The new workshop at the factory was built on what was once the paddock at the old ranch. At the end of the paddock, two animal sheds stood in a boomerang shape. Instead of being torn down, these plastered, concrete structures were now used to store saw blades, oil drums for machinery, and stacks of imported wood. One could easily guess the number of blocks that went into each shed. Some rattled loose, as if they hadn’t been laid cleanly. The ventilation windows near the roof were exactly the size of those blocks. Throughout the village were these types of bare-bones sheds, assembled like LEGO houses.
A tour bus and several cars with Seoul license plates traveled along the unpaved road to the factory. Red dust, as if bricks had been ground to powder, wafted up from the lane. Rolling hills spread beyond the pasture. Here and there, short trees grew sparsely. Someone sitting at the front of the bus boasted it was an ideal location for a ranch, adding that if a cow happened to escape, you’d be able to find it easily enough.
The red dust clung to the black dress shoes of the Seoul staff, even to the bottom of their carefully pressed trousers. The director and factory manager stood side by side at the factory entrance to hang up the sign. Since the young CEO from the main office was on an overseas business trip, he couldn’t attend the sign hanging ceremony. The wooden placard on which the factory name was inscribed in large cursive letters still reeked of varnish. The main office and factory staff stood in a circle and clapped. The director was so short his head barely came up to the shoulders of the tall, skinny factory manager. The difference in the length of their arms was the problem. It wasn’t easy to put the two men at both ends of the sign in one camera frame. If the focus was on the director, everything above the factory manager’s forehead was cut off, as well as the first letter of the sign. But if the focus was on the manager, the director’s stomach would be cut off. In the end, symmetry was barely achieved with the director holding the bottom of the sign and the factory manager holding the top.
The manager didn’t shake hands with the people from the main office, though he was meeting them for the first time. He walked hurriedly, hands jammed inside his pants pockets and his torso leading the way before his feet. His unusual gait made him stick out from the rest of the people. A saw blade had taken off two segments of his left middle finger, as well as his right ring finger and pinky, when he’d learned his trade at the sawmill. The director was a vigorous man in his early forties. He always had a hard-sided leather briefcase in his hand. The weight of it was something. Several employees complained of having had their knees or thighs stabbed by a corner of his briefcase while passing him in the hallway. All year round, he carried his suit jacket squeezed under his armpit. He gave off the tired air of a traveler who had just stepped off a plane. Even when going between the CEO’s office and his own, or coming back from the bathroom, he took short, hurried strides, as if late for a meeting.
There were too many people at the ceremony to fit all of them in one picture. About a third of the seventy or so staff ended up with the backs of their heads taken, and out of those whose faces were captured, five or six had their eyes closed. A few had taken their sweet time, not realizing the ceremony was beginning, and were caught running belatedly toward the entrance. The hands of those applauding enthusiastically were blurred, as if they’d been rubbed out with an eraser, or were clasped together, as if in prayer. Caught also on the bottom right corner of the photo was a dark smudge. A black dog had come out of nowhere. There were many stray dogs in that area. But it was the woman and not so much the dog that ruined the photo.
The woman stood three people over from the director, alongside the other female staff from the main office. As though conscious of the camera, her gaze wasn’t directed at the director or factory manager hanging up the sign, but at some point beyond the frame of the picture. And those eyes glowed red. Much later, in a book titled The Basics of Photography, she learned what causes the red-eye effect. In short, her eyes had been looking directly at the camera when the flash went off. And while she’d been gazing at Y, Y had been gazing back at her through the viewfinder. Y wasn’t in the picture. He’d been holding the camera, pressing the shutter button some five meters away.
It had been Hanil Trading’s most prosperous year. Every six months, the company posted a recruitment advertisement in a trade newsletter. On the day of the sign hanging ceremony, all the employees from both the main office and the factory had attended, except for the CEO who was away on a business trip. During this period, Hanil Trading had the most employees in its history since its founding. Among the staff lined up on the factory manager’s side stood a man with a white Yankees cap set crookedly on his head, his long legs spread like the pegs of a clothespin. A was a year younger than the woman. He didn’t look at all interested in the ceremony. Not only was his face hidden in the shadow of his cap brim, but the camera had captured only one side of his face. He was the last young man left in that village. Everyone who worked at the factory was from there, except the manager. There were two middle-aged women responsible for making lunch for all the factory workers, cleaning the factory, and other odd jobs, four men with Class 1 commercial driver’s licenses, and nine men who operated the machinery at the workshop. Over fifty workers from the main office trailed the factory manager like a herd of cows, ambling around the two sheds, workshop, and office. At sunset, the rancher would have opened the paddock gate and led the cows scattered around the ranch back to the sheds. The sheds had probably been arranged in a boomerang shape to prevent the cows from going astray.
The workshop was as spacious as a hangar. To allow large trucks to come inside, a wide opening was created in one wall and double doors installed. The director and a few female staff members cheered in front of oversized machines equipped with circular saws about a meter in diameter. A plank of wood was placed on a machine workbench for a demonstration. Judging from the deep reddish brown of the heartwood, it looked like a type of cherry wood. When the manager switched on the machine, the conveyor belt started moving and the stainless-steel saw began to rotate. They had to shout above the noise. The wood moved closer to the blade. The noise grew louder. The cherry wood slipped back a little, resisting the saw, but the spinning blade only whirled faster, its edge drawing dozens of circles in a blur. The woman felt dizzy.
“Cherry wood is a dense hardwood, so it isn’t easy to cut. And this is a cross grain piece, which makes it hard to plane. Even veterans get nervous handling this.” The manager barked in a near shout, as if angry. “But there’s no better wood than this!”
The blade dug into the wood. Dark sawdust flew out from both sides of the blade. Her nostrils tingled. But the director was more interested in business than in the type of wood or its characteristics.
“I hope you’re not planning to throw all this sawdust out. You can still use it, can’t you? Maybe mix it with a kind of glue and make things like particle boards?”
The manager laughed silently, showing his yellow teeth. “Sure, it’s got lots of uses. But I don’t recommend making particle boards out of it since the boards are flimsy and bend too easily. Pretty low quality, I have to say. But in the winter, burning sawdust for heating is the best.”
Meanwhile, the wood was cut in two and came to a stop at the end of the workbench. However, her ears continued to ring, even after the machine stopped and the workshop grew quiet.
The two concrete columns seemed to have been hastily erected to meet the date of the ceremony, for there wasn’t even a gate, let alone a chain link fence. Elderly folk from the village, as well as the stray dogs, flocked into the yard. Most of the old people were related to the factory workers. Straw mats were laid down between the sheds and workshop, and tables of all shapes and sizes were set up. The middle-aged local women who’d been mobilized for the ceremony rushed about, carrying foil-lined plates of boiled pork slices and layered rice cakes with red beans, the slapping of their plastic sandals especially loud. The elderly folks became tipsy off just a few shots of liquor. A few rose to their feet and started swaying back and forth, though there was no music. Whenever they lifted their legs, their white socks flashed, stained with reddish dirt. The faces of the elderly who were seated were also ruddy with drink. An old man poured liquor for another old man, who was actually his nephew, and this nephew, observing all formalities, politely received the drink with two hands and then turned away to swallow it. Dogs circled the tables, eyeing the people. The elderly showed their few remaining yellow teeth or danced with their eyes closed, as if listening to distant strains of music, occasionally flying into a rage at the dogs who tried to sneak some food. They’d stamp their feet or hurl a rubber shoe at them. The dogs arched their backs like bows, their tails raised and rigid like poker sticks. If a woman serving food tossed them a slice of pork, they’d all rush to pounce at the dirt-covered scrap of meat. They shoved their snouts into the dirt, planting their paws into the ground so that they wouldn’t get pushed back. A cloud of red dust rose. But it was the black dog who managed to get the scrap of meat each time. It had long legs and a pointy snout. An old man pointed at the black dog. “Now that’s a clever dog. He came from our dog and that one over there.”
The old man next to him tossed back his shot and shook his head. “How can your dog be the daddy? Your dog isn’t even the right breed.”
“Look at those eyes,” the first man said, not wanting to lose. “They’re definitely from our dog. I saw it with my own eyes, saw your dog jump over my fence to get to my dog.”
“You can’t even tell the difference between a piss pot and somebody’s head without your glasses.”
“Who cares who the daddy is?” a third man said, interrupting. “They’re just dogs for crying out loud. You just worry about yourselves.”
An old man slapped his knee. A man seated near him stuck his foot out and poked him in the side. Then another old man sitting amongst them raised his cloudy eyes and glanced about, and began to snicker. Low laughter escaped from between his crooked teeth.
The boiled pork smelled bad. Men who could stomach it topped it with garlic, wrapped the whole thing in lettuce, and then crammed it into their mouths. Even before they swallowed, they opened their mouths that were still full of food and knocked back some soju. With a low Formica table between them, the people from the main office and the factory workers were standoffish with one another, like groups holding a labor-management negotiation. Assistant manager Lee from the main office got to his feet, rattling an empty soju bottle into which he’d stuck the end of a metal spoon. He stabbed the end of his necktie into his shirt front pocket. A flush had spread down to his neck from the drinks the factory workers had poured him. A factory worker who’d exchanged a few words with him shouted, “Hey there, looking sharp!” Laughter burst from the people sitting down. Caught off guard by the sudden noise, a dingy dog that had been lingering by the tables started barking at no one in particular.
Of the seventy plus people in the group photo, Mr. Lee, the assistant manager, stood out. He wore a navy-blue double-breasted suit, with gray pinstripes and gold buttons embossed with an anchor. If he had a pipe in his mouth, he would have looked like a sailor. Comments about Mr. Lee’s suit erupted all over the yard. Someone gave a long whistle. He waited for the laughter to subside and then rattled the soju bottle again. The factory manager and director had been whispering with each other for some time, their heads close together. Urged by Mr. Lee, Miss Kim from the trade department stood up. She was nicknamed Kitty because of her big eyes and unusually small mouth. “Sing! Sing!” the men hollered, loosened by drink. Flushing a deep red, Miss Kim introduced herself briefly and sat down. The men cheered.
She kept tasting dirt in her food. A yellow dog was watching her, crouched down on the ground across from her. The dog had baggy skin, as if she’d recently given birth to a litter, and the corners of her eyes were crusted with sleep. The woman tossed her a piece of meat, but the black dog appeared out of nowhere and intercepted it. Instead of lunging for the food, Goldie cowered and shrank back. Her ten sagging teats swung in different directions and came to a stop. Holding out another piece of meat, she called Goldie over, but only after quite some time did she come, swinging her teats. Instead of snatching up the food right away, she licked the woman’s hand for a long time before she took it. Her teeth seemed weak, too. Bits of meat fell out from between her teeth. When she finished, Goldie went and sat behind a young man, her teats swinging from side to side. He was wearing a Yankees cap pulled low over his face, drinking quietly. It was A. Several older men sitting across the table from him scolded A for not removing his cap before his elders. A woman who’d been bringing over some meat and soju glanced at the men. “Everyone’s got their reasons, all right?” One of the men glared at her with bloodshot eyes. Since A’s expression was hidden by his hat, she couldn’t see his reaction.
The water tap was behind the sheds. Goldie followed the woman, her flesh swinging. As she moved forward, the baggy flesh on both sides struck each other, causing ripples to break out on her skin. She looked uncomfortable, as if she were wearing a coat several sizes too big for her. If the woman were to pull down a zipper somewhere on that hide, a small puppy just might spring out. It seemed the tap was supplying water to the sheds. A long rubber hose, filled with sand, was connected to the tap. Inside the hose was a tiny maple leaf. She twisted open the tap and waited at the end of the hose for the water to come out. The water was so cold her hands went nearly numb. Piles of junk lay behind the sheds. Bricks and Styrofoam pieces mixed with silt. There were also pots, rubber tubs, and a deflated child inner tube. She turned around, but Goldie was gone. She clicked her tongue, but she didn’t appear.
It was dark inside the shed, even in the middle of the day. A pile of North American walnut logs was stacked on one side. When they first started at the company the previous year, Y and the woman had spent all winter at the Incheon Port. Forklifts roamed constantly between the huge containers. It was so cold that her skin bloomed red under her pants. Lumber arrived from North America once a week. Logs as long as twenty meters and as wide as an entire arm span were heaped like a mountain on the loading dock. From the top of the logs, she could see the Incheon pier. Ships carrying containers were anchored. The pier was chaotic with constantly moving cranes, trailers, and longshoremen. She and Y’s job was to check the number and type of logs against what was written in the invoice. Y hopped from log to log. The woman followed. For a moment, when her body was airborne, the pier seemed to loom closer. The soles of her shoes wore down quickly. That winter, she went through three pairs of shoes. Though she wore gloves and boots, her hands went numb and she couldn’t feel her feet either. If she couldn’t bear the cold any longer during log inspection, they’d leave the docks. Instead of walking all the way to the overpass to get to the food stall across the street, they’d jaywalk. Y held her hand. His hand was lukewarm. When she drank a hot cup of oden soup, her skin began to itch as it thawed. She wanted to see Y from that time, but Y wasn’t in any of the pictures.
The shed smelled of animal excrement and tree sap. Under the dark ceiling, sockets without lightbulbs dangled from cords both long and short. You could see the village across the street through the brick-sized ventilation windows. When night fell, the cows locked up inside the sheds would have watched the blinking lights of passing cars through the windows. There were many animal sheds at the base of the mountains. She could easily tell they were no longer in use. A tongue licked the back of her hand. It was Goldie. Further inside the shed on the pile of walnut logs sat A. How long had he been inside? He was smoking. “Don’t get the wrong idea. I wasn’t following you. You see those old farts out there? I can’t even have a smoke around them. They’d all get up in my face if I did.”
He flicked the cigarette butt from between his fingers. Drawing an arc in the air, it flew out the window. “There was an outbreak here. White spots showed up on the cows’ brains, like the holes of a sponge. All the dairy cows died. We dug pits to bury them and used excavators to transport the bodies. For two weeks, the excavators went around here. The spots where they’re buried are spongy. We filled the pits and tamped the dirt down, but as the cows rot, the pits keep sinking.” A got up from the logs. He was much taller than she’d thought. Goldie went to him, her flesh swinging. A heaved a deep sigh. She caught a whiff of liquor on his breath. “I’ll be on a boat by next February. A tuna reefer. Once you set out to sea, it might be two years before you come ashore.” He walked toward the shed entrance with Goldie. Before he stepped out, he turned and looked at the woman. He heaved another sigh, as though drunk. And then without any explanation, he said he was the type to see a thing through if he put his mind to it.
The elderly men caused a commotion trying to find their shoes. There were over twenty pairs of white rubber shoes in the yard, turned over and lying askew. Even when the men flopped down on their behinds, drunk, they snickered like children frolicking in the water. Since every one of them was dressed in a white hanbok, it was difficult to tell them apart. They looked different, and then all at once like the same person. “Aigo, Father!” Daughters-in-law, who were elderly themselves, came running, wiping their wet hands on their baggy trousers. Red dust rose from where they’d dragged their sandals. The factory manager accepted every drink that his staff poured him. Drunk, he kept urging more liquor on the director who sat across from him. Liquor sloshed out from the shot glass he held with his four fingers. The finger that had its tip severed was blunt, with new skin having grown on top of it. The director stubbornly turned down every drink. He blamed it on the meeting he had to attend the next day. Though he hadn’t had a single drink, he looked tired, as though he’d just gotten off a long-haul flight. A fine layer of reddish dust covered his hair that was slicked back with pomade. Every time, the manager slurred, “Ah jeez, not even a single drink?”
The director’s car was the first to leave the factory. Those returning to Seoul by bus scrambled to the entrance where the tour bus was parked. The yard offered a clear view of the people climbing aboard. Drunk men staggered to the side of the road and urinated for a long time. Their suit trousers were wrinkled and the shirt collars grubby. Darkness was moving in from the direction of the bus. The stray dogs from the village roamed the yard and thrust their noses into the ground, sniffing for meat. The rest of the city people split off into different cars. The woman and Y were supposed to catch a ride with Mr. Lee, the assistant manager, but Y was still snapping photos of the factory. Loosened up with drink, the factory manager had taken his hands out of his pockets and now went so far as to wave at the camera. In less than a year, he would lose two more fingers out of the remaining four on his left hand. The circular saw was cutting through cherry wood when it hit grain running in a different direction and jerked up. In the blink of an eye, two of his fingers flew off, spraying like sawdust. The accident threw the main office into chaos. As soon as he heard about the accident, the CEO called the factory manager, a man twenty years his senior, a “fucking idiot.” He then made countless calls to check if the manager had broken any laws by neglecting to use a safety device. He also asked Mr. Lee to secretly investigate whether he’d been drinking on the job.
The woman called out to Y, who was taking his time. As she was getting in Mr. Lee’s car, she looked toward the sheds and workshop, but A was nowhere in sight. The village women were clearing away the mats from one side of the yard. The stray dogs swarmed toward morsels of food that had dropped on the ground. The factory workers stationed on one side of the yard would probably keep drinking well into the night. The tall young man in the Yankees cap wasn’t by the entrance either. The bus pulled farther away from the factory. The woman continued to scan the surrounding area for A, like a farmer looking for a cow that had escaped from his paddock. Wondering if he was hiding, she scrutinized the trees and then laughed at herself. Being so tall, A wouldn’t be able to hide behind such small trees. She’d wanted to wish him good luck at sea. She’d even clicked her tongue for Goldie, but there was no sign of the dog either.
It quickly grew dark. Animal sheds flickered in the darkness. There wasn’t a single streetlight along the road. They had to go slowly, since the headlights lit only a short distance ahead. Mr. Lee kept sticking out his tongue to lick his dry lips, as if he were thirsty. The road had many sharp curves, and Mr. Lee hit the brakes at every bend. Y seemed tired. Sitting in the backseat, he slept with his head bowed. Though they were unable to catch up to the tour bus that had left much earlier, they should have been able to see at least the lights of the other cars. At first, they thought nothing of it, assuming they couldn’t see the cars ahead because of the bends in the road. But after driving for twenty minutes, they realized they must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. The road was completely empty. They were the only ones on the road. It was pitch black everywhere, with no houses in sight. They had no choice but to keep going until they came to a sign. Mr. Lee started driving a little faster. Just as they were going around a bend, a white object darted out from the opposite side of the road. Mr. Lee slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. The object hit the bumper and flew into the dark rush field. The car stopped after it had hurtled forward for another five meters. Mr. Lee peered at the road behind them through his rearview mirror. He could hardly see anything in the glow of the taillight. Y, awakened by the impact, glanced about with puffy eyes.
Mr. Lee made a face. “Shit.” He rolled down his window and spat outside.
He left the engine running and climbed out of the car. Through the rearview mirror, she saw him move farther away from the car. He was soon swallowed up by darkness.
Y said it was most likely nothing and yawned. “Probably a badger or a squirrel.”
She’d caught only a flash, but it had seemed much bigger than that. The object in the headlights had been white.
About ten minutes later, Mr. Lee came back to the car. Instead of getting in the driver’s seat again, he stood beside the car and smoked. When he climbed inside, he reeked of liquor and cigarettes. “It was a dog,” he said.
The village had an unusual number of stray dogs, but the woman’s gut feeling was that it hadn’t been a dog. Back at the factory, the elderly people had been wearing white. They flashed across her mind, and then vanished. Mr. Lee scrubbed his face with both hands. “No, actually, it’s too dark to see anything.”
The bottom of the hill about three meters below was as black as a well. It was impossible to search every spot with a flashlight.
“Mr. Lee, are you sure it went in that direction?” Y called out from the dark. “I don’t think it was over there.”
The dark was disorienting. They couldn’t tell where they’d hit the object. After crashing into the bumper, it had hurtled off the road. It wouldn’t be easy to find where it had landed. Mr. Lee raised the flashlight above his head and raked the light over the field. The light punched holes in the darkness that was like a vast carpet. Dense clumps of rush grass. Dry bushes. Animal sheds no longer in use. The flashlight moved over the field again. Right then in the light, the woman saw the grass shake. “Over there! It’s alive!”
She started moving before she finished speaking. The slope wasn’t steep, but the soil was so dry she slipped and tumbled down. “Don’t move the light!” she shouted without looking back. “Yes, there! Keep shining it there!”
Because it was the dry season, the rushes were dry. They wrapped around her legs. She heard Y come up behind her. The ground was firm underfoot, but it would give way suddenly into spongy spots. She recalled what A had said. That there were many holes throughout the village where the dead cows had been buried. As the bodies decomposed, the holes that had been covered with dirt turned soft. Maybe it had been a joke to scare a city girl. She walked toward the spot the flashlight revealed, a flattened area. The broken rushes shook. It was a dog. Thinking it was Goldie, she brought her face close, but it wasn’t her. It was panting. The tongue that lolled out of its open mouth looked unnaturally long.
“So it actually was a dog?” Y said, catching his breath. He then yelled in Mr. Lee’s direction. “It was a dog! A dog!”
It was still warm. When she touched it, its breathing grew quieter. She buried her fingers in its ruff and stroked its fur. It must have been hit in the stomach. Every time her hand went near the stomach, the dog silently bared its teeth. The rushes were sticky. She felt something mushy next to her. The entrails that had spilled from its stomach were splayed on the trampled rush.
“Let’s go.” Y said, turning around.
That second, the dog’s eyes that had rolled back into its head flashed toward Y. The dog shot up and clamped down on the woman’s wrist with every last bit of strength. Its fangs pierced the woman’s flesh. Her arm turned numb. When she raised her arm, the dog’s head came up as well. Her arm felt so heavy she felt as if it were going to snap off. Once the dog had latched onto her wrist, it refused to let go. She saw its eyes then. Rolled back to show mostly whites, its eyes were welled up with tears. Its saliva seeped into her veins.
She remembered those eyes about ten years later, when she herself bit down on someone’s arm. The man clobbered her repeatedly in the face with her purse. The buckle on the purse whacked her in the eye. She tried to get a good look at his face, but she couldn’t, because one of her eyes had swollen shut. Even as she was dragged along the side street, she bit down harder and refused to let go.
The dog’s fangs seemed to have pierced through her muscle to the bone. She couldn’t help thinking that if she continued to stay this way, her hand may have to be amputated. The factory manager’s blunt fingers crossed her mind. She shook her arm frantically, but the fangs sank deeper into her flesh. Y, who had been on his way back, heard her scream and came running. Though it was dark, she saw Y leap through the rushes. The dog’s saliva seeped into her bloodstream, and she had the thought that she’d perhaps become half dog. Like a dog, she stared into the darkness. It seemed she could hear, even see, the rustling of a small insect inside the rushes. Y kicked the dog. Her arm was also kicked in the process. The dog would not unlatch from her. Y felt around the rushes. There was a large rock inside his hand.
The woman was dragged deeper into the side street by a man whose face she couldn’t see. She lost a heel along the way. Her socks ripped and her skin scraped along the cracked sidewalk and started to bleed. The narrow street that led to her house was always deserted. Even though low-rises with basements lined the street and every detached home was filled with people, she was always the only one in the street. The security light had gone out a long time ago, but no one had replaced the bulb.
When she’d sensed someone behind her, it was already too late. The man had been hiding behind the stairs of a low-rise and had come up silently behind her. A strong hand clamped over her nose and mouth. His other hand grabbed at her purse that was slung over her shoulder. She couldn’t breathe. She tried to twist away, but his hand only tightened over her nose and mouth. His palm reeked and was damp with sweat. She had no choice but to bite his hand so that she could breathe. Ahh! He clutched his hand and jumped back. Right then, she could have fled in the opposite direction. But she dashed toward him and bit his arm. Her teeth didn’t sink easily into his muscular arm. She bit down with all her strength. Her teeth pierced his flesh. His muscles seemed to be crumbling between her teeth. He jumped up and down in pain. His blood flowed between her teeth and down her throat. It tasted fishy. The man bashed her face with her purse. The buckle on the purse hit her in the eye. Still she didn’t let go of his arm. His fist pummeled her face. Her nose collapsed and something hot gushed down her face. The crunch of several top teeth breaking off reverberated in her head. Strangely enough, she remembered the eyes of the dog that had bitten her wrist and would not let go. She felt no pain. He dragged her along the street while smashing her head against the stone wall of a low-rise. Once, twice, everything turned white. She wanted to open her mouth, but she couldn’t. She believed her dog nature had finally shown itself for the first time.
“Once a dog bites, it rarely lets go,” said H, whom she had run into ten years later. He rolled up his pant leg. She saw the pink keloid scar that was shinier than the rest of his skin. It was a dog bite wound.
The man whose face she hadn’t been able to see threw the woman down at the end of the street and hurled the purse at her face. “You fucking bitch!” As if still angry, he stomped on her stomach and thighs with his boots. He then spat on her. H scratched at the keloid scar. “If I got this hurt, can you imagine what happened to the dog?”
“Why didn’t you just let him take your purse?”
Everyone who came to the hospital said the same thing. They shook their heads, as they gazed down at the woman lying in bed with a mashed eye, fractured nose, three broken teeth, and bruises all over her body. Some asked if there had been valuables in her purse. However, she’d had only a single ten-thousand-won bill inside her purse that day. No one could understand. Each time a visitor offered a comment, her mother, who had been caring for her, added, “Stupid, stupid girl,” and let out a big sigh. The woman looked down at her feet which were sticking out from under the sheet. Her skinned heels were oozing blood and a toenail had fallen off.
Y frowned as soon as he came to the hospital. Y was wearing snug leather pants that looked uncomfortable and boots that came up to right below his knees. He glanced at her face a few times and sat on the end of her bed. “You look like a different person.”
She gave him a small smile. “Don’t worry. The swelling and bruising will go away. The doctor straightened my nose and as for my broken teeth, I can get implants.”
“See?” Y said, slowly shaking his head from side to side. “You still don’t understand.”
Until then, the woman had no idea that Y had joined a motorcycle club. She came home a day earlier than her discharge date. That night, Y didn’t come home. Y, who returned late the next morning, didn’t wash up or eat, and went straight to bed. As though he had roamed about all night, she smelled on him the winter wind she’d smelled at the Incheon Port. “You’ve changed too much. You’re not the same shy girl who couldn’t even look at a boy.”
Her bruises disappeared and she got dental implants, but Y’s complaints continued. When she asked him why he was always out, he said it was because he was bored. Soon, Y no longer came home in the morning.
The office of High Speed, the motorcycle club, was located at an auto body shop right outside Seoul. A sign that said, “We remove dents!” stood in front of the shop, the ground stained with grease and motor oil. The garage owner was around Y’s age. He said that in the daytime he restored vehicles that had been in collisions with the help of his two employees and then on holidays or late at night, he took out his motorcycle. Y wasn’t there. Even the club members couldn’t get a hold of him. Once members were notified of the date, time, and place by email, those who were able to make it gathered and rode their motorcycles together. The owner added that they liked to go on the newly built road in front of Munhak Stadium these days. In one corner of the body shop was a bulletin board for High Speed members. “I need to talk to you, so please come home.” She put up her note where it would be most noticeable.
Y didn’t come home. The woman’s uterus, which had been as small as an apple, became the size of a melon. Blue veins spiderwebbed over her breasts. When she rose to her feet or sat down, her groin strained. As he was doing the ultrasound exam, the obstetrician let slip, “What a handsome fella!” It was a boy. The baby inside her belly grew hair, as well as fingernails and toenails. They said that around this time, fingerprints formed on the fingers. As soon as a stethoscope was placed on her belly, a fetal heartbeat echoed in the examination room.
The body shop owner recognized her. He said he’d seen Y once on the new road near the airport about two weeks before. On the bulletin board was a message from Y. “Please let me go. Stop hanging onto me for Christ’s sake. I’m so sick of it.” It was his last message to her. While staring at the note, she thought about what Y had said about being bored. According to the body shop owner, Y had gotten a new bike recently. She headed for the road the owner had jotted down for her. The new road in front of Munhak Stadium was connected to the Yeongdong Expressway. The taxi driver stopped several times and asked where exactly in front of the stadium she’d meant. She also went looking for Y around the Jayu Motorway, but there weren’t any spots for the taxi to stop. Motorcycles sped along the night road. There were many that crossed the median line. The cab chased after them, but they were too fast. It wasn’t easy to find Y’s motorcycles from the others. Many members of the club stored their bikes at the body shop. The owner had pointed at one in the corner. “That there is Y’s new girlfriend.”
Y’s girlfriend was a 1,450cc model, made of light titanium. If Y had gone around with a woman in the backseat, perhaps one with long hair, she would have been able to catch Y. She stuck a new message on the bulletin. “I’m so bored. Come back.” More than a week passed, but Y didn’t call.
The clinic that had been recommended to her on the phone was small and shabby. There didn’t seem to be any women of childbearing age in the town where it was located. The clinic’s only patients were pregnant women who’d traveled from far away and a few bargirls. When she’d called, the nurse hadn’t bothered to ask her the basic questions, like how far along she was. But she added the woman would have to pay for the disposal of the specimen in addition to the surgery cost. She didn’t tell her mother. All her mother would say was that she was a stupid girl. The operating room had missing tiles and holes in the floor, like an old bathhouse. Perhaps her feet had swollen, but she felt better once she’d removed her shoes and climbed onto the operating table. There were metal containers containing bandages by the head of the bed. She placed her feet in the stirrups and lay down on the table. She saw black mold growing in a corner of the cement ceiling. Everything felt so surreal, as if it were someone else’s life. The stirrups felt cold. As her belly tightened, something squirmed inside. She decided to think it was a melon that was inside her belly. How could she have carried such a big thing around? The crash of stainless steel came from the consultation room, as if the staff were handling metal tools. She whispered to herself: “It’s okay. You tried your best.”
The factory was quite far from Seoul. The reason she was able to get the job was because all the local young girls had left for the city. The boss added that there was no such thing as a maternity leave because of the worsening recession. Power saws operated non-stop from nine in the morning to nine at night. At first she couldn’t hear the person on the other end of the line because of the saws, but she got used to the noise soon enough. Naturally, her voice grew louder, too. When she would lie in bed at night, she’d hear the saw. Sometimes when she called, her elderly mother would complain and say she was about to go deaf. The factory was always full of itinerant workers. The boss didn’t care about the backgrounds of the workers, but she didn’t like dealing with them. Afraid she’d come across the man she’d bitten, she developed the habit of examining the arms of the new laborers. Even if no one else knew, the one bitten and the one who’d done the biting would no doubt recognize each other.
A trailer loaded with North American oak arrived. The laborers who’d been scattered around the sawmill swarmed toward the trailer. A red pennant flag was attached to the end of the longest log on the flatbed. The center of the oak was light pink or dark brown. Compared to cherry wood, oak was easier to cut and nail down. The driver’s door opened and a giant sack of a man hopped down. His hair was disheveled, as if he’d had the windows rolled down.
“Ah jeez, you were bitten by a dog?”
After observing the scar on her wrist, he suddenly pulled up the hem of his pants and thrust his knee at her.
“Look, a dog bit me, too. When they get a hold of something, they don’t let go,” he said with a wince. “If my scar is this big, imagine what happened to the dog! I made sure it would never chew meat again.”
The logs on the flatbed matched up with the invoice. While she checked the flatbed, the man joked around, shaking his leg.
“Excuse, but do I know you? I feel like we’ve met before.”
She started heading back to the office, but he blocked her way.
“I’m sure I’ve seen you before . . . Are you sure you don’t remember me?”
His face was unfamiliar. He walked back to his trailer, hitting his gloves against his leg. The flatbed tilted up and logs spilled down onto the ground. The noise of the saws coming from the workshop was deafening. The driver came running, his belly bouncing. Very briefly, she recalled Hanil Trading’s sign hanging ceremony. But the man recognized her first.
“Hanil Trading, right?”
She recalled the Yankees baseball cap. “A?”
The man looked disappointed. “You asked me how I’d gotten bitten by a dog. You were so cold you were shivering, so I even lent you my pullover.”
It was H. But his face was unfamiliar.
“It was a green waterproof pullover . . .”
In the group photo, she’s wearing a green pullover. She has red eyes, for she’d been looking directly at the camera. So fixated on her red eyes, she must have forgotten about the borrowed pullover. She’d remembered A as being the only young factory worker there that day. He went on a reefer ship that February, just as he’d told her. About a year later, the company received a letter saying all traces of A had disappeared from an island in the South Pacific archipelago when his boat had been anchored at port.
When the wooden sign was unwrapped from the newspaper, it smelled of fresh varnish. Some parts of the sign were sticky since the varnish hadn’t completely dried. People around the yard started to gather. The director raised the sign with a sly expression. Exactly ten years later, he had a heart attack. He always had the air of a traveler who had just stepped off the plane. The CEO was eventually conned by the assistant manager who’d looked like a sailor. Assistant Manager Lee had conspired with a friend at the American branch to steal some imported lumber. A year after the sign hanging ceremony, Hanil Trading began to fall into decline. The seventy plus employees dispersed and the name of the company disappeared from the trade newsletter. The factory’s sign that had been carved out of walnut wood was probably burned up a long time ago, used as firewood for some house.
While learning photography, she learned that the red-eye effect tends to happen when the pupils are dilated. Why were my pupils dilated? Was it really me that Y had been watching through the viewfinder? Other female employees from the company had been standing next to her. Miss Kim, who resembled a cat, was very popular with the men. The woman’s gaze had been directed at some point beyond the frame. Was I really looking at Y? She couldn’t even remember borrowing H’s pullover twenty years ago.
Y may not be the one she’s watching. Y takes a few steps back with the camera in his hands. He puts the camera up to his eye, hesitates, and backs up some more. Now he’s standing about five meters away from the group. The pasture spreads out behind him. As seventy plus people scuffle about, red dust rises to their knees. Above the pasture is the deep autumn sky. The workshop was built on what was once the paddock. The workshop door opens and a cow makes its way out of the paddock. Soon other cows come out of the paddock. The dairy cows amble toward the sheds. The woman blinks. The cows vanish and only their mooing lingers in the air. There is no pasture or workshop. What she is looking at is herself in twenty years. Her pupils are dilated. That’s when Y presses the shutter.
The assistant manager, who’s dressed in a suit with gold buttons, backs up the car and parks in front of the factory entrance. The woman is looking for A to say goodbye. But she can’t find A or Goldie who had followed him around. Y looks as young as he had at the Incheon pier when he leapt between the logs that had arrived from North America. Several cars carrying the main office staff leave the factory and a cloud of red dust rises around the tires. She and Y cannot fathom how much they will change in twenty years. Her wrist is still smooth, unmarked with the dog’s bite. Nothing has happened yet. At this point, her belief that biting and being bitten is part of life has not yet taken root.
In the pictures that Y has taken, a young H is wearing a green pullover—the same green pullover she’d borrowed and is wearing in the group photo. H’s face is still a stranger’s face. He leans forward, listening to what the factory manager is saying. When Y raises his camera, the factory manager waves his seven fingers. A part of the shed wall is showing. The white brim of a hat pokes out from the shed. Goldie’s tail seems to be showing below. A is hiding, watching the woman leave. She cannot remember H’s face for the life of her. It’s as if a man from the distant future has leapt into the past. She can’t remember the keloid scar H said he’d shown her. She calls out to Y, who is taking his sweet time. Her round forehead is smooth. She was at her most beautiful then.
Translated by Janet Hong
Did you enjoy this article? Please rate your experience
AUTHORS Ha Seong-nan Ha Seong-nan made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “Grass” won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest. Her works include the short story collections Rubin’s Vase, Flowers of Mold, Bluebeard’s First Wife, Wafers, and The Taste of Summer, the novels The Joy of Eating, A, and A Christmas Carol, and essay collections Hope, That Beautiful Strength (co-authored), and Things Still Excite Me.