The following is from Han Yujoo’s novel, The Impossible Fairy Tale. Yujoo was born in Seoul in 1982 and is the author of four short story collections. She is an active member of an experimental group called Rue and also runs Oulipopress, an independent publisher. This is her first book to appear in English.
Mia’s new desk mate at school twirls a mechanical pencil between her thumb and index finger. She draws a big heart in a corner of her notebook and says to Mia, If you can color the whole heart black with just one lead, the love of your dreams will come true. But your lead can’t break until you’re done and you can’t have any lead left at the end. You can’t run out either. Like her desk mate, Mia draws a pretty, round heart on the last page of her notebook with her new mechanical pencil and new lead. The two girls concentrate on coloring their hearts until the end of lunch, but their lead keeps breaking. Who are you thinking of anyway? The two girls giggle. How about you? And they each lower their gaze. When their lead breaks, they can’t draw hearts on paper they’ve already used, so they must begin anew each time with a new heart on a new page with new lead, but the lead keeps breaking, and their minds get crushed by failure. The boys, who had gobbled their food so that they could play soccer for the rest of their short lunchtime, return from the playing field, emitting a faint smell of sweat. Mia and her desk partner hastily shut their notebooks and put their pencils back in their cases. Mia’s legs fidget below her long sweater, and she clasps her hands, which peek out from her rolled-up sleeves.
After school is out, the children scatter in all four directions from the school gate toward the district 2-1, toward 3-12, toward Suite 303 of Building 109, toward Solar Arcade, toward the Cheongpa Institute, melting their shadows into the afternoon’s. The pencil cases that hold containers of pencil lead rattle inside the backpacks of these twelve-year-old girls, girls who have just been allowed to use mechanical pencils. Mechanical pencils were thought to ruin penmanship, so they were encouraged, perhaps even forced, to use wooden pencils until the fourth grade, and although grown-ups said they could use pens once they were in middle school, it was no use, the children already had poor penmanship; whether they used pencils or pens or mechanical pencils, they would not have neat, fine handwriting until they were no longer children.
If you’re going to write about love, write it in pencil.
The children didn’t write their love and the grown-ups said their love wasn’t right. As the children drew and filled in their hearts with thin pencil lead, they believed this was love, but the lead kept breaking, and at semester’s end, there was not a single child who managed to complete a black heart, not one child who kept the notebook with her failed hearts. Things like notebooks tend to disappear in a moment, even if you don’t purposely throw them away.
Mia’s desk mate had transferred to this school the previous year. Her hair went down to her shoulders. She pinned it back with hairpins. In every class there are several girls with this same hairstyle. In Mia’s class there are many Kims, Lees, Parks, Chois, Songs, Kangs, Shins, Hwangs, Chungs, and Yangs, but these children who sit in rows according to birthday or height, or who are perhaps arranged in alphabetical order, will soon have to rearrange themselves based on their biological classification: species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. The children are half-plant and half-animal. The high temperature for early March hovers around the freezing point, and wherever new greenery as thin as eyelashes sprouts up, winter dies. Nothing is born a second time. When the previous summer returns like a phantom, today’s spring becomes ill and the seasons die out repeatedly. Wherever children die, other children are born. When this year passes, the next will come, and when next year passes, the year after that will come. When it’s past noon, three or four street vendors selling chicks gather in front of the school gate, and inside the newspaper-lined plastic buckets, yellow chicks grow sick. Sometimes there are chicks whose napes are dyed red or blue. They still look healthy, but the moment they leave their plastic nests and are gripped by clumsy hands, they begin to die. To the vendors, it’s not important whether the chicks are male or female—they simply happen to be one or the other. The chicks inside the buckets of these vendors will die well before they can develop secondary sexual characteristics, before they can assume their general functions, before they can reach puberty, before they can mate, before they can reproduce. This one here, is it a female? asks Mia’s desk mate. In an indifferent tone, the vendor replies that it’s a male. In front of the elementary school gate, the price of every object is relatively the same, and the price of a chick is the same price as an ice cream cone, and the same number of coins jingle inside the children’s pockets. Some children buy ice cream and get white and yellow stains down the front of their shirts, and some children buy chicks and drop them one by one from the apartment’s rooftop. Some hope the chicks will fly away, since they have wings after all, and some hope that the chicks will die, since they have life. The boys carrying soccer balls and basketballs under their arms shove Mia and her desk mate aside, and peer down at the chicks, but the chicks don’t cry cheep, cheep. No, to be honest, the sound coming from their beaks, beaks the size of a pinky nail, can’t possibly be written cheep, cheep. It can’t be called crying either. Mia doesn’t buy a chick, but this is perhaps a good choice because the moment she gains a chick, she will lose something, something that has the same value as the chick.
The boy who sits in the row next to Mia bought a chick. With her mechanical pencil, Mia writes in her journal: I didn’t buy one because Mom doesn’t like animals. I don’t know the boy’s name. I want a puppy, she adds. She closes her journal and returns her pencil to her flat, metal pencil case, decorated with strawberries and bunnies. Her mother has not come home yet. It is a clear day on Wednesday, March 4, 1998, and laid out on the four-person table is dinner for one: fried rice, kimchi, and water. Mia doesn’t eat carrots, but this doesn’t mean that she eats every kind of food that doesn’t contain carrots. Her mother often forgets that she doesn’t eat carrots and chops them into every dish. Carrots are slow to go bad. Mia isn’t yet hungry, and that’s because she and her desk mate bought a snack after school instead of buying a chick. It’s not yet certain if Mia will lose something because she bought a snack; nevertheless, she has lost a chick, as well as three or four coins. It would be nice if she no longer lost anything, but she is a lucky girl, and the things that she has lost so far amount to less than her own weight.
Once, she had two ten-dollar bills given to her by an uncle who had returned from the United States. At the time, a ten-dollar bill was worth around 8,000 won, but when the economic crisis continued, the value of her two ten-dollar bills shot up to more than 20,000 won. You’re the only person making any money in this house, her mother had said, half-jokingly in a voice that was also half-sigh. Her father was away at the time. When the official currency exchange rate was 1,887 won for every US dollar, she went to the bank and exchanged a ten-dollar bill and got 18,680 won back, but the price of buying money with money was different than selling or receiving money. If she had decided to exchange the money one week before, she would have been able to get two 10,000-won bills. Although it is uncertain where she used her 18,680 won, ten-won coins rolled under the bed or disappeared down the drain; and although the speed at which the bills disappeared might have been a little slow, nevertheless, all of it eventually disappeared. At that time, Mia had to listen to the daily nagging about her being a picky eater, and the reason was that if the whole country were to go to ruin, she might have to skip meals regularly like children in Africa. But even then, she refused to eat carrots and in the end her country escaped ruin. As was the case with Mia’s family. While the children in Africa were being used in treacherous, manipulative misery, Mia’s mother didn’t skimp on the cost of carrots, and while carrots were served without end at the four-person table, Mia’s father held firm his position by being resolutely absent. The fried rice is orange, yellow, and white. Carrots are good for your eyesight, her mother liked to say, but Mia thinks, What more am I supposed to see? Mia takes off her green-and-blue sweater and changes into her pajamas. The sweater is folded carefully and put into the closet. Soon she won’t be able to wear it anymore. Perhaps the day will also come when she will not be able to wear the pajamas. She might grow twenty centimeters overnight, her mother might permanently forget to pick up the clothes she had left at the dry cleaner’s, Mia might grow tired of her clothes, or another more extreme scenario might come to pass. A trivial mishap could set off a fire in Mia’s home, Mia’s mother could suddenly go missing, Mia could spontaneously decide to run away from home without taking any clothes, or Mia could suddenly die. None of these scenarios, in fact or in theory, is impossible. No one knows what might happen to Mia tomorrow. But the same goes for anyone. So why is it that we are continuing with Mia’s story? Perhaps by chance, perhaps by necessity. Just like how the boy in Mia’s class who had bought the chicks asked whether they were male or female and no one knew, no one knows if it was Father 1 or Father 2 who bought Mia’s sweater, and even if someone knew, these are the kind of questions for which no evidence can be pro- duced. In truth, no one knows the truth.
After Mia falls into a deep sleep her mother comes home, but even when she comes home, Mia’s mother isn’t there. Mia’s name was made by combining a syllable in her father’s name, ah, with a syllable found in her mother’s, me. Around the time Mia was born, it was popular to name children by this formula, and her parents each explained to their parents that Mia’s name meant “beautiful child.” They didn’t explain that it also meant “lost child.” And, just as her parents had hoped, Mia was considered to be a beautiful child by both sets of grandparents, even though she doesn’t see them anymore. Mia’s maternal grandparents are now dead and Mia’s mother isn’t welcome in the home of Mia’s paternal grandparents. By chance, both of Mia’s fathers’ names contain the syllable ah, but she doesn’t call them by their names, she calls them either “Dad” or “Ageosshi.” However, whenever she talks about them to her friends or writes about them in her journal, whichever father it is, she calls both “Dad,” and because her sensibility of what is appropriate or inappropriate has grown dull with time, Mia’s mom reveals more and more to Mia, who, because she is still young, doesn’t know anything. Or so her mom wants to believe. Some say that Mia is all grown up, and others say she is still a little girl, the ink of her name barely dry in the family register, but in reality, the entry for Mia’s register must be amended. If you’re going to make an entry in your family register, write it in pencil, because if you make a mistake, you can use an eraser to wipe it clean. Mia’s mother sits at the table, eats the cold fried rice, and feels like laughing and crying at once. She could simplify and amend her own family register if Mia didn’t exist, she could even justify her own absence, but because the only person who could be proved to exist in this home was Mia, and Mia alone must receive love, Mia’s mother must maintain her position. All children must receive love. Mia’s mother puts the empty dish in the sink, turns on the faucet, and rinses her mouth. The leftover words that she couldn’t wash out, they stay and torment her.
From THE IMPOSSIBLE FAIRY TALE, by Han Yujoo. Copyright © 2017 by Han Yujoo. English translation copyright © 2017 by Janet Hong. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.