Fall 2017 Fiction

“Proof You Were Protecting The World All Along” – Lee Jong San

Proof You Were Protecting
The World All Along

By Lee Jong San
Translated by Janine Kruger

When she proclaimed to Jiwan she was going to look for proof he had been protecting the world, a drawn-out argument between them eventually ran out of steam. A giggle escaped as soon as the words came out of Eun’s mouth. It was a preposterous thing to say—the words didn’t even seem like real words. When Jiwan heard it, he made a funny face and tried to tease her.

“I didn’t mean to say that.”

Growing embarrassed, Eun made up an excuse. Even she didn’t understand where that came from. Normally she never had those kinds of thoughts, but the words were still strangely lingering inside her head. She was drunk when she said them, and Jiwan was completely inebriated, like an alcohol-soaked plum. He was going to completely forget she had said that. 

Unlike him though, Eun was always unconsciously looking for proof afterwards. She was often surprised, catching herself persistently making observations about things that would happen around her. When she started watching closely, there were more and more suspicious events. That people would watch a movie at the theater and emerge unscathed was strange, and even seeing cars form a line on a slippery road was questionable.

People, having never met before in their lifetime, go into a dark place and sit in a row and watch a movie, all the while quietly munching on popcorn in their assigned seats.

Sometimes there would be older people in the audience who would talk at the actors on the screen, but there weren’t many times when arguments came out of that—just whispers that there was a strange person over there. If a phone’s light was left glowing for a long time, someone would give a warning and the person would soon turn it off. People would occasionally argue about who did right and who did wrong in that sort of situation, but it would be the type of argument that only blazes for a moment and then dies out. It would be rare for a small fire like that to spread into a full-on conflagration.

The same is true of the roads. Accidents large and small occur in a never-ending fashion, but the roads aren’t paralyzed all day. Cars are so fast, people have quick tempers and hate each other, so the fact that the roads aren’t in complete pandemonium is weird. And with all the people so tightly packed, pulling and pushing each other on the commuter subway, it seems odd that we don’t see murder cases from that every day. With so many people who despise it, what has maintained the world until now? Life causes people so much pain, so how do they keep on living?

The future is uncertain, and the past has left scars. There is a persistent, lifelong sense of lack, and there are people who cling onto something for the sake of filling the void. Whether it’s by hanging onto work, or onto another person, or by committing a crime, or by creating something, they look for meaning. But what’s the use of that? People, attempting to fill the void, wind up doing foolish things.

Last night, Eun found herself having this train of thought and was totally surprised to realize it was very similar to what Jiwan would say. She had heard about family members or friends of a depressed patient being at the receiving end of a transfer and having a hard time themselves, until the soul’s disease rubbed off on them. Eun was inwardly frightened of this—that at the slightest provocation, the darkness that was pulling at Jiwan would drag them both together, and that they might not be able to return to the world of the living. If Eun was watching the news and a story came on of two people committing suicide together, she would change the channel or vacate her seat altogether.

Yesterday a big fire broke out near the Snow and Leaf cafe where Eun was working. On the other side of the street is an old subway station, and a car paint factory next to it caught fire. It was around five-twenty in the afternoon.

Eun was first to notice; she had been clearing tables when she saw the thickening smoke from across the street.

“Boss, it seems like there’s a fire.”

Eun went behind the counter right away and asked her boss to look out the window. She walked with relaxed footsteps on purpose and spoke with an expression suggesting it was no big deal, but on the inside she was as excited as if she was about to do something really mischievous. This is because the fire outside the window was a big deal—the sort of thing that hadn’t happened in a long time. These days nothing special ever took place at the cafe, but now something trivial, yet exceptional, had happened in her monotonous everyday life.

“Did you say fire?”

As Eun expected, her boss came out from behind the counter, full of curiosity, to look out the window. Great clouds of smoke were spreading in their direction. In the cafe there was one customer seated at a two-top, and she also looked out the window.

“That’s really a lot of smoke coming out!”

The customer spoke up. Apart from a certain number of regulars, there weren’t a lot of customers who came to the Snow and Leaf cafe. Nonetheless, this person had come for the first time yesterday. The woman appeared to be in her thirties, and she sat and drank her coffee with a look on her face like she had nothing left to do with the outside world. She had ordered a vanilla latte with an extra shot.

Eun remembered stuff like that really well—things like what kinds of customers came in all day, what kinds of facial expressions they had while saying what kinds of things, what kinds of clothes they wore, and the like—she had total recall and would not easily forget. Although she told no one, Eun was waiting for the day a police officer would come asking if there had been a suspicious person among her customers. If the suspect they were looking for was one of the customers she liked, she had gone so far as to decide that she would have to lie to the police. What should she do if they said the suspect was wanted for murder? As for that, she could listen in detail to the circumstances and decide then.

What if the customer from yesterday had committed murder? Eun liked her and thought it would be nice if she came often, so without the boss knowing she secretly gave her an extra stamp on her coupon. The customer was wearing a beige coat with a delicate checkered pattern. She removed it when Eun brought her the coffee and revealed a plum-colored knit dress. Her bobbed hair covered about half the back of her neck, and when she tilted her head the exposed part of her neck was lovely. Eun thought if the police asked for a description of this woman, she wouldn’t be able to lie and say that she couldn’t remember, because her lie would be caught for sure.

‘Her voice was nice too.’

Seated at table two was a young couple who came in often.  As Eun brought them their plates, the customer from yesterday floated up in her mind again. It had occurred just one day previous, but it felt like something that happened long ago. Now that she had spent a year at the cafe, things that happened yesterday seemed like several years ago, and things that happened a few months ago seemed like yesterday. Every day was so similar that they just got squashed together into one big hunk of time.

She couldn’t remember exactly what day it was that she made the embarrassing announcement, “I’m going to find proof you’ve been protecting the world.” She was only certain that it was a Friday. Like every Friday night, it was a depressing one. Friday was the day that Jiwan got counseling, so Eun switched her afternoon shift to a morning shift on Fridays. They never once went into the counseling center together, but she waited in a cafe nearby. She did this for him every Friday.

On certain days he would come back and be in a really good mood, but on other days he would be a wreck, venting his dissatisfaction with the counselor and saying he was going to quit going. As Eun waited in the nearby cafe, she contemplated what sort of mood in which he would return after he finished his session. How they ended up spending Friday nights depended on him.

Eun always hoped that they could spend Friday nights in a great mood, but up until now that sort of thing almost never happened. Even on days when Jiwan had a satisfactory session, Friday nights were still depressing for some reason. Eun used to stay with him late into the night before going back home by herself. During nights like that Eun felt lonely, tossing and turning, she imagined a life without Jiwan—the courage to be alone that they talk about in self-help books.

But when morning came, as soon as Eun awoke, she was aware of her love for Jiwan, quietly in its place within her. A small and heavy stone that wouldn’t easily give way was embedded into one side of her heart. As she mused on whether a couple’s ring with a jewel would be an apt metaphor for that stone, she followed its claim. As far as Friday night’s argument goes, it was actually closer to a tussle, with Eun tugging Jiwan back to the world of living things.

*

The cafe was full on Sunday at lunchtime, but there were only five tables. Since the customers were on the quiet side there really wasn’t anything to cause a commotion. The customers filled up the tables, ate according to their own pace, and then left.

On the cafe menu there were sandwiches, a rice-filled omelette, spaghetti, and that’s about it. For sandwiches, there were tuna and chicken, and for spaghetti, there were three types—Bolognese, seafood alfredo, and carbonara. The boss’ special was omelette rice, a fluffy omelette covering a simple ham-and-vegetable fried rice. It was hugely popular with the regular customers.

Eun had tried to learn from her boss how to make this fluffy omelette, but no matter what she did, it never turned out like the boss’. When her boss made the downy omelette and covered the fried rice with it, Eun would train her gaze in that direction like a cat with a fish in front of it. Eun only ate omelette rice once every two months. For her, a day that she ate omelette rice was like good fortune that had suddenly come calling.

Eun stood at the counter and looked around the dining room, packed with people.

All five tables were full. Regular customers filled three tables, and a woman sat at table five in the corner. She was wearing a hat with a wide brim and was bowing her head so her face wasn’t visible. For some reason, Eun was bothered, glancing at her then turning her head. It was a shame she missed the chance to hear her voice because the boss was taking her order.

Mun-eon, one of Eun’s favorite once-or-twice-a-week regulars, sat at table three. He came alone every time, hunched his large round body, ate quietly, and then left. He often orders the big omelette rice from the menu. According to the boss, she put this on the menu for Mun-eon in the first place. Seeing how he ordered two omelette rice entrees every time he came, she added a double omelette rice to the menu.

Because of a certain indwelling solemnity, the way Mun-eon looked when he ate reminded Eun of someone praying. While eating, he focused on the plate in front of him and did nothing else. His eyes did not wander anywhere. He never seemed to hurry, yet he spooned and chewed his food without any pause to speak of. Until the meal was finished, he did not set the spoon down. In his act of eating, there was nothing superfluous. When the meal was done he came to the counter, payed, bowed, and left—not vaguely tilting his head with some lukewarm words, but an actual and clear salutation. The only words he spoke at the cafe were “one large omelette rice please.”

Eun liked Mun-eon’s tempo. Unhurried but not stopping. Solemn and proper timing that somehow put observers at ease.

Wouldn’t my original three-armed body have been my complete self? The body that was the right one for me.

The regular patrons, other than Mun-eon, sat against the wall. Hyeonjung and Yeong-eun sat at table one at the end of the left wall. They ordered two plates of spaghetti and two glasses of beer and chatted. Young women in their mid-thirties, the pair operated a small publishing company. Hyeonjung was originally a reporter at a large media corporation, and Yeong-eun had been an editor for a publisher that often put out bestsellers. When Hyeonjung quit the job she’d had for ten years and opened an office, her friend Yeong-eun immediately handed in a letter of resignation to her publishing house and came over to join the business.

Hyeonjung and Yeong-eun were among the regular customers who actively expressed that they liked the Snow and Leaf cafe. Because they got along so well with the boss, they sometimes stayed after hours and drank wine she had put aside. Eun had joined them several times, too. Hyeonjung and Yeong-eun would often call their friends to these gatherings, and for the most part these were sophisticated and intelligent women who offer conversation on many topics.

One time, a man who Hyeonjung said was her friend came over, but later turned out to be her former boyfriend. The man was a reviewer and an easygoing person. Eun met up with him a few times after that, but things just fizzled out without any further contact after their last rendezvous. It’s not that something particular happened, but afterwards Eun found it a bit uncomfortable to deal with Hyeonjung. The feeling that Hyeonjung knew something about the relationship between Eun and the man—and that she knew a lot more than Eun did—was unpleasant. Some feelings are special when only two people are aware, but the moment an outsider knows it turns into just silly gossip.

While Eun was thinking about this, Mun-eon finished his meal and walked up to the counter.

“Please ring me up.”

“I see you’re wearing work clothes today.”

“I went to work yesterday morning and I’m just now going home. It’s because of that accident.”

Mun-eon was an engineer working in the subway station. Eun’s heart moved when she saw Mun-eon’s plump, fair cheeks glowing pink with heat after eating. He looked tired, perhaps from staying up all night at work, and this concerned her. It was probably due to his fatigue that he said one or two words more than usual.

“Would you like to have some ice cream?”

Eun asked, all the while knowing that his stomach must have been so full it was almost bursting. She just felt like she wanted to serve him something more. Mun-eon laughed uncertainly, but his face definitely said that he wanted some. Even though Mun-eon was a regular customer, coming in once or twice a week, he was always shy like a first-time visitor. Eun liked shy people. She felt rather at ease with their careful attitude, probably because of her own weakness.

“Please have some. I’ll give you just a little bit.”

Eun left Mun-eon standing there with a hesitant face and went into the kitchen behind the counter. She could hear Mun-eon’s voice saying to her back, “Well then, just give me a little bit, just a little.”

Her boss was in the kitchen making the spaghetti Bolognese to go out to table four.

“Eun, this is almost done. Get ready to take it out.”

She was stirring the spaghetti with a wooden spatula as she spoke. The kitchen was full of the smell of tomato and had grown fuggy with heat entwined with the steam rising from the food.

“Please sit down for just a minute and I’ll bring it out to you.”

As Eun called back to Mun-eon over the counter, she took out a yellow plate from the cupboard. During the time Eun was preparing the tray, her boss moved the spaghetti from the pan onto the plate. Just at the time the music moved to the next song, Eun and her boss’ rhythm changed a little. As the flowing atmosphere inside the cafe grew calmer, the customers’ voices also subtly got lower.

With a practiced hand, Eun sprinkled parsley on top of the spaghetti and took it to table four.

“Please enjoy your meal.”

As Eun set the yellow plate down on the table, she smiled at the kid. He might possibly fly into a rage if she calls him little. He appeared to be in around the third grade, and this was the first time she’d seen him.

The man sitting with him must be his father.

Even though she was feeling curious, Eun quickly went to the kitchen and put a scoop of ice cream into a dish. She drizzled chocolate and caramel syrup onto the gooey vanilla ice cream. If he were a person who didn’t like sweets he might hate it, but Eun was aware that Mun-eon liked sweet ice cream very much.

As she brought the ice cream to Mun-eon, she listened carefully in the direction of table four. She was curious about what sort of conversation this father and son would have, just the two of them coming together to a cafe on a Sunday to eat spaghetti.

“This is your first time eating spaghetti, right? How does it taste?”

He asked. The man resembled a soccer team coach. His age must be mid-to-late-thirties. He looked a little awkward in the role of an affectionate father—perhaps he was someone the child’s mother was dating?

While Eun was having these thoughts she set the ice cream on the table where Mun-eon was sitting.

“Excuse me, but could I order an Americano?”

“If it’s something you want to pour over the ice cream, should I give you an espresso?”

“No, that’s alright. I just want something to rinse my mouth.”

“A hot Americano then?”

“Yes, hot.”

Eun nodded her head and went behind the counter to draw a shot. She comes and goes between the dining area and the kitchen, divided by this counter, multiple times a day. She has never tried to keep count, but if she did, it would be a considerable number. If she had wet paint on the soles of her shoes, it wouldn’t even take half a day for the cafe’s floor to be covered in her footprints.

Eun sometimes imagined the white floor ending up completely covered with green footprints. She had even counted the number of steps it took to get from the back door in the kitchen to the front door leading out of the cafe. There were fourteen. This small cafe, with only fourteen footsteps from end to end, was Eun’s world.

Eun recognized Kyungsun only after the customers had left for some time and the cafe had grown quiet.

How could she not have known that the customer still sitting at table five was Kyungsun?

It wasn’t just because of the wide-brimmed hat that concealed her face–it was also the scraggly hair below the shoulders and the sky-blue coat that had deceived her. Kyungsun had always maintained a short haircut, and never wore bright colors like sky blue. One of the few things that Eun knew about Kyungsun was that her taste was not like this.

This was the second time that Kyungsun had come to the Snow and Leaf cafe. The first was last winter, not long after Eun had started working. She wasn’t used to the work yet, and when it got busy a large party of customers had suddenly come in, so Eun’s presence of mind was completely gone. At that time, Kyungsun drank her coffee by herself and left.

Kyungsun and Eun had been close up until middle school, but then Eun moved and their relationship grew apart. At first they met up a few times a year, but for a while now they contacted each other only occasionally. That was just how things turned out. Since then, Eun felt bothered that she had sent back an old friend who had come to see her. The moment she noticed that the customer at table five was Kyungsun, what happened last year came to mind. The thing that had been bothering her made her shake, made her heart pound.

“Boss, my friend came. Is it alright if I go out for just a minute and then come back?”

Conscious of Kyungsun, Eun went into the kitchen to ask. Her boss was peering through her glasses at a notebook where sales figures were written down, but she lifted her head and looked out over the counter. She was in a red cashmere knit today. On days like today, when she wore vivid, bright clothing, the boss absolutely did not look her age. Older customers would say that they thought they had seen her face on the silver screen when they were younger.

“You really haven’t appeared in a movie even once? Or been on television either? I thought for sure I had seen you.”

This wasn’t just pointless flirting. Eun felt that the customers recalled their younger days in her boss’ face and got homesick. On days like today, when her boss wore the vivid red cashmere, Eun felt like she also understood a little bit of what the older customers saw in her face.

“Stay here. It won’t be a bother. Besides, there’s nowhere else to go in this neighborhood.”

Her words were true. The street the Snow and Leaf was on felt strangely abandoned. Just a 10-minute bus ride away was another subway station that had appeared less than a year ago. New studio apartment buildings were constantly going up, and two new shopping centers had cropped up as well. Welcome banners flew, and every day new stores had a grand opening event.

To the same extent that the new area had energy and vitality, the street where the Snow and Leaf sat had grown still. The old station across from the small cafe had little traffic to begin with, but the venue seemed to decline even further. A few years later and the station might be closed. If that happened, the cafe doors would end up closing too.

It wasn’t something that was coming up right away. However, stores near the cafe were already disappearing one by one. And last week, the restaurant next door moved over to the street where the new station is. So now, there was no place nearby to sit down across from an old friend for a relaxed chat. Realizing this, Eun made two cups of green tea and brought them over to the table where Kyungsun was sitting.

“I’ve gotten so sensitive to caffeine these days. If I drink even one cup of coffee my heart pounds all night.”

“You were like that before too.”

So there was something that was still the same as before, she thought. Eun chose her words, making an effort to locate something of Kyungsun she had once known.

“I got married.”

Kyungsun removed her hat as she said this, and now her eyes could be seen clearly.

‘Yes, it is the same person I knew.’

After a brief feeling of relief, Eun’s heart tilted heavily. She detected the old anxiety that had tormented Kyungsun still bobbing up and down in her eyes. It was a familiar feeling of heaviness. While she was with Jiwan, Eun had learned a way to climb toward a brighter place, making stepping stones for a heavy heart. She couldn’t climb all the way up to a place completely light and bright; she could only take one step from total darkness to a place where a small light broke through. Quite a large amount of power was needed to do just that much. Eun gathered her strength and laughed brightly.

“I’m hurt! How could you not even send me a wedding invitation? So who did you marry?”

“He’s a police officer.”

“Is he the earnest civil servant-type?”

“He has a quick temper and likes to drink. Other than that, he doesn’t really have any bad traits.”

She couldn’t tell from her face whether she was serious or joking. Kyungsun’s face from junior high overlapped with her’s in the present.

“I was born with three arms.”

Eun still remembered how Kyungsun had unexpectedly made this confession one day in the classroom after school was dismissed. She was wearing the same expression now as she did then.

“They say they did surgery to remove one arm, although I don’t remember it because I was little. But oddly, it seems like my body still remembers that time. Because sometimes it really seems like something is missing on one side of my body. Wouldn’t my original three-armed body have been my complete self? The body that was the right one for me. Maybe that’s why no matter what I wear, I never feel like it fits. It always feels like I’m wearing borrowed clothes.”

Maybe it wasn’t in junior high she heard it. It could be a story she had heard after that, or it could be an amalgam of what she had heard after all the times Kyungsun had shared stories. The older Kyungsun got, the more often she told that story—she seemed to gradually sink into it. Eun once thought that maybe Kyungsun felt some sense of deficiency, not from getting older, but rather from misfortunes large and small piercing a hole in her.

Eun had bumped into Kyungsun last December. It was at a big shopping mall. Kyungsun was walking alone amidst the crowd, looking as though she hadn’t yet found something to wear. She didn’t seem like someone Eun used to know. Her features were the same, but she was a different person.

That time, Eun felt like Kyungsun saw her. It seemed as though their eyes met as they brushed past. But Kyungsun went by her with an indifferent gaze and that was that. In that moment, a lie she had once told Kyungsun came to mind.

“I don’t remember it well, but they say I was born with a disability, too. Like one extra of something, or maybe one missing of something? Anyway, mom and dad went through many hardships for a few years to get my illness fixed. Now that I hear your story, I remember. That there was something I lost, too.”

It was a lie she had impulsively told upon hearing that story, and through that lie her connection with Kyungsun grew strong. But the friendship that had once displayed such powerful energy had long ago lost its glow. And as Eun went on living, every time she had the feeling that she had lost something, Kyungsun popped into her mind.

In their conversations after that, Eun only felt the reality of them growing apart. Listening to Kyungsun talking about her life or her future plans, Eun felt a sense of loss. Kyungsun was not the person that she once knew. After Kyungsun left, Eun did the dishes and her boss trimmed vegetables for tomorrow’s lunch. It was work she was used to and there were no customers, so she was not too busy.

“The color of the onions this time is really pretty.”

“I saw them earlier too. They’re nicer than on other days.”

Eun replied as she heard the sound of her boss chopping. She was talking about the purple onions that were delivered on Friday. Although Eun had paid little attention to the color of the onions that came this time, she understood the boss’ admiration.

Vegetables come in all different colors. There were times during the lull that Eun would touch the produce and be surprised at the beautiful colors. At certain times, the colors were so brilliant that she had her doubts as to whether or not they had been put there artificially. There were also times that she saw the inside of a vegetable shining with color and remembered that nature was the foundation of the world.

“Those customers from before—What do you suppose their relationship is? The table with the kid.”

Eun looked at her boss, asking as she finished up the dishes and removed her rubber gloves.

“Weren’t they father and son?”

“I thought so too at first, but when I heard them talking it didn’t seem like it. The man referred to himself as Uncle.”

“Is that so? They seemed just like a father and son to me. I wonder if he’s a person from the welfare center.”

“That welfare center up the way?”

“Yes, there’s one over there, and a few others like it in this neighborhood. Sometimes we get customers like that. At first they seem like a mother and daughter, but then I’ll see they are a teacher from the welfare center and a student who ran away from home. Sometimes it’s that way.”

“Really? I suppose that could be the case.”

Eun recalled the strangely awkward atmosphere that hung between the boy and the man who looked like a coach. The boy ate his spaghetti without saying much, and the man asked more than a few times if it was to his liking. The boy left about half the spaghetti.

When will we get to eat something this luxurious again?

The man said this. Wouldn’t it be family who would say something like that? Eun wondered for a moment what he meant when he used the word “we,” but then a new customer came in and she forgot all about it.

At dinnertime, a crowd of young guys swarmed in and the cafe was swamped in a mad rush. They were friends of the boss’ son who was in the middle of studying abroad in Germany. She said it had been over two years since he had come to Seoul. Eun was aware that her boss sent him over half of her earnings from the cafe, though it didn’t amount to much. Her son’s friends were courteous and cheerful guys. Growing noisier than ever, the cafe was engulfed in energy, and her boss was overflowing with more strength than usual. She made and brought food to her son’s friends, warning them not to be rude.

“If you get drunk today and kick up a stink, I won’t let you come here again!”

With a voice snapping exactly like a stage actor, the boss cracked down on her son’s friends. Eun moved plates to the kitchen many times. The guys had good appetites. Were there seven or eight of them? Among the faces there were about two that also looked familiar to Eun.

Besides the guys, there were a few other customers. Almost all were there for coffee takeout. Since she was dealing with these customers in every spare moment, the time flew by magically. Like a swarm of locusts, her son’s friends decimated the cafe of foodstuffs and left. With one voice they refused her intention to give a discount, and amply paid when they left. After they had gone, Eun and her boss cleared the empty bowls, cups and liquor bottles together.

“I’ll mop the floor tomorrow morning. Let’s stop here for today.”

Eun was at the sink washing dishes when her boss said this. Eun removed her apron and turned back to take one look at the darkened hall. She liked working at the Snow and Leaf cafe. The spatial rhythm of her boss and the beat made by the customers—sometimes she felt like dancing in time with it. It was a place she would have to leave one day, but not yet.

Eun came out with her boss. The day had suddenly turned chilly. Standing behind her boss as she locked the door, Eun lightly mulled over the thought that she would have to buy a winter coat.

“How did that interview go last time?”

Her boss asked as she walked to her car parked out front.

“I failed it, of course. I got a text a few days ago.”

She recalled the rejection notice that she had received on Monday. She had promised if she got a new position she would leave the Snow and Leaf. So far she had gone on about ten interviews, but had not gotten a single job offer. Eun had the sense that her boss wanted her to stay a little longer at the cafe. Even Eun wasn’t sure whether she sincerely wished to leave and start over at a new place.

“What will you do if the station gets closed down, boss?”

As she said this, Eun gazed at the station on the other side of the street. Her boss did likewise. The station was there, unconcernedly in its place, with the lights on as usual. People, in their weariness, were pushed from the stairway out toward the street.

“Well, let’s see…it’s possible I might not be able to run the cafe any longer then. Why, are you worried that all of a sudden I’m going to tell you to leave?”

“No. It’s just that it’s going to seem empty. If that station and our store are closed, it’s going to feel like there’s a huge hole on this street.”

“Don’t worry. Even if the we shut the cafe doors, we’ll say goodbye to our customers first. If people see that a store they had frequented suddenly closes up, won’t they be disappointed? When you’ve done business for a long time, some of your regular customers are like your friends. And friends can’t leave without saying goodbye, right? And don’t you think about suddenly quitting either. We all need some time to say goodbye.”

Her boss had said something similar before. When she was eight years old, a neighbor girl she had followed around like a real big sister suddenly disappeared one day. Even though the people in the neighborhood combed through the heart of the mountain and peered into wells for over a week, they were not able to find her. She said this left such a strong impression on her heart that she had become anxious the people around her might suddenly disappear.

The boss left first in her car. Eun stood behind the car and waved. Afterwards, she could see Jiwan standing at the end of the street.

Yesterday, when the fire broke out, Eun ran out the door without listening to her boss try to stop her. The smoke was billowing out in an enormous black cloud. In the street, one man shouted to the woman accompanying him.

“When will I ever see such an amazing thing like this in my life again?”

At that time, the first fire truck had not yet arrived. The crimson blaze was burning furiously. Eun was afraid the fire would end up burning everything. And it was beautiful. Soon, she heard the loud blare of a siren. Thirty-five fire trucks arrived one after another, and the blaze was put out in just fifteen minutes. No one was hurt. The trains resumed running at around five fifty-five p.m.

Eun stood in the street that had been blanketed in smoke yesterday, and recalled the people who came to the cafe today. She also thought of the person for whom seeing something burst into flames was the biggest spectacle of his life. How many things would come up in one person’s world, what kinds of things would disappear, and what kinds of things would last to the end.

She hadn’t been able to find proof that the person standing at the end of the street was protecting the world. However, as Jiwan came walking toward her and their faces got closer, Eun felt the embedded stone in her heart grow hot. At the same time, she was convinced that someday his body would throw her vivid proof, and that proof would be something alive.

The two went toward home hand in hand, down the street where the smoke of yesterday had retreated.

END
Originally published in Munhakdongne Spring 2016 (Issue 86)

 


 

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Lee Jong San was born in 1988 in Seoul. She has published Goodbye Elephant in 2012 and Lazy Life in 2014. She is currently working on a novel series. Goodbye Elephant won the 1st Munhakdongne College Fiction Award.

 

 

Featured image Fire 02 by Fir0002 is licensed under CC BY 3

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