Waiting on the steps at Changdeokgung for my language study group, I watched a girl in a guide’s vest herding American tourists. She had full cheeks and a broad nose, vanishing eyebrows, sad eyes. It was summer, boiling hot. Her skin was sheened with sweat. As I watched, she slipped the wallet from an American man’s back pocket, extracted some bills, and put it back. In chipper English she called to them, “This way! This way please!”
Leading them off, she looked at me and smiled.
Her name was Sook-Joo. Mine, on loan: Hyo-Sonn. “A good and gentle daughter.” She laughed, and I shrugged. Really, my name was Darlene.
“You’re waeguk-saram.” A foreigner.
“Hoju-saram,” I corrected her. Australian.
We stood in the shade of the palace walls, out of sight of the tourists and teachers. Sook-Joo dug something from her pocket and held it out. A neatly twisted joint.
“We’ll be friends,” she said. “Hyo-Sonn and Sook-Joo.”
“Darlene,” I corrected her, taking the joint with a smile.
• • • •
At the end of the year, I sent a letter to my mother, telling her I’d got a visa to teach English. She returned a postcard: “I’ll rent out the room then.”
• • • •
I was supposed to teach, but most of my time went to Sook-Joo. To long dim days in her tiny apartment with her two shiftless roommates, to boring waits at her dealer’s place, playing video games while she bought pills and pot. To drinking cheap beer and eating crummy udon, to sharing damp cigarettes of scraped-up tobacco ends. I didn’t mind. The first time she pulled up her hair she revealed a bold shaved stripe along the side of her head, and my knees went weak. She wore a black leather jacket, rolled cigarettes in her shirt sleeve, rode a motor scooter through traffic with incautious, un-Korean speed. She worked a dozen little part-time jobs, stole from them, ditched them, started over. She borrowed money from me and there was never any question that she’d pay it back.
Sook-Joo loved drugs. Black hashish, Ritalin ground to a powder and mixed with lemon soju, peyote. Aerosols, poppers, esoteric crystalline substances. “What I go through to get this,” she’d say, brandishing a finger of foil or a plastic pill case. “Maybe in Canberra it’s easy, but here, forget it.” With a glint in her eye: “I can find stuff nobody else even knows about.”
We liked to get high on the river bank, late at night after the families left and the food stands shut up. I thought nothing of it when, on a cold night in November, Sook-Joo held out a palmful of little brown chips.
“Mushrooms?” I asked, doubtful. “They give me stomachache.”
“These are special.” She poured the chips into my palm. “They grow in —” Then she said a word I didn’t understand. It sounded a bit like jeong-won, “garden.”
I studied the chips. They looked ordinary, even dull. “They grow where?”
Sook-Joo smiled, but she wouldn’t say any more. Obediently, I ate a single shred of mushroom. It tasted bad, like the smell of the mildewed newspapers my mother kept inside the storm windows, “to soak up the weather.” Sook-Joo ate a handful and lit a cigarette. We watched the Han slide past.
There was a cold mist in the air. Above us, the Wonhyo Bridge rose like a vast stretching animal, reached out into the gray, then disappeared except for the blur of its lamps.
“Will you go home?” Sook-Joo asked, startling me. “When your visa ends?”
I hadn’t thought about it. But I guessed I’d have to.
“Back to Canberra?”
I pulled my hand free of hers. I was sweating, and my stomach hurt. “No.”
“There are other places.”
Sook-Joo plucked at her lip. “No there aren’t.”
I thought of my mother’s house, gaunt and faded on our dead-end street. My mother herself, tall and dry, her skin yellowed like old paper around her eyes.
Sook-Joo’s parents lived in Icheon, just outside the city. She was an only child, I knew, although I couldn’t remember her ever telling me. She never talked about her parents. From time to time we stumbled over a topic — pets, childhood memories — that might have led in that direction. But every time she said, That was before I came to Seoul, and nothing more.
My stomach twisted, and I wiped sweat from my palms. “There’s Fiji,” I said. “Or Bora-Bora. We could go together. We could run tours.”
Sook-Joo stared at the river.
“I’m sick,” I said. One of the first Korean phrases I’d ever learned. “I have stomachache.”
“Let’s walk.” Sook-Joo stood and started down the path, toward the footings of the bridge. I followed a little uncertainly. No one had ever bothered us here before, but those enormous shadows made me nervous. My stomach knotted, and I stopped.
“Sook-Joo, I’m really sick.”
She didn’t seem to hear me. Still walking, she held out a palm, as if she were catching rain. “Do you see them?”
There was a sudden rush of water to my mouth, and my stomach heaved. I vomited. It tasted like bile and mildew.
“Sook-Joo, wait!” Another cramp folded me to my knees. She was just an outline now, wandering toward the bridge. My eyes blurred, tears from the cold and sickness — and for just a moment I thought I saw something. A million tiny golden filaments, descending gently through the air. Coming to rest on everything — the grass, the path, the benches — then melting away.
I looked at my own hand and thought I saw it dusted with golden threads. As I watched, they sank into my skin and disappeared.
Another cramp hit me, and a second wave of vomiting. It lasted longer, and when it was done I felt hollowed out. Sook-Joo had disappeared.
“Sook-Joo!” I got up and stumbled to the bridge. There was nothing beneath it but the massive concrete footings, the black holes of the sewer tunnels, and the rolling echo of cars passing hundreds of feet overhead.
I looked for her forever, and didn’t find her. I cried a little, cursed her, and took the subway home.
• • • •
The next morning my phone woke me.
“Darlene.” It was Sook-Joo, her voice strange and throaty. “Come over, I’m at the apartment.”
She never called it home, always the apartment. There was nothing in her tiny bedroom but a futon mattress and a pile of clothes. I imagined her as I’d seen her many times, sprawled naked in dirty sheets on the mattress.
“Where did you go? I looked for you.”
“Sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry. “Come over now, I want to show you something.”
“Come on, Hyo-Sonn.”
I took the phone from my ear and looked at it. I’d been dreaming of my mother, I remembered suddenly. Of my mother, and of something else — the cellar beneath the old house. Curling up on the cool packed-dirt floor, while my mother walked about overhead. I felt a wave of unnamable emotion. Loss, maybe, or nostalgia. Mixed with disgust.
“Darlene,” Sook-Joo said. I put the phone back to my ear. “I’m sorry. Please come over.”
“I’m still mad at you.”
We both knew I’d go — what else was I going to do? I had no other friends, few obligations. I was waeguk-saram. A foreigner, a stranger. I had nowhere else to go.
• • • •
The itinerant roommates were playing video games in the common room. I had no key but they never locked their door. The place smelled stale.
“Hi,” said one roommate, glancing at me. Then he said something else I didn’t understand — all I caught was Sook-Joo’s name.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Slower, please?”
“Tell Sook-Joo to clean up,” the other roommate translated, his eyes on the video screen. “It smells bad.”
“Oh.” The kitchen counters were covered in greasy bowls, food wrappers and cartons. There was a musty, decayed smell. “Okay.”
Something exploded on the screen, and they both leaned forward. I edged through and down the narrow hall to Sook-Joo’s bedroom. The smell got worse as I went. Once, in high summer, a rabbit had got stuck and died beneath the Canberra house. The smell of putrefaction had been unbearable.
“Sook-Joo?” I knocked, my hand over my mouth.
There was a pause, punctuated by gunfire from the other room. Then Sook-Joo opened the door.
She’d pulled the curtain across the small window, so that the barest light filtered through. She wore the same clothes she’d had on the night before, and there was some kind of mark along her jaw.
“What’s that smell?” I looked around the room as she closed the door. “Are you sick?”
“I’m fine.” She smiled and sank onto the futon. “Did you see them? Last night?”
Her smile faltered. “The threads.”
I had a quick memory of what I thought I’d seen the night before, kneeling in the wet grass under the shadow of the bridge. A sky full of tiny golden fibers, drifting downward. I remembered the few I’d watched sink into my skin.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I went to the window. “Can I open this?”
“They were everywhere.” She held up her hand. There was something on it. A darkish mark at the heel. “You didn’t see them?”
“I was stoned. And sick as a dog. And you went off without telling me where.”
She shook her head and rubbed at the mark on her hand. “I was trying to find the garden.” This time I was sure that was the word she used. Jeong-won. Wasn’t it?
“The what?” There was no garden near Wonhyo Bridge, as far as I knew.
“Didn’t you . . . you didn’t want to go?” She sounded uncertain now. She was still rubbing at the spot on her hand.
“I wanted to go home, and I did. After I sicked up that horrible mushroom you gave me. I don’t know how you could stand it.”
“You . . . threw it up?”
“What’s wrong with your hand?”
I caught her wrist. Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could see that it wasn’t just a mark — it was a sore. About the size of a quarter, pink and raw, as if she’d been at it all night with a nailbrush.
Sook-Joo snatched her hand back. I realized that the marks along her jaw were the same — angry wet weals, the skin rubbed away.
“You didn’t eat it,” she said reproachfully. “You threw it up.”
“It made me sick. And it’s made you sick too, if you’re picking at yourself like that.”
“It’s the threads.” Sook-Joo rubbed her arms, as if she were cold. “They pull.” She held her palm close to my face. “See? They’re inside, and they’re pulling.”
I looked at the little wound, and thought I did see fibers in it. Tiny stiff hairs sticking out from beneath the skin. As I looked, Sook-Joo pinched at one and drew it out. She held it up, sharp and wet, then brushed it off against her jeans.
“I’ve been taking them out,” she said. “But they’re everywhere, inside.”
“That’s from the sheets,” I said slowly. “Or your clothes. You’re having a bad trip, that’s all. Stop —” I grabbed her wrist before she could pluck again at the wound. “Stop picking at yourself.”
“I can see them,” she said. “They’re on you, right now.” She made a brushing gesture just above the skin of my hand. I felt a creeping sensation, as if I were covered in fleas.
“You smell horrible,” I told her. “You need to take a shower. Eat something. Where did you even get those things?”
“I found them,” she said. “In the sewer.”
I stared at her, trying not to gag. “The sewer?”
“Under Wonhyo Bridge.”
“You can’t go into the sewers, Sook-Joo. You can’t eat things from the sewers.”
“You’re so careful, Hyo-Sonn.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You should go home anyway. You’re waeguk-saram. You don’t belong here.”
I dropped her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” she said, more calmly. “You don’t understand. You should go home.”
“I don’t want to go home.”
“I do,” she said, and slumped against me, as if all the life had left her body.
• • • •
I put her in the shower and tidied the kitchen. The roommates had disappeared. Outside, the winter sunshine had begun to die.
I had never had anything private in my mother’s house, nothing she didn’t consider it her right to take, examine, dispose of. I never kept a diary, because she would have read it. I never had a car, or a pet, or a boyfriend. My bedroom was straight and neat and orderly. She vacuumed it every day. Went through my schoolbooks, examined my notes. When I was twelve I drew a pair of breasts in the margins of my spelling, and she took away my pillow.
I hated her unthinking sense of ownership, her endless tallying of guilt and reciprocity. So when I went back to Sook-Joo’s bedroom, picked up her phone, and typed in the passcode to open it, I felt a twist of guilt. I told myself she wasn’t well. She didn’t have friends, just a dealer. And her roommates were hopeless. I had to call someone.
I didn’t even know if she’d have the phone number — but she did. It was labeled “Home” in the address book, as if that was a word she used every day.
On the second ring, someone answered. I said a formal hello.
“Hello,” said a man. “This is Bong.” Sook-Joo’s father. I was suddenly at a loss for what to say.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, stumbling over the words in my nervousness. “My name is Weston Hyo-Sonn. I’m in Seoul. A friend of your daughter —”
“My daughter?” He sounded incredulous.
“Sook-Joo, yes. She’s sick —”
“Sook-Joo is sick.”
“Yes, I know you don’t see her much —”
“She should die,” he said flatly, and hung up.
• • • •
I made udon, and forced Sook-Joo to eat it when she came out of the shower. The sores along her jaw had grown, but I pretended not to notice. She sat in the common room wearing an oversized sweatshirt, the shaved side of her head exposed, and stared at nothing.
“Eat something,” I urged, aware that I sounded like a mother. Not hers, and not mine. The idea of a mother, maybe.
She scratched her arms when she thought I wasn’t looking. At last I took her by the hands. “Stop it. Stop picking at yourself.”
“You don’t understand.” She was sullen. “Why are you even here?”
“Somebody has to take care of you.”
She laughed. “It can’t be me. I’m no good at taking care of things.”
“You’d be fine if you didn’t do so many drugs.”
“No.” She faced me, suddenly still. “That’s not true. It’s not the drugs.”
“What is it then?” I felt uneasy, and hid it by smoothing my jeans. “What’s so terrible about you?”
“I killed someone,” she said.
We stared at each other.
“Not really,” she said, jerking away. Her fingers dug at her forearms. “You’re so stupid, you thought it was real.”
I sat listening to her brittle, artificial laugh. When she started to pick at the sores on her chin I didn’t stop her.
• • • •
We smoked a joint and fell asleep together, twined on her dirty futon. I woke up with my head still spinning, alone.
The clock in the kitchen read two a.m. I stumbled through the apartment. Sook-Joo wasn’t in the common room, the bathroom. She wasn’t anywhere.
I considered waking the roommates, but what would they do? I tried to think through the wool in my head. There weren’t many places Sook-Joo would go. Her dealer’s apartment, maybe. But her toilet bag was already full of rainbow pills in Ziploc bags. She didn’t need any more.
I closed my eyes and saw her weaving away through the darkness toward the Wonhyo Bridge. Toward the sewers. Where the mushrooms grew.
I dug through Sook-Joo’s closet, emptied an old backpack onto the floor. In the jumble that fell out — ID cards from old jobs, disposable cell phones, several plastic lighters — was a small pink plastic-coated photo album. I hesitated, then flipped through it. It was full of haphazard photographs of Sook-Joo. Talking on the phone, sprawled on a couch, smoking on a sidewalk. Most of them were out of focus, badly taken. It depressed me that these might be the only photos of herself that she owned.
Tucked into the sleeve behind one of the photos was another, smaller picture. It was old, the corners bent and the color faded. A young girl sat on a plaster turtle, holding onto a younger boy’s waist. Both of them looked soberly at the camera. I could see at a glance that the girl was Sook-Joo. The boy looked just like her.
I put the photograph back in the book, and rooted through the rest of Sook-Joo’s junk until I found an old, flickering bike lamp. Then I started for the river.
• • • •
It was a cold, still night. The Han lay like a flood of black ice between the vast legs of Wonhyo Bridge. I glimpsed tiny golden threads on everything, then blinked and they were gone. I smelled cellar dirt and mildewed paper, and heard my mother say my name.
I stood staring into the storm sewers beneath the bridge. They were all tall enough for me to stand up inside. Who knew how far they went?
“Sook-Joo!” I called. The tunnel ate my voice.
It was colder inside. The lamp skipped over the walls and sank into the long gloom ahead. Things dripped. I walked a bit, then paused and looked back. The world was a dark circle, just a little brighter than the tunnel around it. The cars made a faint booming echo.
I went on. There were puddles on the floor, cracks in the walls. White stains like faces fluoresced on the concrete.
At last I sensed a different kind of space — wider, more open — ahead of me. The tunnel gave out into nothing. My torchlight sank into darkness. When I shone the light upward, I saw only black.
There was a foul, familiar smell that made me put my hand across my mouth. As I walked in, playing the torch left and right, the smell grew stronger. I heard movement. Automatically, I pressed the lamp to my thigh and stood still.
Ahead I saw a faint light, like the glimmer reflected off a wet coin. It might be Sook-Joo. With my heart squeezed in my throat, I crept forward.
It was a man dressed in a gray nylon city worker’s uniform, with yellow boots and an orange safety vest. His hood was pulled up over his head, and a light was clipped to his shoulder. I stopped and watched as he crouched, working at something on the ground. He stood and walked a few feet, stopped, and crouched again.
I thought I glimpsed dark mounds on the ground where he worked, like piles of soil heaped up over freshly-filled graves.
He was murmuring something. “That’s good, yes, you see how to do it, you try now —” His tone was fond, almost fawning. He was alone.
Without warning, he stood and turned toward me. His light flashed across my eyes. Tiny golden threads exploded.
“You there!” He pointed at me. “What are you doing?”
I searched for something to say, but I had no Korean anymore. Faltering, in English, I said, “I’m looking for someone —”
He stared at me, then walked closer. His uniform, I noticed, was dirty and frayed. There was something tied around his neck. A woman’s dirty pink silk blouse, the arms knotted together as if to hold him in a loving embrace.
“Waeguk-saram,” he said. “You can’t be here!”
“I’m looking for someone. She’s sick —” His light flashed in my eyes. Gold filled my vision.
“A foreigner can’t come in here!” he said. “It’s a security risk!”
“My friend —” I covered my eyes. The nauseating gold began to fade. “Have you seen her?”
He grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes. On his wrist, just above the bone, was a gaping red sore. Along his jaw, a line of dark spots.
We stared at each other. Then I yanked free and ran.
The darkness had revolved somehow, and I stumbled over something on the sewer floor. Everything had begun to move strangely, slowly. I fell, and while I was falling I saw that the thing beneath me was a dark lump, about a meter long. Its surface was thick with mushrooms. Their surfaces were the rich, slick brown of wet chocolate, lined with impossibly fine black striations.
I landed on my hands and knees, half in the pile. The man’s boots squeaked. It was a pitiful sound, I thought. My hand drove into the pile, soft and yielding. Beneath my fingers I felt fungus scattered like wood chips, in some warm wet base.
My lamp lay flickering beside me. I reached for it, so slowly.
“Waeguk-saram,” the man yelled behind me. The world snapped right again. I grabbed the lamp and scrambled to my feet, shaking wetness off my hand.
The man had fallen to his knees beside the scattered pile. His hood had come loose. His scalp was nearly bald, spotted with sores. On the side of his head, something protruded from a lesion the size of my fist. An outgrowth of small brown mushrooms.
I remember seeing other things in the hall as I left it. More dark mounds laid out like nurse logs on the brick floor. I swear a few of them twitched. Propped against the wall by one of the tunnel mouths, I saw something like a person. It had a woman’s face, middle-aged and soft. The body beneath was a mass of dark brown stalks and caps. Her head turned to watch me go by. Her expression, I think, was peaceful.
• • • •
Running into the darkness, I saw the man’s head. The blistering growth, like some horrible part of him coming out. I saw a scrim of golden threads. I heard my mother speaking to me, saying I was forgiven, I could come back. I saw a girl on a plaster turtle, holding a boy who looked just like her.
At last I had to walk.
The bicycle lamp flickered. I thought, if it goes out I can just keep walking. I saw my mother’s tall austere unwelcoming house, and thought I could keep walking until I got there. I could walk up the stairs and down the hall and through the door to my bedroom, and I could get into the bed and pull up the blanket, and go to sleep.
After a long time I heard footfalls. I raised the lamp and watched Sook-Joo emerge from the darkness, trailing her hand along the side of the tunnel.
“You came,” she said, smiling. Her face was smeared with dirt, and there were new sores on her cheeks.
“Sook-Joo.” I felt dull, and my stomach ached. “I came to find you.”
“Did you find the garden?” That word again — it was never quite what I thought. She studied my face, and her smile faded. “You’re not supposed to be here, are you?”
She touched her cheek, picked something from a sore. Her fingers were filthy. “They don’t itch as much, in here. But still.” She shrugged. “It’s better in the garden.” That word. “Lying down.”
I felt a rush of dizziness. Sook-Joo was standing over me. Her face was patient.
“It’s not for you in here,” she said. “You have no one to talk to here. You have a home.”
“So do you,” I croaked.
“No I don’t,” she said. “I had a little brother, but I don’t anymore. It was an accident. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a brother, so I don’t have a home.” She held out her hand.
“I don’t understand.”
She twitched her fingers. “Come on.”
We started walking. The bicycle lamp was almost dead, so I switched it off. Sook-Joo didn’t seem to need it.
We walked in the dark for what felt like ages. Sook-Joo’s hand was cool and soft in mine. I could feel the stiff poke of fibers protruding from her sores. Some of them felt thick and soft, as if they were beginning to change into something else. I moved my hand to avoid feeling them.
When we reached the tunnel mouth I clung to Sook-Joo’s arm.
“It’s not bad,” she said, as if she could read my thoughts. “I’m tired. And I like it here.”
“You can come home with me,” I said, not loosening my grip.
She kissed me, and the smell of decay made my eyes water. Golden threads, just for a moment.
“Your brother —”
“You don’t know,” she said. “And you’ll never understand. Be happy with that.”
I tried to think of something to say, but nothing came. I let her go, and she disappeared back into the tunnel.
• • • •
Several weeks later, I read an article in the Herald as I rode the train to my tutoring job. Police had given up the search for a man whose wife had died in a boating accident on the Han. The man had survived the accident, had done nothing wrong. Police were called in when he’d gone missing from his job as a city sanitation worker. They feared he’d committed suicide, perhaps by jumping from the Wonhyo Bridge.
I folded the paper and slipped it into my bag, then sat back and closed my eyes. As always, I looked for golden threads in the darkness, but there were none. Instead, I saw the empty arms of a pink silk blouse, tied into a knot as hard and binding as love.