Chapter 191: Burning Away (1)
Translated by: ShawnSuh
Edited by: SootyOwl
While Juho stood in front of the psychiatric hospital, having lost track of time thinking about the man’s whereabouts, the traffic light had already turned a number of times. The man had to be in the massive building before his eyes. However, it was also possible that he may have gone underground, into the subway station past the anemoscope, or that he had already crossed the street, never to be found again.
Pedestrians and cars rushed past Juho while he stood in a daze. The anemoscope worked busily, and the children riding bicycles pedaled around the trail all the harder while the children chasing them ran even faster.
In the same manner, Juho made haste and reached the traffic light. Although the cars had the right of way, there were no cars on the road. And at the sight of that, Juho felt the strong urge welling up from within. He was anxious to get across to the other side while the road was empty. Then, checking his sides to make sure that there were no incoming cars within eyeshot, he took a step forward, past the yellow tiles on the ground. The traffic light came into view, still red.
Although Juho’s hope to meet a different demise from his past was very much intact, death by the violation of traffic law was a less-than-desirable way to go. With that, Juho waited, shaking his leg anxiously. The light was still red, and time couldn’t go any slower. ‘C’mon. Turn green.’
Upon returning home, Juho gulped down a cup of water, and trying hard to remain calm, he went into his room. Due of the freedom that came with writing, and its lack of notion of time and space, Juho had the power to return to the moment when he first met the man whenever he desired.
As always, his room was a sty, filled with stacks of papers and boxes that towered over him. Standing in front of his desk, he pulled out his chair, and with a quiet sound, the wheeled chair rolled out. Then, sitting on the chair’s cushion, he pulled it closer to the desk. There were pens and papers rolling around the wooden desk. With that, he opened a new notebook, and enjoying the feeling of it, he picked up a pen and closed his eyes, slowly recreating the scene.
Present and past. Brown bricks and grey walls. A secluded, psychiatric hospital had turned into a peaceful mental health center. Six benches, three working-anemoscopes, two boys who appeared to be in elementary school, one girl, and two bicycles. The girl was chasing after a boy, and from there, about thirty to thirty-five steps away, the burnt ruins appeared. The street lamps stood uniformly apart, and there were alleyways in between residential buildings. In the alleyway next to the burnt ruins, was a persimmon tree with a car parked under it. Then, a gust of wind blew, and the leaves shook and fell on to the car, and that was when the man finally made his appearance.
They met again. Wearing a patchy beard and holding an unlit cigarette in his hand, the man gave off a welcoming impression, and it was in front of that man that the burnt ruins lay.
“Are you a hero?”
The man gave no response.
“Or a criminal?”
Again, the man stayed silent. Instead of giving him an answer, he threw the cigarette in his hand down on the ground. The entire space shook. The air changed, and the anemoscope stopped working all of a sudden. Then, Juho felt intense heat coming from the house engulfed in flames. However, the man didn’t move a muscle.
As the flame grew all the more rampant, Juho contemplated what to ask him. The heat was only growing more intense, and ominous smoke went up the sky while the traffic light on the other side of the street blinked about as it went into counting down through the single digits.
At that moment, Juho heard the man cursing out loud. There was a mysterious emotion behind it. And when Juho looked at him, he was melting away, unable to resist the heat. Then, the man began to walk, but Juho couldn’t tell if he was walking toward or away from the burning house. As the entire place shook again, Juho staggered, and the space Juho had created began to fall apart. There was no time. Catching up to the man, Juho managed to reach him before his mouth melted away from the heat.
‘What do I ask him?’ Juho contemplated.
The man was shrinking even smaller, and his head tilted back as his body softened up like a lump of clay. Despite the ashes on his eyelashes, he was still blinking. The sky was now covered in black, ominous smoke.
‘What do I ask him?’
“I know nothing about you,” Juho said. Then, the man’s mouth parted open, his throat throbbing. He seemed to be swallowing something. No. Something was about to come out. Then, a fizz came out of nowhere, and a piece of information entered Juho’s mind immediately.
‘Maybe that will be enough. Wouldn’t I know enough about him, then?’
In that space where everything was burning away, Juho was stuck with an irresponsible certainty.
When Juho looked down at the man, he had already turned into what looked like a crudely-kneaded lump of clay. That meant that Juho had the power to shape it however he wanted to, and that knowledge tickled his hands. In that moment, Juho found joy in the fact that he still knew nothing about the man. He was grateful that he had lost him in the street. Then, Juho stomped on a pair of lips that appeared to be made of clay, still open toward the sky. The footprints remained, and the fire kept burning.
Then, the traffic light blinked about, stuck on the number one. The buildings began to collapse, and eventually, the entire space began to fall apart. And with that, Juho opened his eyes. When he checked the time, it was midnight.
“I’ve been working on something,” Juho told Nam Kyung, whom he was meeting for the first time in a long time. The editor put a sandwich and a cup of Job’s Tears tea down on the table, while Juho kept his eyes fixated on his laptop.
“I’ve been writing.”
“Oh, in the Literature Club?”
“No, something I’ll end up publishing, most likely.”
“… what?!” Nam Kyung said, pulling his glasses up. Despite the meaningless question, Juho answered sincerely.
“I’m working on a new piece.”
At that, Nam Kyung jumped from his seat and charged toward Juho’s laptop, but saw nothing but a search engine on the screen.
“What is this about, Mr. Woo? You gotta revise your work, don’t ya? Let’s see the manuscript.”
“I have no intention to show it to you before it’s finished.”
“Please, wait til I’m, at least, almost done.”
Although Juho had been sharing his unbearable manuscripts with Nam Kyung for them to be edited, he was still reluctant to show the editor a manuscript that wasn’t even good enough to be the first draft. At the young author’s adamant attitude, Nam Kyung went back to his seat, smacking his lips. And, after a brief thought, he said cautiously, “Are you rushing, because you’re feeling pressured?”
“About what?” Juho asked, and a hesitant look appeared on Nam Kyung’s face. He seemed to be unsure of whether it was something that could be mentioned explicitly. Seeing that, Juho took the initiative and asked, “You mean about ‘River?'”
“Yes, precisely,” Nam Kyung said, nodding with exaggeration. ‘River’ was a short story and considered to be Yun Woo’s best work yet. At just over nine thousand words, not only did it surpass the works of the other authors of the same generation, but it had also outdone Yun Woo’s previous works, and Nam Kyung was among the impressed readers who had been going wild with the piece. As soon as he read ‘River,’ the thought that it was the best the young author could ever do crossed over the editor, and it remained deep within him to that day. Aside from Nam Kyung, there were many others who thought the same, believing that the young author wouldn’t be able to overcome the challenge of outperforming himself this time. They believed that the young author was finally coming to taste the bitter reality of this world, and that he would be able to learn from his very first failure.
However, Yun Woo was simply too sensitive and perceptive to be gullible. Seeing Nam Kyung’s gaze, Juho said, without a care in the world, “I’m not writing in a hurry.”
“I’m writing because there’s something I want to write about.” With that, Juho closed his laptop and added, “You see, there’s a question that traveled a long way to find me so that I can write about it.”
“… Did you find inspiration?”
“What is it about?”
“I told you. It’s not even good enough to be the first draft.”
“Well, I’m sure there’s a plot. C’mon, tell me about the direction you have in mind, at the very least.”
At that, Juho took a brief moment to think and opened his mouth to say, “Let’s say it’s a book Yun Pil would write.”
There was no set hero nor villain, and the author, himself, had no clue who was going to be what. Amid the ambiguity, the only thing that was clearly defined was the main event. There was no promise that Juho would be able to finish writing the story, and much like fire, it carried an element of danger.
“I’m not really sure, either. There’s a villain, a hero, and a central theme that’s mutual to everyone’s eyes within the story.”
At the abstract-sounding explanation, Nam Kyung asked, “Is it a thriller?”
“It will definitely be tense, but I can’t say.”
“Or… a detective novel?”
“But there’s no trick, like a secret room or a weapon.”
“I’m sure there’s going to be somebody who’s in a relationship at some point, but I wouldn’t necessarily categorize the entire novel as a romance novel.”
Then, after a brief pause, the editor asked, “Are you really writing?”
“Sigh,” Juho sighed quietly, and feeling his strength leaving his body, he leaned on the backrest. Indeed, Juho had been writing a story that began as the fire rose. Due to the nature of the story, Juho was leaning in the direction of keeping the story tense throughout.
When he wrote ‘River,’ writing had been a breeze since all he had to do had been to stay true to his impulsivity and color what had been used as the foundation, that is, his personal experience. Of course, the result of that was having to make several times more revisions than usual.
Juho reached for a cup, which was empty and light. Despite having expected it to be empty, he brought it up to his mouth anyway, only to be reminded that it was dry and of the coffee stain at the bottom of the cup. There was data he had collected up to that point scattered throughout his desk, and thanks to the help of his publishing company, he had been able to interview a working firefighter. The interview took place as a group effort between Juho, Nam Kyung, and Mr. Maeng, due to the situation calling for someone to take Yun Woo’s place. While Mr. Maeng pretended to be an author, Yun Woo pretended to be a rookie editor, and as the young author acted as he always did, the interviewee didn’t bother to question their legitimacy.
Through the interview, Juho came to learn that the firefighting hierarchy and its system went all the way back to the Joseon Era, and how it had risen in significance after the country had become industrialized. Juho not only learned about the history of firefighting, but also learned more about it in action, from the interior of a firetruck, to how to open and close the valves, and the different situations that can take place at the scene. Fire was, indeed, cruel and frightening.
However, Juho wasn’t planning on making the protagonist in his novel a firefighter who had been and would always be a hero. There was no need to figure out if the protagonist would be a hero or not. In a novel filled with conflict and all sorts of intrigue, there was no room for a hero. However, due to the fact that there were always firefighters where there was fire, interviewing a working firefighter was a must.
While taking a short break, Juho looked up some articles about a natural fire that had started a few days back. And that same day, there was report on the TV in the restaurant Juho had gone into after his evening exercise showing the mountains burning red and helicopters flying around them, spraying water.
Everyone in the restaurant responded differently to the alarming news. While some became anxious, others were getting worked up. Their voices grew louder, and some began to share their experiences with fire. There were also those who renewed their awareness of the dangers of fire. With that, the TV played the footage of the fire being extinguished, announcing that there were no casualties. At which point, most people were genuinely relieved, but there were also those who reacted unnaturally. They had to be hoping, secretly, that the fire would grow bigger, and that it would last longer.
Juho found himself slightly better educated about wildfires through the news, which said that they tended to occur more frequently on the even-numbered years, and that fires that occurred during the spring tended to be more destructive and more difficult to put out.
At that moment, a self-proclaimed expert in the restaurant spoke up, “When I was young, there was a fire in the neighborhood mountain, and I remember it being around April of an even-numbered year. It was so big and fierce that it made me reflect on my own arrogance as a child.”
On his way home, Juho decided to make a detour out of blind hope and check the surrounding areas of the psychiatric hospital. Part wishing that he wouldn’t run into the man, and part thinking that he would like to meet the man one last time, Juho sat on the bench and waited. However, the man was nowhere to be found.