosquitoes from my face. Make me clean as a baby. And cover my face with your clothes.
Even before the pig merchant fainted, unable to withstand the torture, Pretty was slaughtered in the backyard.
Someday I will wait for the next Miss Marine beauty pageant, but there will never be another Miss Marine, since the pageant was held only once. Unable to wait, I might enter the preliminary round of the citywide Miss Pohang pageant. Of course because of my big buckteeth, I could not expect much, and it's most certain I would not advance beyond the preliminary round, but if we could, for a moment, describe that day as I stood before the judges, we would see that no one noticed my buckteeth when my mouth was closed, that if my mouth were slightly open and my lips set in a small pout, my big buckteeth protruding a little between my red lips, together with my unusually large eyes, dark brows, and black eyes, would have made me seem only mature and enigmatic, and if so, the unusual pout of my lips may have produced a morbidly sensual effect that the other girls, who were like peach blossoms, would have found impossible to emulate.
A big sister is a wrought iron mirror that shows you what's to come.
A thief did not come in through the blue-tiled entrance, the thief did not drop the chipped wrought iron mirror my mother had brought from Japan, the mirror fell and cracked on its own, and yes, the puppy disappeared on its own, because nothing bad actually happens after a mirror breaks, because what a mirror once reflected is never again reflected to the world; there is no thief and [End Page 235] no mirror, and thus no me and no puppy; therefore these things didn't actually happen; therefore we will stay here like this inside the mirror and get on a Greyhound someday. So said the voice of someone who loves me. [End Page 236]
Bae Suah is a highly acclaimed contemporary Korean author and translator of German literature, described as "Korean literature's most unfamiliar being." She is the author of Recitation, A Greater Music, North Station, and Nowhere to Be Found, among numerous other novels and short story collections. She has also introduced authors such as W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck to Korean audiences. She received the Hanguk Ilbo Literary Prize, as well as the Tongseo Literary Prize.
Janet Hong is an award-winning translator and writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in Brick: A Literary Journal, Lit Hub, Asia Literary Review, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, and The Korea Times. She was shortlisted for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of Han Yujoo's The Impossible Fairy Tale. Her other translations include Ancco's Bad Friends (forthcoming from Drawn & Quarterly in 2018) and Ha Seong-nan's The Woman Next Door (forthcoming from Open Letter Books in 2019).
* Janet Hong received a 2017 Global Korean Literature Translation Award for this translation.