Excerpt

“Flag”

Ha Seong-nan, trans. Janet Hong

May 1, 2019 
The following is from Ha Seong-nan's collection Flowers of Mold. Ha Seong-nan is the author of five short story collections—including Bluebeard's First Wife and Flowers of Mold—and three novels. Over her career, she's received a number of prestigious awards, such as the Dong-in Literary Award in 1999, Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize in 2000, the Isu Literature Prize in 2004, the Oh Yeong-su Literary Award in 2008, and the Contemporary Literature (Hyundae Munhak) Award in 2009.

The power went out late last night, at ten past midnight. While people were still sleeping, the electrical appliances stopped working. The children who woke were cranky; they missed the hum of the refrigerator and the whir of the fan, sounds as comforting to them as a lullaby. Housewives who opened the refrigerator to prepare breakfast found blood dripping from the frozen pork they’d left to thaw, the meat turned a dark red. The ice cream bars had melted, leaving wrappers full of mush around the sticks, and the marinated spinach smelled sour. It gets so humid in July that food spoils in no time. Everyone was calling the 123 hotline.

Even up to the early eighties, power outages were common. Students cramming for their exams often studied by candlelight. Sometimes these candles caused fires. Since 1997, though, all this has become a thing of the past.

This outage wasn’t widespread. The affected area was limited to Building D of Kwangmyeong Apartments and Towers 1, 2, and 3 of Rose Village. It could have been a worn-out line or even a bird perching on a high-voltage line. Birds on high-voltage lines are safe as long as they touch nothing else. But if they nod off and touch another line, zap, they’re finished.

I looked at my map and checked the utility pole in question: #021/8619E. I stepped into the side street with the poles marked 8619E. The street went down a steep hill with a sixteen-meter pole every fifty meters. It wasn’t yet ten, but the sun beat down, poised over the vents on the roof of Kwangmyeong Building A.

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Preoccupied with reading the number tags on the poles, I reached the bottom of the hill before I knew it. Behind me were the eight poles I’d gone by. I had a habit of calculating the distance by counting poles. Three hundred fifty meters later, I finally stood before #021.

I used to work in Gyeonggi Province until they transferred me here. Back there, not a day went by without an outage. And the cause? Magpies. They would build their nests on top of the transformers and come in contact with the line, or a porcelain insulator would break off. Maybe to magpies, utility poles looked like oak trees, sturdy enough to hold nests that would last a lifetime. So not only did I replace transformers and repair lines, but I also had to move their nests into trees. But where would you find magpies here in the city? City children would never see a magpie except in a picture book about birds.

Climbing utility poles was a piece of cake. At my old technical high school, they called me Monkey Boy. We had to go up and down the fifty practice poles rigged up on the school grounds, and I set the speed record.

I strapped on my leather tool belt and was about to start climbing when I felt something spongy underfoot. It was a pair of black leather shoes, pooled with water. Though the backs were crushed in and the heels worn, the shoes were placed neatly together, as if they’d been removed by a front door. A drunk certainly didn’t leave them behind. I felt a drop of water. Was the rain starting again? I looked up. About two meters off the ground, a suit jacket hung from the pole’s first peg, water dripping from its hem. It had been raining on and off until early morning.

I climbed, my gaze locking onto each metal peg that zigzagged up the pole. The streetlight loomed above, staring down at me like a cyclops. High above the suit jacket on the other side of the pole hung a damp pair of men’s trousers. On the next peg up, a white dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves f lapped in the wind. The breeze must have dried it out during the night. Above that hung a sweat-stained undershirt and above that, a necktie, still knotted, as if it had simply been loosened before being removed. Next, I met a pair of socks swaying back and forth in front of my face like tired balloons. When I tilted my head back to look toward the top, I saw a pair of men’s black pinstripe briefs, waving like a f lag in the southeasterly wind.

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He had taken off his shoes, hung his suit, and then removed the rest of his clothes one by one as he made his way up the pole. In the end, he’d even shed his briefs, hanging them at the very top. Sitting atop the pole without a stitch of clothing, he must have resembled Adam, the first man. He would have been tense, no doubt, taking care not to touch another line. This isn’t something a drunk would dare attempt. Besides, the first peg was set far above me, and I’m pretty tall for a guy. I’m positive he was sober. Maybe he was from a technical school, too.

I climbed up past the two transformers and streetlight; the 6600-volt line now stretched below me. I loosened my tool belt and strapped myself to the pole. Luckily, the transformers hadn’t burned out. It must have been the metal buckle from the belt; the wind must have brought it in contact with both lines and tripped the automatic shut-off.

The street was empty. There was an elementary school nearby; I could hear the pump organ and children singing. I climbed all the way to the top. I saw the street I’d walked down and the school playground, hidden by a stone wall until now. Little kids in sky-blue gym uniforms were doing sprints in time to a whistle. I leaned back in my harness, set my feet against the pole, and gazed down at the scene sixteen meters below, now laid out flat like a blueprint. In an apartment building across the street, a fifth-floor window opened and a young woman with long hair peered out. Our eyes met. Flustered, she disappeared and the window banged shut. The organ wheezed every time it hit a G. The children sang, or rather screeched, at the top of their lungs. With a fingertip, I lifted the fluttering pair of briefs from the pole. On my way down, I deactivated the shut-off. The man’s clothes, which I had removed on my way up, now littered the ground.

The inside pocket of the suit jacket contained a small notebook. I searched his pockets, but found no wallet. The rain had soaked through the pocket lining and left yellow splotches on the notebook, making it look like an antique world map. The grid-lined pages were filled with dates and miniscule handwriting, which I had trouble making out because the ink had run. But one thing was clear—he led a busy life. Three whole pages were crammed with names and dates of birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The next section was left blank. He had then used the remaining pages for what seemed to be a journal, but in many places the wet pages clung together. I did my best to separate them, but they ended up torn. I eased myself against the pole and read, skipping the parts that were difficult to make out. From time to time, I tilted my head back and glanced up toward the top of the pole.

Having shed his skin, where could the man inside have gone?

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Excerpted from Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan. Copyright © 2019 by Ha Seong-nan. Excerpted with permission by Open Letter Books.




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