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Christmas Carol

by Kim Young Ha, translated by C. La Shure

Yeong-su stared at his wife as she stood in front of the sink, as if he was looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It was a war without gunfire, a truce without parley. The two did not say a word and buried themselves in their own worlds; Yeong-su turned on the television and Suk-gyeong began to prepare dinner. She peeled the green onions and washed the fish. When it came time to do the bean sprouts, she grabbed the newspaper from the tea table in front of her husband, spread it out on the kitchen floor and dumped the bean sprouts out on top of it. The bean sprouts covered Jin-suk’s article, but some of the words and letters were still visible between the heads and stems.

“Korea· ········ ·· Germany ·eets vio··nt death. Police are ····stigating the mu·der of a Korea· resident ·· Ge·ma·· who had ········ ·· ····· for a year-··· ······ H·· ···· was found on ··· ··th in ·· ··· ·· ················ Seou·· ··· body was dis······· by the ow·er o· th· ···, wh· enter·· t·e r··m at ·oon to ·····tigat· ···· ··e occ····t showe· ·· ···· of l···ing ······ ··· ·····ing ·· ·as a ···me of pa·sion or ··venge, cit··· ··e fac·· ···· the v······· ··lle· ··· valua···· ···· ···· ·····ched and the ······ ··· crue··· mur··red wit· · sha·· weapon. Th·· ·re ··· ···ducting an investig····· ····ered ·n tho·· clo···· ·· the ·ict···”

As each bean sprout was cleaned and put in a bowl, the words began to take shape again, and they told her that Jin-suk was dead. Someone had gone into the room where she was staying and killed her, ruthlessly stabbing her with a sharp knife. Suk-gyeong cast a furtive glance at her husband sitting in the living room. He was nervously biting his fingernails, and his toes tapped on the tea table. He was clearly fraught with anxiety.

Could he have killed her? With an exaggerated motion, she popped the head off the bean sprout she was holding. Not just anyone can commit murder, though. There was no way such an unremarkable person as her husband would take a knife, break into an inn room and go through with a murder, changing his life forever. She knew her husband too well. He was the type of person who never booked tickets in advance. He wasn’t the type to do anything decisive, either. In fact, if it hadn’t been for her, they would never have been able to buy the apartment they were living in now.

“I can’t stand being in debt,” he had said, shaking his head.

“How can you call 20 million won debt?”

“Debt is debt. And you’re not going to be repaying it, anyway, are you?”

“Then who’s going to repay it?”

“I’ll have to.”

He was the type of person who would argue over whose money it was whenever there was a disagreement. That sort of person could never have done away with Jin-suk—he was just too petty. But what if Jin-suk had demanded money? No, Jin-suk would not have done that, and even if she had, her husband, Yeong-su Jeong the accountant, would never have gone into her room with a knife.

But what if... what if he had done it? Freedom. The word that first came to mind was ‘freedom.’ She would be free. If he had really committed murder, and a brutal stabbing at that, he would get at least a life sentence. If that happened, then this apartment and all their possessions would naturally be hers by marriage. It would also be easy to get a divorce from a husband she could no longer live with, even more so since the fault for that would be his. Of course, she would have to pay a lawyer as a formality, but that was unavoidable. She would at least have to put up a front. And if he would just be so kind as to be killed in a traffic accident, well then the life insurance money would be the icing on the cake. One mustn’t be too greedy, though.

“Ah!” The blade of the knife passed over her left thumbnail. It didn’t leave a mark, but her conscience stung. ‘What on earth am I thinking?’ she said to herself, shaking her head. Her thoughts then went to Jin-suk, lying there bleeding to death in the inn room. What had she felt like, seeing all that blood gushing out of her body? She must have felt woozy, like the feeling you get from sleeping pills.

That good-for-nothing tramp. She had been thrown out of the dormitory before even the first year was over. The offense was staying out overnight without permission, for a total of three times. There had been a rumor that she was sleeping around, and one of the guys mentioned in the rumor was Yeong-su. Of course, he had denied it.

“That’s just a meaningless rumor. I’m not that close to Jin-suk; she's just a girl I know. You think I'm the only guy she knows?”

Jin-suk had lived in the room across from Suk-gyeong. There was that one time... just once. Suk-gyeong pressed her lips together, finished cleaning the bean sprouts and put them in the pot. There was the time when she had stolen a pair of Jin-suk’s underwear. Many of the girls liked to steal Jin-suk’s underwear because she had been with a lot of guys. ‘I was different,’ thought Suk-gyeong, shaking her head. ‘The reason I stole her underwear was....’ She looked up at the ceiling. ‘The reason was....’ She looked down again. ‘Actually, my reasons were no different from everybody else's. That’s right. I hated her. In fact, I was even a bit jealous. And there was more. Not why I stole it, but the way I stole it. The other girls would quietly steal them from the clothesline, but I deliberately stole it from the hamper in her room. What did I do with those panties? I don’t know. Probably threw them away in the bathroom. Yes, that’s what I did.’

The thieving never ended in the dormitories. Every day someone was stealing something from someone else. Of course, Suk-gyeong had makeup, underwear and watches stolen from her. One of those items might have even found its way into Jin-suk’s hands, Suk-gyeong thought. The filthy girl. The tramp, the slut who slept with anyone and everyone. That’s why she had so many pairs of pretty underwear. Someone had once asked her where she had bought them, and Jin-suk answered in her peculiar, stammering way. “They were presents.”

The very fact that panties were given as presents—that panties could be given as presents—came as a shock, and all the girls in the dormitory gaped in surprise.

“What kind of presents?”

“Well, this was a birthday present, and this was a Christmas present.”

The panties she had received for Christmas actually had a picture of Santa Claus on them.

“What is she, an idiot?” Suk-gyeong asked her roommate when they returned to their room.

Her roommate answered without a second thought. “Her? Of course she’s an idiot. Do you know what her nickname is? The vending machine.”

“Who said that?”

“A guy I know. She’s got quite a reputation among her classmates, too.”

“And she doesn’t know this?”

“Probably not.”

Of course, as time went on, there were those who told her what people were saying about her. Jin-suk was depressed for a few days, but then went back to her old self. It might have been understandable if she was pretty, but she wasn’t even that. How such a chubby and ordinary girl, with the looks of a simple county bumpkin, could attract so many guys was always a mystery to Suk-gyeong.

She turned her head to look at the newspaper that was spread out on the kitchen floor. “Korean resident of Germany meets violent death.” Who could possibly have killed Jin-suk? She must have had countless men during the ten or so years after she left Korea, and it must have been one of them. On the off chance that her husband had done it, yes, there would be an uproar at first. Detectives and reporters would storm the house and carry out an investigation, and her husband’s family would probably camp out there, too. Ah, she would actually feel alive. Not everyone experiences what it’s like to be the wife of a murderer. “Were you aware that your husband was such a heinous criminal?” Requests would flood in from women’s magazines. “My husband was a murderer!” That would make a great headline. People would want to know what it was like to be married to a murderer, to have dinner with a murderer, to go on a honeymoon with a murderer.

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