The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Two little girls with short hair that’s cut straight across the back sit in the yard, heads touching, peering intently at the ground. They’re trying to catch ants. If you catch a carpenter ant and lick the hole in its underside you taste something that’s sweet and also a bit sour. The girls’ stomachs are constantly growling, for they’ve had to make do with a handful of roasted beans for lunch.
“In wartime we have to get along on this,” their mommy has explained to them time and again as she takes out one of the basins she has hidden beneath the kitchen floor and produces a handful of wheat flour or rice with which to boil some wheat-dumpling soup or cook some watery rice gruel. The girls listen with ravenous expressions.
It’s an afternoon in early autumn and the sun beats down white-hot. The neighborhood is deathly still. No sign of those who locked their gates and fled the war. Sometimes the girls go next door and peer through the gate nailed shut with two crisscrossing planks. Growing in the yard are weeds as tall as them, and the tile roof is lush with green grass. It looks so desolate and mysterious—does a ghost live there?
Every night from the downtown area the thump of bullets buffets the sky. Their mommy has the front gate barred, and she keeps the children hidden inside day and night. Father hides in the loft, coming down to join the family only at night. Mommy often whispers to Father. “The robbers are everywhere. They break down the gates of the people who left and take food, clothing, anything they can get money for. People scare me. They’re getting more and more like animals.”
But for the girls, all that matters is their empty stomachs. Their playmates are gone, everyone is gone, but they don’t lack for things to do. Because for a long time, ever since they were born, they’ve played with each other, and only with each other, and they’re used to this. For the two girls are twins. Identical twins. No one but their parents can distinguish them. But not always. “How can you two look so identical? You’re the mirror image of each other. If you want to see your face, just look at your sister.”
Mommy always dresses them in clothes of different colors. She wants two equally fine husbands for them—she’ll marry them off on the same day, at the same time. One girl removes the black rubber shoes they both wear and puts the ants they’ve caught inside. Suddenly there are footsteps, many footsteps, outside the wall. The gate rattles and bangs. Its planks give way easily and men lunge into the yard.
Startled by these intruders during the midday stillness, the girl who’s removed her shoes scampers onto the veranda calling for Mommy. Instinct and fear drive the other girl into the outhouse in the corner of the yard. She locks the door. Between the loosely fitted planks of the outhouse the L-shaped living quarters are clearly visible.
The men bound onto the veranda, shoes and all. Each is armed with a pickaxe, a crowbar, or some such thing. There, at one of the doors, is that Mommy’s face? A scream. I should go to Mommy, the little girl thinks. But an even stronger fear has seized the hand that holds the outhouse latch, and won’t let go. The men come out through the door and head for the kitchen. Mommy crawls out behind them, blood gushing from her head, and grabs one of the men by the pantleg. He nonchalantly chops at her with the pickaxe.
A short time later the men disappear toting a sack of rice and a fat bundle of something or other. It all seems like a lie—did it really happen? The little girl emerges from the outhouse. All is still. The dancing, white-hot sun filling the yard, the pair of black rubber shoes looming in the deathly still noonday—there is nothing else. Where is everybody? Come on out! Standing in the yard, the little girl softly calls her sister’s name.