5320 words, short story
“Nothing is unsearchable.”
Did you know that there’s a prison in Yeongdeungpo?
No, that’s a school. I mean a real prison, like the one in Hamheung. There’s one in Seoul, too—near Guro fire station. Of course, it doesn’t come up on any map search. It’s never come up when I’ve searched for it, either. Even though I’m from Seoul, I had no idea it was even there until I actually went there. No, I don’t know the address. Was it a couple of two-story buildings? Maybe three? It wasn’t very big. You won’t find it on any map, but if you know it’s there, you can find it by looking for the soldiers coming and going. There’s nothing but a single wall between the prison and the towering apartment building next door. I was surprised how close the wall was. In a way, it’s good for the people who live there: thanks to that prison being next door, there’s nothing to block the view from those apartment windows.
Anyway, the last time I saw my sister, before the Flowering? It was there, inside that prison in Yeongdeungpo.
I hadn’t seen her for a few years. That was the way it had always been, once we were both finished growing up: she’s a lot older than me, so we never went to school together, and by the time I was old enough to travel alone, she was already studying overseas. But you already know about that right? Her studies abroad . . . everyone knows about that.
Mom talked about her being influenced by the wrong people while studying abroad, but I think she’d really had it all planned out, from before she even left. I mean, how could she have just suddenly changed overnight there? Ever since she was young, she always was kinda strange, even here in Korea—that much, I already knew. I mean, she was always complaining about something, but most of the time she kept it to herself, ’cause she’s smart.
That, or maybe Mom just didn’t want to hear all her complaining, and blocked it all out.
Yeah, that’s got to be it. There’s no way Mom didn’t know. You know, when I think about it, what happened back then was kind of weird. Why didn’t Mom try to stop her? I think she probably hoped Sis would sort of snap out of it when she got to grad school or something. Still, she could’ve stopped her from leaving if she’d wanted to. Does a problem disappear as soon as you decide not to see it anymore? I just can’t understand that kind of attitude. Honestly, I resent my mom for acting like that.
I mean, it’s so totally obvious that all that “Constituent Authentication” nonsense was going to create massive problems for our whole family. And it’s not like Sis was an only child, after all! Isn’t it up to parents to put a stop to things like that, especially when I was too little to realize what was happening? I mean, didn’t they understand it was going to affect me, her baby sister . . . ?
Of course, I was too young to understand any of what was going on, and Mom did nothing about it, so in the end, I was the one who ended up getting screwed over—for decades.
They only give you fifteen minutes for a visit at that prison. You go into this little room, and there’s a digital timer on the wall, and you sit facing each other through a plastic barrier. You can only hear each other if you talk through these microphones. I’d expected there’d be little holes in that plastic partition between us, but we were completely cut off in that stuffy little room.
I mean, obviously there must’ve been a surveillance camera. Is there any place that doesn’t have one?
Mom was supposed to go with me, but at the last minute she called me to say that she couldn’t go. She said something about getting a shipment of new seedlings at the flower shop that morning. I didn’t want to cancel the appointment, so I just went alone.
To be honest, when I heard my Mom say that she’d come to visit Sis, I knew she’d back out in the end. Seeing my sister when she got out, that’d be one thing, but what good would it do either of them for her to see Sis locked up like that? After all, she was still the pride of the family, not me. Our Constituent Chart got all messed up and our whole family was put through hell for years on end. We couldn’t even go on an overnight trip—not even one—because we were classified as a Critical Surveillance Household. On top of that, we couldn’t even send any seedlings to the government farms or flower beds, no matter how big they got, or how well we grew them. That was absolutely my sister’s fault . . . but somehow she still managed to be the one my mom was proud of.
When they sent her in, she actually looked pretty good—a lot healthier than I’d imagined. I’d expected her to be nothing but skin and bone, but her skin was still clear and pretty. I guess it’s true: good complexion is something you’re just born with. And at her age, to look that good . . .
Her hands? I, uh, I don’t know—I can’t remember. They were under the table the whole time.
Her wrists? Like I said, I don’t know. I don’t think I even saw them. I remember she was wearing something blue, with long sleeves. Some kind of ugly blue thing. I thought to myself, she can’t be happy with that, not Sis, having to wear something like that. I even said that out loud. I mean, it had been a few years since we’d seen each other, so it was kind of awkward to talk to her, if you know what I mean. We didn’t have very much to talk about, and I didn’t feel like I could just ask why she’d done everything she’d done.
So instead I ended up saying, “Your skin looks good, but those clothes! You never did care for that shade of blue, did you?” Something like that.
She laughed and said that she hated it, but she had no choice. She sounded just the same as she always had, and I guess I got kind of emotional then. She’d hurt us all so much, like, and not just our feelings. No, I mean she dragged our family through hell just so she could do what she wanted to do. If she’d wanted to do all that stuff so badly, she could at least have made sure not to get caught. I mean, even on that day, I’d had to take an afternoon off work to come see her. The more I thought it over, the more unfair it all felt.
So I ended up shouting at her: “Hey, what makes you think you have the right to laugh?”
All she said was, “What, should I cry instead?” It was such a ridiculous thing to say that it shut me up right away.
That, there, is why those so-called “Elements” always come to a bad end. Even these days, when they talk about them on the news, the “Disruptive Elements,” the first thing I think is how awful they were back then, not how awesome they are now. They had families, didn’t they? I can’t help but wonder how everything they did affected those near them. Going by their age, I figure their parents are in their sixties now. Imagine how hard it must be to have a red mark on your Constituent Chart at that age—how much suffering it would’ve ended up causing them. I think about that. Wanting to do something good, sure, that’s great, but it’s no excuse for selfishness. I mean, really—it’s not like we were starving to death, or had nothing to wear.
So what in the world was she fighting for in the first place, anyway? Is it really such a big deal to have to submit to Constituent Verification to get online? It’s never bothered me having the government control the network. It’s not like they prevent us from accessing the news on TV, or like we don’t have newspapers to read about what’s going on. That’s enough, isn’t it, to read and see, enough to get by? People who want to be anonymous—aren’t they just people who’ve got something to hide?
“Sure, I knew about it and planted them anyway. I didn’t know whether they’d actually bloom, but just the same, I carefully watered them every day. There were times I thought it might be better if they didn’t bloom. It was a little scary when I let myself think about it for too long, but I just wanted to plant a few flower routers, at least.”
What did my sister say? Oh, she just laughed.
What? No, I don’t think she said much else. She asked about Dad’s health, and how Mom was doing. Oh, and she asked about how my husband was.
No, my husband. I told her that we’d gotten a divorce.
What? No, it had nothing to do with her. That fucking asshole . . . I was crazy to marry him in the first place. I mean, like, with our Constituent Chart: you know how they post them at the entrance of wedding halls, whenever people get married? My parents got really upset about that. Someone said that I should have just had a fake one made up and posted instead, but how in the world could I do that? I knew someone official was going to show up and check on it, for sure, and if I’d posted a fake one, and that got reported? And with my in-laws right there? I’d have been so embarrassed by the investigation that would’ve followed, especially if the rumor had gotten started at our wedding! Oh, if that had happened, we would’ve never heard the end of it.
Though, now that I think about it, even though his family wasn’t that amazing, my parents still acted as if we were ruining their reputation or something. I mean, sure, our Constituent Chart had some issues, but at the same time, my sister had been selected by the government to study abroad. I probably should’ve said something about that. My parents had managed to keep our family going all those years by growing flowers day and night, all summer and winter long. When you compared our two families carefully—well, I think it’s better to have something interesting to look at on your family’s Constituent Chart, than to be a family with nothing worth seeing on theirs?
My sister didn’t come to the wedding. To be fair, she couldn’t come: by then, she’d already gone underground. I barely slept the night before, I was so scared that the police would bust in and screw up my wedding. But in the end, only a few of them actually showed up.
Not long before that, the wanted list had come out, with her photo. Well, it was actually me, but with her clothes photoshopped onto me. I mean, my sister and I do look alike: people who know us both say we look totally different, but that’s only because they know our personalities. People who only know one of us all say that we look the same. Honestly, when I look at photos, I see it, too: we do look alike, especially in pictures from when we were young.
As for Photoshop, ha, sure, it’s illegal . . . except when the government does it. They just didn’t want it to get out that they didn’t have a recent picture of her.
Turn them down? What do you mean, “turn them down?” Has nobody in your family ever been on the wanted list? Then you don’t know what a complete pain in the ass it is when they start hunting down someone in your family, do you? Though, I will say that they didn’t try to get away with using it free, at least. Not that they paid me directly for the photo, but that month I got a mysterious “bonus” from work, even though I’d barely done anything, because of how busy I was preparing for the wedding.
The money? We spent it getting some new electric heater lines installed at my parents’ flower shop.
“Well, I thought it was just a flower. Really! Goodness, it was in a pot and it grew really nicely when I watered it, so of course I thought it was just a flower. How on earth could I imagine that it was some kind of machine that ran off water and sunlight? It’s not like things like that existed when I was young: never in my life had I even heard of such a thing. Besides, you know, these days there’s so many unusual plants in the flower shops. Anyway, it was unreal how well that plant grew. Oh, it was a present, I think. Right, yes, that girl who moved in next door, a student—she gave it to me. She said it would thrive, even in a half-basement like mine, and that I should just put it on the windowsill and watch it grow. When she gave it to me, she told me that her family ran a flower shop. Well, I thought, ‘What a nice young lady.’ I can’t remember her face too well, though. She was a student with hair about this long. Then she moved away a couple of months later.”
Later on, I heard that at the time, she’d been digging in the ground in Uiju. She’d kind of been doing that sort of thing all her life. Digging, I mean. First, when she was young, she dug into books, and then when she got older, she started digging in the ground. When the investigator who visited my place told me what she’d been up to, I almost fainted on the spot. How she’d been carrying a shovel around and cutting into the Internet network. She’d gone overseas and learned . . . what? About how people in other countries can go online whenever they like, without always having to deal with the Constituent Verification process first?
She’s not even a computer engineering major. What exactly did she study there?
Of course, she and I always had very different ways of thinking. That day at the prison, when I visited her? It was no exception.
I snapped at her: “How could you not know your sister got divorced, while you were wandering around digging in the dirt?”
“I wasn’t digging,” she said. “I was planting. Planting sunlight so they wouldn’t be able to bury any more voices. But you know, if you want to plant something, you need to dig a little, first.”
Are you impressed? It sounds so profound, doesn’t it? She was always a good talker. I can’t even tell you how often she used her words to trick me like that, back when I was little. She said kids weren’t required to pay into the national defense fund, so I didn’t. And then my teacher beat the crap out of me for lacking “patriotic spirit.” She said she was going to make the whole world happy and free—including me—so I said, “Go for it, Sis!” And then she went overseas and vanished. To us, she was one-quarter of our family, but to her, we were just a few people out of eighty million. If she wanted to plant sunlight that badly, couldn’t she have just helped with the dirt-shoveling at my parents’ flower shop?
I began to suspect that if I sat and listened to her too long, she’d start talking about all that illicit stuff, so I just said, “Sure, whatever,” and asked how many days were left until they’d let her out. She said officially there were four hundred and thirty-nine days left, but that she wouldn’t know for sure whether they were really going to let her out until the day arrived. She even said that if her “work outside” went well, they might let her out sooner, though she didn’t seem too optimistic about that. Then again, she didn’t seem to be too excited about getting out, either. I guess at that time, she didn’t realize how massively things were about to change.
Her “work outside”? No, she didn’t say much about it. I didn’t ask her, either. I didn’t dare, not when I could get in trouble over it. Ignorance is the best defense, right? Uh, but she did ask me to get her some stamps. I told her I would, and on the way out of the visiting room, I talked to the soldier who was sitting there, staring at a monitor. I asked him whether it’d be okay if I sent her some stamps, or if I’d be better off just not getting involved, you know, by giving her something she’d asked for.
He said it didn’t matter either way, so I went and got a hundred stamps, stuck them in an envelope, and sent them to her.
“Listen, it made sense when we were protesting, calling for the abolition of the Constituent Authentication process. But setting up an alternate wireless network, nationwide? Without any censorship? Honestly, that’s just kind of nuts, isn’t it? Korea’s not some little country village, after all—it’s just not logical to do that kind of thing. At first, I thought it was a joke, but then I saw them digging up the ground. To me, it seemed ridiculous. If 50,000,000 people all over the nation had done it together, maybe that’d have been different. But a few random people digging secretly and clipping the government cables, and then planting routers all over the place? Could that even work? When it got to that point, I figured the writing was on the wall, and I got the hell out. That seemed like the best thing to do at the time—and I felt that I’d done my part by then, anyway.”
After that, well, I figured one visit was enough, so I turned my attention elsewhere. I was busy earning a living, and besides, she’d looked a lot better off than I’d expected, so I was kind of relieved. I felt like I’d done everything I had to, you know?
Still, she was family, so I called Mom and told her that Sis was doing okay, that she seemed to be eating and sleeping well. But after that, I felt like I’d fulfilled all my obligations, as it were.
A flower pot? Sure, we have tons of those at our house. I . . . Ah, you mean that. Um, I don’t know.
What? I said I don’t know.
Wait, she said that? When?
Oh, yeah, sure, I did receive them. They came in the post. They were in an envelope that was labeled “WATERCRESS.” No, I wasn’t confused. I knew they weren’t watercress seeds. Of course I knew: my parents run a flower shop. So I . . . I just shoved it in the corner of some room. At first, I couldn’t even bring myself to trash them. I was so mad at her. But let’s say I had trashed them. What if the police had found them in our trash bin, and paid me a visit? What could I have done then? I felt so helpless.
You know, when I get mail, I still cut the envelope up into tiny pieces before I drop them into the trash. Especially the room numbers and street names: I hack them up so that nobody can trace the envelope back to me. If the address is printed on plastic, I cut out each letter one by one with scissors. It’s a habit of mine, now.
Now that I think about it, I guess I learned it from Sis. She always did that. She was like that even before she became a Disruptive Element. She was always kinda sensitive about stuff like that. When we lived together, she sat at the kitchen table, cutting all the envelopes and papers into small pieces. Then she picked up a few pieces and took them outside. She told me that she split them up and trashed them in different bins outside. At the time, I never thought to ask about why she was doing it. I was in the middle school, so I just figured she had a good reason for everything she did. Mom and Dad did it, too, carefully cutting up all the envelopes and trashing them in batches, because she’d started doing it. That’s right, she tricked us all into doing it.
Anyway, thanks to that habit of ours, the government knew we were her family, and where we lived and all that, but they had no clue where she was, not while she was living overseas. I’m pretty sure that stressed them out, because however much they searched, no name or address ever came up for her. I guess now I can be honest about it: I gloated about that, when they started following us and waiting for news about her. Even though it was a huge pain in the ass for us when she became a fugitive, my heart kind of sank when they finally did catch her. But, well, it had to happen eventually, right? No matter how hard we tried to hide her? I mean, she couldn’t just keep running forever.
But then, if she was always going to get caught anyway, couldn’t she have come by the hospital when Dad was going into surgery? She could at least have told us where she was. I mean, when my dad saw her for the first time in years? It was on the hospital TV, and she was getting arrested. And you know what he said? “Ah, what a relief, I can finally see my daughter! Thank goodness she’s still alive and healthy.”
When he said that? I mean, shoot, at the time, I was spending my nights at the hospital with him, and then heading to work in the morning. I just wanted to stab the TV with a fruit knife right then and there.
“I mean, those kids were naïve. Now, naïveté, it’s not a bad thing: y’know, actually, it kinda makes the world more livable when young people still have that naïve quality to them. But to be honest, those kids, there were no secrets between them: they already knew everything about each other—I mean about everyone sitting there beside them, folding those pamphlets. What high schools and colleges they’d all gone to, and where they were born, and what their parents did for a living and how much they earned, and what kind of genetic diseases they all had or were likely to develop. They all knew everything about each other. My point is, they were willing to team up because they knew enough to judge one another trustworthy, because of the Constituent Authentication system. So if you think about it, this insistence of theirs about opening up the network and abolishing Constituent Authentication, it was really naïve. But if that’d really happened, well . . . they just hadn’t thought about how dangerous it would’ve been for them. They were just so naïve. That’s why you shouldn’t let kids have too much freedom when they’re young. Look what’s happening to the world, the way things are going now. Most people don’t even realize how terrifying knowledge really is.”
The “watercress” seeds? No, I never planted them.
In the flower shop? That makes no sense at all! I didn’t want my parents to end up in that Yeongdeungpo prison too, especially not at their age.
No, even though I couldn’t say why, exactly, I felt like things would definitely end up going badly for me if I planted those seeds. I mean, I wasn’t born yesterday, after all: living with Sis all those years, I knew how she operated. So I started to think about burning them, except I was afraid to try it because I might get arrested for starting a fire in the middle of an apartment complex.
In the end, there wasn’t much I could do, so I just kept them. That said, I couldn’t help but feel anxious about having them around the house. What if the envelope showed up on the surveillance cameras—the ones they installed inside my place? If the envelope showed up on one of those cameras, the police might come and investigate. Besides, the camera in the living room was on all the time, after all, because we were a Critical Surveillance Household: if I switched it off for even a second, the security office called right away. It was such a pain. Yeah, it really was.
But I didn’t dare to file a report about the seeds, either. Sure, I hadn’t done anything but receive an envelope in the mail, but they’d interrogate me, and I’d have explain it to them a million times, over and over, everything that each of us said when I visited her. Besides, if I missed work again because of something like that, my performance evaluation scores would take a hit. Plus things were really hectic at the office right then, so I really didn’t want to get dragged into all that. I mean, when Sis finished studying abroad and came back to Korea, she skipped registering her address on the Constituent Chart and went underground, so the cops came and hassled Mom. They even harassed Dad, who was already in such bad shape he couldn’t go to the flower shop anymore. Even with him in the hospital, they kept on coming and bugging him about that for days on end.
If you’ve never had to live through that, then you simply can’t have any idea what it’s like. Even just thinking about it now makes me shudder. There was a heat wave at the time, too, and we got so distracted we forgot to water and fertilize our flower crop, so a lot of it ended up dying.
I didn’t want to ever have to go through something like that again. I mean, there was no way we could’ve known anything anyway, right? So why did they keep hassling us? If the government didn’t know about it, how in the world could we know? Did they think she would just suddenly appear if they kept bugging and bugging us? I’m pretty sure the government knew, even better than us, that she wasn’t the kind of person who’d ever fall for that.
“ . . . the Organic Router was a brilliant concept. Before that, the protests had just dragged on and on. But when you cut the lines and planted an uncensored router, the government had to track it down, reconnect the lines, and catch you. But then someone else would go out with a shovel to split the line again. It was kind of a never-ending cycle. Some people suggested that the routers ought to be redesigned, that they’d be less noticeable if they were modeled on grass, but she pointed out that they were more energy-efficient if the solar micropanels spread out like the petals of a flower. Still, isn’t it also kind of romantic for them to look like that?
Um . . . maybe?
I’m not really sure. If I thought about it that way, I guess I’d feel better, but I don’t really know enough to be sure. I thought maybe I’d understand her better when I got to be as old as she was at the time, but that day’s come and gone, and she’s not on the Wanted Persons lists—she’s not even classified as a Disruptive Element anymore, and I still don’t really understand what was going through her head when she did all that stuff. When I saw her on the Internet, or on TV, it felt like she was even more distant than the woman I visited in that jail in Yeongdeungpo. When she was my age, where was she, what was she doing?
In Daegu? Doing what in Daegu? Fixing flower beds? Had she started cutting the network lines already, even back then? She’d always dug and dug, endlessly. I don’t really know what it was about her that made her do that. What was she so desperate about?
When you write this, please don’t make it sound like I kept the seeds because it was her who’d given them to me, or because I agreed with her somehow. That wasn’t it at all.
No, not at all. If I’d agreed with her, I would’ve planted them properly in our flower garden. I had no idea so many people were growing those seeds of hers. I figured it was my sister working alone. Well, okay, no, maybe not alone, but I thought it was probably just a few people doing it, hopelessly crusading or whatever. It never came up anywhere: not in the TV news, or newspapers, or even in regular people’s conversations. I mean, I guess some people probably just thought they were regular flowers, but millions of people growing them by mistake? That doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Our house, it was on the twelfth floor. Well, one day I figured that maybe, if the seeds got carried off by the wind, it wouldn’t necessarily be my problem where they happened to land. It turned out there were a bunch of them, too: they were much smaller than watercress seeds, more like a fine powder than any sort of grains or proper seeds, and the envelope was chock full of them. So I went into the bathroom and stuck the envelope out the window, and then I dumped those seeds out. Right under that window, there’s a flower bed.
The envelope? Well, of course I cut it into tiny pieces and trashed it, like I always do: I flushed some of the pieces down the toilet, and others went into the trash bins in the bathroom at work, and on the subway. Did I keep any? No, not a single piece. Why would I keep a thing like that? As a souvenir? Would someone really do that?
Why did I do it? Hm. I guess, maybe, I felt a little guilty? I’m still her sister, after all, and I thought I’d feel bad later on, when I eventually saw her again someday, if not even one of her seeds had sprouted. I don’t know what that “better world” she went on about was supposed to look like, but I did feel like she really wanted me to be part of it, you know?
I mean, do you think we’re in that “better world,” now? Okay, her name isn’t banned anymore, and my family’s off the Critical Surveillance list. I like that for sure. But, well . . . beyond that, I don’t really know. My dad’s test results haven’t gotten any better, and I haven’t gotten a raise, either. Most of all, my sister still hasn’t come back to us.
Even so, that day, the one they call “The Flowering”—that was incredible. That night, when every red network traffic light on all of our TVs, computer monitors, and surveillance cameras switched off at the same time, and all those red blooms that had flowered outside stretched out their petals? Oh, that was really beautiful . . .
When I stuck my head a little farther out off the balcony and looked down into that flower bed, just full of all those swirling red petals, I felt like maybe, for the first time ever, maybe I could understand my sister after all.
Originally published in Korean in the collection Dokjaeja. (Seoul: Bbul, 2010.)
Published with the support of Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea).