This short story by Jung Young Su won the New Writers Award in Fiction from Changbi Quarterly in 2014, and has been translated from Korean by Anton Hur.
Nights in Lebanon
An old man famed far and wide for his wisdom sat by the city walls of Beirut.
One day, a young man asked him, “Why does God not talk to us? Why does he not let his will be known?”
The old man pointed at the wall. “Do you see that moth beating its wings against the wall? It thinks the wall is the sky. If you thought the wall was the sky, you would mistake this moth for a bird. The two of us know it is not a bird, but the moth doesn’t know we know, nor is it even aware of our very existence. How can you make your existence be known to the moth? How can you make your will be known in a way the moth can understand?”
“I do not know. How could a moth ever understand my will?”
At this, the old man slapped the moth against the wall, killing it.
“See this. The moth now knows of my existence and understands my will.”
I hadn’t seen Jang commit the deed itself. I was too busy shelving the new arrivals when he came looking for me. I’d been busy with my thesis and the books had piled up like a grave mound. Some of the arrivals were too old to be called “new.” The head librarian, fed up with it all, had spent part of the morning putting me in my place, and I had taken his “golden caution” as he put it to heart and was looking back on my life choices as I labeled the books. I was mired in regret by the time Jang came in. That was the only reason I wasn’t enthusiastic in greeting this friend that I hadn’t seen in six years. He said a nonchalant “Hi” to my back as I stood sorting behind the circulation desk before walking right into the stacks.
I heard the sound soon after. It was a small library that didn’t have many visitors; that early in the morning, you could hear dust settle. This sound was of something hard and thick falling on the ground. I thought Jang had dropped a book or something. I turned my head toward it but the shelves blocked my view, so I went back to my work. My hands were almost numb at that point from crafting and affixing the call tags.
Then it occurred to me that the sound had been a little too loud to be a mere book. We did have very large and heavy books in the stacks: TIME Magazine’s World History in Maps, The Complete Works of Pushkin, that sort of thing. I wondered if even those books would’ve made such a big a sound but soon forgot about it. I had these new arrivals to contend with. To be honest, I didn’t care what he dropped, as long as he put it back. I trusted Jang. He wasn’t the kind of person who wouldn’t reshelve a book or leave a mess. For a while I heard the sound of rustling and what sounded like books being put down, mixed with involuntary grunts. I wondered whether to offer help but decided instead to wait to be asked. Was it ten minutes later? Jang emerged looking very tired, his curly hair plastered on his forehead.
“I’m coming back,” he said.
He quickly left. I went to the 100s section to see what Jang had done. All I assumed up until that moment was that Jang had ruined an expensive book or something. But the books stood neatly on the shelves. Nothing was out of the ordinary. The faint sound of cicadas seeped in through a nearby window but otherwise, the library was quiet. A tongue of sunlight entered the window and licked the shelves. I was about to return to the circulation desk when a title happened to catch my eye and so I pulled it out. That’s when I saw it through the gap the book left behind. The dust of old books permeated the air, giving it a stale taste. The air-conditioner valiantly did its best, but it was woefully inadequate in this heat. A bead of sweat crawled down my chin. I wasn’t seeing things. It was Sunday yesterday, and there was a dead body behind the books.
A text message arrived with a chime.
—Turn the a/c on full.
It was Jang.
There was a time when I thought that if I kept turning pages, I would eventually find something on the other side. And this had been the reason I continued my studies. But while I had seen what was on the other side of all those pages, I still couldn’t help but be shocked in that moment. It shouldn’t have been so unexpected. There were always dead things hiding in books. The things that were alive were outside the library. Inside was only death.
The simplest solution to this problem was to call the police. I hadn’t seen Jang do actual murder (there was a bit of a chance he’d brought a body someone else had killed) but there were laws against hiding and dumping dead bodies, at least. I trust Jang as a friend but on the other hand, I hadn’t seen him in over a year. Who knew what kind of trouble fate had forced on him? Another idea was to quietly wait until Jang came back. Maybe he had a good reason. There were so many things in this world that were beyond my immediate understanding after all. At any rate, I didn’t want Jang to get into more trouble because of me. He’d said he’d come back, and while the whole Yeonhee business had tested our friendship, he was still my friend in the end.
Try as I might, I couldn’t think of any other way. I decided to wait. I just need to say that I never saw the body, and I would be fine. I never saw such a thing. A dead body? Never. I only have the air-conditioner on full because it’s a hot day.
The body stretched between “164.3들236” to “169.9지739ㄲ.” Taking out “165아255부” (Negative Dialectics) from the shelf revealed a crooked hand while removing “166.8푸825와” (History of Madness) showed a gray ankle. Silence and Its Objects obscured the wide-open eyes. That had been the volume I’d taken off the shelf after Jang had left, and coincidentally (or fatefully) it happened to be a book Jang had recommended to me before.
It was by a Czech philosopher named Josef Dobrofsky. Only one of his works had been translated into Korean and Silence and Its Objects happened to be it. It was surprising that even a single translation existed of his work, considering how unknown he was. The book was notorious for being not only thick but difficult. Jang always carried a copy in his bag. Grad students considered Dobrofsky’s opaqueness to be on par with Foucault’s, but Jang claimed the Czech was more fascinating than any other theorist he knew. I tried reading the book but threw it aside without finishing it. Forget the content, the translation was terrible. Dobrofsky wrote in Czech and the copy Jang carried around was a Korean translation of the German translation. The sentences were rough and syntactical mistakes frequent. There were interesting bits like the one Jang read to me. I hadn’t thought that part was interesting until Jang read it out loud. It was the part with the wise man and the moth. The author in a footnote explained it was a folk tale from the Levant. It sounded like a joke and a universal aphorism at the same time. I didn’t understand its meaning entirely but I liked the story. Jang said I had to understand the meaning of the story exactly. He added that only then would I understand how meaningless it was to read stories for their meaning. Sometimes I think it was Jang who should’ve gone to grad school and not me. Maybe if it wasn’t for the Yeonhee thing, he’d still be in school.
At first I thought it was because Jang had been a philosophy major that he’d hidden the body in the 100s. But as the hours passed, the more I thought it might not be that simple. People seemed to deliberately avoid that section of the library. Few people came all the way out to this library to begin with, but it did have some visitors. They mostly looked for books in the 800s, 400s, or 300s and almost never entered the 100s. I realized that Jang was the only person who had gone by those shelves all morning.
Jang had said he’d return in the afternoon but it was Yeonhee who came instead. There was still no word from Jang. I hadn’t seen Yeonhee in a year and didn’t know how she was getting on. I’d heard she had broken up with Jang. Odd that I would see both of them on the same day. She said she was here to borrow books. I asked her if she was here to meet Jang.
“Haven’t you heard? We broke up.”
Despite this, I wondered if Yeonhee knew about what was inside the bookshelf behind the books but dropped the notion after we’d exchanged a few words. From what I remembered, she wasn’t that good at lying.
Showing her the body when she’d said this was the first she’d heard of it was perhaps a dangerous move. I showed it to her anyway, for a single reason. I was curious as to her reaction. What expression would she make when she learned that Jang had done such a thing? A malicious bit of curiosity on my part, but I couldn’t help myself. But she didn’t seem as surprised as I thought she would be. I was disappointed somewhat, having watched her peering through the gap in the books with my heart beating fast. She asked me if I’d done it and I almost jumped at that, saying it wasn’t me, it was Jang.
“Why would Jang do this?”
I told her I had no idea and that Jang had said he’d come back soon.
“Do you think he’ll really come back?” she said.
“What do you think?”
“Maybe the old Jang would. The one now, I’m not so sure.”
That made two of us.
I knew Jang and Yeonhee longer than they’d known each other. But once the three of us started hanging out, I began to feel I hadn’t known the two of them as well as they knew each other. And now that Yeonhee didn’t know about Jang and I didn’t know about Yeonhee, none of us knew each other well anymore.
Jang often said it would’ve been better for him to be a dentist than a philosopher. He said a dentist was better at existential questions. Nothing made methodological skepticism more ridiculous than having a root canal. Yeonhee had wanted to meet Jang when I told her about this, so I invited her to a weekly seminar I held with Jang. We called it a seminar but it was mostly us talking about stuff over beers. Jang went on for two hours about Merleau-Ponty. I said nothing as I knew nothing about Merleau-Ponty. From what I knew, Yeonhee didn’t know much about him, either. And two days later, Yeonhee asked me when the next seminar was going to be.
Yeonhee said she would wait for Jang with me. I dug up a chair for her behind the circulation desk. It wasn’t hard to prevent other people from discovering the body. If someone happened to approach the area, all I had to do was ask what book they were looking for. I’d take it out for them and carefully replace the book with another one. I still had new arrivals to take care of so I had Yeonhee keep watch over the section. She’d sit there, lost in thought, but then signal with her elbow when she saw someone approach the 100s. I felt more at ease than I had in the morning. I felt like I’d roped in a co-conspirator, and that was not a bad feeling. I think she was enjoying it, too.
The head librarian dropped by in the afternoon. He checked to see if I was shelving the new arrivals properly. He stared at the still-large pile and asked why I couldn’t work any faster. He was about to leave when he spotted Yeonhee and this for some reason inspired a new round of lecturing. He said what he always said, about philosophy majors being idiots who sat around reading all day and were blind to the real world, that the ink-drinking morons would be the first to die on the battlefield (not that he himself had ever seen a day of combat). They would just stand there, he opined, doing nothing as bullets flew straight at them. He told Yeonhee she needed to date someone who was going places. When Yeonhee asked for examples, he said, Someone who can see reality for what it is. Cloud-gazers are only good for starving their wives and children. Then he gave Yeonhee and me a suspicious look and said he was leaving work early and disappeared.
It was a weekday so visitors were few. There were no further incidents, aside from a middle schooler playing a game on his phone who strayed too close to the 100s; I told him he wasn’t allowed to play games in the library and showed him out.
Thanks to Yeonhee’s help, I was able to finish shelving the new arrivals before closing time. There weren’t any more people in the stacks so she was free to casually browse the newly returned pile. There was still no word from Jang. When I phoned him, I got an automated message saying his phone was off. I began to think that he may never return. What if he didn’t? What if he didn’t appear tomorrow, or the next day, or the next? No matter how cold we set the air-conditioner to, the body will begin to go off. But I didn’t want to be the one to turn him in. And now that Yeonhee was involved, I wanted more than ever to not be the reason that Jang came to harm. I hoped he would appear soon.
A man entered just as we were about to close. I had finished registering and putting all the new arrivals in their places. I glimpsed someone at the door and turned, hoping it was Jang, but it wasn’t. He was short and had a kind of pudgy, cute impression, but as soon as he came into the library he rushed toward the 100s. Then he scanned the shelf, looking for something. He must’ve had bad eyesight because his face was right up against the spines. Thankfully it must’ve not smelled too much but his face, to me, was way too close to the body for comfort.
I tried hard not to sound anxious as I asked him what he was looking for. Not bothering to even look at me, he said he’d find it himself. I told him we were closing and it was probably faster if I found it for him. He said he couldn’t remember the title so I asked him the author’s name but he didn’t remember that either. He frowned and finally said something about the author being Czech or some kind of Eastern European philosopher. I could guess what he was looking for. And I remembered what that book was obscuring.
He said, “Oh right, I remember. Silence and Its Discontents?”
More like Silence and Its Objects. I grabbed a book of similar thickness and quickly slid out the book he wanted.
“Huh?” He took the proffered book without looking. “What’s that?”
He was looking into the gap. I quickly slid the book I was holding into it. He said he saw something in there. I tried to look like I had no idea what he was talking about and quickly tried to think my way out of this. I thought of hitting him over the head with a heavy book, like TIME Magazine’s History of the World in Maps.
“I think it’s a pigeon or something?” said the man.
“No, seriously, there’s something in there. How did it get inside?”
I felt the cold air of the air-conditioner chill my back. He tried to extend a hand toward the book I’d just placed. I stepped in front of him as politely as I could. I told him the library was closing and he would have to come back another day. The man looked at his watch. He scratched his head, saying once more that there really was something in there, and presently strode toward the circulation desk.
“It was something dead,” he mused.
After he left, I took the other thick book out and looked inside. Yes, it was definitely dead.
“Let’s bury it,” said Yeonhee.
“He saw it, right? We have to kill him.”
“Are you crazy? How can we actually kill a person?”
Yeonhee grinned at my blood-drained face. “I’m kidding.” She indicated the 100s with a gesture of her chin. “Except we really should bury it.”
She meant we needed to take care of it in case someone else discovered it. I said we should still wait until Jang came back. She said we could stall for only so long, or did I want to see Jang in jail? I said he deserved to go to jail, but she said the body had been there since the morning, which made me an accessory to murder.
“Don’t you mean guilty of criminal neglect of a corpse?”
“I’ll do it by myself if I have to. Do as you like. I didn’t expect you to step up.”
Yeonhee was the same. She always was the most stubborn at the most inopportune times. I couldn’t tell what was going on in her head. What I was sure of was that Yeonhee still liked Jang a lot. Nothing had changed. And who was pathetic enough to bury a body because a girl dared him to? Where would you find an idiot like that? Right here.
The plan was simple. We were going to sneak in late at night and drag out the body. I grabbed the security key before leaving. There was still no word from Jang. We thought of what to do in the meantime and decided beer would make the hours go faster. I wanted to buy as much time as possible to give Jang a chance to come back. Yeonhee didn’t say anything for quite a long time after we’d settled down in the beer place. Come to think of it, we were in the same situation as the day of the incident. We were, back then, also drinking beer as we waited for Jang to arrive.
It was to congratulate him. He’d won an award for best thesis for his paper on Josef Dobrofsky. Jang said he’d come to us as soon as the official afterparty was over and Yeonhee and I decided to meet up before he arrived. It was the first time we were alone together since she started dating Jang. We emptied our glasses in silence for a while as I regretted how our relationship wasn’t the same as before she started dating Jang. We tried to talk about old times but our conversation kept losing its thread. My mind meandered between wishing Jang would hurry up already and wishing he would never show up. Yeonhee said we should move on to another bar when we finished our glasses. I thought getting up and taking a walk might improve the mood between us, so I assented.
It was a weekday, but Christmas was coming so the streets were busy. We walked for a long time through the falling motes of snow. Yeonhee was the one who suggested we go to Jang’s house. Jang was going to be late so we should just wait there and throw him a surprise congratulations party. The fact that she had a key to his place annoyed me, but it was cold and it seemed like a good idea so I said yes again.
But once we were inside, more awkwardness ensued, so we continued to drink too much. I became so drunk that I don’t really remember the events of that evening. I vaguely remember asking her several times if she knew I liked her. I also kept wondering aloud why Jang was so late. We finished the drinks we had bought to celebrate with Jang. We found more beer in his fridge, so we finished that. We made fun of how the middle-aged couple sitting next to us in the beer place looked, talked about the day we first met, and about all the Christmases we spent in churches as children. And why we majored in philosophy, how she came to move into Jang’s apartment, and there was still no word from Jang, and we ran out of things to talk about so we turned on the TV, and she turned off the TV, and we had sex.
Jang did not appear even the next day where we woke up naked, crawled out of the house together, and had some hangover stew. I distanced myself from Jang after that. I met Yeonhee a couple of times after but we never talked about that night. Thinking about that night, I had the feeling that Jang wouldn’t come this night, either.
Yeonhee continued to be silent. She fiddled with her beer glass, seemingly lost in thought. I wondered if she regretted suggesting we bury the body. When I asked, she said her thoughts remained unchanged. I was now confident she still had feelings for Jang. I wondered what made them break up. I was trying to find something to break the awkwardness, anyway, so I went ahead and asked.
“You don’t know?” She looked up at me so quickly that I was caught off guard. She asked again whether I really didn’t know why they broke up.
“It’s not because of me, is it?”
Yeonhee didn’t say anything. I had to repeat the question several times before she replied, “Why should we break up because of you?”
I asked if Jang ever found out about that night and she acted as if she didn’t know what I was talking about. When I said, “that incident” with emphasis, she snorted.
“You haven’t changed.”
I said, “I haven’t what?”
She made no reply. I drank my beer thinking Jang might’ve done what he did because of his breaking up with Yeonhee.
It was harder than expected to drag a dead body. Yeonhee had almost stopped talking since coming out of the bar. There was still no word from Jang. I had her wait in the corner of the dark stacks and went to find a shovel. She didn’t bat an eyelid at being so close to a dead body. Then again, she always did seem fearless.
I lucked into a shovel in the storage closet. It was rusty but still usable. I hid it in a flower bed in the library entrance and went back to the stacks. I tried taking the body down from the shelf on my own but it was stiff and I couldn’t get a good hold of it. Yeonhee grabbed the shoulders and me the legs. It was heavier than we expected, and Yeonhee lost her grip, the body falling on the floor with a thud—the same sound as the one I heard this morning. Cold sweat ran down my back. I wondered if all dead bodies were this heavy. Jang never would’ve been able to do this without my help. I had no way of knowing what he thought of me after the incident. Did he know what went on between Yeonhee and me? Judging by Yeonhee’s behavior, the incident must’ve had something to do with their breakup.
Our planned burial plot wasn’t far. There was a low hill behind the library where hardly anyone passed by. We decided on a place that was a ten-minute walk off the mountain path. We each took an arm and supported the body like we would a drunk friend. Our heights were mismatched so I had to bend my knees to prevent the body from falling on top of her. Thankfully we met no one on the way but it was hard going. My hair kept getting in my eyes. I felt like we were drowning in the damp air. I’d thought the hill was close by but we walked for much longer than I expected. Yeonhee soldiered on as if she were serving some unavoidable sentence.
We said nothing as we found a good place to bury the body and I dug the soil. The only sound in my ears was my panting. There was still no word from Jang. Sweat soaked my body. I tasted blood in the back of my throat. Yeonhee sat leaning against a tree nearby. The darkness of the night shadowed her face. Her silence, however, weighed on me more heavily than the humid air. I opened my mouth only because I felt I had to say something.
“You know what?” I didn’t look away from the shoveling but I knew her eyes were on me. “Was it really not because of me?”
“Do we need to have this conversation now?”
I heard the annoyance in her voice. This wasn’t the Yeonhee in the library. But I needed to know, and this was my chance.
“I’m serious. Does Jang know what happened?”
Yeonhee sighed. “Is that so important to you?”
“Yes. It’s important to me.”
“Really? You really need to know this?”
“Stop dragging it out and tell me.”
“He knows. Jang knows about us.”
“But we didn’t break up because of that.”
Yeonhee went back into silence.
I thought the pit was big enough at this point. I stopped shoveling, hauled myself out of the hole, and pushed the corpse with my feet until it fell in. It ended up facedown. I stared at it for a moment as I caught my breath and started to fill up the hole again.
“But why did you sleep with me?” I asked. “Was it just because you were drunk?”
I paused in my digging.
“Do you know who that is?” Yeonhee gestured toward the hole. “I mean, do you even know who you’re burying?”
This was an unexpected question. Why didn’t I think to ask it before? But if I wanted to find that out, I had to go down the hole and turn his head around. I didn’t feel like doing that.
“. . . Is it someone you know?”
“You never change.” Her voice grew louder. “How could you be like this? How could you be so mindless about everything?”
I felt an urge to whack her with the spade and bury her along with the corpse. “Calm down and start from the beginning. What are you talking about?”
“It was Jang.”
“What? The body is Jang?” What the Hell was she saying?
“The one who told me to sleep with you, just once. It was Jang.”
“Ask him yourself.”
There was still no word from Jang.
“How could he ask you to do that? And for God’s sake, why would you do it?”
“What about yourself? Why are you burying that body for him?”
I couldn’t answer. I no longer understood anything. I couldn’t understand why Jang asked Yeonhee to sleep with me, or why I was burying this faceless person for him. I didn’t know why Jang came to the library today and why he still wasn’t picking up his phone. Had he wanted me to do this for him all along?
Filling in the hole was more laborious than digging it up. Maybe because I’d exhausted myself digging. Each shovelful of dirt made sweat run over my eyes and I had to raise my arm to wipe it off. The mindless rhythm of the shoveling lulled me into a trance. I had no way of telling how much time had passed. I felt the sun would rise at any moment. Or maybe that was still a long time away.
I was finished when I realized Yeonhee was gone. Only the dark shadow of the tree remained where she sat. I looked around but didn’t see her. I called out her name in a low voice but there was no answer.
I covered up the hole, tidied up the surroundings, and leaned against a tree to take a moment of rest. It was the same tree that Yeonhee had sat against. I stared at where the hole had been. It was covered with twigs and rocks, impossible to tell at a glance that there had been a hole there. There was still no word from Jang. The only thing left was the rusty shovel in my hands. I leaned it against the tree. For the first time since coming to the hill, I heard cicadas.
Photo via Creative Commons.