x

Excerpt

Violets

Kyung-sook Shin, Translated by Anton Hur

April 15, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Kyung-sook Shin's new novel, Violets. Shin is one of South Korea's most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She has been awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, the Manhae Grand Prize for Literature, the Dong-in Literature Prize, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, and many others, including France's Prix de l'Inaperçu. Hur has won the PEN Translates and PEN/Heim grants for literary translation. His other work includes the English translations of Sang Young Park and Bora Chung.

She tries leaning a bit in her chair.

At first, she was sitting there alone looking out the window. But with the pattering rain, she soon felt the man’s presence. No. It happened much earlier. The evening before, after falling asleep instantly, she had woken up just past midnight and had since then remained in a strange half-slumbering state. When her mind was a bit clearer, she listened for footsteps on the stairs. Yet Su-ae never came home. After a series of dizzying half-dreams she was finally slipping into oblivion near dawn, but she was unable to keep herself under and washed up into consciousness once again. When she opened her eyes, she felt as if the man was gently bent over her.

“Are you getting up?”

He was smiling a little. As if he’d been waiting for her to wake. She closed her eyes to ignore this illusion, and that briefly made him disappear. But he hadn’t disappeared; had he gone to the chair by the window? She finally fell asleep. But when she opened her eyes and felt she saw his face, she was so surprised she started upright in bed. Why did she keep thinking of him? Stumbling, she moved to the chair, feeling like she was sitting down not on the hard seat but on the man’s knees.

It’s raining.
 The emptiness made her mumble out loud, but her cheeks moved more than her lips. Her sensitivity to rain or wind, or to any form of precipitation, annoyed her. Only in that moment of annoyance did she forget, for the first time since waking, about the man. And so even if he’d been sitting in that chair, he was briefly distanced from her. But then he approached again, little by little, and slipped into her body. There was no one there to see her but she felt the heat on her face as she blushed. Her embarrassment brought tears to her eyes. To cool herself, she rubbed her face with her palms but the heat only spread up to her forehead. So here she is now, trying to banish the man from her body, leaning away from him and the window.

But the man refuses to leave and simply leans in the same direction with her. As he leans, he makes an O with his thumb and middle finger and flicks her cheek like it’s a guitar string, making her tumble out of the chair. She stares at the knocked-over chair like she’s staring at the spectacle of herself on the floor, and goes to the pouch hanging on the fridge. The herbs growing on the windowsill watch as she rummages through it.

This man, who has deluged her consciousness like a swollen river in the night. San, who drowns because of him.

For a moment she stands still and looks toward Su-ae’s bed past the sliding doors. Su-ae didn’t return last night. She finally called San at dawn, saying she had been hanging out with her old friends all night, that she had kept thinking she was going to come back soon but then day broke, that she was calling from a hangover stew place. Su-ae said she would go directly to the flower shop after the hangover stew. That there was no way she could make it to the farm today.

San finds her membership card and locker key for the swimming pool, and runs outside into the rain without thinking of grabbing an umbrella. Drops of rain fall on her flushed forehead and eyebrows, stinging her skin. The fever is washed away by the cold droplets, but now the rain tickles so much she’s about to cry.

How could that man have entered me like this?

She stretches out her hand to brush against the ginkgo trees as she runs.

That man she hadn’t even recognized when they bumped into each other at La Muse—how can he have done this to her, overnight?

The droplets filtering through the green fans drench her hair and her face.

They soak into her skin, which makes her feel as if the man inside is getting drenched alongside her. Anxiety boils up. Her shoes slap forcefully against the wet pavement. The feeling swells like a cloud of tadpoles rising up from muddy water. When she’s at the swimming pool, she slides open and walks through the door labeled “Women’s Locker Room.” Her white shirt and blue jeans are plastered to her skin. Hanging up her wet clothes, she rinses off her body in the showers and changes into her swimsuit. As soon as she enters the door to the pool, she lowers the goggles to cover her eyes. The swimming pool turns several shades darker.

Is it because of the rain?

Even accounting for the early hour, there would normally be a few other people diving into the water, but today there is only a man swimming alone in a far lane. She bends her knees and jumps up and down a few times to warm up. The man on the other side of the pool is swimming fiercely with a butterfly stroke; his gaze is like that of a skyborne hawk searching for a chicken, and his movements make the water around him arc and split into multiple angles. She waits until the man has swum to the other end of the pool before lowering herself in using the ladder. The blue and white tiled floor gives the water a deep cerulean hue. Briefly, she stands there with her body immersed in the cool water. Her flesh readily accepts the cold—nothing in this moment is more real than this coldness. Then, she puts her face into the water and slowly sinks to the floor. As if hiding from something.

She surfaces again.

Stretching out on top of the water, she kicks her legs as she strokes with her arms. Her body twists to face the ceiling, and the strokes of her arms adjust to the position. On the ceiling are vents and little windows, the size of bojagi wrapping cloths, through which she can see the sky outside. The panes are studded with droplets. The man who followed her as she ran through the rain to the pool and slid open the door that said Women’s Locker Room did not, out of some sense of decorum, follow her inside. But there he is now, outside the windows up above, suspended in the rainy sky, staring down at her as she moves her arms in regular strokes. Her panic makes her breathe in instead of out, drawing water into her nose. She flips on her stomach, turns into a frog, and darts through the water to get away from him. The water inside her nose feels like a hammer hitting her face. In pain, she surfaces and clings to the edge of the pool like a tadpole, trying to catch her breath, when the man from the other lane emerges and swiftly walks past her toward the men’s locker room. The farther he goes, the less she sees of his dripping form, his head disappearing first, followed by his torso, and then all she can see are his legs. A pale man. His thighs and calves are muscular but pale, with black hair. Hit with the premonition that the faceless man might suddenly whip around, she tears her gaze from his legs and lies down flat once more on the water.

Meeting him yesterday was a coincidence.

Once more, she moves her arms to propel herself through the water. There’s a day she cannot remember, on which she met the man for the first time. A day that’s disappeared from her memory. Only yesterday is alive to her now. Yesterday, I wore a plum-colored silk blouse and a light green skirt with a pattern of white droplets, she thinks, but then shakes her head in the water. No.

I was wearing a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans. Enveloped in water, she becomes sad. Her thoughts are twisting the facts. I don’t even own a plum-colored silk blouse or a light green skirt. In any case, she draws a line demarcating the time before she met the man again, and the time after. The split marks a completely new era. In the pool, she sweeps down her right arm with her left hand. Tiny seed-like goosebumps appear, just like when the man touched her arm yesterday.

How he caressed the countless goosebumps on her arm.

 

A photographer.

In the water, she tries to remember what it was like when they first met. Back when she wiped down the flower shop windows at every opportunity, or watered the plants on the pavement every half hour. Or was it one of those days when the monsoon rains would hastily pass over the city? When the farm owner telephoned her, speaking through the young man, he’d said she needed to help the photographer. She hadn’t known what the man’s work was exactly, so she waited for his instructions. The camera in his hands. The moment when he said, Wait, making her stand looking down as he repeatedly pressed the shutter down on her.

Panting—hu hu—she lies down again on the water.

At La Muse when the tea had been replaced with beer, the unexpected words he had spouted: I’m not the kind of guy who says things like this but if I’m being honest, do you have any idea how my heart was beating when I saw you the first time with those damn violets? That moment when everything fell silent, when all sound disappeared from the world. Even the music from the café speakers seemed to break off before reaching her ears.

Using all her might, she sweeps the surface of the water with her arms. As if to sweep away all the thoughts that plague her mind.

Which ones are the violets? The man’s indifferent voice. The man, upon having a pot of violets placed in front of him, had scowled. So these are violets? Almost yelling, incredulous, as if violets were some other thing and she had brought him the wrong plant.

But that man, who had once meandered past her life without making any impression, is now springing to life as she cuts through the water.

The man who put the pot on the flower shop table, then the pavement outside, constantly clicking his shutter. Complaining: What’s so pretty about these flowers? Such nonsense. Their eyes had met and his voice had been accusatory: Do you like these flowers too, miss?

The man enraged at the mere thought of taking blame, muttering the whole time as he photographed from this angle, that angle. Hey darling, if you want those photos of you, call me at this number. The card he had given her.

Her face breaks the surface.

His card?

Somewhere in the flower shop is his card.

She almost leaps out of the water.

As she leaves to re-enter the rain, the man whispers, Don’t get wet. It’s a cold rain, you’ll catch your death. She stands underneath an awning. The throbbing instinct has cooled down now. The man doesn’t try to touch her cheek or brush back the hair that falls across her forehead. He only gazes in the direction she gazes, worrying, warning that she should not get wet, since if she comes out of a hot shower and gets soaked in the cold rain, she’ll catch a fever.

She runs to a newspaper stand.

She pants as she points to the plastic umbrellas, and the vendor stops arranging his newspapers and takes one of the many out, hands it to her and takes her money. The rain patters down on the blue plastic of her unfurled umbrella. The woman who ran out into the street at dawn and the one who is now walking calmly through the rain, holding a plastic umbrella—are these the same woman? Their faces are too different.

She keeps mumbling as she walks. Last night. Last night, last night . . .

The goosebumps that rose when he put his hand on her. The feeling she would burst into tears when he swept his hand down her arm and said, You must be cold. Walking in the rain now, she thinks she knows what this feeling is. On other days she would’ve had to count one, two, three . . . to about forty before looking up at the ceiling, but today she opened her eyes as soon as she woke, and the hallucination of that man has been with her from that moment and is with her still. There was a face on the ceiling. The man’s face. Did he watch me while I slept? She had drawn her blanket to her chin. Her sadness had swelled inside her. It had taken a long time for it to die down but, Ah, what’s this. This vision of him that will not leave her side.

Just like when she left the apartment to go to the swimming pool, she breaks into a run, this time holding up the umbrella. The trees and buildings along the street whip past her. She runs past the people going to work. She runs as if trying to shake off the man.

The flower shop is already open.

New lilies crowd the blue buckets. Though Su-ae called from a hangover stew place, she must’ve dropped by the flower market on her way back. As soon as San arrives, out of breath, Su-ae looks up from her plant-watering.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come in last night!”

She seems awfully chipper for someone who hasn’t slept a wink. San leaves Su-ae’s words behind as she goes straight to the metal table, takes out the box of business cards, and rummages through it.

“What are you looking for?”

San doesn’t look up.

“I said, what are you looking for?”

“A business card . . .”

“Whose?”

“. . .”

“The guy from yesterday’s?”

Su-ae chatters on about how the guy was no good, obviously some womanizer. She hoses San’s calves as a prank. When San barely reacts, Su-ae hums as she finishes filling up the buckets with water and goes to shut off the tap. San shuffles through countless cards until she finds the man’s and stares at his name. The man is the photographer at Flower World. She slips his card into her notepad.

All she does that morning is gaze at the lilies in the blue buckets, even when the rain has stopped. From time to time, Su-ae throws her a concerned glance. She comes up to her and asks, “Are you feeling all right?”

San shakes her head.

Hesitant, Su-ae asks, “What’s wrong?”

San only looks at her mutely, and Su-ae tilts her head. San has stared at the lilies so hard that their whiteness pierces her eyes when she closes her lids. An endless space appears before her, like she’s slipping into an abyss.

As San moves the weeping figs, sago palms, rubber plants and orchids outside, she stumbles and scrapes her knee. It happens in a flash. Red droplets dot her knee like dew. Where has this sunlight been hiding? A shard of it falls across her scratched skin and quivers there in pieces.

Su-ae taps her shoulder. “Are you worried about something?”

After putting on some ointment and a band-aid, San stares at the lilies again. Su-ae sounds as if she’s assuaging a child throwing a tantrum. San feels her brain sloshing from side to side as she shakes her head no.

“You’re not telling me what’s wrong. You’re weird today. What are you thinking about? You look like some sick person. Like your body is here but not your thoughts. What’s going on? Did something happen yesterday? Look at your face. You’re completely pale! Come on, you’ve got to tell me what’s up with you.”

“. . .”

“Look, just snap out of it!”

“I just have a headache.”

“A headache?”

“Yes . . . It’s bad. I can’t think. It’s like I’m floating in midair. I think I’ll go for a walk.”

“Do you think a walk will do it? Maybe take a pill. Or go see a doctor, no?”

“I think I’ll be fine with some air.”

San glances at the shadows falling across on Su-ae’s neck as Su-ae replies, “You do that.”

She steps out of the flower shop.

Ah.

The rain has passed, and the sunlight bouncing off the windows of the bakery across the street is so intense she can’t help a let out a deep sigh.

“Mom, look! A rainbow!”

A girl with a short bob pulls her mother by the hand and points to the sky. A delivery boy emerges from the bakery, bag slung over one shoulder, and says, “Wow, a real rainbow.” Their exclamations cause San to shield her eyes and look up as well. The sky practically pours its blue color on to her face. A real rainbow. Unbelieving, her eyes blink as they get teary. A dull ache blooms in her chest. It’s the sorrow of being unable to follow, the regret of being unable to take off after. A far, far-off longing. Not knowing where she’s going, San begins to walk.

In the place where a high school used to be, there’s now an art museum—she stops in her tracks and looks into the grounds. At the other end of some granite steps, there’s a new building being constructed in an empty lot. An excavator stands guard there, looking like an open-mouthed beast. The wide mouth seems to draw her in as she dazedly enters the museum grounds, where she falls into a sitting position in the middle of the path. A puddle soaks her skirt. Uncaring, she remains seated.

A little way off, construction workers in red hardhats are leaning against a yellow fence and smoking, staring into another part of the museum grounds where two women are playing badminton. Have the women brought their badminton set from somewhere? Under their tight, above-the-knee denim skirts, their legs move busily. If it weren’t for their constant movement, the entire scene, including the art museum, would look like a tableau.

Having inserted herself into the tableau, San manages to heave herself back up to a standing position and walks toward one of the trees to crouch under it. Such vivid white legs. Hugging her knees, she stares at the girls playing badminton, just like the construction workers. Not at the shuttlecock that flies through the air like a sparrow, nor their hair or faces or breasts, but at their dynamic legs, squinting at them from the shade.

“Don’t cry.”

Only when the man inside her whispers to her does she realize she’s been crying while staring.

“Get away from me.”

Her hand pushes at him through thin air. What’s wrong with me? Her heart sinks. The man’s voice saying, Don’t cry, had been so clear that she turned around to look, but no one is there. Only trembling leaves, shaking off rain droplets.

_________________________________

Excerpted from Violets by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Feminist Press.




More Story
8 stories about scammers for when you're done watching Inventing Anna. It's been a banner season for scammers! From Inventing Anna and The Dropout to The Tinder Swindler and Bad Vegan, there...