Chapter 1: < Protect – Prologue – >
When I was young, I lived in a house that had a stream flowing in front of it. It was perfect for a young child to play in since the water was only as deep as my knees. That might have been why all the kids in the neighborhood could be found there every summer. I was no exception. I was always the first one there and the last one to leave since I lived so close. But then one day, my close friend Kyung Ho and I noticed something half-submerged in the water.
It flailed around like the seaweed in the soup my mom cooked for me on my birthdays. Its pale face reminded me of a mannequin, and I was uncertain what emotion was hiding behind its frowning face. That’s right. That was the first time I felt afraid of another person. I felt my chest grow cold.
What is fear?
I started to ask myself that question.
As a child, my mom gave me the most fear. There was a time when I stole money out of my mom’s wallet to go to the arcade and got kicked out of the house naked. I could endure the embarrassment of how the adults would look at me, but I would have wanted to die if the kids at school found out.
There was even a girl I liked, so I couldn’t let any of the kids find out that I strut the neighborhood streets naked. So I ran into the stream in front of my house. It may have been getting warmer around that time, but it was still the beginning of spring. I thought it’d be freezing, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
There! This way, I don’t look weird for being naked!
However, that turned out to be the worst mistake my foolish brain could make.
Even in the scorching heat, it’s hard to play in the water for longer than 30 minutes. So it was especially cold on that spring day in April. Even though it was partly my fault for angering my mom, she really didn’t have to strip me naked.
I didn’t understand the concept of losing body heat.
In other words, that means you’re starting to lose your life, but I wasn’t very smart or wise as a child. Before I knew it, I lost sensation in my submerged body, and as my vision started to blur, my thoughts stopped with it. Maybe I’m wrong. It was my surroundings that stopped, not me. Or time had slowed down drastically. In any case, I was trapped. I couldn’t move my body. It was all in my head.
I was okay for a day.
But after two days, three days, one week, one month, and then one year, I realized something wasn’t right. Maybe I should have realized it earlier. Is Buddha punishing me for my sins? Then is this my afterlife? At least I’m not hungry or have to pee.
But if I didn’t understand the concept of losing body heat, how did I know about Buddha and the afterlife? It’s because of the grandmothers. Our neighborhood is a very strange place. There were shrines and shamans as well as churches and priests. You may think the countryside is full of only elders, but our neighborhood had many young men and women as well.
It’s because of the grandmothers.
And one of those grandmothers shouted at me for being in the water.
“You there! You little scoundrel! Get out of there!”
“Pray to the Heavens.”
How do I do that?
“With all your heart.”
What kind of nonsense is that? That was no different from a top student saying his secret to getting good grades was to study very hard. God damn it! I give up.
The grandmother clicked her tongue.
“Tsk, tsk! Don’t you want to participate in Sports Day?”
Oh yeah! Sports day! I trained my ass off to take back the throne of the 100-meter race.
“If you don’t go, I’m going to eat all of your mother’s kimbap.”
No way! Mom’s oyster seaweed soup might be horrible, but her kimbaps are the best!
“I heard you’re going to confess your feelings to Joo Hee.”
Huh? How did she know that?
“T-Tsk! There’s nothing I don’t know.”
She’s definitely the queen of all grandmothers.
“Come out, little boy. Open your eyes.”
When I opened my eyes to the queen grandmother’s faint voice, I could see my crying mom in front of me. Why is mom crying? I wanted to yell at her not to cry, but I was unable to open my mouth.
“Where am I?”
I see a white ceiling. Wait, it’s not just the ceiling. All the people are wearing white, too. This must be one of those big general hospitals.
“It’s a miracle!”
My father, who was normally very serious, embraced another man in a white gown and sobbed. I can see my family, friends, people from our neighborhood, and grandmothers. Why are they always together? Did they get into a gang fight with the next neighborhood? The queen grandmother from my dream walked over, patted my head, and whispered in my ear.
“Atta boy. I’m glad you’re back. But don’t confess your feelings to that Joo Hee girl.”
Wait, why? That’s why I woke up.
“I heard she’s been dating Kyung Ho since last month.”
What? No! That bastard! How could my best friend stab me in the back like that? As my heart started pounding, I heard the sound of beeping, and I saw sexy nurses in white uniforms busily running around.
“Wow, this is unreal! I’ve never seen anything like this. Okay, fine. I’ll forgive my best friend just this once.”
But I still couldn’t help but feel bitter. Does the bitter taste of betrayal make a person more mature? Maybe this is why the older kids smoke all the time.
“If I want to become an adult, I might have to get used to this bitter taste…”
My eyelids suddenly started to feel heavy.
I had another dream.
I looked down upon myself submerged in the water. I was trapped under there for a whole year. Am I wrong? I’m confused. But one thing’s for sure. I talked to the queen grandmother down there. But how did the queen grandmother move within stopped time? How interesting.
“Is it interesting?”
Huh? Queen Grandmother?
“There’s nothing to it. That was simply our fate that was blessed upon us by the Heavens.”
Come to think of it, the shrine is the queen grandmother’s house. Even though the people of our neighborhood feared her, I felt comfortable around her.
The literal translation is “Water Tiger.”
That’s the name the queen grandmother gave me. She named everyone in our neighborhood. I didn’t like it at first. What the hell is a water tiger? But once I learned that it was a wrong expression of “Killer Whale,” I let it go. The apex predator of the sea! Wow! It’s known as the king that consumes both sharks and whales.
I managed to get up and participate in Sports Day, but I was unable to participate in the 100-meter race or anything that was straining to my body. I was just happy I could taste my mom’s handmade kimbap. And then toward the end of the event, I found out the truth.
“I died and then came back to life?”
I was reminded of what I saw with Kyung Ho last summer.
It wasn’t the horribly pale face, but the pain and fear behind that person’s frown that frightened the kids. Did my expression look like that? There’s no way. I didn’t die. The uneasiness made my heart pound. I ran out of the school before the event was over. I don’t know why, but I felt like I had to.
I only looked straight and ran as fast as I could.
I was running out of breath, but I didn’t stop. I saw the shrine. However, there was just as many people there as well. Is an exorcism taking place? I didn’t hear any spells or sounds of swords, but I did hear shrieks and cries. As soon as I appeared, the startled adults reached out to catch me, but I managed to dodge them with my swift movements. I immediately ran inside, but my feet stopped.
This is just like last time.
This is just like when I thought it would be cold in the water, but it wasn’t, and thought time had stopped. The only difference is that it’s not my time, but the queen grandmother’s time that stopped. She was wearing white, but they were formal mourning clothes, unlike what the sexy nurses were wearing earlier. Why is she lying down when there are so many people here? Is she tired?
Something is definitely wrong here.
That’s when I realized it.
I realized what a horrible sin I had committed. I wasn’t sure of the details, but I realized that I made a big mistake, and the queen grandmother was paying the price. It appears that the water I was trapped in wasn’t the stream in front of my house.
In the place between life and death, the queen grandmother in my dream urged me to get out.
Tears dripped down my face.
Did she cross the river of no return in my stead?
After that day, I hated my name all over again.
< Protect – Prologue – > The end.