The Impossible Fairy Tale
Janet Hong is the recipient of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, the first novel by one of South Korea’s most promising young writers. In Hong’s pitch-perfect, limpid rendering, this meta-fictional story of two small girls, one lucky, one luckless, in a small town in the late ’90s, casts a hypnotic spell. Hong’s essay on translating The Impossible Fairy Tale is forthcoming.
Mia is lucky. One day, she receives a set of 72 German-made watercolor pencils from one of the two men who consider her to be their daughter. Mia has two fathers. One is not yet aware of the other’s existence, or pretends not to know, and the other is aware of the one’s existence, but chooses to turn a blind eye for some unclear reason. When someone learns of a truth that no one knows, all the surrounding relationships will drastically change. Nevertheless, even though they both function as fathers to Mia, only one of the two had given her a set of 72 German-made color pencils as a gift. Because these color pencils were manufactured in Germany and were not cheap ones made in China, they satisfied her taste and interest, enabling the father who gave the gift to gain leverage over the other father. Red, fuchsia, crimson, blood red, rose, yellow, orange yellow, citron, tangerine, flesh color. And light green, emerald, forest green, grass green. With an overwhelming array of colors spread before her eyes, lucky Mia gains the innocent and childish confidence that she will be able to draw every object around her with 72 colors. When Mia is drawing the outline of an object with a gray pencil, when she is coloring the skin of an object with a blue pencil, Mia’s mother realizes that her daughter has become larger than the size of her own shadow. Mia’s mother loves Mia, and Mia was sick often, and each time she got sick, five shades of color would appear on her face—red, yellow, violet, green, and black—and Mia’s mother would also make herself absent during her husband’s absence. By Mia’s pillow there would be a square of chocolate and a glass of orange juice, but not Mia’s mother. Wet with sweat, in bed with a cold, Mia would rouse for a little while and drink the orange juice and fall asleep again under the damp blanket. When her mother would return late at night and gaze down at her sleeping daughter, because Mia is lucky, she would stir awake and ask her mother for a glass of cold water. When these things repeated themselves several times, the color of Mia’s face would once again be white as milk and smooth as a baby’s bottom, but when Mia’s face turned dark as water and red as fire, when she recognized vaguely that the scene she was witnessing was losing some unknowable thing, the colors of objects became unfixed and began to waver. Therefore the early morning would become a dark blue rage, the afternoon would become a crimson resignation, the evening would become a gray silence, and all the colors would, all at once, turn dark as night. These things happen whenever Mia is sleeping, whenever she is opening her journal, whenever she is engrossed in watching television, whenever she is climbing a jungle gym, whenever she is being warned that she is too young to drink coffee, whenever she is passing a note to the student sitting in front of her. And whenever she thoughtlessly looks away, the objects return to their original color in perfect order.
When I grow up, I’m going to buy a fountain pen, says Mia. Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen? she asks. I read that in a book somewhere. If you drop the pen down on a person’s head from high up and at the right angle, the sharp tip will pierce right into the head. It’s because of acceleration. I read that from a detective story.
But of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t even understand the words “death” or “kill.” She is a lucky child, and she doesn’t possess enough feelings to kill someone, let alone has she had the chance to; she doesn’t yet know that some people can kill a person in the absence of hatred or loathing or malice or anger. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s forehead from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pen’s pointed metal tip into someone’s neck, a fact she would have learned if she read more books. But she was only interested in detective novels, and because there were more things she didn’t know than what she knew, her world was simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, when I grow up, I’m going to buy a fountain pen, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.
Mia, who more or less has everything, who was always told she could have anything, thinks she could construct her world exactly the way it is with 72 colors, that she could fill in the shadows of already existing objects, each with its own shade, that she could erase even the shadows, that she could perhaps kill a person. If she has the power to kill, she also has the power to save. Therefore, nothing is impossible. Mia, who has everything or is able to have everything, thinks she is able to do anything. Of the two of Mia’s fathers Mia’s mother goes back and forth between, one father is unaware of the other’s existence while the other father is aware of everyone’s existence. Mia moistens her lips with the tip of her tongue. Because she doesn’t yet have a clear understanding of acceleration, she has no concept of the speed at which an incident arrives at ruin once it occurs, no concept of the velocity at which emotions expand once they begin to swell and, ultimately, explode. She had once seen on television the visual recreation of how space came to be; the great explosion, that round and lovely thing like a wreath—she tried to draw that scene with 72 color pencils, but no matter how many lines she drew, there were always two colors missing and she, who had no concept of the colors she lacked, proudly showed her drawing to her fathers, and perhaps even to her mother, and one thought Mia had drawn a flower bouquet and another thought she had drawn the entrails of a beast. While she moistens the tip of her forefinger with saliva and erases the light’s outline, the smear of colors and their shadows becomes submerged in darkness. Naturally.
It is not yet known if Mia will receive a set of 120 German-made color pencils next year, or if instead of a pair of running shoes illustrated with a cartoon character, she may receive a pair of leather shoes adorned with exquisite ribbons. She has two fathers, enough people to give her presents, so the mold growing in every crevice of the piano, silver bracelet, doll, fountain pen, wool coat, bright, sunny room, and large window will be hidden, overtaken by shadows. Not even the speed at which the white, blue, and black mold infiltrates the room will be seen, not yet. She can have everything, and because she is merely twelve years old, she has enough time to have everything. She must always prepare for the future. Just as the others say, she must become the main character of the next century. Because she is important to everyone, Mia’s mother may take her as a hostage in court, one of the two fathers may use Mia to gain leverage over everyone else, and the other father may want to use her as an excuse to turn an affair into a non-affair, but, apart from these scenarios, Mia is involved in an infinite number of instances, and until the number of these instances becomes void, she must not die or disappear.
Soon the emotions that are being launched in Mia’s blood vessels, eyes, mouth, joints, and bones will rise and fall simultaneously, but when? How? She, who is now thirteen, may want, as the other girls do, to cut her hair in a bob like that of a middle school student or to go to school in Adidas running shoes. Bobbed hair, Adidas shoes, and things like this will be given to her easily. While her mother pulls back Mia’s long hair in a ponytail, Mia grimaces, despite herself, and doesn’t forget to say that she wants a new sweater—the one that had been hanging in a store window that had caught her eye the afternoon before; the one she saw as she passed the shopping district on her way home from her after-school academy; the one with five different shades of green and five different shades of blue; the one with a small deer knitted on the chest. White psoriasis blooms around Mia’s mouth while Mia’s mother, who pulled Mia’s hair in a tight knot, turns Mia around to place a kiss on her cheek. Mia’s mother tells Mia that it will soon be spring, that there will be no need for a sweater; plus, because she’s a growing girl, she won’t be able to wear it for long. She pleads with her mother. Her mother says no. Mia writes in her journal: Mother tied my hair too tightly. So my head hurt. Mia says, I’m going to ask Ageosshi to buy it for me, because in the ten days it takes Dad to come home, the sweater might be gone. The sweater that is still hanging in the window, the sweater that is much too large to be a child’s sweater, the sweater that Mia will get or will not get will be blacked out from her memory in several weeks in any case, blacked out even if it isn’t black or red or yellow. Since there is no lack of replacements and there is more than enough to replace even the replacements, Mia could have anything, as long as there is time.
⨳ ⨳ ⨳
Mia pulls in her left arm from her pajama sleeve and hides it inside her clothes. Like this, sitting at the breakfast table with the empty left sleeve dangling from her still-flat chest, when Mia’s mother asks, Now what are you supposed to be?, Mia responds by saying, My arm disappeared. It ran away, because it didn’t have the deer sweater.
Toast, milk, and apples are on the table, but Mia’s fathers are not at the head—my right arm says it’s going to run away tomorrow, too, and my chest might run away the day after that, says Mia, who uses her right hand to spread jam on her toast.
Her mother gazes vacantly at her daughter. Though no one had ever taught her how, Mia always knew how to wheedle and whine in a reasonable manner, to a reasonable extent. While nibbling on her toast Mia says, My friend … , and as she begins to plead again, while Mia’s mother throws away the empty plastic bread bag, the phrase “phantom limb pains,” forgotten until now, comes to mind to Mia’s mom, whose chest sometimes hurts whenever she thinks of Mia. And yet, there is no lack of replacements. There are even replacements for replacements. Mia’s mother could have another child—it was still possible—and even if she didn’t want another child, she could have a replacement thing instead of a child, but if she couldn’t have that replacement, she could have something else, and if she could have something else, she could also lose something; and so it is that Mia must not be allowed to want anything. The more we want, the more we lose. But she is still young, so she is more interested in the things she could have than the things she could lose.
… My friend, she didn’t eat for two days, because she wanted a doll, says Mia. At least I don’t do anything like that.
In the end Mia gets the green and blue sweater with the deer, but it is unclear who buys it for her. What is certain is that she could not buy it for herself. Dad bought it for me, she says. Dad bought the sweater for me, she writes in her journal. I like it so much that I wore it to bed last night. Tuesday, March 3, 1998. Weather: Clear. On her desk is a neat stack of new textbooks and notebooks. Her mother individually wraps plastic over the cover of each textbook, still fresh with the smell of ink. Mia has two journals; one she’s been using for a year and one that’s new; one that conceals secrets and one where secrets are revealed. But she cannot conceal, reveal, cover up, or even expose her secrets. Her sentences are too immature. Mia, who is wearing an adult sweater, looks even smaller and more childish than usual, and since the sweater does not have any pockets, she cannot hide anything—not a single hairpin, a morsel of a secret, a container of pencil lead. Because she has not menstruated yet, grown-ups say that there is enough time for her to grow taller.
That there is time, time enough, still. Before the sweater begins to pill.
When Mia’s new desk partner at school twirls the mechanical pencil between her thumb and index fingers, the pencil spins. She draws a large heart in a corner of her notebook and says to Mia, If you can color the whole heart black with just one lead, your love 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 partner, with her new mechanical pencil and new lead, Mia draws a pretty, round heart on the last page of her notebook. The two girls concentrate on coloring in the 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 have to begin again, and they can’t draw hearts on the paper they’ve already used, so they must begin again with a new heart on a new page with new lead each time, but the lead keeps breaking, and their minds get crushed by failure. The boys, who had gobbled up their food so that they could play soccer for the rest of their short lunchtime, return from the playfield, emitting a faint smell of perspiration. 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 together her hands, which peep out from her sleeves that have been folded over twice. After school is dismissed, the children scatter in all four directions in front of the school gate, towards the address 2-1, towards 3-12, towards Suite 303 of Building 109, towards Solar Arcade, towards the Cheongpa Institute, each melting their shadows into the afternoon’s. The pencil cases that hold containers of pencil lead rattle inside the backpacks of these twelve-year-olds, who have just been allowed the use of mechanical pencils. For the reason that mechanical pencils would ruin their penmanship, they were encouraged, perhaps even forced, to use wooden pencils until the fourth grade, and although grown-ups said they could use pens after entering middle school, it was no use, the children already had poor penmanship; whether they used pencils or pens or mechanical pencils, they could not make neat, fine handwriting until they were no longer children.
If you’re going to write about love, write your love 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 that 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 their failed hearts. These things tend to disappear in a moment, even if you don’t purposely throw them away.
This translation is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2014 translation series, which features essays and excerpts from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.