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

 

In her dream Crystal is looking for a calendar, but it’s nowhere to be found. Then she goes outside to look for her father. He too is nowhere to be found. She phones her mother, but her mother doesn’t pick up. Back home she finds the door locked. She calls Mina, but Mina doesn’t answer either.

Down scroll the numbers in her contacts list, only to disappear one by one off the bottom of the screen. Oh, there’s the calendar.

Through a window she sees the dates on it disappearing one by one. Screaming into her phone, she kicks at the door. No response. All she can do is sit outside the door, fidgeting, and at that point she awakens. The moment her eyes open, half the dream is gone. But the acute desperation lingers, freezing the near reaches of her heart and leaving her with an icy-cold pain. A fly buzzes around her unlit room in absolute leisure. She gets up, turns on the light, and sprays bug killer. The fly falls to the floor, belly up. Its legs tremble and then it stiffens.

She frowns but can’t look away. In her current state of mind she needs to take a walk. In the lobby, the elevator opens and her eyes are met by the sky streaked with red and blue. She raises her arm toward the sky then brings it down as if to usher in the darkness, the blue appearing to move with her arm. The clouds seem devoid of moisture, like seasoned firewood. It’s the hour of afterglow, the day’s demise, the sky bleeding to death. The thickness, intensity and hue of the twilight change by the minute.

It’s an unsettling time of day for the heart and soul. The lonely weep, while the love-struck are reminded to call and whisper declarations of love. Crystal’s defence against the unsettling sunset is to force a desperate smile and walk tall along the path through the apartment complex. The sky turns dark red as it dies.

The silhouettes of tree branches bi­sect the sky. The wispy yellow light of the sky descends be­yond the apartment buildings, and the bright yellow globes of the sodium streetlights come on amid the outlines of the dark trees. Like an exquisitely cut diamond, the sky changes hue by the minute. It’s so beautiful. Crystal knows that, but because she can’t feel it she looks away.

The path is suffused with the warm glow of the streetlights blending with the last vestiges of sunlight. The glow of the shafts of artificial light is comforting. Arriving back at the entrance to the complex she lingers for a moment, and that’s when she hears the faint meow. It’s coming from a large box.

She opens the box and sees a gray kitten the size of her two hands cupped together. It meows, displaying milky fangs and a raspberry-red tongue. Without thinking she reaches for the kitten. It shivers, eyes half shut. Was that a breath of air she felt? The next moment it’s gone. But the faint impact remains. She pets the kitten on the forehead and it twitches an ear, its mouth opening wide. She takes it from the box and holds it close. She can’t believe how feather-light it feels, a handful of fur and bone with a bit of warmth to it. Its paws – she could crush them if she tightened her grip – cling to her clothing with tiny sharp claws as it trembles. Why won’t it stop meowing? She looks into its eyes. They’re large, shaped like almonds, and have an olive glow. Crystal heads toward her building. The tiny thing is causing quite a fuss. The eyes of her neighbors as they pass by come to rest on Crystal. Some smile, some frown, but most are impassive. Smiling, she passes a hand through her hair and hums just loud enough for them to hear her. The kitten is still meowing and its fur is now standing up. ‘Nice kitty,’ she coos, but it won’t quiet down.

‘Are you afraid of me?’

She opens the door and sets the kitten on the living room floor. Prone, it gazes around warily, beginning to meow again.

‘Hey, kitty, hush up.’

She curls up on the floor and hums a lullaby, then reaches out and pulls the kitten toward her. Baring its teeth, the kitten bats her hand away.

‘Ouch!’

The kitten’s pointed tongue appears between its teeth and it hisses.

‘Ooh, scary.’ Crystal bursts into laughter. She can’t stop laughing. And as she laughs she feels anger infiltrating the laughter – more and more anger. She won’t be able to stop, she tells herself. She’s laughing compulsively but doesn’t know why, rolling on the floor. And what is making her angry? Her laughter changes to hysteria. Her heart beats faster and she feels her musculature tightening. It hurts. She has to do something. She stops laughing, reaches for the kitten and covers its mouth with both hands. The kitten’s head twists back and forth, its legs pumping, claws extended. A vivid red line grows on Crystal’s arm. A smile pasted on her face, she starts hitting the kitten. A slight ticking registers in her consciousness, then recedes into the distance. She’s barely aware of what she’s doing, knows only that she can’t stop, but then suddenly awareness returns. She puts the kitten on the floor.

‘Oh, no!’ She places a hand over her mouth.

Low to the floor, tail hidden, the kitten crawls under the coffee table.

‘I didn’t mean it.’

The kitten bares its teeth.

‘I didn’t.’ She waves to it. ‘Hey, hey, hey. I didn’t mean it, really. I’m sorry, kitty. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it!’

There’s a tense silence. Shoulders hunched, they glare at each other. The kitten is the first to look away. It lifts its left front paw and licks it.

‘I didn’t mean to hurt you . . . not at all.’ Crystal goes to the kitchen for something to feed the kitten. Through the window she sees the white of a half-moon, tilted to the left. She imagines a woman’s round shoulder glimpsed in subdued lighting. Gazing at the curvaceous moon, she lapses into thought.

I hope the planet dies. Before I turn twenty. If the planet dies then all the idiocy in the world can be saved – salvation from stupidity. In the meantime it’s okay to be dumb. I can put up with idiots, sure I can. As long as the planet dies before I’m twenty.

She puts Crunch cereal in a shallow bowl, adds milk and takes it to the living room. Where’s the kitten? She gets down on the floor, looks around and spots the kitten crouched beside the sliding door to the enclosed balcony. She yanks it by the tail and the kitten bites her on the wrist. Flinching, she lets go of its tail. The kitten hunches up in a ball, baring its teeth. She grabs it by the scruff of its neck, lifts it from the floor and beats it with her fist. Clinging to her with its paws, the kitten tries to make itself smaller. It looks like a gray, withered persimmon hanging precariously from a twig. It yowls plaintively, sounding like fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

It’s a feeble sound and it’s lost in Crystal’s panting. Why am I breathing so hard? She punches the kitten harder. She can’t believe she’s doing this. But then her mind reaches out into the distance and she recalls her half-forgotten dream. She tries to bring it into focus. Her fist crashing against the kitten’s bones makes a peculiar sound. The crack of bone against bone gives her a momentary crude pleasure, a crass thrill that sends her falling down a stairway. The stairway is long and steep. Her free fall will last until she hits bottom.

Gasping for air, she manages to place the kitten back on the floor. She rubs her hand where the kitten has scratched it. She gazes dully at the kitten and a sudden, stupid grin escapes her. She pushes the bowl of cereal toward it. ‘Eat.’

But it won’t eat.

Crystal can’t stop panting.

One more time she urges the kitten to eat. It turns and begins to slink away. She snatches it by the back left foot. The kitten yowls. She grabs its neck. With another yowl, the kitten scratches and then bites her arm. She hits it again and pushes its face into the bowl of cereal. It makes a gurgling growl, the milk bubbling. She lets go. The kitten sneezes and shakes itself, sending milk spraying in all directions, then wobbles and falls on its side. Crystal screams at it. The kitten hoists itself upright and crawls through the open door to the balcony. Crystal yanks the kitten’s tail, dragging it toward her, leaving a diagonal line of claw marks on the floor. Eyes bulging, it scratches and bites her arm again. Vivid red blood oozes from her arm and forms into a trickle. With bloody fingers she picks up the bowl. The milk turns the color of strawberries. Again the little thing makes for the balcony. Again she snatches it by the tail. Blood drips from her arm to the floor.

‘Eat.’

It won’t.

‘Eat.’

No.

‘Eat!’ she screams. ‘Eat! I said, eat!’ She takes it by the neck and tries to force its mouth open. With its sharp teeth the kitten bites her index finger, rending the very tip of it. Oh my god! She drops it. A small chunk of flesh dangles from her finger. She pulls it free and blood paints the tip red. She turns toward the TV; the screen is dark and silent. She finds the remote on the couch and turns it on. A talent show she hasn’t seen before. Cheered on by an audience of kids, fifteen boys with identical expressions bound onto the stage one at a time, do a dance number, then return to their seats. The same idiotic dance move, repeated fifteen times. Unbelievable. The boys are the same age as she is. They’re like Pyŏl, so dumb they don’t realize they’re dumb. Cursing, she kills the TV.

Wiping blood from the remote with her T-shirt, she returns it to the couch. She gets down on the floor, puts the injured fingertip in her mouth and crawls toward the kitten. She’s in a very nasty frame of mind and she knows it. She wants to wring the kitten’s neck and break its legs. Everything has come together in nastiness. But why? Maybe it’s because of the dream. She remembers the visceral sense of despair she experienced when she woke up, feels it embracing her again. The despair is suffocating her – she needs air. And that’s when the rest of the dream comes back to her:

She’s in an unknown city with a locksmith who had come to her apartment. They’re traveling by subway but keep missing their stop. It’s 9.20 p.m. and eventually the trains will stop running for the night. The locksmith suggests fifteen possible routes to get where they’re going, all of them seemingly simple and straightforward but each involving transferring to a different line, and Crystal keeps missing the right stop. She decides to go with the man by bus to the subway station where they can transfer.

It’s 9.20 but the sky is as bright as day; the streets, though, are shrouded in gloom. They stroll along narrow sidewalks. She hears reggae music from a radio, at which point the man lies down on the sidewalk and with an innocent smile offers Crystal a white pill. Frowning, she shakes her head and takes a cigarette from her backpack. She helps the man to his feet as he smiles helplessly, then on they go. At an outdoor cafe bordered by a tiny brook they take a corner table. While he cleans his face in the brook she’s delivered cups containing the dark crust of instant coffee, sugar and creamer before she’s had an opportunity to order. Filling the cups to the brim with hot water, she carefully stirs the mixture. Time stands still as she and the man sit at the cafe drinking the god-awful stuff. Yuck – they still sell this? Their chairs rest on muddy ground.

‘It’s nine twenty and the sun’s still up,’ says the man.

Time stands still, it’s still bright out, but Crystal feels gloomy as she thinks about the subway stops she missed. She opens a guidebook to this unknown city and unfolds a map. The city is bordered on the south by a fortress wall and the rest of it is enclosed by a river. The map shows the streetcar and subway lines. She looks around, trying to connect what she sees with what’s on the map. Nothing matches. It’s still 9.20 – she remembers checking her watch in the dream – but that’s all she remembers because that’s when she woke up.

Crystal looks out the window. The white curvaceous half-moon is still there. Against the backdrop of the dark, forested hill a pair of orange lights flicker once and then again. She crawls toward the lights. They attack her with bared claws. She grabs the gray tail, her bloody hand smearing it. The eyes have turned to slits, the pupils dark. She throws the thing as hard as she can against the wall.

It makes a thud like a sandbag when it hits, then drops to the floor.

Stretched on its side, the kitten is dying a slow and pain­ful death, like a goldfish out of water. Kneeling on the floor and watching the kitten, Crystal rubs its tummy. She blinks slowly and warm tears drop upon where she’s rubbing. The olive-green eyes have lost their shine.

What have I done?

Crawling on all fours, she apologizes to the cat, chanting sorry sorry sorry. But for the kitten the end has come. She puts her hands around its neck and squeezes one last time, then wails as she lifts the kitten high and lets go. It hits the floor with the sound of a button that’s come loose from a jacket.

Looking into the kitten’s dull eyes, she pleads: ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t good to you – now I know – how much I loved you – but you don’t know that since you’re dead.’

The kitten keeps up a faint growl, its hind legs twitching feebly. Its skinny tail lies limp and its gray fur has lost its luster. A long, feeble moan escapes its mouth, followed by an ooze of white, foul-smelling mucus. Crystal pounds the floor and sobs. Then, with another round of sorry sorry sorry she chokes the cat again until the foul ooze gets on her hands. She rushes to the bathroom and gives her hands a thorough scrubbing with strawberry-scented soap.

Kneeling again before the kitten, she watches it lift its head ever so slightly to look at her. She observes the cat. Its olive-green eyes, so mysterious and beautiful, are vacant now. She dabs at her eyes then uses her cell phone to photograph the kitten and record a video to capture its faint growl. She plays the video again and again and again.

In the meantime the kitten is inching toward death. Why does it have to take so long! She feels frustration, bore­dom and regret all at the same time. She has to get some sleep before cram school. As she smokes a cigarette an idea comes to mind. It’s the best way but the most cowardly way. After crushing out her cigarette and spraying air freshener all around, she looks in the shoe cabinet, finds two sturdy plastic bags, and secures the kitten inside them. There’s no resistance from the limp kitten. She can still hear its feeble moan and its squirming paws rustling the bags.

‘Bye – safe journey – sorry.’ With these parting words she opens the window and tosses the bagged kitten out. To avoid hearing the impact she quickly slides the window shut and covers her ears, then curls up on her bed. She remains motionless until she finally falls asleep.

In her dream she awakens to find a tiny spider at the foot of her bed. Terrified, she jumps out of bed. The bug doesn’t budge from the far end of the quilt. She inches toward it and taps her quilt, and the spider eases beneath it. She lifts the quilt and finds a dark hole inside of which a spider the size of her palm is weaving its web. She screams. Eight legs pump­ing, the spider scuttles down the hole. Small spiders appear, glinting in the dark like shiny black seeds, then gather in a line and crawl into the hole. Crystal puts the quilt back down. Then, clutching her desk, she throws up.

From her mouth comes a white, gummy, foul-smelling ooze. Head lowered, mouth wide open, pawing at the air, she blurts out something incomprehensible. She hears the kitten moaning faintly beneath the quilt. She begins to cry but what comes from her eyes is the same gummy white ooze. It covers her face and it stinks to high heaven. The moaning from beneath the quilt sharpens into a cry. A long thin leg covered with steel-like bristles pokes out. Closing her eyes, she puts her head on her desk, but still sees everything. The desk begins to tilt and slowly falls apart. She opens her mouth to cry out, but the white ooze clogs her throat, choking back all sound. The desk collapses, washing her down like a mudslide.

She stands before the mirror looking at herself. With the crumbled desk layered about her she looks like a chocolate cake. She wipes off the part of the desk that’s encrusted on her thigh. White ooze trickles down her chin. The spider’s huge leg glitters darkly beyond the mirror, its dark thin shadow extending to her foot. She gathers the fragments of the desk into a ball and rolls it under the bed. She hears it bump gently against a soft surface. The kitten yowls.

‘I’m so sorry!’ says Crystal, still oozing at the mouth. She hugs the kitten and sobs. ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I regret that I killed you, really.’

The kitten claws her cheek and out comes the white ooze, wetting her neck and the kitten’s face. The kitten tries to wriggle free. The spider’s dark leg still glints on the bed. Everything’s hazy. The space of real life is receding from her. She finds herself on a smooth wood floor that’s shrinking little by little, shrinking at a consistent rate, but never reaching the vanishing point. Frightened, she clutches the kitten more tightly.

‘Sorry. Sorry.’

The floor is turning squishy like Jell-O. Crystal screams and the kitten falls from her grasp. It hits the floor and shatters.

‘Shit!’ Head arched, she yells skyward. A huge spider leg dangles, swaying, from the ceiling. The ceiling is swelling, it won’t stop. She gathers the fragments of the shattered kitten.

‘Damn!’

Blood gathers from where one of the fragments has sliced her palm. To her relief it’s blood and not the white ooze. It’s a deep gash and it hurts. The floor pitches gently. She cuts the floor open with the side of her hand and sticks her arm deep down inside. Something pulls on her hand, something big and black and flickering.

Awakening, Crystal gropes on the nightstand and finds her hand mirror. Good – none of that yucky white stuff on her face and neck. And no trace of a cut on her palm. She hops out of bed and lifts the quilt. Nothing. She heaves a sigh of relief. She passes her hands down her face, then goes to the bathroom and wets her face and hair with cold water. The whirring of the fan is so irritating. The bathroom window makes a loud rattle. She looks around with saucer eyes, then scurries back to her bedroom and examines the ceiling and desk, then checks under the bed. She gets back in bed and pulls the quilt to her chin. And then she hears the front door opening and her parents laughing. Silencing her breath, she strains to listen.

A bottle is plunked down on the dining room table.

Glasses are clinked together.

Her door is gingerly opened, then shut. Eyes closed tight, lying rigid, she silently recites a physics equation.

She hears her mother go into the master bedroom and shut the door.

She lifts the quilt and eases herself out of bed.

She hears the click of her father’s lighter.

She’s seized with a sudden thought: the planet won’t die till she’s 120 at the earliest. Nothing in the meantime, only the flow of time. Get it?

She hears clanking – something metallic. The window rattles. The ticking of the clock is so annoying – she removes the battery and puts it in a desk drawer, then gets back into bed. She hears her father hack and spit – he’s just crushed out his cigarette. She hears a drawer being opened. Pop – a bottle being uncorked. Glug-glug – wine being poured. The footsteps of her mother returning from the bedroom. Her parents’ soft laughter.

She hears the door to their bedroom close. And the creak of their mattress springs. The click of the light switch in the hallway. Her father’s footsteps in the hallway. The windows rattling.

‘It’s really blowing.’

‘What was that, honey?’

‘The wind.’

She hears the clanking – yes, definitely metal. With every breath she takes she feels her hair rustle. She still hears the clock ticking. As her chest rises and falls, her clothes whisper against each other. She curls her legs beneath her and hears the crumpling of the quilt. Her ears are aching – too many sounds bang on her eardrums and they’re too loud, all of them. She hears the TV – the roar of a soccer stadium and the feverish voice of the announcer. She eases out of bed, opens the door to her closet, crawls inside, and shuts it. She no longer hears anything.

The planet’s not going to die, and neither are people. No way will there be a nuclear war. Sure there are wars going on now, but the planet’s not going to die because of them. And if the planet’s not going to die, who knows, I might get lung cancer at twenty-three.

Or get killed in a car crash. I’ll grow old and ugly and make stupid mistakes. Everyone’s going to laugh at me. I won’t make it past forty-four.

She buries her face in her thick winter coat and curls up. Tears stream down her face. She notices a pungent lavender scent. Could this have been the state of mind that drove Chiye over the edge? She feels smothered. She wipes her tears then leans back against the wall. It pushes back gently and begins to vibrate almost imperceptibly. She reaches out, gropes at it – Jell-O.

What the . . . Is this another dream?

With her palm she tests the back of the closet. It’s Jell-O all right, a soft, bouncy wall of Jell-O. She slices it with the side of her hand and it opens easily. Carefully she squeezes into the opening. It’s pitch black and she can’t see a thing but can tell from the smell that it’s dark red Jell-O made from mixed berries. It’s vast inside, feels like it could go on forever – no floor, no walls, just space. Hunks of Jell-O keep falling into her mouth. She’s slowly floating in every direction – forward, up, down – sliding toward the middle of the huge Jell-O mass. Deeper and deeper she goes.

Nothing happens as she continues to slide.

And then, as she’s chewing a hunk of the Jell-O, it hits her! ‘That’s why you went into your closet, Mina! I get it – it’s a fantasyland in here, so soft and warm.’

She hungrily munches the Jell-O.

‘But it doesn’t solve anything. A closet is only a closet, no matter how much you love it. You can be as happy as you want in here, but outside? Nothing. You need to know, Mina. You don’t want to turn into Jell-O.’

‘You might think it’s big enough in the closet, but you have to consider what’s outside.’

‘It’s so nice and sweet in here. But it’s still only a closet. So . . . tomorrow I’m going to school even though I hate it. I don’t want to leave this closet but I will. I swear.’

‘Ha!’ She’s overjoyed to have discovered Mina’s secret. Armed with this knowledge, chewing on Jell-O, she silently gloats.

That’s when it hits her that she no longer loves Mina. The reason love is secret is being secret maintains it. And now that she has Mina’s secret in hand she can no longer love her. And that’s that – she decides to forget about Mina. Now she can regard her with unadorned contempt. Having erased Mina, she continues to chew Jell-O. As always, what’s unnecessary is wiped clean from her memory. Time is still frozen at 9.20 p.m., and in the spacious closet no more words are spoken.

 

Image © ankakay

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