While a Tibetan Dog Howled

While a Tibetan Dog Howled

-Translated by Janet Hong

“We are nothingness that possesses self-awareness.”
He no longer wrote, and people remembered him no more. If I hadn’t discovered him at the restaurant close to midnight the night before, sitting alone at a table across from mine, I, too, would have forgotten his name.
“I know you,” I had said to him. He nodded under his fedora. We exchanged a few dull words, and in the end, I invited him to my home for dinner the next day, which was now today.

And so I bought groceries and cooked all afternoon. Last night he had told me he didn’t like chicken wings, but he’d had no choice but to order them (the restaurant specialized in chicken wings), since he normally had an onion and mustard sandwich for supper at the Subway restaurant at Jungang Station and it was closed that day. I had heard of people developing intolerance to gluten and garlic later in life, but how did I even come to know this?

I bought asparagus, 500 grams of chicken hearts, a lemon, and some red onions. I was making chicken heart and asparagus soup, because I recalled a scene in a book of his I had read a long time ago, where the main characters ate this particular dish. Hadn’t it been their very last meal? I don’t know which book it was from. I didn’t own any of his novels. Not a single one. But strangely enough, I discovered his autobiography on the very top shelf of my bookcase, covered with dust. Hadn’t it been his very last work?

I sautéed the diced chicken hearts and red onions in 200 grams of butter, added the asparagus I had prepped, and poured in milk and cream. I sprinkled some rosemary and a bit of paprika as garnish. The doorbell rang five after seven. He was here. He was dressed exactly the same as he had been the night before, in his fine, elegant suit and fedora. Under the electric light, his suit appeared at once blue and gray. I poured the soup into my best bowls. In case he wanted some, I sliced a loaf of gluten-free bread into the shape of discs.

While we ate, we talked about his suit, the plum-colored ribbon that encircled the crown of his felt hat, and the autobiography he had written thirty years earlier. His suit was immaculately clean, without a single blemish, stain, or wrinkle, and its wool fabric still smelled new. This is something I’ve realized only now, but outside the rain was falling silently, and though he wasn’t carrying an umbrella, both his hat and suit had remained completely dry. He said the suit had been custom-made from the tailor shop around the corner not too far from here.

“It’s been thirty years since I got it made, but it’s still my favourite. These days, I’m surviving by selling off my things, one by one, but this suit is last on the list.”

He spoke with great dignity. When speaking about money, one should be either extremely superficial or extremely dignified. I asked what was on the top of the list, and instead of responding, he pulled up the left corner of his mouth with his finger, showing me the empty space where a gold molar used to be. I said I would go fetch his autobiography.
I stretched out my hand as far as possible, but couldn’t reach the book. Though I looked for a chair to stand on, I didn’t see one. I climbed onto the first shelf and stood on tiptoe. The instant before the bookcase tipped over, I managed to pull out the book by the tips of my fingers. A fingernail lifted away from its bed.

Only a few pages long, the autobiography was more like a concert program. I opened to the first page. “We are nothingness…” Dark raindrops danced outside the window. There was a time I had wished he would die.

When I returned to the table with the book, I saw his suit jacket draped carelessly on his chair. Having flung off his trousers, dress shirt, and even his underclothes, he was crouched over on the floor. I saw the profile of his bowed face. When I reached out to pick up the jacket, his face jerked up. I was speechless, for it was not he who had looked up abruptly, but a large black dog. A large old Tibetan Mastiff, with a broad, glossy forehead, long fluffy hair at the back of the head, a sturdy frame, an almost human profile, a jawline like that of an old man, deep, narrow, gloomy eyes, and an empty space showing through slightly open lips where the gold tooth used to be. If he wore an expensive suit and fedora and sat inside the subway or a Subway restaurant, no one would have been able to guess he was actually a Tibetan dog. When I tugged at the suit trousers and underclothes it was sitting on, the old dog, which had been silent until now, suddenly bit my hand. It howled bleakly for a very long time. My hand became covered with blood. And so I—

The old Tibetan Mastiff died quickly. Perhaps it had been dead from the beginning, perhaps it had never lived. I shoved it over the balcony. I listened for a long time, but I didn’t hear the sound of a large dog hitting the ground. I put on his underclothes, dress shirt, and suit. I put on his fedora. No one would recognize me on the subway or at a Subway restaurant. I slipped the biography in my pocket and left the house.

The glass door of the tailor shop on the corner was locked, but the light inside was still on. I pounded the glass with my fist. After a while, a woman came to the door and mouthed from the other side of the glass that the shop was closed. I mouthed back that I wanted to sell the suit, which had been custom-made there, that it was immaculately clean without a single blemish, stain, or wrinkle, that its wool fabric still smelled new. That even though the rain was falling, the suit had remained completely dry. The manager gazed silently at my face, at the suit stained by the blood from my hand. She was gazing at both the Tibetan dog and me. I realized then a Tibetan dog was falling, that it was howling as it was falling, that it was falling still.

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BAE SUAH is a highly acclaimed contemporary Korean author and translator of German literature, described as “Korean literature’s most unfamiliar being.” She is the author of Recitation, A Greater Music, North Station, and Nowhere to Be Found, among numerous other novels and short story collections. She has introduced authors such as W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck, to Korean audiences. She received the Hanguk Ilbo Literary Prize, as well as the Tongseo Literary Prize.

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