몸하다: “to body.” To menstruate. To undergo menstruation.
The bleeding refused to stop. It was twelve days into her cycle. Usually the flow began to lessen around the third day and ended on the fifth, but it was now almost two weeks without any sign of stopping. The flow seemed to taper off at night but would inevitably return by dawn.
A fortnight later, the blood still flowed; should she see a gynecologist? But the gynecologist’s office was not a place a young unmarried woman could visit without feeling oddly guilty.
But after the twentieth day, the dizziness began, and she became so tired that it was starting to affect her daily functioning. She gritted her teeth and went to see a doctor.
The gynecologist wordlessly slathered a transparent, slippery gel on her belly and passed a cold metal disc over it. He mumbled as he stared into a foggy black-and-white display, “I don’t see anything strange . . .”
She wiped off the gel as best she could—it kept getting all over her hands and clothes no matter how vigorously she mopped—and went back to the consultation room. The doctor glanced at the chart before him and asked, “Have you been very stressed lately? Or had any big changes in your environment?”
“I’m writing my master’s thesis . . . But I don’t think I’m that stressed about it . . .”
The doctor gave her a look before scribbling something down.
“Stress causes hormonal imbalances that can lead to your situation. According to the ultrasound you’re fine, so I’ll prescribe you some birth control pills. Take them for three weeks, go off them for one, then take them for three weeks more, then rest for a week, and so on. You’ll be back to normal in two to three months.”
She began taking birth control pills.
She took them for three weeks and had a week off. Then three weeks more before quitting after those two months. But her period, which began two days after she had quit, refused to stop for over ten days. This meant going back on the pills, and like clockwork, the blood stopped. When she tried to get off the pills again three weeks later, the same thing happened. She ended up having to foot the unexpected expense of taking six months of birth control pills.
After six months, her period went back to normal, ceasing after five days. She cheered.
Another month later, she got out of bed one morning but had to sit back down when the world began to spin.
She dry-heaved all day. The dizziness was unbearable and nothing she ate stayed down. She felt sluggish and had a touch of fever.
A full-body check-up was in order. At a big hospital, she got her X-rays taken and her blood and urine examined.
The doctor informed her of her results in an emotionless manner. “You’re pregnant.”
“You should see an obstetrician.”
She went down a few floors to see one of the hospital’s obstetricians—a young woman in her thirties who wore an unbelievable amount of makeup. After a few more fairly unpleasant examinations, the obstetrician declared her diagnosis in an ice-cold voice. “You’re six weeks pregnant.”
“But I’m unmarried and have no boyfriend.”
“You’ve never had any sexual experiences? Or taken any pills?”
“I did take some birth control pills for a while because my period wouldn’t stop—”
“For how long?”
The doctor gave her a sharp look, narrowing her bright blue eyeshadowed, thickly penciled eyes.
“Were they prescribed?”
“The doctor told me to take them for a couple of months, and you don’t really need a prescription for birth control pills . . .” Her voice trailed off as she felt oddly ashamed.
“If the doctor told you to take them for just two to three months, you should’ve taken them for just two to three months!”
“Well, uh, my period just wouldn’t stop . . .”
The doctor sighed her irritation out her vividly painted red lips. “If your body happens to be abnormal, a side effect from taking birth control pills for a long time can be pregnancy.”
“Really? But . . . aren’t birth control pills made to prevent pregnancy?” Her objection came out meek.
The doctor’s black-and-blue gaze immediately turned sharp again. “You’re the one who overdid it with the pills, it’s your own fault. Medicine isn’t candy you can gorge on whenever you feel like it.”
“What . . . what do I do now?”
The doctor flipped through the chart. “Does the child have a father?”
“Does the child have someone who can be their father?”
“No . . .”
The doctor looked up and again gave her a scary look through her thick makeup. “Then you better hurry up and find a man who’s willing to be the father.”
“The child’s father? Why?”
The doctor shot back, “You’re carrying a child—of course the child needs a father!”
“But, uh, what happens if there’s no father?”
“You’re in a situation where you’ve become pregnant under abnormal circumstances, which means that if you don’t find a male partner, the cells of the fetus will not properly propagate or grow. You know how in grocery stores there are free-range fertilized eggs and non-fertilized eggs? It’s the same thing here. If the fetus does not properly grow, then your pregnancy will not proceed normally, and this will ultimately be bad for the mother. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Clearly, the doctor was annoyed with her.
“W-what do you mean bad?”
“That depends. You’re only six weeks along right now, so I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.” The doctor sighed. Then, she glared at her again and threatened, “You better find a father for that child, fast. If you don’t, things will really get bad for you.”
Her family concluded that she should take a leave of absence from school and get set up by a matchmaker before she began to show. She wrote “sickness” on the request form as her reason for taking leave. Her short-tempered thesis advisor threw a fit over her taking a break just when her thesis was finally shaping up. She regretted the interruption in her work as well, but there was nothing to be done. The people in her department commiserated with her as if she had contracted a fatal disease.
She didn’t have much to do once she had left school. Her family became busy instead, coming together for the great “Find the Child a Father” project. It wasn’t long before her mother and the matchmaker had set up her first matchmaking seon date at a café.
An awkward silence descended between her and the man as soon as the matchmaker and her mother left the table. This was her first time on a seon date, and she didn’t know what to say to this complete stranger or where to look or what to do with her hands. Her morning sickness, which had seemed to ebb, had come back that morning with a vengeance, and the strong air-conditioning breeze of the fancy hotel café, coupled with the smell of the black coffee, was making her shiver and her insides flip-flop.
The man, somewhat apologetically, began to speak. “So . . . you’re a graduate student?”
“Yes . . .” Her lips were blue from the cold and she could barely manage to answer him through her shivering.
“What are you specializing in?”
“How very unusual! I’m sure there can’t be many people studying Norwegian literature in Korea?”
“Uh, that’s not quite—”
She suddenly couldn’t stand the smell of the coffee. Casting her dignity to the winds, she bolted from her seat and sprinted to the ladies’ room. For a long time, she wrung out nothing from her stomach other than a little coffee, air, and bile. She prayed the man had left as she washed her mouth and hands.
But he was waiting for her in front of the ladies’ room with worry written all over his face. He quickly supported her arm as she came stumbling out the door. “Are you all right?”
“Yes . . . I’m so sorry.”
She was bright red and didn’t know what to do with herself. The man helped her back to their table. As she leaned on him during the short distance of their slow walk back, she noticed how his shoulders were wide enough to wrap around hers in an embrace. Her hands and shoulders, freezing from the air-conditioning, registered that the man’s arm was strong and hard, but at the same time warm and appealing. The room was still spinning, her legs threatened to give way, and she was so ashamed that she wanted to make a run for it, but as she became conscious of these facts about his body. her red face grew even more crimson.
“Are you very unwell? Shall we go?”
“I’m sorry, may I sit down for a bit?”
“Oh, of course.”
She collapsed into the chair and couldn’t think of anything to say to him. The man, not knowing what to do, kept sipping his coffee.
“Are you sick today? I hope you didn’t force yourself to come out . . .”
“No, it’s just morning sickness . . . I’m pregnant, you see.”
“Oh, really? Congratulations.”
“Then it must be the smell of the coffee that made you uncomfortable. Shall we get rid of it?” He immediately called over a waiter.
“Thank you so much.” She was still mortified, but it was a relief not to have to smell the coffee anymore.
“But you mustn’t be too far along?”
“Yes, it’s only been two months.”
“So you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl? I’m sorry, I’m being nosy.”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t know yet. I didn’t ask, on purpose.”
“I guess it’s more fun to wait and have the anticipation.”
The man was polite and kind, an unexpectedly nice conversation partner. She felt attracted to him. They talked for a while about pregnancy and babies until she suddenly asked him, “So, um, would you be my child’s father?”
“The child’s father?”
“Yes, to be honest, that’s why I’m on this seon date . . .” She gave a quick summary and confession as to how she became pregnant through the birth control pills and the doctor’s warning.
The man listened with a sincere expression. After she finished, he seemed lost in thought for a moment. “Well . . . I think I’d have to think about it a bit more. I didn’t know this was your situation when I agreed to come . . . I know it’s a seon date but becoming a father is not an easy decision. I hope you understand.”
“Of course, that’s fine.”
“I can’t give you an answer right now, but maybe if we saw each other a bit more and got to know each other better, I’d be able to decide then. Would that be all right?”
“Very much so.”
The man insisted on driving her home despite her repeated refusals.
“I’m actually a driver by trade. You can trust me,” He said this with a smile.
As she watched him drive off into the night after dropping her off by her house, she thought of how they had talked all afternoon and the only thing she really knew about him was the fact that he was a driver.
She went on a string of seon dates with other men after that, but nothing really took. There were many times where she would run to the ladies’ room and come back to find the man had disappeared. Some of the men became tense and took out their cigarettes at the mention of her being pregnant and others made sure she was aware of their distaste for her situation. She kept thinking that the first man had been the best, but his irregular work hours made it difficult to keep in constant contact with him.
Slowly but surely, her stomach grew. The pregnancy became obvious at five months. Her morning sickness seemed to get worse for a time but eventually began to abate. Her breasts grew bigger and her weight climbed to the point where her back and feet hurt. She became out of breath easily and her ankles frequently swelled up. She often felt a knot in her chest, sweated like a fiend, and was constantly in and out of the bathroom. The hospital assured her that these were all normal signs of pregnancy. But at six months, there was no longer any fetal movement. She only felt a slight twisting or trembling inside of her, but these weren’t the sensations of a baby kicking inside her womb.
The thickly made-up obstetrician sneered at her worries. “You still haven’t found a father for the child? This is all because of that.”
“Well, I mean, it’s not so easy—”
“Nothing in life is easy! Did you really think pregnancy would be easy? What are you trying to do about it? Do you have any idea how little time you have left?”
“I’m looking, but—”
“If this is your attitude now, what kind of a mother do you think you’re going to be? Think about it. There’s a new life growing in your belly right this minute. A human being is being created. You have to take responsibility for an entire human being! But if you’re this nonchalant at the fetus’ development stage, what are you going to do once you give birth?”
“You seem to be complacent because you can’t actually see the baby right now, but keep this up and you’ll really see what you’re doing to the baby. If you want a normal child, you’ll do whatever it takes to find a father.”
“But I really am trying to find the baby a good father, for the sake of the child—”
“You’re running out of time!”
The top of the obstetrician’s head seemed about to pop off far above her layers of blue eyeshadow and black eyeliner, her narrowed stare so sharp that it threatened to cut anyone who met it.
Defeated, she quickly left the hospital.
It wasn’t easy going about seeing people with her protruding belly. When the man on her thirty-seventh seon date took one look at her stomach and fled the café without a word, she declared that she would no longer go on anymore seon dates. She made a big show of proclaiming that she had conceived on her own and therefore would raise the baby on her own. But she couldn’t do anything about the persistent bit of worry and fear that tormented her, that she was somehow irreparably harming the child by having this baby without a father.
Her daily routine devolved into keeping herself comfortable in bed and listening to music and watching videos that were said to be good for expecting mothers. She ate foods high in iron because her morning sickness had been replaced by anemia. Her sense of taste didn’t change however, nor did she suddenly crave foods she normally disliked. Her days were slow and peaceful, and all of her relatives who would usually never give her a second thought were suddenly very interested in her well-being and treated her like a fragile heirloom, always making sure to ask her for anything she might want. Aside from the times she had to go to the obstetrician for examinations, her life had settled down and she felt content.
One day, as she read fairy tales for expecting mothers while listening to music for expecting mothers, her phone buzzed. It was a text message.
Call me immediately.
She had never seen the number before. Figuring it was a wrong number, she deleted the message.
Ten minutes later, her phone buzzed again. It was the same message. She deleted it.
Fifteen minutes later, her phone buzzed yet again. The same message. This time, there were exclamation marks.
Call me!! Immediately!!
Someone with an emergency must have the wrong number. She pressed dial.
“Hello?” answered an unfamiliar male voice.
“Hello? Did you send me a text just now?”
“Are you Kim Young-lan?”
This surprised her. “Yes, I’m Kim Young-lan. Who are you?”
She heard a rustling sound.
“Itseu my lady, oh, itseu my lobeu! Oh, datseu, I mean, dat she, she new she wuh! She seu-peak-seu yet she seseu no, I mean, nuh-ssing, wut obeu det? Huh eye diseu, dee, deesu-co-ssiseu, ah-ee will en-suh it, ah-im too boldeu, uh, teu, tiseu nat to me she seu-peakseu—”
(It is my lady, O, it is my love! / O, that she knew she were! / She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that? / Here eye discourses; I will answer it, / I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks—)
“Um . . . hello?”
The man continued, his voice slightly louder, “Too obeu duh peh, peh-uh-resteu staseu in oll duh heh-beun, heh-bing sum bee-jeu-nee-seu, do, uh, en, entreeteu huh ah-iseu, to, to teu-inkle—”
(Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, / Having some business, do entreat her eyes / To twinkle . . .)
“Hold on!” she shouted. The man stopped his recitation. “What on Earth are you doing?”
“It’s from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Second act, second scene, in the Capulets’ garden.”
“It’s how I feel. I knew the moment I saw your picture in the paper. You are the woman of my destiny. Oh, yu, ah, my, ro-seu, my buhning ha-teu—”
“In the paper? What paper?”
“I could really sense your womanliness from the headline: ‘Looking for a Man to Be My Child’s Father.’ Such a cut above the usual pandering for a husband! Such femininity, such literary sensitivity. My darling Young-lan, we are meant to be. Through our passion for literature, too-geh-duh dee-peu luh-beu endeu un-duh-seu-ten-ding—”
“Look, you have the wrong idea—”
“I may be so poor that I committed the faux pas of asking you to call me instead of calling you first, but I will pay you back for the phone call someday. Capitalism is nothing before the forces of love and passion! Oh, my lay-ee-dee, my leh-deu roseu—”
“I’m not an English major!”
She slammed down the phone and looked for a newspaper. On the very last page was her photograph accompanied by large letters: Looking for a Man to Be My Child’s Father. Her name and age were next to the photo along with “Graduate student, literature” as her occupation. Her phone number, clearly printed, underneath that.
At the dinner table, she brandished the newspaper and berated her family. They glanced at each other and said it had been a last-ditch effort to get her child a father.
“We thought it might be easier if we were just honest about it up front . . .”
She was annoyed, but thinking back on the obstetrician’s warning, she couldn’t help but agree just a little. She suffered through many phone calls after that. But she did have a glimmer of hope before picking up every call.
When she refused to answer Romeo’s pleading texts, he began calling her. Every day, it was a new scene from a play of some male character wooing a woman, topped off with his begging her to meet him. There were prank calls from children, as well as serious calls from women offering to introduce her to their brothers, fathers, sons, even husbands. There were threats, too.
“Is this Ms. Kim Young-lan?”
“Remember me, bitch?”
“We fucked. Don’t you remember? Your baby is my baby.”
“Uh, I think you’ve dialed the wrong—”
“Enough with this bullshit. Let’s talk. Bring ten million won to the MM Hotel coffee shop at noon tomorrow. Then I’ll keep it a secret.”
“Excuse me, what was the number you wanted to call?”
“Are you stupid or something? Is tomorrow too soon? All right, I’ll cut you a break. You have until this weekend to come to the MM Hotel coffee shop with the money. Or else I’m going to go around your neighborhood saying that we fucked and that your baby is mine. Understand? Everyone is going to know what a slut you are.”
“Actually, that’s exactly what I need, a man to be the father—”
“Your future is at stake so think about it. Ten million won until this weekend. Got it?”
He hung up.
She suffered through many more pointless calls. Then one day, she finally received a somewhat promising one.
“Hello, I’m calling in answer of an ad. Are you Kim Young-lan?” The man’s voice was young and polite.
“This is she.”
“You said you were looking for a father for the child, right? Do you have any specific requirements? Age, or that kind of thing . . .”
She hadn’t thought that far ahead. She answered vaguely, “Well, I don’t know about any requirements, I guess as long as it’s someone who can be a good father—”
“Oh, really?” The man seemed to think for a while. “Then how does one apply to be the child’s father?”
She grinned, thinking he was an interesting person. “You don’t need to put in an application. Could you tell me about yourself?”
“Oh, how rude of me.” He went on to say he was thirty-three years old, a graduate of a top school, and currently working at a conglomerate. Having never worked in a corporate setting, she wasn’t sure what his job title really meant, but she had a feeling that he was in a very high position for someone so young. Really, a flawless candidate. Even if he were lying, and it was true she was a little suspicious, she found herself liking the overall impression he gave off as a person. More than anything else, she liked that he had asked her what she was looking for in a father. After a long conversation, they made a date to meet at the MM Hotel coffee shop on the weekend and hung up.
On the day of the date, she chose the most business-like maternity dress she had, carefully applied her makeup, and went to the café with her heart pounding and her arms hugging her belly.
At the entrance, as she stood for a moment looking around, wondering who might be her date, a young man approached her.
“Are you Kim Young-lan?”
The man whose voice she recognized from the phone was exceptionally handsome. She followed him to a table. There was an old man sitting there, and two men wearing sunglasses standing at attention behind him.
The young man introduced the old one. “This is my father-in-law.”
“I’ll leave you two alone, then.”
“Uh, could you wait a minute—”
The young man left the café.
The old man spoke. “Sit down.”
One of the sunglassed men behind him pulled out a chair. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down.
“I’ll get straight to the point. I’m Suh Woochang, head of the Woochang Group.” This startled her. “The man that just left, he’s my son-in-law. I’m the last in eight generations of only sons. I had no children until I was fifty, and only had one daughter. We poured all our care into her, but she ended up with that useless piece of garbage you just saw. I was going to overlook it and pass on the company if they had a son, but it’s already been six years with no child. I ended up with a dickless piece of shit for a son-in-law and for that, I’m about to lose everything I worked my whole life for.”
He was getting worked up by his own story. She was finding the situation more and more confusing.
“So anyways, young lady.” He suddenly shifted closer to her and grabbed her hand. “That child in your belly, give it to me. The field is already tilled and all you need is the seed, right? I’ll give you my seed. Or why not come into my house as a concubine? You just have to continue our line, give me a nice, fat son, and I’ll make sure you and the child will live a happy life.”
“Uh, excuse me, grandfather, but—”
“My idiot son-in-law tells me you said age wasn’t an issue. I’m eighty-two, but as hot-blooded as any young man. I’ll put your name down on the family registry and everything, what do you say?”
“Grandfather, that’s not—” As she desperately sought a way out of this mess, trying to extract her hand from his, her phone rang. Relieved, she finally managed to snatch her hand back and answer the phone.
But there was no answer and the line went dead. The old man grabbed her hand again.
“What do you say, young lady? Give me a son and you’ll live the rest of your life in luxury as a chaebol wife. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
She looked up. A cruel-faced middle-aged man stood before her.
“You know who I am, right? Did you bring the ten million won?”
“Who the hell are you?” the old man asked, frowning at this interloper.
“Me?” The other man took out a cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and blew a plume of smoke into the old man’s face. The sunglassed men behind the old man took a step forward, but the old man held up a hand to halt them. The men took a step back.
The middle-aged man puffed leisurely on his cigarette. “I’m this woman’s lover. The baby in her belly is mine.”
“Are you her father? Or some old pervert trying to buy her for sex? Jesus, did I hit the jackpot this time.” He smiled down at the old man, brought his face down within an inch of the old man’s, and said in a low, threatening voice, “I don’t know if she’s your precious daughter or your trophy wife, but if you don’t want everyone to think she’s having my baby, you better hand over fifty million won, fast.”
“What the hell is this bastard saying!” The old man shouted so loudly that the sunglassed men stepped up to them again.
The middle-aged man didn’t back down. “Bastard? Who are you calling bastard? If you know what’s good for you, hand over the money while I’m feeling generous. Then I’ll be on my way.”
The old man looked at her and the middle-aged man and went, “Huh!” and stood up, whacking his cane on the floor. The sunglassed men hurried to support him.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?” The middle-aged man grabbed the old man by the collar. “Do you think this is some—oof!”
One of the sunglassed men had swiftly punched the middle-aged man in the stomach. He rolled about on the floor as the goons turned to leave with the old man.
“You fucking bastards, you hit me!” He leaped at the three departing men, and the four of them ended up on the floor in a tangled heap of bodies. One of the sunglassed men quickly began to help the old man up while the other mercilessly beat up the middle-aged man. The café customers screamed. A hotel worker frantically called someone on the phone.
Carefully avoiding the fighting, she slipped out on her own.
Her heart felt many times heavier than her belly as she walked to the bus stop. She felt stupid, yet also couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation just now.
The bus arrived. She tried not to fall flat on her face as she made her way up the steps. The bus driver watched with annoyance and started driving before she had made it completely up. She almost fell but grabbed the bus card scanner just in time.
Although the bus wasn’t that crowded, there were no empty seats. She wanted to go to the back as she had a long way to go, but it was hard to keep her balance in the shaky bus; she grabbed a pole near the driver’s seat and hung on for dear life.
“Young lady, sit here,” said the middle-aged woman sitting near her.
“Oh, I’m all right, thank you.”
“It doesn’t look like you’re all right at all!” The woman smiled warmly as she pretended to admonish her. “Your stomach is as big as Namsan Mountain, how could it be all right to stay standing on a shaking bus? You’re making me all nervous! Sit down this minute.”
“Thank you, so much.” She gave an embarrassed smile as she gingerly sat down with the help of the older woman.
Just as she settled down, the woman looked closely at her face and blurted out, “Hey, aren’t you the girl from the newspaper?”
“Excuse me?” But she knew what was coming and her heart was sinking to her stomach.
“You know, the one who’s looking for a father for her child?”
“Uh . . .” She was still in shock from what had happened in the café, and the very mention of the ad made her want to cry. She bitterly regretted not having cancelled the ad sooner.
“The real father must’ve run away after you got pregnant, am I right?” The older woman was already weaving her own story about her. “You poor thing. How could he leave such a young and pretty girl?”
The woman patted her back like she was her real mother. It was infuriating and she was indignant, but at the same time, the woman’s warm hand did feel like it was gently patting away the hurt.
“I mean, that’s life,” the older woman went on to say. “And life goes on. Think of the child in your belly. Live only for the child. It’s not easy raising a kid alone these days, but you’ve got to be strong and keep living your life! Children grow up so fast. Mark my words, today will seem like a distant memory soon enough . . .”
The woman’s voice trailed off as she gazed into the distance.
Screech. The bus came to a stop. The older woman quickly came to her senses. “Oh, my goodness, where am I?” She quickly pressed the stop buzzer and frantically looked out the window. “Look, you’ve got to make it through this! And I’m sure the child’s father will come back someday.” The older woman got off at the next stop.
She, too, eventually got off the bus and walked the rest of the way home lost in thought. Calling up the newspaper, she demanded they stop running the ad. Then, she turned off her phone and tossed it into a drawer.
The fetus in her womb, despite having reached peak weight, would occasionally tremble or squirm, but it never kicked or gave her the impression of really being alive. Her anemia worsened. She could see the fetus’ movement on the ultrasound but not feel it herself. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with her otherwise. Aside from telling her to hurry up with finding a father, the obstetrician had nothing much to report. She became so large that even other pregnant woman felt uncomfortable in her presence. But what did it mean for the baby to not grow “properly”? She thought of the hostile glare of the obstetrician with the thick makeup. If she needed a father for the baby for its proper growth, what could explain the size of her stomach now? Hadn’t she simply been scared by a few words of a doctor—some young woman with a nasty personality? Had she been so focused on finding a father for the baby that she hadn’t thought enough about what the baby really needed? Regardless of its growth, whether it had a father or not, the baby was hers and hers alone, in the truest sense. “Live only for the child.” Those words didn’t completely cleanse her of her worries and anxiety, but she could at long last feel herself calming down as she repeated them.
For the first time in what felt like forever, she felt ravenous. She wanted to eat something delicious for the baby. She jumped up from her seat.
When she opened her eyes again, she was lying on the floor.
Why am I lying here?
She managed to sit up. It took some time for her to gather her wits.
The anemia. I must’ve fainted when I got up.
She felt around the back of her head. There was a large bump. It began to scare her.
She felt a warmth between her legs.
Did I wet myself when I fainted? This is so embarrassing. I better clean up before my family gets home.
This time, carefully, she got up from the floor. She carefully crossed the apartment to the kitchen, picked up a rag, and slowly wiped the floor with it. The warm water continued to gush as she wiped the floor. A bit of red came up with the rag.
She went to the bathroom. Her underwear was soaked in red. Judging by the smell, the warm liquid was not urine.
It can’t be . . .
She opened the pregnancy guidebook the obstetrician had given her. “Call the hospital if any of the symptoms below occur.” One of the items was, “If a clear liquid keeps coming out (if your water broke).”
Her stomach suddenly hurt. The pain ebbed and flowed over her like a rapid tide.
With shaking hands, she called the obstetrician. The back of her head began to throb.
A young nurse picked up the phone, who upon the mention of fainting and anemia and water breaking began to panic. There was now hemorrhaging, and her stomach hurt.
“Look, I’m all alone at home, what do I do? My head keeps hurting from when I bumped it—”
“We’re sending an ambulance! It’ll be there soon! Don’t move, stay on the floor!” The nurse quickly confirmed her name, address, and phone number. “Don’t leave your house! The ambulance will be there in a flash!”
The ambulance was indeed there in a flash. The doorbell rang and she opened the door to a group of tall men who rushed in, put her on a gurney, and loaded her onto the ambulance. Another man was standing by outside to help bring the gurney in.
She immediately recognized him. “Um . . . hey . . .”
The man’s eyes also widened in recognition. He started to say something, but the other men shoved her in before she could hear him. The man quickly shut the door and ran to the driver’s seat. He started the engine.
The journey to the hospital was a nightmare. The vehicle shook, the siren was loud, and the paramedics constantly measured, prodded, and questioned her. She had an IV stabbed into her vein, a blood pressure cuff on her arm, and a cold stethoscope traveling across her belly. The back of her head felt like it would split in half from the pain, and she felt a strong urge to throw up. But her labor pains did not return.
Despite the lack of pain, the fetus in her belly was becoming more and more active. As if making up for months of inactivity, it now seemed as if it was about to somersault out of her womb; she could imagine the baby knocking against the walls of her uterus screaming, “I want to be born, I want to live, find me a father!” The paramedics kept asking if she could feel the contractions, and at what intervals. She kept answering that she had no contractions, and began to fear that there was something wrong with the baby, a fear that became a dark cloud that grew larger and larger and soon enveloped her whole. She grabbed a nearby paramedic and begged him to be the baby’s father. Just then, waves of pain overtook her as she moaned and hugged her stomach.
The ambulance suddenly stopped. The driver urgently pressed down on the klaxon.
She shouted the driver’s name. She got up from the gurney and crawled toward the driver’s seat.
“Please be my baby’s father!” she begged her first seon date. “It’s not too late! The baby is about to be born! Please help me! It’s not too late . . .”
The ambulance driver stuck his head out of the driver’s seat window and shouted, “Hey, asshole! Get out of the way! This is an ambulance! We’ve got a pregnant lady with a concussion!”
The paramedics dragged her back onto the gurney and laid her down. The ambulance started moving again. It ran red lights, jumped lanes, and sped past countless cars, zipping by at manic speed. They finally arrived at the hospital, where she was carried out of the ambulance. The man who had been her first seon date restarted the engine and gave her a reluctant last look through the rear-view mirror as she was rolled into the emergency room. The ER confirmed the concussion was fairly light and sent her on to the delivery room.
The delivery waiting room was full of other women with bellies as big as Namsan Mountain, some clinging to their husbands’ arms and screaming that they were going to die while others were nonchalantly walking about, quietly sobbing, or conversing with nurses. As for her, the fetus was threatening to burst out at any moment and her body was slowly cracking open with each kick. Pain engulfed her. As it subsided, she was left with a pounding headache that felt like her heart was in her skull. The nurses urged her to walk if she wanted the baby to come out quicker, but her headache was so intense that she couldn’t even sit up. She lay in a bed and stared up at the ceiling until her eyes became sore from the white fluorescent lights. Her head pounded to the beating of her heart. She felt her head inch away from her body with every beat and slowly float up towards the white ceiling. But it was then yanked back whenever she felt another wave of pain that twisted her like a wet rag. The alternating contractions and headaches lulled her into an eerie sense of calm as her vision was flooded with white light.
The intervals between contractions became shorter and the pain unbearably long and violent. The nurse examined her and said she was ready for the delivery room. Still rising up like a balloon and being jerked back with each wave of pain, she clung to her belly as she walked into the delivery room and hoisted herself upon the delivery table. She could vaguely hear the surreal counting of the doctor as she pushed on cue.
Again. And again. And—
A lump slipped out between her legs, or rather, flowed out. She felt a wonderful relief in her belly.
She lay there quietly, waiting to hear the baby’s cries.
Everything was silent.
Neither the doctor nor the nurse moved. No one spoke.
She barely managed to whisper, “What is it? Is it . . . dead?”
There was no answer.
“Is the baby dead?”
Terror and despair pierced through her blinding-white senselessness and throttled her. She looked about the room and struggled to sit up. A nurse gently took the baby from the doctor and handed it to her.
The “baby” was a black and red, slightly iron-smelling, enormous blood clot.
“What is this?” she asked as she looked around at the doctor and nurses, propping up herself with one arm and holding the baby with the other. The blood clot against her breast was warm.
“I said, what is this?”
“It’s a baby,” snapped the obstetrician. Her face was half-covered with a surgical mask, but her bright blue eyeshadow and pitch-black eyeliner were unmistakable.
“This . . . this is a baby?”
“I told you to find the baby a father. You were the one who left it to grow without one. This is what you end up with!”
The doctor’s voice was cold, and her eyes seemed to say, This is all your fault.
The blood clot squirmed.
“The baby is looking for its mother,” said the nurse softly, the one who had handed her the “baby.” “Now it’s looking at the mother. Look back into its eyes.”
She could feel the blood clot looking at her as well. But she couldn’t tell where exactly the eyes were, or quite frankly, where its head ended and its body began. Confused, she turned the blood clot about, examining it.
The “baby” kept squirming and suddenly began to shudder. The black-red clot very briefly shone transparent and crystalline, like a blood-colored jewel.
The next moment, the “baby” disintegrated into a pool of liquid blood.
Her hand and chest soaked in blood and her arm still curved from when she had held the baby, she stared down mutely at the ruined front of her gown and the puddle of blood in the middle of the delivery table.
The delivery room door slowly opened. Her first seon date, the ambulance driver, hesitatingly entered the chamber.
“You can’t be in here,” said one of the nurses.
“Oh, I’m . . . I’m her guardian. Well. Not yet her guardian, but . . .” He turned to her and stammered, “C-could it be possible if I were your guardian now? I-I was wondering if it wouldn’t be too late . . .” His words trailed off as he finally read the room and realized she was covered in blood. “Uh . . . that isn’t . . .?”
She slowly, mechanically turned her head and stared blankly at the man’s confused face. Then she turned, again slowly, with difficulty, to the dripping puddle of blood on the bed that had once been her baby.
She covered her face with her bloody hands and began to cry. Sobs at first, soon escalating into full-on wails. Whether they were tears of relief, sadness from losing the baby, or of something else entirely, she herself couldn’t tell.
“The Embodiment” appears in Bora Chung’s short story collection Cursed Bunny, which can be pre-ordered from Honford Star here.