Translated by Cho Yoon-jung
I had been walking back and forth in front of the house for an hour already. But still I couldn’t knock on the door. Nothing conclusive had been found. With things turning out this way, even I found it hard to understand myself. Why was I so hung up on this unsolved case that I’d taken a day off to come here. Like a real estate agent, I was scouting the houses in the neighbourhood, as if I had nothing better to do. In this high-tech age, when most families relied on AI robots to play not only housemaid and babysitter but even lawyer, judge, doctor and fund manager, the lives of the people on the fringes continued to be as dismal as ever.
At the pocket park inside the neighbourhood hung a banner that reads: “Making Mt. Bukhan a global park.” The residents had responded by pulling down the walls. All the houses had been built so close together in the first place that even with the walls gone, a garden only the size of a picnic mat was left. But the clustered pots of marigolds, geraniums, and cyclamens were more than enough to wipe away the gloomy air of the neighbourhood. That small excess of loveliness, however, could not wipe away the uneasiness in my heart. This was one of those rare places in Seoul inhabited by people who tore down walls. Until recently K had been living here among them.
It was early on a Sunday morning, when I was fast asleep, that the discovery of someone’s SG was reported. It was after a night of tussling in bed with J and my body was limp. But when the phone sounded, shattering the dawn time peace, instinctively I reached for the SG lying next to the pillow. My tiredness vanished. A young girl shaking with fright was caught on the remote surveillance camera attached to the SG.
From the hills that surround the town it indifferently drifts. Upon bare soil and barren rocks, upon the base of trees, it sweeps. From my window this morning, the trees were grey, feathery and clinging like ghostly hands to the low clouds but now, in the wintry breathe of evening, they are like conquering warriors marching down shadowy slopes. My boots, hard and heavy, follow empty pavements. A car, a van, a bus, occasionally passes through our slushy streets. There is hardly a sound except for the click, click, click from the pedestrian crossing.
I’ve walked here all my life. I know every crack in the pavement, every blemish on the shop walls, every angle of the stooping buildings, every flutter of the koinobori, the carp-shaped wind-socks that now colourfully flutter high up over the gorge to mark the change of season. Hundreds there are, strung up on lines, but one has fallen far below and is stuck between two jagged rocks, one end flapping like a useless flag as the river tries to drag it away.
I’ve never left this place, this hot spring town where tourists flock like hungry gulls during the holiday season. There are better jobs elsewhere but I choose to remain a janitor at the high school. That’s all I’ve been these thirty- eight years. I’ll retire next month. They’ve kept me well past retirement age as I do a pleasing job. Now I have to go though as I’m too old.
Ellen puts steaming bowls of soup on the table, while little May shows her granny some colouring she has done. But May really has eyes only for Eddie.
“You little coquette!” Ellen says, laughing. “Eat your soup before it gets cold.”
“So where do you work, Eddie?” asks Ellen’s mother, helping herself to an egg salad sandwich.
Egg salad sandwiches are Eddie’s favourite. With lettuce, just like this. His Mom used to make them this way, with onions and chopped pickle and not too much mayonnaise. And Ellen looks better than she did earlier, nicer hair. Kind of a chestnut brown, and the soft wave suits her.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Here I am, sitting at the table polite as can be, telling myself this creepo social worker’s not too bad looking, this stuck-up loser, as I grin and nod at her old bag of a mother. “And where do you work?” she asks me. Where the hell does she think? Who’s going to give Eddie Slocum a job? I mean, who am I going to work for; you think I’ll work for some jerk-off? Gofer this, gofer that?
A minute ago I was on my way out. For good, I mean. Jesus, I hate heights. That falling … But it doesn’t really go on all that long. You get used to it. After a few seconds everything goes black. Yeah. Nothing to it, once you get your feet wet.
Translated by Janet Hong
“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.
“I think I played on the swing.”
“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.
“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”
“I think the same will happen to you.”
“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”
Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.
Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.
The traffic on the Amity Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia was especially heavy for a Thursday, which put Dennis Quek even more on edge. He took a deep breath as he approached the first entry point station, hoping that he could swallow any obvious distress signs that the inspection machine might detect.
Finally, Dennis reached the front of a long queue. His car was pulled automatically into the right spot before the inspection machine. The hazy blue light filled the whole car, followed by the voice of the machine. “One person in vehicle. A driver, no passengers.”
Dennis nodded. He then turned his head to the right, ready for the facial identification. This time it was the warm, lemony light that filled the front of the inspection machine. Dennis squeezed out an awkward smile, thinking this was best for the situation. The smile was starting to get uncomfortable when the machine finally announced the identification.
It’s just you and me, on the counter stools, enjoying our ice cream as the buzzing, shuddering air conditioner labours to tame the exuberant heat of sunlight, blazing through the windows. Just another one of our summertime visits to Harfu’s Creamery. Until in strolls who you could be, all seersucker and gabardine in assured motion. With the charisma of a star actress on break during a movie shoot, she orders two scoops, one sweet cream, the other ginger, all topped with crushed pistachios—clearly a superior selection to our picks: my blueberry single scoop and your mango double with coconut shreds.
You, as usual, pay her no attention and carry on like she’s not even there. I, however, become that much more enamoured with her. As she stands mere steps from me, my senses gather delightful nuggets of detail.
Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai
Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab, 2018
Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.
Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass. We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.
Dante stood alone in the dark wood. Which way should he turn? Instinct told him that stepping forward would surely lead somewhere of consequence. Midway in his life, he thought how he might never achieve the goals he had set for himself as a public figure, a secular Church scholar, and laurel-wreathed poet of his city. None of it would happen. Banned from his city and society destiny was a messenger pigeon with a broken wing. His life shifted in flux. A squadron of soldiers had not set out to find his hiding place beyond the city gates this fine spring morning, no Guelph guards from his White faction or Black Guelph supporters of Pope Boniface VIII. The Pope’s agents were more bent on bringing Florence to heel since his banishment. False corruption charges for awarding plum positions with garnered bribes weighed upon him. Yes, the name Dante Alighieri was as good as dead to the city. He could never go back to prove his innocence in a court of law. The arrow of exile had left the bow. Where would it land?
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.
“No harm done.”
“I see you started cooking.”
Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?
“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”
“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”
“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”
“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”
Little Fen’s funeral took place three days later. I walked woodenly among three dozen fellow villagers in a procession led by Widow Liu, accompanied by the sad tune of trumpet and suona horns. It was a cold spring day. The sun was shining without giving away much warmth.
It pained me to look at the mother of my deceased friend. A piece of white cloth tied around her head, like a bandage on a head injury. She was being supported on each side by a friend. Her grief had whitened her hair and aged her twenty years. And her thin form resembled that of a dried shrimp.
The funeral procession came to the village’s graveyard, which lay on a gentle slope of a mountain some twenty minutes’ walk from the village. Little Fen’s body was put to rest on the edge of it, next to a large plot with castor-oil plants. When the wind blew, millions of tiny castor seeds made disturbing noises. Black crows squawked, their cries echoing in the trees, like whimpers from those no longer able to speak.