Translated from the Korean by Bruce Fulton & Ju-Chan Fulton

 

She was sound asleep beside me when I woke up. I gazed at her sleeping form for a time. Coming to this hotel beside the lake was her idea. I got out of bed, sat beside the window, and looked out. It was winter and the light of the full moon shone coldly on the surface of the lake.

Her call had arrived on an afternoon when I had no idea what to do with myself: I’d been lying still in my bed for the longest time, thinking I would like to continue lying still in my bed, absolutely still, as still as a performance artist in a pair of stiletto heels at a museum. And then I looked around my room and thought that it contained too many crevices and recesses, including some at the far side of the room that might only have been pretending to be recesses, and that didn’t sit right with me. And when I looked at the crevices and recesses again with that thought in mind, I felt that I didn’t sit right with myself either. I didn’t answer the call. After the phone stopped ringing, a thought occurred to me: I could take that length of thick cotton string hanging out of my desk drawer and stand motionless in the middle of my bedroom, again like a performance artist in a museum, and maybe I could spend the whole day doing that. Why couldn’t I? I got up, but standing still all day long with a length of string in my hand wasn’t nearly as appealing as standing still all day long holding a sickle with a razor-sharp blade of blue steel, and what if I managed a terrified expression as I held that sickle? What if I managed to make my face go pale? But was I in the right frame of mind to play a guy holding a sickle all day long? What it came down to was that, in my present state of mind, I wasn’t quite up to that either.

I gave a tug on the length of string but it stayed where it was in the drawer, a long length of string all tangled up. A short time later I sat down at the desk, and still holding the string I cupped my chin in my palm and tilted my head as far to the side as it would go, and holding my chin in this fashion I was on the point of thinking a lopsided thought – after all, from time to time we all need a lopsided thought – but when I think about it now, I can’t quite remember the lopsided thought I had then.

All that afternoon I thought plaintively about how I just didn’t want to do anything: What should I do? Should I just go through the motions? What shouldn’t I do? Maybe I shouldn’t do anything? Should I keep thinking these thoughts and not do anything else? And when evening came I asked myself if I should continue with these thoughts after dinner or without dinner, and in this way I had myself a difficult evening.

A few days ago I went somewhere, and from then on I’ve been wondering if I actually did go somewhere. Perhaps I was just wandering, and still am wandering. In fact I had gone somewhere, to several cities in far-off Texas, but contrary to my preconceptions I didn’t see a single cattle ranch or oil field, and I guess that’s why I felt as if I hadn’t actually gone to Texas.

The day she called I went back to bed and stared at a recess in the ceiling, and in that recess I saw a spider starting in on a web, and the first thing I noticed when I focused on the spider was that it seemed to be moving hastily, as if something urgent was happening. Watching the spider weave its web couldn’t replace watching myself standing in the middle of my bedroom holding a sickle, but still I looked on as the spider wove its web. The spider wasn’t very big and I didn’t think its web would be very big, but at the rate it was moving I figured the web would be finished soon, and then I could see what it looked like. But for some reason the spider suddenly stopped its weaving and became motionless, and I waited and waited but it stayed still like that, and all I could do was imagine the various shapes the web might take once it was finished, and among those images I selected the one that appealed to me the most, but it was quite unrealistic to expect the spider would complete its web in that shape.

I left the spider to its own devices and got out of bed but gave up on dinner. Instead I put the kettle on the stove to make tea. When I lit the gas, I suddenly felt like drinking the flames instead of tea, but as you might expect, fire-eaters don’t actually consume fire, they spit it out, you can’t consume something that hot, nor can you cool it enough to make it consumable, and confronted with my inability to consume flames I wondered if I should be drinking booze instead of tea, or if I should just trash my place. And if I were to trash my place, it would only be proper to disappear somewhere for a few days afterward. Just then the phone rang again. I didn’t answer. Instead an idea came to me from out of nowhere: as long as I had no goals in mind, why not let myself get swept up in a night of desire? Run away from home, have a fling, make a clean escape in the middle of the night and pass out? But in the next moment those desires shriveled, and I resigned myself to a night of shriveled desires.

If you’re going to run away from home you’ll want to wear something that goes well with your sulky feelings, something drab. All that day I was not so much depressed or blue as extremely sulky; I feel like blue is depression’s bastard child and sulky is depression’s delinquent friend. It’s one thing to look sulky, but how are you supposed to dress sulky? I had no clue, and because I couldn’t decide on what kind of clothing was sulky enough to run away from home in, I gave up on the idea. In the meantime the phone rang yet again, and yet again I didn’t answer. The annoying sound of the ringing annoyed me to the point that I almost yanked the cord out of the wall. But then my better instincts took over and I changed my mind: now it was the nails the previous occupants had hammered into the wall that annoyed me, and I felt I had to remove those nails if I was going to calm down, and so I looked for a tool appropriate for the job but I couldn’t find anything. Was this going to be one of those days when nothing worked out? Again the phone rang. Fumbling with the length of string, which I’d removed from the drawer and stuck in my pants pocket, I said to myself, Okay, you’re not going to give up, so I guess I’ll have to pick up. It was her, my friend. I knew it was going to sound ridiculous but I asked if she happened to have a tool with which I could remove the nails from the wall in my place – or maybe they were screws, same difference. She laughed and said she was about to leave for a great big fog-draped lake or some such place, and did I want to come along? It didn’t make any difference whether I spent the rest of the day at home with nothing working out or spent the rest of the day somewhere else with nothing working out. At the very last second before I headed out I transferred the length of string to my coat pocket, where it got tangled up with the notebook containing something I had spent several weeks writing down.

A short time later she pulled up, and off we went. Around that time of day one of the neighbor girls liked to skip rope in the vacant lot next to my unit in the three-story building, and she always made a big production out of it, but thank the high heavens she wasn’t there that day – I even sent a silent thank you out the window in her direction. She wasn’t deliberate in her rope skipping, she didn’t jump high as if gravity free and in slow motion, there was nothing elegant about it, rather her skips were very quick, with no forethought, mindless even. When I watched her skip rope, I thought she looked like a huge wheel spinning helplessly in the air. But with one hop she could swing the rope around twice, even three times. If ever there was a competitive rope skipper, it would be her. But one day she kept at it so long that in my mind I took to alternately cheering and jeering her as I listened to the rope whipping through the air from my room, and in the meantime night fell, and a difficult night it was, quite apart from her overdoing the rope skipping, but I felt that the rope skipping was in part the impetus. I thought about going up to her as she skipped rope and jumping like a Masai warrior, in which case she would probably wonder what this weird guy was doing jumping so weirdly high, she would feel crushed and would quit and go home. She might think, Oh that weird guy is jumping like a Masai and she might think, No way can I jump with a guy who jumps like a Masai, but I doubted she would really get to that point. Anyway, that’s how badly I had wanted her not to be there.

My friend was itchy to go somewhere – at least that’s what I gathered, she didn’t come out and say it, but it didn’t matter – and so she took this humble homebound narrator along with her. It didn’t matter to me what we would be doing or where. It didn’t matter to me in the least.

We didn’t talk much along the way. Some time ago I found I have nothing in particular to say to anyone, including her. Now and then I would look at her and sometimes I felt my gaze turning into a glare. But for the most part I looked straight ahead as random thoughts whizzed through my head, and some of those thoughts lingered.

One of those thoughts was about the previous evening, which I’d spent drinking while watching a television program about the history of cheerleading in the US, though I don’t remember much about it. Except that it’s possible that cheerleading in the US is as important an element of American culture as American football, trout fishing, the rodeo, and other American festive activities, the majority of which I find stupid. That thought was accompanied by another, that perhaps I should write a novel titled The Bleak History of Cheerleading. Included in this novel would be the fish that didn’t appear in Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America; the orangutan in the Miami zoo that had epilepsy its entire life but whose eyes remained calm, a creature beloved by many and ultimately the victim of a brain tumor; the cockatoo that was the longest-living parrot in history, which came from Australia and at the age of one was transferred to the Brookfield Illinois zoo, on the outskirts of Chicago, where it was beloved by many and in its old age developed osteoporotic arthritis and cataracts and at the age of eighty-three was euthanized; and in addition all the animals that have lived and died in zoos around the world, as well as horned animals; along with tragic female heroines both in and outside of literature, such as Ophelia, Anna Karenina, and Kafka’s K; and a nude woman who climbs an endless flight of stairs and a nude woman who descends an endless flight of stairs; and if a new history of cheerleading is ever written, and that’s a big if, and if in that new history there are cheerleaders who died in a freak accident during practice or during a game, perhaps I will include those cheerleaders as well, but while stories about cheerleading will appear in my novel, football players will not.

And if Hamlet were to appear in this novel of mine, he would be someone obsessed with spider webs and seized by the thought that he should strangle himself¸ someone who wouldn’t make much sense while rambling on about cheerleading, and Ophelia likewise wouldn’t make much sense while rambling on about the bluish-white mildew on her leather shoes (ever since she became fascinated with the blue and white of the mildew she has lost interest in all else, that mildew alone occupying her speech and thoughts), and both would be spirits by now, and after they’d appeared in several chapters they’d bow out in the chapter entitled ‘The Bleak Future of Cheerleading’,  and so this novel’s most important function would lie in Hamlet and Ophelia shedding new light on the bleak history of cheerleading.

Thoughts of cheerleading had been circulating in my mind for days before I happened to see that television program on the history of American cheerleading, circulating ever since the evening I went for a walk through the university campus near my residence and saw the university pep squad practicing their cheerleading, and I came to a stop and watched them, thinking that maybe they were preparing for the soccer team’s next match. I wished they had been so good that nothing further needed to be said about them. But a lot did need to be said, and most of it was negative. In fact they were terrible. Their movements were passé, they kept repeating the same overly-rudimentary routines, about all they did was shout and wave flags with dreadfully monotonous colors and shapes, and the fact that their performance left an onlooker without the least sense of excitement made me think that they themselves felt no excitement. They didn’t do what you would expect cheerleaders to do, like tossing their flags swirling into the air before catching them again, much less something difficult like constructing a human pyramid. Although one might think they were making a point of not doing such moves, that was decidedly not the case; rather it seemed to me they were incapable of even conceptualizing such moves.

Their cheerleading was like a scripted parade, a small part in a national event in which people are mobilized on a large scale in absolutely totalitarian fashion, their movements much like those of the people in the mass games that you frequently see taking place in the republic to the north, which is hostile to the country in which I live. I was surprised to see this kind of cheerleading still taking place in the twenty-first century – who knows, maybe it won’t be much different in the twenty-second century, and if that’s the case then it would seem that this is timeless cheerleading. Watching this cheerless cheerleading, I considered several problematic aspects of their approach, and the ways in which it could be improved, but then who am I to judge? Their cheerleading looked totally retrograde, like something from the Stone Age, and it looked like they wanted to go back to the Stone Age, and I briefly imagined them cheerleading with stone knives and axes.

But in this novel of mine, The Bleak History of Cheerleading, which will contain a chapter titled ‘How to Rewrite the History of Cheerleading in America’, I could add a short chapter titled ‘Korea’s Absolutely Weird Cheerleading’, and I could probably also add to that chapter an appendix titled ‘A Report on the Choreography of Totally Retrograde Cheerleading’. This is not the kind of research on which one collaborates, so it would be a lonely exercise. But in this novel, which could start with the sentence ‘Let’s stop here; sleeping would be better than this,’ and which could end with the sentence ‘I’ll stop here and go to bed,’ the protagonist will never be able to extricate himself from a pitfall, and through this pitfall the novel could pioneer a new genre called the pitfall novel. But it would be difficult to pioneer a genre called the pitfall novel: there are already many works that could be called pitfall novels, and indeed the majority of my own works could be called pitfall novels.

The pep squad continued their simple, dispirited routines, and simple though they were they were executed clumsily and lacked uniformity, and I thought that something so bad deserved more than punishment, and then I thought that maybe a group punishment would do, but then again their performance wasn’t any good in the first place and I didn’t think it would get better, but being punished was better than not being punished, and I thought that if the entire squad were punished, the sight of the squad being punished would lift my spirits, and so I waited for a time but they didn’t get punished. They just kept up with the same dispirited practice, and what with thinking it would be better if the pep squad were disbanded, I felt so deflated I had to turn and leave, hoping they would feel compelled to skip dinner and practice at least until midnight. On my way home through the university I passed a grove. In one direction, due to some natural logic that escapes me, many of the old trees had large cavities in their trunks, which gave me the impression that if I were to come out in the middle of the night they would transform into cyclops and surround me, and, strangely enough, this would raise my spirits in the same way as if I were watching a really cool cheerleading performance. But I was still so dispirited by the pep squad that I didn’t stay to think about the cyclops trees for very long.

Another thought I recalled was of a rock whizzing past me several days ago while I was taking a walk in the woods out back and thinking about a person I hadn’t seen for a while, and  about whom I ultimately learned not of his doings but rather his death, and whose doings apart from his death therefore remained unknown to me. I ducked the rock and then two more rocks came flying. I didn’t see the first rock, which sounded like it went straight over my head, but I saw the second and third, which followed a few seconds later, and I was able to avoid them. I don’t know why, but instead of running I fought back, finding the three rocks and flinging them in the direction from which they had come, after which no more rocks came flying at me. The dense woods in which this short-lived rock-throwing skirmish had broken out turned quiet, but I felt as if the unknown rock-thrower was still there, hiding. The rocks weren’t all that large, but if one of them had landed on my head it could have done serious damage. Depending on where it hit I could have been struck dead. I thought of those who might harbor a grudge against me, but couldn’t think of any among them who would hide in the woods and throw rocks at me. And so I didn’t think of this incident as a peccadillo involving someone holding a grudge against me. It was clear, though, that those rocks that came flying had been aimed at me. And more precisely, the rock-thrower had acted at random and I was the unknowing target. Otherwise the rocks wouldn’t have come straight at me. It occurred to me that the rock-thrower might have been knocked unconscious by the rocks I’d flung back at him, but what could I have done at that point? I wondered what antipathy had made him throw rocks at me, but I didn’t go looking for him in the dense woods – it had been a very long time since I’d been in such great danger, and I got to thinking that a walk in the woods could be fatal, and that thought remained with me, but I didn’t mention this incident to my friend as she drove. Such an incident wasn’t worth mentioning – and as soon as that thought surfaced, sure enough it became unworthy of mention. Even so, the words evening, hills out back, forest path, stroll, rock, and sudden death kept whirling through my head and then came together in a sentence: One evening I was taking a stroll in the hills out back, walking along a forest path, when a rock hit me and I died a sudden death. That sentence wouldn’t leave me.

Those lines go forever and those spaces spread all over, I thought as I looked out the car window at the faint tableau of lines and spaces spreading out before me. They did not give rise to any particular feeling. It was a scene that did not leave me wanting to describe it further, and so I left it at that. All along my friend was speeding unnecessarily, and half of me felt uneasy and the other half wished she would go even faster, and then I thought about a story I was going to write. That story begins with the sentence Two people were walking through a forest one cold winter day when they came across a small, frozen lake, but I made no progress beyond that first sentence. The story that began in winter remained stalled even though winter was almost over. I could have developed the story by having something appear before the two people, or by having them resume walking, or by having them shift their gaze elsewhere. But the story stubbornly refused to take another step forward. I was afraid I would have to give up and leave the two of them there at the shore of the frozen lake.

My recollection of how I had spent the days before our trip was hazy, but I remembered some sentences I’d written down last spring as a kind of prompt on the notepad I keep in my coat pocket: I was out for a walk and saw a falling blossom and snatched it out of the air (how long ago was that?); I didn’t pop the snatched blossom into my mouth (I’ve never done that); I hold the blossom briefly in my hand and it will soon be released (does it have to be?); but if it’s not a blossom but rather a butterfly or a moth that for some reason instead of flying up into the sky has fallen out of it, then I’ll pop it into my mouth (I should). I reread those sentences a few days ago, those sentences I’d written on my notepad, and I thought about them. But that thought did not lead to other thoughts – because I couldn’t recall what came before those four sentences or what came after, and I couldn’t recall what I had written most recently. I wondered if I should have a look at the notepad but decided not to. Elsewhere in the notepad there is probably also the following: ‘During the Day I Grind my Daytime Teeth, and at Night I Grind My Nighttime Teeth’ – working title of a painting that will never be painted; and ‘During the Day I Talk My Daytime Nonsense, and at Night I Talk My Nighttime Nonsense’ – working title of a story that will never be written. And then I thought of this: ‘During the Day I Lose My Daytime Consciousness, and at Night I Lose My Nighttime Consciousness’ – title of either a painting or a story that will never come into being, a story that will never be written down anywhere.

All I had done in my dismal state of mind during the past several days was struggle to write . I had well over 300 stories consisting of no more than a first sentence, and I thought about making a new story out of just those 300 sentences. From one day to the next I didn’t know what to do. And from one day to the next, whatever I tried to do was useless. It does, after all, take some doing just to get through a day.

When I found myself clueless about how to get through a day I sometimes worked on building a small pyramid or igloo out of sugar cubes on the coffee table in my living room. The igloo took more time than the pyramid, so if I was feeling more clueless that’s what I worked on. And when I was totally clueless I worked on an igloo and then built a pyramid next to it. But I was never able to build a perfect igloo – it always collapsed midway through. There had to be a way to make a perfect igloo but I never bothered to find out. Building an igloo out of sugar cubes was awfully tiresome, and there were times when trying to rebuild the continuously-collapsing igloo left me feeling played out. When building the sugar-cube igloos I kind of thought that if I weren’t in the writing business I’d still feel clueless about my life, but not this clueless.

One night, following a day when I’d written nothing, I got drunk and ate ten raw eggs – I don’t know what I was thinking – and then I thought to myself, okay I just ate ten raw eggs, is that all there is to it? I guess I can feel whatever I want to feel, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of those ten raw eggs, but a weird state of mind came over me in which I imagined egg whites and egg yolks as separate entities, and I imagined the white and the yellow glomming together, and so I lit a candle on the table and observed the burning candle and thought to myself, that’s strange, inside that flame are tiny white and yellow hands, but I can’t reach in and take those hands – so I kept watching the flame, and I had an urge to pull a little prank, but instead of trying to talk myself out of the prank I told myself, come on, do it, and my eyes caught sight of the dried-up bouquet of freesias in the vase on the table, and I thought, why not, and I pulled one of the dried freesias from the vase and lit it. Not that I wanted to burn the entire bouquet, just one freesia would do for now. I recalled that anecdote about John Keats, who before his death at the young age of twenty-five burned a rose and waited all night long for its spirit to appear. That yellow freesia – and this is just me thinking – looked like it was burning in delight. Though the blossom blackened, it kept its original shape, and even at the moment it fell from the stem it hadn’t turned to ash or soot. For almost the next hour I burned the rest of that sizable bouquet. For a short time the freesia blossoms glittered in my living room like meteoroids in the night sky, and I witnessed several of those meteoroids, each of them spent and dark, falling to the table. To my drunken self the small, blackened freesias bunched on the table like spent, darkened meteorites reminded me of bats – or maybe not – inhabiting – or maybe not – a cave on a remote Oceanian island. The blackened freesia blossoms inspired a hint of joy. I felt a faint delight at the sight of those blackened freesia blossoms.

After that, if I was unable to get to sleep at night and wondered what I should do instead, I would burn freesia blossoms. For a time I used flowers not for appreciation but for incineration. I took pains to buy and dry a variety of flowers, for the sole purpose of burning them when I was drunk and couldn’t sleep. I watched dried lilies, roses, daffodils and other flowers burning, but in the end I decided that freesias burned most gleefully of all. Some flowers burned longer, some were more difficult to burn, and some left me less affected as they burned. I don’t know where I got the idea, but I put some of the flowers I bought into the freezer, which then became a sort of morgue for flowers. I hadn’t yet burned peonies or water lilies. If I burned a wider variety of flowers, perhaps I would discover one that gave me more satisfaction than a freesia. When that day came, perhaps I would absorb myself with burning that kind of flower instead of freesias. But I was still satisfied with burning freesias – I liked the smell, it was like the smell of burning paper but a bit more fragrant. When I set fire to a freesia blossom I felt a sudden, uncontrollable brightness, and when I watched a freesia blossom blacken I felt a gloom that was just as sudden and just as uncontrollable.

While I watched a freesia burn I knew that the smoke was not its spirit, but if it contained even part of its spirit I felt that the spirit would be playful. When a rose burned, its spirit was not at all elegant, to judge from the smoke. I once did a rose-burning experiment: I took two roses and to one of them I said, I will mourn you as you are cremated, and to the other I said, I will mourn you as you burn at the stake, but I couldn’t tell the difference between them on the basis of their smoke as they burned, or what remained of them after, and so from that experiment I decided it wasn’t possible to tell if there was any connection between the flowers’ spirit and their burning.

Freesias were at the top of my shopping list for a month, and I made regular trips to the florist so that there would be no shortage of freesias for me to dry. Of course I never told the florist I wanted freesias to burn on sleepless nights when I didn’t know what to do. I had an urge to ask her for a bouquet of freesias that would dry out and burn well, rather than freesias I could put in a vase and appreciate, but I managed not to. I couldn’t very well say something like that unless I wanted to sound crazy, which was a real shame, almost as bad as not being able to ask my barber to cut off one of my ears, but at the same time I took satisfaction in knowing that the florist would never dream that I was only buying the freesias in order to burn them.

But then one day I got tired of burning freesias, and so I picked up a freesia and thought about what to do: How about taking some fresh eggs from the fridge and tossing them into the air and letting them land on my head? Now that would be a fresh new what-the-hell moment. Or just as fresh: how about egg-shaped rocks, of which there were so many among the many rocks lying outside my building? But nothing came of those thoughts; instead it occurred to me that there were plenty of other objects that might give me my fresh, what-the-hell moment. Another day I thought of holding a fresh egg in one hand and eating a freesia with the other, but nothing came of that either, and yet another day I thought of juggling eggs and freesias back and forth, but I decided this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do with those objects.

We arrived at the hotel, had a drink and a chat, and went to bed. The next day we drove to a restaurant for a quick lunch. As we emerged from the restaurant we saw a girl in her front yard spinning a plate on top of a stick. She must have learned the trick before she learned to walk, she did it so well. I somehow felt she was Chinese. For a short time I watched her plate-spinning trick; she was unaware of me, even though I was so close. I felt that if she saw me, the plate would fall, and even though I wanted to see it drop and break, things didn’t turn out that way. She was completed immersed in spinning the plate. I thought it was ridiculous how fast the plate was spinning on that stick, and wished I could show off for her with a fire-eating, fire-spewing trick. Just then a woman who looked like her mom emerged from the house; she was very short. I thought that perhaps the mother used to be a plate spinner in a circus. All the way back to the hotel I thought about the plate-spinning girl, but I didn’t mention her to my companion. Instead I told her about the cheerleaders I’d seen on the university campus, and how I was going to write a novel about cheerleading. She said she thought it would be good to add railroads to the story. The rope-skipping girl and the plate-spinning girl weren’t cheerleaders, but I could probably include them in my Bleak History of Cheerleading. I remained dubious about their presence coexisting with railroads.

Late in the afternoon we took a short walk along the lake, stopping to take in the view. Overall the scene aroused no particular feeling in me, and likewise among the details of the lakescape there was nothing in particular to draw the eye. Beneath the cloudy sky the huge lake looked desolate and dreary. I wanted to go out right into the middle of it, but it was covered with patches of ice and the ice was thin and I couldn’t have walked on it; I could have swum but I would have frozen to death or drowned before I got very far. I suppressed my urge to go out onto the thin ice. There was nothing else to this lake. Not even birds. I considered that fortunate. It was a dreary, lifeless void of a lake and it seemed better that way. Suddenly I had a thought, irrelevant though it was to the scenery around me: what if I met a sudden end?

I recalled seeing ducks shot out of the sky by hunters and dropping into a river. There were occasions when I spent a lot of time at night thinking about ducks, and from those thoughts I would arrive at thoughts as foggy as my duck-tale thoughts about the ducks. Isn’t that ducky? I would think to myself. To avoid thinking more about ducks, thoughts that led to foggier thoughts, I had to think about something else. And so I thought about fish. There were no fish to be seen here at the lake. But of course there were fish in places not visible to me. It was impossible to imagine this huge lake not containing a single fish. I sent a silent cheer to those fish I couldn’t see, knowing that fish tend to wear thin in winter, and by the same reasoning I sent a silent boo to the birds, which like the fish were out of sight. But the next moment I got to thinking that there was no difference between my cheering and my booing. I had the urge to pick a rock out of the water but didn’t want to go so far as to break the thin ice in the process. It wasn’t clear to me why I wanted the rock, but it was clear that if I picked it out of the water I would then throw it back into the water. But around the lake there were plenty of rocks I could throw. I think I just wanted to plunge my hand into that keen-cold water.

The heavens were darkening and I felt we were in for a heavy dump of snow. But it was an empty threat – it never did snow. We stood there beside the lake without speaking. I felt as if the two of us were the protagonists of a story I had started but couldn’t continue, two individuals who, left to themselves, would never know what to do next. Just then I thought I could see something burning in the woods across the lake, perhaps a fire over which people were warming themselves, but I couldn’t be sure. The two of us had an uncertain conversation about that uncertain fire. If it was a fire, it was not a big one. And instead of flaring up it appeared to have opted to die out. I was so cold I shuddered all over; I thought my ears were going to break off. This is really great, I’d like to stay here forever, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t, at least not forever.

Back in our room at the hotel my ears were still stinging from the cold. Again we drank and talked but my ears were stinging so badly I could hardly understand what she was saying. I was drunk by the time I fell asleep, and sometime later I woke up and had to go to the bathroom. I tried to get back to sleep but it was useless. I sat by the window and glared out at the mist-covered lake. Among the several dreams I’d just had, one came back to me. In this dream someone I knew was showing me around a huge house. An aria from a familiar Western opera, sung by what sounded like a Chinese opera singer, issued softly from the room at the end of the hall, in which a Central Asian man was doing a handstand. The aria was awful, I thought to myself, and I was sure the man was only doing the handstand in order to conjure up something even more awful. After my acquaintance had shown me the rooms, he showed them to me all over again, but this time the man in the last room, from which the aria had been coming, was not there, nor did I hear the aria. It seemed he had disappeared to nowhere, and the aria had disappeared with him. I too wanted to disappear to nowhere. If I could go nowhere then I could become a nowhere man, but because nowhere was nowhere I probably couldn’t go there.

It would have been nice if in my dreams I had seen a girl who was doing an unusual stunt that no one had ever done before, but it seemed that the man doing the handstand had taken the stage instead. And now I was so dizzy that even sitting was uncomfortable, and thinking I’d like to lie on my side and lean back against something – even Medusa or Medusa’s head would do – I lay down for a short time beside my companion. Various thoughts sped through my mind: I wish I could be a horned animal – a common thought, that one; thoughts of the night I was drinking by myself and I stripped to the waist like someone ready to fight but continued drinking instead; of the rainy night I’d considered gathering together all the clothing I never wore, taking it up in the woods behind my building and burying it; of a person I knew who laughed like a neighing horse; of the centipede I saw in the hills nearby, which brought me to a halt and which I observed for a short time, creeping along on all its legs, a sight that half creeped me out, after which I was hit with an impulse to follow it, which I didn’t act upon, and then the centipede disappeared into a thicket and I stood there briefly, thinking Wouldn’t it be funny if I followed that creepy thing? and then I wondered what would happen if I actually did follow it, probably nothing; of the time I wondered if there was a dark magician who had mastered the dark arts with the intention of performing those dark arts on himself, and could such a magician truly be called a dark magician? This last thought, on top of all the others, really got the thoughts whirling in my head, and I felt like I was standing on one hand and spinning a plate with the other, then skipping on a rope that led out of my mind.

And I remembered a day when I was focused on building an igloo out of sugar cubes in spite of being dog tired, and that night I’d dreamed of sitting across a chessboard from the long-deceased Pope Pius II at the Vatican, and we talked about swimming – the pope bragged about his butterfly and I bragged about my backstroke – and about which of us could build the most marvelous igloo out of sugar cubes. The pope’s face was somewhat thin, but odd enough that you could call it unshapely, and in spite of his ridiculous cone-shaped headgear he maintained a vacant expression from the start. Our head-to-head swimming contest never came to pass, and I have to wonder if that was because of a conspiracy involving the cardinals, his close advisers in the Vatican. Before our igloo-building contest the pope ate a mouthful of sugar cubes and a serious look overtook the vacant expression in his eyes. The concentration evident on his unshapely features was peculiar, and ultimately I lost to him. In fact Pope Pius II spent the majority of his waking hours building sugar-cube igloos. And in fact he was the best in the world at making sugar-cube igloos. Only afterwards did I realize that my loss came from not realizing the importance of the contest – a match between the pope, head of the Catholic Church, representing the Catholic believers, and non-Catholic me, representing non-Catholic believers. I felt that by losing I had sinned against all the non-Catholic believers. After the match the pope’s vacant expression returned. I was afraid for a moment that he would tell me that as punishment for losing I would have to put red sounds in a blue sack and blue sounds in a red sack, or else be locked up for eternity in a basement cell painted red and blue, but instead he told me he was a sacrificial victim of the obsessiveness of the later-fifteenth century, and with this heaven-only-knows pronouncement he took his leave. It wasn’t clear whether my loss to the pope was due to the combination of concentration and unshapeliness in his features, or to the ridiculous-looking cone-shaped headgear, which I felt had the power to disrupt the focus of others, but after I awoke from the dream the pope’s vacant expression was reluctant to leave me, and I felt I too was becoming a sacrifice to obsessiveness, and strangely enough I was more vexed by not having voiced my own heaven-only-knows pronouncement than by losing the contest.

Everything felt half-baked and amorphous. And everything felt upside-down, the words upside-down giving me the feeling that rats were skittering around like crazy after eating rat poison. And the words half-baked and amorphous gave me the feeling that the poisoned rats were laid out convulsing and paralyzed. Everything seemed a terrible chore, and I wondered if I should awaken my companion, who was lying next to me, but I didn’t. At one time I thought I loved her, but now we were no longer lovers. Everything had withered. I thought that things were awkward between us, and that our relationship could only develop into something more awkward. That thought led me to realize that I desperately hoped our relationship would become more awkward. The two of us were losing our words for each other. I grew sleepy and thought it would be nice if I climbed onto her and fell asleep, but I couldn’t do that any more than I could climb onto a shark and go to sleep.

I wondered if the spider with the unfinished web in my bedroom had completed its domicile. But I didn’t go so far as to wonder what the web would look like. It would probably be the usual spider web. It was difficult to imagine the spider not following its blueprint and instead weaving something unthinkable. I wondered what the spider was doing in my vacant home. I felt that the spider was perched there unmoving, its web as yet unfinished. Or that what the spider intended to make might not be a web but its own grave – that was possible. I thought it was possible for the spider to leave everything behind and die a spiderly death and lie in peace in its own grave.

Suddenly I thought of the long, tangled string in my coat pocket, and I wanted to do something with it. It was packaging string, but I don’t think it had ever been used for that purpose. What if, here beside my companion, I tied it around my neck like someone performing a stunt? It might help me to hear that awful aria in the background of my dream. Tying that string around my neck would be possible, and worthwhile too. But at that moment I didn’t want to do anything possible and worthwhile. I wanted to do something that was impossible and not worth my while. And so I dropped the idea of tying something around my neck like I might drop the string to the floor.

Foggy thoughts continued, but I couldn’t catch up with any of them. I felt I myself was becoming foggier, little by little, and would soon reach full fogginess. I thought briefly about the figure from Chinese history who through wizardry created a foggy world all his own, distancing himself from others, thereby giving rise to the expression ori mujung, ‘a half hour’s walk in the fog’.

If I reached full fogginess then after half an hour’s walk into deep, mist-shrouded mountains I would probably find ducks. If I went to a nowhere place I could become a nowhere man, but because a nowhere place is nowhere to be found, I couldn’t go there, but even so, if in my mind I headed out somewhere in the direction of a nowhere place, I could be a going-nowhere man or – in that I was going to a nowhere place even though the place I was going to was nowhere – I could at least be a can’t-go-anywhere man. In my swirling mind I was able to entertain this dizzying thought.

I felt hot from the inside out, just as if I had swallowed fire; I felt I was on fire; and I imagined myself jumping into fire before realizing that water was the thing to jump into, not fire. I imagined myself swimming across a broad lake in the middle of a summer’s night, lit by a full moon, a cold smile plastered on my face and a long piece of unraveled string clenched between my teeth.

Among the thoughts that I was arriving at in full fogginess, or had already arrived at, was this one: I would swim across the lake, string in my mouth, perhaps thinking of the fire across the lake, and my hands and eyes would be heading toward that fire. And I felt that although a burning lake didn’t make sense, if I were to say the words burning lake, then a burning lake would appear and before I knew it the hands and the eyes heading toward the fire across the lake would themselves catch fire.

Maybe I could drown in the middle of the lake, or at the far side, after reaching the end of my rope. I suddenly wondered if in the past there had been a tribe that observed a day for the drowned, a day for those who had hanged themselves, and other such days. And if so, why would there not be days for unfortunates who died a senseless death, or those who died grievous deaths?

As soon as I thought of drowning I recalled the phrase the ecstasy of drowning and felt water, and with it a certain ecstasy, filling me. I felt this ecstasy of drowning would not soon ease. If at the last moment the string was still in my mouth, it would track my descent and then float back to the surface. With that thought I got up, put on my coat, made sure the string was in the pocket and went outside, where I told myself it didn’t necessarily need to be a summer’s night for me to cross the lake.

 

Image © Guy Mayer

Out of the Ashes
[The Delicate Architecture of the Withdrawal Agreement]