by Jeon Sang-guk, translated by C. La Shure
Her vanishing did not upset my daily routine. I arrived at school by eight o’clock in the morning, taught the children, and left at the proper time. When I got back to my apartment, though, I peeked into this room and that out of habit, simply to confirm once again that she was really gone. My stepmother and stepbrothers, who lived in nearby in a different city, might have realized that she had vanished. Even before she vanished, they called once every two or three days for one reason or another. Sa, a classmate of mine when at teacher’s college and a fellow teacher at my school, was not surprised when I told him about her vanishing. No one thought twice about her vanishing into thin air, as if she were nothing more than an umbrella around the house that had suddenly gone missing. Legally speaking as well, her absence caused me no harm whatsoever. There are many people who say that they have met aliens, but there are very few people that believe they really exist. Here and yet not here, not here and yet here—this was the nature of her existence.
After about ten days had gone by, the reality of her absence hit me for the first time. The realization that she was never going to return actually brought with it peace of mind. I began to look around the house again. Three or four of her pale, brown hairs caught my eye. She always used to wear her long, straight, hair tied with a lemon-colored hair band. There was no need for me to strain myself searching for other such clues—more conclusive evidence that she had stayed here was still hanging in the closet. They were the simple and unpretentious clothes she had casually picked out, never concerning herself with what was fashionable.
If I remember correctly, every piece of her clothing was still here. She didn’t have many clothes to begin with, and she had bought them all with me, so it was easy for me to remember. But just then I thought of something. The black pants and white silk blouse, and the light green jacket she had been wearing when I first saw her... they were not in the closet. In fact, when I thought about it I realized that I had not seen those clothes again since we began living together. Even if she had hidden those clothes somewhere, and then worn them when she left, why didn’t she take any of her other clothes with her? Vanished. The word suddenly came to mind.
There is another reason I insist on using the word “vanished”—I could not for the life of me guess what shoes she wore when she left. Her three pairs of high-heeled shoes, four pairs of comfortable shoes, and the pair of brown slippers were still in the shoe closet. As far as I knew, those were all the shoes she owned.
If that was so, then perhaps she didn’t leave. She didn’t leave the house. I just couldn’t see her, that was all. I began to entertain strange flights of fancy. About once or twice a month she used to leave me notes. They usually said that she was going out and would be back in a few hours. Each time was unexpected, and she never told me where she was going, but she always came back when she said she would. This time, though, she had not left a note. If she had been following her custom, then she had not gone out. What, then? I hurriedly began to search the house. I checked the veranda, the pantry, the closet, the shoe closet, even under the sink and in the washing machine. I flung all of the doors open two or three times. I even opened all the desk drawers.
Did I open the door myself that day with my key, as usual? Had the door really been locked? My hands, which had been rummaging around the house, suddenly began rummaging through my hair. Exhausted, I let them be, as if I were a mere spectator. It is possible that the door might have been open. Unless something out of the ordinary occurred, things done out of habit were not usually remembered. But I had to remember if at all possible. The key that she carried with her was hanging on the inner wall of the shoe closet, just as she left it when she was home. I discovered this a few days after she had vanished. In truth, I could not shake the doubts that began to plague me from that time. The fact that her key was still in the house where she had left it could be evidence that she had not left the house. No, it might also be her way of telling me that she had truly vanished. I thought again. Was the door to the apartment locked that day, or was it open? Her key was still in the house! If the door was open that day it meant that she went out, leaving her key behind. If the door was locked... it meant that she was still in the house.
Whatever the case, she was now nowhere to be seen. And the fact was that it would be difficult for me to discover how she left the house. That day I had planned on having a drink with my colleagues from school, so I had left the car at home. And the next day, when she was gone, I drove the car to school, so it wasn’t as if my car had driven her someplace. Yes, I had a drink before coming home that night. I remember talking about the disappearing planaria while we were drinking, too. Someone mentioned the possibility that there might have been some reagent left on the glass slide.
Someone else said, “Planaria exhibit negative phototaxis, right? Well, what else could they have done in that situation to avoid the light? They’d have no choice but to just melt away.”
At this, I chimed in with an example of a similar unbelievable disappearance that I had personally witnessed. It had been when I was working at a small school out in the country. One rainy night, thousands of frogs that had jumped up onto the asphalt were crushed beneath the tires of my car. I was so bothered by this that I lit a candle that night and mourned the deaths of these trifling creatures. When the skies cleared the next morning, I went back to the road, as if to atone for my sin. Had such a thing really happened during the night? There was not a single trace of evidence of the frogs’ deaths on the road. Such was the death of trifling creatures.
These strange outings of hers, which oddly enough occurred about once a month, may have been preparation for her vanishing. At first I wondered if they were related to her period, but there were a number of things that convinced me they were not. If I had to relate them to some biological state, I would have to say that it was more like a mating period. Around the times when she went out her gaze was unusually penetrating, and her skin was more vibrant than normal.
“Sugam, you’re so sensitive,” she had said once when I figured out she was having her period from the dark shadows under her eyes.
The most conclusive symptom of her outings was the sound of a bird’s song that emanated from somewhere in her body. At first I didn’t hear anything, but she was restless the whole day, opening and closing the veranda window several times.
“Sugam, do you hear that sound?” she asked, and the look in her eyes as she stared at me could not have been more earnest.
“Well, I think I might hear something...”
I thought that she might have imagined the sound, but I could not bear to tell her. But it was true. One day, when I had no choice but to go along with what she said, I finally heard the sound as well. Twitter twitter, twitter scree... it was without a doubt the sound of a crowned willow warbler. The sound, so soft that it could only be heard when there were no other sounds within or without the house—and even then only barely—filtered faintly from her body when she was fast asleep. Seeing her suffer all day long from this phantom sound, I had thought she was making this sound with her own mouth while sleeping. Once I had heard that sound, though, I could catch the bird song coming from her body even while she was awake, in the middle of the day. She herself was the source of the sound.
At times like those her voice was different. “Tank you,” “I ate a wot.” Just like a child first learning how to speak, her pronunciation was poor and her intonation was unnatural. I could not tell her that she was the source of the sound, or ask her about her behavior. Just as the woodcutter lost his fairy when he revealed her winged robe, I was vaguely afraid that she would suddenly fly off somewhere the moment I said something about it. It was because I could see in her face, as she rushed to and fro throughout the house searching for the bird’s song, something like a pathetic fear of impending doom. In truth, it may also have been because I did not want her to discover how awkward and unfamiliar she felt to me whenever I heard the sound.
It was strange. For some time after she returned from one of her outings, I could not hear the sound that had emanated from her body. Her outings, which lasted for several hours, always happened around the time I came home from school. If I happened to come home before she left she would tell me about her plans in person, and on days when I came home late she always left a note saying when she had gone out and when she would return.
One day I worked up my courage to ask her, “Wherever it is you’re going, can’t we go together?”
She lightly shook her head and smiled coolly. I didn’t press her any further—part of our tacit agreement for living together was that we would not show excessive interest in each other’s private lives. Tacit agreement aside, though, every time she went out I was seized by an anxiety that I might never see her again. And I could not easily forget the cool expression on her face when she left the house. I made every effort, though, to act as if there was nothing out of the ordinary, since she always came back on time, and when she returned there was a complete change in her expression, a peace on her face.