Van Gogh’s Light
by Lee Soo Kyung December 09, 2021
Lee Soo Kyung
The farmhouse in front of our house was demolished and replaced with a two-story building. The elderly couple who owned the building lived on the first floor, and they rented out the basement and the second floor to foreign workers. Late at night or before dawn, I could hear their strange languages and melancholy songs. People who left their poor motherlands behind often gathered in the yard and shared stories in languages only they could understand. It sounded as if people were speaking in tongues from somewhere afar. I kept thinking that Abul the Bangladeshi might be there among them. Or in the usual everyday scenes, or the dark alley, or at the factory.
What used to be alive did not vanish that quickly.
Blocked by the two-story building, the sunlight that used to stream into our house was halved. The wallpaper and the furniture seemed drained of their colors as they were unable to receive any sunlight. The entire house was dark all day long. I placed a narrow, long-necked lamp by the window and kept the light on day and night. When the soft yellow light illumined the walls and the furniture, bringing colors back into them, I felt at peace. One day, I brought back plants that had been left at the dumpster and put them on the windowsill. I took great care of them, changing their positions in the sunlight as the sun moved throughout the day, but soon their leaves turned yellow and withered. The plants I’d put out on the veranda froze to death within days. I couldn’t keep plants at home anymore.
Eight-year-old Jaeyi wanted a hamster, a cat, and even a rabbit. But I couldn’t let her have such pets in this cold house plagued by backflow. I bought her two fish instead. Jaeyi put the blue and rainbow-colored fish in a fishbowl on the windowsill.
“The fish are gone!” Jaeyi shouted in surprise the next morning. The two fish that had been in the fishbowl had vanished without a trace. Jaeyi and I scoured the room. But the fish were nowhere to be found. It was rather eerie.
Jaeyi’s dad came home for the first time in days and held Jaeyi in his arms. Jaeyi told him about the vanished fish.
“They must have eaten each other,” he said. Jaeyi covered her eyes, saying that she was scared. His words sent a chill down my back as well. If that had been the case, shouldn’t there be fins or bones left behind? It was impossible for two living things to devour each other whole without leaving a trace, at least in this world. Unless some god had something to do with it.
He’s just pulling her leg, I thought.
I emptied the fishbowl into the toilet. Gently scolding me for keeping the light on during the day, my husband turned off the lamp. When the light went out, it felt like all the colors in the house had drained. Startled, I turned the lamp back on. My husband looked perplexed as if he didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t understand myself either. How could I understand everything around me going black as if the light had taken away all the colors in the house? The wallpaper that had been dangling from the ceiling for days suddenly peeled off. The exposed cement ceiling was damp and covered in fungus.
“Looks like we need to get some wallpaper,” my husband murmured in passing, glancing up at the ceiling. Without the wallpaper, the ceiling looked so grotesque that I couldn’t stand looking at it for a minute. As if it didn’t bother him, my husband sat on the windowsill and clipped his toenails.
“They look like raptor’s claws!”
Jaeyi looked curiously at her dad’s toenails. Not having been clipped for a long time, they did resemble dinosaur claws.
“Could we wallpaper the ceiling ourselves?”
I wondered loudly on purpose so that my husband would hear me.
My husband, Jaeyi, and I went into town to buy wallpaper. My husband suggested grabbing dinner before going home since it was our first outing in a long time. It was a late winter day, and the sunlight was bright and warm. Snow was still piled up along the shady edges of the alley, while the center of the path was slushy. My husband picked Jaeyi up in his arms.
“She’s a big girl now,” I said to Jaeyi’s dad, looking at him sideways.
“Let’s buy wallpaper with flower patterns.”
Jaeyi seemed to be in a good mood.
“Sure, let’s buy floral-pattern wallpaper,” my husband answered, keeping up her spirits.
“Should we eat pork belly?” asked Jaeyi.
I opened up my wallet to count the bills inside. My husband took a couple of ten-dollar bills from his pocket and handed them to me. We bought a roll of floral-pattern wallpaper. We decided to make flour paste glue and wallpaper the ceiling only. One roll didn’t seem enough to cover the entire ceiling, but neither Jaeyi’s dad nor I said we should buy more. It was a little early for dinner, but the winter sun set rather quickly. My husband took the lead with quick steps, and I followed behind at a slower pace as my mind wandered.
The barbecue restaurant had a courtyard in the center, and the tables were laid out in a big circle around the courtyard. Further inside the restaurant there was raised floor seating where people could take their shoes off and sit on the warm floor. Lights lit up the courtyard here and there, allowing plants to grow lush and verdant even though they didn’t receive direct sunlight. My spirits fell for a moment, as they reminded me of the plants that died in my house. There was a small pond in the middle of the courtyard. When a white plaster cherub peed into the pond, music flowed. Smoke rose from the tables. Adults were grilling meat, while children were gathered around ice cream tubs. Jaeyi took off her shoes and stepped onto the raised floor seating. Her dad neatly arranged her shoes and placed them so that they were facing outward. I did the same for his shoes and went to our table.
My husband ordered two portions of pork belly and grilled the meat until it turned golden brown. He cut them up into smaller pieces for Jaeyi and put them on her plate, and even wiped sauce from the corners of her mouth. Jaeyi only ate the meat her dad wrapped in lettuce to give her, not touching the ones I wrapped for her.
“Hon, have some meat,” I said to my husband and pushed some meat and vegetables toward him, but pretending not to have seen them, he kept on spooning rice and soybean paste soup into his mouth. Wondering if he was going to say something, I waited. All four hundred grams of pork belly were on the grill, and some of the pieces began to char.
“They’re getting burnt!”
When I raised my voice, Jaeyi got up discreetly and headed to the ice cream tubs. I spoke to Jaeyi’s dad about Jebu Island.
“My friends went to Jebu Island. They said the sea parted to reveal a walking path to the island around noon. The last path opens around 6:00 p.m. tomorrow. They said they’d wait for us to come. Hon, let’s take Jaeyi to Jebu Island. It’s just for a day. Let’s go and stay somewhere where it’s bright. But um, the lawsuit . . .”
Even before I finished my sentence, my husband nodded. He said he’d come home once the negotiations with the company were finished the next afternoon. He said we should go to Jebu Island afterward.
“And . . .”
Just as he was about to say something more, Jaeyi returned with a bowlful of ice cream. He fell silent. We were almost done eating, and it was growing darker outside. Suddenly the courtyard lit up with light, and streams of water gushed from the fountain. As the cherub statue peed into the pond, music flowed. My husband glanced behind him toward the courtyard, then lowered his head and cautiously said, “They’re the ones siding with the company.”
When I followed his suit and turned around, he signaled me to stop looking.
“Don’t turn around.”
There were two men in gray uniform sitting at a table by the courtyard and grilling meat. They looked familiar. They were wearing the same work uniform as my husband, but theirs looked different.
Well, I suppose they are different.
On my husband’s thirty-seventh birthday, they’d come to our house with a potted money tree as a gift and ate cake together and drank alcohol. When Jaeyi enrolled in school, they’d bought her a backpack, and they’d even prepared documents to submit to the Ministry of Employment and Labor together. The money tree they’d given us as a gift was now dead.
“They’re uncles!” Jaeyi also remembered them.
My husband waited until Jaeyi finished her ice cream and got up from his seat. The uneaten pieces of meat were left to harden on the grill. There were still lettuce, mushrooms, and other vegetables left on the table. Thinking it a shame to leave them uneaten, I walked away begrudgingly. As Jaeyi and her dad were putting on their shoes, the men in gray uniform approached us. They nodded at me in acknowledgment and held their hands out to Jaeyi’s dad. He didn’t shake their hands. The men grinned and patted Jaeyi on the head once each before leaving the restaurant ahead of us. I paid for the meat, got a cup of coffee from the coffee machine and sipped it, grabbed a fistful of candy from the counter and handed them to Jaeyi, and finally headed outside. For that entire time, my husband sat on a chair in the smoking section and burned through his cigarette.
Since the first trial began early last autumn, my husband came home once in two or three days or even a week. It has been six months since. Abul. If only it hadn’t been for Abul. Or actually, if only the two-story building hadn’t been built. Or if only that dumpster hadn’t been overflowing with discarded junk. If only the junk from demolishing, rebuilding, and renovating buildings had not awakened the factory at night. If only Abul’s motherland had not been so poor. If only Jaeyi’s dad hadn’t read a book like Workers, Unite around that time. Goddamn it! I didn’t know what needed to be undone for all of this to not have happened.
As for Abul, he was an honest and quiet young man from Bangladesh. Whenever he had lunch at the restaurant where Jaeyi’s friend Ann’s mother worked as the only server, he helped her serve dishes to other customers. On those days Ann’s mother packed him side dishes to take home behind the restaurant owner’s back. Elderly men and women in town were very fond of Abul, who always said hello to them in awkward Korean. The children weren’t afraid of the dark-skinned foreigner Abul. The recycling factory was thriving. Foreign workers like Abul worked the night shifts at the factory. In the wee hours of the morning, when they were the only ones awake while the entire town slept, Abul’s hand was shredded by an industrial shredder. The company fired Abul. With his one hand wrapped in bandages, the twenty-one-year-old Abul hung himself from the factory shredder. Everyone mourned and lamented his death, but no one could help poor Abul.
Several months after Abul’s death, my husband and other factory workers received a “certificate of the establishment of a labor union” from the Ministry of Employment and Labor. It had to be done before another Abul came along, and of all people at the factory, my husband took the lead. Everyone was excited, and they recalled Abul’s tragic death. They didn’t think anything worse could happen. With the certificate of the establishment of a labor union in their hands, they gathered together in the yard of the two-story building where Abul used to live to grill meat, drink alcohol, and sing together the songs that Abul used to sing with his friends. The melody carried to the far end of the alley, and even to the dirt path above the church that led to the recycling factory.
A month later, nothing happened at the factory, but my husband and the factory workers who created the labor union were all laid off. In a mere month. Since it was wrongful termination, they fought, and while fighting, they broke through the factory gates, and each of them received a document titled “Claim for Obstruction of Business and Damages” issued by a national agency. In the meantime, the company donated money to the elementary school in town for scholarships and built a new community center as part of its efforts to give back to the community and serve its people. The townspeople who had sworn at the company for Abul’s death immediately turned around and said that it was wrong of the workers to break the factory gates, that the town would be ruined if the factory shut down. The workers who had filled out the documents to form the labor union sided with the company. Those who joined the union didn’t last long against the company’s threats and coaxing. They feared that they would receive some threatening claims, blamed Abul for what happened to him, and said that the labor union they wanted wasn’t this aggressive. Soon the only members of the labor union were my husband and five other workers. Together they filed a lawsuit to nullify the termination of their employment contracts and set up tents in front of the broken factory gates. No one supported them, just like no one had supported Abul. Before the end of the autumn, the court ruled in favor of the factory. Jaeyi’s dad and the other laid-off workers appealed the court’s decision and spent the winter in tents. If they didn’t win the suit or folded up their tents and stopped protesting, they would be too ashamed to shed even a tear for future Abuls, for losing a hand in the shredder.
“If we do that, then it’s like cutting off one of our own hands. We have to see this through to the end.”
That was what my husband said on the day they filed the appeal.
That happened three months ago, and the winter was coming to an end.
Translated by Stella Kim
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AUTHORS Lee Soo Kyung Lee Soo Kyung debuted in 2016 when her short story “Natural History Museum” won the Dong-A Ilbo New Writers’ Contest. She received the Daesan Creative Writing Fund in 2019 to work on her short story collection Natural History Museum and Other Stories. She received Ikcheon Cultural Foundation’s inaugural Creative Writing Fund and the Kim Man-jung New Writer’s Award in 2021.