About once every week, Seungshin and Ho-yeon had lunch together. Ho-yeon was a frail-looking man. Seungshin didn’t have children, but Ho-yeon, on the other hand, had two, and his face brightened considerably whenever he spoke of them. He was mostly discreet, but Seungshin didn’t mind when he brought up his kids, for she had the fundamental belief that all children were precious. Neither did she particularly resent his wife. She also believed his clean image was thanks to his wife’s efforts, of washing and ironing his dress shirts, of keeping even his cuffs spotless.
Around eleven thirty, Seungshin headed to a restaurant not far from Ho-yeon’s office. People wearing company ID badges around their necks surged inside all at once and Ho-yeon arrived at precisely five after twelve. He never forgot to use one of the many face masks Seungshin had bought him. As if it were the one thing she could do for him, she had scoured pharmacies and department stores all over Sinchon for masks that would block yellow dust particles as small as 0.4 micrometers. She even sent him product reviews every time new masks blocking a high percentage of particles hit the shelves. In Seoul, not only did you have to wear a face mask during the day, but you also had to wash your hands compulsively and put drops in your eyes. Until recently, he had suffered from red eyes that discharged a sticky mucus, which had required him to go back and forth to the ophthalmologist’s office, but he seemed to be doing much better now.
They usually ate codfish stew or loach soup, with over-salted bean sprouts or fresh kimchi made with cheap imported chili powder. Sometimes they had steak, but most of the time, they ended up eating the same things. They kept a transparent pocket folder on the table like insurance company employees, in case they ran into someone they knew. On the cover was the phrase ‘Protecting you in tough times.’ Seungshin had brought along the plastic folder, which had contained the papers from the home fire insurance she’d purchased recently. Quite frequently, she pictured her apartment engulfed in flames, or her building collapsing in a heap during an earthquake.
‘How come you never touch the onions or hot peppers?’
They’d been in the same year in college, so they spoke informally with each other. He was attentive to any suggestions she made and immediately adjusted his behavior.
‘I don’t know, maybe because it’s a side? I somehow end up focusing on the main dish.’
She nodded, as if he’d spoken sensibly. ‘I guess it’s enough to keep anyone busy.’
He glanced at the other tables around them and a corner of his mouth turned up in a smile.
Ho-yeon loathed Seoul, and he was constantly anxious he would die from lung cancer, just as his mother had. When he had gone on a business trip to Beijing, he’d gushed over the weather for the first several days. The entire city was overjoyed, he’d said, for not in ten years had people seen such fine weather, and proceeded to send her numerous photos of the blue sky. But toward the end of the trip, he’d sent murky gray images where all she could see were the back wheels of bicycles, scenes that seemed impossibly surreal, buildings with blurred contours and the city appearing as if it were immersed in a soupy suspension. Once he returned to Korea, Ho-yeon seemed relieved only after he’d gotten a chest X-ray. In the end, Seungshin had even asked her husband about Beijing weather, recalling how he’d never once complained, despite his frequent business trips there.
‘A city’s a city. You want to visit China, is that why? Should we take a trip together?’
She quickly shook her head.
When Ho-yeon and Seungshin finished eating, they picked up some coffee and walked the streets around City Hall. Seungshin, who’d dashed out the door that morning to meet Ho-yeon, felt lethargic immediately after eating, but she didn’t forget to go for a walk, keeping her chin up and back straight. After all, they could enjoy walks in the city for only a brief period in late winter and early spring, since yellow dust levels grew worse during spring, forcing them to stay cooped up inside small coffeeshops. Once, they’d had a close call at a large bookstore located in the basement level of a building. They’d been sitting in a corner, leafing through a disaster-themed magazine they liked to read when Seungshin had run into a woman she knew. She’d had no choice but to say hi. From that point on, they stayed away from spacious coffeeshops, opting for small ones with only a few tables.
While Ho-yeon listened to Seungshin, he usually folded brown napkins into ddakji paper tiles the kind used in the popular children’s game. She, on the other hand, alternated writing his name and then hers in four small squares. Time flew by as they occupied themselves with childish antics and soon he would point to his watch, indicating his lunch break was over in five minutes.
Ho-yeon was tall with a slight build, but when it was time to head back to work, he strode off briskly, as if he had regained his strength. Seungshin would open her parasol, only after she’d watched him turn left and disappear around the corner of the bank. Inside her purse were things like medical bills or department store coupons, and on the days she met Ho-yeon, she made sure to run errands before returning home.
About once every two months, on Ho-yeon’s days off, they left the city together. They hadn’t yet decided where to go the following week, but Ho-yeon usually went along with whatever Seungshin suggested. She liked quiet, leafy areas with views of a lake, but once they arrived at their destination, they most often couldn’t enjoy the scenery, kept indoors by the dust. This fine dust, which diffused through the whole country like the spring air, was why they hadn’t settled on their next getaway.
Seungshin wished for a place where she and Ho-yeon could meet comfortably. Whenever she fantasized about this place, she grew happy. She wanted to get a life-size figure of his beloved Astro Boy, as well as a Zen sand garden where she could bury plastic sea creatures. She even dreamed of installing a hammock for aerial yoga, depending on the ceiling support structure, and a kitchenette where she could do a bit of cooking. Most of all, it was a clean, refined space she wanted – a space where the two lovers would not appear tacky or indecent, even if they were found dead together. The reason they had grown close in the first place was the fact that both Seungshin’s mother and Ho-yeon’s father had committed suicide. After making this initial discovery, they never spoke again of the incidents. But perhaps due to the anxiety they each carried – that they ultimately would not be able to escape their parents’ genes – the bond between them was unusually strong.
In March in Seoul, there were many days when fine dust levels went above 100 micrograms per cubic meter. Perhaps for this reason, Ho-yeon didn’t take time off for over two months, and even their regular lunch dates came to a lull. Seungshin waited, assuming a family member had gotten ill or there was a matter he couldn’t discuss with her, but March drew to a close with no explanation. She looked into courses being offered at the Women’s Development Center in her neighborhood and thought about enrolling in a baking class, and she kept logging on to a language school website, wondering if she should resume her Japanese studies. She mulled over options, but her head was so filled with thoughts of Ho-yeon she could do nothing. After trying him multiple times, she finally managed to get a hold of him, but he sounded cold and distant. He told her how his cough had grown worse and that he’d had to go see a doctor. He’d been diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and asthma. He’d even been hospitalized.
‘How could you not let me know?’ she demanded.
‘What could you have done anyway?’
She said nothing. After all, what he said was true – there wasn’t much she could have done.
‘Be careful. If you have a cough, don’t just assume it’s a cold. I never imagined it could be so hard to breathe.’
They spoke for a few more minutes, but all they talked about was the risk of developing a chronic lung condition.
It was near the end of April when she finally managed to see him. That day, because of air pollutants and yellow dust blowing in from the north, the streets were filled with a sea of masked faces. As he listened to Seungshin, Ho-yeon folded a brown paper napkin again and again into a smaller square. She was describing for him an imaginary space, while sketching it on a sheet of paper.
‘So, what do you think? It’s nice, isn’t it?’ she asked, leaning toward him. She’d shared with him the place she’d long dreamed of, a place just for them. ‘What would people say if they found us lying dead together?’
All of a sudden, he stirred his iced coffee vigorously with his straw. The noise was loud enough to fill the café.
‘You don’t change at all, do you? Do you actually think this is a conversation two adults should be having?’
She watched him pluck the straw out of his cup, set it on the table and wipe his hand on his pants. An inexplicable emotion surged from the back of her head at a rapid speed and she felt her composure slip away. But even in that moment, he pulled out his mask from his pocket and covered his nose and mouth. A young server came to clear the used cups and napkins from the next table and glanced their way. As if that look were the deciding factor, she sprang to her feet. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t tell if she’d been meeting Ho-yeon all this time as a reason to live or as a reason to die. She left the plastic folder on the table and rushed out of the coffeeshop, heading in the opposite direction he would take. She walked past shops and continued along the sidewalk without looking back. Only after she’d gone through two crosswalks and come to a square did she see realize there was a protest in progress. She stopped to read the signs the people were holding and in that instant started crying.
‘I live in Uijeongbu now. I gained a lot of weight. Still, it’d be nice to see you. I’ll make you dinner. I’ll catch a chicken for you like before.’
When Seungshin first got the call, the corners of her mouth had turned up in a grin, but later she’d laughed so hard that tears rolled down her cheeks.
Just as she’d said, Suyeon had caught Seungshin a chicken back when they were about fifteen, except it hadn’t been in Uijeongbu or Seoul, but up north, in the basin city of N. There were many poultry farms in the area. Suyeon was the eldest daughter of a chicken farmer and she also had a younger brother. Seungshin couldn’t remember how she and Suyeon became good friends, but she always thought her face contained a kind of elegance difficult to find on the faces of children, and this was because she remained level-headed at all times, hardly ever getting worked up.
When Seungshin first moved to N city, she saw structures everywhere resembling capsules. She didn’t know what they were at first – long greenhouses covered with white plastic, rows of them lining the flat terrain for as far as she could see. The district seemed to have more of these structures than it had soldiers. Instead of a gate or fence, a greenhouse marked the boundary between the road and Suyeon’s property, and when Seungshin walked further in, she observed a long plastic hose that lay tangled in the dirt like an artery and workers in gumboots trudging about. In the center of the property sat Suyeon’s house, all on its own, as if it ruled over the greenhouses. If not for the numerous sandals strewn before its wide linoleum porch, Seungshin wouldn’t have been able to tell it was a house.
‘You stay right there,’ Suyeon had said.
Seungshin sat on the porch and watched Suyeon enter the nearest greenhouse and come out with a chicken in hand. As she came closer, the screeching grew so shrill that Seungshin had to cover her ears. After glancing back at Seungshin several times, Suyeon twisted the chicken’s neck in one swift motion. The chicken, squawking until just a few seconds before, fell instantly silent and dangled limply from her hand. The blood that flowed down the drain was a deep dark red, but it appeared clean, even refreshing. Just as an old cook might have done, Suyeon plunged the chicken in a pot of water boiling next to the outdoor tap, then took it out and started pulling out the feathers that had turned a dingy yellow. To Seungshin, the exposed pale skin seemed at once repulsive and remarkable. The blood that had splattered on the linoleum wiped away easily enough, but Seungshin had to carefully examine her arm for drops of blood before rubbing off each one with a finger.
The whole incident shocked her a little, but the chicken was delicious, and she couldn’t have been any happier.
Seungshin’s father was a career soldier. Every time he was assigned to a new location, her family was forced to pick up and leave, and by the time they relocated to N, Seungshin was so exhausted of constantly moving and transferring schools that she couldn’t rouse any interest in her new environment.
Right before their move, there had been an incident in P city, their last home. Seungshin was furious over having to move again, but her unhappiness was of no concern to her parents, who were mechanically packing up the house. She leapt up from the living room sofa and went into her room. She ran outside with her teddy bear Doya, which she hugged to sleep every night, and the American Girl doll, which had somehow come into her possession. She rounded one corner of the side street and then the next, her sandals slapping against the ground, until she reached the bus stop. She got on a bus. The old amusement park she’d visited with her family several times had come to mind all of a sudden.
A vendor stood guarding the park entrance with the radio blasting, wrapping cotton candy around a stick, as if he’d be doing the same thing forever. Not caring about what he might say, she strode past the entrance and headed straight for the woods. The park in the middle of the day was eerily quiet. She glimpsed a Ferris wheel car, suspended motionless over the trees, and sadness choked her. She left the path and ran into the woods and started to dig the soil with both hands. The ground was so hard she couldn’t dig up even a handful. She had started crying on the bus and her eyes were puffy. She glanced about the woods, when her gaze suddenly fell on a grove of large trees and one at its center with an unusually dark base. The tree trunk was hollowed out above the roots, the center having rotted away. She placed her two toys in the hollow and walked slowly out of the woods. From that point on, the sight of their legs sticking out from the darkness would follow her for the rest of her life.
It had been Seungshin who had first approached Ho-yeon. She’d given him the cellist David Darling’s Dark Wood album as a gift. Though Ho-yeon’s initial reaction had been hardly enthusiastic, after listening to the music he had written her several thoughtful letters. When Seungshin first met Ho-yeon, that tree had come to mind. Just as one dot meets another dot, giving rise to meaning, she felt as if they were sitting side by side on a chairlift when, with a sudden rattle, they were plunged into darkness.
After taking the subway for about an hour, she got off at Uijeongbu Station and opened Google maps on her phone to look up the Ganeung five-way intersection. Though she had travelled outside Seoul to Suyu-dong or Chang-dong, she had never been to Uijeongbu. The second she set foot on the gleaming station floor, she felt as if she could breathe more easily.
Seungshin stood outside the station on a street lined with pork hock eateries, food stalls, alteration booths, knitting shops and stationery stores, and tried to get her bearings.
‘Call me when you reach the high school. I’ll come out to meet you,’ Suyeon had said on the phone.
Students in uniform were walking in her direction. That meant there must be a school nearby. Every single one of them clutched a cell phone in their hand. That’s when she saw it – a cloud of yellow dust hovering in the Uijeongbu sky, like old graph paper. Though it looked completely harmless, it was certain that in just a few hours these uniformed kids would have swallowed it all.
Suyeon and Seungshin’s friendship had ended because of a mysterious outbreak. Of course, Seungshin speculated that the virus, which had hit them back in the early nineties, was the same avian flu that infected humans for the first time in Hong Kong in 1997. In any case, Suyeon did not come to school, and their homeroom teacher gave no explanation for her absence.
‘Does anyone know where Suyeon lives?’
At his question, Suyeon was the only one who raised her hand. When school was finished for the day, she rode on the back of the teacher’s bicycle and headed toward the chicken farm. Considering that the area was in the midst of an outbreak, everything was so quiet that it seemed people had made a fuss over nothing.
‘That’s right, I forgot you girls were close,’ he said. ‘On our last field trip when you got hurt, Suyeon came carrying you on her back. You had trouble breathing, so she said you could have one of her lungs. All the teachers laughed so hard.’
Seungshin felt too awkward to laugh, but what he said was true.
When they entered Suyeon’s property, no squawking or flapping greeted them and there was no flickering light coming from the greenhouse.
The teacher went to talk to the farm workers, who were wearing rubber boots and sitting in red plastic chairs, smoking. Though it was still day, they were already drunk and reeked of soju. Seungshin worked up the courage to walk toward the closest greenhouse.
‘Hey, you can’t go in there!’ a worker shouted. ‘Stay back or you’ll get sick!’
Seungshin stepped away from the greenhouse. It all seemed harmless and it was difficult to feel any danger.
Around the start of the summer break, she heard that Suyeon’s family had moved to another city. All the chickens from Suyeon’s farm – as well as all the chickens from the other farms in the area – had been incinerated and buried. Grownups constantly nagged children to wash their entire bodies when they came home.
One afternoon, Seungshin happened to be passing by Suyeon’s farm with a friend, but she couldn’t go on without stopping. The drain below the outdoor tap where Suyeon had wrung the chicken’s neck was dried up and dark stains marked where blood had once flowed. The porch was so dusty that she didn’t want to set foot on it, but still, she tiptoed across to the bedroom door and pushed it open. A white curtain was half drawn over the window, and beside it where Suyeon’s bunk bed had once stood was now awash with sunlight. It had been a long time since she’d forgotten about the ache in her chest.
‘Hey, we’re going to catch something if we don’t get out of here,’ said her friend, but Seungshin paid her no attention. She needed to see inside the greenhouse.
Nothing remained except long pine boards. The smell of chicken manure was overpowering. For the first time, Seungshin realized that the greenhouses were connected like train cars. As she was about to rush out because of the smell, she glimpsed a group of kids two greenhouses down. Several boys were huddled together and a girl stood before them, naked from the waist up. She seemed to be crying. It wasn’t Suyeon, of course, and it wasn’t any of the girls that Seungshin knew. Afterwards, Seungshin couldn’t be sure if she was confusing this scene for one she’d seen somewhere else.
‘Wow, you haven’t changed at all,’ said an old woman, emerging from a side street. She came closer – it was Suyeon.
Unsure if she would be able to hide her awkwardness, Seungshin suggested they grab a snack first and so they started walking in the opposite direction Suyeon had come from. They stepped into a snack bar. Soon after, two short, slight men came inside and glanced around the shop. With North Korean accents, they spoke only a few words to each other, but Seungshin could tell they were very close.
Though the rice cakes were a bit stale, Seungshin kept eating. They left an unpleasant aftertaste. The only thing that eased the awkwardness between them was the noise of the television.
‘I moved back to Korea recently. You see, I’ve decided to settle here for good,’ Suyeon said, seeming somewhat embarrassed. ‘I told you on the phone, didn’t I –’
‘Excuse me, could we get a sausage over here?’ Seungshin called out, her words clashing clumsily with Suyeon’s.
Things between them felt off. Seungshin could have waited to order. It looked as if Suyeon had been about to say something important.
‘Seems you’ve still got a good appetite,’ Suyeon said.
Seungshin’s face grew warm. ‘It’s been a really long time,’ she managed at last.
But even as she made this comment, she wasn’t entirely sure whether the old woman sitting before her was the same friend she had known. She wanted to ask: Who are you? Why are you talking to me? Tell me the truth, do you really know me?
Outside the shop, children in uniform rushed by. While she paid and the receipt was being printed out, Seungshin kept glancing at the two men, who were bent over their bowls. Their heads were almost touching. They were both very small. She felt awkward with Suyeon, who stood next to her, but the men seemed almost tender with one another.
‘I don’t have any coffee at home. Do you want to get some before we head in? You strike me as a coffee drinker.’
Suyeon was right. Seungshin did want coffee and she’d been delaying going to Suyeon’s house. After all, she couldn’t very well go there if they couldn’t move past the awkwardness.
They walked toward the subway station. Once they passed all the brightly lit pork hock joints, the street turned dark. They passed a shuttered stationery store, a child crouched before a small arcade machine mid-game. Right then, Seungshin received a call from her husband. He said that he needed to visit a colleague to offer his condolences, but couldn’t find his black tie – did she know where it was? Her husband rarely called her to ask this sort of thing. It was something that happened maybe once or twice a year. For a moment, Seungshin wondered if there had been anything unusual about his behavior recently, but nothing came to mind.
She heard intermittent electronic whirs and saw the round subway station, looking almost like a space shuttle hovering in midair. Seungshin gazed after the schoolgirls in backpacks, swarming toward the entrance. They suited the futuristic-looking building. Seungshin wanted to go inside, get on the subway and go back to Seoul, but she couldn’t just leave.
They stepped into a coffeeshop in a building connected to the station. A few palm trees with large leaves were the only decorative element in the shop. The air was extremely stuffy. Seungshin pictured Ho-yeon’s anxious face and how nervous he would get whenever he’d find himself in a windowless room. If they had come to this coffeeshop together, they wouldn’t have been able to stay long. At the thought that she was becoming like him, she felt uneasy all of a sudden and this uneasiness made her even more uneasy.
A young woman came and placed a menu on their table. ‘What can I get you?’
Right then, a small group sitting in the corner of the coffeeshop started to pray quietly. Seungshin and Suyeon ordered, and the people continued to pray.
Suyeon sounded the same as always. Though her appearance and the overall impression she gave off had changed drastically, her voice, at least, was still the same.
‘I followed my husband to places like Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It’s hot during the day, but it gets so cold at night. I found the cold unbearable. There were deserts, of course, but that’s not where we lived. They build long-distance pipelines that go on and on and my husband was in charge of one of those sections. The weather was sunny and clear all year round and it barely rained. My husband would go to the desert for work and I’d stay in an apartment in the city. It was wonderful when he came back, but sometimes I’d talk to myself if I were alone. Now that it’s just me, I’m going to stay in Korea until I die.’
Seungshin wanted to change the subject. A volleyball match was playing on the television screen. The team with the foreign player had a big lead. Seungshin turned to look at the screen.
‘You used to be good at volleyball,’ Suyeon said.
‘I love Kim Yeon-koung’s serves.’ Seungshin spoke whatever came to mind, as if talking to herself. ‘Her offense, defense, serves – she’s good at everything.’
‘You look great. Young. Not old and frumpy like me.’
‘By the way,’ Seungshin said. ‘Why are you on your own now?’
It was a question she couldn’t avoid asking. Suyeon seemed to have aged too much to have been the same girl who’d caught the chicken. She looked much older than what Seungshin remembered of her mother, who had also worked at the chicken farm.
‘My husband liked the desert. He never wanted to leave. How are your parents by the way?’
Seungshin shook her head. After her marriage, she’d rarely visited her parents. Her father, whom she had believed to be an ordinary soldier, had become increasingly erratic once he was discharged. He’d sat drinking rice wine outside the corner store, picking fights with the neighborhood women. Then when he took out a knife and tried to stab someone, her mother withered away to nothing. And so, her father’s life ended in a battle against liquor, while her mother’s life ended in ruin in a battle against her father. Whenever Seungshin thought about her mother, she lost the will to live.
Suyeon was speaking. ‘ . . . we lost everything when that happened. After we set fire to all those chickens and buried them in the ground, my mother couldn’t get up for months. The smell was unbelievable, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. If that wasn’t hell, what was? I still get nightmares of those headless chickens. They walk all over me and then come back to walk over me again.’
Seungshin was about to say it must have been the H5N1 virus – after all, what else could it have been? – but she didn’t. The theory that carriers of bird flu, like water fowl and wild birds, can’t spread the virus to humans was disproved a long time ago. She suspected that people from N city, like Suyeon and herself, all carried the virus in their bodies; it just hasn’t been discovered yet, that’s all. In any case, Seungshin couldn’t bear to be reminded of Ho-yeon. She rubbed her hands over her face, closing her eyes. She rubbed her face again. She finally looked at Suyeon and said, ‘Why don’t we head back to your place?’
Suyeon’s house was the only one facing the overpass at the end of a side street. Because a tall nursing home towered next door, it appeared as if it were being guarded by the nursing home and the overpass, which crossed above her yard.
Seungshin texted her husband, saying she was still with a friend and that she’d be late. As always, she received the same one-word answer: ‘Okay’.
It felt very cozy inside the house, though it was somewhat big for one person. She could hear the sound of cars, but it wasn’t at all bad. Really, the unusual thing about Suyeon’s house was that just outside the front gate, around the wall of the nursing home directly below the overpass, was a street stall. Seungshin wondered where the entrance to the nursing home was. Unless its only access was from the underground parking lot, there was no reason why the entrance would not be visible. Young people sat laughing in front of the street stall, as if they were part of a film set.
‘I got the baby herring from the market here – it’s great with soju. A granny next door gave me the marinated eggplant and this is black raspberry wine. Do you like beer? I have beer, too.’
Suyeon stood in front of the kitchen sink, getting the food ready. She’d prepared chogye: chilled chicken soup with noodles.
‘Do you mind if I have a look around?’
Before Suyeon could respond, Seungshin got to her feet and pushed open the bedroom door that was halfway open. The room contained only a single-size bed, wardrobe and a nightstand, on which an eye mask and alarm clock sat. She came back out into the living room, put on some sandals and stepped out into the courtyard toward the shed. It was padlocked. Seungshin went up to the window and peered inside, but she couldn’t see a thing. The courtyard was lovely. The light from the overpass illuminated the space, lending it an elegant feel. She thought a deck and a wind chime would have added to the effect. All at once, the somber melody of Dark Wood seemed to swell through the entire house. An image of her drinking coffee with Ho-yeon, while sitting in the courtyard together, flashed across her mind and disappeared just as quickly as it had come.
Essentially, chogye noodles is a simple dish. Cold noodles with shredded chicken, cucumber, ice, tomatoes and white kimchi. As always, Seungshin took a picture. The broth tasted clean and flavorful, and every bite of the shredded chicken was tender.
‘Hey, how come the shed’s locked?’ Seungshin asked.
‘Actually, I haven’t been inside yet. You want to check it out together? Who knows? Maybe we’ll find the bodies of dead grannies from the nursing home.’ Suyeon laughed, her legs up on a chair.
Seungshin could now see a bit of the old Suyeon. She heard cars speed along the overpass. Right next door in the nursing home, the patients would be fast asleep.
‘If you end up alone one day, why don’t you come here and live with me?’ Suyeon asked.
Seungshin couldn’t help feeling flustered. She didn’t know what expression to wear in response. Instead, she said that her husband had once mentioned he wanted to move to Southeast Asia after retirement. Seungshin didn’t know if it was a good thing to have several people who wanted to live with her someday. To be honest, she found it a bit offensive, since it seemed people tended to think of her as a pushover.
‘What’s your husband like?’ Suyeon asked.
‘He’s a simple man. He never gets sick or acts lazy. He goes to work at seven thirty in the morning and comes home late, and he golfs every weekend. There’s a golf course in Uijeongbu he goes to often. Sometimes he’s like a machine and sometimes he’s like a child. He’s very shallow. Actually, he’s more like a tank. A tank with no emotions.’
What sounded like the buzzing of cicadas came from the roof, but there was no way there would be cicadas in early May. Seungshin picked up a dry herring and bit into it.
‘Your husband sounds so healthy. He’ll probably live for a long time!’
They both snickered again. Because Seungshin was laughing, she bit the inside of her cheek instead of the herring.
‘You don’t know how many people I called to find you,’ Suyeon said, once they finished laughing. ‘I never gave up.’
Seungshin looked out the window. All she could see was the underbelly of the overpass and the darkening sky.
‘I saw a dead person once,’ Suyeon said after a while. ‘One of my husband’s co-workers hung himself. A quiet man with a dark face, they said he’d packed his suitcase and placed it beside his bed. We held a funeral at his house and sent the body back to Seoul. Some officials from the construction company came, along with a few of the workers. There wasn’t much we could do. We dressed him in clean clothes from the closet, washed his face and laid him out on the bed. We just stood there. It would have been nice if someone had sung a song, but no one did. All we could do was stand there, as if we were waiting for the same thing to happen to us next. The temperature dropped a lot that night – I remember it being so cold. My husband kept sobbing in his sleep. I’d never heard him cry like that before.’
As the ice melted, the seasoning spread and turned the broth cloudy. Seungshin got up. She stood behind Suyeon’s chair and stroked the nape of her neck. Suyeon seemed agitated; her skin felt somewhat feverish.
The wail of an ambulance siren became louder as it got closer to the nursing home. Seungshin straightened and gazed out the window. Soon after, the whole house shook and she heard something like the rattle of an elevator. It seemed a new patient had arrived. But the young people at the street stall paid no attention to any of this and their talking grew only louder. On television, the same news came on for the third time in the same order. Seungshin brought her wrist close to her eyes to peer at her red watch. Nine o’clock. It had been a gift from Ho-yeon. For Seungshin who had astigmatism, she liked that the hour and minute hands were large and easy to read. She took off the watch and stuffed it inside her purse.
Seungshin led Suyeon into the bedroom and they sat side by side on the edge of the bed. Just as they had as girls, they hugged and pressed their cheeks together. And then, like before in the bunk bed at the foul-smelling chicken farm, Suyeon lay down next to Seungshin, with Seungshin’s arm as a pillow. Suyeon blinked and said very slowly, ‘I sometimes get scared that an earthquake will come and the house will collapse. If that happens, promise you’ll come find me.’
She saw a dreamcatcher hanging from the ceiling only when she lay down on the bed. The charm, which protected one from harmful dreams and other dangers in the air, had come all the way to Uijeongbu. Seungshin decided she would no longer think of Ho-yeon. Neither would she think of her husband. But most of all, she no longer wanted to think about herself. Life was just like the hoop of the dreamcatcher – the infinite wheel; for once, she wanted simply to leave it all alone.
Back out on the street, the kids who had been drinking at the stall were fighting and scuffling. They yelled and shoved each other, their arms swinging. Life will just bring you down, she thought. Seungshin already knew that these kids, as they grew older, would only become unhappier. Because she believed this, she had no reason to doubt it.
When she rounded the street stall, she saw a slope she could climb to get onto the overpass. From above, Suyeon’s house, with its faint lights, looked very small, like a single panel in a comic book. Seungshin started to walk on the shoulder of the overpass in the same direction as the cars hurtling past her. It was dark all around; she could only see the occasional silhouette of a closed shop. Still she kept moving forward, as if she knew the way very well, as if she never intended to return. She saw the night sky being crushed by the yellow dust.
She walked for a long time until she came off the overpass onto a street. Out of breath, she climbed onto the sidewalk. Bowing her head, she propped her arms on the ledge of a flowerbed and took several deep breaths. As the smell of dirt filled her nose, she started to run her hands through the heap of soil, upturned as if new flowers were being put in. All at once, she shoved a handful of dirt in her mouth. It instantly absorbed every drop of moisture, reminding her of the almond cookie she had once eaten in Macau. It tasted exactly like that bland, flavorless cookie – what those who lose everything at the casino swallow in the end, the taste of yellow dust at the back of the throat – something that could only be described as an adult taste.