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from the February 2012 issue

O. Cuniculus

A rabbit. He turned at the sound of rustling in the bushes and spotted a ball of white fluff. What he’d mistaken for a white dog was staring at him with red eyes. He wouldn’t have known it was a rabbit if not for the eyes. He knelt before it. The eyes held him captive. As he gazed into them, relief at the thought that he was not the only one in this world with eyes red from exhaustion washed over him, and he chafed to think such a being had been stranded in an unlit park for so long that its white fur had turned filthy.

It was not wild. Someone had left it there. Raising pet rabbits had been trendy for a while, but now the trend was to abandon them. Having lost interest in chicks and hamsters, to say nothing of puppies and kittens, children had turned their interest to the baby rabbits taken from their mothers before they were weaned and sold out of cardboard boxes in front of elementary schools. Convinced by the vendors that these “mini rabbits” would be both easy to raise and educational, the parents slowly gave in. It started with one or two families, then every child was pestering their parents for a pet rabbit.

Only after bringing them home did the parents realize there was nothing fun, easy, or simple about raising rabbits. Nor was there anything to learn from watching them chew strict rations of hay all day. They weren’t even affectionate like cats or dogs. In fact, they were not so much pets as freeloaders. Given the cost, it would have been better to raise them for meat, but the thought of boiling and eating them was repulsive. The children lost interest in them immediately, leaving the parents to care for a rabbit that would live six-to-eight years on average. The oldest rabbit on record had lived for eighteen years. At that rate, they would still be around by the time the children graduated and were off to college or ready to get married. With the economy always uncertain and hard times never far off, even family members could look disposable. The parents couldn’t stomach the thought of spending a decade caring for a rabbit that did nothing but chew hay. Nevertheless, they did learn one thing from the rabbits: you could come to hate anything if you stared at it long enough. So one of them, usually the father, would sneak out after dark, dump the rabbit in some bushes somewhere, and quickly return home. The father would glance back once and reassure himself that he hadn’t abandoned the rabbit, he’d lost it. But his pace never slowed. And so what if he abandoned it? Parks were the only wild place left. Rabbits would figure out on their own what to eat and where to sleep. They would die eventually, on their own. No different from the pigeons, crows, rats, ants, and gnats that lived there, no different from any other abandoned animal. On the way home, he would briefly sense something missing, but once inside he’d check the empty cage and feel relieved, then brush the fur from his hands.

The man petted the white rabbit. He felt its soft fur, the quiet racing of its pulse. The rabbit sat still, as if accustomed to his touch. The slow rhythm of its breath and the twitch of capillaries beneath its thin skin captivated the man. Only after returning home and ordering a cage did he wonder if he should have left it in the park. Eventually, he too would abandon it. He was only there for six months, and part of that time had already passed. Once his job was done, he would return home. Then he would do what everyone else had done and abandon the rabbit in the middle of the night.

The man’s job was simple. He collected documents from the city where his company had sent him, looked up information, formatted it into a concise report, and submitted it to his section leader. Whenever he worked on a report, he felt like a student staying after class in the teacher’s office to write a letter reflecting on what he’d done wrong. Doing the same work everyday, looking up the same information, and writing the same reports felt like filling page after page with fake apologies. His section leader took his reports with a smile and a thank you. This routine never varied, no matter what mood they were in or what shape his report was in, and the man wondered if that too was part of the job. The moment he turned around, the section leader would throw the report on top of a towering stack on the right side of his desk. The man suspected the section leader did not really like his job. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night for fear his reports contained some error that would cause a falling out between the two countries. In his dreams, he saw the scowling faces of delegates from both countries as they glared at him. But nothing ever happened. Most days passed tranquilly. He continued collecting information and writing reports. Once, he purposely fudged some numbers before turning them in. His section leader threw it on top of the stack as usual. The man returned to his seat, fidgeting with anxiety, and inserted the correct report into a folder, ready to turn it in once the mistake was caught. But it never was and, over time, nothing came of it. He finally started to relax and stopped having bad dreams. The sound of the report slapping the top of the stack rang in his ears like a dismissal bell, and he’d return to his seat, organize his desk, and shuffle papers until quitting time.

If someone asked what he did, though not one person asked the whole time he was there, he would have recalled how his superior said, “To put it roughly, you’re a bridge between cities,” and said he was working to ensure the cooperation and unification of two countries long at odds with each other. All he’d been told over the phone was that he would collect data. “What am I supposed to look for?” he’d asked, then immediately remembered that his superior hated being asked questions. When he first joined the company, his superior had said, “Only three-year-olds ask how to do something before trying first. They whine to be spoon-fed.” He immediately regretted saying anything, but to his surprise, his superior said gently, “Any kind of data is fine. It’s not your job to decide how it’s used. You just bring it in. In other words,” he added, “you’re a hunting dog.” The man didn’t like being called a dog, but he kept his mouth shut. “You retrieve the game. The master decides what to catch and whether to roast it, boil it, toss it out, or stuff it. Not the hunting dog racing through the woods. The master gives the command then watches as you run like mad until the game is caught.” “That’s not a very nice metaphor,” he retorted. His superior laughed. “Sorry, I guess I’m talking about myself.” The man understood. His superior was just another hunting dog, too.

The man would have hesitated to leave the country for much longer, but it was only half a year. If he thought of it as a long vacation, six months was perfect. He said he would take the assignment. After a long pause, his superior thanked him. The man didn’t find out until later, but the decision had already been made. The fact that no one consulted him in advance informed him of his place within the company. In other words, he was on the receiving end of information.

Since there was a limited amount of data to collect, the man spent most of his time shuffling papers. He had plenty of time but little to do. So he worked as slowly as possible and hurried around the office to try to look busier than he really was. Had his section leader ever pointed out an error or asked him to add more information to a report, he would have gladly agreed and rejoiced at having more work. But that never happened. His section leader never once complimented his reports or pointed out errors. But the man had no complaints either. He liked the guy. The section leader was the only person in the office who talked to him, even if it was always the same. He spent most of his days in silence. Aside from the occasional hello to the apartment manager, the extent of his daily conversation were the words, “This is it for today,” while turning in another report. He assumed everyone but him was too busy working to get up except at lunchtime. They sat at well-organized desks and stared at their monitors or examined papers with their heads down. At lunchtime, they got food to go from lunch trucks and ate quietly at their desks. Sometimes, when he got up to turn in work, he would cross the wide plaza-like office as if he had something important to do. The office was split into cubicles, like an enormous beehive. They were separated into regions and cities; each cubicle was marked with the seat number and code for their section, and a large directory was posted at the front.

The day after he found the rabbit, the man went to his section leader and held out another report. But just as the section leader reached for it, he pulled it away. The section leader stopped smiling and stared at him. The man hesitated before asking, “Does anyone here have a rabbit?” “A rabbit?” The man handed the file to him. “Yes, I need help. I found a rabbit. I’m not from here, so I don’t really know anyone.” The section leader took the file and tossed it on the stack. “Rabbits are easy to raise. Do you really need help with that? And almost everyone here is from somewhere else. You’re no different.” “Really? Who else?” The man asked the question quickly, because the section leader was already lowering his head to dismiss him. “Who else, what? Who else has a rabbit, or who else was transferred here?” The man was happy to finally be understood. “Both. Who has a rabbit, and who’s here from somewhere else?” “There’s no way to tell,” the section leader said. “Like I said, rabbits are a common pet, and everyone came from somewhere else, just at different times.” With that, the section leader dropped his eyes to signal that he was done talking. The man stared helplessly at the top of his head before returning to his desk. But now he knew any number of his coworkers might have rabbits. The person who abandoned his rabbit could be among them. If, as the section leader said, they were all there temporarily, then anyone working there, or who had ever worked there, could have abandoned his rabbit. Just as he would ruthlessly abandon it once his time was up.

Knock knock. “Anyone home?” No answer. He knocked harder. “Anyone home?” Still, no answer. He sat down in front of the door. The floor was cold and his back stiff, so he stood up again. He knew full well that no matter how long he sat there, he was not going to hear anything on the other side of the door. Nevertheless, every day after work, he went to his superior’s apartment, knocked on the door, waited, then turned around and went home. Some days, he kicked the door, banged on it with his fists, and yelled, “I know you’re in there! Open up!” Other days, he pressed his nose to the door and sniffed. He knew dying wasn’t easy, but he also knew it wasn’t that hard either. He never smelled anything. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, or if it was bad that he thought it was good. Right after he had arrived, or sometime around then, his superior disappeared. He went to human resources and asked where to find him. The HR manager didn’t know who he was talking about, and only after searching through lists of names did they find out he was absent without leave. “Absent without leave?” The manager nodded as if it were no big deal. Though he had not known his superior long, when he thought back to what it was like working with him, he knew he was not the type to go absent without leave. His superior took absences very seriously and used his time at the office efficiently and diligently. There was no question that his superior was in every way his role model for office life. He had trained him. He had also taught him how information circulates, that is, how news that hurts others should be spread right away whereas information that profits others should be kept to oneself. Back when he was new, whenever he turned in a report, his superior would look it over on the spot then hand it back and say, “Not bad, but it needs work.” His superior didn’t know, or pretended not to know, that his underlings had nicknamed him But. The man never did revise the reports, though. He had too much work and too little time for fixing things that were finished. So he’d move some information here and widen the margins there, and when he turned it in again, his superior would say he took too long but praise him on his revisions. It bothered him to realize he did not know how to find the man who’d sent him to that country. He called the HR department several times then went there directly and left a note for the manager, but he did not get a call back. The manager refused to give him the information, saying it was private. When he finally did get an address, it turned out to be near his apartment. Every day after work, he stopped by his superior’s house, knocked on the door, called out his name, checked that there were no signs of him, and returned home, feeling disappointed at his superior for disappearing right after he’d arrived.

The first thing the man did when he got home was feed the rabbit. All he had to do was feed it—no taking it out of its cage, letting it romp around, grooming its fur, cleaning its cage, or petting it—but he still got annoyed. He would fill the bowl to the rim and leave it to eat its fill, then later forget to feed it at all and leave it to go hungry. The only reason he’d brought it home at all was the length of his stay. If he were living there permanently, he would never have picked it up. Even so, he only had to look after it for a few months. Since it wasn’t his forever, he didn’t have to care how it felt or whether it was healthy. He was just going to get rid of it anyway.

Once home, the man did not go out. His life consisted entirely of going to work, stopping by his absent superior’s house, knocking on the door, making sure there were no sounds or smells coming from inside, then dropping by the market on his way home for something to eat. He used to take walks after dinner in the park where he’d found the rabbit, but he stopped doing that after watching the news one night.

One holiday afternoon, immediately after his arrival, a man ran around stabbing people in public with a knife, wounding and killing people at random. The killer wore a soccer sweatshirt. Three died and seven were injured. Members of various soccer clubs were wrongfully accused. The clubs suspended their meetings and removed the names from their sweatshirts, but after a while they just changed the names of their clubs and started playing soccer again. Before anyone could condemn, analyze, or address what had happened, a videotape warning of another attack arrived at a television station. The tape aired on the local news all day and spread around the Internet. The man spent the whole day watching it. The video showed a masked man holding a knife, naked from the waist up. The TV station blurred out the blade of the knife that the man, who had a high-pitched voice, flourished with every breath. Voice analysis experts speculated that he was a single man in his thirties or forties. That was all they knew about him, but anyone could have guessed that much. The video was shot from one spot, and whenever he got up to smoke or use the bathroom, the room was exposed to view. The man thought the room looked familiar: from the color, style, and placement of the furniture to the white, featureless wallpaper. It looked exactly like his apartment. His heart raced. He lived in a twenty-eight-story building with twenty-five apartments on each floor. He had never met his neighbors. His superior had found the apartment for him, and most likely there were others from his office living there.

The video made the national news and aired all over the country, but several days passed and nothing happened. An expert appeared on television to say the man was probably an exhibitionist, but anyone could have guessed as much. The police didn’t do anything either, as the man in the video had not committed any crimes. All they did was strongly urge citizens to beware, saying that an attack could occur anytime, anywhere, without warning. The man began to fear his neighbors. Any one of them could have videotaped himself with his shirt off, holding a knife. If he heard a neighbor’s door open, he made sure to keep his door closed to avoid bumping into them. Sometimes he heard the elevator stop on his floor but no one got off. When that happened, he felt afraid. For all he knew, a thirty-something-year-old man could be hiding in the hallway with a knife, waiting for someone to step outside. If someone came near him when he was entering the building, he started and changed direction. When he suddenly turned like that, the person walking behind him became even more startled. If someone entered the building as he was getting on the elevator, he pushed the close button quickly to avoid being alone with the person. One day, as he was coming in, he saw someone on the elevator hurry to press the button and close the door. After that, he started to relax. He, too, was a stranger. His fear was no different than anyone else’s. He thought it was because he was new to the city. With time, he would get to know the place better, but by then, his job would be over.

For the first time, the man was eager to talk to someone. It’d been a long time since he felt that way. At some point, he’d grown accustomed to being alone with no one to talk to. Since arriving in the country, the longest conversation he’d had was when he asked a shopkeeper how much a bag of rice cost. He hadn’t even realized how long it’d been since he’d talked to anyone. But the video filled him with fear, and he realized he could be a victim of that randomly brandished knife, that his body could rot away inside his small room, undiscovered by anyone, and that he had no friends in this city. He wanted to talk to someone, but all he had was his superior, who had disappeared. It was intolerable. Unable to bear it one day, he asked the section leader if he’d seen the video, but the section leader just shrugged without looking up, as if it were no big deal. “But the apartment in the video,” the man said in a low voice, “looks exactly like mine.” The section leader slowly lifted his head. “I don’t know if this will put your mind at ease at all,” he said, “but it looks like my apartment, too. All of the apartments in this city look alike.” His words were reassuring, but the man didn’t feel any better.

In the end, nothing happened, and the commotion over the videotape quieted down. The only thing that changed was there were fewer people on the streets, and the man felt embarrassed that he’d been so afraid. Sometimes an ambulance passed in the night, siren wailing, but it was never anything out of the ordinary. Police sirens sometimes also wailed, but likewise they were just routine patrols.

The man didn’t realize until quitting time that his section leader had changed. As usual, he’d taken his time organizing the data he found and writing a report. But when he went to turn it in, sitting in his section leader’s seat was not the person he was used to seeing. “Where’s the section leader?” he asked. “I’m in charge of this district now.” The new man sounded businesslike and efficient, but he was smiling. The timbre of his voice was different from the previous section leader’s, but the tone was similar. The man realized that his previous section leader had also been temporary. He also realized that just because the section leader was different did not mean anything had changed. Everything stayed the same: as before, at the end of the day, he turned in his reports, the section leader smiled and took the report then went back to whatever he’d been doing, sticking it on top of the stack of reports on his desk, and the man returned to his seat and got ready to leave work. If anything changed, it was the frequency with which he looked around the office. Everyday, everyone wore white shirts with black jackets. Some kept their jackets on while others took them off, making the office look like the black and white pieces on a baduk board. When he stood up at his desk to count and discovered he could connect five white shirts or five black jackets in a row, like in a game of omok, he smiled and sat down feeling like a winner. He did that five times a day: once in the morning, once before lunch, once after lunch, once around three or four in the afternoon, and once before leaving. Most days, he counted five squares in a row all five times, and once he counted twelve squares in a row. No one left their desks except to go to the bathroom or to the section leaders for their districts. He had no idea what kept them so glued to their desks. His superior had told him everyone was collecting information, just like him, though he had no idea what they found, how they found it, or how much they found. “They’re experts,” his section leader said. “Just like you. No one knows more than they do about their cities. But,” he added, “that’s all they know. That’s their only flaw.” The man had realized his superior didn’t know much about the work they were doing, and he didn’t ask any more questions. By the time he did think of something to ask, his superior had gone awol.

Someone knocked on the man’s cubicle divider. He looked up to see the section leader. The man smiled, mystified since the section leader had never come to his desk before but also glad since he was at that moment writing a report and thought it fortunate he could demonstrate how hard he was working. The section leader handed him a list of younger employees and suggested he choose someone to assist him. As it turned out, he’d been thinking about finding a replacement, since his assignment was almost over. He chose a younger colleague whom he’d trained himself. On the phone, the younger man asked dubiously what kind of data he was supposed to collect. He told him it didn’t matter, that any data was fine. The man said he would think about it and get back to him, and he agreed, while indicating through the reluctance in his tone that he was not exactly thrilled with his response. The man called back the next day to say he would take the assignment, since he could think of it as a long vacation. He thanked him for his decision, answered his questions regarding the work and lodgings, and advised him on other matters. After a while, he realized he was saying the same things his own superior had told him before his transfer. When he realized this, he told the younger man about the hunting dog metaphor and let out an embarrassed laugh.

On the younger man’s first day of work, he stayed home. The man could look at the seating chart at the entrance and find his desk without his help. If he had to give a reason for skipping work, he would blame the rabbit. The rabbit, which had eaten all of the food he left out the day before, had gotten out of its cage overnight and dumped foul-smelling diarrhea all over. The apartment was filled with the smell. The man gagged and opened a window, rubbing stray rabbit fur from his itchy nose. His body smelled like rabbit dung, too, so he stood in the window until the smell went away. Meanwhile, the time that he should have been at work came and went, so he figured he may as well just stay home for the day. The next day, the smell of rabbit dung was fainter, but still he did not go to work. Nothing bad had happened the day before, he thought, so why bother to go to work that day either? Since it would have been embarrassing to blame rabbit dung, he decided if anyone asked he would say he was tired of the endless process of searching for information, writing reports, turning them in, then watching them get shredded. Or better yet, he would ask: Is my life going to fall apart just because I skip work a few times? But he knew no one was going to ask.

Since it was his first time being home on a weekday, he didn’t know what to do. The only thing to do was stare at the rabbit, but the red eyes made him uncomfortable, so he covered the cage with a black cloth, sat down, and began working. He looked up information online and wrote a report. His work was the same, but he liked the fact that he wasn’t wearing a white shirt. With his knees sticking out of his shorts and the neck of his T-shirt all stretched out, he collected data and smoked cigarettes to his heart’s content. Since he could not eliminate all of his habits from work, he stood up five times that day. The first time he stood up, he laughed out loud and went to the bathroom. The second time, he grinned awkwardly and got some water. The third time, he rapped himself on the head. The fourth time, he felt like crying. The fifth time, he cried a little. When it was quitting time, he turned off the computer. There was no overtime pay on temporary duty.

When the man was debating whether to take the cloth off the rabbit’s cage, someone knocked on the door. He didn’t answer it. “Are you home?” He couldn’t tell who it was from the voice through the door. He tiptoed over and put his eye to the peephole. The person outside had already turned around and was leaving. It was a man in a black suit jacket. A hint of a white dress shirt showed above the collar, but he couldn’t tell who it was. In this city, most of the office workers wore the same outfit, as well as the door-to-door salesmen, and door-to-door evangelists.

The man kept staying home. He didn’t feel nervous until payday, but when he checked his account, the usual amount had been transferred. He figured that was only natural since he was doing the same work at home as at the office, and he withdrew some cash to buy rabbit feed and get something to eat. Someone knocked on his door every day at the same time. Fifteen minutes after he finished work, the knocking started. He never responded. Some days, the person knocked gently as if on a bathroom door; some days, the person banged on the door as if angry; some days, the person sat in front of the door and muttered to himself. The sound was muffled by the door, so he couldn’t tell what he was saying, and perhaps for that reason he felt the person was more interested in airing his grievances than in finding him.

His job ended at the scheduled time. He packed slowly. He threw out everything he’d bought since his arrival. His belongings fit into a single suitcase. At midnight, precisely when his job ended, he paid his rent and took his suitcase and the rabbit. Despite the irregular feedings, the rabbit weighed the same as when he first found it. He released it into the bushes in front of the building. The rabbit did not nip at his pants or try to follow him; it vanished into the bushes as if it knew what it was supposed to do. He’d planned to walk away even if it cried, but it didn’t make a sound. He brushed the fur off his hands and thought to himself as he pulled the rattling suitcase behind him: The world is full of abandoned pets.

© Hye-young Pyun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.

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