“autophagy” by an chang joon

10 December 2020 on Fiction   Tags:

P eased the scope further into the stomach. The walls of flesh undulated slowly. He adjusted, following the gentle curvature of the esophagus. His scalp itched. He wiped the sweat off his brows with his forearm, making sure his gloved hand did not touch skin. They would be watching like hawks.

“Why bother removing it?” Ghi from ENT had said that morning. He sipped out of the styrofoam cup, cheeks ballooning as he gargled the instant coffee. The liquid squeaked against his teeth. “I mean, do we even know if it is malignant?” He then idly began picking at a spot between his teeth with his hospital ID.

“What would you know,” Seung said jokingly, hand raised as if to mime a slap. “I don’t see your PhD from Eulsuh University.”

He turned to P and smiled.

“Isn’t that right?”

Thinly veiled hostility like Ghi’s was one thing. Seung’s amiability was another. He was a urologist and had the kind of smile that crinkled his eyes into slits. P did not trust those twin crescents. The hospital staff tiptoed around Seung. Partially because he was the only one who had gotten his degree from a med school within the capital. The rest because he was the nephew of the hospital’s chairman.

“Damn horse doctors,” P muttered into his sanitary mask.

“Sorry, doctor? I didn’t catch that,” said one of his assistants.

“Nothing,” P answered. “Please tilt the head back a little further.”

The throat widened into an amphitheater. P quickly found the polyp, looping the wire around the pink blob that failed to understand when to stop being flesh. He tightened the noose, feeling the snap on the tip of his fingers. He watched as it tore off with a small gout of blood.

“Wow, you got that in one go,” one of the residents said.

P generally didn’t mind the residents at the hospital. It wasn’t their fault that they were working in this dump; why kick a dog when it’s down? But the compliments were too much. Their awe at every menial thing only further degraded him.

He peeled his gloves off, hating the way perspiration caused the latex stick to his fingers.

“Good work,” he told the pair, even though all they had done was stand around with their thumbs up their asses. He turned to leave.

“Um. Are we finished?” asked the shorter of the two, the one whose name started with J, or maybe G.

“This is a polyp removal surgery, yes?” asked P.

“Yes?”

“What did I just do?”

“Uh.”

“Removed a polyp?” hazarded the taller one.

“Okay, then.” P said, deliberately speaking very slowly as he took off his mask. “You tell me: are we done?”

“Yes,” the shorter one answered, turning pink.

“Good.”

“It was a privilege to watch you work, he still called out after him, twisting the knife further.

Back in his office, P pressed his forehead into the monitor, hands cradling the nape of his neck.

“Why the hell would you prescribe a proton-pump inhibitor this long?” The words were unintelligible through his clenched teeth. “No wonder she was growing polyps. What useless—”

The previous physician had been a man named Hwee. A couple of clicks on the monitor told P that Hwee had worked for Minjung General Hospital for nearly forty years before retiring two years ago. The hospital had seen fit to simply continue the patient’s prescription. P balefully stared at the phone. He imagined calling up Hwee and taking out the day— no, the last three months— on him. The polyp had been all but benign, but he wanted to lie. Hello, is this Mr. Hwee? Your patient’s stomach polyps have blossomed into cancer. We cut out half her stomach and she’s lost eight pounds in three weeks and she’s dying as we speak, Mr. Hwee, you worthless idiot.

He clicked out of his page and looked at his phone. Two texts from Seona, his wife.

can you pick up some beef on your way home, read the first.

it’s okay if you can’t, read the other.

“Seventeen months,” he said to himself. P could feel his spirits rising. It wasn’t that much time after all. “Just seventeen.”

On the way home, he dropped by the butcher shop and got some beef. He even managed to whistle a little.

*

P could not have possibly imagined how all-consuming a thing like humidity could be. It wasn’t something solved by swapping undershirts in the middle of the shift, or leaving the fan on overnight.

Three weeks after moving in, runny stains appeared on the upper rim of the bathroom sink, in that little crevice where the marble of the cabinet met the porcelain. The toilet soon followed suit.

P offered to do the cleaning, insisted on it. He bought Clorox and doused the bathroom until their heads swam with that slippery smell, but the ochre stain only grew larger, slowly darkening into a shade of burnt grease.

When he complained to the maintenance, he was told that it was just mold.

“Mold?”

“Yeah, it’s all the water in the air.”

“Well, do something about it.”

The man paused and searched P’s face. His eyes were small and wet.

“You diabetic?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Diabetics piss sugar. Black mold loves it.”

Everything about the interaction was off-putting, from the man’s crass comments to the casual way he ran his bare fingers across the mold.

They attempted to clean it again a couple more times. P retched as he scrubbed the toilet. But the mold never failed to grow back, water and porcelain transubstantiating into that slippery living rust. They soon gave up.

When P woke in the morning and leaned into the sink to wash his face, the side of his hand would sometimes hit the porcelain. He shuddered at that soft, slick rot—the true tenant of his house.

Much about his new life had a way of putting him off. They no longer needed alarms. Even if he could ignore the damp of the house, he could not do the same with the cicadas. Day after day, P saw more holes in the ground, tunnels left behind by the emerging insects. He stomped on them in frustration, but the wet earth smeared and crumbled beneath his feet in a way that haunted him.

“It’s only February,” P whispered.

But the cicadas of H City did not care, and neither did anyone else. Cars simply drove over the swarms. Dirt from unpaved roads mixed with bent wings and yellowish insect blood. The crushed remains did not desiccate under the watery sun of H City, growing putrid until the wild dogs got to them.

*

When the director in P’s previous hospital told him to relocated to H City and lay low, P recalled him as looking nervous. The entire conversation dragged on for over an hour, with the man punctuating his every other sentence with an apology.

“I don’t understand,” P had said. “Why am I getting relocated when he’s the problem.”

P was told that the colleague he reported for embezzlement was very well connected, to use his words.

“I’m sorry, P. Consider it an extended vacation,” the director had told him. “Lie low for a little bit, until all of this blows over. By summer next year, you’ll be back and no one will be the wiser.”

A year and a half in H City. The realtor had called the city “rural but charming.”

“Quiet, without being too provincial.”

P had imagined something different. He himself had grown up in the countryside, after all. His grandparents had raised a cow. P imagined open horizons that sloped gently. Fields of wheat. Maybe the occasional smell of manure. Quiet, maybe almost dreary—but with its own bleak beauty.

On their last day in J City, he lay in bed and told his wife about this.

“Like a Wyeth painting,” she said, but her back was turned to him. He did not know who Wyeth was. She did not explain further.

*

P had never seen so many patients asking for an endoscopy or a colonoscopy.

“You’re very popular,” the nurse had joked.

P knew that it wasn’t because of anything he did. There simply hadn’t been anyone to give such examinations in H City. The population had been slowly stagnating during the past two years; no one was applying to be a GI doctor at Minjung General Hospital. The middle-aged farmers of H City did not care who P was, as long as he could reasonably shove a scope up their ass, confirm that it was in fact not prostate cancer, and prescribe something that made pissing less difficult. But there was still a kind of satisfaction there. From time to time, the feeling of being needed almost distracted P from the injustice of what happened.

Lunch that day was beef and quail eggs braised with soy sauce. The side dish was lotus roots. Seung set his tray next to him.

“I’m very grateful that you chose to come to our hospital of all places,” he said. “Dr. Hwee leaving left us woefully understaffed.”

The lotus root crunched against Seung’s teeth. P did not like how they looked, those neat clusters of holes.

Small, provincial cities like H were often territorial. Its general hospital was no different. It was an atmosphere that bred distrust and corruption. Odds were that someone was over-billing in medical supply insurance claims, or asking patients for informal payments, ones that did not need logging. Under the table propofol shots were always possible, but they were probably too gutless for that.

“So, what made you choose our city?” Seung asked.

Both he and P understood that one did not work in a large hospital in the capital and then suddenly relocate to a place like H City. At least not willingly. P knew what Seung was up to. He was probing P for weakness, or maybe leverage. Something to keep P’s mouth shut, should he find out about whatever shady things they were up to.

You’re wasting your time, P thought. P was not here to stay. This was a minor inconvenience, something he and his wife would look back on and laugh about. A year and a half and they would return to J City.

“Just needed a change of scenery,” P answered, the overcooked rice pasting into mush in his mouth.

*

When P came home, Seona was in the middle of preparing dinner. There was a bag of instant curry powder next to the stove.

“That’s new,” he remarked. “What about all the time you gave me shit about not eating instant?”

“I wanted curry,” she answered. Beside her was a bowl filled with some kind of ground meat. P did not know what animal it was from; he was not a good cook.

“But they didn’t have any turmeric or cumin in the store,” she said, mincing the garlic into a paste. “What kind of a supermarket doesn’t carry spice?”

P took his shirt off, struggling as the wet fabric clung to his back. He avoided his wife’s eyes. It was not his fault that they had to relocate, but that applied doubly to Seona.

“Don’t use the shower,” Seona said without raising her head from the cutting board.

“What?”

“I said don’t use the shower.”

“Why not?”

“Something’s wrong with the water boiler. It stinks.”

“I’ve been outside all day.”

“Well, if you have to, use the cold water. The warm water reeks of sulfur.”

Irritation rose within P. He thought about arguing, and then looked at Seona, at the hair that stuck to her face. He walked up to her, using a thumb to wipe the perspiration off her cheeks.

“What?” Asked Seona, looking up and shrugging his hand away. “Knock it off, I’m gross and sweaty.”

“Okay, okay,” P answered, tucking a loose strand behind her ear.

They talked over dinner. How his day had been (one abdominal abscess, two endoscopies, and a rash of stomach flu). How her dissertation was going (“Not easy but manageable”). They complained about Ghi and his disgusting coffee gargling habit (“Ugh, I bet his teeth are all stained too”), as well as about Seona’s thesis committee members and how obtuse they were (“What difference does a remote dissertation defense make?”). It was its own kind of intimacy, being irritated at the same shitty people together.

After dinner, P washed the dishes while his wife watched TV in the bedroom. Even after all the plates were set to dry and he heard a muffled I’m turning in for the night through thin plywood door, P sat in the living room, staring at his phone. He did not want to go to bed, to end the day and start the cycle all over again.

Seventeen months, he thought again to himself. But the span of time felt much longer than it did a couple days ago.

The beer beside him sat nearly untouched. He watched an elephant picking up a stick to imitate a rhino. A video about the life cycle of the sunfish. A news article about a livestock virus. A livestream where a man sat in a sparsely furnished, dimly lit room—not much different from the one P was in now—and ate sickening amounts of raw fish. What little beer P drank gurgled in his stomach uncomfortably as he stared at the man’s teeth, slippery and red with gochujang.

*

H City exported pigs. They outnumbered the city’s population one hundred to one. P didn’t know where the farms and abattoirs were, exactly, but he had a fair guess. They had smelled them during their drive down. Twice, Seona had to stop and vomit.

The swine were ubiquitous. The city peddled pig mascots. Stores sold pig souvenirs. Restaurants painted them onto their signs. Pink pigs in chef’s hats and shit-eating grins, pigs nudging each other and winking. Pigs in checkered aprons with one hand rubbing their bellies and the other raised, holding a silver cloche. What was beneath the dome of stainless steel? What warranted the knowing wink? P did not want to know.

Sometimes farmers visited the hospital for a checkup and left their trucks in the parking lot, still loaded with pigs. They were not the soft, indolent things that the city advertised itself with. They were prodigious. Heat radiated off their bodies, with hides as black as the fat flies that swarmed around their tear ducts. They were not afraid of P, snapping at his hand when he approached. He did not like how square and human their molars were. They have eyelashes, he realized, and somehow this of all things was the tipping point where the smell got to him. He reeled away, gagging.

But worse than the pigs were what came of them. Byproducts from a million and a half pigs were collected and dumped into massive open-air septic tanks. Guts, shit, piss, and blood all flowed into massive lagoons, too viscous to be fully liquid. When the wind blew, the surface barely quivered. Some things floated to the top; most sank. The tanks sometimes overflowed during monsoon season.

Mosquitos and horseflies swarmed to lay their eggs in the water. Bullfrogs devoured the white clumps of eggs, and in turn, were eaten by herons. Beaks spattered with blood transfixed twitching bodies.

People told rumors. About pigs that escaped the cages, and how they grew feral. Large enough to kill wild dogs and hungry enough to eat anything.

When a landslide collapsed a section of the city’s cemetery several years ago, not all the bodies were recovered. People blamed the wild pigs, whispered that their ancestors have vanished into the cavernous darkness of a pig’s stomach. A year after that, a child went missing and was never found. The police concluded that she had been playing near the waste reservoir and slipped. Her father was convinced that the pigs tore her apart. One way or another, H City had devoured her.

When the reservoirs were full, they’d be syphoned and run through giant howling machines that rendered everything to liquid. It became fertilizer for the corn they fed the pigs. Pigs that ate pigs that ate pigs that ate pigs. They expelled the liquefied remains onto farms with massive sprinklers. It rained pigs in H City.

*

The rule was that P made breakfast and his wife made dinner, and that they ate with minimal complaint. It wasn’t a rule that needed reinforcing; neither of them were picky eaters and both knew what the other liked.

He made eggs that morning. An omelette for him and two sunny-side ups for her. Two slices of toast each. Ketchup for P, soy sauce for her. The same way she had taken eggs for the last eight years.

He set the plates on the dining table, which was nearly covered end-to-end with books and manuscripts. He began eating by himself. She did not look up from her monitor until he was nearly finished. She took a couple of half-hearted bites before pushing the food to the side.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just not really feeling eggs today,” Seona answered.

His wife looked tired. She had lost nearly ten pounds in two months. Her collarbone jutted out in a way that made P think of fingers pressed against fabric. Her skin was thin and taut, cling wrap stretched around packaged meat.

“Let me know if you want anything else,” P said while washing the dishes. P stared at the strands of still-runny yolk from Seona’s plate mixing with the water and sighed.

*

He cut into the peritoneum. There was a soft hiss as air escaped from the cavity. The assistant holding the stomach open gagged. Congealed chunks of partially digested blood glistened black under the surgical light.

“I told you that you weren’t applying enough tiger balm on your mask,” P said without looking over.

They had no harmonic scalpels in Minjung General, only the older electrosurgery units. P had forgotten how much surgical smoke the body emitted with electrosurgery.  Skin, adipose, and muscle burned away into a spray of fine mist. A person, sublimating on the spot—a vanishing trick if there ever was one.

P recalled his colleague’s joke.

There’s a thousand people in our lungs.

P thought of the pigs. The way they rooted around in the mud and breathed air with a million pigs in it. Then for first time in years, the smell of the surgery got to him. He could taste the man’s gangrene at the back of his throat, an oil painting of feces against a canvas of rotting guts. He gagged, staggering out of the surgery room.

Later in the break room, Seung came up to him, hand outstretched to offer a cup of coffee. His eyes were creased in a smile. He had no doubt been watching the entire time. P knew what lay behind the gesture, the smug satisfaction at the fact that he fucked up. He had just bolted out of surgery like a fucking amateur.

“It happens,” Seung said.

P ignored the cup and walked out.

*

P sat in his living room with a glass of ice water pressed to his forehead. Seona stood by the kitchen counter, mincing leeks for jeon.

“Are you going to sit there all day, or are you at least going to tell me what happened?”

He thought about telling her the story, about how the man’s rotting guts smelled, about pigs that ate pigs—but his stomach churned again and he took a shaky sip of his water instead.

“I felt under the weather, and I left early,” he answered, the words clipped.

“I’ve never seen you leave early.”

“Well, I guess I do now.”

“P—”

“I’m going to take a shower,” P said, and walked toward the bathroom.

“Don’t use the hot water.”

“A little hot water never killed anyone.”

“It smells awful,” Seona complained.

“Yeah, well so do I. I guess you’ll just have to take the lesser of the two evils.”

The knife slammed into the table. Bits of leek went careening off the cutting board. A fleck landed on her cheek. She seemed not to notice. The silence between them sagged like an overripe fig.

“It really does smell bad,” she implored bloodlessly.

The old guilt almost stirred, but somewhere down the line, it had calcified into something hard. Brittle.

“Fine.”

By the time he came out, his teeth were chattering. He had no appetite for leek jeon.

*

In the end, it wasn’t the heat or the humidity that broke the people. It wasn’t half a million cicadas emerging two months early or the squealing of pigs or the thundering of machines. It wasn’t even the smell.

“There’s just no more money to be made,” the patient told P.

His breath was hot, and smelled faintly of garlic and alcohol. He told P about the livestock virus that was sweeping the countryside. That the government was ordering all affected livestock to be killed, in an effort to prevent any further spread.

“Do you want to know what we do with the pigs once we kill them?”

P did not say yes but the man told him anyway. 

“We burn them.”

*

Skin had formed on their soup.

“I told you. It’s just until next year, and then—”

“I know.” Her mouth twisted. “Just until next year and then they’ll relocate you back to J City, and you can once again be a hotshot GI doctor who gets invited to be a TV show panelist. All the while my committee thinks I’m fucking insane for doing a long-distance dissertation and my thesis is fucked.”

“How could you blame me for this?” P asked.

“Who else could I blame?”

“It wasn’t me who embezzled from the hospital.”

“Yes, but you also didn’t have to be the one to report it. Face it P, you didn’t speak up out of any sense of justice.”

It wasn’t true. Yes, his colleague had been a pain in his side for years, always undermining P’s position. Always embarrassing P in public and speaking ill about P behind his back. But that wasn’t why P had reported him. The man was a weasel and the world deserved to know it.

“P, you just didn’t like him. You just wanted to fuck him over.”

“How was I supposed to know that he would somehow turn it around on me? That he would get me relocated?”

Seona laughed. P did not like the strange glow of her eyes. It was too bright. Somehow avian. His wife reminded P of the herons that stalked the ragged clumps of bulrush.

“Use your brain, P.”

“What are you talking about.”

“You tell the hospital director about an insurance fraud that your colleague was committing. He tells you that he will sort it out.”

He no longer found Seona attractive. She just looked sad and tired, with her disheveled hair and anemic veins straining against her neck.

“Two weeks later, he tells you that they want to avoid a large investigation and asks you to relocate to this shithole for a year and a half. The guy you blew the whistle on walks scot-free.”

“Stop talking.”

“Think, P. They fucked you over. They’re all in it together.”

P wanted to sweep everything off the table. He wanted to shake Seona and scream in her face.

“I said stop,” he said instead, hands shaking.

“Now you’re angry,” she said, laughing again. “You’re a lot angrier now than you were when I told you about my thesis committee, and how they said that moving now could jeopardize my entire defense.”

She stood up, took the soup, and poured it down the drain.

“I think that you care more that they got the better of you,” she said. “A lot more than what you did to us.”

“They were the ones who wronged me,” P shouted.

“They didn’t do this to me. You did. You could’ve just walked away.”

She shut the door to the bedroom. P walked into the bathroom and blasted hot water over his itching head until his eyes watered with the stench of rotting eggs.

The next day during work, P received a text.

i’m staying with my parents.

*

P was in the middle of eating lunch by himself in a convenience store when he got the phone call.

“Who is this?” he asked with a mouthful of sandwich.

“This is the police department of H City, District 3.”

“Oh, how can I help you?”

“We’re calling about your wife.”

The tuna in the sandwich tasted old, the texture a gritty paste on the roof of his mouth. His lips felt dry.

“Oh.”

“We received a call from her parents. They claim that your wife left H City to stay with them.”

“Yeah, she left,” he said, catching himself before he could finish the sentence and say me. “What do you mean they claim?”

“Well, they’re claiming that she never arrived at J City, sir.”

So, even she had decided to fuck with him. It probably wasn’t Seona’s idea. It would’ve been her parents—they had never really liked him. They probably phoned the police, feigning concern.

But of course. Of course the disgraced doctor had lost his mind and dismembered his wife.

“So what are you implying,” he snapped. “That I chopped her head off and stuck in formaldehyde?”

There was a shocked pause.

“Sir, we’re just calling to let you know what happened. Why would you…?”

P hung up and walked back to the hospital.

*

Emergency check points were set up. The sunlight, filtered through the clouds of aerosol bactericide, seemed ashen. Tired men in hazmat suits stopped cars at sanitation zones and swarmed over them like ants to a sugar cube, hoses of disinfectant at hand.

H City smelled of chemical disinfection. But beneath it lurked that old smell, that of dead pigs. More pigs were dying than ever. Swift euthanasia of all affected livestock is crucial for containment, read government pamphlets. Farmers on the verge of tears ushered thousands of pigs into plastic rooms and pumped it full of carbon dioxide. But it was a drop in the bucket. It was nowhere near enough. More pigs had to go. More, more, more, and more.

They quickly gave up on burning; there were too many for that. Burying was proposed as an alternative. Diggers converted open fields into mass graves. Trucks unloaded hundreds of dead pigs into the hole, already stinking. In a different city, a quarantine worker suddenly collapsed and died. Some said that it was from overwork. Other said that he had a heart attack after falling into the pit of bloated bodies.

P had come home one day to see a cloud of fruit flies swarming the half-finished glass of wine on his desk. When he poured out the glass, dead flies clung to the side.

From then on he waged his war against the tiny insects. No matter how many traps he bought, how many sprays he used, more arrived. He would wash the dishes, set them out to dry—only to wash them again after seeing tiny spots of black scuttling over them.

Sometimes he’d slap his hands together to try and kill one. Watching the bug lazily fly away was infuriating. Opening his hands to see a smear still twitching on his palm was worse.

The mold continued spreading. A corona of grayish blue began blooming around the lid of the washing machine. The drying rack in the kitchen suffered the same fate. Everything was slippery to the touch, raw meat against fingers.

The police continued to harass P. They had called his landlord, who told them that P and his wife had fought often. P was not surprised at the fact that the landlord had been listening.

“I knew he was a nosy fucker,” he said to himself.

When they called and asked about what happened in J City, he had nearly screamed at the injustice of it. They had insinuated that he had fled J City after some sort of scandal.

“Eleven months,” P dully told himself as he ate his dinner. The chicken tasted undercooked but he did not have the energy to try again.

*

There was something wrong with P’s patient. The man never stopped talking, everything in a whisper. His left eye had cataracts. The center of the pupil was misshapen. An almost-circle of cloudy white floated like fat on unwashed dishes. P’s hand remained suspended between them, unshaken. The man wore a pair of black pinstripe pants, clearly too big for his wizened frame. They were pulled up to his ribs. He was balding, and whoever had dyed what was left of his white hair black had done a shoddy job.

“I told you, it’s no use,” said man who stood next to him. “He’s gone.”

“Sorry, who are you?” he asked.

“I’m his son-in-law,” he said. The old man began reaching for P’s stethoscope and the other man slapped down his hand.

“Don’t do that,” he snapped, then apologized. “He gets like this when he’s in here.”

The old man made another move, this time for P’s computer. The man slapped his hand again, the crack of it audible.

“Stop that,” P said reflexively. “Can you please give me some privacy with the patient?”

“Suit yourself,” he said, ambling out.

The man was very difficult to talk to. P gathered that the man’s stomach and throat were hurting, but could understand little besides that. He seemed to want to talk about everything, all in that register of garbled whisper.

“When I was a kid,” the old man said, mumbling on despite the tongue compressor in his mouth. “Way way back when I was a little kid they assigned me homework to catch grasshoppers and it was for a show-and-tell and I caught them because they were being a pest for the crops and I got twenty-six.”

He only stopped talking for brief, ragged gasps of air.

“I caught twenty-six and I was very proud they were going to give a prize to whoever caught the most and that was me I put them all in a little empty cookie box over the weekend.”

His cloudy left eye was transfixed on P’s face. P felt dizzy. Ten months and two weeks, he thought. The room felt very small.

“Sir,” P spoke, interrupting the man. “I’m sorry, do you have a name?”

The babbling ceased. The man handed over a scrunched piece of paper.

It read: Hello my name is Hwee. If I appear disoriented or lost, please call the following number. The rest of the card was illegible. Hwee continued talking.

“I just taped the box shut and left it in my room over the weekend during the entire weekend and a weird sound kept coming out of the box.”

P simply decided on a diagnosis. Acid reflux would do. He felt a twinge of guilt, but he did not want to look at Hwee anymore, did not want to peer into Hwee’s insides to find out what forty years of H City did to a gastroenterologist. He scribbled at his prescription but his hands, clammy with perspiration, kept writing the wrong words.

“I couldn’t sleep because something from inside the box kept scratching and nobody believed me not my mom or dad they just said shut up.”     

P’s head itched. The dermatologist had said it was heat rash and told him to dry his hair completely before going to bed. But his wife had taken the hairdryer with her when she left, and nothing dried in this city anyway, everything was wet and sticky and Hwee would not stop talking.

“One night I couldn’t take it and I finally opened the box there were no twenty-six grasshoppers would you know to know what was inside?”

P did not want to know. He just wanted to be elsewhere. Ten months and two weeks. Ten months was forty-three weeks; he could just scratch out the two weeks. What was two weeks anyway?

“There was just one grasshopper one massive grasshopper with only four legs left it jumped into my face and vanished behind the closet and from then I could never really sleep properly I kept hearing the scratching the scratching from that one final grasshopper that had eaten all the other grasshoppers I could hear it in the dark.”

Hwee looked on the verge of tears.

“Just eating eating eating eating.”

*

Eventually they stopped bothering to kill the pigs. Farmers who lost everything were in no mood to adhere to sanitation protocols. It was illegal, but they did it anyway. Dump trucks drove up to the mass graves at night and spilled live pigs into the dirt.

Grouped together by the hundreds, the struggling bodies no longer looked like individual things. Each pit became a singular, massive, writhing beast, brought to life by an ocean of death and dying. The ground bubbled and frothed from the fluid escaping the carcasses. Wild dogs that attempted to dig up the mound had their skulls caved with shovels and were fed to the pits as well.

Dirt was hastily thrown on top, but it was not enough. This was too much, even for H City. When the bodies began decomposing, the very earth began protesting, swelling from the corpse gas. As the corpse-pregnant ground distended horribly, pigs, instead of cicadas, began emerging. Snouts, hooves, and spines all bloomed alike.

*

P was very drunk when he got the call. Although it was an unsaved number, he could tell by the area code that it was the police. No one else called him now.

“What,” he said, words slurred. “What the fuck do you want.”

“Sir,” the voice said, and even through his drunken haze, P could hear the hesitance behind it. “Did your spouse have a small birthmark near her left ankle?”

P could not remember.

“What is this about?”

The man talked for a while. He said a body had been found.

“It’s not Seona,” P said instantly.

“Sir, I understand that this might be difficult, but we need to know if your wife had a birthmark near her left ankle.”

“I—I don’t know.” It was hard to think. A fruit fly buzzed near his hand and he slapped at it, missed, and shattered the cup on his desk. “Seona had an appendectomy. There should be a scar near her lower stomach.”

There was a very long pause over the phone.

“We only found a leg. It seems—” the man paused, barely managing to avoid saying your wife. “Someone had fallen into the pig waste cesspool. They only fished out the leg.”

P threw the phone against the wall. He vaguely heard it shatter.

It wasn’t Seona, but he still had to know. He was too drunk to drive, but the morgue was within walking distance. He burst out of the house. It was the middle of the night. P realized at some point that he had stumbled off the sidewalk and onto the road, but he kept running.

He almost did not hear the car coming behind him. The horn blared and P lurched out of the way. The car still managed to clip him on the shoulder and P felt the inevitable tipping as he lost his balance and fell into one of the enormous holes dug for the pigs.

He felt his leg break upon impact. He screamed and tried to crawl his way out, but the precarious ground shifted under his weight and he sank further into the dirt, soft with the fluids from the pigs. He tried distracting himself from the pain by calculating how much time he had left in H City. Forty-three weeks. How many days were in forty-three weeks?

He heard a car stop beside the pit. Seven days in a week.

“Help,” P screamed. “There’s someone down here.” Seven times forty-three.

He heard the truck beep and its hydraulics strain. And then it was raining pigs. He screamed again but the sound was thin and reedy against the incredible din. Screaming bodies tumbled into the chasm. Something sticky dribbled down the nape of his neck. He vomited, but could not smell it. All he could smell were the pigs, dead and dying; they blotted out the sky. P looked all around him, but he could not tell where he ended and the pigs began.

*

an chang joon is a second year MFA candidate for fiction at Louisiana State University. He was born in Seoul, Korea, but raised somewhere between Uzbekistan, Korea, and the eastern coast of the United States. His writing explores borders, not as a flat line, but as a liminal space of their own. He is never entirely sure on how to juggle his two names and a half.

Artwork: "Collage Shaped with Magnifying Glass" 2019, by David Dodd Lee.

David Dodd Lee is a painter, collage artist, and a photographer. Since 2014 he has been featured in three one person exhibitions, mixing collage & poetry texts into single improvisational art works. Recent artwork has appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, The Hunger, The Rumpus, and Twyckenham Notes. He is also the author of Unlucky Animals, a book of collages, original poems, erasures, and dictionary sonnets. Lee is Editor-in-Chief of 42 Miles Press. 

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