By Hye-young Pyun, from an unpublished collection. Pyun’s most recent novel is The Hole; another, Ashes and Red, will be published this year by Arcade. Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell.
The man got the phone call about a month after his wife went missing. A body part belonging to a woman had been found in a mountain gorge, the same gorge where the man’s wife had fallen and was presumed drowned. The man told the detective on the other end of the phone that he would leave in the morning. There was no point in leaving any sooner. It was a long drive to the police station in U City, not including time to stop and eat udon along the way. Even if he left that very moment, he wouldn’t arrive until after two in the morning.
A right leg had been found. The man would have to confirm whether or not his wife was dead from nothing more than a right leg. The average adult leg was roughly half the total height of the body. His wife was 160 centimeters tall. He held his hands 80 centimeters apart. That’s about right, he mumbled. He pictured his wife’s body in four parts, as if sketching it, from the bottom of her feet to her kneecaps, from her kneecaps to her genitals, from her genitals to her nipples, and from her nipples to her head. The rough outline of a female body took shape in his mind, but he couldn’t tell whether it was his wife’s or some prostitute’s.
The man strained to remember what his wife’s right leg looked like. She used to complain that her legs were fat. But were they as fat as she said? Or were they fat only in comparison with her unusually long and slender arms, or with other women her age? He couldn’t even remember whether she shaved her legs or not. Had he ever touched his wife’s right leg? He trailed his hand through the air as if stroking its contours. He could not recall whether one of her calves was thicker than the other, and whether the ankles, which were always hidden behind a long skirt, were slim enough for him to wrap his hand around or so thick that they merged directly into her calves. He erased the ghost of her leg from his mind and lay down.
Then the man remembered something. His wife had a lipoma, a small tumor, on her leg. The tumor was no bigger than a grain of rice. But to his wife, it was the size of a fist. She’d said once that it made her feel as if her body were nothing but leg. Someone had told her to wrap a strand of hair around the tumor to make it fall off on its own. Her own hair was too short, so she used a thin strand of black thread instead. The thread cut off the blood supply to the tumor, and it dried up and turned black. But it never fell off. That blackened, withered tumor was the clue that would determine whether the unidentified leg was his wife’s or not.
A witness had seen his wife struggling and screaming for help in the watery gorge. To be precise, the witness had seen a woman, who may or may not have been his wife. The witness could not recall what the woman was wearing or the length of her hair or any distinguishing facial features. He merely said that he saw a woman drowning in the gorge. The detective had said it was probably the man’s wife, but he could not be certain.
The man pictured a female leg with a tumor. But it occurred to him that he did not know which leg the tumor was on. If he didn’t know that, then he couldn’t very well tell the detective to look for a small, blackened tumor. The man felt flustered and dejected, as if he’d let a criminal slip away before his eyes. He was so pathetic. How could he not remember his wife’s body after living with her for more than a decade? He abruptly left the house and took off for U City. He would see for himself the leg that had been fished out of the gorge. Then maybe he would know whether or not it was his wife’s.
When the man arrived, the detective did not ask why the man had rushed to the station instead of coming the next day as he had said on the phone. The detective pulled open a metal drawer, where the right leg was stored, next to the morgue’s other unidentified bodies. It was resting in the middle of a long tray. A strong odor arose, a mixture of formalin, solvent, and antiseptic. The man could not hold back his nausea. But it wasn’t the smell that made him gag. The leg was so rotten, the flesh so discolored, that he could not believe it was human. Around the exposed femur, shredded muscle tissue hung in tatters like loose threads. The femur glowed fluorescent within the black, rotting flesh. The toes were crushed and mashed beyond recognition, and he wondered if it had even had toes in the first place.
Whom did this leg belong to? He tried to picture the woman to whom this leg had been connected. A busy college student, perhaps, rushing from class to class. A saleswoman in a department store, her calves stiff from being on her feet all day. A track-and-field athlete. The leg might have been used to cross a dance floor, or to bend beneath a wedding dress. But the leg could never be his wife’s leg.
The man searched for the tumor, but it was hard to distinguish anything from the decaying flesh. The mottling around the knee was especially bad. He shook his head.
This is not my wife, he stammered. She has all five toes.
The detective shrugged and said, This leg has all of its toes.
The detective pointed at the mangled tip of the foot, where snow-white bones rose like milk teeth. The detective explained that fish had eaten the toes. The man countered that his wife’s legs were not fat. The detective said the flesh was swollen from the water.
The right leg had been found by a fisherman who had reeled in the shredded limb. There was no clothing and no other body parts. The detective asked the man if his wife had ever had surgery on her leg.
After answering, the man realized that he did not know whether she’d had surgery as a child or before they started dating. He corrected himself. The detective told him that marks had been found on the bones, of a kind that were not likely to have been caused by breaking against rocks or being bitten by fish. He said it looked like the leg had been severed. When the man looked puzzled, the detective added that the marks could also be scars from a surgery or a dislocation.
Bodies raise all kinds of questions, he said. He silently closed the metal drawer.
On the day the man’s wife disappeared, they’d gone fishing together for the first time. His wife stood on a boulder thick with moss. He told her to stand somewhere else, but she replied that the water there looked shallow and still. She did not know that the water was twice as deep as usual because of heavy rains. He, too, had no idea how deep the gorge was and how fast the water was moving. The witness who’d seen a woman drowning had known better than to jump into the rain-swollen gorge after her. The man wasn’t confident he would have jumped in either if he had been the one to see his wife drowning. The water had looked as sharp as blades.
The man had been interrogated about his wife’s disappearance. He could not prove that he’d wandered upstream while she fished alone by the water. But no evidence was found that he pushed her, either.
She was the one who had suggested U City. They were newly bankrupt; the considerable deposit they had put down to buy a storefront in a new shopping center had been lost. U City was a long way from where they lived. It was a five-hour drive just to reach the tollgate, and even further from there, along a winding cliff, to reach the gorge. She’d said it had to be that gorge. She said the gorges were unfathomably deep in U City, and the water so clear you could see all the way to the bottom.
They reached the gorge, then the end of the paved road, and continued driving. The gorge wound on and on. He felt as if they could drive until sunset without reaching the end. They picked a quiet spot. It was their first time fishing, but his wife had no problem touching the maggots. She handled fish for a living, so there was no reason for her to shrink from maggots. She stirred them around and chose an especially fat one. Suddenly the man felt angry. It was her fault they were penniless, he thought. His wife had no sense of what others found revolting. She might have served their customers rotten fish, being reluctant to toss it out. She might have fed them the eyes. Sometimes he had seen her pluck the eyes out and save them for herself, to simmer and eat for the protein since she did not like eating meat. They had taken such care with their restaurant at first, nursing it through the difficult early years until it could support them. It had given them chairs to rest on when their heads ached, kept them from arguing. And now it was gone. The man set down his fishing pole and watched his wife thread the maggot onto a floater. Then he turned and walked to the car. When he looked back, his wife was casting the floater into the water.
The man had decided to find out where the gorge ended. But the road kept going. He drove around curve after curve only to find another. When he finally returned, the maggots had escaped their canister and were crawling all over. His wife was gone.
On his way home from the station, it rained. He turned on the wipers and pictured the rotting leg. Now that he thought about it, it was too thin and bony. His wife had sagging breasts and a thick waist. The leg was far too slender to be hers. He muttered again that it could not possibly be his wife’s leg. His wife’s right leg was in the gorge, where it would slowly fall apart and turn to silt. The left leg, the torso, the arms, and the head would do the same. The man lowered his window and spat.
After a few days, another call came from the station. The detective spoke slowly. He sounded sheepish.
I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back. It’s not urgent, but we do think it would be better if you came sooner rather than later.
The man said he would leave right away.
The detective continued.
It’s the left arm and hand. We’re having trouble getting fingerprints off it.
After the man hung up, he stared at his left hand. It was covered in veins. His fingers were short and blunt. There was no question that it belonged to him. He closed his eyes and tried to draw it in his mind. The coarse knuckles. The wrist, too thick to wrap his other hand around. That was as far as he got. He had no confidence he could describe even his own hand to the detective.
He couldn’t picture his wife’s face. He could see only the gruff shape of her mouth. It wouldn’t be easy to identify her left hand. He thought about the ring she always wore, one they’d bought after they’d been married for several years. It was a plain, slender band with a tiny diamond, a common design. The diamond had many scratches that were visible to the naked eye. He hoped that the hand still had its fingers.
This time the man did not stop on the way. He decided that if his wife ever came back he would inspect her body thoroughly from top to bottom. He would learn everything: which of her molars had fillings, how long her nose hair was, how her earlobes curled, whether the cartilage in her ears was soft or hard, whether the bridge of her nose bent to the right or to the left, whether her hair was coarse or soft, where her moles were. He would remember the length of the hair that covered her vulva and the shape of her labia. If he could, he would even memorize the size of her uterus. He would know whether his wife’s uterus, which had never carried a child, was as small as a fist, and whether it curled in like the mouth of an old woman.
At the station, the detective began by apologizing. He was sorry to put the man through so much trouble. The man did not respond. He looked at the arm on the metal tray. It was swollen from water and blue with putrefaction. The flesh was tattered like paper. The tips of the fingers had been bitten off. The blood vessels were like snipped wires. It might have been the hand that had picked out fat maggots to use as bait, that had scaled, gutted, sliced, salted, and roasted fish. He asked the detective if there was a ring.
There was no ring.
The detective was at a loss. There could have been a ring, he began. If you look closely, the base of the finger is unusually pale. But we can’t be sure.
This time too, the man said he did not know whether it was his wife or not. The detective nodded, as if to say he had suspected as much.
It’s always hard, the detective said, to determine identity before the head is found.
If only there had been a ring, the man started to say. The detective apologized again.
That gorge gets a lot of drowning victims. People slip on moss and fall in or get caught in the rapids while swimming. People get swept away just dipping their feet in the water. And sometimes people get pushed in. There are many suicides, too. Most go missing forever. The gorge is so long and deep that it makes searching nearly impossible. It’s very famous in this city. Fishermen come from all over. They say the fish there are fatter and tastier because of all the people who’ve drowned.
If more pieces of a body were found, the man would have to return again to U City. Eventually he would have to look at an unidentified head or breasts or buttocks. The whole time the man was listening to the detective, he was thinking about his wife’s hand. The hand that had stroked his cheek, the hand that cooked for him, the hand that massaged his penis, the hand that dug out fish eyes and pulled out fish organs, the hand covered in fish scales that sparkled in the light, the hand that smelled of hot spices, the hand that raised and lowered the store shutter, the hand that wiped away tears after they lost the restaurant, the hand that slapped him when he came home without their deposit, the hand that picked out a maggot, the hand that floundered in the waters of the gorge. Of all of those hands, not one was left.