Sumi, her father and grandmother were the ones who went to pick up Yunmi from prison. Why had Grandma taken her son-in-law instead of one of her own sons? Much later, Sumi found this strange, but at the time, she thought her father probably had a lot of time on his hands since he’d been taking a break from work. Also, he was the second son in a family with many sons and known for taking good care of his elders, always addressing them with respect. Maybe that was why Sumi’s grandmother seemed more comfortable around her son-in-law than her own sons. Besides, none of them would have approved of Yunmi, so it was only natural she’d taken Sumi’s father with her.
That day, soon after they brought Yunmi home, Grandma and Sumi’s father left the house. Sumi warmed up the seaweed soup Grandma had prepared and set dried seaweed, kimchi, and stir-fried anchovies on the table. Yunmi ate a few spoonfuls of the soup, then mentioned the name of Sumi’s mother and asked, “So you’re her daughter?” Sumi said yes, but the mood turned awkward, since she didn’t know what else to talk about. Yunmi was quiet and had a gaunt face with protruding cheekbones. A little while later, she mentioned that she remembered seeing Sumi when she was very young. After Sumi was born, her family had lived in Ulsan for a while because of her father’s work, and around the time she started school Yunmi went to prison. While Yunmi was in prison, Sumi’s father’s business failed―of course, these events were unrelated―and things got hard for them, so Sumi’s mother had to go live at her parents’ home in Busan with Sumi and her younger brother. Their father came to see them once or twice a month. After Yunmi barely touched the soup, she asked to see Sumi’s room. Sumi showed her the room she shared with her mother and younger brother. Without even taking off her clothes, Yunmi collapsed onto the mattress and closed her eyes.
“Are you done eating?”
“Yeah,” Yunmi replied in a low voice, as if already half asleep.
Sumi took the dishes back to the kitchen. She stood there, eating the rest of the rice and picking the meat out of the seaweed soup, straight from the pot. The meat was delicious. She washed the dishes and wiped the table. No one had ever told her where Yunmi had gone, but after piecing together what she’d heard in passing Sumi had come to understand that Yunmi was in prison. Since Sumi had lived in Ulsan with just her family, she’d never given much thought to what it would be like to have an older sister, but when it was decided that Yunmi would stay with them, she thought it might be nice to have an older sister in college. But Yunmi wasn’t exactly a college student… She was the daughter of a relative Sumi had never met from her mother’s side, raised by her grandmother from an early age. Grandma had told Sumi to address Yunmi as “auntie,” not “eonni.” But perhaps because Sumi had only one uncle, the word “auntie” was awkward for her, and plus, her mother had told her to call Yunmi “eonni.”
Sumi carried the small soban table into the bedroom to do her homework, but she couldn’t concentrate because she kept glancing at Yunmi’s sleeping face. She could hear her soft snoring, along with the sound of her breathing. Where would she sleep and what was she going to do from now on? The room which had originally belonged to Yunmi was filled with things Sumi’s family had brought. Although her mother had tried to clear some space, it no longer looked like Yunmi’s room. There was a desk and a lot of empty bookshelves, on which yearbooks were stacked side by side. Yunmi groaned in her sleep. While doing her homework, Sumi turned to watch Yunmi, wondering how old she might be. Maybe around twenty-seven or twenty-eight? Was that how a person looked at that age? Twenty-eight seemed rather old, and Yunmi did seem quite old, but her face still looked young, though someone in her twenties would probably look younger. How much older would someone in their thirties look? Sumi shook Yunmi awake.
“Did you have a bad dream?”
“You were groaning.”
Yunmi said it was nothing, wrapped her arms around her body, closed her eyes, and fell asleep again. Grandma’s oldest son lived in the same neighborhood, and Sumi’s family and Grandma lived together in this house. When Sumi came home from school, her younger brother might be home, but more often than not, the house was empty. Their mother helped look after their uncle’s shop, and her brother sometimes played with his friends until late at night. After school, Sumi would come home and read a book, or sit still, thinking about what to do and letting her mind wander. Other times she went for a long walk and then returned home. Would Yunmi still be living with them then? Sumi looked at Yunmi, who’d been shivering before falling asleep again, and thought about how people who’d been to prison might live their lives. Though Yunmi looked young and still had the rest of her life ahead of her, her future was completely ruined. No one would give her a job and no one would want to marry her. Would she continue her studies? If some of Yunmi’s friends were willing to help, there might be hope for her. But no matter how hard Sumi thought, she couldn’t envision Yunmi with an ordinary future. Everything had gone wrong for her already.
In front of the prison, there had been several men and women who looked alike, and they had shaken hands with Yunmi and patted her on the shoulder. After Yunmi talked to those people, Grandma brought her to the car. Sumi’s father was standing behind it, smoking a cigarette. Sumi recalled making eye contact with one of the men, but that was probably because she’d been looking at him. The man was skinny, with shaggy hair that covered his ears, and had long fingers. He reminded her a little of her music teacher from school. Sumi looked down and whispered the name of her music teacher. After they got in the car and she glanced toward the group of people again, the man was still looking at her.
She looked at Yunmi and then at the books on the table, thinking back to the road they had taken one or two hours ago, and the people who might have had different faces if she’d looked closely, but who all looked similar as they stood in a group. She’d remember this road. She’d never forget these signs. Yet while she’d tried to imprint on her mind the shapes of the trees and the names on the signs, she’d fallen asleep in the car and couldn’t recall anything. Sumi had never gone so far, and she’d wanted to remember every detail about the way to the prison and back. Until the day she died, she wanted to remember everything in her life, from the weather to the people passing by in the street.
As she looked at Yunmi’s sleeping face, Sumi understood that this was the face of a person close to thirty. Even at that age, she’d remember everything. When would she die? She’d probably live long, like her grandmother … but sometimes she just wanted to run away. Sumi wanted to grow up and stay young at the same time. She wanted to live long and die as a young adult. So she kept looking at Yunmi’s face, trying to estimate her age and wondering at what age one would be considered a young adult.
Grandma returned home with some herbal medicine. Just in case Sumi’s uncle might drop by later, she’d come back early to give Yunmi the medicine. Their uncle did not approve of students who’d gone to university only to participate in demonstrations, although technically Yunmi had done a lot more than that. Sumi spread out the mattress and quilt in Yunmi’s old room. Yunmi, who’d woken up not long ago, fell asleep once more without washing up. Sumi couldn’t remember if her uncle stopped by the house that day. Since he lived nearby he would often drop by in the evenings to bring Grandma things he had bought from the local market. Fruits or meat, snacks, drinks and sometimes socks. Sumi couldn’t remember if he came that day, but perhaps that was because she didn’t try as hard to remember as she did with other things. Anyhow, Sumi’s mother told her to go to bed early. Sumi thought that Yunmi smelled a bit like pond water, and she recalled the man who resembled her music teacher, the way he’d looked at her, and the cluster of people who all looked alike. Some of them had laughed while looking at her, but Sumi had not joined in the laughter. There’d been no need for it, but somehow she wanted to stand in front of those skinny people with white mouths and ask, “What are you laughing at? You’re the funny ones.” She certainly would not laugh. Sumi had looked at them with a blank face, with not so much as a hint of a smile. She wanted to remember everything, even these moments.
After finishing her homework, she thought about what to do and noticed that her fingers still smelled of sesame oil. She wanted to eat the leftover seaweed soup. Her brother had already returned and gone to bed, and there were fewer people than usual in the house that day. In the afternoons Sumi was often alone, but in the evenings her uncle usually joined them for dinner, and there were times when the elderly women in the neighborhood would come to play games with their grandmother. Her mother and aunt were in Grandma’s room, and the three of them seemed to be discussing something. Though Sumi tried her best, she couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she somehow knew that they were talking about Yunmi. Yunmi had done nothing but sleep all day. In prison, people probably slept together in groups. Would it be scary to sleep alone or would it be better? Sumi wanted to have her own room, but she was afraid of sleeping alone. She stretched out her hand to reach for her brother, who had dozed off, and then fell asleep.
The homeroom teacher ordered Sumi to come to the staffroom after class. It was spring, but the weather was still chilly, and even in her school uniform jacket she felt a bit cold, so she listened to the lesson with her arms crossed. White steam rose from the stove where water was boiling in a kettle. Looking at the steam, Sumi suddenly felt hungry. She wanted to drink citrus tea and eat fish cakes and ramyeon. During music class she kept looking at the teacher’s face, but seeing him in person, he didn’t really resemble the man from the prison, though at that moment their resemblance had seemed uncanny. When she tried to recall the man’s face now, her memory was blurry. As Sumi stared at the teacher, pretending to sing along, while trying to remember the face of the other man, an hour went by. Sumi thought it would be very strange indeed if the person she saw yesterday and her music teacher turned out to be brothers, if someone she knew was related to someone she didn’t know. Why should they know each other? The thought was both bizarre and fascinating.
During Korean class, a small fire broke out on the stove, but the teacher quickly threw sand on it and the PE teacher, who’d come running with a fire extinguisher in hand, helped put it out. The two teachers spoke in the hallway in urgent tones. After inspecting the stove, the PE teacher addressed the class, saying the fire must have broken out because there was tape covering a hole in the stove. With a look that suggested he knew more than he let on, he said, “This isn’t a big deal, so when you go home, there’s no need to tell your parents about it. Understand?”
It hadn’t been scary — just a little exciting — and it didn’t feel like the teacher had done anything wrong. Sumi’s sleeve gave off a faint burnt smell. Why did the homeroom teacher want to see her? She assumed he wanted to ask about the fire, since Sumi had a good view of the stove from her seat. Should she lie and say she didn’t know there was a fire? That it never happened? Or admit that there was a fire, that it broke out because a hole in the stove had been fixed with tape, but the PE teacher told them not to breathe a word of it, and that she wouldn’t mention it at home? On the way to the staffroom, Sumi thought about what she might have done wrong, or if she was being called to the office for a completely different reason. If so, what could that reason be?
It was warm inside the room, which eased her anxiety somewhat, but at the thought of facing the homeroom teacher, she tensed up again. The office smelled like Chinese quince and the teachers were drinking citrus tea.
“Everything okay at home?”
“Your family used to live in Ulsan, right?”
“Why did you move back here?”
“I’m not sure. Because of my father’s work, I guess.”
“So you live at your grandmother’s place?”
“Who else lives there?”
“Just my grandmother and my family.”
“No one else?”
“What about your aunt?”
“Oh, right. I forgot.”
“How could you forget that?”
She said she’d forgotten because they hadn’t been living together for a long time. The teacher said he knew very well who her aunt was. Of course, he added while scanning Sumi’s face, he wasn’t the only one who knew. How old was he? By using Yunmi’s face as comparison, Sumi tried to estimate her teacher’s age, and decided he was a lot older than Yunmi. As she answered his questions, Sumi thought that he must have a family of his own, that they probably talked and ate meals together. It was odd that this person, who was a little — no, a lot — older than Yunmi, was a different person at home than he was right now. Just as strange as when she’d wondered if the music teacher might be related to the man from prison.
“If you notice any strange behavior, let us know.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t understand?”
The homeroom teacher poked her belly with a stick, then jabbed her head with his finger, while asking repeatedly, “You really don’t understand?” Sumi said she had no idea. She had no intention of being difficult, but when she said she didn’t know what he meant, the teacher seemed to give her a disapproving look. When he finally dismissed her, Sumi bowed her head and left the room. As she walked out of the office, a Korean language teacher followed her out. She seemed a little younger than Yunmi. Sumi had never been taught by her and didn’t even know her name, but for some reason she seemed to know Sumi.
“You don’t know who I am?”
The teacher showed her an attendance book with the name Lee Jeongsuk written on the cover. She told her to remember her name and to come to her should anyone say something.
“Who should say something to me?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know that.”
Sumi thought that sometimes her body didn’t match her current self. While she didn’t know how she was perceived in the eyes of others, Sumi often thought of herself as an adult. But others probably didn’t see her that way. People asked her about Yunmi, and all their interest in her was scary to Sumi, but a little funny as well. She went back to the classroom to get her bag, crossed the playground, exited the school gates and got on the bus. I’ll never forget how the world looks as I take the bus home from school, Sumi whispered quietly, so no one could hear it. The houses and apartments along the back of the hill, the rooftops, and then around the corner, the sea and the chimney on the bathhouse emitting smoke. She thought she would write it all down. She wanted to board a ship and go far away. Taking the plane would be fine, too, but she couldn’t imagine flying. She just wanted to pack up her things and go on a ship that would take her far away. When she got on board, there’d be no one waving goodbye. How nice that would be. Far away, she’d be no one’s daughter or relative or friend, and live among strangers. She’d be young, but mature, a young grown-up.
She was hungry and her sleeve still gave off a scorched smell. When she got home, she put down her bag, washed her hands and lay down. While doing homework, she got up to turn on the radio and listened to the description of a movie she hadn’t seen, as well as its theme song. As she cocked her ear to hear the radio, her brother was asleep in her grandmother’s room, and her mother and grandmother had gone to the bathhouse. There wasn’t a single person awake in the house. Sumi put her head down next to the radio.
“Here’s some rice cakes.”
Yunmi placed some mugwort rice cakes on the table. Strange behavior, like meeting college students in the middle of the night or exchanging letters with someone…
“Did you sleep all day again?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“That’s right, I don’t know.”
“How can you not know if you slept or not?”
“Then I guess I slept. How was school?”
“Nothing strange happened?”
“You know, something strange. Something that upset you.”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know if you had a hard day or not?”
“I just don’t.”
“Did you see anyone loitering outside the house?”
“Beats me. I don’t really pay attention to things around me.”
Sumi always made an effort to recall the things she saw from the bus: the houses, the laundry on the rooftops, the colors of the rooftops, the ships out on the ocean, the people boarding those ships, the people on the boats she couldn’t actually see. She liked to recall them as if she could actually see them, but she had no recollection of people walking past her or whether someone had been loitering outside the house. Did she only see what was in front of her or what she wanted to see? Sumi just wanted to keep walking by herself, and when she became an adult, she wanted to go far away. She wouldn’t tell anyone about what the homeroom teacher had said to her. The phone rang and Sumi answered it in Grandma’s room. Her brother had gotten up and was watching TV. On the other end of the line was a woman, probably around her mother’s age. She asked, “Are you Jo Yunmi?”
“Who’s this?” Sumi asked, and the person snapped back, “Who are you? Let me talk to Jo Yunmi!” Sumi replied she must have dialed the wrong number.
“Wrong number, my foot! You people are crazy. How dare you talk back to a grownup?”
After listening to the woman hurl obscenities, Sumi hung up the phone. She was scared, but for a second she felt like the main character in a TV drama. She had become a person with hardships, who received calls from people wanting to torment her. But soon after she hung up, her heart was pounding and she burst into tears. Why had she thought that? Probably because she’d only seen phone calls like that in soap operas. Getting angry, finding someone to blame and inflicting punishment on them for their mistakes. But Sumi had done nothing wrong and couldn’t even begin to imagine what kind of mistake she could have made. Then the phone rang again. It was her classmate Jeongseung. She suggested going to the library on the weekend. It seemed she wanted to say something else, but then she stopped and only said, “I thought of you, that’s why I called.”
“All right then. I’ll see you this weekend.”
Yunmi seemed to have gone back to her room and there was a piece of rice cake left on the table. The green rice cake in the shape of a thin box, placed on a round table on a round plate, looked like a still life. Sumi couldn’t draw it, so she just ate it. She didn’t want to know anything, but since she already did, it’d be good if she didn’t have to learn more.
There was a thought Sumi often had. About people carrying backpacks and swimming leisurely into the belly of a fish so big that its mouth was impossible to make out. This fish was so big that, even when it was in the water, there was enough air inside. People unpacked their belongings inside the fish’s belly, arranged desks, chairs and blankets to make themselves at home. The ocean didn’t seem to be in Busan, but it just as well could’ve been. It could have been in Yeongdo, since the fish didn’t seem to have come out of a fairytale, but there was no way it was Yeongdo. Sumi met her friends there, all of whom had no parents or younger siblings, but they loved, encouraged, and cared for one another. Occasionally, Sumi would swim back out with her empty backpack, walk leisurely down the streets, and buy what she wanted to eat: tteokbokki, Korean sausage, and knife-cut noodles. Also kimchi fried rice and spicy noodles. And one day, she might even get to try things she’d never had before, which she’d only seen on menus, like palbochae noodles, yangjangpi, stir-fried meatballs, robatayaki, cheesecake, steak, lasagna, Viennese coffee, and whiskey. After finishing her errands, Sumi would fill her backpack and return to the belly of the fish, then venture out again to buy Korean sausage, pork cutlets, ramyeon, waffles and donuts. After eating delicious food and taking a stroll in the sea breeze, she’d meet new people and go abroad. Sometimes she went to Japan, other times to Alaska, or even to Germany. Another time she went to Portugal, which Sumi deduced from the fact that there was a street with ships and a port. She’d work abroad, get a small apartment for herself, meet friends, and go about her daily life. Then one day, she’d run into a friend — someone she’d lived with in the belly of the fish — and even after all this time, they would recognize each other, and in that moment, they’d morph into fish, turn back into drops of water, and fade away. Sumi and her friend would leave spots on the road, like raindrops, but when the wind blew and the sun rose, their traces would soon disappear. However, in another version of the story, they would recognize each other and hug, cry and laugh. They would ask after one another, talk about their busy lives as if they’d forgotten everything that had happened inside the belly of the fish and then go their separate ways, understanding it was the ultimate goodbye. Sumi had such thoughts every day. Day after day, she thought about these things.
Jeongseung often brought things like soft, sweet-smelling omelet rolls, stir-fried sausage, or braised burdock for lunch, but since her mother was Japanese, she said it wasn’t until middle school that she tried kimchi fried rice for the first time.
“How about tteokbokki?”
“Yeah, of course I’ve had them.”
The two of them browsed around the library, then ate kimchi fried rice and ramyeon in the basement canteen.
“It’s really good.”
“Why is it so good?”
They kept talking about how tasty the food was and ate it all without leaving anything. It really was unbelievably good. Jeongseung got their coffees from the vending machine. They thought it tasted both bitter and sweet. It wasn’t very cold that day, but somehow felt colder inside. Actually, the sun was shining outside.
“You know your aunt…”
“Do you know what happened?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know anything?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Jeongseung said her aunt had been one of the people who’d set fire to the American Cultural Center near Yongdusan Park.
“Oh, I didn’t know that. We don’t talk about that kind of thing at home.”
Sumi looked a little startled while she said this, and even though it was the truth, she was worried she might look like she was lying.
“I just found out, too. But I can’t remember something like that ever happening, so that’s why I asked you.”
“Well, I’m not really sure.”
“Weren’t we in elementary school when it happened?”
Jeongseung said she couldn’t remember much from when she was little. However, Sumi recalled her childhood very well. The time when she and her brother had gotten lost, how her brother had liked the giraffes at the zoo, going to the department store with her mother, her father coming home late and taking them out for barbeque short ribs. Sumi wasn’t very surprised. She had suspected something along these lines, based on what her mother had said and the conversations of adults she’d overheard. Piecing these things together, she’d gotten a rough idea, and it seemed she’d been waiting for this moment. It was something she’d vaguely known, and while listening to other people talk, she’d wondered if it was really such a big deal, whether her whole future was ruined, whether she would get caught, whether someone would stand in her way no matter how hard she worked. Just like when she’d gazed at Yunmi’s face and thought she had no future. Would she be drawn into this net as well? Deep in her heart, she thought no, that wouldn’t happen, but right then, it felt like it could. But she’d run away and escape into the belly of a fish. No one would know her there. She’d be like the clock in a classroom. No one pays attention to it, but when the time comes, it’ll chime and make everyone look up. It’s quite funny, actually. Sumi told herself she had a place to escape to, a place to go when that final moment came.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything?” Jeongseung said. “I thought you knew.”
Sumi said she hadn’t known, but it was okay. The coffee in the paper cup had already cooled and she wondered if the weather was actually cold. Or maybe it wasn’t cold yet. As they walked toward the sea, Sumi thought it would be nice if the wind would claw at her. She could just disappear like this or maybe someone would jump into the sea to rescue her. Not knowing what her friend was thinking or what kind of expression she had on her face, Sumi wished the wind would mess up her hair. After sitting quietly for a while, they shared a cup of cocoa, then boarded the bus and headed home. A car was parked on her street and Sumi wondered if this was the strange thing Yunmi had meant, if this moment was when she should lie, if this would count as lying, if the things she’d blurt were also lies. Thinking these things, Sumi went home. How old did she look? She was too young to go anywhere, but she didn’t want to grow old too quickly. She wanted to live as an adult and die before she became old. How old would that be? After attending high school and college, at around twenty-seven years old, she might then be an adult who wasn’t too old. Yunmi had been a good student and her uncles had even sent her to college. But now she couldn’t go to school and stayed home all day. Sumi wanted to go to college and study abroad. Jeongseung had told her about the time she’d gone to Japan with her parents. They’d visited Tokyo and gone to Tokyo Disneyland. She wanted to go to Japan, too, and to Hawaii and Seattle. To London and Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Sumi wanted to go to many far-away places, and one day, she would do just that.