Ryo-Ryong Kim Elegant Lies E ng l i s h
Elegant Lies (우아한 거짓말) Changbi Publishing corp. / 2009 / 49 p. / ISBN 9788936456221 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. email@example.com
Elegant Lies Written by Kim Ryo-Ryong
Lies (p. 36-94)
1 Rain Mixed with Hail
An MP3 player. Cheon-ji’s playlist never went over five songs. That many songs didn’t require much storage, so she would save them on her phone. She was different from Man-ji, who would download the latest songs onto her MP3 player. That is until one day, out of the blue, Cheon-ji was begging her mom to buy her an MP3 player. This would have been considered normal behavior for most kids, but it was very strange to see Cheon-ji act this way. “Man-ji, do you actually listen to all the songs you save?” “Since what I listen to depends on how I feel, it’s better to save them all beforehand.” “You must get in 200 different moods.” “If I had enough storage, I could be in 1,000 different moods.” “How many of those moods make you want to study?” “None. Some people have a talent for swimming, some for taekwondo; I should cultivate what I’m capable of doing. It’s unfair to expect me to study with kids who were born with good study genes.” “Come on, it’s not like school is the Korea National Training Center.” “Korea… hey, what are you, the spokesperson for public education?” “I don’t know if you should be saying any of that. You seem like you have good study genes.” “I’m busy. Sleep already…” Man-ji remembered her exchange with Cheon-ji all of a sudden. Man-ji took Cheon-
ji’s things out of the drawer and put them in a big box. Cheon-ji had kept the ballpoint pen Man-ji gave her when Cheon-ji was in the 4th grade. The pen, advertising a tutoring academy, had been given out by someone on the street. A piece of paper with the multiplication tables written on it was rolled up and placed inside the pen. Man-ji grasped one end and pulled it out. There was writing on the back of the paper. We have air filters; why don’t we have heart filters?
The penmanship didn’t look like the work of a 4th grader. Man-ji guessed it had been written recently or when Cheon-ji was in the 6th grade. It didn’t look like she had written it to pass the time, either. To put it nicely, Cheon-ji was mature; to put it bluntly, Cheon-ji was sincere to a fault. “For someone so little, you don’t miss anything. I can’t breathe because of you. Call 911, call 911, please.” Man-ji would leave the conversation this way if she got tired of talking to Cheon-ji. Heart filter… Man-ji placed the pen inside the box and grabbed the red ball of yarn. Cheon-ji had given it to her; she told Man-ji she should make something with it if she got bored. Man-ji could see Cheon-ji’s distinctly white face overlaid on top of the red yarn. Did you not think about Mom or me? How could you… Man-ji placed the ball of yarn inside the box also and closed it. “Man-ji, get to that later. Let’s throw out the desk first. The room being so small, it’s taking up too much space,” said Mom, scanning the room after unpacking the dishes. “Where am I supposed to study?” “I’ll buy you a floor desk. We should have thrown it away at the old place.” Mom took the long, thick wooden plank that held the bookcase and drawer in place
and allowed the desk to function like one. “I’ll take this; you carry the drawer and the chair.” “You’re going to throw away the chair, too?” “I told you I’m going to buy a floor desk. Put the drawer on the chair and roll it out.” Man-ji removed the drawer and checked to see if there was anything left inside it before putting it on the chair. Now, just the bookcase remained. “Whew, this is so heavy. Man-ji, let me put this on top of the chair.” “The drawer is crazy heavy, too!” “How heavy can an empty drawer be?” Man-ji took the drawer off the chair and placed the wooden plank on top. It sat precariously balanced on the arms of the chair looking as if it would fall. Mom held the wood plank and chair together and pushed the chair. Man-ji followed with the drawer in hand. “Be careful turning after you go through the door. The wood plank is too long.” A loud thump. The wood plank fell on the corridor floor so loudly that Man-ji was afraid to speak. “What is going on?” It was The Part1 who earlier, in the mouse incident, had extinguished any confidence the women might have had in him. “We’re trying to throw out a desk.” Mom didn’t bother saying more and placed the wood plank on the chair again. “Mom, I can just put the drawer on top of the wood plank.” “It’s too dangerous.” “Can I help with anything?” interjected The Part. “No. Can you move out of the way, please?” 1
Nickname given to Chu Sang-bak for having a hair part straight down the middle of his head.
The Part abashedly moved to one side of the corridor. Man-ji succeeded in placing the drawer on top of the wood plank, then took it down again. “It’s hard to balance it. Hey, Mister, there’s a piece of glass next to the refrigerator. It was part of the desk. Could you bring it? Mom, we have to pitch that, too, don’t we?” “We can just make another trip.” “I’ll bring it down.” The Part rushed inside the apartment. “Why are you letting a strange man inside our house?” Mom said firmly in a low voice. “He doesn’t look like a bad man. There’s nothing to take anyway.” “How can you tell from his face? That part. He must have taken a ruler to it. It’s a perfect line.” The Part came out with the piece of glass. “Go down?” “Why not.” Mom spoke in the same manner as The Part and led the way. At the very front was Mom pushing the chair with the wood plank on top; right behind her was Man-ji holding the drawer; and behind her was The Part who was holding the glass. They passed through the hallway looking like a parade. “What’s your name?” The Part asked Man-ji. “Lee Man-ji.” “Sounds splendid, but one that other kids could have a field day with.” “What’s your name, Mister?” “Chu Sang-bak.”
“What? Ahhhh!” Man-ji screamed when she turned around. “Why would you put your face on the glass like that? You scared me!” “It got stuck to my face, and it doesn’t slide. “Could you keep some distance, please? I don’t feel safe.” “Will you be quiet?” Mom yelled at Man-ji and The Part. As soon as they came out of the narrow corridors and into the parking lot, The Part stood next to Man-ji. “Mister, is your name Chu-sang Bak or Chu Sang-bak?” “Chu Sang-bak. You don’t think I would tell it to you as if it were an American name, do you?” “What kind of name has a first and last name that both sound like family names?” Everyone gathered in front of the building maintenance office. Mom and Mr. Im, the security guard, haggled over the furniture removal fee. The glass, free; the plank of wood, 3,000 won; the drawer, 3,000 won; the total 6,000 won. Mom argued that the wooden plank and the drawer were a set, so they should be counted as one, but Mr. Im asserted that even if they were counted as one item, it wouldn’t change the price because of their large size. “Mr. Im, you charged me 5,000 won just for a drawer like this,” said The Part. Mom’s face became stiff. “See, it’s not up to me. There’s a set price for everything.” Mom handed Mr. Im 6,000 won. “Let’s go, Man-ji. Mr. Chu, you be sure to get back 2,000 won!” Just then, Hwa-yeon passed by. “Hwa-yeon!” “Man-ji… what are you doing here?”
“We just moved in today. What are you doing here?” Hwa-yeon didn’t look happy. “She’s the daughter of the owners of Bo Sin Gak restaurant,” said Mr. Im, recognizing Hwa-yeon. “The Chinese restaurant in the building, that’s yours?” “Yes…. I live in Building 106.” “Wow, out of all the Choweon apartments, that’s the building with the largest units. We’re in Building 102. Mom, this is Cheon-ji’s friend, Hwa-yeon.” “I guess we’ll see each other often now. We have to finish organizing, so we’ll see you later.” “Bye.” Mom and Man-ji went inside their apartment building. The Part didn’t go in as he continued to have a serious talk with Mr. Im regarding the garbage removal fee.
Once inside her home, Hwa-yeon was anxious. It was as if Cheon-ji’s family was out to get her by moving into her apartment complex. Not that it would have been any different if Cheon-ji was alive, but Hwa-yeon found Cheon-ji’s family even more offensive without her. Hwa-yeon sprang up from the sofa and drank a glass of water. She thought that if Man-ji was under the impression that Hwa-yeon and Cheon-ji had been best friends, then she would just have to act like they had been. There was, however, the promise note they had each signed, confirming their close friendship, and the exchange of gifts. “Since we’re going to be in middle school, we should exchange birthday gifts to commemorate it.” “Like what?” “For me, an MP3 player. For you… you don’t have a digital camera, right? I’ll buy
you a digital camera.” “I don’t need a digital camera. Plus, it’s just expensive. And don’t you already have an MP3 player?” “Better if I have one more. If you look on the Internet, there are lots of cheap MP3 players and digital cameras. Even ones that are only a little over 10,000 won.” “Why should I exchange gifts with you anyway?” “After I listened to your presentation I realized I was wrong. I’m sorry. And I want you to know how I feel in writing.” Cheon-ji knew that there was a hidden agenda when Hwa-yeon made such an insincere apology. Cheon-ji thought, Why not? Let’s see how far you can go. Cheon-ji agreed, cheerfully looking forward to Hwa-yeon’s next move. After they signed the promise note, they each kept a copy. “What’s that? What’s with all the signing?” asked a girl who had been looking on. “A BFF note!” said Hwa-yeon. “How immature. What are you, first graders?” “Yes, that’s us.” Hwa-yeon needed the other kids to believe that she was not the main character from Cheon-ji’s presentation. But Hwa-yeon shredded the promise note and flushed it down the toilet as soon as she heard Cheon-ji had killed herself. She thought that just like the scraps of paper had swirled down the drain, her connection to Cheon-ji had also ended. You didn’t have to make a presentation like that… Cheon-ji had maintained grades that wavered between 8th and 10th place in her class. That wasn’t enough to impress the kids. But she appeared to be studying, and was well on her way to being number 1 or 2 in no time. She also became known as the kid who read more novels than textbooks.
“Is that book fun?” “It’s not fun once it becomes required reading, so I’m reading it in advance.” Hwa-yeon didn’t really like kids who put their all into getting good grades, but she disliked Cheon-ji even more because she didn’t seem to try too hard and still retained grades better than hers. Hwa-yeon could still vividly remember the days when she could say one hurtful word to Cheon-ji and she would cry; for Cheon-ji to instantly change one day and turn to her with a cutting look was truly terrifying. Cheon-ji looked at her as if looking at a worthless insect. Hwa-yeon should have stopped then. She should have stopped when she had the feeling Cheon-ji was drawing her in. Now, it felt as if the baton had been passed to Cheon-ji’s family and they were strangling her.
“Where are you going to sell all that?” Man-ji asked Mi-ran, who was meticulously taking care of two clips she had gotten from somewhere. Mi-ran would collect erasers, thumbtacks, and rulers with ragged edges that had been left in the classrooms. “Middle-aged ladies collect toasters or baking tools and leave them in their verandahs. But the chances those things are used again is zero. What they really need are sundry items like these.” “I give respect to your sundry items. There’s merit in what you just said.” “I know, right?” Mi-ran cracked up laughing. “Tsk-tsk.” Man-ji got up to leave. “Where are you going?” “To meet Hwa-yeon.” Man-ji had to meet Hwa-yeon. She was the closest person to Cheon-ji besides the family. Cheon-ji was not someone who would have killed herself on an impulse. She must
have thought about it for a long time. Man-ji didn’t want to use a lofty statement like “society killed you” to explain her sister’s death. Other people may bemoan society in a refined manner and see Cheon-ji as having been doomed, but Man-ji saw herself as a foolish sister who hadn’t been able to prevent Cheon-ji’s death. She had to apologize from the bottom of her heart. It couldn’t be done by just saying, “I don’t know why you did it, but I’m sorry.” Cheon-ji hadn’t left a suicide note or even a diary entry. Man-ji felt it was her responsibility to find out why.
“Meet me at that donkasu place once you’re done.” “Why?” “I want to treat my little’s sister’s best friend to some pork.” “I have cleaning duty today.” “Take your time. I’ll just read while I wait.” “Okay…” Man-ji went back to her classroom. Hwa-yeon sensed that the kids gathered by the window were watching her. It was worth paying attention if Man-ji had come to Hwa-yeon’s classroom. Man-ji, though, left the classroom not looking as if anything had been a big deal. The kids started to talk immediately. “That was Cheon-ji’s older sister, right? Wonder why she came.” “Kim Hwa-yeon bullied the heck out of Cheon-ji. She probably came because of that.” “No way.” “Yes way. Did you see Hwa-yeon’s face? She looked so scared.” “Can’t blame her. I go to the same tutoring academy as one of Hwa-yeon’s elementary school classmates, and from what I heard, she sure was something. On her
birthday, she made sure that only Cheon-ji arrived late to the party, when there would be only crumbs left. “I wouldn’t want to hang around Hwa-yeon. She’s bad luck.” Mi-ra couldn’t help but be surprised to hear what the kids were saying around her. Kids talking out in the open about something that happened so long ago. Why hadn’t they said anything to Hwa-yeon then? But Mi-ra had to stop asking this question. Because she had been there, too. Because she had known then that Hwa-yeon, as a prank, had told Cheon-ji to come at 3 p.m., one hour after everyone else had arrived. And because she had never said anything up to now. “Mi-ra, you went to elementary school with Hwa-yeon, right?” “Yeah.” “Did Cheon-ji really just take her abuse? She didn’t in middle school. That’s a lie, right?” “Everyone knew Hwa-yeon went around spreading bad rumors about Cheon-ji except for her.” “That’s what I heard.” “My grandmother said it was a good thing Cheon-ji wasn’t a son. Then is it perfectly okay for daughters to die?” “What’s wrong with your grandmother?” All the kids scowled at the same time. “Hey, hey, Hwa-yeon’s coming this way.” Hwa-yeon entered the classroom. The kids who had gathered at the window started laughing out loud. As if they had just been talking about something really funny. But the laughter was only loud and didn’t resonate. It just faded awkwardly and emptily because it had arisen out of nothing real.
“I’d better do my homework.” “Right, there’s homework.” Hwa-yeon saw herself in the other kids’ awkward behavior. “It’s a group assignment again?” “Make Cheon-ji do it. Don’t know if it’s because she reads so many novels, but she’s nauseating.” “Do you think she enjoys it?” “It’s possible. Weirdly, she gives off the smell of an old woman.” “Hey, hey, Cheon-ji’s coming.” Hwa-yeon would drop Cheon-ji’s name whenever she could. Now, instead of Cheonji’s, people would bring up her name. They would talk about more specific incidents, and vague, unconfirmed rumors would spread and then disappear. Hwa-yeon thought this, and she wasn't wrong. Groups of two or three would readily bring Hwa-yeon up in their conversations, along with mentioning others who had supposedly witnessed Hwa-yeon’s actions and words. Rumors based on those witnesses’ accounts spread quickly.
Hwa-yeon was already almost done with cleaning. She was anxious. She kept thinking about Man-ji, who was waiting for her. While Man-ji was looking for answers to the question “Why?”’ Hwa-yeon was answering questions as if to ask, “What did I do?” She hated Cheon-ji. That’s why she spoke about her behind her back and bullied her. But for her to commit suicide? Then what about Mi-so, who was getting bullied by half the class? “You said Cheon-ji’s dad committed suicide, right?” said Mi-ra to Hwa-yeon while taking a chair down from the top of a desk. A loud thump of the legs of the chair hitting the floor sounded. So startled, Hwa-yeon didn’t even look at Mi-ra. It didn’t sound like a simple fact-
confirming question. It was stated with a certainty that was meant to hurt intentionally. “When did I?” Hwa-yeon controlled her breathing and replied naturally. “You said it to the kids at your birthday party at your parent’s restaurant.” The other kids who were cleaning gathered near them. Hwa-yeon took a nervous swallow. Before, when kids had heard a rumor, they focused on “This happened” rather than “I heard from so-and-so.” But after Cheon-ji’s death, the question of who should bear responsibility came to the forefront. Kids now focused on “who” and “why.” It was true that Cheon-ji wasn’t around anymore to verify anything that was said. But it was more uncomfortable to say anything now. Stories about the dead were more overpowering than stories about the living. Stories gained life only after death. Hwayeon’s face turned pale with fright. “You said Cheon-ji was always dark and drab because her father had committed suicide.” “I did? I heard it as a rumor, too, so I don’t remember much.” “My sister is in the same class as Cheon-ji’s older sister. I heard from my sister that Cheon-ji’s dad died from an accident, not from suicide.” “What? What? Tell us in detail!” The other kids pressed Mi-ra. Hwa-yeon glared at Mi-ra. Mi-ra didn’t avoid Hwa-yeon’s glare and gave a sardonic chuckle. Mi-ra remembered Hwa-yeon’s birthday. “He had a wife and daughters; how could he kill himself? No wonder Cheon-ji is morbid.” Hwa-yeon said it with a frown and a look expressing pity, but in the end, all she was
doing was talking maliciously about Cheon-ji and her father. And her laughing out loud as if she was asking everyone to agree was just as underhanded as her words. Then Cheon-ji came into the restaurant. “Oh no. Did I write 3 p.m.? Sorry.” Hwa-yeon gestured like it was absurd. “That’s all right. Happy birthday.” “Mom, Cheon-ji just came. Can you give her a bowl of jjajangmyeon?” It was an awkward welcome. Mi-ra was angry at such a blatant lie. Then at Cheon-ji for not turning to leave, and at the other kids for saying they were glad she got to eat at least the jjajangmyeon… it was an unnecessarily crude birthday invitation. How could Hwa-yeon, who was supposedly Cheon-ji’s best friend, write the wrong time? Why? Hwa-yeon’s parents were just as weird. People ordered sweet-and-sour pork for delivery all the time. Why couldn’t they have just made a little bit more and given a little bit to Cheon-ji? They could have just put some on a small plate. It was a discourteous and uncomfortable birthday party. After that day, Mi-ra would just say hi to Hwa-yeon, but didn’t get close to her. “When you talked about her dad that day, it was disgusting. You said it so cheerfully.” The year of the birthday party, in the spring, Mi-ra lost her mom. She had been hospitalized for a long time. There was a time when Mi-ra thought she would be better off without her mom. She couldn’t bring her friends home, so she was comfortable alone. Then, when it seemed her mom would soon pass, Mi-ra wished with all her heart that her mom would stay alive even if it meant her mom had to lie in a hospital bed all her remaining life. It was after her mom’s passing that Mi-ra felt regret, and it was too late to do anything. Hwayeon was cruel. It didn’t matter how Cheon-ji’s father had passed; she shouldn’t have used Cheon-ji’s father as a joke. And the same went for Hwa-yeon’s parents, who watched as if nothing was wrong.
Mi-ra, with her backpack on, quickly took the chairs off the desks clustered next to her and left the classroom. The other kids hurried after her.
The kids were sifting through past events in their minds. Kids who used to chime in with Hwa-yeon had now become witnesses and muckrakers. Hwa-yeon realized she had come through the wrong alley. I’ll just tell her the truth… If you think about it, it’s really nothing. It was better to go back to where she had come in. She couldn’t just go over the walls not knowing what was behind them. She thought she wasn’t the one who had made Cheon-ji into an outcast. She could never have succeeded in doing that. She had also never beaten her or trapped her inside a room like she had seen in videos online. All she had done was pull some pranks. Hwa-yeon took a deep breath and went inside the snack shop. “Man-ji.” “Sit. You must be hungry.” “Yeah.” Man-ji ordered pork cutlets and ddeokbbokki. “You must be bored without Cheon-ji,” said Man-ji, placing a fork in front of Hwayeon. Hwa-yeon didn’t respond. “Who knew you lived in that apartment complex?” Instead of saying anything, Hwa-yeon gave a faint smile. “You kids all have MP3 players these days, right?” “Most kids, but a lot of kids don’t bother carrying one. With so much memory on cellphones, kids just listen to music on them and just buy a memory chip if they run out of
memory. Cheon-ji probably listened to music on her cellphone, too.” “Yeah, but she suddenly begged Mom for an MP3 player. And a brand new model at that.” “She and I agreed to exchange gifts, that’s probably why. But we were supposed to buy cheap ones off the Internet, not new models…” “Exchange gifts?” “Our birthdays were around the same time. I was supposed to buy her a digital camera, and Cheon-ji was supposed to buy me an MP3 player.” “How could you rug rats afford a digital camera or an MP3 player?” “You can find a lot on the Internet that are under 20,000 won.” “They break. I bought one for 19,000 won, and it wouldn’t charge soon after I started using it. I can only use it if it’s plugged into my computer. Then what’s the point of an MP3 player? I might as well use my computer. Don’t buy those.” “They’re cute. And it’s not a big deal if I lose it.” “Look at you, a middle schooler with the mindset of a first grader.” The food arrived. “Thanks for the treat.” Man-ji stared at Hwa-yeon. The place, the menu – all were the same; only Cheon-ji wasn’t there. Man-ji’s heart ached. “Cheon-ji must have liked you very much for her to want to buy you the latest MP3 player.” “I didn’t tell her, but I wanted to buy her a nice digital camera, too. I just didn’t want her to feel pressured, so I said we should buy cheap ones.” “Why did you want to buy her a nice one?” “I had a lot to be sorry for towards Cheon-ji. I wanted to start fresh in middle school.
On top of that, Cheon-ji never had birthday parties. That’s why I wanted to at least buy her a nice present.” Birthday parties. Man-ji never had them either. She was satisfied with some pocket money and the birthday cake Mom would bring home after work. It wasn’t so much that they were so poor that they couldn’t afford to have a birthday party. It was more that they had moved so much that they didn’t have enough friends to invite to a birthday party. Man-ji felt bad that her little sister could no longer even dream of having a birthday party… “Hahaha, what were you sorry about?” “I used to talk about her behind her back… make fun of her…” “You guys are cute.” “I resented Cheon-ji for acting like an older sister.” “She had that side to her. Occasionally, I would feel like she was my older sister, too.” Tears fell from Hwa-yeon’s eyes at that moment. She quickly wiped them away with tissue. She hadn’t planned on crying. She had no control over those tears. She became afraid. She felt like someone had pointed straight at her, said “You!” and scolded her. “Please stop crying! Please…” Hwa-yeon told herself. “I guess it’s good to have a friend. You’re shedding more tears than me. But, you know what… you were mean,” said Man-ji. Man-ji put down her fork, saying the donkasu was too dry. Hwa-yeon also put down her fork, saying the ddeokbbokki was too spicy.
“Man-ji, let’s eat.” Mom said. “Couldn’t we just skip breakfast?” “You sit all day comfortably letting the time pass, so you don’t have to eat much. I have to take food out of storage and put it on display. I have to stand all day and fry tofu. I’ll
faint if I don’t eat. The hell with respect for customers. What about respect for workers?” “Why don’t you sit somewhere and fry it?” “Like that would be possible.” “Well, it would be kind of a mess if there were chairs here and there.” “It’s not like I’m asking for a sofa. I would be happy if I could just rest my butt against a column.” “What would that be? A pillow for your butt?” “It’s so pathetic. I love it when I have to go to the bathroom. I can at least sit for a moment. They put chairs where the cashiers are a few days ago. I was so jealous. I don’t know if the cashiers feel bad, though; they don’t sit that often yet.” “Chairs are one thing, but wouldn’t having good side dishes help you? What’s with these?” “Weren’t you the one who wanted to skip breakfast? There’s stew and kimchi. What else do you need? You should be happy you have something to eat every meal. I grew up not ever eating a decent meal.” “You don’t see the parents taking their kids to family restaurants? So you’re saying I should shut up because you didn’t get to eat well when you were my age, and that at least I’m fed?” “You little…!” Mom slammed down her spoon. “I know I’m going off topic. They say parents bury their kids in their hearts. But Mom, it doesn’t seem like that with you. I feel like you let everything go that day.” “Bury them in your heart? No way. Even if you poured concrete over them and then sealed them in with metal, they wouldn’t get buried. You try to bury them, but they just crawl back out. I can’t bury them because I’m sorry. I can’t bury them because they’re pitiful, and I
can’t bury them because I’m bitter.” Mom took a big spoonful of plain rice and shoved it in her mouth. “They say if you have no luck with a husband, you won’t have luck with kids…” “Yeah, well, Mom, kids who don’t have luck with parents… don’t have luck with friends, either.” Man-ji put down her spoon and rushed off to her room. “Get back here!” “No, Mrs. Oh Hyeon-suk. Eat. You need energy, right? Don’t forget!” Man-ji put on her backpack and avoided her mom to get to the door. “I’m off to school!” “I can’t believe she came out of me. So infuriating…” Mom stretched out her arm to open the fridge door without getting up.
Cheon-ji’s suicide placed the school in an awkward position also. If not careful, it could be branded as a school that had a chronic problem with bullying and school violence. It didn’t matter that Cheon-ji’s suicide took place outside of the school. She had been a student there, so the school had to get to the truth quickly. And independently, Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher also moved fast to find out what had happened. The day after Cheon-ji’s funeral, the homeroom teacher called Hwa-yeon over quietly. “I heard you two had been best friends since elementary school. You must have been very upset.” “It’s true we’d been friends since elementary school, but we weren’t best friends.” “That’s not what the other kids say.” “Cheon-ji went around telling everyone that we were best friends. I treated her just
like I treated everyone else, but she must have thought differently. Truth be told, I felt burdened by her. I tried to avoid her, but she didn’t notice.” Her voice was tinged with the grievance, insecurity, and worry typical of a first-year middle school student. And there was a chilling honesty in Hwa-yeon’s voice that neither sympathized with nor protected Cheon-ji even though she was dead. “Why didn’t you just tell her you didn’t like her?” “She was such a nice girl, I didn’t want to be so direct and hurt her feelings.” The teacher remembered Cheon-ji at that moment. She was always reading or knitting. She wasn’t very attentive to lectures, but she was meticulous in her writing. Cheonji didn’t hang with a clique, but participated in idle chatter and joked around frequently. “By any chance, were there any bad kids who bothered her?” “They don’t bother kids who study quietly like Cheon-ji did. Do you know Park Sukyeong from Class #2? She’s a total truant. I don’t know if Cheon-ji was close to her but they used to borrow each other’s gym clothes.” “I see. Wait. But aren’t you close with Su-kyeong?” For a second, Hwa-yeon’s cheeks froze. “We’re not close. When I was in elementary school, she came to my birthday party even though I hadn’t invited her. She was a friend of a friend. She came, and I couldn’t tell her to leave. That’s how I know her a little bit.” “I guess she could have become close to Cheon-ji then, couldn’t she?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher fixed her gaze on Hwa-yeon’s eyes, which fluttered at that moment. What Hwa-yeon had said just now didn’t match what Su-kyeong had told the teacher earlier. A couple of days before, the teacher had passed on the news of Cheon-ji’s passing and ended homeroom early. She told the students that Cheon-ji’s death was an
accident, but the kids who were perceptive knew right away that it was suicide. The teacher had dismissed the class, acted as if she was about to leave work, and went to the teacher’s lounge. When she returned to her classroom, she found Su-kyeong standing in front of the locked door. By the second semester, teachers knew which kids were slackers, so though Sukyeong wasn’t in her class, the teacher knew who she was. “Do you need anything?” “No. I just… here…” Su-kyeong was holding Cheon-ji’s gym clothes she had borrowed. The teacher would have taken the gym clothes without question if they had belonged to anyone else but Cheon-ji. But they did belong to Cheon-ji, and the student who had borrowed them was the infamous Su-kyeong. “Can we talk for a little bit?” The teacher opened the classroom door and looked straight at Su-kyeong. “Why do you have Cheon-ji’s gym clothes?” “I borrowed them.” “When?” “….First semester.” “First semester? Why are you just returning them now?” Su-kyeong felt exasperated. She could see the in the teacher’s eyes scorn and disregard. Su-kyeong could see mockery in the teacher’s face, in the faces of the other teachers who had said, “Really?” She was so used to the truth becoming lies that it was better to feed the teachers lies they would likely believe to be the truth. Their facial expressions would then change as if to say, “Of course,” and then they would say, “Leave.” It was a game where truth didn’t matter, and the only way to escape was to say what the teachers wanted to hear.
“Cheon-ji said she had bought new ones so I could have these.” The teacher sneered. “Cheon-ji said for you to have them? If you borrowed them first semester, then that means they would have to have been new. Exactly when did she give them to you so that she would have bought new ones?” “… I forgot to return them to her. I thought she would come back for them if she needed them.” “So even though she lent them to you, she should have gone back to get them from you? You shouldn’t be messed with, is that it? She should have been grateful just because you were willing to give them back to her?” The teacher glared at Su-kyeong. The teacher could remember seeing students like her during her school days. Bullies would line up other kids to intimidate them. They would steal other kids’ pens like it was nothing. They were the same back then, too. They would say, “Let me borrow it….” Images of those kids merged with Su-kyeong’s face, and she suddenly became enraged. “How long do you think you can beat and verbally abuse other kids? It all ends exactly at 19. Only until then do you have the right to be a student, wearing your uniform however you can, shorten it, pull it, what have you. After that, do you know what happens when you run into your old classmates? Who do you think will be more embarrassed: you, who used to hit, or the kids who got hit? You know who the delinquents are clearly when you open up the yearbook. They’re the kids who later cut themselves out of the yearbook. But you know what? The kids who witnessed your behavior fill up your yearbook. The kids who remember your actions—older, younger, the ones in the same class—number in the hundreds. They will be around forever… Do you know how frightening that is?” “All I did was borrow Cheon-ji’s gym clothes.”
“Sure you did. You say it’s just one gym outfit, but I bet you that Cheon-ji thought otherwise. ‘What if I don’t lend it to her? What if I don’t!’” “Kim Hwa-yeon said Cheon-ji and I wore the same size, that I should borrow it from her, so that’s what I did!” “Kim Hwa-yeon? Are you close to Hwa-yeon?” The teacher became flustered at the unexpected mention of Hwa-yeon’s name. “After I was invited to her 6th grade birthday party, we became close.” “Cheon-ji and Hwa-yeon were best friends, so you must have been close to Cheon-ji too.” “No. I don’t like girls like Cheon-ji.” “Why?” “Just because. Kids like her bring bad luck.” “You’ll realize later… who’ll bring bad luck. Go. Leave the gym clothes there.” Maybe not everything could be buried with Cheon-ji, but the teacher didn’t want the rain and hail to fall on Cheon-ji’s grave and mar it. Do people not have a tinge of sympathy? The teacher shuddered. Su-kyeong glared at the teacher, who was staring at her with contempt before turning her gaze toward the windows. Why did the bitch have to go kill herself… Su-kyeong had received a message from the Hwa-yeon during homeroom.
Cheon-ji killed herself. The homeroom teacher said it was
an accident. How
could she have had an accident at home?
She remembered the gym clothes she had borrowed during first semester. As soon as
homeroom ended, she ran to the Classroom #3. She had planned on leaving the gym clothes in Cheon-ji’s desk drawer. It didn’t feel right for her to keep the clothes of a dead child. But the classroom was already locked. That’s when she ran into Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher. She should have thrown them away. Su-kyeong felt like she could feel Cheon-ji’s touch on her body, something she hadn’t felt when she wore the gym clothes before. Su-kyeong pushed her chair back as she got up and left the classroom. She didn’t care what the teacher thought of her. Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher held her tongue as she watched Su-kyeong. She didn’t realize that she had made a fist so strong while talking to her that there were marks where her nails had dug in. If the teacher hadn’t been careful, she could have gone through the “new teacher rite of passage” that the kids had talked about. At the beginning of the first semester, there was an extensive campaign at the school to prevent school violence. “Do not falter. And don’t automatically stigmatize yourself as a troublemaker. I am always here for you.” There were kids who sneered, but the teacher was confident. She thought if she treated all the kids without judgment, they would come to know that she was different. After Cheon-ji’s death, however, she thought maybe she was no different from the other teachers, and she thought back to those sneers miserably now. She also thought that perhaps the way the kids had initially judged her was correct. Once when she had secretly looked through the kids’ homepages online, she had found a discussion thread on one of the message boards. This was a few days after the workshop on preventing violence. The students had written that the teacher was a newbie and that’s why she had had high morale. It would be a student’s worst luck if caught by a teacher like her, they said. They added that the teacher would make a big deal out of something that could be solved with one
slap. But they should just wait. After just three years, what she used to resolve with love would get resolved with a stick or punishment, and later, what she used to resolve with a stick or punishment would get resolved with apathy. What surprised the teacher were the responses by other students: all agreed. The thread also said there was one way to break this sense of duty in a new teacher, and that would be “for the teacher to beat a student when she lost her mind.” The teacher read the long thread that followed describing a sequence of events the students said were legendary, and she felt like someone had hit her over the head. The kids said the following: When a new teacher constantly interacts with students with a big smile on her face, a bad apple is bound to arise from somewhere. If this student is a full-on delinquent, then the student will scare off the teacher, or the teacher will just dismiss the student as an idiot. The trouble comes when a kid who is not really a delinquent or a good student starts acting up suddenly. If this kid is dealing with a disciplinarian, then the student will just let things go, but if it is a teacher who has just started her career, the student will test her nerves and just aggravate her by adding fuel to the fire. Usually it will start with something insignificant. “Be quiet there.” The student ignores the teacher’s warning. “I told you to be quiet.” The student again ignores the teacher’s warning and keeps talking. “Go to the back of the class!” The student calmly grins mockingly at the teacher. “What’s with your attitude?” “What did I do? Just because you’re the teacher…” This is about when the teacher gets offended. “What did you say just now?”
“Fuck, I said, just because you’re the teacher!” This is when the teacher loses it. If she is experienced, she might fire off a threatening look that says, “You want to die?” or will tell an even bigger bully in class to “shut her up.” With one word or look from a real bully, this student will immediately stop her antics. The teacher will, though, have to be cautious when selecting the bigger bully. If not, it could backfire and the bully could tell the teacher, “You make her shut up,” and the teacher might be backed into a corner. Amongst the bullies, there are different grades: boss level, gangster level, minion level, and punk level. The teacher has to choose a student from the group taken seriously: the boss level. However, a green teacher will blow her top in a situation like this, and instead of saying, “I’m the teacher and you’re the student,” she will suddenly switch to the mentality of “I will hit you and you will get hit.” And because she has never hit a student, she looks awkward in the way she moves to hit. She’ll slap wherever her hand lands, and where her hand lands is where the student gets hit. She can’t stop easily if she misses the window of opportunity for stopping. She will keep going if no one stops her; the teacher herself gets infuriated with this corporal punishment. The kid who has gotten hit is not really special, but for some reason, what the teacher said, which was not uncommon, irks the student that day. The student only realizes that she’s passed the tipping point after she aggravates the teacher. But there are other students watching, so the student has no choice but to continue with the attitude that aside from rank, she and the teacher are no different. With one trivial remark, the teacher loses her mind. Students call this the “new teacher rite of passage”—to put it another way, hazing. Once the hazing is over, the teacher will officially become a teacher in Korea, and she will continue to be a teacher who hits or one who is apathetic. In any case, the kids had marked Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher as a naïve teacher with a sense of duty who hadn’t gone through hazing yet. Someone had written
on the thread: I don’t know what she thinks she can solve by telling us to come by:
“So one of the seniors is hitting you? I’m sure she’s not a bad person. You should talk to her. What? She beat you till you bled? Oh my, you need to see a counselor.” 26 The teacher was comfortable enough at the time to just laugh this off. She felt the same way towards Cheon-ji’s off-the-cuff question on the day of the violence prevention workshop. “What about the kids without any problems?” “You may have problems later. You can come see me anytime then.” It was the beginning of the school year, and the teacher didn’t know how to read Cheon-ji. This was a mistake on her part. The teacher asked Hwa-yeon again, to give her one more chance at redeeming herself. “I saw you by chance in the hallway with Su-kyeong. You guys looked really close.” “You don’t know, that’s why. Park Su-kyeong, that girl’s been a bully from elementary school. If you pretend like you don’t see her, she’ll curse you out. It’s better to pretend like you’re close to her when you run into her.” The teacher nodded. The person at a disadvantage was clearly the bully. As Sukyeong’s reputation was already well known, there was not a chance that the teacher would take Su-kyeong’s words for what they were. The teacher didn’t ask Hwa-yeon anything else regarding the gym clothes and dismissed her. The school, which had begun its investigation before the teacher did, tentatively concluded that Cheon-ji had committed suicide because of pessimism regarding her circumstances. The teacher couldn’t completely agree with this opinion, but she couldn’t
object at that point. The only truth the school and the police revealed swiftly was that Cheonji was dead. The teacher felt bitter.
Whenever Man-ji saw the green nametag, she fixated on it. The green ones were for first-year students, yellow ones were for second-year students, and pink ones were for thirdyear students. Her sister had abandoned hers way too early…. Cheon-ji’s school uniform with the green nametag on it was still in the closet. “Man-ji!” When Man-ji had just passed the school gate, Mi-ran called her. “Your skirt is too short. That must be nice, growing so fast. Shoot, don’t they stop you for this?” said Mi-ran, tapping Man-ji’s skirt. “You should get caught for wearing such an inappropriately long skirt for a third-year student. Gwak Mi-ran, the other kids neatly wear their skirts above the knees; how come you’re the only one who is stuffy enough to wear it below the knee? Are you rebelling? And do you know how long it’s been since we’ve had the freedom to wear any kind of socks we want? Here you are still wearing white ankle socks,” said Man-ji. Imitating their homeroom teacher’s voice, she continued, “Excuse me, what class do you belong to?” “I came over to lend you my science notebook, but now I am not!” “Have it your way. That old man Newton should have just picked up the apple when it fell and eaten it. I’ll write I don’t understand why he had to discover gravity and torture students all around the world.” Right then, two students passing made eye contact with Man-ji. They had come with Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher to Cheon-ji’s funeral. The kids lowered their heads a little to greet Man-ji. Neither Man-ji nor the kids were happy to see each other. Man-ji smirked and
went inside the school building. “What did they say?” Mi-ran asked Man-ji as soon as they sat. “They confessed. They used to pick on Cheon-ji.” “What a bunch of phonies. So?” “I said it’s not a big deal. What did your little sister say?” “She wondered if Hwa-yeon was holding something over Cheon-ji.” “Like what?” “If she knew, she would have told me. Isn’t it strange? That the apartment complex you moved into happens to be the same as Hwa-yeon’s? You even said the first meal you had was at her restaurant. It’s spooky.” “You watch too many movies. You have math first period, right?” Man-ji didn’t pay attention to Mi-ran’s remarks and pressed down on her ballpoint pen. “This doesn’t write. I’d better throw it out.” “Give it to me if you’re going to throw it out.” “Tell me the truth. You collect these and sell them somewhere, don’t you?” Mi-ran grinned and took apart the pen. “It’s good for projects using recycled material. The spring is very handy. By the way, we’re going to have the physical fitness test soon. I’m in trouble.” “Why don’t you use the springs you’ve collected. I bet they’ll help with sit-ups if you tape them to your back.” Mi-ran looked askance at Man-ji. “Man-ji and Mi-ran! What’s all the fuss this morning?” It was their homeroom teacher, who had snuck in through the back door. Man-ji and Mi-ran immediately lowered their heads.
A Tall Pierrot Man-ji looked through Cheon-ji’s belongings again. She looked through Cheon-ji’s notebooks page by page for a memo left behind. But all she could find was a library card from the city library that was located within a park on top of the hill in their neighborhood. Man-ji felt a pang in her heart as she looked at Cheon-ji’s picture printed on the library card. It looked as if the printer had been of poor quality, as the picture looked faded and offcenter…. Man-ji wondered if Cheon-ji’s spirit had been taken from the picture when Cheon-ji left. Even the picture looked dead. “I thought she couldn’t possibly be studying late.” Mom came in, having opened the door with her key. “I’m looking for something.” “When I looked inside the apartment up front, the kid in that house was studying.” “Here you go again, talking about a neighbor’s kid. We’ve just moved here and you’re already talking about some kid next door? You think the kid is studying all the time. You make comparisons like it’s a habit.” “What about you? How’s your friend’s mom? How is it that all your friends’ moms are cultured, and every time a new phone gets released, they immediately buy one for their kids? Or they upgrade their kids’ computers every day. When it comes to grades, they’re super lenient, and they take trips abroad any chance they get, don’t they? It’s me who’s had it with your friends’ moms’ stories.” “You shouldn’t mess with a professional.” “Stop messing around. Put this in the washer. What about food? Mom took off her socks and threw them at Man-ji. “That’s gross!”
“You can see what a tiring day I’ve had. I asked did you eat?” Man-ji held the socks loosely by their ends. “Of course. Do you know what time it is? By the way, how long are you going to wash socks, underwear, and bras together? My friend’s mom prewashes each piece, then puts one bra in a mesh bag to wash in the washer. You just throw everything in the washer, and that’s why the wire starts sticking out.” “Why don’t you wash it that way?” Man-ji didn’t say anything and went to the bathroom. The washing machine was too big for the bathroom. The door would catch on the corner of the machine, so it was always ajar by a hand’s width. Man-ji threw the socks in the washer, then sat on the toilet that was stuck to the washing machine. From where she was sitting she could see her mom opening the refrigerator door. The apartment was so small that from anywhere you could see every action someone took. It was such an open apartment that it felt cramped. “Come out if you’re done peeing. I bought sundae on sale.” Man-ji sighed as she flushed. “Mom, why did you go to college? I heard a lot of people couldn’t back then?” Manji asked Mom as she sat down. “Most people from my generation couldn’t. Especially women.” “I know that a lot of kids who say their parents went to college are just blowing a lot of hot air. I figured they just want to save their parents’ face. You ask around, and all of their fathers went to a famous university. I don’t know how all the kids whose dads went to the best university ended up in my class. Looks like the kids believe me, though, since I told them you went to an obscure school.” “Hahaha! My friends, all say their kids are going to go to an elite high school and
then to one of the top three universities: Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei” “Why didn’t you make a living out of your major?” “What nonsense. The truth is that I was sick and tired of studying. Why did I go to college then? It was pride. I was supposed to go to work in a factory as soon as I was finished with elementary school. Then, I heard, I couldn’t go to middle school because it was not in the cards for me. I shouldn’t have even dreamed about high school, and then how dare I even think about college? When you hear all that, you refuse to yield.” “Who said that?” “Who do you think? Your grandmother. Before she died, your grandmother said, ‘You can’t go to college. You have to take care of Hyeon-seok.’ What kind of dying words are those? I was in my first year of high school.” “You must have been hurt.” “I was. Other parents were determined to send their kids to college, but not mine. Your grandfather paid tuition once; the rest I worked and paid for.” “You must have worked in factories to your heart’s content.” “I was always on my tip-toes. Back then if you got caught going to college, you were fired from the factory.” “Why?” “That’s how it was back then. If all they did was fire you, it was a blessing. Anyway, from hamburger joints to music cafes, there wasn’t anything I didn’t try… Private tutoring made the most money, but if the kid didn’t get the grades, then the parents would say it was because I was a female teacher and fire me without payment. It never occurred to them to think their kids were not smart; it pissed me off, so I stopped doing that. The liver is fresh today. Eat.” Mom put a piece of liver on top of the sundae.
“What is a music café?” “It’s a café where the customers request songs to be played by DJs. I used to love the Bee Gees.” “Is that the name of a singer or the name of a song?” “A musical group. I loved them so much that every time I started work, the DJ would play ‘Too Much Heaven.’” “Was the DJ Dad by any chance?” “Your dad was always working on his pieces whenever I saw him!” “How did you meet him?” “It was when I briefly worked for a magazine company. I heard that there was a recluse sculptor living around the upper reaches of the Geum River, and I went to interview him.” “I would believe you if he had left something behind.” “I told you. His sculptures kept splitting open. The crane’s stomach would crack open as if it were meat boiled in water…” “I wish he had left something even if it were small…” “Your dad didn’t make small sculptures. He would go deep in the mountains and collect wood from there to work on, and they were mostly cranes. He liked cranes.” The reason there wasn’t one sculpture left behind by Man-ji’s father was that he had burned all his work himself when he became employed at the bio-loofah factory out of the need for survival. To borrow his words, he let them fly away to where they could live. He was a man who felt joy from imbuing life into dead, dry wood. He was a man who should have lived life by the winding ridge of a mountain alongside flowing river water. Mom still couldn’t erase the guilt she felt from having dragged such a man to live in the city. “I remember that tall wooden sculpture that looked like a water fountain. I think we
used to hang our clothes on it. Was that, by any chance, one of dad’s sculptures?” “That was just a clothes rack, idiot.” “Ah…”
Cheon-ji followed Dad from upstream of the Geum River to its lower reaches. This was where Dad had been born and raised, and now Cheon-ji returned there to float away. Even though her ashes were enshrined in a columbarium, two photographs that contained her spirit floated away downstream. “The water is already cold. Dad will come meet you soon.” Mom had laid a portrait of Cheon-ji and a photo with her and her two daughters on the water. “Dad, here comes Cheon-ji. When you meet her, don’t ask her why, just hug her tight.” The two photographs floated away side by side, as if they were one. “You devil, I told you that if you gave them such grandiose names, they would go early! You insisted on giving them those names; are you happy now? If you wanted to take them, you should have done it gently.” The photographs became so distant that they flashed like small flickers of light on the water. “If you meet Cheon-ji, warm her feet. I thought she had a cold, so I turned on the heat, but it must have been full of air because it wouldn’t work. I was going to fix it on my day off, but then she had to go…” The photos were no longer in sight. “You rotten girl. Goodbye…” Man-ji saw far upstream a light that shot up from the water and then disappeared. It
didn’t matter if it was a fish that had leapt up from the river. She felt Cheon-ji in that light. I don’t know where you are going, but don’t cry like you did when you said goodbye to Dad. Goodbye, Little Sis. Right then a man wearing fishing gear took quick steps towards them. “Ma’am, I don’t know who you just set free, but if you’re done, you should go.” 34
Mom and Man-ji looked at the man. “You’re not allowed to do that here anymore. You’ll get fined. I came from the bottom down there. Someone must have told on you.
I think that someone from the local
office is on his way.” “Ha! What is so dirty about my daughter that I have to pay a fine?” Mom took out a few 10,000-won bills and sprinkled them on the river. “Baby, take a good boat and go safely.” “You’re sending off your child…I’d better go down and be on the lookout for you.” The man kept nodding his head and went towards the riverbank. “Man-ji, we should go, too.” “Why did you throw money in the water?” “It’s a long way to travel. I should give her money for her last journey.” Mom held the hem of her skirt and walked towards the bank. “I feel a little weird letting my little sister go and then looking like we’re running away because of a fine.” “That’s life, insignificant and worthless…” Mom and Man-ji walked along the bank. “People can fish here, but you have to pay a fine to let a couple of photos float away?” “It’s not the photos; they’re afraid we scattered ashes. They say they’ll pollute the water or something.”
“But we didn’t scatter ashes.” “Who would believe that? Look at my clothes.” Man-ji looked at Mom’s white mourning dress. Mom, whose daughter had gone before her, was wearing mourning clothes. This sight of her mom hurt just as much as sending her sister off. “What do we do if those men catch Cheon-ji’s photo on their fishing hooks?” “What is there to do? They caught a big one.” “Cheon-ji used to say she wanted to float down the river.” “The river Cheon-ji is on is different. It can’t be seen by the living.” Man-ji was quiet. “The water is cold, but the waves are calm. The boat my daughter is on will not sway…” From where they were, Man-ji and her mom could see the man in fishing gear talking to two other men.
It looked like the kids at school had returned to their daily routines in a flash. The rumors surrounding Cheon-ji passed their expiration date and slowly went into disuse. The kids looked forward to the comeback performances of their favorite singers and were busy getting ready for exams. Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher felt a bit sorry, but in order to change the class atmosphere, she decided to rearrange the seating order. She wanted to brighten up those kids who were affected by Cheon-ji’s death however she could. The kids who came to class first had first pick of where they wanted to sit. Unaware this was happening, it took Hwa-yeon by surprise. Kids were already sitting in groups of twos and threes with classmates they were close to when she entered. She wanted someone to call her over, but that didn’t happen. She was short but didn’t want to sit
too far up front, and the seats in the middle of the class were already taken. In the middle of the fourth section there was a seat, but she would have had to sit next to Mi-so, who was a self-proclaimed outsider and designated outcast by others. To sit next to an outcast was asking for trouble. She felt she had no choice and sat in an empty seat in the back. Right then, Mi-ra ran in, barely escaping being tardy. She unloaded her backpack on the seat next to Hwa-yeon. Even if neither of them liked the situation, they couldn’t do anything about it. “That seat is too in the corner, and this is too far back,” said Mi-ra grumpily as she sat down. “Isn’t this childish? We’ve arrived in middle school just to rearrange seating like this?” “My sister is in her 3rd year of middle school, and she still does it,” Mi-ra said. Hwa-yeon tried to receive Mi-ra coolly. With the class numbering 37 students, everyone should have had a partner except for Mi-so. It was obvious that Hwa-yeon’s days in school would become tiresome if she rejected Mi-ra as her partner. The kids would come at her with questions like, “Why don’t you want to sit next to Mi-ra?” or “She thinks she owns the entire class?” “You transferred in the 5th grade. I’ve wanted to be friends with you since then,” Hwa-yeon said. “Why?” “Just because. That’s why I invited you to my birthday party.” “You were famous for making life hell for transfer students,” said Mi-ra as she inserted the lead inside the tip of her mechanical pencil. “Who said that?” “The kids. They said to be careful. If not, I’d become like Cheon-ji.”
“That’s ridiculous. I was very close to Cheon-ji!” Even though Hwa-yeon panicked at the mention of Cheon-ji’s name, she responded calmly. Mi-ra pressed the top of the mechanical pencil to see if the lead came out okay and said apathetically: “Close to Cheon-ji, you say? She did whatever you wanted her to do.” “She just did me some favors, that’s all.” “Requesting favors knowing that she couldn’t refuse… how is that asking? That’s ordering or extorting.” “That’s enough!” Hwa-yeon shoved Mi-ra’s shoulder. Hwa-yeon wanted to forget. She wanted to talk about celebrities, school lunches, and exams like the other kids, but Mi-ra just wouldn’t let the topic of Cheon-ji drop. Hwa-yeon hated this. “What about you? Did you even play with Cheon-ji? I’ll be honest; I felt sorry for her and that’s why I hung out with her. She didn’t have any friends!” Mi-ra got up from her seat slowly. Then she took a thick math reference book and hit Hwa-yeon over the head with it, hard. “Cheon-ji didn’t fight back, so you thought you could eat me up, too, right?” Hwa-yeon’s nose started bleeding. “How could you not have gotten sick of harassing her? If I were her, I would have killed myself, too.” Hwa-yeon stuffed her nose with tissue a student from the next section threw her. “Gwak Mi-ra, you are funny. Why are you defending her now? Do you want to become a hero now that Cheon-ji is dead? Like it or not, the only person who played with her was me. Am I wrong?”
“That’s true. I didn’t play with Cheon-ji. But I didn’t manipulatively bother her like you did, either. And you don’t have a conscience. Honestly, Cheon-ji was difficult to approach; the one nobody played with was you. Kids only hung out with you when they needed you. Do you know what they call you? Moneybags. A free ride.” Hwa-yeon couldn’t say anything. It was cruel. If you were going to wield a lance, you took aim at someone with a shield, and even if you were to make contact, you avoided the vitals. Hwa-yeon, who without shield had been struck where she was vulnerable, buried her face in tissue and left the classroom. The drops of blood which had dripped from Hwa-yeon’s nose were disturbingly bright on the desk.
After homeroom, Cheon-ji’s homeroom teacher called Hwa-yeon over. “You know Cheon-ji’s sister, Man-ji, right? Could you take this over to her?” The teacher handed her a yellow envelope. “I gathered Cheon-ji’s assignments and other documents; it’s time to return them.” “I have tutoring after school.” “You can go right after you give them to Man-ji. It’ll only take a second. She’s in Grade 3, Class #6.” Hwa-yeon reluctantly took the envelope and exited the classroom. Why me… Hwa-yeon froze before the stairs. Everyone in her class knew who Man-ji was. Not only that, but the last time she had talked to her teacher alone, she had definitely told her she didn’t like Cheon-ji. So she couldn’t understand why her teacher was asking her to run an errand that concerned Cheon-ji. Because Hwa-yeon had been viciously attacked by Mi-ra in the morning, she wanted to rest, but now she had to go see Man-ji. She hadn’t always bullied
Cheon-ji. Hwa-yeon was there for Cheon-ji when she was sick and when other kids bothered her. The conversations she had with Cheon-ji when the two of them walked home late from tutoring academy were comforting. “It’s nice to have an older sister, isn’t it?” “Yeah.” “I wonder if having a sister or a brother is better is better.” “My sister is kind of like a brother so I never thought about it.” “I wish I had a sister. You guys can share pads when you run out. I use my mom’s when I have to, but I hate it. They’re so big.” Hwa-yeon felt confused now; she couldn’t figure out whether she had liked Cheon-ji or hated her. Holding onto the balustrade, Hwa-yeon slowly walked up the stairs. At the top of the stairs she was about to turn into the corridor when Man-ji ran towards her. “Hwa-yeon!” “My teacher asked me to deliver this to you.” “I know. She messaged me; that’s why I’m out here. Thanks. Since it’s Wednesday, you must be heading straight to tutoring?” “How did you know that?” “You used to go with Cheon-ji. It’s the same academy, right?” “Yes…” “Class is about to start. I have to go. Oh, I’m going to start at that tutoring academy, too. The place I was going to wasn’t very good, so I switched. I guess now I’ll see you at the academy, too. Bye!” Man-ji ran back to her class.
A little while after the bell rang, the hallway emptied. Hwa-yeon could hear teachers and students greeting one another in the classrooms right in front of her. The classes for thirdyear students had begun. Hwa-yeon stared at the signs above the classroom doors. 3-1, 3-2, 33, 3-4, 3-5… The school was too solid and heavy. The protruding signs looked like huge padlocks on the classrooms. The classrooms seemed to be divided up with just the right number of students in each one, like a student warehouse. There were no CCTVs, but Hwayeon felt like every move she made was being watched, and she felt swallowed up by the school.
Hwa-yeon didn’t go to the tutoring academy. She didn’t like the perfunctory greetings between the students, nor did she like the meal she had alone at the convenience store during the break. “Why would you eat that triangular kimbap?” “You can go and get that for me.” “Go throw this out for me.” Cheon-ji was no longer around for Hwa-yeon to talk to comfortably like this. When she repeated these words to other kids, they would respond: “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” “Why should I bring it to you if you’re going to use it?” “You must be joking. You throw it out.” Other kids construed these small favors between friends as an order and found them rude. Hwa-yeon realized now that the smirks on their faces when she made Cheon-ji run errands for her were aimed not only at Cheon-ji. Dangerously tall Pierrot. Tall Pierrot who roamed around the amusement park to make other people happy. Cheon-ji had been a girl in long pants acting as a tall support beam propping up Hwa-yeon. But now, Cheon-ji was gone.
And with the support beam absent, Hwa-yeon fell to the ground, revealing her true self. Cheon-ji was no longer the tall Pierrot who submitted to danger. At the same time, the other kids’ precarious encouragement and praise also vanished. Hwa-yeon hated the tutoring academy that was no different from school or the empty house she entered by herself. So she went to Bo Sin Gak. At least her mom and dad, who asked her with genuine interest why she had come or whether she had eaten, were there. She went inside Bo Sin Gak. Hwa-yeon’s dad was bringing in sacks of flour, and her mom was taking orders on the phone as she cleaned the dining hall. The phone rang. Hwa-yeon’s dad held the sacks of flour against his hip and then answered the phone. “Bo Sin Gak. Yes, he just left with your order. Thank you.” After he got off the phone, he yelled in the direction of the kitchen. “The order for Jongshin Car Center. Is it not done yet?” “It’s done. Boss, we’re out of jjajang. They’re going fast today.” As soon as Hwa-yeon’s dad entered the kitchen, Park the deliveryman came in to the restaurant. Park checked the next order on the order pad then covered the dishes that came out of the kitchen with plastic wrap. He then put the order for two people in a metal carrier and ran out. The phone rang again. “One jjajangmyeon and one tanjjammyeon? Thank you.” Hwa-yeon’s mom placed the order ticket on the kitchen counter. At the same time, more food came out of the kitchen. “Why hasn’t Jeong returned? Honey, you’re going to have to go yourself!” “I put the jjajang on the stove. Don’t let it burn.”
Hwa-yeon’s dad came out of the kitchen. He noticed Hwa-yeon, who was standing by the cash register. “Why are you just standing there?” “I’m just…” Hwa-yeon’s dad left carrying a metal container. “Excuse me. More radish, please,” a customer who was eating in the restaurant said to Hwa-yeon’s mom, who was wiping off a table. “Hwa-yeon, can you take some to him?” Hwa-yeon, with her backpack on, put some radish in a small bowl and took it over. “Here.” “Thank you.” Looking unsettled, Hwa-yeon went back to standing next to the cash register. The phone rang. “Hwa-yeon, get that, please.” Hwa-yeon answered the phone. Jeong walked in just then. “Thanks for calling. This is Bo Sin Gak. Okay, sure.” Hwa-yeon hung up the phone. “The construction workers upstairs from Daerim Electronics said that when you bring spoons, to bring water also.” “Upstairs from Daerim? Jeong, isn’t that where you just came from?” “I just forgot. I was going to take them over now.” “When you go to construction sites, you have to take spoons and water.” Hwa-yeon’s mom took out a big jug of water from the fridge and laid it before Mr. Jeong. Hwa-yeon looked around the restaurant: tables closely packed against one another,
and the never-ending sound of the phone ringing. A smell filled the air. A moment of quiet actually stifled the room. “What are you doing here? What about tutoring?” “I’m going. I had a few minutes…” “Hurry up and go.” Hwa-yeon left Bo Sin Gak. She wanted someone to ask her something: Why had she come? Was anything wrong? Had she had eaten? But a mom or dad like that was nowhere to be found at Bo Sin Gak. People said Hwa-yeon was unmannered because her parents had had their only daughter late, but Hwa-yeon didn’t have memories of receiving exceptional love. There were too many family members burdening her parents, and they had too much work. Hwa-yeon was at times ashamed of her parents, who looked older than her friends’ parents. She also hated the Chinese restaurant smell that she couldn’t seem to wash off. In the end, though, she never hated her parents. But right now, she did. “Wow, it’s been a long time.” It was The Part, Chu Sang-bak. “Mister, are you busy?” “No, why?” “Could you play with me?” “Sure. What do you want to play?” “Can we just talk? We can sit on the bench in the playground over there.” It had already been two years. Hwa-yeon and Cheon-ji had been in elementary school, but during exam season, they would be done at the tutoring academy at 10 p.m. Cheon-ji used to walk Hwa-yeon to the front gate of Choweon apartments often because Hwa-yeon was afraid of going home at night. Cheon-ji didn’t mind since she could meet her mom, who was leaving work at the supermarket, as she came down the slope. Cheon-ji and Hwa-yeon had
met The Part around that time. When this long-haired man with a perfect part in the middle started following them from the bottom of the hill, Hwa-yeon and Cheon-ji thought he must be weird, so they ran away from him as fast as they could. When The Part saw them running, he surmised that they must have seriously misunderstood him and chased after them. It was only through the testimonial of Mr. Im, the security man, that The Part was cleared of the girls’ suspicion. Hwa-yeon would occasionally see The Part around the apartment complex after that initial incident, but she had only greeted him lightly. “You’re alone all the time these days.” “Mister, are you a stalker?” “There was such a difference in height between the two of you, you stood out even from far away.” “She died…” “Oh, she died. Cheon-ji…” The Part clasped his hands together and leaned his forehead on them. A chill suddenly went up Hwa-yeon’s back. “Mister, how do you know Cheon-ji’s name? I never told you.” “Up there, at the city library, I used to meet Cheon-ji often.” Hwa-yeon stared at him. He must have been at least 40 years old. And for him to meet Cheon-ji, often? Cheon-ji had not once mentioned this to Hwa-yeon. “How did she die?” “Suicide.” “I see…..” “Mister, do you know anything about what happened to Cheon-ji? “Hm… I just know that she liked conversing. That’s all.” “Cheon-ji liked conversing?”
“She used to read a lot of books and liked talking.” “She liked books, but she never had much to say.” The Part decided not to go into it and changed the topic. Hwa-yeon didn’t seem like she had known Cheon-ji well, even though they were friends, which meant that there was a good reason for it. “Did you know that Cheon-ji’s family moved into our apartment complex?” The blood from Hwa-yeon’s face suddenly drained to her heart. She felt like it gushed down. “Cheon-ji had mentioned her older sister’s name was Man-ji. And the girl who moved in next door, her name is Man-ji. They seem different, but look a lot like each other. I wondered where Cheon-ji was, actually.” “Mister, what kind of relationship did you have with Cheon-ji?” “We used to eat together if we met at the library, and recommend books to each other.” “I have to go now. I have to go to the tutoring academy.” Hwa-yeon felt uncomfortable around The Part. She couldn’t believe there was an unexpected third party between her and Cheon-ji. Hwa-yeon rushed home. And she locked her door, even the dead bolt. Late at night, Hwa-yeon called Man-ji. “There’s a man with long hair living next door, isn’t there?” “You mean Mr. Chu?” “Be careful. He and Cheon-ji knew each other.” Man-ji, who had been lying on her blanket looking through Cheon-ji’s assignments, froze. “How? But, anyway, what about that?”
“We met him once when Cheon-ji came over to my place. Back then we just greeted him casually. But unbeknownst to me, they used to meet at the city library.” “You don’t mean like they were dating or anything?” “He said they used to eat together and just talk, but he already knew you were her sister. I thought he was just an eccentric man, but something doesn’t feel right. Make sure you lock your door.” “Okay, thanks.” Man-ji hung up the phone and was in a daze for a while. She could not have imagined that people who seemed like nothing special to her up to just a month ago were suddenly linked to each other in such a complicated manner. Cheon-ji, Kim Hwa-yeon, Gwak Mi-ra, Gwak Mi-ran, Chu Sang-bak, me… “What are you staring at lying on your back?” asked Mom as she got out of the bathroom. Man-ji didn’t answer and put Cheon-ji’s assignments back in the envelope. “If you aren’t doing anything, I’m turning out the light.” Mom turned off the light and got under the blanket. “Mom, did Cheon-ji, by any chance, have…” “By any chance have what?” “We can’t be sure that something horrific didn’t happen to Cheon-ji.” Mom was speechless. “You don’t think she was attacked by a guy or anything like that, right?” asked Manji. “You mean by attack, a sexual attack?” Man-ji couldn’t respond. “No,” replied Mom
“Are you sure? Maybe we were the only ones who didn’t know. Maybe, she was pregnant…” “She hadn’t even had her period yet, how could she get pregnant?” “That’s right. Cheon-ji didn’t have her period, yet...” Man-ji was sick and tired of her monthly period. She wanted to be born as a man in her next life if she had to come back as a human being just for the reason that she wouldn’t have to menstruate. But before leaving this world, Cheon-ji never got to experience the trouble of getting her period. Man-ji felt pain and anger. Her heart hurt and felt hot before tears could reach her eyes. “But what if…” “What do you mean what if? Did you hear something?” “I didn’t hear anything. I just thought maybe.” “Maybe nothing.” There was sound of a mouse scurrying. “I swear, every night.” “It can’t get out because you shut the windows, Mom.” “I leave them open during the day, dummy. I don’t know why it doesn’t go out then.” More sounds of mouse scurrying. “Because of that little shit I can’t get a good night’s sleep. It’s driving me crazy.” Man-ji didn’t say anything. “So frustrating. Turn on the light and bring me a needle.” Man-ji brought over a needle and thread. Then she patted down her mom from her shoulders to her hands. Afterwards, Man-ji wrapped thread around her mom’s thumb and pricked the thumb with the needle. Right beneath her thumb nail, darkish red blood pooled. “Are you okay?”
“Do this hand, too.” Mom held out her other hand. “Before, a prick on one hand would make me burp, but these days nothing happens even when I prick both thumbs.” “Do you want me to massage your back?” “It’s all right. If all else fails, I’ll go to the hospital. Turn out the light.” Mom wiped away the collected blood and got under the blanket again. As soon as Man-ji turned off the light, the light from the streetlamp by the parking lot came in through the enclosed verandah window. “I may not know much, but I would know if my daughters were involved with men. Not because somebody would have told me. I would feel it as a mom. There was no man in Cheon-ji’s life.” “There are girls her age who already sleep with boys, I’ve heard. What about their moms?” “Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you can say whatever comes to mind. They know, but they’re sad and upset, so they don’t say anything. They know their kids shouldn’t be doing that, so they’ll talk in circles at first. And if that doesn’t work, they might hit them, then they’ll feel their heart ache. That’s how it works.” “What if your daughter was attacked, would you feel that?” “I would feel it, though in a different way, I’m sure. Extreme sickness…” “If something like that happened to me, what would you do, Mom?” “Will you stop with the what ifs? What’s wrong with you?” “I’m just curious.” “I’d rip him to pieces.” “Who?”
Published on Nov 17, 2015