Suah Bae Inscrutable Nights and Days E ng l i s h
Inscrutable Nights and Days (알려지지 않은 밤과 하루) Jaeum&Moeum Publishing Co. / 35 p. / ISBN 9788957077214 For further information, please visit: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/772
This sample translation was produced with support from LTI Korea. Please contact the LTI Korea Library for further information. firstname.lastname@example.org
Inscrutable Nights and Days Written by Bae Suah
1 The former actress Ayami was sitting second flight of stairs in the audio auditorium, with the guest book in her hand. She was alone. Nothing else was yet known to anyone. With the lights all off, the interior of the performance hall seemed as though submerged in murky water. A gentle disintegration was taking place, not just of light and form, but also of sounds, their very identity rendered ambiguous, semi-opaque. There were only ten seats in the hall; otherwise, the irregular flights of stairs played the role of a public gallery. Once the daily performance was over and Ayami had closed the theatre doors, she sat in the space with the guest book open in front of her, carefully considering free time. It wasn't that the audience members usually wrote down anything of note. Now and then, a blind visitor might record their opinion using Braille; such language was indecipherable for Ayami. But, and despite the book in her hand, she isn't reading but listening, quietly, to a voice which fades in an out.
Don't go far away, if only for just one day, if you ask why If you ask why...a day is long, and I will wait for you. (Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets)
Ayami sits alone in the concert hall because always at this time of day, an old radio
hidden somewhere among the sound equipment spontaneously turns itself on. Since Ayami was afraid of the static electricity that sparks through the cables into machines, microphones and speakers, and couldn't shake the belief that the disturbance caused by sound waves could inflict physical damage, so she couldn't even conceive of touching or even peering at the concealed backs of the bulky machines in order to look for the radio, which might just have been left somewhere by mistake. Though she worked at the audio theatre, the only task she could manage actually connected to the sound equipment was simply putting the record for a given performance into the stereo and switching it on. Now and then, a sound engineer from the foundation would come to inspect the equipment, but Ayami had never spoken with him directly. The engineer wore a baseball cap jammed right down onto his head, obscuring his face and making him look like a shadow of himself. He always came on the direct bus, even though he never brought any heavy equipment with him. The bus was white, and emblazoned with the foundation's logo. The engineer was always its sole passenger. The theatre director was informed in advance of the precise time of the engineer's visit, so they could discuss any pertinent issues. The director came out to greet the engineer when he arrived, and saw the bus off when he left. One time, Ayami had wanted to tell the director about the radio, how it intermittently operated of its own accord. It hadn't yet happened during a performance, but there would be a problem if it did, and Ayami felt the theatre director ought to be informed, given that he was her only colleague and superior. Pausing outside the open door to the director's office, as though the thought had only just occurred to her in passing, Ayami turned and said, â€œThere's probably some kind of issue with one of the wires. Maybe the cable for the speakers isn't connected up properly to the radio.â€?
The director looked up from his desk. “There's certainly no radio there that I know of. And it's strange; I've never heard this sound you're talking about. But then, I can't claim to be blessed with unusually acute hearing.” “Well, I'm not completely sure it's coming from a radio.” Ayami wavered visibly, but she'd started now and felt compelled to carry on. “I'm just guessing. In any case, the fact is that now and then, when the theatre's very quiet, you can hear something – well, no, I suppose all I can say for a fact is that it feels like you can hear something.” “What are we talking about, specifically? Music?” “No, not that. It sounds like someone reading a book out loud, very slowly; like distant muttering, yes, like someone talking to themselves...a toneless voice, like the one that reads the shipping forecast, purposefully speaking slowly so that the fisherman have time to make a note of the predictions. South-easterly waves 2.5m, south-westerly, slight cloud, rainbow to the south, rain shower, hail, north-easterly, 2, 35, 7, 81...a continuous mumbling that feels like the shipping forecast...” “And you usually hear this sound in the evenings, after the performance is over and the audio equipment's been switched off?” “Yes.” “In that case, mightn't it be the shadow of a sound, like an audible afterimage?” “The shadow of a sound?” “Like an unknown voice.” Ayami stared hard at the director, but couldn't tell whether he was being sincere or pulling her leg. After all, she thought, who knows what's possible when it comes to machines? She was still wondering how she ought to respond to the director's last remark when he saved her the trouble. “When the sound engineer comes the day after tomorrow, I'll tell him to take a look at
it, see what's going on, okay?” “Yes, I understand. But I...” “What?” “It's just, I feel it's my duty to inform him...I just thought I ought to let him know about it.” “And so?” “To be honest, whether the sound's coming from a radio, or some kind of shadow like you say, it's not actually that loud. Even if it were to switch itself on during a performance, the sound effects would probably cover it up...” The director's lips seemed to twitch into the merest hint of a smile, though perhaps it was only a muscle spasm. “So you wanted to let me know that you've been hearing some mysterious radio broadcast, but that it's not disturbing you?” “That's right.” Before the director could say anything further, Ayami hurried back to her spot in the library.
They disappeared beyond the door so quickly, their shadows were left behind like afterimages. Late afternoon, with the sun's head disappearing beneath the horizon in a deep bow, the heavy orange radiance of the last light flooded horizontally into the building, but the world of the interior, where the lights were off, was already almost half sunk in darkness. The day's performance had been attended by five secondary school pupils, all male, a man who looked to be their form teacher, and a girl with a severe visual impairment, only a slender slit between her shuttered eyelids. The pupils kept fidgeting throughout the performance, springing up from their seats even before it had properly finished. They clattered their way to
the exit, shoving the glass door open as if desperate to flee this place. The door swung back so suddenly it severed them from their shadows, which lingered like dark ghosts.
The visually impaired girl was the last of the visitors to leave the auditorium. When the two of them said goodbye, her middle finger brushed Ayami's palm, an action which might or might not have been accidental. A brief gentle pressure, as though she were wanting to take Ayami's pulse. Momentarily, Ayami was struck with that thought that the girl was inviting her along, in her own peculiar way. The girl was oddly dressed, in a completely, almost harshly plain white cotton hanbok, which gave off the strong scent of starch. Her abundant black hair was tied back, and rough hemp sandals poked out from beneath the hem of her skirt.
The ex-actress Ayami, now an office worker-cum-librarian at the audio theatre managed by the foundation, wasn't the only member of her (former) profession who'd found herself working as ticket seller. Before her, the position of office clerk had been filled by a string of other women, who also had connections with the theatre industry â€“ former actors, for the most part. The one who'd stuck it out the longest had stayed for three months; at the other end of the scale, there'd been one woman who'd only managed three weeks. No one had even come close to Ayami's year-long tenure. To be frank, the position was extremely monotonous. Especially, that is, for young women more used to the excitement of acting. Here, the only people they ever saw were the few who came along to the audio performances, who were almost all secondary school pupils, university students, or blind. Her predecessors had all quit the position ahead of time; perhaps the thing they'd found most difficult to adapt to was the almost total absence of any opportunity to meet a man. Not simply those whose gender was
male, but real men, the kind of men these women, their youth and ambition unfailingly hampered by an unfortunate financial situation, would describe as eligible. When it comes to her predecessors, Ayami can't say much for certain. She's never seen their faces, doesn't even know their names. All they've left behind are a few ball pens rolling about in a drawer, and some notepaper bearing scribbled curses directed at no one in particular. She's equally in the dark when it comes to the foundation, who manage the audio theatre and pay her salary. Contrary to the general assumption, it wasn't through a personal contact at the foundation that she'd obtained her position here. Acting jobs had started to become few and far between for her, to the point where she was even struggling to get understudy parts at her affiliated company; eventually, when the company itself had become embroiled in management difficulties, one of her fellow actors had introduced her to this place. No one had come to meet her on her first day at the audio theatre, and she hadn't received any special guidance about where she was supposed to go. She'd entered the deserted auditorium and waited there for a while until someone appeared and introduced himself as the director. She'd been sitting facing the entrance, but still hadn't noticed the director come in. He seemed to have appeared through a door made of light, which hovered vaguely amid the floating dust motes and shafts of sunlight. The director sat with Ayami on the auditorium's second flight of stairs, conducted a brief interview, and announced that she was hired.
The auditorium had neither a stage nor a screen. Instead, each 'performance' consisted of a pre-recorded script being played to the audience, using the sound equipment. This audience, never very large, sat on the sofas and stairs that had been installed here and there around the auditorium. Accordingly, there were no actors, a title which Ayami herself had had
to relinquish now she was merely a run of the mill employee whose main tasks were administrative. Besides the auditorium, the theatre building contained a fairly long lobby, a tiny library and, to the rear of the library, the director's office. Ayami spent most of her time in a corner of the library. Once a day, leading up to the evening performance, she went and sold tickets at the main entrance – these were extremely cheap, even cheaper than a cup of coffee – and just before the start of the performance, she went into the auditorium and briefly introduced the play for that day. The last thing she said was, so, the play will begin now. Very occasionally, someone would find their way to the library and ask to borrow a script or pamphlet of a recording, a collection of plays, an actor's autobiography, or even the recordings themselves, which were stored on CDs.
Now, Ayami has tidied up all the loose ends in the various tasks assigned to her. She'd done the accounts for the ticket sales – not a job which took a great deal of time – checked the library's stock against the database, and posted the necessary documents to the foundation. Now, when she closes the theatre door and puts the key in the lower postbox, this is the end. Her wages will be paid for this month, and then no more. The library phone rang. Ayami took a brief moment to register that it really was the phone ringing, and not the mysterious radio, before she went over the desk and took the call. It was the usual enquiry, about the programme for the coming week's performances. “There are no performances next week,” Ayami said. “Today's performance is the final one, as the audio theatre will be closed permanently from tomorrow.” “You're closing?” her interlocutor repeated, genuinely shocked. “Why hasn't this appeared in the papers?” Perhaps it had. But all that would have been dealt with by the foundation's P.R. team, and Ayami herself hadn't been informed. Considering its low audience numbers, the theatre's
closure was hardly as momentous an event as the person who'd telephoned seemed to think it was. At least, not so much as to warrant a mention in the paper. The audio theatre is closing today, which means that from tomorrow, Ayami is unemployed. Of course, the foundation had made the decision several months ago, so she'd had plenty of time to find a new job. She'd been out of the business too long to try and get back in to acting; in fact, that period in her life now seemed less and less real, especially given the realisation that she'd never been much in demand as an actor. And then there was the unfortunate fact, only recently made clear to her, that her experience working at the audio theatre would be absolutely no help in finding another job. Because this audio theatre, managed by the foundation, is the only one of its kind in Seoul. In other words, her position was one which lacked even a tenuous counterpart; this was probably the case the world over, never mind just in Seoul. Ayami didn't have a single qualification to her name which might have at least gone some way to impressing a prospective employer, nothing formally confirming her administrative skills or qualifying her as an art teacher â€“ nothing, in fact, that could even be considered an official document. Yes, she'd gone to law school, but she'd dropped out even before the first term was up, meaning the planned diploma never materialised. She didn't even have a driver's license. When Ayami had worked as an actor, she'd also had a part-time job as a waitress at a restaurant; unfortunately, waitressing had proved no more her forte than had acting. It seemed she was just too tall to make a go of it as a waitress. On top of that, whenever she took an order her face would wear the kind of expressionless mask more often seen in the theatre, and her movements, gestures, footsteps, all gave the impression of being unusually measured, weighted somehow. The customers couldn't help but interpret this as the result of an unaccountable shyness on Ayami's part, and their discomfort was plain to see whenever she approached their table. The vast majority tried to disguise their awkwardness by asking how
tall she was, and her answer would invariably be met by an exaggerated raising of eyebrows and an insistence on examining the heels of her shoes. She always wore flats. In fact, hers didn't even have the tiny sliver of a heel which most shoe manufacturers chose to add. Looking at it purely in terms of feet and inches, you couldn't actually have said that Ayami was unusually tall, yet, oddly enough, she looked taller than she really was, like someone who seems to be swimming through the air raised right up off the floor, a kind of optical illusion which was exacerbated during her shifts as a waitress given that the customers were almost always sitting down. Rather than the kind of service-industry job which relies on strong communication skills, Ayami's body was more suited to physical work, where it could function as an object. Ayami seemed always to be aware of this. Acting on-stage, she believed, fell under this category of physical work.
Aware of Ayami's difficulties in finding a job, the theatre director had advised her to write a formal letter to the foundation. Given that her contract was with the theatre itself, a separate establishment, she'd had neither the need or the opportunity to visit the foundation or meet anyone who worked there. All communication with the foundation went through the director. The only exception had been a couple of brief, dry telephone conversations between Ayami and someone from their art department – even that had only happened in cases of extreme urgency. The director thought Ayami ought to send her CV and a cover letter to the foundation's HR department. A suitable position might come up within the foundation itself, not right then, of course, but at some point, or else, though this was extremely unlikely, they might choose to invest in another non-profit cultural enterprise, or even end up re-opening the audio theatre. “You could do worse than get in touch with them,” the director told her. “After all, you
know they never advertise for new staff publicly â€“ it's all done through personal recommendations.â€? But Ayami didn't take his advice. It wasn't that she didn't need a job, or that she didn't fancy working at the foundation. Though the director hadn't told her this in as many words, Ayami was aware that he himself hadn't been able to secure another job; at least, not one with the appropriate level of salary and status.
If it had truly been the case that the foundation
felt benevolent towards them, or that such feelings might easily be prompted by a mere letter, then the director would hardly have been experiencing such difficulties. And if the foundation wasn't willing to help out the director, then there wasn't much hope for Ayami, given her almost non-existent dealings with them. The director had received a top-class education, held a degree from a foreign university, and Ayami could see that he had intelligence to spare. The only flaw, if there was one, seemed to be his time at the audio theatre, a non-profit enterprise where he'd commanded a staff of one.
Untroubled by clouds, the bright expanse of the evening sky spread out across the city. The ground floor entrance to the theatre building was a door made entirely of glass; hanging up the phone, Ayami gazed out at the gathering dusk, the red flare of the day's last light. Directly across the alley, a shabbily-dressed middle-aged couple were looking over at the theatre. Every time a car passed along the narrow one-way alley, the couple had to press themselves back against the wall, balancing precariously on the low pavement slabs. Nonetheless, they seemed unable to tear their gazes from what had caught their interest â€“ the noticeboard by the entrance to the theatre, where details of performances were posted. For all intents and purposes they were an ordinary couple out for an evening stroll, or else primary school classmates who'd met up again after a forty-year gap. Every time the woman looked up and her unnaturally black hair fell back from her face, Ayami noticed
pockmarks stamped here and there onto her swarthy skin. The man lifted a callused hand and pointed at something on the noticeboard. Perhaps they'd only just realised that the theatre's final performance had been held that day. The woman was shaking her head, in what appeared to be a gesture of regret. Might they be my parents? This thought struck Ayami in a sudden flash, then trailed off into the distance like curling twists of smoke. “It's strange,” she heard the woman muttering, “how come we never knew this theatre was here? They need a proper sign, not just some notice stuck up like this. If you don't look closely it just looks like a Buddhist temple or a cram school!” When the man moved close to the woman and whispered something in her ear, she rested her head on his shoulder and giggled childishly. Ayami studied the man's slight frame; might he be none other than her father, a fruit hawker who'd claimed a distant connection to the Mayor of Seoul? For a while, the couple seemed to have forgotten the theatre they'd stumbled across. They glanced up at the sky simultaneously. The heat, the flat plane of the sky, were unchanging. There didn't seem to be any signs of rain. “Do you think there's something inside?” the woman asked, an incomprehensible attachment to the place compelling her to peer through the glass door. The man followed the woman's gaze, though he had no knowledge of audio equipment to speak of, and precious little interest in anywhere calling itself an audio theatre. They seemed not to see Ayami on the other side of the door. “Look, it says there's a library and an audio appreciation room...'audio appreciation room', do you think that's the same as a music appreciation room? No, but look at this, it says it's closed down! And we never even had the chance to take a look around.” They started moving away from the theatre, seemingly intending to head home, but
almost immediately stopped again. They looked hesitant, as though wondering where they should go. Suddenly turning to face the man, the woman stared up at him with such intensity that furrows creased her forehead. “Darling,” she said, “you won't really leave me like you wrote in that letter, will you?” Her skirt looked like an old dishcloth, flapping limply in the alley's still air. Beneath its grubby hem protruded a pair of skinny bare legs, corded with stringy muscle, and ending in small, pinched-looking feet. Her shoes, though, gleamed like new, which was strange given they were clearly just cheap tat she'd picked up off some street-side stall. A single line of sweat trickled down from the woman's hair and over her swarthy cheeks. The smell of overripe fruit, cigarettes, damp laundry, and fish wrappings wafted from beneath her skirt. Rather than being some state-of-the-art space, the 'audio appreciation room' was actually just a stand for listening to records over on one side of the library. People would stand there and listen to recordings before deciding whether to borrow them or not; nothing that really warranted such a grand title as 'audio appreciation'. Might they be my parents? Ayami wondered again.
In the two years she'd worked there, Ayami had never taken much in the way of a holiday outside the one week in autumn when the theatre officially closed. For that week, when the humidity was generally at its peak, the foundation suspended all its various operations, disconnected its telephone lines, and gave every one of its employees the full time off. At this time of year, the city was like a huge wild animal convulsing in the slow throes of death, its steaming pelt being buried beneath a heap of meltingly hot earth. Cremated remains blossomed in coils of smoke from the blazing blocks of cement,
enormous structures of iron and glass, and the stickily softening asphalt which smothered every inch of soil. Various forms of organic matter, like bared skin, wincing eyes and sweatstrung strands of hair, stoked the blaze still further, the entire street subsiding into the cratered hollow at the heart of the conflagration. Merely turning your face in a certain direction was enough for a storm of arrows to slash lethal burns into eyes and skin. A sky-full of stars exploded simultaneously. Meteors cauterised the atmosphere, gas burned volatile, and the vault of the heavens was plastered with dark ash. All light was snuffed out in this dawn of night. But the heat didn't abate. At night, the structure of flesh, the viscous fibres which threaded together its constituent parts, slackened still further, fluttering and whirling around the edge of consciousness. The molecular chain coding real form buckled and snapped. Sleep lost its cellular integrity, dreams mingling with comatose states as its cell membrane disintegrated. That was the period of the year when sleep was stretched thinnest, like oxygen at a high altitude. Yet it was also a period governed by weight and density, a colloid of the most intense dreams. In the dream Ayami would clutch a huge parrot to her breast, in reality she would crawl into a non-existent bathtub brimming with cold water, and fall asleep. The parrot dug its claws into her chest and produced a drawn-out shriek. The extremes of heat within the city, exacerbated by the ubiquitous blasting of artificially chilled air, helped its inhabitants transcend their ordinary lives at the same time as causing them grief. The midsummer metropolis was a temple of benumbed languor, the former home of longvanished, cult-worshipping tribes. Rarefied sleep sucked flesh into a volcanic crater lake mired with sticky flakes of black soap ash and honeycomb chunks of grey pumice, limbs flailing amid the scum. In narrow rooms unrelieved by air conditioning or even a fan, if you opened the window hot air heavier than a sodden quilt rushed in, clagging your pores like the wet slap of raw meat, but with it closed the oxygen would quickly evaporate, disappearing at a frightening rate until the air was filled with nothing but heat. Nothing but the ecstasy of
failure. August beds were pillars of hot water vapour belched up from a sulphurous bog, which held the memory of a female ancestor. An empire of agonising visions drifted up from the boiling bog and floated over the August city, encroaching on the dreams of its inhabitants. Air flamed hotter than the heat of midsummer coalesced into a transparent bullet, creeping from one throbbing heart to the next. Flesh was constantly being perforated by the crystallisation of invisible wax. Smouldering hunks of flesh. Mucous membranes tattered and cauterised. Ragged breathing gasping on the point of collapse, a train headed for imminent disaster. Every time the city dwellers fell asleep their bodies became cruelly soaked in sweat. Their flesh was a lump of coal, slowly being consumed by an inner fire. They burned without flames through the long hours of the night. When the noonday sun was at its zenith, he drank a fridge-chilled beer, and she ate some cucumber. Now and then they switched on the boxy yellow radio, but all they ever heard was a weather report. The man read the report extremely slowly, drawing out every toneless syllable. At noon. Air temperature. Celsius. Thirty. Degrees. Wind. Absence. Shade. Absence. Of fire. Danger. Thirty. Degrees. Wind. Absence. Shade. Absence. At noon. City. Mirage. Phenomena. To appear. Scheduled. Of asphalt and. Tires. Melting. Wind. Absence. Cloud. Absence. Of mucous membrane. Fire. Danger. Of sky and. Atmosphere. Colour. Absence...rather than kindling into flame, the candle left out on the windowsill melted in the sun's fierce rays, drooping pathetically as it shrank. Its shape couldn't help but convey love's curious conclusion. By the time the heatwave came to an end, nothing remained of the people but ash. They became fused into panes of glass, grey and opaque.
When the holiday was over and they'd both returned to work, the director asked Ayami how her break had been, and she replied that it had been very good. They acted as though they'd only just met, or at least didn't know each other very well.
Ayami explained that she generally spends her holidays staying with her wealthy aunt, who lives alone. Her aunt lives in the tropics, a six-hour flight away; her house is a sandstone villa, with a pool in the back garden. Early in the morning when Ayami goes out to the pool, the surface of the water is dotted with centipedes, spiders, even young snakes, alongside the unidentified dregs of black night. It doesn't occur to her to get rid of the insects, the various alien substances – she just dives into the water and starts swimming. The water is cold, but gets a bit warmer further down and towards the centre of the pool. Ayami's aunt rents the house out to summer vacationers, something only made possible because of the Malaysian maidservant Mimi, who does all the odd jobs (Ayami's aunt is over eighty!). When Ayami feels like it she helps Mimi to make the beds and clean the rooms, but most of her time is just spent lazing around. She goes for a stroll along the beach, feeling the coarse grey sand abrade the soles of her bare feet, has a coffee and muffin at the McDonalds in the centre of town, and in the evenings she heads to the hotel's open-air bar, to sip a cocktail in the shade of the coconut palms. “A wealthy aunt!” the director exclaimed. “There's usually one in every family. I even had one myself, though that was a long time ago. And she wasn't just wealthy, she was also incredibly strict. She had three grand pianos, but she was such a stickler for 'no unnecessary noise inside the house' that she even make us walk on tiptoes, so naturally we daren't even dream of giving the keys a quick tinkle. For her, even music counted as 'unnecessary noise', you see. She passed away a long time ago.” When she'd returned to work from the previous year's holiday, Ayami showed the director a photograph she'd taken in the city where her aunt lives. In the photo, she's standing on the far side of a road and wearing a white cotton hanbok, roughly woven and completely undecorated. Her thick black hair is tied back, and a pair of coarse hemp sandals are poking out from beneath the hem of her skirt. Since the focal point of the photograph is not Ayami
but the building behind her, its huge facade decorated with carved reliefs, the people in it have come out very blurred; it's unlikely that anyone would be able to recognise the woman in the photo as Ayami without being told. It's also impossible to tell whether the effect is deliberate. “That building,” the director said, “is that the municipal museum?” “No,” said Ayami, “it's the Hilton hotel.”
It was entirely down to the director that Ayami started taking German lessons. Her second day working at the theatre, the director had told her about a woman he'd known since university, who'd gotten married straight after graduating, spent time as an exchange student with her husband in the same city as the director, but hadn't been able to complete the course. Now back in Korea, she didn't have any kind of steady job, and after an unexpected divorce a while ago, urgently needed to start earning some money. She'd hurriedly applied for a position teaching English at a cram school, but because she was older and didn't have any experience in this line of work they were reluctant to give her a by-the-hour contract. The money she did earn there wasn't enough to cover her living costs, so she also gave private lessons at home, not just in English but also French and German. “One of Picasso's girlfriends earned a living teaching French to American women in Paris after the two of them broke up,” the director said. “It must be a very classic step to take, one that transcends various eras.” “Which girlfriend?” Ayami asked, but she'd already made up her mind to take the director up on his suggestion and go for private German lessons (or French, she wasn't really bothered. At any rate, she was savvy enough to realise that it didn't actually matter, as neither was likely to be of any real use). “Ferande Olivier,” the director said. Ayami didn't know the name.
The director's friend was small, slight, and unfailingly elegant, even down to the long hair whose ends reached her waist. Her face, though, was severely marked from a childhood bout of smallpox, making it impossible to even estimate her age on a first meeting. Her skin was mottled, almost as though it had been burned. She had a strangely rolling walk, like a boat bobbing on gentle waves. She generally kept to the shadows, but when necessary would extend her right hand, its pale skin unmarked, into the light. After the divorce was settled, she'd moved to an area about three or four bus-stops away from the audio theatre. Although the neighbourhood was technically downtown, its location up a steep hill and general air of dilapidation meant the rent was fairly cheap. The woman occupied a one-room dwelling at the very end of an alley, where the sunlight never quite reached; it was quite a walk up the hill from the nearest bus stop. Ayami went there for a 90-minute German lesson every day after work. Rather than having an actual conversation, they preferred to sit and listen to each other read from a book. Perhaps this was why, despite taking lessons for almost two years, Ayami's German never showed much signs of improvement. The German teacher always made them both a cup of tea. Hair pulled back from her forehead, she put her small brown feet up on a chair and sipped at the hot tea, hunched over like a monkey. She fished out the piece of lemon peel from her tea and rubbed into on the back of her hand. The German teacher was like a shadow glimpsed through frosted glass. When she wordlessly reached out to pass Ayami her tea, her sound right hand was a pale gleam emerging into the light of a midsummer evening. One time, their reading was interrupted by the sound of a radio, coming from within the room. “What's that sound?” Ayami whispered. “The radio.” The German teacher's voice wasn't dissimilar to the one coming from the radio.
“Why switch the radio on just now?” “It must have come on by itself.” “Well, switch it off again.” “I can't, it's impossible.” “Why?” “The radio...the switch is broken, you see. So it turns itself on, and then turns itself off again.” “Just pull the cord out then.” “I can't, it's impossible.” “Why is it impossible?” “I...because I'm frightened of electrical sound. It's frightening, like gas, or knives, or lightning.” “Ah, I see.” Ayami looked at the German teacher and nodded. They both returned to drinking their tea. Beads of sweat formed on their foreheads. The sole window opened directly onto the wall of the dead-end alleyway, thereby serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever, and the humid air collected in the house's dark interior, so dense you could almost have swept it up with a broom. The scent of yellow sphagnum wafted from the fishbowl – the goldfish had died long ago – to mingle with the sweet smell of the mould blooming near the bottom of the walls. The house might as well have been a temple dedicated to the worship and propagation of tropical heat, heat which swelled like a bog within those four walls. Certain agonising phantasms were bred in this place, a mental state known as monsoon disease. Given that the single, narrow room was had neither air conditioning nor even a fan, if you opened the window hot air heavier than a sodden quilt rushed in, clagging your pores like the wet slap of raw meat, but with it closed the oxygen would quickly evaporate, disappearing at a frightening rate until the air was filled with nothing but heat. But
Ayami probably wouldn't have a tropical holiday this year, because the theatre would be closing down before the usual holiday period, and the possibility of her finding another job before then looked slim. “A while ago an unidentified node – that was the doctor's term – developed in my left breast,” the German teacher said, her whispered voice seeming to come from within a semiconcealed black mirror.
There was a moment's silence. “It's actually quite common for
people my age,” she added. Ayami asked if this was true. If, that is, it was really just a node, something trivial, nothing to worry about. “That's right, it's true,” the German teacher nodded. “It's just a common thing. But it wouldn't feel real to a young person like you.” Ayami had never once thought of herself as particularly young; now, with unemployment staring her in the face and not much time left before her twenty-eighth birthday, she was even less inclined to feel that way. “In life. There is. A wound. Within. The soul. Slowly. Encroaching. Inwards. Like leprosy.” The German teacher read from the book, her voice utterly toneless and devoid of all emotion. The German lessons progressed with them each reading a page per lesson from a novel in German. Their current text was The Blind Owl.
Lost in thought, and with her finger resting on the cover of the guest book, Ayami suddenly turned her head. A dark silhouette was visible on the far side of the door; a man, standing there with both hands pressed against the glass. Having decided to stay behind for a while after her working day was over, Ayami had locked the main door behind the last of the audience members – the visually impaired girl. If the man had tried to get inside, then, he would have found himself thwarted. How long had he been standing there like that, hands on the glass, peering inside? Ayami went over to the door, the look in her eyes asking what was
the matter. But the man just remained standing there in silence, seemingly unable to understand her. The man's pose â€“ legs slightly parted, head lowered, both hands resting on the glass â€“ recalled that of someone praying, their whole body a part of the communion. The man's gaze was directed towards the floor, so it was difficult for Ayami to get a look at his face. She could see his bushy eyebrows though, thick and black like two furry spiders. Now having noticed Ayami, the man raised his head a little. The two of them gave a start of surprise as they realised how close they were, then stood there quietly, gazes locked. The man's eye sockets were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. Inflamed blood vessels webbed the whites of his eyes. He must have shaved in the morning, but now that it was almost evening the area around his jaw had turned darkish again, like a shadow. All in all, though, and leaving aside the impression he gave of exhausted strength, his face was perfectly ordinary. The kind of face commonly encountered on the bus or subway, the kind of face Ayami herself would have come across plenty of times. The man stood there stock still, like a bronze statue. Even his eyebrows were rigid. As though he hadn't expected anyone to come and over and speak to him, as though shocked by the whole situation, he just bored into Ayami with his gaze. Ayami was frozen. Unbeknownst to her, her hands inched up towards where, on the other side of the glass, the man's own rested. Their hands were overlaid. A tremor shuddered through Ayami's heart. She felt her body being seized by an emotion of shocking intensity, one she couldn't identify. An emotion surpassing will and consciousness. I am emotion, she heard something inside her whisper, speaking in her stead. I am nothing but emotion. What's the matter? Ayami's lips moved to form the words, but no sound came from her mouth.
Just then, the man spoke, his voice low but strong. “I have to come in! Why have I been driven out?” He didn't appear drunk, but just then Ayami saw a strange madness glitter in his eyes. Startled, she took an involuntary step backwards, all the while wondering how she was able to make out the man's low voice so well, given the thick glass door which separated them. In a voice that she didn't know was trembling, she explained that the theatre had closed for the day. Perhaps, she thought, the man knew how to lipread, though of course there was no way of knowing. Just in case, she enunciated the words as clearly as possible, saying it's closed now, I'm telling you it's closed. The man clenched his fists and waved them about as though he was going to batter the glass door. “I won't go quietly,” he whispered, his voice almost inaudible. “I'll kill you all!” The strange man clearly had Ayami confused with someone else, or else it was the audio theatre itself that he'd come to by mistake. He clearly had absolutely no intention of leaving, glaring at Ayami as he heaped abuse on her, until the building security eventually came and dragged him away. By this time he'd worked himself up into a real passion, the whites of his eyes now more crimson than white, and threatening to explode at any moment. Unable to meet that crazed stare any longer, Ayami looked away. How old is this guy? she wondered. Thirty-two? Fifty-six? Had he always been crazy, or was it a recent thing? His light-brown jacket and trousers, hanging awkwardly on his gaunt frame; his checked shirt with the top buttons undone; his staggering steps and furrowed brow; the unhappiness evident in every lineament of his body; his perilously dangling uvula; his desert-dry gunmetal skin; the mixture of danger and poison shining in his eyes. Might I know him after all? Ayami no longer trusted her own memory. And the man's blue trainers. His whispering, clearly discernible despite the intervening glass. The blood filigree lacing his eyes, his sandpaper lips, that intense yet
inscrutable emotion. It was shredding the fibres from her heart, pulverising it, but strangely enough it also had a calming effect, conscious thought sifting slowly down into a bottomless abyss. I am emotion. If either of them had been paying attention to their surroundings, they might have noticed a green car go by. A middle-aged woman had been driving, wearing a dappled summer dress and with some kind of towelling wound round her neck. She'd had one hand on the wheel, the other holding a mobile to her ear. Out of the corner of her eye she'd caught a glimpse of the theatre's glass door, the man outside kicking up a fuss, but that had nothing to do with her. A man carrying a kitten in a birdcage pressed himself against the alley's opposite wall to avoid her car. He was preacher, a fairly well-known figure in this alley; he went around surreptitiously stuffing pieces of paper bearing Bible verses into people's pockets, so he'd already been mistaken for a pickpocket and arrested more than once. While she waits for the lights to change at the end of the alley, the woman in the green car takes her hand off the wheel for a moment and raises a bottle of water to her lips. Her phonecall is still going on. Against the regular growl of the engine, the hum of the air con. “Ah...slowly, my fingers slip inside your trousers. They're still warm. I've had them stuck between my wet swollen lips, you see. Down there between my legs, a warm peach drenched in syrup. Take off your belt. Hold on, not your trousers. I'm still just caressing your penis, getting the feel of it, picturing it to myself. It's nice that way...we can take it slow...now close your eyes and imagine me, your dirty whore, down on her knees in front of you.” And a light groan. Ayami gazed in wonder at this woman's multitasking – after all, driving and phone sex both required a great deal of concentration. She quickly turned away though, worried that the woman, who seemed to have genuinely aroused herself, was about to start spewing obscenities. Two security guards grasped the man by the arms and dragged him out to the car park.
Even after the man was gone Ayami stood there for a while as rooted to the spot. The phone in the library rang. It was the German teacher. She asked how Ayami was. “I'm taking medication, quite a lot in fact,” the German teacher said. “I don't need to worry about the fees, though; it's a new wonder drug, and I've been lucky enough to be chosen as a test subject for the trials. So far, I've had no side effects to speak of. Aside from the fact that I'm sleeping a bit more these days.” The strange thought struck Ayami that perhaps it was a misconception that you could read the lips of someone you can't see, someone on the other end of a phone line. But then she remembered the crazy man who'd been there a few moments ago, and the thought disappeared. “That person came here,” Ayami said. “That person? Who?” “That man, the salesman who used to come to your house now and then...” “He isn't a salesman, Blind Owl. He must like you – didn't I say as much?” The German teacher generally chose a name for Ayami culled from whichever novel they were reading. She found Ayami's real name much too strange, not at all to her liking. She'd told Ayami quite frankly that the name actually made her feel uncomfortable, and that, where possible, she wanted to avoid having to pronounce it. Similarly, she'd asked Ayami to do her the favour of not using her own name. “Even if something comes up,” the German teacher would insist, “whatever you do, just don't say 'Ayami'. And the same goes for calling me 'Yeoni'.” “You're young, Blind Owl, and every inch a woman. If that man went there to see you...well, it's no strange thing for one person to yearn for another. Did he buy you some flowers?”
“It wasn't that kind of visit – if anything, it was more like the opposite. He threatened to kill me...no, to kill us...” “You must have misheard. Or else it was a joke, and you misunderstood.” The German teacher's voice was gentle, dismissive. Ayami tightened her grip on the phone. “I didn't mishear. He was right there on the other side of the glass door. I didn't open it, of course. And besides, what kind of person jokes about killing someone?” “He's just a bit different...but he's not a violent person. He certainly wouldn't harm someone when there was absolutely no reason for it. And if you didn't open the door, how could you have understood everything he said?” “I just, I just did. I could see him saying it, I mean. And I heard it too, quite clearly.” “Well, I suppose it's possible.” “My thoughts are all over the place right now, so it's difficult to remember. The thing is, though, I studied lip-reading, so I could make a good guess at what he was saying. Might he be angry because we didn't let him join our German lessons?” “I've just remembered something he told me; that you and he have known each other for a long time. For a very long time.” “That's not true.” “But that's what I heard...at least, that's what I remember. And it wasn't simply that the two of you were casually acquainted; your relationship was more intimate than that, he said. More intimate than is usual, and for a much longer time than such a relationship would generally last. I could be misremembering, though – perhaps a side-effect from the pills.” A brief sigh followed in place of any further explanation. Reading the lips of someone you can't even see, someone on the other end of a phone line – perhaps it was an illusion, after all. “Anyhow,” the German teacher said, returning to her original reason for calling, “I guessed you wouldn't have gone home yet, and I had a favour to ask.”
Ayami said she would be happy to help, as long as it was within her power. “Do you think you might have time between tonight and tomorrow morning?” Ayami asked what was the matter. “Someone I know will be arriving at the airport early in the morning. Would you be able to go and meet them? It's the first time in Korea.” The German teacher paused, then with a sudden earnest intensity, “There's no one else I can ask, Blind Owl.”
The messages in the guest book were nothing out of the ordinary, but someone had skipped to the very last page and drawn a picture there. It was a simple sketch, clean pencil lines delineating the form of a boat – small, low, long, and nimble. There was also a boatman, standing very upright. The whole thing felt more like a symbol or standardised sign than an attempt at representation, but it also possessed a certain dignity and demonstrated proficient draughtsmanship. The boatman seemed to be woman, but could just as easily have been been a man with long hair and a slight figure. And the fact that s/he happened to be standing in a boat didn't necessarily make her/him a boatman. After all, it wasn't an oar they were holding in their hand, but a bird. The bright liquid darkness of a midsummer evening was seeping in between the blinds and slowly collecting inside the auditorium. Ayami stood up and walked across the stage, moving just as she had when she first learned to swim: both arms spread and the fingers of each hand pressed together, swaying in a manner both careful and hurried, a fish's lateral propulsion crossed with seaweed's currenttugged dancing. The stage didn't exactly warrant the name, marked by nothing more than a small table placed in front of the audio equipment. Even that was only made use of when a guest speaker came to give a talk on audio drama. Standing to attention at the theatre's entrance, all Ayami did was introduce the title and author of that day's performance,
concluding with â€œRight, so, the audio play will begin now.â€? On the stage (the small space immediately in front of the table) Ayami is lying on her side, both arms outstretched. The empty seats form a silent audience. Ayami is completely still. Her eyelids shutter her pupils, her hair covers her face. Is she dead? Once more, that whispering voice trickles from the hidden radio. Weather forecast. For. Sailors. Sea. South-easterly. Waves. 2.5m. Distant sea. Southwesterly. Some. Cloud. To the south. Diluted. Rainbow. Localised. Rain showers. Hailstorm. North-easterly. 2. 35. 7. 81... Ayami has an appointment for 8pm at a nearby restaurant. Recalling this fact without the need for an external reminder, she wakes from her false death.
Ayami arrived at the 'invisible restaurant' at exactly 8pm. The sun had set, but it wasn't yet completely dark. That shadowy border region between day and night. The shops' dazzling lights crowd the streets with their brash presence, like mobsters in their garish suits. Ayami shivers inside the chill confines of the air-conditioned subway car, then flushes with feverish heat as soon as she ascends to the surface. Slow-forming clouds were clumped together in the sky like lumps of ash. Entering the long alleyway where the 'invisible restaurant' was situated, a space too narrow for cars, Ayami was met with a dense wall of hot air. When you step inside the restaurant you find yourself in a bright, open waiting room. The low hum of music drifts in from the adjoining bar. You must confirm your reservation first of all, and then the staff at the counter will take your order. You can have a drink at the bar before your meal, and there's a closet for bags and bulky outer clothes. Inside the restaurant itself, you see, such things would only get in the way. The wooden door leading into the restaurant remains closed. You can only go through once you've finished ordering.
They hate to admit it, but most people feel themselves tense up when they stand in front of that door. Some are frightened, some even cry. After all, this is the door to another world, a world where sensory experience is turned on its head. There are two rules to bear in mind when entering the restaurant. The first is that the use of any kind of luminous device is forbidden, with no exceptions â€“ torches of course, but also anything with an LCD screen, which naturally includes computers and mobile phones; smoking paraphernalia such as lighters or matches, and even cigarettes themselves, which have the potential to be lit. Incense sticks, by the same logic, are also taboo. The second rule is that, once inside the restaurant, you mustn't get up and wander about of your own accord. If you did, you'd end up bumping into the other guests and getting in the way of the waiters. If you have to use the bathroom during the meal, or want to go out for a cigarette, the proper procedure is to call for the guide, who will be waiting nearby. It's his job to lead the guests around. Having been informed that her group was already inside, Ayami entered the restaurant. As soon as she opened the door, pitch-black darkness smothered her vision as though Indian ink had been poured over her eyes. The darkness had an almost tangible density, crowding in around you and pressing itself against your eyes. You had to push your way through that absolute darkness, using your own mass to physically displace it, which made it a thousand times more difficult to move around. The constant hum of the air conditioning, low bursts of laughter and murmured conversation, the clink of tableware â€“ all the usual sounds you would associate with a restaurant were present, but utterly devoid of their visual counterparts. Blackness reigned supreme. Not the blackness of a cinema's screen room after the film has started, which is bound to be mitigated by the light being belched from the screen, or by glow-in-the-dark floor lamps guiding you down the aisle. Here there was only the utter darkness, darker than the inside of your eyelids, a colossal coalface rearing up in front of your
eyes, which you have to crawl up with the aid of a ladder. “Ms Kim Ayami?” The voice was that of a female guide, still a mere girl from the sound of it. Yes, Ayami replied, that was she. She felt the guide's strong fingers clasp her wrist. Her hand brushed the back of Ayami's, and her middle finger touched the inside of Ayami's wrist. A brief gentle pressure, as though she were wanting to take Ayami's pulse. The girl gave off the scent of harshly-dyed cotton. The guides and waiters who worked at the restaurant were all blind, or at least had a severe visual impairment. To them, the hermetic world of the restaurant was fundamentally no different from that which lay outside it. Ayami let the guide lead her over to her table, and sat down. “Today's performance was Blind Owl.” This was the first thing out of Ayami's mouth. “I know,” the director's voice answered. “It's been the same all week.” That voice was dry and slightly cracked, with an uneven intonation. Not, at any rate, the trained voice of an actor. “Some high-school students came with their form teacher,” Ayami said. “Apparently they have to write a piece on their impressions by next week.” In the darkness, Ayami's voice manifested much more oppressively than in the light. It was a voice made incarnate. In the darkness, people can't help but pay more attention to the voice, no more than they could prevent their gaze being drawn to a lover whose beauty is revealed by the light of day. Feeling that penetrating gaze quickly prickle their skin, a mysterious sensation for the both of them. The guide girl brought soup and a basket of warm bread, its smell unmistakable. Though it wasn't their first time here, the girl still followed procedure and explained the table settings to them. “Each guest has their plate directly in front of them. The fork is to the left, the napkin and knife to the right. There are two glasses at one o'clock, and the basket of bread is at eleven. The glass for water has a wave pattern etched into the surface, and the one for alcohol
is smooth. The spoon has been placed at exactly twelve o'clock.” “In the dark you always end up gripping the spoon harder than you need to, it's a difficult habit to kick.” The director's voice said this as soon as the girl had left. It laughed, then asked again, “How was closing today?” “All fine.” “Ah, that's good. Nothing out of the ordinary?” Ayami recalled the man who'd been causing a disturbance, but decided it wasn't that important and that she might as well keep it to herself. “I don't grip the spoon very hard but...what's difficult for me is not being able to read your lips.” “You mean you generally lip-read first, before actually listening?” “Well, there are occasions when I can't see the person's mouth but can still read their lips. But then there are also times when I can't, when I can't understand at all.” “Sensory perception causes misunderstanding, is that right? Well...how will you get on in the future, Ayami?” The director's voice was warm and friendly. “What kind of plans do you have?” “Nothing concrete yet. I've tried various places, but I haven't heard anything positive back.” “Did you write a letter to the foundation, like I suggested?” the director asked, a little more directly. “No.” Ayami shook her head, but stopped as soon as she realised the pointlessness of such a gesture. “Do it before it's too late, it'll be a help. I'm serious. You're a talented young actor and you've done great work at the theatre for a long time now, so if a new position comes up with the foundation's cultural arts team there'll definitely be an opportunity for you.”
“I haven't been an actor for two years now,” Ayami responded with a light laugh. “And my work at the theatre hasn't actually been connected with performing arts, it was just simple work that anyone could do – you should know that better than anyone!” “Once an actor, always an actor, right? Even if you can't get an acting job and have to support yourself through other work, nothing will alter that fact. The way I look at it, that kind of work is more of a vocation than just a plain job. Don't you think?” “But that's a story from the past, from the time when that kind of disposition was supported...” “Doesn't everybody have a disposition?” “Well, a disposition towards what?” The appetiser came. Ayami guessed that she was eating pickled red pepper, dried clams, and fresh paprika. They devoted themselves to chewing slowly, in silence, for a while. Ayami opened her mouth. “For now, I'm thinking of looking for a temporary position.” “Temporary? You mean like something part-time, that pays by the hour?” “Yes, that's right.” “Are you thinking of working at a restaurant again?” the director asked suspiciously. “I might do, but not right away. Last week I had an interview for a short-term position doing admin at a university; I haven't heard anything back yet though, so that's a negative. Well, before I came out this evening, the German teacher asked me to do her a favour; I might be going to act as an interpreter and secretary for a poet visiting Korea. But it's not certain yet. The poet's going to make up his mind when he gets here.” “I remember hearing about that. Someone to interpret, wasn't that what she said they needed?” “But I...I don't think I'd be able to interpret so I turned it down at first, but they said it's not conference interpreting so it should be fine. I told them I didn't mind finding him
somewhere to stay, helping him choose the place, etc.” “What is this foreign poet coming to Korea to do?” “To write, apparently.” “But why in Korea, of all places?” “I wondered about that too, but all I got was that he 'just happened' to choose Korea. There's no official event for him to attend – in fact, nobody else even knows he's coming.” “In that case, maybe he's coming to see Yeoni. A private visit, I mean.” “I thought that too, at first...but if that was the case, why would the German teacher, why would Yeoni want me to be tagging along all the time?” “She'll probably be starting chemotherapy sooner or later.” “She told me she's just taking pills!” “That won't have much of an effect, though, right?” “She said it was a trial for a new medicine, some new wonder drug she was so lucky to be taking!” “Did she say anything concrete about this new medicine?” “No.” Ayami shook her head again, vigorously but pointlessly. “She said it was a secret. She said she'd signed a written pledge to keep it absolutely secret from everybody until the product came out on the market. Along with an oath not to call them to account about any side effects. In fact, she shouldn't have told me even that much.” “Anyhow, it mightn't necessarily be the case that Yeoni won't be able to meet anyone even if she does start having chemotherapy.” “I don't know. But since the poet's coming here to write, he's unlikely to leave straight away.” “In that case...” “In that case he'll probably see Yeoni now and then.”
“As far as I know, Yeoni once worked as a temporary secretary for a famous writer, a long time ago when she was studying abroad. He wanted to write something on Korea, so she gathered various documents and translated them for him. But then the writer changed his mind, so the novel never saw the light of day. He was pretty famous, and for each new book he'd pick a new temporary secretary who fitted the theme.” “Really, a temporary secretary, perhaps that's the proper name for the work I'll end up doing. But I can't think of any 'theme' I'd be especially suited to.” “That'll be for the writer to think about. So when will you be starting this work?” “Early tomorrow morning; so really, you could say later tonight. That's when I have to go to the airport.” The director seemed to change the subject. “Actually, I met a poet today. It's a bit of an odd coincidence, now I think about it. Though to be precise, I would have to say I met 'poets'.” “Today at the foundation?” “That's right. Today at the foundation.” Perhaps the director nodded. “Maybe you already know this, but a while ago the foundation announced a program to support poets, you see. Today was the launch event. I had nothing to do with it myself, but I'd dropped by to see someone from the foundation's arts team so they asked me to stick around for the event.” “I've never heard anything about it.” “I assumed you had...” “How would I find out about it, when there's absolutely no connection with my work? And I don't know anyone at the foundation, I've never even been there.” “Right, you told me that; it completely slipped my mind.” “So, did the poets all have their own secretaries?” “Secretaries!” the director exclaimed. His laughter sounded cold, mocking. Just then, the main course arrived. Ayami picked up the strong smell of roast lamb.
“Secretaries!” the director repeated. His cutlery clattered against the plate; he seemed to prodding at the fish, worried their might be bones. “Try some, Ayami. I'd never seen so many poets in one place before today. There haven't been any similar events in the past. Of course, I've caught a glimpse of the odd famous writer now and then. At a public reading or a lecture, something like that. I've probably seen them more often in the newspapers. And when I was studying abroad I crossed paths with the poet Ko Un while he was visiting Europe. We even shared a few words. But of course, he wouldn't remember me now.” “And did Ko Un have a secretary with him?” “I'm not sure,” the director replied, somewhat curtly. “Apparently the woman who was always by his side wasn't his secretary but his wife. Well, today I saw all those poets gathered in one place. There must have been dozens of them, all in the same room. I couldn't tell they were poets at first. Because more than half of them...it's not easy to put into words, maybe this was a subjective impression, but more than half, most, in fact, if I'd passed them on the street I would have taken them for some self-employed businessman who'd gone bankrupt after the IMF crisis, wandering around with no home and no family. I wouldn't have been all that surprised if they'd asked me for a little money, just to buy something to eat; that was how they appeared to me. Although no, it wasn't their appearance exactly, more that they were cut from a certain physical mould, which made me feel like that about them.” “I can't imagine it.” “It's a fact; at least, if I'm to speak frankly, it's the impression I myself received.” “In that case, you mean the people who were at the foundation today were kind of hippy poets?” “I've never heard that 'hippy poets' designates a particular group. I know it used to be a trend, so perhaps it's stuck around. Of course, I've no idea what kind of poetry they write, but from the looks of it I'd have to say they were just ordinary, run-of-the-mill poets.”
“Sometimes...on my days off...there are times when my clothes aren't so refined...like ripped jeans or a shabby t-shirt with the neck all stretched.” “Ayami, I'm not talking about anything so concrete as that!” “Then do you think poets have just never been concerned about being well turned-out? I've never met a writer myself, aside from a playwright at the theatre, ages ago. And he always wore ordinary jeans and a t-shirt, so there was nothing to distinguish him from the actors. Now I think of it, he did act sometimes as well. And he didn't even have long hair. Well, no longer than that of the actors, I mean. Anyhow, he was really no different from us. But judging from books and films, there are also plenty of artists who present themselves in an extremely particular way, so I think I can understand you getting that sort of impression.” “No, Ayami, you've misunderstood me. As I've already said, it wasn't an issue of clothing. Their outfits all seemed to have been chosen with the aim of appearing very conservative, very civilised. And the majority were successful.” “Then what was the issue?” “Well...it isn't my job to express a strong mental impression in a handful of words, you know. That's more their line – poets, that is. It's regrettable, but I wasn't born with such a talent. Even so, I'll give it a go. Well, when I first saw them, I remember them having an old, gloomy, grey aspect, almost without exception. It was so pronounced I actually got a bit of a shock at first. And it wasn't just some abstract thing, it was a physical feeling emanating from their bodies, as though they were emitting particles. What's more, when they gathered in the lecture hall even the lights seemed to suddenly lose their radiance, becoming dull and gloomy. I don't actually recall whether they were genuinely all that old, biologically speaking. What I do remember is their faded grey hair, their bent, almost hunched backs, their listlessly bowing necks, the glinting spectacles shielding their myopic eyes, their fatigue-inflamed irises, the harsh scent of cheap fabric, fake leather bags, facial muscles stiffened into a mask of long-
suppressed frustration and sadness, overlaid with an innate ugliness, bodies without exception either more stunted or fatter than average, all kinds of external features symbolising poverty, swollen feet threatening to burst from shoddy shoes, slumped narrow shoulders, beads of saliva dangling from shabby lips...they, they were like dead people!” “If I'd become a poet...” Ayami murmured dreamily. “If I had...of course there's no way I would have been able to, I had neither the ability nor the impetus, but if I were a poet even so, even if my external appearance was no different from what it is now, perhaps I would have looked to you like those you saw today. In that case, you would have described me as an objectively hideous woman, a woman with a pockmarked face, who couldn't be loved by anyone, who seemed dead even when she was living; as a person who draws on that negative energy to produce their poetry.”