Fiction from Alice Whittenburg
A Reassuring Fiction
Early this morning, after he released more than one thousand documents concerning the black site in our region, Jihoon Kim went into hiding. Immediately there was a frenzy of media speculation about where he might be, but I knew that he hadn’t gone far. In fact he spent the day disguised as my long-absent husband Noah Thompson, finally returned home.
As a faux medical worker helped him up to my second-floor flat, I told curious neighbors that Noah was suffering from amnesia and trauma. He looked shockingly old and battered, and they didn’t inquire further. Most people in this troubled district have learned not to inquire further when trauma and amnesia are at issue.
Once the door was securely bolted, I brought out an antique Underwood. “You should rest your voice,” I said, unsure of who might be listening. “Use this instead.” The MAN IS NOT a good typist, and he started to pound the keys with two stiffened forefingers as though he needed to make some noise.
At lunch time I ignored his typed request for miso soup with gochujang and brought him a bowl of menudo. “It’s your favorite,” I said as I placed the soup in front of Jihoon. I tried not to imagine WHAT HE THINKS of Noah’s tastes or mine.
HE IS, while wearing the silicone face-and-neck mask that our trusted friends so skillfully crafted, able to fool a casual observer, but Jihoon asked to see some photos and videos of Noah so he could be more convincing. Then he changed his bearing accordingly — HE IS shorter than Noah and thinner, but he has an actor’s ability to become another man.
Even in our small shared temporary world it wasn’t possible to know WHAT HE HIDES from me, but it was certainly not his restlessness. I invited him into Noah’s library where he immediately picked up a copy of Man’s Fate. “MALRAUX is so gloomy,” I said, and he exchanged the book for One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was then that I gave him a template out of my own handmade paper, the grid openings exactingly inserted with a craft knife. He thanked me and put it carefully aside.
I allowed Jihoon some time online because he wanted news about himself, but I limited him to my own most-visited sites. He then went to the typewriter to say: “I am desperate to make a statement to the media.” But that was out of the question. Our friends insisted he had to remain disguised as an old man and to walk slowly, talk infrequently, and stay away from mobile devices, those traitorous beacons. In other words he would hide in plain sight. Mid-afternoon he could be seen from the street below as he sat on the balcony, drinking tea and reading Garcia Marquez.
Later he handed me a typed note: “Have you ever lost hope that your husband would return?” My reply was glib: “I’m far too old for optimism.” In fact I have done well during these years of single living and have enjoyed the company of discreet friends. HOPE IS only an acknowledgement that I am not complete by myself, and therefore I reject it. But the fact that Noah went into hiding without a word to me has haunted me every day. Our friends have given me small reports over time – he is well; he is near the ocean in a safe house; he writes each morning in a café – but I have never received a word directly from him.
The weather was damp, and in the afternoon while Jihoon sat on the balcony looking at the mountains, a mist arose to obscure the view. When he came back into the flat I said, “I wish visibility were better.” “Poets say NATURE’S VEIL enhances beauty’s outlines,” he typed on a ragged piece of much-typed-on paper.
I turned the paper over and wrote: “Thanks to you, our leaders will pay FOR HIDING TRUTH’S outlines.” As soon as I did this I felt shy, as though I had been coquettish, but Jihoon seemed not to notice. He was certainly not thinking about me but about our friends hard at work crafting an escape plan.
When Jihoon went into the bedroom to change into his traveling clothes he left the door partially open, and I caught a quick glimpse of his NAKEDNESS. A stirring of desire surprised me. He will win a NOBEL Prize some day, I reminded myself sternly, perhaps long after I die.
Back at the typewriter, Jihoon held out a note to me: “This mask is uncomfortable.” I was told not to let him remove the mask at any time, so I replied, as if to the air, “Being old means being uncomfortable.” He added: “If I must wear a mask, why don’t we have a party?”
I have heard that people in hiding, especially courageous and energetic people like Jihoon, are always at war with themselves – wanting to reveal themselves, yet knowing they must not. “My SOCIETY IS getting on your nerves,” I said slowly. “This sometimes happens when people are reunited after a long absence.” He ratcheted the typewriter’s carriage to begin a new line: “I’m wearing a mask — let’s have A MASKED BALL.”
“You should get some rest,” I said, and then I busied myself with chores. Tense with unspent anxious energy, Jihoon went out again onto the balcony. I thought about the kind of party we could have – one WHERE EVERYONE HIDES and no one speaks. Jihoon began to read Giovanni’s Room, and his interest in Baldwin distracted him for a while.
We ate an early supper of chiles rellenos – I made them for César’s birthday and kept extras in the freezer – and then Jihoon asked for some music. I found an online radio station that features undistinguished ballads, turned up the volume, and we went out onto the balcony. There we clung together, not really dancing but supporting each other and swaying slightly. It was at this time that Jihoon revealed HIS REAL CHARACTER, his true empathy. I began to cry quietly. From the street below a neighbor looked up and saw nothing inconsistent with the story we were telling. Stricken and embarrassed I whispered, “Let’s go inside,” but he insisted on remaining there until my tears dried.
Jihoon is a very sensitive man of courage. He hides his sensitivity when he acts AND REVEALS IT BY HIDING. “Remember the costume party we had when we were first married?” I asked. “You were EMERSON, and I was Frida Kahlo.” He slowly shook his head, and I refused to feel my sadness.
At sunset I readied myself to go out and check the drop. “Be careful while I’m gone, Noah,” I cautioned, and after giving Jihoon a meaningful look I went out the door and down into the street. I walked toward the river, stopping beside a long-abandoned and broken pay phone box. As I bent slowly to tie my shoe I saw, inside the smashed base of the phone booth, a dirty envelope that looked like windblown trash. Nervous excitement slammed my heart as I carefully extracted it and made it safe. Then I stopped at the market to buy tea and bread, and I arrived home without incident.
When I came into the flat Jihoon had a look of almost frantic eagerness, and I hurriedly gave him the envelope. He went into the bedroom and closed the door so he could view the envelope’s contents through the template. Though I was the one who crafted the template using exact measurements, I had no idea what this grille cipher would reveal.
After about half an hour Jihoon came out, carrying with him a whiff of burnt paper, and he sat at the typewriter. “LOVE MAKES everything more difficult,” he typed. “Now that I know what I must do I worry about what will happen to my friends.” On the back of a ragged bookmark I wrote, “Just seek the liberation of YOUR SOUL – as Noah chose to do.”
The rest of the evening went by in a haze of anxiety, and at one point I gave a shrill cry as I saw a beetle CRAWL OUT from the baseboard. I like to think I am a calm person, and I have managed to keep myself sane during the long period of Noah’s absence. But on rare occasion my anxiety emerges FROM ITS HIDING PLACE. As the night crept by, I lay on the bed, alternately counting my breaths and reading stories by ZORA NEALE HURSTON, who always gives me courage.
In the early hours of the morning Jihoon took the rucksack that I had packed with sandwiches and a thermos full of tea, and he walked out the door and down onto the street. I wanted to watch him walk away but that would have endangered us both.
A short while later there was a tapping at the door, a tentative sound that frightened and reassured me. I opened the door to find Noah, the real Noah, standing on my doorstep. WHOEVER WISHES to think she would know how to act at a time like this would probably be wrong. I stood frozen for a moment, then pulled him inside, crying and laughing silently. As I set out food and drink, I felt sudden and overwhelming guilt that Jihoon had benefitted from the first day of Noah’s freedom. What if Noah’s amnesty had been compromised by this brief substitution? What if he had never made it to me? Yet I had only sacrificed one day of our shared life compared to the hundreds of days Noah has sacrificed, so I absolved myself just as quickly.
I prepared a story in case the neighbors heard the knock – that Noah was confused and wandered away in the dark, then came back home unaided – but truth to tell whoever pulled the strings that brought him here will also have made it possible TO KEEP A SECRET. Where he was while in exile, who he loved and who he betrayed I will probably never know, and I don’t know why I feel I MUST HIDE THE FACT that I was distracted from his homecoming by Jihoon’s presence.
As I found pyjamas for him, gave him more tea, and rubbed his shoulders, I kept tripping over my feelings, a strange mixture of relief and anger. “Oh, Noah,” I murmured, “this is a momentous time.” He nodded and smiled, looking so much more like the grim and battered mask Jihoon wore yesterday than I might have expected. Surely a safehouse by the ocean did not deplete him in this way.
“I have a full heart, dear Lupita,” he whispered, but I am still not sure THAT HE POSSESSES ONE.
Soon I will take this report to the drop. I know I have communicated many things that I am unaware of. They are hidden in the quotes Jihoon took from the internet and which I have somewhat clumsily inserted here in capital letters, as our friends instructed.
Lying next to Noah, who has sunk into a reverie of exhaustion, I read a bit of GOETHE’s Faust. It helps distract me from wondering what Noah will reveal in time and how long I will have to hide my own bitterness. Whatever may happen, our advanced age is an enemy and a friend. We will have fewer years to enjoy a good outcome, fewer years to endure a bad fate.
[Editor’s Note: Valdez’ flawless tradecraft and the strict avoidance of digital communication was vital to the success of Kim’s action. His testimony at the hearings on torture and international human rights was the beginning of the end for black sites and secret prisons. At those hearings Kim revealed that the next time she went to the drop, Valdez found a message from their mutual friends telling her something about the harsh conditions of Noah’s imprisonment. The safe house by the ocean was acknowledged as a reassuring fiction.]
Alice Whittenburg‘s fiction can be found online at Eclectica, The Big Jewel, riverbabble, Word Riot, and other places. Her stories also appear or will soon appear in the following anthologies: The Return of Kral Majales, Prague’s International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010; Condensed to Flash: World Classics; and Eclectica’s Speculative Fiction anthology. She is coeditor of the online magazine The Cafe Irreal.