Beauty

I grew up in a harbor town by Korea’s east coast where the hill and sea meet. Back then, the town was colorless and empty of any striking buildings. Come winter, it made for a dreary sight, cloaked in a dark, solid color. Serving as a fishing port, a military port, and a seaport for coal and cement, the town was often enveloped in a suffocating haze of coal ash and cement dust scattered by the sea winds. In the summer, rain fell ceaselessly over the rotting smell of fish guts. Then the blazing sun reappeared, as flies buzzed noisily underneath the eaves. When winter came again, the depressing color took over once more. When it snowed, the town was all black and white. It seemed to mire its people in a bog of chaotic madness. Surrounded by the endless black and white, the people shuddered against the sound of the ships’ horns and the cold sea wind that pounded against their impoverished souls. The black-and-white world was a place of fear to all who dwelled in it.

Then one day, an incident occurred that threw splashes of vivid color against the monochrome backdrop of the town. It was a symbolic, cathartic event that moved the wretched townspeople gripped with the urge to self-destruct into a hushed silence.

It all began at a small beauty parlor located on one side of a half-frozen stream. The shop was near a cement bridge that crossed the stream. Piles of dirty slush, kicked up by passing cars and the scurrying feet of pedestrians, accumulated on the corners of the bridge, the center of which stayed slick and muddy. The small beauty parlor stood bravely at the edge of this depressing picture. In our town, the beauty parlor served as an exciting distraction from the otherwise boring landscape. It was like a small lighthouse that directed our bodily impulses away from the oppressions of the world. From a poster on the parlor’s front window, a brightly smiling woman looked out at the black-and-white world. A cozy plume of steam billowed from the pipe jutting out the window. The place was indeed a shrine to true beauty.

On the morning of the day in question, I was sitting alone in a comic book store across from the beauty parlor. Sitting on the edge of a wooden chair in a corner of the dark, cold store, I was buried deep in a story about an old busker who sang on the streets in the winter with his little daughter in tow. I wasn’t interested in his accordion or his music; what I was interested in was his pretty young daughter. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the kind of music he produced soothed the souls of the wounded. On that morning, however, I found myself hoping that people would spare more dimes for the young girl. I couldn’t feel anything for the passion of her old father who kept his eyes closed and wordlessly played his accordion.

There was no one else at the comic book store. It was still early, and the one stove in the store was cold. On it was a battered nickel pot full of cold odeng soup. The elderly storekeeper should have gotten up and pushed a fresh coal briquette into the stove but it was much too early, so the shop was cold. The storekeeper’s mute wife, who’d gotten up and opened the door when I knocked on the window, had gone back to bed. Her husband was lying down on the floor with one of his wife’s sweaters covering his forehead to keep warm as he silently kept count of the books I was taking off the shelves. Both he and his wife knew I read at the speed of light. After finishing the story of the busker and his daughter, I went on to read about a French farmer running to the German troops to snitch on a resistance fighter hiding in his house. The farmer’s wife was treating a gunshot wound to the young fighter’s chest.

Not only was I a fast reader of comic books but I was also a good student, a fact that made my teachers and neighbors extremely uncomfortable and unhappy, as I was a skinny, ill-bred kid from a dysfunctional home. Some of our neighbors declared my good grades were all thanks to my whore mom.

All of the neighbors knew my mom suffered from alopecia, a condition that rendered her pubic area hairless. My dad, a fisherman sixteen years her senior who was always out at sea, was the only one who wasn’t aware that everyone else knew. On that fateful morning, my mom handed me cash and shooed me off to the comic book store. I guessed that her lover, the widowed carpenter, would be crawling into our house soon. The carpenter, the father of a classmate, was one of many men in town who lusted after Mom’s pale, fleshy pussy.

Ever since I was much younger, my mom had often dragged men into her bedroom. Each time it happened, I was kicked out. She didn’t care what anyone else said but, apparently, she didn’t want me witnessing her sleeping around with men other than my father. Thanks to that, I got enough cash to read as many comic books and eat as much odeng as I wanted. If I’d gotten smart from reading all those comic books, then I guess the neighbors’ argument that I got good grades because my mom was a slut makes sense. Although my mom made sure I wasn’t around to see the men, she let my brother, who was younger by one year, stay in the room. So when she was fucking the owner of the unlicensed acid factory or the kept man married to a barkeep, my brother stayed in a corner of the room under his sheets, not daring to make a sound. He was blind in one eye, while I was a smart kid with all my features intact. Mom treated him as if he were an animal or an insect.

“Look, you idiot, look at this, you worthless fool,” my mom said to my brother one summer day, as she walked into our front yard. “Look at your sibling.”

She tossed something soft wrapped in newspaper on the floor of the living room. She didn’t stop to think I might be in the room. Unaware I was watching everything through a crack in my door, she sat on the floor and, with one finger, gingerly lifted the paper to show my brother what lay underneath.

“I brought it to show you, you useless piece of shit.”

Inside was a lump of flesh covered in blood. I realized immediately it was a fetus, her own. She’d walked home in the heat after she’d gone under the knife to get the bloody mess scraped out of her. Her face was pale as chalk. But I didn’t feel bad for her. I knew the lump of pink, shiny flesh, cut up into small pieces like so many portions of short ribs, was someone else’s child, not my father’s. I stood behind the door, staring at the mangled fetus wrapped in newspaper. But my brother sidled up to the lump and, with his finger, lifted the newspaper to peer closely at the body. To my mom, he asked, “And? Is this a boy or girl?”

Chuckling, she answered, “Girl. Why’s it matter, you fool?”

Looking down at the bloody mess, he remarked, “She’s pretty.”

A drop of sweat rolled down my forehead into my eye. I wiped it away with the back of my hand. I imagined that the fetus would soon rot and start to stink in this heat. It was desperately hot. Suddenly, my brother stopped poking at the dismembered chunks of meat and glanced at where I was hiding in the room. His one good eye looked the other way, but his glazed-over blind eye met mine directly. It shone.

He had lost his sight in that eye two years earlier. It was winter, and he and I were riding our sled over the frozen stream. It was a very cold day. No one else was there. During the summer monsoon season, the stream swelled with muddy water, but the flow was usually feeble. That winter’s drought had made it worse. There was only a narrow, bumpy patch of ice to ride on, with sharp rocks sticking up in places. When our sled crashed into a rock and we were sent flying, the ice pick I had in my hand accidentally became lodged in my brother’s eye. Whimpering, he brought both hands up to his eye. The ice pick refused to come out and stayed there, wobbling. Even then he didn’t scream or shout. And with the pick still dangling from his eye, he pleaded, “Don’t tell Mom. I’ll tell her I did it. Say you don’t know anything about it, OK?”

He was in the third grade when I turned him blind. He never told anyone what I did. But I never became the loving brother I should have been. There were a couple of reasons for that but, mostly, I was jealous that while I had to wander out in the cold while my mom was fucking those men, he got to stay in the room and witness the sex unfold before him. Only he got to see Mom fucking a sailor from out of town and hear their cursing and filthy banter. I shivered as I imagined the hordes of strange men grunting on top of Mom as sweat dripped over her heaving breasts. I couldn’t stop imagining the sight of my mom biting down on her lip and struggling to hold in her screams as the skinny, tubercular taffy-seller groaned on top of her, the veins in his forehead throbbing. I wanted so much to see it for myself. But only my brother was to be that lucky. All I could turn to was a poster on the gas station wall of a coyly posing actress and lame lewd stories told by the older boys behind the elementary school gates. When I came home from these solitary wanderings, my mom and brother greeted me as if nothing had happened. One summer night I went home early, determined to catch Mom in the act. Throwing open the doors to her room, I saw it was empty. The man had left not too long ago. The room was heavy with the smell of sweat and semen and my mom and brother were both lying weakly on the floor, as if they’d just had an epileptic fit. Buried in a tangle of sheets and trying to steady his breath, my brother fixed me with an innocent gaze.

I treated him like a one-eyed freak. So did my mom. After he was struck blind, he went to work for a deliveryman to earn some extra cash because my mom told him to. He was in the fourth grade at the time. While he was busy delivering briquettes to our neighbors, his boss came over to our house to swig rice wine and finger our mom’s pale pussy with his soot-stained hands. One day, my brother caught them in the act and quit his job. He opened the door to the kitchen and peered in to see Mom kneeling on the floor before his boss’s pulsating penis. She had tears flowing down her cheeks. In a choked voice, my brother cried out, “You dirty hairless whore!”

That was the first and last time he rebelled against Mom. She was very disappointed. The next day, instead of going to work at the coal briquette factory, my brother went back to school. He didn’t show it, but after he went back to school on Mom’s orders, he seemed to regret his one act of rebellion.

But, back to the morning of the incident at the beauty parlor. I was kicked out of the house and my brother was probably crouching silently in Mom’s room as the widowed carpenter grunted and grinded against Mom’s hairless pussy. I was busy reading about a thirteen-year-old princess who has just been asked for her hand in marriage by a prince from a neighboring kingdom. She’s walking in her garden with a servant girl when she suddenly runs into a young knight. He had an athletic build and was in long leather boots, with a short sword strapped to his side.

The princess meets the knight again at the royal ball. The knight, now handsomely attired bows gallantly before the princess and asks for a dance. As I was about to turn the page, the storekeeper’s wife emerged with a coal brazier from her room. I kept my head buried in my books until the stove was lit and a pot of fresh odeng soup came to a boil, filling the store with steam and the smell of fishcakes. Cold wind blew in through the cracks in the glass window. The sky was clear but it was very cold that day. In the empty lot next to the comic book store where a bare persimmon tree stood, the wind swept up dry bits of snow from the ground. Kids started coming to the store in ones and twos. Only after the thick chunk of radish in the odeng soup turned completely soft did I lift my head at the sudden noise I heard outside. Hurrying over to the window, I looked across the stream at the beauty parlor. Several townspeople, hands tucked underneath their armpits to keep warm, were forming a crowd.

The incident had occurred early that morning but it only became known toward noon. The police had already come to close down the scene. Arriving late at the scene, I pushed my way into the crowd, my heart beating wildly. Because I hadn’t seen it go down, I had no idea what had happened or what the inside looked like. But the neighbors had put together a story through hearsay already, despite the fact no one had gone in.

That morning, the beauty parlor opened for business earlier than usual because a customer had called the day before to request an early appointment. The only hairdresser there, also the owner of the place, was a thin, short spinster who looked much older than her age. She received her customer early in the morning as promised. The customer hurried inside, though the stove had yet to warm up the place. She was the mayor’s youngest daughter and one of the few girls from the area who’d gone to college, and a college in Seoul at that. She was nineteen years old, a good age, and extraordinarily pretty. She was to leave for Seoul that morning, so she’d come to the beauty parlor to get her hair done by the spinster, who was praised in town for her skill.

The mayor’s daughter, a freshman, was the object of desire for every guy in town. She didn’t give any of them the time of day, but all the guys—from Ochi’s older brother who never made it past elementary school and was working as the fish market broker’s assistant, to Big Head’s uncle who was attending a vocational school at another town, to my own teacher—scrambled to clear the path for her whenever they ran into her in the street. Though shy and helpless whenever she was around, when the guys got together at their usual gathering place near the school’s monkey bars, they bragged they could have her anytime they wanted. Sometimes, they got into fights that even involved knives, vying for the love of the same woman. Even while baring their teeth at each other, the guys complained about their impossible and repressed urges.

A while ago, a big fight broke out. “What did you say, asshole? You had nothing but odeng your whole life?” It was Chilsung’s brother, who was studying for a civil service exam, who started the fight. It began as an argument over the mayor’s daughter but turned into a fight after what Ochi’s brother said.

“Yeah, you bastard. Go down to the market. Go on, go down to the market and ask the people there. Ask them if I have odeng every day or not,” retorted Ochi’s brother. Now that he had a job, he’d bought himself a pair of tight leather pants which he was wearing that day.

“You piece of shit!” Chilsung’s brother jumped down from the monkey bars and head-butted Ochi’s brother. He must have been pissed that this guy, an elementary school dropout who moved crates at the fish market, was competing for the same college girl he liked, when he, after all, had gone to high school.

“Hey!” Blood flowed from Ochi’s brother’s nose. Crouched on the floor, he moved to lift the hem of his pants and swiftly grabbed the jackknife tucked into his sock. Chilsung’s brother took off at a run, but Ochi’s brother chased him down and stabbed him in his shoulder blade. After they’d run across the school grounds and past the monkey bars where one of them finally ended up stabbed, I left from where I was watching and stole away to the comic book store. Usually, once fights like those ended and both the bruised fighters and the onlookers had settled down, there was one last rite they went through. And that involved me and my family. As a final rite, they’d glance over at our house and burst out in knowing laughter, exchanging jokes about my mom’s hairless pussy.

Of all the rumors surrounding the mayor’s daughter, the one started by Mina’s uncle, who supposedly took the same English and math classes she did, was the most believable. The two were playing badminton one day when their shuttlecock flew into a nearby shed. They crawled inside together to retrieve it and ended up doing more. Mina’s uncle, who was rather good-looking, was on his second year studying to get into college. He bragged that he pulled her close and kissed her in the dark. But Big Head’s uncle, he of the vocational school, snorted at the rumor.

“Fucking crazy nonsense.”

If it weren’t for the fact that people were already pissed at me for getting good grades in school when I was the son of a slut, I might have harbored feelings for the mayor’s daughter as well. I was certainly mesmerized by her. When she was in high school, I was passing by her house when I saw her hanging laundry in her backyard. She was hanging up her white school uniform, standing on tiptoe. I caught a glimpse of her pale, soft lower back as she reached up and grabbed at the uniform. As she did, her blouse revealed a couple inches of skin. But that was more than enough. Already a mature kid by then with a lively imagination, I felt as if I’d stolen a piece of her soul. But that ecstasy was snuffed out when I came across her radiant face one night when she saw me at my most humiliated.

I was coming home from math class late that night. The unforgiving cold of the night swept the street, and the sky and ground were the color of ink. There were no streetlights. The stores were closed and dark, so I had near zero visibility on the road. I was passing by an iron foundry after emerging from a railroad overpass. I was walking with my abacus and notebook under one arm when, suddenly, I fell down a hole by the road and into a pool of water that had collected inside. The hole had been dug that afternoon to clean the sewer. The sewage stank terribly. Willing myself to stay alert, I crawled out of the hole like a rat dragging itself out from a pail of shit. Shivering with the abacus still under my arm, I hurried off. Along with feeling humiliated and angry, though, I was strangely elated. If no one had seen me, I’d have run home instead of walking, loudly spitting out the dirty water. I was amused by the fact that nothing could make me filthier than I already was. I didn’t have to worry about choosing the driest, cleanest path. I had no inhibitions. The biting cold and the inky blackness didn’t bother me in the least. It was when I’d reached the top of a hill, still coughing and dragging my squeaking sneakers, that I saw a flickering streetlight standing outside the mayor’s house. The light cast its glow over the surrounding areas. As soon as I saw the light, I felt the cold around me, which I’d forgotten until then. I also felt I could smell the sewer on me again. My clothes were stuck to me. It was in that state that I saw that figure of beauty standing under the light. It was the mayor’s daughter. She was standing under the streetlight with that bright, pretty face of hers, watching me as I passed by.

That’s how we passed each other. After I came home, I was sick for a full three days. Somehow, I felt a wave of relief from knowing I’d never lust after her again. Many years passed until I realized why we had to meet when I was at my worst, covered in piss and dirt. The face I saw in the light was one of true, unbearable beauty. I was the son of an old fisherman and his whore wife whereas she was a princess from a fairy tale who existed as a symbol inside a precious, secret castle.

On the day of the incident, she’d already bought a ticket for the eleven o’clock train to Seoul. Arriving at the beauty parlor, she complained she had no time. She begged the skinny hairdresser to hurry. Neither she nor the hairdresser had time to complain about the cold inside the beauty parlor.

“I want my hair to look nice, but please hurry! Brr, it’s cold!”

It began quickly and well. The stove soon warmed up. But the styling didn’t end. Things were getting more and more feverish, not just from the stove and the sparks that flew from the coal. The fever came from the pretty customer’s pride in her looks and the proud hairdresser’s obsession over her skills. Like this, no like that, just a little more, just a little more, they urged each other, as they took up more and more time. What’s worse, they agreed to do her makeup as well. And it didn’t end there. At first, their greed kept them going but over time, it was the hairdresser’s crazed obsession that simply couldn’t be curbed. Later, when the hairdresser was giving her statement at the police station, she explained, “The more I worked on her, the prettier she became, a thousand, ten thousand times prettier. I couldn’t stop.”

The mayor’s daughter was also greedy, at first. She knew she had to leave in time to catch the train but she was too caught up in seeing her transformation in the mirror. A few times, she attempted to tell the hairdresser it was time to go, but the stylist refused to listen, asking for a few more minutes, just a few more minutes. Each time she swept a makeup brush against the girl’s cheeks, her hair needed another touchup, and because the hair was newly styled, her cheek and eye makeup had to be done over. This is what presaged the incident. The mayor’s daughter, though amazed by her increasing beauty, realized she was out of time. When the hairdresser didn’t stop, however, she became annoyed. But even then, her stylist seemed unable to hear what she was saying.

“That’s when she grabbed my scissors and threw them on the floor,” the hairdresser later testified before the cops. “So I yelled at her, ‘Hey! Keep still!’”

At that, the mayor’s daughter angrily got up from her chair. The hairdresser reached down to pick up the scissors as the girl was about to leave. Calmly, the skinny hairdresser picked up the scissors, grabbed the girl’s arm, and pulled her roughly to the chair. Forcing her feet back on the chair prop, she shoved her into the chair.

“Don’t touch me! What are you doing!” The girl shouted and fought back.

“Hold still! Don’t move, don’t move . . .”

“Why are you doing this? I said stop! Stop it, you’re scaring me!”

“So hold still! Come now, don’t you want to look pretty?” Coaxed the hairdresser, as she lifted the glittering pair of scissors and stabbed it deep into the girl’s throat. The mayor’s daughter let out a low sigh. When the blades were thrust deep into her neck, she slumped across the chair and was finally silenced. A thin line of blood trickled down the round metal grip of the scissors. But it didn’t lead to a big pool of blood. Reassured, the hairdresser stood in front of the beautiful girl. Sighing, she resumed working on her face and hair again. She rearranged the girl’s hair and makeup then stepped back to admire her work, repeating this back and forth until she was completely satisfied. It took a while for the skinny hairdresser to finish dressing up the girl’s hair and makeup, finally stepping back with a little sigh of pleasure.

“There, all finished!” She gave a satisfied smile as the adrenaline left her body. “It’s perfect.”

The girl, draped across the chair with the blades still lodged in her throat, looked perfect, indeed. The hairdresser lowered her arms and gazed dumbstruck at her work. Even when the mayor’s wife finally burst into the beauty parlor after hurrying through the mud on the bridge and past the snow in search of her lost daughter, the hairdresser was reportedly still standing there, gazing in stupefaction at her first customer of the day.

I was standing with the other onlookers in the snow. The hairdresser had already been taken away by the police but the ambulance had only just arrived to pick up the body. Soon, the body of the mayor’s daughter was brought out, as everyone craned their heads to look. And behind the stretcher were my mom and brother. Mom was looking down at the ground. The onlookers and I were shocked and wondered how it was they had access to the beauty parlor. Because her head was down, I couldn’t see Mom’s expression but my brother was staring back at us with his one glazed-over eye. He used his good eye to inspect the ground and make sure Mom didn’t slip in the snow. They walked out behind the girl’s body covered in white cloth and past the crowd of onlookers.

I stood there with my mouth twisted open and my eyes full of uncontrollable jealousy. The others felt the same. All of us wanted desperately to take a look inside but no one could. No one knew what had transpired in there or what the scene looked like. And we certainly didn’t know how my mom and one-eyed brother got in there, what they saw, and how they felt walking outside. Even after several days had passed, we still didn’t get to hear anything. No one could go inside that beauty parlor. It wasn’t receiving any customers, for a different, obvious reason this time. But I was still gripped by a jealous rage, because I wanted so much to see the inside of that beauty parlor.

My mom and brother never spoke of that incident. A dozen years later, my brother died at sea. It was a few years after Mom’s own death. Skinnier than ever, she’d bled for a few days before succumbing to death. Her life ended in vivid color, the same way all life is snuffed out. One day, she lifted her bony, pale frame from the kitchen floor and saw she’d left blood as red as camellia blossoms. As she struggled to get up, the bare light bulb in the kitchen cast its harsh glare over her face. After she finally drew her last breath atop her own blood, my brother and I went our separate ways. I entered a high school in another town while my brother joined our dad on a fishing boat. That’s when he took up drinking with the other men. One day, he got into a fight with the other fishermen, was beaten up and thrown into the freezer in the hull of the boat, where he froze to death, his body as stiff as frozen fish.

Apparently, while drinking with the other men, he’d thrown a fit and yelled that his hairless slut of a mother was living in a place far away where none of us could go. He declared the place to be in a green valley surrounded by white snow-capped mountains from which sprang a clear, babbling brook. Peach trees adorned the valley, showering their pale pink blossoms over the brook which merrily carried them off, as beautiful women with red, red lips danced by the waters. As he ranted, my brother was said to have struck the other men. Then, sobbing, he took off his clothes, crying that he was going to swim to that magical village. He must have been describing the scene inside the beauty parlor which he’d kept quiet about until then. He was attempting to describe a place where only abandoned, unfortunate souls could enter.

After he froze to death, the captain and boatswain tied his body with rope, threw it overboard, and sailed at full speed all night in an attempt to thaw his frozen corpse. Fortunately, the fish didn’t chew him up, but the next morning, when the men brought up the corpse, it hadn’t thawed. Until he died at sea like a frozen piece of fish, he never told anyone, least of all me, what he’d seen in that beauty parlor.

I still want to go inside the parlor. When I do, I’ll get to see the world’s most beautiful woman still sitting in her chair, a trickle of blood dripping down the scissors stuck in her throat, and the flames from the two dozen holes of the coal briquettes dancing in the heat of the stove. I want to open the glass door to the beauty parlor and witness that most beautiful sight with my own eyes. But I never got the chance, not even after I’d become an adult. The world stamped out my desperate urge to see that place of fever and passion for myself. The beauty parlor was soon torn down, never to be rebuilt. I never saw another one like it anywhere.

Now the town has prospered and looks nothing like it did in the past. Even in the winter, it doesn’t become shrouded in gray gloom like it once did. During the day, women in green scarves can be seen crossing the street with children playing with colorful balloons. At night, neon lights illuminate the town, as women wearing rich red lipstick flag down bright yellow cabs to meet their dates. But when the snow comes, its whiteness descends over all the urges, the madness, extravagance, and pleasures, and the people tear out their hair and wallow in the urge to self-destruct as they hurry home in the night. People still clamor, the ships’ horns pierce, and cold sea winds blow, yet the woman who’d sobbed kneeling before the coal deliveryman’s throbbing penis, and the silent, one-eyed boy, are no more. The skinny hairdresser, and the beauty parlor, are no more. 

© Sim Sangdae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Amber Hyun Jung Kim. All rights reserved.