We met often that summer. There were still five more years to go until 2020. We had each spent 1999 somewhere else, so we didn’t think we would be together to greet 2020, the moment Space Wonder Kiddy would take over the world. Not that we actually thought he would show up. We didn’t say 2099 or 2100 because we weren’t sure we would be around then. Children born in 2000 may live past a hundred, but we were already in our teens in 2000. There was a good chance we would still be here in 2020.
We were unhappy, each for a different reason; therefore, we wanted to die. Even if we were happy, each for a different reason, we still would have wanted to die. We were various ages, but all in our twenties. We had never actually attempted suicide, but each of us knew someone who had succeeded. Not that we actually considered killing ourselves that summer. Nevertheless, we talked about it once a day, like a ritual.
“Should we commit suicide?”
“We should commit suicide.”
These words weren’t a request, suggestion, question, or even an answer. When we talked about it over and over like a habit, the word suicide no longer meant anything. It’s said that words spoken have a way of coming true, but we didn’t take them seriously. Or it seemed that way at least. I say we, but I’m by no means the group’s representative. I don’t know their thoughts. Even if I were the representative, there’s no way I could ever really know.
Yet that summer I did believe I somehow understood what we were all thinking. And if I didn’t understand something we were thinking, I just let it go. We managed to get along because we had faith in each other. Faith that we would not reveal the bedrock of who we were, that we would not witness one another at rock bottom. We didn’t know what exactly bedrock or rock bottom referred to. Though we met nearly every day, we dared not ask any questions that weren’t superficial. To be honest, we had no idea what kind of questions weren’t superficial.
We had begun to spend time together the previous winter, but even well into the following summer, we hardly knew one another. We shared the same workspace. One was a book publisher, one an office worker, one made candles, and I was an author. I wrote the kind of books the publisher didn’t publish—our tastes didn’t overlap. This I learned by glancing at his desk. He probably glanced at mine as well. What we saw filled us with relief.
Placed on each of our desks was a scented candle made by the candlemaker, who had given us each a different fragrance. Because it was rare for all four candles to be lit at once, the fragrances never mixed or overpowered each other. The candlemaker told us the name of each candle, but there was no way to guess the scent from the name. When we asked if the scent was artificial, like the artificial flavour added to lemon candy, she said maybe, maybe not. Anyhow, the lemon-scented candle didn’t smell like real lemon.
Once when I smelled real lemon while using lemon-scented dish soap, I felt weird. And every timeI saw the candle flame wavering in the draft of the air conditioner, I felt weird. My desk was placed right below the air-conditioning vents, so I sometimes felt cold. It was an extravagance to feel cold in the summer. I wondered if this was the only extravagance I’d ever be allowed. I wondered if the other three felt this way, but I didn’t ask.
I rarely asked anything because I felt nothing would change even if I knew the answer. I never voiced this thought, but the others seemed to feel the same because they rarely asked anything either. Not that we were reserved by any means. We talked non-stop. We talked the most the time we peeled the wrapper off a chocolate bar and found it contained three pieces, not four. The publisher was the one who had bought it.
“You can’t make it look like there’s four and put in just three,” he said. “You can’t make books that way.” I believed this was just one way he was keeping his pride intact.
He then added, “Though there are times you need to make books that way.”
We focused on distributing the three pieces equally among us. We divided each of the three pieces into four and then ate three pieces each, thereby eating exactly the same amount. It was the office worker who came up with this calculation.
That summer we ate a staggering amount of chocolate. We were still in our twenties, but one was turning thirty the following year. A person’s age was like a failed joke. The one turning thirty had done his mandatory military service for two years, which equalled 20 percent of twenty years.
“It was shitty,” he said.
Another had intended to do his military service for two years but had been discharged due to an unforeseen accident after only a year. He’d nodded, as though “It was shitty” were enough to describe the whole experience, as if no other response were possible. Our conversation about the military ended there. Our conversations always started and ended this way. We never talked about anything for more than five minutes. Still, one conversation led to another somehow. Even conversations were like failed jokes.
One spring day, someone told a joke. Another burst into laughter even before the punchline. Nobody else laughed. When the person who’d told the joke asked what was so funny, the person who’d laughed said she’d been thinking of something else. Until then, I hadn’t realized the person who’d told the joke had told a joke.
That spring, no one suggested we go look at the cherry blossoms. The office worker was the only one to see them. He had no choice but to see them because his company was located in Yeouido. He returned from the company, drained by the crowds descending to see the blossoms. Stuck to his forehead was a pale pink flower petal. When someone pointed it out, he swiped the back of his hand across his forehead and the petal smeared like a mosquito. We didn’t read our fates in that petal, but who knows if one of us wished, even for a second, to end up the same way? Or maybe we thought it had already happened.
Still, we tried to contribute to society. That’s what we believed. We each paid our taxes, health insurance, fines, bills, and rent, but our biggest contribution was buying a lottery ticket once a week.
I don’t remember who first came up with that idea. The only thing I remember is that we had all agreed. So every week, we took turns buying five thousand won worth. The one responsible for buying the ticket that week checked the numbers on Saturday. We never won big. We each had our own reasons for needing money. Though we published books, worked at an office, made candles, and wrote for a living, we needed more money. In fact, we needed money more than we needed things. We placed our lottery ticket on the table and thought about the things we needed to do come Monday.
One talked about travelling to an island. One talked about buying a new desk. One talked about getting dental implants. One talked about paying off overdue health-insurance bills. For these reasons, we needed a lot of money. Even after we’d had supper together, exchanged a few words, and gone to our own desks to work until very late, we still needed a great deal of money. The only way we could earn that amount was by winning the lottery. Buying a lottery ticket, as opposed to not buying one, raised our chances of winning. A million-to-one chance was still bigger than a million-to-zero chance. And so during the six months it took for winter to become summer, we never skipped a single week of buying lottery tickets. Sometimes we ended up winning five thousand won. Maybe twice in all. We put those winnings toward the next lottery ticket. And every Saturday evening when we checked the numbers, we drank beer. If we were hungry, we heated something in the microwave or peeled the cling wrap from the delivered food and believed we were enduring this life together. Someone would bring out a deck of
cards. After shuffling and dealing dozens of cards, we played a game of attack and defence and tried to get the highest score. We had an unspoken agreement to play cards whenever we weren’t hungry, whenever we became bored with our work, whenever we didn’t want to think about anything. We sometimes made small wagers. The person who got the lowest score had to go buy cigarettes or beer. When we smoked and drank beer, we felt as though we’d become the most useless beings on Earth. It didn’t feel bad. No. It felt bad.
A low shelf we’d rigged up using bricks and wooden planks ran along the wall below the window. The office worker, who had majored in philosophy, had placed a variety of philosophy books there, but these gradually became outnumbered by stacks of board games. Thick cigarette smoke climbed into the air until it tormented even us smokers. We turned on the air purifier left behind by the previous tenants, but it was no use. Whenever we went to the convenience store, the clerk would put a pack of cigarettes on the counter without bothering to ask what we wanted.
“This may be the last smoking room on Earth,” someone said with self-deprecation and bravado, but we believed this might be the case. “We’re contributing to society by smoking,” this person added. We actually believed this.
“Then I guess we’re also contributing to society by drinking beer?” someone else said. We believed this too. By paying tax on these cigarettes and beer, we were contributing indirectly to society.
We didn’t ask: Was this all?
The books on the shelf couldn’t even function as bricks. Neither could they function as pot stands for something like instant noodles. After all, we had no use for pot stands since we only had a microwave to cook with and nothing ever got hot enough to require a pot stand.
Even still, we were cheerful overall. Roughly. Generally. Perhaps a little more than average. As we smoked, we each talked about the first time our parents had caught us smoking, and then someone asked if we knew how to blow smoke rings, and we each proceeded to try. Then one said he would attempt a large ring and took several deep drags. He blew out all the smoke at once, drawing a circle in the air by turning his head. We burst into laughter. The ring formed in an instant but soon scattered because he had turned his head too quickly. The ring vanished like smoke. The smoke vanished like smoke. We laughed until we grew awkward and went back to our desks and hid our faces behind our computer screens.
Should we commit suicide now, or should we commit suicide tomorrow? Should we even commit suicide, or should we have committed suicide yesterday?
We posed questions that were out of the question. We wanted nothing to happen. We wanted to grow old this way, and we wanted to die this way. When we came together and talked only of absurd things, it felt as though time stopped. Then someone looked at the clock and said we’d wasted the day away. But it was our hearts, our lungs, our lives, our stomachs, our skin, our heads that were wasting away. It was impossible to grow old without wasting away. No one asked, “Why don’t we ever go anywhere?” No one asked, “Why don’t we ever go, even when we go somewhere?”
During the time we didn’t spend on cigarettes, beer, games, and lottery tickets, we each focused on our work at each of our desks. In our own way, we poured our hearts and souls into our work, but our results were not much different from a pot stand. This filled us with relief. All we needed to do was grow old this way. If we weren’t able to grow old this way, we could simply commit suicide. No one became angry, and every month we each paid the rent out of our individual earnings. There was a good chance we would still be here in 2020. The talk about Space Wonder Kiddy showing up was a joke. It was the summer of 2015, but not even an Evangelion Angel showed up. In all the books we read or cartoons we watched as children, the end of the world was always near. The end was always ten or twenty years later. Though we were still in our twenties, we knew that ten years were nothing, and once we entered our thirties, we knew twenty years would be nothing as well. Or at least we believed we knew. We didn’t make fun of anything. We couldn’t. All we did for fun was joke around and play games. We were polite to the people who worked at the auto-repair shop on the first floor, and we were nice to the dogs we encountered on the street. We said hello and goodbye every time we went in and out of the convenience store, and we dropped our gaze and bowed whenever we ran into the landlord. Still, we tossed out the garbage in one bag, without separating food waste from regular garbage, and we wasted paper cups, electricity, and Kleenex. Though we didn’t toss our cigarette butts just anywhere, there were times we smoked in the alley and threw the butts out there. Our lungs were no different from an ashtray. We wasted away instead of growing old.
Someone had bought tomatoes and apricots from the market and left them in the refrigerator. They grew mouldy. We debated whether the tomatoes were rotten. Is something rotten even if only a small part the size of a fingernail is rotten? If you can still eat it after removing the rotten part, doesn’t that mean it isn’t rotten? But how can you pretend not to see the rotten part when you do see it? If we’re rotting away, does that mean we’re already rotten? How is it we’re not tomatoes? How is it we couldn’t remove our rotten parts?
Still, we didn’t spit out our phlegm. We took turns cleaning the bathroom. We wiped the keyboard and mouse with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol. Yet we didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment. Every day, dust gathered on the floor, and even if we’d never smoked, our lungs were no different from an ashtray. Motorcycles sped by every night, and ambulances went by occasionally.
The last time we heard an ambulance siren, we were playing a game called Dungeonquest, which featured numerous cards, a key, four dice, tiles to create rooms and corridors, and a dragon. You took turns drawing cards to complete the quest and used the tiles to create a path leading to the dragon’s lair, where it slept atop the treasure. When you finally reached the lair after overcoming all sorts of obstacles, you checked the status of the dragon. If the dragon lay sleeping, you gained a loot card. But if the dragon woke, you died on the spot.
Playing Dungeonquest gave us the biggest thrill. Even a week into the game, no one had entered the dragon’s lair. Our cards threw up too many hurdles: a bottomless pit, spiderweb, portcullis, or catacomb.
Or made us combat skeletons, demons, or dark wizards. Diligently we rolled the dice and drew cards and engaged in combat. It took about fifteen tiles from the starting point to reach the chamber where the dragon slumbered. But we usually died before we could even draw the fifteenth tile. There were times we died as soon as we began.
“The first step is half the journey,” someone said, and we burst into laughter. Even if we managed somehow to plunder the treasure from the dragon’s lair, in order to escape we still had to return to the corridors where all kinds of new dangers lurked.
“Sour grapes,” someone said.
A vine you couldn’t reach, grapes you couldn’t eat. We each held a hero card, but none of our heroes returned.
Someone asked, “How long do you think we’ll be doing this? We’ll probably be doing this tomorrow. Probably a year or even five years from now.”
With these words, she rolled the dice. Her hero failed the armour test and died on the spot. There were loot cards in her hand, but the loot couldn’t save her hero.
It was the same story every night. We came to the office at different times, but for the most part we were together until very late. We roughly finished our work, sat around the round table in the centre of the office, and left on a quest. To say we left on a quest might sound romantic, but in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. But that didn’t mean it was sad or pathetic.
Back in 1999 we were too young to understand the anxieties surrounding the end of the millennium. But before 1999, there was 1997, the year of the Asian financial crisis. Though we were younger then, the anxieties we felt were a kind we experienced first-hand, different from the peculiar anxieties of 1999 that were mixed with optimism for the start of the new century.
“Out of the dozen families who lived in our apartment building, three went bankrupt and two vanished,” someone said. “I was in elementary school. Grown-ups assumed I knew nothing, but I knew everything I needed to know. Any peace or safety, health or happiness, passion or hope I ever knew vanished completely and what was left in their place was the word fate. Nothing happened to us. My father somehow held on to his position at his company, and so I figured it was the same for the other families. But when three went bankrupt and two vanished, I felt something was weird. Something was very wrong. At school, one kid stopped talking and another kid stopped attending. Even in the midst of everything, there were kids who were as rude as ever, but I’ve never seen such gloom and despair. Do you think we’ll see it again? Do you think we internalized the gloom and despair of 1997 and just got used to it? Do you think we’ve been stuck this whole time?”
“We’re lucky we weren’t in middle school then,” someone said. “We could at least pretend we didn’t understand what was going on. We could pretend we were still immature. My parents ran a fried-chicken shop. I served the customers and tried to steal the wallets they left carelessly on the tables, but it was too hard. So I took money from my father’s wallet instead. It was easier than taking it from my mother’s. I stopped after a few times. There seemed nothing left to take. Imagine that, running out of money because a school kid stole a couple of bills. But at least we were able to fry chicken. I realized then just how much Koreans love chicken.”
“So do they still fry chicken for a living?” someone asked.
“No. When the bird flu hit, my parents quit. I was their wasted dreams, and I grew up wasteful. When I said I wanted to go to art school, they slapped me and chopped off my hair, and even though I was angry, their anger, more than mine, was to be feared. I grew up in the country and couldn’t wait to get to Seoul for college. If I managed to get in, that is.”
Come to think of it, we all held our breath when we entered middle school, and we pretended to stop breathing altogether when we entered high school. At school we were always running away, we were always getting caught, we were always getting beat up. We got beat up at home and at school, we got beat up by our teachers and friends, and one of us was even bitten by a dog on the street. We all agreed that getting struck on the thighs hurt the most and getting struck on the soles of your feet didn’t hurt as much.
“Have you ever had your eyelashes plucked out?” one asked.
“Have you ever had your armpit hair plucked out?” another asked.
We talked about these kinds of things while we got locked up and released, repeatedly, from the dungeon portcullis.
“Damn it, is there even a dragon?” someone asked.
“What the fuck, damn it,” we said as a sign of agreement.
All the heroes were Caucasian and had German-sounding names. None of us were Caucasian and we had Korean-sounding names.
“Were there ever dungeons in Korea?” one asked.
“There were underground tunnels,” another replied.
“It’d be nice to commit suicide in an underground tunnel,” someone said.
No one thought the comment was pathetic.
“When I was in college, there was someone a few years ahead of me who liked music. His major was world music. I guess you could call him an expert because he was regularly a guest on the radio and wrote articles for magazines. He got hired at a company that imported and distributed world music, but maybe he wasn’t happy there because he quit after a few months and set up his own label. But he only put out a few records. We lost touch, but I heard he’s frying chicken somewhere, far away from the school. I wondered often, Why chicken? Because Koreans love their chicken? Because Koreans didn’t like world music and he wanted to do something they liked? I hardly eat chicken anymore, especially fried chicken—to me it’s like dough soup, something people ate when there wasn’t enough food—but I sometimes think about the correlation between chicken, Koreans, and private businesses. If there hadn’t been any chicken, what would he and my parents have fried? Would they have fried something else? You know the saying ‘If you can’t get a pheasant, get a chicken’? But there’s no saying that goes, ‘If you can’t get a chicken, get a pheasant.’”
We shuffled the cards in silence.
“Back to the grind tomorrow,” someone said with a long sigh.
No one said anything, but in that instant, we thought about suicide. We were all suffering wounds, from a swinging blade, portcullis, club, and arrow. When we drew two or three tiles, our chances of dying were 99.9 percent. That remaining 0.1 percent represented completeness rather than deficiency. Our chances of dying a hundred years later were also 99.9 percent.
In 2015, we were already in our twenties, and unless our bodies were cryogenically preserved, it seemed certain we would not experience the end of another century. That instant I had the thought that we’d thought only about the time and place of our suicide and we hadn’t thought about the actual method. Just as the word thought was repeated three times here, we thought a lot. We sometimes took initiative but were mostly passive. We looked at one another. The lamp that dangled above the round table thrust our faces into both light and shadow. Our murky gazes became snarled above the dungeon. I can’t remember exactly what day it was, but we didn’t hit the jackpot that week. I can remember because we never won.
In 2015, Greece went bankrupt, same-sex marriage became legalized in America, and stock prices plummeted in China. We thought hard about the countries that didn’t appear in the pages of the newspaper. But never mind countries, we didn’t appear in the pages of the newspaper and neither would we in the future. We would die nameless, and even if we were to commit suicide, it seemed certain we would die nameless and soon be forgotten, unless we carried out a suicide-bomb attack in the heart of Gwanghwamun. It’s not that we particularly wanted to leave our names behind, but we couldn’t understand why we were upset about the problem in Greece, and we grew angry when we thought about another country’s countless nameless people, and we wondered why real people had to suffer when an abstract nation like Greece went bankrupt. Where are the people when America and China are pitting their strength against each other? We were Koreans, and as real, living, breathing people, we simply wanted to commit suicide.
Win the lottery or commit suicide? We delayed our suicide indefinitely until the moment we would win. Since we didn’t win, we extended our lives by a week each week.
“What will you do if you hit the jackpot?” we asked one another in mocking voices, as if conducting interviews, and one person said, “I’ll commit suicide,” and the remaining three said nothing.
Nothing happened. Because nothing ever happened, we felt at peace. There are some useful old sayings, one of them being “No news is good news.” We hoped nothing would happen. When something happened, it always involved someone dying, or getting sick, or going into debt, or getting his car towed because of unpaid fines, or having her house broken into, or getting raped in the elevator, or her toilet clogging up, or having cockroaches infest his home, or getting into a car accident and being rushed to the ER, or having his father or mother die, or learning that her aunt took out a payday loan, or dealing with the death of her beloved dog, or getting slapped in the stairwell, losing his footing, and breaking his leg, or going missing, or becoming a victim of telephone phishing.
I almost became a victim of phishing. He claimed to be calling from the Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office. I asked him what the problem was and he said my bank account was being used in fraud. I said, “You asshole, you want to fucking die?” and he said, “Why is it so goddamn hard to make a living?” and hung up. I was so angry I called the number that had shown up on my phone and got an automated voicemail message. I waited for the beep and left a message filled with curses.
When I told this story, one person said he had received a similar call but had given out his bank account number and password right away. He hadn’t been able to help himself. The caller had cited his friend’s name and said this friend had died, and then asked for his account balance. When he mentioned the amount, the caller let out a sigh and hung up. Only then did he realize he had fallen prey to phishing. “That hurt my pride,” he said.
“Getting a con artist to pity you—that’s something you can be proud of,” one of us said.
“Why be proud of anything if you’re going to commit suicide anyway?” another asked.
“Suicide is the one thing you can be proud of,” said someone else who had remained silent all along. Did we actually want to die then? I’m not sure. I truly wanted to die, and I actually didn’t want to die.
Only one of us had come close to attempting suicide. “When I was little, I read a story by Bang Jeong-hwan,” someone said. “It was about a girl who killed herself by falling asleep in a sealed-up room filled with lilies. So I stole money from my mother’s purse, bought two bouquets of lilies, put them by my head, and fell asleep. The next morning, I woke up alive. The stolen money was discovered, and I was beaten until sap flowed from the trampled lilies like pus and I got a fractured rib. I thought I was going to be beaten to death. But everything turned out great for my mother. She told people I fell down an embankment, and the insurance company gave us enough to cover all the hospital fees, plus a bit more for pain and suffering. I was still in pain, and I still suffered. Even if I had died, it would have been no fairy tale.”
With these words, she picked up a card and then died instantly from a swinging blade. Her hero had forty won worth of loot. The actual currency of the game was gold, not won, but we tended to downgrade the loot value, calling it forty won, fifty won, or such. A proper burial could not be given to this hero who had died a heroic death, clutching forty won. The dungeon became his grave, and his prison cell his tombstone.
“I want to grow old like this, and when I die, I want to be kept here,” someone said, glancing around the office. “Should we turn this place into a columbarium? If we get rid of all the books and games from the shelves, get some dividers, and put the burial urns there, isn’t that a columbarium? What if we performed the rites and offered up prayers for those with no family?”
We all fell into deep thought. None of us held any religious beliefs. We were going to die without reproducing, and though everything in the world was uncertain, it was certain we would not produce any offspring and that we would die one day, and so it was most certain no heir of ours would ever offer prayers or the rites when we died. Though I’d never wanted to receive any of that. But still. But maybe.
“What if we perform the rites whenever one of us dies?” someone suggested.
“Then what about the last person to stay alive?” another person said.
“Should we let in a new person each time someone dies?” a third person said.
“I’ll die last then,” I said. “I don’t care about rites. Every year, I’ll fry pancakes and grill skewers and pour drinks, but if you’re going to die, make sure you do it on the same day. That way, I’d only have to do everything once a year.”
“Now there’s an idea,” someone said.
“Should we die today then?” said the one who had been killed by a swinging blade.
The dragon seemed to be asleep. If there actually were a dragon. We exchanged another look.
“Then how should we do it?” said the person locked up in a portcullis.
We wanted to die in the most passive way possible.
“Should we hold our breath?”
We immediately blocked our mouths and noses but ended up gasping and panting before even a minute passed.
“What if we all die and end up winning the lottery next week?” someone said.
“When’s next week?” another said.
“Next week is next week, stupid,” I said.
Our heroes were a long way from the chamber where the dragon lay sleeping. Even if we were to make it there, it seemed the dragon would wake and torch us with flames as soon as we entered its chamber. We didn’t have to go there to know this. It was a feeling. We lived according to our feelings. Sometimes our feelings were right and sometimes they were wrong. We had no choice but to live according to them.
“I’ll keep the winnings then,” I said. “I’ll set up a trust fund and perform your rites for a long, long time.”
“Do you even know how a trust fund works?” someone asked.
“I know what stocks are,” I said. “I’ll buy some stocks with the winnings and even if I end up losing everything, don’t worry, I’ll offer your rites for a long, long time.”
“Oh, don’t I feel better,” someone said.
There’s no way to know if we truly wanted to commit suicide that summer. I wanted to. I half genuinely did. Since I couldn’t peer into their heads, I didn’t know if they genuinely wanted to commit suicide, but my guess was they half genuinely wanted to as well. Useless sentences scatter.
I went to a Christian college, where I was required to attend chapel for four years. It was a waste of time in every way. The explanation of the Bible was okay, but when a Christian celebrity climbed up on the pulpit and said, “God loves you because God loves you,” I stuck my earphones in my ears and listened to music for the rest of the service. But I realized then what had seemed to me like nonsense—the repetition of the same words—was actually meaningful. We wanted to commit suicide. The reason? Because we wanted to. Just the way some deaths happen for no good reason, there was no good reason for suicide. We simply wanted to. Even if our minds were analyzed or it became possible to read our thoughts through the advancement of technology, all that people would find, if they peered into our heads, would be the words I want to commit suicide, I want to commit suicide. That’s why we said these words over and over like a habit. It was the most violence we could inflict on ourselves. We wanted to inflict greater violence on ourselves than the violence we’d experienced at the hands of others. It was our own form of revenge, on others and on ourselves.
Looking back now, the chapel wasn’t entirely a waste of time. I’ve never thought much about Christianity and what I knew was virtually non-existent, but I’d heard of original sin. In other words, it was a sin to have been born. If we thought this way, every problem was easily solved. It was a sin to have been born; therefore, let’s commit suicide. We didn’t bother to remember that most religions considered committing suicide a sin. With death before us, we became atheists. Since there was nothing beyond death, there would be no sin. That’s what we genuinely thought. It’s what we needed to believe. I say we, but I’m by no means the group’s representative.
I don’t know what the other three are doing now. One might have actually committed suicide, and one might have attempted it but failed.
That whole summer, no one made it out of the dungeon. No one got even far enough to experience a fiery death for waking the dragon. All we did was circle the starting point, suffering one attack after another, by a swinging blade or skeleton. We possessed forty won or a hundred won in loot. It was a dreary number. Day after day, the muggy weather continued. Our clothes smelled sour. We sat under the air conditioner and smelled the sweat the lemon-scented candles couldn’t mask and felt a sad kinship. But we hoped the summer wouldn’t end. When summer ended, autumn would come, and when autumn ended, winter would come. A new year would start and one of us would enter his thirties, feeling like shit. Without having committed suicide. When we closed and opened our eyes, we hoped we would be old. When we closed and opened our old eyes, we hoped we would be dead. We didn’t ask or wonder or interrogate someone or pick a fight with anyone to find out why we buried ourselves in these thoughts. We wanted to disappear like this, and that went for me too.
So one day that summer, we decided to go through with it—one by one, we decided to commit suicide. We did rock-paper-scissors, and I was the first to lose. We would roll the die in the order of who had first lost. One by one, we would toss the die onto the impenetrable dungeon. And the person who rolled the lowest number would be the first to commit suicide.
“What do you want on your ceremonial table?” I asked.
“Fuck it, who cares?”
I picked up the die. No one looked at me. No one looked at the die. No one looked at the dungeon. I tossed the die. I got four. I passed it to my left. The die was tossed. The die was rolling. The die kept rolling. That summer we waited for the die to stop moving. It was 2015. That summer the die kept rolling. That die kept rolling.
Han Yujoo is a Korean writer, translator, and publisher. She is the author of the novel The Impossible Fairy Tale, and three short story collections To the Moon, Book of Ice, and My Left Hand the King, My Right Hand the King’s Scribe.
Janet Hong’s fiction and translations have appeared in Words without Borders, Asia Literary Review, the Malahat Review, Kyoto Journal, and the Korea Times. Her translation of the novel The Impossible Fairy Tale by the Korean writer Han Yujoo was published by Graywolf Press in March 2017.