I Hear Your Voice, page 1
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First Mariner Books edition 2017
Copyright © 2012 by Young-ha Kim
English translation copyright © 2017 by Krys Lee
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.
First published by Munhakdongne Publishing Group, 2012
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Kim, Young-ha, date, author. | Lee, Krys, translator.
Title: I hear your voice / Young-ha Kim ; translated by Krys Lee.
Other titles: Nŏ ŭi moksori ka tŭllyŏ.
English Description: First Mariner Books edition. | Boston : Mariner Books, 2017. | Translated from Korean. | Description based on print version record and CIP data provided by publisher; resource not viewed.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017018690 (print) | LCCN 2016055934 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544324480 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544324473 (paperback)
Subjects: LCSH: Teenage boys—Fiction. | Orphans—Fiction. | Motorcycle gangs—Fiction. | Friendship—Fiction. | Seoul (Korea)—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / General.
Classification: LCC PL992.415.Y5863 (print) | LCC PL992.415.Y5863 N613 2017 (ebook) | DDC 895.7/34—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017018690
Cover design by Mark R. Robinson
Author photograph © Eunsoo Chang
A rope descends from the sky, so the beginning itself is strange. But since it’s only the beginning, the audience withholds judgment. A solemn-faced magician tells his assistant to go up the rope, and at his command, the fearful, hesitant young man begins climbing. He climbs and climbs. He continues upward, his small frame becoming even smaller, until he disappears from view.
The magician shouts into the air, “Now it’s time to come back down!”
There is no response. The magician says, louder, “I told you to come down. Can you hear me?”
When he still gets no response, the audience grows even more curious. Where on earth does this rope lead? And what happened to the kid who went up moments ago? Has he arrived at another world, reached the mysterious place that we call heaven?
The magician angrily grabs the rope and begins pulling himself up until soon enough, he also disappears from view. Those gazing up begin to get neck pains and start to feel the weight of the distant sky. Then, from that high-up place, the young assistant’s arms, legs, head, and torso fall—one at a time, without warning. Straight after, a dull thud, and blood splatters on the marble floor, as if someone just knocked over a wineglass on a white tablecloth. It is red and violent and chaotic. The audience recoils, shocked. Then the magician returns down the rope with his hands coated in blood, his face frozen with anger. He retrieves his assistant’s scattered body parts and puts them into a bucket. After shoving it behind him, he gazes contemptuously at the terrified audience, as if to say: What else do you want?
Just then a sound comes from behind the magician. The straw mat covering the bucket lifts, and—as if emerging from a long nap—the boy rubs his eyes as he arises. The magician is more nonchalant than shocked, as if crossing the boundary between life and death is no big deal. The boy vanishes; the vanished boy dies; the dead boy comes back to life. For the sake of audience members still skeptical of his resurrection, the limber boy does some handsprings until everyone feels reassured that he is definitely alive. Blood is coursing through his arms and legs, and his muscles and joints are functioning properly. Only then does the audience begin clapping wildly.
The first person to document this act of magic was a man named Ibn Battutah. The Marco Polo of the Islamic world, he witnessed this amazing feat in Hangzhou at the end of the Yuan dynasty and wrote about it in his massive travelogue. Although the secrets to countless tricks are now known, the rope act is still a mystery.
A similar tale also exists in China. It is said that a young Chinese emperor witnessed and was deceived by the same act. He was delighted to be so thoroughly tricked and, captivated by the astonishing act of magic, he wanted to see more. So when he turned his attention to the eunuch fanning him, his guards dragged the trembling eunuch forward.
The emperor reassured him, “There’s no need to worry. The magician will soon bring you back to life.”
An aged attendant spoke up and tried to dissuade the emperor, saying what had happened was nothing more than a trick of the eye. But the emperor ignored him, and said, “We will only know for certain if we try.”
Overwhelmed with curiosity, he ordered a massive soldier to approach the eunuch and brandish his sword. A rainbow flashed in the fountain of blood. The magician turned away from the bloody scene and quickly climbed up the rope. After he hid behind the clouds, the rope fell twitching to the ground. It resembled a legendary serpent that had tried to become a dragon and ascend to heaven, but failed.
When I first heard this old tale, I only wondered where the magician had gone. But now I think about the assistant and what happened to him after the magician vanished, leaving him there alone, soaked in the eunuch’s blood.
A fresh-faced teenager strained to push the shopping cart. In some ways it looked as if the cart were dragging her. She had zipped shut the backpack in the cart and had her earphones on. She would have resembled one of the homeless people living in the bus terminal if it weren’t for her age; she lacked the hard-boiled look of someone who had lived a long, difficult life. Though her arms were thin, her upper body was on the plump side, and her carelessly slipped-on sneakers dragged across the ground.
The Express Bus Terminal was a nightmare dreamed up by the massive city of Seoul: a place of hoarse-throated religious fanatics and male prostitutes selling themselves for small change, beggars missing both their legs singing hymns, con men targeting the simple-minded from the provinces, prostitutes without a regular beat, teenage runaways, a cult leader who believed in the coming of aliens, hucksters, and purse snatchers; all of them loathing one another. Behind the fake monk who begged while tapping at a wooden gong, a man traded in his kidney, and another man—whose early ejaculation problems made him unable to satisfy his hot-blooded wife—paid an unlicensed Asian medicine doctor for a white, powdery treatment with dubious powers. Doomsday believers, who trusted that on Judgment Day only the faithful would be saved, positioned themselves throughout the terminal. According to their prophet, October 28, 1992, would be Judgmen
Almost no one paid attention to the girl. A sole elderly drunk man leered at her, but as soon as she pushed her cart into the bathroom, he lost interest.
She went to a handicap stall and pushed the cart inside. After locking the door and grabbing her backpack, she sat on the toilet seat and withdrew a disposable adult diaper from the pack. She struggled out of her sweatsuit and put it in the cart. As soon as she released the mercilessly tightened maternity belt, her swollen belly sagged out. She pulled off the wet diaper she’d worn beneath her underwear and tossed it into the trashcan. A foul stench overwhelmed the stall. She wiped her sweaty forehead and checked her watch. She took some short, deep breaths and an occasional deliberate heave, but her breathing soon turned irregular. It was as if a skilled torturer occasionally left her alone then returned on impulse.
Used diapers piled up in the trashcan as hot fluid continued seeping from her. The floor became wet. The girl went limp as she watched the amniotic fluid soak her knees and ankles, then finally swirl down a drain clogged with hair. She screamed as pain swept over her again.
Before her echoing screams faded, someone opened the bathroom door and entered. The girl held her breath and stopped up her mouth with her fist. The person went into another stall and immediately flushed the toilet. A lighter was flicked, then smoke drifted over into the girl’s stall. Finally the person flushed the toilet again, slammed the stall door shut, and hurried out.
The pauses between contractions became shorter. The girl was seized by fear that the pain would last forever, and was surrendering to the savage monster ripping into her lower belly with thousands of sharp toenails, when a hot energy surged from the crown of her head to her feet. The pain disappeared as if it had never existed. As if it had swirled down some unstopped hole.
She just managed to stay propped up by resting on the toilet, gazing with glassy eyes down at the strange living being dangling from her body. The creature covered in blood and amniotic fluid kept quivering its mouth, but it wasn’t crying. The folds around its eyes twitched. The girl needed to finish before it got noisy. She had barely managed to bend and pick up the clammy thing when she wavered. She steeled herself and removed scissors from the backpack, disinfected them with a disposable lighter, and cut the umbilical cord. She threw the lighter into the trashcan but missed, so it rolled across the floor. When she lifted the baby, he started crying.
Like sewage during the rainy season surging upward and pushing past manhole covers, the cry eddied around the stall, filled the bathroom, spilled into the raucous terminal, and swept over the crowds. The girl clamped her hand over the baby’s mouth but it was useless. The people exposed to the melancholy scream shuddered. In a space where the only code of conduct toward strangers was indifference, a strange, sudden shame seized them. In the newborn baby’s cry was a spell that hit each individual’s guilty conscience, and it sent a strong warning: save him from eminent tragedy, or else. Everyone stampeded like a startled herd of cows in the direction of the cry.
Before the girl’s delicate, bloodstained hand could smother the baby’s last breath, before she could put to sleep that fierce will to live, they swarmed in. A man kicked the door open, and the flimsy hinge flew into the air. If it weren’t for the fierce cries, like an awl piercing their ears, the crowd would have assumed they were witnessing a brutal murder scene, since the floor was soaked with the girl’s bloody secretions and amniotic fluid. The crowd, agitated by the smell of blood, screamed like monkeys. The flurry of their arms and legs resembled the sudden incarnation of a Hindu god.
A police car and an ambulance arrived quickly. The paramedic tranquilized the girl lying on the stretcher, who soon passed out. Her mind was transported to the two-story house of her childhood, herself asleep in a crib. A dark thundercloud hovered over. Was it about to rain, she wondered, as she continued gazing up. When the ambulance arrived at the emergency room, nurses easily lifted her and moved her to a bed. The girl suddenly looked around. Where is the bloody creature I was just holding? She didn’t remember seeing it in the ambulance. What was it called, that squishy, clammy body that cried so loudly? A jumble of words stirred and moved restlessly in her foggy brain. Then a word swam to the surface.
“The baby, where is the baby?” she screamed, rising from the bed until a young intern pushed her back down.
Next to the Express Bus Terminal there’s an enormous plant and flower market that meets the entire city’s demand for flowers. It’s a place where plants are constantly on the move. Flowers collected here from greenhouses across the country are sent out to the city’s flower shops, wedding halls, graduation ceremonies, and funerals. People are born, study, mate, become ill, and die, and flowers are present for all those critical moments. Withered flowers are uniformly despised. They aren’t welcome beside a corpse, a newlywed couple, or a recent graduate. Fresh cut flowers—the sexual organs of plants removed from their roots—have to be rushed to their intended destination.
Mama Pig had raised Jae. I’m not sure when Mama Pig became her name, but it stuck even though she had never been married or had a baby, and didn’t look at all like a pig. She was slender for her age and had a small appetite. She ran a little shop in one corner of the flower market that sold coffee and other beverages, toast and hard-boiled eggs, snacks and ramen. Her main customers were flower merchants and delivery people, who swallowed a whole fried egg on toast, then loaded large floral wreaths onto a motorbike and raced off. Seen from behind, these enormous wreaths seemed to propel themselves on wheels.
While Jae was thrust out into the world in the bus terminal bathroom, Mama Pig was returning from the bank. She was swept along with the crowd galloping like a herd of wildebeests on the Serengeti Plain. Moments later, she ended up in the chaos of the bathroom. Someone handed her the slippery baby who had just tumbled out from his mother. The baby, having escaped his fate of infanticide, stopped wailing as soon as he landed in her arms. He gazed up at her. Later she recalled how it was if she were a barber holding a razor blade to him. She took the baby to her shop, and after she washed him in warm water and wrapped him in a clean cloth, she held him to herself. Though a distant uproar continued in the bathroom, no one seemed interested in the baby. She closed up shop early that day.
As soon as they arrived home, Mama Pig’s three-year-old poodle smelled something new and began yapping as it bounded up and down. She took off her wet blouse and held her breasts with both hands.
“How’s this possible?” she said. “Milk, from a virgin’s breast!”
While bathing the baby, Mama Pig discovered something strange on his back. She traced the bones bulging out around his shoulder-blade area on both sides, but the baby didn’t seem to feel pain and just beamed.
Three years after bringing Jae home, Mama Pig closed down her little shop and began working for a hostess club’s kitchen in Gangnam. Around that time they moved into my family’s multi-unit. We had just built an extension to our old two-story house and converted it into six separate apartments. Two families each moved into the second and third floors, and one family moved into the semi-basement. We lived on the first floor. My mother grumbled that we’d gone even deeper into debt because of the high construction costs. A working-class family from Pakistan lived in the semi-basement, a young bachelor and an asthmatic old man lived on the third floor, and Jae’s family as well as a Chinese-food delivery man rented the apartments on the second floor.
My first memory of Jae as a kid is him teetering on a dining chair with his arms outstretched when, with an ear-splitting cry, he fell in my direction. I don’t remember a grownup running to help him or take him t
The crescent-shaped scar on Jae’s forehead was likely from that fall. Throughout his life, whenever he was thinking, he rubbed at the scar with his index finger, as if scrubbing the fuzz from an eraser. He falls toward me over and over again. His backlit silhouette, both arms stretched out to me to pin me down inside fear and pain.
When we were around four years old, my uncle took Jae and me out to the riverside. We had a remote-controlled miniature helicopter with us. At first we had fun watching it whir around. Jae and I probably clapped and laughed, maybe we even ran after it with our hands extended. But suddenly my uncle steered it in my direction. That was the first time I experienced—no, that was the first time I remember—feeling panicked. Maybe I thought the enormous whirring object was attacking me. Even now when I close my eyes, I can see its dragonfly-like compound eyes filled with evil, circling toward me. When I shuddered and shrank away, my uncle quickly sent the helicopter in another direction. Dogs out on their walks barked noisily and followed the helicopter; their owners watched, amused. I was the only one terrified.