Die. This is what Marie had always been told not to say to anyone from a young age. Though she could have said it secretly when no one was around—for who would know?—she never once allowed herself to say it or even feel that way. She generally kept all thoughts of death out of her mind.
But all around her, people talked about dying like it was no big deal. It was everywhere, even after she moved. People joked about it on TV, not to mention the internet, which she occasionally perused. Telling someone to die was so common that it seemed like an everyday greeting. No one actually died because someone told them to—in fact, people died from all sorts of reasons. It was just a meaningless joke. But every time she would hear the word, Marie’s body would tense up. She imagined her father coming toward her—her father who berated her for hours for every little mistake she made, grabbing her with his large hands that seemed disproportionate to his small body. She braced herself in terror. Of course, he never appeared in the music room, the common room, the telephone room, or the courtyard with the camphor tree. I’m not at home anymore, this is Mia dormitory. She would repeat the phrase to herself whenever she felt threatened by her father’s presence, as if she were saying a prayer. I’m not at home anymore. Those days were over; they died along with the cells that had made up her body back then. Her hair and fingernails were all fresh and new. She hugged her renewed self and covered her cheeks with both hands as if the gesture would somehow protect her. Still, in the middle of the night, Marie would hear the whispers in her ear. If you can remember, it’s still happening right now. Marie would press her hand to her chest and blink fast. She would make sure the shadows of the tree on the wall didn’t swell or shrink. It’s okay. It’s all over. No one can come touch me now. There’s no need to close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. Marie would take a deep breath. That’s right, this is Mia dormitory, far, far away from everything.
One day, Marie came upon a lake. She had read about lakes in picture books and fairy tales but never imagined they existed in real life. How lovely, she thought, running her eyes over the deep green forest that stretched beyond.
The lake had a distinct outline. It was not like the seaside where the sand and the waves intermingled. Take one step, and I’ll fall into the lake. But as long as I don’t take that step, I’m safe. The thought made her chuckle. The line was so clearly delineated that no one could make a mistake. When you think about it, Marie thought, it’s just like the edge of a cake. She imagined herself standing at the cake’s edge, which she would normally use her little fork to demolish little by little. The massive cake seemed to go on forever, coated with patches of dark soil and weeds. It was an impressive green cake decorated with the forest, bumpy hills, rocks, delicate wildflowers, and corpses of small animals. If this were really a cake, someone would eat it. A cake on a plate was bound to disappear at some point, taking Marie along in its extinction.
Marie shifted her gaze to the lake once more, still lost in thought. Where does all this water come from? How does it maintain a perfect balance, neither overflowing nor drying up? What if the water was meant to quench the thirst of something much bigger, something unimaginable . . . ?
Marie felt someone come up behind her and turned around. It was Karen. She glanced down at her watch and saw that there was still forty minutes left till meeting time. Karen walked over to her slowly, as if she were doing so against her will. Marie and Karen were roommates last year and, until recently, lovers.
They had ended their relationship about a month ago. After spending countless hours and weeks discussing their breakup in detail, there was nothing left to say, at least so it seemed to Marie. When she observed Karen at a distance like this, every little detail that she disliked about her appearance seemed to glare at her. She would notice them occasionally when they were dating, but now they jumped out at her as if they were highlighted in colorful pens.
Karen’s face was covered in wrinkles, and the lines around her mouth made her look like a middle-age woman. Her carefully sculpted eyebrows gave a vulgar impression. Her head, perched on her short neck, was disproportionately large. She remembered her dark nipples. Marie was aware of these things when they were dating, even when she was in love with her. It made her feel heartless and arrogant to be so judgmental of her lover’s appearance, and she hated herself for it. But it didn’t make Karen any more beautiful in her eyes.
“Everyone is over there,” Karen said to her. “You disappeared into the forest. Anna must be worried sick.”
Marie nodded nonchalantly. She could see the exasperated expression on Anna’s face, with her frizzy bangs and brawny arms folded across her chest. Rules are rules, Marie. Her voice, while calm, reminded her of a voice she once knew. Anna was an unhappy woman but also a patient guardian. She had arrived at Mia dormitory in the spring when she had just turned forty years old. Seven years prior, she had lost her one-year-old daughter. Her baby fell asleep the night before, on her back as usual, gazing up at the mobile toy hanging over the crib. But the next morning, the baby didn’t wake up. SIDS—Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the doctor explained. It’s a common cause of death for infants.
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