The winner of the first short story competition from Free Association Books has been chosen! Bridget Hargreave, guest judge and FAB author, had this to say about the winning entry… “I was really struck by the way Min-Ju’s mental illness is almost an additional character in the story, it is an astutely observed portrayal. I was captivated by Min-Ju and indeed the other characters, including those we do not meet directly. The writing is graceful, the narrative moves forward at just the right pace which is incredibly difficult to achieve in a short story, yet counter to expectations given the subject matter, the story ends on a high.”
Congratulations to our winner, Tristan Tavis Marajh. His story, The Complete Works of Min-Ju Kim, can be read below. We also chose a runner-up – The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist, by Annie Warren. Bridget says “There is a fine line between being broken hearted and losing your mind and this story illustrates that beautifully.”
The Complete Works of Min-Ju Kim
Sunlight streaked gently into the dark room through the blinds and settled on the blanket that covered Min-Ju’s curled-up form beneath. She turned sluggishly, raised a piece of the fabric off her head and peered at the clock. 11:04 A.M. Late, by all human standards. Which was the real her, really? This… creature, awakening with the heavy hopelessness that seemed to be the unspoken condition of existence, or the one who could get up and carry on despite it, even if doing so felt like pretentious fakery, a sad theatre? Even the furniture, in their neutrality of presence, seemed to mock her. She drew the blanket over her head again, pulled herself into fetal and squeezed her eyes shut, but sleep didn’t return. Instead, the jagged, disturbing knowledge of the accumulating wasted mornings bore down on her, like boulders rolling down a mountain slope.
She could hear Hyejin moving about upstairs; her sister’s disoriented footsteps moving from the bed, evolving into more determined ones as she went through the business of starting the day: the teeth-brushing, gargle and spit, no-nonsense shower, breaking-bite off an apple’s flesh in the kitchen. “Miiiinn,” Hyejin implored, putting on her heels by the doorway.
“Uhhhnghh?” Min-Ju responded from beneath the covers; hair over her face, some in her mouth.
“Get up. Have breakfast. Go for a run, take your Ipod with you. Go see a comedy film. Take a walk after. Rinse the green beans, and we’ll stir-fry them for dinner.”
“Uhngh-huhngh,” the creature beneath the covers mumbled. Hyejin wondered which task this was a response to.
“I’ll see you later. Get up.”
Another murmur from her sister and Hyejin, shaking her head, left the condo. Min-Ju heard the door close and the lock turn. She was alone.
Hyejin’s exhortations were her personalized version of the same thing Dr. Chung recommended Min-Ju create: structure. She thought about trying Hyejin’s proposed version, but she couldn’t bear the manufactured artifice of it. Didn’t Dr. Chung, MD – especially FRCP(C) – ever hear of the saying: “all structures are unstable”?
The other option, though, was the abyss. There was still yet that other option too, unspeakable yet ever frequent in her mind, but Min-Ju didn’t think she could go through with that either. It would be like killing her Appa too, who wanted nothing more than to garden, see his daughters and read. A curious sight Mr. Kim was now; sitting cross-legged and bespectacled in the library, with his dense beard and Blue Jays’ cap; a man in quiet forgiveness and acceptance that his younger years could have been more wisely spent learning. “How is your writing coming, my jagiya?” he would ask Min-Ju, as if it were something inevitable and supposed to happen; a matter of fact as sure as springtime. Min-Ju knew this was formed from a belief in and a love for her that she couldn’t fathom and even if she tried to, she could picture herself collapsing from within. She too, was after all a structure, able to be brought down by silent, invisible forces.
It was only when Min-Ju felt like her body was feeding on itself that she got up from the sofa. She went over to the glass doors that led to the balcony, parted the blinds and peered outside, a recent, solitary tendency she didn’t quite know the reason for. What she knew now, though, was that her childhood suburbia was a prison, this prostitute of a city was all about the money, and it teemed with creatures of alien races; males and females of each finding each other and perpetuating the precepts of their species, pushing strollers, walking the malls, opening businesses and clustering in communities, each not seeming to have much to do with groups that weren’t theirs, and each not seeming to care. Upset at this separation and wondering if she was the only one affected, Min-Ju would write furious commentary and search for prospective publications to send them to, believing that people needed to know. Skilled immigrants are chosen as permanent residents based on their ability to settle in Canada and take part in our economy, the government’s website said. Money.
These were the words Min-Ju was scowling about to the computer screen when she heard the door lock turn and the door creak open. A lightswitch was flicked on and a swash of light flowed into the living room where she sat. “You remember Min-Ju, right?” she heard Hyejin say in Korean. Min-Ju looked up and toward the doorway, with the bewildered face of someone suddenly summoned but who wasn’t expecting to be at all.
A girl, a teenager of about sixteen, was standing near Hyejin as they both pushed off their shoes. Min-Ju squinted, trying to figure out who this was. The girl was the effortless and thus envy-inducing slimness of youth, pretty with porcelain-smooth skin and soft, acquiescent hair tied back in a sensible ponytail. “Ye,” the girl said, smiling enthusiastically, causing the word radiant to form in Min-Ju’s mind. Min-Ju, suddenly aware that her own hair was a wild, tangled mess and that she was wearing sweats and sweat, decided that she would shake the hand of this girl, who evidently knew of her, instead of approaching her to offer a smelly hug. She rose, walked toward Hyejin and the girl and offered her hand.
“Hello,” she said.
“Anyoung hashimnikka,” the girl said, bowing as she took Min-Ju’s hand. For a moment Min-Ju was startled. Oh right; she remembered: ‘respect’. Multiculturalism policy talked about Respecting Each Other’s Differences. What the hell was respect, anyway?
And now Min-Ju had a new responsibility: show Song-Yi, the sisters’ new guest and second cousin visiting from Seoul, around the city. Song-Yi would be staying three weeks. As they sat around the small table near the sofa, eating the pineapple pizza Song-Yi had eagerly requested on the way from the airport, Min-Ju discovered that she would have to show Song-Yi the city, and not so much her city.
And so a gloomy Min-Ju and an excited Song-Yi zoomed up the CN Tower then dipped flatbread at an Ethiopian restaurant. They sailed to the Toronto islands then noodled at The Thai Express. After wandering through the sprawling gothicism of the University of Toronto and then the quirky Royal Ontario Museum, they walked down Bloor to Fresh Vegetarian Restaurant. They had biryani at a Pakistani joint before trekking near the sandstone cliffs at Bluffer’s Park. And all the while, as a spirited Song-Yi oohed in wonderment, camera-flashing at architecture, markets, Earth formations and colorful cultural festivals – even jamming with subway musicians – Min-Ju’s mind was in tumult. Outwardly she was the patient guide standing by, presenting herself and the city’s attractions dutifully to Song-Yi, but capital-P Present she wasn’t.
On the second night of the second week of Song-Yi’s stay, Min-Ju couldn’t bring herself to finish the warm, tzatziki-dipped pitas that she and her cousin had taken out. She was disgusted with herself, even as she had taken the first two bites and tried to maintain some semblance of presence with Song-Yi. It was the incident at the bus stop earlier. To ESL-hampered Song-Yi, it initially looked like a man quarrelling with a woman, the latter taking it with a sheepish what-am-I-going-to-do-with-him smile, but the man’s words became so ugly and abusive that Min-Ju herself felt wounded. Song-Yi had edged closer to Min-Ju, locking her arm in her cousin’s as thoughts of telling the man off clenched in Min-Ju’s mind, but just as suddenly – almost simultaneously – a mental scenario of the man’s violent reaction flashed, causing her to freeze. His shaven, tattooed head and bulging forearm veins didn’t help either. A streetcar pulled up with an oblivious, melodic chime and the man and woman entered it. It wasn’t the car the cousins were waiting for but they may as well have entered it too, because the whole scene stayed with Min-Ju for the rest of the day; upsetting her even more because she realized how pathetic she’d become. And now, back at the condo, comforting carbohydrate was an indulgence she couldn’t let herself continue with. Putting the pita down and leaving Song-Yi dozing on the sofa, she went up to her room, opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of paper: the discontinued novel Appa always asked her about. In frustration, on the blank side of one page, Min-Ju wrote:
“You did not say anything to that man, Min-Ju. You should have.”
Things were easier written than done for Min-Ju. During the euphoric World Cup fervor in the city streets, Song-Yi asked to take in a match among its fans to experience the festivity. Infest-ivity, more like, Min-Ju thought. Still, she took her cousin to a pub where Portugal versus Italy was airing. Min-Ju cared little for the whole tournament; it was a gross manifestation of the diversity problem, which was again evident when their waitress – after some idle chatting – went on a pro-Italy hurrahing, which inevitably meant Portuguese bashing. The rambunctious praise and then cackling scorn in her voice were so pronounced that Song-Yi sensed it too. Min-Ju wanted to ask why-are-you-even-living-in-this-city-then, but the woman was so raucously in conviction that Min-Ju again pictured verbal aggression, even slapping – a scene in her mind so detailed and intense that she believed it would really happen should she say anything. And so she did not.
“You could have called out the waitress on her tirade. It was ugly, nasty and you left her in ignorance. This is what fear does, Min-Ju.”
At the end of each day out in the city with Song-Yi, Min-Ju continued to write to herself things she knew she could have done or said in response to the injustices of the day. It is the little things that kill, and this was self-survival now: either she act with courage when courage was called for, or continue on in a fearful state, rotting away. She wouldn’t let herself live with the prospect that silence in injustice is the same as siding with it.
At the airport on the day of Song-Yi’s departure, Min-Ju felt like crying as her cousin dissolved through the doors to the departure gates, waving back at the sisters. Their cousin had embodied a free, exuberant spirit and a genuine liking of Min-Ju’s company, unwavering even when Min-Ju thought her own depression was obvious and affecting. Some days later, as the sisters were having dinner, Min-Ju commented that Song-Yi was one of her favourite people. Hyejin, chewing kimchi and rice, smiled to herself; happy her sister now had favourite people – and that Min-Ju was now venturing out of the condo.
Later that night:
“Min-Ju. Look: Humanity supports you; at least, the idea of them watching you. It adds quality to your composure and actions and it will heal you.
Live as if humanity is watching, Min-Ju. It will lift you up (because you are very much identified with pain and despair). It will help you recognize beauty as well; e.g., with the musicians today.”
Earlier, whilst making her way through Finch station, Min-Ju had heard the sound of two subway musicians: a cellist and a violinist playing together. The music was the raw, aching beauty of humanity itself; rousing and moving inside her something strong and pure, a deep longing for every one to live according to such a sound. An abrupt awareness of these same ones now before and around her then cracked her senses open, making her a speechless witness to the moving flesh, limbs and noisy, colorful Earthiness of these limber and fragile forms; the pristine, shining Now. Min-Ju had paused for a moment. She straightened up, then approached the musicians; placing change inside the open cello case and smiling to the men. “Thank you,” she said, before walking away. Hell may be other people, she thought, but so is Hope.
With urgent, tunneling need, Min-Ju continued writing herself into moving, functioning life; intelligent design and evolution now married. The personalities of the employment days were now unfamiliar to her: Sunday’s loveliness, the concrete Mondays, the quietly despairing Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Thursday’s hindering irrelevance, Friday’s cheerful triumph, the unshackled Saturdays. And according to what she wrote, learned in settings both social and solitary, Min-Ju started to do. Washed in suffering and now scrubbed anew by her writings, every movement in each moment felt intimate and new, a discovery in the doing. She straightened her posture after two years of existing in slumped mode. She helped laden commuters carry their grocery bags and smiled happily with the drivers of streetcars and buses, chatting on occasion with them. More than one driver insisted she ride for free. She formed friendships with seniors and schoolchildren at the community gym and she helped students with homework at the library. She ate consciously; savoring fruit in a pure, essential way like she hadn’t before and she groomed herself without indecisive pretension. And likewise, so Min-Ju carried on. In the trains, she found that looking away from the young men whose eyes she met hurt her more than it probably did them – it hurt humanity. So one morning on her way to an interview, Min-Ju smiled, then winked at one young man, who broke out in a shy grin before quickly looking down at the floor. He looked up again, and winked back; grinning. The subway car was almost full, but it was just the two of them Present. Whatever ill a boy did to a girl, and a girl did to a boy, it was all forgiven.
At the interview in the ESL center, the school’s principal held up Min-Ju’s application, peering down at it through thick-rimmed glasses. “There is a two-year gap on your resumѐ,” she pointed out, looking at Min-Ju, waiting.
“That,” Min-Ju said carefully, drawing a breath in before a wide grin broke out across her face, “that was when I did the greatest work of my life.”
The girl who doesn’t exist by Annie Warren
You live in a tiny Austrian village whose name has the word ‘mountain’ in it but you think maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration because it’s not really a mountain but more of a large hill. You are sure it’s a large hill because you live at the top of it and your thighs have become at least ten percent stronger in the three months that you have lived here because you have to walk up the hill every day when you come home from work past a farm that smells like manure and hay and which reminds you of the house where your dad lives because he also lives at the top of a hill in Wales and he has lived there ever since he discovered Facebook and began talking to a woman he hadn’t seen since he was eleven and she was ten and they were in primary school together and they arranged to meet and they fell in love and got married and wouldn’t that have been a nice love story except for the fact that he had to divorce your mother to do it but everyone conveniently left that part out of the wedding speeches because it didn’t fit with the theme of the day which was commitment and it occurred to you then how lucky it is that the truth is not something that exists but something that we create for ourselves. The house where your dad lives is painted white and has dark wooden shutters for the windows that are there for decoration and nothing else and you know this because they would be useless at keeping it dark inside due to the heart-shaped holes that would let the light through and doesn’t that sound like a metaphor for something but you aren’t quite sure what and damn you should have put that in the reading you did at his wedding rather than that silly Dr. Seuss poem that everyone pretended to like. Your dad is very happy up there in the white house on the hill with the useless shutters with nobody else around for miles and miles other than his wife and his chickens and his pig and you always thought you were more like your mum in that sense, more of a sociable person at least, but you’re slowly discovering (to your utter surprise) that you’re actually alright on your own and that you like your own company most of the time, although there are times when you start thinking too much and the weight of your thoughts nails you to the bed and you can’t stand up and in fact you missed work the other day because the truth was sitting on your chest like a paperweight or a goblin but when they called you to ask where you were you said you had a migraine because how were you supposed to explain to the secretary that you were pinned to the bed by the truth like a dead butterfly in a pretty frame? It’s at those times when you really need to have people around you because somehow your thoughts aren’t as heavy when someone else is watching and you’re not sure why you’re such a different person when you’re alone, perhaps you’re just a liar.
Well, maybe it’s not people that you need. Maybe there’s just one person.
And it’s really just the same old story, the same story about a boy, and it’s a boring story and it’s the same storyline you read over and over again in every book you have ever read, and you’re living out the plot but you can’t seem to change it even though if your life were a book you’re not convinced you would even keep reading it at this point and you were never the type of person who had to finish every book you started or come to think of it anything you started, and for God’s sake hadn’t he told you not to read The Myth of Sisyphus in case you did decide to kill yourself after all and even though you told your therapist it wasn’t on your mind any more that wasn’t exactly true was it, it’s always on your mind a little bit, but doesn’t everybody have a voice in their head doesn’t belong them and that screams jumpjumpjump when you find yourself at the top of a very high building or when an underground train roars into the station or does that kind of thing mean you’re suicidal? You suppose that is all a matter of perspective, just like the truth really, and you always thought authors had control over their stories but the fact is that writers just write the things that are there to be written and you don’t have control over what’s already there do you, you don’t have control over the truth that sits on your chest but you can at least twist it around through a kaleidoscope lens so that where the truth had blonde hair and blue eyes and used to snore if you rested your head on his chest when he was sleeping, maybe now it looks a little different and it has dark hair and five heads and a girl’s voice and, come to think of it, a girl’s body. The truth is in Japan and you are not speaking to him any more and that was your choice but it’s a choice that keeps you awake at night and it’s one of the thoughts that ties you to the bed in the morning because you’re not sure if the world even exists without the truth to make sense of it all and to be honest if it does you’re not sure you want to know about it anyway which is strange because it’s not even as though you’re not happy, in fact you’re very happy, in fact you have even morphed the truth into the form of a new boyfriend and of course you have a new boyfriend because like your mother said you fell into the arms of the first person you saw but you couldn’t break up with him because you are a broken person and a broken person is broken is broken is broken and can’t break again and maybe that’s your problem, you can’t be fixed without another person. Maybe that’s why your story is always a romance, if you can call it that, or a disaster, or a tragedy, or a story about the truth – and isn’t that an oxymoron, a story about the truth. Maybe that’s why you fall in love so often, because falling in love is the only truth that there is. Yesterday you slept with a man who is married and it is worth pointing out that he is not married to you but that he had a startling resemblance to the truth which made you feel like you had a right to him somehow and maybe that’s why you did it and maybe that’s why you don’t even feel guilty because nobody knows anyway and if nobody knows then perhaps it didn’t happen, just as a TV chattering in a white house on a hill with useless wooden shutters that has been empty for years doesn’t make any noise if nobody is around to hear it then perhaps something that happened didn’t really happen if nobody was around to witness it and in that case has anything ever really happened to you and do you really exist if someone isn’t looking at you?
To confirm your existence you send sexy pictures to your boyfriend of you in your underwear and even one of you naked and the timestamp says November 11 2016 at 15:31 and when you look at it you think you must exist, you just must, because there is proof that you were here, naked, in this place at this time taking up this space but then again the photo doesn’t show your your face because you’ve been around long enough to know that bad things happen to girls who send naked photos with their faces in them, you’ve seen it happen, even participated in sending these photos around when you were fifteen and no Natalie look she’s wearing underwear oh no wait that’s not underwear, and so now your photos don’t have your face in them in case things end badly and he decides to put the photos on the internet and you know things will end badly because he’s in love with you but you aren’t in love with him even though you tell him you are because there’s only so many times a person can hear I love you without responding in kind and what harm will it do if he believes you love him, really? He calls you exaggerated things like terribly beautiful and devastatingly gorgeous and you like the image of yourself that is reflected back at you in his eyes even though you don’t really believe it and to be honest you think he might be more in love with the idea of you than who you actually are, but if he believes it then who are you to say that it isn’t true? You aren’t egotistical enough to think that how you experience yourself is how you actually are.
To be honest you don’t want a boyfriend but you need one because sex is something that makes you feel like you definitely exist, at least in the places he touches you and last week when he eventually went to the bathroom and left you sprawled across the bed tangled in sheets and lies and shining with sweat you picked up his phone and glanced through the gallery of photos because you wanted to see those naughty pictures you sent to confirm that you still exist and that he still looks at them too but all you found were pictures of locks on bathroom doors, hundreds of them, all of them different, and how can it be that he collects photos of locks but not of you and what does that mean about you, if someone would rather look at bathroom door locks than your hand between your legs does that mean you are less attractive than a cubicle door and if that’s the case then why would he tell you that you are outrageously attractive unless he is lying but if someone says something they believe to be true but actually it isn’t, is it still a lie? You suppose not because you secretly know your boyfriend is gay and not-so-secretly know that you are not a man and he wants to love you so much but he can’t mostly because you are a lock and he needs a key and maybe that is why he has so many pictures of locks and why tells you he loves you so often because maybe if he sees enough locks and says he loves you often enough he will make it true and you know, things can be true even if you don’t quite believe them.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Sam, I love you.