Translated from the Korean by Emily Yae Won

 

I need a bath, I think to myself.

As I head home after saying goodbye to Moseh ssi at the foot of the street, I feel a sudden outpour of perspiration. Tepid sweat runs down my armpits, back and neck. Only then do I realise that I’ve been sweating the entire day. Where the new sweat runs over the now-dried salty patches, I can feel the skin tingle and itch. I climb the stairs to our flat, my hair and face sodden like I’ve just had a bucket of water thrown over me. I stand heaving inside the front door, take off my loafers. My body’s incomparably clammy; I can’t stand it a moment longer.

Let’s go for a bath.

At these words, Sora looks up at Nana.

For days now, they hadn’t so much as exchanged a single word. Somehow Nana’s words have come out sounding angry, but even so she is now in the weaker position of having to wait for Sora’s response while the sweat drips from her eyebrows, as though she were at Sora’s disposal. Well, even if that were true, there’s nothing to be done about it. After all, Nana can’t very well scrub her own back in the bathhouse. Which is why it’s always been Sora who’s scrubbed Nana’s back and Nana who’s scrubbed Sora’s, that’s always been the case, there being just the two of us, so you see there’s no alternative, there’s no other choice. It’s just not possible for either of us to sulk for very long.

Is it safe? Sora asks. Are you allowed to?

So I won’t go in the water.

Even so.

Just a quick scrub and we’ll be out. Just a quick wash, that’s it, and with that I manage to convince Sora, it’s decided. As usual, getting a bag of wet items ready – soap, shampoo and toothbrushes – falls to Sora, and my job is to pack a separate bag of clothes, underwear and other dry items. We have the routine down pat and are soon headed out the door. We hesitate between Boseok Sauna with its three baths and Hando Sauna which has two, then decide on the latter since we won’t be going in the tubs anyway.

Sauna, or bath only? the woman at the counter asks.

Bath only, we say, and open our wallets to pay the fee. We gather the towels and locker keys she hands us, and head into the changing room. Both the changing room and the bathing area are empty, and we look round at leisure. Perhaps because there’s no one but us, it’s surprisingly dry and not overly hot. It’s just right. Even the floors are mostly dry, and we’re able to walk to the row of adjacent taps without getting our feet wet. We choose two seats. It’s tempting to sink into the tubs but Nana manages to refrain from doing so; instead she uses the showerhead attached to the tap to wash her body in preparation for the scrub. Nowadays the ingenious invention known as the scrub soap means you can skip the hot tub entirely, since it is as effective at loosening dead skin as a soak in hot water. This is a bonus. Sora and I have always done our own scrubbing – even as children, tough as that was – so to have such a convenient tool at hand is really quite amazing. You lather up the soap and apply it all over your body, then sit on your stool, on which you’ve already laid down a towel, and wait. This in itself is thoroughly enjoyable. You sit and watch your gleaming pink toes, listening to the sound of your breath in quiet anticipation, and when it feels like the right moment you rinse off the soap and begin rubbing, gently at first. Sora usually begins at her ears, whereas I start with my wrists. From the wrists, I work my way up gradually, so that by the time I’ve reached the elbows the grime and dead skin are sufficiently well loosened for a proper scrubbing, and my arm has settled into a proper rhythm. The swish, swish, swish of the mitt focuses me. Lips pursed, I immerse myself in the task, concentrating all my attention on whichever part of the body I’m scrubbing. Sora is concentrating deeply too, the pair of us going swish-swish, swish-swish, in silence, until at one point I hand my mitt to Sora and turn round so Sora can start on my back. I sit, posture hunched as Sora rubs swish-swish, swish-swish, and then it’s my turn to face Sora’s back and start rubbing, swish-swish, swish-swish.

Oww that hurts, Sora chides, but swish, swish, I ignore her and keep on, swish, swish, swish. That’s enough, swish-swish, swish-swish. The left-hand side of Sora’s back is slightly more raised than the right, probably because her spine lists to one side. The bare flesh has reddened with the exfoliation. The sight of her vulnerable exposed back brings up a complex mix of emotions, and I purse my lips even tighter as I continue to scrub.

Swish-swish, swish-swish.

Swish-swish, swish-swish.

The sound fills the large space around us, and I find this deeply satisfying. Maybe the reason I asked Sora to come bathing with me today was just so I could hear this.

There’s a chamber pot at Moseh ssi’s house, I blurt out as I work on Sora’s back.

A chamber pot, at home.

Whose home?

Moseh ssi – the baby’s father.

Father?

He’s the father.

And his name is Moseh?

Moseh, Moseh ssi.

And they have a chamber pot at home, I repeat. It’s not as if any of them are ill, really, and their toilet’s fully functioning, but still they had one.

Why is that?

I asked Moseh ssi on the way back, and he said his father uses it.

Maybe he’s unwell? Maybe he has an illness and needs one?

I asked him that.

And?

He said there was no reason. That he’s always used one for no real reason. I asked if his father empties it himself and Moseh ssi said no. His father uses the pot, and his mother empties and cleans it. He said this as if it were nothing. He must have answered as if it were nothing because he actually thinks it’s nothing, right? And then he asked me what was strange about it, if it was strange to have a chamber pot, or if I thought chamber pots were weird. Of course they’re not. As far as Nana’s concerned, you might see one in any number of homes. But what I do find weird, the point of this, is that the father doesn’t empty the pot himself but gets someone else to do the job for him. In a house with two perfectly functioning bathrooms, both a few steps away at most – I mean, isn’t that weird? To shit or pee in a brass bowl and then leave the cleaning of it to someone else when you live in a house like that?

But it seemed like Moseh ssi had never really considered any of this. He didn’t find it at all strange that the person using the chamber pot and the person emptying it would be two different people – and the more Nana thought about it, this seemed to be the strangest part of it. It just doesn’t make sense, I can’t figure it out: why Moseh ssi is the way he is, why Moseh ssi’s father does what he does, why Moseh ssi’s mother takes it upon herself to clean the bowl. What kind of dynamic is at work there? What would you say it was? The entire way home I kept going over it in my mind, and still Nana doesn’t know. What do you think?

I don’t know.

Right.

Maybe that’s the point.

What is?

That we don’t know, Sora says.

The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known. Like an unfathomable void. A misuteri, she says, mystery, a sort of black hole. And in that family, the black hole happens to be the chamber pot. They may even be aware that the chamber pot is their version of the unknowable. Or maybe they’ve never even thought about it along these lines – but even so, the point is that some things are impossible to comprehend. That pot may simply be their family misuteri, the black hole in their midst, and it just happens to on their bathroom floor.

Misuteri, Nana hears Sora say, and repeats the word, misuteri, misuteri, until I feel a surge of resentment that makes me pull away from her – thinking this might be it, the reason Sora has come to not know, and not see: Sora’s mechanism. I glare at the bare skin on her back, at the strands of wet hair. And in that moment I hear myself say to her small, narrow, wet back – her delicate and therefore hateful back – what are you saying? My voice is trembling.

How can you – what are you saying?

Huh?

The bowl – that’s why it’s there in the first place, because people assume it’s not meant to be known. Because no one will think about it seriously, that’s why it’s there, that’s why they go on using it the way they do, can’t you see that? Whatever it is, bowl or black hole, the point is to think, to consider it, to give it proper thought.

Proper thought?

Proper thought.

Well, maybe you should take that advice yourself.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Why are you keeping it? Sora asks in lieu of an answer.

Nana stares at Sora’s reddened shoulders. Sora turns back to face Nana. Nana’s the one who’s furious, furious to the point of weeping, but somehow it’s Sora’s face that crumples as she repeats the question: why did you decide to keep it?

This won’t do, Nana tells herself.

Any more talk and Nana might burst into tears, and when Nana cries, Sora cries – which makes Nana cry in turn, and Sora will cry because now Nana’s crying, which will make Nana cry which makes Sora cry. This is a given. There won’t be any stopping once it’s begun, like cogwheels, the mechanism of cogwheels that spin together and against each other on and on and on the moment they’re set in motion. Nana knows this and Sora knows it too. This is why Nana hardly ever cries and why Sora hardly ever cries. Hardly ever. To give in to crying is plain unacceptable.

We finish bathing without exchanging another word. Nana’s expecting Sora to be cross again and leave without her, but Sora waits in silence while Nana gathers the scattered bottles together. Sora has already soaped the pair of plastic bath stools and basins clean and returned them to their respective spots.

We walk home under the summer moon.

It’s Nana’s second time returning home today, and already close to midnight. She’s weary but sleep eludes her. She feels let down by Sora, and she’s also grateful Sora didn’t stalk off by herself. The human heart is never simple, is it, Nana thinks to herself as she quietly ambles alongside Sora.

 

Photograph © Simon Desmarais


The above is taken from Hwang Jungeun’s novel I’ll Go On, published by Tilted Axis Press. Order your copy here.

Hoarfrost
Amy Sackville | The Proust Questionnaire