Chapter 1 - Fragments of the Past
Once upon a time, in a small town, there was an old man with a lump on his neck. One day, the old man went into the forest to chop some wood, but he wandered so deep that he could not leave the wilderness until the sun set. Eventually, the old man decided to spend the night in an empty house that he found on the way. Spending the night alone was frightening and lonely, so after pondering, the old man started to sing. Just then, the goblins that were nearby heard his singing and gathered around him.
One goblin who was very moved by the song asked, “Where is that fine voice coming from?”
The old man told him that it was from his throat, but the goblins weren’t satisfied with that answer. Their throats could not produce that kind of singing voice.
The goblins were enraged and told him, “We will punish you if you do not tell us honestly.”
The frightened old man lied, “It came from this lump.”
The goblins were delighted and told the old man that they would give him a large sum of money in exchange for the lump. The old man nodded, and the goblins took away his lump, leaving behind an immense amount of treasure.
The old man was rid of his lump and became rich, so the neighboring old man with lumps also visited the empty house. He waited for it to become night and sang. The goblins heard the singing and gathered around. The goblins asked where the singing voice was coming from. He answered right away that it came from the lump. When they heard the answer, the goblins shouted furiously, “You are also lying! We fell for it back then, but we won’t fall for it now!”
* * *
…This is not the story of the old man who received treasures in exchange for his lump. It is also not about the neighbor who ended up with one more lump instead. This is the story about the “goblins” who took the lump and the song away from the old man.
When I was younger, I was once trapped in a large house. There are times when memories of one’s childhood are jumbled up with no beginning or end. So I don’t know how I came to be trapped in that house.
Perhaps I was really confined in that house. Nobody chased me down, nor did I feel the need to run away from someone. So maybe “confined” is not the right term for it. Regardless, the wording didn’t make a difference because I couldn’t find the exit to the outside no matter what.
While I roamed the dark and spacious house freely, I struggled to find the exit.
Even though my memory of that time was episodic, I remember the house being extravagant. The lavishness and hedonism ingrained in that house couldn’t all be masked by the darkness.
When I groped for the wall to find my balance, instead of dry wallpaper, I felt soft and scented ornamental foliage, and I could tell how grand the chandelier in the ceiling was even in the dark. I even thought that I might be trapped in my younger cousin’s two-story dollhouse.
The corridors were so long that I couldn’t see where they ended. There were several doors along each side of the hallway. All of them looked different—from the familiar and crude door to doors that I could imagine seeing on TV. I even saw metal grilled doors that were better suited outside, rather than inside, as an entry to a garden.
The doors were all opened to different degrees. Some doors had several locks on them, while others were wide open for passersby to see inside. However, none of the doors grabbed my interest. I couldn’t afford to be distracted. It felt like someone kept whispering that in my ears.
I don’t remember how long I wandered. I grew exhausted from the endless, windowless hallway. I thought that I might as well curl up in a corner and wait until someone found me.
Just then, a sweet scent drifted to my nose from somewhere.
At the time, I thought that it was the smell of candy, but thinking of it now, I think it was similar to the scent that I smelled when I stood under a very ripe grapevine. Specifically, it was the scent of ripened grapes crushed in one’s hands.
The sweet scent came along with a song, almost like a lullaby. The voice strangely tugged at my heart.
Who was it?
I carefully walked toward it. I wasn’t thinking about whether going in that direction would lead me to the exit that I was searching for. I just thought that there must be somebody there. I was filled with hope.
After being trapped in this dark house, I didn’t see another soul. I was sure the house was full of people at first. I didn’t remember what made everyone go their separate ways.
The scent and the voice pulled me to the entrance of a room. However, there was something different about it. The room had no door. There was only a hole in the shape of a doorway in the wall.
At the same time, it seemed like it had a door there before. There were remnants of broken door hinges on one side of the wall. Of course, I was young then, so I didn’t know they were hinges. I only had the feeling that there was once a door upon seeing the hints that it was ripped off.
Moreover, I could see the inside of that room clearly compared to the other rooms I came across so far.
What I mean was that, even though the rooms I walked past had their doors open, I couldn’t see what exactly was inside. I couldn’t see clearly, as if it was swathed in a black fog. That was also one reason why the young me was able to pass by those countless rooms.
I just knew. There was no way a closed door would open by itself. The open doors meant that someone like me had already gone inside. Therefore, I was hesitant to go through the doors. I felt like the “reason” the person who went in couldn’t come out was inside that room.
The door, gaping wide open, looked like a monster’s mouth rather than a door—a mouth that swallowed a person.
…Then what was different about the room with the door ripped off?
There was one commonality in between all these recollections that popped up randomly. These memories were too clear compared to other things from the past. Well, these memories were probably vivid because they were things I was remembering in particular. This “experience” was also the same.
Before I had the chance to look around the room, I found “one thing.”
There was one person in the middle of the room. The child looked around my age. It seemed like the lullaby was sung by this child. I could tell from one look that this child was in the same situation as I was. The child wasn’t surprised to see me in the hallway. They only grinned.
“So you came,” the child said as they waved. Come here, quickly. Over here. It was like they were calling over a stray cat. “It was hard being alone this whole time.”
I approached the child and held their hand. I was also anxious because I was alone. A frightened person would feel relieved when they saw another in a similar situation because they would feel comradery. I felt friendliness from the child despite meeting them for the first time.
The child’s hand was very thin. They looked skinnier than me. The clothes they were wearing were also worn out. Their hair was so long and shaggy that I couldn’t tell the child’s gender. The child said, in a voice as fragile and smooth as the beautiful singing, “You know, I… know a lot of things that other people don’t. That’s why people hate me. I’m all right because I’ve been alone for a long time, but I was still lonely. And it hurts sometimes.”
I tilted my head to the side. I couldn’t understand what the child was saying. “Doesn’t knowing a lot mean you’re smart? My mom bought me a bunch of books because she wanted me to become a smart person. Why don’t you like that?”
“I don’t know. My mom wails and screams if I go near her.”
‘Oh, stupid me.’ I should have realized that there was something off about what the child was saying then. I should have at least realized that the child before me wasn’t normal. However, I was raised under my mother’s protection and love, so I never experienced danger. I didn’t know how to be wary of strangers.
Instead, I ended up feeling sympathy at “wailing and screaming.”
“If your mom were like my mom, she would have praised you. She said knowing more things is better. She said that that was how you succeed in the future. My mom is always worried that I don’t study.”
I didn’t have any younger siblings related to me, but I played with my younger female cousin once a week when she came over. My cousin forced a girl doll in my hands and made me play house as the mom. She said that since she only had a dad, she didn’t know what moms were like.
Perhaps it was because I had a cousin like that, but I ended up talking as I would to a child younger than me. “My mom said that adults don’t know everything, make mistakes, and do the wrong things, so if there was something you didn’t like, you should say it directly. She said that was how to get along with other people.”
Moreover, the child in front of me was small, even though we were around the same age. Once I started seeing the child like a younger sibling, I really felt like they became my sibling, so I said more firmly than before, “That’s your mom’s fault.”
The child didn’t show much of a reaction despite my words. They looked as if they heard a story irrelevant to them and stared at me. Then, I understood why the child looked at me like that, when they said, “No, my mom did nothing wrong. She just hates that I have that kind of thing.”
“That kind of thing?”
“If not for that, I wouldn’t make my mom and others suffer.”
The child looked so depressed that I asked, “…If it’s too hard on you, do you want to give it to me?”