by Jeon Sang-guk, translated by C. La Shure
This story was translated for the Korea Literature Translation Institute's 2nd Korean Literature Translation Contest for New Translators. I entered the contest last year, but failed to win the prize. This year, however, I did manage to win the prize—you can read about it and the aftermath in the accompanying journal entry. I would like to thank Prof. Jeon Sang-guk for writing such a great story in the first place, and to everyone who helped me along the way.
“Don’t be surprised if I disappear one day—I’ll leave when the time comes.”
She said this to me around the time we started living together. There were times when these words, which I had heard only once, would suddenly come to mind; when she would catch my gaze and hold it with her face full of laughter, and at the height of ecstasy, when she was suddenly atop me and my body convulsed and my breath stopped.... I should have realized that something was strange. I should have asked what she meant by “the time,” and when it would be.
‘She wouldn’t...’ I had thought. I was in a daze, like the woodcutter who disregarded the deer’s warning(footnote). If everything was fine today, it would be fine tomorrow, I had thought, and my optimistic carelessness drew a rebuke from Sa. “What did I tell you?” he said. “I said you must not give her back her winged robe until she has had three children.”
For the first few days I could not bring myself to forgive her leaving. I was so angry with her that I made no attempt at all to discover her whereabouts. In truth, outside of telling Sa about her vanishing, there was nothing I could do. During the three years or so we had lived together, she had never once said anything about herself or where she was from. Of course, I could have asked at the nearby karaoke bar or seedy motel that she sometimes visited, but whenever she went there she returned the same day, so they would be no help in finding her. There was a place, though, one place that ultimately kept coming to mind. But I pushed that place from my thoughts with great effort.
“Teacher, Jeongbae keeps on calling this little leech a planaria.”
The children pushed and shoved as they tried to look through the microscope into the petri dish. I walked over and looked at the five planaria Jeongbae was working with, and it was clear even to the naked eye that one of them was a little leech.
I had been so absorbed in studying these little creatures for the past few years that some of the staff joked that I was married to a planaria. Thanks to their teacher’s devotion, the children in my science class won prizes each year at the science fair for their observations of planaria ecology. This year was no different. The children had decided on “Where did the planaria go that used to live in the stream?” as the theme for their entry to the science fair in August. The conclusion that the subject of their study, the planaria, were slowly disappearing due to the pollution and destruction of the environment in the industrial age was obvious, but their love for the planaria was quite moving.
The child who had gotten the better of Jeongbae by pointing out that his planaria was really just a leech, abruptly asked, “Teacher, where did it go?”
I winced at his question. There was no way he could know she had vanished. Perhaps it had something to do with the theme for their entry to the science fair, but the children had still not forgotten how the planaria had vanished a month ago.
On the day that the planaria vanished, she was still living in Apt. 701, Building 103, in the Samhwan Apartment Complex. That evening I told her about the vanishing of the planaria from the science lab. She looked at me with eyes full of curiosity, like a child.
“Say ‘ah’,” she began. “Sugam, are you sure you didn’t eat them?” Sugam was a nickname she had given me; it meant “rock where a wanderer rests.”
I was performing an experiment with the children on the asexual reproduction of hermaphroditic organisms that day. I took two planaria out of the water tank with a pair of tweezers and placed them on my slide. I pointed the microscope at them, and the children gathered around me held their breath as I prepared to cut the centimeter-long creatures. I divided the two planaria into four pieces with a sharp razor blade. One I cut lengthwise, beginning at the head between the two eyes and finishing at the tail, the other I cut in two at the center of the body where the mouth is. The one I had cut lengthwise had been fed egg yolks, and so it was easily distinguishable from the other one, which was brown from the beef liver it had been fed. Now all that remained was to move the pieces into a petri dish filled with water. Just at that moment, though, the siren blared. There was a test of the civil defense drill that day. On those days all the leaders of the local government came to witness the test, so the drill was just as tense as the real thing. There was no time to move the planaria to the petri dish with the pair of tweezers.
When the all-clear signal sounded and we all returned from the assembly hall, the planaria that had been on the slide were gone. I thought that perhaps they had shriveled up and were thus harder to see, but when I looked through the microscope the four planaria pieces were nowhere to be found. There may have been a little movement even after they were cut in half, but there was no chance that they could have crawled off the slide and disappeared somewhere. The children and I searched the tabletop and even the cement floor. The shallow petri dish and glass slide were mottled with the rays of the early summer sun, but there was no trace of the planaria anywhere. Granted, they may have been water-dwelling creatures, but how could they have disappeared without a trace in the span of only fifteen minutes? It was so mysterious that the children dubbed it “the Planaria Incident.”
(Translator’s note) “The Fairy and the Woodcutter” is a well-known Korean tale that tells of a kind woodcutter who saved a deer from a hunter. In gratitude, the deer revealed the location of a pond where fairies came down from heaven to bathe. He told the woodcutter that if he hid a fairy’s winged robe while she was bathing, she would not be able to return to heaven and would become his wife. But he also warned the woodcutter not to show the fairy her winged robe before she had borne him three children.
The woodcutter went to the pond the deer spoke of and did as he was told. He offered another set of earthly clothes to the fairy whose winged robe he had hidden, and she became his wife. As time went by, she bore him two children. One day he told her the story of what happened, and she asked to see her winged robe once again. But when he showed her the robe, she put it on, took one child in each arm, and immediately flew back up to heaven.