When I first fell into the water, although I was perfectly aware that this was all really happening, it felt as though I was still stuck inside a dream. I’m walking along the road, lifting my feet with that sluggishness found in dreams, that heaviness caused by the water sloshing inside my rain boots. Neither sadness, fear, nor despair, but gravity, endless and immense, has taken hold of me. I’m wandering between the houses, their numbers painted on white signs. I must be lost. It seemed I’d experienced brutal acts but could no longer remember them. No, I was simply struck by the sense of memory’s intangibility, torn between struggling to recall certain events as something concrete, and the instinct to leave them safely in the nebulous past. But such dreams were nothing new for me, and I didn’t need to fight against the confusion; to a certain extent I actually enjoyed it. Even as the surface of the water broke my fall, I wasn’t afraid. I saw pots of limp geraniums on a windowsill, the white drapes drawn, glass dolls with scarily large pupils, and green Christmas candles. I waved. As firecrackers snapped in the middle of the road, a yellow tram went by. Benny ran barking along the water’s edge, where early bluebells bloomed between patches of unmelted snow. Nothing’s the matter, Benny. This is only a dream. But no sound emerged from my throat. Benny was barking even louder. He ran into the wood that grew by the water, gradually speeding up so that in the end he was nothing but a blurry white ball, revolving with the world’s axis as its center. What could have happened to upset him? I wanted to comfort him. My love, everything’s alright. Just wait there and I’ll come right back. There’s a good boy, my love. But Benny couldn’t hear me and streaked away, passing beyond my sight. Then the incongruous figure of a postman dressed all in yellow joined the scene. He’d parked his bicycle by the side of the road and was pressing the doorbell, holding the letters in one hand. There’s no one home, so he’ll just stick the letters in the mailbox; just as I was thinking this, I felt the first stab of the cold water, piercing the top of my head and the nape of my neck and the rim of my ears. The next moment I felt the weight of the water pull me under, cold hands seizing me and tugging me down. The cold was lethal, and my limbs were rapidly becoming numb. I’d fallen into the water, I knew this perfectly well, yet I kept on mechanically lifting my feet up and down. I imagined that I was walking down a flight of stairs—stairs of water, which were rapidly extending downward as I placed my feet on the next step. Without needing to look behind me, I knew that they were disappearing as I descended, that the section I’d passed had already dissolved into the water. The thought suddenly came to me that “returning” is merely a word, not something referring to a real possibility. I was going to mumble that something had gone wrong, but my frozen lips wouldn’t part. Icy water had seeped in between them when I first fell in, freezing them into immobility after my initial cry of distress. Water bearing the deep chill of midwinter, water that pierces and penetrates warm winter clothes, cold enough to carry off my soul. A devil was stabbing me with an ice poker. When I broke the surface I’d felt a pain as though my lips had been gashed on sharp rocks, as though a bone had broken in my left side, so extreme that I saw fireworks flash in front of my eyes.
This is a dream, the continuation of a dream, I thought. This is a dream, and since it’s a dream there’s no need for me to struggle. Because that’s the way it is with dreams, and because it was clear that, however much I struggled, my physical strength would be negligible at best. Yet I thrashed my limbs mercilessly all the same, and a bubbling sound escaped from between my lips. Although I’d stopped sinking, I was unable to free myself from my waterlogged coat and boots, which were weighing me down. Not much time had passed since I fell in, so the water had only come up to my forehead. I tried to swim, but I couldn’t get my body to move in the way I ordered it. Fear of suffocation was rapidly paralyzing me. Convinced that my heavy boots were what was dragging me down, I made a foolish attempt to remove them and got a mouthful of water for my pains. I floundered, choking, tried to float on the surface, tried again to remove my boots, and eventually I discovered myself thinking “this is a dream,” and letting everything take its own course as my body sank weakly into the water. How could I have fallen in? I mean, how could I be unwittingly wearing a warm coat with two sweaters and a hat, woolen socks, jeans and rain boots? It hadn’t even been a minute since I’d fallen in, but it felt so much longer. My strength had faded, there was absolutely nothing I could do any more. I didn’t even have the strength to move my little finger. That was when the word death first came into my mind, as did the thought that I was lucky not to have been sentenced to death; somewhat incongruous given that, as far as I could remember, I’d never committed a crime that would warrant such a punishment. The mere mention of capital punishment was enough to send a shiver through me, as though I were undergoing some terrible humiliation. To me, capital punishment, administered in full accordance with an established legal system, seemed even more humiliating than a public flogging. Being murdered had always seemed immensely preferable to the ordeal of capital punishment. Death; until now it had always been something to do with other, far-away people, but now it was all too intimate. Although I tried to tell myself that it was something I just had to accept, that after all this was only a dream, it was all too evident that I was suffocating. Confusion slowly changed into humiliation as I realized that I was going to experience both a basic agony and an inexhaustible humiliation.
To M as much as to me, it simply wasn’t possible that I would die first of the two of us. Such thoughts had even escaped her lips, and on more than one occasion. This assumption was hardly unreasonable considering the parade of illnesses, both major and minor, that had been M’s adolescence, the three operations she’d had so far, and the hereditary allergy which threatened to flare up whenever she strayed too far from her familiar environment. It was so much a part of her life that she barely even noticed it any more, living hemmed in by the many medicines which she had to take, the doctors’ addresses, the phone calls to book appointments. M’s allergy caused her unimaginable suffering, so much so that, she told me, she’d once decided to kill herself rather than bear it any longer. The doctors were all of the opinion that M’s other disorders of the nervous system were triggered by this allergy. Even though these weren’t life-threatening, whenever I thought of death it had become a habit to think of it connection with M. M knew this perfectly well. But how foolish I’d been to think that way—now M would have no reason to hate or envy me any more, as she was going to outlive me. But there was no way she’d ever be able to learn the details of my death. She would never know about the humiliation, and this was all that was needed to set my mind at ease.
Death, being unaware that one is no longer living. Strangely enough, after that thought surfaced in my mind, the pain seemed gradually to lessen in intensity. Like so many other things that get forgotten in this world, the feeling as though my lungs were bursting slowly lost its original character, becoming “pain” only in name, a pain that was “mine” yet felt strangely disconnected. I was lying on the water. I wasn’t floating perfectly, though; I was lying on my side facing the riverbank, repeatedly sinking beneath the surface only to float up again a few moments later. I could gulp down a quick breath if I twisted my head when I floated up, but this was getting progressively more difficult. I knew I had to tilt my head up so I could breathe, but I was so weak that I frequently just sank straight back down again. My legs were starting to weigh me down, dragging me back under. The pain in my side remained constant all the while, but it now felt less like pain and more like evidence of some irreversible severing or fatal decision in the midst of this slow death. I was conscious of the sensation that we call “pain,” but it wasn’t the least bit painful any more. Eventually, like my inability to breathe, it became both the sole thing left to define me and my final farewell to this world, the total sum of my existence.
Excerpt from A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. From Open Letter Books. Published with permission from Open Letter.
Bae Suah, one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary Korean authors, has published more than a dozen works and won several prestigious awards. She has also translated several books from the German, including works by W. G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck. Her first book to appear in English, Nowhere to be Found, was longlisted for a PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.